A few weeks ago I recommended some TV that I thought the Biblio-therapy readers would enjoy, since books have been a bit disappointing of late. (I did recently enjoy Normal People by Sally Rooney, but basically everyone else in the world has written a glowing review of it.) One of the shows I talked about was Fleabag, and I mentioned that the second season would be coming to Amazon soon. I have to admit that I was a little wary of this new season–the first season was such a beautifully complete story that I couldn’t imagine how a second season could measure up. But, you guys, Season 2 is BETTER. I don’t want to give away too much, but there are wonderful things happening with characters and with the narrative structure, and it was just a sort of a perfect season of TV. Everyone should watch it. Seriously, please go watch it, because I really need someone to talk about it with.
Do other people fall into reading ruts where you’re reading all the time and finishing lots of books, but nothing really excites you or even sticks in your memory? Over the past couple of months I’ve read all sorts of things, including some with quite a bit of buzz (The Woman in the Window, The Immortalists), but have been pretty uninspired by all of them. But I have been watching lots of great TV, across the full range of steaming services I apparently now have to pay for. I have particularly enjoyed several short series that show some realities of being a woman that I haven’t often seen on TV before. So here are Kinsey’s official recommendations for your spring TV viewing. They’re all short enough to knock out in a single evening, although they are all also at least a little raunchy and maybe things you don’t want to watch with your mom or your kids. Although, I don’t know your life or your mom or your kids, you do you.
Derry Girls (Netflix) is a comedy about a group of friends who go to a Catholic girls school in Northern Ireland in the 1990s. It captures the intricate social strata of high school girls perfectly, and the family interactions have a completely non-saccharine ring of truth to them, while also being very funny. There’s a scene where someone drops a glass on the kitchen floor and a character’s mom acts like a nuclear spill has occurred and makes everyone stand on chairs–I loved it so much I had to rewind and watch that bit again. But as funny as the show is, the Troubles in Northern Ireland are always hovering on the edges, never letting anyone completely forget that they are living their lives in a battle zone. Also, there is amazing 90s music for my fellow Gen Xers, and Northern Irish accents that required me to have subtitles on to understand everything going on.
Shrill (Hulu) Lindy West’s memoir didn’t originally strike me as good source material for a fictional show, but the first season absolutely charmed me. Aidy Bryant (who I didn’t know before because I hate Saturday Night Live and never watch it) is amazing as a woman trying to navigate life as an entry-level journalist with a meddling mom and a terrible non-boyfriend. I guess you would say that her weight is the hook of the show, but it’s not like every episode is about how hard it is to be fat. Very early on she decides she is going to stop obsessing and just live her damn life, and most of the episodes are about her doing just that. Within the first five minutes of episode one I started googling to try to figure out where to buy her cute clothes and the infuriating answer is that they had to custom make basically everything because plus-size clothes are so awful. So enjoy the show, but know going in that you will not be able to buy those dresses.
Fleabag (Amazon) When I started writing this I initially thought, “Oh, I have three women-centered comedies to recommend!” But Fleabag might stretch the definition of comedy, so be warned. It follows a young London woman though encounters with men, her father and stepmother (played by the marvelous Olivia Coleman as possibly the worst woman in the world), and her sister. The main character is clearly on the verge of falling apart after a tragedy that is only slowly revealed in the show, and her relationships with her family make me want to use words like “searing” and “blistering.” Phoebe Waller-Bridge is the star and creator, and she is so observant and specific about the absurdity of life that the show is funny, while also pressing on some very painful areas of the psyche. Season 1 has been out for a couple of years, but I was finally inspired to watch it because Season 2 just showed to raves in the UK, and will be coming to Amazon in May. So now is a good time to get on this dark, dark train.
Kinsey has mentioned this before, but in addition to reading, we also watch a lot of television and listen to podcasts. I have two very particular* recommendations that are bringing me joy in these extremely trying times:
The Dragon Prince
Oh, The Dragon Prince! The first season of this cartoon just hit Netflix a few weeks ago, and it probably would have passed me by entirely except for a thread of kudos on twitter. And I absolutely loved it! It reminds me of my favorite cartoons from when I was a kid: character-driven and quest-oriented fantasies like The Secret of NIMH and The Last Unicorn. Rebecca and I rationed ourselves and watched the nine half-hour episodes over three days, but were still real sad when we finished them.
About halfway through, I commented to Rebecca that in a weird way it made me think of Game of Thrones for kids. The world is split into multiple kingdoms that have been fighting each other for some vague number of years. A variety of characters from different lands and backgrounds must form and break alliances to strive for their own goals. And, of course, the violence is turned way down and the sex eliminated entirely. Dare I say I enjoyed it more?
