Sunday, September 30, 2018

Thoughts on the New TV Season, 2018 Edition

Usually when I write these roundups, it's to review the new network shows that premiere in the fall.  But as we all know, there hasn't been a season for TV for some time now, as evidenced by the fact that the various streaming services delivered several new, high-profile projects in September, just when you'd expect everyone's focus to be on the networks.  I might still write about the network shows, though right now none of them have grabbed me enough to seem worthy of discussion.  But in the meantime, here are a few of the shows I've watched as the fall has started.  None of them are amazing, but a few hold promise, and together they form an interesting snapshot of what TV is becoming, for better and worse.
  • Vanity Fair - William Makepeace Thackeray's 1848 social novel, about the travails and adventures of hard-hearted social climber Becky Sharpe, has gotten fewer bites at the adaptation apple than other 19th century favorites like the novels of Jane Austen or Charles Dickens.  ITV's new miniseries, written by Gwyneth Hughes, is the first adaptation since Mira Nair's 2004 film, and the first TV adaptation since the BBC's 1998 version.  It's never been clear to me why Vanity Fair is so comparatively ignored, since it contains all the ingredients of a genuinely excellent period soap--a wide cast of characters who are both ridiculous and compelling, a plot that romps across the continent and the early 19th century's major events, and a theme, the moral bankruptcy of so-called polite society and its shining figures, that will probably never lose its relevance.  And yet judging by Hughes's efforts, translating Vanity Fair to the screen is a lot tougher than you might think, as she struggles to capture Thackeray's wit and his story's delightedly scandalized tone.

    The miniseries benefits from an excellent cast.  Olivia Cooke is perfect at conveying Becky's combination of smarts, charisma, and utter narcissism.  Tom Bateman, who I enjoyed as a surprisingly affecting Claudio in the National Theater's production of Much Ado About Nothing, takes the opposite emotional journey as Rawdon Crawley, starting out a cad who seems like Becky's equal in hedonism and self-absorption, and then unexpectedly growing a heart just in time to realize that he's married the wrong woman.  Claudia Jessie perfectly captures the infuriating, soppy helplessness of the saintly Amelia Sedley, and while Johnny Flynn initially feels far too sexy to play the repressed, lovelorn Major Dobbin, he actually ends up defusing the undertone of creepiness that often accompanies the character's decades-long pining for Amelia, conveying Dobbin's awkwardness and fundamental decency.

    But good actors can only take you so far, and Hughes's script repeatedly fumbles the book's biggest emotional climaxes, and leaves out the complexity of most of its characters.  The joy of Vanity Fair is that no one in it is purely lovable or hateable.  You thrill to Becky's triumphs even as her rise in society allows her to more fully express her worst qualities.  You groan at Amelia's blind love for a selfish man-child, which persists long after his death, even as you're reluctantly forced to admit that she's a better person than most of the other characters.  You roll your eyes at the moralistic preening of Rawdon's sister-in-law, then stand back in dismay as she turns out to be one of the kindest, most benevolent people in the novel.  Hughes misses so many of these hairpin turns of plotting and characterization, chiefly when it comes to her heroine, who is here flattened into a proto-feminist figure whose failings are not really her fault, but a justified reaction to a classist society that leaves her no option but to social climb, and then disdains her for trying.  It's not that Thackeray didn't know that the world he had dropped his heroine into was evil; he just didn't see that as an excuse for being heartless.  Hughes repeatedly seems to think that she can do him better, while missing the entire point of the book--as in the bizarre choice to spend twenty minutes recreating the battle of Waterloo, which in the book is dismissed in a paragraph, not because Thackeray couldn't write battle scenes, but because his entire point was to look at what people do when they are at their leisure, even when that leisure is at the edge of a war.  The best I can say for ITV's Vanity Fair is that it has inspired me to reread the book and enjoy its genius first-hand, but this is once again a demonstration of how fleeting that genius is in anyone else's hands.

  • Forever - Before Alan Yang (co-creator of Master of None) and Matt Hubbard's new series dropped at Amazon, the creators apparently sent reviewers an itemized list of details they were asked not to reveal in their reviews.  I'm not a professional reviewer, and more importantly, there's really nothing to say about Forever without getting into those spoilers.  So I'm just going to reveal that in Forever's first two episodes, its two main characters, married couple Oscar (Fred Armisen) and June (Maya Rudolph), both die within a year of each other, and are reunited in an afterlife that looks like a pleasant but slightly dull suburban neighborhood.  In other words, Forever is a lot like The Good Place, but without the weight of ethical questioning that gives that show its purpose (not to mention the breakneck pace of hilarious jokes).  If that sounds a little boring, well, I'm both describing it right, and getting at the point that the show is trying to make.  June and Oscar's afterlife doesn't seem to have a point, or to be significantly different from the life they left behind.  They fill it with hobbies and genuine--though somewhat well-worn--affection for one another.  But for June, who was already feeling dissatisfaction with her life before Oscar died, this isn't enough, and she ends up going on a series of adventures with her equally discontented neighbor Kase (Katherine Keener), which leave Oscar feeling increasingly abandoned.

