This past week has been devoted to grading, which is why my 2021 resolution to actually use this website went by the wayside. But I'm back. 2020 was wild, right? I went back to America for a three week vacation and wound up cooling my heels for nine months, which means I got a bit of reading done, some writing (hopefully I'll have more to say about that some time this year), and a whole lot of television watching. I finally saw Star Trek: Deep Space Nine at long last, and yeah, I kind of love that small-town space soap. But today I want to list and comment on some new television I saw this year. Yes, there are spoilers.
Five Shows I Loved
The Plot Against America
HBO had a very good year, with many new shows ranging from very good to excellent. This is on the "excellent" end. Based on Philip Roth's novel, Plot is set in an alternate history in which Charles Lindbergh becomes president, with disastrous results for American Jews. Since circa-WWII America is kind of my beat (give or take twenty years), I was obviously part of the show's target audience. The show ends more ambiguously than the Roth novel, as befits a show released in an election year that seemed to replicate some of the tensions at work in pre-WWII America.
The New Pope
Technically a second season of The Young Pope (or maybe a sequel series). This show is strange, as might be expected. I loved The Young Pope back when it first landed, and the news of a sequel series featuring John Malkovich excited me more than I can say. And I wasn't disappointed: this show is as weird, disturbing, and hilarious as the original show:
We Are Who We Are
Ok, this is admittedly a mild cheat since I've not seen the last episode, but what I've seen is enough to convince me this show belongs here. Directed by Call Me By Your Name's Luca Guadagnino, We Are Who We Are replicates several of the themes explored in the movie: adolescent sexuality, queer coming-of-age, problematic age gaps.... But where Call Me By Your Name focused sharply on a single narrative, this show spins out four or so different stories--thematically related, but often working independently of each other. The show's centerpiece, however, is Jack Dylan Grazer--previously best known from It and Shazam! Grazer is remarkable: his performance is twitchy and annoying and real. He certainly isn't entirely likeable, but no teenage boy is. It's an extraordinary performance and I'm interested to see what Grazer does next.
Not the 2003 James Brolin tv movie. This is a documentary miniseries from Matt Tyrnauer, the director of Where's My Roy Cohn, which I've not seen, and Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood, which I have. If you've followed Rick Perlstein's quadrilogy on the rise of right-wing Republicanism in the Twentieth Century, you probably know most of this, since Reagan is a constant presence from nearly the beginning. But the documentary offers the perspective of friends and foes (and offspring) of Ronald Reagan, painting the picture of a tremendously complicated man--which is not to say that it's a friendly portrait. Indeed, one would be hard pressed to come away from this documentary with any conclusion other than that Reagan was a disaster with good PR, making his inclusion in top ten lists of "best presidents" incredibly bemusing.
The Good Lord Bird
This is actually cheating, since it's a 2020 show that I only finished recently, but it has to be on this list because it is very probably the greatest (in the strongest sense of that word) show of last year. It follows the story of John Brown, climaxing in his disastrous raid on Harper's Ferry--a story that hasn't been dramatized on film since, apparently, the 1940 movie Santa Fe Trail, a movie I remember watching as a child chiefly because of Raymond Massey's depiction of Brown:
(Rewatching this clip just now I noticed that Ronald Reagan is George Armstrong Custer in this movie)
The Good Lord Bird is not so pious about Brown as Santa Fe Trail (neither is Santa Fe Trail, frankly, which I vaguely remember as being fairly mixed on the subject), and Ethan Hawke's Brown is not nearly so put-together as Massey's. But in Hawke's portrayal, Brown becomes a sort of divinely-inspired Captain Ahab. It's a powerful performance--and overwhelming one--one that very nearly throws the whole show out of balance (it's also a kind of coming-of-age for the young Henry "Onion" Shackleford--his experience is the one we follow exclusively, so that when he's not around we aren't either--but perhaps we are overwhelmed by Brown because he is overwhelmed by Brown). There are cameos from Frederick Douglass (Daveed Diggs) and Harriet Tubman (Zainab Jah), but these figures--no less giants, historically, than Brown--come across as diminished; they are not played with the insane fervor that Hawke pours into his performance. This is unfortunate, because Douglass no less than Brown--and Tubman no less than either--was a towering figure. They will, I suppose, have to wait a little longer before they're given their due onscreen.
(I have not see Harriet yet, so perhaps?)
One Show that Surprised Me
I did not expect much of Perry Mason. Everything I had heard about it--it was a prequel, Mason would be a detective, etc--gave me pause. And some of the interviews with the screenwriters depicted them as perplexed by, or even contemptuous of, the character. So I watched out of a sense of duty, not particularly caring for anything I saw (what's the point of changing Mason's job if the central dynamic of the show is going to stay lawyer-secretary-detective?). And then, halfway through the show, everything clicked. Mason--yes, I admit it, enriched by what we saw before--stepped into his traditional role; his core group coalesced around him, subtly updated (Della is a lesbian, Paul is Black, Hamilton Burger is Della's gay best friend who is angling for the job of DA, of course). Where earlier alterations seemed ham-fisted, these changes worked--mostly because they open up possibilities for storytelling within the traditional framework rather than scrapping the framework altogether. By the last episode I was openly cheering their not-subtle nods toward the first Mason novel. I've rarely been so thoroughly won over by a tv series.
Two Shows that Disappointed Me
Penny Dreadful: City of Angels
This is a strange case because I actually was onboard for nearly the entire run of the show. I liked the style, I liked the setting, I liked the characters--all of it. And then the final episode dropped and delivered more or less nothing. I'm disappointed it was canceled, because there's really some potential here. But I'm not surprised.
This one actually hurts a bit. Call it the reverse Perry Mason. I was enthusiastically touting this show for half its run. After all, a Lovecraft-inspired period piece that deals with the Black experience in America (or, let us not be too determinative, one version of the Black experience)--this is not something that comes along every day. And that early run of episodes demonstrated a flexibility and a sense of humor and, yes, a sexiness that made it very appealing viewing. And then--
Look, I'm not insistent that protagonists be likeable or even good people. Making Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors) a war criminal was certainly a choice that could work; giving him encounters with the supernatural that predate the show might make nonsense of the first episode, but even that is workable, maybe. The problem is that none of this is even remotely dealt with; it's not like these revelations about Atticus are supposed to change our perception of him. If anything, the episode wants us to forget almost immediately that he's a war criminal because reasons. And it just soured me on the show.
After that episode things get cluttered, anyway. The finale is an incoherent mess that--again--doesn't seem to know exactly what it wants us to feel at a given moment. I really wanted to love this show--and did, for the first half--but it let me down badly.
One Show I Hated
Holy cow, was this show garbage.