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Shaw Cable’s subscriber-only Netflix rival only kinda sucks

Ricky Gervais, co-creator of Britain's ‘The Office’ plays David Brent, who would have driven viewers to riot had his self-aggrandizing shtick lasted 10 seasons. But for two seasons, it was comedy gold.

BBC Worldwide/AP File

Now that we're doing this weekly best and worst of Netflix feature, representatives from several Netflix rivals have been calling us up, urging us to take a look at their services. This week the good people at Shaw Cable lent us a shiny new iPad loaded with Shaw Go Movie Central, their on-demand streaming app for Apple's iThings.

Given that people are always looking for alternatives to Netflix's hit-and-miss collection of movies and TV shows, we thought we'd start checking out what the company's competitors have to offer. So, before we get to this week's very good and very bad picks, here's a quick review of Shaw's Go Movie Central app:

The first thing you notice when you load the Shaw app is that the content doesn't suck. This is, of course, by design – Shaw has designed its app to load directly to a home screen that prominently features its most appealing movies and TV shows. Click past the home screen to the full content listing, however, and you'll quickly find that this service contains just as much unwatchable nonsense, per capita, as Netflix (although Shaw's app has far fewer total movies and shows than Netflix).

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Nonetheless, when it comes to the really good stuff, Shaw has built up an impressive selection. This is especially true in the TV show category, where the company's deal with HBO Canada and other shops means you get access to shows such as Curb Your Enthusiasm , The Wire and The Sopranos . This is the kind of stuff that would populate our Netflix highlights for weeks.

But load any of these shows up and you quickly hit a pretty major snag. Rather than any kind of consistent selection of episodes, you get an anaemic patchwork. Only seasons one and eight of Curb Your Enthusiasm are available on the app. The Sopranos , despite having ended years ago, is only available through season two. And Boardwalk Empire 's first season isn't available. After a while, Shaw's service starts to feel a bit like those in-flight entertainment systems that carry just two or three episodes of half a dozen shows.

On the movie front, the app features a whole bunch of new and not-terrible releases, such as Biutiful , Bridesmades and Tree of Life . That's not to say Shaw's service doesn't have its fair share of total garbage, including such cinematic failures as Ong Bak 3 , the second and largely entertainment-free sequel to the martial arts hit, and a made-for-TV "thriller" simply titled The Wife He Met Online .

Playback works pretty well on most decent wireless connections. The scroll forward and backward features aren't as precise as those on Netflix, but if you exit the service halfway through a movie or show, it does remember where you left off the next time you start watching.

The user interface is mostly clean, although not without glitches. There's something that looks an awful lot like a back button, but actually turns out to be a "share" button that broadcasts whatever you're watching to the world via Facebook or Twitter (and this feature itself turns out to be little more than a way for Shaw to advertise its service through your social networks).

Also, for some reason, the app lumps any movie or show that starts with the word "The" into one section, meaning that, in the alphabetical content listing, the "T" heading contains by far the most content. This seems like a silly design choice.

Ultimately, if the Shaw app actually carried all the episodes of the shows it features, it'd be a better choice than Netflix for anyone who's mostly interested in watching TV content on iPads, iPhones or an iPod Touch. Except for one thing: you can't just up and buy this service à la carte. No, Shaw only gives you access to its Go Movie Central app as part of a cable subscription, thereby trying to jam the service into a larger, longer contract.

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Therein lies the appeal of Netflix. It may contain bucketloads of miserable content, but it costs eight bucks a month and you can ditch it whenever you like. Our traditional cable providers would do well to give us similar options.

And now, onto this week's Netflix picks.

After last week's depressing choice of Requiem For A Dream , we've picked somewhat lighter fare. This week's highlight is comedy, while this week's lowlight is "comedy."

WATCH IT The Office U.K. Version There's a great little English sitcom called Black Books that came out a decade ago. It's not available on Netflix or any other legal Canadian service, as far as I can tell, and I'm definitely not recommending you go look for it on BitTorrrent or anything like that, but it is a funny show.

