Case Study 69: Black Sails–“XI”

Original Airdate: February 7th, 2015 on Starz

First things first—I’m sorry it took me so long to get this review posted! Black Sails is exactly the kind of super-plotty serialized drama that’s the most difficult to cover in this space, although of course super-plotty serialized dramas are hotter than ever. Yes, I watched each and every minute of the first eleven episodes of Black Sails and I came out the other side with only a few cutlass wounds and a venereal disease to show for it. I also found that it wasn’t exactly the kind of show that lent itself to binging. If I’m going to watch eleven hours of nautical-terrorism-themed chess I’m certainly not going to make them consecutive hours. Anyway, Sails is an attempt by Starz to keep producing questionably relevant “historical” dramas after Spartacus: Blood and Sand went off the air in 2013. It’s also an attempt to get anyone to care about a Starz original series. It’s looking like it didn’t succeed: at the end of this season Sails is getting put in dry dock. For those of you wondering—no, this is not the pirate show with John Malkovich. That would be the hastily cancelled NBC vehicle Crossbones. One more fun fact before we get into the pros and cons: Sails is part of the Treasure Island Universe! Yes, everything has a universe now, even 19th century novels. What this means in practice is that three of the characters can be found in the novel. On the other hand, an equal number of characters are based on actual pirates with varying degrees of legitimacy in the historical record, so this all amounts to a definite sense that no one involved is taking either history or Robert Louis Stevenson too seriously.

Strengths

  • Intricate power struggles. This may be the main reason why people watch plot-heavy prestige dramas, and Sails certainly delivers. Everybody’s got an angle. The overarching plot of these episodes concerns the efforts of a crew of pirates led by one Captain Flint (Toby Stephens) to haul in the Score Of The Century. The big problem with that is that Flint is by turns secretive and murderous and is constantly finding himself in danger of mutiny or worse. It also means that people who aren’t on his crew have a hard time trusting him. Here, he butts heads with the bloodthirsty Charles Vane (Zach McGowan.) Vane has recently taken control over the fort protecting the pirate haven of New Providence Island, but for the moment he’s more preoccupied by a pissing contest with the even more bloodthirsty Ned Low (Tadhg Murphy, Alexander.) Why should Vane care about Low? Well, Low’s creating problems for the island’s chief fence of stolen treasure, Eleanor Guthrie (Hannah New) and Vane’s still carrying a torch for her. Speaking of old flames, Flint also has a semi-secret lover: seemingly respectable lady about town Miranda Barlow (Louise Barnes.) She isn’t so interested in the Score Of The Century. Instead, she wants Flint to go straight and beg for acceptance back into polite society. Barlow also helped Guthrie’s well-connected father go into hiding, and here we see Eleanor negotiate with Barlow to try and salvage some of her father’s few remaining relationships. Then there’s the trio of Jack Rackham (Toby Schmitz,) Anne Bonny (Clara Paget, Fast & Furious 6) and Max (Jessica Parker Kennedy.) They’re currently managing a whorehouse and personal romantic entanglements, but you know what they’d rather be doing? Finding the Score Of The Century. Vane extracts information about Low from Max in return for repairing Rackham’s reputation. It’s certainly fun to watch all the gears turn and there’s genuine suspense in wondering who’ll come out on top and how. The only downside is that all the Machiavellian machinations can take the place of actual substance. But if you want a complicated plot? They’ve got a complicated plot. It may be a little unfair to say the show elides substance entirely. You could make the case that all this is an extended lesson on how to fail or succeed at leadership. Flint has an instinct for tactics but struggles to manage his crew effectively. John Silver (Luke Arnold) Is charismatic and manages to ingratiate himself with a wide array of parties, but circumstance is frequently weighted against him. (Of course, we all know that Silver will eventually be a big success, so in some ways Sails is really all about his rise to power.) Eleanor is apparently supposed to be about 19, which is a big fucking stretch, but nevertheless, hers is a story about a young woman struggling to hold onto power in an old man’s world. And of course, Vane and Low rule by dint of force. However, this isn’t a theme explored in this episode explicitly but rather in the series as a whole, and more pointedly elsewhere at that.
  • Action! Michael Bay is an EP on Sails so it was easy to predict that it would feature thrills, chills and/or spills. In this episode they’re parcelled out sparingly but to great effect. Both moments involve Vane—when we first see him, he’s engaging in a swordfight with a crew member for practice and so we the viewer can enjoy a swordfight. This is just an appetizer, though. The big climax has him straight-up decapitating Low after some close-quarters combat. Anyone coming into a pirate drama is going to be expecting cutlasses and cannonballs, and while there’s more to be found elsewhere in the series, there’s also more to come: the cliffhanger has us poised for a violent confrontation between Flint’s men and Vane’s.

