Who needs Netflix? I’ve got a PBS Passport

Streaming content is getting awfully pricey. It used to be that if you had HBO or Showtime you felt set. But now there are so many streaming options you feel like you need to belong to many of them to get the content you need.

I mean, how can you miss Star Trek: Strange New Worlds? Time to pony up $9.99 per month for Paramount+. And that’s just the beginning. Can I survive without Netflix? How can I survive without Discovery Plus? (I can, but my wife can’t.) Or BritBox? No one streaming service has it all though and most of us aren’t rich enough to subscribe to all of them.

I’ve been trying to keep my streaming bills relatively low. I still have Netflix but at $15.49/month now it’s getting too pricey. I may give it the heave ho after I finish Stranger Things: Season 4 but maybe I’ll hang around for the next season of The Crown. I just don’t need that much entertainment. Considering how much I watch on Netflix (not a whole lot) and how the quality of a lot of their shows seems at least strained if not wholly lacking, it doesn’t seem worth paying for. What I really don’t want though are commercials. And now Netflix is talking about adding commercials for a lower monthly price to keep from bleeding customers.

I often wish I could just stream commercial free for free. That’s doesn’t appear to be an option unless I want to do something illegal, like download pirated videos.

But there are some free or low cost options out there. For me, lately my favorite service is PBS Passport, which I get through donating to New England Public Media.

You don’t need to pay to stream PBS content. Just download the app or watch it on their website. But you only get the recent stuff for free. If you want their full streaming library, they (or rather, your local PBS/NPR station) wants a donation. As a practical matter though, the PBS Passport is something of a steal. With it you get full access to their whole platform for cheap, for as little as a $60/year donation, at least with my local provider, New England Public Media. With it, you can get it all. In addition, you can support arguably great TV, like Masterpiece (formerly Masterpiece Theater).

Don’t laugh because you think PBS is lame! If you haven’t checked out PBS, you’re missing some great stuff. Downton Abbey was originally on Masterpiece and can be found on their service. You can see lots of mostly British dramas on Masterpiece or related shows, most of which are exceptionally well done.

I remember back in the 1970s I could watch I Claudius on PBS, which is where I first encountered this actor named Patrick Stewart, not to mention Derek Jacobi. That’s about the same time Upstairs, Downstairs was broadcast, also on PBS. PBS broadcasted some arguably revolutionary stuff. Not only could you get Sesame Street, but Monty Python’s Flying Circus too. My mom strongly disapproved of the show but we were too old for her to forbid us from watching it. Besides, it must be good for us as it was public TV!

I can’t find these really old shows like Upstairs, Downstairs on their service. Arguably there’s a lot of dreck on PBS too, but some of us like this “dreck”. It’s actually pretty addicting and it has shows you can watch for free that are as good as any on Discovery Plus. I love documentaries. Frontline is always topical and on top of the latest stories with a deep and thoughtful dive into a topic. Nova is the premier science show on TV. You can learn to find your roots on Find Your Roots. The PBS News Hour gives you real, unbiased and in-depth news, which is hard to find elsewhere. For those of us who appreciate the arts, Great Performances is typically great, but if not into classical music or theater you can watch Austin City Limits or a bunch of related shows too.

But PBS’s Masterpiece collection is where I usually end up. Most lately I’ve been watching Poldark. There’s five seasons (so far) of content there to enjoy. Pretty much anything in a Masterpiece series is worth watching, and Poldark sure is.

Before Poldark though I was watching Sanditon, based on Jane Austen’s last unfinished novel. Masterpiece has mostly British produced shows, so it’s a bit like watching BritBox. Just before watching Sanditon, I had been watching Bridgerton on Netflix. It didn’t take more than two episodes of Sanditon before I realized it was just as good as Bridgerton, classily done but with not quite as high a budget. Unlike Bridgerton, you can see horse poop in the streets in Sanditon.

Moreover, Sanditon covers the same time period: the 1810s or so, and it’s principally a romance too. But Sanditon has more of a plot and is more authentic to the time. It also gets into some adult topics you wouldn’t expect from Jane Austen like incest and slavery. Bridgerton gives us a London that never actually existed where somehow Queen Charlotte is a lady of color and a prominent duke is Black. In Sanditon, we also get a prominent Black character, but she’s the only one in town (at least in the first season) and an heiress to boot. Sanditon is much more authentic to the time and the characters are arguably at least as interesting as those in Bridgerton. Yet hardly anyone is watching Sanditon and everyone is watching Bridgerton. It makes no sense.

