Any excuse to look at pictures of these guys.

We accidentally signed up for a free trial of Amazon Prime over Christmas and so decided to check out Amazon Instant. Netflix has run a bit dry for us lately so we were keen to see what content Amazon Instant had to offer, despite our opposition to Amazon’s business practices and culture. I’m going to run through the first few things we’ve watched and our initial impressions.

The Man in the High Castle

This was recommended to us quite strongly. The series is based on a story by Philip K. Dick, one of those authors who had a great imagination but really couldn’t write well at all. The first episode did enough to keep our attention, depicting an alternate history version of the United States in 1962 in a world where Germany and Japan won the Second World War and carved up the US between them. The show’s imagery is quite striking and we were interested to watch another episode or two.

That’s as far as we got, though. We found the show to be very silly (stupid at times, really), and the main character to be infuriating. Her behaviour is extremely reckless and she is guilty of about two actions per episode which needlessly put herself and others in jeopardy. Doing this once or twice is acceptable, but when it happens time after time it gets annoying. Particularly as other characters are made to pay the price, and for some unexplained reason we’re supposed to care enough about this woman that we’re happy for her to get away while others suffer. Having come into possession of an illegal reel of film (?), she elopes from Japan-occupied San Francisco for the ‘neutral’ zone, with the secret police hot on her tail, leaving behind her boyfriend and dropping him in it with the authorities. Within half an hour or so, she is flirting with a young chap who, unknown to her, is a Nazi secret agent. Lovely girl.

Meanwhile, her jilted boyfriend has been snatched up by the Japanese. He then has a bizarre storyline where close family members suffer because of his (and his ex-girlfriend’s) actions; he has the opportunity to save them but doesn’t avail himself of it. The show kills off several blameless characters just to advance the story arc of someone who, at best, we have no reason to care about; and who arguably shares responsibility for their deaths. It’s really lame and lazy storytelling.

The depiction of fascism is pretty much at a comic book level and the show lacks much of a sense of menace. There is a strange turn by Burn Gorman trying to play an Anton Chigurh-like bounty hunter, which is a bizarre piece of casting. We just remember him as Mr Guppy in Bleak House. The show’s central motif seems silly, as well: an illegal film reel showing news clips from the Second World War is supposed to have the power to bring down two fascist empires, but all we see of it are a few clips of Churchill, FDR, and some guns. Wow, really impressive. I’m prepared to believe that things improved further on but after three or four episodes we had absolutely no desire to continue. Dud.

Black Sails

Having recently played Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag, I was quite hopeful about this show; particularly as I quite like Spartacus, also made by Starz. However, alarm bells started ringing when the credits revealed that Michael Bay is a producer. The first scene is a big fight which sees pirates boarding a ship, and looks like it cost about a hundred pounds to make, which discouraged us further; and things went downhill from there.

It’s a terrible shame, because there is great scope for a proper historical drama about pirates.The raw material is all there–violence, adventure, sex, politics–and the historical characters are fascinating and compelling. But Black Sails completely wastes the opportunity, and we only managed to watch the (deeply stupid) first episode. By way of example: Anne Bonny appears in the story, but is introduced as a young woman with two swords, with her hat pulled down over her eyes, looking like something out of a children’s cartoon. Practically her first line is “I want to fuck”, delivered without a hint of charm or irony. The series is supposed to be a prequel to Treasure Island, and there is a character called John Silver. A gurning simpleton, Silver is like a gay porn star with the mind of a small child. He has two facial expressions–happy or confused–and struck me as a gross example of character shilling, being saved by the pirates for no good reason and then, again for no reason, being treated to a liaison with five beautiful prostitutes at his shipmates’ expense. It’s really, really stupid and gratuitous. Like most of the actors here, Silver affects a sort of posh English accent. I never knew that pirates all went to Eton? It’s extremely jarring, particularly having recently played Black Flag where the pirates have convincingly regional and working class accents. The actor who plays Silver is Australian, but it’s still an egregious reminder of how the British upper class has taken over the acting profession in the last decade or so.

The show also features one of the most awkward and cringeworthy line deliveries I’ve ever heard, when another improbably posh English actress talks about masturbation. Another character spends the entire first episode with a look of dull surprise on his face. It’s all made worse by the fact the main character is played by Toby Stephens, who is an extremely talented classically-trained actor, and who must wonder what on earth is going on. Presumably he’s being well paid for it though. Another dud.

If you watch Black Sails, get used to seeing this expression.


What a load of…

Only joking. Vikings is actually AWESOME and I look forward to reviewing the first season soon.

In conclusion…

On first impressions, Amazon Instant’s exclusive content is highly uneven, with some real turkeys in there. However, Vikings is definitely worth watching. There’s a lot of other drama on here that isn’t on Netflix, including several seasons of The Walking Dead, Mad Men, and The Fall; plenty to get your teeth into. The films on offer seem pretty poor, but then the same thing goes for Netflix. Putting ethical objections to one side, there’s definitely a strong case for choosing Amazon Instant over Netflix here. We’ll see how we feel at the end of the month.