Monthly Archives: March 2013

Wild Things with Dominic Monaghan

Dom's Wild ThingsThe first season of Wild Things with Dominic Monaghan, finished in the UK early this year and on BBC America this Month.  It was a short season, with only 8 episodes.  Each one saw my favorite hobbit off to an exotic region of the world in search of rare animals. The sort of animals you don’t see on TV. Creepy crawlies, reptiles, spiders, scorpions, etc.  These aren’t the cutest of animals, I must say.

Now I love all animals, wish them all well, don’t eat them, don’t wear leather.  But there are some animals I just want to stay away from me.  They can go be happy and healthy somewhere else.  Almost every one of the animals on my list have been featured on this show.  On the other hand, there are plenty of TV shows (and internet videos) that feature the cute and the cuddly. Very few show us giant beetles, water bugs, centipedes or huntsman spiders.  And (not to sound like the most stereotypical of bleeding-heart liberals) they are really important to the ecosystems, and less likely to be protected because they’re just not as appealing as a koala bear. More exposure for them and all the cool things they can do is a good thing. So, I approve.  Plus, Dom is awesome. Had a crush on him since Fellowship of the Ring.  So, obviously I was always going to watch and like this show.  There’s no point in me reviewing it because it’s a forgone conclusion. Yes, I liked it.

Here’s a brief rundown of where Dom goes and what he sees:

In Vietnam, he comes across a few incredibly dangerous snakes, saves a lizard from being someone’s dinner, swims in a crocodile-infested lake, and finds the elusive Giant Water Bug:

giant water bug

In Episode 2, he continues on to Laos in search of the Giant Huntsman Spider.  This is a creature that could give me nightmares for the rest of my life, but Dom is thrilled to see it. Along the way he encounters another reticulated python, a beautiful green tree viper, and a very dubious fireworks festival.

Dom and tree viper

Episode 3 takes him to Namibia (near S. Africa) in search of a Black Hairy Thick Tail Scorpion.  He also meets some snakes (he always finds snakes), an adorable meerkat, a gecko and monitor.  He eventually finds what is the most terrifying scorpion I’ve ever seen–excepting the 10-foot long model of one at the Natural History Museum in London–and messes about with it until it’s angry. He does that a lot.

Episode 4 is in search of a truly disgusting creature, the Scolopendra.  Gross! I can’t help it, this guy is yucky.

scolopendraI really dislike the centipedes I get in my apartment.  Imagine the same thing, but big enough to eat a bat–to snatch it from the air.  Well, you don’t have to imagine, because you get to see it in this episode.  I had to close my eyes. While in Venezuela, Dom finds an adorable three-toed sloth, snakes, tarantulas, and a beetle larva the size of a banana.

In episode 5, Dom heads to Cameroon to find a Giant White Goliath Beetle.  As usual, he encounters snakes and other bugs and insects along his way.

Episodes 6 and 7 deal with swarming animals, Army ants and Giant Malaysian Honey Bees.  It’s ridiculous, the power that these animals can exert as a group, and the way that they work together like a school of fish to ward off or fight predators.  Amazing and terrifying.  Here’s a colony of the honey bees, defending their honeycomb:

honey beesWe also learn about a bird called the Honey Buzzard, who is simultaneously brilliant and a huge jerk.  He wants the honey, but obviously would like to avoid being stung by (literally) thousands of bees.  So he waits for another animal to wander by near the hive, then agitates the bees before flying off.  The bees zoom out to attack the unsuspecting animal below, and the honey buzzard descends on the unprotected hive.  Sometimes the honey buzzards work in pairs and one will act as a decoy.  This is some seriously brilliant hunting.

In the final episode, Dom heads to Guatemala to find the Guatemalan Beaded Lizard.  This is a huge lizard that is incredibly venomous, and so dangerous that locals have all sorts of myths and legends. They believe if you step in the animals shadow, you will die within 24 hours.  They also tend to kill all lizards they find, assuming they are Beaded Lizards.  It’s a pretty intimidating animal:

Guatemalan Beaded Lizard

I loved seeing all of these animals and learning more about them. I will freely admit that I spent a lot of time (a LOT) watching through my fingers. I’m terrified of snakes, and all nature shows really enjoy the strike shot.  It’s the nature show version of porn’s money shot.  We see cobras, rattlesnakes, vipers, all striking right at the camera.  No thank you. But, I still watched. And would watch again.

Dom is a great host, even if you don’t have a crush on him.  Evidence: My boyfriend liked the show.  And he’s not really into animals.  It’s just a cool show where you learn things you wouldn’t really learn elsewhere. Dom is brave (this bravery resembles stupidity sometimes), smart, funny, and passionate.   This isn’t a show he was approached to do, this is a passion he’s held all his life, and it is obvious.

