TV Tuesday: Tutankhamun (2016)

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Howard Carter’s discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922 is one of the great stories of archaeology. It’s got everything: buried treasure, international intrigue, irresponsible speculation, a spurious story about a curse. It’s got everything but a love story.

Or perhaps I should say that it didn’t have a love story until ITV got their hands on it.

Tutankhamun (the TV series, as distinct from Tutankhamun the person) is a four-part miniseries that follows the adventures of Howard Carter (Max Irons) from the 1900s through to the beginning of his partnership with Lord Carnarvon (Sam Neill) and then to his discovery of the tomb in 1922. To its credit, it then pushes on with the years of excavation and post-excavation work until the dig finally ends in 1930.

This does mean that visually things are a bit odd: Max Irons is in his early 30s, which is about right for Carter in the early 1900s. But Carter was 48 when the tomb was found and well into his 50s by the time the excavation wrapped up. This leads to a much younger, more heroic-looking Carter on screen than existed in reality.

That may be because Tutankhamun is very focused on its love stories — one between Carter and a lady named Maggie Lewis (Catherine Steadman), who I believe is fictional, and one between Carter and Carnarvon’s daughter, Evelyn (Amy Wren). I am given to understand that the idea of a relationship between Evelyn and Carter is something that has long been rumoured, although I don’t know of any reason for it other than that neither of them were married and they spent a lot of time around each other. Perhaps there’s more to it; I’m not an expert.

Actually, let me correct myself here: the love stories aren’t the main narrative focus of the show, something I realised as I was writing the previous paragraph. They just stand out because they’re the things that aren’t a more or less straightforward retelling (condensed and hyped up, of course) of the process of discovery. Everything else is exaggerated: for instance, the story starts with Carter just straight-up punching a tourist, which is not what happened, I don’t think. He actually just took the side of site workers against the tourists in an argument. Again, perhaps there was more to it: I’m not an expert. But the point is that it’s a sexified version of something that genuinely did take place. There are lots of other instances where complex situations are rendered simple; that’s pretty common in historical TV but it can lead to characters seeming a bit dimmer than they ought to sometimes.

One thing that Tutankhamun does that’s quite good is give some impression of the political and social context of Egypt in the 1920s. Again, it’s not a perfect portrayal, but it does avoid some of the worst problems: this kind of exploration story can easily drift into colonial-adventure narrative, so it’s nice that this one does do something to locate its setting within its colonial context, even if it’s a little simplistic.

You could say that for the show overall, really. Many of the relevant points are sketched in, and it’s nice that some of them are addressed that often aren’t in shows about archaeology, but it’s a little too realistic to have a satisfying central conflict and a little too melodramatic to be completely educational.

So Tutankhamun is … not bad. It’s well-made and the parts are adequately to well acted. I think my favourite appearance was Rupert Vansittart as Flinders Petrie, who is only in one scene but completely steals it. It’s not terribly innovative and the dialogue is occasionally clunky, but overall it’s pretty enjoyable. It’s not exactly a thrill a minute, and if you’re already knowledgeable about the story I doubt you’ll learn much. I learned a certain amount, but I am not sure people share my habit of watching historical TV while obsessively looking things up to fact-check. Shame, really; sometimes I think that’s the best way to do it.

TV Tuesday: Tutankhamun (2016)

TV Tuesday: Saints and Strangers (2015)

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.

TV Tuesday: Saints and Strangers (2015)

TV Tuesday:Vikings again (again)

(Contains spoilers for the ninth century.)

So it’s been quite a while since I last updated my ongoing account of watching Vikings. And in that time, well … a lot has happened. The fourth season is now wrapped up and things are pretty different from back when they started. Honestly, back in season one I assumed that the plot currently developing — the death of Ragnar and the invasion of England by the “Great Army” — was going to be the main plot of the whole series, but now we’re halfway through the second part of season four, a group of episodes that I still maintain is actually season five. So let’s get down to it.

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Now, I thought the first part of this season — oh heck, let’s call it season 4.1. 4.1 boldly hacked away all the plots no one gave a crap about, like Yidu and whatever Odo was up to, killed off the characters and forgot about them. But it looks like 4.2 is warming up to kill off all its main characters and replace them with an entirely new generation. Ultimately the show is gonna be about Alfred vs the Ragnarssons.

Now, that is very in keeping with the idea that this is a saga, isn’t it? A generational story full of revenges and curses and what have you. If you were going to make a Viking story, that’s the kind of story you would make, even if the details don’t marry up with any particular saga or any particular series of historical events.

