There’s a certain enterprising charm to the way that Netflix UK sells slightly shopworn programmes as exciting new things. Case in point: Saints and Strangers, a two-part historical drama about the colonisation of Massachusetts first shown on the National Geographic channel over Thanksgiving 2015.
It’s one of your prestige historical dramas, two feature-length episodes with lots of grey mist and lovely South African scenery. It’s got some medium-sized names in it: Vincent Kartheiser, Natasha McElhone, Raoul Trujillo and the inescapable Ray Stevenson.
The interesting thing about dramatising “the first Thanksgiving” is that the nicest way you can play it is as a tragedy — after all, this initial moment of rrrreeeeelatively peaceful interaction between Europeans and Native Americans is all going to go to bloody hell by the end of the century. The show does address that point — including a real sucker punch at the end in which they reveal that an adorable moppet who appears during the first Thanksgiving scenes grows up to be Josiah Winslow, the colony governor who commanded the English forces during King Philip’s War.
As a drama shown on the National Geographic Channel, Saints and Strangers does seem to take its educational mission pretty seriously. In some ways, this is a good thing — it presents quite a complex, ambiguous image of Squanto, for instance — but in other ways it’s a weakness. After all, the real history, by dint of being history, resists convenient narrativisation. We’re left with Kartheiser and Stevenson being agonised about the morality of their action, which is … a little sickly-feeling, since we know how it all ends. I am not in a position to say that they didn’t agonise, but there is something a little distasteful about retroactive agonising over convenient deaths.
Like a lot of historical shows, this one struggles with the dialogue. All the English-speakers speak in a schmancy, convoluted way, talking about how things are diminutive or how they will unleash a wrath of violence or whatever, but it only occasionally sounds like something someone from the 17th century might say. And they say ’tis. And then every so often they ask someone if they’re OK. I mean, I get that it’s not going to be Shakespeare, but all you would have to do is pick half a dozen expressions that were in use in 1620 and not in the modern day and use those strategically. That or just have them speak in modern English. I know it’s a difficult line to walk, but they sound like LARPers used to sound.
Native American parts are played by Native American actors speaking Abenaki, a related language to the one the locals would have actually spoken. So that’s good, especially since it means we get to see Raoul Trujillo playing an older, wryer version of his usual badass warrior.
Overall: it’s OK. It’s definitely a bit of a pageant, and I wouldn’t move it to the top of you list, but it has some good bits and it looks nice.
I gotta say, though, I like Ron Livingston, a bigger fan you won’t find, but I don’t know that he’s quite right for his part in this.