Tag Archives: BBC

Ripper Street – Season 2

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The second season/series of Ripper Street began on BBC America in February, and finished last month. I have my ups and downs with this show, and can’t ever decide how I feel about it. But I never really love it, and the second season was more of the same. It’s the sort of show you watch, but it doesn’t really hold your interest, and when you’re done you can’t really remember what it was about.

The second season had Inspector Reid (Matthew Macfadyen) again leading a Whitechapel detective squad with his right-hand man, Sergeant Drake, and his American scientist, Homer Jackson. But it’s the private lives of all three that bring about most of the problems across the season arc. Reid begins to see a new woman, June Cobden, after his marriage had fallen apart.

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I like her more than I like him, to be honest, and I’m comforted to see she’s based on a real person. She’s a feminist, a leader, a politician, and very interested in reforms that can help poor families. As a bleeding-heart liberal woman, I am 100% happy about her. But I still don’t really like Reid. He hides behind the guise of a good, moral man. Perhaps he is as moral as a man can be in that position in that age. But you cannot be a good, moral man, who employs a personal ‘enforcer’. I was most pleased with this season because the show finally addresses this fact. Drake has a certain moral superiority over Reid, because though he is doing the ‘enforcing’, Reid is the one pulling the puppet strings. I get really irritated with shows (like Copper, and somewhat Ripper Street) that imply that you can be a good guy, and still shoot/beat/intimidate people in order to get your own way, and that that behavior is somehow allowed because you are in search of justice.  Nope. The ends do not justify the means.

In the previous season, Drake wanted to marry Rose, one of Susan’s girls. She rebuffed him, determined to be an actress/singer. He marries a different one of Susan’s girls. This tells me that more than he wanted Rose, he just didn’t want to be alone. Forgivable. But the one he does marry, Bella, turns out to have a lot of baggage. She used to be part of some sort of violent, incestuous, proto-cult. She drags Susan into the matter and things go from bad to worse there. Drake loses his wife, and probably most of his mind. He leaves the station and deals with his grief by putting his body through physical pain—he works menial jobs (gravedigging, etc.) during the day, and at night he is a ‘boxer’. I hesitate to even call it boxing, because he has his hands tied behind his back and people make bets about how many punches he can take before he passes out. I would liken his behavior to a 19th-century form of self-harm. Easier to deal with physical pain than the emotional.

But this foray away from the precinct puts Reid in a very awkward spot. He has always been able to keep his hands clean of the riff raff. He would nod at Drake, and Drake would punch witnesses until they talked. Without Drake around, Reid is forced to come up with alternative tactics, or forced to do the punching himself. That made me feel better, but by the end of the season this dynamic reverts to where it was, without much change on either side.

The other big character shift was the relationship between Jackson and Susan. He loses her trust and her love, and things go from bad to worse between them. Men are so stupid sometimes, and Jackson is definitely one of them. Susan is forced to go through a lot of horrible things to keep afloat after Jackson’s stupid decisions.

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The other constant on Ripper Street is the highly unlikely plot points, usually relating to new technology emerging at that point. The first season had the invention of video—in order to make snuff porn. This season, in addition to featuring proto-cults, there were opiates, people smuggling diamonds in their anuses, electricity scheisters that did something very disturbing to a farm animal in order to prove the safety of their form of current (sadly, this is based on a very real and very horrifying truth), telegraph messenger boys as a front for gay pedophiles, police corruption, a garroted man, Joseph Merrick (the elephant man), and several scenes with pig carcasses that I had to watch between my fingers because yuck.

The problem I really have with Ripper Street is the lack of depth. They put a lot of effort into salacious plots and nefarious villains, but the character development is sometimes lacking. Reid has almost no internal emotions portrayed, and people are too often separated into the wholly good or wholly bad. There are exceptions. The women are believable, and have the most depth. Drake is probably the only man that I think has a level of substance that makes him relatable. Despite Reid’s use of him as a bulldog and nothing more, Drake has an understanding of the world and of himself, and also a fear of those same two things, that make him the most interesting man on the show.

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BBC cancelled Ripper Street after season two. But the fans of this show pulled together and sent emails, signed petitions, etc. to get it renewed. And it worked! Sort of. Amazon is going to make the third season. It will air on BBC and BBC America, after being streamed online. Even though I’m not a huge fan of the show, that makes me feel good. I wish things like email campaigns or kickstarters had existed when I was younger. That being said, I’m not sure I’m going to watch season 3. Despite my love of all things Victorian, I just can’t get into this show. This is a show that often eschews emotional substance in favor of flashy scandalousness. I would prefer a show that did the opposite.

