My tolerance of mediocre television has hit an all-time low. I breezed through Season 4 of The Magicians (see below) in a few days, mainly because I wasn’t watching much else at the time. There are a few average-but-watchable things around (in which category I do include Succession – see also below), but there are also programmes to which I take an almost instant dislike.
Catherine the Great, for example, which is on Sky/NowTV, and which stars Helen Mirren and a bunch of other (too) familiar faces. I gave it half an hour and as George in Seinfeld would say, it didn’t take. I just couldn’t see the point in paying attention to it. For a start, it seemed like the wrong end of Catherine’s life. Surely the interesting bit was when she, as a young woman, helped organise the palace coup against her own husband, the king? In broader terms, how much interest do I have in Russian royalty? I don’t mind an historical drama, but have little interest in the aristocracy. They’re all awful in the same ways, really. And if I were to watch something about the Russian royal family, I’d rather see something about the Bolshevik revolution and their execution/exile.
I lasted less time with the
Winds of War World on Fire, the BBC’s splashy wartime drama. Again, I couldn’t really see the point of it. Helen Hunt disturbs me (have never seen the appeal), but that aside, there was something a bit naff about this drama. It had a soapy quality that did remind me of the kind of 70s and 80s mini-series represented by The Winds of War or Rich Man, Poor Man. But also, and I think this is the crux, everything seemed too clean.
The doubtless expensive shots of “periodised” 1940s streets with old double decker buses and vintage cars just looked too pristine. Everything looked too digital, too much like green screen artificial scenery, and the skies were too unsmoky, as were the cars and the pubs. You feel too much as if you’ve been dropped into a simulation.
Which is before we get to the live music portrayed in the club scenes. It was as if a 20-something with no knowledge of the history of popular music nor any experience of seeing actual live music in, say, a pub or a back room, had been asked to create “authentic” 1940s entertainment. It seemed wrong in every possible way. And again: not enough smoke. More smoke would seem an obvious fix for a lot of this stuff: apart from anything else, it could hide the fact that everybody’s clothes looked too new and all the surfaces too clean. We’d just come out of a depression, for fucksake.
I think it wants to be Babylon Berlin, but it can’t quite hack it.
Meanwhile, there are things that I have in the background and quite like having on, mainly because they’re not even trying to be prestige television. One such is SyFy’s Reverie, a show about people who get lost in simulated realities and the woman who rescues them. It’s Sara Shahi, for a start, and Dennis Haysbert: both decent actors. I don’t know if I’ll stick with it, but it doesn’t offend or annoy. A similar-feeling show was Manifest, which is about a bunch of people who board a flight which disappears for five years before it lands. It’s like a lot of these kind of shows, like The 400, or Flashforward: high concept, and quite fun, until it gets cancelled. It’s no Counterpart, but it’s watchable.
Why can I stand that kind of middle-of-the-road fare but get turned off by Helen Mirren and a bunch of white people in period frocks? I guess the simple answer is genre, but also the feeling that these shows aren’t trying to convince me they’re better than they are.
In short: don’t waste time watching overblown period dramas when you could be hooting your face off watching The Magicians.