On Television

Rave that runs out of puff

Summertime and the streaming is easy, but Netflix’s White Lines leaves Adam LeBor cold

Summertime and the streaming is easy. Rather too easy, in fact, thanks in part to Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi. The Persian polymath is anything but a household name. But al-Khwarizmi, who lived in Baghdad in the ninth century, has shaped our modern world. He introduced the concept of Hindu-Arabic numerals which led to modern mathematics and computer science. He was a geographer, cartographer and astronomer — a renaissance man, centuries before the Renaissance, which was also rooted in his work as it percolated into western Europe.

Al-Khwarizmi’s name is the basis of the word algorithm, now honed into a magic formula by the Silicon Valley giants

Al-Khwarizmi lived and worked in Baghdad at the House of Wisdom, under the wise ruler Caliph al-Ma’mun. Al-Kharizmi’s splendidly titled work, Al-Kitab al-Mukhtasar fi hisab al-jabr wa’l-muqabala, The Compendious Book on Calculation and Balancing, gave us the term algebra. His name is the basis of the word algorithm, now honed into a magic formula by which the giants of Silicon Valley provide us with personalised content after they have harvested and crunched our data.

Netflix’s current recommendation for me — and most of the rest of the viewing public — is White Lines, its big UK summer show. The 10-part series jumps back and forth between the rave scene in 1990s Manchester and Ibiza 20 years later. Zoe Walker, played by Laura Haddock, is still traumatised by the disappearance of her brother DJ Axel. When Axel’s body is found buried in Almería, mainland Spain, Zoe travels to the Balearic island to investigate his death.

The series gets off to a racing start. Zoe, a meek librarian, is soon wildly out of her depth: accidentally ferrying cocaine, having a torrid affair with Boxer, a nightclub bouncer, slaloming her way through a police checkpoint, getting entangled with Marcus, once Axel’s best friend, now a hapless drug dealer, and his ex-wife Anna, who organises sleazy upmarket orgies.

White Lines is a co-production led by Left Bank, the British production company that made The Crown, another of Netflix’s big hits, and it shows in the lush cinematography and an evocative period atmosphere.

I spent the 1990s working and living in Budapest as a foreign correspondent, so I missed out on raves, but they look enormous fun. The nightclub scenes, with their legions of youthful, beautiful extras, stunning sound and light shows and sheer collective joy, are brilliantly shot. Such evocative spectacle demands a large budget, which Netflix provided. But it’s not all well spent.

There is plenty of energy here but it’s kinetic, flailing around, instead of being focused

After the first few episodes, which seem about to deliver a racy, sexy thriller in beautiful locations, the show loses its way. A promising storyline about the Calafats, a vile dynasty of Spanish club owners battling it out with a rival family for control of the drug trade in the club scene, steadily morphs into an increasingly soppy tale about Zoe finding herself.

Marcus and Anna are soon intensely annoying: self-obsessed and self-indulgent. Boxer has a handy way with a boat-hook, especially when Romanian drug dealers get in the way, but of course, like most violent killers, he is also a sensitive lover, an amazing cook and fan of French new-wave cinema. We’ve all met that type.

Meanwhile Zoe scurries from his bed to wander around wide-eyed, agonising over her marriage and dull husband while talking to her therapist on her mobile. Eventually even the therapist tires of her moaning, long after the rest of us.

The women are often obsessed with sex. Conchita Calafat is having an affair with her drippy son, Oriol. The most engaging character is David, a former heroin addict turned guru, played by Laurence Fox. There is plenty of energy here but it’s kinetic, flailing around, instead of being focused — and spread out over too many episodes.

Thailand, like Ibiza, is out of bounds for holidays at the moment. But if we cannot travel there, we can at least watch Farang, Thai for Westerner. Another gem on Channel Four’s Walter Presents, Farang is much sharper and more engaging than White Lines. Rickard, a Swedish gangster played by Ola Rapace, has fled to the island of Phuket, where he lives under a false identity, until his 15-year-old daughter Thyra turns up and his carefully-constructed world falls apart.

There are echoes here of Luc Besson’s film Leon, about an assassin who takes in a 12-year-old girl. Thyra, wonderfully played by Louise Nyvall, is spirited, smart and tenacious. Her deepening relationship with her father is touching but unsentimental. Farang is a smart, fast-paced thriller with a small cast, tightly bound together.

As for al-Khwarizmi, what would he make of Ibizan debauchery? I like to think that he would not be shocked. Golden-age Baghdad was nothing like the puritanical Islamic world of today. The city was famed for its learning but it was also a licentious place with plenty of intrigue and debauchery, as recorded by the stories in One Thousand and One Nights. That’s one television series I wouldn’t need any algorithms to persuade me to watch.

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