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Documentary Quickshots #6

Civilisation (BBC; 1969)

Civilisations (BBC; 2018)

Kenneth Clark’s 1969 BBC art history and high culture documentary series Civilisation is perhaps the seminal work of the genre that has become one of the British public broadcaster’s signatures. All of those handsomely photographed programmes crowding the primetime hours on BBCs 2 to 4, featuring erudite university professors expounding on beautiful paintings or grand architecture or important literature or great movements of history as they walk through historic sites or museum galleries, can trace their lineage back to Clark and his defining 13-part innovation of the form. The knighted art historian, who passed away in 1983, exerted a great deal of influence on the British cultural establishment during his career, but Civilisation reached beyond the cloisters of the upper crust to inculcate a wider general audience with an appreciation for the high water marks of European culture.

Civilisation, despite its grandiose title, was not be taken, in any way, as some sort of definitive survey of human civilization, and yet its success and surprising staying-power has given it such scope and stature despite itself. Very deliberately subtitled A Personal View, Civilisation was predicated on a focused perspective, its 13 hour-long episodes remaining fixed on Europe between the early Middle Ages and the start of the 20th Century and relying on Clark’s thoughtful, subtle, often idiosyncratic observations. This narrowed focus, excluding the Classical world and the great civilizations of Asia, Africa, and the Americas, has brought the series in for a healthy measure of retrospective criticism, as has Clark’s lionizing of “great spirits” of cultural history, basically all of whom happen to be white men. There is certainly something about the series that might well present to the contemporary eye – especially one clouded by the arrogant, half-informed intellectual pretentions of the chauvinist alt-right online trolls who swarm annoyingly in the comments of YouTube videos of the series – as a spirited defense of Eurocentric white supremacy, although it is much too thoughtful and subtle in its considerations to be pigeonholed and marginalized in that way.

In these ways and more, Civilisation is a product of its times. Certainly, Clark’s Received Pronunciation accent can be jarring now to the modern viewer used to the more “authentic” dialects of diverse television presenters (they all sounded like Clark at the Beeb in the late ’60s, though), just as the casual attire favoured by current culture documentary stars contrasts with Clark’s consistent brown suit jacket and thin tie, which seem out of place as he ascends romantic peaks and expounds in sun-soaked Italian piazzas (whither the jeans and leather jacket? asks the modern viewer conditioned by photogenic and youthful historian-presenters with glamour-shot galleries on their self-promotional websites). One wants to dab his sweat-beaded forehead at least once an episode. Also, when other talents are called upon, there are happy stabs of period-specific recognition: a young Patrick Stewart shows up as Horatio in a staging of a scene from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and Daniel Day-Lewis’ poet father Cecil reads Wordsworth poems in voiceover.

In the more important realm of ideas, however, Civilisation is perhaps less a creature of the canonical cultural patriarchy than its reputation suggests. One of the consistent points maintained by Clark in the early medieval and Renaissance programmes and made explicit in his consideration of the post-Reformation era is the vital role of the Catholic Church in shepherding forward the cultural patrimony (I know at least one person who was converted to Catholicism by the series). It is especially noted that Catholics come across as far more important stewards of civilization than rival Protestants in terms of enduring visual arts, although the latter do better in literature and particularly music. Although Clark closes on the subject with an elliptical acknowledgement of the tendency towards authoritarian obedience in the Catholic Church (which has at least contributed to the Church’s foundation-shaking sexual abuse scandals of recent decades), his comprehensive defense of Catholic art and architecture must have presented as surprisingly contrary to WASP Britain at the end of the 1960s, a place and time where anti-Catholic sentiment (certainly in Northern Ireland, but hardly only there) was hardly a relic of the past. Late in the series, Clark even notes (though belatedly and almost as a footnote) that many of the spectacular wealth-driven displays of refinement that he has pored over in recent programmes were supported, directly or indirectly, by the socioeconomic horror machines of the modern era (which he, unfortunately, characterizes as a bit too equivalent): the Transatlantic slave trade and the labour exploitation of the Industrial Age.

But what is great about Clark and his documentaries is how he talks the viewer through what a painting or a building or a poem means, not only its in immediate artistic interpretation but in its larger social, cultural, and historical hermeneutics. It’s a simple, straightforward, but surprisingly powerful method: well-shot visuals of a great work, intercut with audio of a well-rounded analysis of its significance. Art history books are fine things, and Clark wrote his share, but his work in Civilisation refines and very nearly perfects a most immediate and persuasive form of art criticism that can only be accomplished with such a potent effect on television and influences subsequent generations of his peers.

Given this mixed legacy both great and problematic, BBC’s sequel Civilisations set itself up with a monumental task this year of following up on Clark’s series four decades later while expanding the original’s scope and correcting for its omissions and occasional flaws of perspective. While this nine-episode series may not, strictly speaking, match the quality of Clark’s original, it is a gorgeous, diverse, spirited, and deep and questioning consideration of what “civilisation” really means. This uncertainty about the very idea of “civilisation” is a by-product of the fragmented cultural consciousness of our era, certainly, of post-modernism and post-structuralism and post-anything-ism. But it’s also a pointed reaction to the sort of horrors that the progressive idea of “civilisation” is supposed, in an idealized vacuum, to save us from: war, genocide, poverty, brutality, racial discrimination, capitalist exploitation, imperial domination, deprivation and humiliation and misery.

Civilisations locates in art and culture laudable bastions of resistance against these dark forces, which are the products of human creativity and ingenuity just the same. Historian and BBC culture standby Simon Schama, whose A History of Britain series in 2000 is one of the few documentary series that can stand with Clark’s Civilisation at the pinnacle of the form, presents five of the episodes, and opens two of them with purposeful parables of civilized people standing against forces of unspeakable evil: a professor of antiquities executed by ISIS, a Jewish art teacher who instructed children in a Nazi concentration camp. His colleagues, who present two episodes each, likewise note this tension in human civilization: classicist Mary Beard considers the problematics of the human gaze and the mixed cultural legacies of religious faith, and Nigerian-British historian David Olusoga explores how the cultural accomplishments of Africa were looted and diminished by European colonial powers, as well as looks at the 19th Century’s imperialism and industrialism with a withering critical eye.