While watching, I was overcome with reactions that seemed very similar to how I felt when I used to watch Steve Irwin.  There’s a real sense of ‘why the fuck is he doing that?’ and ‘that isn’t a good idea!’.  I sincerely hope Dom doesn’t come to the same sort of ending as Steve Irwin. He definitely likes to push the boundaries of what seems safe, and it totally makes sense that he has said the biggest difficulty in getting a new season for the show is negotiating with insurance companies.

On the other hand, there are moments that sort of make you think that reptiles and bugs might be a lot more docile than most mammals–and are certainly more docile than we imagine them to be.  In one particular moment, in the very first episode, Dom has what can only be described as a cuddle with a HUGE reticulated python.

Dom and a pythonDom picks up the snake and they sort of snuggle in the tree until the snake falls asleep–I am not making this up.  Part of the reason he fails safe doing this, Dom says, is that the snake is so big that he doesn’t even consider Dom a threat.  The snake is more than large enough to kill him.

It’s an amazing moment, and really made me think about my fear of snakes.  After all, can you think of a mammal that would let you do that?

And all through the series, Dom picks up venomous and dangerous creatures that could easily bite, sting, or squeeze him into some serious injuries…but they don’t, for the most part.  Part of that is that Dom seems to be able to read their body language and discern when they’re really irritated and when they are quite calm.  I’m amazed that people can do this–it took me 2 years to figure out what it looks like when my cat is irritated, and I have the scars to prove it.

Suffice it to say, I loved this show.  I really hope they manage to make a second season. Dom has said he’d like to get Billy Boyd and other friends from LotR and Lost on the show with him, and that would be spectacular.

Beautiful Lies by Clare Clark

Beautiful LiesI think part of the reason I picked up this book was because of the beautiful jacket.  The colors are gorgeous and the silhouette of the woman tells you without any other hint that this takes place in the last few decades of the 19th century. I know e-books are cheap and easy and convenient, but the impulse book buying process is much harder when there are no big glossy covers.

Beautiful Lies tells the story of a married woman, Maribel, in 1887 London, with (as the reader finds out) a lot to hide.  She is maneuvering her way through a restrictive society, in perpetually greater fear of being exposed.  She isn’t who she says she is, even uses a fake name, hides some things from her husband and everything from her friends and the rest of her acquaintance.

Upon starting the book, Maribel seemed like a totally normal married woman. I assumed all of the eponymous ‘lies’ would happen during the course of the action, but we find out after about 4 or 5 chapters that she has a lot that she’s hiding. Society knows her as an exotic woman from Chile with a mixed Spanish/French ethnicity, presumably an heiress since she’s snagged a Scottish Lord for a husband. To her husband, she is a prostitute he met at a brothel, and then fell in love with. He married her and brought her back under a new name.  The truth is that she is actually from Yorkshire, she ran away as a teenager in order to become an actress. She was seduced by a man who claimed he would help her get parts, she became pregnant, he sent her to a convent in Spain to have the baby and while she was in her ‘confinement’ as they called it, he got married to someone else.  I know, what a keeper! The baby was taken away, she doesn’t know by whom. Her husband knows she is actually from Yorkshire, but doesn’t know about the man or the baby.

Her past is never entirely explained, but is just patched together throughout the book. We do understand most of it at the end, but it never seems like a full story and more just snapshots from various times in her life.

There’s something very empathetic (to me personally) about a character who grows up only wanting to get out of the sheltered and dull setting of her adolescence.  To move to the big city and become someone and prove that she could.  To abandon a provincial and philistine family to try to become something greater.  And of course it doesn’t go very well, because society back then was not one that allowed social mobility, particularly for women.

I had two big problems with this book that seriously affected my final opinion of it.

1-The smoking.  There was tons of it.  Yes, I hate smoking and wish everyone in the entire world would just knock it off.  But usually I don’t mind if a character smokes.  This was different.  People didn’t just light a cigarette and keep on talking.  Every character that smokes is described in their passion and love for the feeling of smoke in their lungs.  Maribel is a chain-smoker, and every cigarette is described for 4-5 sentences, with long inhalations and the feeling of the smoke filling her all the way to the backs of her knees.  It’s tiring. You could cut 20 pages from this book if you took out the smoking references.  I learned to skim over them, but what a waste of ink. It made it difficult to like Maribel, and it made it really difficult to like the author.

The second problem is just…a bad execution of an interesting idea.  Clare Clark, the author, based this book on a true story.  She is a historian (or was, before she became an author) and came across the story of a Scottish noble, Sir Robert Cunninghame Graham and his exotic wife Gabriela.  His life very closely resembles that of Edward, Maribel’s husband in the book.  Long after they both died, a series of letters showed that Gabriela’s life was all a sham.  Like Maribel, she was from Yorkshire and had wanted to be an actress.

