What I’ve Been Watching

There seems to be a lot on these days. And while I wouldn’t exactly call it a golden age for television (because a lot of the follow-up seasons I’ve been watching have been disappointing), after the dry spell during COVID, I am grateful for the entertainment. I thought I would drop in to discuss some of the shows I’ve been watching.

  • Call Me Kat, Season 2:
    This is a cute, dorky little show with Mayim Bialik (of The Big Bang Theory fame) as the protagonist, Kat. It’s easy watching and feels like a welcome relief from more serious themes. I didn’t think the second season has been as good as the first. A lot of what drives sitcoms of this ilk is the romantic plot, and they got that off kilter. But it’s a cute show. Innocuous, but I like if for that.
    Streaming on Hulu.
  • Sweet Magnolias, Season 2:
    The second season was mostly a good follow-up to the first. The first was better, in my opinion, because there were some frustrating storylines in this new one. Most of the frustration is character-based, so I try not to complain that I don’t like where a character’s storyline is heading until I see the conclusion. But as of right now, I am a bit concerned about several things: Dana Sue’s relationship, Helen’s situation overall, and the anger management issues that seem to have suddenly cropped up in Maddie’s boyfriend (Maddie’s was a love story I particularly liked before, and this felt out-of-nowhere and unfair). There was a tendency to let side stories have too much airtime, which took away from the main stories. The setting was confined to a summer when the kids are off from school. Whereas the first season was given space to grow and be what it needed to be, this one felt like a placeholder, which was a bit disappointing. But I watched the show very quickly, and it held my interest, so I’m hanging with it. 
    Streaming on Netflix.
  • All Creatures Great and Small, Season 2: 
    This is a great little show, not ambitious, but so heartwarming. Season 2 was in keeping with the Season 1, which means it was good. It was a little dull, recycling a couple of storylines and dragging out a few others. But there was a reward this season, and it was quite romantic. Overall, well done, and worth it to escape into an hour of gentle, relaxing drama.
    Streaming on PBS Passport.
  • Dollface, Season 2:
    Basically, the same as the others… Not quite as good as Season 1, but not terrible. This is a show about a girl on the cusp of thirty who breaks up with her boyfriend and has to reintegrate with her friends and find what she wants from life. I really enjoyed the first season. But this recent one was another season that wasn’t given space to breathe, and I can’t remember that we actually got anywhere… There were some storylines that were obviously not going anywhere which had way too much time devoted to them. Anyway, I can’t say it was terrible because, again, I did watch it very quickly.
    Streaming on Hulu.
  • The Marvelous Mrs. MaiselSeason 4:
    I came to this show reluctantly, because it all seemed a bit musical-ish and vaudeville-y, and that really isn’t my style. But the clothes were beautiful, and I decided to stick with it. I hardly ever know what to say about this show, which has the same creators as Gilmore Girls. For instance, the first episode of this latest season is so exhausting that I had to watch it in two installments. That’s not good TV, in my opinion. It’s a little too self-indulgent sometimes (the writers explore unique interests that are just not going to resonate with an audience). It’s all over the place, and you feel like you need a tether, or something to bind the whole thing together. Half the time you wonder what the point is. On the other hand, it’s brilliant. While excessively grand in its sets and almost theatrical in its movement, it’s doggedly realistic. It’s not just concerned with romantic relationships. They’re a part of life, but no part of life is neglected. The show cares about relationships—between co-workers, between colleagues, between rivals, between friends, between exes, between ex-in-laws, between parents and children… No relationship is too small for it to absorb itself in and bestow its dignity upon. And I really like that. The cast is amazing. I like the family aspect and the depiction of Jewish life. I like the 1960s setting. I like the way that, with a few exceptions, the show relentlessly follows the mores of the era, even when they make you cringe. But…I still can’t tell you what the point is. It views like a fictionalized, involved origin story of a deeply famous person (in real life), which we all want to watch because she is that famous. Like think if it were Lucille Ball. But of course, Miriam Maisel is fictional. The creators might argue back that the show is about a young female comedian finding her footing on the comedic scene of the 1960s. But that wouldn’t really be honest. The show rambles, takes on much more expansive sidelines. The only thing that really binds it together is the beauty of the filmography, and there is, to be sure, the strong thread of Miriam’s career. On one hand, I actually like this rambling in a way. It makes it super realistic, just like life, and I like realism. Of course Miriam would have to pause her career briefly when her ex-father-in-law has a heart attack. Of course she would have grand squabbles with her parents, who are living with her. Those are the kinds of things that wouldn’t normally make it into the story. We have the fly-on-the-wall view to Miriam’s whole life. I’m just not always sure why we’re supposed to care. Again, she wasn’t a real person, and, in and of herself, while she is a good character, she’s not that compelling. And while I am a huge fan of realism, I deeply believe in storytelling, and I think that is a bit absent here. We need a thread. I had thought it was actually going to be romantic. There’s no doubt that the character of Lenny Bruce is her equal. In books, movies, or shows when a character’s love life is open-ended, I have literally never guessed wrong who the female lead was supposed to be with, her soulmate or true partner, and I thought that was Bruce for Miriam. I may have been living under a rock, but I didn’t know until this year that Bruce was a real person, who tragically ended his life about three years after when Season 4 would have taken place. So I really think the show has backed itself into a corner here by making Miriam’s chemistry so electric with a real-life character with whom she is not destined to be. The upward arc of her career along with the slow burn of her romance with a character like Bruce could have made some story-telling sense of the show. It could have explained why we were so invested in her personal life. But anyway…I actually really enjoy the show for the most part, and I’ve learned a lot. So I’ll keep watching.
    Streaming on Amazon Prime.
  • Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, Seasons 1 & 2:
    Wow. What a show. Props to my sister for discovering it because it seems to be a bit obscure. Anyway, it’s about Zoey, who is a coder at a big tech firm. Her dad is dying from a rare neurological disorder (which the writer’s dad also died from). She gains a superpower in that people, without knowing it, sing their feelings to her through popular lyrics. Okay, so technically, it has a fantasy element, which I don’t usually like. But for anyone who believes in a spiritual realm (and as a Christian, I do), it feels less like fantasy and more like a creative illustration of what happens when the Spirit reveals nuanced truths to you. We can see other people’s hurts and needs so much more clearly, and it felt like that, so it wasn’t such a stretch for me. The show has so much heart and empathy (the real kind). The love between the characters, the struggles they face, the feeling of family and community – it’s just the best I’ve seen in a long time. There is also a love triangle that keeps you on the edge of your seat until the end of Season 2. I actually didn’t know who Zoey was going to end up with (although I did guess her soulmate correctly 😏)! I do have to flag one episode: Season 2, Episode 6, in which the show was more or less paused to speak to political events of that year, and it was a disaster. It completely departed from the show’s character and storyline to pursue a pretty radical theme. I feel like I beat this drum all the time in reviews, but here we go again… I just cannot say this plainly enough: this is detrimental to art and unnecessary. Shows need to be what their original writers intended and not worry about pleasing anyone. Even though the show got right back on track, I felt like viewers really never recover from being let down in that episode. In a show that is entirely about deep love and loss, which spoke so profoundly to grief, it was jarring to pause for a militant political theme that took our characters…out of character and far from empathy.  Anyway, I have almost come to expect shows self-destructing in this way, so… I did finish the show, and I was happy with the ending. Roku commissioned a Christmas special that progresses the show basically one episode beyond Season 2. That episode is free if you have Roku. It was enjoyable, but not very well-directed. A little cheesier, a little less serious… But it still wrapped everything up pretty nicely. As hard as I was on the show for its mistakes, overall, it’s the best I have watched in a really long time. It got one thing very wrong, but it gets a lot so, so right.
    Streaming on Peacock.
  • Fleabag, Seasons 1 and 2
    I had heard such glowing reviews about the literary elements of this British show that I felt like I had to watch it. Reviewers had spoken of it as being laugh-out-loud funny… I wouldn’t say that. Rather, it had a collection of unique humorous moments that stick with you. For instance, Fleabag’s sister was one of the most quietly hilarious characters I’ve seen. The first season is about a woman who is basically unhinging following the deaths of her mother and best friend, and it is actually quite dark in theme. The second season was just pointless to me. I follows Fleabag’s desire for a relationship with a priest. I have seen this sort of fascination with a priest’s celibacy from authors before, with the goal being to crack through that. As a religious person, this makes no sense and always feels disrespectful. I didn’t see how it was supposed to be brilliant when it is a theme that has been rehashed many times. Another criticism I have is about the vulgarity aspect. I am the last person to pearl-clutch over the media I consume, but I think there is a nuance to this that needs to be addressed. Phoebe Waller-Bridge (the writer) was impressed with Bridesmaids, and believes it did a lot for how women are portrayed on screen. I believe this too. However, you have to be careful in this balance. If you begin to be vulgar just for the sake of being vulgar…that’s just gratuitous and may become demeaning. So overall, I was not a huge fan. A lot of people are passionate fans, however, so take my analysis for what you will.
    Streaming on Amazon Prime.
  • The Gilded Age, Season 1
    Julian Fellowes’s long-awaited American answer to Downton Abbey finally hit HBO this year. I am a little uncertain how to approach this one. On the one hand, Fellowes obviously did his research and accurately portrayed the Gilded Age for the ultra-wealthy of New York. On the other, it was boring. The Gilded Age is a tough era. I once wrote a novel set in 1903 and immersed myself in all things gilded. It is overwhelming, simultaneously fascinating and boring. The history of the time is so overbearing, so to speak, that if you don’t push back and say, as a writer, “This story is mine,” the history won’t let you have three-dimensional characters. You don’t feel you have the freedom to carve out your own stories unless you do that. That was the problem in The Gilded Age. None of the characters were super compelling. None of them had great storylines. Every once and a while, there would be a flicker, like with the Russells or Peggy Scott, but it would quickly peter out into the mundane. Marian Brook particularly was insipid as our lead. There were some aspects I liked and some I didn’t like, but I won’t go into them too deeply because the show had the pretty fatal flaw (to me) of being slow-moving. I think this may have been, in addition to the difficult era, a tough production due to the American/British differences in filming. Camilla Long, writing for The Times (UK) said, “You can feel every last torturous second of rewrites, reschedules and rethinks…” I feel bad for giving criticisms because you can tell there was a lot of earnestness put into the show, particularly by the actors. I will watch Season 2, and hope for more compelling storylines.
    Streaming on HBO Max.

