52 Poems, Week 37: First Ode for a Very Young Lady (Anselm Hollo)
52 Poems, Week 38: For the Anniversary of My Death (W.S. Merwin)

Sunday Night Journal, September 16, 2018

Television is a drug, we've been told for decades. It really is. I don't like to think I'm hooked on it, and I can say in a certain sense that I "don't watch television." But that certain sense is what the phrase used to suggest (and I guess still does in many cases)--watching the stuff that's broadcast all day and night on various networks, the original big three and all the others that have proliferated. I never have watched much of that, not because of any virtue on my part but because I don't like it. And I've always found the commercials almost unendurable. 

But if by "watch television" you mean "watch moving pictures on a television screen," I can't deny that I'm hooked. For a long time it was only movies, which I felt entitled me to a certain self-respect--at least I wasn't watching "that network junk." But I can only say that now if I mean only CBS, ABC, NBC, and Fox, because thanks to Netflix and other options a great deal of what I watch now was originally made for TV, either here or in the UK. 

My wife and I have gotten into the habit of watching an hour or an hour-and-a-half of some sort of crime drama almost every night. Most of the variations from this have been other made-for-TV productions like Victoria and The Crown. And the majority of them are British. (See this post from two years ago.) One wants to relax at the end of a working day (and yes, mine are still largely work of one kind or another though I am supposedly retired). But one does not want to be bored. And crime dramas provide a mixture of the stimulating, even frightening or disturbing, and the reassuring: for the most part, at least in the ones I watch, there is in the end something close to justice: the murderer is found out and apprehended. The links in the list below go to the Wikipedia pages for the shows, in case you want to find out a bit more about them. I only noticed a spoiler in one of them (noted below).

Midsomer Murders is the least demanding, and the best option for the end of a particularly stressful day. It falls pretty well within the definition of the "cozy" genre.  Predictable, likeable characters (I mean, not counting the killers, with which these little English villages seem to be crawling), and not too gruesome or psychologically creepy. There are a lot of episodes, but I am trying to ration our consumption of them because eventually we will get through them all. And I have to admit they get somewhat repetitive. How could they not?--it's been going since 1998.

Marcella is another entry in what seems to be almost a sub-genre now: the detective with major personal problems. I watched this one alone...oops, I forgot to mention that I frequently watch half an hour of TV on my lunch break--and sometimes a whole hour, if what I'm watching lasts that long and I can't make myself stop in the middle. (But I don't have a problem, really. I can quite anytime I want to.) Anyway, I watched it alone because when my wife and I started watching it the opening promised to be so gruesome that she decided to bail out. Marcella Backland is a police detective in London, and her major personal problems (MPP) involve a collapsing marriage, the death of a child, and blackouts in which she does crazy things which she can't remember afterwards. I guess I'd give it a qualified recommendation. It's produced, directed, and written by Hans Rosenfeldt, who was the guiding hand of the original Swedish The Bridge. Despite that opening scene, it is not extremely gory. 

So, The Bridge: having had this strongly recommended so strongly by Rob G, I finally watched the first season of it a couple of months ago. It's very very good, though sometimes gruesome and disturbing. As you know if you've seen conversations about it here, the bridge in question is the one between Sweden and Denmark, and each country provides a detective. Both, not surprisingly, have MPPs. I haven't watched any of the subsequent seasons, because I can only get them from Amazon for $24 or so each.

The Tunnel is a sort of remake of The Bridge with the Channel Tunnel between England and France in the role of the bridge. The detectives are similar, including MPPs. I didn't like it as well as The Bridge, but it's good. It's also more disturbing. The third and final season was recently shown on PBS and...how to say this without giving away too much?...it does not have the sort of resolution one expects in a crime drama. In case you're on the fence about watching it. And NOTE: that Wikipedia entry does contain one major spoiler.

DCI Banks is based on what is apparently a very popular series of novels by Peter Robinson. I haven't read any of them so obviously have no idea how the show compares to them, but I like the show enough to be interested in the novels. Banks is, I suppose, a pretty basic police detective in the mold of, say, Inspector Morse: he's got his quirks and his problems and is on the prickly side, but not MPPs to the extent that some of the aforementioned have. Really, if I were to summarize this, it would sound an awful lot like any number of similar shows, but it's very well done, the stories are good (though not always entirely believable, which I guess is not unusual), and the recurring characters, starting with Banks, are sympathetic enough that you care about them.