So this is a true story that has been somewhat shoehorned into the novel form.  Clark says in the end of the book that she started to change things about the character and that’s when it came alive for her as a story. Maribel is a photographer; Gabriela was a writer.  It doesn’t seem to me like she changed much else, but I’m sure she had to fill in the details.  But I think it doesn’t quite work as a novel.  If you read a story about the Grahams, the amazement comes from the truth in it.  If you read a novel, the amazement comes in the story.  Beautiful Lies seemed to try to exist between the two.  And it didn’t work for me.

I thought the characters–especially Maribel–lacked depth.  She reflected on her past and even when she was supposedly overcome with emotion there was a numbness there. She explained everything far too explicitly–if a reader doesn’t have to infer anything about the thoughts of the characters, half the fun of empathy is gone.  Maybe that is why secondary characters seemed more full. Their opinions had to be inferred, deduced by little actions and words. They were more human.  In a time and a society that taught people to hide 99% of their emotions, and to put on false faces for others, Maribel’s blank and complete descriptions of herself and her emotions are puzzling.  Especially considering all that she is hiding from everyone in the world. If you have to keep so much hidden inside you, then when you’re pouring it out into the head of a reader, it should have more emotion and it should be more necessary.  Even if the words we read are just inside Maribel’s head, that is at least one place where she can be herself.  It should feel as exhausting to us as it is to her, keeping this secret.

Clare Clark started out as a historian, but she’s been writing now for a few years.  Two of her other books have been long-listed for the Orange prize (now called the Women’s prize), so perhaps they are better.  Though reviews of this book have been quite good, so maybe it’s me.  The New York Times review called it “A captivating fable of truth and memory”.  Agree to disagree, I guess. I was not captivated and it took me quite a while to get through the book.

I’ve read a lot of books now that are written by people who began their careers as historians.  Sadly, I haven’t been very fond of the story telling present in any of them.  I think they all seem to value sticking in historical details and are terrified of violating the time period, and while that creates an authentic book it doesn’t create a great book. Even while I was reading it, I was thinking to myself ‘this is probably totally accurate. Buffalo Bill Cody probably did visit London at this time–he did–and this was the beginning of the Labour party and these Trafalgar Square demonstrations and riots all probably happened–they did’.  Unfortunately, I wish I had been saying something to myself about the character and what she was going through during the book.  But I wasn’t.

I wonder if they (the historians) are all going to skewer me when my historical fiction is done, and they will point out all of its ridiculous and inevitable anachronisms.  Regardless, for my part I think the art of storytelling is more important than getting the period details correct.

Ripper Street Season 1

Ripper Street cast

Last week was the season finale of Ripper Street on BBC America, after a short 8-episode season. In the UK, it ended in February. The show has already been picked up for a second season to air in early 2014.

As I mentioned in my review of Whitechapel (here), this Jack the Ripper theme stuck to a traditional police procedural is a bit overdone and not very sufficient to make a show good or memorable or necessary.  That being said, I decided to give it a shot. It does take place in Victorian London–my favorite place and my favorite time.  That alone is reason to watch.

The show focuses mainly on Inspector Reid, played by Matthew Macfadyen. Inspector Reid

Reid is the standard good guy, walking the line between being a gentleman and doing what it takes to solve the terrible crimes he encounters in the grimy and rough East End.  The show takes place a mere six months after Jack the Ripper’s last victim is found (1889).  Reid was one of the inspectors on the case, and it left him emotionally stunted and physically scarred.  He’s lost his daughter under mysterious circumstances, and that has caused an extreme rift between he and his wife.  His life is mysterious at first, with bits revealed throughout the first series to explain who and what he is.  I like Matthew Macfadyen, so I was predisposed to like Reid.  As a character, however, there are things that really bother me about him.  He neglects his wife and then is unfaithful.  Worst of all, he seems to exist as a thinking man and employs his faithful sergeant to do the dirty work of policing.  Of course, just like Copper, the show exists in an era well before the police were required to protect and not harm suspects and witnesses. Brutality was a way to accomplish their goals.  On the other hand, if you’re going to have a character who believes this behavior is warranted, it’s a little uncomfortable to watch him require his second-in-command to shoulder the burden of brutality.

The second-in-command is Sergeant Drake, an ex-soldier with the appearance of a thug, but he proves himself an honorable man.  He becomes smitten very early on with a local prostitute named Rose:

Drake and RoseDrake is very good at exacting information and subduing suspects through brute physical force, but that doesn’t mean he should be used for that alone.  He was in the Boer War in Africa, and has horrific memories of being a man prone to and enjoying violence–memories he is trying to run away from.  Of all the people in the show, he is the most afraid of violence and simultaneously the one forced to utilize it in his work.  Knowing this about him makes Reid’s reliance on Drake as an enforcer all the more repugnant and…there’s something class-ist about it.  Reid treats Dr. Jackson as an equal, but Drake as an inferior.  Drake is inferior to him at the police station, but their relationship seems to be predicated on social class and not career standing.  I did not like that fact, and it made me not like Reid because of it.

