Case Study 27: The Politician’s Husband–“Episode Two”

Original Airdate: May 2nd, 2013 on BBC Two

David Tennant has traded a helmet-esque ginger wig for cheesy blonde highlights as we go from talking about Gracepoint to The Politician’s Husband. It’s a three-episode miniseries and a spiritual successor to writer Paula Milne’s award-winning 1995 effort, The Politician’s Wife. Husband didn’t win as much acclaim, but it’s still well worth a watch. Why, you ask? Let me count the ways!

Strengths

  • Political sausage-making. This may just be an Oryx thing, but I’m an absolute sucker for anything that takes the lid off a seething hotbed of institutional backbiting. Big social organizations seem opaque and abstract to an outsider. What really goes on in schools, hospitals, churches and police stations? Entertainment that promises an authentic glimpse into the greasy guts of a social system tantalizes us with answers to these questions, and Husband is no slouch in this respect. When scandals, showdowns and speeches from the world of politics make the headlines in Husband, there’s layers of incident behind what comes out in the public eye, though most of it boils down to power struggles of one kind or another. Which leads me to…
  • Scheming. Nothing raises the dramatic stakes like a group of people secretly conspiring to undermine and usurp one another. No one’s trying to kill each other here, but the stakes are entire careers and the leadership of the UK. Husband has the action play out at home and in the office. Aiden Hoynes (Tennant) is the former Secretary of State for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and after a failed attempt at a power grab, he sees his wife Freya (Emily Watson, Corpse Bride) get promoted to the Secretary of Work and Pensions position. Later in the series, the cliche “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” is invoked in an unrelated situation, and it’s meant to underscore the plot. But for Aiden it’s in reverse–first he tries to make Freya an accomplice to his schemes to get back at rival Bruce Babbish (Ed Stoppard, The Pianist) and then when she proves less than pliable he sets out to destroy her as well.
  • Aiden Hoynes. The series is strong on plot, but it’s truly a character study. It’s interesting to consider how Hoynes compares to Frank Underwood, Kevin Spacey’s monstrously amoral power-hungry politician in House of Cards. Both are willing to go to more or less any lengths to seize the reins of power, but Aiden seems much more human and real. Hoynes’ son Noah (Oscar Kennedy) has a serious case of Asperger’s and we get several glimpses of Hoynes’ sadness for his son’s travails and Hoynes’ compassionate management of Noah’s outbursts. He has a strong relationship with his father (Jack Shepherd, Wycliffe) and often turns to him for counsel and companionship. Despite his efforts to sabotage and undermine Freya, he genuinely loves her and when the Hoynes’ au pair Dita (Anamaria Marinca, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) makes a pass at Aiden he rejects her without batting an eye. He’s not a cartoon devil, unlike some other protagonists I could name.
  • Beautiful direction. There’s so many great shots in this show, and this is only buttressed by the very dramatic looking interiors and exteriors of buildings like the Palace of Westminster. The shots are elegantly and lovingly framed, but the direction remains unobtrusive and accessible. It’s a pleasure to watch.

Weaknesses

  • No political substance. Look, I get that part of the point of political dramas like this, Cards and The Thick of It is that politicians spend the bulk of their time and energy on strategies and plots and very little on actually thinking about policy solutions or their constituents. At one point, the show lampshades this by having the House of Commons Whip Marcus Brock (Roger Allam, Endeavour) point out to Babbish that “If we devoted the same amount of time and energy to solving unemployment or child poverty as we do our Westminster power games, we might have solved them by now.” This may be well observed, for all I know, but it’s narratively unsatisfying. There’s no stakes for the viewer in a race between Hoynes and Babbish for control of the Prime Minister’s office if both of them are essentially apolitical assholes who just want power. Every time the characters take a political stand, there’s always an ulterior motive and there’s never any deeply felt principles or beliefs behind their positions. I get that this is part of the point, but it’s still alienating and unsatisfying. Fans of The West Wing will have twigged to the fact that Milne is paying tribute to that show by naming her characters Hoynes and Babbish. While I’m by no means a West Wing superfan, at least the characters on that show were engaged with actual political issues.

Motivation: Again, it’s not shocking, but this show about fiendish politicians is driven entirely by their lust for power.

Final Episode Judgment: 9/10. I recommend the entire series, but the first two episodes are particularly strong. The third one’s not so bad, but it does bring the overall rating for the show itself down to 8/10, mostly due to a ludicrous plot development in the third act.

NEXT TIME: I review Agent X in an attempt to find a show that is the complete opposite of Husband in every way while still being a political drama!

 

Advertisements
Case Study 27: The Politician’s Husband–“Episode Two”

Case Study 26: Gracepoint–“Episode One”

Original Airdate: October 2nd, 2014 on FOX

Adaptations are a tricky business. On the one hand, directors and writers need to honor the source text and thereby please the fans that were a built-in audience from day one. On the other hand, the creators have to reckon with the fact that they’re making something new. Often they’re telling the story in an entirely different medium with its own uniques strengths and demands. In this case the medium stays the same but the audience is different. Gracepoint is the American adaptation of a successful British crime drama by the name of Broadchurch. Technically, Gracepoint is only intended to be an adaptation of Broadchurch’s first season and was promoted by the network as a “limited series,” which I guess is a fancier way of saying “miniseries?” So what works about Gracepoint and what doesn’t? I’m so glad you asked.

