How Netflix has changed the way we watch TV
Netflix is one of those brilliantly simple business ideas that the competition only realises the full potential of when it's way too late. The company now has an estimated 33 million subscribers worldwide (most in the US), and earlier this year they moved effortlessly from the internet streaming of classic shows and films to original programming.
Their latest drama is 'Orange is the New Black', which was made available to Netflix subscribers here last week. Based on a colourful memoir by Piper Kerman, it's actually as much a sitcom as a serious drama – even though it's set in a women's prison. Taylor Schilling plays Piper Chapman, a rather neurotic middle-class New York white woman who's looking forward to her impending marriage to a writer (played by Jason Biggs) when a past misdemeanour comes back to bite her.
In her racy youth, Piper gave homosexuality a sporting try, and obligingly acted as a cross-border mule for her drug-dealing lesbian lover. When her crime is revealed, she's sentenced to 15 months in a federal penitentiary, where she quickly realises the disadvantages of being pretty, well-educated and white.
Piper has an understandable terror of getting raped, and an amusing opening scene shows her cowering in the prison showers and trying to retain her modesty with the help of a ridiculously small towel. She's also concerned about fungal infection and general hygiene, but most of all she worries about attracting the attention of the 'sisterhood', and her worst fears seem realised when a large lesbian inmate called Crazy Eyes takes a shine to her.
Though Piper remains the central character, 'Orange is the New Black' soon fans out into the lives of other inmates, and through a series of flashbacks we find out how they got there.
I'd have to say that the comic bits work better overall than the serious moments, but it's entertaining and cleverly written and definitely worth a look. And the nice thing about Netflix shows is that they're usually released simultaneously here and in America, so there's no waiting around. A second season has been commissioned.
One show you may have to wait for is 'Drunk History', Derek Waters' cunningly original skit series that's already become a cult hit in America. 'Drunk History' started out as a kind of joke, with Waters inviting friends to throw back a few stiff ones before recounting to the best of their impaired abilities a famous historical event.
He started filming these sozzled lectures, and the resulting videos became a big hit on Will Ferrell and Adam McKay's comedy website, 'Funny or Die'. Waters had a handy knack for persuading famous actors and comics to appear in badly acted skits. He got Michael Cera to play a wispy Alexander Hamilton in an episode that shoddily recreated his deadly dispute with Aaron Burr, and a woozy Christmas special featured cameos from Ryan Gosling, Jim Carrey and Eva Mendes.
Now 'Drunk History' has been picked up by the Comedy Channel, but Waters has been careful not to interfere with his dreadful production values. And he's still getting the stars: hilarious early episodes include turns from Jack Black as Elvis Presley, Kristen Wiig as Patty Hearst, Owen Wilson as the Kellogg Brothers and Adam Scott as Lincoln's assassin John Wilkes Booth.
It's great fun, and if you don't think drunk people are funny, check out the pilot and some of the 'Funny or Die' episodes online.
'Breaking Bad' has been one of the most acclaimed and original TV dramas of the last five years or so. Created by Vince Gilligan, it stars the underrated character actor Bryan Cranston as Walter White, a New Mexico high school chemistry teacher who turns to drug dealing in order to secure his family's financial future after he's diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Instead of dying, however, he ended up inventing a terrifying alter ego called Heisenberg and becoming a criminal kingpin.
The show returns for the second part of its fifth and last series in the US next month, with Walt in trouble with a bunch of white supremacists and his family about to find out that he and Heisenberg are one and the same. But Vince Gilligan has also been talking up plans for a possible spin-off show involving Walt's dodgy lawyer Saul Goodman.
As played by Bob Odenkirk, Saul is a hilariously seedy criminal lawyer who works out of an office in a rundown strip mall and represents the scum of Albuquerque. Saul's clients include smalltime drug dealers, pimps and insurance scammers, but he defends them all as though they're righteous and wronged. He's pompous, overbearing but very effective, even if his whole identity is a sham.
Because 'Saul' is in fact an Irish/American who changed his name because he believes that everyone's more comfortable with a Jewish lawyer. He's easily interesting enough to carry his own series, and Vince Gilligan says that although "it's not a done deal yet, it's definitely something we're full speed ahead on trying to get going".
Meanwhile, you can watch 'Breaking Bad's final episodes over here from next month. And guess who's showing them? Netflix, of course.
If all this digital and internet television is scaring the hell out of you, it's nice to know that the traditional channels haven't given up the ghost just yet. One BBC show I really enjoyed was 'The Field of Blood', a gritty 2011 crime drama set in Glasgow in the early 1980s and involving murder and corruption among journalists and the police.
The show returns for a new run next month, with Jayd Johnson reprising her role as Paddy Meehan, the feisty teenage Glaswegian who's now landed her dream job on the staff of a Glasgow tabloid. She's hoping to drag the paper kicking and screaming into the late 20th century, but faces opposition from her obtuse and sexist editor (an excellent David Morrissey), and from the police when she investigates the murder of a high profile human rights lawyer. It starts on August 1.
One of my most vivid early TV memories was watching John Hurt play the demented and debauched Roman emperor Caligula in the excellent 1970s BBC drama 'I, Claudius'. Those shows were based on the novels of Robert Graves and, if you're to believe them and his principal source, the Roman historian Suetonius, Caligula was one of the greatest monsters in history.
He's supposed to have killed his father, murdered half of Rome's patrician elite, prostituted senators' wives, made his horse a senator, declared himself a god and slept with his sister before killing her as well.
Quite the charmer then, but later this month on BBC2, historian Mary Beard will set out to find out how much of this lurid portrait is actually true. Mary tells it like it is: she told America it "had it coming" after 9/11, and will doubtless waste no time in debunking cherished Roman myths. 'Caligula' airs on BBC2 at 9pm on July 29.