Miscellaneous Bits and Bobs on Recent TV Viewing

Bowing out gracefully, or in one chunk

Two shows coming to an end, Ozark and Better Call Saul. The former went with the Breaking Bad final season approach, two parts of an equal number of episodes (seven), released for binging purposes all at once three months apart. Better Call Saul, on the other hand, released the first two episodes of its final season six initially, then one episode per week every Tuesday thereafter. (Note: Here in Japan, the show airs on Netflix, concurrently with the US release on AMC.)

In the recent ballyhoo about Netflix missing its subscriber targets, one analysis mentioned that the binge-ready way of releasing all episodes of a show or a season at once might no longer have the same appeal it once did (I’m paraphrasing). Although I didn’t binge this final part of the final season of Ozark (limiting myself to an episode a day or every two days), being able to contrast the readily-available nature of Ozark versus the wait-until-Tuesday of Better Call Saul has made me realize that indeed I much prefer the set release schedule. I enjoy the anticipation, the having something to look forward to aspect, of Better Call Saul. (And let’s be honest, as entertaining as Ozark is, it just doesn’t have the considered quality of Better Call Saul.) And I appreciate the ease with which I can access tv critics’ recaps or Reddit discussions of the episode I just watched without having to traverse spoiler minefields.

Apple TV+

As far as I can tell, Apple TV+ has been taking the weekly episodic approach much more to heart, at least with the shows I’ve watched recently: Pachinko, Slow Horses, Severance, We Crashed. Is it just a coincidence or does this weekly release concept help feed the impression I have that the quality across the board of the fare on Apple TV+ is of a higher level and that with the exception of We Crashed, none of them felt like a Netflix show, however ill-defined or vague that feeling might be?


Although I had several issues with it, which might best be summed up by that critic fave “uneven”*, I dare say I’ve never seen a TV production as drop-dead gorgeous as Pachinko. Watching Game of Thrones a few years ago, you could not escape the sense, bolstered by repeated mentions of budgets in the press, of each episode having the production values of a blockbuster movie. But you could also not escape the fact that much of that was tied to CG and rubberized dragons and so forth. Pachinko on the other hand, in a strangely unassuming way, feels like a proper epic historical film, with exquisite set and costume design captured through beautiful cinematography, episode after episode.

* A lot of my disappointment with Pachinko — and don’t get me wrong, I still adored the show immensely — was connected to this sense I had that the creators couldn’t decide whether it was a limited series or a multi-season project. I suppose this is endemic to current TV where any renewal of the series likely won’t happen until after the first season begins airing, but I wish more thought and care was given to how to end in such a way that either option (renewal or cancellation) is possible. (I see now on Wikipedia that Pachinko was renewed for a second season in April.)

Miniseries of yonder

Pachinko reminded me a lot of the miniseries — is this term even used anymore? — I watched as a kid growing up in the late 70s and early 80s. Roots of course is probably the one that ushered in the era of the miniseries, although I only saw parts of it at the time. But later I watched many that I can still remember quite clearly: Shōgun with Richard Chamberlain (wasn’t he in all of these miniseries?), which I saw twice, once at home and once at school, the two Herman Wouk ones about WWII, The Thorn Birds (aah, I was absolutely smitten with Rachel Ward), later Fortunes of War with Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson. I would not watch these again, 40 years later, fearing they would not hold up well, but I do cherish the memory of these early milestones in my cultural upbringing.

Documentaries and misogyny

Watched both the Bad Vegan: Fame. Fraud. Fugitives. docuseries and The Tinder Swindler documentary in quick succession. Both are fine, well-done, particularly the latter which to be honest I wasn’t expecting much from for some reason. (It may be that the title itself pretty much tells you all you need to know about what the story will be about.) But what surprised me was looking for some commentary or follow-up about the respective stories and discovering the sheer amount of victim-blaming connected with the women portrayed, especially Sarma Melngailis, the restauranteur turned fugitive of Bad Vegan. No doubt she shouldn’t come off completely blameless, and is certainly an imperfect and evasive narrator, but how anyone can listen to the many audio recordings of the coercive controlling and gaslighting Anthony Strangis and still come out wholly or largely blaming Melngailis is beyond me. Except that it isn’t really. Imagine if the rolls were reversed, or it was a con-woman swindling a succession of men she met through Tinder. The 30% audience rating for Bad Vegan on Rotten Tomatoes is telling.

Snabba Cash on Netflix

I don’t have a lot of very insightful things to say about the recently released Netflix original series from Sweden, Snabba Cash, but it has enough things going for it that I think people should see it, and so I will offer up a few thoughts. 

Number one of these is that its focus is squarely on characters living the immigrant or sons/daughters of immigrants experience, and for the most part ethnically Swedish characters are secondary. The difference between Snabba Cash and the police procedurals and political dramas that normally make it to the west from Scandinavia was palpable, to my mind at least. Of course, in both instances, the immigrant community we’re exposed to is mostly that of criminals — though at least notably in Snabba Cash there is no “suspected terrorist” angle to any of that criminality.

