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 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 31: M*A*S*H, Episode 241–“Hey, Look Me Over”

Original Airdate: October 25th, 1982 on CBS

If the rock you’re living under doesn’t get syndication, M*A*S*H is a sitcom about the Korean War based on the popular Robert Altman movie of the same name, and it’s frequently included in lists of the best TV shows of all time. More than anything else I’ve discussed here, M*A*S*H has a central place in television history. It was one of the most widely watched series of the 1970s and its series finale in 1983 drew over 100 million viewers, making it the single episode of television viewed by the most people on broadcast in the history of scripted TV. In comparison, the much-ballyhooed Seinfeld finale drew only 76 million viewers. 

However, it’s also widely acknowledged that by Season 11, M*A*S*H had well and truly run out of gas. Harry Morgan, who played Col. Sherman Potter, had acknowledged that “the cracks were starting to show” by Season 9, and by season 10 CBS was begging star Alan Alda to hang on for one more year. So we come to “Hey, Look Me Over,” the Season 11 premiere of M*A*S*H.

Strengths

  • A sense of humor well matched to its tone. The issue of M*A*S*H’s laugh track was apparently a long-running source of contention. As Mental Floss explains, M*A*S*H’s single-camera style and mixture of war drama with sitcom didn’t seem like a great fit for a laugh track to the creators of the show, but CBS couldn’t countenance the idea of people enjoying a sitcom without being told when to laugh. The producers did manage to get the network to agree to keep the laugh track out of surgery scenes and certain key episodes, and after season six they toned it down immensely. The DVDs also feature an option to turn it off altogether, and I’m wondering if the episode I watched was ripped from a DVD with that option turned on or if by Season 11 the laugh track was so diminished as to be unnoticeable. In any case, a laugh track would have been painless suicide for this episode. You see, there are a handful of genuinely funny moments—without the supervision of the nurses, Hawkeye Pierce (Alda) manages to break the door off the autoclave—but there are also several rather weak attempts at jokes that would surely have had the laugh track rolling in the aisles. Axing the laugh track makes the show seem more realistic, and it’s certainly true to real life that people often say and do things that are nominally witty but not actually funny. Without the laugh track making like Jeb Bush and pitifully requesting a response, everything is more immersive and every lame joke is more forgivable.
  • Engaging storytelling around female characters. Okay, I wasn’t expecting this. Is there any institution more traditionally masculine than the American military? Nevertheless, both storylines in this episode center around the nurses in the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital. One storyline is about Head Nurse Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan (Loretta Swit) scrambling to get the surgical unit up to snuff for an incoming inspection from the hardass Col. Bucholtz (Margaret Feury, The Witch Who Came From The Sea.) There’s not much going on there beyond Houlihan learning a valuable lesson about the balance between diligent discipline and pushing people too hard. I get the sense that the later seasons of M*A*S*H featured a lot of valuable lessons, because Hawkeye gets one too, but at least his is a bit more interesting. You see, the reason he got a chance to break the autoclave in the first place is because the nurses were evacuated out of an abundance of caution and the surgeons are left in charge. When the nurses return, they plan on celebrating by dancing to a bunch of hot new jukebox records from the likes of Nat King Cole and Hank Williams. Hawkeye sees this as a golden opportunity to get his dick wet and begins dispensing cookie-cutter pickup lines to every woman in sight—except the one woman who really wants to hear them, Kealani Kellye (Kellye Nakahara.) Eventually, she calls him on the fact that he’s only interested in sniffing the hair* of pretty white girls (well, she describes them as blonde with perfect noses, anyway) and that he hasn’t even bothered to get to know her. If he had, she says, he’d realize that she’s compassionate, intelligent, fascinating and “cute as hell.” This was pretty awesome, and it’s instructive to the world of television today that writers were coming up with substantial stories to tell about women of color in 1982, so TV writers today really have no excuse. Eventually, Hawkeye gets a glimpse into Kellye’s hidden depths when he sees her comforting a dying soldier by gamely pretending to be his sweetheart at home, so he shows up at her door later that night with a bouquet of flowers and a tux, but she’s not into his consolation bone—she’s already got a dude with her. Wamp wamp. Seriously, though, I’m glad the show took the opportunity to avoid having Kellye leap into Hawkeye’s arms the second he gets around to acknowledging her as a valid subject of sexual interest.

