Television Feed

Mare of Easttown

There was some discussion of this HBO series in comments on this post, in which all agreed that the show is very good and that Kate Winslet's performance is extremely good. When I last commented there I hadn't seen all seven episodes, but I have now, and so can make my concurrence final.

It's a crime drama, and the production as a whole is worthy of comparison to the best contemporary work in that line: Broadchurch, for instance. "Mare" in the title is the name of the principal character. As far as I noticed, the odd name is not explained until well into the series, and then only in passing: it's short for Marianne (Maryanne, Mary Ann...whatever). She's played by Winslet, and is a middle-aged, divorced, working-class woman living in a small Pennsylvania town, where she's a detective on the local police force, like her father before her. 

In addition to being a good and well-told story, the series is a realistic portrait of a failing culture: broken families, drugs, aimless young people, and all that. But there are a fair number of film and television productions that do that well. What really sets this one apart for me is Kate Winslet's performance. She is absolutely convincing, and the fact that she's English makes that astonishing.  The accent is a very impressive part of that effect, but not the whole thing. If I hadn't known otherwise I would have assumed that the actress playing Mare is a native of the area, because she seems so entirely a part of it. 

I don't see all that many movies, and as far as I can remember have not seen Winslet in anything else. I was aware of her as a famous actress, and I knew she was English and had been in Titanic, but that was about all. I figured the person who played the romantic lead in Titanic was probably a glamour girl, possibly not the greatest actress. Well, if she is or was ever a glamour girl, she certainly does not mind stepping into the persona of decidedly un-glamorous women. 

There was a time--and although it was a long time ago I was probably an adult--when I thought the craft of acting was over-rated. I think that was partly an impression from the big movie stars of my childhood and youth, who played pretty much the same character in every film, or at least were always instantly identifiable: as John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, Jimmy Stewart, Katharine Hepburn, Lauren Bacall, and even those of a later generation, like Jack Nicholson. I tended to assume that their one basic character was essentially the person him/herself, and so it seemed that acting was mainly a matter of memorizing one's lines and simulating the emotions of the role, and I thought of the latter as a fairly direct and broad thing. 

Of course "simulating the emotions" of the role is not an easy thing to do, even if you're more or less being yourself. But to become, in some not entirely figurative sense, another person altogether, and to speak and behave, down to the most subtle movements of the face, as that person...well, I can't imagine being able to do it. And as I've increasingly understood that, I've increasingly understood that acting is a very difficult art, and most impressive when, as with any performing art, the difficulty is perfectly masked by skill, so that you aren't conscious that you're watching something difficult. 

Here's the trailer for Mare of Easttown:


Better Call Saul, The End

I'm having an unusually busy week, so instead of posting something more substantial about this great show, the last episode of which appeared on Monday night, I'll repeat what I said on Facebook after watching it:

So Better Call Saul comes to an end, and joins Breaking Bad and The Wire among great American novels on video. It's some compensation for being alive while the republic comes apart.

And this, which I said, also on Facebook, to a friend who said he'd never seen any of the three and wasn't much interested in doing so:

Personal taste is personal taste, but I think you're missing some great stuff. I'm far from alone in thinking these are the best work ever done specifically for television. I don't say "great American novels" idly, as I do think they bear comparison to great literary works in their exploration of character, and of good and evil. They're Dostoevsky-class in that respect.

Saul is a "prequel" to BB but mostly a very different kind of story, and it's pretty amazing that the producers and writers were able to produce something as good as BB.

All that said, I always warn people that BB has some very violent scenes and is generally a very dark and painful story in which some bad things happen to some good people. And some worse things to worse people. As much as I admire it, I don't really want to watch it again.

Perhaps I'll regret that Dostoevsky comparison someday. It strikes me now that I didn't say, in making the comparison, that, unlike Dostoevsky's work, the TV shows do not directly engage religious matters--not at all, as far as I can remember. And that is a major difference. For Dostoevsky, Christian belief was very much a live question, its decline a matter of grave concern, and hope for its renewal a significant element in the novels. In contemporary America as seen in the three shows I named, that struggle is over, and the characters are flailing around in a godless universe. That is not of course true of the actual America, but it's the culturally predominant worldview.

And of course it's not the exploration of big themes that makes great art--it's the skill with which the exploration is done. And it's the artistry of these shows--writing, direction, cinematography, and acting--that makes them great. If they are great. 


