David’s Watch Diary: November 2020

Thoughts on The Crown, The Queen’s Gambit, The Personal History of David Copperfield, Fargo, Boys State, and more.

The Crown, Season 4 (Netflix)

Peter Morgan’s lavish and riveting drama may not be winning him many friends among the royal family, but make no mistake: Season 4 of The Crown is the series’s best to date. The performances are pitch-perfect; the writing is thematically rich; and the production design — my God — is so stunning it shouldn’t even be allowed. After watching the second episode “The Balmoral Test,” we immediately looked up Ardverikie House (the estate in the Scottish Highlands that stands in here for the famous Windsor residence), where you and yours can holiday for a mere two thousand pounds a week. I’m not including a link. Do your own research.

Anyway, sorry. I got distracted again. The point is, The Crown is mesmerizing viewing. This season brings us from the late 70s through the 80s, focusing primarily on the two important women who enter the world of Buckingham Palace and, to differing degrees, fail to escape it with their dignity: Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson, astonishing), and Princess Diana (Emma Corrin, astonishing). The former, the “Iron Lady” herself, is shown to be a complex but ultimately destructive figure, whose combativeness and revanchist polices devastate the British economy, put her on the wrong side of history on Apartheid, and eventually cause even her staunchest allies to (figuratively, and politely) stab her in the back.

The latter, after a Shakespeare-themed meet-cute with Prince Charles (Josh O’Connor, unafraid to erode all the audience goodwill his performance earned in Season 3), is plucked from relative obscurity into a fairy-tale dream that quickly becomes a nightmare. Her in-laws are cold; her husband is still in love with Camilla Parker-Bowles (Emerald Fennell); her bulimia is treated as a personal failing, rather than a response to anxiety and constant judgement. We know that the tragic conclusion is coming in the final stretch of the series, but to Morgan and Corrin’s credit, these episodes are not subsumed by portents of doom. Rather, as we see Diana idolized in the public eye from Australia to Harlem, The Crown captures the thing that made Diana special: How she made others feel special just for being around her. Whereas most in the royal family are resigned to their own brokenness — even Anne (Erin Doherty) and Margaret (Helena Bonham-Carter) hit new private lows — Diana is determined to rise above it. It won’t work, but we admire her all the more for trying.

Every episode stands out in its own way, but I was especially struck by how often this season Morgan ventured outside the royal bubble. Not just with Diana, in her ordinary flat with her ordinary roommates. Episode 5, “Fagan,” illustrates the wild-yet-true story of how a struggling man broke into the palace not once, but twice, to have a conversation with the Queen. “48:1,” another season highlight, opens with a cameo from Claire Foy as she celebrates the diversity of the Commonwealth; director Julian Jarrold’s camera glides through town squares and markets in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean, all of whose leaders will will be united in opposition to Thatcher decades later.

I haven’t even mentioned the titanic Olivia Colman yet, who turns in another nuanced performance in a series that has less and less time for the sovereign herself. Every time I write about The Crown, I have to acknowledge the “What are the royals even for, anyway?” question at the heart of it all. Stability, Elizabeth suggests. Parliaments and Prime Ministers come and go; the world has never looked less like the one Elizabeth inherited, and yet she remains, holding now multiple generations of disaffected, fundamentally flawed men and women of state at captive attention. That’s the way it’s always been, and despite her weary (if few) protests to the contrary, that’s the way she likes it. That’s what’s presented, anyway. It doesn’t matter if it’s true. It’s probably true.

The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix)

Speaking of queens (I’m sorry, I’m trying to delete it)… this post is probably coming a few weeks late, because by now you have likely already heard about the brilliance of The Queen’s Gambit and why you should watch it. Netflix claims that it’s been watched by 62 million households, a record for the service. It’s a true four-quadrant hit, and deserves to be. Don’t know anything about chess? Don’t care about chess? It doesn’t matter. The series succeeds not just as a compelling sports drama, but as a feminist character study, scintillating period piece, and showcase for Anya Taylor-Joy (of The VVitch, and this year’s Emma) in the performance of her young career.

