You finished Breaking Bad, right? Caught up on Game of Thrones? Here’s what the TV spectators at the House of Fours have been watching:
HIT AND MISS
Written by Sean Conway; Directed by Hettie MacDonald, Sheree Folkson
In this six-part British drama, Chloë Sevigny plays a transwoman hitperson with a stylish, urban loftspace, who, in a moment of personal crisis, becomes all parental with a group of multicultural children living in the Yorkshire countryside. Likely every bit as gimmicky as my summary makes it sound, the series is nonetheless carefully constructed and effectively acted. Sevigny is almost always an interesting performer to watch (although surprisingly not in Party Monster, the movie we also watched recently, where she was simply blank and dull), and she manages to dig up all the honest emotional resonances of this fairly ludicrous premise. I’m not sure this show does much to advance transgender storytelling, with a few too many shots of Sevigny showering or dawdling naked before a mirror while wearing a convincing pre-op prosthetic. The insistence that transgender characters need to “show us the candy” risks robbing the characters of their dignity while also seeming tired as a plot device. A more intriguing conclusion to be drawn from this series is that being a contract killer is basically wage slave work, without glamour or even much interest. It can be dangerous, yes, as can driving a forklift. Should we be alarmed that, as a job category on television, assassins and paid killers seem to be as common as doctors and lawyers, and much more plentiful than accountants, librarians, or supermarket checkers?
Written by Chris Chibnall, Louise Fox; Directed by James Strong, Euros Lyn
If like me, you find yourself daunted by the 12,000 episodes of Midsomer Murders, but are still in the mood for some British mystery, you couldn’t do much better than this 2013 series, which only has eight parts, is satisfyingly complete, and stars the 10th Doctor (Who). While there are some contrivances in the plotting, the show is so beautifully executed and expertly performed that I didn’t even wonder about them until after watching the last episode. David Tennant plays the gruff, Outsider Cop with a Past; Olivia Colman is the Local Cop with Deep Ties in the Town. They lead an investigation into the death of a young boy whose body is found splayed on the beach below some very impressive cliffs on the Dorset coast that deserve their own supporting actor award. The show is especially adept at playing out all the emotional implications of this central death on all of the surrounding characters so that it is not merely a mechanical Agatha Christie machine but a fully-inhabited group portrait. The cast is excellent from top to bottom, as is the evocative cinematography. There will be a second season—although it doesn’t need one—and, yeah, it is being remade, Americana-style, by Fox also with David Tennant, dropping his gravel-mouthed Scots accent for something Yank, and dropping Olivia Colman for Anna Gunn (that’s something).
Written by Fabrice Gobert, Emmanuel Carrère, and others; Directed by Fabrice Gobert
Or Les Revenants if you are the sort of person who insists on calling Cocteau’s movie La Belle et Le Bête (as I must admit I sometimes am—despite entirely lacking a French accent let alone a knowledge of French). We are in the middle of this one as I write, but it’s good. I have seen it referred to as a zombie series, but so far, it is certainly not that in any George Romero sense. Dead folks are returning to a semi-rural French community in a seemingly random fashion. They look exactly as they did before they died—same age, same clothes—and they seem entirely unaware of where they have been or that they have been gone at all. The power of this series is that it plays out this premise realistically, exploring how the living and the newly undead would react to this sudden, inexplicable resurrection. The episodes carry a powerfully atmospheric charge with the melodrama and special effects spectacle kept on a low boil. If you can handle subtitles (a deal-breaker for some, although subtitles are in frequent use at House of Fours even on American English programs—some TV shows are hard work without them), this series has a compelling spookiness.