Dr. Jackson is known as ‘the American’ by most of the characters.  He has a suspicious past, is married to a woman who runs a local brothel, and seems to be a pioneer in the art of the autopsy:

Homer Jackson and Susan HartHe is Reid’s medical adviser, performing autopsies and necropsies. He acts as a one-man CSI lab, despite the limited technological advances inherent to a show set 130 years ago. He has a very mysterious past–the first thing we learn about him is that he has something to hide.  Later, it is revealed that he is using a false name, running from the Pinkertons (19th century private police force in the US), and has committed a serious crime.  Reid protects Jackson from being discovered by his enemies, but at the same time uses this information to force Jackson into continuing his work for the police.  It makes me think that Reid is just obsessive about solving cases, and all of his other values take a backseat to this need to find out whodunnit.

The show is very violent and regularly contains extremely graphic scenes, either of murder or sex or both.  The very first episode was about the making of the first snuff film.  The show makes it very clear that we’re living in a world with evil and with very little good.  There are no heroes to be found; everyone is flawed and many are downright monsters.

Reviews have been fairly mixed. Critics are especially irritated by the anachronisms.  I am currently writing a Victorian-era historical fiction novel, and feel a shiver of dread thinking about the websites that might crop up over my mistakes.  It’s simply very difficult to think about every piece of clothing, every word or idiom, every bit of food, and to research whether said item was available/used/known in that time period.  Then again, I would hope the BBC would have better resources than I do–my current resources include Google and a library card.  A Guardian column discussed the outlandish crimes committed during the running of the first series and where they had historical precedent. More of them were accurate than I would have guessed.

I’m still deciding my final opinion of the show. The first 2-3 episodes were incredibly dull and took a lot of work to get through.  It picked up at the end, with the last 1-2 episodes being pretty tolerable…but those first 2-3 episodes make up a large chunk of the season. So I’m not sure it’s worth the effort for the 1-2 good episodes at the end.

The acting is good and parts of each episode were truly enjoyable.  At the same time, the show was never great (in my opinion).  I was never enraptured, even when I was interested.  It also didn’t feel true to the period. It didn’t transport me to a different time, it felt more like I got off the bus in a bad neighborhood.  But I liked the characters, and I did feel for them.  I did become invested, especially in Drake and Jackson.  I will be tuning in for next season, despite mixed feelings.  I just hope they drop the Jack the Ripper stuff and deal with other types of crime and realities of living in that time and that place.

TV review: Derek with Ricky Gervais

Derek series posterRicky Gervais’ new series, Derek, just finished its first season in the UK.  It will be airing exclusively on Netflix in the US later this year (no premier date yet).  It’s only six episodes, but a second season in the UK has already been announced.

There was a lot of controversy before the show started, when it got out that Ricky was playing a man who seemed to be mentally disabled.  I think most of the controversy dried up when people actually saw the show. I don’t think it’s offensive at all–it might even be a bit too safe.

The show features Ricky as the eponymous Derek, possibly the nicest man in the world.  If there is one thing this show is about, it’s about valuing kindness over all other traits.  Derek cares about everyone and every living creature, and the show illustrates how much more valuable that is than qualities like intelligence, material success, A level scores, etc.  Derek works in a nursing home; it’s his whole life.  I can’t tell you what he does exactly (in terms of a job). It seems like he is more of a companion to the residents, and he’s very good at that.  He genuinely cares about all of them.

His best friend is Hannah,

hannahwho runs the nursing home.  She is one of those women who takes care of everyone and doesn’t have much of a life on her own. She puts all of her energy into her job and truly wants to take care of all of the people who live in and work at the home.  She makes me, honestly and truly, feel like a pretty terrible person by comparison.

To make me feel better, there is Karl Pilkington (and a hilarious wig) as Dougie.

slide_277704_2042719_freeDougie is the handyman in the nursing home.  He’s not as kind as Hannah or Derek–he is more willing to say what is on his mind and more likely to be irritated by other people.  Who knew Karl could act? He’s actually really good!  Now, there are a lot of similarities between him and his character.  In my preview of this series, I noted these similarities:

He complains a lot, likes to fix things, doesn’t know why he’s friends with Ricky.  Check, check, check.

And I stand by that post.  He’s very similar to what I know of him through An Idiot Abroad and The Ricky Gervais Show–though all of these shows give us Karl through Ricky’s eyes (and editing skills), so I wouldn’t presume to actually know him.  At any rate, Dougie is perpetually annoyed, but his annoyance is geared toward people who truly deserve it.  One high point of the series is when Dougie throws out the money-grubbing daughter of a woman who has just died, because she is a heinous person only concerned with getting her mother’s things now that she’s gone.  Dougie is my hero in that episode.

There’s also Kev

derek_kev_2Derek’s friend and the least likeable of the main characters.  He is sex-obsessed, crass, and generally unliked, but his friendship with Derek and the clear evidence that he is full of shit make the audience realize that he isn’t all bad.  If he was an asshole in the exact same way and also handsome/successful, then he would be unforgivable.  The fact that he is horribly unsuccessful in life and with women make his boasts and pronouncements less offensive and more sad.