Strengths

  • Compelling plot. Gracepoint is the kind of television mystery that I enjoy the most. Instead of shoehorning the entire thing into 42 minutes, Gracepoint tells the story of a complex, twisting investigation over the course of 10 episodes. This is a great sign for any mystery fan, because it signals a satisfying level of depth you just can’t get in the glut of police procedurals out there. This is why Mystery! has been on the air for 36 years. Well, that and wildly unrestrained Anglophilia. This episode closes with a montage of various Gracepoint residents listening to Det. Emmett Carver (David Tennant, Doctor Who) give a press conference on the status of the case, and in addition to being in various positions of centrality or periphery to the life of the close-knit community, all these citizens are also suspects in the death of 12 year old Danny Solano. Over the course of the season, all their tawdry secrets are brought to the surface–adultery, past crimes, drug addiction, assumed identities, you name it. While watching Broadchurch, I had immense fun guessing at everyone’s role in the story, even up to the last episode.
  • Well-drawn characters. If Gracepoint is anything like Broadchurch–and it’s almost exactly the same–many of those townspeople come into view as fully realized, believable characters. However, the heart of Gracepoint is the relationship between its two main characters, Carver and Det. Ellie Miller (Anna Gunn, Breaking Bad.) Carver has developed an angry, acerbic personality after a major failure on a prior case, but he’s a thoughtful, perceptive man using a standoffish personality as a defense mechanism. Miller had been in line for a promotion that was given to Carver, an outsider to the Gracepoint PD, and she enters the relationship with a pronounced bitterness towards him as a supervisor. She has a deep emotional investment in the welfare of the town and its citizens. What’s more, Danny was her son Tom’s (Jack Irvine) best friend. She’s competent and has a firm handle on the social topography of Gracepoint, but this is her first murder investigation and her close relationships with the suspects prove in some ways to be liabilities. She’s also completely unafraid to call Carver on his bullshit. The interplay between these two is the best part of a great show, and it’s made all the better by the fact that somehow the unlikely pairing makes for an effective crime-solving partnership.
  • Strong setting. This had better be the case in a show where the setting also provides the title, eh? The show does an excellent job of shining a light on the intricate dynamics of a claustrophobic island town and by the end we feel we’ve gleaned some of the same insights and knowledge possessed by a longtime resident like Miller. This feeling is assisted by the gorgeous beach cliffsides of British Columbia, where Gracepoint and practically every other show with outdoor locations on American television was filmed. Director James Strong also does an excellent job establishing the visual feel of the town.
  • Good acting, for the most part. Tennant reprises his role as Carver from Broadchurch, so it’s not surprising that he’s had a chance to get comfortable in the role, though his American accent is a bit risible. He and Gunn manage to recapture the great chemistry that Tennant had with Olivia Colman–it’s hard not to laugh when Miller takes a phone call in the restaurant where the two stopped for lunch only to look out the window to see Carver in the parking lot, holding up his watch and scowling at her. The other plum acting roles in the first episode go to Danny’s grieving parents. Virginia Kull absolutely nails the devastation of Beth Solano. The weak link would be the bafflingly famous Michael Peña (Shooter) who really phones it in as Mark Solano.
  • Establishing season-long thematics. It’s somewhat careworn territory, but Gracepoint/Broadchurch manage to breathe fresh air into the story of a tragedy exposing a million cracks in the facade of bucolic small town life. It underscores the fact that depravity, misery and cruelty aren’t the exclusive province of big cities. When Miller and Carver interview amateur marine biology enthusiast Jack Reinhold (Nick Nolte, The Thin Red Line) and Reinhold proceeds to regale them with facts about whale migration, he’s surprised by Carver’s indifference. Miller apologetically explains that he’s from the city, to which Reinhold replies “Sorry to hear that.” But as Miller and Carver will discover over the course of the investigation, Gracepoint is no safe haven. In Gracepoint, the binding ties are much more intimate than they’d be in a metropolis. We learn halfway through the episode that the local shit-stirring cub reporter Owen (Kevin Zegers, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones) is also Miller’s nephew, a fact which is thrown in her face when Owen reveals the identity of the deceased before the police get a chance. Laying this groundwork early on is a clear sign that the viewer is in good hands.

Weaknesses

  • Copied and pasted. So the central question when considering any adaptation is to ask what has been gained by the transition. When adapting a book to a movie, there may be scenes that can only be fully realized in a visual medium. When adapting a movie to a musical, there may be aspects that are greatly enhanced by a physical no-holds barred dramatic performance, and the tone of the film might translate into jaunty musical numbers. With international television adaptations, success is often dictated on how the work takes new form and shape in a different culture. Consider how the British and American versions of The Office captured widely different work cultures. Well, it’s hard to argue that Gracepoint addresses anything uniquely American, because it’s nearly exactly the same as Broadchurch. All of those strengths I mentioned above? Not a single one is unique to Gracepoint. Lines of dialogue, entire shots and scenes, very similar looking sets and location shots, even the fucking names–all lifted directly from Broadchurch and slapped down in Northern California. Gracepoint brings absolutely nothing new to the table. It really didn’t need to get made. It’s not like Broadchurch was a remote and inaccessible option for American audiences. Not only is it available on Netflix, but it also aired on BBC America.

Motivation: As with any good mystery, the driving force is knowledge. Who killed Danny Solano!?!?

Final Episode Judgment: 9/10. This is very good. But there’s an important caveat. It’s only very good because Broadchurch was very good and it’s nearly exactly the same. Just watch Broadchurch. For the record, I’d give season one of Broadchurch a 10/10. If for some strange reason you only have access to Gracepoint, it would make a perfectly reasonable substitute.

NEXT TIME: We continue the David Tennant extravaganza with The Politician’s Husband!

