Thoughts on The Leftovers, Doctor Foster, Unforgotten, Last Night Tonight with John Oliver. and Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
Helen Archer on The Leftovers
I have to admit to not being completely taken by the first season of The Leftovers, the HBO series based on Tom Perrotta’s novel, which examines a community in personal despair and public chaos after 2% of the world’s population simply disappears one October day. It all seemed a little try-hard to me, a little unconvincing in its overly self-conscious weirdness. It is something of an understatement to say that the second series has been a revelation.
Moving the action from Mapleton, New York, to Miracle, a small Texan town surrounded by the Shakespearean-sounding Forest of Jarden was a bold move, the kind of tear-it-down-and-start-again gambit you can’t help but wish many other programmes would have the nerve to try. Introducing not just a new setting, but a whole host of new characters and interpersonal relationships, the writers (Perrotta and Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof) are confident enough not to spell out motivations and backstory immediately, allowing room for the viewer do the work.
Until the finale, the second series had also pretty much turned its back on the Guilty Remnant, the sinister, nihilistic cult which formed in the wake of the departures, whose members billed themselves as the living reminders of those who were lost. While they bide their time, and with the slow deconstruction of their radical ideology, we see the many other faiths which seek to take their place – all promising to deliver answers to unanswerable questions, and leaving characters to clutch at whatever they think will get them through.
Each episode of this series is tightly constructed around one person’s point of view, hour-long vignettes, each one a personal meditation on the bitterness of bereavement, on what the late Scottish poet Norman MacCaig called “that thick death, that intolerable distance”. From Miracle, no one disappeared – the town is now believed to have mystical, life-preserving powers, and attracts the type of people so damaged they need to believe in anything, willing to pay thousands for a sip of holy water, or a reading from the local shaman.
Yet in Miracle, as in life, no one is spared from loss, from that intolerable distance. The cumulative effect of those seeking such unattainable solace is one of aching sadness and despair. As an examination of the personal toll that grief can take, the myriad ways it can infest a soul, and the desperate struggle to overcome it, beyond the high concept stylistics The Leftovers is quietly devastating.
All the stages are here, in all their terrible glory. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, each in its own little parcel filled with beautifully convincing characters. (It seems churlish to highlight any one performance in particular, though special shout-outs should go to Carrie Coon, Justin Theroux and Liv Tyler, returning from series one, and Miracle-residents and Leftover newcomers Regina King and Kevin Carroll, both playing sympathetic and sinister in equal measure, sometimes simultaneously). There are ellipses and obfuscations, questions of belief, steps into the underworld which pull the characters down, the great strength it takes for them to resurface, and their ultimate will to live.
While I realise this review makes the show sound like the most depressing programme ever, it is far from it. It is thrilling and entertaining, permeated with a barely perceptible pitch-black humour; it looks great, and every performance is terrific. The Leftovers is a fearless dissection of how people cope with unimaginable loss, and is so completely humane that the lasting effect is one of catharsis, a cleansing of the soul. And it proves, as one of our finest moral philosophers* once said, that “the hardest thing in this world, is to live in it”.
Danni Glover on Doctor Foster
I’ve recently started watching TV. Well, I’ve seen TV, the TV you’re supposed to have seen, The Sopranos and Twin Peaks and that, but I recently started enjoying the week-by-week communal viewing of a new programme on television that I can talk about at work. Box sets be damned, there is nothing like the slow and steady drip-feed of drama that serialised television offers. The best of it this year, for my (licence fee) money, was the BBC’s Doctor Foster, starring Suranne Jones as the eponymous doctor who suspects her husband is having an affair. Though the series occasionally felt pacey and melodramatic, Jones’ powerhouse performance as a scorned wife and Mike Bartlett’s terse and intensely observational script elevate what could have been quite a soggy Eastenders story arc into a gripping spectacle leading to a scorched earth finale. A dinner party scene can really make or break a drama (American Beauty, American History X, August Osage County) by subverting domestic and marital expectations, and the final episode contains a dinner party for the ages, in which Jones reveals to her husband and some horrified onlookers in agonising detail exactly what she knows he’s been up to. It crescendos into a Medea-like finale, too unexpected and horrifying to be accused of melodrama, updating Eurpides’ timeless feminist classic for a generation who cheat on their spouses with Tinder. (Although maybe it isn’t feminist at all! Answers on a postcard in the comments section). Doctor Foster has been renewed for a second season, which I’m not sure about at all with the finale being as… final as it was. But let’s see how they get on. In the meantime, Luther’s back next week and I’ve got high hopes for my telly watching becoming a firm habit. Wotcher.
Kate le Vann on Unforgotten
That’s Nicola Walker. You’ve seen her in things. Whatever you saw her in, she was very, very good. For instance, that episode of Luther, shown long before Broadchurch, in which she does Olivia Colman in Broadchurch’s the-murderer-is-my-HUSBAND? routine, exactly the way Colman went on to do it, every single move the same. But better.
The rest of the cast, if you happen to be around my age, is made up of every famous person ever, everyone who appeared in sitcoms and cop shows and the top left and the bottom right of Blankety Blank. During the first episode, when the names started appearing, I gasped theatrically at all of them. Peter Egan! Hannah Gordon! Trevor Eve! Cherie Lunghi! Gemma Jones! Bernard Hill! Raquel out of Only Fools & Horses! They’re all good, and Unforgotten gives them everything they need to be good. The plot, which is the story of how homophobic, racist and hypocritical Britain was four decades ago, gives everyone a scene, a moment, and everyone makes the most of theirs. Peter Egan’s scenes hit me right in the heart – he plays the only nice man in the 1970s – and it helps that he shares them all with Nicola Walker, whose cop character is not very lonely and troubled, and loves her son very much and, although she often plays people who suffer, when she has to do happy acting she’s radiant and real.
