Monday, November 11, 2013

About Time, A Review

After watching Thor: The Dark Elves Strike Back, I went to watch the new Richard Curtis movie, About Time. Due to non-optimized starting times, I missed the first few minutes of the film, but  I'm pretty sure not very much of it.

So Richard Curtis is dear to me for Love, Actually and the Doctor Who episode about Vincent van Gogh. I am not a fan of either Four Weddings and a Funeral, or of Notting Hill. And despite my affection for Love, Actually, I do recognize that it is--at best--wildly uneven.

I saw a trailer for this film back in June, in front of the JJ Abrams Much Ado About Nothing, and at the time it looked scientifically formulated for my movie going nutritional requirements. There was a decided rom-com feel to it, as Domhall Gleeson wooed Rachel McAdams, who is delightful and wonderful. It has a oh-so-clever concept--the men of the family can time-travel, which Gleeson used to improve his social awkwardness so that he could successfully woo Rachel McAdams. As you would. And it started Bill Nighy as his dad.

The trailer was a better movie than the movie.

I was hoping for something that would be emotional and wonderful like the book The Time Traveler's Wife (I never saw the movie. I believe that was the right decision.) Instead, it was--negligible? Barely integrated into the plot? Awkward and kind of obnoxiously privileging?

Most of the time, when he goes back to re-try something that didn't go so well, he does things just a bit better--introducing himself to Rachel McAdams takes a couple of tries before it goes right, and their first sexual encounter is improved upon by the third try. None of these things is really life altering--most people manage to get their own second or third try by actually trying two or three times, without any high concept time travel.

Then, once he's got her for his girlfriend, there are loooooooong portions of the movie where there is no  reason, so no time travel at all. In fact, his relationship with Rachel McAdams is just normal stuff. Meet the parents. Get engaged. Have a wedding. Have a baby. Have two babies. Buy a house. Without the time travel, easily 60% of this movie would have been exactly the same.

In once case, he sees the woman "fell in love with" three years previously--a woman who was so breathtakingly gorgeous that she obviously had to handle that kind of (unwanted) attention from men every day of her life. She let him down--nicely, but decidedly. Three years later, he uses his time travel skills to try again.  Which, excuse me? He would cheat on Rachel McAdams? Not good, movie.

In the end, he doesn't, but he did try, using time travel to increase his chances several times, making four or five decisions that were designed to cheat on Rachel McAdams. So screw you movie--this is not romantic and he is not a good person. This is not a rom com, it's about an obnoxious man who gets to have his cake and eat it too.

He's also got a pretty serious case of White Knight syndrome, as he runs around "fixing" things for all kinds of people. He "fixes" the performances of a couple of actors who have forgotten their lines on opening night. He tries to "fix" his sister's propensity for picking Very Bad Boyfriends by manipulating her choices through time travel. Again--kind of entitled and obnoxious, and utterly dependent on us believing that he knows better than anybody else how their lives should run. And that it is his obligation to interfere as directly as possible.

The climax of the movie revolves around the death of his father, Bill Nighy. Which is pretty tragic, you have to admit. A world without Bill Nighy in it is a diminished world indeed. On the day of the funeral, he travels back to talk with his dad, which is nice for him, but everybody else in the family has to actually grieve--and we're supposed to be invested in this guy, who hasn't really lost anything, so long as he can time travel back and have special father-son times.

After the funeral, his gorgeous wife (Rachel McAdams--did I tell you that already?) suggests that she'd like a third child. And this--THIS--is the moment of manpain for Our Hero. Because due to some time travel mumbo-jumbo, if he travels back before the birth of his children, when he comes back, they might be different kids. The specific sperm that created the child in one time stream might not be the same one in the new time. So if he goes ahead and has another child, he can't keep going back to visit his dad.

"If I was going to choose the future, I was going to have to let go of the past" he emotes in voice-over, and at this point I'm screaming in my brain "JOIN THE REST OF THE HUMAN RACE, YOU ENTITLED JERKFACE!" I mean, grow up! Everybody else in the known universe has to give up the past--it's not your unique dilemma!

So right before Rachel McAdams goes into labor, he goes back to visit his dad one last time. And Dad completely subverts the entire premise of the movie by asking if they can take one last walk together--and they go back in time when Domhall Gleeson WAS A KID. BEFORE ANY OF HIS CHILDREN WERE BORN. But he gets to go back to the same family he left, and has a sappy coda about how you live each day twice--once with all the usual petty irritations, and once making a point of appreciating all the good moments.

The final voice over informs us that he doesn't even do that anymore, because life is so great he doesn't need to. He's capable of enjoying living LIKE THE REST OF US SAD BASTARDS DO WHO CAN'T TIME TRAVEL. Oh my god, the condescension! The patronizing tone! He's got the True Path and he's letting us in on it--move forward in time one day at a time and appreciate it.

I think my grandmother had something like that embroidered on a tea towel in her kitchen. It is not earth-shattering news, Richard Curtis.

This is not a movie I will be revisiting again.

Thor: The Dark World, a Review

After a week of seeing Tom Hiddleston charm the world with his imitations and his snake-hipped dancing, I went to see his new movie, Thor: The Dark World.

Oh, sure, there are other people in this movie, in the same way there are stunt doubles and make-up artists--meaning they must have been there, but you never really noticed them, because Tom Hiddleston is all that you see. Everything non-Hiddleston is negligible. You've seen it before, you'll see it again, and it won't leave much of an impression. Except for Loki.

Let's recap. (And remember, I spoil ALL plots, because I am evil):

Sir Tony Hopkins exposits us into the movie with a forced grandeur, filling us in that "before there was light, it was really dark, and hard to see, and people tended to bang their shins on the furniture. Broken toes abounded, and the cat's tail got stepped on. It was a dire time."

That might not be an accurate transcription.

Anyway, back in the time before light, it was dark, which made the perfect environment for growing something called "Dark Elves," who are mostly extras in face obscuring masks. They are lead by Christopher Eccleston, which is convenient, because he used to be the Ninth Doctor, and the Dark Elf warriors look an awful lot like Doctor Who villains--specifically, the Cybermen.

Cybermen have that convenient handle on their heads for easier carrying, while the Dark Elves require a two-handed grip on the extended handles on either side of their heads. Dark Elves are slightly less stomp-y, although both species are remarkably unable to catch whomever they are chasing.

Christopher Eccleston, however, seems to have been cast for his cheekbones, as the rest of him is buried under so many layers of makeup and costume that he could have been anybody. All he is left to act with is his voice, and even that is heavily amped and echoed.

He is also rocking Legolas's wig. Or maybe Lucius Malfoy's. Like I said, you've seen all of this before.

So Malekith, the Head Dark Elf, and all his Malekin (see what I did there?) liked it with the lights out, so he created this movie's MacGuffin, "the Aether," which is a red ribbon of something that looks like a cross between cooling lava and something disturbingly menstrual. (And hoo-ee boy, could I push THAT metaphor--it invades a woman and makes her explode when anybody touches her. It is destroying her from the inside, and she spends a significant portion of the movie lying under a blanket, moaning. Who knew superhero movies knew about cramps?) But I digress.

What is Aether? Where does it come from? What does it do? How did Malekith invent the idea of it and how does it further his ambition to turn the universe dark again? Nobody knows--a wizard did it. Oh, but it is red matter--not AT ALL the same thing as Red Matter from the 2009 Star Trek reboot. Totally different, nothing to see here, move along now. Plus, there seem to be about two dozen of these Dark Elves, all of them male warriors. Because THAT'S a successful strategy for species propagation!

Anyway, Malekith tries to do whatever it is one does with Aether, and for some reason he can't do it wherever he invented it, so he has to fight a bunch of Asgardians, including King Bor, Thor's grandpa, who managed to defeat all the Dark Elves in hand to hand combat, despite the fact that the Elves all had gnarly spaceships and laser guns. Because nothing defeats a laser gun like a broadsword and some guys in leather armor! The elves jump into their space ships and leave, somehow leaving the Aether behind. "We cannot destroy it" intones King Bor, "so we must bury it, where no one will ever find it." Because that has historically always worked very well, and nobody ever finds The Thing That Must Not Be Found.