But it’s an odd kind of television series. Actually, now that I think about it, I suppose that’s very close to its most obvious model, Game of Thrones, which has shed quite a lot of main characters and gained new ones along the way. Still, Game of Thrones does keep a number of its leads from its first series, while by the time this is done there’s going to be almost no one left in this thing. Like I said, interesting.

As always, the historical accuracy is pretty … approximate, and the costumes and sets are more Skyrim than early middle ages. It continues to look good — it’s well shot, and they’ve clearly spent some money on it. The writing still lags behind the production, although many of the performances are excellent.

Anyway, I have six or seven episodes to cover, so I will just give a quick overview of the points that caught my attention:

  • I do like the way that they have sort of split up elements of Ragnar’s personality among the sons: Ivarr the devious little bastard, Bjorn the warrior, Ubbe the politician, Sigurd and Hvitserk the … other ones. UPDATE: I guess Sigurd is the sensitive one.
  • The geography of the show continues to be maddeningly unclear. In this season they talk as if they’re from Norway, but I could swear that in previous seasons they were in Denmark. Hedeby is undeniably in Denmark, despite its icy mountainous landscape. They talk about Sweden as if it’s the moon — people have come from as far away as Sweden! — but didn’t they go to Sweden back in season 1?
  • Egbert remains simultaneously interesting and infuriating as a character. Writers often want to make a character devious but struggle with the external constraints that would make that deviousness work, since that kind of worldbuilding is not considered to be good television.
  • I like the way Lagertha’s shieldmadiens have turned into a sort of elite corps/personal bodyguard in an army that otherwise includes both women and men.
  • I assume Ivarr wears a scarf over his face when riding his chariot to hide the fact that he’s a stunt double most of the time?
  • Harald’s love interest(ish) is called “Elisif,” which I always thought was a Norse way of saying “Elizabeth,” which is weird in a pagan culture, no? Also, is it just me or does that plot go precisely nowhere? It’s not like the narrative isn’t pretty crowded already.
  • Gustaf Skarsgard has been the high point of pretty much each season, and nothing changes in this one.
  • I do like the idea that political and military turmoil back home happens when the army is off invading places — this was a very real feature of medieval warfare.
  • Aelle is, once again, a circumstantially convenient idiot. He’s totally taken aback by the size of the Ragnarssons’ army, because … his guys who spotted the attacking force don’t know how to count ships and multiply them by the number of dudes in a ship? Again, the “heroes” get to look good by the simple expedient of having their opponents take a dive like idiots. See also breaking formation to do a wild infantry charge at approaching cavalry.
  • Rituals and magic continue to be eerie and interesting. Is this the first time this series has had genuinely supernatural omens? I mean, Harbard was left ambiguous as best I remember, but to be honest I wasn’t really paying attention after he turned out not to be a trash-talking magic ferryman like the actual Harbard.
  • The destruction of the Winchester sets we’re so familiar with is surprisingly moving.
  • In terms of defensive strategies in a town made of wood and thatch, starting a huge fucking fire seems like it should be toward the bottom of the list, but filmmakers are obsessed with the idea of lighting things on fire.
  • Aw, poor old Torve. Didn’t see that one coming ha ha j/k they gave her a line about how she would definitely see Bjorn again. What did we think was gonna happen?
  • Hey, it’s Jonathan Rhys-Meyers! Playing The Sex Bishop! That’s not what I think of when I think of Saint Heahmund but to be honest I have never really thought of Saint Heahmund until this very minute, so.
  • Main character death count so far: Aslaug, Ragnar, Helga, Egbert. Not-main-but-important characters dead: Aelle, Torve. Who-gives-a-shit characters dead: Egil, Elisif, whatsername (aside: if this show was gonna have only one Muslim character, I don’t know about making her a war orphan / suicide knifer, no matter how richly Helga deserved it). Are the only characters left alive from Season 1 Floki, Rollo and Lagertha? I mean, OK, Bjorn was in Season 1, but different actor. Was Aethelwulf in Season 1? I don’t remember.
  • Perhaps all my criticisms simply amount to “it looks good but don’t think about it too hard.”

 

TV Tuesday:Vikings again (again)

TV Tuesday: Narcos

So Narcos is this show Netflix keeps trying to push as some kind of big prestige drama, but nobody I know seems to be watching it. I thought I’d give it a spin, since these days shows set in the 80s and early 90s are historical shows. And it’s … interesting.

It’s a bold move, frankly, and I’d be interested to know more about why Netflix decided to make it the way they did — are they pushing into Spanish-speaking markets? Because, I mean, this thing doesn’t have anyone really famous in it, and about two thirds of it is in Spanish. Which makes sense, but it’s not exactly a formula for success in the Anglophone world.

