“The Cosmopolitans”: Whit’s Still the Man

This weekend I had the chance to check out the pilot episode of “The Cosmopolitans”, the new series by writer and director Whit Stillman released on Amazon Prime.  If you’re a regular visitor to these pages, then you know that I’m an unabashed fan of his work.  Yet after the somewhat anti-climactic “Damsels in Distress”, it was great to see him return to seriously good form in this, a new series about young Americans living and loving in Paris.

Like much of Stillman’s work, “The Cosmopolitans” isn’t so much about a story moving toward resolution, but rather a series of stories that intertwine, punctuated by significant events.  He’s been described as the conservative, bourgeois version of Woody Allen, and there’s some truth to that observation.  For more often than not, the reason why someone either enjoys or does not enjoy Stillman’s work comes down to the question of whether the conversations taking place among his characters remind the viewer of conversations which they themselves have had.  If you can’t relate to Woody Allen – and I certainly can’t – then you probably find him irritating and perverse.  Stillman, on the other hand, is “The Man”, in a sense, because he is writing largely about the experiences of educated, cultured Americans from good schools and respectable backgrounds, exploring the world around them and always dressing stylishly as they do so.

It’s also interesting to see how effortlessly Stillman has transitioned to the small screen.  Like Amy Sherman-Palladino back in the first few seasons of “Gilmore Girls”, when it was one of the best-written things on television, Stillman has an ear for the witty comeback, the snarky cultural reference, and the perfect put-down worthy of the Ancien Régime. Yet because of the nature of the films which he has made so far, Stillman’s work usually has a drawing-room quality to it, like sitting at a party at the house of someone you don’t know – also a favorite plot device of his – and overhearing other people’s interesting conversations. These make the small screen just as good a venue for his observations as the big screen.

Stillman has also presented us with a combination of characters that we will try to figure out better as the series continues.  For example, writing Chloe Sevigny’s character as a kind of proto-Miranda Priestly seemed a surprise at first, seeing as how her outing in Stillman’s “Last Days of Disco” was as something of an ingenue. Yet watching her take a throwaway comment about how long it takes to become a Parisian and turn it into a recurrent thematic weapon is absolutely hilarious, and makes the viewer want to hear more of what she has to say.

The phenomenon of seeing prominent actors and directors like these creating on-demand streaming internet series is an interesting phenomenon in and of itself.  The American version of “House of Cards” is, understandably enough, extremely popular and heavily advertised here in DC.  This is due not only to the fact that the series is set here, but also because a significant percentage of the population here is tech-savvy enough to feel perfectly comfortable with the idea of watching a show streamed via the internet.  As more investment in digital infrastructure takes place in the coming years, it seems reasonable to assume that more and more of these “online tv” series will be made.

Of course the best sign that any series, online or not, has completely sucked you in is when you are watching a scene, the music swells, the screen goes black, and you audibly shout, “Awwww NO!” You’ve been so caught up in the story that you weren’t keeping an eye on the clock.  That’s happened to me a few times, during some really engrossing series: the British series “MI-5″ for example (as “Spooks” is known in the U.S.) These moments are the sign of a good writer, good director, and good actors all coming together. And that same, telltale outcry of disappointment that the episode was already over arose from me and my group of friends watching the pilot for “The Cosmopolitans”.

As the central characters began to make their way home across Paris from a party they had stayed at too long, the credits began to roll, and we were all disappointed to see that the episode was already over. I was reminded at that point of the conclusion of Stillman’s first film, “Metropolitan”.  In that story, his characters had to make their way back to Manhattan with no reasonable means of transportation at their disposal, leaving them to hitchhike along the highway as the picture faded into text.  Unlike in “Metropolitan” however, it appears that we are going to have the great pleasure of seeing what happens next to this new group of characters.  I can’t wait to eavesdrop on their conversations.

It's Whit Stillman. Of course there is a dance sequence.

It’s Whit Stillman. Of course there is a dance sequence.

The Curtain Begins to Fall on “Poirot”

Last night PBS here in America screened “The Big Four”, a television adaptation of an Agatha Christie novel featuring her world-famous private detective, Hercule Poirot.  This kick-off of the final season of the long-running British period television series, “Agatha Christie’s Poirot”, is something of a cultural watershed.  Not only is it a remarkable example of acting longevity, in that David Suchet has now played Poirot in an adaptation of every novel and major story featuring that character, but it also raises some questions about how popular culture has changed in the 25 years since the series began.

