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A 40-minute special dropped by Netflix on Sunday checks in with some of the tangential players of the runaway hit, with only minor revelations

Calling all you cool cats and kittens Tiger King is back. Well, kind of. After the outlandish series took the world of memes and quarantine streaming by storm since its premiere in March, Netflix dropped a previously unplanned addendum on Sunday. The Tiger King and I, a special of short, softball interviews hosted by the comedian Joel McHale from his house in Los Angeles, featured interviews with eight people adjacent to Joe Exotic: Erik Cowie, Jeff and Lauren Lowe, John Reinke, Kelci Saff Saffery, Joshua Dial, John Finlay and Rick Kirkham.

McHale, a breezy interviewer in AirPods, mostly avoided the shows more controversial topics; if youre looking for further investigation into Joes crimes, the death of Carole Baskins ex-husband or the mistreatment of big cats in the US, this is not the place. But if 40 minutes of popcorn-style interviews (how many leather jackets does Jeff Lowe own? How are Finlays new teeth?) then Netflix has you covered. The Tiger King and I lacked the type of bombshells that characterized the series (as well as its directors, Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin) but did provide some small updates on life after Tiger King memedom. What, if anything, did we learn? (For those who havent seen, Tiger King spoilers ahead.)

Disputed portrayals

Photograph: Netflix

Several participants have aired grievances with their portrayals in the series, most notably the big cat owner Bhagavan Doc Antle and Joes arch-nemesis Baskin, both of whom did not participate in the special. Baskin in particular took issue with the charge lobbied by several in the series (and fans online) that she killed her ex-husband, Don Lewis, in Florida. (Police have never charged her with the crime, though a sheriff in Florida has reopened the investigation; to date, tips have been fans with theories.)

On Sundays special, Lowe, the business partner who implicated Joe in his murder-for-hire conviction and took over his zoo, disputed his characterization. I think they tried to sensationalize the story a bit to give it a villain, he said. McHale was a light interviewer, treating Lowe more as a charming character rather than someone with a shady criminal history; he glossed over Lowes charges in Las Vegas (federal mail fraud and an illegal exotic animal business) but did ask about the couples nanny and Lowes wardrobe of leather jackets and Affliction T-shirts.

Dial, Joe Exotics campaign manager for his presidential and Oklahoma gubernatorial runs, disputed Lowes claim of unfairness: Truth hurts, he said, calling the series fair and balanced.

Saffery, a trans man who goes by Saff, said he wasnt too concerned about criticism of the show for misgendering him. I dont think it bothered me as much as it bothered everybody else, he said. I didnt really pay it any mind.

Joes ex-husband Finlay, who appeared mostly shirtless and with several missing teeth in the series (the result of meth use, which he discussed openly), told McHale he was not happy with his portrayal as a drugged-out hillbilly, since that was not me then. At that time, I was four to five years clean.

The toll of Joe Exotic

Photograph: USA TODAY Network/SIPA USA/PA Images

Of course, most of the conversations revolved around Joe Exotic, the center of the series who has become a controversial hero to some viewers. High-profile fans such as Cardi B have suggested he was set up, and a question of pardoning Joe, legal name Joseph Maldonado-Passage, for his 22-year sentence in a murder-for-hire scheme against Baskin, has made it all the way to Donald Trump. McHale asked most of his guests if they were more loyal to Joe or the animals; Joe didnt get any takers. I think that justice was served, but I still dont want to see that man die in prison, said Saffery (though he said he would trust the tiger who bit his arm off over Joe).

Several also spoke to the lingering damage from their time in the Joe Exotic universe. Dial revealed that hes raising money for therapy to deal with the trauma of witnessing Joes husband Travis Maldonado accidentally shoot himself, point-blank, in 2017 Dials expression the moment he realizes Maldonados prank has gone horribly wrong, captured on security footage, is one of the seriess darkest and most tragic moments. Kirkham, who produced Joe Exotic TV for several years, said the attention from the series has caught up with him in Norway, where he now lives, but so have the nightmares. Despite the newfound fame from the hit series, I regret ever meeting Joe Exotic, he said.

Information holes ahead

Photograph: Netflix

The absence of the two major players in the series besides Joe, Baskin and Antle, went unmentioned by McHale; perhaps its because both have roundly criticized the series. Antle dismissed Tiger King as sensationalized entertainment with paid participants in a series of Instagram and Facebook posts, while Baskin posted a 3,000-word defense against the claim she fed her ex-husband to tigers. Neither of these disputes were mentioned. Instead, McHale simply asked the Lowes whether they thought Baskin killed her ex-husband, as Joe and many in his orbit long claimed. Unsurprisingly, they said yes.

Also missing from the special were James Garretson, Lowes former partner last seen riding into the sunset on a jetski, and Allen Glover, the alleged hitman hired by Joe to kill Baskin. Joe recently filed a malicious prosecution suit against both men, as well as Lowe and several others, in which he claims Lowe lied to authorities and planted evidence against him. This also went unmentioned.

Fantasy casting

Photograph: Netflix US/AFP via Getty Images

McHale jumped in to one of social medias favorite games since the series aired: who should play these outrageous real-life figures in the Hollywood adaptation? A scripted miniseries is already in the works with Saturday Night Lives Kate McKinnon slated to play Baskin, but other roles remain uncast. In Facebook posts somehow written while in prison, Joe has suggested Brad Pitt should play him. Asked by McHale to cast himself, Reinke picked Matthew McConaughey, Kirkham offered Billy Bob Thornton and Saffery offered Brandon Baker of Johnny Tsunami fame.

Big cats, little attention to cruelty

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Horniness, confusion and grief combine to give a suburban teenager Carrie-like powers in Netflixs explosive teen drama

If there is one undeniable fact that young adult movies and TV shows have taught us, it is that teenage feelings are extremely powerful. From Carrie massacring a whole prom with telekinesis to Sabrina Spellmans Big Witch Energy, we must both respect teen emotions and fear them at the same time. That is why middle-aged men mock fans of One Direction and BTS: theyre scared that, if not cowed by embarrassment, the energy could cause some kind of world-ending weather event. Which is why, when Sydney in I Am Not Okay With This (Netflix, from Wednesday 26 February) destroys a whole forest with her mind because shes really, really horny, it sort of feels realistic?

Lets recap. The show follows 16-year-old Syd (Sophia Lillis), who has moved to a boring Pennsylvania town with her mum Maggie and little brother Liam. Im not special and Im OK with that, she writes in the diary she has been told to keep by the school counsellor, in the wake of her dad killing himself in their basement. Yes, the basement of the house the family still lives in. And, like the old Native American burial ground trope, the basement channels Syds teenage rage into Carrie-like powers that levitate objects when she is upset and kill her brothers pet hedgehog.(RIP, Banana Bigglesworth.)

I Am Not Okay With This is from the producers of Stranger Things and directed by The End of the F***ing Worlds Jonathan Entwhistle, and anyone who has seen those shows, or Netflixs other huge teen hits The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina or Riverdale, will recognise some familiar themes. A protagonist who feels like an outsider, powered by the boiling-hot rage of lifes unfairness (or, in Syds case, being asked to walk to the supermarket exactly once by her mum). A manic pixie dream boy; here, Syds neighbour Stan (Wyatt Oleff), who is every teenage girls ultimate fantasy a non-threatening weed dealer who drives a vintage car. Extremely stylish teenagers with impossibly good hair. A beautifully shot US town (Brownstone, where Syd moves, is a wash of 70s-style ochres). And a setting in that weird Netflix realm that could be any time in the last half-century (the characters go to 50s-stylediners, listen to 80s music, own 90s VHS tapes and have mobile phones).