Case Study 26: Gracepoint–“Episode One”

Case Study 23: Brothers & Sisters, Episode 58–“Spring Broken”

Original Airdate: March 15th, 2009 on ABC

I mentioned at the end of the last post that Brothers and Sisters may be the same show as Parenthood, and it turns out that’s not really a joke. I could have sworn I had previously watched the pilot of Brothers, but I eventually realized that I was in fact remembering having watched the pilot of Parenthood. I can see how I would get confused–both deal with overly large semi-functional families of means in California having gentle adventures on broadcast TV. I think the Parenthood characters are meant to be more middle class, but their palatial Bay Area homes belie that.

Both shows also feature alums of Six Feet Under and I’d argue that this is no coincidence, as Brothers and Parenthood are each watered down versions of the HBO series. In our series du jour, it’s particularly resonant. The first episodes of both Brothers and Six feature a semi-estranged child of a good-sized family returning to LA and deciding to stay and make amends in the wake of their father’s death. Both shows go on to reveal the secret adultery of the patriarch and both chronicle the ensuing struggles over maintaining a hold on the family business, though the Walkers are a few tax brackets higher than the Fishers. Both shows go on to chronicle the romantic lives of the various family members, including a queer brother and a wayward youngest sibling. Both shows frequently use disastrous family dinners as set pieces. Hell, both families’ last names are nouned verbs suffixed by “-er.” Mr. Oryx and Cake Boss also observed that Brothers is what Arrested Development would be like if it were an equally ridiculous humorless drama. For this review, I watched four episodes of Brothers: the pilot, “Spring Broken,” and the episodes immediately preceding and following.

Strengths

  • Tawdry soap opera fare. I can’t lie–I love a good soap opera. Actually, I should amend that. I love a soap opera. It doesn’t have to be good. Brothers certainly isn’t. But the dramatic plotting definitely is. This episode alone features brother Justin Walker (Dave Annable) pining for his star-crossed lover, Rebecca Harper (Emily VanCamp, Revenge,) though Justin’s pining doesn’t prevent him from considering the merits of some Spring Break strange, and the danger of Justin relapsing into dissolute drug addiction is ever-present. It also features sister Kitty Walker (Calista Flockhart, Ally McBeal) coping with her failing marriage and her husband Robert McCallister’s (Rob Lowe, The West Wing) recent heart attack. Of course, Robert isn’t taking his recovery seriously enough and could keel over any moment, perhaps due to a strenuous round of Wii bowling or an inspiring speech. He’s going to be making a lot of inspiring speeches, since he’s also running for governor. Meanwhile, Kevin Walker (Matthew Rhys, The Americans,) the aforementioned queer brother, spends the episode bemoaning the lack of passion in his marital bed and the Walkers are struggling with the awkward integration of their illegitimate brother Ryan Lafferty (Luke Grimes, Fifty Shades of Grey) into the family circle. And then there’s the main plot arc of the Season 3 episodes that I watched–asshole brother Tommy Walker (Balthazar Getty) is on trial for felony embezzlement conducted in order to seize control of the family business, Ojai Foods, which is currently under the oversight of his father’s former mistress, Holly Harper (Patricia Wettig.) Oh, and Holly’s Rebecca’s mom. So there’s definitely plenty of grist for the ol’ drama mill.
  • Strong ending. I find it fascinating when a show can turn its weaknesses into a strength, and this is a good example. As I’ll discuss below, the show’s characters are generally underwritten and have somewhat incoherent motives. Frequently this is in service of the plot. When Justin asks Rebecca to intervene on Tommy’s behalf by asking her mother to drop the charges, she refuses for totally understandable reasons–her and Justin’s relationship is already tenuous enough without Rebecca putting herself right in the middle of the increasingly fraught environment created by Tommy’s trifling bullshit. But a few scenes later, there she is, intervening on Tommy’s behalf. Why would Rebecca do that? Oh, because the story needs to keep moving forward? Okay then. In “Spring,” Justin and Kevin take Tommy to Baja California to forget his troubles. They also have the ulterior motive of persuading Tommy to cop a plea as opposed to taking his chances with a trial. As expected, Tommy eventually caves towards the end of the episode with no obvious reason for the change of heart. I was rolling my eyes until we hit the final twist–he didn’t actually change his mind at all. After Kevin and Justin return from breakfast, they find Tommy gone. It’s a breath of fresh air in a show that otherwise tries very hard to take interesting stories and make them bland.