In the background there are a litany of secondary characters from the fringes of life.  There are chavvy teenagers, assigned to do community service at the nursing home, the heinous people from the city council threatening to shut the place down, and of course the residents themselves.  I kind of love Derek for the simple fact that it shows people we don’t normally see on TV.  For how many hours of super fancy people on Selling New York or The Bachelor or Real Housewives of Whichever City, you’re only likely to see a regular person on shows like Hoarders or My Strange Addiction.  It’s lovely to see people represented on TV that normally wouldn’t be, and I hope it gives everyone a greater respect for older people, even though the show is inherently more rose-colored than reality must be.

Let me start with a warning about this show.  I cried during every single episode.  It is emotional; it is schmaltzy.  Some critics think the emotion has gone too far, into the realm of absolute sentimental tripe.  I think there are arguments for that.  After all, you never seem too controversial by showing how great it would be if everyone was kind to one another.  On the other hand, very few of us have the capacity to be as kind and as selfless as Hannah and Derek.  There are, undoubtedly, people who work in a caretaker capacity that are just like them.  But there are also people who take advantage of their situation to do horrible things, and there are people who become burnt out by what they are seeing on a day-to-day basis and become apathetic or cold-hearted as a result.  Derek portrays a world free from those types.  There are your occasional villains who come in (like the couple mentioned above, visiting only to get a hold of a family ring), but they leave.  Everyone there is forgivable and forgiving, and cares about the residents in their care.  I don’t know how accurate that is.

The show is genuinely funny, but you’re more likely to spend your time crying than laughing.

The show is very clearly a Ricky Gervais project, but at the same time it is quite different.  No matter how crass and unlikeable Ricky can be when he is confronting the world as himself (I have a coworker that loathes him completely), his works always have a good heart and good people behind them.  In The Office, Tim and Dawn are the heart of the show, but by the end of the run you do truly care for David Brent and for Gareth.  The only real villain of the piece is Chris Finch, and we see him put firmly in his place during the special (my favorite moment ever).  In Extras and Life’s Too Short, you see an egotistical, foolish, deeply flawed, very negative main character, but the show always makes clear that these traits are not rewarding.  In the end, these characters focus their energy on their personal relationships and not on the success they so long for.  That same sense of good and kindness is the main centerpiece of Derek, but Derek approaches it in a different way.  It’s there from the absolute beginning, as the prevailing quality of the main character.

It is schmaltzy, and it is sensationalist (to use the old definition of causing sensations), but it is cathartic to see and experience what life might be like if we were all a little less smart and a little more kind. It made me cry to the point of extreme discomfort on more than one occasion (especially the finale), but it did feel good afterward.  I really enjoyed the show and will definitely be watching the second season.

Ricky as Derek with dogs

Parade’s End Miniseries

Parade's End

The miniseries Parade’s End played on UK TV way back in August.  I have been impatiently waiting for it to come to American TV ever since.  HBO had the rights for months, but they finally decided to play the thing last week.  Instead of a weekly installment, HBO played the 5-part miniseries over three days.  I’m not certain why they decided to wait 6 months and then squeeze the miniseries into the middle of the week, but whatever. I was just happy to see it.

Parade’s End was adapted from a series of four books written by Ford Madox Ford, in the 1910s and 20s.  After seeing this miniseries, I intend to read all of the books. The characters were spectacularly well done, and I can only guess the books are very good.

I love a BBC period drama, but obviously the main draw for me in seeing this one was Benedict Cumberbatch.  He plays one of the three main characters, a man named Christopher Tietjens.

ChristopherTietjens is an incredible character.  A firm believer in the truth, in honor, in fair-play, and everything simultaneously morally righteous and annoyingly priggish. He has a habit of making corrections in the margins of his encyclopedia. His know-it-all-ness is alternately tedious (especially to his wife) and funny.  Benedict always seems to play characters smarter than everyone else in the room, and Tietjens is no exception.  Some of the best moments in the series are when he confronts and out-thinks corpulent blowhards and moronic busybodies.

He embodies everything stereotypically British–stiff upper lip (literally, Benedict barely moves his upper lip for the entire miniseries), honorable, more capable of showing affection to horses than people–but he is also a man that hearkens back to the past. He admits that he loves the idea of a more agrarian, simple society that he believes Britain embodied in the past.  He reminded me a bit of what I know of Churchill.  He clings to Tory ideals that don’t really reflect the society in which he is currently living.  He doesn’t like the changes that are coming up in society at the beginning of the 20th century.