It’s a dramatisation, not a historical retelling, and it’s up-front about that fact. Some of the characters are real, but others are fictitious or based on real people. So the reporter, Valeria Velez, is based on a real reporter, Virginia Vallejo, but their fates are very different between the show and real life. Similarly, Colonel Carrillo from the first part of the show is fictitious, while the guy who replaces him, Colonel Martinez, was real.

There’s an American POV character who is treated like the hero of the story to begin with but whose importance declines as it goes on; he kind of reminds me of Marco in Marco Polo, the increasingly unnecessary point of viewer identification. But the main attraction is clearly Wagner Moura as Pablo Escobar, and he’s good.

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Its most obvious model is The Wire — a crime drama that’s really an exploration of a particular setting built up of many small strands — and like that show it also succeeds in evoking a look and feel in a way that’s impressive (I mean, I wasn’t in Colombia in the 80s, but this feels like it could be what that looked like).

It also showcases some of the flaws in historical storytelling on television, especially in the contrast between its first and second seasons. The second season covers a year or two in which the cops, rival drug cartels and paramilitaries are all hunting for Escobar after he escapes from jail. It’s a relatively short period of time with a cast of characters many (though not all) of whom were developed in the first season, and it’s compelling. But it comes at the expense of a first season that covers over a decade of history and has to introduce almost all of those characters. As a result, the first season feels a little more disjointed and grab-baggy. It has a lot of great scenes and performances, but it’s the weaker of the two — which is a shame, since it’s the first one people will see.

Anyway, it’s definitely worth watching as long as you either don’t mind giving a show your full attention or speak Spanish.

TV Tuesday: Narcos

TV Tuesday: It’s Vikings again

After a long hiatus, Vikings Season 4 returns. Can I … before we start, can anyone explain to me in what sense this is not Season 5? It’s as long as a normal season, it has the schedule of a normal season, and it’s way more different from Season 4 than Season 4 was from Season 3. I mean, I don’t really care, I just don’t understand.

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Anyway, when last we left our cast, Ragnar had been spending some time at the Old Friends Senior Dog Sanctuary but had finally returned to grumble at the replacement cast of characters and act all whimsical, only now with a sense of regret. He’s also catching up with the viewers in terms of the knowledge that he’s going to die. I do like the way Sexy Fimmel of Season 1 has turned into Looks Like an Old Leather Couch Owned By a Family With Dogs Fimmel in just a few short years. I’m sure Actual Fimmel remains a fine figure of a man, but he must be spending longer and longer in that makeup chair every season.

Meanwhile, the young Ragnarssons are doing their patented line in being everything from Not That Much of a Bastard (Ubbe) to Your Average Level of Bastard (Sigurd) to Rotten Little Bastard (Ivarr). I have to say that for all he used to be Action Hero Dude, Bjorn is pretty good in this. Alexander Ludwig does this thing where he mimics Ragnar’s body language, and it’s clever.

What else, what else? Season 4 ended with a savage purge of extraneous plotlines, killing off Whatsername, the other Whatsername, her brother Whatsername’s Brother, and probably some English people too. This season continues the trend by, for a miracle, confining its action only to the towering peaks and rocky fjords of … southern Denmark. No Wessex, no Paris, no those two Norwegian guys, no nothing. Which is fair enough; with five or six new characters to introduce (the girls get pretty short shrift here, so I don’t know if they’re going to be recurring) it would be ridiculous to go back to the other plotlines.

Now, I don’t know if this means that the show has decided to stop trying to be Game of Thrones and go back to trying to be Sons of Anarchy, or if they’re just easing us back in to the upcoming Alfred the Great plotline one step at a time. I would like to see Rollo again, but it’s hard to imagine how other than Bjorn’s side plot.

Sexy Sexy Murder Alert: I was pleased to see that Ivarr didn’t kill the blonde girl (Margret?), which I was assuming would be his Rotten Little Bastard characterisation moment. Instead, he has a good old cry and she comforts him, which is a pretty kind way to treat someone who was trying to strangle you a moment ago. I hope that this is just her trying to survive in a tough situation rather than genuine empathy. Maybe she was just sleeping with all the brothers until she found the one she could manipulate? Frankly I hope she becomes his psycho Lady Macbeth character; we need more female political characters now that Aslaug seems not to be doing much. Well, it’s early days yet.

So yeah: I like the new kids, all brittle and insecure and dangerous, I like Lagertha being all stately with posh hair, it would be nice to see a little more … narrative economy this season and it looks like we might get that. There isn’t much history-lesson stuff in this episode, which means there isn’t much totally risible history, so that’s nice.

