June 25, 2017

Winter/Spring 2017 TV: (The Leftovers, The Young Pope, Big Little Lies, The Expanse)

Posted in Italy, Judaism, Pop Culture at 1:06 pm by chavalah

So much Christian content in my tv lately. Enough to make me wanna buy a subscription to The Jewish Channel. 😛

I’m a month later than last year in making this post, though the Game of Thrones schedule has changed, too, so I guess that’s my excuse. 😛

As is custom, HBO dominates most of my tv habits. Starting in February and ending earlier this month, I routinely watched their Sunday night 9 pm programming. And I have a little bit of a quibble. The male-centric stories–The Young Pope and The Leftovers revolve around dudes with god complexes, and are generally lauded as prestige television. The female-centric Big Little Lies is seen more like fluff. I’m not gonna leave that statement there without examining it more fully, but as a gut instinct it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Mixing my metaphors here. 😛

The Young Pope

I’ll start with my least favorite. Ultimately, I don’t think this show did much for me. I loved the chance to see Italy, insofar as it was presented, as the primary backdrop, I appreciated the chance to showcase non-US or UK actors like Silvio Orlando who played a compelling Cardinal, and I was particularly intrigued by Diane Keaton’s unusual turn as the taciturn Sister Mary.

Some people liked creator/director Paulo Sorrentino’s surreal style, but I found it to be a little grating. The premise seems to be somewhat twofold–a spoiled little boy is elected Pope, throws big tantrums and makes everybody’s lives hell because his parents abandoned him and now he has the power for global payback. Then, after a remarkably racist episode set in Africa, where he schools a fictitious, unnamed country in the merits of compassion and justice, he slowly takes his own lessons to heart. Having finally “grown up,” the series ends on an ambiguous note of–did he see his folks in the crowd while delivering a homily in Venice? (And did he survive said experience??)

It’s an annoying, egotistical conceit. Jude Law can’t just be playing a random dude with abandonment issues–he has to be THE POPE. The women in Big Little Lies are dealing with similarly big life issues like adultery, spousal abuse and rape, but none of them get to be High Priestess of Avalon. Which I suppose is also a remark on the lack of women in the highest echelons of most religions, but still–their problems aren’t seen as any bigger than the problems of any normal human.

Perhaps the episode that held the most promise for me was the penultimate one, where we follow Cardinal Gutierrez (Javier Cámara) to New York where he’s arrived to apprehend a pedophile priest. We meet the priest, who of course was abused himself as a child, and also an obese sickly woman whom Gutierrez is counseling. They had the promise of being compelling characters but we spent so little time with them, and Sorrentino made so much out of melodramatic music and vague flashbacks that they ultimately felt more like caricatures.

As a Jew, I admit that the saints and miracle-workers that populated this story just aren’t my bag, baby, so maybe it’s a subjective disconnect. I found this show to be disjointed and underwhelming in theme. Holding out hope that maybe HBO will pick up another Italian project in the future–well, there’s “season two” of this, The New Pope, but I’m not sure I’ll watch. Meh.

Big Little Lies

Based on a novel by Liane Moriarty, there’s no doubt that this story is a little bit fluffy. Or maybe it’s a matter of perspective; I haven’t read the book myself, but my mother found it to be relatively beach ready after getting through the harrowing Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi.

I think that a lot of this has to do with format and setting. The format is very plot based; we start with a murder, so the question of “whodunnit?” (also “who’s the victim?”) looms large over the narrative. It’s a puzzle to be solved, which sometimes eclipses the natural progression of the character arcs. A last minute shocker reveal about two seeming strangers with an shared past proves very convenient. Also, the story takes place in a rich suburb of Monterey, and despite any real world issues, we’re constantly reminded of the privilege and frivolity that pervades these peoples’ lives. Plus, there is so much gossip and backstabbing that after awhile, I really wanted to put somebody’s eye out.

The ending is also a little pat, with all of the main characters, some of them enemies, coming together to say goodbye to the murder investigation with a picnic on the beach. Didn’t really feel deserved.

I was intrigued with how they handled the spousal abuse storyline. I’m used to the one-dimensional Lifetime approach, where an innocent woman is duped by a sadistic man who shows his true colors when it’s too late. Here, Nicole Kidman and Alexander Skarsgård have built a more complicated set of rituals and denials around what’s happening. Meanwhile the therapist calls bullshit, so the show isn’t excusing said abuse. It just feels more real–all the way down to how it affects their seemingly oblivious kids.

Shailene Woodley gives a tense and masterful performance as the vulnerable single mother and rape victim of the story, to the point that I could barely recognize her in scenes with her antagonist, Laura Dern (who also played Woodley’s own doting mother in The Fault in Our Stars. Talk about some dissociation! :P) And speaking of Woodley, her Divergent co-star Zoë Kravitz, also gets to play with a more complicated role as Reese Witherspoon’s sorta rival.

Oh, Reese. 😛 From the trailers I was afraid that her character would be the Regina George of the bunch, but actually she’s far more layered. Jealous and possessive, Type A driven, definitely flawed–and depressed about her college-aged daughter moving physically and emotionally away from her. I liked the idea that her marriage is on the rocks because she and her husband have different sexual needs and general drives, and I was disappointed when the show introduced the affair subplot. Alas.

Still, I found this to be an enjoyable miniseries. And more refreshing than male gods–we focus on the lives of female humans. 😛 I’d like more of this, please.