There are a couple of streaming services that you can often get for free courtesy of your public library. If you live in Massachusetts (I do) you can get a virtual Boston Public Library card and use it to stream Hoopla for free, which has lots of shows and movies you can watch. No, it’s not Netflix and its selection is more literate and artsy, but, hey, it’s free! I can also access similar content through my local public library, which offers Kanopy. It’s funded by my tax dollars. Typically, like a book, you have to virtually check out the video and can’t watch another one until you check it back in. But you can’t beat the price and convenience.

For me though a PBS Passport more than suffices. So maybe it’s time to watch the latest episode of Call the Midwife (also on PBS, and an amazingly well acted show) and spend $60 a year for a PBS Passport instead of $15.49 a month for Netflix. All this and you get to keep public broadcasting on the air too. You’ll probably quickly find you don’t miss all those other streaming services, and it’s quite a bargain.

Review: The Queen’s Gambit

I used to write various movie reviews. I put that on the back burner for four years because Donald Trump happened. With Trump (I hope) safely neutered, let me return to a more traditional space: occasional art critic. I’ve got a Netflix limited series that you should definitely watch: The Queen’s Gambit.

Certain stories will infect you, in a good way. They have just the right combination of plot, characters, twists and turns. These stories elevate times and people. The movie Selma comes immediately to mind. For us White Americans in particular, it took us into a time and place and inside the minds of Black Americans struggling under oppression that we needed to see and, more importantly, feel.

The Queen’s Gambit, a Netflix exclusive, is a limited series that opens up and elevates its characters in a good way. As an infectious story, it will grab you from the opening minutes. Thanks to a compelling script, excellent directing and an amazing casting, it takes you through a profoundly intimate experience.

It’s probably true that I identified with it because I played chess as a kid. But chess is merely a frame for the fascinating character of Beth Harmon:  an orphan, child chess prodigy and substance abuser. It’s really about her intense and overwhelming struggle to put order into and elevate her deeply dysfunctional life. It’s these latter aspects that make it memorable and infectious, not the chess.

In putting her life together under these improbable circumstances, she rises like as phoenix from the ashes. Like Frodo who has to go to Mount Doom to destroy the one ring that is destroying him, Beth Harmon has the unenviable tasks of rising above the mess that life has thrown her. It includes a mother who kills herself, a weird and repressive orphanage she ends up in, racism, hard knocks and her unexpected interest in chess.

It’s hard to overstate how well Anya Taylor-Joy brings to life Beth Harmon. She is brilliant and believable, but so were the actresses who play younger versions of her. What may be unbelievable to some is the idea of a female chess champion. Chess is not considered to be something that women pursue seriously, who are perceived as not very left-brained by nature. Yet there are quite a few women grandmasters out there, just mostly unknown outside of Russia or China. In Beth’s case, a gruff janitor playing by himself in the basement of the orphanage becomes her unlikely gateway into this world. When Beth’s brilliance is finally realized, she easily wins a state championship that she enters as a complete unknown.

Beth gets adopted as a teenager, but her adopted father is an absentee father who abandons her mother, which leaves her adopted mother popping pills. Beth is familiar with pills too, because all the children in the orphanage get them, mostly to keep them pliable. Beth becomes addicted to them, and she thinks the pills are what makes it possible for her to succeed in chess. She thinks it gives her the edge, particularly against some of the best chess players, to win her games.

Despite her seemingly insurmountable problems, it turns out that help can be found in unlikely places. Her adopted mother may be strung out on pills herself, but there is a kind heart beneath her that rises to the occasion of having a new daughter in her life. And in a chess world full of nerds there are enough people to who can see the deeper woman to rise to support her, even while many of them lust for carnal knowledge of her.

In short, the supporting characters too rise above mere supporting roles too and become complex and fleshed out characters in their own right. There’s not one poorly cast character among them and they all bring just the right touch and complexity to their roles. The world of the 1960s is meticulously rendered for the screen. Aside from the stellar direction, the cinematography is amazing in its own right. The series has a real film noir feel to it, with chess matches in foreign places like Paris, Moscow and Mexico City adding complexity, intrigue and many memorable characters. These include Vasily Borgov, a Russian grandmaster and the world’s highest-ranking player, as well as Beth’s biggest challenge. It all gets perfectly resolved in the final seventh episode. It should leave you, like me, in tears at the end.

It’s just amazing. Go watch it.

House of Cards: entertaining but ludicrous

I finally surrendered and replaced my twice a month Netflix DVD plan for the “all the content you can watch online for $7.99 a month” plan. Actually, I chose the $8.99 a month plan, which lets me see shows on two devices: handy when my iMac is more convenient than the high definition TV in our entertainment room. It’s a good deal any way you look at it. It is made more so by Netflix’s exclusive programming. There are a number of series that Netflix is producing but I started with House of Cards, since it was their first and got much critical acclaim. And I must say that I am enjoying it. I haven’t had this much fun with a show based on Washington, D.C. since The West Wing.