New Persuasion Film

I subscribe to the fabulous Jane Austen’s World and was excited to see a new post today about a new Netflix adaptation of Persuasion, which is in the works. Here is the link: https://janeaustensworld.com/2022/03/22/is-2022-the-year-of-persuasion/.

I read Persuasion when I was in college, and it has a special place in my heart. Published after Jane Austen’s death, I think the novel is likely her finest. It is grown up, quiet, and compelling. I have trouble saying Persuasion is my favorite because I have all these periphery favorites as well. The 1995 Emma Thompson/Kate Winslet Sense and Sensibility is one of my favorite movies of all time. Pride and Prejudice was my first Austen and is truly extraordinary. I also adore the 1996 adaptation of Emma with Kate Beckinsale. But I did feel Persuasion was special enough to be labelled my “favorite” when I read it about a decade ago, so I will stick with that.

Now, film adaptations of Jane Austen works have an occasional tendency to cast men slightly too old for their parts. For instance, who doesn’t love Alan Rickman, but there’s no denying that at age fifty, he was too old to be playing the part of the thirty-five-year-old Colonel Brandon. It gave a totally different cast to the relationship with Marianne than what Austen intended, taking it from being spring/summer to spring/autumn. I will caveat here that I think Rickman performed beautifully and definitely fit the script as written for the adaptation.