Expanding the series’ perspective to that of a triumvirate of bespoken diversity – a Jewish Brit, a feminist woman, a Black Briton – continues into their subject matter, which encompasses not merely European art and culture but also that of Africa, China, India, Japan, the Muslim World, and the civilizations of the Americas, not to mention classical and pre-classical examples of artistic representation. Furthermore, where Clark provided only a bare coda about his contemporary world without a statement on the past half-century of modern art, Schama dedicates the series’ final episode to contemporary art from Mondrian to the Abstract Expressionists and Pop Art to highlights of contemporary art, which include his favourites like Anselm Kiefer, Kara Walker, Ai Weiwei, and Cai Guo-Qiang.

Featuring living contemporary artists risks setting a too-short expiry date on Civilisations (and I couldn’t fathom a meaningful justification of Schama’s championing of the aesthetically pathetic Matisse in his otherwise wondrous episode “Radiance”), but it’s a reminder that this, too, is a view of cultural history more personal than comprehensive. It’s also a reminder, and one of several throughout this excellent series, that civilization is a constant creation, a matter of ongoing redefinition. Kenneth Clark understood it this way, too, even if the canonical boundaries of his 1969 series did not always allow him to express it quite as firmly as those of its 2018 sequel manage to do.

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TV Quickshots #37

March 18, 2018 Leave a comment

The Young Pope (HBO; 2017)

From Italian writer/director Paolo Sorrentino, the crafter of the rapturously gorgeous The Great Beauty, The Young Pope is a visually beautiful series headlined by a career-pinnacle performance from its star Jude Law, who plays an under-50 American pontiff with arrogantly old-fashioned autocratic and revanchist ideas concerning the Vatican’s management of the contemporary Catholic Church. Still, it’s narratively and thematically uneven and inconsistent, even as it productively challenges Catholicism’s current trajectory.

Blowing into the august halls of the Vatican like a scalding wind, this new Pope – Lenny Belardo is his birth name, and he assumes the papal name of Pius XIII – presents as a youthful iconoclast. If he never quite reaches the rebellious absurdities of the internet’s roiling, riotous Young Pope memes, in-text Pius comes much closer than one might have believed when, in the early stages of the limited series, he lights up a cigarette in the Papal Palace in contravention of John Paul II’s prior non-smoking edicts, saying, “There’s a new pope now.” The opening titles distill this essence into even more ludicrous form; you almost don’t have to watch the show if you watch them.

His refusal to appear in public, autocratic pronouncements, and desire to root out all homosexuality in the Church clergy frustrates and confounds the Cardinals, particularly his one-time mentor Michael Spencer (James Cromwell) and the Cardinal Secretary of State, the sly, subtle, self-promoting Napoli football fan Angelo Voiello (a superb Silvio Orlando). Even close allies – such as Sister Mary (Diane Keaton), the nun who raised him in an orphanage after he was abandoned by his hippie parents, the core psychological trauma that Sorrentino returns to time and again to explain Lenny’s perspective – doubt his direction, and he himself even doubts his belief in God.

Sorrentino and his cinematographer Luca Bigazzi shoot their re-created Vatican City with sun-drenched magnificence and rich baroque lustre, incorporating earthy continental sexuality and magic-realist touches (such as the kangaroo that Pius receives as a gift and lets loose in the gardens, a symbol of some element of his psyche or faith or doubt that is difficult to firmly pin down). The dominant issues facing the modern Catholic Church – homosexual clergy, the celibacy oath, priest child abuse, secular unbelief, charismatic salt-of-the-earth miracle-workers, worldly capitalism and politics, the increasing importance of the developing world among its global flock – are addressed and sometimes even prodded out of complacent positions. Belardo and Spencer even hold a straight one-on-one debate on the Church’s position on abortion in the Sistine Chapel, which while a touch direct, does at least lay out the germane internal thinking on the issue among the theological elite.

Whatever points (be they so pedantic or more elegant and subtle) Sorrentino is seeking to make about Catholicism of the moment, they dissolve into Jude Law’s commanding central performance. Belardo’s psychology and beliefs are not always crystal-clear, and personal losses through the series shift the brazen dictatorial caprice of his initial days towards a more publically-acceptable light-poetic inspirational persona. But Law keeps us always focused on the man he is at his core: a seeking orphan, a figure of solitude, and perhaps a leader touched by special divine favour. Even a Pope, perhaps especially a Pope, can be a lonely man.

Altered Carbon (Netflix; 2018)

A handsomely-budgeted serialized adaptation of the first of Richard K. Morgan’s science-fiction novel series, Altered Carbon presents like Blade Runner with the fuzzier margins of design and world-building busily filled in. It has very different ideas in mind, however.

Altered Carbon is set in the late 24th Century, and finds humanity dwelling in a fascinating new multiple-lifetime reality: for centuries, individual human consciousness has been contained in talisman-like data packets known as stacks, allowing a single person’s mind and memories to outlive the lifespan of their physical body (the relative disposability of which has led them to become known as sleeves). This has almost countless implications on human relationships, philosophy and religious belief, laws and politics, government and socioeconomic differences, many of which Altered Carbon draws out in good time.

Following a former supersoldier turned defacto detective named Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman) who is “spun back up” from decades of disembodied imprisonment in order to solve the murder of a super-rich man (James Purefoy), Altered Carbon is far more interesting and thought-provoking in its early world-establishing episodes, before its genre-fiction plotting and graphic violence grasp the controls. Exploring the myriad implications of stacks and sleeves proves a richer experience than the adolescent melodrama of the narrative, and if Netflix continues to adapt Morgan’s books, such world expansion can be expected to be its primary allure.

Categories: Reviews, Television

Marginalization, Abuse, and Female Agency in Alias Grace and Big Little Lies

February 14, 2018 Leave a comment

Although they are very different in tone, themes, and historical-geographical setting, Alias Grace and Big Little Lies both utilize the limited-series format of prestige television to explore women’s struggles in self-definition and establishing agency in contexts of subordination, marginalization, and abuse. Narratively constructed around murder mysteries in each case, both series employ shifting ambiguities of responsibility and motive not only to maintain suspense and audience involvement but also to suggest perilous truths about a woman’s position in demanding societies.