House of Cards, at least Season 1, which I am watching now, is a TV show for conspiracy theorists. Frank Underwood (portrayed by Kevin Spacey) is a Democratic congressman from South Carolina who is also the House whip. In case you are not familiar with this role, this is the guy tasked to round up votes to push the party’s agenda. He’s the third guy in charge in the House of Representatives, and reports to the Majority Leader, who reports to the Speaker of the House. Underwood however is the real power broker in the House, subtly pulling strings and influencing people to advance not quite his party’s agenda, or even the president’s agenda, but his agenda on how he thinks government should work. He sees himself as the government’s master clockmaker. By oiling this spot and not oiling that spot, he sets in motion many a Rube Goldberg machine wherein things usually go his way. He is ruthless enough to bring down his own boss, the Speaker of the House, with Republican votes and those from the Congressional Black Caucus, if it suits his agenda. At least so far it doesn’t appear that he aspires to a much higher office. He realizes that by being the master clockmaker he is closer to being the center of power than he would be as majority leader or even speaker. Like Dick Cheney, he does his best work by not being seen too much.

It is frankly quite an addictive show to watch, so I feel like I am getting great value for my $8.99 a month subscription. The West Wing though was at least kind of, sort of plausible. House of Cards is not, although it is great entertainment. Hillary Clinton is reputedly a fan of the show and I’m not surprised. If in their upper 60s Hill and Bill are finding it hard to find couples time, they are probably finding it by watching this show together. Slick Willy can learn a lot of lessons from watching Rep. Frank (“Francis”) Underwood.

Some part of me desperately hopes that our government actually worked this way. That’s because it would make a whole lot more sense than the way it actually does work. It’s hardly news that right now government hardly works at all. Certainly Congress is barely functioning. There is no Frank Underwood slicing and dicing his way through Washington politics. Instead there is pretty much complete dysfunction.

House of Cards might have been more realistic if it has been set in the early 1960s instead of the 2010s. Lyndon Johnson, before be became vice president and then president, was not unlike Frank Underwood. Few have been more skilled at getting legislation through Congress than Lyndon Johnson. For much of the time he was in Congress though he was blessed with Democratic majorities, at least in the House of Representatives. It’s not so hard to wield power when your party dominates a house of Congress. Maybe Underwood could have been portrayed as the Senate’s majority whip in the early 1960s, and we could have seen how Senator Underwood’s machinations tilted the presidential election in Kennedy’s favor. It’s still implausible, but it would have a lot more plausibility than this series actually has.

You don’t have to study government too hard to see how it really works. Government these days is largely controlled, not by a Frank Underwood, but by corporations and vested interests, who buy influence. One of the curious things about Frank Underwood is how little he is affected by this stuff. Or frankly how little time he spends outside of Washington and attending fundraisers. Representatives spend more time fundraising to keep their jobs than they do actually legislating. I guess that would not make good television. Congress also spends much more time on recess than it does legislating, yet Underwood rarely travels back to his South Carolina district. You also have to ask yourself: he’s a white Democrat representing a district … in South Carolina? There are seven congressional districts in South Carolina. Six of them are held by Republicans, all male, all white. The one Democratic district was one specially carved out for African Americans and is held by James Clyburn, an African American. Blacks comprise 28% of the population of South Carolina, which is 68% white, yet get only one congressman of the 7 to represent it. South Carolina is gerrymandered to the extreme toward the Republicans.

No doubt Frank Underwood is a fascinating character. He is both ruthless and somehow humane, pragmatic and relentlessly focused, artificial but quietly revolutionary. Perhaps one of the most interesting dynamics is his relationship with his wife Claire (Robin Wright), who is also quite a contradiction: ruthless enough to fire half her staff of her non-profit while maintaining what appears to be a purely emotional marriage with Frank, who she loves, while each allow the other to play around. Frank chases Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), an up and coming reporter and that’s okay with Claire, particularly when we realize that Frank’s affair with Zoe is only tangentially about the sex. It’s much more important that he sees her as someone he can use: another chess player on his four-dimensional chessboard.

This month I retired from 32 years in the civil service. Obviously I was never a member of congress, or even someone on its staff, although I spent a year making the computers work at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. I have though worked in three departments over 32 years. I have known a lot of bureaucrats including some in pretty senior leadership positions. I also done a lot of watching the machinations of government, and it is a chaotic process, today more than ever. The sad truth is there is not, and rarely is there any politician that would even warrant a B in oiling the machinations of government. It’s not because talents like Frank Underwood are not out there, it’s because of the vast kudzu of government. There is no superman out there than can really cut through it and way too many huge egos titling at windmills for any Rube Goldberg machine spawned by a Frank Underwood to work.

