No More Posts Till Easter Monday
Divine Mercy Sunday

Three "TV Shows": Yes, No, and Maybe

(I put "TV show" in quotes because it doesn't seem entirely correct to call these multi-episode multi-series dramas by the same term we use for the sitcoms, cop shows, lawyer shows, doctor shows, and so on which used to be what we meant when we talked about television. These newer things are more in the nature of multi-segment films.)

Anyway: this is a sort of out-of-place post for Easter Monday, but I'd been thinking about it and want to get it out of the way. I have a couple of posts about books coming but am not sure I'll have time to do them this week, as I'll have two of my grandchildren here for most of the week. 


Yes to Counterpoint.

I had never heard of this. It just showed up as a new release on Netflix, and we decided to try it. It's an odd combination of sci-fi and espionage. The former is present mainly as the device which sets up the situation: sometime in the 1980s a scientist working in a lab in East Germany Did Something--as usual with sci-fi, the Something makes no particular sense--which caused our universe to fork into two identical worlds accessible to each other via a tunnel in the scientist's lab. The scientist meets his counterpart in the parallel world. Partly because of actions deliberately taken by the two versions of Yanek, the scientist, the two worlds begin to diverge and soon become hostile to each other, so that in the present day there is a very Cold-War-ish situation between them. That's where the espionage angle comes in. 

The main character, Howard Silk, exists in both worlds but as very different sorts of men. Both work for their espionage agencies, but one is a mild-mannered low-level bureaucrat while the other is a tough guy actively engaged in the sorts of things one expects of movie spies. At some point I began referring to them as Harmless Howard and Mean Howard. He/they is/are played by J.K. Simmons, a name I didn't recognize, but a face I did: I've seen him play relatively minor characters before, but could not tell you where. 

The spy story is complex and will make you think of John LeCarre. But there's the twist that many of the same players are involved on both sides, in often very different versions of themselves--known as their Others--shaped by the very different circumstances of their lives. One is especially poignant, a man who is near the top of the spy agency in one world, and a pathetic semi-madman in the other. 

An interesting and complex story, well done, and, as noted, with interesting character twists. Sure, much of it is preposterous, but I didn't find the suspension of disbelief very difficult.


No to Damnation. (heh)

I could swear that The American Conservative ran an interview with the man behind this show, Tony Tost. It was intriguing, in part because of his very caustic views on the time he spent as a graduate student in English lit, and it mentioned this show, which sounded equally intriguing. So I found it on Netflix, and watched several episodes.

Apparently the interview was somewhere else, because when I went to look for it after watching the show, to refresh my memory about what had intrigued me, I couldn't find any trace of it. I guess it's out there somewhere at some other site. 

When you really want to like something, and give it the benefit of the doubt and press on even after finding yourself disappointed, and then abandon it, you must have been really disappointed. I thought this was going to be a philosophically interesting and engaging story about a very flawed religious man. Instead it was just an average crime and violence story pitting Evil Businessmen against Noble Farmers during the Depression. The central character is only posing as a preacher: he's actually a sort of vigilante-revolutionary. 

Apart from its having less depth than I'd expected, I just didn't think it was all that well done. Once I've started a story (be it television, film, or book) I'll usually press on just to find out what happens. By episode 4 or so of this I just didn't much care, and I wasn't much involved in the fate of the characters, so I bailed out.


Maybe to The Leftovers.

By "maybe" I mean sort of recommended, but with reservations. After I'd watched two of the three series, I learned that it's very highly regarded by critics. I dissent somewhat from that. It's a strange and interesting premise:  what if a great many people suddenly just vanished, right in the middle of ordinary activities, poof, there one moment and gone the next? Something like the Rapture, but with absolutely no discernible pattern or meaning? Or explanation. How would the people still here--the leftovers--react? What sort of cultural pathologies might develop? 

On October 14 of an unspecified year, 2% of the earth's population, 140 million people, disappeared in an event known as the Departure. The show explores a number of possibilities in the reaction. There is, for instance, a nihilist cult called the Guilty Remnant which devotes itself to hammering home to the rest of the world that the event itself and life in general are meaningless. There's another cult centered on an alleged healer called Holy Wayne. There is a government bureau which distributes checks to the families of the Departed, which requires checking for potential fraud. There are Christians--well, at least one--trying to prove that it was not the Rapture, by revealing hidden sins of the Departed. There are dispirited and somewhat disoriented memorial gatherings where no one really knows what to feel. There is a town in Texas where no one Departed, which becomes a sort of holy place, with people fighting to get into it in the hope that it will either heal what has happened to them or prevent it from happening again. 