Weaknesses

  • Pointless, parsimonious flashbacks. This season has us spending part of our time watching Flint’s backstory in London slowly, slowly unfold. Once upon a time not long ago, Flint was a Royal Navy Lieutenant assigned to a special project with the goal of rooting out piracy in the West Indies. Instead, he ran off with his boss’s wife, aka Mrs. Barlow. This is all well and good, but I take exception to the structure. Each episode in season two, we’re treated to one or two scenes of his old life. This might be okay if they were thematically relevant, but there are no real themes here. Instead we’re getting a slow drip of something not all that interesting. If we must get the long version of Flint’s origin story, why not put it all in one episode, where we could actually get immersed instead of just getting jerked around between the exciting events of the present day and the tangentially relevant recent past?
  • Gratuitous girl on girl action. If there’s one thing pirate ships full of sweaty, lonely, drunken men are known for, it’s lesbian sex. Look, I’m always glad to see queer characters on television, but I don’t think the pairings between Eleanor and Max or Max and Anne are intended for queer audiences. Every episode of this show involves bare breasts. Many episodes feature the sight of a mons pubis. Sure, pirates aren’t famous for their decorum, but if there’s going to be a bacchanal, let’s make it equal opportunity, hm? We managed to go eleven episodes without any men having sex with men, but three out of the four female characters have gotten down with each other. Many scenes are set at the brothel run by Anne, Jack and Max, but the conspicuous naked women are never accompanying naked men. Apparently, later this season we learn that Flint fucked both Barlow and her husband. Good progress! Unfortunately, it’s still a demerit from this episode.
  • Solving problems with sex. Look, I understand the temptation. It ties up plot threads and we get to see boobs, because those are so hard to find pictures of in 2016. But it makes otherwise powerful characters like Eleanor seem flighty when she’ll throw down her convictions and best judgment to hop onto Vane’s dick just because he chopped off somebody’s head, and if Jack, Anne and Max are going to form a happy little triad, what was the point of setting up a love triangle between the two of them in the first place? All I’m trying to say here is if you’re going to take away time from sword-fights and manipulation, it had better be for either meaningful character development or thematic richness, not so I can watch every single woman on this show make orgasm faces.

Final Judgment: 7/10. Sure, it’s fun while it’s happening, but when you take a step back it’s pretty unfocused. Where is all this leading and why should I care? In the first few episodes of this show, it seemed like they wanted to develop a story about pirates on the margins of the world stage staking a claim to legitimate statehood. That really could be a fascinating story. Instead, it feels like we got caught up in an endless power struggle. It’s satisfying in some ways, but these are ultimately empty calories.

NEXT TIME: I return to the collected works of Norman Lear as I review One Day At A Time!

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Case Study 69: Black Sails–“XI”

Case Study 52: Generation War, Episode 3–“A Different Country”

Original Airdate: March 20th, 2013 on ZDF

I’ve been hoping to get a chance to cover more international programming in this space, and Germany’s Generation War offers new ground both in terms of country of origin and original language. For those of you nerdy enough to keep track, I’ve now covered shows in three languages (English, Japanese and German) and from five countries (the US, the UK, Japan, Canada and Germany.) It’s quite a dramatic point of entry for German TV—averaging about seven and a half million viewers per night when it first aired, it proved a highly controversial miniseries both in Germany and elsewhere.

