What I’ve watched in 2017–18: Period TV
As I mentioned in the index post, I’ve been keeping track of the TV and ﬁlm I’ve been watching, but then didn’t get round to polishing it into actual blog posts.
This post lists the highlights of the period TV shows I’ve seen in the last 18 months, with period ﬁlms coming soon in a separate post.
The Americans (2013–2018)
The Americans is a period drama set during the Reagan administration. The protagonists are parents of a stereotypical all-American family with 2 school-age children, running a travel agency in Washington DC — and KGB sleeper agents. Then in the first episode a new neighbour moves in over the street, who turns out to work in the FBI Counterintelligence Division.
Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys play our protagonists Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, with Holly Taylor and Keidrich Sellati with increasingly impressive turns as their children Paige and Henry. Noah Emmerich is Stan Beeman, the FBI next-door neighbour, the only other actor in all 75 episodes. Richard Thomas and Alison Wright play Stan’s colleagues at the FBI. Costa Ronin, Annet Mahendru and Lev Gorn are all KGB agents at the Washington embassy; Margo Martindale and Frank Langella are the Jennings’s handlers.
Season 5 (2017)
I bingewatched the 5th season while on holiday in November 2017, which several reviews found more slowly-paced after season 4 moved several characters around and removed a few familiar faces. While Vox’s recap writers disagreed, the showrunners insist season 5 was meant to be standalone, rather than setting up the 6th (and final) season. I don’t quite understand how the Vox team couldn’t see it as working just as well on its own merits — there’s 2 missions started and completed over the course of the season, with half a dozen or so characters introduced and, presumably, not returning for the final season. It certainly did not seem to me like merely a prelude to an ending. Indeed I’d agree with AV Club when they describe the episode “Dyatkovo” (5x11) as being The Americans at its best, “applying the slow burn to some of the show’s most potent themes — family, trust, the shittiness of being a spy”. Viewers clearly agree: the episode scores 8·9 (out of 10) on IMDb. I also need to go back and look at the AV Club’s soundtrack reports — if I can manage to bear the disappointment of being reminded how little we see of the Mail Robot this season.
Season 6 (2018)
Season 6 was always going to be really tough — as well as gripping, of course — to watch. Seeing characters we’ve grown with over several years come to their journey’s end was never going to be easy.
The season starts in late September 1987 — it’s set 3 years after the end of season 5, which saw Philip retire from spycraft to focus on the travel agency that acts as their cover. Henry is at boarding school and Paige is at college, while also training with Elizabeth as a Soviet agent. Oleg (Costa Ronin), who has been working for the Transport Ministry back in Moscow, is brought back into play while plots and conspiracies wend their way to the inevitable end. We always knew that it couldn’t be an ending with everyone walking happily into a sunset — our knowledge of history alone tells us that it won’t all go well. But showrunner Joe Weisberg still managed to draw the show to a close with an outstanding episode — Vulture’s 2nd best episode of TV of the year and earning an A-grade from AV Club — that feels as good as episodes of The Americans can get, but hitting all the right emotional (and musical) buttons. I absolutely wept my way through a good third of the ﬁnale.
The show has definitely been one of my favourites through its 6 seasons and has consistently been recognised by its peers, with 4 Primetime Emmys, 5 American Film Institute awards and 6 TCA awards, though somehow it’s never been recognised by the SAG —losing to This is Us’s second win in its sole nomination, in 2018 for Drama Ensemble. This ﬁnal season was AV Club’s top show of the year, beating Atlanta and Glow (both of which I really must watch), The Good Place, Killing Eve and Pose at the top of their list.
All 6 seasons of The Americans are inclusive with Prime to stream on Amazon Prime Video. Several services (including Amazon) have all 6 available to buy (though iTunes only has 3) from £11·49 a season.
All 6 seasons are inclusive with Amazon Prime US, or can be bought from US$19.99 a season on most services. Canadians can’t stream it, but all 6 seasons are available for sale.
Stranger Things (2016– )
I came a little late to the first season of Stranger Things, but thoroughly enjoyed the retro scifi-horror last year and the return to Hawkins for the year of the Duffer Brothers’ birth (!!) is every bit as much fun as the first time round.
Season 1 was really very good fun, with a plot worthy of Stephen King that sees the mysterious disappearance of a 12yo boy amid supernatural goings-on in small-town 1980s America.
Season 2 continues the story a year later, with the characters adapting to the consequences of the first — and continued strange things happening at the Department of Energy’s Hawkins National Laboratory.
A couple of new younger characters come to town: Sadie Sink and Dacre Montgomery playing combative step-siblings Max and Billy. Probably the most exciting new character though has to be Bob, a new love interest for Winona Ryder’s Joyce — played by Sean Astin — who is such a lovely character; he’s exactly the character both Joyce and Will need him to be. Vulture have a great Salute to Bob Newby that’s worth a smile after you’ve watched season 2; they also have an interview with Astin and a list of all the pop-culture references in ST2.