[For Doctor Who fanatics only--King Bor is played by Tony Curran, who was Vincent van Gogh in the 11th Doctor episode "Vincent and the Doctor." A personal favorite of mine.]

All of this happened about 5000 years ago, because there is some tech babble explanation about how often the universe rotates and the Nine Worlds align and the borders go soft and cement trucks float. Whatever. Does it matter?

In nowadays, Natalie Portman is for some inexplicable reason on a date with Chris O'Dowd at a London restaurant. This is a criminal waste of Chris O'Dowd's floppy haired, puppy dog charm, because Natalie Portman--as Dr. Jane Foster--is still pining for the fjords.

"Fjords" is s term which here means "Chris Hemsworth's very impressive muscular definition."

At this point of the movie, you might want to check IMDB for a cast list, because Dr. Jane Foster does not seem to be played by Natalie Portman so much as by Kate Middleton's shiny shiny hair.

This is Kate Middleton
This is Kate Middleton's hair on Natalie Portman's head
The picture does not do the hair justice. If this hair was an athlete, it would be soooooo juiced. It would be Lance Armstrong, who managed to win yet another Tour de France in 2075, despite being clinically dead, because of all the performance enhancing drugs in his system. (Does that make any sense?) If this hair was potatoes, it would be potatoes after being distilled seven thousand times into the purest vodka ever vodka-ed. It is to hair what Hollywood CGI battle scenes are to toddler gymnastic classes.

Her hair is unbelievable. Possibly the most unbelievable thing in a movie about prehistoric elves in spaceships.

Anyway, Natalie's very awkward date is interrupted by Kat Denning as her research assistant with some kind of handheld device showing "readings." Which causes Natalie to ditch the date in order to go Do Science! Because she is a Scientist! Who discovers Anomalies! But in between chucking shoes and car keys into the Anomaly! she gets sucked into one and ends up in the kind of Vast Underground Cathedral-sized Space (TM) that you naturally build when you are trying to hide something Very Dangerous. I mean, you carve out something large enough to house all those Dark Elf space ships, and you "contain" the Red Matter Aether by putting it between two slabs of columnar rock with the opening to the Aether right at hand height? And then this stuff sort of--smells?--the presence of a human (none of which were present at the previous battle, which was all Norse Gods and space aliens, so how does it recognize?) and then attacks her, by which we mean insinuates itself into her body and then deposits her back where she came from. 

There is some (alleged) comic miscommunication as Dr. Natalie Portman hollers at Kat, because Kat shouldn't have called the police. Why? Because now the police will want to Do Science? "But," sputters Kat, "you disappeared for five hours." And then Thor shows up.

Let's take a break here for a new game we're calling "Reality versus Movie Tropes." It's fun! See, I give you the set up, and you guess what Movie Trope will force to have happen, because it is entirely NOT what would happen in real life. Ready? Hands on your buzzers!

Thor shows up. It's been two entire years since he disappeared from Dr. Natalie's life. Two years with no contact, and she's been pining for his fjords SO HARD that she actually stopped doing science. This Norse God of a giant blond slab of hunkitude reappears to save her from a life of Chris O'Dowd dates. What will Dr. Natalie Portman do?

A. She will run to him and make up for two years of no Thor by kissing the hell out of him.
B. She will get shy and awkward--it's been two years. A lot could have happened, and maybe he's not interested anymore?
C. She will be too busy with the Science of Anomalies! and being arrested to properly process his presence.
D. She will be relieved that he's healthy and alive (lots of fighting in Asgard you know).
E. She will play cool and casual, while trying to find out what happened and why he is there now.
Got your answer picked out and written down? Good, and the correct response is--

Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! Trick question! The answer is--none of the above. Because all of those are actual possible human responses, and THIS is a comic book movie! We're going for the broadest of cliches and unrealistic responses!

Thor re-appears after a two year absence, and Natalie slaps him. Twice. Of course she does. Because domestic abuse is always funny!  And because she's so tiny, and he's a powerful Norse God of thunder so its like he wouldn't even notice her puny human emotions! That makes it even funnier, right?

It isn't funny. It's just formulaic. It's what you totally expect to have happen, so it happens, and it's lazy lazy screenwriting. 

Meanwhile, the police are going nuts, and trying to arrest her for something, and the level of panic is entirely ridiculous. The cop tries to take her into custody for trespassing or some fool thing, and he puts a hand on her arm and BOOM! A flash of red and the police are blown back 30 feet! 

So then, without asking her, or warning her, or anything that might smack of treating her like an adult woman who might have opinions on anything, Thor hijacks her to Asgard. Why? Because he's had his personal stalker (Heimdall) tracking her every move, and Heimdall couldn't see her so obviously she needs to locked up in Asgard where Thor can keep her under his control. And that isn't at all creepy.

So we're back in Asgard, where the royal family apparently lives in a giant pipe organ.

So the first thing that happens is that somebody decides that she needs some kind of medical care, because she's got some kind of infection. Yeah, that's what the explosion was--an infection. So she's plopped on a table, where mystical golden glitter makes vaguely CT scan shapes in the air above her. 

Yeah. Let's think about this. Dr. Natalie is a scientist. She's been delivered to a "medical" facility that's run in a place where everybody wears body armor ALL THE TIME because of all the swords and axes and daggers fighting that breaks out all the time. Where everything continues to be basically medieval. Where the medical equipment is glitter. Yeah, I'm thinking she's going to be skeptical that there's any kind of scientific method going on around here. 

Odin shows up, and he diagnoses that she's got a case of the Aether. And she accepts that--because of science! 

[The theory of aether was originally an attempt to explain what space was made out of. It was what supposedly held the stars in the sky, roughly equivalent to the way water surrounds fish. As a "scienctist," I would expect Dr. Natalie to be insisting on some kind of evidenced based medicine, treatment protocols, etc. But then I remember--this is a COMIC BOOK movie.]

So the treatment for her condition seems to be to drape her in medieval clothes with a little light armor and to go walking around with Thor. They also recreate some scenes from the Star Wars prequels, because nobody's going to remember those, right?

Meanwhile, back on Earth--

Stellan Skarsgaard is caught on television running around Stonehenge naked, and taken to the male geriatic psychiatric ward--which is full of elderly men, because only the elderly and decrepit go mad? Because despite being so significant a threat to normal people that he has to be incarcerated in a psychiatric ward, if they just put him in a room of old people, and he goes berserk--again--who cares? They are old? Anyway, Stellan Skarsgaard brings the audience up to speed by exposition dumping about Convergence of the Nine Worlds and Stan Lee makes his contractually obligated cameo.

Fortunately, because he is just that smart (even though he is also crazy), he has apparently already built camera tripods that will something something Save The Day at the end of the film, even though he hasn't any clue about the existence of the Big Bad Red Matter MacGuffin Aether because nobody knows about it yet! Yay science! And he has them with him! So when Kat Dennings and generic additional comedic intern show up and pretend to be relatives, nobody has to do any more science!

At some point, and the chronology is getting confused in my head, Christopher Eccleston wakes up from his vaguely Christ-like pose on his Sooper Sekkrit Spaceship, and swiftly becomes Eric Bana from the Star Trek reboot, and comes looking for Natalie Portman's blood Aether.

Christopher Eccleston as Malekith

Eric Bana as Nero

I TOLD you guys--you've seen this movie before! Both these guys have "lost their home worlds" and they want to punish the people who hurt them (Aasgard in Thor, Vulcan in Star Trek) so they come swooping in with their black spaceships and lay waste to everything around them. Malekith is still pretty neolithic, since despite having space technology, he pretty much just plows the spaceship into all the stone columns he can find, thus literally toppling Aasgard.

Nero at least managed to explode the Vulcan planet, so points to him for efficacy.

The bad guys slaughter all the Aasgard guards and go let everybody else out of the Aasgard prison, except for Loki. Which was their error. Who wouldn't want a pissed off and snake hipped god on their side?

We all would. 