While we can hope that there will be dramas where the immigrant experience is not portrayed primarily through the lens of crime — and I’m not across all aspects of Scandinavian film and TV output to know whether shows like this are available — what’s refreshing in Snabba Cash is that it feels like the characters are in charge of their portrayal, even if control of their destiny is still in the hands of the (mostly unseen) powers that be.

This subjectivity — in the postmodern, feminist sense of the world — is strengthened in large part by one of the most enjoyable aspects of Snabba Cash for me, and that is the way it was filmed. Much of the drama, if not all, is filmed with handheld cameras that rarely ever settle for longer than a few seconds. Occasionally the camera will take the first-person viewpoint, particularly effective in chase (or being chased) sequences. Of course these days handheld shots or the “shaky camera” are nothing new, NYPD Blue introduced them to tv audiences in the 90s and we’ve come to expect them in a whole host of shows and films. 

But Snabba Cash embraces the aesthetic to the point that it’s less an aesthetic choice as it is the only way this story could have been filmed, or more importantly the only way these characters could have been portrayed. They are constantly on the run, literally as well as figuratively, they’re as often in cars or motorbikes as they are in what feel like makeshift homes and hangouts, where playing a jittery first person shooter video game passes for relaxation. The filming style seems a very conscious nod to the cinéma vérité handheld ethos of the French New Wave rather than simply jumping on the bandwagon of what everyone else, from Hollywood hack to prestige TV showrunner, is doing.

The handheld camera is used together with extremely narrow depth of field camerawork so that often characters are isolated in focus even though surrounded closely by others. Seeing as they are seemingly in constant movement and flux, characters who are the focal point of a scene often go in and out of focus or the cameraperson is forced to play catch up. Again, this is part of the vérité aesthetic of appearing to capture unscripted and unrehearsed action, the camera the proverbial fly on the wall. Surely it adds to the hectic, unsettled nature of our characters, but it also helps signify that these are people on the margins, resigned to scraping to hold on to what they have, or hoping to escape but stuck in a drug-addled and dream-deferred haze. Nowadays everyone from your bokeh-obsessed Instagrammer to the NFL or UEFA with their “portrait mode” on-field cameras has rendered narrow depth-of-field cliché, but as with the handheld camerawork, Snabba Cash sticks at it so relentlessly that it feels less intentional and more natural.

The various plot arcs are not anything special it must be said, there’s a predictability to some of the plot outcomes that to my mind is more a lack of imagination on the part of the creators rather than it too being some statement about the trapped by circumstances aspect of these characters’ lives. In particular, the entire start-up entrepreneur who tries to lift herself out of her circumstances but can never quite leave her past behind — asking for million-dollar loans from her drug-dealing brother-in-law was never going to end well — felt very familiar and no amount of formal inventiveness or fresh points of view is going to overcome that. 

Along the same lines, the billionaire investor Tomas is straight out of central casting, a caricature of the eccentric founder type who stands on tables shouting “we’re fucking rich” and helicopters people in for meetings at remote locales where he is ostensibly taking part in a “silent retreat”. Likewise, we have no idea what the main character Leya’s start-up does aside from one quick pitch session full of buzzwords. For the show it was simply enough for us to know that well-dressed people who work out, drink champagne and dwell in Black Mirror-sterile glass-encased offices or homes represent ambition and leaving the past behind. 

So, Snabba Cash is a mixed bag. Nevertheless, despite the formulaic story and predictable arc, I found it refreshing and I’m glad I discovered it. 

Some other thoughts:

  • A show like this represents one of the best things about Netflix, which is the amount of homegrown original programming that ends up being subtitled and shown on many if not all of Netflix’s international properties. Thus I can live in Japan and enjoy a Swedish drama subtitled in English.
  • Snabba Cash began as a series of novels by Jens Lapidus, which in turn spawned a trilogy of Swedish movies a decade ago starring Joel Kinnaman (the US version of The Killing, House of Cards). The Netflix series supposedly takes place 10 years after the story of those films. “snabba cash” incidentally translates to “easy money”, which is the title of a US remake that has been kicking around Warner Bros. for over ten years as a vehicle for Zac Efron.
  • Evin Ahmad, of Swedish and Kurdish origin, plays Leya, the start-up founder and single mother trying to leave her roots behind for a more successful life. I knew she looked familiar – it turns out she was in the Danish drama Rain which I watched last year. In Rain, she struck me as one-note, but here she really shines trying to juggle the disparate milieu Leya occupies. She’s also a published author: Her 2017 book One Day I Will Build a Castle of Money is “a flow of thoughts which sits perfectly on paper. A journey between words and places – between worlds and prejudices.” (Swedish magazine Fokus)
  • The series was shot last year, during the pandemic, in Stockholm, although I don’t remember the setting ever being referenced by characters as being Stockholm.
  • The title sequence features a Swedish rap song performed by the Swedish rappers 1.Cuz (Somalian-born) and Greekazo (born in Sweden but I believe of Greek heritage).