At first, compared to its rival shows, I Am Not Okay With This feels a bit low stakes. Syd is not on the run for murder or fighting monsters created by shady corporations she has discovered that if she gets annoyed at someone, they might have a minor nosebleed. It doesnt have The End of the F***ing Worlds humour, or Stranger Thingss heart. But it soon becomes clear that Syds new supernatural powers might be fuelled not by grief but by the raging horn for her best friend, Dina. And thats where Syds EBTM (Extremely Big Teen Emotions) could actually save the show.

Instead of admitting she is gay, Syd goes into denial. Because shoving teenage feelings down under the bubbling lava of anger, horniness, confusion and grief wont result in them exploding out at the very worst moment like, say, the homecoming dance Syd agrees to go to with Stan, will it? Bring on the pigs blood and slam the fire exits shut: things are about to get interesting.

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Theres always some standard of beauty that youre not meeting, she tells Miss Americana director Lana Wilson

Taylor Swift has disclosed her experiences with an eating disorder in a new documentary. In Taylor Swift: Miss Americana, which received its premiere at the Sundance film festival last night, Swift says that she would starve herself to the extent that she felt as if she might pass out during live performances.

The 30-year-old star said she would make a list of everything she ate, exercised constantly and shrank to a UK size two; she is now a size 10. I would have defended it to anybody who said Im concerned about you, she tells the films director, Lana Wilson.

I dont think you know youre doing that when youre doing it gradually. Theres always some standard of beauty that youre not meeting. Because if youre thin enough, then you dont have that ass that everybody wants, but if you have enough weight on you to have an ass, then your stomach isnt flat enough. Its all just fucking impossible.

Swift says in the film that she now fights the urge to be critical about her body because its better to think you look fat than to look sick and avoids looking at images of herself. I tend to get triggered by something, whether its a picture of me where I feel like my tummy looked too big, or someone said that I looked pregnant or something. And that will trigger me to just starve a little bit, just stop eating.

Swift expanded on her comments in an interview with Variety magazine: My relationship with food was exactly the same psychology that I applied to everything else in my life. If I was given a pat on the head, I registered that as good. If I was given a punishment, I registered that as bad.

She recalled receiving praise for fitting into sample sizes on photo shoots. And I looked at that as a pat on the head. You register that enough times, and you just start to accommodate everything towards praise and punishment, including your own body.

Swift told the magazine she had come to realise that if you eat food, you have energy, get stronger, you can do all these shows and not feel [enervated], and cited the body image activist and actor Jameela Jamil as an influence on her recovery. I swear the way she speaks is like lyrics, and it gets stuck in my head and it calms me down.

The trailer for Miss Americana video

It is the first time that Swift has talked candidly about her experiences with an eating disorder. In an essay for Elle magazine on the 30 things she learned before turning 30, published in March 2019, she said she had learned to stop hating every ounce of fat on my body.

She wrote: I worked hard to retrain my brain that a little extra weight means curves, shinier hair and more energy. I think a lot of us push the boundaries of dieting, but taking it too far can be really dangerous. There is no quick fix. I work on accepting my body every day.

Also in the documentary, Swift admits that she regrets not speaking out against Donald Trump during the 2016 election, and goes against her father Scott Swifts wishes by publishing a statement decrying the Republican Senate candidate Marsha Blackburn during the 2018 midterm elections.

Visibly upset, Swift says: I cant see another commercial [with] her disguising these policies behind the words Tennessee Christian values. I live in Tennessee. I am Christian. Thats not what we stand for.

Her father responds: Ive read the entire [statement] and right now, Im terrified. Im the guy that went out and bought armoured cars. When her publicist, Tree Paine, warns Swift that Trump might come after her, she responds: Fuck that, I dont care.

The documentary details Swifts disentanglement from her lifelong wish to be seen as a good girl. She says: Ive been trained to be happy when you get a lot of praise Like, those pats on the head were all that I lived for. I was so fulfilled by approval that that was it. I became the person everyone wanted me to be.

She also discusses the impact of her mother Andrea Swifts cancer diagnosis on her values: Do you really care if the internet doesnt like you today if your mom is sick from chemo? Swift recently told Variety that her mother had been diagnosed with a brain tumour, which informed her decision to tour her 2019 album, Lover, at limited 2020 festival dates rather than embarking on a full stadium tour. I wanted to be able to work as much as I can handle right now, with everything thats going on at home.

Wilson described her film as a feminist coming-of-age story that I personally connected with, and that I really think women and girls around the world will see themselves in.

Taylor Swift: Miss Americana is streaming on Netflix from 31 January.

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As an ’80s kid, I’m often nostalgic about that era. I sometimes hear myself speaking and I sound like my grandparents when they bragged about how things were better “before”.

To be honest, I do think things were better before. Ha! The eighties were an amazing time to live in and anyone who disagrees simply wasn’t around yet.

But let’s be honest, some things are just so much easier now, right? I created this comic series called “Strange things from the past” because some things are better now and some things were better then.

I had a blast making it. It was a little travel back in time and I hope you’ll travel too!

If you want to see more of my comics, check out my previous posts here and here


11 hours ago

LMAO, my sister and I did that and you can hear my father in background shouting to turn down the music

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12 hours ago

The best thing in the early 80s was a walkman and you really could walk and run while listening to it. The discman came much later, in the middle of the 80s.

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10 hours ago

With or without a cell phone, I would never wait an hour for someone to turn up.

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13 hours ago

The sound of the dial up modem being so loud you feel like it will wake up the dead when you start it at night. Not even muffling it with stuffed toys helped much.😂

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11 hours ago

“photo album today” -> do they even exist?

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13 hours ago

My grandfather owned the local video store. He would hold it for us.

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11 hours ago

Ah yessss. sitting on my bedroom floor, reading the lyrics booklet (if they had one) or at least going over and over the album art while the new CD played.

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12 hours ago

Yeah, we’re lazier with numbers today. I only memorize the ones from my closest family members. And if any of them changes a number, that’s it 😂 I let my phone remember the new one.


13 hours ago

An encyclopedia that was out of date a year later on anything but history.


13 hours ago

Do not miss smoking in restaurants or other public areas at all

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11 hours ago

Perfect resembling of styles!


13 hours ago

We were able to read a map. Main difference!

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13 hours ago

My father recorded a sports match over the christening of our first child….

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8 hours ago

She looks cute in her ’80’s clothes. She just needs black lace Madonna gloves.


12 hours ago

We did have videorecorders back then…

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13 hours ago

Was more… Mummy/Daddy, is it true that…?

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11 hours ago

i made a few mix tapes. None of them worked, I was very single.


13 hours ago

They’re still like that. Just use 274 extra products today.

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13 hours ago

Yes, you had to sing to the guy in the CD store

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7 hours ago

they have less power then.

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12 hours ago

Still waiting for the boyfriend from earlier?