Anyway, Malekith manages to not find Jane but kills Frigga anyway, and then goes away because it's only Act II and thus too early for a final showdown. So Rene Russo is dead, although she was a pretty bad-ass fighter for someone with only a short sword and an whole lot of stupid extra fabric which got in the way of her ninja moves. So she's dead, and we get all the manpain of Odin and Thor and even Loki, and they launch her body in a Viking boat and (unlike on Game of Thrones) (where we saw this most recently) the archer hits it with his flaming arrow the first time and then the boat goes over the waterfall and we see all the rest of the boats for all the rest of the fallen guards killed by the elves, and they are all on fire and then everybody at Aasgard has a light up Christmas ornament that they release into the sky and the horns swell and I'm thinking. . .

. . .where the hell did all those boats come from? Does Asgard have a major dinghy manufacturing economy? Does everybody in Asgard have prepaid Viking funeral insurance plans, where they keep these boats around, just in case they all die at once? What kind of gods are these?

Pretty mortal ones, I guess, since in all the fighting they do--with medieval weaponry for the most part, because that's what you want against a bunch of space ships--they seem to be as vulnerable as humans. In face, their only fighting advantage seems to be that they are fast, so if you can get a blade on them, they are just as dead as anybody else. I guess this is why they also wear body armor all the damn time too--because they aren't actually gods, they aren't actually immortal, they are just like us only with a weird fetish for horned helmets.

Sidebar--I mean, what the heck is the deal with these people? There's Idris Elba as the all-seeing Heimdall, who can see all the trillions of souls in all nine worlds, and he wears an enormous helmet--full time.

Is he afraid somebody is going to sneak up behind him and hit him with a sword, and he's not going to see them coming?

Anyway, Thor and Odin have a difference of opinion on how to prepare for the return of Malekith. Thor thinks he should take on the space ships alone, with his hammer. Odin thinks its better to just wait until Malekith comes back to Asgard, and then they will attack the space ships with soldiers and spears. (Hey, it worked in Avatar!) Then Malekith will get bored of killing everybody, or tired of all the bodies piling up and surrender? I do not think either of these "plans" is likely to work very well.  But Norse mythology tends to lean toward raucous brawling and away from military strategy, so what do we expect?

Let's cut to the chase--by which we mean all the action sequences, because this review is already too damn long.

So Thor sneaks out of Asgard with Dr. Natalie after freeing Loki from prison, because Thor isn't good at sneaky and Loki is. They try a showdown with Malekith on some desolate plain, where Malekith  gets the Aether out of Natalie, and Loki gets killed and dies pathetically as Thor tries manfully to save him.

That didn't go so well.

Wait--haven't we seen this before? Why yes! We have!

What? Oh, no, Loki wasn't wearing a full coverage helmet. So I guess it's totally different. Okay then.

There's another battle at Asgard, I think, and then the entire universe converges around the center point of the Naval Observatory at Greenwich in England, so Malekith goes there to set off his weapon. Meanwhile, Thor and Dr. Natalie are ostensibly marooned wherever they are, since Loki was the one who knew how to get back, and now he's dead. [Spoiler--he's not really dead! He's a trickster! He's also the breakout character and no way is Marvel going to off Tom Hiddleston.] But hey! There's a bunch of shoes and the car keys and Chris O'Dowd is calling on the cell phone. Anomalies to the rescue!

There is much running around and shooting and blowing things up and CGI destruction of the lovely Greenwich grounds, and somehow Malekith is sucked into his spaceship and his body gets exploded and all the Dark Elves are miraculously killed, and Kat Dennings gets a boyfriend and the world is saved hooray!

Some random thoughts:

  • So the threat is to the entirety of the universe. All life is going to be snuffed out for all time, and the universe returned to it's pre-Big Bang state. Well, you wouldn't want to interrupt any of the other Avengers for anything like that. I mean, Hawkeye probably has some bows to restring, and Tony Stark is ordering in some shawarma baskets. Probably best to leave them out of this one. (H/T to Mark Lisanti at Grantland for pointing that out.)
  • What is the deal with Natalie Portman's forehead? Seriously, you guys, it's like her hairline has receded, and it's just so darn bulbous. Is this to provide more room for all the Science Brains she supposedly has but never actually uses in this movie?
  • There is one totally gratuitous skin shot, where the camera pans and lingers over the dewy golden curves and hollows of....Chris Hemsworth's torso. Which is probably what winning the Oscar gave Portman--the right to nix any nudes scenes. And while it is refreshing to see this kind of soft core scene NOT about the female form, equal opportunity sexism kind of points out how unnecessary such a scene really is. 
  • 3D--was there any point to it? No.
It is worth seeing? Honestly, you've already decided by now. If you like this kind of movie, in which case you have already seen it. If you don't like this kind of movie, this one isn't going to change your mind. It's exactly what you expect, and full of things you've seen before. It's professionally executed, and sufficiently pretty to look at. It makes no sense, is overlong and bogs down in Asgard. But Hemsworth acquits himself well enough and looks good, Hiddleston continues to own the character and to be shortchanged by not enough to do, and everybody else earns their paychecks. 

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

An Open Letter to Orphan Black--or Deconstructing Narrative

Dear Orphan Black (The TV Show)--

I have heard such great things about you, and frankly, just the stills of Tatiana Maslaney in her various guises is intriguing.

So I'm halfway in the tank with you anyway.

But can we please, please, just stop? Stop with the "I'm going to impersonate my doppelgänger, and this will be tense and thrilling"? Because you know what? It's not tense and it's not thrilling. It's cringeworthy and irritating.

Because here's the deal. She's not going to get found out, right? The plot requires that Sarah keep up Beth Childs' persona, because the plot is about a bunch of clones who are being killed off. And they need someone with access to police resources to help them stay alive. So, we know that however half-assed Sarah is at being a cop, she's going to be good enough that the plot can continue to move forward.

So then, what is the point? She's going to act in her job based on what she's seen on cop shows. So what WE get to see is somebody half-assedly channeling being a cop, while knowing that she's not going to get herself killed, because the plot needs her. She's not going to get found out, and arrested for impersonating a cop, because the plot can't afford that. She isn't going to fail at this.

Is it just me? This feels like such a tired device and it justifies so much filler. We have to watch her try to find her desk, or get lost on the way to the bathroom, or not know how to call in to dispatch. So wacky! Such hijinks! Anybody can be a cop--it's not that hard!

Worse than that, though, is that we have to watch her partner pretend that this isn't deeply creepy and frightening. FOR HIM. He's really got a newbie as a partner, His life is endangered and he doesn't even know it, so he can't protect himself.

And this is totally Not OK. He's going into dangerous situations without the protection he thought he had. How is this different from--oh, I don't know--dropping roofies into somebody's drink, or failing to disclose an STD to a sexual partner? Why are we supposed to take Sarah's perspective on this, especially when Sarah is behaving like a crappy human being? Why does she endanger herself and others? Because she wants to lift $75K that doesn't belong to her. This is the hero?

I'm not asking that Sarah be a saint--it's interesting that she's a somewhat dodgy character, facing an even more dangerous situation than she is used to. What I am asking is that you use this situation to show us things about Sarah. Develop her character. She's appalled to find herself a cop, since she's been on the other side so often. So how does this express itself? Why has she been a criminal in the past? What moral conflicts does she experience? How does she feel about jerking about Beth's boyfriend--he's a human being, not just an obstacle to her getting the $75K. He has lost somebody he loves and he doesn't know it either. These are not just plot contrivances--or they shouldn't be.

Really show us the character and we'll follow. As it is, I am getting fed up with Wacky Inept Cop, and it's nearly enough to make me drop the series. Ive made it through four episodes--show me something new, or God as my witness, I will erase this from my DVR. Don't make me do it!

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Oh, Broadchurch--Finale Review


Look--I like where this show was pointing its attention. It wasn't all about the mad, bad, and dangerous to know DI with his manpain and his neckbeard of sorrow. It wasn't a thrill ride about who dunnit and how is he going to get caught. There were exactly zero car chases and nobody ran away from a fireball. (All of which we can expect to see in the American remake, if there is one.)

The point of the series was to look at the people who get overlooked in murder dramas: the grieving parents, the lost sibling, the family of the culprit, the effect of suspicion on the suspects who turn out not to be guilty.

I just wish it had done all this better. In a series that was gorgeously shot, it never quite raised its game to the same level. It looked like an "A" movie while working generally at a "B-" level. Like a student who isn't working to his potential, it is frustrating for what it could have been, if it had just put in the effort.

