In My Queue: The Crown

NB: There is one small spoiler at the end of this review, though it should come as no surprise, given the subject of this series.

There is nothing more we Americans like than a dramatized peek into the lives of royals. Never having had a royal family of our own or even a real aristocracy, there is something romantic about the idea of a hereditary class that persisted even into the 20th (and 21st) century, particularly when there are British accents involved. To this end, the new Netflix original series The Crown does not disappoint. The first season is a look into the ascension and early reign of Queen Elizabeth II, with a good mix of political plotting and salacious personal detail.

First of all, the series is written by Peter Morgan, who also wrote the screen play for the film The Queen, in which Helen Mirren played Elizabeth dealing with the public fallout from the death of Princess Diana. And this makes sense, as the series has a very similar feeling. In particular, the sense of pathos he is able to evoke is unparalleled, particularly surrounding older characters. In The Queen, his portrayal of the Queen Mother prompted me to call my grandmother; in The Crown, his portrayal of Winston Churchill prompted me to reevaluate my own feelings towards my (now-deceased) father and (dementia-stricken) grandfather. Morgan is particularly gifted at writing scenes that show the little indignities of age.

But the focal point of the show is the new queen herself, and her relationships, both political and personal. Of note is the relationship between her and her husband, Prince Phillip. This series really helped cement how much I dislike the characters I’ve seen Matt Smith play, which doesn’t sound like a recommendation, except that Phillip is just so deliciously sullen. Despite his wish to be the dominant head of a marriage to the actual Queen of England, he comes of as a spoiled brat, rather than an angry man. And I think this distinction makes it easier to accept him as a troubled consort, rather than a threat. In contrast, Claire Foy has a perfect mix of quiet poise and demure strength when going up against a government system that should be no stranger to a ruling queen, and yet seems to continually fall victim to the sexist zeitgeist while dealing with her. She is able to, for the most part, gently overcome her opposition, showing her fire only when necessary, and otherwise remaining the perfect lady of the times.

Two last notes: I was absolutely floored by John Lithgow’s performance as Churchill. Apart from the impressive physical transformation, I thought he brought gravitas and honesty to Morgan’s aforementioned deftly written scenes of a man coming to terms with the end of his own reign of sorts. And Jared Harris played King George VI with such sympathy that it was almost a shame the show did not start a season earlier. I found his George more believable than Colin Firth’s in The King’s Speech, because there is always something too self-possessed about Firth’s portrayal of awkward characters. Harris played the perfect tragic king, and seemed like he brought a vulnerability to the character of the unlikely monarch that I would have liked to see from his beginnings. It truly is a shame that he tends to die so early in his small-screen roles.

All in all, The Crown serves as another wonderful dramatization of British royalty, and is a welcome respite from the Tudor era, truth be told.

Radio Drama Love: Welcome to Night Vale

I’ve spoken before about my love of radio shows and podcasts (the radio show of the modern era). Well, podcasting has managed to blend my love of this vintage-appropriate art form with my love of science fiction and fantasy writing. Similar to The War of the Worlds, my new favorite podcast blends realism with surrealism and presents a weird, fantastical, unlikely world in the mundane format of a community news show.

Welcome to Night Vale brings us Cecil Baldwin, the voice of community radio for the desert community of Night Vale. But very early on in the biweekly podcast’s first episode, it becomes clear that all is not what it seems it should be in Night Vale. From the menacing advance of the glow cloud to the pecularities of local government, things go from weird to really weird quite quickly, and yet each episode brings a new weirdness to pile onto the weird layer cake of this little show.

Perhaps my favorite part of the podcast is the jovial and unfazed manner with which Cecil reports even the most bizarre occurances. His silky voice maintains an air of casual reporting, indicating that even the very bizarre is simply business as usual in Night Vale. Which makes for all the more impact when he reports on something that is odd, even by Night Vale standards.

