The Shows of Summer, 2018 Edition
Summer is properly here, and with it all the TV shows deemed too weird or too niche to make it in more prestigious weather. I admit that I've noped out of several shows whose flimsiness felt appropriate to the season but not really to my taste, like the virtual reality procedural Reverie or the Castle-in-reverse detective show Take Two. And on the other hand, some more serious fare, like FX's Pose, felt a little more earnest and heartfelt than I can take right now in the sweltering heat. But here are a few shows that hit the exact sweet-spot between shlocky and highbrow, and helped me greet the summer (in my air-conditioned living room) with appropriate flair.
- A Very English Scandal - I'm a little surprised that this BBC miniseries hasn't received more attention from people in my various feeds, since it seems to tick so many boxes of stuff people like. Hugh Grant, in full Paddington 2 smarm mode, plays Jeremy Thorpe, the leader of the British Liberal party (precursors of today's Liberal Democrats) during the 60s and 70s, who is also a closeted gay man. Ben Whishaw plays Norman Scott, Thorpe's former lover, who over a span of years intermittently contacts and harasses Thorpe, asking for money, favors, or just acknowledgment that what they had existed. Thorpe decides that his best course of action is to kill Scott, to which end he enlists a cabal of increasingly dim and incompetent middlemen and assassins, which leads to a botched attempt, a trial, a public scandal, and the end of Thorpe's career. The whole thing comes to us (via a nonfiction book by John Preston) from the pen of Russell T. Davies, who takes the opportunity afforded by this improbable but nevertheless real historical event to discuss the lives of gay men in mid-20th century Britain.
A first, and obvious, point of comparison for A Very English Scandal is this spring's The Assassination of Gianni Versace. Both are true crime stories that use a shocking act of violence as a jumping-off point for a discussion of the lives of gay men in a society where their sexuality is no longer illegal, but still incompatible with "respectable" life. But Assassination--despite stunning central performances from Darren Criss as the serial killer Andrew Cunanan, and Finn Wittrock and Cody Fern as two of his victims--is perhaps a little too self-serious. Scandal approaches the same subject matter with significantly more humor--the other point of comparison I found myself returning to while watching was I, Tonya, and like that movie the miniseries is a very black comedy in which everyone is an idiot, but also afforded great sympathy and moments of dignity. Taking its lead from Thorpe himself, a dynamic, magnetic rogue who seems to get things done through sheer force of personality, Scandal refuses to take any of its events very seriously, even as it circles around some genuinely awful truths--that Thorpe was right to believe that being outed would destroy his career; that the British press were far more interested in the details of his sexual relationship with Scott than in the fact that he ordered a murder; and that the sexuality of his victim (and the fact that Scott, unlike Thorpe, lived openly as a gay man) made it highly unlikely that he'd face consequences for his actions.
Much time, therefore, is spent on minutiae, on manners that only lightly conceal a naughty or even depraved truth, and on the silliness of all these efforts to keep up a respectable face. Whether it's Thorpe trying to maneuver his way into a relationship with a naive Scott without ever calling it by name, or trying to maneuver his way out of it, once he gets bored, by pretending that they were never more than friends. Or Scott's constant harping on insignificant details--a running gag is his complaint that Thorpe promised to replace his lost national insurance card but never did so--as a substitute for the recognition he so clearly craves. Or the would-be assassins' bumbling, movie-inspired attempts to lure Scott to his death with promises to protect him from other, nonexistent killers. There's great humor in all of these sequences, but interspersed with them are moments of genuine emotion, when the mask of English detachment slips and one sees what's behind it all--a real, and entirely justified, fear of being found out. When Thorpe tells his only real friend (Alex Jennings in a performance that rivals his turn as the pickled, peevish Edward VIII in The Crown) that legalizing homosexuality will not give gay men dignity or freedom, and that he would take his own life if he were ever exposed, there's a sudden lurch into genuine vulnerability that is almost too much to take. Other scenes--Jennings pointing out that despite his effeminate presentation and obvious triviality, Scott's willingness to face up to daily public censure and potential violence by living openly as a gay man suggests a strength that other, more dignified characters lack; Thorpe explaining that one of his reasons for choosing Scott was that he seemed unlikely to be violent towards him, as other one-night stands often were; a conservative peer who is co-sponsoring the bill to decriminalize homosexuality painfully reminiscing about his brother's death by suicide--all combine to make the point that while this particular story may be a silly one, the pain and injustice that underlie it are real, and reverberate to this day.
