5 things worth binge watching on Amazon Prime

Got £79 to spend on a bit of TV and some boring parcel delivery stuff? Thought not. But how about a one-month free trial of Amazon Prime and the excitement of rushing to binge, binge, binge on the things worth watching (which aren’t available on Sky, Virgin or Netflix in the UK) and then bailing before your card gets charged? Is it worth the hassle?

Yes it is. But you need a guide. So here’s what I enjoyed over the holidays:

1. The Man In The High Castle

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I don’t want to spoil this for you, but if you’ve seen or heard the hype (some of it tasteless and ill judged, like the branded subway cars), I think you’ll enjoy it more if you dial your expectations down a notch or two.

Ridley Scott produces a Hugo Award-winning Philip K Dick story for TV, an intriguing fantasy about how the world would be different if Germany and Japan won the Second World War. The setting is exciting and there are some well drawn, likeable characters whose stories would be gripping to follow, even if there were not an uber-twist. There are physical glimpses of a different world, the one we know, and everyone is rushing round The Greater Nazi Reich (east USA), the Japanese Pacific States (west coast) and – Star Trek fans rejoice – an actual Neutral Zone in the middle trying to work it all out. Amazing idea, right?

Yes, and the team spent YEARS on it. Originally it was meant to be for the BBC, but that never worked out. There’s usually a reason why stuff gets offloaded from a Beeb deal. If it’s comedy, it’s usually because it’s not funny enough, and it ends up on Sky. With drama, who knows? Maybe the budget blew up? Or maybe the story just sprawled out of control, beyond the British tolerance to make 4 to 6 episodes, max.

It feels sprawly. I genuinely love the idea, but it could have been an amazing 4 episodes instead of a saggy 10, and still not done (series 2 just commissioned – don’t follow links like this if you want to AVOID SPOILERS…). To be fair, the original book is an idea rather than a neatly finished story package, and if the makers think they can hold attention and command viewing and budget for an epic world-building saga, good luck to them. I’ll keep watching, at least for a bit.

For now, I’d recommend a binge on series 1 if you like the idea, and enjoy the sport of thinking how it could all have worked out better in an alternative universe. Which is kind of the point.

SEVEN RED LINDORS OUT OF TEN.

2. Mr Robot

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When was the last time you saw a good drama about computers? They aren’t the most promising subjects. Too often the stories are nebulous conspiracy hacks where nice people end up changing the world with a bit of earnest typing and lots of weirdly big, slow moving progress bars (UPLOADING!!! 97%…. 98%…… AAAAAAGH!!!) Or they contrive that somehow the physical worlds of computers and people have to merge to make the story relatable, which sometimes works (The Matrix) and usually doesn’t (Tron, The Lawnmower Man, Existenz and whatever the hell that Adam Sandler thing was with the giant Pac Man last summer. Ugh.)

Anyway, this is not that. It’s good. It works because the main character’s world is full, not just of brilliant tech genius and what he chooses to do with it, but with relatable fear, insecurity and mistrust in a world obsessed with security where we trust computers with everything. The story rockets forward relentlessly, and while the characters are so, so dark on the whole, there is just enough light – or the hope of light ahead – to keep making things having to happen. And then just when you think you know what must happen, something else does.

Can’t say much about the plot without potentially spoiling it, so just trust me – it’s worth a look, and if you like how it starts, you’ll love how it goes. Christian Slater especially is an unexpected joy. The most annoying thing is that I feel I need to see it again, but I’ll be turning it off.

NINE GREEN QUALITY STREET TRIANGLES OUT OF TEN.

3. Halt And Catch Fire

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Having said there aren’t many good stories about computers, Amazon seems to have brought in a batch load. This also happens to be my favourite 1980s period drama, full stop. (Is it too soon to use “period drama” for the 1980s? Too late.)

Not much point describing the setting, because I doubt it would grab your interest. A bunch of people want to make a new PC and argue about how to do it. See? But the people are special. There is life, love, wit and style about them. And dammit, they make what they’re doing seem pretty interesting, world-changing even. I totally enjoyed getting misled into thinking this was really the story of some famous real computer company under a different name for fictional purposes, until I realised that it really is the story of spirited battlers on a new frontier. It’s not just about somebody, it’s about everybody. That means you. If you’ve ever struggled to get an idea off the ground and into a challenging world, you will relate.