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The singer emerges as charming and undeniably talented in this Netflix documentary but its too slick for genuine insight

Its safe to say that by the end of Miss Americana, a quickie documentary on the recent trials and tribulations of Taylor Swift opening this years Sundance film festival, few positions will have truly shifted. Those who already idolised the award-winning musician will continue to do so, as will the non-fans who might still begrudgingly admire her undeniable talent. And those who have questioned her knack for playing the victim as well as her lack of self-awareness will also find their minds similarly unchanged. Here is a character study authored by the character whos being studied, a carefully controlled continuation of a story we have been following now for years. Its brand management dressed up as insight and while its not not entertaining, its certainly far from particularly revealing, playing more like a PR exercise than a festival-worthy feature.

At the start of the film, as Swift sifts through old journals, she explains that she always needed to be thought of as good, and its a desire that permeates the film with every possible punch being pulled by director Lana Wilson, whose films have previously focused on hard-hitting topics such as suicide and late-term abortion. Its not that Swift is in need of a dressing down far from it but there are glaring questions left unanswered, avenues left unexplored and a wider perspective sorely missing from her retelling of events.

Wilson has unprecedented access to Swift, the kind of intimacy journalists have been craving for years from an artist who has kept herself understandably at arms length at specific times of her life. The film follows her throughout her two most recent albums, both spurred by very different motivations, and in what feels like a scattered and confusing timeline we hop back and forth to earlier glimpses of the career that got her to where she now stands, as one of the most famous women in the world. But while Wilson is the credited director, its Swift whos in charge, a masterly musical storyteller transporting that gift to the screen, recounting her life and revealing her personality on her terms. Its a celebrity profile thats been sent to the celebrity for approval first.

What the film does show, in some of its most charming moments, is Swifts astonishing talent for music, exemplified in a handful of magnetic studio interludes as we see her create some of her most recent hits. Its a pleasure to watch her in these scenes, cannily crafting lyrics alongside Jack Antonoff and Max Martin, excitedly working with a tangible enthusiasm. Its where she truly shines in the film, as events outside the studio often lack depth and objectivity, something that would elevate as well as ground the stars image. Were shown that Swifts lowest point was being interrupted on stage at the VMAs by Kanye West (It was a catalyst for a lot, she says), and while his behaviour remains unacceptable, theres no realisation from her about the reasons that led him there, the ongoing lack of diversity shown by awards bodies and the effect this has had on artists of colour. When Swift talks about the pressure she has always felt as a woman who needed to be seen as nice and compliant, an explanation for her late-stage embrace of politics, were never given insight into how she was raised and how her parents played a part in the often regressive view of femininity she has learned to push back against. When Swift briefly mentions her mothers cancer or her fathers fears for her safety, we never get to hear from either of them, or much from Swift herself.

Whenever the documentary threatens to lead us to a place thats challenging or dark or knotty, such as Swifts discussion of a previously unrevealed eating disorder, Wilson pulls back. Swift is never challenged by Wilson or by anyone around her. Its almost exclusively a string of scenes where people agree with her, no matter the subject.

Photograph: Netflix

The last act pushes Swift as an activist of some stature and while well-intentioned, the congratulatory nature of the films view is again lacking in context. Like most of the film it feels like self-mythologising, and while Swift emerges as charming, funny, talented and smart, theres a grit missing that would have humanised her further. After the premiere Swift spoke about the hours of interview footage the pair recorded and one wonders what was left on the cutting-room floor because this is too slickly selective to feel like a genuine portrait of a woman with fascinating stories to tell.

Its hard to critique Miss Americana as a real film and as one that would even be showing at Sundance in the first place, a festival aimed at shining a light on diverse and challenging voices. Its hard to see it as an independent piece of work from a documentarian and not a talent-approved Netflix featurette. Fans will surely embrace it, and Swifts brand of feminism and liberalism will definitely be of value to a younger audience, but she remains an enigmatic construct. Like so many documentaries and biopics that have been either produced or authorised by the star at the centre, were being shown exactly what they want us to see and theres something uneasy about what that represents. Swift will remain a deservedly successful singer with a rare talent but we may never get to know her as anything more than that.

  • Miss Americana is showing at the Sundance film festival and will be available on Netflix from 31 January

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“Rhythm + Flow” is Netflix’s take on a reality TV staple — the music competition show. With Cardi B, Chance the Rapper and Tip “T.I.” Harris on-board as judges, the series searches for the next big hip-hop star.

In some ways, “Rhythm + Flow” sticks to the formula popularized by “American Idol,” “The Voice” and similar shows, with several episodes devoted to auditions in Los Angeles, New York, Atlanta and Chicago, followed by a gauntlet of challenges in which contestants hone their skills and prove their worth, culminating in a final showdown with one big winner.

But as fellow TechCrunch writer Megan Rose Dickey helps us explain on the latest episode of the Original Content podcast, the series stands out in a few key ways. For one thing, it’s the first music competition to focus on hip hop. And rather than asking the audience to watch live/week-to-week, the show is now fully binge-able (it was initially released in batches of episodes over a two-week period).

We appreciated the fact that “Rhythm + Flow” didn’t linger on the spectacularly bad performers (and there were some) — it reserved most of its screen time for the genuine talents.

We also enjoyed the judges, who seemed to be enjoying themselves while also offering thoughtful commentary. Cardi B, in particular, was always entertaining, whether she was being enthusiastic, supportive or dismissive.

You can listen in the player below, subscribe using Apple Podcasts or find us in your podcast player of choice. If you like the show, please let us know by leaving a review on Apple. You can also send us feedback directly. (Or suggest shows and movies for us to review!)

A quick warning: While we felt that you can’t really “spoil” a reality show that’s been out for a month, we do reveal who won.

And if you’d like to skip ahead, here’s how the episode breaks down:
0:00 Intro
1:30 Disney+ follow-up
8:28 “Rhythm + Flow” review

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As the cult shows wild-eyed crystal meth dealer, Aaron Paul became one of TVs most unexpected anti-heroes. But then, as Rhik Samadder discovers, the actor is full of surprises

The skinhead with crazy eyes opens a concealed hatch in the floor to reveal a chilling sight: stark concrete steps leading to an empty basement, bare walled, dimly lit. The kind you see on the news. Its not that I expected Aaron Paul to live in a trailer, cooking meth in his underpants, but this is a surprise. To clarify, the rest of his Hollywood house is beautiful, befitting the star of one of the most successful TV shows of all time. Breaking Bad broke viewing records and was acclaimed as the high watermark in a golden age of long-form television. Bryan Cranstons performance as chemistry-teacher-turned-drug-kingpin Walter White is often described as Shakespearian, yet it was the slow-burn arc of his slacker protg, Jesse Pinkman, that was arguably more cathartic. How does any actor move on after being in a masterpiece? We talk about it all the time, he admits. The way he describes the finale sounds almost painful. It was next to perfect. Brian and I read it together at his place in New Mexico. When he read the screen direction end of series we just sat in silence for 30 seconds.

I meet Paul earlier at a long table in his expansive garden, amid the sound of rushing water. He smiles broadly, the sun beaming just for him. Its kind of strange to see him happy, in patterned shirt and shorts. I know how lucky I am. Im on top of the world. The breeziness contrasts sharply with his onscreen presence. There, he has a mania in his blue eyes and flushing skin, threat in the ravaged growl of his voice, but also beautiful vulnerability. We see the puppy inside the feral dog. No matter how intense the situation, you believe him as an actor.