Although both shows are grounded in murder mysteries, neither is structured precisely as a classic whodunit. Alias Grace focuses on Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon), an Irish immigrant to 19th-Century Canada who becomes a household servant and is implicated in and imprisoned for the murder of the well-off bachelor (Paul Gross) who employs her, as well as his housekeeper/paramour (Anna Paquin). The facts of the murder itself are not much in question, nor is Grace’s intimate involvement in it, at least in some form. But the narrative casts proto-psychologist doctor Dr. Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft) as its detective figure, teasing out through memory-probing conversations with Grace how exactly she contributed to the killings and why they happened.

Big Little Lies, meanwhile, casts a semi-satirical eye on the well-to-do social circles of the contemporary enclave of the Bay Area elite in Monterey, California. A suspicious death has occurred at a lavish charity event, drawing in five disparate but connected women, but the series keeps the identity of not only the killer but also the victim secret until its closing stages. The hanging question of the murder – gestured to in brief expressionistic flashes and foreshadowed in intercut side-narration commentary clips of police interviews with witnesses – provides the constant tease and frisson, but Big Little Lies is not about the mystery so much it concerns as the lives, desires, and choices of these five women and those around them.

If Alias Grace cuts more deeply and subtly than its counterpart, that may be because its behind-the-camera creative core is made up of women. Based on the novel by Canadian literary giant (and suddenly-hot property, following the Emmy-winning success of another adaptation of her work, The Handmaid’s Tale) Margaret Atwood (who cameos in one scene as a disapproving churchgoer), Alias Grace was adapted for the screen by Sarah Polley with Mary Harron directing. Big Little Lies, on the other hand, though based on a novel by Liane Moriarty, has a screenplay by David E. Kelley (Ally McBeal, Boston Public) and was directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (The Young Victoria, Dallas Buyers Club, Wild). Beyond the fundamental biases of the male gaze, Big Little Lies does not always benefit from the blatant hammerstrokes of Kelley’s grandstanding writing style, as Todd VanDerWerff details in his review of the series for Vox.

Big Little Lies benefits greatly from a dynamite all-star cast almost uniformly working at the top of their collective game to elevate the material that has a tendency to be too on-the-nose and leans towards the sordid and soapy. Reese Witherspoon (Vallée’s star in Wild) headlines as Madeline, a stay-at-home mom who rarely stays at home, volunteering at the local community theatre (which is putting on a controversial production of the profane puppet musical Avenue Q), popping out for coffee with friends, and far too frequently becoming embroiled in rivalries and dramas around town (the performance only improves if you imagine Madeline as a grown version of Tracy Flick from Election).

Divorced from but constantly griping about her ex-husband Nathan (James Tupper) who has remarried neo-hippie yoga instructor Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz), the flinty Madeline creates tension with her decent-but-dull current husband Ed (Adam Scott) and her rebellious teenaged daughter Abigail (Kathryn Newton). Her best friend is Celeste (Nicole Kidman), a retired lawyer married to a young, handsome jetsetting businessman, Perry (Alexander Skarsgård); Celeste and Perry have twin boys, but also a volatile, sexually passionate, and troublingly violent relationship. Madeline and Celeste befriend a new single mother in town, Jane (Shailene Woodley), who has a young son and a traumatic history with his father.

Madeline and Jane soon become caught in a loop of conflict with driven corporate executive and mother Renata (Laura Dern, in one of her three superb 2017 roles) when Jane’s son Ziggy (Iain Armitage) is acused of being rough with Renata’s daughter Amabella (Ivy George). Given further impetus by Madeline’s sense of self-righteousness (which is inflamed by the city’s attempt to censor Avenue Q), this conflict comes to a head alongside Celeste and Perry’s abusive situation at a school charity ball.

Big Little Lies remains compulsively watchable throughout, but soon enough it becomes clear that its most compelling and unsettling feature is its depiction of this abusive relationship. Vallée skillfully withholds and obscures the most damning evidence of Perry’s violent and angry nature in the early stages, peppering his harsher moments with passionate sex scenes, and emphasizing his attentive and playful fathering towards his boys (although his playtime alter-ego, “The Monster”, is a bit too on the nose, truthfully). There’s enough to give the audience even more pause than Celeste, but the effect in general is that her battered-woman denial about his abusiveness is nominally shared by us. A long, riveting, uncomfortable intervention by her marriage counsellor (HBO vet Robin Weigert) is necessary not only to dispel this denial and spark action on Celeste’s part, but to remove our doubts as to what this relationship really is as well.

Alias Grace, meanwhile, bombards its titular female protagonist with misfortunes and mistreatment of a greater magnitude. Grace’s mother dies on board ship during the passage to Canada from Ireland; her father abuses her verbally, physically, and sexually. Her first and best friend during her initial servant posting, Mary Whitney (Rebecca Liddiard), is impregnated by the eldest son of her employer and dies after obtaining a secret abortion, a passing that haunts Grace far more literally than might have been guessed. She suffers the tongue-lashings of Paquin’s Nancy at her last serving position, and the weakness of her situation is exploited by the violent and lascivious James McDermott (Kerr Logan), her partner in the murders. She is then mistreated, abused, and raped in the women’s prison in Kingston after her conviction. Even the interviews with Dr. Jordan which serve as the narrative flashback device, ostensibly intended to aid her in obtaining a pardon, are construed as a violation of her memory akin to rape, a dimension given contour by Jordan’s frequent sexual fantasies involving her, which he transmutes into a sexual liaison with his landlady (Sarah Manninen).

Alias Grace is a nuanced, often poetic portrait of the thousand pinpricks of women’s marginalization. Deprived of power over her own fate and choices, Grace makes a series of limited decisions – predominantly small but then suddenly momentous – to diminish her sufferings, to channel herself towards survival and endurance. The women of Big Little Lies have inordinately greater liberty, wealth, and privilege, but are likewise cosseted by insecurity, social expectations, past trauma, and above all by the power of men, sometimes benevolent but more often not. Like Grace, they find a certain agency and satisfaction in hard-won female solidarity and in the extremes of reactive assertion. Unlike Grace, their story will continue, with a second season (not an uncontroversial one, either, especially to their competitors in the Emmy’s Limited Series category) to draw out the implications of that assertion and probe the boundaries of their claim to a greater agency.