And that is the central theme of this miniseries. The title reflects the end of the society as drama, as pomp and circumstance.  The upper classes are breaking down, the institutions of nobility, of patriarchy, and of marriage are falling apart.  All the Anglican ideals to which Tietjens adheres most fervently are disappearing from ‘modern’ society.  This is the last gasp of that Victorian culture that was so prevalent just ten-twenty years earlier.

There are two women in Christopher’s life, and neither are much like him.  His wife, Sylvia, is almost his antithesis.  She is Catholic, feisty, vapid, lascivious, and tremendously bored.  She is played by Rebecca Hall, who looks so astonishingly beautiful in this miniseries that I’m convinced she has been sent specifically to make the rest of us mortal women feel bad about ourselves.

Sylvia

It’s difficult to determine who is less pleased with this marriage, which is doomed from the start.  After a fling with Christopher while in the midst of a long affair with a married man, Sylvia discovers she is pregnant.  Not wanting to be ruined in society, she marries Christopher.  Being something of a martyr, and a truly honorable man, Christopher marries her despite knowing there is a chance the child is not his.  He resents her at the same time that he is bewitched by her appearance and her joie de vivre.  She resents him for being so (to borrow an anachronistic term from the 1950s) square, so emotionless.  She is constantly (especially in the beginning of their marriage) trying to provoke his anger and jealousy.  He never gives in to his emotions.

At first, I found Sylvia difficult to like.  She is like a petulant child, acting out in the hope of a reaction from disinterested parents.  For me, it seems obvious that people so utterly bored with life must be very boring themselves.  But as the series continues, she improves.  Her independence alone must be commended, considering when she lived and how she lived. Though she first finds Christopher a bore, it’s obvious she loves him too.  No one wants their husband’s attention that badly unless they care. No matter how misguided and immature her actions are, all she can hope is that it will provoke a reaction in her husband.  She does truly want to work it out, and I found myself sort of hoping it would.

But then there is Valentine, a young suffragette that Christopher meets. Valentine is everything that Sylvia isn’t and vice versa.  She is played by Adelaide Clemens, soon to star in the new Gatsby movie.

ValentineIn some ways, it’s strange that Christopher would be attracted to a revolutionary woman.  Women’s suffrage was a pretty revolutionary idea, and you can see clearly in the miniseries that the majority of people thought suffragettes were whores.  They were trying to undermine the status quo, and that’s never going to gain you popularity with most of society.  That Christopher, so conservative and old-fashioned, is attracted to Valentine is explainable because she is an honorable and honest person.  Unlike Sylvia, who is all about manipulation and misinformation, Valentine has the honest naiveté of every young revolutionary.  She is immediately attracted to Christopher because (in my opinion) she recognizes a similarly moral person in a vastly immoral society.

This being a British period drama, the love triangle is unconsummated for 99% of the miniseries.  This is not Team Edward vs Team Jacob.  The majority of the miniseries sees Christopher trying to repress his feelings for Valentine because he is married and despite his wife’s unfaithfulness, he refuses to break his marriage vows.  He does not even want to divorce her, because he just doesn’t think it’s the right thing to do, in any circumstance.

This love triangle is interrupted by World War One, and that event is the catalyst for all the change we witness in British society in this era.  Entire generations of men gone to war and coming back wounded physically, destroyed emotionally, or not coming back at all.  The romantic and chivalrous ideal of Victorian society cannot stand up to the reality of WWI.  Parade’s End makes this perfectly obvious.  Christopher, irritated with illogical bureaucracy, resigns his government job and enlists to fight.  In one scene, the incongruous nature of Victorian society meeting 20th-century war is highlighted particularly well.  In a fit of exhaustion, stress, and emotional trauma during an air raid, Christopher claims to be able to write a sonnet in under 3 minutes.  His education in the classics, in poetry, in languages, would have made this quite simple for him. He completes his task, and his fellow officer (a former scholar) claims to be able to translate it into Latin in under 3 minutes as well.  This is the sort of exercise their education has prepared these upper-class men to do.  So they are doing it, in the middle of war-torn France with bombs dropping all around them.  And for the most part, this was painfully true.  No one was prepared for the carnage of WWI, but I would guess the officers least of all.  Working men would have seen terrible things in the course of their much rougher lives.  Officers (whose positions were earned through social class or purchased for them) would have come from more educated, but more sheltered backgrounds.  But they were still there, in the trenches, with just as much chance of being shot or blown in half.  As with any war, the pointlessness is overwhelming, but WWI was especially pointless.

The miniseries ends with the end of the war.  Christopher makes it home, but the society he knows is largely gone.  And England did change almost entirely during those years, far more than the US did.  The upper class lifestyle of landed nobility tried to continue to hang on afterward, but things were too different and the century rolled on without them.  The miniseries did a great job illustrating the end of that era. Christopher doesn’t hold so tight to his Anglican morals when he comes back; he sees where they are useful, but he makes his own morality now.  He allows himself to fall in love with Valentine, and he lets Sylvia go.  The miniseries ends with their relationship finally being consummated, and Sylvia contemplating a divorce.

