Despite a Stellar Performance by Arjo Atayde, 'Bagman' is Crippled by its Production and Platform
In a way, the iWant-exclusive Bagman is comparable to Breaking Bad, in the sense that it follows an average, decent man spiraling deeper and deeper into the criminal underworld—except this time, with a distinctly Filipino flavor. Instead of becoming a meth baron, however, Bagman’s protagonist finds his road to notoriety in the realm of local politics. The story is both complex and gleefully entertaining, especially since the illicit activities hit so close to home.
Arjo Atayde in Bagman delivers a nuanced peformance
Arjo Atayde stars as Benjo, a neighborhood barber with a baby on the way. When a sidewalk-clearing project threatens to take away both his business and his home, he pleads for reconsideration with the authorities, to no avail. That’s when he meets Big Boy (Jett Pangan), a henchman working for their province’s corrupt governor (Raymond Bagatsing), who is more than happy to help Benjo with his predicament, so long as he’s good for a favor.
The favor, it turns out, is being the getaway driver for a riding-in-tandem assassination. Big Boy makes good with his promise and also gives Benjo a few thousand pesos as tip, along with the offer of more money for more jobs. As Bagman’s first season plays out, we see Benjo’s ambition start to get the better of him. He soon becomes firmly entrenched in the governor’s inner circle, acting as both assistant and enforcer, as vote-buyer and intimidator.
The premise is ambitious, and certainly not the sort of storyline we’re accustomed to seeing on local television. We like our protagonists to be (mostly) virtuous individuals, and so Atayde’s tempered anti-hero, in a performance filled with nuance, is a refreshing change. Its unapologetic handling of corruption—both political and personal—moves at a thrilling pace, with a grit that’s normally exclusive to our indie film industry.
Bagman is bogged down by production
But for all the generous comparisons made to both high-grade television and film, there’s a carelessness to the production that reeks of the “pwede na ‘yan” attitude that’s plagued local mainstream entertainment since time immemorial. Take, for instance, the opening scene of Episode 2, where the word “putangina” is uttered nine times within a 25-second span, clearly being used as a crutch by the actors to convey anger. It’s an unintentionally funny detail in what is supposed to be a tense moment, and it’s something the director should have corrected during filming.
There are also egregious sins committed with the editing of Bagman. In one scene, the audio of a character’s line isn’t synced with what he says on camera, and for a split-second, it feels like you’re watching the English dub of a 1970s kung-fu flick. In another, the video abruptly loops back a full two seconds not for dramatic effect, but because the editors couldn’t be arsed to properly seam together clips that matched the audio’s runtime.
There are lines that are clearly dubbed over in haste, because the background noise and sound quality change for a few seconds. In Episode 5, a character’s face inexplicably flickers blue during a close-up that lasts several seconds. Cuts to different angles suddenly have background characters in different positions, creating jarring breaks in continuity.
In one particularly violent scene, the shooter from Benjo’s first gig is identified not by his face, but by the helmet he’s wearing—while he’s already being held captive, I should add—and the show reminds you of this by cutting to a flashback of the killer wearing the same helmet days earlier. And he is executed with the helmet still on. Apparently, in the world of Bagman, not only do contract killers never take their helmets off, but each helmet is also a unique fingerprint by which people can be identified, going by the logic of its first few episodes.
Bagman's platform needs a lot of work
All these issues are, admittedly, little things. But they add up quick, and it gets to a point where you’re either laughing at the show or you’re taken out of it completely. But what makes Bagman even more difficult to watch is, ironically, the very platform that made the show possible in the first place.
It took me about an hour to watch the 37-minute first episode. I tried to watch it on the iWant app, but I forgot the password to my Kapamilya account. For some reason, however, the password reset system kept resulting in an unidentified error every time I went through the process.
I moved to my PC, as I was still logged onto iWant there. I hit “Play” on the first episode, and I noticed that the video didn’t match my monitor’s aspect ratio, but hitting the “Fullscreen” button fixed that. Then, I realized I’d missed the first few seconds of the show, so I tried to rewind back to the start of the episode. Except I couldn’t.
Moving the mouse didn’t bring up the video player’s controls. After a stretch of futile maneuvering, I discovered that the controls popped up after I paused the video. I successfully rewound back to the start and… a commercial played.
Once the ad was done, I was finally able to watch the show. Every now and then, however, the stream abruptly stopped to buffer, despite my Internet connection being good enough to consistently stream uninterrupted HD videos off of iWant’s competitors. At times, the screen would go black, rewind a few seconds, and start buffering from there.
As I continued with the rest of the season, I considered getting iWant Premium so I could do away with the ads that took over mid-stream. Because Bagman isn’t shot with commercial breaks in mind, there’s no way an ad can play without causing an abrupt stop.
Now, I know this review is spending an inordinate amount of time not actually talking about the show, but when it comes to streaming service exclusives, the platform is a major part of the viewing experience. If the service isn’t up to par, viewers aren’t going to watch anything on it. My partner, for instance, gave up on watching Glorious precisely because the iWant app was giving her headaches.
Root for Bagman's compelling story
This is an incredible shame, because for all its shortcomings, Bagman deserves support simply because its success opens the door for projects with the same amount of ambition. A weak platform denies it of a significant number of viewers, and we all know that it’s the numbers that dictate the kinds of shows our entertainment industry develops. Viewership determines how many more episodes a show gets, what sort of budget it’ll be given, and what talent it’ll attract.
The most immediate improvement that can be made for Bagman isn’t with the show (though it does need many), but with iWant itself. Bagman needs viewers to justify an uptick in quality, but the platform it’s on scares audiences away. The same “pwede na ‘yan” production attitude that does a disservice to the show is prevalent throughout the experience of using iWant.
Bagman is a show we should ideally root for because of its compelling story and excellent performances, but the production team doesn’t seem to take it as seriously as they should. iWant, as a streaming platform, isn’t giving as many people a reason to check out the show as it could. Any recommendation to watch it should come with a caveat: Be patient and be forgiving.
There is quality television in Bagman, but it’s being sabotaged from within, and that is a tragedy greater than Benjo’s ever could be.
Bagman’s first season is currently streaming on iWant. The final three episodes are now live.