Stranger Things And A Few Other Current TV Shows

It's odd to call these "TV shows," as they have so little in common with the sort of thing that the term brings to mind. But anyway:

Jim Geraghty of National Review described the fourth and unfortunately not final "season" (see, even that word is not really applicable) of Stranger Things this way, and it's pretty much my own view:

Credit the Duffer brothers and their creative team for being willing to experiment with a popular show: making much longer episodes, darkening the tone and stepping into indisputable horror-movie territory, leaving the main setting of Hawkins for long stretches, and willing to put characters like Max, Eleven, Lucas, and Steve into new emotional territory. The characters remain as likeable, relatable, and fun to watch as ever. But not everything worked, and what was once this charming, ’80s-nostaglia-filled, suspenseful story of a seemingly ordinary small town with a scary monster lurking offscreen now increasingly resembles one of those overstuffed, explosion-filled summer blockbusters at the multiplex. Bigger isn’t always better, but that ominous closing scene suggests the fifth and final season will be the biggest yet.

That last sentence is the reason for my "unfortunately" above. In my opinion the first season was by far the best.

I'll put in another sort-of-good word for the show. My ten- and twelve-year-old grandsons have watched it (all four), and in some ways I wish they hadn't. It really has gone into "indisputable horror-movie territory." And I have other not-insignificant reservations about their exposure to it. Nevertheless, attempting to look on the bright side, as is always my inclination, I think something C.S. Lewis said about fairy tales is relevant:

A far more serious attack on the fairy tale as children's literature comes from those who do not wish children to be frightened.... They may mean (1) that we must not do anything likely to give the child those haunting, disabling, pathological fears against which ordinary courage is helpless: in fact, phobias. His mind must, if possible, be kept clear of things he can't bear to think of. Or they may mean (2) that we must try to keep out of his mind the knowledge that he is born into a world of death, violence, wounds, adventure, heroism and cowardice, good and evil. If they mean the first I agree with them: but not if they mean the second. The second would indeed be to give children a false impression and feed them on escapism in the bad sense. There is something ludicrous in the idea of so educating a generation which is born to the Ogpu and the atomic bomb. Since it is so likely that they will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise you are making their destiny not brighter but darker.

Stranger Things is full of heroism, love, and self-sacrifice. If my grandchildren are going to see horror movies, I can at least say for this one that it gives them examples of real, difficult virtue resisting real evil.

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I recently signed up for the AMC+ streaming service for the sole purpose of seeing two shows: the final season of Better Call Saul and the first (maybe only) season of Dark Winds, which is based on the novels of Tony Hillerman. These, as you probably know, are detective novels set among the Navajo people and featuring two Navajo policemen, Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. I'm a great fan of those books and was very much looking forward to this series.

I'm sorry to say that I found it disappointing. Not bad, but disappointing. To go into a lot of detail would be of interest only to those who love the books as much as I do. But to sum it up: I didn't think the principal characters were faithful to the book. Leaphorn, for instance, is given a son, though in the book he and his beloved wife Emma are childless. And I didn't care for the fact that the plot, only loosely based on a Hillerman book (Listening Woman), threw together people and situations that develop only over a long period in the fictional world. That's a defensible choice, given that the creators probably have no guarantee that they will get more than one shot. Still, it sacrifices a lot of deep character development. I'm tempted to go on but will leave it that. 

Nevertheless, if there is another season, I'll probably watch it. Though I plan to cancel AMC+ as soon as Better Call Saul is over. 

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In anticipation of the latter, I watched season 5 of Saul. If you liked Breaking Bad, but haven't been watching Saul, you really, really should. (It's a prequel to BB.) Especially in the first several seasons it doesn't have the sensational and gripping quality of BB, but as not-very-ethical lawyer Jimmy McGill is slowly transformed into drug cartel lawyer Saul Goodman, the two worlds draw closer and closer together. 

The producers have put together this great little ten-minute film in the style of a network TV exposé that gives an excellent overview of the series without revealing anything major.

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There was a gap of a week or so between the end of Dark Winds and the release of new episodes of Saul. In the meantime, out of curiosity and for lack of anything more promising, my wife and I watched the first episode of a new AMC sci-fi series called Moonhaven.  The title refers to an utterly implausible colony on the moon, which is an earth-like (but better) environment on a large part of the moon, and a near-utopian community established there under the guidance of an AI entity call IO. I'm not going to recommend it, though my wife and I have, as too often happens, gotten hooked enough to want to find out what happens.

