May 12, 2021

“Spiral” and Other Wonders of the Wasteland — A Pandemic Adventure

By Stuart Mitchner

Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.

—Newton Minow

Sixty years ago on Sunday, May 9, 1961, newly appointed F.C.C. Chairman Newton Minow labeled television “a vast wasteland” in an address to the National Association of Broadcasters. After suggesting that “when television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better,” he asserted that “when television is bad, nothing is worse.” His litany of negatives included “game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And endlessly, commercials — many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom.”

If you’re wondering what Minow would make of today’s non-stop, everything-you-desire-is-endlessly-available wonder/wasteland, he’s here to tell us, at age 95, and according to in Chicago, he thinks that the expanding of viewing choices has “contributed to the deep divisions in our country.” As a result, no surprise, the most important issue today is “deciding what is a fact.”

Speaking of Facts

A few weeks ago I referred to Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould’s Better Call Saul as “a great American film,” as if my opinion had some basis in fact. Writing at Oscar time, when American films are the center of the universe, I was speaking in extremes to make a point. Yes, it’s an outstanding series, it’s American, and it’s a film, but it’s also a five-season 50-episode saga with a sixth and final season yet to come. Sometimes I have to temper my enthusiasm to avoid sounding like a glorified blurb writer or a publicist with delusions of grandeur, not unlike Saul Goodman himself.

Another factor that would have sounded fantastically futuristic when Minow made his wasteland speech is the freedom to binge that allows me (and my wife) to speed through an entire five-season series in under two weeks. By so doing, we’re violating the real-life viewing experience of audiences that may have had to wait a year or longer for a new season. Meanwhile, it’s hard to keep a spillover of excitement from driving a written response, especially if you’re still feeling the wind of the binge at your back.

Harlots and Fossils

A July 2019 review from The Guardian’s Rebecca Nicholson finds the Hulu series Harlots “obscenely enjoyable” and wonders why “after two outrageously camp and emotionally powerful seasons, it isn’t a TV phenomenon yet.” Although she claims that the show’s “sympathies are more subtle than its brash gaudiness lets on,” I couldn’t get beyond the first episode, calling “Enough” after one too many shots of male buttocks pounding away, in this instance the twin moons belonging to Madame Lydia Quigley’s creepy son. What had convinced me to give Harlots a try in the first place was the presence of two actresses I admire, Lesley Manville as the despicable Quigley, and Samantha Morton as her rival Madame Margaret Wells. Whether or not the series lived up to the promise of “more subtle” sympathies, I didn’t want to watch either actress navigating so smug, shallow, self-consciously “outrageous” a production.

So, what did we turn to after Harlots? My wife said that a new film, Ammonite, could be streamed on Hulu. “It’s about a woman, a fossil hunter in 1840s England,” she said, with a straight face. I thought she was putting me on. We’re going from bawdy mid-17th-century London to a documentary about a female paleontologist in Lyme Regis?

“Kate Winslet’s in it.” That sounded better. “With Saoirse Ronan. It’s a love story.”

In fact, Francis Lee’s Ammonite has qualities of character, love, passion, and sexuality that stand out all the more starkly in contrast to the shallow, in-your-face antics obscenely abounding in Harlots (judging, again, from the episode we saw). Winslet gives one of her best performances as the thorny, darkly driven Mary, and Ronan is delicately appealing as the ailing Charlotte Murchison, whose husband has left her in Mary’s care. Both characters are deeply felt, sympathetic, and believable, and never more than when making love with a graphic intensity that shames the charades of sex in Harlots.

Weimar Berlin

However convoluted, fascinating, and colorful the plots of the series we’ve seen during the year of living locked down, what matters most is character. Season 3 of Netflix’s Babylon Berlin was the subject of the first column I wrote in quarantine, and a wild ride it was, as the season finale clawed, shrieked, howled, knifed, bled, drugged, and cross-dressed itself to a close. As with the first two seasons, what kept us watching, our bond and our ballast, was character. At the center of  the stunning cinematography, epic musical sequences in arena-sized cabarets, and spectacular cliffhangers, was a charismatic couple: the damaged, unrelenting police inspector Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch) and the spunky, savvy, ever undaunted Charlotte Ritter (Liv Lisa Fries). If you haven’t yet seen Babylon Berlin and need further encouragement, read New York Magazine’s Kathryn VanArendonk on “The Best Show You’re Not Watching.”

