Binge treat: The Umbrella Academy (season 2)

Season one was great, but the second run of this off-beat superhero caper turned out to be my binge choice for the summer.

Picking up straight after their temporal escape from the first season’s destruction of planet Earth (pretty much their fault), our barely competent crew of metahuman misfits land in the sixties, where they have to contend with the awakening the civil rights movement, same-sex relationships, an organisation of assassins tasked with maintaining the integrity of the timeline, the assassination of Kennedy, and a nuclear holocaust that is six days away (again, mostly their fault).

The little fella with blood on his face is in his late fifties, and the guy on the far right is actually dead …

With so much to pack into ten episodes, it cracks along, but amazingly, doesn’t feel rushed. There’s plenty of time and space to delve into Black oppression, attitudes to homosexuality, love, sacrifice and being willing to do anything for your family … even when you despise them.

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Devs

My favourite lockdown binge so far, though it’s kind of hard to describe: a cross between Killing Eve and Jesus Christ Superstar (Jesus even makes a cameo appearance). It’s funny, inventive, has one of the best deadpan cast of characters I’ve ever seen. (Nick Offerman is pure genius), and the script is a pared-down thing of joy. Devs takes place round about now-ish and is the story of a company that is working to develop the holy grail of computer systems: a quantum machine that can

Yup, a game-changer, and the shady techs behind it will kill employees, foreign spies and just about anyone else to keep it a secret.

Devs is a slow-burner: the set (especially the computer – they’re actually working inside the computer!) is a work of art. The whole piece is quiet, atmospheric with dialogue that works effortlessly around some pretty mind-blowing concepts: probability, quantum computing, multiple universes: they’ve thrown the whole Sci-Fi manual at it, and still managed to keep it compulsive viewing. As I’ve said, it’s a standout performance by Nick Offerman (remember Ron Swanson from Parks and Recreation?) as the haunted CEO of the company, wracked with doubts over what he’s trying to do.

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Book review: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood 

This one’s a resurgent classic. It was first published way back in ’86 and took its place also alongside Orwell’s 1984 as one of the most of the most chilling views of a dystopian state-run future that the literary world had ever seen.  And like 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale has found a new audience, as many believe that recently drafted policies by the current US administration mean that perhaps its time has finally come.

The book is set in what I suppose you could call an Alternative Dystopian Now.  Birth rates across the United States are in freefall thanks to biological and radioactive pollution, while prenatal birth defects are skyrocketing. Poverty leads to civil unrest which leads to civil war. Part of the country is effectively annexed from the rest of the nation, and within this walled state, the religious right ascends to power.img_0059

As you’d expect, the grey-haired men in charge set about dialing things back a couple of centuries: women’s rights are swept away overnight, reducing half the population to little more than property; abortion is banned; homosexuality is outlawed; and a secret police force takes to the streets to ensure that religious law is observed under pain of death. The book details this new state order from the point of view of a Handmaid; one of a large group of women forced into providing surrogate children for the elite. The Handmaid’s are seen as vital to restoring the birth rates, but at the same time they’re despised by the wives of the men they’re forced to breed with.

The genius of this book is that Atwood has set it in the now, rather than some obscure future. This makes everything seem uncomfortably familiar and does give the reader the real sense that this could actually happen – that it might actually be happening now. How would a government go about removing the rights of women almost overnight; well, according to the book, it’s actually quite easy:

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