As to the odd aging up of men, the same could be said of the 1995 adaptation of Persuasion with Ciaran Hinds, who was forty-two at the time he was supposed to be playing the thirty-one-year old Captain Wentworth. This isn’t a huge gap, but there is a difference, I think, in where you are in your life at thirty-one and forty-two, and that translates onto the screen and takes the book into a slightly different direction from its intention. It was Austen’s intent that the couple meet after a seven(ish)-year separation, which is the foundation for the story. If we go with a hero of Hinds’s age, we would have the impression of more like an eighteen-year separation, which is another thing entirely. I should also caveat here that Hinds is not really my idea of a swoon-worthy lead to begin with, so that might be clouding my vision. I know a lot of people love him, but to me, his performance wasn’t even close to being as good as that of Rupert Penry-Jones in the 2007 Persuasion adaptation. Which brings me to…

When I was in college, I was looking for a good adaptation of Persuasion to watch after reading the book, and found a clip for this version on Youtube. I remember being blown away by how handsome Penry-Jones appeared to be in the role. He definitely fit the bill for me (except I hadn’t envisioned him as blonde, but that was fine). It would really be unfair to talk just about how handsome he was, however, when he did a fabulous job in the role. In fact, he delivers the speech about his friend losing his fiancee (while really talking about himself losing Anne) with perfect timing and sense of emotion. Do you remember the line? “A man cannot recover from such a passion to such a woman. He ought not; he does not.” Boom. I watched this one first, and I have to say, this may be what pitted me against Hinds’s interpretation. He sort of jerks the line out in an emotional fit, while Penry-Jones uses a lot of gravity.

Now, I am the first to say the 2007 Persuasion was not perfect. While Penry-Jones and Sally Hawkins complemented each other well, everyone always seemed to be breathing hard, and taking short, choppy breaths, or something… It makes me hyperventilate just to watch it (go watch it; you’ll see). It’s really odd! I also thought some of the filming techniques were a mistake. There was a choice made to have the camera unsteady to give a sense of urgency to the film. Instead of doing that, it almost felt unprofessional. There was also an odd decision to have Sally Hawkins look directly into the camera at the end of a lot of scenes, and… She just doesn’t really pull it off. I didn’t hate her as Anne, but I’ve never really felt that anyone totally captured Anne.

So now we come to… What do I think of the new casting choices? We have Dakota Johnson as our Anne. It was a little jarring to leap from Fifty Shades of Grey to Persuasion. I think anyone would have to admit that. But I don’t totally write her off just because she is known for quite another genre (and American as opposed to British). I always thought she had a certain confidence, so who knows? She might do a great job.

I don’t know anything about Cosmo Jarvis, who is starring opposite Johnson as Captain Wentworth. The picture released shows him having dark hair, so that is more along the lines of what I thought from the book (if I remember correctly). He is also spot on for age at thirty-two. But he has a lot of proving himself to do, in my opinion, to top Penry-Jones.

They’re saying we will have the new movie on Netflix this year, so we shall see!

Public Service Announcement – Alex Rider Series has been adapted for TV!!!

I don’t know if you are familiar with the Alex Rider books, or if the popularity of the series was a phenomenon limited to my age group. I remember the series being the star of our school book fairs, starting roughly around 2002 when I would have been in the 5th grade. As millions of children across the world remember the Harry Potter Series as being the stories of their childhood that made them readers, so I remember the Alex Rider Series. I had always been a reader, but looking back, these are the books that made me a passionate reader.

Set in London, the series follows a schoolboy of extraordinary ability who, following the death of his uncle, a spy, is recruited by MI6. They are written by Anthony Horowitz, who now has some James Bond credits under his belt. I know it all sounds very fantastical, but it is somehow believable. The action and adventure, which usually bores me, is splendid, and, for the most part, the plots are really sound. The character of Alex is enormously layered and compelling.

I can’t remember how I got started on them. I think one of the boys in my class may have told me I needed to try them. I started Stormbreaker in 6th grade and was blown away. I told my best friend, and she tried them and was similarly transported. Everyone who read them told their friends, and pretty soon we had a wave of Alex Rider fanaticism in our grade at school. Even people who weren’t readers were so absorbed in them that they didn’t want to put them down when our classes began. We—boys and girls alike—carried this fixation with the books on up to the 8th grade. They were so popular that our librarian had to begin keeping them behind her desk with waiting lists. If you’re a reader, you probably are familiar with the delight a new book being published in a series can bring. When Ark Angel came out in the 8th grade, there was a pretty deep waiting list. I, who loathe line-cutting, snuck into the library (perhaps taking a cue from the teen spy himself?) on the day we knew it was arriving at the school, and looked at our librarian with puppy dog eyes. She laughed and said, “It’s on my desk, Tara.” 

Apparently the series is hugely admired in England. Obviously, it was really popular with my age group at my particular school. I’m not sure of its influence in America beyond that. My brother, who is just two grades ahead of me, thinks he missed the phenomenon entirely. My sister, who is six grades behind me, read and loved the books, and all of her grade did, too, but sometimes I wonder if that was because a lot of people in my class happened to have little siblings in her class. When a class I recently spoke to asked me what I liked to read, I told them about the series, and they weren’t familiar with it (although, I think their teacher, who is wonderful and was also my teacher, planned to introduce it to them!).

Anyway, obviously, I know the series has sold millions of copies in the U.S., so obviously a lot of kids were reading it. But I don’t hear it spoken of very often these days. There was a movie some years back based on Stormbreaker, which I think critics are pretty hard on, but I didn’t mind it when I watched it as a child. I’ve been away from the series for a long time and actually didn’t even know Horowitz has added subsequent novels (the last one I read was Snakehead, and I thought the series was complete).

But imagine my delight when my sister called me and said, “Did you know there is an Alex Rider series on Prime?!” So obviously, I watched it. There are currently two seasons available. The first series skips over the plotline from Stormbreaker and goes straight into Point Blanc, which happens to have been my least favorite of the books. (It involves a cloning storyline, which was a rare departure from conceivable reality for the series.)

Anthony Horowitz was an executive producer, so I felt pretty good about it going in. The casting, I think, was incredible. It was like actually watching these characters from my childhood come to life. Alex wasn’t exactly as I had pictured him looking, but Otto Farrant, himself a childhood fan of the novels, inhabits the role beautifully and really gets the character. Mrs. Jones, Alan Blunt, and Jack were other phenomenal casting jobs. The spirit of the novels that makes them delightful and readable is there, and overall, I am very impressed.

A few things that were interesting to contemplate as I watched… The streaming adaptation was not made just for kids. It is almost told from an adult perspective, and they apparently did that both for the sake of casting the audience net as wide as possible and for allowing the series to sort of grow up with people like me, who grew up reading the books. It was interesting, and not totally ineffective. It may have even been the best thing to do. I am a bit of a purist, however, when it comes to really good books being adapted for the screen, so… I wouldn’t have minded a less omniscient viewpoint.