TV Tuesday: It’s Vikings again

TV Tuesday: Wolf Hall (2015)

As always, I am late to the party on this one, since I don’t tend to see many television shows until they reach Netflix or similar. But, hey, Wolf Hall is on Netflix, so let’s see what all the fuss was about. I haven’t read the novels, but I know this story is about the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell, although looking at Wikipedia I see that it only goes up to 1536, so I guess it’s just rise and rise.

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I’m particularly interested in this one because it’s a topic I’ve taught; the relevant GCSE paper is very concerned about the transition between the various ministers, although to be honest it’s been a while since I covered the topic. Since Thomas Cromwell is the viewpoint character here and the first episode doesn’t paint More in a very flattering light, I feel like I can see where it’s going, but let’s wait and see.

Ahhhh, no. As the series goes on, I see that this is Cromwell’s origin story as a real son of a bitch. Allison joined me watching an episode in, and I was explaining what she’d missed, and after every character’s name I would add that description: “so, the Duke of Norfolk (a real son of a bitch)…”. I’m not sure that in reality you’d have to account for Cromwell becoming a devious rat bastard; people didn’t really see a contradiction between devious rat bastardry and sincerely held principle. That’s assuming sincerely held principle in the first place, of course.

I feel like the uncertainty and personal politics of the Tudor court are well portrayed, even if some of the specifics are compressed and simplified (although they do keep a good number of characters, to the point that they’re all doing that thing where they say each other’s names a lot in conversations so you can tell who’s who). You get a sense of the ways in which this was basically living in a third-world dictatorship with a powerful autonomous religious bloc. Which, now that I think about it, is a lot of third-world dictatorships. Just because our names for things make them sound heroic and dignified, we tend to forget that, but I think this portrays it vividly, which is good.

To go off on one of my traditional tangents, people have a bad tendency to assume that there’s some kind of scumbag behaviour that’s unusual or unique to a particular culture. And while, OK, particular kinds of scumbag behaviour are specific to certain circumstances, there aren’t some people who go into those circumstances and collectively don’t act like scumbags. This manifests most obnoxiously in westerners feeling superior to people who engage in political shenanigans in other countries and modern people feeling superior to their brutish ancestors.

If I could articulate the mushy complexity of medieval politics in a blog post I would be a genius. Every time I start I wind up saying things that sound obvious. Something to work on.

And of course in purely dramatic terms it is good: good performances, lovely sets and things, and a really nice focus on keeping the lighting in night scenes realistically dark. They obviously put a lot of effort into the locations, and I liked the frequent use of boat travel scenes to emphasise what an important form of travel it was. I also liked the costumes, which seem in some cases to be directly taken from Holbein paintings of the characters. You could almost say that Damian Lewis is overdoing it with the Henry VIII poses, but I think the idea is very much that Henry VIII is doing Henry VIII poses.

So, yeah, I liked it, although I quibbled with some of the history. You basically can’t turn someone’s life and career into a structured narrative without compressing or overlooking a lot of things, but I do think it did a pretty good job with look and feel, and as a TV drama it was a lot of fun.

TV Tuesday: Wolf Hall (2015)

TV Tuesday: The Get Down

So, I have been watching The Get Down, Baz Luhrmann’s kinda-sorta music-history piece about the birth of hip-hop in the Bronx in the late 1970s. There’s been a lot of argument about historical inaccuracy in this show, and I’m not sufficiently knowledgeable to weigh in, except to say that I can definitely see a few places where things have been compressed, simplified, told out of sequence or reduced to a sort of cartoon of the reality.

Which … I said Baz Luhrmann, right? He’s not the only one involved, but he’s got previous for hearstring-tugging but not-exactly-coherent stories about the transformative power of music. Also for wild tonal inconsistency, which this also has. I enjoyed watching it, but it’s definitely kind of sloppy, less in a lot of ways than the sum of its parts.

But for me, I think the thing that really got me was that one of the storytelling choices was a real tough one for me to watch. So: two of the protagonists (well, at least two) are sort of torn between two worlds. Ezekiel (Justice Smith) is torn between a potentially bright future, going to college, pursuing a career in politics, his love interest Mylene (Herizen F. Guardiola), etc., and the music he loves so much, while Shaolin Fantastic (Shameik Moore) is torn between the same music and his commitment to the streets, the gang that raised him, etc.

The way in which this conflict is represented is … time-management anxiety. Lots and lots of anxious scenes about being in one place while you have to be in another, or fighting over competing demands on time. So … for me, that was not fun to watch. I get to see that stuff while I’m sleeping already.

It’s only a minor part, and it mainly illustrates what a weirdo I am, but there you go.

 

TV Tuesday: The Get Down