This community seems to have leapt through some horrible 1970s California time-warp and is full of the most smug and manipulative post-hippie New Age gurus you can imagine. Back on earth, things are really bad (wars, environmental disaster, the usual). And the community, under the direction of IO, is supposed to be discovering how to solve the human problem and to take the solution back to earth. Their slogan is "The Future Is Better." No. The future is insufferable, if they are it.


Julee Cruise, RIP

I first heard her on Peter Schickele's radio program, Schickele Mix. I'll guess the year was about 1991. It was a wonderfully eclectic hour of music and talk about music and I sometimes recorded it to cassette.

One night he played this song. As far as I recall he didn't say anything by way of introduction beyond the singer's name. I had never heard of her. I had never seen Twin Peaks and knew little about David Lynch beyond the fact that he was the director of a movie called Blue Velvet which I had stopped watching part way through because I found it too disturbing. I can only describe my reaction to the song as some weird combination of mesmerized and electrified. And touched by a deep sadness. I kept the tape of that program for a long time, mainly for this song.

This was before the web, and I had no way of learning more about the artist or the music. Of course I had no idea that I would eventually become a big fan of Twin Peaks and some of Lynch's other work. I don't know how much time went by before I got the album, Floating Into the Night, but it was before I ever saw Twin Peaks. That had to wait for Netflix. I liked the album as much as I liked the one song. 

Here's what I wrote about the album in the 52 Albums series. I don't see anything there that I would disagree with now, five years later.

Julee Cruise died within the past day or two. According to this obituary in The Guardian, she had lupus. And the comment from her husband--"she left this realm on her own terms"--makes it sound like she might have taken her own life rather than wait for the disease to take it. I would not judge harshly anyone who takes that step under those conditions, but I hope it's not true. 

Here's the song which was the foundation of the Twin Peaks soundtrack. Of the Twin Peaks sound.

 


Why Didn't They Ask Evans?

The title belongs to an Agatha Christie novel and to a three-part television adaption of it which recently became available on BritBox, and which I strongly recommend to anyone who likes This Sort of Thing.

The sort of thing is a murder mystery featuring: an English village in the early 20th century; much beautiful photography of the village, the countryside, and great houses; a beautiful, witty, and brave heroine; a handsome and brave hero; the village church and its vicar; sinister aristocrats; a sinister doctor; names like "Bassington-ffrench"; a highly improbable story with a satisfactory resolution. And a light touch throughout.

I haven't read the book, but the series strikes me as being just about perfect as a Christie adaptation. It doesn't involve Poirot or Miss Marple, but rather two young people, Bobby Jones and Lady Frances ("Frankie") Derwent, the hero and heroine mentioned above. It's directed by Hugh Laurie, who also appears as the sinister doctor. Apart from Laurie, the only name I recognized among the cast was Emma Thompson, but they are all excellent. 

I found it completely delightful, as did my wife. The only falling-off from this near-perfection is one utterly incongruous use of the f-word. I suspect that in the book it's "bloody" or something of that sort that was pretty strong language in Christie's time, and that the writer(s) or Laurie thought it needed updating to something at least mildly offensive to 21st century ears, as the character who says it immediately apologizes. Or maybe there is a formal requirement in England that every program must include at least one instance of this word. Anyway it seems impossible that Christie would have used it.

There was one other small thing that struck me as slightly off: Bobby's friend "Knocker" Beadon is played by an actor who seems to be Jamaican (or some other formerly British West Indies place). That seems unlikely given the time and place, but I suppose it was not impossible, and in any case the character fits in very well. 

Here's the trailer. I had not seen it before watching the series, but it would certainly have made me do so. I cannot abide most trailers these days, which give you only a series of jerky quick cuts showing sensational moments which add up to nothing more than a rough impression. This one, in contrast, gives you a complete little scene, and a real sense of the characters.

There must be something about the book that makes it seem suited to dramatization, as this is the third one, fourth if you count one episode of a French TV show. One, from 2011, is reworked to include Miss Marple. That was unnecessary. Bobby and Frankie are just fine.


"Run, y'all!"

Another one of the many bits of C.S. Lewis's writings that rattle around in my head is one in which he discusses a phenomenon which troubled his youthful Christianity: he was not able to feel things that he was told, or at least that he felt, he should feel. It may be in Surprised By Joy. Or maybe it's a discussion of his reasons for writing allegorically in the Narnia stories.