Categories: Politics, Reviews, Television

TV Quickshots #36

January 3, 2018 Leave a comment

Halt and Catch Fire (AMC; 2014-2017)

A frothy, semi-desperate attempt to replicate the critical and cultural success of AMC’s acclaimed drama Mad Men when its first season aired in 2014, Halt and Catch Fire lost its network predecessor’s relatively robust audience in its early, imitative days but responded in its final three seasons by becoming one of American television’s finest, truest, and most emotionally well-tuned dramas of the social connectivity consequences of our modern technological reality.

Opening in the early 1980s in Dallas, Texas’ Silicon Prairie and running through the mid-1990s internet explosion in the San Francisco Bay Area, Halt and Catch Fire follows five primary core characters as they navigate the computer boom, forever chasing the next big frontier of development while struggling through office politics, life struggles, and relationships romantic and platonic. Husband-and-wife engineers and on-again/off-again tech entrepreneurs Gordon (Scoot McNairy) and Donna Clark (Kerry Bishé) open the series toiling as lower-mid-level cogs in corporate machines. Donna balances subordinate tasks at Texas Instruments with motherhood (their two daughters, Joanie and Haley, are background children for the first two-plus seasons but move closer to the core of the cast as teenagers in the closing act), while Gordon nurses the disappointment of his fallen ambitions (he and Donna designed a computer together that failed to win investment or distribution) at a company called Cardiff Electric under Texan good-old-boy senior VP John Bosworth (Toby Huss).

The Clarks’ fortunes change (though not immediately or even entirely for the better) when Bosworth hires a hot-shot former IBM sales exec named Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace). A hyper-driven, semi-sociopathic maverick with a closet full of secrets from his past, Joe is (at first, anyway) a microchip-age Don Draper who manipulates Cardiff’s product development direction with passion, vision, and frequent dishonesty and bullying, elevating Gordon to the lead on a team aiming to produce a portable IBM clone personal computer. He brings in Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis), a brilliant programmer with a prickly personality and punk-rock anti-establishment attitude, to program the operating system as well, though that is partly because they’re sleeping together.

As mentioned, the initial period-specific, workplace-focused, anti-hero-driven focus of Halt and Catch Fire faded after its first season, as Joe’s self-destructive, edge-seeking behaviour and principles alienated prior collaborators and burned previous professional bridges. Pace is superb at registering how Joe’s brush-torching actions, and the connections he builds with Cameron, Bos, and the Clarks despite them, exact a real and permanent toll. While it’s reductive to pigeonhole Jon Hamm’s excellent work in Mad Men this way, his Don Draper was allowed to reset the board time and again, suggesting that none of the pain he caused or felt stayed with him or changed him fundamentally in any way, even in the end (this was also a result of the general character philosophy of Matthew Weiner and his writers on the show: people do not change). Pace’s Joe becomes more fragile, more fallible, more human, just as his fellow cast members do, despite the stock-figure nature their characters begin with. This is especially true of Davis and Huss, who craft one of the most endearing relationships in recent television. Bishé was doing surprisingly nuanced work from the get-go and soon enough takes over a great swath of the show from the inside, and although McNairy’s Gordon goes through long arcs of being a pathetic twit, even he rallies near the conclusion.

Ultimately, Halt and Catch Fire became, prior to its perfectly-pitched and subtly moving finale which aired last year, a more endearing and humane take on the themes of David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin’s The Social Network. It leaps off from the core irony of that film – that technology brings us closer together while holding us inherently apart – but takes its time drawing out those themes while treating them with none of the smugly superior boomer-generation disdain that creeps into Sorkin’s script. Halt and Catch Fire is about the relentless, unforgiving bleeding-edge forward momentum of American capitalism and its human costs, yes. But it is also about connecting with others (and breaking with them) via technology and in person, and how similar and different, how satisfying and insufficient, each of those scenarios can be.

 

The Night Of (HBO; 2016)

Based on the 2008-2009 BBC crime drama Criminal Justice, HBO’s The Night Of follows a single defendant through the American criminal justice system, from arrest and police investigation to incarceration and trial. The defendant is Nasir “Naz” Khan (Riz Ahmed, who won an Emmy for his performance), a college student and son of a Pakistani-American cab driver whose abortive attempt to attend a Manhattan party lands him instead in a desultory drugs-and-sex evening with a free-spirited young woman (Sofia Black-D’Elia). When Naz awakes to find her dead but with no recollection of what happened, the wheels of justice begin to turn, providing Naz (and the audience) with a detailed (if hyper-dramatized) view of the inner workings of the interlinked system including the police, the courts, and the prison.

Written by Richard Price and Steve Zaillian and directed by Zaillian and James Marsh, The Night Of is superbly crafted and incorporates examinations and critiques of not only the criminal justice machine but also peeks into other American pathologies, from media fervour to economic discrimination to anti-Muslim sentiment. Many of these perspectives come via Naz’s on-and-off again lawyer John Stone (a wonderful John Turturro), an exzcema-afflicted low-rate huckster barrister who customarily makes a living on plea deals for hopeless offenders. He’s well over his head in a high-profile, complex, politically touchy, and increasingly ambiguous murder trial, as is big-firm junior associate Chandra Kapoor (Amara Karan), who takes the lead in court after her boss unexpectedly drops out of a publicity-minded handling of the case.

Through Stone as well as through soon-to-be-retiring investigating detective Dennis Box (Bill Camp), who leaps on the surplus of evidence pointing in Khan’s direction at first but begins to entertain doubts as to his guilt, The Night Of delves more deeply and more ambiguously into American justice than is usual on television, with the forensics-and-profiling-heavy moral certainties of its big-ratings police procedurals. It even outflanks the increasingly common, superficially grey-zoned, moody neo-noir troubled-detective genre springing up on channels and streaming services around the globe (largely influenced by detective noirs of Scandinavian television).

Ahmed is a huge part of the show’s success; Naz is physically transformed by his ordeal, gaining muscled bulk, tattoos, and a shaven head while in prison, but Ahmed holds himself differently, walks and speaks with subtle gradations of hardness, as experiences work themselves upon him. Even so, when put on the stand in the trial (usually a huge defense no-no that Stone hasn’t the power to talk Kapoor out of), Ahmed summons the essentially decent and frightened young man trapped in a whirlpool that threatens to drag him down. Like The Wire (which it resembles in a more limited way and, like many HBO productions, shares a few cast members with), but perhaps more so, The Night Of couches its depiction of systemic machinations in bare human drama, grounds its sociological observations in expressions of empathy.