The Leftovers

Loosely based on the Tom Perrotta novel, The Leftovers is probably the most thoughtful, best realized show on this list (and I say this while deeply disliking aspects! :P) But in touching how abandonment and loss of faith touch a particular set of people, it’s quite powerful.

I’ve written in some depth about season one and season two, though I’ll have to rehash some bits in order to come to terms with the final season.

Quick recap: 2% of the world’s population disappears and the show revolves, sorta, around the 98% of leftovers trying to make sense of it all. I say “sorta” because in season two, I came to terms with the fact that this isn’t a maxmist story about how everyone deals, but rather a very minimalist one about a how a small sliver of familiar middle class white Christian folks deal with it. (Departure is a very flimsy cover for “Rapture.”) On the plus side, I do love delving deep into a few characters. So this season I made my peace with the Kevin=messiah mishegas, because at least his surreal journeys to the afterlife were funny, and I liked how the Australian character, Grace (Lindsay Duncan) related to that hoe down.

I’m still disappointed in all of the dropped threads–like the tense relationship between Jill (Margaret Qualley) and Laurie (Amy Brennerman), the mother who abandoned her in season one. Last season was unique for bringing in a fully realized African American family, the Murphys, but this season they were incredibly sidelined. And more generally, I dislike how the drama on this show is always pushed TO THE MAX, like how Kevin, Sr. (Scott Glenn) can’t even ask a random guy for directions without said guy setting himself on fire.

The inciting incident of this season, set seven years after “The Departure,” is that Reverend Matt (Christopher Eccleston) promises that a great Noah-like flood will come, and only Messiah Kevin (Justin Theroux) can save them. The cast ends up in Australia because Nora, Kevin’s girlfriend (Carrie Coon) wants to expose a fraud where some scientists are claiming they can send survivors to where the Departed went. Equally as likely, she wants to hitch a ride to her Departed children.

So I’ve made my peace with the Christian elements, but then this year they go off and appropriate different religious observances. In “Crazy Whitefella Thinking,” Kevin, Sr. hops around Australia recording aboriginal songs because he’s sure they will stop the flood. We get very little insight into the cultures of these real tribes. Then, in “It’s a Matt Matt, Matt World,” the show uses some Yom Kippur liturgy to bolster Matt’s character arc. Don’t get me wrong; he’s one of the more complicated characters on the show (egotistical yet vulnerable. Plus he gets a goodbye scene with his sister, Nora, in the finale that I’m desperate to have reproduced on Game of Thrones before the White Walkers kill the remaining Stark children /wibble). But obviously that liturgy is meant for a very different, very somber, very community-oriented purpose than Matt’s personal tsuris.

But I’ve come to the conclusion that Nora is my favorite character, and so the final scene is a real winner for me. One thing that I think The Leftovers does exceedingly well is dole out character-enlightening monologues. Nora’s final monologue, all about the need for and fragility of human connections, gave me major Mockingjay finale vibes. Also, her description of “the Departed” land made me desperate to reread Station Eleven. I think it’s still on my dad’s nightstand. 😛

So I dunno, if the destination and many parts of the journey are an indication, then this is the best show on here. I’m definitely glad that I stuck with it; was an interesting, if bumpy, ride.


Admittedly, I’m a sucker for taglines like this.

The Expanse

Shockingly enough, I turned away from HBO for a brief period of time–and to the SyFy Channel! 😮 I hadn’t really watched them since they were the SciFi Channel! 😛

OK, so I tried this show last year and gave up halfway through season one. I didn’t find it to be that compelling, and I think the reason for that was because of the framing story–a noir detective search for a missing girl. The girl, Julie, (Florence Faivre) wasn’t a character in her own right, but rather a spark to set off the plot. Basically: a few hundred years into the future, humans on Earth and Mars are locked in combat, and our fellows living in the asteroid belt are caught in the middle. But there’s a sudden new, scary weapon of mass destruction (discovered at the end of the Julie arc), and most of our main characters, a Firefly-like crew of diverse folks, have to speak truth to power.

But in season two the plot is in motion, and I could focus on the consequences and the other characters. We are introduced to Bobbie Draper (Frankie Adams) who has a rather age-worn character arc of being a militant who has to reassess her values when she finds out that her planet’s government isn’t as noble as she’d like to believe. But at least it’s her arc; she isn’t just part of someone else’s.

I also really liked the budding romance between Jim (Steven Strait) and Naomi (Dominique Tipper), even when I shouldn’t have because Jim’s in the midst of the standard “good boy exposed to bad situations, losing his moral compass” bit. But the end of season two ends on a far more ethically ambiguous note for both of them.

One of the reasons I wanted to watch the show in the first place was because of Shohreh Aghdashloo, who plays a shrewd Earth diplomat. She seems like a far more complicated character this year, so yay. And finally, I’m a sucker for a geeky, botanist dad (Terry Chen) trying to save his young daughter. Goes without saying that this show already has a refreshingly diverse cast.

Ultimately I’m not sure that the characters transcend the roles assigned to them by the needs of the plot, but I love the themes of this show. How much does allegiance to home planet (or Belt) define you? Where is the line between right and wrong? We might be stepping into very Game of Thrones territory here, where the consequences of war far outstrip the players.

This is based on an ongoing series of science fiction books by James S.A. Corey; one of several options that I’m quibbling about starting. Time to get out my hashtag–#SoMuchToRead! Am I a bad book nerd if I just let the television show tell the story to me? :/ Alas. It’ll be back on air sometime in 2018.

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