Weaknesses

  • Loretta Swit. Look, she must have been doing something right—her and Alda were the only actors to hang on for all 11 seasons in a show that was known for shaking up its cast. But she’s the only example of someone really being out of step with the tone of the show. She sells her cheesy one-liners like she was on a vaudeville stage and makes their humorlessness all the more conspicuous. I’m going to be charitable and chalk up this mugfest to the fact that this was episode two-hundred forty one and she was probably tired. No one is holding out for the idea that their best work is going to happen in year eleven of any given project.

*One amusing moment in this episode has Kellye telling Hawkeye a story from her childhood only to look over and find him literally sniffing the hair of one of those pretty white girls. Gross!

Motivation: Houlihan is motivated by work—she wants to impress Bucholtz—and Kellye is motivated by love. Not that she loves Hawkeye, per se, but she does have a crush.

Final Episode Judgment: 6/10. Not the worst M*A*S*H, not the best M*A*S*H, but it’s interesting that even an installment from what is widely acknowledged to be this show’s shittiest season is still better than half the crap I review on this blog.

NEXT TIME: I continue to review the juggernauts of the anime world by taking a look at Dragon Ball Z!

Case Study 31: M*A*S*H, Episode 241–“Hey, Look Me Over”

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”

Case Study 13: Hindsight, Episode 5–“Then I’ll Know” (also some meta commentary)

Original Airdate: February 4, 2015 on VH1

I’m so happy because I’ve finally found the first show I haven’t seen before that I can wholeheartedly recommend. I hadn’t even heard of Hindsight until it came up via my selection method. It aired for all of two months before vanishing into the abyss, and even when I did hear about it, I was dismissive–it aired on a network not known for scripted fare, it was a complete ratings flop and the critics ignored it. I think the biggest stumbling block was the network–if it had aired elsewhere it might have found an audience.

I have fond memories of VH1. My older brother got me excited about music at a young age and VH1 was his station of choice. We quickly became Pop-Up Video addicts. Of course, VH1 was intended as a softer version of MTV for an older demographic, so I was saturated with dreck like Natalie Imbruglia, The Wallflowers and Smashmouth. I tuned into VH1 occasionally through 2004 for things like I Love The 80s, and then I stopped watching much TV at all for several years. By the time I came back, VH1 was wall-to-wall reality shows and I haven’t payed very much attention since. Now that I look at their slate of shows, it seems that the demographic has decidedly shifted from aging white people looking for a Phil Collins fix to young black women. Which is great! There aren’t enough black faces on television and K. Michelle is bookable. The thing is, VH1 is also now known for reality shows. It is not known as a source of high-quality original scripted programming. It is not AMC or HBO or even FX. I do understand why VH1 thought this would be a good match for their audience and those who watched it when it was on the air probably enjoyed it. But the rest of us didn’t notice it, and that includes critics–I could only find two mentions of the show on the AV Club’s website and both included grumbling about its resemblance to Do Over, a WB series from thirteen years ago that aired 11 episodes. That is a complaint you’re only likely to hear from a profoundly nerdy TV geek, and look who’s talking. For the purposes of this review, I watched episodes 1, 3, 5 and 6 of Hindsight for context.