Categories: Reviews, Television

TV Quickshots #35

December 22, 2017 Leave a comment

Stranger Things – Season 2 (Netflix; 2017)

The much-anticipated Halloweentime return of Netflix’s buzziest binge-watching favourite about paranormal happenings and the pitfalls of growing up in the fictitious town of Hawkins, Indiana rewarded and frustrated in alternating measures. When last we peeked in on the Duffer Brothers’ 1980s genre-film revivalist homage Stranger Things, young Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) had been rescued (though far from unscathed) from the shadowy, creepy alternate universe of the Upside-Down by the efforts of his family and friends, while Eleven (the poised-beyond-her-years Millie Bobby Brown, perhaps the chief child actor here likely headed for greater things in adulthood), the mysterious young girl with psychokinetic powers, vanished after destroying not only the Demogorgon monster who had snatched Will (and others) but also the sinister Hawkins Lab government agents who had imprisoned her.

A year later, the still-haunted Will is experiencing frightening visions from the dark-mirror Upside-Down of a looming, terrifying being that is the terrible, mind-conquering power behind the Demogorgon(s) and an imminent threat to Hawkins and the world. As his mother Joyce (Winona Ryder), her new boyfriend Bob (Sean Astin, hilariously avuncular and squarely decent enough to justify the period-reference joke of his casting), and Will’s best friend Mike (Finn Wolfhard, a good young actor whose name sounds like a discarded line from the cult-fave MST3K Space Mutiny bit) try to work out what’s affecting Will in semi-cautious interactions with the kinder-gentler Hawkins Lab administration of Sam Owens (Paul Reiser, an inspired piece of casting while also a 1980s gag), his brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) and Mike’s sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer) seek out a reclusive, free-spirited anti-government conspiracist (Brett Gelman) who they hope will help them wring out and spread the truth about the disappearance of Nancy’s wet-blanket best friend (and almost-inexplicable Season One fan favourite) Barb (Shannon Purser). Meanwhile, local sheriff Jim Hopper (David Harbour) is secretly keeping Eleven in hiding in a cabin in the woods, though her chafing at confinement and desire to learn about her past will not allow this situation to endure long. Also, Mike and Will’s best buds Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) are dealing with a fast-growing amphibian/reptile creature (named Dart by Dustin, after D’Artagnan from Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers), the new girl in town (Sadie Sink) and her bad-boy stepbrother (Dacre Montgomery), and the bumpy road of puberty.

There’s plenty happening in Stranger Things: sci-fi/horror action, suspense, and CG effects, silly jokes and melodramas, superficial themes and metaphors, and relentless period-specific pop-cultural allusions. The Duffers shuffle and recombine their cast members, looking for productive chemistry sparks and sometimes finding them in unexpected places: Harbour and Brown take big meaty chunks out of their tension-filled surrogate father-daughter approximation subplot, and the copiously charismatic Matarazzo strikes up an unlikely partnership with Joe Keery, who plays Nancy’s jock sometimes-boyfriend Steve Harrington.

Stranger Things is a good time and consistently compulsively watchable, although the penultimate episode’s sidetrip with a former lab-mate from Eleven’s past, played by Linnea Berthelsen, simply doesn’t work, despite the bravery of the Duffers to cut away from the main action. But it remains a bit of a mess that is simultaneously over-plotted and under-plotted. Consider Dustin’s adopted pet Dart, who grows into a juvenile dog-like Demogorgon: the creature whiplashes from cute to menacing and then vanishes for much of the building and climactic action completely; it is given a moment of emotional redemption with Dustin and an absolutely heartbreaking ending, but the series can’t decide if it ultimately wants Dart to be cute or scary or both at once. Plenty of more important characters are likewise handled this way, too (Wolfhard’s Mike rallies around the afflicted Will and hangs around until the telegraphed reunion with object-of-affection Eleven), while others (like Montgomery’s greasy jerk Billy, whose bullying nature is patly explained late in the season) remain nothing but gimmicks.

In a saturated television series landscape where even boilerplate mainstream network sitcoms and dramas feature rich veins of implication and meaning, Stranger Things‘ complete dearth of subtext can be galling, as well. It’s even more frustrating when the Duffers gesture towards such subtexts and then don’t bother to follow through. This is the case in Season Two, in which the fall of 1984 presidential election between Republican incumbent Ronald Reagan and Democratic challenger Walter Mondale is established as significantly upcoming but never materializes into anything more than background detail, a set of in-universe jokes about which Hawkins homes would have which candidates’ election signs on their lawns. Stranger Things is already (very) nominally about a disturbing shadow world lying behind the safe white-bread image of 1980s suburban Middle America. It would have been uniquely positioned to build to a subversion of the cagey, disingenuous optimism of the Reaganite “Morning in America” political propaganda, but it misses this golden opportunity and furthermore seems blithely unaware of it. In this and other ways, Stranger Things is an entertaining but shallow potboiler that you just find yourself wishing would reach for more.

Dark (Netflix; 2017)

If you find yourself yearning for compelling, mind-scrambling conceptual reaches and roiling thematic subtext from a Netflix-produced sci-fi genre thriller, however, give the German-language drama Dark a whirl (do yourself a huge favour if you do: leave aside the English-dubbed version and choose German audio with English subtitles instead). Superficially similar to Stranger Things – odd quasi-dimensional happenings emanate from the high-security-science-facility-adjacent woods, embroiling families from a nearby small town – Dark is nonetheless very much its own strange and unique trip.

One hesitates to say too much about Dark‘s plot, characters, and challenging timeline ourobouros, as spoilers diminish its impact more than is the case with most texts. But suffice it to say that Dark is about disappearing children in a small German town in three time periods precisely 33 years apart, and how time-travelling quests to prevent, reverse, or solve the sinister abductions instead make the troubling events inevitable and worsen their multi-generational blows.