Weaknesses

  • Underdeveloped/uninteresting/unlikable characters. Look, just because you have 17 different people on this show doesn’t mean that any of them are interesting. I’ll give credit where credit is due–they seem to be taking Ryan’s character in somewhat of an interesting direction, and I think sister Sarah Walker (Rachel Griffiths, Blow) is actually quite well-drawn. However, vast swaths of the enormous cast are inert if not actively inconsistently characterized, as mentioned above. This is a shame, as Brothers has a not inconsiderable bench of acting talent to draw from, but it’s almost entirely wasted. To add insult to injury, the two characters we spend the most time with are actively obnoxious and dull as opposed to just dull. Kitty’s something of a passive-aggressive blowhard. This isn’t surprising, since she had a stint as a Republican talking head on a Hannity & Colmes-style televised shouting match. She’s positioned as the theoretically sympathetic protagonist of the pilot, wherein she tells her queer brother about his politics by saying that “[he] can just keep on laughing and watch the rest of the country pass [him] by.” Uh, enchanting. When Sarah tries to give Robert advice about his relationship with Kitty, she advises that Kitty’s most passionate when she’s arguing with someone and that if she’s not arguing with someone it’s because she’s stewing with bitter resentment. Yeah, I absolutely want to spend my Sunday nights with that person! Meanwhile, Tommy is about a million times worse. His default position is a derisive sneer. In that same conversation in the pilot, Justin invites his siblings to a bar and Tommy asks him if they admit “unemployed hipsters who have seen every episode of Scooby-Doo.” Topical reference there, Tom. He’s still sneering at Justin in season 3 and takes every opportunity to dismiss his ambitions to go to medical school. It’s not just Justin, either–when his mom Nora Walker (Sally Field, Forrest Gump) finds out about the embezzlement and is distressed that Tommy is following his father’s footsteps in the world of white-collar crime, he throws it back in her face by pointing out that she sure loved the standard of living afforded to her by her late husband’s crimes. Of course, it’s likely most of that standard of living came from his successful business with only a small part consisting of misused funds, but it doesn’t matter to Tommy, because he takes every possible opportunity to be shitty. Does he have even an iota of remorse for the felony he committed? Nope. The fact that he’s guilty isn’t even in dispute. He thinks his motive to keep Ojai under his family’s control is all the explanation he needs. I wouldn’t mind unlikable characters as much if there was even a glimmer of depth on display here, but it is not to be.
  • Rich white people problems. Look, it’s not like shows about rich people can’t be glamorous, interesting or entertaining. Just look at Dynasty, Mad Men or Arrested. The problem is that Brothers is none of these things, so the viewers get to enjoy a bunch of whining about relatable problems like a failing gubernatorial campaign and getting caught embezzling. The details of Tommy’s embezzlement are a thrill ride of shell companies and shady land deals, which is obviously the essence of water cooler television. There’s a very telling and interesting moment in “Spring,” but I really don’t think the writers intended for it to have thematic resonance–instead it’s carrying water for two separate plot threads. The moment I’m talking about is an argument between Kitty and Ryan over Marxist theories on family. The first purpose this serves in the plot is to remind onlooker Sarah of what it looks like when Kitty is trying to bond to add fuel to her later conversation with Robert. The actual conversation mostly involves them talking past each other and saying little of substance, and we’re quickly delivered to the second plot purpose as Kitty waxes poetic about the deep bond between her and her newborn baby. This serves to send Ryan off in tears with passions inflamed about the mysterious death of his mother. The show predictably elides any actual Marxist theories of family, and they prove surprisingly relevant to Brothers. In a nutshell, Marx saw the traditional nuclear family as an institution designed both to maintain class hierarchy and social control. Indeed, the whole dumb plotline everyone finds themselves enmeshed in here is all about Tommy flaunting the law in order to keep Ojai and all the money it generates in the family. Every family member dutifully lines up behind him. None think he should be punished for breaking the law. They bend over backwards to try and keep him from experiencing any consequences, bringing all their social capital to bear. This is despite the fact that he’s constantly treating them all like garbage. This is despite the fact that he doesn’t show an iota of gratitude, much less remorse. No one says that they do this because it will keep them wealthy. That would be vulgar. Instead, they put up with Tommy’s wheelbarrows full of bullshit all in the name of family. He’s our brother, so we’re therefore obligated to defend his odious behavior and get him out of trouble–and the unspoken risk is getting cut out of the money pool. This isn’t to say that they don’t also love him and want the best for him. The thing about toxic social institutions is that they tend to propagate themselves and do their dirty work without the workers even realizing it’s happening. The argument as shown in “Spring” winds up being about the “artificial” bond between mothers and children, which is an obviously stupid strawman, so, again, I doubt any Brothers writers are taking Marx & Engels seriously. The embezzlement plotline isn’t the only evidence of the Walkers as an organization designed to perpetuate their own wealth–at the start of the show, beloved patriarch William Walker (Tom Skerritt, Alien) employs not one, not two, but three of his family members. In the episode after “Spring” where Sarah takes Tommy’s place at the business, it’s framed as a glorious return, only sweetened by the Walkers coaxing the board into dropping the charges. The nadir of this insufferable plot is when Nora joyously compares this “miracle” to a little girl’s leukemia going into remission. You’ve got to be fucking kidding me. Of course, the object of Tommy’s scheming is Ojai’s CEO and William’s former mistress, Holly. This, combined with Ryan and Rebecca, highlights the show’s bizarre focus on legitimate patrilineal distribution of wealth. The more you think about it, the more it comes across as decidedly medieval. It’s even worse when you remember that eldest son Tommy begrudges both Holly and Nora access to William’s wealth. That’s how sexism, the family and capitalism collide, not some nonsense about the artifice of motherhood, or whatever the fuck. It’s an almost perfect irony that a pristine case study in the art of normalizing capitalist conceptions of family contains an interlude of arguing against that theory, but I’m choosing to believe it’s incompetence and not malice. Here’s hoping, anyway. One final note: it’s not just the Walkers who see nepotism as a god-given right in the quest for filthy lucre. Guess where Rebecca works? Go on, you’ll never guess.
  • Repetitive. It’s not a great sign when you’ve already run out of ideas by Season 3. The big embezzling storyline that’s sucking all the air out of the room is not even the first big embezzling storyline on the show–that would be the fallout from the dramatic revelation of William’s embezzling in Season 1. Ryan is also not the first illegitimate child contended with in the Walker family–a large chunk of the first season was taken up by the entrance of Rebecca, who was first presented as William’s illegitimate daughter with Holly. In Season 2, another Dramatic Revelation established that Rebecca is in fact the daughter of one David Caplan (Ken Olin, Thirtysomething.) Oh, so all that time spent keeping the Dramatic Revelation of Rebecca’s existence from various members of the Walker family a Big Secret was a waste of time? Yup. As was all that time spent reluctantly and gradually integrating her into the family circle. And what’s the payoff? Why, we get to do all that stupid bullshit all over again with Ryan! And because Ryan and Rebecca aren’t related, that means that they can enjoy sexual tensionI And that means that Ryan and Justin can fight! YAAAAAAAAAY

Motivation: I’m sure it will shock you to learn that a show called Brothers & Sisters is driven by stories about family.

