Television

the great five minutes - halloween edition by Greg Bills

 In  Suspiria  (1977), Jessica Harper wonders, Is that peacock thing beautiful or just tacky?

In Suspiria (1977), Jessica Harper wonders, Is that peacock thing beautiful or just tacky?

Early on, I woke up and wandered out of my bedroom to find someone watching the late show.  A wealthy family kept one of their brothers or uncles locked up in a room in the tower.  He had escaped somehow and came lumbering down the staircase, terrifying the servants, until one of the family intervened and convinced the uncle/brother to return to his hidden chamber.  The man or monster was never seen; the camera looked out from his eyes—a fish-eye lens like the peephole in our front door.  We were inside the unfortunate relative during his brief moment of freedom.  For years afterwards, I was secretly convinced that I had a brother living in a hidden room under the garage, accessed through the back of a wardrobe closet in the downstairs furnace room.  I never told my family that I knew about my monstrous brother, or made the connection with this early horror movie experience, until long after I was an adult.  Ah, the power of cinema.

 

Later, I seriously considered skipping trick-or-treat one year so as not to miss the premiere of Devil Dog, Hound of Hell.  Luckily, I came to my senses.  Free candy versus what would undoubtedly turn out to be a pathetically bad TV movie.  Still: Devil Dog, Hound of Hell.  The title itself is as tasty as a Tootsie Roll.

 

All those made-for-TV movies.  Why were they all 90 minutes and not 2 hours back then? How was this decision made?  And why did the running times change?  Perhaps it was the fault of those gargantuan miniseries.  Winds of War, anyone?  In any case, in addition to Get Christie Love and Stockard Channing in The Girl Most Likely To…, there were some works of terror that seemed very thrilling at the time.  Duel from Steven Spielberg.  And Gargoyles, which burrowed deep into my imagination.  It opens with a researcher visiting a roadside attraction/curio shop in the Desert Southwest and discovering a strange, horned, humanoid skeleton in the back room.  I had visited so many of these creepy shacks off the highway during family camper trips through Arizona and New Mexico, that the scenario seemed eminently plausible.  When the researcher flees the burning shack after the death of the crusty old man who possessed the skeleton, he takes the horned skull back to his motel room.  Surely, he could have foreseen this was a bad idea!  The movie was exactly scary enough for a seven-year-old.

 

The Gold Standard of 90-minute TV horror movies of the 1970s must be Trilogy of Terror.  The first two parts are difficult to recall in any detail, but the last one…the talk of the playground.  Karen Black, giving a tour-de-force performance, plays a woman who has somehow trapped herself in her own apartment with a fetish doll possessed by a demonic spirit.  Among the lessons learned: Do not try to grab a knife by the pointy end.

 

By the time my pubescent years rolled around, I was creating monsters and mise-en-scene for other trick-or-treaters in my parents’ front yard (Those plastic eggs full of green slime? Essential), and I had entered my Junior Cinephile Period.  More precisely, I was cultivating my Bad Cinema Fascination (and I still love them, bad movies, although my standards are higher [lower?] than they used to be when I would watch anything in search of those jewels of awful greatness).  Plan 9 From Outer Space is pretty much the epitome of this…um…genre?  And Criswell’s introduction can serve as the keynote address.  So sublimely ludicrous, this speech could have been on the bill for Dada Night at the Cabaret Voltaire.

 

And then I hunted down VHS treasures like Exorcist II: The Heretic.  It seems to be hard to locate in our current moment, but this film is ripe for rediscovery.  Director John Boorman after Zardoz and before Excalibur.  Richard Burton in his long, bellowing decline.  James Earl Jones in a grasshopper costume.  About as tangential to the original as a sequel could be and still get funding from a major studio.  Equal parts tedious and marvelously weird.  The climax features a plague of locusts and Linda Blair tap-dancing.  The trailer works beautifully as a disco-goth music video.