Adapted from Walter Tevis’s 1983 novel by Scott Frank (Logan, Godless), who also directed all seven episodes, Gambit centers on Beth Harmon, an orphan who discovers her prodigious aptitude for chess at a young age. With the help of the grumpy custodian (Bill Camp) and fistfulls of (since-banned) tranquilizers, Beth lies awake at night seeing the pieces moving on the ceiling, allowing her to think moves ahead of the snotty high schoolers she initially competes against. As her skill and reputation grows, Beth finds herself jetting from Kentucky to Mexico City, to Vegas, to Paris, and into the heart of Soviet Russia, determined to defeat the elusive Grandmaster Borgov (Marcin Dorocinski), as well as her own recurring issues with substance abuse.

The series is no less satisfying for that familiar structure, primarily for three reasons. First, the characters surrounding Beth are are well-drawn as she is. Her adoptive mother, Alma (Marielle Heller, taking a break from directing to give a soulful performance here), establishes early on that the two women are on their own, and will support each other no matter what; the men in her life, from the lovestruck Beltik (Henry Melling), to the brash hipster cowboy Benny (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), to the quietly smoldering Townes (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd), all transform from opponents to staunch allies and occasionally more. Secondly, the series is visually dazzling. Aside from the tremendous production design and eleborate camera movements, every chess match is shot differently — my favorite is the montage where shots get filled into a checkerboard grid, but others are intensely dramatic, or even, dare I say, erotic.

The third reason is Taylor-Joy herself, and she is incredible. It’s not just the eyes — enormous saucers capable of registering disdain, determination, and despair on a nuclear scale. She radiates intelligence; while many “young genius” roles lean on affect or other characters simply repeating what a genius they are, Taylor-Joy doesn’t need any of that. She simply is. Beth is outwardly aloof but inwardly curious, pushing herself harder and farther to become the best in the world, while simultaneously fully aware of her own vices and often powerless against them. For her, it’s not about proving that a girl can hang. It just happens that that’s what she’s destined to do, and Taylor-Joy brings us inside her mind every step of the way with each glance and micro-movement, so that we she falls off the wagon, we feel it. When she claims a victory, that’s ours as well. The Queen’s Gambit is an exhilarating series, and one of the best of the year.

The Personal History of David Copperfield (VOD)

It shouldn’t be surprising that Armando Iannucci, due for a break from internecine political warfare (Veep, The Death of Stalin) and too-prescient interstellar satire (Avenue 5) would turn to Dickens. Both writers have a mind for the perfect cutting metaphor; Dickens’ full description of the “metallic lady” Mrs. Murdstone wouldn’t sound out of place coming out of Malcolm Tucker’s mouth, though with an extra serving of choice expletives. Both have written characters doomed by the pursuit of power and wealth. I’m sure, as Iannucci and longtime co-writer Simon Blackwell thought, that this David Copperfield would be an opportunity to enliven centuries-old material with their trademark acidic wit. Throw in a delightful (and intentionally color-blind) cast and a few experimental directorial flourishes, and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be great. Right?

Well… it’s not bad! There’s a lot to recommend: It’s fun, and amusing (though rarely laugh-out-loud funny), and the long-limbed Dev Patel is incredibly charming as the titular man of many names. It also has one of my favorite Hugh Laurie performances as the mad Mr. Dick, cursed with visions of King Charles’ death that can only be kept at bay by kite flying. The whole enterprise is soaked in that special brand of English Whimsy that is anathema for some, but historically has worked well enough on me. There’s fourth wall-breaking, theatrical scene transitions, and fanciful set design, supported by motormouthed turns from Peter Capaldi, Tilda Swinton, Benedict Wong, and Ben Whishaw in a truly unfortunate haircut. In short, it has all the ingredients.