Wolverine: The Long Night
If The Dragon Prince is Game of Thrones, then Wolverine: The Long Night is True Detective (season 1, the only season). The Long Night is Marvel’s first authorized podcast and it is a beautifully done drama in the style of old radio shows like Dragnet and The Shadow. Now I love a classic radio drama to begin with, but I really think this is something special.
Also like The Dragon Prince, each episode of The Long Night is disappointingly short, only about half an hour. For the first five episodes, at least, Logan himself is very much a peripheral character: talked about briefly, but only showing up in person (in voice?) a very few times. The primary narrators are two FBI agents who have been dispatched to rural Alaska after a fishing boat is found with the entire crew slaughtered. Once the agents are in town, they discover that previous suspicious deaths had been hastily charged to bear killings, and that the whole town is a tangle of secrets centering around the one wealthy family.
The whole show does a wonderful job of creating atmosphere just through different tones of voice, and some light musical overlay. The writers manage to convey an impressive amount of information through dialogue without a lot of single-person narration or exposition. It just makes me so, so happy, and my only qualification is that there isn’t enough of it (yet), so it can be a bit frustrating.
*I say particular because while I love both of these, they are each for distinct fan-bases. Rebecca loved The Dragon Prince, as well, but doesn’t care for any radio dramas, and certainly wouldn’t like a noir-like mystery radio drama. Kinsey, a big podcast fan, is not super into cartoons, though it is possible that The Dragon Prince is charming enough to overcome that.
By Harriet Smart
So, I’d read The Alienist over twenty years ago in college, and only vaguely remembered it being about applying the very young field of psychology to the profiling of serial killers, and that the serial killer in question preyed on young boy prostitutes. I didn’t remember any details, including any of the central characters or the final solution, so the miniseries was almost a brand-new story for me, and I loved it! The acting was all excellent, overshadowed only by the lush cinematography highlighting the dramatic differences between the very wealthy and the very poor at the end of the nineteenth century. I am very much hoping that TNT decides to tackle the sequel, The Angel of Darkness, next!
Anyway, The Butchered Man reminded me strongly of The Alienist, in a good way. It takes place a good fifty years earlier and in rural England, but the two central protagonists fit right in. Giles Vernon is an ex-military man and current police chief, who is working to transition the local police from a loose watchman structure to a more organized unit based on his military experience. To that end, he hires Felix Carswell as a full-time police surgeon and forensic pathologist.
So, both characters are on the cutting edge of their professions and struggling against the status quo to push advancements. Carswell is a particularly interesting character; as the acknowledged natural son of one of the local bigwigs, he struggles with not quite fitting into any social strata. I was immediately engaged in both the characters and the mystery, and am looking forward to continuing with the series. My one caveat, though, is that the overall story does not necessarily show women overall in the best light, and I’ll be on the watch for that in the subsequent novels.
And going back to TV, can I also recommend “Fallet” on Netflix? The preview seem to show a somewhat generically dark police procedural, but there was a subtle quirkiness to it that attracted me. Let me tell you, in the actual show, the quirkiness is not subtle: “Fallet” is an extremely funny satire of the popular Nordic mystery genre. The characters and dialogue are laugh-out-loud funny, but the actors, director, and cinematographer all play it extremely straight, which makes it even funnier. The whole season is eight half-hour episodes, so it is a quick and easy watch, though it is subtitled, since half the characters speak Swedish.
By Patrick deWitt
I really like Western movies, but I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book in the genre, actually. I love to see the long shots of empty vistas and close-ups of horses, but am not quite so keen to read about them. I have a suspicion that The Sisters Brothers is not your normal Western, but I absolutely loved it!
It was the title that caught my attention, of course, and I checked it out, just to figure out how to parse it (it is two brothers with the last name Sisters). The Sisters Brothers are infamous gunslingers hired by a mob boss to track down someone who ran with his money. Along the way, they run into various misadventures, and discover that things are not exactly as they’ve been told.
It’s not for everyone, I’d say; the writing was similar to Faulkner’s, I thought, with a plainness that highlights the sort of general absurdity of life, but more plot-driven than Faulkner usually is, which is probably why it is a genre novel, not capital-L Literature. It reminded me a lot of the Fargo television show, actually: a fair amount of extreme violence, but balanced with a quirky humor and some unexpected heart.
Speaking of television shows…
Pocketful of Bones
By Julie Frayn
Pocketful of Bones is straight-up Bates Motel! Within the first chapter or two, a young prostitute accidentally gets pregnant from a john; when he discovers the baby and threatens to take the child from her, she kills him and buries him the backyard She continues to support herself and her son through sex work, which complicates the son’s adolescent sexual awakening (to put it nicely).
Per the description on the back of the book, eventually things come to a head, when the mom has to rebuff the son’s advances, and he leaves, only returning to the house (and yard) much later. The first half constantly increases the sense anxiety, as the bodies pile up, but tempers it with moments of humor and pathos. As it neared the middle, though, I was sort of gritting my teeth, trying to get past the impending incest-adjacent scene, hoping for a respite from the claustrophobia of the house and yard.