And if you like tech at all, there’s soooo much nostalgia candy, the most and best since Life On Mars, with a soundtrack that even exceeds that classic. Brilliantly chosen sets of tunes illuminate and capture the essence of each character, and it’s not your standard mish mash of 80s classics as heard every Friday on Tinpot FM’s more music variety mix. The characterisation and music are so well done, they can even unsettle and shock you by playing what you think is the wrong music for the wrong person until you realise… no, there’s a bit of story I don’t want to spoil for you.

Series 1 is better than series 2, I think, so if you’re in a big rush don’t worry about getting all the way through. But you should give this one a go.

EIGHT RETRO CARAMAC BARS OUT OF TEN.

4. Betas

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I was surprised how much I enjoyed this. Really only dipped in because each episode was shorter than other series, and the seriousness of some of the other stuff was doing my head in.

It’s a comedy about app developers. Amazon have REALLY tried to corner the market on computer dramas. And this 2013 series was groundbreaking. But it feels like a beta for 2014’s Silicon Valley (on HBO and Sky Atlantic), which has lasted longer.

Betas is a little brasher, the characters a little bouncier and not gelling quite as well together as Silicon Valley’s, and while it’s entertaining and more compelling than I expected, one short series felt like it told the available story well enough. There’s “will they/won’t they?” romance and “will they/won’t they?” venture capital fundraising, and I think it’s enough to enjoy it while it lasts without caring too much what happens in the very, very end.

SIX STRAWBERRY CREAM ROSES OUT OF TEN.

5. Extant

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It’s the sci-fi drama where your most frequent question might be “how the hell did they do that?” They got an infertile astronaut pregnant on her own in a space station. They brought a robot boy to life in an endearing way. They got Oscar-winning Halle Berry to play the lead. How did they do any of that? And how did they keep making me want to watch the first series when it got all weird yet simplistic, zoom-bangy yet ploddy at the same time? How? Any of it?

I’ve seen nearly a series and a half of Extant, and it still feels like it’s just getting set up for the real story yet to come. There’s a burgeoning alien life which can manipulate human minds, and an apparently unrelated story of the development of artificial intelligence which can exceed human capacity and will probably end up being made to fight wars for us. I’m kind of getting the feeling that humanity is going to get squished in the middle of an aliens vs. robots war starting some time in series 7 if we ever get there.

So if that sounds like your sort of thing, dive in! And if you don’t want to pay Amazon for it, you don’t have to – series 2 comes to the Syfy channel from January 13th 2016. That’s where I’ll pick it up from here. Possibly. If I get time to watch in the background.

FOUR LEFTOVER MILKY WAY CELEBRATIONS OUT OF TEN.

PS – I know there are other, award winning, exclusive things on Amazon Prime. I tried Transparent but it didn’t really grab me. Mozart In The Jungle was fun for an episode, but I literally fell asleep trying to watch any more. If they ever make any more of Chris Carter’s The After, I’ll be there, but otherwise I’m happy with one “mysterious event which definitely isn’t The Rapture even though it looks a lot like The Rapture”-related drama in The Leftovers.

I think I watch too much TV. But if you have suggestions for stuff to watch, go ahead…

Also, MUST REMEMBER TO CANCEL AMAZON PRIME TRIAL TOMORROW.

First impressions of Apple Music – not great

I want to like Apple Music. While I work in radio, picking music for stations, I don’t feel we’re competing with Apple’s new service because the vast majority of radio listeners approach a pile of 30 million on-demand tunes differently from a highly crafted, linear stream which radio has worked out how to do well over nearly 100 years. We can enjoy both. And personally, I welcome anything which makes it easier for me and other radio listeners to discover great music, which we can enjoy together. So I don’t just want Apple Music to work, I want it to be great.