Of course the murderer was Joe Miller. Operating on the Agatha Christie Principle of the "least likely person is the one who did it," it had to be Joe Miller, because he was one of only two recurring characters who had not been a suspect yet. The other? Danny Latimer's grandmother, of course.

(Could it possibly have been the grandmother? Well, she did give up DNA and fingerprint evidence in the first episode to be used to disqualify her as a suspect, along with the other members of the family. That could have been a brilliant double fake--but it wasn't.)

It was bloody obvious by last week, however. There was Susan Wright's identification of her estranged son Nige as present at the beach. But it wasn't Nige, it was the other skinny, pale, bald man in town. More unforgivable was the hamhanded scene in which DS Miller confronts Susan Wright about her ignorance of her husband's sexual abuse of their daughters. "How could you have not known? How could you live in that house and not have known?"

Nobody gets to say something like that without having it thrown back into their teeth. DS Miller claims that she didn't know about Joe--either at the time he was secretly meeting with Danny, or during the investigation.

(Beth Latimer comes out of her house to accuse her former friend of the same thing--"How could you not know?" So keep an eye on the Latimer household for unsavory goings on in the second series of Broadchurch, already ordered.)

Again, the problem was with the writing. The whole "he's not really a pedophile, he just likes hugging a boy" is odd in the extreme. The "accidental" nature of the murder is also weird--Danny said they couldn't meet like that again, and Joe got so worked up, trying to get Danny to listen to him, that he strangled the boy before he noticed what he was doing? It doesn't make any sense to me, and lampshading it inside the drama doesn't really correct the problem. DI Hardy probes for details, saying "I need to understand." Joe lashes back at him "If I don't understand it, why should you?"

Ellie Miller also gropes for understanding using very similar language, and she asks Hardy if her husband can be considered a pedophile if he never actually molested anybody. If not, what is he? "Why do you need to categorize him?" Hardy asks. "Because I need to understand" she says.

I'm not sure that the mystery qualifies as "satisfying" if the whole motive thing is baffling to both the audience and the characters themselves.

Can we talk about some of the pacing as well? Hardy has to tell Miller that her husband is the culprit. He interrupts her interrogation of Nige, terminates the proceeding and dismisses everybody. She should be furious, but she's not. Why? He starts to ask her questions about the night Danny Latimer was killed, and she feels like he suspects her. But she puts up with it patiently, again, not too believably. But seconds--seconds--after she learns it's Joe, she's crouched in a corner of the room, heaving.

It's just too fast. Like Nige sobbing over newspaper clippings from last week--about the tragic story of a bunch of people he never knew existed, it's just emotional spectacle without the proper set up. Why would Miller believe Hardy? Especially over her own experience with Joe? Why wouldn't she deny it longer?

To her credit--Olivia Coleman really sold the heck out of Ellie Miller's devastation. The scene where she confronts her husband in the interrogation room, and loses it--very believable. The way she kicked at him, even as a uniformed officer was dragging her away--that felt like hysteria. That was the manifestation of her emotional turmoil, and the way she had to believe that he had done it.

The problem was never the acting, and if Olivia Coleman takes home all the awards next season, she will have earned them. The problem is that the story itself is too linear, too determined, to be engaging on its own. Once a suspect was "cleared," they never resurfaced as a possibility again. The victim's father, Mark, was dodgy about his whereabouts the night his son was killed. Extremely dodgy. It turns out that he was off having an affair--and keeping that secret was more important to him than finding his son's murderer? Really? I mean, once the Keystone Kops got him to admit to the affair, let let him go and he was never on their radar again.

Shouldn't he have been? I mean, if he had killed his son, wouldn't an affair be the kind of alibi you would arrange for yourself? If he did kill his son, maybe he would have arranged it so that his affair was his alibi--but the detectives never looked very closely at it. They never really tried to figure out if he could have done both--they took him at his word that he didn't, they didn't scrutinize his alibi, they didn't try to find any inconsistencies in his story--that would have been a compelling story to tell about  the effect that murder has on a family. Not only did they lose their child, but the stress of having the husband be suspected--by the police, by the rest of the family--could have been searing. Much more powerful than the pathetic minor rudeness of Beth having to order a drink from Becca.

But the show kept turning away from those kind of tensions, in favor of--what exactly?

That's the question. What was the engine that drove this series? The police work was subpar, the secrets  that were revealed weren't rooted in characters we cared about, because most of the characters weren't given enough dimension for us to really care about them. For example--what did we know about Susan Wright before we heard her sob story? She was creepy, and threatening, so she was a great suspect, but she wasn't somebody we actually cared about.

And in the absense of characters we care about, the secrets have to stand on their own as compelling plot devices, and most of them were frankly--not. The Rev. Paul Coates goes to AA? Seriously? That was it? Mark Latimer is having a tawdry midlife affair with the hotel owner? Predictable, basically. Nige was adopted?

What if they had abandoned all this serial suspect finding, and went deep into the broken Latimer family. Daughter Chloe has a drug dealing boyfriend, and is under the age of consent. He's kind of dodgy, but he's giving her some semblance of stability in the face of the murder. Beth and Mark invite him to dinner--which would certainly have been the source of some real conflict between them (and within each of them). Surely, the awkwardness where he offers a present for the new baby was far from the most powerful moment that would have happened in this crucible.

And let's talk more about that ending. How did our police duo figure out who the murderer was? Was there clever assembly of disparate information gathered over the previous seven weeks of investigation?

Of course not.

Basically, the perp all but called in his location. He turned on Danny Latimer's phone, and then stood in place and waited for DI Hardy and his neckbeard to follow the turn-by-turn directions on his phone. When he reached Joe Miller standing in a backyard shed, Joe admitted to the crime. "I was tired of hiding."

Let's just say if I was Hardy's boss, I would be pissed. All those cops, all those weeks of major staff expenditures and new phone lines and conventional policing--turned up nothing. They might as well have just sat around and waited for Joe to give himself up. The two weeks of angst around the budget cuts and the loss of the additional staff--didn't mean anything at all, because as far as we can tell, they didn't do anything to forward the investigation.

And what was the deal with the psychic telephone installer? What did he add at all to the story? Are we supposed to think he was actually channeling information? If so, if he really was getting messages from Danny--why didn't Danny give him better hints? "It's someone you know" is hardly helpful, nor is it unusual, since statistically that is true of all murders. So, was he just a creep trying to insert himself into a drama? Was he a goad to DI Hardy? The story never told us, just left him hanging around on the periphery, with no plot purpose or resolution. Are we supposed to believe in the supernatural? Or just believe that somebody does? Does it give Beth any comfort--or does it make her feel used? We don't know, because it's not in the writing at all.

I went online and looked at reviews of the finale both here and in the UK, and as far as I can tell, part of the  excitement was the cultural conversation around the role the media played, in light of the recent phone hacking scandal, and possibly the attempt to figure out the murderer as well. And when there is a lot of conversation, it makes the show loom larger and take on more cultural weight. We just didn't have that here, for whatever reason, and without that the thinness of the plot was just too obvious. Maybe it was the fact that this happened in the summer, or that it was yet another limited episode murder mystery series and that conversation had been exhausted by The Killing, The Bridge, Top of the Lake,  and even the non-murder limited series House of Cards, and Orange is the New Black.

Which makes me wonder if this is a series that I would have liked better if it had been released in the all-at-once Netflix model. If I could have immersed myself into the world, without commercials (and without the cuts BBC America made to get those ads in and keep it a tidy hour long show), for as  long as I could. I might well have watched the whole thing over a weekend rather than dragged out over eight weeks, which game me too much time to pick at its inconsistencies and its flaws. Had I been binging, I might have felt more like I was really in Broadchurch, and I might have invested more of myself into the characters than I did.

I might have cared. As it was, the series was less about Broadchurch as a community, and ultimately was about the destruction of Ellie Miller and her innoncence. She started the series believing that her greatest disappointment was that she didn't get the promotion she was promised. She ended the series destroyed emotionally, believing that she could no longer even do her job, with her family and friendships in shreds around her. "I know that boy" she said in the first hour. By the final hour, she felt she didn't know anybody, including herself.