    The problem with writing a show about boredom and discontent, even one with as high a concept as Forever, is that it's hard to do without making your audience feel the same emotions, and there's only so far you can take the attitude that "that's the point!"  There's a reason why the best episode in Forever's (first?) season is the one that spends the least time with the main characters, as we follow a pair of realtors played by Jason Mitchell and Hong Chau who embark on a years-long quasi-affair centered around the same house.  These characters are doing things, making choices, experiencing change, and while, again, that is clearly the point the show is making, it doesn't make it any easier to go back to June, Oscar, and their slower-moving and less engaging dramas.  There's some pleasure to be had in the show's excellent production, smart writing, and of course its cast, but even over a short season (which, as noted, takes two episodes just to set up its premise), those pleasures wear thin.  Forever ends up feeling like an interesting experiment, one that you're overall pretty glad you tuned in for, but you can tell that it wanted to be a lot more.

  • Maniac - Netflix has been taking some heat for its quantity-over-quality approach in the last few years, so you can see what they were aiming for when they recruited Cary Joji Fukunaga, of True Detective fame, to direct Patrick Somerville's miniseries about a journey into the mind.  Between the presence of bona fide movie stars like Emma Stone and Jonah Hill, the distinctive, retro-futuristic look of the mini's world, and the trailers' promise of a trippy, Eternal Sunshine-esque exploration of the characters' psyches, it's clear that Netflix was building Maniac up to be an event, the sort of thing that people might obsess over in the same way that they furiously debated True Detective's fusion of mystery storytelling and the fantastic.  What the show ends up delivering, however, is both more idiosyncratic, and more conventional.  Maniac is extremely watchable and very well made, but it's also completely self-indulgent.  There is simply no reason for this story to be a ten-part miniseries rather than a movie--neither the basic story it tells, nor the flourishes and ornamentation it piles on top of it, justify that kind of excess.  It's only the skill of the people involved that keeps the entire thing from devolving into a slog.

    Maniac centers on two people, Owen (Hill) and Annie (Stone) who volunteer for a pharmaceutical study, which turns out to be a combined drug-and-guided-hallucination protocol meant to cure all mental illness and replace psychiatry.  Owen has suffered from hallucinations and paranoid delusions for years (there is initially an impression that we're meant to wonder how much of the show is happening in his head, but there are too many scenes outside his perspective for this to be a plausible reading), while Annie, who joins the study because she's drug-seeking, has alienated her family and friends with erratic, anti-social behavior in the years since her sister's death.  A malfunction in the process causes Owen and Annie's hallucinations to combine, and they end up having a series of adventures in different genres, from a 1940s heist to Tolkienian high fantasy to a Doctor Strangelove-esque spy story with aliens.  These sequences are sumptuously realized, and they look extremely appealing in the trailers, but it doesn't take very long to realize that they are actually the least interesting aspect of Maniac's story.  Far more interesting are the glimpses we get of the show's world, with its 80s technology, 70s hairstyles, and bizarre, Blade-Runner-on-acid details like the ability to hire a "friend proxy" who pretends to be an absent figure from your life, or to pay for services by agreeing to be shadowed by an "ad buddy", who reads commercials to you.  A subplot about the scientists overseeing the project (Justin Theroux, Sonoya Mizuno, and Rome Kanda) struggling with substance abuse, a failed love affair, and a poisonous relationship with their mother (Sally Field, who also plays the AI who oversees the subjects' hallucinations) ends up feeling a great deal more engaging and substantial than a lot of what happens to the show's putative main characters, not least because it's the site of most of the series's absurdist comedy.

