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Formula 1 and their drive to survive

Drive to Survive is a brilliant behind the scenes look at the world’s top motorsport. But can a Netflix documentary help save Formula 1?

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As a kid growing up in Indonesia, motor racing sat at the periphery of my sporting interests. In fact, I knew very little of it save the occasional clip on television. There was one exception, and that was Formula 1. Something about it grabbed my attention, and I remember vividly watching the Monaco Grand Prix as brightly colored cars raced through an exotic city I had never heard of. This was in the days of Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna, both untouchable in their craft. I didn’t understand the greater depths of Formula 1 then, but I knew that these two were immense, unstoppable forces in a sport where feats of skill and physics are only inches from catastrophe. I liked the fast cars, the great sounds, and the pageantry that came with the sport of millionaires.

It was 1989, when the Monaco Grand Prix was won by Senna, but his season was met with disappointment in Japan after being disqualified for missing a chicane. Prost won his third Championship that season. The rivalry between the two, heightened by the fact that they were teammates, made for the kind of drama you can only dream of scripting. And it was in part, why Formula 1 was such enthralling viewing.

It didn’t stay that way. The recent years have seen a decline in viewership, struggles and conflicts with Formula 1’s new ownership group – an ownership group that has received fresh criticism from the sport’s own promoters association (FOPA) – a flatlining in young viewers and to top it off, slower cars and a lack of competitiveness. It certainly doesn’t bode well from what you read. But Formula 1 isn’t quite ready to pit just yet. Like any great monolith of sport and media, demises are often exaggerated- at least that’s what they want you to think. Throughout the 2018 season, Formula 1 teamed up with Netflix to create and film a documentary about the season (a season won once again by Lewis Hamilton) and titled it Drive to Survive. An apt title that truly means many things.

Formula 1 fans are serious business. I am not a serious fan, rather, a casual one whose fandom waned after my initial connection. I don’t get into the minutiae of aerodynamic engineering, the details of every season and every driver, or the finer points of the constant rule changes, but I do enjoy good sports documentaries. Drive to Survive, like the terrific Sunderland Til I Die, is Netflix’s most recent entry into the field. By taking what HBO did so well for so long and giving it the new Netflix sheen, they have proven that sometimes letting the drama of reality unfold (with a nudge and a push), results in an infinitely better product. Drive to Survive is a 10-episode series, cut roughly into 30-40 minute episodes with season-long narrative arcs coupled with shorter episodic arcs, spliced between the 10. Mercedes and Ferrari aren’t featured, and so while we get passing glimpses of Lewis Hamilton, he does not feature in the documentary. Instead, we are given the narratives of the “best of the rest” (the battle for fourth and fifth place between longstanding French team Renault and upstart American battlers Haas), interwoven with interesting conflicts between oft-third place team Red Bull, and the rest of the championship ladder.

Netflix are fantastic at production. It’s proven in Drive to Survive. The access they were given (outside of Mercedes and Ferrari) is close to all-access, and the way the series unfolds is all glorious high-definition action, fast-paced adrenaline ballet. I didn’t know who Christian Horner was (Red Bull Racing’s Team Principal), or Cyril Abiteboul (Renault), but they’re given the spotlight and their hilariously ticky-tacky feud that encompasses everything from their team drivers, to their engines (Red Bull Racing had, until 2019, used Renault engines in their cars), is a microscope of what really goes on behind the scenes. These are the things that make Formula 1 interesting, and a reason why this documentary resonated with me as a casual fan. Like any sport, the personalities that clash, the memorable ones, become the stories that make the sport enduring. While the series shows plenty of race footage, the most captivating are those of the drivers away from the track, as they balance the incredible pressures of being a race car driver at its ultimate level. True, this co-production means that you’ll only get so far under the skin of the sport, but regardless of whether or not this series is one big shiny promo (what production isn’t?), it doesn’t take away from the results.

Red Bull vs Renault
Christian Horner, Red Bull Racing Team Principal and Cyril Abiteboul, Renault Sport F1 Managing Director, really, really don’t like each other.

I cared about the careers and lives of upstart drivers like Esteban Ocon and Charles LeClerc, felt a connection to the tumultuous season of French driver Romain Grosjean (who will henceforce be known as “Crashy McCrasherson”), and I felt the pain and frustration of all-time great Fernando Alonso as he struggled to drag the apparent carcass of the once-great McLaren team (at the season’s conclusion, a handler tells Alonso as he’s talking that the press want him to “walk slower”, for what I assume is for better photographs and media, only for him to retort, “I want to be fast at least once this year”). It worked because of the personalities that make up the kaleidoscope of Formula 1, and because Netflix were able to craft and shape the reality into perfect storytelling.