In addition, when I was Alex’s age and reading the books, I knew Horowitz was careful to include the moral discussion about employing a teenager as a spy, but those discussions just sort of washed over me. He was a teenager, sure, but he was capable, and he was doing it for his country. Now, of course, watching the series, my eyes are kind of wide at the audacity and moral repugnance of the fictional MI6 characters using a teenage child in this way. I just thought that perspective shift, while not at all out of the ordinary as we grow up, was interesting to note. 

I remember the books made it plain that Alan Blunt (the boss) made the decision in a cold-blooded, clear-eyed way because it was the best way he could do his job, with the ultimate goals being good ones, but still, he was willing to use Alex with varying degrees of humanity over the course of the series. I wish the series had dug into that moral dilemma a bit more, and into the characters of Blunt and Mrs. Jones, as the books did. It just seems odd that the writers, who were giving a more adult brush to the series, missed that opportunity. I think this may be something that they intend to rectify in future seasons, however. 

Season 2 is based on Eagle Strike, which was a good book. Season 3 has been announced, so it looks like the show will go on!

All in all, I’m delighted to take this journey back to a lovely time during my childhood, and to the lovely books that sparked my reading passion. Go watch the series on Prime!

What I’ve Been Watching…

It has been a while since I’ve done an in-depth film review, so I thought I would drop in to let you know what I’ve been watching! If you’re like me, you’re always looking for good options, so hopefully you will find something to interest you here.

  • Sweet MagnoliasI have to say, I wasn’t sure about this show at first, largely because the first scene included both disastrous attempts at Southern accents and a misunderstanding of how the legal system works.  Luckily, I persevered through the first scene, because…I absolutely ended up loving this show. The accents seemed to level out (or maybe I just got used to them?), and although I continued to have concerns about obvious misunderstandings of the legal system, the lawyer character, Helen Decatur, was phenomenal. She was a strong woman, convinced of her own internal worth, confident, and beautifully played by actress Heather Headley. It’s a story of three friends who are, I think, supposed to be in their late thirties or early forties: Maddie, Helen, and Dana. All have their own stories and struggles. Maddie and Dana have children, and the show accomplishes something remarkable: portraying teenagers as actual teenagers and actually making it interesting. I’m not even a baseball fan, but I enjoyed even the high school baseball drama! The kids in the show are all amazing actors. You will see some recycled storylines. Part of the way through, I thought: this is a little Reba, a little Gilmore Girls, and a little Friday Night Lights. And yet…somehow it works tremendously. The show is authentically small-town-Southern. It handles big issues and big emotions delicately. It has a natural, easy way with diversity that few shows accomplish these days. It has tons of charm. And I cannot wait for Season 2!
    Streaming on Netflix.
  • Virgin RiverI have such a love-hate relationship with this show (which consists in me loving it half the time, and me hating it half the time!). The show has a lot of heart. Then it suspends reality. Then the characters are completely relatable. Then they are off the rails… I’ve watched all of the seasons. I’m not sure I’ll watch the next. I always say that; then I always do.
    Streaming on Netflix.
  • Never Have I EverThis is a fun teen drama. With Mindy Kaling at the helm, you are in for some laughs. The first season packed a satisfying emotional punch with the ending. The second season was slightly less satisfying, but I think the writers still have their hands on the reins, so I’ll be watching the third season.
    Streaming on Netflix.
  • The Parisian AgencyThis is a reality show featuring a French family of luxury realtors (a mom, dad, and four sons). It is in French, so I used subtitles, which is, admittedly, a bit exhausting. But it was worth it to get a look at what luxury means in Paris, as well as French culture. I also enjoyed the interactions of the Kretz family and seeing common familial bonds, love, and squabbles across a culture purportedly so different from our own. 
    Streaming on Netflix.
  • Emily in ParisSpeaking of Paris… The show is a little chick-flicky boring…and then all of the sudden turns edgy. It has the “American in Paris” dichotomy of provincial, good kid thrust into the world of Paris and all its culture and sins that has, I think, been a popular ideation since Thomas Jefferson went to Paris as Minister to France in 1785. And the idea of exploring Paris through American eyes did feel fun and accessible, as well as interesting, culturally speaking. I have to say, I did not find the main character relatable or likeable. I sometimes mused to myself that she had been miscast. However, from my admittedly limited knowledge of French culture, there seemed to be a lot that the show got right, and the writers were certainly not lazy with the plot. I’ll be looking forward to the second season!
    Streaming on Netflix.

  • 9/11: Inside the President’s War RoomThis BBC documentary ties the events of 9/11 with a timeline for President Bush and his cabinet on that day. I don’t typically watch 9/11 documentaries, but I wanted to do something to commemorate the 20th anniversary. I highly recommend this documentary. It covers the actions taken and decisions made that day and has a lot of pictures that are never-before-seen. Most of the big players, including Bush, Rice, and Powell, agreed to be interviewed, and I think that will be a huge treasure to history in the future. We don’t have, for instance, a minute-by-minute interview with FDR of his day during the Pearl Harbor attacks, which would be so illuminating. The documentary was very educational and moving without being overwhelming. 
    Streaming on Apple TV.
  • Jack Whitehall: Travels with My FatherThis is a show consisting of a young comedian who goes on world travels with his father. It is often hilarious, with the father being completely unconcerned about political correctness. He does it from the position of an elderly English aristocrat, which comes off as snobbishess, which is why I think he gets away with it when others wouldn’t. The dynamic between father and son is unique and just very funny. It was funnier to me when I just thought they were a father-son duo who were in a reality show practicing off-the-cuff banter. It became clear early on that at least some parts of it were coordinated, however. I have to say that my joy was sapped by that question of doubt as to the raw reality of the show. I enjoy scripted humor if it doesn’t pretend to be otherwise, and I enjoy real life humor. Scripted humor parading as real-life humor leaves me feeling ruffled and a bit cheated. In this case, the question was how reluctant to be there (a huge point of the humor) could the father really be if he had memorized a script? You can’t have a grumpy old man pretending to be a grumpy old man—that takes self-awareness and humor. That being said, I have read articles which state that their off-the-cuff banter is phenomenal, so to the extent the show is a bit rehearsed, it is definitely playing off that dynamic. And it was still funny, even if a bit cheaper form of humor, and you learn some about the places they travel. It’s excellent escapism. Streaming on Netflix.