Written by Brian McGreevy, Lee Shipman; Directed by Eli Roth and others
Fascinatingly bad, and perhaps the most fun of all these show to talk about. Jeff and I can never remember the name of this one: Wolfram Manor? Sheepshead Bay? It is based on a novel by Brian McGreevy, executive produced by horror goofster Eli Roth, was one of the early Netflix original series, and is pretty much the television series equivalent of those end of the week dinners fashioned from whatever is left over in the refrigerator. It’s got werewolves, gypsies, vampiric types, a sinister corporation, a giantess girl with mismatched eyes, much handsome brooding and cruising about in vintage sports cars, plus selected cast members from other, more coherent, science fiction/fantasy franchises (X-Men, Battlestar Galactica). It is the perfect sort of series to relax with after a hard day, because if you doze for a minute midway, it’s not like you were going to be able to understand what was going on anyway. What makes Hemlock Grove stand out from a thousand other TV shows we could waste our time on is that the confusion of its intention and effects is lodged so deeply in its DNA. There are times when no one seems to know what is going on at any level. I’m thinking of an early scene where the characters played by Lili Taylor and Famke Janssen pull up in separate vehicles at a roadside produce market. They proceed to have a conversation that feels sodden with subtext—except that neither the characters nor the actors seem to have a clear notion what that subtext might be. Certainly, we in the audience are clueless. And the tone of any particular scene is often impossible to name: Is this comedy? Telenovela-style melodrama? Creepy horror? Some stab at suspense? The whole enterprise is so unstable it becomes compellingly weird—and funny.
It’s the kind of show that leads one to wonder how it ever got made this way. It is clearly the effort of a large number of very talented artists and craftspeople. So did they get the giggles in the writers’ room making a joke of this pop-gothic novel while the production crew was convinced they were fashioning a haunting mood piece? Was there anyone involved in the process who could say at the conclusion, This was pretty close to what I had in mind?
If you want to occupy some part of your brain while watching, the series is a great opportunity to contemplate performance: how actors approach earning their paychecks in a serial drama. Lili Taylor undertakes her unpromising role as the gypsy mother of a werewolf boy with the conviction of a consummate pro. Her lowkey realism, her authenticity in the part, becomes somehow satirical given the larger context. Watch for the scene where she kicks back with her fortune-telling niece (?) and some chardonnay to discuss ancient werewolf legends as if they were mulling over facecream purchases from Sephora. Famke Janssen, as the evil rich mother, is pure camp. Lounging louchely in one vulgar/chic all-white outfit after another, she doesn’t take things seriously for an instant. She clearly did not spend months in a coffin getting into character; she might have run her lines for the first time in the makeup chair, but she is confident and amusing. Dougray Scott, in the older male lead “Dad” role, grimly slums through every scene as if this gig were part of a probation agreement (“We’ll be checking to make sure you are on the set every morning, Dougie”). Joel de la Fuente’s scenes as a mad scientist are so ridiculous that it is hard to imagine they weren’t written as a spoof, and he bashes away at them with a silly vigor.
The actors playing the teen boys, vamp and wolf, at the center of the narrative, Bill Skarsgard and Landon Liboiron, are both talented and impressively cute. They are required to shoulder the weight of the show, and the sheer number of scenes where they are given nothing to do seems almost cruel. (Almost, because they are stars in a TV show, after all, and there are limits to sympathy.) In every episode as the show wanders on, there will be more than one moment where the two actors find themselves alone in the narrative, struggling to make sense of their backstories, or their present stories, or any story. The vibe they usually settle on is the expected sublimated homoerotic bond of boy heartthrobs. Their friendship is the only relationship in Hemlock Grove that has got any heat. The teen girl cast can’t offer much help: the giantess is all make-up and costume, the psycho-misfit-writer girl is a role that even Meryl Streep couldn’t pull together, and Penelope Mitchell’s part as the pretty, rich, “angelic” romantic interest may be the truly cruel assignment. Mitchell has a few scenes that suggest she’s got skill, but she gets no help from the script or direction, and her onscreen moments are mostly flat flat flat. The boys will need to make do making heavy-lidded eyes at each other between gooey, bloody transformations. And the second season is coming soon. What's going to happen? We likely won't know even after we've seen it!