 

Then there was Invader from Mars, the 1953 version that I had to track down after seeing publicity stills in Starlog Magazine.  I thought it was going to be a so-bad-it’s-good, but it is actually pretty much just good.  The alarming tale of little boy who finds first his parents and then his entire world taken over by mind-controlling aliens who have hidden themselves under the sandpit at the back of the yard.  The film is understood as an hysterically anti-communist Red Scare allegory, but it resonated with me as a gay adolescent: your parents, your teachers, the whole town are your enemies. They are conformist zombies, and you are fundamentally different from them.  You cannot trust them, and you need to escape!

 

And now, some musical treats.

 

The obvious choice here is The Rocky Horror Picture Show.  The film escapes the crushing respectability of being a truly good movie by peaking way too early.  We are given “Damnit Janet,” “The Time Warp,” and then this number in quick succession.  Then the narrative meanders aimlessly, possibly redeemed by the remarkably louche and languid ending where everyone is in fishnets prancing around the pool.  If Anne Hathaway can snag an Oscar for her enlivening five minutes jolted into the corpse of Les Miserables, then Tim Curry was surely robbed. (And if you watch it below, you can practice your Italian!)

 

One of the concoctions Joseph Losey came up with in his expatriated career phase was a seaside English tale featuring an age-inappropriate romance, expressionist sculpture, and radioactive children.  And Oliver Reed leading a gang of what I suppose are Teddies, somewhere between Clockwork Orange and We’re the Boys in the Chorus, We Hope You Like Our Show.  The title is great: These Are The Damned (I want to write that book!).  The film opens, after some moody credits, with a sorta musical number, a perfect tune if you are a Kenneth Anger fetishist.  There are subtitles here, so karaoke everybody!

 

Although not strictly a musical number, the first killing from Dario Argento’s Suspiria serves to illuminate the cinematic parallels between elaborately choreographed slapstick, Hollywood production numbers, and gorefest death scenes.  Hyperviolent but detached and process-oriented, it could almost be Matthew Barney performance art, or kinetic sculpture (and possibly aesthetically misogynist: pretty girls make the best corpses).  What makes the scene thrilling is the set and lighting design (such colors! those wall treatments!) and Goblin’s rarely equalled soundtrack.

 

David Lynch is the master of the unlikely musical interlude (though sadly not in Dune, which would have been fun).  This scene from Blue Velvet is more potent in context, but standing alone, it still underlines the service Lynch performed by reminding us how amazing Roy Orbison is.  Happy Halloween In Your Dreams!

 Have a safe holiday! ( Suspiria  1977) 

Have a safe holiday! (Suspiria 1977) 

ann coulter, rupaul, & icons of camp by Greg Bills

 RuAnn

RuAnn

When I read the recent comments by Ann Coulter denouncing soccer and the World Cup as un-American, my first thought was that Coulter had finally gone too far—and revealed herself as the performance artist that I had always suspected her to be.  A blonde shiksa remanufacture of Andy Kauffman, whose stonefaced delivery of one outrageous quip after another creates a perfect simulation of a cretinous right-wing spokesmodel.  Because Coulter never breaks character, it has become standard practice to accept her persona at face value, as a “real person,” or at least as real as every other figure that passes through the celebrity commentary buzz world in which she operates.  The fact that Coulter is given venues to comment on issues that actually matter to the larger society creates an impression that her opinions could be taken seriously even though the actual statements that she makes—almost always in the form of one-liner bulletpoints/jokes, not sustained arguments—are often insupportably ridiculous: “Any growing interest in soccer can only be a sign of the nation’s moral decay” or “No American whose great-grandfather was born here is watching soccer.”

There is no point in attempting to contradict such statements because they do not exist to be engaged with as fact; they are rhetorical flourishes created to provoke.  Her routine is entirely dependent on stirring outrage in her audience.  And we should not pretend that her audience is composed solely of doltish fans and the supporters of her purported conservative ideology.  Her most crucial constituency is always on the left, at the ready to latch onto her latest provocations and disperse them widely. Which is how I found my way to her World Cup comments.  Coulter is forever on the lookout to épater la bourgeoisie, and part of her long-running joke is that because the American Left does not view itself as bourgeois, or shockable, she is able to score points and garner attention over and over again.