It is this connection, this caring from casuals and occasional viewers that will help salvage Formula 1. You don’t have to care that the rules are constantly changing. You don’t have to know that the cars are slower (or faster) this year than they were last year. And you don’t have to know who Nigel Mansell is or that the Tyrell “six-wheeler” is still the coolest race car ever designed. You just have to like human stories, emotion, drama, and good documentary production.

As the Australian Grand Prix roared past my window a few weeks ago, I hoped that Daniel Ricciardo would succeed on his home turf. Not because he’s Australian, but because we got to see a little more of who he is away from the wheel (a good Aussie bloke and a fantastic driver who just needs a little bit of luck).

For the first time in a long time, I’m interested to see how the season unfolds. I know who the players behind the sparks, the speed, and the sounds are now. And thanks to Netflix’s Drive to Survive, I care once again about the pageantry, the extravagance, and the thrills of the sport of royalty.

Formula 1: Drive to Survive is now streaming on Netflix. Watch the trailer below.

Television

Why Fleabag was the most important show of 2019

Fleabag will be that show that influences other shows and movies for decades to come

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fleabag

How is it that even among the award show sweeps, iconic jumpsuit copycats, and seemingly universal acclaim, Fleabag still seems underrated? Maybe it’s because, on paper, little about Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s play-turned-Amazon-series should have worked all that well for mass acclaim — particularly for American audiences. Half of the characters in the show are nameless. There is constant breaking of the fourth wall. And, perhaps most surprising to its success in the U.S., the show comprised only two seasons of just six half-hour episodes apiece — released an agonizing three years apart. (We typically like our TV shows abundant and delivered fast, the cinematic equivalent of a cheap dinner at a strip mall buffet.)

But paper can’t capture the brilliance of Waller-Bridge’s tale of a woman drowning her guilt and trauma in sarcasm and casual sex (and occasionally guinea pigs). Fleabag is packed with raw humanity, top-notch writing, and impeccable comedic timing. 

The ingenious writing and acting of Fleabag is matched only by the show’s ensemble cast. Brett Gelman is delightfully disgusting as swarthy, pitiful brother-in-law Martin. As Fleabag’s season two love interest, the Hot Priest, Andrew Scott exudes turmoil so heavy you can feel it through the screen, as he struggles to navigate sexual desire with spirituality. Sian Clifford beautifully embodies Fleabag’s high-powered sister Claire, whose Type-A rigidity is as palpable as her deep unhappiness. 

And who can forget the incomparable Olivia Colman? She is hysterical as Godmother, a self-important artist whose fixation on alienating Fleabag is only as cringeworthy as her pride on her wedding day in showing off the diverse identities of her “friends.” (“This is my verrrry interesting friend Daniel, who’s deaf. I picked him up at a student gallery opening. Utterly fascinating. Can’t hear a thing.”) 

But it so much more than outstanding casting and indulgent black humor that makes Fleabag the most important show of 2019.

Fleabag will be that show that influences other shows and movies for decades to come. Fleabag has proven that you can teach an old cinematic device a brand-new trick. The show has taught us that these techniques aren’t doomed to become a shtick or a crutch. And it has taught us how compelling it can be when stories of women’s sexuality and humanity are explored authentically (see: why fewer men should be writing these stories). 

But more than anything, Fleabag has raised the bar. 

We have much to thank Phoebe Waller-Bridge for — Fleabag is as deliriously funny as it is heartwrenching. But we should also thank her because, in the vein of Twin Peaks, her show will blaze trails for other artists. Just like David Lynch’s groundbreaking soap-opera-tinged supernatural series paved the way for shows like Northern Exposure and True Detective, screenwriters in the coming years will owe an equal creative debt to Fleabag

So we may clamor and beg for seasons three and four — which we will never and should never get — but we should appreciate Fleabag for exactly what it is: near-perfect television and inspiration for the amazing shows that we haven’t even seen yet.

Fleabag airs in the UK on the BBC and internationally on Amazon Prime.

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Television

Homelander is humanity’s most accurate superhero

Amazon’s hard-hitting, irreverent take on superheroes is a painfully accurate takedown of humanity

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If you haven’t yet seen Amazon Studios’ hard-hitting, irreverent take on superheroes, proceed at your own risk. But if you haven’t seen The Boys yet, why not? It’s not-so-quietly the best television show of 2019 and its painfully accurate depiction of what superheroes would really be like in our world is gloriously funny and poignant. You best get on it.

