Television Feed

Tales From the Loop

I guess it was roughly a month ago that I watched the first episode of this Amazon series. I thought it was wonderful, a beautifully executed story about a little girl who loses her mother and receives help and comfort from a very unexpected source.  

It's a sci-fi series, more or less, a set of eight interconnected stories of several families living in a community which is centered on a mysterious thing called The Loop. By now I've forgotten whatever explication of that idea may have been included in the first episode. Suffice to say that it is at the center of some sort of science and engineering organization, also referred to as The Loop, which in turn is the center of a small town. The concept is pretty loose; mainly it serves to establish an atmosphere of technological mystery, with the accent on mystery.

It seems to be partly inspired by the work of a Swedish artist, Simon Stålenhag, described in Wikipedia as "retro-futuristic digital images focused on nostalgic Swedish countryside alternate history environments." Here's a good example:

StalenhagYou can see more at the artist's web site. He was somehow involved in the production; his name appears in the credits, but I don't remember in what capacity. The image above doesn't exactly capture the visual characteristics of the series: where the art is muted in color and soft in focus, the series is extremely crisp and, if not necessarily bright, not at all misty. The outdoor scenes are often very beautiful in a clear North American kind of way, by which I mean further north than, say, Virginia. I think they were shot in Canada.

After that first episode, I was expecting great things. I'm sorry to say that I was mostly disappointed. The others are as well executed as that first one, but to my taste they didn't come up to its dramatic level. The second one is a story of two boys who stumble upon a device which switches the souls and bodies of two people, or...well, I don't want to give the plot away, but I found it a bit nightmarish. I wasn't enthusiastic about the next few episodes, either, and might have given up on the series if I hadn't been so impressed by the first, and hadn't given up hope that some of the others might be as good.

I said "mostly disappointed" above: I was disappointed in episodes two through seven, at least in comparison with the first. But the last one came back up to its level, or nearly, so I was glad I persevered. I can't, however, suggest that you watch only the first and last episodes. As I mentioned, the stories are interconnected, and the last one requires knowledge of the second, and is greatly enhanced by its connections with some of the others. 

The whole series was written by Nathaniel Halpern, whose name I didn't recognize, but when I looked for information I found that he wrote an episode of the American version of The Killing. And I found this very interesting interview (which is spoiler-free) with Halpern and one of the producers. The interview notes the not-accidental structural similarity of the series to Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Dekalog, which I finally saw some months ago and liked very much (I don't think I wrote about it here).

I also discovered that the first episode was directed by Mark Romanek, who also directed a film I liked very much, Never Let Me Go. And the last episode was directed by Jodie Foster, for whom I have some sort of respect of which I don't really know the source, because I don't think I've seen anything else she's directed. 

All the way through the first episode I kept thinking "Phillip Glass has really been a big influence on soundtracks." Then came the credits: the music is by Phillip Glass and Paul Leonard-Morgan.


The Leftovers Left Behind

Was it really?...yes, it was, over a month ago that I talked about the HBO series The Leftovers. See this post. Here's the basic idea:

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? 

At the time I'd seen two of the three seasons and was undecided about it: "sort of recommended, but with reservations" was the way I put it. 

Now I've seen the third season and have decided: not recommended. Rob G disagrees with me about whether the third season redeems the second or not. And as I mentioned in that earlier post the show was apparently loved by most critics. So don't take my word for it (not that you would). But all in all I found it disappointing and frequently annoying. A great many of the plot turns made no sense to me, turns for the sake of turns. And I didn't find most of the characters very interesting. I will say for the third season that it didn't leave me feeling like I'd sat through a very long shaggy dog story: at least one extremely important question is answered, so that was a relief.

I can, however, recommend the show without reserve to anyone who feels that he doesn't hear the f-word often enough. Most of the characters use it relentlessly, almost compulsively. 


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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 


No More Posts Till Easter Monday

As is fairly usual with me, I started off pretty well with Lent and gradually got slacker and lazier. I'm going to make an effort during Holy Week to attend more to the occasion. It seems especially important this year since I can't actually go to Mass. So I won't be posting anymore till Monday April 13. I'll still participate in conversations, if there are any, but there won't be any new posts. 

Today for the first time since public Masses were cancelled I watched one on television. As I said in a comment here a couple of weeks or so ago, a televised Mass just seems all wrong to me in some fundamental way that I haven't made the effort to articulate. I don't mean religiously wrong, just off. Unreal. Weird. But I have already noticed a tendency on my part to start drifting without the anchor of weekly Mass (and also in my case a weekly holy hour--which I still do at home but of course it's not the same). I keep thinking of what Janet said about the Japanese Christians who held on to the faith for...what was it?...250 years without priests, and I'm ashamed.


Interesting Item for Twin Peaks Fans

Some intriguing comments from Mark Frost at the Welcome to Twin Peaks web site, which I guess I should look at more often. On The Return:

The themes we were looking at were different. All of that is reflected in the show. I think it’s an older and somewhat sadder and wiser look at the world.