Anyway, I have the same problem. In a few days I'll be attending various Holy Week liturgies, and in some of them, especially the Stations of the Cross on Friday, I will be contemplating the Crucifixion and quite likely, depending on the texts, be reciting words that say I'm weeping, filled with grief, and so on. But for the most part I won't actually be feeling these things. For whatever reasons, having to do with long familiarity but not only limited to that, I don't feel the intense emotions I rightly should feel about the Passion. I don't mean that I'm indifferent, and sometimes  am touched, but mostly my reaction is somewhat abstract: I think very cosmic thoughts about the awesome significance of it, rather than feel simple human grief for this innocent who is so wrongly tortured and killed.

I did feel those emotions very powerfully once, long ago, watching a TV show. Sixty years is a long time not only to remember a TV show but to be touched again by the pity and sorrow which it produced. I'm pretty sure I would find myself having difficulty speaking if I were to try to tell the story out loud. 

The show was the old General Electric Theater, hosted by Ronald Reagan. I thought I remembered that much, and thanks to the Internet I was able to find more exact information: the episode was called "The Patsy," and it was first broadcast in February of 1960. So I was eleven years old. 

It starred Sammy Davis, Jr., whose name is probably not as well known as it once was, at least not to younger people. He was one of the most successful and best-known black actors of the time--well-known even in comparison to his fellow members of the "Rat Pack"--Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and others. In the show, Davis is the titular "patsy" (a dupe, a scapegoat, the butt of jokes--I point that out in case that old bit of slang is no longer generally known). He plays the only black member of a squad of soldiers. He's naive and maybe somewhat simple-minded, and the other men are constantly making fun of him, playing practical jokes on him, and so forth. If I remember correctly he does his best to take it good-naturedly but is clearly hurt by it.

In the final prank, one of the men drops a grenade which everyone but the patsy knows to be a dummy. The others feign fear and move away. The patsy throws himself down on the grenade and lies there yelling "Run, y'all! Run!," waiting in terror for it to go off. When he realizes it isn't going to, he just lies there, sobbing, still muttering "Run." 

At least that's the way I remember it. As a boy growing up in that post-World-War-II time, I had heard of this act of heroism, seen it enacted in movies. The thought of such a self-sacrifice was always moving, but what made it so very much so in this case was that the one giving his life was despised and rejected of men.

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I won't be posting again until next Monday. But I'm not going offline completely (probably should), and will still see comments, and respond if/when inclined.


On Not Watching Amazon's New Tolkien Series (probably)

There never was much chance that I would want to see this. As I've said before, probably to the point of tedium, in the end I was more negative than positive toward the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings, in spite of there being many good things about it. I won't bother to go into all that again. And I didn't even see the Hobbit movies, which seem to have been a fundamentally terrible idea, no matter how they were executed. And even if there were no other reason to avoid this new thing, I don't want a Hollywood spectacle burning its Tolkien-based imagery permanently into my brain.

The new series is based on stories mentioned in the appendices of LOTR and told in more detail in The Silmarillion. Within broad parameters, the writers are free to make things up. That's okay, but a year or so ago word got out that Amazon was advertising for an "intimacy coordinator" for the series, so that seemed to be pretty much the end of the matter.

Still, I can't help following the story. A few days ago this piece appeared at National Review. It in turn is based on an article in Vanity Fair which reveals more than had previously been known about the plans for the series. The NR writer thinks it gives cause for both hope and alarm. I don't see a whole lot of the first.

Then, while watching the Super Bowl (or rather the last half of it), I saw Amazon's "teaser trailer," and all detailed considerations about fidelity to Tolkien and so forth went out the window. It appears to be a big, loud, action movie, seasoned with cuteness and sentimentality, and that's enough to know about it.

Still, I add the "probably." It's unlikely, but I won't totally rule out the possibility that I might give in to the temptation to check it out. A well-imagined and constructed Numenor, for instance, might be a grand sight....

This article at Crisis is a pretty good appraisal: negative, but judicious and reasonable. 

A question for anyone who's more familiar with The Silmarillion than I am: is the portrayal of Galadriel as a warrior justified? I don't remember anything in The Lord of the Rings that would warrant it, but perhaps in earlier ages she took part in physical combat. I only read The Silmarillion once, and it was several decades ago. 


Good Omens (TV series)

For many years I've heard the novels of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett recommended, often very highly and sometimes from people whom I know personally and who generally have pretty good literary judgment. I thought I might check them out sooner or later, but they weren't a high priority and I still haven't read anything by either of them. This 2019 TV series, based on a book which they co-authored, seemed like a chance to see what the praise was all about. Pratchett died in 2015, and the series seems to have been entirely under the control of Gaiman, as both writer and producer. 