  • The Chair: This university dramedy with Sandra Oh is almost eerily real sometimes. The writers must be very well-versed in small-major liberal arts academia. Literally, it’s like they know my professors. They also weren’t afraid to “go there” with the drama of a woke student body. I think everyone could take something away from the show. It was very insightful on the troubled family life of academics, but lovingly presented in its humanity. It will also be eye-opening to many on the subject of how, if universities can’t find an internal fabric, they are in very real trouble. There were moments of humor. There are various moments when probably everyone will be very annoyed. It could be heavy; it could be very light (hence, the “dramedy”). I think everyone, whatever their political alignment, will feel both vindicated and frustrated variously. And for that, I give the show high marks.
    Streaming on Netflix.

  • The Babysitters Club: This, when it stays on script, is a good little show based on the original book series about a group of entrepreneurial middle school girls who have a babysitting service. There’s a lot of depth to the show, and it gets a lot right about coming of age. Unfortunately, in Season One, there was a storyline about a trans child that was very uncomfortable to watch for various reasons, none of which have anything to do with trans storylines in general. It involved a very young child, and it just missed it in several aspects. In fact, I thought the show handled it inappropriately. Because of this, I almost didn’t watch Season Two. But because the show had proven itself in other respects, I decided that it might have just been a well-intentioned attempt to make the show inclusive which went off the rails a bit. But Season Two began, to some extent, to go down the path of Anne With an E, which I discussed here. Netflix obviously has an agenda, and it is their right to do so. It is also the right of viewers to criticize when a show’s integrity begins to be harmed by that agenda. 🤷🏻‍♀️ Look, most everything on streaming devices has a left-leaning bent. That’s not what I’m talking about. That can be art. Including long passages that are information dumps about political theories that have only the flimsiest tie to any storyline and pressing them to an insufferable degree…that is not art. That is politics. And that is fine. But it shouldn’t be parading as art. Especially, like Anne With an E, when it draws in an audience based on the reputation of a classic. And it is worth noting that the two shows with which I have seen this done to the largest extent are both shows primarily for children. Which takes Netflix’s agenda to a whole new level, and one that I can’t imagine will end well for them. We shall see. So, like Anne With an E, when the show shines, it really shines. When it strays off task, it loses the thread. So take that for what you will. 
    Streaming on Netflix.

  • Miss Scarlet and the Duke: This is a great show about a female detective in Victorian London, who often comes up against her frenemy, a Scotland Yard Detective Inspector. I am usually not a huge fan of detective dramas, but this one is in the old-fashioned tradition of British whodunnits, where the emphasis is on the people. The romance hits all of the right notes, the tension being superbly written and masterfully acted. It’s in another great British tradition of being of a slow-burn variety and subtle, while nonetheless being passionate. Season One aired on PBS Masterpiece a few months ago, and you may be able to catch it on PBS replays. It is streaming on PBS Passport now (their paid subscription streaming platform), and the first episode is free on Amazon Prime.
    Streaming on PBS Passport.

  • All Creatures Great and Small: This reboot of the beloved classic about a small village veterinarian is very heartwarming and family friendly. It’s a good storyline with a good cast. It ran simultaneously with Miss Scarlet and the Duke on PBS Masterpiece, and it was always a debate as to which would draw me in more. This is currently streaming on PBS Passport, and the first episode free on Amazon Prime.
    Streaming on PBS Passport.

Review: Emma (2020)

Last night, my mom, sister, and I had a movie night.  Since we are all huge Jane Austen fans, we decided on Emma, which, even though the movie wouldn’t normally be out of its theater run, has been made available for streaming from various sources since theater-gathering is currently discouraged.

Emma is one of my favorite Jane Austens, largely because of the extremely cozy village she was able to create in Highbury and because Mr. Knightley definitely rivals Mr. Darcy in swoon-worthy gentlemanliness.  I have read and enjoyed the book, and this is the fourth film adaptation of  Emma I have seen, so I was coming into this with some rather pre-conceived ideas about what a successful adaptation of the story should look like.  So there you go: I always try to let you know my biases up-front.

There were things the 2020 adaptation did better than any of its predecessors.  For one, the cinematography is excellent.  The vistas and ballrooms are stunning, and I have heard that a lot of work went into choosing an appropriate and eye-catching color palette, which was a creative idea.  You leave with an impression of color in your mind’s eye, and take away beautiful and cheery lighting.  My only reservation was that, just occasionally, the color could be slightly too much, and you felt like we had strayed into candy land.  But that was only very occasionally, such as when there was a big fluffy cake sitting on the table or when we’re shopping for ribbons in a lollipop of color.  The outdoor scenes are unrivalled in beauty, though.

The costumes are exquisite, and I noticed particular attention was paid to the shoes.  You could tell the designers really looked at fashion plates from the Regency Era, because there is nothing (except maybe one pair of earrings) that jerks you out of the time period.  In addition, there are special details on the dresses, etc. that are very Regency-appropriate that I’m not sure I have ever seen any other Regency film use.  In short, 10 out of 10 stars for the costuming department.  My one question was whether Mr. Knightley would have worn his shirt collars quite so high.  Georgette Heyer has led me to believe that only dandies wore their collars so high that they had difficulty turning their heads.  But in contrast to being a dandy, Mr. Knightley always struck me as a country gentleman, a man of sport and the land, preferring to ride a horse to fancy dinner parties than take his carriage.  However, I do not profess to be an expert on the subject of all of the subsets of Regency gentlemen (dandies, Corinthians, fops, etc.) and Georgette Heyer is admittedly my only source.  And maybe my vision was clouded by the fact that this particular Mr. Knightley was ten times as handsome when we could glimpse his neck. 🙂

The next thing that was well-done was attention to historical details.  We get to see a lot of antiques and how they were used.  We see (humorously) the function of fire screens, and we also get to watch a very fun parlor game in progress.  Also revealing was the intimacy that dancing induced (I had forgotten that one was supposed to stare into one’s partner’s eyes).  It was a little easier after watching a dance performed in that way to understand why there were so many rules of etiquette surrounding the art of dancing, and why so many feathers were ruffled when the rules were broken.  I love when visual history explains something we wouldn’t otherwise understand!