 

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Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Extravaganza

Doctor-Who-50thThere’s something really lovely about being involved in a fandom, a special sect of people that understand why a TV show/movie/book is incredibly important and amazing.  There’s something even more wonderful when that fandom is recognized and appreciated by the wider public.

Though Doctor Who has been mainstream in the UK for many years (decades, really), it’s only grown to great prominence in American culture since the newest iteration started with Christopher Eccleston in 2005.  It’s still a bit of an outsider’s club on this side of the Atlantic, but that makes it a little bit more fun, if I’m honest.  But even in the US, the knowledge that the 50th anniversary special was happening this week was everywhere.  Theaters held special simulcasts of the episode, pubs had special nights for Whovians. I’ve heard rumors that a Mini Cooper painted like a TARDIS was spotted nearby.  We got our Google Doodle, though ours came one day later than the google.co.uk version. Is there any greater measure of cultural importance and legitimacy than a Google Doodle?  I think not.

BBC America started their Doctor Who marathon early in the week, and new content was there when I started my weekend.  Though I didn’t learn much from Doctor Who Explained, I really loved An Adventure in Space and Time. This was a made-for-TV movie about the origins of the show, and about the first doctor, William Hartnell.

4482503-high_res-adventures-in-space-and-timeI’ve actually never seen any of the pre-2005 episodes of Doctor Who, so I learned a lot from this movie about the beginnings of the show.  David Bradley (Harry Potter, Broadchurch, Game of Thrones) plays William Hartnell, and I think he did a superb job.  I also think the whole movie made me very sad.  When I compare William Hartnell’s love of the character and devotion to the show, with Christopher Eccleston’s attitude toward it…I’m forced to think very badly of the latter.

The movie also starred Sacha Dhawan (Outsourced, the History Boys) as the first director of the show, and Jessica Raine (Call the Midwife, Doctor Who) as Verity Lambert, my new personal hero.  She had a wardrobe of the most amazing ’60s clothes I’ve seen ever. Way better than on Mad Men. More importantly, she was a kickass feminist, dealing with a bunch of stodgy old men in sweaty tweed suits (the Old Guard).  She fought for Doctor Who, not just because it was her first producer job, but because she grew to love the subject matter and what it could be used to communicate. She forced the BBC staff (from executives, to set designers, to technical staff) to take the show seriously; we owe her a huge thanks.

Jessica-RaineThe movie itself was well-acted and had incredible sets.  A good portion of it took place at the iconic elliptical BBC building:

BBC-Television-Centre-007Probably didn’t take a lot of work to make it look like the 1960s again inside here, though they must have cleaned up since James May & co. drove a motorcycle through the interior.

After the movie, we had the Saturday simulcast to watch.  The 50th Anniversary special, complete with Doctors 10 and 11 (together at last), and John Hurt (Harry Potter, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), all playing different iterations of the Doctor:

Doctor-Who-2458109Seeing David Tennant in his brown suit and Converse sneakers again made me literally giddy.  I miss his Doctor so much.  And we got to see Clara, and Rose (but not really), and all of the living actors who’ve played the doctor (sort of…damn you Chris Eccleston).

I thought the special was actually really excellent.  As long as I never think too much about the timey wimey stuff, I will continue to think that.  I have the feeling that the ‘time fissures’ and the Time Lord art won’t stand up to much rational scrutiny, so I will dutifully avoid any such scrutiny. I loved seeing Matt Smith and Clara, I adored seeing David Tennant again, and I thought John Hurt was fabulous.

It also felt really appropriate that we finally get to see the moment of the Doctor’s life that has really defined the show since the 2005 reboot.  The Time War. The moment the Doctor had to decide to kill his own species, in order to save the rest of the universe.

We also got to see the much-talked-about relationship between Ten and Elizabeth I.  Starring Joanna Page (Stacey of Gavin and Stacey) as Elizabeth I.  I thought she was great, although I don’t really think Elizabeth would have had a Welsh accent.

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I think my only real complaint is that, despite having Billie Piper and David Tennant together again, they don’t get to interact as Rose and the Doctor.  And I was hoping for more of Peter Capaldi as 12 (or he’s really 13?) , more than just a shot of his furrowed eyebrows. I suppose their keeping his costume and his persona under wraps until the actual regeneration happens.