ITV has announced that there will be a second series, that will be a different story. If I were asked to predict what that story would be--I would go with the re-construction of Ellie Miller. She's got to hit bottom, and then pull herself together, because she has two children she has to raise, and she's got to figure out how she is going to move forward into the rest of her life.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Trying Again on "Oh Broadchurch"

I keep thinking about this show--which is a win for the show, obviously, if you believe that any publicity is good publicity.

But here's the problem. The whole thing looks like it's a sensitive and nuanced look at the effect of murder on a small town. The talented cast acts like it's a sensitive and nuanced look at the effect of murder on a small town. It's the script that isn't on the same page.

Because the script only goes to the first level of secrets. There's a murder. To solve the murder, people have to give up information they would rather keep to themselves. But under the concentrated questioning of the police and in their own self-interest (because they don't want to be convicted of a murder they didn't commit, or because they want to sleep safe in their own beds and want the murderer to be caught) they reveal their secrets, their darker sides.

That's the bargain, right? There is a desire for privacy, to not be judged for things they are already ashamed of--otherwise they wouldn't be keeping them secret. But there is a strong countervailing need for safety. So in the course of the investigation, we learn things about people, their true faces.


Except not everybody is fully and totally honest. Not at first. Maybe not ever.

There are lots of reasons for this, right? Let's look at some of the candidates for lying.

  • Obviously, the actual perpetrator might lie repeatedly in order to not be punished. S/he doesn't want to get caught, so s/he lies. It's the job of the police to break through this defensive scrim of lies to get at the truth. "You murdered him." "No, I didn't." "Yes, you did, and here's our proof." You can't expect the murderer to just confess at that point. The problem is that--despite DI Hardy's repeated insistence that "anybody could have done this"--the police don't seem to consider that the suspect they question might be lying at a more sophisticated level than simple denial. Which a murderer who doesn't want to get caught will certainly do.
  • Deliberate lies. Even when not covering up murder, people are frequently engaged in other illegalities they don't want to admit to, or just things they are embarrassed about. Especially when they believe these things aren't related to the murder. For example, Mark Latimer (the victim's father) was having an affair. He didn't want to make that public, and he knows that he didn't kill his son to cover up the affair, so why do the police need to know about it? So he stalls, he evades, he makes up stories about where he was, he enlists his pal Nige to cover for him. The cops track down Nige, explode his story, get the truth from Mark. This is about the only time they do any decent police work. But once they get the fact of the affair out of Mark--they drop him as a suspect. The problem is that a man who is having an affair could also have other secrets. He could be involved in getting drugs for the hotel guests--his daughter was, his mistress was, why not him? Could having an affair plus illegal drug activity be motive for murder? 
  • Misleading facts. Jack Marshall, the local Sea Scouts leader, is found dead, apparently having committed suicide. He had been the lead suspect at the time, his past as a sex offender leading to persecution and dredging up his sorrowful backstory of losing his son and wife to his wife's drunk driving accident. He was technically a sex offender, in that he fell in love with a girl just shy of her 18th birthday (16th? Whichever is the age of consent in the UK), and married her after he served his time for statutory rape. This is not the assumption that the town jumped to, concluding that he molested all the Sea Scouts, and killed Danny Latimer to keep his pedophilia secret. But--was he an innocent victim and did he commit suicide? The mob of men who confronted him and tried to run him out of town--might have come back. They might have murdered him. He might have murdered Danny. What proof do the police have that he didn't? Not any kind of forensic proof, that's for sure. Instead, it's a sort of "narrative necessity." He couldn't be the murderer, because he died only halfway through the series. Far too early for him to be the solution. Which isn't very satisfying.
  • Mistaken but sincerely held beliefs. Susan Wright is kind of a creepy lady, and she's got a lot of proximity to the murder--she has the keys to the hut where the murder took place, she had Danny's skateboard, she trolls for Tom Miller with her dog and lures him to her caravan. When she's broght in for questioning, she tells a sad story about her abusive husband, the murder of her own daughter, the loss of her remaining two children, and her search for the baby that was taken away from her--who she has identified as Nige. Maybe she believes this to be true. Maybe it is true--but maybe she is mistaken. Maybe she is lying. Maybe she has a longer con in mind, is using the purported filial relationship to get Nige into some scheme. We can't know, because DS Miller buys the story, hook, line and sinker.
The thing about detective work--real detective work--is that a confession can't always be taken a face value. First a detective has to figure out what questions to ask, and then has to take the answers skeptically. Hardy and Miller hardly ever seem to take that second step, and that's what makes the whole of Broadchurch seem flimsy. It's the sense that you haven't really looked very deeply at all.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Oh Broadchurch--Why Do You Disappoint Me So?

I started watching this series because I was promised so much. Culture commentators that I generally trust recommended this. Viewing figures from the UK indicated that this was a much-beloved series. A second series was ordered even before the first series had completed its run here in the US.

Sure, I had my doubts. Chris Chibnall has (in my experience, which does NOT include Life On Mars which I have not watched) a tendency to bite off more than he can chew. The ideas are clever, the execution feels thin. David Tennant was delightful as The Doctor, but his Hamlet with the RSC was not something I will voluntarily subject myself to a second time.

But--the general acclaim! What could it hurt, right? Good tv, done well--worth a shot to be part of the ongoing cultural conversation.

Sure! As long as I don't mind being disappointed. And I am. Because--seriously? This is as good as we expect from BBC?

The idea that a murder is more than just a whodunnit is not new, but it doesn't have to be. The idea is that the murder is just a catalyst, the reason why we are looking behind closed doors and rifling through people's lives. Police are charged with solving the case, and so we have permission to pry into people's secrets--permission that is not generally given. It's rude, right? When you have to live with people, you let them have their quirks, their personal space, so even if you think you know everybody in your small seaside town, you only know what they have chosen to reveal about themselves.

And you accept that--because too much unvarnished knowledge makes it hard to keep going. So when an eleven year old boy is found dead on the beach, there is a fundamental communal need to expose the secrets that will uncover the perpetrator. The detectives conducting the investigation are the audience's guide through the shifting realities--the way things were before and the way they are now, afterwards.

Broadchurch attempts to walk the thin line between whodunnit--which puts solving the crime at the forefront of the plot--and a sensitive examination of the ways a murder ripples through a community and affects those around it. Perhaps I should be happy that it attempts the latter at all, and not be so disappointed that it doesn't do it well.

The trouble is, that it doesn't do either of those things well--the search for the killer is not done well, precisely because the procedural elements run smack into the emotional chaos, and both are derailed.

Let's look at this a little more closely, shall we?

In a previous installment--possibly episode 6, from just over a week ago, Our Intrepid DI Alec Hardy (played by David Tennant as a support system for the emotionally complicated neck-beard that defines the character)

has apparently spun the Big Wheel of Suspects and landed on the local vicar.

I say the "Big Wheel of Suspects," because there isn't anything that indicates why the vicar is suddenly the subject of extra scrutiny. Perhaps DI Hardy was alone in his hotel room watching old reruns of The Vicar of Dibley and had a sudden brainstorm?

In any event, he decides that the vicar wants watching, so he tails him to a nearby town where the poor man attends AA meetings. The next morning, DI Hardy corrals DS Miller and they go to confront the vicar in the churchyard. The questioning quickly becomes hostile.

DI Hardy: Why didn't you tell us you go to AA meetings?

Vicar: Because it has no possible bearing on your murder investigation?

DI Hardy: serious side-eye and attempts to look threatening, which fail, because AA meetings have NO POSSIBLE BEARING on the murder investigation.

Because--you know what? The vicar is right. None of the questions Hardy and Miller had asked him had any connection to AA. Why does he keep it secret? Possibly because his ability to do his job might be undermined by the information that he is a recovering alcoholic. Is there anything--ANYTHING--that ties AA meetings to the murder, other than the fact that he hadn't volunteered that he's a recovering alcoholic?

No. There isn't.

Just think all the irrelevant information he could have offered that also has no bearing on the murder investigation. Since apparently DI Hardy gets his knickers in a twist over information that isn't volunteered.