Strengths

  • Insightful. James Delingpole’s mostly incoherent response to Generation is a good example of the reception it received. He accuses it of being “politically correct melodrama,” and yet at the same time it’s guilty of not depicting the “banality of evil.” It pulls its punches by having the character Wilhelm (Volker Bruch) flinch when he finds himself forced to commit war crimes. Wouldn’t the “politically correct” thing to do be to make the Nazis as evil and remorseless as possible? Wouldn’t the “politically correct” approach be to rehash Hannah Arendt’s gospel fresh from 1963? It’s always a bad sign when the critic starts talking about the message the art should have imparted, but the truly bizarre thing is that the homily Delingpole desires is in the actual text! He says “Surely the key point about being a German in the second world war was this: regardless of whether you were good or bad, rampantly philo-Semitic or violently Nazi, you were chewed up by Hitler’s machine all the same.” It’s not clear if Delingpole actually watched all three episodes of this miniseries, but if he had bothered to hang on for an admittedly ponderous four and a half hours, it would be painfully apparent how eager the show was to underline an early observation made by Friedhelm (Tom Schilling, Who Am I): “The war will bring out only the worst in us.” And, yes, Hitler’s war machine turns out to be an unstoppable vehicle of immiseration. Despite Delingpole’s extensive complaining about Friedhelm’s initial reluctance to fight for the Nazis, he eventually ends up becoming a hardened executioner before dying in a hail of machine gun fire. The other member of the core cast of five characters who dies in the course of the series is Greta (Katharina Schuttler.) At the start of the series, she seems to be the member of the group most poised to survive: Friedhelm and Wilhelm are off to the Eastern Front, as is military nurse Charlotte (Miriam Stein.) At the show’s start in 1941 it’s already starting to look pretty grim for Greta’s Jewish lover, Viktor (Ludwig Trepte.) But Greta’s planning to stay in Berlin and make a bid for fame as a singer and hopefully actress in the style of her idol, Marlene Dietrich. And she does become somewhat well-known as a singer, thanks in no small part to her OTHER lover, Gestapo officer Martin Dorn (Mark Waschke, Habermann.) Things take a turn for Greta when she goes on tour to the Front and gets a sense of what the war is actually like. She makes the mistake of expressing her doubts publicly and doubles down on that mistake by telling Dorn’s wife about their affair, and before long she’s been imprisoned on charges of “defeatism.” In the course of a month, she goes from being a rising star sipping champagne in a well-appointed dressing room to being thrown in prison with an effective death sentence. More than any other shown here, her story conveys the insanity of the war and Nazi Germany, and she doesn’t fire a shot or come anywhere near a concentration camp. Moving on to another controversy that erupted over Generation: many in Poland were angry over the show’s depiction of anti-Semitism among the Polish Home Army. You see, Viktor manages to escape a train to a concentration camp and winds up joining the Polish resistance, but he has to keep his identity as a Jew secret. Eventually, he ends up freeing a trainload of Jews from captivity when his comrades are just as happy to leave them to die. With his secret exposed, he’s thrown out of the resistance movement. But the objections to the “historical accuracy” of these scenes seem largely political and remind me of similar objections made about President Johnson’s legacy vis a vis the movie Selma. Because the thing is, it does seem like large portions of the Polish resistance were legitimately anti-Semitic. But as that article hastens to point out, that wasn’t necessarily true of everyone involved in the movement, much like every soldier who fought for the Nazis wasn’t monstrously or even banally evil. And Generation points that out, too—Viktor’s comrade Alina (Alina Levshin, Combat Girls) is entirely sympathetic to him, and even the leader of the partisans (Lucas Gregorowicz, Lammbock) sends Viktor on his way with a handgun instead of executing him as was planned. And maybe this is my ignorant, American ass showing, but I never would have thought about anti-Semitism in the Polish resistance if it weren’t for this show. At the end of the day, the problem with the “politically correct” version of this show that Delingpole and other critics of the show long for is that it’s boring. We know that Nazis, on the whole, were evil. Even if you had never heard of this World War II business sixty years of TV, movies and other media released in the last 60 years would have informed you of that quite exhaustively. Wikipedia notes that the show has also been criticized for its “scant depiction of Nazi Germany’s project to purge the Reich of Jews.” While there’s room for improvement in how the show deals with Jewishness, I’ll point out once again that there’s no shortage of things depicting Nazi Germany’s project to purge the Reich of Jews. Which isn’t to say that there’s not a place for those stories. There always will be. I was still pleasantly surprised to see Viktor escape the train to the camp and wind up in the resistance, because concentration camps are something of a narrative cul-de-sac. Either you die, or you beat the odds and survive, either by waiting out the clock or escaping. Are there profound truths we’ve yet to explore about the human experience of the Holocaust? Sure. Are you going to find those unexplored yet profound truths in a made-for-TV miniseries? It seems unlikely. It would have been interesting to see what Generation came up with, but I’m not too mad that they didn’t go there. There are much better places to find profound truths about the camps. Instead, Generation explores less well-trod territory, like the very real terror of rape and execution at the hands of the Red Army for frontline medical staff like Charly. I’ve heard the soul-searing stories of the Holocaust. I’ll hear them many times again. It is valuable testimony. But I had never heard or imagined the story of someone like Charly, as two-dimensional and cumbersome to the narrative as she is. (See below.) I’m pleased whenever a show can offer this depth of insight, though Huckleberry Hound and its ilk may set a rather low bar.
  • High production values. You don’t see a lot of TV dealing with war, and when you do it’s either sitcoms giving us a decidedly removed version of events (M*A*S*H, Hogan’s Heroes, Enlisted) or big-budget cable dramas (Band of Brothers, The Pacific, Generation Kill.) I’m sure this has everything to do with money, and Generation falls blessedly in the latter category. It’s hard to tell a story about war without the well-choreographed chaos of battle, dazzling explosions, realistically selected locations and burnt-out ruins.