The characters were also jazzed-up a little.  At first, I was a little nervous about the changes that I knew were going to be made to Mr. Woodhouse (Emma’s father) and Miss Bates.  But I would go anywhere Bill Nighy and Miranda Hart want to take me.  I cannot think of better or more trust-worthy choices if you are going to change up well-known characters.  And, while I am a stickler for following a book exactly, I actually didn’t mind these changes.  They weren’t drastic, and both were in keeping with the spirit of the characters.  If I’m being honest, I actually enjoyed these characters more than ever before because, in the real story, while we love them and appreciate their absurdities, they can be a little tedious.  Here, they were delightfully quirky and provided excellent comedic relief.  I like the idea of Emma’s father having all of his hypochondria while still being spunky, and maybe even a little wired.  I think that was a reasonable interpretation of his character, even though most have interpreted him as a more feeble old gentleman.  And when Miss Bates screams suddenly, and out of nowhere, at her deaf mother, that “Miss Woodhouse has invited us to Hartfield!!!” we were all in giggles.

And what to say about Mr. Knightley?  We see a lot more of his personal life than we ever do on the book, and than we ever have in any other adaptations.  We get to see him dressing, which was certainly a gift. 🙂  We also get to see the moment his feelings started to change for Emma and the agony that leads him to suffer over the next few months.  I think I actually like that, and here’s why: I believe they simply showed the emotions Jane Austen knew he was having but we don’t know about until the end of the book.  The scene where Emma and Knightley dance at Christmas is shown as the moment they both start to shift their feelings for one another, and I think that is accurate, at least for Mr. Knightley, although it has been a while since I’ve read the book.  But every other adaptation has made this attraction quite subtle.  Here, though, we see Knightley throw himself on his drawing room floor in frustration.  It’s not in the book.  But it actually made me understand a little more why Knightley invited his Highbury acquaintances to pick strawberries at Donwell soon thereafter, and why he said something about only allowing Mrs. Knightley to manage his house, once she is in being: he wants Emma in his house, and he is contemplating, for the first time, there being a Mrs. Knightley.  I had never thought about that aspect of his psychology, so that was a great hidden nugget.  On the whole, I liked Johnny Flynn’s interpretation of Knightley, even if I was initially thrown off by his blonde hair.  He handled the role quite delicately.

And that brings us to what I didn’t like so much.  I’m usually not this direct, but I will just have to be honest: I did not like this interpretation of Emma’s character.  Anya Taylor-Joy is lovely, and I like that her acting reminded us that Emma is only 21 and also showed how her wealth has left her in a spoiled cocoon.  Further than that I cannot say, because this interpretation made Emma absolutely unlikeable.  Jane Austen’s Emma is a deeply flawed character, and I love that about her.  But Austen was careful to give Emma redeeming qualities and a certain maturity that balances her over-confidence, privilege, and snobbery.  Here, she was drawn as petulant, which I don’t remember that Emma ever was.  While there was a certain immaturity to Emma’s course of action in the real plotline, she never acted like a simpering, pouting child.  While she could be sharp-tongued, and while that trait often led her into scrapes, she was never crabby/irritable just because she seemed to be that way by nature.  I’m not sure if the goal was to make Emma more coy, or what, but she actually lost almost all of the nuances to her character and was kind of boiled down into a one-dimensional incarnation of the snotty rich girl archetype.  Not my cup of tea.  And the main reason is that we cannot for the life of us see what Mr. Knightley sees in her.

Another thing that I was not a fan of was the overall production.  You really need to go into this adaptation with a basic knowledge of the intricacies of the plotline, because you won’t get them from watching this film.  It felt, actually, more like watching a play or, more accurately, perhaps, an opera.  A great deal of attention was put into theatricals, such as ladies lining up with the flourish of the background music, and overly-loud music accentuating the feeling we were supposed to get from the dialogue.  The music playing during scenes really distracted and took away from the storyline.  I just kept wishing we could settle in on a scene, like a real movie, and enjoy acting and character nuances instead of flitting here and there.  With music playing overly loud, and some of the actors being forced to deliver their lines overly-dramatically, you’re sped through the scenes and don’t get the details of a very intricate plot.  But what was really odd was that somewhere in the middle of the movie, we did slow down and take a breather, almost as though we had switched directors.  The music stopped being as frenzied, and we enjoyed a couple of stable scenes.  Which I found…odd.  I like consistency, even if I don’t agree with the choice made.  Without it, the production doesn’t feel polished/tight.

Another oddity was the choice in music itself.  I’ve already mentioned that it was often too jaunty and loud.  But even more bizarre was the choice to put in chorals here and there.  Don’t get me wrong: I love anything sung by a choir, and these were really beautiful.  They were just totally out of place.  I’m sure the songs were time-period-appropriate (although I would have to look on a couple), but the presentation was not (by this, I mean that the arrangements reminded me a lot of O Brother, Where Art Thou?).  It’s weird to be travelling in a carriage and just randomly start hearing a hymn sung dramatically by a choir, no?  At least, it was in Emma.

But in the end, there were enough things that I did like that I will probably watch it again.  The over-all grandeur and urgency being slightly hyped-up was very well-done, and very compelling as a viewer.  I found myself wishing that I was a master movie-maker and could pluck parts from all of the adaptations of Emma and make the perfect movie.  Which leads me to a ranking of the Emma adaptations that I have seen, which might be useful if you are wondering where to start.  I’ll rank from least-favorite to most-favorite.

4. Emma (1996) with Gwyneth Paltrow.  I have heard many people say this is their favorite, so know I am in the minority here.  But there is just something annoying about this version to me.  There’s also no chemistry between Knightley and Emma or any of the characters, really.

3.  Emma (2020). [Discussed above.]

2.  Emma Mini-Series (2009).   This is a 4-part mini-series that goes into great detail and follows the storyline pretty closely.  This Emma still annoys me slightly, but she is the least-offensive of the three I have mentioned.

