- And Then There Were None - My first reaction when I heard that the BBC was planning a new adaptation of Agatha Christie's novel was to wonder why anyone would bother. I read the novel as a teenager, and I remember it being clever but mechanical, and rather awkward in delivering a final twist that, I felt certain, everyone must know by now (as this highly scientific poll reveals, it's actually more like a 50/50 split). Once you knew the twist, I thought, going through the motions of watching the ten strangers gathered together on Soldier Island get picked off one by one by an unknown assailant seemed rather pointless, and not a little bit mean-spirited. As it turns out, the problem must have been in Christie's writing, and in her Fair Play obsession with laying out the precise details of every murder so that the reader could work out the killer on their own. The BBC version is a lot less interested in the whodunnit of the story, and more focused on the psychological effects of its gruesome events. It very effectively captures the breakdown of the rigid social conventions that govern the type of 30s house party the characters think they've been invited to, and which they initially try to cling to before the reality of being trapped with a killer sinks in. As the cast is whittled down, the claustrophobia and paranoia rise, and the characters begin to let go of their pretense of civility--including, eventually, their insistence that they are innocent of the crimes of which they've been accused by their tormentor, and for which they've been sentenced to death.
The entire cast is strong, but Maeve Dermody and Aidan Turner are particularly good as a clever, capable young woman concealing a terrible capacity for evil, and the only member of the party willing to admit to his own moral depravity. The miniseries also makes some changes to some of the characters' backstories and the crimes they've been accused of, which taken together suggest that despite the killer's proclamations, what's on trial in this story is actually the pre-War British way of life, and its thoughtless assumptions about class and racial superiority. My only problem with this adaptation is that if you watch it knowing who the killer is, and observing their interactions with the other characters, it becomes easier to see that they are a cruel psychopath, and that for all their pretenses to be seeking justice, the fact that they've constructed such an elaborate, sadistic game suggests that they're much more interested in bringing more suffering and pain into the world. The mini tries to address this in several scenes that obliquely hint at the killer's depravity before they are revealed, but the structure of the story--in which they only get a short scene to explain themselves--means that this thread is inevitably shortchanged. Even with all the welcome alterations that it makes to Christie's original, it's hard to finish And Then There Were None and not feel at least a little unsatisfied. It's not that we want any of these, for the most part unrepentant, murderers to survive, but by the end of their torment we don't really want their killer to win either. For all the changes that this version of the story makes, and despite its overall success at making something more resonant than the novel it's based on, it doesn't find a way to deprive the killer of the last word.
- Sherlock: The Abominable Bride - A few weeks ago, while reading Neil Gaiman's Sandman: Overture, it occurred to me that, slowly but surely, Gaiman's Sandman and Steven Moffat's Doctor had become the same type of character, a protean trickster figure who exists in many forms, but who is always fundamentally the same, and essential to the proper running of the universe. Inevitably, both of these authors return to a story about their characters' multifarious existence, about the many types of stories told about them and the many guises they take, all of which have the same heart (Gaiman has also told this type of story about Batman, with the rather forgettable Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?). About halfway into "The Abominable Bride"--the one-off/special/standalone episode that stands in for this year's season of Sherlock--we realize that Moffat is now telling this kind of story about Sherlock Holmes. What initially seems like a rather pointless, tail-swallowing trip back to the 19th century (which only throws into sharper relief how much Sherlock, and Benedict Cumberbatch's performance in particular, owe to Granada's magnificent adaptation of Doyle's stories, with the incomparable Jeremy Brett as Holmes) turns out to be a reflection on Holmes's many facets, leading us to ask: is this a story about Sherlock, in the 21st century, imagining how his life might be like as a Victorian detective, or is it about Holmes, in the 19th century, imagining his life in a future that has flying machines and mobile phones?
On the face of it, this makes a certain amount of sense. Holmes has been reimagined and reinvented dozens of times since his creation more than a century ago, and the best of these variations retain a certain essential Holmes-ishness no matter how much they change the character. So why not tell a story in which these different versions meet and comment on each other? Especially one that also reminds us how much Holmes, even within his own story, is mediated by his chronicler? The problem, unfortunately, is that by calling attention to Holmes's many facets, Moffat and co-creator Mark Gatiss (who is also credited as writer on this episode) remind us how little they understand the character. Or rather, how much they want him to be something he was never meant to be. No matter how badly Moffat wants it, Sherlock Holmes is not a superhero. He is not an elemental force binding the universe together, and he is definitely not The Doctor. What makes Holmes such an evergreen and resilient character is, on the contrary, his humanity--his kindness, his decency, his appreciation of human folly and weirdness--and this is something that Sherlock has never been able to accept. "The Abominable Bride," like so many Sherlock stories before it, tries to tell us that we need Sherlock to save the world, when this has never been Holmes's function, and has always been the least interesting and least convincing use to which the show has put its title character.