Weaknesses

  • Charly. It’s telling that in total Generation runs for four and a half hours, because it feels like eight but it has the content of two. This could have been a decent if forgettable movie, and instead it’s a mediocre if forgettable TV show. My diagnosis? The show is divided up between five characters, none of whom get a really satisfying character arc. The least satisfying arc goes to Charly, who doesn’t have an arc so much as an alarmingly jagged rhombus. She’s ultimately saved from the Russians by a Soviet officer named Lilija (Christiane Paul, Vampire Sisters.) But the clunking dramatic irony here is that Charly reported Lilija to the authorities back in the first episode for being Jewish. Why did Charly do that? The show certainly doesn’t tell us. You might think it’s because of internalized anti-Semitism, but she seems to immediately regret her choice—almost as though she were forced into it by the gods of lazy narrative. Later, she hears a rumor that Wilhelm has died, and she’s heartbroken because she never got to confess her ~~secret love.~~ Fine. So she throws herself into the arms of the fiftysomething Dr. Jahn (Götz Schubert, KDD.) Why does she do that? Who the hell knows. Certainly not the viewers of Generation War! And that’s about all that’s going on for Charly. As I said earlier, her story as a German woman and nurse on the Eastern Front could have been remarkable and revealing, and the fact that we get glimmers of that potential with no actualization is super frustrating.
  • Dumb ending. Maybe I found the ending particularly repellent because I was hoping for more of a payoff after four and a half hours. It mirrors the beginning of the show, when we’re hastily introduced to the cast as they get together for an illicit after-hours swing party at the bar where Greta works. At first, it successfully conveys a sense of innocent camaraderie about to be shattered by the wehrmacht, but by the end we realize how shallow that really was. Because we spend so little time with the characters before they get separated, we don’t have a strong sense of their relationships to one another or who they are as individuals. The show tries to pour a lot of that into shorthand in the first scene, but it’s a heavy load to bear. At the other end of the war, the survivors reunite in the bar, which has now been reduced to rubble. It’s pretty maudlin, and also badly written. Why do Wilhelm and Charly both happen to show up independently at exactly the time Viktor is morosely lurking in the bar? I get that they’re supposed to have been ruined by the weight of the war, but the old friends could at least say “hello” to one another instead of glowering silently. When Charly eventually asks “Has anyone heard anything from Greta?” Viktor could actually, you know, answer her as opposed to letting his silence speak volumes. If I were Charly, I would have been like, “Well? Have you? Is she dead? How did she die? What’s up with Greta? I care about what happened to her because she’s my friend, even if it’s not very subtle to demand an answer the viewer already knows!” And then we get a flashback to the stupid opening scene and all that squandered goodwill.

Final Judgment: 5/10. It’s stimulating but ultimately not that rewarding. I would skip it unless you’re teaching a class on media representations of World War II, where it would no doubt be an invaluable case study.

NEXT TIME: Barring technical difficulties, I review Lucas Cruikshank’s Marvin Marvin. Please join me as I pray for technical difficulties.

Case Study 52: Generation War, Episode 3–“A Different Country”

Case Study 47: The Mysterious Cities Of Gold [1982], Episode 18–“Maiden Flight Of The Great Condor”

Original Airdate: August 28th, 1982 on NHK

The Mysterious Cities of Gold is a French-Japanese co-production, and unlike many of the kids’ shows I’ve reviewed so far, it’s serialized as opposed to episodic—that is to say, it tells a long continuous story. There are risks to doing this—a 10 year old isn’t going to binge-watch a Saturday morning cartoon the same way you’d swallow up an entire season of House of Cards in a weekend—but Cities does a good job of bringing the viewer up to date on what exactly is going on in the story before any given episode, which makes sense. Much like Powerhouse, it half-heartedly attempts to be educational by way of a documentary featurette appended to the end of each episode that is superficially related to the plot, addressing subjects such as the natural geography of South America or the fauna of the Galapagos Islands. There’s also a 2012 sequel of the same name.

Strengths

  • Original premise. You don’t see a lot of historical fiction pitched at kids, especially not in serialized cartoon form. Cities tells the story of a small group of travellers on a grand adventure, searching for the eponymous cities. It pertains to a particularly bloody moment in Spanish history, but it doesn’t whitewash things too aggressively—Zia (Janice Chaikelson) is a kidnapped Inca princess and Tao (Adrian Knight) is the last living descendant of an extinct tribe. But the show doesn’t lean too heavily on historical elements and instead looks for material in the fantastic. In this episode, the explorers are menaced by a tribe of hill-dwelling giants and make their escape in a giant solar-powered bird-shaped aircraft. And about that…
  • A giant solar-powered bird-shaped aircraft. I guess you might call this sort of innovation in 16th-century historical fiction “sunpunk.” Either way, it’s unexpectedly awesome to watch what at first appears to be a gigantic golden statue spread its wings and take flight when exposed to the sun as the temple around it dramatically crumbles to the ground. If a jaded adult can experience a few moments of surprised joy at this spectacle, I can only imagine how a kid would feel. It’s even better when Esteban (Shiraz Adam) discovers that a magical trinket makes it stow its landing gear and submit to passenger control. You may have seen the recent stories in the news about how a 15-year-old discovered a heretofore forgotten Mayan city using the help of satellite photography and deductions about astronomy. If there are still jungles today that are so thick and impenetrable that they contain unknown secrets, imagine what it must have felt like to be an explorer 450 years before Google Maps. Barring major technological innovation like deep space travel, only fiction can offer the thrill of exploration in the 21st century.