She’s not the best thing in Unforgotten. That’s Tom Courtenay. It’s not even the best thing he’s done — there’s a scene with Russell Tovey in Little Dorrit that might be the best thing anyone’s done — and a probably better final scene was thrown away in the end in favour of a ‘twist’ ending. (The plot of Unforgotten detangles itself beautifully, and is exciting and smart all the way there… but endings are hard, aren’t they.) Still. Tom Courtenay in Unforgotten was the best television this year.
Ricky Young on Last Week Tonight With John Oliver
As a fully paid-up member of the unthinking, privileged patriarchy, I’m passing over some of 2015’s XX-chromosomed delights such as The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Inside Amy Schumer and Broad City (all of which were GRATE, go watch them!) to pick a middle-aged white guy who likes to swear at things.
How very fucking typical.
As the UK simply can’t do topical comedy, if you want it, you have to go Yank. Problem is, the usual fillip of The Daily Show winked out of view when Jon Stewart left and handed over to a fella who comes across as a plank of wood with a smiley face painted on it.
So thank goodness for one of TDS’s former correspondents, whose mammoth 34-week sophomore run of HBO’s Last Week Tonight With John Oliver brightened up every Monday night after settling in for the weekly Shouting At Jeremy Paxman ritual.
It’s a simple format; three short, generally foreign-news items from the headlines, a bit of laughing at US-cable telly, and then a long-form topic, which Oliver mines for serious points and puerile yuks – a trick I can’t imagine anyone else carrying off so effectively. What’s more, while he’ll occasionally go for big targets from an unusual angle, most weeks he’ll focus on deeply unsexy issues that affect millions of little-guy lives. Want 18-or-so minutes of high-profile social-justice exploration on elected judges, or tobacco marketing, or ageing infrastructure, or paid maternity leave, or FIFA, all from the slightly-hysterical yap of a profane, rat-faced Brummie? Well, too bad; you don’t have HBO, and like me, you’re, er, too hoity-toity to steal off the internet. <looks at shoes>
But as Last Week Tonight is fully plugged into Modern Hashtaggery Etcetera, nearly all of it’s up there (swearing regrettably bleeped) on the YouTube – it should make you laugh, but it will make you think. But, naturally, I’m excluding Janice in Accounting from that, ‘cos she don’t give a fuuuuck.
Fiona Pleasance on Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
Let me start with an important disclaimer: I have not read the book. (Yet. It is on the top of the pile of reading material to take on my next holiday). Susanna Clarke’s 2004 cult-to-mainstream novel inspired devotion and fandom to a degree that is relatively rare for adult literature. But – as is so often the case when beloved source material is adapted for film or television – the series’ failure to match all aspects of its character development, environment or plot to the individual expectations of every single reader was a source of reservations for some and for downright irritation for others.
So I’m actually quite grateful that I didn’t have this problem. Because for me, coming utterly fresh to the material, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell on BBC One this spring and summer was one of the most entrancing, sumptuous, magical and strange (sorry) pieces of television in years.
All I really knew about the story was that it was about two magicians in Regency England. I didn’t even take ‘magicians’ literally (I was thinking more of the kind of blokes who have fake bouquets up their sleeves and rabbits hidden in their hats), so when, near the end of the first episode, the story took a somewhat Harry-Potterish swerve into a universe where magic actually is real, and the statues in York Minster can come to life, I was taken completely by surprise.
Admittedly, it did take a bit of time to adjust to the Strange and Norrell world, and I was certainly not the only person to feel this. The series drew some attention to itself over the summer for the dive in its viewing figures, as its audience dropped by about half between the first and third episodes (from about 5.5 million to 2.7 million viewers; after that, things stayed relatively stable at just over 2 million). An inappropriate time-slot was probably mostly to blame, but it bodes badly – particularly in the current climate – when unusual yet expensive BBC drama fails to find its audience.
For those of us who stuck it out, the rewards were many. Anybody not yet won over by the scene in York Minster probably capitulated at Jonathan’s conjuring of the sand horses, and the effects work – a well-judged mix of flashy CGI showpieces and simple in-camera tricks – was remarkably strong throughout, especially considering the non-Hollywood-scale budget behind it.
But what sticks in the memory a few months on are not just the magical flourishes, but the human component: the many characters, and their respective passages throughout the story. The supporting roles are so numerous, and so uniformly excellently acted, that it would be unfair to single anybody out. As to the two title characters, Eddie Marsan as Norrell rises to the challenge of playing an introverted, rather closed off character and making his behaviour understandable and sympathetic. And Bertie Carvel inhabits Strange so completely that it’s hard to imagine anyone else taking us from aimless fop to possessed force of nature quite so assuredly. As he himself has pointed out, “…you start in ‘Henry IVth Part One’ and you end up in ‘King Lear'”. (Watch on for his wonderful comparison of drama with magic).
Those who travel the Faerie realm have trouble readjusting to normal life on their return. I’ll wager that most viewers who stuck it out through all seven episodes ended up, like me, completely entranced. In the end, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell casts a spell as potent as any conjured by its titular magicians. Unless, perhaps, you’d read the book.