I really can’t get over that the Duffer Brothers are as young as they are yet have done such a good job at hitting all the nostalgia buttons for those of us who remember the era. I mean: they’re even young enough that, in an episode of Beyond Stranger Things, they refer to Sean Astin as Samwise rather than thinking of him as being Mikey!
And allow me some asides…
Sort-of-related: I’m a big fan of Dan Dalton’s mixtapes — he makes a 10-track playlist every week around a central theme. And he is very clearly a fan of synthpop and the general feel of the Stranger Things soundtrack; Mixtape №94: Come With Me If You Want To Live was inspired by the release of ST2 (and Blade Runner 2049 and Thor: Ragnarok) and a few of his others are of similar feel:
The marketing for Stranger Things 2 has been spot on, too; Deadline have a great piece about all the retro homage posters released for Hallowe’en. Irritatingly, they seem to have broken the embedded tweets, but they’re worth clicking through for.
Stranger Things is available globally on Netflix, with a third season on order.
The Lizzie Borden Chronicles (2015)
Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her mother forty whacks. When she saw what she had done, she gave her father forty-one.
The Lizzie Borden Chronicles is a fantastic miniseries with Christina Ricci — who was just born to play psychopaths — as the titular murderess. The ever-awesome Clea DuVall plays her sister Emma, and spends a substantial amount of time with a facial expression of “are you high?!” at the increasingly ridiculous situations, which is worth watching for that alone.
Cole Hauser plays a Pinkerton investigating whether or not Lizzie is indeed a psychopathic murderess; Bradley Stryker (who some friends might remember from the awfulsome queer horror schlock The Brotherhood) plays a local hoodlum and pigtailed-teenager Gabrielle Trudel is gonna be a name to keep an eye on.
Cancelled after one season (because of course it was), The Lizzie Borden Chronicles was available to stream on Netﬂix when we watched it. It’s no longer available in the UK or Canada, but it’s still carried on Netﬂix in the US or to buy from US$12.99. The 2014 film Lizzie Borden Took an Ax, also starring Christina Ricci, is available to stream on Netflix US, can be rented from £2·49 or C$4.99, or can be bought from £4·99, US$9.99 or C$12.99
Mindhunter (2017– )
Directed by David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club, Gone Girl, Zodiac, House of Cards and a shitloads of music videos), Mindhunter is set in 1977, in the early days of criminal psychology and criminal profiling. The show follows FBI agents Holden Ford and Bill Tench, along with psychologist Wendy Carr, who interview imprisoned serial killers in order to understand how they think with the hope of applying this knowledge to solving ongoing cases.
It’s loosely based on reality — Jenny squeed in the first episode when they were interviewing “one of [her] favourite serial killers”. The three characters are renamed and remade, slightly. Holden Ford (played by Jonathan Groff, who you may know from The Normal Heart, Looking and Frozen) is a cypher for special agent John E. Douglas, who was also the basis for Thomas Harris’s character Jack Crawford. Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) is based on special agent Robert Ressler, who is credited with inventing the term “serial killer” and was instrumental in setting up ViCAP, the computer database mainstay of police procedural dramas.
Anna Torv (Fringe)’s character Wendy Carr is only slightly more of a divergence from reality; where Carr is a gay psychology professor working to wards tenure at Boston College, her basis was Ann Wolbert Burgess, a forensic nurse whose groundbreaking work with victims of rape and sexual abuse partially inspired the FBI’s foray into criminal profiling and was interviewed for Pacific Standard about her work and her thoughts on the series.
It takes things relatively slow — it’s the end of episode 3 before Carr actually joins the team — but I like that and the pacing doesn’t feel drawn out. I don’t know why I always find Jonathan Groﬀ ’s characters to be a bit of a dick, but it’s a really good show nonetheless, even if he is a bit of a dick.
Mindhunter is available globally on Netflix, with a second season on order.
Comrade Detective (2017)
Ahead of the first episode of Comrade Detective, Channing Tatum and Jon Ronson tell us about how they are excited to show us the results of having painstakingly restored and dubbed Tovarășul Miliţian, a 6-episode buddy-cop series of light-entertainment light-propaganda — think Lethal Weapon meets Red Dawn — that was made with funding from the Communist Romanian state.
Except, of course, they haven’t; it’s all-new. Written in English, translated into Romanian, filmed with local cast and crew, then dubbed back into English (available undubbed in Romania), Comrade Detective is a beautiful piece of satire. Tatum and Joseph Gordon-Levitt dub the 2 protagonists, and Collider have an interview with them both, giving a little more background. As Alan Scherstuhl puts it in Westword:
Comrade Detective is not a sendup of Romania, home of some of the world’s great filmmakers and also many cheap-o Hollywood productions. Instead its satiric target tends to be propaganda itself, the Communists’ idea of the United States as a racist, materialistic cowboy cocainescape. (They’re not always inaccurate.) And it’s also about the blunt artlessness of the Communists’ own propaganda efforts.
