(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.