Its frustrating that since that finale, he hasnt taken on a leading role of weight. There was Exodus, an underwhelming Ridley Scott biblical epic, and Need for Speed, an overtly foolish video game tie-in about street racers. He does produce the excellent cartoon BoJack Horseman and his upcoming role in Westworld should be a better fit. But judging by social media, Paul seems to be most passionate about Dos Hombres, his mezcal collaboration with Bryan Cranston. Fans were delighted then, by the announcement of El Camino, a standalone movie sequel to Breaking Bad, which streams on Netflix from 11 October. What might surprise them is that its Jesses film alone. Yet Paul is confident theres enough story to tell. I lived and breathed every moment of his life that we saw, and then some. This is the role of a lifetime.

It must be a strange thing for a man in early middle age to be so closely identified with a baggy-panted drug dealer he first played in his mid-20s. I thought we finished that story six years ago, he acknowledges. And now I zipped on the skin again. But hed follow writer-director Vince Gilligan into a fire, and public appetite was overwhelming. People were just so passionate, and wanted answers. Asking when the next series of Breaking Bad was gonna be you can put that dream away wanting to know what happens to Jesse. And what happened to Jesse. Theres a clear sense he owes the character a life debt, for the adulation he receives, and the luxury surrounding us. A lot of people will always see me as Jesse, and I take that as a compliment. The show was a game changer.

A lot of people will always see me as Jesse: with Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad

Unlike Jesse, the young Aaron Paul Sturtevant was always laser-focused on career. The youngest child of a Southern Baptist minister, he grew up taking part in church plays. The family didnt have money, so from the age of 11 he started saving in a glass jar beside his bed for a move to Hollywood. Uninterested in girlfriends or anything else, he graduated a year early, moving to Los Angeles at 17, where his cute, boy-doll face started landing him commercials around 50 national spots, even for rival companies. I know I did Vanilla Coke; there might have been a Pepsi.

He was making plenty of money, but it wasnt what he wanted. By his early 20s theyd dried up, though he was landing guest spots on major shows: ER, The X-Files, NYPD Blue and a recurring character in Big Love for HBO. Still, the reality of being an actor is rarely secure. Theyd squeeze all my scenes into a day, so I was making about $600 an episode. He describes the age of 27 as the low point of his career: hed done six failed pilots that year and couldnt pay his bills. Thats when the audition for Breaking Bad came through. His character wasnt supposed to survive the first season, but as Vince Gilligan observed the growing chemistry between Paul and Cranston, he adjusted his plan. Ratings for the show were initially modest, but the reviews were exceptional. When the first three series landed on Netflix, my life changed.

Word of mouth and critical acclaim saw the show become a phenomenon, picking up fans by the legion. They still hold screener parties, crank out plot theories on message boards, make DIY art, display chest tattoos of Walter and Jesse cooking meth. The pair became endlessly memed, pop-cultural heroes. (Just a few days ago, a colleague of mine who has seen the series three times mentioned he owned Lego-style figures of them in their meth-cooking suits, and asked if I would bring them with me to be signed. I didnt.)

It was crazy to be at the centre of it all, Paul says. Exposing as an artist, too. At the beginning of my career I was not great. Even at the beginning of Breaking Bad I was OK, I got the job. But I grew so much as an actor. Everyone saw it. He credits working alongside Cranston, describing him as a mentor. Their story is narratively satisfying: as Walter shades bitterly into the villain, his underachieving former student grows into a hero. But the story resonates at a deeper level than that. The actor looked so young in those early episodes. Its powerful, watching the deadbeat come good, because someone believed in him once: the parable of the prodigal son.

Becoming a father is a front-row seat to the greatest show on earth: with his wife Lauren Parsekian, with whom he has a young daughter. Photograph: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

Or maybe people just think the show is a blast. Paul remembers being at a concert with an old friend he hadnt seen in a while, and who was in the middle of a crisis. Hed found out his fiance was cheating on him and just told me theyd called off the wedding. Im hugging him, hes crying. This drunk girl comes up and screams YO, BITCH! Lemme take a picture with you, bitch! [A reference to Jesses politically incorrect if undeniably funny catchphrase.] Paul tried to let her know it wasnt a good time, while protecting his friends privacy. Shes like: Youre not gonna take a picture? Youre such an asshole, who do you think you are? Fuck you! Hes aware that somewhere, shell be passing around the story from her point of view about Aaron Paul, the arrogant jerk.

Does the obsessive attention people pay the show ever get too much? At least they like it, he shrugs. Its tough to penetrate the charming interview technique of a star who doesnt want to alienate his fan base. But theres a stranger aspect to it, in which Paul presents himself as just a regular guy with no issues. I find it impossible to believe. Hes too good at inhabiting anguish, at being tortured. It has to come from somewhere deep. I noticed a lot of clown stuff around when I came in: Pierrot figurines, a coffee-table history of the circus. Whats that about? I love Cirque du Soleil, he says. Hmm. How about the strange portraiture on the walls, unsettling works by artists Mark Ryden and Lola Gil? Paul doesnt understand why people find them creepy. Its just a baby riding a lamb.

I probe a little deeper trying to find out whats in his basement, so to speak. What was it like being raised in a devoutly religious house? Very intense. My father had me quote scripture. I still have multiple scriptures in my head. Whats his favourite? I dont have a favourite, he says quickly. Hes not religious and doesnt want to tell anyone how to think. I wonder what his parents make of their son being an icon for meth-heads. Theyre fans of Breaking Bad, he assures me, although there are projects of his they dont like. Need for Speed? If Paul is offended, he doesnt let it show. No, they love Need for Speed. They thought it was a fun movie.

So where on earth does that intensity and access to emotion come from? Youve just got to act, Paul tells me. Force yourself to believe a situation is real. He looks amused and apologetic, as if hes sorry he couldnt help with my enquiries. Some actors think about dead puppies. I do not.

Meet and greet: signing autographs as he arrives at the 20th annual Screen Actors Guild Awards in Los Angeles. Photograph: Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

I wonder why Im so attached to the idea of the tortured artist, working out their demons though their work. I suppose were hungry for the story beneath the story. Its possible he really is this happy. Who wouldnt be? Paul has just returned from a 10-day party for his 40th birthday, celebrated at a private resort in the Dominican Republic with close friends including Bryan Cranston and Michelle Monaghan. He has won multiple Emmys and is financially set for life. But the source of his bliss is far smaller.

Her name is Story, his daughter with wife Lauren Parsekian. The 19-month-old has been perched on his lap, but he disappears for a few minutes to put her down. Hed never wanted children, he admits when he returns, although his partner did. He was in his late 30s, scared of giving up his freedom. Thank God I changed my mind, man. My life began when she was born. His blue eyes are lit up. Fittingly, it was acting that brought about the conversion playing a dad of two in The Path, the cancelled Hulu show about a spiritual leader experiencing a crisis of faith.

Working with young actors who would throw their arms around him, entering the mindset of being a caretaker, made Paul realise he was open to the idea of being a father. He kept the revelation a secret from his wife for six months. When he finally told her, she made him repeat the words. Shed married on the understanding a family was not on the table, had chosen a life with him, rather than kids with someone else. After having a child, I realise what a sacrifice that was. I hadnt understood, he says.

Hes talking with an energy and sincerity I naively thought wed share discussing a TV show. Through babies eyes, you see a sense of wonder in the world that youve grown used to. Hearing their heartbeat for the first time, watching the delivery, feeding them in the middle of the night, everything is so powerful. A front-row seat to the greatest show on earth.

One thats even better than Breaking Bad? This is what life is about, he confirms, before the inevitable disclaimer. Kids arent for everybody. Id had other questions about the film and acting, but they feel pedestrian now. Is this the end of Jesses story? (Probably.) Is there any work hes not interested in? (Slapstick comedy, though he has nothing against it.) Who is his favourite actor? (Brad Pitt a character actor in leading-man disguise.)How much of Jesses swearing was down to him? (100% of those bitches were scripted. Not once did I improv a bitch.)

People want to know what happens to Jesse: in El Camino. Photograph: Ben Rothstein/Netflix

I think weve finally broken through. Paul asks if I want to take a walk. The garden is an entire hillside with stepped terrace beds of enormous tropical plants and waterfalls. We admire a pond of koi carp, one of which is called Thom Yorke. Huge butterflies flap lazily around us; dragonflies flash like jewels in the sun. We have a place on the river in Idaho, too dragonflies land on you there, he muses. Its beautiful, I sigh. Yeah always two of them, having sex. Using you like an anchor, he finishes.

Hes landscaping the curving garden to its natural advantage, creating a lush green amphitheatre for his favourite bands to play. This is something the music-loving couple has always done, hosting intimate sets by stadium acts and tiny indie bands alike for family and friends. (He shows me his phone his wife is saved as Lauren Coachella, because of where they met.) Parsekian is president of Kind, an anti-bullying non-profit. Its been a privilege seeing her turn into a mother, he says. And I wear being a father well. Its not all about work, now, he explains.

We return to the house, a classic Hollywood villa with cool stone walls and decorated wooden ceilings. Its the oldest in the immediate area. Having moved in five months ago, they plan to stay here forever. Its not hard to see why. He takes me into a side room that contains his treasured possessions: on the shelves I spy his gleaming Emmy awards, and the burned-up pink bear that falls from the sky in Breaking Bads second season. But theyre not what he wants me to see. He really does love drinking, he tells me as he opens a door to the side. Behind it is another full-sized safe-door, which he unlocks. Inside, a cupboard is lined with ancient, burlap-wrapped bottles of booze. Its pretty cool, but theres more. The house was built during Prohibition, he explains. Reaching down, he flips a tiny, disguised latch built into a corner. The floor opens and reveals the bare concrete steps leading down to a secret room. Its a speakeasy. I start laughing, too, from the surprise. Paul intends to design the bar himself and have parties here. Its easily the coolest thing Ive ever seen.

So, is he just going to bunker down with his family, and drink? No, there will be acting. But hes learned to be picky, only taking on work that challenges him. He prides himself on wearing different skins, has always seen himself as a character actor.

There are roles I jumped on to after Breaking Bad, just to try to move the needle in one direction or another. I get sent a lot of leading-man stuff and it doesnt excite me. My heart is in gritty, independent filmmaking. He wants to be dragged through the mud, he says. Youll see a lot more of that in my career from now on. He tells me hes been toying with the idea of physical transformation for his next role. Ive got a year-and-a half hiatus between seasons of Westworld enough time to pack on a bunch of weight and lose it, if I wanted to. Hes still deciding if he has the courage for it. Hes enjoying the artistic freedom of success: the ability to move at ones own pace, the power to choose. Hes also learned theres more to life than acting.

I remain unconvinced there isnt a little darkness in him. As Im leaving, we pass the circus figurines and I ask him about them again. Im not scared of clowns, he says quickly. But the idea of a clown at a party he stares off for a few seconds, blue eyes narrowed in thought. I wonder whether hes reliving a memory. Or perhaps imagining how he would play a clown and what it might reveal. Hes somewhere else for a few seconds, before he returns to the room. I have nothing against clowns, he says. For once, Im not sure I believe him.

El Camino: a Breaking Bad Movie is on Netflix on 11 October

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A California man was charged with fraud after securing millions in funding and using most of the money on himself, prosecutors say

On paper, Legends looked like a box-office hit. Adam Joiner billed his movie as an anachronistic mash-up of legendary 19th-century American figures, a steampunk Avengers tailor-made to satiate the ever-expanding appetite for big-ticket, fantasy-action pictures.

With Endgame, the latest Avengers installment, grossing more than $1.2bn in its opening weekend, it isnt hard to understand how Joiner was able to secure a relatively measly $14m in investment for the project.

The only problem? Beyond its screenplay, Legendsdidnt exist and it never would.


Joiner, 41, was arrested on 27 August and was charged in a Los Angeles federal court with wire fraud, money laundering and aggravated identity theft. Prosecutors allege he orchestrated an elaborate scheme of fraud, convincing at least two foreign firms to invest millions in Legends. Through email and telephone communications, and a series of forged documents, federal prosecutors say, he claimed to have executed distribution agreements with companies like Netflix and Amblin Partners, Steven Spielbergs production outfit.

In reality, no such agreements were made, the prosecutors charge, and Joiner did very little with the ill-gotten funds to produce a film. He spent much of the money on himself, including on the purchase of a $5m home in Manhattan Beach, California, the FBI special agent Nathan Cherney wrote in an affidavit to the criminal complaint.

Sweeping epics in the style of Game of Thrones or the recently Disney-fied Star Wars universe have inspired an undeniable gold rush for premium content so much so that the genre has, in some ways, come to define the contemporary economics of the film industry.

The success of Marvel, the comic publisher turned studio juggernaut, has been particularly game-changing, building the concept of epic film universes.

Its success inspired a slew of other franchises to pursue film-verses, the media reporter Ashley Rodriguez wrote for Quartz in 2017. Lucasfilm, also owned by Disney, borrowed the model forStar Wars, which studio boss Kathleen Kennedy hopes to carry on for another decade. Hasbro is rolling out its Transformers and GI Joe franchises into a broader movie-verse, based on its popular childrens toys. Warner Bros and JK Rowling are creating a cinematic universe set in the Harry Potter authors magical world.


The story behind Legends begins in South Korea, according to the affidavit to the criminal complaint. Paul Huh, a director with Korean Investment Partners Co, Ltd (KIP), told the FBI he met Adam Joiner in late 2015 through John Yi, a Korean associate. Joiner hailed from Granite Bay, California, a small town of just over 20,000 in the Sacramento area. He described himself as the owner of a film production company called Dark Planet Pictures, LLC, the affidavit says, and claimed to be seeking investment to produce a screenplay written by his brother, Andrew.

Adam had registered Dark Planet with the California secretary of states office in 2014, and although the companys registration is currently inactive, he and his brother are listed as one-time officers. (Andrew Joiner has not been named in the case against Adam.)

Joiner came to the table with what he claimed was a pre-existing relationship with Netflix, Huh told the FBI. Things have begun to pick up steam with Netflix as a potential distributor of the film, Joiner wrote in a February 2016 email to Huh that is referenced in the affidavit. I have another meeting with them this week, he added.

On Netflix, I have another good meeting with them yesterday, and expect to receive a contract from them by the end of the week, Joiner allegedly wrote three days later.

Before KIP would agree to invest in Legends, Huh wanted to see a copy of the Netflix deal. He told investigators he received a fax bearing a Netflix-branded cover sheet two days later. It included a letter, dated 5 April 2016, purporting to confirm that an agreement between Netflix, Inc and Dark Planet Pictures, LLC, was executed March 31st 2016. The letter was allegedly signed by an individual titled Vice President, Business & Legal Affairs/Content Acquisition.

Avengers: Endgame grossed more than $1.2bn in its opening weekend. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy Stock Photo

That same day, according to the affidavit, Joiner forwarded an email that purported to come from said executive, and used an email address affixed to a Netflix domain. Attached was what the FBI alleges to be a fabricated distribution agreement between Netflix and Dark Planet. The agreement was reportedly signed by Joiner on behalf of Dark Planet, and by an individual titled Chief Content Officer on behalf of Netflix.

The affidavit says Joiner then forwarded an email from a third executive on 8 April, 2016, which read: Look forward to making this movie!

Huh was convinced. Through one of its subsidiary investment funds, KIP wired $4m (half of the agreed-upon $8m) into a Bank of America account in the name of Legends Film Co, LLC.

FBI interviews with the aforementioned executives (all identities were redacted in the affidavit) revealed the agreement and associated communiqus had been falsified. The executives said they werent familiar with Joiner, Dark Planet, or Legends; and two of the executives were no longer Netflix employees (one had only ever been a contractor to begin with). They denied the signatures on the agreement were theirs.

The following month, acting on behalf of Dark Planet, Joiner allegedly entered into another investment agreement, this time with two Chinese firms: Star Century Pictures Co, Ltd, and one of its affiliates, PGA Yungpark Capital, Ltd. That agreement referenced a supposed commitment by Netflix to acquire the distribution rights to Legends, which was cited in the contract as a material basis for [Star Centurys] decision to invest, according to the affidavit.

Attached to the agreement was the same fabricated distribution agreement that Joiner is alleged to have provided KIP, with the forged signature of one of the purported Netflix executives. On 3 June 2016, Yungpark wired $6m into the Legendsbank account.


With roughly $10m in hand, Joiners alleged machinations progressed.

On 29 June 2016, according to the affidavit, he wrote in an email to Paul Huh: [W]e are expecting to secure Don Murphy by this Friday to be our name Producer for the film. Murphy is perhaps most famous for producing the high-budget, CGI-heavy Transformers trilogy. In the email, Joiner claimed Murphy had proposed bringing in the director Michael Bay, who also directed the Transformers films, as well as other battle-scene-packed pictures such as Armageddon and Pearl Harbor.

In a later email to Huh and Star Century executive Ma Xue, Joiner allegedly wrote: We agreed to terms verbally yesterday with Guillermo del Toro and his agent. Del Toro is another director-darling of the fantasy and sci-fi genres, having directed two Hellboy films as well as the critically acclaimed Pans Labyrinth.

Guillermo del Toro. Photograph: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Murphy later told the FBI he had been retained by Joiner to produce Legends though the project had been pitched under an alternate title, Folkwar. Under the agreement, Murphy was to receive $1.2m in exchange for producing services. Half of that amount was paid to an escrow account linked to the project.

In hiring Murphy, Joiner may have been trying to make good on earlier alleged representations to KIP and the Chinese investors as part of the production agreement, Murphy was expected to secure a distributor for the film.

Though Murphy had taken steps toward the production of the film, such as contacting agents and film talent, no actor or director had committed to the film including Guillermo del Toro, the affidavit reads.

Joiner later notified Murphy that he would be closing the escrow account due to lack of interest in the project, the affidavit says, and transferred him $200,000 possibly some form of kill fee. Murphy told the FBI he emailed Joiner in the summer of 2017 to formally end their business relationship. Joiner never responded, and Murphy hasnt heard from him since.

Still, the web of lies seemed to expand. Joiner soon informed KIP executives that he was courting Amblin Partners to replace Netflix as the distributor for Legends. On 2 December 2016, John Yi, Huhs Korean associate, circulated a memorandum of understanding between Dark Planet and Amblin to KIP personnel. According to the affidavit, it provided that Amblin would take over distribution rights to Legends and was signed by Joiner and, purportedly, Michael Wright, formerly the CEO of Amblin.

Wright, currently president of the Epix cable network, later told the FBI he did not know Joiner, and was not familiar with Dark Planet or Legends. He denied having entered into any of the purported agreements and claimed the signature on the memo circulated to KIP staff was not his.

In March, Joiner emailed Paul Huh a statement for the Legendsbank account, investigators contend, indicating a balance of more than $11.7m. FBI analysis of the account revealed the statement to be a forgery, and that during the period reflected, it only held $32,628.93.

Later that month, Joiner allegedly told Huh that production was delayed due to internal politics with Amblin. He claimed that the actor Bradley Cooper had turned down a lead role, according to the affidavit, and as a result, a newly brought on co-producing studio, Universal, had refused payment to Amblin.

Perhaps catching on to the grift, or perhaps believing Joiner failed on a good-faith effort to produce an ambitiously high-value movie, executives at KIP requested their investment be returned. Joiner agreed, and allegedly promised to immediately reimburse them.

But the payment, the FBI says, never came through. On behalf of KIP, Yi contacted Don Murphy to inquire about the holdup. This allegedly caused Joiner to email Yi on 13 July 2017 with what appears to be a veiled legal threat: I understand you attempted to contact Don Murphy and his office. Please cease and desist any attempts at contacting Mr. Murphy, whether in person or by phone, or it shall be deemed harassment.

The FBI says accounting of the bank account allegedly maintained by Joiner for producing Legends revealed that, aside from the amounts wired from KIP and the Chinese investors, only two deposits were made: a $10,000 transfer from an account in the name of Allison Joiner, whom FBI officials believe to be Adam Joiners wife, and a $600,000 counter credit that appears to be a recalled check for the same amount.

Star Wars has fueled a gold rush for premium content. Photograph: Lucasfilm Ltd/2017 Lucasfilm Ltd

There were several withdrawals, according to the analysis: in June 2016, $165,500 went to an escrow account seemingly unrelated to production FBI investigators believe that was a security deposit for the purchase of a Manhattan Beach, California, property. A payment of $5,192,916.92 was made in August of that year allegedly the full payment for that property. Investigators speculate two transfers amounting a total of $4,360,000 to a bank account under the name of Stock Car Willie, LLC, were linked to a film project of the same name Joiner may have been developing. And between April of 2016 and June of 2017, a total of $1,345,000 was transferred to another account in the name of Adam and Allison Joiner, according to the analysis.


Joiners case is hardly the only Hollywood content con to have made headlines. As of publication, the so-called Con Queen of Tinseltown an evasive, thus-far unidentified figure who stands accused of stealing thousands of dollars from film-makers and producers by impersonating studio honchos like Amy Pascal of Sony remains at large.

Hollywood is more susceptible to impersonation-type frauds, says Sneana Gebauer, executive managing director and head of the US investigations and disputes practice at K2 Intelligence, a private firm currently investigating the Con Queen case. Identity theft is becoming more prevalent everywhere, but its easier to do on high-profile people, because theres so much information out there. [Producers] put their persona out there, theres a name recognition. Its easier to impersonate these people than someone who is high-net-worth but might be more private. They have a file of information to leverage.

Foreign investors can be especially vulnerable to these ploys, Gebauer says. Hollywood has been very successful at winning the world over with the film industry, she explains. Everybody loves American movies, everybody loves American music. If you are a newly minted Chinese millionaire or billionaire, of course youre going to want to put money in what appears to be a renowned Hollywood production. If you get lucky, Gebauer adds, you may get significant return on your investment. Or you get invited to all these parties, and get to mingle with the stars.