  • He saved money on his car insurance by switching to Geico. 
  • He is choosy about his peanut butter and prefers Jif.
  • He wears boxers, and occasionally irons them.
  • He prefers stuffing over potatoes, every time!
  • Watches cricket, not football.
  • His password on his laptop is either "pasta" or "pizza"--he switches back and forth.
  • He wears short sleeved undershirts under all his dress shirts.
  • Sir dresses to the left.
And this is where the substructure of the series not only shows, but it starts to interfere with my ability to take any of this seriously. Because as the exchange between Hardy and the Vicar indicates, the point of this show is to ferret out everybody's secrets for the sake of demonstrating that everybody has secrets. Then, apparently, there is a limit? No one may have more than one secret? And once that secret has been found out, that removes them from suspicion of murder, because of the Law of Conservation Of Plot? 

The vicar is a recovering alcoholic, so he can't also be a murderer. The local Sea Scout leader was a convicted sex offender a million years ago, and he committed suicide, so he's been cleared of murder. (He wasn't actually cleared either--they just stopped looking at him as a suspect.) Susan Wright, the cleaning lady who had the keys to the murder site, who had possession of the dead boy's skateboard, who has been living under an assumed name, who is vaguely threatening and creepy generally--has a sad backstory involving a husband who molested both their daughters and then implicated her. CPS labeled her an "unfit mother" and took her newborn away--who grew up to be the bald plumber's assistant Nige.

Well, she wouldn't have told that story if it wasn't true, would she? And if it was true, then she can't be the murderer, because her story came out in episode 7 of an 8 episode series. So we don't bother to check if any of her claims are true, even after Nige tells them "I didn't even know I was adopted!" Why check up on any of her story? She gave up her secret, which apparently disqualifies her from being the murderer.

There are some exceptions--Jody Whittaker's turn as the boy's mother has always been exceptional. She is broken, and her interview with the mother of another murdered child was bleak. The other mother lives in a twilight world of drink and sleep, the marriage fell apart, and she just passes the hours hoping to evade the pain. Beth was looking for hope, for a way to move out of her stasis, and this stunned her.

She remains unable to deal with her own surprise pregnancy--she can't either embrace it or reject it. She can't go forward, because she wants to go back to when her boy was still alive. 

If the series had focused on that sort of sorrow and pain--and stayed away from trying to tug our heartstrings with DI Hardy and his man pain, it would have been stronger. As it is, it is turning into a series of emotionally manipulative set pieces, strung together with too little else. It's like old fashioned opera, where the divas would simply stand center stage during their arias--it's called "Park and Bark" and that's what the citizens of Broadchurch are mostly doing. They each have their own secret, they reveal it to the jaded detectives, and then they disappear from the investigation. 

I expected much better than this.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Oh, Broadchurch-- I Wish I Could Quit You.

Honestly--how bad are the police in Dorset anyway?

--Jack Marshall has a previous conviction as a sex offender. He doesn't want to talk about it. Oh well, unless he's willing to talk, the police have NO WAY of finding out what the conviction was for, TOO BAD. I mean, it's not like a guilty conviction would be a matter of public record, would it? And there's no reason to think that any newly appointed DI from outside of Broadchurch would know anybody in any other police force to find out that information. Too bad there are no telephones in Broadchurch to make a call or anything.

(Also too bad there's no such thing as Google either. Curse you, charming seaside town that exists outside the 21st century!)

--Hey, wait? The autopsy showed Danny wasn't sexually abused. Why would a sex crime conviction (from about a hundred years ago, back when Jack Marshall was 40) have any bearing on a murder investigation where molestation had been ruled out?

--Cigarettes? AT THE SITE OF THE BODY?? Hey! I know! Instead of playing Bad Cop to force a confession out of poor elderly Jack Marshall (about an affair with an almost-legal girl that he married after he served a 1 year sentence--an affair that happened during the reign of Charles II), why don't you ask him if he carried that kind of cigarette and who bought them from him? Because it's more fun to disapprove of your great-grandpappy's sexual history than to ACTUALLY INVESTIGATE THE MURDER?

--Is ANYBODY looking at Danny's computer? We saw Tommy Miller deleting messages from Danny from his own phone and computer, and there was some rigamarole around not being able to find Danny's phone--but what about his computer?

--Also--mobile phone bills from the Lattimers? Danny's phone would probably be on a family plan--is anybody looking at trying to figure out who he talked to and texted by any other means? Oh no--we're just going to sit around and wait for the missing phone to turn up, because by the Law of Narrative Necessity, it has to show up. That's science.

--Who do I think is guilty as of this week? There are a few suspects:

  1. Chris Chibnall. The same clunkily bad writer who gave us Torchwood's embarrassment "Cyberwoman" AND Doctor Who's risible "Dinosaurs on a Spaceship" continues to miss the point of plotting out the show you are writing. There is just no police activity going on here! It's like they just hang around and wait for somebody to show up with some evidence.
  2. The Middle-aged Men of Broadchurch--because leaping to the conclusion that Jack Marshall is a homosexual pedophile says a little too much about your own fantasies and fears than I want to have to know about.
  3. BBC America, for editing out a scene in which Tom Miller asks his father how long a murderer might go to prison, and for any other scenes they have cut out. Also, for not airing this series back when the UK got it too.
Yup. I think that does it. 

Sunday, September 01, 2013


I heard some good things about the British television series Broadchurch, so I've been collecting episodes on my DVR. This weekend, I watched the four that have aired here in the US.

It's good--I mean, it's fine. It's not gotten under my skin at all, and David Tennant looks like hell. His character is brusque and asocial, plus he's got some kind of Deep Dark Medical Secret--and he's not really rising above the cliche in my book. He's got terrible facial hair--not stubbly enough to be attractive, not thick enough to really be a beard. He's terribly terribly thin, and honestly? His character doesn't really get much screen time either, so there's not much time for him to establish a character.

On the other hand, Olivia Colman as DS Ellie Miller is really good--by which I mean that she is really trying to be good at her job while treating the people in her small town with kindness and decency. She was all but promised the promotion that went to Alec Hardy (Tennant's character), and her bitterness is understandable. Yet she works every day to rise above that, to learn from her new boss, to treat him with humanity and warmth, despite the fact that he doesn't return the favor.

The story so far--eleven year old Danny Lattimer was found dead on the beach outside Broadchurch, on the Dorset coast. His family didn't notice him missing, because he had a paper route and so he was out of the house before anybody else was awake. When he didn't show up for a school event, his mother became worried, and then the body was found.

So the investigation gets us into this small town that has never had much in the way of crime, and never a murder before. Does it work? Well, yes, and no.

The series is created by Chris Chibnall, whose record as a script writer on some other series I watch has been hit-or-miss. Broadchurch isn't as clunky and odd as "Cyberwoman" from Torchwood or "Dinosaurs on a Spaceship" for Doctor Who, so that's good. The scope has been kept resolutely small, tightly on the people. Even when the big institutional conflicts are loaded into place--police versus journalists, notably--the focus stays tight. When the crusading reporter from London shows up, she doesn't worm her way into their confidence in order to get a by-line. In fact, she seems to be doing very little reporting at all. As she eventually reveals, she's there because she is keeping an eye on Alec Hardy, to make sure he doesn't screw up this case as he had recently done on another one.

The ambitious journalist is a local boy, who is so hot to get noticed that he identifies the victim on Twitter--and his editor frog marches him around town to apologize for having done so. Which is not something you see all that often.

Even so, the characters and their relationships aren't very well established, not enough that I particularly care about their struggles. This is most obvious when Tennant's character passes out in his hotel bathroom and wakes up in hospital. The hotel manager is sitting there, and he begs her not to let anyone know about his medical condition--"They'll take me off the case, and I don't want to be off this case. Please. This is my career. This is my life."

Sure, it's important to him--but why should we (the audience) care about his feelings when he gratuitously refuses to care about anybody else's? Maybe it would be a good thing for him to be forced off the case--since the point of medical disability is that a condition like he has gets in the way of being able to actually solve something like a murder. Where is his concern for that?

The pace is rather slow, and it's hard to tell how much time the story spans. Halfway through the eight episode series, and the police haven't even looked at anything from the boy's computer. They did just locate his phone, so perhaps the digital data will appear in the next episode.