The co-brainchild of Swiss writer/director Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese, Dark is built out of the dramatic ironies of time-travel theories (the hoary old grandfather paradox forever haunts the margins) and more dense, significant allusions to quantum physics, nuclear power, electromagnetism, existential philosophy, Christian scripture, and classical myth than in any television work since Lost. The family connections through time can become confusing (the show’s Wikipedia page features a handy branching hereditary tree, though be warned There Be Spoilers), and the unfamiliar cast of German actors does not aid in differentiation (I personally had only seen Oliver Masucci before; he starred as Hitler in the sly satire Look Who’s Back). But in truth, this only serves to sink the viewer deeper into the enigmatic swamp of Dark. And while it is never explicit about it, there are resonant echoes of recent German history in a story of the dangers of meddling with the past. What Dark does well, it does very well, and in a streaming TV landscape where surface-level entertainments like Stranger Things huff much of the oxygen, a deep and enigmatic work that breathes mystery in and out is extremely welcome.

Categories: Reviews, Television

Television Review: The Handmaid’s Tale

October 21, 2017 Leave a comment

The Handmaid’s Tale – Season One (Hulu; 2017)

Recently awarded the Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama Series, The Handmaid’s Tale is a quality production marked by visual flourishes, powerful performances, and resonant themes amplified by contemporary political applicability in a revanchist era of resurgent authoritarian ideologies and empowered anti-woman figures. It’s also deliberately an extrapolation and an expansion of its seminal source material, Margaret Atwood’s 1986 dystopian novel of the same name. In opening up the imagined totalitarian American theocracy of Gilead and the key role that the red-robed Handmaids play in it, the show’s creator Bruce Miller and his collaborators re-direct and re-focus its implications and meanings.

Told entirely from the first-person narrative perspective of a young woman known only as Offred (a slave name linked to her controlling male authority figure), Atwood’s novel imagines an alarming but eerily familiar near-future in which the United States of America as we now know it is no more. Taking advantage of social and political crises related to plunging birth rates caused by pollution and STDs, Christian fundamentalists have launched a violent coup and gained power over an indeterminate portion of the country: the Eastern Seaboard for certain (geographical clues place the immediate setting in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Atwood attended Harvard University), with the Midwest as an apartheid-type mass internment zone for African-Americans and unspecified “Colonies” spoken of as hellish penal settlements where the most undesirable are hidden away to expire. A perpetual territorial war is fought by young soldiers known as Angels, who battle Baptists in Appalachia and the South and serve as convenient vessels for unifying national propaganda efforts.

The Republic of Gilead organizes itself as a fascistic patriarchal theocracy. Democracy is abolished, religious freedom has been eliminated, and adherents of other faiths who do not convert are executed, their corpses exhibited publically as medievalesque warning about the costs of defying authority (along with homosexuals – called “gender traitors” – and anyone else resisting Gilead’s power). All political and social power is held by the Commanders of the Faithful, a rich white male cabal who decide policy on strict Old Testament grounds (though, typically, do not hold themselves to such pious standard of personal behaviour) and enforce it brutally with jackbooted armed men called Guardians and secret police known as Eyes. Women cannot work, hold money or property, read, or manifest any independence outside of subordinate roles to Gilead’s men; they are the either blue-dressed Wives of the ruling class, the lower-class Econowives who marry men of lower status, the household servant Marthas, or the red-clad Handmaids, who are trained and monitored by the strict nun-like subalterns of state power, the forbidding Aunts.

The Handmaids are women identified as fertile in an increasingly infertile society and therefore are treated as valuable if unfree human breeding stock. They are to live with Commanders for two year terms, where they are regularly forced to have sexual intercourse (in a twisted ritualistic “Ceremony” involving not only the Commander but his presiding Wife as well) in hopes of becoming pregnant and delivering the children of the ruling class. They are allowed out of home confinement only for brief walks to shop, as well as for ceremonial occasions such as rare births by their fellow Handmaids and propagandistic communal executions of enemies of the state called Salvations.

Atwood teases out these details entirely through Offred’s narration, interweaving them with memories of Handmaid training and of her life before the Gilead revolution (when she had a husband, Luke, and a young daughter, who was taken from her), as well as her heroine’s psychological reactions and observations on her plight and small notes of defiance. The television version of The Handmaid’s Tale accomplishes the same effect with a primary focus on Offred (played with steel and commitment by Best Drama Actress Emmy winner Elisabeth Moss, whose cloistered and intimate perspective is smartly imparted in cinematographic terms) but with tangents, backstories, and multiple perspectives filling out the picture of this world (not to mention some punchy, interesting musical choices, including an uncertainly-pitched but definitely memorable closing-scene use of the late Tom Petty’s “American Girl”).

We see things not only through the perspective of Offred but also of Luke (O.T. Fagbenle), who gets his own standalone episode detailing his escape north into Canada (the series was filmed in Southern Ontario, a Hamilton mansion serving as the Waterford house and Cambridge, Ontario’s riverfront standing in for that of Cambridge, Massachusetts); of Offred’s Commander, Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and his Wife Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), a power couple within the Gilead-establishing Sons of Jacob movement who tensely see the arrangement of influence shift considerably once the unforgiving gender hierarchy is in place; of Offred’s pre-Gilead-era best friend Moira (Samira Wiley), who escapes Handmaid school and is relegated to duty as a Jezebel, a caste of entertainers and prostitutes used for the amusement of the ruling men; of Ofglen (Alexis Bledel), Offred’s strolling partner, a resistance underground member, and a lesbian; of Ofwarren (Madeline Brewer), a fellow Handmaid whose successful pregnancy exacerbates her mental problems; and of Nick (Max Minghella), the Waterfords’ driver, Offred’s clandestine lover, and either an Eye or a member of the resistance group Mayday (or perhaps both; the second season may portend more revelations on this point).

The expansion of Atwood’s vision of Gilead and its translation into a visual storytelling medium involves not only this widening of perspectives, but also any number of other additions, some more successful than others, that alter the course of The Handmaid Tale‘s thematic streams and render the series as a deeply related but ultimately unique artistic statement. Gilead is simultaneously more open and more repressive on screen than on the page; Offred’s resistance to the order of the regime comes to be more open and undeniable, providing stronger impetus for her supposed arrest at the narrative’s end than merely her trysts with Nick or nocturnal Scrabble sessions and illicit gentleman’s club visits with the Commander. Luke and Moira’s scenes in Canada and a diplomatic visit by Mexican officials present opportunities to provide an outside view of the workings of Gilead’s society, as well as hints about how other nations are coping with declining birth rates.