Strengths

  • Strong story. This episode uses the very common trope of presenting us with an end point in the story and going back chronologically to show us how events unfolded. This isn’t any kind of narratological innovation, but the execution is damn near flawless. It’s also thematically appropriate to use this trope, since Hindsight is about Becca Brady (Laura Ramsey, She’s The Man), a woman on the verge of turning 40 who regrets the decisions she’s made in her life. She gets a second bite at the apple when unexplained circumstances transport her back in time to 1995. She gets a job writing for a music magazine and predicting the next new thing. Here, she gets her first serious assignment: covering an R.E.M. concert in Chapel Hill, NC. So this is a road trip episode–complicated by the fact that the event we were shown in the opening moments of the episode is a grisly car accident. Joining Becca is her best friend Lolly Lavigne (Sarah Goldberg, The Dark Knight Rises) and Lolly’s friend Paige Hill (Drew Sidora, Step Up.) Misadventure follows on misadventure as the ladies endure a flat tire, getting pulled over by a cop and arriving at Chapel Hill only to find their ticket connection has fallen through and they can’t get into the concert. All’s not lost, however–they’re able to get a sweet vantage point amidst a bunch of college students partying atop a nearby parking garage. Interviewing young lovers for her article reminds Becca of another problem in her life: her relationship with Andy Kelly (Nick Clifford, The Opportunist.) Twenty years into the future, the night Becca travels back in time is also the night before her marriage to Andy, a family friend since childhood who has always carried a torch for her from afar. In 1995, the two had recently shared a clandestine kiss–behind the back of Andy’s girlfriend, Melanie Morelli (Jessy Hodges, Beside Still Waters.) The road back to New York City features an exit to Spring Lake, a town where Becca and Andy’s families shared a cabin and the site of Becca’s idyllic childhood summers. She decides to pull the trigger on her feelings for Andy and invites him to the cabin to discuss their relationship. He feels conflicted, so Becca gives him an ultimatum–drive to Spring Lake and move forward together, or stay in the city with Melanie. Andy heads to the cabin–and gets into the accident. The episode also sees Becca and Paige achieving a mutual respect for each other after getting off on a bad foot due to Paige getting involved with Becca’s first husband, Sean Reeves (Craig Horner, Legend Of The Seeker.) Overall, we’re given a tight package showcasing Becca’s ongoing quest to make good decisions in a world where she has extensive knowledge of but little control over events. The car accident we’re shown in the opening throws a pallor over a road trip already laden with tension and we wince as Becca locks eyes with Paige multiple times as she’s speeding on her way to the concert and as they careen down the highway on the way home. The hour also crams in subplots about Lolly’s relationship with her father, Harry (Alan Ruck, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) and Becca’s brother Jamie (John Patrick Amedori, The Butterfly Effect) tries to reconcile Andy and Sean in the wake of a fight over Becca’s affections. There’s not a wasted second here and all the pieces matter. It’s a great example of effective storytelling in action.
  • Well-drawn characters. The best example of this isn’t a single character but rather the interplay between Becca and Lolly. At the beginning of the series, Becca looks back on a failed marriage, a wasted career, disappointed and divorced parents and a brother struggling with addiction. But the thing she regrets the most is the end of her friendship with Lolly. Lolly is the yin to Becca’s yang. Becca diligently works long hours at a thankless job, whereas Lolly does everything she can to not be productive at the video rental store where she works. She’s a shit-stirrer while Becca is a people pleaser. Becca’s never been with anyone but Sean, but Lolly is adventurous enough to engage in a seamy hookup at Lollapalooza. They need each other. Becca keeps the cupboards in their apartment laden with food and Lolly gives Becca a necessary release valve from a stressful, button-up life. So Lolly is the natural choice when Becca needs to reveal her secret to someone and the chemistry between Ramsey and Goldberg is perfect. Here we get to see another side of Lolly and another contrast with Becca. Becca has close ties with her parents and is anxious at the prospect of their incipient divorce, though the show seems to drop this plotline after the pilot, probably because there was already enough on the plate. Lolly, on the other hand, had her childhood disrupted by a tumultuous divorce and is now estranged from both parents, especially her father. Much like Becca’s mother Georgie (Donna Murphy, Tangled) will be 20 years later, Harry is disappointed in his daughter’s dead-end job and failure to meet her ambitions–though Lolly calls him out on the fact that he doesn’t even know what her ambitions are, due to his chronic absentee status. Strong character based moments show up throughout the episode, whether it’s Paige explaining that she’s still dedicated to a career as an actress despite her parents stealing all the money she made as a child star or Andy drunkenly regaling Sean with the details of Warcraft.
  • Resonant thematic cohesiveness. Hindsight weaves a very compelling tale of retrospection and regret. Who hasn’t wondered how their life would have unfolded if they had made different decisions? Humans have been using narrative to contemplate fate, destiny and critical decisions since Oedipus Rex. This is something that will always hold our interest. Like its female-driven HBO cousin Girls, Hindsight delves into resonant and provocative questions about the awkward period of transition known as your twenties. This episode in particular makes a compelling case for the idea that taking provocative action is the best way to resolve conflicts and uncertainties, for better or worse. This crystallizes for Becca when one of her interview subjects (Matt Orlando, Pieces of Peace) says of the possibility of a relationship with a female character that “it’s an open road.” In addition to the obvious road-trip theme, it’s a reminder that for Becca, anything is possible now, including a relationship with Andy. Lolly confronts her father, and though she has every reason to be angry, she gracefully says that she doesn’t want them to grow further apart, and he agrees to try harder. Spurred by Lolly, Paige and Becca work out their issues and come to a mutual respect for one another’s abilities. Though Jamie has the ulterior motive of impressing Lolly, he tries to broker a peace between Andy and Sean, and while that doesn’t work both men learn something about themselves. We’re also given a counterexample of the toxicity of unresolved conflict–Melanie spends all night viciously sniping at Andy over his indiscretion. The viewer wonders why they’re still trying to work it out or if they ever will. Many shows try to tie all their subplots together with a unifying theme, but it’s seldom this successful.