And yet--I'm drawn in at some level. I was able to stop midway through House of Cards and Orange is the New Black without much difficulty. Broadchurch is different. I want to see the rest of the episodes, because it feels like this is taking me somewhere. The characters feel like they have been set up in order to have real character arcs kick in. It's not just a question of wanting to know whodunit--there is something more fundamental, more human, that I'm experiencing.

But because it is a mystery, ad we will have a killer--who do I think is going to be revealed as the murderer? I'm putting this here, so I have to admit to getting it wrong if I am wrong.

The methodology? I'm going with the "least likely suspect" and I'm picking Tom Miller--DS Ellie Miller's son and the victim's best friend. He was shown deleting text messages and social media connections, he's been established as very good with computers, and he was a Sea Scout, so trained in using boats. There is reason to believe that Danny Lattimer's body was placed on the beach from a boat, and one was just burned, apparently to hide evidence. Tom knows about boats, and he's been salted into the story just enough as Danny's friend and Ellie's son--but not as a suspect.

Initially, I was leaning toward the local Anglican priest, played by that Very Nice Young Man, Rory Pond from Doctor Who--Arthur Darville. But in episode four, he was placed at the top of the suspects list for not having an alibi at the time of death, and he acted too suspicious about having insomnia. So he's actually too obviously a suspect to be the murderer.

Don't know how I'm going to wait another 4 weeks before I get to the end of this story.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Parade's End (BBC/HBO series), a Review

I am so very tardy to this party. Thank you, DVR recording technology!

So this adaptation of Ford Maddox Ford's tetralogy of novels hit our shores last winter, after having been aired in the UK last year. It seemed to be served up as a sort of methadone treatment to the Downton Abbey heroin withdrawal--a desperate need for large hats and Edwardian social hierarchy.
You know--luxe lives of leisure that we can both yearn for and disapprove of. 

But is it Downton 2.0? Well, the look is certainly there.

That is our introduction to the mad, bad, and dangerous to know Sylvia Satterthwaite (Rebecca Hall), speaking French into a hotel telephone, telling the concierge not to allow the caller up, as it is "trop tard." She hangs up and lapses into bitterness. "Too bloody late."

And then a man bursts through her door anyway, furious that she has tried to avoid him, even though it is apparent that he isn't going to divorce his wife for her, that's no reason for her not to sleep with him. Is she already pregnant? Des she have anything else to lose? Is there any way she can avoid him, as he hungrily tears at her clothes and throws her to the floor?

The feminist inside me pities her deeply. She has no power to make him stop, other than the force of her own honed social skills--and those are clearly not enough. This is "lie back and think of England."

Soon thereafter, she seduces Christopher Tiejiens on a train. Well, of course, he is Benedict Cumberbatch--wouldn't you?

Well, if he spoke to you, you would. He's her insurance. There is no way (pre-paternity testing and DNA analysis) if the pregnancy is his fault, and he's absolutely decent to the marrow in his bones, so they "marry quietly abroad"--a term that means "she's pregnant, get married before she starts showing." But Tietjiens isn't entirely resigned. "She's bitched me," he says, "but it was glorious."

Thus launches the battle of wills in this toxic marriage. One calculated (by her) and entirely uncharacteristic (for him) tryst in a railway carriage, and then--nothing. He is brilliant and nearly a parody of a withdrawn and taciturn Englishman. Possibly due to being from Yorkshire, even, the younger son of the great Groby House, famous for a two centuries old  spruce tree that the families and locals revere in a sort of pagan ritual of hanging charms and mementos for good fortune. Proposals and marriages have happened under Groby Tree "longer than memory." Sylvia hates it.

Sylvia hates Tietjiens as well. He sits (as in the photo above) at the breakfast table and marks errors in the margins of the Encyclopedia Britannica. He is so silent, so withholding, that the fiery and passionate Sylvia is reduced to crashing against him in a desperate attempt to elicit any kind of response at all. At breakfast, she throws a plate against the wall, startling him in to at least looking at her before he leaves for the office.

This is the complicated heart of this five part miniseries. Christopher Tietjiens is the Old Guard, the "last Tory," a man who holds so tenaciously to the antique standards of behavior that he is literally incomprehensible to those around him--especially his wife. She is also brilliant, and the scope of life offered to her in Edwardian upper society is so limited, so unfulfilling, that her brain has basically turned on itself and begun to consume her. So she bolts, and runs off to the Continent with the terminally pretty but otherwise unsatisfactory Potty Perbowne. 

Stoic and proper as he is, Tietjiens simply gives up the large house and takes rooms with his old friend Vinnie McMaster--the son of a Scottish tradesman who Tietjiens helped financially through university, and now repays the debt by standing by his friend. Four months later, Sylvia is hopelessly bored with Potty, and offers to come home. He accepts her--he will not divorce her, since no gentleman would do such a thing to a woman, and not to the mother of his (putative) child. She will not divorce him, due to her Catholicism. They are locked in a battle that he will not fight.

There are only a few possible outcomes to such a battle. One or the other of them could die; natural causes, murder, accident, war. Tietjiens could fall in love--with his wife, or with someone else. Enter Valentine Wannop.

They "meet cute" as she and a fellow suffragette attack the government minister playing in a golf foursome with Tietjiens and McMaster. She is the child of Tietjien's father's friend, and he creates a diversion so they are not apprehended, then later drives all night with her to get her fellow out of the area. They drive through a deep fog, and as the sun is about to rise, come close enough to kiss. 

He does not. Of course.

Then their horse cart is hit by a motor car. Pastoral idyll ruined by modernity? Anybody see that? Bueller?

Somebody is not happy with this turn of events.

So there's our love triangle, each corner representing a different ideal--Tietjiens the outmoded beliefs and behaviors of the 18th century country gentleman*, Sylvia the urban sophistication (read "decadence?") and the hunger for change at the beginning of the 20th century, Valentine--the pure and virginal pacifist and suffragette.

*I am not so sure that Tietjiens accurately represents the 18th century--have you read Moll Flanders? There was certainly plenty of debauchery and immoral behavior around then too. 
Of course, there is war--The Great War, in fact, and Tietjiens enlists and goes to France. And here is where the novel destroys its hero. Over and over, rumors are started and spread and Tietjiens refuses to address them. Some come from his furious wife, some from the men who are trying to win her--either by doing what they imagine she wants, so by ruining the marriage so she is free again.

But this is bound to fail--because Tietjien's very unassailability makes him more intriguing to her than these petty men. The more they try to bring him down, the smaller they look to her. Also because she is determined to be the one to make "that wooden face flinch."

Meanwhile, Tietjiens and Valentine remain in love, and subject to rumors about their continued sexual relationship (there isn't one and never was) even after they haven't even seen each other for years. Literally. YEARS. All of the disapprobation with none of the benefits. Yup. That's English for you.

Honestly--how stupid are you?

 There is a quite impressive list of negative rumors collected by Tietjien's father and brother, who are trying to figure out why he isn't progressing--he's got the connections, the education, and he's brilliant. But the persistent smear campaign has left notes in his file that he isn't to be trusted with confidential information, he's got a bastard child with Valentine, he has bounced important checks to his club and his officer's mess (thanks to the machinations of Sylvia's would-be lover). In each instance, he refuses to defend himself on the grounds that a true gentleman wouldn't have let things get so out of hand that these rumors and incidents could have even have started.

Fortunately, there is always money for frocks!

 There are large portions of the series devoted to the horrors of trench warfare and the eternal idiocy of military procedure. Generally, WWI horrors have been superceded by the horrors of WWII, but they had their own gravitas, and it is worth being reminded of them. Some of the military foolishness is right out of the Catch 22/M*A*S*H playbook, but was written forty years earlier. In one sequence, Tietjiens (who is invaluable at his various postings because he is the only officer able to make things happen, including getting men equipped and ready to fight) reports on his efforts to get fire extinguishers. Because he is an Imperial Officer managing Canadian troops, he is unable to get provisions from usual military supply, and is instructed to apply to a procurement office, which is unable to provide them due to some other military rule, and directs him to obtain them directly from civilian providers, who are under orders to sell only to the War Office. And of course, a general shows up and dings Tietjien's command because he has no fire extinguishers. And the general doesn't care WHY.