1.   Emma (1997) with Kate Beckinsale.  This adaptation is phenomenal.  It is the reason, probably, that I’m so hard on all of the other adaptations.  I have watched it over and over and never leave disappointed.  I love the nuance Kate Beckinsale brings to Emma’s character.  She fully explores her flaws but shows all of the redeeming qualities, too.  I love the passion Mark Strong brings to Knightley’s character.  No one tells Emma off quite the way Mark Strong does.  He makes all of the other Knightleys look weak, with the exception of the most recent 2020 Mr. Knightley.  He shows Knightley’s hot temper but also his great kindness and depth of feeling.  And as far as the village feeling – there could be nothing cozier.  It accomplishes in one movie all that the above-mentioned mini-series attempts to do in four episodes.  The cinematography is not beautiful or sweeping, so I think that might be the reason this one is often overlooked.  But I promise you won’t notice that once the actors take the story into their hands.

In the end, it doesn’t matter which Emma is technically more accurate or delicately-handled, I suppose: it is which one you enjoy watching that matters.  I do recommend that you watch the new Emma.  It’s a great way to pass the time, and if you have enough people in your home quarantine, it’s actually cheaper than going to the movies would have been.  I streamed it for $20.00 from Amazon Prime.

Enjoy!

(Note: if you have children in the room, there is one little nudey scene where Knightley is dressing, and another slight one when Emma is, just to give you forewarning.)

Photo Credit: screenrant.com

-Tara

 

 

 

Review: Anne with an E

Review: Anne with an E

I should first confess that I am not a dedicated Anne of Green Gables groupie. I’ve never seen any of the adaptations before Netflix’s Anne with an E, and I haven’t read all of the books. I did read the first book when I was in Sixth Grade, but, unfortunately, its brilliance and subtleties were lost on me at that age. I am, however, quite familiar with the story, have a loose understanding of how the plot plays out, and have listened to The History Chicks Podcast episode on L.M. Montgomery (so that makes me an expert!). Okay, so that lets you know where I, a fairly neutral party, stand. (Note, I am going to give an honest critique, but keep reading, because I have lots of good things to say, too!)

I love any historical drama, so when Anne with an E popped up, I tried it, and I have since watched all three seasons. I know enough about the storyline to know that even the first season strayed from the books, but that didn’t bother me because it felt true to the spirit of them. I didn’t mind that the writers read between the lines and gave new dimensions to the story as long as they stayed grounded in the historical period and character of the books’ inspiration. For example, dealing with the trauma of being an orphan was great, and dealing with the prejudice Anne encountered as an orphan was really moving.

However, as we continued into the second season, we strayed from tackling the injustices of the historical era to using Anne with an E as a vehicle for the writer’s take on social/political issues of today. This is not a commentary on the issues that the writers chose, since this blog is strictly neutral on political matters. My concern, in any historical piece, whether it be film or literature, is accuracy, and accuracy becomes difficult to achieve when you place modern beliefs and mores on any historical era. You are playing with fire if you use a period drama for modern political purposes, especially if you are using someone else’s work. A writer wishing to forward his or her own causes (not an unworthy goal) should simply craft his or her own story, and not use the fame of a beloved classic as a vehicle for that goal. The parts where the writers strayed the most were, not surprisingly, the weakest segments because the stories didn’t resonate with historical truth. I have always found this to be the case in any historical book or film which paints with a modern brush. I should add that this wasn’t a mistake on the part of authors unacquainted with the historical era – they made this choice deliberately, as evidenced in the line of the opening song which says, “You’re ahead by a century!” So I am absolutely not accusing the writers of carelessness, just of using tactics which harmed the integrity of the show. Not only were current events tackled, but this was done in a heavy-handed way, which is a personal dislike of mine. I believe subtlety always wins the day.

There were so many times when I almost turned the T.V. off and said, “Done!” because historical accuracy is a make-or-break subject for me, and I tend to overlook a thousand good qualities if accuracy is not present. But I never could quite do that, because when the show shined, it really shined. Again, not surprisingly, this happened when it stayed true to the era and story. The absolute strength of the show was in the scenes with Anne and her friends, as they discover the wonders of becoming adults. Those parts rang so true and brought back so many happy memories. I absolutely loved watching those rites of passage into womanhood. It was beautifully nostalgic.

Anne (Amybeth McNulty) was a phenomenal actress. In fact, everyone was phenomenal. Some real standouts, though, were Marilla (Geraldine James), Matthew (R.H. Thomson), and Diana (Dalila Bela), who has my vote for Melanie if there is ever a remake of Gone with the Wind. But I could honestly go on and on about the cast. I loved the portrayal of Gilbert by Lucas Jade Zumann. Corinne Koslo’s portrayal of the snarky Rachel Lynde went a long way towards keeping the show grounded in the era. And Kyla Matthews, who plays Ruby Gillis, is also one to watch. You felt safe in the actors’ hands.

Not to be overlooked, also, were the costumes, which were beautiful (I was especially impressed with the men’s shirts this season, oddly enough!), and the scenery, which makes you kind of feel you are on vacation. The filming and production level were top notch.

And my thoughts on Season 3? More of the same: the straying from the spirit of Anne of Green Gables and the realities of the time period was overwhelming at first. Also, Anne became increasingly, screechingly militant, and I almost fell out with her when she screamed at Matthew (The Sweetest Person Ever) simply because he didn’t agree with her, which is what she did to anyone who didn’t immediately jump on board with her 21st Century beliefs. But then I reached Episode 5, which returned to the heart of the show: Anne and her friends as they come of age, and I loved it. And finally, as I watched Episode 10 (the final episode), and it reached its climax at the end, my heart soared, and I haven’t seen such good television since Matthew’s proposal to Mary in Downton Abbey (cue Downton music). It was absolutely fantastic! On the whole, I’m sorry to say goodbye to Anne with an E!

P.S. I really liked that the writers were interested in the historical fact that a lot of Indians/Native Americans/First Nations (Canada) experienced the unspeakable grief of having their children taken from them and put in Western schools, without their consent, in an attempt by the governments, to put it bluntly, to commit cultural genocide. I do not think this was actually covered in the original books, and I would submit that the story would have been more powerful in a different show (as it seemed to be a tack-on here), but I won’t complain because I think this is a part of history of which not many people are aware.

Until next time, Kindred Spirits and Bosom Friends!

-Tara

Review: John Adams

Looking for something cozy to watch on these warm summer nights? I can’t think of anything better than the series John Adams. Based off the biography which bears the same name by David McCullough, the series stays true to history and the characters and is just a delightful experience, spanning from the Boston Massacre to Adams’s July 4th death in 1826.