Because Coulter is purely a cultural figure, not a political one, she is able to make statements that no one seeking to hold office or wield actual power would allow himself or herself to utter.  Unless that person were some sort of idiot or hailed from a political district so securely regressive that membership in the Ku Klux Klan would not be a disqualification from office.  Such people (idiots and/or institutionalized bigots) do come forward to stir up mini-scandals all the time, but what sets Coulter apart from them is her clear desire to be clever in her sexism, racism, and homophobia.  When she describes female attendees at the Democratic National Convention as "corn-fed, no make-up, natural fiber, no-bra needing, sandal-wearing, hirsute, somewhat fragrant hippie chick pie wagons," she may not be hitting the stylistic mark established by Mencken or Clare Booth Luce, but she is obviously striving.

Her satire may never achieve a Swiftian bite, but it is calculated, premeditated.  She is entirely conscious of intention and effect.  And yet, despite the shrillness of her polemics, she doesn’t seem to want to transform the world—she is not interested in moving the conversation on any issue forward or finding functional solutions.  Instead, she is very intent on enhancing her brand.  Whatever she wants to gain—beyond attention, self-evidently, and a steady income—must have something to do with her investment in her own performance.  The business of Ann Coulter is Ann Coulter.  Her looping circuit of narcissism has led me to consider her in relation to RuPaul.

At the House of Fours, we have been watching Season Four of RuPaul’s Drag Race lately (don’t smirk: life is stressful), and one of the most striking aspects of the show is the prismatic quality of RuPaul as a performer.  The series is a parody of the numerous reality-based competition programs, and is also the thing itself.  Up-and-coming drag queens and established gender illusionists vie to achieve the status of “America’s next drag superstar” by competing in variously composed contests culminating each week in a “lip-sync for your life” in which one unlucky striver is eliminated.  The show seems to be erected most closely upon the bones of America’s Next Top Model and, especially, Project Runway.  On Drag Race, however, RuPaul serves the functions of both Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn.  In her familiar drag diva regalia, RuPaul is the ultimate judge and authority (“I have made my decision!”); while, in male costume, he serves as the backstage mentor and confidant of the competing men.  The backstage RuPaul, who favors cravats and jackets with piping suitable for barbershop quartets or The Music Man, seems every bit as much a drag performance as onstage RuPaul in her jaw-dropping floor length gowns and awe-inspiring upswept blonde tresses.  During the show, RuPaul is constantly promoting his/her own ancillary products—albums, cosmetics, shoes—and this is funny precisely because there is no discernable light between the shameless self-promotion and the mocking of it.  What this shilling does is suggest the outlines of the third RuPaul, the celebrity who exists beyond the bounds of the show itself and can be glimpsed on talk shows and on his enjoyable YouTube series where he drives other celebrities around Los Angeles in a big car and chats them up.  This version of RuPaul may be no more “real” than the diva or the Tim Gunn manqué, and in turn suggests a fourth “authentic” but unknowable RuPaul who eats and sleeps and apparently has a boyfriend who owns a ranch in Wyoming.

Unlike most “reality stars,” however, the artifice here is openly acknowledged by RuPaul and by the show. This is a series about drag queens, after all, and camp is the oxygen it breathes.  At least as it was codified by Susan Sontag for the benefit of self-identified intellectuals in the 1960s, camp is often viewed as a winking celebration of failed or suspect art as the means of establishing alternate cultural touchstones for a coterie “in the know.”  Camp views the world through the simultaneous lenses of mockery and worship, and in terms of drag performance, and Drag Race in particular, this sensibility focusses our interest on the earnest attempt at least as much as on the sustained success. In this context, contestant Chad Michael’s evocation of Cher on a fake game show is more vivid and fascinating and fun than Cher herself on a real game show would ever be.  Camp reminds us that it is all made up—gender, culture, identity—it is all absurd, but we can rejoice in it anyway.

If this camp spirit used to be the secret handshake of gay culture, it has long since spread its attitude into the mainstream.  The most casual stroll through YouTube will reveal how this nothing-sacred/everything-fabulous approach has detached itself from a specifically gay sensibility and opened the whole world up to parody/celebration.  An entertaining example of what can only be seen as “straight camp” appears in the work of Dick Valentine, the lead singer and songwriter of the indie rock/pop band Electric Six. His tunes and lyrics are structured so that the singer's swaggering, hypermasculine persona always falls short of convincing the listener of his playboy bona fides.  His best songs make me laugh even as the power pop succeeds in delighting with its rock god prowess.

And if we follow the spectrum from the transgression of the drag artiste through the giggles of the piano-playing cat to the other end of the dial, do we eventually reach conservative camp…and Ann Coulter?

I hesitate to describe Coulter in terms of drag because it would be too easy to delineate her hardness, toughness, and cruelty as somehow indicating an essentially masculine nature, as if a woman could not exhibit all of these qualities without being suspect in her gender.  Nonetheless, the Coulter Visual Kit assembles many of the same over-exaggerated touchstones as drag femininity—high high heels, long long legs, front and center breasts, long blonde endlessly tossable hair, heavy mascara—in order, it seems, to appeal to the purportedly heterosexual, “genuine” men, whose centers of gravity she chooses to orbit.  It is hard to imagine that there is much in her presentation meant to appeal to women, or that Coulter has much interest in connecting with a female audience, except as a model for others to (fail to) emulate.  Her ideal might be to exist as the only woman allowed entry into the palace of masculine power: strong, seductive, and ready to lock the gate behind her.  In fact, she has suggested disenfranchising women, pointing out that without the gender gap, a Republican would have won every presidential election since 1950.  That she herself would lose her vote does not trouble her because she is absolutely secure in her exceptionalism.  This is a traditional stance for the conservative woman celebrity: Phyllis Schlafly, for instance, seemed to fantasize herself as the Last Public Woman, who placed herself reluctantly on the national stage so that all other American ladies could be allowed to remain at home, cooking and cleaning, invisible.  Unlike Schlafly, Coulter’s persona does not suggest anything remotely homey or domestic in either her written or televisual form—and it is this extrovert quality that most reminds me of RuPaul.

It is impossible to imagine the drag diva incarnation of Ru at home sipping chardonnay and clicking through a Netflix queue.  Superstar RuPaul does not go home; Superstar RuPaul is disassembled and put in storage.  Similarly, I cannot conceive of what it might mean for Ann Coulter to step offstage.  There is an uncanny-valley, “Meet Mr. Lincoln” aspect to Coulter that does not suggest downtime or repose—but maintenance, perhaps?  I can envision Coulter being toweled-down and massaged like a thoroughbred, or lubricated at the joints like a robot boxer, but when I try to picture Coulter after the fund-raiser, back in the hotel suite, I end up with undoubtedly inaccurate images of blond wigs on foam heads and body parts peeled from velcro strips to be carefully loaded into padded boxes.  Her identity feels like an artificial construct.  I don’t mean to suggest that the private Ann Coulter does not exist, only that the public Ann Coulter is entirely performance, a figure willed into being by the collusion of the actor and her audience.

Consider her presentation of herself as a voice of the common folk. Coulter spends endless time harping against “liberals,” with their iPads and lattés, their soccer mom/nanny state overprotectiveness, and their emasculated embrace of identity politics.  Yet if you spend even a moment considering what her off hours must be like, it is impossible not to assume she (or her housekeeper) is shopping at Whole Foods, sipping a coldpress iced coffee, searching for the right Kate Spade purse. Despite her lockjaw voice and her puffs of opinion sprinkled with legalese, she is meant to be understood as a Tea Party woman of the people.  Any of her supporters who thought about it for even a moment would see that this Cornell and University of Michigan-trained lawyer is not Annie C. stocking shelves at the Costco out on the main highway, but they are nonetheless willing to admire her populist illusionism.  If you watch clips of her appearances on Fox News, notice how the hosts ask her questions in a mock-serious tone, feeding her set-ups for her outrageous quips.  Everyone more or less recognizes that she is as outlandishly engineered as an oversized pair of falsies, but she is indulged because she gives good show.