Sometimes, when Doctor Who tries to do something big and important, it can be a bit of a belly flop.  I usually end up enjoying the little, one-off episodes more than the big important two-part season enders.  But this, despite hype and importance, was really fun and lovely and I was just grateful to see David Tennant again.  I think if he’d turned up with the suit and the shoes and the glasses, and read the phone book, I’d be just as thrilled.

I’m ready for the Christmas Special! To which, we now have a short teaser trailer:

Summer British TV

Summer and Winter seem to be when the best of the British channels finally hits our shores. This summer is no exception. Just because Doctor Who is over, and Downton Abbey is months away, don’t despair! There are a lot of premieres in Summer and early fall. Starting in chronological order:

Family Trees

Family TreeChris O’Dowd’s new show on HBO started last month, and I have really enjoyed it so far! It’ll be running every Sunday through early July. Chris plays Tom, a somewhat depressed, slightly pathetic man living in London. His great-aunt dies and leaves him a trunk of family paraphernalia. He gets interested in his history, and goes about tracing his family lineage by finding out more about the objects in the trunk. It’s a very British show, so far, but later Tom does take a trip to the states to find out more about one branch of his family. It’s a hilarious show, very self-effacing and extremely odd. Tom’s sister, uses a monkey puppet to voice all her strangest and most offensive thoughts. She has conversations with this monkey all the time; she goes everywhere with the monkey. Tom also has a best friend, Pete, who is dumb as a post, and his dad is played by the always hilarious Michael McKean (of Clue and Spinal Tap fame). The show relies on awkward and embarrassing moments to make you laugh, which is a theme with British TV I think. Probably because awkward situations are the biggest fear of most English people.

Here’s a trailer (though I must warn you that it plays up the American part of the show far more than has happened in each episode yet):

In the Flesh

In the FleshThis is a miniseries that started June 6th. I’m not a zombie person, okay? I’ve read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, but that’s about it. Okay, I’ve seen Zombieland. And 28 Days Later. And Shaun of the Dead…okay I’ve consumed more zombie books/movies than I thought. Still, it’s not a concept I’m particularly attracted to. On the other hand, this is only a 3-part miniseries, so I might as well give it a try. It aired in the UK and March, to generally positive reviews. These zombies are presented as a socially-marginalized minority, have been diagnosed with PDS (Partially Deceased Syndrome), and have been rehabilitated with medication and cosmetics. It sounds vaguely like True Blood‘s approach to vampires. At least In the Flesh won’t be just another scary movie a la Dawn of the Dead. I’m willing to give it a try. My only qualm is that I’m not very good with gore. Even in comedy films like Shaun of the Dead, I’m horrified by the sights and sounds associated with…zombies eating human flesh. Particularly while said human is alive. But it’s on BBC America, so it can’t be too bad. Here’s the trailer:

On June 23rd, the second season of Copper premieres.

Copper trioI was on the fence about this show throughout the first season. The three characters I liked (conveniently pictured above) are all coming back, so I’m going to give it a try (new motto for me?). This show always seems to be on the edge, teetering on the precipice of me not wanting to watch it anymore. I dislike the violence and blatant corruption, but I like the fact that it is set in the 19th century, and I think it always has potential to be a really great show. I’m hoping this year, now that it is a bit more established, it will reach that potential. Here is the trailer:

Also, on June 30th, the twentieth season of Top Gear premieres in the UK. No word yet on BBC America’s air dates, but last season they were only about a week behind, so hopefully more info will be forthcoming.

In early July, PBS will begin airing Endeavour, a prequel to the long-running Inspector Morse detective series. I’ve only seen one or two episodes of Inspector Morse, so this wasn’t on the top of my Must-See list. But, I had second thoughts when I saw who they cast as Morse:

EndeavourAdd to the obvious appeal of…whoever this guy is…it’s still set in Oxford. Oxford is so picturesque, and so quintessentially English (it’s what we think of in America when we think of an English village) that I could watch just about anything that takes place there. Plus, I have a certain weakness for incredibly smart, rail-thin detectives, even when they are not played by Benedict Cumberbatch. It’s only 4 or 5 episodes, so I’m going to go ahead and watch. I hope not much will be lost on me for not having followed the original series closely. Trailer is here:

The same night Endeavour premieres, the biggest thing since sliced bread is set to hit BBC America.