Adams is portrayed beautifully by Paul Giamatti, and Abigail is exquisitely brought to life by Laura Linney. I love the portrayal of Jefferson (Stephen Dillane), too, but the show-stealer was Tom Wilkinson’s Benjamin Franklin, whom you’d just love to have a cup of tea with.

The series takes you from the halls of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, to Paris, to the newly constructed White House. The scenery is beautiful, the attention to detail laudable. I cannot praise the cast or directors, all of whom had obviously intricately studied their subjects, enough.

The series won four Golden Globes and thirteen Emmys, which is apparently more than any other miniseries in history. It originally aired on HBO but is now available via Amazon Prime. Now go watch! You won’t regret it!

Death Comes to Pemberley

What can I say?  I hate books and movies that seek to ride in on the tailcoats of fame of authors who no longer have copyrights.  Besides being cheap writing, it usually makes for bad writing, the plot suffering from the confines of what has already been written, already imagined, by another brain, and inspiration, you know, usually comes easiest to the original author of the storyline and characters.

I probably wouldn’t be writing this, though if the book hadn’t achieved enough notoriety to be made into a movie, and it wouldn’t have achieved that without the word “Pemberley” in the title.

Do not look for a perfect re-drawing of Austen’s larger-than-life characters.  They, in fact, bear very little resemblance to them.  Mrs. Bennett, Lydia, and Lady Catherine are so over-drawn and afflicted with bad acting that you’ll just have to ignore them. Darcy and Elizabeth are very little like their characters, either in looks or personality.

So why am I writing this if I only intend to be ugly?

I don’t!

I have a suggestion: Pretend it bears no relation to Pride and Prejudice.  Before I did that, I almost couldn’t get through it.  Once I did it, I actually enjoyed it.  Imagine it’s a story about a young, wealthy, Regency couple, already married, happily, in a moment that crowds in on them filled with chaos.

The Darcy and Elizabeth aren’t bad, if you’re not trying to make them Darcy and Elizabeth (Matthew Rhys and Anna Maxwell Martin).  In fact, they are good actors, portraying delicate emotions in their expressions without speaking, which is what we have come to expect from good British drama. Georgiana and Wickham (Eleanor Tomlinson and Matthew Goode) are great, too (and actually come closest to portraying their characters accurately).  The mystery itself is not terrible, with enough twists and drama to keep you halfway interested.

But the real value in this series is the portrayal of everyday Regency life, both for the wealthy and the not, when we flash away from the courtroom scenes.  Too often, we see the Regency damsel’s courtship, and then she rides off into the sunset with her duke.  We don’t see the ups and downs of actually becoming a married lady of rank, the responsibilities of being a patroness to many. We also don’t usually see the poverty in which many lived.

My sister commented while we were watching this, “Okay, how good would this have been if she had made up her own characters?!”  It would’ve removed all negative comments from this review, and I would have loved it.  But again, I never would’ve seen it at all probably, which could lead to some very scathing comments about the publishing and film industries, which I’m sure you’ll hear at a later date!

Currently available for purchase from Amazon.

Happy Galentine’s Day!

In honor of Galentine’s Day, and on the off-chance you’re staying in to watch movies with your gal-pal, we here at Tea and Rebellion thought we would give you a list of our favorite Rom-Coms and Rom-Drams (if that’s a thing?)  Tell us your favorites!

Romantic Comedies:
Leap Year
While You Were Sleeping
To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before
27 Dresses
Yours, Mine, and Ours
Enchanted
Bride Wars
Pretty in Pink
Bridget Jones’ Diary
Made of Honor
The Holiday
An Ideal Husband
My Big Fat Greek Wedding
The Wedding Planner
The Wedding Date
The Back-Up Plan
Notting Hill
The Proposal
Two Weeks’ Notice
How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days
13 Going on 30
Beauty Shop
Never Been Kissed
Sweet Home Alabama

Romantic Dramas:
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
North and South
(British Version)
Persuasion (2007)
Pride and Prejudice
Jane Eyre
(2011)
Under the Greenwood Tree
Emma
(1996)
Pearl Harbor
Belle
Dr. Thorne
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
Far From the Madding Crowd
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
The Young Victoria
Gone with the Wind
Walk the Line
Under the Tuscan Sun
Sabrina
War and Peace
Downton Abbey
Little Women

Hope you enjoy!!

 

North and South

Ah, North and South.  Possible one of the greatest film adaptations we have yet seen in the 21st Century.  Airing on BBC in 2004, the mini-series stars Daniela Denby-Ashe and Richard Armitage.  It was adapted from the novel by the same name published in 1855 by my girl Elizabeth Gaskell, of the Wives and Daughters and Cranford fame.  But North and South is nothing like either of those (great novels in their own right, don’t get me wrong).

It is HUGE: sweepingly grand, taking on sectional and class divides, gender issues, the Industrial Revolution, worker’s rights, death, nostalgia, human nature, and just plain old coming of age.  It is JAM-PACKED with goodies, but if literature bores you, fear not: it’s all so carefully drawn that the screenplay unfolds like your favorite novel. The filming is a work of art in historical accuracy (except Margaret’s eyebrows, sadly waxed).

I won’t talk much about the plot, because you need to watch it!  Suffice it to say, Margaret Hale leaves her idyllic home in the South of England to go north to the industrial town of Milton, where she encounters the harsh realities in the cotton mills of the Industrial Revolution.  One of the masters of the mills is Mr. Thornton, whom she originally hates, although he ultimately becomes her love interest.  The romance is subtly beautiful.  In fact, if I could find one word for the entire series, it would be subtle.

You saw, in my list of social issues above, how many conflicting points of view are at stake, but never once is Gaskell or the screenplay author heavy-handed.  In fact, we oscillate between thinking Margaret is right, and then Mr. Thornton, although we are never led there.  It is deeply, brutally honest in a way that nothing ever can be if you don’t take your own views off the table. Gaskell let things simply be as they were, challenging the norms of the Victorian Era without ever letting you know it, until you are already changed by truth.  It still resonates today, and Margaret Hale is an amazing female lead, even for today.  I can only imagine how moving it must have been in 1855.

Go watch it, if for no other reason than you need a romance fix.  You won’t be disappointed.  Currently available on Netflix.

-Tara