Along the way, there are several ideas that must have looked good on paper but really don't work on screen. Andrew Scott's Moriarty returns not as Sherlock's nemesis (which he was never any good at) but as a representative of his fears, his self-loathing, and most of all his addiction to drugs. In principle, this is a good way of walking back Moriarty's return at the end of the last season (in the face of fandom's uniformly negative reaction to that development), but it runs aground on Sherlock's consistent failure to engage with its title character's addiction on any but the most simplistic terms, and even then, only when it suits it. Even more dangerously, there's an attempt to address the show's history of misogyny that goes so spectacularly wrong that it's almost amazing to watch. For one thing, this element corralled into the 19th century story strand--thus implying that misogyny was a problem of the Victorians, despite the fact that Conan Doyle's original stories are much better than Sherlock has ever been at featuring interesting female characters who are treated with respect and are allowed to move the plot in their own right. And then, for some inexplicable reason, the show delivers a twist on "The Five Orange Pips" in which the secret society hounding Holmes's client is a group of feminist avengers who hunt down and kill cheaters and abusers--an already problematic plot development that is made even more so when you remember that in the original story, the secret society in question was the KKK. That's right, in Steven Moffat's universe, feminism takes its cues from the Klan, and criticizing Sherlock on the internet is akin to stabbing philandering husbands in the heart while dressed as an avenging, ghostly bride.
Somewhat strangely, the only character who still works and still feels human is Gatiss's Mycroft--all the more impressive when you consider that his screen time in the 19th century strand is devoted to an unpleasant, offensive fat joke. In the 21st century strand, however, Gatiss is very good at conveying the anguish of loving someone who is incapable of recognizing or returning that love, and of having to stand by and watch as they destroy themselves. If the rest of Sherlock were as human and real as the few moments in which we see Mycroft laments his inability to save his brother from himself, it would be something to watch. Instead, all we get is Moffat's increasingly desperate attempts to make the show, and the character, into something they could never be.
- Childhood's End - In principle, you have to respect what SyFy was trying to do with this miniseries. After nearly a decade of relying almost exclusively on schlock, pulp, and shows that have nothing to do with science fiction for their bread and butter, the channel seems genuinely to be trying to get back to its roots. And how better to do that than with a handsome, serious, expensive-looking adaptation of one of the core works of Golden Age science fiction? Going into the miniseries, one's knowledge of SyFy's proclivities (and of what tends to happen to SF when it gets adapted by just about anyone) leads you to expect the familiar corner-cutting and standardization. You expect the whole story to be turned into the heroic saga of one ruggedly handsome white man who saves the world through the sheer force of his virility while an adoring, stick-thin and perfectly-coiffed woman looks on. And, to be fair, there is some of that here--the character who in the novel was the Secretary-General of the UN is transformed into a Midwestern farmer who dresses in nothing but jeans and leather jackets, and three of the five main female characters are defined purely as love interests and mothers. But on the whole Childhood's End is a meditative and rather bleak story that avoids the temptation to veer into pulp. No one here is going to save the day. When the aliens who dub themselves The Overlords arrive on Earth and announce that they are going to save us from ourselves, it very quickly becomes clear that there's nothing we can do about that except hope that they are truly as benevolent as they claim to be. And the answer to that question turns out to be both "yes" and "no"--the aliens' benevolence is a means to an end, and that end is, when viewed in a certain light, extremely sinister. But the aliens themselves are not sinister at all, and the miniseries works hard (perhaps a little too hard) to present them as kind, compassionate beings who are doing what they think is right, and who have a compelling (if, to me, not really convincing) argument that this is, in fact, the right thing to do.
The problem is that none of this is very interesting to watch, and certainly not over six nearly interminable hours. I haven't read the Arthur C. Clarke novel on which the miniseries is based, so I have no idea where Childhood's End's faults are rooted, but the script (by Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes creator Matthew Graham, which honestly surprised me quite a bit when I learned it) has hardly a single interesting or surprising moment, hardly a single line of dialogue that doesn't feel canned and predictable. Childhood's End is clearly trying to be somber, but what it ends up landing on, most of the time, is underpowered, and even boring. And that, in turn, makes it easier to notice the flaws in its basic concept, and in how Graham develops it. The methods that the Overlords use to solve the problems of war, poverty, and inequality are, well, childish--in one scene, we're told that hunger is going to be solved because the US will use the ships of its recently decommissioned Navy to send America's leftovers to Africa, which is literally the sort of idea that a bright sixth-grader might come up with, but not something we can be expected to take seriously in a production aimed at adults. Neither was I particularly convinced by the miniseries's contention that, without the pressures of necessity and scarcity, humanity will cease to care about work, art, or scientific pursuit. (What's missing from the entire discussion--and here I suspect that the fault lies with the novel--is capitalism, and the idea that it too is a problem that the Overlords need to solve, perhaps the root of all other problems. Without addressing that, all the solutions the miniseries suggests to our woes feel incomplete and meaningless.) By the time the end comes around, and with it the expectation that we will buy into the idea that humanity needs to die so that God can come into existence, I was completely checked out. Without reading the novel, it's hard to know whether Childhood's End could have worked with a better script, or whether its concept is irrevocably flawed, but either way it remains a well-intentioned bid for respectability, not a worthwhile work in its own right.