The show also has an interesting and subtle commentary on real-world community politics. Despite being set in a place where time has no meaning and sometimes it rains small-to-largeish animals, there is still that guy who is the local agitator, and the subway system still has delays and track work. In fact, listening to the episode about the public transit system while commuting to work on the train nearly sent me into fits of conspicuous mirth while my fellow passengers zoned out on their devices. In such a strange world as Night Vale, the aspects of life that ring true only serve to point out the absurdity of real life.

I highly recommend you check out the podcast. It’s difficult to explain without lessening the experience of hearing the episodes for the first time, so I won’t try to explain further. Suffice to say, it’s weird and delightful.

[The Night Vale logo was created by Rob Wilson and was found on the Welcome to Night Vale website, http://www.welcometonightvale.com/%5D

In My Queue: Ripper Street

One of my guilty pleasures of TV are police procedurals. Ripper Street combines this with my love of British TV and historical drama. It’s like CSI: Victorian London. It’s quickly become one of my favorite weekend shows, not least because of the clever references to the modern world, along with the atmosphere created by the costumes and characters.

The show follows Detective Inspector Edmund Reid, the head of the Whitechapel police division during the time of Jack the Ripper. Whitechapel is not the nicest of places, and it turns out they have far more than the Ripper about which to worry. The show skews decidedly political, following revolutionaries and outsiders, and reminds me of a steampunk world, only it tries to be historically accurate rather than speculative.

One of my favorite things about the show is the characters. The show focuses on an Edmund Reid who is noble, kind, determined, and very, very honest. The show juxtaposes him both with the status quo of London police — who are as often as not corrupt and often in the loop with the wealthy and politically connected — as well as with the American character. While there is some vagueness about his specific politics, the American doctor Homer Jackson is the outsider for which much of the plot must be exposed. He also represents the march of progress, both politically with his socialist leanings, and physically, as he brings forensic science into the 20th century. His “dead room” is an autopsy room where he turns Ripper Street into CSI: Victorian London. Rounding out the main male cast is Detective Sergeant Bennet Drake, a traditional, former-military copper who uses his fists to talk and tends to stick to tradition, though he is ultimately an honest cop. His boundaries are challenged when he falls in love with a prostitute.

The female cast is led by Long Susan, who is a madame with a secret past. She is married to Jackson, and she runs her house of ill-repute with a firm but caring hand. The show focuses upon some of her girls more than others, but makes sure they are more than pretty stereotypes. In contrast to Long Susan, Reid’s wife is a progressive woman in a traditional role. Their marriage is strained due to a past tragedy that is revealed as the first series goes on.

My other favorite thing about the show are the costumes. I love the bold use of color, adding splashes of saturated jewel tones to Jackson’s costume and Long Susan’s girls, while keeping the gritty, slightly dingy look of 19th-century London. The costuming, coupled with the often-veiled political references actually remind me of Firefly. The repartee between the characters doesn’t hurt on that score, either. Here’s hoping it stays running for a long time yet.

In My Queue: Rosemary and Thyme

I’ve mentioned before that I’m an Anglophile, and one of my favorite things about the UK is their entertainment. I don’t watch normal TV, but I keep lots of British TV shows in my Netflix queue. Lately, I’ve started watching the series Rosemary and Thyme, a cozy mystery series about a duo who solves crimes focused around gardens.

The basic premise is that Rosemary, a plant pathologist who has lost her position at a university, and Laura Thyme, a jilted policeman’s wife, meet over the death of Laura’s brother. While Laura helps Rosemary diagnose some horticultural problems at the house, the two of them figure out whodunit and decide to team up. They travel the countryside, taking jobs from those with gardens who need tending. And if someone mysteriously ends up dead? Well, that’s within their area of expertise.

One of my favorite things about the show is the scenery, all set in the English countryside, with a few overseas episodes. And in the first series, at least, I was amused that various characters the two women meet assume their involved as more than just friends and garden partners. Laura Thyme has one of the most beautiful reactions to a particulary ham-handed bout of homophobia from one detective.

It really is hilarious how thin the pretense can be. It’s like death just manifests around these two. I think the show flirts with self-awareness toward the end of the first season, when Laura expresses concern that their current job has to do with “the tree of death.” One would think she might be getting tired of all the coincidental deaths mucking up their gardening.