In exposing Coulter as an example of conservative camp, it is possible to underestimate her power as a cultural force in the same fashion that Antonin Scalia is misleadingly defanged by all those reports of how sweet and charming he is out in the duck blind.  Coulter may be camp, but she is also archetypal.  Her template is, of course, the Mean Girl, popular and privileged despite (because of) the fact that she is widely feared and despised.  While I was roaming through Facebook on the day Coulter bashed the World Cup, the revulsion that people expressed towards her was deep; images of nausea and vomit abounded. Granted, most or all of these commentators lean to the left along with me, but their disgust demonstrates one of Coulter’s cultural functions as a locus for a particular kind of loathing.

By allowing Coulter into the imaginative space in my head to write this essay, I could not help revisiting my own encounters with mean girls of the past.  I remember walking down the street on the Newport Peninsula in Orange County sometime in my twenties, passing two girls with their beefy boyfriends sitting at a table outside a burger place.  I must have been giving off a desperate scent of self-conscious social awkwardness because one of the girls left off slurping her soda to look up and shout, “Oh my god, look at how skinny that guy is.”  And the other girl added, “Some skinny fag.”  I suppose they were secure in taunting me while the muscle of their dates hulked nearby, although what it gained them to insult me I couldn’t guess.  I have been verbally accosted more often in Newport Beach than anywhere else on Earth; since becoming an adult, I have been verbally accosted almost exclusively in Newport Beach.  Maybe it has something to do with the density of rich Republicans on vacation.  It is not hard to imagine which role Ann Coulter would play in my little anecdote with her “clever” viciousness and her smug sense of entitlement—at least the “Ann Coulter” that she plays on TV and in her books and columns.  And sometimes I wonder if it is too easy to loathe the very public Coulter if our focus on her deflects attention from the more-hidden troll kings of Halliburton and Goldman Sachs.  But for those of us not invested in believing she is some sort of political genius, it may be most useful to think of Ann Coulter and her mode of bitter camp as a type of homeopathic treatment: she draws the poison to the surface so that we can be reminded that it has pooled inside us.

the caves of childhood by Greg Bills

While writing my recently-completed fantasy Through the Silver, I thought a lot about the novels and stories I had read as a child, works of mystery and magic that I realized have worked their way well below any conscious observations I might have about them into the dreamsoil of my imagination.

For many of these, I can recall not only the stories and characters but also the act of reading them itself.  The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. LeGuin is the first book I remember reading from beginning to end without stopping. The afternoon light dimmed into night through the window above my bed, and I carried the paperback spread open across my palm as I fumbled down the hall to the bathroom.

Okay, the novel is not very long, but as a fourth grader, it felt like an exciting achievement to absorb an entire narrative in single arc.  I had read and enjoyed the first book in LeGuin’s Earthsea series, so I was prepared to like this one as well, but I had not realized the most of the story would be set in one of my favorite childhood fantasy locales: underground, in a cavern.  Most of the interesting stuff happened underground in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, which I had read not too long before—Gollum’s cave, the home of the dwarves, Smaug’s lair, etc.—but the visceral sensation of rooms and passages under the earth is even more central to this book.

The Tombs of Atuan unfolds the story of a young girl who is forced to adopt the role of priestess to the nameless gods haunting an underground chamber and a labyrinth of tunnels beneath the convent-like community of women and eunuchs where she lives. Officially, she is the only person allowed into these caverns although other characters break this rule, including Ged, the title character from the first novel, A Wizard of Earthsea.  He is searching for a powerful artifact, and when the girl discovers him, she imprisons him for a time before events lead them to help each other to escape from their differing forms of imprisonment.