I found it a very funny Western stereotype of an Eastern Bloc stereotype of the West combined with the ridiculousness of 1980s cop action movies. And the hyperbole of the Cold War setting is just beautiful — one episode sees the detectives try to crack a smuggling ring importing a diabolical Western game into Romania, the purpose of which is to drive your fellow citizens into poverty so you can get rich — after all, Monopoly is a useful tool to indoctrinate young children into capitalism. And there’s some great synthpop in the soundtrack. I do hope they manage to “find” and restore a second season.
Comrade Detective is available on Amazon Video; the first episode is available free, the remaining 5 are inclusive with Amazon Prime.
The Alienist (2018– )
The Alienist is a period drama following the hunt for a serial killer (fictional, but with definite hints of HH Holmes and Jack the Ripper), who is killing boy-prostitutes in 1890s New York City.
Daniel Brühl stars as Dr Laszlo Kreizler, the eponymous psychologist, assisted by dashing Cymro Luke Evans as newspaper illustrator John Moore, Dakota Fanning as Sara Howard, secretary to NYPD Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt (Brian Geraghty) and partially a cypher for Isabella Goodwin, NYPD’s first woman detective. The ensemble also includes Douglas Smith and Matthew Shear as twin Jewish detectives, Robert Ray Wisdom as Kreizler’s servant (and muscle) Cyrus, Q’orianka Kilcher as Mary, the doctor’s Native maid; and 16-year-old Matt Lintz deserves a special mention as Stevie, a ward of Dr Kreizler, as does Brittany Marie Batchelder playing Joanna, niece to Cyrus.
The fin-de-siècle New York is beautifully — and thus depressingly — portrayed, as are the other parts we see of the country, including train journeys Out West, a steamer journey upstate and a train-and-coach journey to Massachusetts.
The Alienist was based on the book of the same name by Caleb Carr; TNT have ordered a sequel series based around the follow-up novel The Angel of Darkness. The Alienist is available on Netflix internationally outside the US, where it can be bought on several streaming services.
Outlander (2014– )
Based on the series of novels by Diana Gabaldon, Outlander is an alternate history — at some standing stones near Inverness, a woman from 1945 falls through time to 1743, to be found by the Highland Clan Mackenzie in the advent of the Jacobite Rebellion. It’s mostly a period show, with some fantasy elements, rather than a fantasy piece per se.
Season 1 is an interesting insight into life in the late-feudal Highlands before the ’45, the destruction of the clan system and the Clearances — I realised I don’t actually know much about that period. At the end of season 1, they flee the country, so much of season 2 is set in Ancien Régime France (where Stanley Weber had a ball playing the Comte de Saint-Germain), before heading back to Scotland for the Rising.
It was interesting and good fun — pticly seeing a relatively-modern woman (albeit from before the second wave of feminism) butt against an 18th-century patriarchy. I’m not generally one to give the benefit of the doubt to the English, especially when they’re in full-on genocidal Imperial mode, but it lays things on a bit thick in how much it shows the Redcoats as bad guys, which I assume is direct from Diana Gabaldon’s original text. The caricature of an immoral, queer English bad guy is especially disappointing; there’s a whole episode of rapey torture-porn that’s pretty fucking unpleasant, even for source material released in 1991.
That said, Outlander is one of the few shows that actually does a good job of catering to the female gaze. Partly this is probably a result of the source material — a historical romance series by a female author — but I’m also conscious that the 4 best episodes in that regard are directed by Anna Foerster. Jenny Trout blogged at length about how “Outlander is a drama crafted specifically for the straight female gaze”. Similarly, Catherine Eaton and Stephanie Scott complimented the female-centred storytelling on The Stake and Maureen Ryan wrote at length for HuffPo about how the episode “The Wedding” (1x06, again directed by Foerster) was a “feast for scavengers” — the viewers other than straight cis men, so unaccustomed to TV and film that not only represents us but actively caters for us. Ryan’s review of that episode is almost certainly already being used in film and gender studies classes, including:
Thanks in part to streaming options and an expanding array of adventurous creators and networks, shows with sexually unapologetic women suddenly seem to be all over the place: The Fall, The Good Wife, The Americans [above], Orphan Black, New Girl, You’re the Worst and Orange is the New Black are all part of a seemingly unstoppable wave of shows that treat the sexual activities of their leading ladies with refreshing matter-of-factness and genuine interest.