Weaknesses

  • Aurally displeasing. First of all, there’s the music, which sounds like a reject from Eurovision 1977. Wikipedia discloses that one of the directors of the show vetoed the original Japanese theme music because it was too “understated.” They may have overcorrected. The other audio issue here is the dubbing. I understand that dubbing comes with the territory in anime, especially if it’s pitched at kids and/or rebroadcast in the US, as was Cities. Still, it’s egregiously terrible here, and the issue is that the creators didn’t even try and rewrite the lines so they fit the amount of animation time they had. I wouldn’t care if the faces didn’t sync up with the dialogue, but once again, they overcorrected–the faces sync up fine, but every other line of dialogue is so rushed that it sounds like you’re watching Gilmore Girls on 2x. A couple of rewritten lines and the show would have been that much more immersive.
  • Padded. I watched four episodes of Cities to get background and they all felt like there was 10 minutes of content in a 20 minute show. Often the padding takes the form of dreadful interludes of “comic” “relief” featuring the bumbling sailors Sancho (Terrence Labrosse) and Pedro (Michael Rudder, Blindside.) Mercifully, they’re only in the background here, but instead we get a pointless excursion to an underground volcano viewing platform and some stupidly careless death-defiance when Esteban and Tao try and climb to the top of the enormous bird statue/airplane. The best kind of suspense is transparently manufactured suspense designed to kill time!

Motivation: There’s a couple things going on here. Any story of exploration is to some extent driven by knowledge, but Esteban is seeking to be reunited with his lost family, and his Spanish guardian is of course looking for money in the form of that sweet, sweet municipal gold.

Final Judgment: 4/10. Definitely nothing too special, and I can’t imagine why anyone who isn’t a nostalgia junkie would want to seek this out.

NEXT TIME: Another review of an extremely short subject as I analyze Disney’s new Mickey Mouse cartoons.

Case Study 47: The Mysterious Cities Of Gold [1982], Episode 18–“Maiden Flight Of The Great Condor”

Case Study 33: The Six Wives of Henry VIII–“Anne of Cleves”

Original Airdate: January 22nd, 1971 on BBC

The ill-starred marriages of 16th century English king Henry VIII have long been a subject of fascination for the reading and viewing public. Shakespeare made his life into a play. Hilary Mantel and Philippa Gregory have climbed the bestseller charts on the back of these stories, and both of those books have been filmed, one for theaters and one for television. Jonathan Rhys Meyers played an ahistorically sexy Henry in a soapy cable drama. Even Homer Simpson has taken on the role. Hell, even this show requires a hefty disambiguation page on good old Wikipedia, since it also lends its title to a movie, a documentary, two books and a prog rock album.

Henry’s pivotal role in British history doesn’t quite explain the appeal, partially because Henry is as much an international symbol as anything else. Our cultural image of Henry–regardless of the historical record–makes him synonymous with monarchy: tyrannical, bloated, lustful, larger than life…unless it’s telling a story about a heroic statesman. In particular, second wife Anne Boleyn captures an equal share of the public imagination–whether as an interfering historical villainess or a kickass heroine with agency in an era where society did everything possible to prevent the creation of kickass heroines with agency depending on who does the telling. To some extent, Henry and Boleyn are both ciphers onto which we can project our fantasies and desires about England’s history and the history of royalty more generally.

Tonight, we examine the story of the less popular Anne. Wives is of some significance in its own right–though originally televised in America on CBS, it was a key component of the first season of Masterpiece Theater, and it merited a sequel, the equally popular Elizabeth R. It also spawned the aforementioned feature film of the same name.