Final Episode Judgment: 5/10. Despite its many flaws, Brothers meets the basic criteria of an entertaining soap opera, but it doesn’t do so particularly gracefully. There are plenty of better prime-time soaps out there. As far as the other episodes I watched for research, the pilot also merits a 5/10 and “Taking Sides” and “Missing” only deserve a 4/10.

NEXT TIME: Will I ever get sick of reviewing children’s television? Find out when I check out We Bare Bears!

Case Study 23: Brothers & Sisters, Episode 58–“Spring Broken”

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 18: Secret Diary of a Call Girl, Episodes 12 & 13–“Episode 2.4” & “Episode 2.5”

Original Airdates: September 25th and October 2nd, 2008 on ITV2

Secret Diary of a Call Girl is one of those shows that belongs to a micro-genre—it’s a soapy sex comedy in the vein of Sex and the City or Coupling. Those are the only two other examples I can think of, but there have got to be others. It’s vaguely provocative and somewhat raunchy while being decidedly softcore. The soapiness and the comedy can be distributed in wildly unpredictable proportions but usually there’s at least a little of both. You’ll also notice that this is a first for the blog—I’m officially reviewing two episodes instead of one for reasons that will become apparent.

Strengths

  • Telling a sympathetic story about a prostitute with agency. It’s exceedingly rare to see a prostitute as the protagonist of a movie or TV show. When Secret first appeared, it occasioned a firestorm of controversy around the subject of its handling of gender, feminism and sex work. One of the lynchpins of that controversy is the fact that the protagonist, Hannah Baxter (Billie Piper, Doctor Who), is in Piper’s words “a witty, well-educated girl who enjoys having a lot of sex and likes being paid a lot of money for it.” It’s certainly true that this is the type of prostitute you’re most likely to see as a protagonist in movies and TV—Pretty Woman and Firefly come to mind—but that doesn’t necessarily make it unrealistic, either. Secret does not make a claim to tell the stories of all prostitutes everywhere and sex work is not a monolith. It’s insulting to sex workers to assume that no one would ever do this by choice, just as it would be insulting to assume that all sex workers were doing it by choice. The world is rich and multifaceted and it would be extremely unfair to dismiss Secret out of hand because its chosen subject matter challenges easy platitudes about sex work. The critique deepens with claims that the show both sanitizes and glamorizes Hannah’s profession, and while that may have held some water when the show’s first few episodes were generating an avalanche of hot takes, that’s not what I saw here. Sure, the fact that Hannah is on the high end of the economic scale means that she can afford fancy restaurants and a nice apartment, but each of these two episodes features a scene with Hannah on the job, and both seem rather unglamorous and distinctly awkward. Even when it pays well, work is still work. Having said that, there’s quite a lot of people out there with extensive expertise in the subject with a wide variety of opinions and points to make about the politics of the show, and you can read more about that here. I will point out that most of the opinions there are pretty negative, but, again, these folks were reacting to early episodes of the show and it may have changed course by the middle of the second season.                                       
  • Portraying people with disabilities as sexually active. Hannah’s encounter in the second episode is with Blake (David Proud, EastEnders,) who is partially paralyzed and uses a wheelchair. As you can imagine, this is also politically fraught and it’s not executed perfectly, as you’ll see below. Let me preface this by saying that if you’re in a wheelchair and you’ve got an opinion about this scene, I’d really love to hear it—hit me up in the contact form. The internet is littered with inarticulate college students who have been forced to publicly write undercooked response papers critiquing the representation on display here—I’m not sure if it’s one professor inflicting these on the internet or a multitude, but the prompt seems to have been “Explain how this scene reinforces stereotypes about the disabled,” so there’s not a lot of diversity of opinion. I’m much more interested in hearing the opinions of people who are actually in a wheelchair, and the only thing I could find was a YouTube video from a guy who said he thought the scene was realistic amidst a slew of lecherous comments about Ms. Piper’s body. Admittedly, the scene invites lechery—it’s actually pretty damn sexy and David Proud is something of a fox. Regardless, the scene taps into larger issues around stereotypes about the sexuality of the disabled—many have remarked upon pernicious myths centering around the idea that the physically disabled are unilaterally uninterested in or incapable of sex. On the other hand, the idea that sexual release for the disabled inevitably happens through the lens of prostitution is also controversial. Which is not to say it doesn’t happen. There are entire organizations devoted to connecting the disabled with compassionate, trained and well-vetted sex workers, and a 2005 survey revealed that 63% of disabled men would see a sex worker under the right conditions. Some disability activists are campaigning for governments to subsidize sexual services for the disabled, a service which is already available in The Netherlands. Of course, there’s nuance here as well—some in the disabled community have said that meeting needs further down the Maslow hierarchy should take precedence. Others have pointed out that as with all sex work, there’s a vast disparity here when it comes to gender. That same 2005 survey also found that only 19% of disabled women would feel comfortable with a sex worker. Others have pointed out that plenty of disabled people are able to have healthy and fulfilling sexual and romantic relationships without needing to rely on sex workers—in fact, Secret suggests this as well when Hannah reassures Blake that this is eminently possible and that he shouldn’t despair of the possibility. Perhaps the most resonant quote on this issue that I came across in my research was from YouTube activist Mik Scarlet: “I don’t want a world where it’s easier for disabled people to visit sex workers, I want a world that sees disabled people as sexual and valid prospective partners.” I still think Secret is a positive intervention—it’s a sensitive depiction of the subject and I came away from it very inclined to see David Proud as a sexual and valid prospective partner.