    Most importantly, Annie and Owen's journeys of self-exploration never feel as deep or as revelatory as the series's gonzo visuals and psychedelic themes seem to promise.  Annie needs to let go of her anger and guilt over her sister's death, but this is both a simpler concept than the show's repeated dressing it up in metaphor and costumes can acknowledge, and a much bigger one than the series's fine-but-unremarkable writing can hope to encompass--the closest the show comes to a novel approach to this familiar topic is when Annie hallucinates an entire story whose purpose is to allow her to advise the future mother of the man who will cause her sister's fatal accident not to have children.  Owen has deeper mental health problems, but it's telling that the one scene in which we get a sense of how painful and scary it is to live with his condition takes place in the real world, when he tells Annie about his first psychotic break (Hill is genuinely excellent here, perfectly conveying Owen's anguish at not being able to trust either his perceptions or his family, who treat him like a freak or an encumbrance).  When it comes down to it, Maniac tells a very simple and familiar story, about two damaged people who unexpectedly find solace and support in one another, and who discover that friendship can help them bear seemingly insupportable burdens.  The visual and storytelling flourishes that Fukunaga and Somerville pile on this premise don't end up elevating it, nor do they give us insight into their characters.  Fukunaga's hand on the tiller is sure enough that Maniac is never boring to watch (in particular, it's interesting to observe that he avoids Netflix bloat by making each episode only as long as it needs to be, resulting in playing times that range from 47 minutes to 26), and you do end up hoping for good things for its characters.  But when the credits roll, it's impossible not to conclude that the show is a lot less interesting and experimental than all its preening and marketing had suggested.

  • The First - Hulu's series about the first manned mission to Mars looks and sounds like many millions of bucks.  It's full of moments of breathtaking cinematography backed by a sweeping orchestral score.  But all that grandeur often seems to be in service of obscuring the fact that The First has so little to say about its putative topic.  Despite what promotional materials may have promised, the season takes place on Earth, after an accident during the launch of the first stage of a semi-private venture to the red planet leaves the rest of the project in jeopardy.  Tech visionary Laz Ingram (Natasha McElhone) brings in former astronaut Tom Hagerty (Sean Penn), with whom she had previously feuded, to lead the next mission and help convince the public and politicians not to pull funding.  But even this logistical, political, and technical challenge isn't where the show's heart really lies.  Instead, The First turns out to be much more of a character drama, about the kind of people who choose to risk their lives on a long, arduous, dangerous journey into the unknown, and the people they leave behind.

    As such, there are some aspects of the show that are worth experiencing.  In particular, Anna Jacoby-Heron gives a very fine performance as Hagerty's troubled daughter Denise, struggling with substance abuse and the death by suicide of her mother as she grapples with the possibility of losing a father who has always seemed to be more drawn to the stars than to her side.  But even leaving aside the fact that this is not what most viewers will have tuned in for when promised a show about space exploration, there simply isn't enough of this to justify the season's stately pace.  Ultimately, the show keeps circling around the same question--isn't it wasteful to expend vast resources, and possibly lives, on a journey to another planet, when the one we're on still has so many problems?  And what kind of person would leave their family for years, possibly forever, if they didn't have to?  The problem is, these are not very interesting questions, because the answers to them are not rational.  Humans explore because we have a drive to, not because we can find a justification for it--a justification that, in many cases, is thin and unconvincing.  That fundamental irrationality can be an inspiring, stirring thing, but not when you keep worrying at it for eight episodes as The First does, trying and failing to come up with an argument that will win the day when the truth is that this is a purely emotional choice.

    Another problem with the show is Hagerty, who ends up taking an outsized role in the story, with the other crewmembers barely getting their own storylines.  Casting Sean Penn was already a big hurdle to my enjoyment of the show, and as if to rub my face in it, The First keeps putting Hagerty in a position to talk down to women--Ingram, Denise, random journalists, his wife, even the president of the United States.  A particularly annoying storyline involves his second, Kayla Price (LisaGay Hamilton), who was originally intended to lead the mission but was bumped down because of Hagerty's greater media profile.  Hamilton gets some great scenes to express the frustration of having clawed her way to the upper echelons of her profession as a gay black woman, only to find that just at the end, the real prize is snatched away.  But having given her such a justified grievance, the show is too invested in Penn's stardom to give her (and us) the requisite happy ending, so instead it pretends that she needs to adjust her attitude and learn to appreciate Hagerty for the great guy that he is.  Similar subplots recur throughout the season, with the entire story feeling warped by the need to shape it around a specific male hero (even Ingram gets sucked into Hagerty and Denise's family drama), when in fact the more interesting story would have been the one about a team coming together to do a great thing.  It's a shame, because there are moments when you can imagine the show that The First would have been without Hagerty (or even just Penn) at its center--scenes like the astronauts, on their last morning on Earth, pausing to appreciate things like the feel of running water, or the pull of gravity, that they will soon have to live without--and it seems like one that I would have enjoyed watching.

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