The chief problem, however, is that the original novel (being originally a serial) is so packed with incident that it just can’t be done justice in a two-hour film. Iannucci and Blackwell ultimately try to cut out as little as possible, instead flying from scene to scene with little regard for coherency or logic: David is here, there, and everywhere, telling us through voiceover how much these events and relationships mean to him, but we are given little opportunity to see it for ourselves before it’s on to the next thing. The pacing is not just fast, but frantic. The supporting cast do yeoman’s work in trying to make their iconic characters more than cartoons, but there’s just not enough development to go around. I think that if Iannucci went to the BBC or Amazon or whoever and asked about doing this as a limited series, someone would have said yes, and the project would have been better for it. Instead, speaking as someone who had to keep an eye on the novel’s Wikipedia page to fully keep up, what should be a rich and compelling tapestry seems to keep getting bored with itself, content on making even its villains into comic figures without any of the incisiveness of Iannucci’s best work. It seems that the farther he gets from the halls of power, the less effective he is as a storyteller.

Despite all of that, I liked it. So there?

Fargo, Season 4 (FX)

I had expressed optimism in the past that with a refreshed cast and change of setting, Fargo would remain a durable title. My positive review of Season 3 (which I’ll still defend, especially now) amounted to “Yes it’s formulaic, but it’s a good formula,” and I was excited to see what was in store with a move to 1950s Kansas City, where Chris Rock’s Loy Cannon jockeys for power. The premiere, with its scintillating, time-hopping prologue and avalanche of extraordinary names (Doctor Senator! Banjo Rightway! Constant Calamita!), set the tone: This season wasn’t going to be about the ancillary common folk who get unwittingly (or wittingly) involved in crime, but the key players themselves. Hawley had much bigger themes in mind, where seemingly every single scene provided someone an opportunity to monologue about what it means to be in the “land of opportunity,” tackling issues of race and class in what one hoped would be a substantive way.

And that’s the problem, I suppose, with this ultimately disappointing season. Despite moments of individual brilliance (the Wizard of Oz-inspired “East/West”, for example, felt more Coen-y than anything up to that point) and some fun performances (Glynn Turman, Jessie Buckley), it seemed too focused on being About Something than simply making a compelling narrative with its sprawling ensemble. Rock and Jason Schwartzman are never quite comfortable; Salvatore Esposito’s Gaetano is annoyingly one-note for most of the season; Jack Huston struggles in a useless role; even Timothy Olyphant is on auto-pilot as yet another cocksure U.S. Marshal. The series’ momentum is stop-start, because as soon as it seems like something is going to happen, it’s time for another long-winded anecdote. Ben Whishaw and E’myri Crutchfield provide some welcome respite as the season’s moral centers, but they’re both underused, and you can expect going in that at least one of them is doomed, and I found that I just didn’t have the appetite for that.

It doesn’t help that most episodes are well over an hour, except for a brief stretch in the middle of the season where Hawley took the strange step of fabricating an additional episode out of scenes from the ones around it. He was able to do this, evidently, because the pandemic shut down production when there were still two installments to shoot. But while I appreciated the shorter run times, I’d be hard pressed to tell you what the benefit was. The penultimate episode, “Happy,” aired last night, and finally ended in a place where I’m interested to see how Hawley wraps it all up. But I’ve learned my lesson. The diminishing returns are real, especially when Fargo’s self-importance has only grown.

Boys State (Apple)

Every year, the American Legion sponsors programs across the country where over a thousand young men (and women, appropriately called Girls State) come together and are asked to form a government from scratch. Over the span of a single, dizzying week, (fake) parties are assigned, legislation is debated, candidates are nominated, and — on the final day — elections are held. It’s an extraordinary pressure cooker of cutthroat civics whose alumni include current and former congressmen, justices, presidents, and Bill Gates. Clearly, it’s a transformative experience. But when Texas’s 2017 program controversially ended with the high schoolers voting (ironically?) to secede from the union, that got the attention of filmmakers Jesse Moss & Amanda McBaine. If these are our future leaders, is this a sign of a national fracturing to come? Or are they capable of showing us a better way forward?