Weaknesses

  • Using a person with a disability as a narrative device. Well, it was unlikely that a smutty cable comedy was going to be able to pull this off effortlessly, wasn’t it? The whole reason we’re given this extended scene between Blake and Hannah is that it’s a reflection on Hannah’s personal problems and her conception of herself. You see, these two episodes center on Hannah’s abortive attempt at a romantic relationship with Dr. Alex McCloud (Callum Blue, Smallville.) It’s difficult for obvious reasons—Hannah is very discreet and doesn’t advertise her line of work to most of the people in her life, including men she hooks up with in her personal life. But before she knows it, a casual hook-up turns into something more serious, and Alex is getting suspicious about why she’s disinclined to show him her apartment or introduce him to friends. In addition, Hannah’s best friend Ben (Iddo Goldberg, Salem) is secretly carrying a torch for her and aggressively disapproves of her keeping this secret from Alex. Of course, Ben’s opinion isn’t stemming from a deeply principled moral code but rather from incandescent jealousy, and this leads to a decidedly unpleasant lunch date with Hannah, Alex and Ben. Given Hannah’s serious feelings for Alex, she realizes the deep tensions here will need to be resolved fairly immediately and resolves to tell Alex very soon. In the meantime, Hannah has her appointment with Blake. In the conversation where Blake bemoans having to resort to prostitution to have a sexual outlet, Hannah muses that sex with strangers can make a person feel even more alone. She also tells him she can relate to his fears about never being able to have a normal relationship. It’s exceedingly obvious that this conversation exists to reinforce Hannah’s fears that her profession forecloses on her ability to find love. Blake is a guest star in Hannah’s life, and the reason he’s here isn’t to tell a story about what Blake’s going through, or to start a conversation about disability and sexuality and prostitution—it’s to underline the poignancy of Hannah’s problems. It’s dehumanizing and disrespectful to use other people’s subaltern identities as narrative props.
  • Lazy lover. This is infuriatingly common—I can think of examples stretching all the way back to Romeo & Juliet-–but that doesn’t make it less stupid. We’re meant to believe that Alex and Hannah have a deep and meaningful love connection. The climax of the first episode is this big conversation about how Alex feels too strongly about Hannah to be able to abide her seeming unwillingness to commit, and the final line of the episode is Hannah tearfully confessing her love to him. But this is entirely unearned. We have no reason to believe that Alex and Hannah are any more special of a couple than any other two people. They don’t seem to have much in common. There’s not buckets of chemistry. There’s no wonderful shared romantic experiences. The best we’re given is a bit of cutesy banter. A romance story can be bewitching and frustrating and an all-around emotional roller coaster. Its myriad flaws notwithstanding, this is something that Secret’s American cousin City pulled off on the regular. It’s interesting that Hannah’s job makes it very challenging for her to have a traditional relationship, but because this romance is so unconvincing, it’s really only interesting in the abstract.
  • Unnecessary and somewhat implausible dramatics. So how does that conversation with Hannah and Alex go? It doesn’t happen at all, because he finds out about her job in the worst and most dramatic way possible—he shows up unannounced in her apartment as Hannah and Blake are having sex. How was he able to get in? The show foregrounds the fact that Hannah left her door unlocked for the stupidest of reasons–Blake was ferried to the appointment by his father Gary (Clive Russell, The 13th Warrior.) He goes to wait in the car and for some dumb reason Hannah thinks she needs to leave the door unlocked in case Gary needs to get back into her apartment. Buh? He has her phone number. She has his phone number. And in the worst case scenario, Hannah knows that he’s downstairs waiting in the car. The mind rebels at any scenario where Gary would need to come into the apartment and Hannah wouldn’t be available to unlock the door. The incredibly awkward scene where Gary dotingly delivers Blake to the apartment and fusses over him and kisses him goodbye, as well as a brief interlude where we see him fidgeting in the car with nothing to do, makes it seem like he’s going to interrupt Blake and Hannah at a crucial moment. If this is obvious to us, why isn’t it obvious to Hannah? If for some reason the writers were set on Alex dramatically interrupting Hannah at work, why not just have Hannah leave the door unlocked because her presence in the apartment makes her unwary of intruders, or simply because she forgot? But that assumes that this ridiculous scene needs to happen in the first place. Wouldn’t it be more affecting to have Hannah do everything perfectly in revealing her secret to Alex and having him still reject her in abject disgust? Sure, it’s wacky for him to walk in on Hannah and Blake, but it’s also improbable. A difficult conversation makes for better television than a misadventure straight out of the script of Three’s Company.
  • Not freestanding. So the reason that I had to cover two episodes of this show instead of one is that Episode 2.4 is entirely set up. I get that allowances must be made for a serialized show to develop stories and characters over time. But that doesn’t mean that an individual episode can’t tell a satisfying, discrete story while still being a part of a larger whole. Here’s the story we get in Episode 2.4. Hannah is realizing she has serious feelings for Alex, and this makes it impossible for her to have a seamy threeway instigated by a guy in a mullet and a leopard print speedo (Jeff Rawle, Hollyoaks.) Alex is eager to meet Hannah’s friends, so she makes a lunch date with Ben. Ben insists that Hannah tell Alex about her job. During the lunch date Ben acts like a pissy little baby and threatens to tell Alex himself before storming off. Alex tells Hannah it’s too painful for him to continue if she won’t commit and she tells him she loves him. That’s it. All the show does is establish the tensions underlying this relationship, tensions which could be established in less than five minutes. It doesn’t tell a story. A story would look like “Hannah meets a guy, but her job makes things difficult, ultimately resulting in rejection and heartbreak.” Diary stretched that out over three episodes, and there’s simply not enough meat there.

Motivation: Sure, she has a lucrative career—but will Hannah ever find looooooove? Can today’s high-priced call girl HAVE IT ALL!? Expect a think piece in The Atlantic on that very subject before the year is out.