I found the third season somewhat disappointing, but that wasn't the reason. I guess my criticisms are worse, really, because what disappointed me were some of the specific artistic moves. The minimizing of Agent Tammy Preston's role, for instance, for which Mark Frost's book The Secret History of Twin Peaks raised expectations. 

And I don't know about "wiser." Darker, for sure. 


True Detective 3

It's really good. At least as good as the first one, and arguably better. It's somewhat similar in broad outline: the murder of a child, and two detectives who fail to solve the case at the time it occurs and pursue it over a period of many years. It's set in the South again, this time in Arkansas. The first crime also includes the disappearance, presumed abduction, and possible murder of the murder victim's sister. The action takes place in three distinct time periods: that of the crime, ten years later when the case is reopened and again not solved, and 2019. 

Once again it features seriously impressive acting in the detective roles, Mahershala Ali as Wayne Hays and Stephen Dorff as Roland West. (I think Ali's first name is pronounced as if the "e" werent there--"Mahrshala," accent on the second syllable.) It also involves some downright amazing makeup trickery to turn the detectives, young men in 1980, into old men forty years later. There's an extra bit on the DVD that describes how this was done. (And by the way, one of the extras on either the first or second DVD contains a major spoiler. It should have been on the last DVD.)

Once again the personalities of the two detectives, and the relationship between them, are at the center of the story. This time it's complicated by the fact that Hays is black and West is white. In Arkansas in 1980, the end of segregation was only fifteen years or so in the past. It was probably more or less by force of law that the state police in Arkansas, as in many places, was racially integrated. Hays's position is difficult. And it's one of the great strengths of this production that West's position is also difficult, though of course in a different way. Racial matters are handled with great subtlety and insight into the complexities of the situation, very different from the usual crude, clumsy, and stereotype-driven approach of the entertainment industry on that subject. Both Ali and Dorff are completely convincing in this respect. And a special nod goes to Ali for his work in the 2019 segments, because Hays at that point is beginning to slide into dementia. 

Suffice to say that it's brilliantly written, brilliantly acted, brilliantly directed, brilliantly produced. T-Bone Burnett's musical direction and writing are pretty close to perfect. I have a mild reservation about the ending, but as I can't discuss it without giving it away I'll have to leave it at that. I don't think anyone who thought highly of the first series will be disappointed in this one. 

Here's the trailer:

 


The Crown 3

It's good. Olivia Colman as Elizabeth is superb, just as you would expect if you know her work. There is another actor from Broadchurch present, playing a very different role; I'll let that be a surprise. Helena Bonham-Carter is really a little too glamorously beautiful as Margaret, but of course her acting is first-rate. 

This season takes the story into roughly the mid-1970s. It's a little frustrating, never knowing how much of the story is gossip and hearsay and how much is certainly true. I assume that all public appearances and speeches and so forth are accurate, and that private conversations are invented, but that leaves a big middle area that could be roughly accurate or wildly wrong--portraits of relationships and so forth. I suppose the filmmakers didn't go too far out on any limbs, though I figure they probably turned up the elements that lend themselves to a soap-opera-ish treatment.

Here's the trailer:

I really must find out the name of the music that's playing at the end of the last episode (not heard in the trailer). 

I sort of dread series 4, which will have to wade into the Charles-Diana misery.


Dark 2

Well. I don't really know what to make of this, and am not at all sure I should recommend it to others. But I think I will anyway. Because, whatever my reservations, I was thoroughly fascinated by it. One big warning, though: the story does not end, just as it did not end with series 1. There isn't even the sort of resolution with a few loose threads that satisfies the desire for an ending while pointing the way to a sequel. According to Wikipedia the third season is to be the last one, so I'm hoping that means the developers actually planned a coherent three-season plot which will have a reasonable ending.

The story only becomes more complex in series 2, and I have major doubts as to whether it makes sense. The pseudo-science makes even less sense than before: opening a barrel of nuclear waste might make those in the immediate vicinity pretty sick, but I really don't think there's any danger of it disrupting the very fabric of space-time. And the use of wormholes to serve as the equivalent of magic in sci-fi has gotten tiresome.

But the complex and confusing plot line is anchored by elemental human drama: parents, children, love, death, misunderstanding, mistakes, separation and reconciliation. Not really all that much of that last one, though, at this point. 

The contradictions inherent in the whole idea of time travel are handled more imaginatively here than in time-travel stories I've encountered. However, that seems to be a confession of ignorance on my part: suspecting that something called "the bootstrap paradox" was not invented by the writers of this series, I searched for it, and found that it goes back at least to a 1941 short story by Robert A. Heinlein. The basic idea is presented in the show as this: you take an object back in time and leave it there. So it exists in the present because it existed in the past. But since it was only in the past because you took it there, it was never created. At any rate, the movements in time are so many and so complex in Dark that the result is either a brilliant juggling act or a big mess. Either way, it's awfully well done--well-acted, well-written, well-produced.

Actually I'm concerned that something that happened in the last minute or so of this season may seal the "big mess" verdict. I'll find out when I watch series 3.