- Marvel's Cloak & Dagger - Five years into Marvel's TV project, it's possible to identify three distinct schools. There are the ABC shows, perpetually hobbled by the need to conform to the network TV model without the skill to pull it off in an entertaining way; they occasionally throw up good material (the first season of Agent Carter, mainly), but for the most part aren't worth your time and attention. There are the Netflix shows, incredibly exciting when they first appeared but very quick to squander their most interesting ideas (not to mention their potential for political storytelling). And in the last year, we've gotten the Freeform shows (formerly known as ABC Family, Freeform is an ABC-owned channel for youth-oriented material). These tend to be characterized by more adventurous visuals and an emphasis on real-world class issues that extends to filming in poor and sometimes dilapidated locations, something that hardly any other MCU product attempts. But they also tend to wallow in soap-opera storylines to the detriment of their ostensible superhero premise. No sooner did we bid farewell to Runaways--which started out like gangbusters only to stall due to its unwillingness to actually let its title characters run away--than the channel has released Cloak & Dagger, which demonstrates the same frustrating combination of promise and glacial plotting.
The Cloak and Dagger of the title are Tyrone (Aubrey Joseph) and Tandy (Olivia Holt), two teenagers who, as we learn in the pilot but as they are still figuring out, were granted superpowers by the same industrial accident, and who have a mysterious connection that they don't entirely understand. The show spends a lot of time on their respective, complex situations. Tyrone is the surviving child of an upwardly-mobile family whose parents, still scarred by the shooting death of his older brother, are frantic for him to buckle down and fly straight, and terrified that this won't be enough to protect him from a world that frequently victimizes young black men. Tandy is living on the streets, running scams on rich college students, occasionally dropping in on her alcoholic mother, who is still trying to prove that the accident that killed Tandy's father (the same one that gave her and Tyrone their powers) wasn't his fault. These are both well-drawn settings, and the fact that the show takes its time to introduce us to them, as well as the fact that it's drawing out our understanding of Tyrone and Tandy's powers, is not unjustifiable in itself. What's less understandable is the show's reluctance to put its two leads together, instead pairing them with other characters who are obviously less important because their names aren't in the title. This is particularly true of the two leads' respective alternate love interests--Tandy's devoted boyfriend Liam (Carl Lundstedt), and Evita (Noëlle Renée Bercy), a girl in Tyrone's school who makes her interest in him clear. Both are decent characters, but since it's clear that they are merely hurdles on the path to Tyrone and Tandy getting together, it's hard not to resent the time spent with them.
Nevertheless, there are things in Cloak & Dagger that make me think it's worth sticking with. The show makes much of its New Orleans setting, not only using it to comment on race, racist policing, and corporate negligence, but drawing on its history for its own storytelling. In a dream sequence in the third episode, Tyrone is seen dressed like an 18th century chevalier, which is perfect for a New Orleans story but not something you see in most superhero shows. Another interesting note is the show's use of religious imagery. Tyrone goes to a Catholic school and has a mentor in one of the priests who teach there, who challenges him to use faith to overcome his anger over his brother's death. Tandy squats in an abandoned church and is drawn to images of angels. Most gratifying given the show's setting, voodoo has already been introduced into the show's cosmology, with Tyrone visiting a priestess who sends him on a vision quest (this is actually one of the better uses to which the show puts Evita's character, who is one of the vectors through which Tyrone explores black New Orleans culture; the other is his father, a former Mardi Gras Indian). These aren't elements that have shown up in other MCU shows, and they offer the possibility that Cloak & Dagger will be able to strike its own path rather than following a familiar template. But for that promise to be realized, the show's plotting need to kick into gear.