Unfortunately, the damage has been done, and the second half just doubles-down, with two different narratives of disturbed people with the potential to wreck havoc on everyone around them. The anxiety became unsustainable, and I found it increasingly difficult to finish. As an aside: this book is not kind to men in general; almost all victims are men, and while it is debatable whether they deserve to be killed and buried in someone’s backyard, I certainly understood why someone might be tempted to do just that.
By Agatha Christie
So, over the holiday season, Rebecca and I finally broke down and got Amazon Prime. I’d been resisting because Amazon does some really shady stuff with pricing and publishing, but that free two-day shipping is really seductive. The streaming service isn’t so bad, either, and I finally got a chance to see the recent BBC production of “And Then There Were None,” which I’ve been eagerly waiting to be widely available. I remember reading and really enjoying the novel in high school, so I remembered the basic premise – that ten people are invited on a holiday weekend at a remote island mansion, where they are murdered one by one over the course of a few days – though I didn’t remember all the details.
I have to admit that I mostly wanted to watch the miniseries because I am a shameful sucker for a pretty face, and Aidan Turner is just so damn attractive. He is so attractive that I’ve watched two very mediocre shows (“Being Human” and “Poldark”) solely in order to look at him. He was very good in this, though his character also turned out to be the most problematic part for me.
Mild spoiler from the first few chapters: all the people on the island are accused of murdering one or two people, except for Turner’s character, who unrepentantly admits to killing about 20 African tribesmen. The other characters are appalled, but not enough to my mind, given we are talking about a large-scale massacre. The other characters make stifled British exclamations over it, but still seem to view him as dangerously fascinating. It really did come across as killing 20 Africans is equal in “badness” to killing one to two English people.
That was the one sour note for me; overall, it was all very dramatic and fun to watch. Since there was a fair amount of sex and violence, I wondered what liberties the show had taken to ‘modernize’ the source material, so I checked out the book, and it turns out, not much. That Agatha Christy was quite the salty lady! The show ups the ante just a bit on both, but still sticks remarkably close to the original novel.
I’m not going to spoil anything more of the plot – murders! sex! violence! racism! – but Agatha Christy said that she considered this her most difficult plot to write, and her care and eye for detail really shows. Since I already knew whodunit, I could see all the small ways she had revealed that person throughout the plotting, which provided additional enjoyment to rereading it.
By Garth Ennis
I’ve been looking forward to the tv show “Preacher” for a while before it premiered last month on AMC. I’d never read the comic book, but I think Dominic Cooper is extremely handsome and just needs to be in more shows and movies in general.
The first episode was a fun, over-the-top mishmash of a western, gritty noir, religious horror, and violent comic book action, all of which are things I like. Dominic Cooper, playing the titular preacher Jesse Custer, was as attractive as expected. Ruth Negga plays Jesse’s ex-girlfriend Tulip, and is so witty and lovely that she steals every scene she’s in. The plot was fairly disjointed, but that’s not terribly unusual for a pilot episode, and the second episode had smoother pacing as well more Tulip, which will always be a good thing.
For people unfamiliar with the basic premise, Jesse Custer is a preacher in a small Texas town with a dwindling faith and congregation. In the middle of a lackluster sermon, he gets struck by a supernatural entity, which bestows on him the Voice of God, allowing him to command absolute obedience. Any person’s use of this power is clearly problematic, and sets Jesse up as a pretty classic anti-hero. Rebecca pointed out that this is the precise power abused by the terrifying villain Kilgrave in “Jessica Jones.”
Anyway, I was enjoying the show enough that I decided to go back and read the comic books, written by Garth Ennis. Now, I’m a big fan of Ennis, who wrote Hitman, one of my favorite comic series, which I’ll need to review some other time, but I have not been impressed with the Preacher comic series. In the written series, Jesse is not only an anti-hero, but just an all-around dick. He has a really annoying stereotypical masculinity that is a real pain in the ass to read about. To complement this, Tulip is a whiny pushover who I have trouble even understanding, let alone empathizing.
I was complaining about this to the coworker who had lent me his Preacher comics to read, and he had an interesting theory about it. He said that he figured that Ennis was satirizing Texas good-ole-boy culture. The only problem with that is that Northern-Irish Ennis has no idea what he’s talking about. While Texas misogyny can be a real problem, it is also a lot more nuanced that Ennis shows here. But I don’t want to get bogged down in a dissertation on gender roles in Texas culture, and anyway Rebecca can speak to this much better than I can, having lived in Texas for twice as long.
The tv show also gets Texas culture wrong, though not quite as offensively, and I’m willing to overlook it in favor of the improvements in both Jesse and Tulip. However, by the fourth episode, the plot is floundering a little, and I wish they’d pick up comic’s pacing at the very least.