Strengths

  • Robust characterization. I’m not sure if the historical source material makes this easier or more difficult, but as I discussed in my review of Marco Polo, my concerns about fidelity to the historical record are limited provided the creators refrain from getting egregiously lazy. As it stands, Wives really brings its central characters to life. Henry (Keith Mitchell) is alternatingly callow and foxy. He’s plausibly a canny leader and an overgrown child. If you know anything about Anne of Cleves (Elvi Hale, True As A Turtle,) it’s probably that she’s the queen that Henry deemed unfuckable. This is particularly rich if you’ve ever seen their portraits. I chose that second portrait carefully, as the more famous portrait by Hans Holbein (James Mellor, Marat/Sade) is a subject of controversy. You see, Henry prefigured the deceptions of online dating by hundreds of years, for he claimed that he was hoodwinked by a fraudulently sexy painting of his new wife. Again, Hale is much more attractive than Mellor, but the show lends some credence to the theory of the comely portrait, as chief minister and master manipulator Thomas Cromwell (Wolfe Morris, The Abominable Snowman) nudges Holbein in the right direction. In any case, the first meeting between the newly minted husband and wife has gone down in the annals of bad first date history. You see, Henry had the bright idea to surprise Anne by showing up to meet her in disguise. We only have second-hand accounts of what happened next–only Henry and Anne know the real truth–but Wives puts its own unique spin on events. Anne is perfectly receptive of the man she thinks is a mere messenger for the king and Henry is not initially put off, but when he gleefully throws off his robes to reveal his splendid royal garments, the look on Anne’s face is one of unmistakable disgust. Soon, Henry flees to Cromwell to make his famous pronouncement: “I LIKE HER NOT.” The show has us believe that Henry’s famed disgust only manifested itself because he was stinging with rejection. It’s a great scene, deftly executed, and it’s not even the most excruciatingly awkward moment in the episode–that would be the wedding night, where Anne is even more horrified by the prospect of being slowly crushed by the royal personage. She finds a way to preserve the dignity of everyone involved, and it’s genius–but more about that below. Any discussion of the characterization at hand in this show must address Anne herself. Hale does a simply exquisite job here and she adds depth and richness to an already quite well-written Anne. Anne’s personality is decidedly happy-go-lucky–we first see her laughing gaily despite being soaked in dog piss–but it doesn’t sacrifice any range. She’s chastened by the miserable gravity of her situation, but she’s hardly defeated by it. She takes great pleasure in cultivating kindly relations with Henry’s children and her handmaids. She has the best line in the episode when she dismisses the religious schemes of Cromwell and Robert Barnes (Robert James, Jane Eyre) by telling them their priorities are misplaced: “I would rather comfort a shamed child than save a dozen churches.” Most brilliantly, Anne spends a good deal of time in the early running worrying about how she’s ill-suited to be queen–she doesn’t know dances or fashion or manners. Her passion is politics.
  • Scheming. Speaking of which, you know I love a good scheme. Cromwell’s angle here–because of course he has an angle–is to protect the throne in the event of an anti-Protestant alliance among Catholics in France and the Holy Roman Empire. In the event of a holy war, Henry’s name would be near the top of the list due to his prominent break with the Catholic Church as chronicled earlier in Wives. Anne was a great choice as a bride for Henry because she was part of the royal family of what’s called the Schmalkaldic League, or as the show calls it, the League of the Protestant Princes, since “Schmalkaldic” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. On the eve of their wedding night, Anne makes a last-ditch attempt to distract the lusty king by telling him that the ruler of Hesse, a key member of the League, was about to break away and that by refraining from consummating the marriage Henry could keep his options open. Henry sees the wisdom in this plan. The other major piece of scheming at hand is against Cromwell. The Duke of Norfolk (Patrick Troughton, Doctor Who) and his allies resented the rise of the working class Cromwell and rightly saw him as a threat to the nobility, so they framed him for the charge of conspiring with Barnes and others to further the cause of Lutheranism in England. But this isn’t Cromwell’s story. It’s Anne’s, and therefore…
  • Telling a story about history & politics through the lens of a marriage. There’s a scene I loved very near the end of the episode–Anne brilliantly convinces Henry to grant her a divorce and allow her to remain close to the court as his beloved “sister”–after all, she doesn’t want to go back to the provinces to get married off again by her unsympathetic brother (William Maxwell) and she wants to be able to continue spending time with the king’s children. This means that she won’t be able to serve as a pawn in Cromwell’s scheme for a Europe-wide Protestant alliance. She tearfully notifies the Archbishop (Bernard Hepton, Secret Army) that she can’t help Cromwell, only to be told that, oh yeah, Cromwell and Barnes have already been executed. Dying ignominiously offscreen is a startlingly anti-climactic end to Cromwell’s story, but it does allow for an appealingly tight focus on Anne.

Weaknesses

  • Keith Mitchell. I was somewhat surprised that Mitchell won an Emmy for this role. It’s not that he’s terrible–he nails the king’s bearing and presence–but the voice he puts on for this role is so hammy and over-the-top that it’s really quite off-putting. Not to mention annoying–it’s this sniveling whine, and while it does reinforce the theme of the King being a giant shitty baby, it’s hard to believe that any viewer would take him seriously.

Motivation: Power. I’m not just talking about Cromwell and Norfolk’s tangle over who will have the king’s ear. This is also a story about Anne trying to find her footing in an unenviable position in a strange and foreign land–and how she ultimately comes out on top despite it all. Relative to Anne Boleyn, anyway.

Final Episode Judgment: 8/10. This is a compelling version of the story of Anne of Cleves, but there are newer and flashier versions out there. If you like historical dramas, check this one out but keep your options open.

NEXT TIME: I’ll be writing about a very different unhappy marriage as I cover Married…With Children.

Case Study 33: The Six Wives of Henry VIII–“Anne of Cleves”

Case Study 20: Marco Polo, Episode 2–“The Wolf and The Deer”

Original Airdate: December 12th, 2014 on Netflix

Ah, yes, here’s another genre that’s mostly new for us–the historical drama. I say mostly because Hindsight is technically a period piece, but it’s depressing for me to think that 1995 now counts as a “period.” Unlike Hindsight, most of these shows are big-budget, prestigious affairs–all those costumes, period appropriate props, sets and location shoots get pricey, so you’re more likely to see them on pay cable, although there are occasional outliers like Mad Men on AMC or Downton Abbey on PBS. Since Netflix is clearly trying to position themselves as an outlet for the kind of prestige content usually found on pay cable, it was inevitable that they’d throw their hat into this ring, and the outcome is Marco Polo. It’s also worth noting that they’ve chosen to include period pieces like Peaky Blinders and Borgia in the slate of shows aired overseas that they distribute in the States.