Furthermore, the Waterfords are not only named and given a backstory and related believable tensions in their marriage, they are aged down from the older couple of the novel. This not only adds sexual tension to Offred’s interactions with the Commander (Fiennes is memorably reptilian here), but it erects a whole new dynamic between Offred and Serena Joy. In the novel, Serena is a former televangelist singer, now aged and cynical and implacably bitter towards this younger, more fecund woman entering her household. Strahovski’s younger Serena is a generational contemporary of Offred, thus emphasizing not only their rivalry for the Commander’s interest but also establishing a curious solidarity, a weirdly deferred sisterhood (even if Serena, as an architect of the Gileadean order, is one of the masterminds of both of their objectifications). An expanded role for Handmaid enforcer Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd, who won the Best Supporting Actress in a Drama Emmy for her performance) gives Offred a firmer antagonist than the good cop-bad cop Waterfords or “the system” itself, and allows a more nuanced and detailed exposition of the Handmaids’ symbolic role in Gilead beyond their practical reproductive function.

The biggest shift from novel to screen for The Handmaid’s Tale must surely be its ramping-up, in tonal terms as well as tangible visible subject matter, of the oppressive violence of the totalitarian state in Gilead. Rebellious Handmaids are physically punished, dissenters, enemies of the state, and gender traitors are put to death, street protestors are brutally smashed by military force (although the racial divisions of Atwood’s Gilead are left aside; there is no suggestion of specific state discrimination of African-Americans, and Moira – Wiley is African-American – is set on the path to Handmaid status). These violent fascistic eruptions and open crackdowns on dissent were alluded to by Atwood, hinted at, but only rarely integrated with Offred’s own experiences as fixed-perspective narrator. The novel took form as a memoir of a single individual in the midst of a totalitarian theocracy, her resistances minor and perhaps ineffectual, her own awareness of Gilead’s horrors too slow to arrive at first and too narrow to act meaningfully on in her current situation. It would seem that onscreen, this violent oppression is the ultimate trump card in the effort to establish Gilead’s dictatorial bonafides, while on the page the disturbing details of women’s lives under this order are more the point and the thrust of Atwood’s political satire. Those details are very much drawn out effectively in the series, too, don’t get me wrong, but Miller and his team feel the need to bold and underline This is Fascism for their audience.

Although it might have been assumed that Atwood’s impetus to write The Handmaid’s Tale (the title gestures to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales) in the 1980s lay in the emergence into American public life and political influence of conservative Christian Evangelicals during the Reagan years, the ideas grew from other sources with more authentic dictatorial bonafides. Atwood’s readings on American Puritans while at Harvard revealed a people alighting on fresh land seeking not freedom of worship but a theocratic dictatorship where only their own beliefs were tolerated (Atwood’s own ancestor, Mary Webster, survived a hanging sentence for witchcraft in Puritan New England, and the novel is pointedly dedicated to her). Atwood observed the utopian extremism of social-engineering totalitarian regimes in Romania and Cambodia, whose restrictive laws often fell hardest on vulnerable women. And her feminism informed the misogynistic rhetoric underlying Gilead’s unforgiving reproductively-ordered gender hierarchy, taking discriminatory attitudes about women’s appearance, temperment, and sexual status in free, secular, tolerant North American to their logical and oppressive extreme.

But in a fruitful accident of timing, The Handmaid’s Tale series has seen its themes amplified by contemporary political conditions in the country where it is actually set. The election of Donald Trump as U.S. President, with Mike Pence as his Vice President, has made a dystopian vision of a religiously-mandated gender hierarchy in American society that has dire consequences for women seem troublingly current. Of Trump’s many defining character faults, his bluff chauvinism and privilege-fed objectified treatment of women is among the ugliest, if not the very pinnacle of his towering mountain of moral deformity. A twice-divorced serial adulterer with a history of nasty statements about women, Trump infamously bragged on tape about sexual assaulting numerous women and getting away with it, behaviour which has destroyed the careers of other powerful men but which barely touched Teflon Don on his road to the White House. Pence, meanwhile, is a near-exact match for a Commander of the Faithful, with his fundamentalist faith, legislative history of curbing abortion laws and women’s health policies, and unnerving insistence on never being alone in a room with a woman who is not his wife. If they have not instituted a full Gileadean order as of yet, there’s little doubt (especially in the case of the quiet fanatic Pence) that they wouldn’t much mind doing so, if for almost diametrically opposed (but equally misogynistic) reasons.

As compelling as it was in its first season, The Handmaid’s Tale promises to proceed into true uncharted territory in its second season. Though it takes a different path to get there, its finale episode ends just where Atwood’s novel does, with Offred leaving her forced home and entering a van into the unknown of either deeper suffering or desperate freedom. Miller and his writers will have naught but their own inventiveness to guide them, as well as Atwood’s curious academic conference presentation coda for her short novel, which suggests that whatever else happened to Offred, she did at least briefly get out of Gilead, as well as that the regime is now studied as a curious historical phase in America. We might hope that the current American phase will also be studied as a historical curiosity by more enlightened and secure future thinkers, and that the troubling views and wider policy intentions of current leaders do not portend a real Gilead in the States. Whether on the page or on the screen, The Handmaid’s Tale is the sort of art that warns of the darkest potentialities of politics and culture so as to argue for course corrections that allow us to evade those possibilities.

TV Quickshots #34

October 15, 2017 Leave a comment

Mindhunter (Netflix; 2017-Present)

Mindhunter, the new Netflix crime procedural drama created by Joe Penhall and produced and partly directed by David Fincher, is more of an inventive hybrid than it might appear at first glance. Set in the late 1970s (topical references to Operation Entebbe and revival screenings of Dog Day Afternoon place its start in 1977), Mindhunter follows FBI agents Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) as they shepherd embryonic practices of criminal psychology and profiling into increasing usage in law enforcement as the now-famous and popularly glorified Behavioral Science Unit at the Agency, featured in cultural products such as the Hannibal Lecter franchise in books, movies, and television, as well as the long-running CBS drama Criminal Minds (which focused on the BSU’s successor department, the Behavioral Analysis Unit or BAU).