Weaknesses

  • Thickly applied 90s nostalgia. I’m half-convinced this is why the show got greenlit in the first place. Much of VH1’s programming is still tangentially music related and it is all immersed in pop culture, so I bet they were hoping that viewers would come for the endless parade of eminently licensable 90s favorites and 90210 references and stay for Hindsight’s many charming qualities. Though it got toned down a touch, the constant Rhino-grade musical cues felt assaultive. In a historical drama that’s much more concerned with the psychology of its characters than with historicity, we’re beaten over the head with the 90s-ness of it all thanks to Montell Jordan, Collective Soul, The Gin Blossoms, Deep Blue Something and both goddamned Spin Doctors songs. The actual good music of 1995 from folks like Oasis, Radiohead, The Smashing Pumpkins, 2Pac, PJ Harvey and Bjork proved too expensive for deep cable, I suppose. This episode manages to keep its worse instincts mostly in check, partially through more high-quality offerings from R.E.M. and a concession to the fact that the 90s didn’t exist in a historical bubble via “September Gurls” and the inevitable road trip anthem “Life Is A Highway,” though no one will ever use that song more deftly than The Office. I’m not sure this makes up for Becca eyeing the Spring Lake exit while Del Amitri enjoins her to “look into your heart, pretty baby/Is it aching with some nameless need?” Woof. On the other hand, I could forgive a lot solely for this episode’s use of the melancholy “Nightswimming” over its tragic final scenes, as Becca waits alone and puzzled at the beautiful lake house.

I’m going to break the format a little and present some meta-analysis of the shows we’ve covered so far. I have two observations. The first was inspired by Hindsight: the three fundamentals of a good story, regardless of genre or tropes, are the three strengths discussed here: plot, characters and themes. Other things matter–style, execution, performances. But if a show can deliver the big three, chances are I’m going to be satisfied. Of course, as we’ve seen, it’s something of a tall order…

The other point I have is that I found myself thinking recently about The Sims 2. In that game, Sims have a set motivation that guides their wants, desires and fears throughout life. It’s occurred to me that the motivation of characters in every story corresponds to one of the five aspirations from The Sims 2, with one addition. Hindsight manages to motivate Becca with five of the six. Let’s review–Love/Sex/Romance. Becca has to decide between a relationship with Sean, Andy or neither. Money/Work. Becca is weighed down by a dead-end job and a demanding boss for 20 years, so she very quickly quits that job and embarks on a new career as a journalist. Family. Becca wants to prevent her brother from becoming a drug addict, and in the first episode, it’s implied that she’ll also try and save her parents’ magic. Maybe if there had been a season 2…Friends/Popularity. As mentioned, Becca’s greatest regret is losing Lolly as a friend. Perhaps the most interesting motivation is Knowledge/Self-discovery. By returning to the past and making new decisions, Becca is trying to reshape her life to become the person she wants to be.