BroadchurchDavid Tennant stars in Broadchurch and uses his Scottish accent, which is my favorite thing in the world. This show was a huge hit in the UK this Spring, and I’ve been waiting anxiously for it since. A second series has already been announced.

It’s a whodunnit murder mystery set on the Dorset coast. In addition to Tennant, Olivia Colman co-starred and co-produced the show, and Arthur Darvill (Rory!) also co-stars. This is at the top of my Must-See List, FYI. Trailer:

Since I will be thoroughly busy watching all of these shows, I’m glad there is a bit of a break before more begin. The next one starts August 18th. It’s called The Lady Vanishes.

The Lady VanishesPBS is airing this remake of a Hitchcock thriller about a woman who goes missing, and another who tries to alert authorities about the incidence, but is not taken seriously. Listen, I tend to think any remake of a Hitchcock film is just a terrible idea. Are they going to improve on his direction? No. Is the addition of color going to add more suspense and creepiness? No. Are there modern actresses/actors who could play these roles better than the likes of Grace Kelly and Jimmy Stewart? Hell no. But, this actually got pretty good reviews, so I’m going to watch and keep an open mind. I’ve never seen the original, so that should help. Trailer:

At the end of August, PBS is also airing Silk, a legal drama. Prepare your powdered wigs, we’re off to the Old Bailey!

SilkI don’t have a lot of info on this one, partially because the title is very hard to Google well. Apparently it deals with two rival barristers. PBS is airing it in 3 two-hour increments from August 25th-September 8th. Bonus-it features Rupert Penry-Jones, of Whitechapel. Less of a bonus–his character looks like a d-bag, judging by the trailer:

Next, starting September 3rd, the all important Idris Elba returns to my life on BBC America.

luther series 3You gorgeous man, you.

There’s not a proper trailer for this one yet (that I could find), but they made an ‘announcement trailer’

Judging by this video, I’m guessing the episodes for the new season will disturb me just as much (if not more) than the last two seasons. Don’t care. Idris Elba calls, and I must answer.

Last, but not least:

The ParadisePBS is airing this one on October 6th, and calling it The Paradise. It’s an adaptation of an Emile Zola novel, and was sort of squared off against Mr. Selfridge when it aired in the UK, because of the similar subject matter. The show revolves around the first department store in NE England. It looks a little more soapy to me, based on the trailer. But I plan to watch and compare. Bonus–Arthur Darvill is also in this one (briefly).

Beyond here, there be trailers:

I’m going to be a busy blogger over the next 3 or 4 months. Yay!

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.

TV Review: Call the Midwife

Call the Midwife DVD cover

Let me preface this by saying that I don’t like babies, and wouldn’t normally be drawn to this show.  The only thing I might like less than babies is the process by which they come into the world.  So…take those things, remove the last 70 years of medical technology and improvements in standard of living, and you have Call the Midwife. Oh, and add some nuns (one of my big fears in life).  Not my favorite show.

The show is based on the memoirs of a midwife who worked in the East End of London in the 1950s.  It was an absolute ratings smash in the UK when the first season aired, and they’ve already started airing series 2 in the UK.  PBS picked up the rights to series 1 and the Christmas special, and aired them during the fall and early winter. The second season will start on PBS in March. A third season is already planned.

The show primarily follows Nurse Jenny Lee, who has just come to the East End to start her career as a midwife.  She is shocked (as was I) at the horrid living conditions in the slums.  Jenny is pretty much perfect, her only vice being that she once had an affair with a married man. She is boooring.  In addition to the lovely actress playing her, Jessica Raine, we get these voice-over bits from older Jenny, voiced by Vanessa Redgrave.  These drove me crazy.  It was always ridiculously vague stuff like “I learned what true love was that day…” or something equally inane.  I especially hated these voice-overs.

The highlight of the entire series is the character of Chummy, a distinctly upper-crust lady who (despite her upbringing) shows strength and courage in confronting new challenges and terrible living conditions.  She is also hilarious. Miranda Hart does a great job playing the character both for laughs and as a very real person.  Despite looking something like a linebacker compared to the svelte Nurse Lee (on the right), Chummy (on the left) has an adorable romance with a local constable.

Chmmy and Jenny

The other girls look lovely in their period costumes, but the show makes no effort to distinguish them as having lives of their own. I can’t even remember their names.