It’s also come in for an intense and unilateral critical drubbing, which I find somewhat puzzling. The capsule summary tends to be “a pale imitation of Game of Thrones,” which is both unfair and inaccurate. The cynical part of me wonders if this is something like what you traditionally see played out in video game “criticism.” The hot new title in the tired old franchise that’s guaranteed to sell millions of copies to millions of slavering manchildren receives universal acclaim because the critics are afraid to a) step outside the zeitgeist b) anger their corporate overlords c) get SWATted by the aforementioned slavering hordes or d) all of the above. So even if it’s tired, bland and lazy, Gears of Duty: Destiny Effect Syndicate 19 gets 10/10 across the board, and when some other thing that’s an unknown property but is as tired, bland and lazy as the big ticket items gets eviscerated in a form of cathartic release. Thrones is not the hot shit that people seem to think it is. Like most things in life, it is flawed, and in some ways those flaws are critical. Of course, that also applies to Polo–see below–but it’s really about on par with Thrones. In some ways Thrones is better, in some ways it’s worse, but it’s also somewhat different seeing as how it’s fantasy and there are magic and dragons and Polo is allegedly based on actual history. Thrones  is slightly above average; it’s entertaining but not groundbreaking with occasional transcendent, spellbinding moments. And not to spoil my final judgment or anything, but Polo is much the same. For this review, I watched both this episode and the pilot. Let’s take a look.

Strengths

  • Transporting. This is what a period piece banks on, and Polo executes it well. I felt like I had opened a window onto the 13th century. The imagery of Marco (Lorenzo Richelmy) traipsing in a caravan across a vast desert, hiding from bandits in fear for his life, contracting deathly illness in an unforgiving tundra, walking the streets of Khanbaliq, witnessing a standoff between two great armies–it casts an undeniable spell, and in this respect at least Polo’s big budget pays off.
  • Kublai & Marco. Hands down, the best scenes in this show involve conversations between Marco and Kublai Khan (Benedict Wong, Prometheus.) That makes sense, because this is the beating heart of the Marco Polo story–a chronicling adventurer meets one of the most powerful man in the world and tries to make sense of what he finds despite a gaping cultural gulf. In the world of the show, Marco and Kublai peer at each other across that gulf, and on opposite sides of a huge power differential–Marco and his party literally enter the court of the Khan crawling on hands and knees. Despite all this, the show makes the case that they’re essentially the same kind of person. They’re both attuned to diplomacy, curious, fearless and eager to reach across cultural divides. They yearn for adventure–Marco never would have wound up in Khanbaliq otherwise, and Kublai lives vicariously through Marco’s gift with words and language. He summons Marco so he can regale the Khan with detailed and keenly observed stories of his travels. The art direction on this show is fabulous and there are many visually striking moments, but the scenes in the court do a great job at conveying Kublai’s larger-than-life status and the hushed magic of a seat of global power. The remarkable symmetries between Marco and Kublai and the tensions caused by their differences as Marco teeters between survival, flourishment or escape from his servitude to the Khan are this show’s greatest strength.
  • Thematic cohesiveness. This brings us to the subject of why Marco’s in servitude in the first place. One of the many liberties Polo takes with history (see below) has Marco’s father Niccolo (Pierfrancesco Favino, Rush) bargaining with a displeased Khan. He exchanges Marco’s enslavement for Silk Road trading rights. In real life, Marco stayed voluntarily and was treated as a guest of honor, holding prestigious positions in the Khan’s court. Of course, the dramatic stakes are raised if Marco starts from the inside of a prison cell and rises to a position as a trusted confidante of the Khan. Regardless of the cheerful disposal of actual facts, it works well for the story. Marco is stung by his father’s move, and feels deeply betrayed by him–for the second time. In the show, Niccolo was a stranger to Marco. He didn’t marry his now dead mother and spent his time as an itinerant merchant, and when he returns from his grand journey to the east, Marco wants a chance to adventure, to satisfy his wanderlust, and to get to know his father and find some way to forgive him.  At one point during their journey east, Niccolo advises Marco that he can stave off fear and uncertainty by remembering where his home is, and that if he follows the stars in Orion’s belt they’ll always lead him home. Marco gazes longingly up at those stars early in this episode, and he’s clearly conflicted because with a dead mom and a dad who literally sold him out, he may not have a home there any longer. The main plot of this episode deals with the fallout of a failed strike on Wuchang, the key supplier of food for Xiangyang, the defensive bulwark of the Southern Song dynasty. The strike failed because a key contingent sent by Ariq Böke (Baljinnyamyn Amarsaikhan, Thief of the Mind,) Kublai’s younger brother, did not arrive. The entire Ariq plotline is another aggressive digression from history–instead of Ariq seizing power in Karakorum and inciting all-out civil war, Kublai appears to have granted Ariq control of the Mongolian homeland willingly. The end result remains the same, though–Ariq dies after the failed attack on Wuchang when Kublai’s army arrives to confront him for his treachery. The two face off in a very dramatic duel while their armies look on, but the night before the brothers sit with one another last time to say goodbye. They reminisce about their childhood, they explore their differences and they make peace with what’s about to come. The bounds of family and political obligation constrict them as they do Marco. Rounding out the hour, we have a subplot involving another fantastic character, Mei Lin (Olivia Cheng.) She’s a concubine in an awkward and tenuous position in the Southern Song dynasty–she has no official power, but she has favor with the emperor and other well-placed politicians because of her sexual prowess. She’s also deeply devoted to her small child, the bastard product of her union with the emperor. Of course, the emperor is very old and sick and promptly dies. Seeing as his successor is a toddler, a power struggle is inevitable, but Mei Lin has been deprived of her patron. Her brother Jia Sidao (Chin Han) is the arrogant chancellor, and he takes the opportunity to get her out of the way while possibly gaining valuable intelligence–he sends her to infiltrate Kublai’s harem and spy on his court. Thus Mei Lin’s worst nightmare comes to pass–she’s separated from her daughter and may never see her again. Once again, the interplay between family and politics leads to a toxic brew, and much like Marco, Mei Lin will be trapped in a foreign culture with ample danger and no easy means of escape.