Because of the time period, there are many comparisons between Parade’s End and Downton Abbey.  I like Downton Abbey a lot, but comparing the two is ridiculous and not going to make anyone happy.  For the record, I thought Parade’s End was mature, thoughtful, subtle, and meaningful.  It was for adults; it was perhaps for the slightly disenchanted.  Downton Abbey has proved, especially with season 3, that it is more of a soap opera than anything else.  It is an exceedingly well-done soap opera, but the characters and the drama veer often into the melodramatic and the ridiculous.  Its portrayal of World War I had a high casualty rate, but barely scratched the surface of what is generally believed to be the most horrifying part of that war–the pointlessness of it.  If you really compare the two, Parade’s End is like literature, and Downton Abbey is like a very well-done glossy magazine.

Reviews have all been pretty good regarding Parade’s End. Everyone is agreed that the acting is superb and the cinematography beautiful.  I think that the accent Benedict Cumberbatch puts on, though probably very accurate to the period, might put some people off.  It sounds comical to a modern ear, and can take you out of the moment.

My real problem with the miniseries lies either in the editing or writing. I don’t know enough about how these things are made to tell you which.  There’s some sort of disconnect in what’s presented to the audience, and we don’t get the whole story.  We see snippets of larger themes and problems the characters are working through, but we don’t get the whole story.  It’s hard to understand sometimes why they are doing what they are doing.  Sylvia goes to France, to the middle of the fighting, to visit Christopher during the war.  It’s fairly obvious that she wants to win him back, and for a moment it looks like it might work.  But he is irrevocably in love with Valentine by this point, and though he and Sylvia get a moment of rekindled affection and respect, it turns to nothing.  The next time they meet, after the war, there is very little trace of it in their interaction.  Sylvia is either sick or pretending to be so; Christopher does not care.  They are back to their old interaction–she wants his attention and his outrage, he doesn’t want to show it.  There are lots of moments where the interactions don’t all add up, don’t flow in an even keel.  I imagine this is the trouble of condensing what were four books into a short miniseries, but it’s hard to tell for sure.  It was difficult to feel the emotional reward and cathartic release at the end of the miniseries because of these strange missteps sprinkled throughout.  One of the reviews I read, here, describes it really well, saying that the ‘connective tissue’ of the story is missing.  That’s exactly how I felt.  The various limbs of this story were not adequately connected.

It wasn’t perfect, and it wasn’t always rewarding.  It was interesting and gave me a lot of things to think about.  I cannot wait to read the books, which will have the connective tissue.

An Idiot Abroad 3: The Short Way Round

An Idiot Abroad - Short Way RoundRicky Gervais has a pretty well sustained habit of only doing 2 seasons of his TV series. Two series and a special is his m.o., if precedent can be trusted. While this was technically billed as the third season of An Idiot Abroad, it is really more of a prolonged special.

Instead of sending Karl out on his own, Ricky and Steve have given him ‘a little pal’ in Warwick Davis.  I’m not sure if this idea came from Ricky working with Warwick on Life’s Too Short, or it emerged from the China episode of An Idiot Abroad–the very first episode, actually–when Karl visited a ‘dwarf village’ made up of little people who lived in very small homes and put on shows a few times per day for tourist tips.  Karl thought this was wonderful and really enjoyed it.  He said to the camera that ‘Ricky knows a little fella’ and he wondered what he would think of the village.  At this point, I remember asking my boyfriend if he thought Karl was talking about Warwick Davis.  He was, in fact.  Karl called Warwick and asked his opinion on the dwarf village.  Warwick did not think it was wonderful, something Karl couldn’t quite comprehend.  It’s one of the more interesting scenes in the original An Idiot Abroad series, and I sort of think that’s where this idea to put the two together came from.

If you’re wondering about the name (The Short Way Round), it’s an homage to a series of documentary (I use this term for want of a better one) films that Ewan MacGregor and Charley Boorman made.  The first was called The Long Way Down, where the boys rode their motorcycles from London to New York, by going East. The second was The Long Way Down, where they rode their bikes from the Northernmost tip of Scotland to the Southernmost point of Africa.  I’m not sure if The Short Way Round refers to the short nature of this special, the shortness of their trip, or is a nod to the shortness of Warwick.

In the first episode, Karl and Warwick go to Venice.  They are recreating Marco Polo’s trip to China, so they begin in Italy. It becomes apparent immediately that Karl and Warwick do not agree on anything. Their life views are completely different.  And the rest of this ‘series’ will remind you exactly how awful it is to travel with someone with whom you are not getting on.  The boys dress up that night for a costume party in the old Venetian tradition.  Karl really does not like this, and I can’t say I blame him.  One of the old-fashioned games is to be blindfolded and tickled with various things, etc., to experience different sensations.  As Karl explains, he could do without having an unknown someone’s halitosis blowing onto his face.  He complains, and then ditches Warwick on his own.