One of the great things about Black Books – besides its endearingly surly lead character and the fact that it features the terrific insult, "He looks like a horse in a man costume" – is that it was short. The whole thing lasted just three seasons, and each season contained just six episodes. It didn't overstay its welcome.

That's what makes the original British version of The Office so fantastic. The documentary-style show, set in the world's least exciting paper company, lasted just two seasons. In fact, the show's single best episode is the fourth episode of season one. There's no fat on this thing whatsoever.

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It's also a good thing the show didn't last long, because it allowed writers Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais to create one of the most self-obsessed, socially oblivious and just brutally awkward central characters ever. David Brent, played by Gervais, would have driven viewers to riot had his self-aggrandizing shtick lasted 10 seasons. But for two seasons, it was comedy gold.

Besides Brent, the show also featured a more convincing love story than pretty much anything currently running on prime-time TV. It also followed the somewhat bizarre British TV comedy convention of turning weirdly depressing toward the very end. In fact, the last episode of the series was so sad that viewers probably forced the show's creators to film what turned out to be a more cheerful, concluding Christmas special.

And that was it. The entirety of the original Office can be viewed in a day. Meanwhile, the U.S. version of the show is entering what feels like its 65th season. NBC promises this will be its "final" go-around, but we have our doubts.

WATCH OUT MacGruber MacGruber 's closing credits, which arrive about 90 minutes too late, note that the script for this movie took three people to write. Three people.

The original McGruber was a Saturday Night Live skit that was kind of funny the first time it ran and somewhat less funny each of the six dozen or so times it was remade in following episodes. It's a send-up of one of those scenes in MacGyver where Richard Dean Anderson's character has to defuse a bomb with nothing but a pen cap and some Jell-O mix. The only reason the skit worked in the first place is because it was about 30 seconds long, and the actors kept getting cut off by the bomb exploding.

So of course someone decided this would make great fodder for a feature-length film.

McGruber is just bad, bad in the kind of lazy, self-referential way that most SNL –spinoff movies are bad. Brace yourself for endless, unnecessary and unimaginative profanity, a stunningly unlikeable lead character and a waxy looking, out-of-shape Val Kilmer playing the lead villain with all the enthusiasm and charisma of a funeral director's business card. Absolutely nothing works.

As an aside, MacGruber is not the worst movie on Netflix's "Recently Added" list this week. Not by a long shot.


Did we miss a gem? Did we not plumb deep enough into Netflix's bowels for stinkers? Any tips on usage? Pour your Netflix thoughts and feelings into the comments, we publish some in the next edition:

Sam B2 writes: Watch Being Elmo. It's a terrific documentary, (and no you don't have to be into kids programming or Elmo to enjoy it).

Ian In Langley writes: I also notice if I search for a title they don't have that one would think they should.. it appears in a week or so.

Their database is much larger than they project at you.. you do need to search by name (just search!) and rate what you've seen.

I'm not sure if we see what is "trending" until we begin rating and searching.. I do know there's way more shows to watch once you begin doing that.

-DP writes: For the price, it's good. For providing me with the movies I want to see, it sucks. I have little interest in contemporary TV shows, but have a massive list of old (70s through 2000's) classics that I'm interested in catching up on. Netflix Canada never fails to disappoint. Any of the Rocky series (I-V)? Nope. Brazil (Steve Martin cult classic)? Nope. Sid and Nancy (arty cult classic from the 80s)? Nope. The Gods must be Crazy? Nope. My American Cousin (Canadian '80s flick filmed in the Okanagan that nonetheless had widespread distribution)? Nope. Sure, I've watched a couple of good movies I was suggested that I hadn't thought about (Black Swan, Antichrist (ultra-disturbing, but interesting), etc.), but if you actually think of a film you want to watch, forget it.

Crystal Glass writes: I'll never know. I live in rural Ontario, where high speed internet is unavailable. My "high speed" is a Rogers rocket hub. While it beats dial up by a LONG shot, the price for usage is quite high. No Netflix for Cryssy.

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