- Picnic at Hanging Rock - I haven't read the 1967 Joan Lindsay novel on which this miniseries is based, nor watched the 1975 Peter Weir film adaptation which is generally considered to be a masterpiece. I did, however, know the basic details of the plot (and, apparently like a lot of other people, made the mistake of assuming that it was based on a real event). On a summer afternoon in 1900 Australia, a group of girls from a rural finishing school go on a picnic at Hanging Rock, a magnificent natural rock formation. Three of the girls and one of the teachers go exploring and don't return. One is rescued after a few days, and the others are never seen again. The investigation into the disappearance dredges up the secrets of the school's imperious headmistress, Mrs. Appleyard (Natalie Dormer), and stirs up currents of tension and resentment among the school's remaining students and teachers.
The Victorian girls' boarding school as a hotbed of repression, hysteria, and overheated imagination is practically a cliché, especially in the Gothic genre to which Picnic at Hanging Rock clearly belongs. But the Australian setting puts its own spin on the proceedings. The miniseries' visuals stress the overpowering, baking sun. One can almost feel the late summer heat wafting through the screen. Victorian ideas of propriety are, of course, completely unsuited to this setting, and much is made of the way the girls are confined by their dress--being permitted to remove their gloves is depicted as an act of liberation. The sound design, as well, often overpowers the characters' dialogue with jangling, modern music, or sounds of nature and of animals which are foreign to the characters' European-trained expectations (one of the missing girls complains that the Australian scenery is "wrong" and needs taming). The soundtrack reminded me of a similar approach in the recently-concluded The Terror, a show I didn't get around to writing about, but which is on my list as one of the best TV series of 2018. Despite taking place in very different parts of the world, both stories are ultimately about Victorians encroaching on an alien landscape and trying to remake it in their image, only to end up swallowed up by it. Though the miniseries touches only lightly on the significance of Hanging Rock to Indigenous Australians, there is a constant suggestion that the rock is a place of power, and that the missing women have somehow plugged into it.
At the same time, Picnic at Hanging Rock deals with the traditional components of Gothic stories--sexual hysteria, adolescent girls rebelling against their swiftly-approaching womanhood and its attendant limitations, and the vicious, self-imposed trap of female propriety. Mrs. Appleyard turns out to have a dark past, which she compensates for by playing the correct, respectable matron to the hilt. She collects damaged, vulnerable women as her students and employees, but it's never clear whether she does this out of genuine fellow-feeling or the desire to have someone to exercise her power over. Either way, she ends up developing twisted, abusive relationships with all of them, incapable of reaching past her own tragic past and her desire to erase it. The three girls each have a horror of their looming adulthood--Miranda (Lily Sullivan), the daughter of a rancher, dreams of returning to farm life but knows that she will soon be married off; Marion (Madeleine Madden), the biracial, illegitimate daughter of a rich man, struggles with both her limited future prospects, and her attraction to women; cosmopolitan heiress Irma (Samara Weaving) has money but no real family, and she latches on to the visiting nephew of one of the town's leading families, who in turn is more interested in the stable boy. Orbiting the three girls is charity case Sarah (Inez Currõ), who fruitlessly tries to combat Mrs. Appleyard's attempts to impose normalcy (and save the reputation of her establishment) after the disappearances.
There's a lot of interesting material, but perhaps not enough to sustain a six-hour miniseries. Picnic at Hanging Rock drags towards its middle, when it seems that its story is branching out in multiple directions--Sarah's long-lost brother and her years in an orphanage; the school's French mistress's affair with a local businessman; the Bible-thumping deportment teacher's seeming horror at her students' rebelliousness, mingled with her own desire for freedom; even a romance between two of the school's servants--that don't seem to have much to do with one another. There is perhaps a little too much reliance on wordless flashes to the missing girls in their diaphanous white gowns, too many attempts to create atmosphere that end up coasting on it. Picnic at Hanging Rock is not a plot-driven story--another thing that most people know about it is that the mystery isn't solved--but nevertheless the miniseries wallows in its plotlessness a little too much, veering off on tangents instead of trying to come to a point. The ending, despite its openness, is quite powerful, but nevertheless one wishes that the middle were a little more tightly-constructed.