The premise is that an angel and a demon who have been on the Earth beat since the Creation (the date of which, we are told, Bishop Usher was actually right about) have become more or less friends and rather comfortable with their 21st century simulated-human existence. The End Times have come, the anti-Christ is to be born. and the final war between heaven and hell is to commence. The pair have important roles to play in all this, but there's a problem: they don't want the world to end. They are pretty content with the way things are. So they set about trying to sabotage the apocalypse, and the whole thing becomes farce in the classic sense: "situations that are highly exaggerated, extravagant, ridiculous, absurd, and improbable." (Wikipedia) Right off the bat, for instance, they lose track of the anti-Christ, and waste a lot of time trying to steer the development of the wrong child. 

The series did not make reading either of its authors seem more urgent to me, and since Gaiman was apparently in control the blame can't be laid on insensitive TV producers. It's clever, but not that clever; funny, but not that funny. It leans too heavily on hackneyed conceptions of angels, demons, heaven, hell, and God. The last of these, for instance, is heard only as a voiceover (by Frances McDormand) and is the sort of limited wisecracking hardly-God-at-all construct which has been around at least since George Burns did the number in Oh, God back in the '70s. The angel (played by Michael Sheen) is an effete and timid fussbudget, apparently homosexual. The demon (David Tennant) is rich, witty, and glamorous, though most of the other demons are a really nasty lot. The angels are different but not really much nicer, slick inhabitants of a sort of empty white and glass space suggestive of a corporate office, behaving accordingly. Gabriel is played by Jon Hamm, who apparently had a key role in Mad Men, which I have not seen, but I suppose the association added flavor to the role for those who have seen it. 

The whole "isn't religion silly" vein of humor is pretty well played out at this point--"religion" here meaning mainly Christianity, or rather a pop-secular parody of it. People have been doing it for quite some time now, and there's no longer much adventure to be had in satirizing something that was already a parody. With "religion" now generally and openly despised by our most dominant and influential cultural forces, this kind of thing begins to seem like a big exercise in missing the point.

All that said, I did enjoy it, and would sort of half-recommend it. It's very elaborately and effectively produced, and there are a good many funny moments. The cast in general seems to be having a lot of fun, especially David Tennant. And I had fun identifying some of the actors playing characters very far removed from their usual roles. My wife heard a lot of "I know that face/voice, I just can't place it" from me. Anna Maxwell Martin is Beelzebub. Nina Sosanya, whose face and voice if not name will be familiar to people like me who watch a lot of British crime dramas, plays a nun (actually a satanic nun, Sister Mary Loquacious of the Chattering Order of St. Beryl). Miranda Richardson is Madame Tracy, a middle-aged (at least) woman who combines the occupations of prostitute and medium-for-hire. Mirielle Enos, the troubled detective (aren't they all?) of the American version of The Killing is War, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The one that took me the longest time to get was an actor whose face I recognized but couldn't place until four episodes or so in: he is Michael McKean, who plays Chuck, the older brother of Jimmy McGill in Better Call Saul. He plays one of the last Witchfinders, and gets special credit for being a rare American actor who does a believable British accent. 

Here's the trailer:

Having watched the trailer again, I'll add that there is a definite philosophical or theological kinship here with Wim Winders's Wings of Desire. Worlds apart aesthetically, though. 


The Squid Game

Anybody seen this? I'd been hearing about it-it's very popular right now--and watched an episode out of curiosity, slightly against my better judgment. Should've listened to my better judgment, because of course once I got to a certain point I wanted to see what was going to happen. And then I was sorry. 

It's a sort of variation on the gladiatorial game concept, or the Hunger Games concept. It's equal parts violent and creepy-weird, the sort of thing that makes you feel a little polluted for having watched it. Strongly not recommended. 


Martin Phipps: From the Soundtrack of The Crown

When I watched the series I was so struck by this segment that I went looking for the soundtrack. It's called "New Queen," with apparently semi-ironic intent, since it occurs at the end of Series 3, Elizabeth's Silver Jubilee.

I absolutely love that piece. I just wish it went on longer. There are other good things in the soundtrack but nothing grabbed me as much as this.

Here's the whole scene. I take it for granted that the series gives a picture in some ways false, but whatever might be said along that line, Olivia Colman's performance as Elizabeth is outstanding: