Godless (US, 2017)

Rewriting rules

Two brilliant Netflix productions (the other’s Mudbound) within a month proves the worth of the subscription. If Mudbound should have been seen in the cinema, then Godless, as a series, belongs on television though it too would have looked great on the big screen. The Santa Fe locations are stunning and writer director Scott Frank produces some fantastic visuals. Frank has a long track record as a scriptwriter in Hollywood but only directed two feature films; he’s responsible for the whole eight hours (across seven episodes of varying length) of Godless.

While the Western pops up occasionally in feature films, the last I saw was the disappointing The Homesman (US-France, 2014), it remained a television staple in the latter years of the 20th century. I’m not sure how it’s fared since, though I thoroughly enjoyed HBO’s Deadwood (2004-06) – though I only saw season one. Godless, apparently, was marketed as a feminist Western, featuring a women-only town. One tweet pointed out that, despite this, women only had 38% of the dialogue in the first episode. I suspect the progressive claim was manufactured by the marketing department seeking a USP; though such Westerns aren’t unique – see The Ballad of Little Jo (1993). That’s not to say that women aren’t important, Michelle Dockery and Merritt Wever have great roles as outsiders who refused to be bowed. Their performances, indeed the cast are uniformly great, are excellent as are the protagonist, Jack O’Connell, and the antagonist, Jeff Daniels who has never been better.

In common with long form television, the narrative is fragmented with liberal flashbacks filling in the gaps. Dramatically this is valid and helps maintain the pace in a long narrative. There’s also time for diversions to puncture American myths, Mormons who massacre and blame the Indians for example; rewriting the Western, the genre that tells of the greatness of pioneers, is entirely appropriate as contemporary America implodes.

It is rare for me to be impatient for the next episode and I’ve resisted ‘binge watching’ (sounds unhealthy) but I saw Godless within 17 days and I recommend this article about the series’ greatness.

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The Handmaid’s Tale (US, 2017)

Piece of resistance

We are living in extraordinary times, politically; this is particularly obvious in the Trump presidency and the openness of neo Nazis in America. Canadian Margaret Attwood’s 1985 novel seemed to me, when I read it at the time, to be out of its time. How naive of me and how prophetic of her. Like all SF (I don’t care she doesn’t like the term that’s what this is) Attwood wasn’t prophisizing but writing about trends in the contemporary world. Bruce Miller’s adaptation, he’s credited as series creator and wrote some of the scripts, obviously updates the source material but Attwood’s premise, of how patriarchy is based on ownership of women and violence, is horrifyingly of the moment. Beware spoilers ahead.

Many of the 10 episodes are written and directed by women, a smart move by Miller for this is a story of oppression of, and ultimately rebellion by, women. Especially powerful were the scenes of sexual exploitation and, without having closely analysed the making, I suspect this is because they were shot from a female perspective. Similarly, in the final episode, when Moira reaches Canada her experience as a refugee is brilliantly realised.

The ability of art to place us in others shoes, and hence encourage empathy, is ‘soft power’ that enrages those on the right, when the texts are liberal, and encourages them to march with their hard power – guns and violence. The monolithic and individualist world view of the right seems to express a mental fragility that cannot cope with anything different to themselves.

The acting is superb throughout; even Joseph Fiennes, who I usually find insipid and weak, has been superbly cast. The direction and cinematography is superb, which is increasingly the case in ‘quality TV’. The dull palette, and freezing weather, contrasted by the blood red cloaks of the handmaidens, is a perfect setting for a world empty of love and passion. I doubt I’ll see anything better on television this year.

The Bridge – series 3 (Bron/Broen, Sweden-Denmark-Germany, 2015)

Saga's character tells a tale

Saga’s character tells a tale

Unsurprisingly this would have been in my top ten of last year if I’d seen it then; it will be in this year’s. The brilliance of the series is in the protagonists, though the elaborate plotting – this one is built around parenting – is also impressive. Sofia Helen’s autistic Saga is extraordinary in both the former’s performance and the latter’s personality as she strives to empathise but is ‘imprisoned’ by her difference.

After the demise of Martin as her partner, in series two, the producers had to be careful with who became Saga’s foil; he (or she) couldn’t be like Martin. The team’s sure-footedness was apparent by initially having an older woman and then introducing the unsympathetic, at first, Henrik (Thure Lindhardt) who works both as a foil and a man with his own traumatic past.

Apparently the ratings, on BBC4, reached 1.4m showing an appetite, albeit a minority one, for subtitled brilliance. Long may Nordic Noir continue.

1864 (Denmark-Norway-Sweden-Germany, 2014)

War as it was and is

War as it was and is

I can’t find enough superlatives for this Danish TV series; simply, it’s the best TV I’ve ever seen. Ole Bornedal’s creation manages to  show the brutalities of war at the front, the consequences at home and the political stupidity that leads to pointless brutality. Bornedal, who wrote and directed the brilliant Just Another Love Story, uses the big budget to exemplary effect; I haven’t seen more terrifying war sequences and the performances are utterly engaging. The use of a framing story to link the events to the present is an effective device and the right wing backlash, in Denmark, showed it hit the mark. Those on the right like to live the myth not the reality.

The ending of the narrative is philosophical, accompanied by a tour de force use of sound. Another memorable moment was the blood running down the window to form the Danish flag as the PM had a breakdown. Throughout the direction is cinematic, that is using the image to tell the story rather than simply convey the script. Of course, the division between cinema and television is blurred these days; possibly the only distinction we can safely make is that serial form suits the latter. It’s not only the best TV I’ve seen but one of the best audiovisual texts I’ve ever experienced.

The Game (UK, 2014)

Satisfying complex

Satisfying complex

I’ve no idea why the BBC shelved this spy drama for 18 months and ran it on BBC America six months before its UK premiere as Toby Whitehouse’s series is top drawer. It convincingly recreated dingy 1970s complimented by an excellent cast and a suitably noir narrative that managed to pull all its threads together without too much straining of credulity. I think I read somewhere that it was a mix of Spooks (action-orientated) and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (both the TV series and the film): that just about sums it up.

Happy Valley (UK, 2104)

Under pressure

Under pressure

I’ve only just caught up with this television series broadcast last year on BBC1 and winner of the Best Drama BAFTA. It’s probably the best TV series I’ve ever seen. The ironic title takes in the beautiful scenery around Sowerby Bridge and Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire and uses it as a setting for severe dysfunction at both a social, the amount of drug abuse, and personal level, as Sarah Lancashire’s policewoman Catherine Cawood battles both. Lancashire’s brilliant performance, amongst the many that serve to make this series so good, shows us exterior toughness, as s cop on the beat, as well as interior turmoil of a mother who’s lost a daughter and dealing with a difficult grandchild she has, more or less, adopted.

It works well as a cop drama too with Cawood’s maverick tendencies railing against her superiors’ corruption, superciliousness and ineptitude. Writer Sally Wainwright brilliantly ‘derails’ the cop narrative, to an extent, in episode four (I’m working hard not to give anything away), to switch the emphasis to the lead’s personal demons. The ‘cop’ genre and melodrama meld brilliantly to ensure there’s no sense we are getting the cop’s home life as a way of engaging female audiences whilst the action is for the men.

As defiant female characters go, Catherine Cawood is amongst the best. Although gender isn’t particularly the issue as we are simply watching a strong, human being dealing with crises.  In her representation of the victim of a kidnapping Wainwright is careful to show both the consequences of the experience and the strength required to overcome the trauma.

How can season two match this?!

The Fall series 2 (UK, 2014)

She will get her man

She will get her man

I’ve only just finished BBC2’s second series of The Fall otherwise it would have featured in my year’s top 20; I’m sure it will will be there next year. Central to the series, like many serial killer texts, is the relationship between the hunter and the hunted. Allan Cubitt, he wrote, produced and directed (now that is auteurism in action) is clearly exploring men’s (or is it misogynist men’s?) attitude toward women and so focuses on the psychological, which is also a trope of the genre. So far so conventional but The Fall – both series – have been compelling viewing; what makes it so?

Performance is always important and Gillian Anderson is perfectly cast as the ice-woman that spills tears on her virtually unemotional face. Anderson is an hypnotic screen presence (or is that the heterosexual male in me?) and, I guess, a role model for women who would like to deal with male aggression in such a calm way. Her ‘shameless’ attitude toward her sexual appetite was also refreshing to see; I felt the need to put ‘shameless’ in inverted commas because it is often used as a critical term, in this context, to vilify women who ‘sleep around’ whilst reserving the right of allowing ‘men to be men’ as an excuse for their promiscuous behaviour.

Jamie Dornan’s killer, Paul Spector (a mix of ghoul and voyeur), superbly mixes charm and hatred and Aisling Franciosi pulls off a very difficult role of a precocious, and ultimately demented, teenager brilliantly. The Belfast setting, with sectarian violence simmering beneath the peaceful streets, added to the atmosphere of unease.

The whole cast articulated well Cubitt’s purpose to show up hypocritical attitudes toward women and the complexity of relationships. I particularly liked Gibson’s last word on Spector: that she despised him.

Although the psychological climactic battle with the killer didn’t quite come off, Anderson’s Stella (she is a star) Gibson was too unruffled, and the finale was redolent of Se7en (US 1995), The Fall is an prime example of quality television that is, fortunately, characteristic of our age. If The Fall had been included, half of my top ten films/TV programmes last year would have been for television. Whilst there were many films I missed out on, such as Boyhood (US, 2014), there are TV series that I’ve yet to catch up on.

It’s hard to write about television effectively, and even the British quality press TV critics still seem to be unable to deal with the medium seriously, because of time: The Fall series 2 clocked in at almost six and a half hours. Writing about film sometimes requires a second viewing, to do that for television serials would be virtually impossible not simply because of their the time of individual serial or series, but there is so many to see watch!