Karl and Warwick in costumeThe next day, Karl has picked something he wants to do–a jet pack.  The most hilarious part of this episode (and also the saddest), is that Karl is made entirely miserable by this activity that he has brought upon himself.  Oh, Karl.  The end of the episode has the boys move on to Macedonia, where they stay with a family of Romani (gypsies).  Warwick is made a bit uncomfortable–Romani consider little people to be good luck, so they make excuses to rub his head and touch him.  I would take a pass on that as well.  Later, the boys attend a religious ceremony where men stick metal rods through various body parts and then do some whirling dervish style dances.  Then Karl tries to be lifted by a bunch of helium balloons, but proves too heavy. He coerces Warwick into going up, and he sails very high in the air and feels a bit ill. But it’s good to see that the show will not just be making Karl uncomfortable.  It would feel too much like bullying if Warwick enjoyed the whole trip and Karl none of it.

Episode 2 takes the boys on to India, where each participates in activities they dislike.  Karl enjoys laughter yoga, and dislikes acting in a Bollywood film–partially because Warwick is acting a bit bossy now that he’s more or less in his own milieu.  They take a river cruise on the Ganges and then camp on its banks. They plan to stay for the night but some drunken locals annoy Karl so much he leaves for a hotel. The highlight for Karl is a trip to a nearby circus Karl and Warwick as clowns

 

 

and to visit the Spider Girls, a pair of conjoined twins featured there. The circus and its emphasis on showcasing the disfigured, disabled, and anatomically different, make Warwick very uncomfortable.  Karl is in his element here.  Everyone is a bit worried about Karl, but I think he’s very nice to them.  He asks them questions that would occur to everyone, about how they accomplish daily tasks.  He’s never disrespectful; only fascinated.  And if no one was fascinated by them, they’d have a much harder time making a living.  On the other hand, I can see why it would make a lot of people uncomfortable, especially Warwick.

The third and last episode gets the boys all the way to China. They take a trip on the Yangtze river, where Warwick gets a private cabin and Karl is put in steerage with 5 other blokes and a non-functioning toilet.  This seems very cruel to me.  Unless Warwick is paying his own way, I can’t help but think this is just Ricky being a terrible person. Part of the humor of An Idiot Abroad has always been seeing Karl complain and rant about doing things that a lot of us would love to do–climb Machu Picchu, see the Pyramids, go whale watching, etc.–but this is him complaining about a legitimate slight. I didn’t enjoy that. Once they’re off the boat, they visit the Chengdu Giant Panda research facility to interact with Pandas–thereby making me incredibly and irrevocably jealous.

Karl and Warwick as Pandas

On their climb up Mount Emei, Davis is beginning to be exhausted and wants to rely on a chair that you can hire to carry you up the mountain.  Karl has a bit of a pep talk with him and it is one of the nicer scenes to show how traveling with someone can give you a more full experience than if left to your own devices. Then, Karl decides he has worked hard enough, and pays to have the men carry him up the mountain.  It doesn’t occur to him that this is strange, because he doesn’t think he has anything to prove by getting up the mountain. Warwick does make it up all the way, and is grateful to have gotten to the top. As a grand finale to the series, the boys are supposed to do a bungee jump or base jump or some other X-sport off the top of the Macau Tower.  Warwick does it, Karl chickens out.  In typical Karl fashion.

The thing about these shows is that Karl is the last person to enjoy traveling.  I think traveling is incredibly important to understand the vastness of the world and your insignificance in it, but some people do not enjoy it. Karl thrives on routine and convenience. In every situation, his only experience seems to be anxiety and irritation.  It really straddles a line between hilarious and sad.  With Warwick in the mix, that is still there, but I think the dynamic is a bit muddled.  There are points where it does seem like everyone is ganging up on Karl, forcing him to exist permanently outside his comfort zone, and trying to deny him the only parts of the trip that seem fun and exciting to him.  But at other times, when Warwick is made to try something new and scary, it feels less like schadenfreude…or maybe it’s schadenfreude that is more equally distributed.

I can’t say I enjoyed these 3 special episodes more than the original series, but they were still funny and interesting and made me think a lot.  Whenever I watch Karl, I think about his way of living.  He doesn’t think the way other people do, I suspect because he hasn’t had a lot of education.  At a certain point in school, everyone starts to think in the same way. Call it scientific method, or brainwashing, or logic, or whatever, but all of the educated persons on earth will use the same process to evaluate the world–even if they get vastly different ideas from that process, it is the same process.  Karl has a more intuitive grasp on the world, which means occasionally he says the dumbest things you’ve ever heard.  It also means occasionally he says something that will make you stop and re-evaluate the universe.  He honestly sounds like Confucius sometimes, blurting out things that might be riddles, or nonsense, or great truth.  I love listening to him talk because he doesn’t say what anyone else would say.  I will probably watch anything with him in, just to hear the things he says.