Final Episode Judgments: 2.5 gets a 4/10 for actually telling a story. 2.4 only musters a 3/10. For a more probing look at sexuality and disability, check out the movie The Sessions, which occasioned the Guardian article linked above.

NEXT TIME: I review a cartoon based on an action figure: Max Steel. Will it clear the high water mark set by Danny Phantom? Only time will tell!

Case Study 18: Secret Diary of a Call Girl, Episodes 12 & 13–“Episode 2.4” & “Episode 2.5”

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)

Case Study 6: The Wrong Mans, Episode 8–“Action Mans/Wise Mans”

Original Airdate: December 23, 2014 on BBC Two

I cheated a bit on this one. I bit the bullet and just watched the whole show. I figured with a heavily serialized show like this that’s under ten episodes long we’d all be the richer for it. I still plan on sticking to one episode if I get plunked down in a random episode of a much longer serialized drama, but with something as relatively compact as this I can make an exception. Let’s get right into it.

Strengths

  • Double duty as both a comedy and an action thriller. This is really the central feature of Mans. The show mashes up the classic comedic fish out of water plot with the action thriller standby where an innocent bystander is drawn into a web of intrigue because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time (hence the name.) The exceptional thing about Mans is that it manages both aspects of its premise fantastically. There are multiple belly laughs in every episode and the script is studded with excellent dialogue. The wrong mans in question are nebbishy civil servant Sam Pinkett (Mathew Baynton, Horrible Histories) and the slightly thick-witted but goofily enthusiastic mailroom subcontractor Phil Bourne (James Corden, The Late Late Show.) My first thought on seeing this duo in action was wondering if Mans was conceived as a Rick & Morty style tribute to Parks & Recreation, sending Ben Wyatt and Andy Dwyer off on a wacky adventure. I’ll talk more about the reasons the comedy in this show is so effective momentarily, but let’s just have a taste of that snappy dialogue. While enduring some unexpected downtime in the middle of their never-ending trails, Sam suggests the duo play a game where one of them quotes a line from a movie and the other tries to guess which movie the line is from. There is a pregnant pause followed by an “Ummmmmmm” from Phil. Finally, he comes up with “Welcome to Jurassic Park!” Sam: “Is it by any chance Jurassic Park?” The action thriller aspects of the plot are also very effective. I was surprised to find myself genuinely curious about how all the disparate pieces were going to fit together and how Sam & Phil were going to get out of the increasingly impossible situations they found themselves in, and more often than not those solutions made sense and were incredibly entertaining to see played out. In one bravado moment in the episode under review, Phil has opportunistically grabbed some snacks and drinks from vending machines the Mans were trapped inside. Phil has a charming tendency to focus on the moment in lieu of the bigger, much more dangerous picture, and here it pays off—he’s able to make a Coke & Mentos bomb at just the right moment and he creates a chance for the Mans to escape their current predicament. This is also nicely foreshadowed in an earlier bit of comedic awkwardness. This demonstrates how deftly the show weaves its two seemingly conflicting genres—not only is there a perfect, unexpected resolution to an incredibly dangerous solution involving powerful nerve agents and gun-wielding terrorists, it’s also characteristically droll and silly.
  • Comedic versatility. The best comedies succeed by being able to effectively draw on a wide variety of techniques and approaches in order to remain fresh and to work on as many levels as possible, and this is a great example. There’s physical comedy and slapstick, there’s witty dialogue, there’s ridiculous situations, there’s character-driven jokes, there’s cultural references, there’s observational humor, there’s painfully awkward moments—it is British, after all. There’s also two thankfully brief interludes of toilet humor, about which the less said the better.
  • Well-executed character arcs. Mans basically had this one handed to it on a silver platter–the regular guys who can’t manage to show up to work on time or move out of their mom’s house turn out to be brave and clever heroes who defeat the bad guys and save the day. The show does this rather gracefully, though. The pair are only able to succeed by playing off one another’s strengths—Sam’s rationality and risk assessment meet with Phil’s enthusiastic bravado and creative problem solving nicely. We also get to see them becoming more effective at using their skills as the series goes on. In episode 2, Phil is nearly able to bluff his way out of a confrontation with Nick Stevens (Nick Moran, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels,) the angry, violent husband of a kidnapped woman, but Stevens trips him up. In episode 8, though, Phil delivers a speech to the terrorists that is able to quiet their growing suspicions that Sam and Phil are not in fact expert manufacturers of chemical weapons. Sam goes from being unable to look his ex-girlfriend/boss Lizzie Green (Sarah Solemani, Him & Her) in the eye, but at the end of season 1 he saves her after she gets kidnapped by the Russian mole embedded in MI5, Paul Smoke (Stephen Campbell Moore, Season of the Witch.)
  • Commentary about the security state and governmental overreach. Smoke turns out to be the big bad of season 1, and he’s a good choice because his high-level position in MI5 gives him near limitless power. The Mans commandeer the car of Agent Jack Walker (Dougray Scott, Mission Impossible II) after he catches on to Smoke’s status as a double agent and Smoke promptly murders him. The car is equipped with GPS and multiple cameras. The Mans are at an instant disadvantage. This is only worsened once Smoke starts actively pursuing them and has seemingly unlimited resources, including giant helicopters, to chase down the Mans. He has a large squad of heavily armed troops ready to kill them at a moment’s notice, regardless of the fact that they’ve neither been arrested or charged with anything. Episode 8 puts a point on this when MI5 head Cox (Rebecca Front, The Thick of It) admits that the reason her organization buried all evidence of a Russian-planted car bomb compelled the Mans to fake their death and go into witness protection in Texas was because the agency did a cost-benefit analysis and decided that it simply wasn’t worth their time to prioritize keeping the Mans and their loved ones safe. I also recently watched the first episode of Black Mirror—freshly relevant in light of #BaeOfPigs—and I wonder why the British seem able to muster these kind of pointed critiques while America gets 24.