Then there are the nuns.  Pam Ferris (aka Aunt Marge) makes an appearance as the crabby Sister Evangelina, and Judy Parfitt (she played the terrifying Mrs. Clennam in BBC’s Little Dorrit) is the slightly mental/eccentric Sister Monica Joan. Again, the rest are a blur.

I had a few problems with this show:

1-Almost every episode contains not-so-subtle plugs for the NHS. The Christmas special, for example, shows the nurses/nuns taking a local homeless woman and getting her cleaned up and examined at the doctor, the dentist, and the eye doctor. She complains that she doesn’t have the money and they have to explain that it won’t cost anything.  The NHS was a new thing then, and it undoubtedly made a massive difference to the lives of the poor and destitute in London.  I’m not against the NHS, in any way. As someone who spent most of the last ten years without health insurance, and still debates whether going to the doctor is worth the copay, I get the value of the NHS.  But I don’t need it shoved down my throat.  And I don’t think anyone who is against the NHS (very few Brits, if compared to the people against public medicine in the US) is unaware that it helps people.  The propaganda was just really tiring after a while.

2-It was dull.  It was ass-numbingly dull, to borrow a phrase. Even though each episode had highlights like birth and/or the tragedy of death, they all ended with the same sort of all-works-out-in-the-end tone that negated any truly emotional response to the events. People want to feel the hurt sometimes.  Occasionally, you just need to devastate your audience–really knock them on their asses–and then mike-drop until next week.  For examples, see anything Joss Whedon has ever done.

Add that it was all seen through the eyes of unconnected parties (the nurses and nuns).  Witnessing someone else’s joy or tragedy can be an immensely difficult thing, but the writers failed to bring any of that emotion across.  Add the voice-overs from the modern era and we’re too disconnected from the action. I was bored.  Chummy was the only character I wanted to see and be with, week after week.

3-It was a bit unrealistic.  I think this is related to the tone.  It all ended up for the best, even when people died it was with sweet music or a sense of purpose.  It’s painted with too sweet a brush, with the severely-hued glasses of nostalgia.

I return to the Christmas special.  The homeless woman was forced to enter the workhouse (a heinous Victorian invention akin to a debtor’s prison. You worked for most of your life, only in exchange for food and rent; you gave up any claim to property or family.  Children were separated from parents, wives from husbands.  It was glorified slavery, all done with some sort of nod to a Christian charity ideal. A truly awful place.  For more info, see the works of Dickens).  Her 5 or 6 children all died in the workhouse, but she never got to see them or mourn them.  Nurse Lee and the nuns clean her up, get her to the doctor, and then take her to her children’s graves.  It’s a nice gesture, and she certainly looks better.  And despite having a tragic and terrible life with enough horrible events to send anyone around the bend, she’s magically salient and coherent and capable again? She’s cured by their help?  As if a bath and a new sweater can change what happened to her?

For anyone who has experienced life, we know that that is utter bullshit.

I frankly cannot understand why this show was such a big hit.  I imagine it has a lot to do with nostalgia.  Older people like to remember a time when things were simpler and think it was all roses and sunshine. Parents like to remember when their children were born. Maybe it’s easy to look back and think things were better when we were younger.  They weren’t.  We were just more naive.

The L.A. Times called it “unapologetically sentimental”, and I can’t help but agree.  Except for me that is not a compliment.

Add to my genuine dislike of the show itself, it features a lot of truly nauseating footage of deliveries that seem WAY too realistic.  I am a woman, but I want nothing to do with seeing this stuff.  There are a lot of reasons I don’t want kids, and this show gave me a few extra reasons.  One example that was particularly horrifying was when a baby is born breech and the mom-to-be has to stop pushing and let the baby hang out of her vagina for about a minute, with its head still inside.  WHAT?  No. No. No.

Judging by reviews and ratings, I’m in the minority in not liking this show.  But, I’m in the minority for not liking babies.  Coincidence?

Regardless, I won’t be tuning in for the next season.

 

Upcoming British TV

You may have noticed, if you’re one of the 3 people who regularly read this blog, that content about British TV has been lacking lately.  That’s natural, given that it is summer and there isn’t much of anything new on.  But fall is approaching fast and there are a lot of good shows coming back, and a lot of new shows that look awesome.  So here’s a primer on what to expect over the coming months on TV.