What struck me most about the novel were the ideas of darkness and secrecy, tunnels full of ancient spirits and treasure that had never seen light, and the need for the girl to learn how to negotiate the hazards with senses other than sight.  I also loved that there were maps in the front of the book: of the buildings on the surface, and of the tunnels and chambers below.

I had done quite a bit of cave map drawing myself.  These were poorly drafted sketches of pairs of squiggling lines in black pen on sheets of typing paper that probably looked to the uninitiated like obsessive diagrams of bowls of spaghetti or a very upsetting gastrointestinal tract. The names of important features would be carefully printed nearby, perhaps with a helpful arrow: amazing natural wonders like skyscraper stalagmites, waterfalls, bottomless pits; manmade features like secret hideouts and hidden rooms; and mysteries—tunnels that ended with two parallel broken lines and a final question mark [?].  Even the mapmaker could not claim to know all the cave’s secrets.

I had a particular fascination with Carlsbad Caverns.  I had pored over the issue of National Geographic that featured color photos of most of the highlights, and I had favorite movies that were filmed there, or purported to be set there.  For some reason, these movies always seemed to be on the late show, and I would stay up way way past my usual bedtime in the summer to watch them.  The 1959 Journey to the Center of the Earth with James Mason and Pat Boone.  And Gene Rodenberry’s follow-up to Star Trek, a pilot for series called Genesis II, in which a man wakes from decades of suspended animation to find that his lab within Carlsbad Caverns had been cut off by an earthquake and forgotten while civilization collapsed in a nuclear holocaust. He returns to find good-guy scientists trying to rebuild the world while tyrannical mutants stand in their way.  I didn’t remember this tidbit, but a summary I found online explains that the mutants are identifiable by their double navels, modelled below by Mariette Hartley.

 Genesis II (1973)

Genesis II (1973)

 Genesis II - Mariette Hartley sporting a double navel

Genesis II - Mariette Hartley sporting a double navel

I watched these shows until early in the morning, as if the night were a cave that they and I and the big console television in my parents’ house had all burrowed into.

Around the same time that I read The Tombs of Atuan, my family went down to Carlsbad Caverns in person on a long camper trip that began just south of Salt Lake City and ended a little less than 900 miles later at the southern state line of New Mexico.  I loved it all: the flight of the bats at dusk, the chambers as large as cathedrals with formations of intricate pleats and folds, the chill air, the mineral scent.  But I was most intrigued by the lunchroom, 1950s Space-Age Modern and 750 feet below the surface.

 Carlsbad Caverns Lunchroom

Carlsbad Caverns Lunchroom

Looking at a vintage photograph of the cafeteria at its height, the folks gathering their box lunches seem a lot like sinners being assigned to the Eisenhower Wing of Dante’s Inferno.  There is something about the fact that this dining is taking place in subterranean splendor that gives it an imaginative charge.

 Carlsbad Caverns - Box Lunch Lines

Carlsbad Caverns - Box Lunch Lines

Freudians or Jungians or readers of James Hillman’s The Dream and the Underworld have likely already made a proper psychoanalytic assessment of my childhood cave enthusiasms.  A hero’s journey into the archetypal and the unconscious.  Symbols of sexuality and exploration (all the cavern-centered books and movies I can think of have a weird libidinous pulse to them.  In the 1959 Verne movie, Pat Boone strips to a pair of cutoffs then has a naked musical interlude in a natural underground shower, and the leading lady, Arlene Dahl, loses her inhibitions and smiles, smiles, smiles as she whooshes up through the vent of a volcano!)

All I knew was that there was something down there, something hidden, in the dark and the damp, at the end of a maze or behind a bolted door, and I wanted to find out what it was.

what we watch now by Greg Bills


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?


BROADCHURCH

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).

 

THE RETURNED

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.

 

HEMLOCK GROVE

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 ManorSheepshead 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!