On first impressions, it’s not. It misses by miles, in ways I never thought a clever, creative, technically competent company could. Maybe my expectations were all wrong. Maybe it’s an early version of a work in progress. Either way, I thought I’d write up these first impressions and share what I’d be looking for in something better. If you have ideas on how to get more out of the experience, I’d love to hear them…

Best bit – Beats 1

Zane Lowe is a class act, passionate, and not just good with words – lyrical and even poetic in a way that can draw you into the most exciting and challenging musical journeys. It’s unfair to judge anyone’s first show as representative of the ongoing experience – first shows are always a bit “raaaawwwrrr! we’re on!!!”, and good shows settle down when they find what people engage with. But I’m missing what I was expecting to find by way of helps for people to engage. It’s a nice selection of cool tunes, and there are clearly some ideas and personalities coming up, but it all feels a bit shouted and broadcast across me right now. I’m amazed at how “samey” it has felt to listen in the chunks I’ve sampled it, even though my head knows that the music has been diversely sourced. I don’t think that’s because it’s programmed to sound the same, more that I’m not engaging with it yet. Early days, though. There is life and hope here.

Radio craft query: I’m wondering how often they will play tunes. If they pick a playlist and thrash it around, they’ll annoy many who want a pure, first-listen discovery service all the time. If they never repeat good tracks, they’ll never connect most of the audience, and the tracks won’t grow on people. Where will they strike the balance? Personally I thought they would do a lot more to help tracks grow with listeners, to nudge tunes back in your direction if you show signs of starting to like them, but my expectation has dropped a lot as I’ve looked around. (Update: looks like there are playlists available for at least some shows, so you can dip into the tracks, but they seem incomplete and don’t include any presenter audio, which is a shame if you want a bit of context to get into something.)

Awful but not the worst bits – the other “radio” stations

Something I expected from Apple’s raid of radio professionals would that they would start to grasp what makes music radio work and deliver satisfying curated channels. What I’ve tried so far is anything but satisfying.

I started with their “Chill” station, because I set up a radio station with that name ten years ago. It’s what comes up first in Google (in the UK, at least) when you search for the word “chill”. The team of specialist producers and myself curate it very carefully – to the point where we’ve often been accused of not adding enough tunes, and I wouldn’t deny that there’s a lot more we could play. But we’re looking for a feeling rarely found – “chilled” but not cold, sometimes cool but more often warm and uplifting. In Apple Music’s “Chill”, I found two tunes in the first 20 they offered that I’d like to play, and we’re already playing one. The rest left me cold. I know it’s all very subjective, and there may be lots of people who prefer Apple’s blend, but for me, when I reach for the fast forward button most of the time, it’s not a service which is helping me chill. Still, I’ll keep exploring, while it will feel like work.

I thought there would be no way they could mess up the “Charting Now” channel, because iTunes is the world’s biggest music retailer and surely they get what charts are, and how they vary across the world. Apparently not. A good chunk of what they’ve played me is US-centric, has never charted in the UK, and I don’t believe the 6 minute 30 expletive-ridden album track I was just served up has been a hit in the States either. (Believe me, I check charts obsessively, as I program pop radio for kids and grown ups as well as specialist stations.) It all seems a bit random.

And here’s the problem – radio is not random. It’s anything but. It’s not enough to take a list of popular or even expertly curated tunes, pop it on shuffle and call it a day. Listeners don’t find that satisfying, for many reasons. For one, hearing the same artist twice within three tunes makes a station sound stupidly repetitive and broken. This happened within minutes of my first sampling of the charting channel. Hearing lots of tunes in a similar style next to each other isn’t ideal either, and it’s totally avoidable. Music on the radio is programmed to balance smooth flow with surprising variety. Getting it right is an art and science, and something I thought Apple could easily find the skills to manage. They haven’t, at least not yet.

The truly awful interface experience

If a device or service doesn’t work perfectly, this is often forgiveable if the interface is good and responsive. I’m running Apple Music off an iPhone 5, and have no issues with speed or responsiveness in the technical sense of stuff moving when I press or swipe it. But the experience is frustrating because of a mix of connectivity and design issues.