Doctor Who premiered last Saturday, and another episode was just on last night.  I have grown to really love 11, though I still prefer 10 and probably always will consider him the best Doctor ever.  If you have no idea what I’m talking about, skip this bit as you are not a Whovian and won’t particularly care.

I have to say that these last two episodes have seemed rather lackluster to me.  There were some plot holes in the Asylum of the Daleks, and I saw the twist coming fairly early on.  Dinosaurs on a Spaceship was a bit better, and I love Mr. Weasley as Rory’s dad.  Something just seems off with both episodes so far, and I can’t tell if it’s the show or it’s me.  I suspect, however, that it is not me.  They’ve jumped right in as though there’s been no gap, and I could have done with a bit of a slow submersion.  I do love Karen Gillan, though, and she has been awesome as always.  I think it’s the writing or the direction to blame, but I”m having trouble putting my finger on why or how.  It’s almost like the episodes start too quickly and keep going too quickly for you to be emotionally invested.  And then they’re over, and you still aren’t particularly invested.  It’s missing some of the emotional scenes that you find in other episodes, and so far there hasn’t been anything particularly scary.  A bunch of rusty old Daleks and Filch? After the weeping angels, it takes a lot to scare me anymore, but they’re not even trying!

So why is this on my list of what to look forward to this fall? Because it’s Doctor Who! I will continue to watch it, and hopefully it will get better.

Downton Abbey

There are two trailers out right now for the third season. This one:


And this one (which I prefer):


Maggie Smith is divine.  And Shirley MacLaine as the American grandmother? Wonderful. I cannot wait to see those two in action together.

Okay so here is the big problem with Downton Abbey, and I cannot believe that in the 21st century it has come down to this.  On ITV in the UK, it premieres this month. Next week, I believe.  When will it be on PBS? January.

January?! This is ridiculous.  Why cant the studios just get together and decide to air it at the same time? Or shortly after?  As far as I know, there is no legal way for Americans to get their hands on the show before it airs on PBS or comes out on DVD (which might happen first, to be honest).  I would honestly pay to watch it, but I don’t think there is a way to do so.  Whose idea was that? I realize that ITV can’t broadcast here, and they are a British only channel, but this is ridiculous.  I suppose now I know how it feels for Brits who want to watch the latest episodes of our shows. But honestly, there should be a way to get it through iTunes or something. I am honestly not going to wait until January. I refuse.

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And a similar thing is happening with Parade’s End.

This was actually a joint venture between BBC and HBO, which means they have equal rights to air it (in my non-expert legal opinion).  This aired during August in the UK (I only know about it because I caught the last 20 minutes of one of the episodes while I was in London).  HBO hasn’t even announced an air date for the US.  BLARGH. Why do they do this to me?

In case you haven’t heard of it either, let me describe.  This was originally four novels by Ford Maddox Ford, and has been adapted into this mini-series, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Rebecca Hall.  The plot revolves around a wealthy couple, and it is set in the early 20th century, so there are naturally comparisons with Downton Abbey. The husband is sent off to fight in the trenches in WWI.  There’s a love triangle somewhere in there. I didn’t want to read much else because I don’t want to spoil the fun of actually watching it.  If that ever happens.

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So, will anything actually be on soon for us unlucky Americans?  Yes! Thank god.

   Judging by the press photos, this one is about women who ride around on bikes in matching outfits.  Okay, actually, it’s titled Call the Midwife and I am quite excited about it, despite being horrified by the idea of childbirth and by the presence of nuns.

The show centers around a group of midwives in 1950s Britain, and it was a huge hit there. Smashed all sorts of ratings records.  It even beat Downton Abbey in the ratings. So, I’m definitely going to give it a try.  It airs on PBS, starting September 30th.

Richard Hammond’s Crash Course is also returning this fall (October 15th).  It appears they have abandoned the need to associate him with vehicles, and the show has devolved into him simply encountering as many ridiculous and possibly embarrassing Americans as possible.  There is, thought, a really cute trailer.

Another one coming down the pipeline this fall:

Spies of Warsaw

This is another period piece, a WWII-era drama set in Poland (obviously). It stars David Tennant, and that’s about all I had to know before I decided to watch it.  No firm release date yet, that I can find. I believe it comes on when The Hour and other Dramaville programming returns, which would be November, I think.