- Dickensian - Five episodes in, I still find myself puzzled by the core concept of this series, which imagines that the background and supporting characters of some half dozen Dickens novels (and a few of the leads) all live on the same street and interact with each other. I don't consider myself a Dickens fan (though I know enough about his novels, from general knowledge and watching adaptations, to have recognized all the main characters in Dickensian, and to know what's in store for most of them) and maybe that means that this show simply isn't for me. But it's hard not to see the show as a sort of theme park selling the Dickens Experience--lots of quirky characters with odd names, even odder habits of speech, and hard-knock lives, all bouncing against each other at Christmastime. The obvious point of comparison, Penny Dreadful, works because it quickly finds its own tone and builds its own world from its borrowed materials, but Dickensian still feels like little more than pastiche. Of the three main storylines, one is an elaboration--the investigation of the murder of Jacob Marley (of A Christmas Carol fame)--while the other two are prequels describing the downfall of two young women, Honoria Barbary (Sophie Rundle), whose engagement to a young officer is endangered by her embittered sister (thus setting up the main plotline of Bleak House), and Amelia Havisham (Tuppence Middleton), who becomes romantically entangled with a scoundrel after her brother hires him to get at her inheritance (which will presumably lead her to wander around in a wedding dress plotting vengeance on all men, as she does in Great Expectations). Unless creator Tony Jordan is planning to do something a little more bold than the show, so far, seems to promise, that means that we're watching a slow-motion trainwreck, the exact opposite of what Dickens's novels tend to deliver. (But then, maybe I'm giving Jordan too little credit--the first episode, after all, ends with Little Nell miraculously recovering from her seemingly fatal illness.)
For all that, I've found Dickensian unexpectedly enjoyable and compelling. Largely, this is the execution--the writing is sharp, the actors are all solid, and the pacing is impeccable (on that last point, it really helps that the show's episodes are only half an hour long; it's still too rare for the writers of dramas to recognize that their running time isn't a function of their genre, but should reflect the needs of their story). You end up wanting to know what happens next even if the project as a whole still feels a little dodgy. But it also helps that the show has constructed some clever and moving family drama in the chinks of Dickens's stories. Honoria's sister Frances (Alexandra Moen), who is judgmental, priggish, and actively working to destroy her sister's happiness, also has extremely sympathetic moments. We see how she has trapped herself (and been trapped, by social expectations and her domineering father) in the responsible, caretaking role, while her younger, prettier sister gets to dream of romance, and is protected from the family's financial problems. Her bitterness over this understandable, even as it corrodes her soul. Similarly, the triangle that develops between Miss Havisham, her whiny brother, and the soulless adventurer he hires to destroy her, is fascinating, constantly shifting to expose parallel currents of love and hate between all three of them. Middleton is particularly good at conveying both Amelia's determination and her vulnerability. We can imagine how this woman could be destroyed by the act of betrayal being perpetrated upon her, but we also really want her to find a way to overcome it (or maybe just to take her revenge on the right people, and thoroughly trounce her brother and his partner).
I suspect that I won't know what I actually think about Dickensian until it concludes and I have a clearer sense of what Jordan's project is (for one thing, I'm a lot less interested in the murder mystery than, I suspect, the show wants me to be). The show has been so well-made so far, though, that it's hard not to root for it to find a justification for its existence--something that makes it its own story, or even a meaningful commentary on Dickens and his work, not just an imitation filling in his margins.
Thursday, January 07, 2016
Gathered Round a Roaring Television, Part 1
I didn't write anything about the fall TV season this (last) year, because frankly, it was too dismal and boring to write anything about, and anything I could have said would have just joined the chorus of thinkpieces lamenting the networks' inability to produce anything resembling worthwhile new shows. But here we are in winter, with the network shows on break or just coming out of it, and suddenly we've been inundated with a whole gaggle of interesting, ambitious projects that remind us of what the medium is capable of. I didn't love all of the works I'm about to review--in fact I genuinely disliked some of them--but at least they gave me something to write about, which is more than can be said for the raft of samey procedurals and unfunny comedies we were slogging through in the fall.