Case Histories stars...Lucius Malfoy? Yes. I was not a big fan of the Harry Potter books or movies, but when I saw the lead character in this series it didn't take very long for me to go from "He looks familar, I've seen him in something else" to the scary image of Malfoy. I've never been one to be greatly fascinated by movie stars, but over the years I've become more and more impressed by the ability of actors to transform themselves convincingly into utterly different people. It may be hard to believe that Jason Isaacs could be both Lucius Malfoy and the kind, strong-but-sensitive Jackson Brodie, who, as Wikipedia says, "hides a deeply empathetic heart under his tough-guy exterior." This series lasted only two seasons, apparently, and I would have liked to see more. Brodie is, in his basic situation, the classic private eye: an ex-cop who lost his job for exposing corruption, trying to get by on whatever miscellaneous investigative problems happen to walk in his office door. The problems usually meet first Brodie's secretary, Deborah, who is herself a very engaging character, sharp-tongued and quick-witted. Icing on this cake is an intriguing and somewhat quirky sound track. Definitely recommended, along with Banks

The Doctor Blake Mysteries is an Australian series. It falls somewhere between Midsomer Murders and the others mentioned here on a scale that runs from cozy to disturbing. It's not exactly cozy, but on the other hand it's not terribly dark, either. Doctor Lucien Blake is a "police surgeon," which seems to be something like the forensic pathologist who is often a second-tier character in mysteries, in the town of Ballarat. In this case the pathologist is the one who actually figures out the crimes. The stories take place in the 1950s; Blake is a World War II veteran who has returned to Ballarat after certain traumas. He's a bachelor and lives with his housekeeper and a couple of lodgers. I'm not wildly enthusiastic about this show, but I do enjoy it. As with Midsomer, each episode is a self-contained story, but the main characters persist from one episode to the next, and you come to care about them and want to know what happens to them.

Ozark is the lone American entry in this list. I might describe it very broadly as an attempt to do something like what Breaking Bad did so very effectively. It involves a Chicago financial planner, Marty Byrde, whose business partner has been laundering money for a drug cartel, and stealing from them in the process. They figure this out, of course, and arrive to kill both men. Marty talks his way out of being murdered by promising great things in the money laundering line. This involves moving to the Ozarks, where he predictably gets into ever-deeper trouble, with his wife, Wendy, becoming a very capable co-conspirator, and his children being dragged in as well. There are some darkly funny bits where Marty and Wendy lecture the children on honesty and other virtues while lying constantly, deceiving and abusing people in various ways, and causing the deaths of several. There are two seasons, and I'm not quite done with the second. I don't know whether more are planned but I doubt that the story is going to be wrapped up very satisfactorily in the two remaining episodes. I'm not very enthusiastic about this one, but the story got its hooks into me. It's pretty dark and has some especially gruesome deaths. 

All these shows, including the later Midsomer episodes, are filmed in HD, and frequently provide some very beautiful imagery. Banks and Case Histories, set in Yorkshire and Scotland respectively, are especially good in this respect.

*

I have managed to see a few movies in recent months. Just this past week I watched, for the first time, the classic Western High Noon. I admit that this was sort of a check-off item, as I've wanted to see all the acknowledged classics in this genre. And I've been a little saddened to find that they don't in general have the appeal that they did when I was a child. That wasn't much of a surprise, of course, but some of them have been worse than I expected. This is an exception. It's really pretty good. I guess everybody sort of knows the basic idea from various cultural references if not from seeing the film itself: lone lawman confronts outlaw(s) at high noon. Gary Cooper is the town marshal. The black-and-white cinematography is good and the story works pretty well.

Although I had not seen the film, I've heard the theme song, "Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling," occasionally over the years, enough so that I recognize it. I knew that it was associated with the movie, and was always a bit puzzled by that: what does asking your darling not to forsake you have to do with standing up to outlaws? Well, I must never have listened past the first line or two of the song, because it was written for the movie and specifically refers to people and events in it. Marshal Kane has just married his sweetheart, Amy (Grace Kelly). She's a Quaker and a pacifist and intends to leave him if he insists on fighting the outlaws. 

