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  1. Culture
25 November 2014

TV enters its Amazon Age – with the best show since Breaking Bad

Critic’s Notes by Mark Lawson. 

By Mark Lawson

Television has historically used the term “afterlife” for the endurance of old programmes through repeats, video, DVD and replay sites. But now streaming services are raising TV shows from the dead. This past week, the Victorian serial killer drama Ripper Street, killed off by the BBC in 2013 after the second series, launched its third season on Amazon. Another body in the video library – the American sitcom Arrested Development – was reanimated by Netflix, the first content distributor to become a serious creator.

When, in February 2013, the first season of the Kevin Spacey-David Fincher production House of Cards was released on Netflix in one self-scheduling block (becoming the first hit television series never to have appeared on TV), the BBC responded by arguing that online retailers would never have the budgets or infrastructure to make a significant volume of quality drama – and pointing out that House of Cards was a remake of a 20-year-old BBC1 drama anyway.

Now, these objections are dropping away. The sheer quantity of programming required can be seen as conventional TV’s weakness rather than its strength. The digital newcomers have benefited from adopting a sort of Virgin Atlantic model, in which they don’t try to fly every route but choose a few lucrative lines, reducing the risk of unwatched product by posting pilot episodes and inviting viewer votes. The new channels are increasingly fertile with fresh conceptions, too. The Wachowskis, creators of the Matrix films, are making a sci-fi series, Sense8, for release next year on Netflix – which has also commissioned The Crown from the director Stephen Daldry and the writer Peter Morgan, an epic, 20-part spin-off from their stage play The Audience, about the relationship between Elizabeth II and politicians.

Amazon also has an impressive slate of originals to run alongside Ripper Street. The second season of Alpha House, a comedy by the Doonesbury cartoonist, Garry Trudeau, featuring four Republican senators rooming together in Washington, has just been streamed. Admittedly, it feels suspiciously like Amazon’s “answer” to House of Cards.

Another exclusive production is Transparent, a comedy-drama about the impact on three American children of their father, played by Jeffrey Tambor, revealing that he is in the process of becoming a woman. The magnificent climax of the opening episode has Dad returning in a wig and dress from the gender-reassignment support group to find his married daughter in an adulterous lesbian clinch.

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Transparent is the most original, daring and confident piece of American TV since Breaking Bad. Frank about sex and sexuality – exploring why even self-declared liberals are troubled by the idea of their dad becoming another mom – the writer-director Jill Soloway’s script is as smart about the sort of things people say (“I took her out,” says Dad of his female self) as it is about the stuff they don’t: there’s a scene in which lovers simply volley “What?” back and forth. These people feel real, even when they are being phoney.

The word “transparent” could never be applied to a document in the business plan of the TV streamers. Although, unlike conventional broadcasters, they know exactly how many viewers are watching a show, it is impossible to know how profitable this content is. Yet these new ways of creating and seeing TV can no longer be dismissed, as many telly folks had hoped, as a fad or blip. There are certain types of material that suit mass communal viewing of the old kind – catastrophes, sports and cake-baking. But in the genres of comedy and drama, a third age of visual broadcasting is emerging, aerial corporations having given away to satellite or cable suppliers, and now to digital streamers. Transparent, Alpha House and Ripper Street suggest that the conventional format of broadcasting is as fragile as a house of cards.

Furniture of female servitude

Controversial work is usually produced by young artists challenging older generations’ ideas of method and taste. So it is impressive that, at 77, Allen Jones can still cause a storm with an exhibition at the Royal Academy in London (until 25 January). Whereas shocking theatre is marked by the number of people walking out of a play, the objection to Jones is shown by the shocking number of people in the arts and media who have told me that they will on no account be walking in to his show.

Some of the most objectionable work was done by his younger self: as in the crouching female figures whose backs bear a tabletop or chair seat. But what truly shocked me about this retrospective is that Jones makes no attempt to claim that his furniture of female servitude was influenced by a less sensitive mood in the past. He’s still at it: men are suited but the women nude, their legs almost routinely splayed or in suspenders, sometimes reduced to nothing but a set of spread thighs. Tracey Emin, in her latest show at White Cube, also has some legs-only ladies. But she is challenging sexist imagery. Jones surely is perpetuating it. 

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