Things escalate, of course, when military regulations collide with social and moral imperatives--at the level Tietjiens's is operating, there are long memories and historical grudges and truly no way to obey all the orders being given. Things come to a head when Sylvia transports herself to France to see her husband. Tietjiens has already made things hard for himself by countermanding the discipline meted out by the military police who detained a Canadian soldier until after curfew and then arrested him. "General O'Hara loves his police like his own little lambs" warns Tietjien's sergeant--himself someone whose career has yet to recover from an incident 20 years in the past.

At night, in the hotel that houses officers for the post, Tietjiens and Sylvia reach a point where they just might--just might--find a way to understand each other, and Tietjiens is goaded into asserting his marital rights. And of course, that's when Potty Perowne tries to sneak into Sylvia's room for their arranged assignation. Tietjiens is furious, and pushes Perowne out the door, just as O'Hara hears the commotion and sees it as an assault on a senior officer. He shouts that Tietjiens is under arrest, while Tietjiens is trying to evict a man from his wife's bedroom. There is no way to reconcile the social rules with military discipline, and Tietjiens ends up at the front.

Again and again, Parade's End tries to break its protagonist, provoke him into rage, to elicit something other than dumb acceptance of the wicked unfairness of his burden, and again and again he simply bears it. No wonder he infuriates Sylvia so. "You forgive with no mercy," she says. "You are the cruelest man I know." I guess a saint is hard to live with. T.H. White said something similar in The Once and Future King when describing Sir Galahad--saints are not comfortable with small talk.

This is quite a sprawling work, covering a decade (1908-1918) and war, women's suffrage, sexual politics, romantic triangles, honor, duty, military incompetence, the end of the old England and the rise of the New World. . .so basically, it's about everything. And that everything-ness makes it hard to love this series. Tietjiens is so very stoic that he's hard to understand. Cumberbatch shows us that Tietjiens certainly feels things deeply, but why does he steadfastly refuse to act? Where does he get this stubborn refusal to engage with the world as it is--he certainly understands what is happening, and he's smart enough to do something else. He chooses not to.

Today, we would probably label him as on the autism spectrum, perhaps, and we would throw around the term "Aspberger's." There does seem something ridiculous about a man who could do something about the amount of suffering dumped on his head who chooses to do nothing about it. Sure, sometimes he choses to take the hit in order to prevent someone else suffering--but even when he is the only one involved, he just doesn't even step out of the way of the incoming damage.

It makes him seem like an allegory rather than a character--Tietjiens IS "England," clinging to the better, finer values of the past, even as the world goes to hell around him. Sure, maybe that's what's going on, but to what end? Tietjiens fails. He ends up in an empty flat (Sylvia has deliberately taken all the furniture), estranged from his son (whom he loves, regardless of whether he is the "real" father or not), socially far beneath his old friend McMaster who has been knighted even as Tietjiens has been destroyed, reduced to greeting a mixed lot of damaged and undesirable soldiers as the only comrades he has left. And Valentine.

Valentine agrees to be his mistress, because she loves him. Quite a feat, as he has exchanged only a few words with her over the past decade. Really, poor Valentine is herself rather an idea rather than a character. She remains innocent, pure, never looking at another man despite reaching more than marriageable age herself. She even dresses only in white--she simply never changes over the course of the series.

Which leaves Sylvia. Who is really quite an amazing character. As played by Rebecca Hall, she is not the bitch queen that some reviews have cast her as. Nor do the reviews I have read really grapple with the sexual issues that dominate the story only slightly less than the war does. Because as presented, sexuality is a sort of war, with the men effectively overrunning the women. As Sylvia puts it, it took her years to get over being angry with Gerald Drake, who refused to divorce his wife and left her with a baby to deal with. Now, in 1918, they have re-encountered each other and gone to bed. The scene unfolds in the aftermath, as Sylvia concludes her ablations--involving red rubber tubing at the bathtub. "Will you come back to bed?" mumbles Gerald. "Certainly no! I can't go through all that again" she announces coldly. And you know--you know--that she means more than just the douching. All of it--the sex itself, the complicated relationships with men, her marriage, the last ten years--and the douching. It's just not really worth it anymore.

Even from the first scene--Sylvia can't even keep a man out of her hotel room, she can't stop him from tearing her clothing and forcing himself on her. She can't summon anyone to remove him, she can't physically overpower him, all she can do is hope for the best. And she does land on her feet, despite having no power, no authority, and no point other than to be decorative. Which is FAR from being enough for her.

Really, for me, Sylvia is the reason for the show--the heart of the story. She has too much talent, too many brains, too much passion for the circumscribed life she has been assigned. So she tries to enlarge the world she moves in, and there are casualties to that effort. Notably, her husband. But she cannot sit still, she cannot life such a small life, and so her choices are to die by inches, or to rail against the restrictions. So she fights for herself and her needs. But English life has so successfully limited her choices that she literally cannot find anything to do with herself other than stir the pot with her husband and other men. It is really a tragedy how her life is wasted, and she is so brave to such little progress. She knows the past has to be torn down in order for the future to arrive, for her to have any hope of happiness and purpose. So she is Shiva, a force for destruction, but she is also a woman who lives a life of such painful pointlessness that she is truly unable to do anything else.

In the end, she manages to install herself at Groby, on behalf of her son--the eventual heir. While there, and before Tietjiens comes back from war, she orders the felling of the Groby Tree.

Of course, Groby Tree is an allegorical character--it stands for the antique past, the organic history of Yorkshire, the refusal of modernity. Several times throughout the series, it is pointed out that the tree threatens the structural safety of Groby House, and Tietjiens swears that he will rebuild the house by hand before he will sacrifice the tree.

Sylvia hates the tree--she hates how the branches cover the windows and make the house dark and gloomy. She hates the paganistic role it plays, where locals hang charms to ward off witches and wights. (This is about the only time she says anything that might be evidence of her religious belief--other than her refusal to divorce. And the refusal to divorce might just be an excuse as she tries to win the only man who has resisted her. She's complicated, and that's what makes her interesting.) She hates the way the past is overshadowing the lives being lived in the present, and she wants that tree gone before her child has to confront that long shadow of the past.

This is what finally breaks Tietjiens--I think. He walks out of Groby House, and takes two chunks of the tree with him back to London. He gives one to his brother, who has no use for it and burns it immediately. Tietjiens himself burns his log, at the gathering of the wounded soldiers in his empty rooms. The past is gone. Tietjiens has divorced himself from his wife, and takes Valentine as his mistress. Sylvia seems to have given up the fight for him as well. There is nothing left, Tietjiens apparently can be stripped no farther, so now he is turning toward joy over duty.

Did I like it? Yeeees. I liked it enough to watch the whole series in a couple of days. I enjoyed it more than the other prestige series I've tried this summer--House of Cards (the Kevin Spacey version) and Orange is the New Black, neither of which I have watched 5 hours of. Is it good? Also a qualified "yes." The acting is marvelous, and the settings and costumes and the look of it is sumptuous and wonderful. I am a bit troubled by the way that 10 years of story hasn't really changed anybody--either in their looks or style or relationships or character. (I may need to make an exception for Anne-Marie Duff's arc from the pitiable Mrs. Duchaime to the cold and unlikeable Lady McMaster.) But. But. What is the point, really?

And you know there has to be a point, because the screenplay was written by (Sir?) Tom Stoppard, who condensed four novels and some 600 pages of text into a particular 5 hours of story. So what was the aim? Was it to tell a particular story, or to try to give the feeling of the sprawling original? Perhaps that was it, after all--to do justice to a complicated and enormous story that has no easy answers.

I can accept that, in part because it lets me choose what I want to foreground as the most meaningful part of the story. And of course I am going to pick the utterly gorgeous and passionate Sylvia, the horrors of her own wars against gender limitations, the pathetic waste of her talent in an upper class woman's life, and her fierce belief that she deserved something that she wasn't being allowed. She is amazing and definitely worth watching.

On the whole--worth watching. It's not a decadent and gooey trifle like Downton Abbey--it's more tart and difficult to digest. But it has a lot of fodder for thought, and much to feast the eyes.