If we were interested in truly understanding how government works, time would be much better spent looking at how outside groups like the NRA wields their disproportionate influence. The Koch Brothers are already the subject of a fascinating documentary. I doubt Hillary Clinton will be adding Citizen Koch in her leisure viewing. House of Cards is far more entertaining. It is just, unfortunately, completely ludicrous.

The Blu-Ray thing seems ancillary

Generally, I will wait for a technology to make things cheap before I buy into it. It looks like I will be waiting quite a while for an Internet accessible cell phone, since I refuse to pay $50 a month or more for the privilege of being able to surf the web remotely on a tiny device. However, I have faith in American ingenuity. It may take another five years or so, but eventually I will ditch my delightfully dorky $10 Virgin Mobile cell phone for an internet accessible version with more features and zillions of cool apps. My price point is about $20 a month. This is about what I pay right now every quarter to Virgin Mobile, which is very affordable if you only send or receive a half dozen or so calls a month. (I do email, not phone calls.)

I bought a high definition TV a few years ago to enjoy those HD cable channels, but I was waiting for Blu-Ray disc players to come down to a price that I was willing to pay. The price finally arrived. This weekend I bought a nice souped up Samsung BD-6800 Blu-Ray player for $199 along with a Blu-Ray version of the movie Inception. I installed it last night (a surprisingly painless experience) and spent part of this afternoon configuring it.

Inception looks great on my HDTV, although I now realize our Surround Sound system is about two generations behind. With my Blu-Ray player, I could be enjoying HDMI digital sound. Instead, I have this Dolby Digital DTS sound system. Fortunately, sound systems, even for seven-channel sound are also surprisingly affordable. So this will likely be another gift for myself that I will put under the tree this year.

While refrigerators still cannot assemble a shopping list for us, my Blu-Ray player is so feature rich that its ability to play Blu-Ray discs is almost ancillary. Apparently, what I have purchased is an optimized portal for high definition and high fidelity content, agnostic about whether it comes off a disc, off the cable network, or off the Internet. In fact, I can surf the Internet with my Samsung Blu-Ray player, or at least portions of it. It took a bit of configuring, but once configured I found I could see my Picasa web photo albums on my high definition TV, courtesy of my Blu-Ray player, and its wireless card. So next time friends drop by and I want to show them pictures of our vacation, I can do so easily on my widescreen TV.

First, I had to teach it how to access our network. Our wireless network is encrypted, so the hardest part was finding our WEP key, which my wife keeps on a scrap of paper under mounds of paper on her desk. Once I had found it, it was straightforward to make the player just another device on our network.

My Blu-Ray player likes being on the Internet. Once it knew there was a network available, the first thing it did was nag me to upgrade its firmware, so I could have the latest features. This process took about five minutes. Then it started downloading all these apps. There is now no need for me to rush upstairs to my Mac to read Facebook; my Blu-Ray player will deliver Facebook to me. It will also deliver Twitter, a local forecast from Accuweather, and allow me to play Texas Holdem, should I be so inclined. (No worries there.)

The Accuweather app may actually be useful, since I may not have the patience to wait for weather on the sixes on The Weather Channel. As for the other apps, they are more to show what is possible than anything else. Lacking a real keyboard, only a masochist would try to post a tweet using the handheld remote that comes with the Blu-Ray player. I am betting though that Samsung or some third party provides a compatible wireless keyboard just in case you do want a more usable user interface.

Blu-Ray discs are nice to own, but apparently are now a somewhat antiquated means of getting high definition movies. Once the apps are installed, you can download high definition movies or DVDs from your favorite content provider. Netflix is one of many companies now in this business. To stream its movies, I don’t need to spend a hundred dollars or more for a box from Netflix. My Samsung player, like most of these players these days, is set to stream movies from Netflix or other services. I just need to upgrade my Netflix account, mess with my app settings and I am good to go.

It’s hard to imagine a media that my Samsung player cannot play. I can rule out cassettes and 8-tracks. If it’s on a disk, it can play it. Blu-Ray, DVDs, CDs, MP3s and innumerable variation of these formats are all built in. There is a convenient port for a flash drive on the front of the player as well. The only format that may frustrate me is DiVX. So many of the DiVX codexes are licensed, which means I would have to point the player to a license file. This seems an unlikely problem, as I am not aware that I have any content in a DiVX format.

How long before the Blu-Ray CD becomes obsolete, and all our movies reside somewhere either in our own personal internet cloud, on some ubiquitous terabyte hard drive in our player or somewhere on our personal network? I am starting to think that the reason my player was so cheap is that companies like Netflix and Blockbuster are subsidizing players to get my share of future business.

It looks like they will probably succeed.