Weaknesses

  • Mawkish sentimentality. Isn’t it enough that this show succeeds at being a comedy and an action thriller? Why must it also attempt to be a half-baked romance? A while ago I read an interview with Michael Schur about season 3 of Parks. He says “This is just personal taste, but I get bored of comedy shows without any romance in them, because it’s just every week you tune in, and it’s a certain collection of jokes, and then you react to the jokes positively or negatively on an individual joke basis, and then you’re done, and nothing sticks with you…those are the things that make for good stories to me. It’s always my personal preference to have characters’ romantic lives be at the front of their stories.” Oh, good lord, I could not disagree more. I like Schur and he does excellent work, but romance plots strike me as boring and lazy just as often as they strike me as fresh and original. I find it mind-boggling that he’s inclined to dismiss comedies without romance as “boring.” 30 Rock showcased Liz and Jack’s disastrous romantic lives but never got very serious about it and should be commended for not giving in to a decidedly tired impulse to pair off its main cast members. The Simpsons and Seinfeld and Arrested Development all did just fine without giving into or actively subverting hacky will-they-or-won’t-they bullshit. Sure, it can work sometimes—a character’s love life can give us unique insight to their character and it obviously generates plenty of grist for the story mill. But it can also be completely gratuitous. In Mans it does absolutely nothing. Lizzie would work much better as part of an ensemble. In the early episodes where she’s Sam’s long-suffering boss, she’s great. In the later episodes where she exists as a plot device who’s spending all her time and energy hopelessly waiting for Sam to return, she not only becomes much less believable but also a conduit for tepid sentimentalism. We get more of this when Phil broods over his dead father. Obviously, these characters have personal lives and things that matter to them—they’d be flat without them. But why are they being foregrounded? Who gives a shit? I want to laugh. I want suspense and explosions. If I want romance or coping with loss there are entire shows that deal with these topics more extensively and more effectively. This seems like a hollow gesture at unnecessary emotional depth. This is a fun and entertaining show. It’s not Shakespeare. It really, really doesn’t need to be.
  • Unearned explosive character conflict. Along similar lines, there’s a very dramatic scene in the season 1 finale that comes out of nowhere and doesn’t do anyone any favors. Sam learns Lizzie’s been kidnapped and wants to run off into the night to save her, and Phil’s unexpectedly cooler head suggests weighing the options and getting more information in order to be able to make the best possible intervention. Sam goes off the deep end and extensively dresses Phil down with vitriolic insults about his intelligence, personality and lack of friends. Um? This gets worse as we’re treated to a sappy musical montage as Sam heads towards his goal and the understandably dazed Phil reels. What is this, Bones? This is completely unnecessary and no groundwork has been laid whatsoever. Obviously Sam wants to save his ex and his decision-making skills are thrown off because Now It’s Personal. But he doesn’t have to viciously attack Phil! He can just leave and say something along the lines of “You can come if you want, but I’m going no matter what you say,” and then things proceed at pace. This is a naked grab at a big dramatic moment in an episode that already has plenty of big dramatic moments—Lizzie gets kidnapped, Sam gets shot, it’s the fucking finale and everything gets wrapped up nicely! WHYYYY
  • Season 2. Season 1 of this show is great and I highly recommend it. Season 2…not so much. Some of the weaknesses of the show get worse and some of the good things fall by the wayside. The Mans are clumsily put into witness protection and sent to Texas, where all of season 1’s character development gets thrown by the wayside. Phil finds himself beloved by his co-workers and wildly in love with a woman named Rosa (Rosa Whitcher,) while Sam has become a bitter, bearded alcoholic because he’s in wuvvvv and he can’t be with his precious Lizzie. Gag. Just as we come to accept this new, unpleasant reality, though, it’s all hastily thrown by the wayside when Phil learns his mom Linda (Dawn French, The Vicar of Dibley) is on her deathbed and he must get home to be with her by any means necessary. What is the point of going to all the trouble of setting up this new status quo if you’re going to throw it all away 10 minutes in? Why not either have the Mans stay in England dealing with the fallout of season 1 or have a completely new story in Texas? Who knows. There’s still funny moments but they’re fewer and farther between. The plot is much less cohesive–season 1 artfully draws together seemingly disparate elements including a Chinese kidnapping gang, a Russian infiltrator into the MI5, an icy femme fatale and a shady land development scheme. Season 2 just throws a bunch of things out there that have nothing much to do with each other, making it less of an intricate action thriller and more of a picaresque. There’s also a soupçon of race panic when the Mans get thrown in prison, although the show is mercifully able to mostly resist rape jokes in favor of more characteristic awkwardness.

Final Episode Judgment: 5/10. While the second half of season 2 (it’s just two episodes) is better than the first half, it still doesn’t measure up to anything in season 1.

Final Series Judgment: 6/10. I wanted to give this show a higher rating. I really did. By episode 2 I was in love. But the longer things go the more threadbare it gets. Season 1 is definitely worth your time if you can tolerate a bit of sloppy sentimentality towards the end, but I can’t recommend season 2, which is such a big letdown after a tightly controlled and well-executed season 1. At nearly half of the run-time of the entire series, season 2 really hurts this show’s score.

NEXT TIME: 1975’s Paddington. Yes, as in the teddy bear in a duffle coat. Episodes are only 5 minutes long, so it may not be a particularly lengthy review.

Case Study 6: The Wrong Mans, Episode 8–“Action Mans/Wise Mans”