So it’s set to be another year of British cultural imports.  I do want to add, however, that as much as I joke about being forced to wait for a long time to watch British shows, I am just joking. Of course I hate the waiting, and I don’t see a need for it when we’re perfectly capable of downloading everything anyway.  But as I learned on my trip to London last month, the TV in England is really terrible.  What? What am I saying?! This is a blog about British TV, among other things, so how could I be committing such blasphemy?  I never had a TV when I lived in London, so I had little experience with it.  At my hotel, though, we did have a TV. I didn’t sit down to watch it at any point, but before bed or in the morning I would switch it on, and I was shocked by what I found.  There are only 10-20 channels, and some of them are only available at certain times of the day.  They play a lot of American programming, from old episodes of sitcoms (Frasier of all things) to really terrible American movies that wouldn’t even be shown here (Bowfinger…really?).  Then there seems to be some sort of 24-hour Big Brother channel.  Mix that in with Coronation Street and East Enders, which seem to be less slick and less attractive versions of our soaps, and that’s about all of your choices. Of course, there’s always BBC news, right?  They do news incredibly well there. But, you soon realize that it runs on a 10- or 15-minute loop, especially in the morning.  It’s not fun. If I lived there, I don’t think I’d bother having a TV at all.  So when I complain about having to wait for these mini-series, I do not mean to imply that I would rather switch places with them. They have to wait a long time for our shows as well, and well, we just have a lot more options here. Plus, no TV tax here, always a bonus. So, take the complaining with a grain of salt, and everyone let’s try to be patient, and pretend we aren’t illegally downloading these things. We certainly wouldn’t do that.

The Classics: Pride and Prejudice

Every once in a while, when I am out of money and don’t have any new books to read, I’m going to post about my favorite tidbits of British culture. This is one of those days, and I’m going to do a two-fer today, because I can’t talk about the brilliant Jane Austen work without also talking about the sublime Colin Firth.  I may also talk about why the Keira Knightley version is such crap.

For those who haven’t read it, and don’t get what the fuss is all about, let me explain briefly.

Regarding the book: Jane Austen, admittedly, doesn’t tackle huge world problems, though massive changes were going on during her time and other works of the period (notably Charles Dickens, who came a bit later) show a much dirtier and more decrepit picture of British society. What Jane Austen does tackle is the issues of an average privileged young woman in early 19th century Britain. Though she is not tackling the plight of the young and poor, Austen is incredibly good at what she focuses on. Her writing is sharp, engaging, enchanting, and lively. This story in particular has created a pair of characters so enduring and endearing, that they have been reworked into countless sequels, mashups, and redesigns. There are the sequels, showing a married Darcy and Lizzy, the ones with vampires, and quite a few with zombies, and most recently, a murder mystery. Plus, there are tons of movie and tv adaptations, which include faithful adaptations like the Colin Firth miniseries, but also branch out into the strange and absurd. There was Bride and Prejudice, a Bollywood take on the story, P&P: A Latter Day Comedy, with a Mormon spin, and Lost in Austen, which took a modern day reader and planted her in the middle of the 19th century action. Plus all the movie versions of all the zombie and alien and vampire books. Obviously, also stories loosely based on P&P, like Bridget Jones’ Diary. The point is, only a truly universal concept, like marriage (and your parents embarrassing you in front of a guy) could create so much fodder for so many different interpretations.

Regarding the Colin Firth miniseries: Why is it the best ever?  Well, I’ll preface this by saying I haven’t seen all of the adaptations, specifically the older ones. But I have seen a lot, almost everything in the last twenty years that is related to P&P, I have seen. And this is the most faithful to the book, and when it diverts from the book (lake scene!) it does so for a reason. And Colin Firth is the perfect Mr. Darcy because he can be haughty and rude, but you can at the same time believe he is a good person. He is sexy, but never because he is trying to be, and you truly believe his respect and love is something truly worth earning. Jennifer Ehle is also charming, intelligent, clever without being sarcastic or tiresome, and capable of conveying a million emotions with one glance.

So, why do I love P&P so much? I think that there are a lot of novels with more breadth, meaning they try to capture every type of life at any given time in history (Middlemarch is a good example). But those novels aren’t necessarily better. I think Austen should be praised for maintaining a tight focus on this particular set of people. P&P captures so much about love and about family, and she has created two spectacular characters. Rather than trying to include every walk of life, she takes a specific group of people and represents universal issues, eternal problems. That is the key to longevity in your work.Where works like Jane Eyre (still wonderful, don’t get me wrong) can seem somewhat outdated now, with the discussions about being God-fearing, and all the missionary work that would probably have done more harm than good to some sort of ‘savage’ population in a far off land. Austen never seems outdated, even though the society is of course entirely different. And, Darcy is pretty dreamy, let’s be honest.