Occupied France

The series I would recommend above all others and the closest to the television equivalent of literature is A French Village, which we saw on Hulu and MHz Choice (it’s also available on Prime Video). Even with the falling off in the last two abbreviated post-liberation seasons (too many issues to resolve in too little time), this cinematic work of art offered much-needed refuge midway through the long strange trip of the Trump presidency. It’s the sense of flesh-and-blood humanity under the gun of the German occupation that makes A French Village so powerful a viewing experience. In the fictional town of Villeneuve, characters gaze into one another’s eyes on the point of death, whether it’s two brothers who never got along, or a couple who are falling in love even as one has been ordered to kill the other, or a communist and a capitalist collaborator about to die in front of a firing squad exchanging a look and sharing an endgame laugh together because both have refused the last rites and sent the priest packing.

Gritty Paris

One of the year’s highlights was the return of Studiocanal’s Spiral (Engrenages), another compelling French series we found after following two actors from A French Village to 21st-century Paris, where Audrey Fleurot plays Josephine, a no-holds-barred lawyer and Thierry Godard is Gilou, a Jean-Gabinesque undercover cop antihero in the squad led by Captaine Laure Bertaud (both shown here in a poster for Spiral 8). As played by Caroline Proust, Bertaud is a petite, fiery, indefatigable life force who forges a special working relationship with Philipe Duclos as the wily Judge Roban, with his underhanded grin and boyish shock of white hair. Almost too grim to watch at first (we gave up and came back a few weeks later), Spiral picked us up and carried us right through to the end of the sixth season. After the long wait, seasons 7 and 8 were a triumph. Writing in the New York Times, Mike Hale credits Spiral for “a satisfying valedictory season, less hair-raising and dire than earlier editions but in some ways more moving. There are nods to the great tradition of the French caper film as the star-crossed Gilou gets drawn into a plot that clouds his future, and shades of noir as Laure ends up, literally, on a dark and lonely road.”

Character Character

There’s no way to do justice to Éric Rochant’s The Bureau or Les Bureau des Légendes (imagine a French MI-5) in the space remaining, except to say that it’s another series you hesitate to commit to until you realize that it’s fueled by the all-important synthesis of character and action. It takes some time to connect with  Guillame Debailly (Mathieu Kassovitz), with his Alain-Delon-level good looks, in part because he has so many code-names and identities. Nor does his embattled relationship with Nadia el Mansour (Znib Triki) become emotionally compelling until Season 5. Your entrance to the series is guided by following the youthful Marina Loiseu (a wonderfully appealing Sara Giraudeu) through the demanding and often brutal indoctrination process.

Given The Bureau’s focus on the Middle East, I have to mention the brilliant Israeli series Fauda, which rides on the shoulders of one of the most compelling characters in cable television, Doron Kavillo (not played so much as lived by co-creator Lior Raz). Though not on the same level as Fauda, the Israeli miniseries The Spy is definitely worth seeing, if only to admire the skill with which the mercurial Sacha Baron Cohen plays the real-life legend Eli Cohen. In the context of character as an absolute, fans of The Americans may be moved, as we were, to see Noah Emmerich (unforgettable as the FBI agent-next-door Stan Beeman) as Cohen’s soft-spoken handler.

Easily the most amazing adventure we’ve had in the past month was Omri Givon’s series (on Netflix) When Heroes Fly, which I think of as a self-contained film in the sense of what more can it possibly accomplish? It’s got everything, a fascinating woman who may or may not be dead; a band of IDF (Israel Defense Force) brothers damaged by a single incident in the 2006 Lebanon war; a Colombian jungle cult right out of a Timothy Leary acid fantasy; plus the inevitable cartel heavies; and, of course, solid, believable characters played to the hilt.

Based on this scattered sample, series television 2021 is more pandemic wonderland than wasteland. And we’re looking forward to new seasons of Money Heist, one of the joys of the lockdown year, not to mention Stranger Things, Babylon Berlin, Ozark, Lupin, and Sherlock.

Note: I found the quote from Newton Minow’s speech in an article by Willard Spiegelman in the Winter 2021 issue of Raritan: A Quarterly Review. The interview quotes from Minow’s preface for his daughter Martha’s forthcoming book Saving the News.