Weaknesses

  • Historical inaccuracy in service of racist tropes. I don’t penalize this kind of show for being historically inaccurate in general–it’s meant to be entertainment, not a documentary, and dramatic license is often necessary to tell a well-crafted story. It’s more fun to watch Marco claw his way up from the bottom. It’s exciting to watch Kublai decapitate his brother in one-on-one combat. It’s intriguing to watch Mei Lin attempt to infiltrate the court, although in actuality an unknown foreigner being admitted as a concubine into the Khan’s harem was laughably impossible. But when you start distorting history in the service of racist tropes, it gets tired very quickly. Not only because racism is corrosive, but because these tropes are incredibly lazy and don’t make for very good television. Oh, look, here comes a white guy we can “identify” with–even though 13th century Venice is just as baffling to me as 13th century Mongolia. Oh, and here he is immediately enmeshed in danger and sinister intrigue, when in reality he was a welcomed guest. Oh, and here he is being the real driving force behind all of Kublai’s remarkable accomplishments, because someone as exceptional as Kublai couldn’t have existed without a brainy white guy in his corner. This all reaches the apogee of ridiculousness when Marco is introduced to his kung fu tutor. Are you fucking kidding me. I can only imagine TV and movie producers hearing about any drama set anywhere in Asia or featuring Asians in any major aspect and then immediately asking what the martial arts angle is going to be. Marco Polo doesn’t need to know kung fu! He’s a charismatic diplomat! Aren’t the power games enough? The show explains this away by rationalizing that Marco needs to know these skills to survive, but once again, he was venerated and respected in the court in real life, and even within the show’s twisted logic, this doesn’t make any sense. When Marco contradicts Kublai’s heir Jingim (Remy Hii, Neighbours) in open court and comes to confront Marco, Marco’s tutor Hundred Eyes (Tom Wu) remarks that Jingim is the Prince and is welcome to kill Marco where he stands. Oh, and let’s talk about Hundred Eyes for a minute. Not only is he a Wise Old Kung Fu Master, he’s also blind. Jesus. In real life, Marco Polo’s writings did speak of an actual person named Hundred Eyes. Of course, the real Hundred Eyes wasn’t a blind kung fu master because that’s ridiculous racist nonsense. Instead, he was a major general in Kublai’s army, and a sighted one to boot. So he totally could have played a major role in this series, as Hundred Eyes does. Alas, it was not to be. This show also takes Thrones’ lead in indulging in constant gratuitous naked women, best demonstrated in the laughably bad orgy scene at the end of the pilot. You know we’d never get through a drama set in Asia without a literal heap of writhing, naked, objectified Asian women serving some muddied metaphorical purpose. This episode wasn’t as bad about the wildly unnecessary nudity–there is a nude scene, which for once I won’t spoil except to say that Polo earned the hell out of that one.
  • Dumb romance plotline. Isn’t a pivotal moment in the unification of China enough!? What about a historic meeting between the East and the West?! Nope. We have to have an idiotic, moon-eyed love story thrown in for some godforsaken reason. And even in the annals of stupid tacked on romance plots, this one’s a doozy because of course it’s love at first sight. As soon as Marco locks eyes on Kokachin (Zhu Zhu,) there are little pink cartoon hearts everywhere. Of course, she’s a kept woman in the service of a powerful man. Of course, this is all completely ahistorical. There was a real Kokachin, and the real Polo describes the circumstances behind her arrival in the court with bland neutrality in one paragraph, a paragraph that’s as boring to read as this subplot is to watch. Boo.

Motivation: Like many well-thought out television shows, Polo touches on many different motivations–as I mentioned, family is of particular thematic relevance for this installment–but each episode of this show is so overwhelmingly concerned with power struggles that it’s hard for anything else to take precedence over that.

Final Episode Judgment: Despite the thorough critical beating that Polo’s received and some undeniably major flaws, fans of political intrigue and soapy historical drama will enjoy this. 8/10. The pilot only merits a 6/10, but hopefully that’s bad pilot syndrome and not a sign of deep inconsistency.

NEXT TIME: Barring technical difficulties, I check into Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew.

Case Study 20: Marco Polo, Episode 2–“The Wolf and The Deer”