I was not surprised to learn, while researching this post, that writer Mark Gatiss adapted the screenplay of “The Big Four”.  Gatiss is the co-creator of the popular series “Sherlock”, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman; he is also one of the writers for the equally popular revival of the “Dr. Who” series.  Last night’s “Poirot” episode at several points felt like a rehashed version of “Sherlock”, complete with an unexpected explosion nearly killing off the master detective.  Regular readers will know that I dislike “Sherlock” intensely.  Nor am I a fan of the revival of the Dr. Who series, even though on both of these points I realize I am in the minority.

That being said, the perceptible changes in the “Poirot” series are not down to Gettis alone, since many writers have worked on the show over the past quarter of a century.  Early episodes, for example, featured a spry, Wodehouse-like dialogue, belying the serious nature of the crimes depicted; there was also a generally bright, Art Deco look and sense of optimism to the series.  Later, “Poirot” developed a more shadowy feel, giving rise to a moodier, more Byzantine atmosphere.  The proceedings seemed to grow darker, with murders showcased in increasing detail, rather than being briefly witnessed and later alluded to.  More recently, murders on the show have often accompanied by acts of outright cruelty and humiliation beyond a simple shooting or stabbing, veering into torture.

A contributing factor to the change in tone arose from the whittling down of the regular cast.  Supporting characters such as Poirot’s sidekick, the sporty Captain Hastings, the perpetually glum Inspector Japp, and Poirot’s ever-efficient secretary Miss Lemon, created more of an ensemble feel in the earlier shows.  The actors played off of each other well, mixing seriousness and humor in an outstanding example of good casting.  The absence of these characters from more recent episodes allowed Suchet to really shine as an individual actor, but it also seemed to turn Poirot in on himself: he found himself doubting, questioning, and losing his cool more regularly.

It was obviously a joy last evening for long-time fans of the series to see the old, familiar characters in the opening scenes of the premiere of this final season.  We were treated to shots of Hastings on his ranch in the Pampas, Miss Lemon with her latest cat companion at her London home, and Japp at his desk in Scotland Yard, all within the first three minutes.  Yet even though they returned to the side of their old friend, Poirot himself is clearly not the same man whom they had last worked with years earlier.  There were moments of the old, upbeat sparkle, but on the whole the levity was long-gone, replaced with a more ponderous, sometimes sinister undertone.

Those who know how the Poirot books came to an end, as indeed shall the series, will not find these shifts entirely out of place. Over the years, Agatha Christie grew tired of her most famous literary creation, and in the 1940′s she wrote “Curtain”, the final Poirot case, to be released whenever she thought the series should finish.  The novel was kept in a bank vault, and remained unpublished until shortly before Christie’s death in 1976.

If the final episode of “Poirot” is anything like the original novel, “Curtain” will present significant ethical problems for some viewers and not for others.  Today, the seeming moral ambiguity of Poirot’s last case is something which our contemporary culture not only accepts, but demands.  Today’s audience, apparently, does not want black and white, it wants shades of gray, as it were.  Viewers want conflicted heroes who find difficulty in distinguishing right from wrong.  “There ain’t no good guy, there ain’t no bad guy, there’s only you and me and we just disagree,” as the old song goes.

Although I find it a pity that Christie chose to end Poirot’s career in the way that she did, it would be unfair to the producers of this final series to blame them for the darkening tone which is completely appropriate to the conclusion of this series.  This ending will also be an opportunity, for those who watch it, to observe what transpires, and ask whether there is a right and a wrong, or whether morality is always ambiguous.  The fact that we would even have such a discussion, of course, shows us that quite a lot has changed in the past quarter century, since the “Poirot” series was first broadcast.

Pauline Moran, Philip Jackson, David Suchet, and Hugh Fraser in "The Big Four" (2013)

Pauline Moran, Philip Jackson, David Suchet, and Hugh Fraser in “The Big Four” (2013)

 

“Downton Abbey” and “Doc Martin”: Two Very Different Finales

This weekend I watched two very different season finales, on two very different British imports: “Downton Abbey” and “Doc Martin”.  My British readers have already long-since seen both; for my American readers who may not have caught them yet, I promise no serious spoilers.  However, you may still want to bookmark and return to this piece after you have seen these episodes, if indeed you plan to do so.