It is possible it was not necessarily clean money, Gebauer speculates on the funds in Joiners alleged accounts, noting that foreign intermediaries have sought to launder money through Hollywood productions before. Riza Aziz, a producer for The Wolf of Wall Street, is currently standing trial in a Malaysian high court for allegedly funneling funds stolen from the countrys sovereign wealth fund through the film project. Aziz is the stepson of Malaysias former prime minister Najib Razak, who is accused of orchestrating the embezzlement.

But there are elementary steps an investor can take to avoid becoming ensnared in plots like these, Gebauer says: You dont have to hire an investigative firm like ours to do the basic Googling. If youre going to give someone $4m to produce a movie, there better be something on the internet to establish his track record. You would want to meet others involved in the project, not just him.


On 18 September 2019, federal prosecutors entered a plea agreement with Joiner into the record under which he agreed to plea guilty to one count of felony wire fraud. Neither Netflix nor Don Murphy responded to requests for comment on this story. Adam Joiner, KIP and Star Century Pictures could not be reached for comment.

Joiners scam particularly resonated in the film community, perhaps because it had all the elements for what could have been an entirely legitimate, and perhaps successful, production. It could have even been a multi-installment universe. The screenplay was written adequately enough to persuade a bona fide action-flick impresario, Don Murphy, to sign on. And to be sure, $14m pales in comparison to the $356m it cost to produce Avengers: Endgame but its a significantly larger chunk of change than most independent film-makers have to play with.

Thats what really gets me, Andy Phillips, an independent screenwriter and film-maker based in Los Angeles, says. This guy had a viable script, and resources most indy film-makers would kill for. He wasted it all.

The writer is currently employed by a company with a prior business relationship with Amblin Partners.

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Marc Randolph launched the streaming service that would revolutionize TV and film, upend Hollywood and draw more than 150 million subscribers

It was a fluke that the Netflix co-founder Marc Randolph changed the history of television. It almost didnt happen.

In 1997, the Santa Cruz businessman was spending his carpool rides to work brainstorming internet startup ideas with a colleague. They discussed personalised surfboards, customised dog food, shampoo by mail. One commute, the chat turned to videotapes.

Randolphs three-year-old daughter had struggled to sleep the night before, leading them to watch a used copy of Aladdin. His car companion was intrigued, having recently received a $40 Blockbuster late fee for Apollo 13. Could they make it easier to rent movies?

Randolph soon after launched Netflix, an initially unsuccessful movie-rentals-by-mail service that went on to upend Hollywood and draw more than 150 million subscribers. In his new book, That Will Never Work, the 61-year-old offers a glimpse into the tumultuous early days of Netflix, which began as an obscure Silicon Valley startup, resisted pressure to sell to its online retail competitor Amazon, defeated Blockbuster and eventually evolved into cultural force that fundamentally changed the way we consume and create media.

Marc B Randolph co-founded Netflix, which launched in 1998 with about 800 titles. Photograph: Dan Tuffs/The Guardian

Seated at a noisy coffee shop in Los Angeles, Randolph says he never dreamed of disrupting the entertainment industry. He now thinks his various 1997 carpool ideas were all equally good and equally bad. At the time, Amazon was demonstrating that seemingly absurd ideas were possible: You could take a bookstore a bookstore! and make that work online.

Randolph had been involved in software companies and developed the wealth and connections he needed to pursue new ideas. A merger led him to Reed Hastings, the entrepreneur who became his co-founder and is now Netflixs CEO.

The two landed on movies after their carpool talks, but nearly abandoned the idea when they calculated VHS shipping costs. They soon, however, discovered DVDs, then a nascent technology. They secured investors, including $25,000 from Randolphs mother (My mom was delighted that I was finally doing a company that she actually understood), and Netflix launched in April 1998, with about 800 titles in its inventory and Randolph as CEO.

The name Netflix, which Randolph thought was somewhat porn-y, beat, CinemaCenter, NowShowing and others, which now sound like particular relics of the 90s.

Randolph recently found notes from a speech he gave when the company started, saying, In three years, we want to be one of the top ten video chains. How lame is that? I wanted to be as big as a single Blockbuster store.

In 1998, Jeff Bezos attempted to acquire Netflix as a way to jumpstart Amazons entry into video. Even though Netflix was making a majority of its revenue from DVD sales, not rentals, Randolph and Hastings decided not to sell to Amazon or try to compete with it, and instead focus solely on rentals. It was a strategy that paid off. Eventually.

Netflix grew its subscriber base by offering free trials and other deals that made the convenient rental service extremely popular, but meant it was also haemorrhaging money.

Blockbuster finally agreed to talk to Netflix, calling an unexpected meeting the morning after an alcohol-fuelled Netflix retreat. Randolph says he was wearing shorts, a tie-dyed T-shirt and flip-flops when he and his colleagues sat down with Blockbuster in Dallas and proposed the video chain accelerate its entry into DVDs, by purchasing Netflix for $50m.

Marc Randolph is a fan of Narcos, one of Netflixs hit series. Photograph: Juan Pablo Gutierrez/Netflix

In one fell swoop, we might get out of this, he recalls.

After they stated the dollar amount, Randolph noticed something strange happening with the Blockbuster CEO John Antiocos face. He was struggling not to burst into laughter.

The meeting went further downhill from there.

Randolph says it was one of the lowest moments for the company: You fly to Blockbuster, try and sell the business, and they laugh at you.

The only option left was to defeat Blockbuster, and Netflix stayed afloat by doing painful layoffs, figuring out overnight delivery of DVDs, and preparing early to move into streaming.

Hollywood executives were very, very scared of losing control of the content after the music industry had suffered at the hands of Napster, he says. You have a studio who is doing $8bn in box office. Are they going to compromise [that] for half a million dollars in potential streaming? They had this whole nice system that was working great. Why mess this up?

He continues: Because we can.

Randolph left Netflix in 2002, which is also where his book ends, meaning tech elites and startup workers will have more interest in reading it than Orange is the New Black fans. Randolph also lacks some self-awareness in his discussion of Netflixs early culture, fondly remembering a drunken raucous retreat, a new-employee tradition akin to hazing, and his insistence on maintaining a poster in his office that wasnt the most HR-friendly.

Netflix resisted pressure to sell to its online retail competitor Amazon, and eventually defeated Blockbuster. Photograph: Geoff Moore/REX

Asked about the lack of diversity in Silicon Valley and whether he thought Netflix in the early days did a good job, he says he takes pride in the gender, age and geographic diversity of his employees, adding, Diversity is not a skin thing, necessarily. Diversity is you have people around the table who have different backgrounds and different experiences and think differently.

Does he think Netflix disruption will continue in other arenas? Who knows what form storytelling will take in the future? They begin doing virtual reality, holographic avatar games? Some form of new disruption is certain, he says, though emphasizes that he is only speaking as a fan of Netflix (he like Ozark and Narcos).

Randolph argues that in the startup world, no one knows whats a good idea or a bad idea until you try it. Its a principle that is arguably relevant to Netflix today, which some critics say has a quality control problem and is creating an industry with an over-saturation of original streaming content.

As a viewer, hes not bothered: Why would I mind that theres too much?

And how does he reflect now on the demise of Blockbuster?

I absolutely feel for people whose businesses have been disrupted, people who lost their jobs. That hurts.

But, he says, Im not sure I want to preserve the old ways just for the sake of saying, I dont believe in change.

He tries not to gloat, but adds: Blockbuster had 9,000 stores. Now there is one.