One of the things I found pticly interesting in Ryan’s piece, though is: “to overgeneralize, you could say that the post-Oz, post-Sopranos revolution in television was all about what a protagonist could do. … The last two or three years have seen a welcome and overdue explosion in who a protagonist could be”, going on to list a handful of shows that “aren’t all that concerned with changing definitions of masculinity, the status anxiety of white guys and all that anti-hero baggage”.
Sonia Saraiya wrote in Salon about how “although this show is capable of great gore and violence, it has come to that violence in what is largely a considered way — and, crucially, balances out that violence with a lot of tenderness”. That said, in their Stake piece, Eaton and Scott rightly criticise the homophobia and the physical and sexual violence against women — of which there is far too much, even if they’ve apparently improved upon the homophobia of the source material. And some of the story certainly suffers from quality issues — again, presumably from the source material — even without the problematic elements. In any case, a complex yet interesting show has me looking forward to taking time for seasons 3 and 4, and discovering how these stories play out.
Incidentally, Outlander also has a great soundtrack — by Bear McCreary, of BSG, The Sarah Connor Chronicles, The Walking Dead, Black Sails and Agents of SHIELD, amongst others — with a very lovely cover of “The Skye Boat Song” as its theme tune. I spent a good chunk of November 2017 listening to the second half-season’s soundtrack album on Amazon Music and I return to it quite often. I also loved that the theme tune (a version The Skye Boat Song) gained a verse in French while they’re in France before going back to Doric on their return to Scotland (between episodes!).
The show merits content notes for explicit content, including substantial sexual violence, as well as depictions of death and grief. And a surprisingly easy-to-understand depiction of PTSD.
4 seasons have aired in full and Starz has already commissioned 5th and 6th seasons. All 4 seasons are available to stream or to buy on Amazon Prime UK with other services carrying some for sale. Both Starz and the Amazon Starz add-on carry the show in the US; CBC carries all 4 seasons and Netﬂix Canada has 3. The show can be bought from most services, though not all services carry all seasons.
The Man in the High Castle (2015– )
As I mentioned in my highlights of Amazon Video a couple of years ago, The Man in the High Castle is a runaway hit for Amazon Studios, a dystopian thriller based on Philip K Dick’s 1962 novel, set in an alternate 1962.
In their reality, FDR was assassinated in 1933, so the US was unprepared for World War II. The Nazis drop an atomic bomb on Washington DC in December 1945 and they partition the US with the Japanese Empire, forming a part of the Greater Nazi Reich and the Japanese Pacific States, separated by a Neutral Zone in the Rockies. New York City and San Francisco become the capitals of these 2 North American states, with Denver forming the central city of a poor mainly-free polity, teeming with spies and bounty hunters.
The first season adapts the book directly, with later seasons being extrapolated from it.
One of the things I found quite interesting — aside from the truly gorgeous worldbuilding — is that increasingly through the show, we start to sympathise with the bad guys — the leader of the kempeitai and a literal, acting as agents of order, over our protagonists, agents of chaos.
As well as frequent symbols of fascism and hate speech (obviously) and frequent violence and execution, there is one particular scene that I found very difficult to watch — a Nazi Youth march in the season 3 finale, where torch-wielding young Americans shout “Blood and Soil” as they brutalise the inhabitants of part of New York City.
3 seasons of The Man in the High Castle are available globally on Amazon Video, with a 4th season expected in late 2019.
The Looming Tower (2018 miniseries)
The Looming Tower is a non-fiction dramatisation of the events leading from the 1998 embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam to the 9/11 attacks. The miniseries is based on the Pulitzer-winning book of the same name by Lawrence Wright, named for a phrase from sura 4, verse 78 of the Qur’an, which bin Laden quoted 3 times in a speech thought to be directed to the 9/11 hijackers: “Wherever you are, death will ﬁnd you, even in the looming tower”. The main American characters are members of John O’Neill’s National Security Division, the FBI’s biggest ﬁeld oﬃce based out of New York and responsible for counterterrorism, and the CIA’s Alec Station, based near Washington DC.
It’s a really interesting dramatisation, though it’s impressive that something can make me think even less of the CIA, of Condoleezza Rice and of Bush Junior — and think better of the FBI.
Jeff Daniels and Tahar Rahim are exceptional as John O’Neill and Ali Soufan, a Muslim Lebanese-American FBI agent on O’Neill’s team. I also really liked the performances as FBI agents of Bill Camp, Louis Cancelmi and Virginia Kull; Cancelmi’s character being embedded into Alec Station and mainly based on Mark Rossini. Peter Sarsgaard is excellent as the unlikeable Martin Schmidt, the chief of Alec Station reluctant to share information outside of the CIA, based Michael Scheuer.
The Looming Tower is inclusive with Amazon Prime in the UK and Canada and will be broadcast on BBC2 starting at the end of April 2019. In the US it is inclusive on Hulu or available to buy for $24.99 in the US and Canada.
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