Three Recs, strike edition
A snappy political drama series, a dark fantasy novel, a podcast about a real-life political conspiracy
This issue was going to kick off with a nice little piece about how I went to Paris last weekend (more on that in a sec), but a bunch of my friends and lots of people who do what I do in the US went on strike this week, so let’s talk about that instead.
(I do hope you’ll read this, but if you just want recs, they’re below the fold.)
If you read this newsletter, you love stories. Which means that you love and value the work that writers and other storytellers do. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that this means you’d also like those people to be paid a living wage for their stories – both because they’re humans and deserve to be able live decently, and because you would like them to continue to create those stories for you to watch/read/listen to. With me so far?
Well, in the US film and TV industry right now, the studios that produce and release those stories have decided that the writers don’t deserve a living wage for their work.
No, seriously, I’m not exaggerating. A large percentage of film and TV writers can’t pay their rent right now. One of the writers on The Bear (one of my favorite shows of last year) had a negative bank balance on the same day that he went to an awards show where he won an award. I have friends who have written on acclaimed shows working multiple non-industry jobs in between writers rooms just to stay afloat. In the negotiations between the WGA (the writers’ guild) and the AMPTP (the studios: Netflix, Disney, et al), the AMPTP literally offered an unpaid internship as a reasonable way for professional writers to be able to do a part of their job without the studios having to share a bit of their massive profits.
Because their profits are fucking huge. According to Fortune magazine, David Zaslav, the CEO of Warner Bros. Discovery, was recently paid $246.7 million annually (I can’t tell if it’s for 2021 or 2022). I know we throw around numbers in the millions a lot, so let’s break that down. The WGA is asking for a 2-3% share of studios’ profits – that’s it. Let’s be generous to the studios and say 3%. So, 3% of Zaslav’s salary alone is $7.4 million.
7.4 million. Without that, he’d still have $239.3 million. And that’s just for one year!
Maybe you’ve heard that Netflix is struggling, that companies are beholden to shareholders, etc etc. Consider this quote from the New York Times:
These companies remain highly profitable. But they have not been delivering the kind of steady profit growth that Wall Street rewards.
This is the problem. In our current version of billionaire, late-stage capitalism, profitability is not enough. Wall Street and tech bros demand continuous growth. As I heard someone say recently, the only thing that grows continuously is cancer. This approach has killed a lot of industries in recent years, at least for the people who actually do the work.
But now, it’s run into an industry with strong unions. The WGA has a long and storied history of going on strike and winning. This year, it looks like they may even be joined by other Hollywood unions. This fight is existential for the industry – not just for writers, but for every single person involved in making and telling the stories you love. Please consider supporting them.
One last thing: It’s strange to watch this from the UK. The US is literally fighting so their industry won’t become like the British one, where TV writers making industry standard would need to sell 3-4 shows (aka create and develop and write and pitch, all of which can take months) every year just to make a living wage. The UK doesn’t have a writers’ union with the power to call a strike. All the UK can do is hope that the WGA wins will trickle down over here someday.
In other news, while in Paris last weekend, I accompanied my friend Francesca on a longtime dream of hers: To sign copies of her gorgeous book, Six Days in Rome, at the inimitable Shakespeare & Company! It’s now out in paperback in the US, so get your copy if you’re daydreaming of a European city escape or just want to lose yourself in an evocative and transporting novel.
Now, on to the recs!
The Diplomat (TV)
Guys, I have been chomping at the bit to rec this one to you! It’s basically The West Wing meets The Good Wife. With maybe a dash of Homeland thrown in. Have I sold you yet?
In her first big TV role since The Americans (one of my favorite shows ever), Keri Russell (whom I will watch in anything) plays a career US diplomat who, in a crisis, suddenly gets parachuted into the UK as the new US ambassador (typically a plum post given to big donors, not professionals). She’s used to playing second fiddle to her big shot ambassador husband, played by Rufus Sewell (whom I will also watch in anything), and so is delightfully fish-out-of-water to find herself the center of all the ceremonial attention when all she wants to do is get important shit done. The two of them have mad chemistry – I can’t believe they’ve never worked together before, and now all I want is to watch them together in everything – and Sewell is delightful as the infuriating but brilliant guy who just can’t help himself. It’s also highly enjoyable to watch Keri Russell be so incredibly not a spy, after all those years playing one.
I have some issues with the takes on British politics and cultural conversations – this is definitely an American show, not a British one – but they clearly did their homework when it came to modeling Rory Kinnear’s prime minister on Boris Johnson in ways that I appreciated. The supporting cast is delightful, the dialogue is sharp and fun, and the whole thing is so fast-paced and engaging that you can’t look away. It can be a little cheesy at times, and I don’t buy all the relationships, but it’s just so fun that I don’t mind.
My only real regret is that this is on Netflix, rather than a network, and so there are only 8 episodes. This is the kind of fun, old-school political show that could really do a lot with a longer series order.
Ninth House & Hell Bent (books)
You’re getting two for the price of one over here, because I was going to rec Ninth House, and then I got off the waitlist from the library for the sequel, Hell Bent, and tore through that in time to rec both in one go!
Basic premise: the secret societies at Yale actually practice magic. I know, how did no one else think of that before? It’s super fun and absorbing, and manages to walk the line between “magic!” and “this is an institution run by rich white men who exploit and abuse people” in a way that didn’t make me want to gag. It’s quite dark, which I didn’t necessarily see coming, but maybe that’s because I’d only read the author’s YA books before this, and this is very much not YA. These are just as compelling and propulsive as any good YA fantasy I’ve read, though, and I think I read them each in a day or two.
Maybe I don’t read that much adult fantasy, but I was impressed by the emotional depth and realism of the characters. There are a few moments where the characters are a little too obtuse (a hangover from YA, no doubt) and there are a lot of twists (most of which land, and bonus points that I didn’t see them all coming), but overall it’s so much fun that I was all in for the ride.
Where: Reserve it at your library or order from your non-Amazon bookseller of choice (like Bookshop US or Bookshop UK).
(In the name of full transparency, I’ve included affiliate links to Bookshop.org – if you’re going to order from them anyway, please use my link so I can make a little extra cash! If you want to see/order any/all of my book recs, I’ve made lists on Bookshop, too: US version, UK version.)
Did you know that there was a right-wing plot to overthrow the US government in favor of Nazism in the lead-up to and during World War II?
To be fair, I did know that, but I actually didn’t know about this one. (Yes, there were multiple.) Rachel Maddow (of MSNBC and my mother’s television) hosts this fascinating, compelling, and disturbing podcast that plays like a really good spy story. The fact that it’s all true and very thoroughly researched… Well, it’s disturbing and also kind of expected, because we (Americans? humans?) prefer to tell a version of history that makes us look good, right?
The most impressive part of this pod, apart from the research, is that it’s a far cry from being all doom and gloom. It’s a good story, and Maddow tells it in a way that’s surprisingly fun. I tore through it and wanted more. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they are gonna turn it into a TV series. I’ll be watching if I can’t convince them to hire me.
Where: Wherever you listen to podcasts
That’s all for issue 4! What are you reading/watching/listening to that I should be aware of? Drop me a line (or comment) to let me know if you check out any of my recs and what you think. Please spread the word and I’ll see you in a couple weeks!
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