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It was Britains answer to The Wire. But the gang drama was dead until the rapper stepped in and pitched it to Netflix. Its stars and writer talk grime, gentrification and Boris Johnsons Britain

I told them I was on my way out to meet some singer called Drake, says writer Ronan Bennett, recalling the unlikely story of how he went out for dinner with the Canadian rapper and somehow managed to make himself seem less cool in front of his children. Drake was a fan of Top Boy, Bennetts Channel 4 drama about the lives of drug dealers and residents on a fictional Hackney estate called Summerhouse. He had been recommended it while on tour and loved it so much, he began posting stills from the show on Instagram with clumsy attempts at London slang (real bod man). When he found out it had been cancelled, he decided to bring it back by teaming up with Bennett and pitching it to Netflix.

The pair arranged a dinner in London to thrash out a plan much to the disbelief of Bennetts kids, who had to inform him he was about to meet one of the biggest pop stars on the planet. My children were like, Whaaaaat? he says. But honestly, I didnt know who he was.

Luckily for Bennett, Netflix and quite a few other people did. He was into the shows music, says Kane Robinson AKA Kano, the grime MC who starred in the original series as Sully, a duplicitous but driven dealer. It wasnt a shock that Drake liked it. What was more shocking was that when he posted about Top Boy, the reaction was mad. Youd wake up and have hundreds of messages.

He understands the culture and saw that [the show] needed to come back, adds Ashley Walters, who plays Dushane, the titular Top Boy who rises from low-level street dealer to potential East End kingpin. We were all on the same page it just happens that hes Drake.

Drake fronted a pitch to Netflix in LA and an hour later they had a deal. But Top Boy wasnt the easiest sell. Originally pitched to the BBC as a one-off TV film, the Beeb balked at the language and its stark gang-related subject matter, so Bennett shopped it to Channel 4, which commissioned it and greenlit a second season. The Independent called it Britains answer to The Wire, while Vice dedicated an oral history to the making of it. The show got a mixed reception from residents of Hackney when the Observer screened it to youth groups, but it was lauded by critics for its brutal portrayal of life in east London just after the 2011 riots.

Top girl Letitia Wright in the original series. Photograph: Tristan Hopkins/Channel 4

Bennett cant remember the reason Channel 4 gave for cancelling, but it felt abrupt and left him shocked with a storyline for a third series that looked destined never to see the light of day. I didnt ever think it was going to come back, says Robinson. It looked like it was a non-starter.

But despite the cancellation, Top Boy didnt disappear completely. Both Robinson and Walters were asked about it incessantly as it began to find another audience, first on DVD and then on Netflix. It became a touchstone in the music world, with such grime acts as Skepta working references into his Mercury prize-winning album, Konnichiwa. It proved to be a hothouse of young black British talent: Michaela Coel had a bit-part in the original series, as did a pre-Black Panther Letitia Wright, who stood out as an ethically compromised young gang member. Other grime MCs, including Scorcher and Bashy, also featured before going on to get parts in films. In 2016, rumours that the show was coming back began circulating. Then, during his sold-out run at the O2 in London this April, Drake played a trailer confirming its return.

The UK has changed a lot since Top Boys debut in 2011, especially in the way gangs are viewed. The rise in knife crime has become part of the national conversation, with the media reporting on such concepts as county lines, in which drug gangs send young members to rural locations to drum up new trade. Drug dealers have never been more under the microscope, especially after 2018, when there were 135 homicides in London, 76 of them stabbings. So was there any hesitation in bringing back Sully and Dushane, dealers who manipulate young kids, murder rivals and use knives?

No, says Bennett without missing a beat. I think its important to bring it back in that context. Why? I consider myself a highly political person in everything I do, says the writer, who up until recently was the chair of his local Labour party. But I never beat the audience over the head with a message. However, I dont think anyone who watches Top Boy would fail to realise that the answer to the question Why is knife crime happening? is simple. Its poverty, exclusion and its racism. Thats why these kids feel completely outside the norms of a society that cold-shoulders them, that closes doors on them, that looks down on them, that despises them. And then its a spiral.

Theyre denied any kind of self-respect. Where are they going to find that respect? They need to feel good about themselves and they need to find that value somewhere. They create a different value system and its one that is deeply, deeply fucked up.

Belated return Walters and Robinson in the forthcoming third season. Photograph: Netflix/PA

Robinson and Walters think there is an urgent need to bring a gang drama to the screen, believing the new series will provide a vital window into a world that is still misunderstood. The medias attention [to gangs] is on another level, says Robinson. But who are we if were not talking about the current climate? What picture do people want us to paint? Its not a true story but there are a lot of truths within it.

Whoever is outside looking in, says Walters, should see this as correspondence. Youre getting the people who are down there at street level reporting to the rest of the world. Thats what I see Top Boy as, thats what I see Kanes music as. Its important for people to listen and take time to watch whats going on in these shows, especially the ones like Top Boy that are painting an accurate picture.

Poverty has a smell. Its cheap, bad food. Its damp, unwashed clothes Ronan Bennett Photograph: Antonio Olmos

That picture isnt pretty. In the new series, which will launch on Netflix in the autumn, theres a glimpse of the harsh life inside British prisons, where disagreements from the street continue to fester. There are young men still children, really forced to look after their families and turn to drug-dealing to provide. An immigration story surfaces that has echoes of the Windrush scandal.

Top Boy has always been about showing the wider view of how societal pressures add to the chaos of street life. In the first two series, we see a salon owner and the manager of a chippy struggling to stay open as rents increase. A mother with mental health issues has to deal with her own problems and the needs of her son, who is perilously close to getting caught up in the drug game. For Bennett, thats all a way to paint a fuller picture of life in breadline Britain.

Until recently, wed go around canvassing [for Labour] and you could literally smell poverty, says Bennett. It has a smell. Its cheap, bad food. Its damp and unwashed clothes. When they open that door, you think, Would I like this life? No. Thats why this happens and thats what Top Boy shows.

Walters believes gentrification plays a part. I think its one of the reasons why a lot of knife crime is happening, he says. What were not talking about is how people are being displaced and how somewhere like Croydon has one of the highest knife crime rates because all the kids from Peckham, Brixton and the surrounding areas were being moved there which created war, essentially, because all the kids were being mixed up together.

Then there are middle-class drug users, who have been accused of fuelling the gang problem. A well-off couple appear in season three is that who Bennett is skewering? Ive seen the whole debate about middle-class drug use, says Bennett, who adds that he has never taken or bought drugs. That obviously happens. I guess thats something people have to confront, but for me the answer is decriminalisation. Nothing else works. Would that include all drugs? Yes. Im in favour of decriminalisation but with regulation. I would say to my kids, Please dont do this. I think its bad for your health and taking drugs is really risky. But this is the way to make it less risky.

Bennett points out that in the Shoreditch restaurant were sitting in, there are probably people who have bought or sold drugs that day. Are they fuelling knife crime? he asks, looking around. I guess. But in a bigger way, its the entire apparatus that weve built around the so-called war on drugs that is responsible.

Theres always been a bleak, nihilistic thread running through Top Boy, as young people without much hope struggle to simply get by. Can Bennett see things getting better in real life under a Boris Johnson government, with the hardline Priti Patel in the Home Office? No, not remotely. If you handpicked a bunch of characters in Britain that have less intelligence, less sympathy and less understanding of the kind of social and economic backgrounds that our characters come from, you could not do a worse job. There is no hope that they will have any understanding of what it would take to solve this problem. They are unbelievably out of touch.

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