Another movie: Europa, directed by Lars von Trier. It's the only thing I've seen by him, and I know he has a reputation for having done some fairly twisted stuff. I don't know about that, but this is an odd one. Not twisted, not offensive, but...odd. I got it from Netflix semi-inadvertently--for some reason I had it in my head that it was an older work by Godard or Truffaut or somebody of that sort. I have no idea why I thought that, but I had put it on my Netflix queue a long time ago, and it finally bubbled to the top. 

I can't say much more for it than "somewhat interesting." It's about crimes and conspiracies in Germany immediately after World War II, the work of unrepentant Nazis trying to keep their resistance alive, and it involves an American who is drawn into such a conspiracy. That might suggest an action-thriller sort of thing, but it isn't really that. It's shot mostly in a murky black-and-white that looks more like something from the '20s than the '40s, if a period-cinema atmosphere is what was intended. I guess that's appropriate in one way, as that was certainly a murky period of history. If someone wants to argue its merits, I'll listen, but I wasn't impressed.

*

Yes.

ZeroPointZero

 

Comments

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Sure, you can stop whenever you want. 8-)

One of the things that deters me from watching television series is the sheer length of them, or rather the ratio of length to anticipated reward. I think to myself, "In X hours I could watch the complete filmographies of Kubrick and Malick, or I could watch about half of [Show-I-Heard-About]." 99 times out of 100 I'm going to choose film over TV, even though I know TV has improved a lot, as you say (Netflix, etc). I think the only TV series I've ever watched in its entirety was "The Wire", and that wasn't wasted time.

I guess a similar argument could be made with books: "In X hours I could watch the complete filmographies of Bergman and Scorcese, or I could make a bit of a dent in this Dickens novel". Sometimes, maybe most of the time, the right choice is to read the Dickens.

But I'm curious: after watching all of these shows, do you feel that they were, by and large, time well spent? There is also the fact to consider that it's time spent with your wife, of course!

Oops. Looked like I used some punctuation that got interpreted as an html invisibility tag!

Well, not punctuation, exactly, but typographical marks.

I think I fixed it. Looks like it just throws away anything in angle brackets that isn't html.

Anyway--that's a good question, and one I've often asked myself. The brief answer is sometimes yes, sometimes no. I certainly wouldn't argue that the time couldn't be *better* spent. I guess I will confess, too--after reminding y'all that my wife and I are empty-nesters--that we do this while eating supper. So a good portion of it is not time I would have spent reading in any case.

I might add, too (he said somewhat defensively) that a big part of the reason we drifted into this was that these things are between 45 and 90 minutes long, never more. Whereas movies tend to run 2 hours or more. And on weekday nights especially we didn't want to spend that much time watching.

Are you watching the older Midsomers or the ones done since around 2011? I prefer the earlier ones, mostly because I liked that Barnaby character and actor more than the current one.

The sometimes yes, sometimes no answer is what an honest person says about films and books too, so fair enough.

I was looking the other day at the television series with the highest critical ratings of the past 15 or 20 years. Some of them were what you would expect -- The Sopranos, The Wire, Twin Peaks -- but some of them I'd not heard of -- a current one called Rectify (which someone mentioned here recently), a police procedural called Murder One, and The Larry Sanders Show!?! Well, I'm pretty ignorant. I wonder if those shows would be worth the time investment though. (Here is the list.)

I don't think I've seen more than about half a dozen of those (counting as one all occurrences of a given show on the list). Murder One and Larry Sanders are not among them. I've seen The Americans, all of it, and don't think it was all that good, although it had enough page-turner sort of quality to keep me (and spouse) watching. Or maybe I should say Paige-turner (ha ha ha, a joke for those who've seen it). You'd have to tie me to a chair to make me watch Handmaid's Tale. Watched a few episodes of Battlestar Galactica and didn't care much for it. Same for Sopranos and a few others. Haven't seen Fargo but a friend whose opinion I respect has recommended it.

Marianne, I think we started with the very first episode of Midsomer and have watched them in order. We're just now getting to that transition you're talking about. The other Barnaby appeared on the scene a few episodes ago and I can see I'm not going to like him as much.

Trivia: the guy who plays Jones, the current sergeant, is in Marcella as a totally different sort of character--middle-aged, sort of crude, not very honest, rich businessman.