The sixth motivation occurred to me while thinking about the plot of the Paddington episode I reviewed, of all things. Paddington isn’t motivated by any of that–he just wants to buy some pajamas, eat a marmalade sandwich and take a nap. That’s a bit farther down on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Hence we have the Survival motivation. This accounts for not only Paddington but also Ripley aboard the Nostromo, as well as things like the episode of Seinfeld with the Chinese restaurant. A survival narrative can just involve trying to get through the day.  

Let’s classify the shows that have been reviewed so far and see if a pattern emerges:

  • The Monsters We Met. Well, this is nonfiction, so it’s more or less guaranteed to be motivated by the promised knowledge of prehistory.
  • So Little Time. This is a tough case, since it was a shitty clip show with no story. We did get large chunks of storyline about the teen protagonists, however, and it all had to do with their love lives. Romance.
  • Comic Book Men. Since it’s a show about running a small business, money/work comes to mind. This episode is also about a bunch of bros pressuring each other to get tattoos, so friendship comes into play, as well.
  • Dead Like Me. George, much like Becca, is placed in the unenviable position of having to decide who she wants to be when confronted with an embarrassment of options. Knowledge/self-discovery.
  • Lupin the III. Lupin’s in it for the $$$. Money.
  • The Wrong Mans. In the superior first season, it’s a story about survival and self-discovery. In the crappy episode I watched, however, the characters are motivated by lurrrrve and family.
  • Paddington. As mentioned, survival.
  • Major Crimes. Procedurals are almost always a quest for knowledge, since a murder needs to be solved. There’s also the inciting issue behind the crimes, which is money here and in NCIS.
  • Danny Phantom. You could make a case for this being a survival narrative, but Danny’s survival isn’t actually in question. What is in question is his very identity, making this a quest for self-discovery.
  • Early Edition. The deadly plastic surgery is motivated by romance, but the protagonist’s actions are spurred by his unnatural knowledge of events yet to transpire. When used this way, the typical quest for knowledge is inverted–the problem is the character has knowledge and must act on it. I suppose this is the motivation for Janice in that NCIS episode as well.
  • Alcatraz. Knowledge, of course! What’s going on with the reappearing Alcatraz prisoners?! WE MAY NEVER KNOW
  • NCIS. As mentioned, the Crimebros seek knowledge about the murder, Celodyne faked safety data because they were greedy for money and Janice uses that knowledge to strike out at them. None of this would have happened without Celodyne’s lust for profits, though, so I’m going with The Weeknd on this. 
  • Hindsight. As mentioned, this show manages to cover all five top-level needs. 

Obviously, it’s a nifty and promising trick to cover so many bases in one story. I wonder if there should be a brighter line of delineation between knowledge and self-discovery, since I notice that I particularly enjoy stories that include that component, such as Dead Like Me or The Wrong Mans, whereas I don’t care so much about a general “we need to know the thing” type knowledge-quest. Phantom is great evidence of how thoroughly you can ruin a self-discovery narrative that could have been really interesting. I may keep track of this taxonomy as I review further shows.

Final Episode Judgment: 9/10. This is easily the best single episode I’ve covered for this project so far. I’d give the pilot an 8/10 and episode six a 7/10, but episode 3 was also very strong and deserves a 9/10 as well.

NEXT TIME: Another one-season wonder and our inaugural foray into sci-fi coverage, Space: Above and Beyond.

Case Study 13: Hindsight, Episode 5–“Then I’ll Know” (also some meta commentary)