It is certainly interesting. My reservations: first, I've seen two of the three series, and suspect that in the end it's only going to be a long shaggy dog story. I really began to suspect that when I read that one of the creators of the show was also co-creator of Lost, of which I saw only a couple of episodes and which I have heard was in the end pretty unsatisfying. In addition to the Departure itself, there are apparently supernatural events which turn plot wheels and then are, um, left behind. And second, I just don't find the characters and the production in general all that engaging. That last one very much a matter of personal taste, of course.

But maybe you'll agree with those enthusiastic critics. And I plan to watch the third series, in spite of my reservations.


Oh wait, here's a fourth one, a light and qualified recommendation: Ragnarok. This is a Norwegian series which is somewhat similar to those American shows which go into the early life of Superman or some other superhero. It sounds a little silly: a teenage boy named Magne moves to a little town where, unknown to all, the Frost Giants who battled the ancient Norse gods still live and rule in the form of Evil Businessmen. Magne does a kindness to an old one-eyed man in a wheelchair, which I would not have realized if the subtitles had not told me who was speaking, is Wotan. The man's wife--not, as far as we're told, Frigg--speaks some kind of magic words and Magne is invested with the powers of Thor. Ragnarok II is clearly coming. 

I can't justify it, but I really enjoyed this one. It's stuffed with leftish politics (climate change as apocalypse, and all that), but that doesn't really matter to the essence of the story: it's just today's conventional way of portraying Good Vs. Evil. According to the show's Wikipedia entry, the Norwegian critics panned it. But the Norse mythology aspects of it (though I think what the show does with it is only lightly connected to the actual myths), the stunning scenery, and the engaging characters captivated me anyway. It doesn't end decisively, so I hope there is another series coming. I really hope that a certain character turns out to be (or turns into) Loki, which I kept thinking was suggested. It's not a big investment of time, by the way: six 45-50 minute episodes. 


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p.s. The Leftovers is based on an apparently best-selling novel and the author is one of the co-creators of the show.

It's amazing that everyone watches all of these silly shows. Oh well, to each their own. The last entry makes me think that one day before I am old and senile I need to read Kristin Lavransdatter.

I did watch the movie Bombshell last night, and it was wildly entertaining. Charlize Theron as Megyn Kelly was quite convincing - I think she can do anything as an actress. And oh my gosh, John Lithgow as Roger Ailes was quite fun!

I'm sure I've said before that I only watch movies. :)

I would definitely put some of these "tv shows" up against most movies. Hard to compare any of the ones I mentioned to Bombshell because they're totally different kinds of stories. I can't work up any interest in a movie about Megyn Kelly, but I feel pretty safe in saying that "silly" is at least as applicable to it as to any of those. Maybe Tiger King is more apt? :-)

Yeah, you *really* need to read Kristin.

Here is a question--is the Laurie/Fry Jeeves and Wooster as definitive as the Brett Sherlock Holmes, and the Suchet Poirot?


Interesting question. I can only recall one other J&W and it was not very good at all. But I was never totally pleased with Laurie/Fry, either. So I'd say best, definitely; definitive, not necessarily.

Oh wait...I believe what I'm thinking of as J&W was actually one of the Blandings stories, so it wouldn't have been them at all.

I got a little frustrated with The Leftovers through season 2 and into 3, just because it got so strange, but by the end of season three I felt that it had gone quite a ways towards redeeming itself, and I thought that the ending, surprisingly enough, wasn't bad at all. I actually found it fairly moving.

Not familiar with the others.

The last thing of note that I watched was the recent film Uncut Gems: really did not like it. Unpleasant people doing unpleasant things to the background of unpleasant music. Much has been said about Adam Sandler's performance but to me he was just pulling off a good Pacino imitation.

I'm glad you wrote that about Uncut Gems, Rob. Several people have told me to watch it, and I have so far resisted. I don't think I have ever enjoyed one of Adam Sandler's movies, whether it be comedy, or drama. The least the filmmakers could have done was have pleasant music! I'll re-watch a Pacino movie instead. :)

I can't recall hearing anything about Uncut Gems. Just watched the trailer and it looks like just a pretty ordinary crime-y sort of thing.

My big problem with The Leftovers is that the incidents just seem to go on without adding a lot, either theme- or character-wise. A lesser one is that there's really no visual pleasure to speak of. Uninteresting cinematography. I'm watching it on DVD and I suspect it was meant to be seen in higher resolution, and might be better that way.

I haven't checked but I'm pretty sure that the actor who plays the grandfather who goes with what's-his-name, the protagonist, to the Next World or whatever it is, is the guy who played X, Mulder's government informant, in the early episodes of The X-Files. Which is an appropriate reference.