With Fincher directing the 10-episode initial season’s first two and last two hours, Mindhunter assumes the visual signatures and structural and tonal dimensions of the acclaimed auteur of handsome, tense, thoughtful mystery thrillers. Zodiac in particular, a labyrinthine and absorbing take on the Zodiac killings in and around San Francisco in the late 1960s and early 1970s, is a key touchstone, but Fincher and the other creative minds also mine a fertile vein as regards the audience’s familiarity with the conventions and practices of the police profiling procedural drama. Mindhunter sees those conventions and practices being worked out and honed, often by trial and error. It’s an origin story for the prolific profiling genre.

Ford and Tench (respectively based on BSU pioneers John E. Douglas, whose co-written book on the unit is the primary source material for the series, and Robert K. Ressler) are versed in established psychological policing techniques, but the younger, more idealistic and adventurous Ford, who comes from hostage negotiation, which he is seen doing (unsuccessfully) in the series’ opening scene and later teaches to new Agency recruits at the academy in Quantico, feels that current psychological and sociological frameworks from the academic world can be of benefit in identifying and arresting a new breed of murderer that he awkwardly dubs “sequence killers” (the precursor term of the more familiar “serial killers”). He faces an uphill battle in convincing hardboiled cops of its potential efficacy, from the initially-sceptical Tench (a veteran of the FBI’s nationwide travelling seminar presentations on these methods to law enforcement) to his old-school unit chief Shepard (Cotter Smith) to local detectives and police.

Mindhunter is a bit slow-moving in its premiere episode, but once its premise is established, the show add layers and key players at a steady pace. These include academic and psychologist Dr. Wendy Carr (Anna Torv) who sees wide-reaching value in what Ford and Tench are proposing to do, Ford’s intellectually challenging sociology student girlfriend Debbie (Hannah Gross), and talkative, self-aware serial killer Edmund Kemper (Cameron Britton), whom they interview repeatedly in order to glean insight into the mind of a sociopathic murderer.

Mindhunter is most interesting in how it depicts Ford’s earnest boundary-pushing of the classic, ossified police conceptions of criminals as mere evil monsters and the introduction of psychological and sociology analysis of criminal behavior. Police dramas are frequently politically and socially conservative morality plays, good vs. evil fables that elide the web of psychological complexities, environmental triggers, and systemic oppression and inequality that feed into criminal activity. They can’t all be The Wire, and Mindhunter isn’t either. But it introduces a limited progressive viewpoint that, while it does not promise to destabilize the established institutional structure or thrust of American law enforcement, does introduce a tension between the old-fashioned conservatism and a fresher, more humane, more intelligent set of processes.

BoJack Horseman (Netflix; 2014-Present)

Speaking of refreshingly original extrapolations on existing generic television tropes, Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s BoJack Horseman has built occasionally audacious new elements into the colourful comic misadventures common to the animated adult-oriented sitcom format for four seasons (the most recent 12 episodes were recently premiered for streaming on Netflix). Single episodes and larger arcs of the show alike tackle controversial and even taboo subjects with trenchant but never entirely cynical humour and often climax with surprising, sometimes deeply affecting moments of emotional honesty.

At its core, BoJack Horseman is a sharp satire of the madness of American society in general, and of Hollywood and the entertainment business in particular. Its titular protagonist (voiced by Will Arnett) is a washed-up former family sitcom star always searching for a career comeback angle while struggling with alcoholism, doubtful depression, and recurrent self-destructive behaviour. He’s also a talking bipedal horse, part of a richly and amusingly imagined world which human beings and anthropomorphic animals share. He lives in a modern star’s home in the Hollywood Hills with his couch-crashing live-in housemate/verbal punching-bag Todd (Aaron Paul). His Persian Cat agent Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris) arranges for BoJack to work on a juicy tell-all memoir with a ghostwriter, Diane Nguyen (Alison Brie), who is also dating his frienemy Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins), a cheerful but dim dog who was his sitcom rival from the 1990s.

BoJack Horseman skewers easy targets of American satire like Hollywood’s insularity, greed, indulgence, and ostentation, consumer capitalism’s saturating inanity, and the corporate media’s decontextualized and dumbed-down controversy hunger. But it’s braver and more iconoclastic than that, too. When the lazy, unthinking glorification of the American military is openly questioned in only the second episode of the series (BoJack runs afoul of a Navy SEAL who is, of course, actually a seal), you know that BoJack Horseman is set to be more challenging vis-à-vis social norms and cultural assumptions than we are accustomed to from American animated comedy (outside of a show telegraphed to be political agita like The Boondocks).

Sure enough, later episodes tackle everything from factory farming (the harvest of animals as food being an issue given extra frisson in a universe in which animals are equal citizens to humans) to prominent men in showbiz leveraging their power to take advantage of women and quash any who would expose them (although likely targetted at serial sexual assaulter Bill Cosby, “Hank After Dark” has gained renewed relevance given the recent revelations around producer and sexual predator Harvey Weinstein) to a thinly-veiled multi-episode critique of Scientology (via Todd’s inculcation into a cult-like improv comedy company). Even more impressive is how BoJack Horseman pivots from standard sitcom gags about damaging misbehaviour, substance use, and emotional abuse to more nuanced and poignant explorations of the triggers for and consequences of these easily-lampooned but personally destructive forces.

The emotional scenes that typically close out episodes, a semi-meta reproduction of the easily-digestible “morals” at the end of family sitcoms, transcend the standard platitudes and reveal emotional scars inside of BoJack, Diane, Carolyn, and others that will not be healed before the credits roll, or else constitute choices and actions that will not be tidily forgiven and forgotten. The jokes are often laugh-out-loud funny, but the social and political critiques and emotionally raw admissions of sadness are given extra attention and weight. This has made BoJack Horseman an unlikely but appropriate standard-bearer of the animated sitcom legacy of The Simpsons. Indeed, BoJack Horseman takes The Simpsons‘ episodic model as a template and both amplifies and specifies its satire and its emotional core for a complex contemporary America more fractured and anxious that that encapsulated by the nation’s greater animated comedy program at its peak more than two decades previous. It’s a true heir.

Categories: Reviews, Television