Now I know, I know, after the scathing piece I wrote regarding happened to Anna early on in this season of “Downton Abbey”, I am clearly a hypocrite for getting drawn back into it again.  Unfortunately “Downton” at times is rather like a bag of Fritos.  It can be addictive, salty, and pleasurable, but it has little nutritional value.  Plus, you really aren’t supposed to eat it all in one sitting, unless you have a morbid desire to experience heartburn and indigestion.

In the end it turned out that the “Downton Abbey” finale was just as bad as inhaling an entire bag of corn chips.  Remember at the end of Season 2, when Matthew finally proposed? Or at the end of Season 3, when he bit the big one? The highlight of the Season 4 finale was two characters wading in the sea at Brighton, hand in hand.  In fact, that pairing was trending last night on Twitter across the U.S., probably because it was the only item of note in an otherwise dull finale.

We all know that “Downton Abbey” is little more than a soap opera masquerading as a costume drama, given its ridiculous plot devices and wincingly bad historical anachronisms.  However I did come back to it even after what I had written previously, for the simple reason that there is so little of any merit on television.  Should I watch a 256th version of a show about cops tracking serial killers who employ particularly gruesome methods of torture?  Or should watch a supposedly funny show about a group of confused people having no moral center beyond the old, “if it feels right to you then it must be right”?  There are many things wrong with “Downton”, but there are moments when one is reminded that there is in fact a moral center to the universe, even if popular culture elsewhere would have you believe that the only true Polaris to human existence is self-worship.

Moreover, one keeps coming back to “Downton Abbey” because, let’s face it: it looks great.  The cars, the homes, the clothes, everything is just wonderful eye candy if you appreciate beautiful things.  Try flipping through the channels some evening, and pause to consider, visually, what you are looking at, and ask yourself how aesthetically pleasing it truly is.  How much ugliness can we look at, night after night, in our entertainments and not have it affect us in some way?  That is not necessarily a reason for “Downton” to survive as a series, of course, but when considering the viewing alternatives, it was overall a far better choice to make.

I also caught the finale of Season 6 of “Doc Martin”, which although well-liked, has never been a cultural phenomenon in the way “Downton Abbey” has been over on this side of the pond.  I have never been an unreserved fan of the show, finding some of the characters rather repetitive and twee, although it is generally entertaining and does its job well.  For once you get into it, there are enough good performances – particularly Martin Clunes, Caroline Catz, and Eileen Atkins – to keep you interested.

Unlike the “Downton Abbey” finale, there was serious drama at the conclusion of “Doc Martin” this season.  However there was also one of those rare moments when one sees two good actors doing a superb job addressing serious matters that come up in the lives of human beings, wherever they happen to sit on the social scale.  For this reason, “Doc Martin” actually had something better and more relatable to say, despite “Downton” trying to hit all the buttons of lust, murder, rape, and so on.  And of course like “Downton”, “Doc Martin” is also beautiful to look at, albeit for very different reasons, thanks to the magnificent Cornish coast.

For the finale of “Doc Martin”, a conflict between Martin and Louisa comes to a head, which at first I must confess I found incredibly irritating.  Louisa knew what Martin was like, I was thinking to myself, and she married him anyway: she made her bed, now she must lie in it.  Yet seemingly within weeks of their wedding, she tires of the trials of living real married life, where all is not sunshine and rainbows.

Interestingly, in the resolution of this crisis it is the taciturn Martin who, with his methodical nature, proves to have a much better grasp of what the term “marriage” actually entails than does the romantic and breezy Louisa.  It is Martin who realizes what his duties are, and that in order for things to get better, he is going to have to change, and to work with her together on their marriage.  As someone who has always been painfully shy and withdrawn after years of abuse at the hands of his parents, for Martin to stop trying to shield himself is a major triumph.  When he does so, at the end of this season, the man of principle within is still there, it is not merely a facade.

In sum, then, both these finales have their high and low points (and the reader is certainly welcome to disagree with my thoughts on each by leaving comments below.)  Both are lovely to look at it, albeit for different reasons.  And both provide the benefit of making you think, rather than just sitting back and allowing your brain to atrophy.  Given these factors, you could do far worse than to add them to your television viewing.

Caroline Catz and Martin Clunes in "Doc Martin"

Caroline Catz and Martin Clunes in “Doc Martin”