The only Adam Sandler movie that I remember liking was Punch Drunk Love, which was his first dramatic role, iirc. That one actually was pretty good.

Plot wise, Uncut Gems is somewhat similar to the Mark Wahlberg movie The Gambler from a few years back: gambler owes everyone in town money, tries one last big gamble to win enough to pay them all off. I liked the Wahlberg movie a lot better, partly because the lead character was considerably more sympathetic.

I think you'll find that The Leftovers gets better in the third season -- it seemed to me that it started paying more attention to character as it got closer to the end.

The only Adam Sandler movie that I remember liking was Punch Drunk Love, which was his first dramatic role, iirc. That one actually was pretty good.

Plot wise, Uncut Gems is somewhat similar to the Mark Wahlberg movie The Gambler from a few years back: gambler owes everyone in town money, tries one last big gamble to win enough to pay them all off. I liked the Wahlberg movie a lot better, partly because the lead character was considerably more sympathetic.

I think you'll find that The Leftovers gets better in the third season -- it seemed to me that it started paying more attention to character as it got closer to the end.

No idea why that last comment posted twice!

I should say that I also rewatched Prime Suspect (Helen Mirren) in its entirety over the last couple weeks. It still holds up very well, and I think you'd have to credit it with being the originator of the gritty British "mini-series" type of detective show.

I do plan to watch the rest of The Leftovers, so...we'll see. But it will probably be a week or so before I start and two or three before I finish. I have to get it on dvd from Netflix. Right now I have Once Upon A Time in Hollywood here to watch.

I saw the first Prime Suspect and thought it was good, but the disturbing nature of the crimes made me not want to see more. Also didn't care for the feminist line. But it may be fairly tame in both aspects compared to some of the stuff being made now.

I had the same reaction to the first Prime Suspect, and I have never watched another one. It REALLY disturbed me. For a while, I even resisted watching anything with Helen Mirren, but I am glad I changed my mind about that.

I was also thinking about how it was probably tame compared to the many horrid things I have watched since then. And it's disturbing that I can watch those things now and not be disturbed. Lately, I haven't been watching them.


That's probably a good idea. The ones that can really be considered of some kind of permanent value in spite of the horror are few.

And then, there's always this niggling little voice that says I'm supposed to be thinking on whatsoever is true, honest, pure, etc.; and these things aren't any of those things.


Right. That's the big thing. It's not easy to judge, because it can be applied in a way that would exclude a whole lot of very worthwhile art, not to mention great. On that score, I'd rate the three series in this post in pretty much the same way I did rate them.

One that kind of bothered me was Luther, the British show starring Idris Elba and Ruth Wilson. Wilson's character is a monster and the plot of the first episode (or two?) was creepy enough that my wife bailed out on the series. Yet there was a suggestion that the character was redeemable and was maybe trying, so to speak, to provoke redemption. And that interested me a lot.

Janet, I'm disturbed that I don't remember being disturbed by the first episode of Prime Suspect!

Mac, for me the tricky part about watching Ruth Wilson’s character in Luther is the pull she exerts because she's so watchable. And I think that sort of softens the horror/evil of what she does.

Definitely very watchable, yes, I can’t say it softens the horror, though, because part of what makes her watchable is the suggestion of crazed menace. She’s really good at that.

Apparently there’s a production of Jane Eyre with Ruth Wilson. That might be worth seeking out. As would the one being reviewed here:

I did see that Ruth Wilson Jane Eyre series when it was first broadcast. My memory of it was that it was sort of modernized, had a fairly steamy love scene, as I recall. I liked the later movie version with Mia Wasikowska; it was more in keeping with the book.

I haven't seen either as far as I can remember. I've seen an ancient one with Orson Wells as Heathcliff. And one more modern one which I don't remember at all. Seems like maybe it departed significantly from the book.

Watched a very intriguing series over the past week -- The Kettering Incident. An Australian production from 2015, it's very well done. Great mystery element, moderately creepy, with both Twin Peaks and X-Files undertones. Acting, writing, directing all top notch.

The problem: no ending! The final episode of season one answered a few questions, including one big one, but it left many threads open, including a couple cliffhangers, presumably to be addressed in the second season. But the second season never came, alas. When it was pitched to the network that had done season one they turned it down. This despite the first season being nominated for and receiving several Aussie TV awards.

S0....well worth watching if you don't mind being left up in the air at the end, at no fault of the show itself. And just so you're aware, because of the way the show ended there are lots of attempts at interpretation out there, many of them containing spoilers. I'd avoid reading up on the show until after you watch it, therefore.

Hmm...I don't know if I want to deal with that or not.

Yeah, tough call. It's like reading a really well-written but unfinished novel.

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