It’s also quite funny, something rarely to be found with the Bronte sisters. Lydia is ridiculous, Mr. Collins a fool, and Mr and Mrs. Bennet play off one another like a comedy duo.  A very abstract comedy duo, perhaps, but it is still funny once you are sort of familiar with the time period and the social norms.

That’s why I think the mini-series is so important. There were aspects about the novel that I don’t think I understood the first time, because concepts foreign to me were taken for granted in that time period. The mini-series does a fantastic job of making those things clear, without having to explicitly explain them.  Any high-schooler who blunders through their first Shakespeare play can empathize with that feeling of comprehension when you watch the movie. Pride & Prejudice can be that way sometimes, because it was written about 200 years ago, and not everything is easily understood.

So the two work as a pair, in my opinion. As soon as I read the book, I went out and got the mini-series that day. They are companion pieces that create one great experience.

Which brings me, unfortunately, to the dreadful truth of that damn Keira Knightley version. First, just to get it off my chest, I need to list the many many anachronisms that make me absolutely insane because they present a very different picture of the story than is told in the books:

–Lizzy would not have had bangs/fringe!!!! This is not important, but it drives me nuts. She also wouldn’t have worn her hair down–women over the age of maybe 13 always wore their hair up. If they were married, they always had their hair covered.  To someone without that knowledge, perhaps it makes no difference, but to someone who knows a little about Regency-era England, it makes Lizzy seem either completely inappropriate and ill-bred, or childish.

–Mr. Bennet’s estate is not a mud-infested farmhouse with pigs wandering around inside. He was a wealthy landowner with a large house and lots of land. It is only because he hasn’t had a son to inherit his property that the girls are considered ‘poor’ in terms of what they can bring to a marriage.  For more info on this, watch season 1 of Downton Abbey.  Similarly, though Mr. Bennet is set in his ways and not invested in the society he inhabits, he is not a hoarder, lazy, or some sort of proto-hippie. This makes a big difference in the way the film comes across; this 2005 version makes it seem as if the entire family is dirt-poor, ill-educated, and borderline disgusting and Darcy has every reason to see them as inferior.

–Lizzy is not a tomboy, a radical feminist, or socially graceless. I’m not sure whether I am more irritated at the writers, directors, or Knightley for portraying her that way.  Lizzy is smart, funny, lively, pleasant. She can be cynical, she can be headstrong, she can be rude when left with no other alternative. But she is not full of impropriety, she still respects social norms in a way her youngest sisters do not.  She is just not…that creature that Keira Knightley inhabited. I found another blog that did a review of the movie, and I’m stealing her quote: “Elizabeth in this movie is not Elizabeth. She is Lydia in disguise.”

–Mr. Bingley would never ever come into Jane’s bedroom to see how she is doing when ill.  It is sweet to think that sort of thing happened, but it didn’t. It would have been really improper in every way for anyone to see her in her bedclothes. Consider how Mary reacts when Mr. Pamuk appears in her bedroom.  This was 100 years later!

Having that scene in there, along with all the scenes where two non-related opposite sex characters are thrown into situations on their own and unsupervised, makes me think that the writers had no idea about social mores of the time.  Obviously the costume and hair people didn’t, but the writers should have at least! This scene, and the normalcy with which it is played,  lessens the severity of Lydia’s crime in running off with Wickham without being married.

Ok, now are all these things that important? (YES!) No, perhaps not. If you don’t know anything about Regency norms and mores, and you don’t know anything about the book, then I’m sure it’s a fine movie about a headstrong girl and a guy who learns to love her. But it’s not Pride & Prejudice. It’s something more akin to Pretty Woman. Poor young woman of ill-repute saved by the rich prince charming type. It’s just not the same book that they’re working from to make that movie. So I don’t like to consider it an adaptation.

In summary, Pride & Prejudice is amazing and wonderful, and if you haven’t read it you should, and if you haven’t seen the Colin Firth miniseries, you should. And if you think that the Keira Knightley version is tolerable, please tell me why so I can begin to comprehend why it’s so damn popular.