Dark (German TV series)

I'm not generally a fan of time-travel stories. They seem to follow the Terminator and Back to the Future patterns, in which someone travels into the past in order to make something happen or not happen in order to change something in the future, and that usually turns into a fairly straightforward adventure or comedy. But this one is richer and more fascinating than most, at least within my not-all-that-extensive experience. That usual pattern does become a factor but I think not until fairly near the end of the first 10-episode series. There is a whole lot more going on.

There are two seasons, and I've recently finished the first. It doesn't by any means end the story, and I'm a little concerned that the second will not do that, either, as a third (at least) is planned. But I'm definitely going to watch it.

Season one, at any rate, involves three points in a 66-year span: 1953, 1986, 2019. That's a 33-year interval, constituting a cycle in which the lunar and solar years are somehow in sync. I'm sorry, but I have not bothered to understand exactly how this works, and it probably doesn't matter. For purposes of the show's mythos, I think it's enough to know that this cycle has cosmic significance. 

The story begins in 2019 and involves, mainly, four families in a small German town. They are connected in complex ways in 2019, and as things develop we see that they have been connected for a long time. There is a constant interweaving of times and characters, of past and present. I'm not even going to attempt an overview. I haven't counted but among four families there must be several dozen people involved, and their interactions are complex even without the added confusion of people moving around in time. 

Moreover, what's going on--the time-travel stuff and various related matters--is conceptually complex (and of course includes some pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo which probably doesn't actually make sense). You may find it easier than I did, or more difficult, but for me it became exasperatingly hard to follow at times. But it was also interesting enough that I re-watched parts of it, just to try to understand what was happening.

It's also appropriately named: it's very dark. It's not really explicitly violent, but it involves the deaths of several children, and although their murders are not depicted, their bodies, with horrible injuries to their faces, are shown repeatedly. Also--this is pretty minor, but worth mentioning: the opening includes a brief but pretty explicit sex scene which has absolutely no artistic reason for being so. This is an annoying thing which I've noticed in several shows, which tells me that it's not an accident: start things off with a single attention-grabbing sex scene, and after that just tend to the story and don't do it again. Seems pretty cynical.

It is extremely well-done, and as I say I'm finding it fascinating. So this is a recommendation, but a qualified one, due to the dark subject matter and the complexity. (And yeah I know some people can't deal with subtitles.) This trailer will give you a pretty good feel for it, though it doesn't provide any very definite information. Many of the moments included here are not actually very important to the story. The trailer also allows you to hear part of the gorgeous and extremely appropriate song from the opening titles, which is the work of the German musician Apparat.

Apparently a lot of people are comparing it to Stranger Things, but I don't think that's especially accurate. I think that's probably just because a significant part of it occurs in 1986, providing plenty of opportunity for depicting '80s pop culture and fashion.


The Innocents

I finally watched this 1961 movie, reputed to be the best adaptation of The Turn of the Screw, and also a pretty dang good movie on its own terms. I agree with both opinions. It is really very good. To my mind it's an unusual sort of success: the filmmakers took a very good book (ok, novella, whatever), made a film based on it which simultaneously took a lot of liberties and remained faithful, and produced something that is as good a film as the book is a book. 

Well, almost. I don't know how hard I'd defend that last statement. I mean, maybe it's not quite up there with the acknowledged masterpieces of cinema. But then the same could be said of the book in its category. If it were all we had of Henry James, he would not be considered a major writer of fiction. Anyway, it's an exception to what seems the usual patterns: good book to bad or inadequate movie; bad or mediocre book to good movie; good book to good but not very faithful movie. And of course bad book to bad movie is a perennial. But none of that is as true as it once was; movie-making has improved in a lot of ways since 1970 or so. 

The Innocents is actually based directly not on the novel itself but on a play by the same name, adapted from the novella by William Archibald, who, along with Truman Capote, is credited as screenwriter. The play seems to be Archibald's only other claim to fame. It would be interesting to compare the movie to the play, to get an idea of how much Capote contributed. I had forgotten till this moment that I read Other Voices, Other Rooms many years ago, and the scraps of memory that have returned make me think it would be worth revisiting. 

You can find the trailer on YouTube, but it's sort of trashy, so I don't think I'll post it. I notice several comments to the same effect. 

So, for the moment, ends my fascination with The Turn of the Screw (see this and this). I'm tempted to read it again but other authors, other books have claims on me. I still count myself in the "apparitionist" camp as regards the reality of what the governess sees, but, as I mentioned in the second of those posts, I grant that the arguments for the opposing view. I'm inclined to stay with my original view: that the ambiguity arises from the fact that Henry James wrote a Henry James ghost story, arguably subtle to a fault. Apparently he never said anything to indicate that the apparitions were not real, but of course that doesn't prove anything. 

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While I'm at it: I also watched the Breaking Bad sequel, El Camino. I saw a review somewhere that described it as "inessential," which I guess is true, but that's ok, it's a very good story, as well-done as you would expect, considering that it was made by the same people who did the series. I would certainly recommend it to anyone who likes the series.

Also: I recently watched the fourth series of the British mystery show Shetland. And maybe it's just me, but I thought it was a cut above its previous series as well as most similar dramas, close to Broadchurch territory. You need to have seen at least the preceding series, though, to fully get some of the things that are going on.