I kept thinking they should give Stephens a bigger role, and they did increase it a bit, but I think they could have done more. Though maybe the actress was not altogether up to it.

Watched the series finale of Rectify on Sunday night. I think it stands out in that unlike many of these other high quality shows it's not a cop show or a thriller, but much more of a straight drama (although there is a "mystery" underlying the whole thing). Thus it's much more character-driven; as one TV critic wrote, it's the first TV series to bring an indie film approach to television. Which stands to reason, as its creator Ray McKinnon has a background in independent films.

If you're not aware, it's is about a man who spent 19 years on death row for killing his high school girlfriend. DNA evidence frees him, but many people in his small Southern hometown still believe he did it, including some in law enforcement. Thing is, Daniel, now 37, can't remember exactly what happened, traumatized as he was by the incident and by 19 years on death row.

Says one critic:

"For 30 episodes, this show examined despair without ever lapsing into nihilism. It acknowledged darkness and violence without ever being exploitative (many of its most powerful moments were acts of violence and coercion recalled through memory and monologue alone. That’s what great actors can do.)

What do you do with these feelings? How do you even name them, let along not be overtaken and crushed by them? That is what Daniel has grappled with during these four seasons, and his family has done their share of processing and grappling as well. A lesser show would have used bombast or broadness or velocity of some kind to convey the mind-bending challenges they’ve been through. A lesser show would have taken all the nuance and depth out of how hard it has been for them to negotiate this contradictory maze and come out with a shard of hope in their hearts."

Granted, this sort of thing is not for everyone. But if you like character-driven films (and first-rate acting) it's very much worth watching. I think it's the best straight drama series I've seen, and Aden Young's performance as Daniel is outstanding.

"a big part of the reason we drifted into this was that these things are between 45 and 90 minutes long, never more. Whereas movies tend to run 2 hours or more. And on weekday nights especially we didn't want to spend that much time watching."

Yeah, that's true for me too. Sometimes on weeknights I'm too tired to read for very long, but watching a 45 or 60 min. episode of a series works out just right.

From what I saw of Rectify (the whole first season iirc), I wouldn't argue with this praise of it in the abstract. But as I said when we discussed it before, I just didn't *like* it. I must say I'm tempted now to cheat and find a synopsis just so I can find out what actually happened. Assuming it doesn't end with that question still unanswered.

Yeah, "not liking it" is different than being put off by the despair/pain inherent in the story. The latter can be overcome by an appeal to the "redemptive" element.

What I meant earlier about the pain, what kept me from wanting to continue, was not that it was there, but that the situation seemed essentially static. I just looked at a list of episodes and I see that I actually watched through season 2, maybe a bit into 3. Things happened, of course, but it seemed like everybody, not just Daniel, was just sort of pinned to the wall in pain. Not knowing whether there would ever be any sort of resolution made it feel like I might be watching a shaggy dog story about misery.

I put The Bridge in my amazon cart but I havnt got to watching it uet

There's a new Barnaby? Yuck. They should have just made a new character. Frankly, I haven't been happy since Troy left.

AMDG

I hardly ever turn on the TV (which only shows Netflix, etc.) when Bill isn't home. I've just been reading when I'm not busy.

AMDG

"I haven't been happy since Troy left." Yeah, I feel somewhat that way. He was the best. But Jones is good.

Janet, it is a different character; he's a cousin of the old Barnaby, and has the same last name.

Janet, it is a different character; he's a cousin of the old Barnaby, and has the same last name.

"Not knowing whether there would ever be any sort of resolution made it feel like I might be watching a shaggy dog story about misery."

Understood. I had similar fears, but as things proceeded it seemed there were ever-increasing foreshadowings and hints, however slight, that such was not going to be the case. Basically, I began to trust McKinnon like I trusted Vince Gilligan with B.B.

I learned to trust Vince Gilligan to stick the knife in as suddenly and deeply as possible. :-/

Marianne, I misread Janet's comment. The cousin's name is also Barnaby, isn't it? That's what I was thinking with "new Barnaby."

"I learned to trust Vince Gilligan to stick the knife in as suddenly and deeply as possible."

True, but I was fairly confident he wouldn't "cheat" or be purposely nihilistic, for lack of a better word.

Right, I know you were talking about something different. I still haven't entirely recovered from a few of the shocks he administered in BB.

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