Here’s to the stream dream

If you think you’re al­ready watch­ing the best TV shows on of­fer, you might be wrong, writes.

Sunday News - - ON THE BOX -

The temp­ta­tion of writ­ing about cul­ture is al­ways to find some­thing to pan. Crit­i­cal re­views flow eas­ily from the fin­ger­tips, while ap­plause in­volves the hard labour of find­ing 16 syn­onyms for ‘‘good’’. But I ate my Weet-Bix this morn­ing, and I’m look­ing for a chal­lenge.

So let’s talk about good shows – great shows, even. Shows that more peo­ple should be watch­ing, should be stream­ing. It’s a Cold War thriller, only not about the Cold War.

Coun­ter­part is set in a uni­verse that twinned at some point, yield­ing two time­lines that eye each other un­easily across their sin­gle point of con­tact: a Check­point Char­lie that hap­pens to be in a Ber­lin base­ment.

There is much to love about this show, be­gin­ning with the script­ing. The pop­u­lar­ity of sci­ence fic­tion shows has far out­stripped the sup­ply of writ­ers who can jug­gle three com­plex tasks at once: build­ing the world, ex­plor­ing that world’s im­pli­ca­tions, and de­liv­er­ing a sat­is­fy­ing plot.

Coun­ter­part man­ages to flesh out a fas­ci­nat­ing world with­out re­sort­ing to a stock Basil Ex­po­si­tion char­ac­ter who de­liv­ers stodgy mono­logues about sci­ence.

It ex­plores one of the most ob­vi­ous ram­i­fi­ca­tions of a split uni­verse: the ex­is­tence of twins who could, in the­ory, take each other’s place, and what a spy net­work could do with that abil­ity.

And here’s the re­ally spe­cial thing: It also has a plot. A com­pe­tent plot. One to which the sci­ence fic­tion as­pects are cen­tral and yet do not bog down the ac­tion with point­less philosophis­ing or in­ter­nal con­tra­dic­tions.

That’s not even the best part. That’s J K Sim­mons, who is as­tound­ing. Many ac­tors have played twins, but none I am aware of has man­aged to so fully char­ac­terise two dif­fer­ent peo­ple with­out ever re­sort­ing to flam­boy­ant man­ner­ism. You can al­ways tell which of the two char­ac­ters you’re look­ing at in a scene, even be­fore Sim­mons moves or opens his mouth. This one should go straight to the top of your queue. I have a spe­cial rea­son for lov­ing this one: My nor­mal job is writ­ing about eco­nom­ics, and the writ­ers of this show man­aged not only to drama­tise the fas­ci­nat­ing process of laun­der­ing money, but to do it in an ac­cu­rate fash­ion.

On top of that, Ja­son Bate­man’s mono­logue ex­plain­ing what money laun­der­ing is and why it’s nec­es­sary is the finest ex­pla­na­tion of its kind I’ve seen on screen. Bet­ter than that, his mono­logue is ac­tu­ally a dra­matic mo­ment upon which the plot hinges, rather than the sort of ex­po­si­tion that makes a viewer’s eyes glaze over.

Then, of course, there’s Bate­man, who is ter­rific. And the rest of the cast, who are also ter­rific. And the plot­ting, which is brisk and full of un­ex­pected twists. Even if you don’t think you’re in­ter­ested in money laun­der­ing, or Bate­man, you owe it to your­self to give this one a try. Another show with great scripts and a fine cast. (You may be sens­ing a theme here). This is high-fi­nance as re­venge-drama.

The first three sea­sons por­tray a long-run­ning cat-and­mouse game be­tween hedge-fund ti­tan Bobby Ax­el­rod, played by Damian Lewis, and US At­tor­ney Chuck Rhoades, played by Paul Gia­matti. But the showrun­ners haven’t given into the temp­ta­tion to make Ax­el­rod the bad guy and Rhoades the hero. In­stead, we have twin pro­tag­o­nists – both badly flawed but deeply ap­peal­ing.

The cast is ter­rific, the writ­ing rem­i­nis­cent of a less­manic Aaron Sorkin and, thanks to a dif­fer­ent Sorkin (An­drew Ross, long­time fi­nance re­porter for the New York Times, and no re­la­tion to the cre­ator of The West Wing), Bil­lions is even a rea­son­ably re­al­is­tic por­trayal of both fi­nance and se­cu­ri­ties law.

I sus­pect it isn’t get­ting the au­di­ence it de­serves be­cause peo­ple think fi­nance is dull but, trust me, in the hands of this team, it never is.

(And yes, Bil­lions tech­ni­cally screens on Sky’s SoHo as well as be­ing avail­able through Box Sets, but it was too good to leave out.) I keep run­ning into peo­ple who don’t watch Pa­triot, though they clearly should. I blame poor mar­ket­ing. Nei­ther the show’s icon nor its de­scrip­tion in Ama­zon’s browser con­veys its quirky charms, a wag-the-dog plot cen­tred on a re­luc­tant spy who would re­ally rather be play­ing folk gui­tar.

No, that doesn’t con­vey it either.

I’ll just have to urge you to watch a few episodes and see for your­self why those of us who have seen Pa­triot love it so much. Plus, the lead ac­tor, Michael Dor­man is a Kiwi. Amer­i­can Gods is the least plotheavy of all the shows I’ve rec­om­mended, but it’s so visually in­ter­est­ing you won’t care.

The core premise of Neil Gaiman’s best­selling book – an­cient gods bat­tling it out with new ones across the Amer­i­can land­scape – ob­vi­ously of­fers a lot of op­por­tu­ni­ties for neat tricks. But the cal­i­bre of the per­for­mances el­e­vates this far above CGI spec­ta­cle or am­a­teur magic hour.

In Amer­i­can Gods, an­cient gods bat­tle it out with mod­ern ones.

Ja­son Bate­man de­liv­ers a bril­liant mono­logue on the nec­es­sary evils of money laun­der­ing in Ozark.

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