Television for an age of uncertainty

Today marks the beginning of the second half of the year. 2017 has been a chaotic year in political and cultural terms but the arts continue to trudge on, offering a wealth of material to examine in these turbulent times. The halfway mark for the year seemed as good a time as any to take a break from the big screen and turn to the small screen, which has been producing complex and compelling pieces of entertainment in line with the big screen for much of the 21st century. The idea of television as the slums for legitimate actors is becoming antiquated and instead actors are jumping from film to television and back with aplomb.

From the wealth of shows available this year, a significant collection put forth an uncomfortable thesis of the world we live in, where peaceable existences are shattered by strangers, or benign newcomers are stunned by the dark underbelly of unfamiliar worlds. The trope holds through for key shows this year – single mother Jane Chapman moves to the picaresque Monterey in HBO’s Big Little Lies. She, and the audience, soon realise that the glamorous surface obscures the darkness and sadness within the community. An unnaturally sincere and winsome New York lawyer moves to a small Southern town in NBC’s Trial and Error to defend a poetry professor on trial for the murder of his wife. In American Gods, released convict Shadow Moon returns home for the funeral of his wife and realises that world is more surreal than he remembered. There’s much in this trope, the dark edge between reality and fantasy, which seems endemic in cultural affairs in a post-Trump world.

From left are Shailene Woodley, Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman in HBO’s Big Little Lies

Even if reading all entertainment this year through the lens of American political affairs and its effect on the world might be a dubious act, it’s hard to argue against the notion that in July, 2017, the world seems just a bit less stable. The instability of our daily lives presents television as an ideal medium for subverting our expectations on the domestic front. Television is familiar. We watch in our living rooms or our bedrooms. We pull up a Netflix show sometimes on our phones, while we’re on the move. The serialised nature makes it something we expect. Something routine. When this familiar medium takes on familiar concepts and subverts them to reveal the underbelly of sadness, decay and excess, which looms beneath, we are forced to confront how the familiar can calcify and turn into something bizarre and even foreign. The familiar screen of the television becomes a weapon when it begins to reflect the unfamiliarity and loneliness of the real world.

Jane, Josh and Shadow are all working as audience avatars in their respective shows and they emerge, deliberately, as the most familiar of characters. We

identify with their sameness. Like us, they are entranced and even beguiled by the wondrous world around them. Many fans of the shows have commented on the way their respective actors – Shailene Woodley, Nicholas D’Agosto and Rick Whittle – seem to emerge as less interesting than the characters around them. Woodley, for example, seems constantly eclipsed by the other mothers in this community, and principally the ones played by Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern and Nicole Kidman. But the idea is that as this stranger in this strange land, Woodley’s Jane must come to grips with a world beyond her expectations, the way we as the audience and humans are getting used to a world that’s constantly changing.

Trial and Error, perhaps, sticks out as the most unusual of the set as its situational comedy roots make it seem immediately less complex. Not so. The show’s ostensible presentation of a slew of happy-go-lucky oddball characters deepens throughout its excellent first season to reveal the subtext that the world is a chaotic and random place, where justice is illusory and fickle.

It’s that same undependability of justice which Jude Law’s new pope in the cynical The Young Pope reveals. The unusual show is as much an assessment of religion’s power as it is about the limitations of spirituality and the human spirit. Its outlook is bleak but the playful tone and macabre wit of its central character is as entertaining as it is disconcerting. Law’s Pope Pius XIII is the youngest Pope in world history, but he is also a hard and angry man with none of the warmth one would expect of the position. Of course, the revelation of something unexpected when we draw back the curtain is only in line with the rest of the television landscape this year.

This trend goes beyond the quartet I discuss here – Feud: Bette and Joan, Better Call Saul, Fargo, and The Handmaiden’s Tale are all shows representing a variation of this theme this year. But no piece of media, television or film, has been as excellent at showing the something insidious which looms behind the curtain of familiarity like Big Little Lies. Its most impressive distillation of the theme was with the arc afforded to Nicole Kidman’s Celeste as a retired lawyer turned stay-at-home mom and unwitting victim of domestic abuse. Big Little Lies with its picturesque landscapes and its earworm of a soundtrack suggests majesty, it suggests grandeur and it suggests something beyond the common Guyanese experience. There’s something especially aspirational about these elitist mothers, which is, of course, the point of the show’s wisdom, for beneath the picturesque outlook looms things more pernicious.

Television, I still wager, offers something which film cannot for dealing with this sleight of hand and the transposition of larger stars (Kidman and Witherspoon, John Lithgow, Cloris Leachman) projects that sort of uncertainty where something we know and esteem is realised as fallible, familiar and human.

While the film year is only getting started, the small screen has already made great strides. We ignore them at our own peril.

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