With that said, The Boys IS 2019’s best television show, and while it may not be the most easily digestible show (if you prefer your superhero television to be Supergirl type corny, you’re probably in for a bit of a shock), those who venture through its visceral 8-episode first season will no doubt be left in awe. Based on the 2006 graphic novel of the same name, The Boys tells the story of a group of nogoodniks led by Karl Urban’s brute Billy Butcher, who takes the seemingly hapless Hughie (played by Jack Quaid) on a vigilante mission to avenge the death of his girlfriend. Along the way “The Boys” set out to expose the fake news facade of the superheroes in the series’ world. These so-called heroes, backed by mega-corporation Vought International, are Earth’s premier team of superheroes. On the surface, they act like the Marvel Avengers / DC Justice League team, but in reality, are just a colossal mess of frail egos and giant assholes whose appearances are kept up to keep the money-making wheels spinning.

The story unfolds in glorious violence, capped by slow-mo gory deaths, shattered limbs, and enough sex and psychotherapy to make old “Skinemax” television blush. But what’s most telling about the series is the accurate characterisation of what it means to be a hero in the real world. “The Seven” (Vought’s Avengers) are led by the very Captain America/Superman-esque Homelander; a stoic, blond, barrel-chested hero for America that waves and kisses babies on camera, but away from it, is a fragile, colossal asshole egomaniac with severe Freudian issues. The latter become one of the focal points of the series’ narrative arc and are a small but telling dimension of the layers you find within this show. He’s surrounded by likeminded assholes; sexual deviant The Deep (if one of the characters from Gossip Girl ended up becoming Aquaman), sexual deviant Translucent (if Invisible Man was a chronic sex-pest) and murdering drug-addict A-Train (if The Flash was… well, a murdering drug addict). The only one who presents with any form of likeability are Queen Maeve and newcomer Starlight. The latter, integral to the story, is a good girl Christian superhero who discovers like most of us, The Seven aren’t who they make out to be.

Over the eight episodes of the first season, we come to the sad and painful realization that if superheroes were to exist in our reality, that this would be it. Intentionally or not, this commentary is one of the most compelling parts of this series. It’s beautifully cynical, but at the same, cuts right to the heart of the truth of our society. The Marvel Universe has spoiled us with dreams of heroic saviors, but in reality, we would get and deserve much less.

Superheroes in the Marvel and DC Universes are often too good to be true; cavorting around like false prophets. In times when humanity turns against them (Batman vs. Superman, Captain America: Civil War, Spider-Man: Far From Home), they react with some level of empathy for the reactions of the general public. Superman exiles himself in Batman vs Superman while The Avengers attempt to self-police in Civil War; all are actions of self-sacrificing their worth for the greater good. Their hope is that public opinion will turn once people realize the truth. Homelander is nothing like that, and often in The Boys, his good public persona will reveal his true self the moment he faces situations that harm his likeness, value, and/or monetary worth. It’s how most people would react no matter how much they tell you they wouldn’t. In all of Homelander’s inhuman superpowers, his most telling characteristic are his most human ones; selfish, egotistical, greedy, self-absorbed. They are not positive qualities, but they are very real.

You may be thinking that this is an overly cynical view on humanity, but the old adage of the truth hurting is ever present through the series. The Boys‘ socio-political commentary isn’t even about specific politics or people- even though you can equate it to them. It’s broader, more sweeping in its assessment that no matter your political views, no matter your race or creed, you are nowhere near as heroic or “good” as you think you are. “The Boys” themselves, of course, are a band of anti-hero criminals and outcasts that help confirm that even the people “doing good” aren’t all that good themselves. As the series points out, we are all just different sides of the same coin.

It’s all just a helpful reminder that in a world filled with liars, charlatans, hacks, and grifters, there are no real heroes and those looking to become one just end up getting burned. The Boys is a compelling look into the mirror of society; refreshing, invigorating, and painfully true. It is the truth we are all afraid to face wrapped in relatable costumes and transient power. I suppose we could keep telling ourselves that we’re nothing like the people and “heroes” in The Boys, but then we’d just be lying to ourselves. It’s in part, what makes Homelander humanity’s most accurate superhero. If that’s not enough for you, then watch it for Karl Urban calling everyone a “c*nt” for eight episodes.

The Boys is streaming now on Amazon Prime.

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