First impression: I tried listening to the radio channels before signing up for the trial, and got unhelpful error messages which suggested they were not working. A quick Google search revealed that these went away if I subscribed, so I started my trial, and this was fixed. I get that some stuff is subscriber-only – why not write error messages which say so?

Next problem: hearing a tune and liking it, but finding it incredibly difficult to save it in any kind of list. Turns out there may be a day 1 “we’re so successful, it’s overloading!” type issue which has been preventing the automatic turning on of the “iCloud Music Library” setting required to save playlist info. Fixing this was unbelievably frustrating and random. An error message took me to the right setting, but it kept changing itself back constantly for about 100 attempts before finally working. Lots of other people found this too. I can’t believe most people would have been patient enough to keep trying, but until that bit works, Apple Music is a dumb broadcaster, not something you can have much fun with. I’m expecting that should be fixed when peak demand dies down, or whatever.

But then, the design problems come up which won’t go away until there’s a new version. Let’s say you want to save a tune to a playlist. Which button to press? There’s a “heart”, which doesn’t do this – but it does skew the rest of what you’ll get from a radio channel, and I can’t see how to unskew it, so I don’t want to press this much. There’s a box/arrow icon of the kind which suggests “put this somewhere”, but that only links to “share station” and “share song” options. There’s a cryptic three dots/three lines icon, but that just brings up the name of the next track to play. For goodness’ sake, if you’re working off a playlist, why not just list the playlist? I know that’s a premium price option for music rights, but this is a premium price service after the trial. Finally, what about these totally cryptic three dots at the bottom…

Oh, there it is – “Add to a playlist…” is an option along with (repeated) “share station” and “share song” options, and “Show in iTunes Store”, which handily gives me the option of paying more money to keep the tune. No thanks, I’ll just pop it into a playlist please, and a list of my playlists appears. Can I start a new playlist? No!!! Well, I can, it turns out, if I press the top left button to go back to the home page, then click “my music”, then “playlists”, then the incredibly tiny word “New” half way down the screen. This is crap.

I’m expecting there must be a setting somewhere so I can filter explicit tunes, or versions of tunes, but I’m not seeing it anywhere in the Music app settings. It looks like I have to go into “Parental Controls” to do some global restrictions, where I’d prefer to have the choice on the fly to sample safe or potentially sweary streams or playlists, just as I’d choose which station to listen to carefully if there are other people in the room.

Other random annoyances include “You look like you’re listening on another device” when that’s impossible (I’m not installing iTunes on Windows – yuck), not knowing what bits of the interface are buttons or text info, and rarely knowing what to expect when clicking an icon. Liking an artist in a playlist and want to hear more from them? Try clicking the artist name – it brings up five dots, so you can rate the tune (which you can’t then unrate). There’s no “more by this artist” option – you have to go search. I feel like Sylvester Stallone in Demolition Man, just woken up in the future and can’t work out how to use the three freakin seashells in the toilet. Laugh if you must, but it’s embarrassing…

Lots I’ve still got to delve into

There’s a lot of content in Apple Music. I am professionally and personally motivated to put up with the “mystery meat” menus and “you just have to learn it” workflows to get into it, so I’ll look more and report back.

The curated playlists look interesting and are beautifully presented. It’s nice to see music videos in the mix, but finding them took a while, and navigating the selections looks like it will take longer.

The world music selection is something I really want to explore, because Spotify has a very poor selection of Asian music, in particular. First impression is not good – searching for (probably) the best selling J-Pop group of all time, “Morning Musume”, brings two random compilations done on a music box (really awful instrumental covers) plus a completely random of “Deep Sleep Music”. Maybe they thought I needed help to chill. I feel like I do.

This is the problem with Apple Music right now. What should be a delight is too often frustrating, and what should be carefully crafted is too often random. There’s a stack of potential, but in the words of a well known song, I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.

PS: Apple fans! Want a more upbeat review with pictures and everything? MTV have a great one.

Hello!

It was great to see you at that conference!  /  I see you found my business cards which I must have left on the train*

(* delete as appropriate)

Here’s a special mix I made just for you. (Or find it on YouTube)