The story of the 2018 Boys State, documented here, finds those answers elusive. While immersing us in this world, Moss and McBaine choose their protagonists wisely, showcasing a racially and ideologically diverse group of Gen Z-ers: Robert MacDougall, a brash Tim Riggins type who knows what the mob wants to hear, even if it’s not what he believes; Steven Garza, an optimistic, soft-spoken moderate who nevertheless attracts a following; Rene Otero, whose barn-burning speeches earn him chairmanship of a party whose platform (and members) repel him; and SA native Ben Feinstein, whose disability and raw cunning suggests Richard III by way of Karl Rove. Their positions — most of which are clearly inherited — are by and large unsurprising. These boys give an disproportionate amount of attention to abortion, and woe to any candidate who joined March For Our Lives.

Yet there are plenty of signs that most of them are just going along with what they think everyone else thinks, and if they could all just figure that out, it wouldn’t just change their experience here, but the future of American politics. In that way, Boys State is an incisive document of our time — comparisons to Hoop Dreams are appropriate — but also an indictment. After it won the top documentary prize at Sundance earlier this year, many of the principals were asked how they’ve grown since that whirlwind week. “I’ve opened my eyes to a lot of things where I was ignorant,” Feinstein told the SA Current. Garza, who had worked to convince hundreds of Ben Shapiro acolytes that a politics of inclusion could work for them, was more circumspect. “If you’re waiting for the kids to save you, pull back a second, because there are some people there that aren’t who you want them to be.” Boys State, for all the politics-as-bloodsport it presents, also reminds us that there will always be true public servants just trying to do the work. Whether there are enough of them, however, will be up to us.

Quick hits:

  • We’re halfway through the second season of The Mandalorian (Disney), and man, does this show know exactly what it is. The most recent episodes, “The Heiress” and “The Siege,” were the perfect mix of thrilling action, slow-and-steady world-building, and obligatory Baby Yoda cuteness. It’s just quality stuff.
  • How To with John Wilson (HBO) is one of the strangest, most fascinating things I’ve ever watched. You can feel executive producer Nathan Fielder’s influence in the zig-zagging storytelling, but the consistently surprising juxtaposition of Wilson’s deadpan narration with his seemingly infinite supply of awkward New York b-roll is a truly unique and hilarious thing. Each episode begins with a benign topic — small talk, scaffolding, or improving your memory — and rapidly descends into madness thanks to Wilson’s extraordinarily high tolerance for the bizarre. (Fellas, you cannot possibly be prepared for the fourth episode. Seriously, you’ve been warned.) I hear that this Friday’s finale is one of the best episodes of anything all year. Can’t wait.
  • We watched HBO’s Between the World and Me special (based, obviously, on the book by Ta-Nehesi Coates), which was powerfully intimate. Readings from Mahershala Ali, Angela Bassett, Wendell Pearce, and many more blur the boundary between documentary and spoken word; not even Oprah’s presence pulls focus.
  • Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet had a up-and-down first season on Apple, simultaneously willing to skewer the toxicity of the gaming industry without giving its characters a lot of opportunity to grow. But there were some great things going for it, especially once it settled on Charlotte Nicdao’s harried engineer as the lead, rather than Rob McElhenney’s inconsistent creative director. It also got warmer and funnier as it went along, culminating in what has to have been the best pandemic-themed bonus episode anywhere (worth watching just on its own!).

Looking ahead to… Here come the Oscar heavyweights! In the first half of December we get David Fincher’s Mank (12/4, Netflix), Frances McDormand in Nomadland (12/4), Wolfwalkers, Tomm Moore’s followup to the enchanting Song of the Sea (12/11, Apple), and Chadwick Boseman’s final performance in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (12/18, Netflix)… Season 5 of The Expanse kicks off on 12/16 (Amazon)… plus Danish hit Another Round (12/18) and Death on the Nile, both ostensibly in theaters, but you know how it is.

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