Tag Archives: TV

Surfing the Channels: Stephen Fry in America

This TV documentary recently became available on Netflix Instant, which is awesome because I missed it when it was on BBC America.  Stephen Fry, who has long since owned my heart because of his work on …everything?  To name a few of my favorite of his projects: The British Harry Potter audiobooks, Little Big Planet video games, QI, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Blackadder, and A Bit of Fry and Laurie. Check out his nonsensically large resume, filmography, etc. at his IMDB page and Wiki page. He is absolutely wonderful.

So, here I am, an American, talking about a British show where a British man comes to see and talk about America.  It’s rather hard to get hold of the concept.  Fry manages to see 50 states in a London cab.  Ok, 48 states in a London cab, then Alaska and Hawaii without it.  He has officially seen more states than me.  But, he’s got a few decades on me, so maybe I’ll get there eventually.

It’s interesting to hear an outsider’s opinion of America.  We can learn something about both America and England by hearing the differences he sees between the two.  Fry reckons that we are far less cynical, and much more comfortable engaging in activities that might be seen as ridiculous by the Brits (meditation, pretend spy games, group song and dance). He mostly seems to admire these qualities, but is quite obviously also unable to embrace them himself.  Natural British reserve, I suppose.

I found the series quite interesting, and I even learned a few things I didn’t now.  It’s always good to be able to appreciate as exotic something that seems quite normal and uninteresting to you.  And only foreigners seem brave enough to wander through the deep South without fear.  I know I couldn’t manage a solo road trip through Alabama or Mississippi.  Of course, he wasn’t really solo, as he had a camera crew with him.  But I’ve seen My Cousin Vinny too many times to think a road trip through that bit of the country could ever end well.

Fry seems to find the accents of the south and deep south charming. I read an article once that said Americans find the Welsh and Yorkshire accents of the UK particularly lyrical and charming.  In Britain, though, these accents are considered sort of trashy and/or uneducated. But I imagine that comes from their cultural precedent, where we are ignorant of it.  Just as they are, at least to some degree, ignorant of the cultural associations that we have with Southerners.  It’s interesting to think about that stuff, because it exposes the amount of subtle prejudices we don’t even realize we have.

My only complaint about this documentary is that in his effort to be polite, Fry doesn’t manage to tell a lot of the truth. His only real negative thoughts seem to be about his own reaction to what he encounters.  Editing is used to create a better impression of the people he meets than I think the truth would show.  It just seemed too polite to be genuine.

Channel Surfing: Luther Seasons 1 & 2

In some ways, this series is yet another of those detective stories that are all born of Sherlock Holmes.  John Luther is absolutely brilliant, morally questionable, and operates independently of superiors, friends, etc.  The thing about Luther that makes him compelling is his tightrope act between the good and the bad.  He is one of those ‘ends justifies the means’ sort of men, on whose bad side you would never want to be.  He’s also someone you would want with you if you ever got into some serious crap. It’s clear he wants to be a good man, but perhaps he finds the impediments and shortcomings of modern life and of rules prohibitive.

I watched season one a year or two ago on BBC America, and was recently given season two on DVD. Season one revolves mostly around Luther’s wife Zoe, and his new friendship with Alice Morgan, a brilliant sociopath.  To be perfectly honest, there are lots of cliches.  Separated from wife, check. Attracted to evil but brilliant woman, check. Breaks the rules, yelled at by superiors, check, check.  But, it really doesn’t matter.  Much of what carries this drama beyond cliche and into the realm of compelling is Idris Elba’s (Thor, the Wire) performance as John Luther.  He makes the character real and scary and heartbreaking.

Season two is disappointingly short–only 4 1-hour episodes–and doesn’t have quite the punch of the first season.  That’s usually the case with this type of show, in my opinion.  The writers, etc. use up so much of their wonderful material in the first season. The second ends up seeming almost immaterial. On the other hand, the villains of the second season are almost more terrifying to me. Both of the main criminals/killers of the second season are nondescript white men in their twenties acting out against what they see wrong with the world.  Obviously this is a common sentiment. Anyone that doubts this should think about how many books and movies have come out lately about the apocalypse.  It is as if all of us are realizing at the same time that something has gone horribly wrong and we are all headed in the wrong direction.  These men are not geniuses like Alice Morgan.  They are simply out to cause as much destruction as possible, as much fear as they can.  In my opinion, that is far more scary.  Add to that my supreme distaste at realizing that one of them is played by Stan Shunpike.  I will never be able to watch Prisoner of Azkaban the same way again!

I really enjoyed the actual police work in the second season, but didn’t care for the side plots.  Aunt Marge makes an appearance as some sort of evil porn mogul, and Luther ends up taking in and protecting a young girl to keep her from doing some truly sick stuff on video. This whole subplot seemed pointless to me, and with only four episodes the writers barely had time to set up the situation before they knocked it down.  It was a contrived way to get Luther to break the rules, to do things he shouldn’t, to live up to the perception of him as a morally questionable character.  Now, I do understand that after season one, there was nothing left for him to lose, and that meant he could not be influenced by others without someone vulnerable being under his protection.  Still, I dislike the way they did it.

I will say, this is a great series.  What I find that sticks with me, though, is not anything good.  The sparse and gritty styling, combined with the absolutely realistic violence, is truly terrifying.  This isn’t gore for the sake of fear, like a Saw movie.  This is violence as it is in the real world.  Surreal in its mundane nature and its unbelievable consequences.  It is chilling.