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MASTERPIECE on PBS; BBC; Playground

Kathryn Newton, Willa Fitzgerald, Hawke, and Annes Elwy
MASTERPIECE on PBS; BBC; Playground

Television

From girls to grown-ups

Masterpiece’s reboot of Little Women adds depth to familiar characters

It’s hard to complain about PBS Masterpiece’s gorgeously staged version of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved coming-of-age tale, Little Women. In these days of emoji communication, watching the March sisters giggle over paper chains and share dreams while curling each other’s hair is like visual comfort food.  

The BBC’s main problem is how much built-up expectation comes with this miniseries. After years of making juicy, addictive historical entertainment out of Austen, Dickens, and Winston Graham (not to mention originals like Downton Abbey and Victoria) you can’t help feeling disappointed that the quintessential American girl story turns out to be such tepid sauce.  

On the one hand, when so many directors and screenwriters inject revisionist views into classics, it’s refreshing that Heidi Thomas, who also created Call the Midwife, lets Alcott be Alcott. There are no “gritty,” modern interpretations here.

But after so many movies, miniseries, and plays of this novel, this is one instance where I could have done with a few surprises. (I’m still waiting for some filmmaker to give us the ending we all really wanted between Jo and Laurie.)

Still, if the story doesn’t exactly break new ground, some of the actors find unexpected depths to characters we know so well. Emily Watson adds a base note of insecurity to Marmee that makes the character seem more like her own person and not merely a supporting figure in her daughters’ lives. And Angela Lansbury’s Aunt March could give Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess a run for her money in the one-liner department.

Maya Hawke, who will remind older viewers of her mom, Uma Thurman, carries the production, however. With a combination of feistiness, wistfulness, and ambition, her performance makes it easier to understand why Jo spurns Laurie’s love, even if it doesn’t make it easier to accept.

And maybe that’s for the best. In the end, Alcott’s story isn’t one of wish fulfillment but of growing up. And even when the scenery is pretty, growing up rarely comes with a picture-perfect ending.

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Netflix

Maxwell Jenkins as Will
Netflix

Television

Space family Robinson

Despite recycled plotlines, Netflix’s Lost in Space is well-made and upholds noble virtues

Do you ever wonder if there are any truly new TV or movie plots? Producers of the new Netflix series Lost in Space reused characters and plotlines from the 1960s series of the same name, which in turn was based loosely on the 1812 novel The Swiss Family Robinson, written by a pastor, Johann David Wyss. Wyss was inspired by Daniel Defoe’s 1719 classic, Robinson Crusoe. That’s a lot of recycling!

In 2048, the Resolute blasts off from a dying, polluted earth. Authorities have chosen the most capable and intelligent volunteers to colonize a distant planet. Suddenly, an alien robot is inside the ship, killing and maiming everyone in its path. Several smaller spacecraft launch away from the mother ship and crash onto the surface of a mysterious, hostile planet—far from their intended destination.

John and Maureen Robinson and their three children, Judy, Penny, and Will, persevere through a series of incredible adventures, linking up with fellow scattered survivors, adopting the same alien robot as their now-friendly protector, and eventually finding a way to escape this new planet, which is also dying.

If that sounds hackneyed or predictable, you’re in for a surprise. The episodes contain unexpected twists, and producers invest time into character development: John and Maureen’s marriage is nearly over, but their love for their children, and for each other, reconnects them. One exception might be the villainous Dr. Smith, an impostor among the colonists whose evil nature so far is one-dimensional.

In The Swiss Family Robinson, Wyss praised the virtues of thrift, self-sufficiency, and loyalty. 2018’s Lost in Space also lauds noble traits, especially self-sacrificial love. John Robinson is ready to lay down his life for his family, and demonstrates this often.

Viewers apparently don’t care if a premise is recycled, as long as the show is well-done, and Netflix has already renewed Lost in Space for a second season. Its PG rating is appropriate: Parents should be aware some scenes are too frightening for children.

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(Adam Rose/ABC)

Television

Roseanne’s new script

ABC’s reboot of Roseanne may be ideologically muddled, but it honestly explores America’s cultural divides

It’s hard to separate hype from content with ABC’s enormously successful revival of Roseanne. The show’s ratings are, as President Donald Trump might say, yuuuuge, with 27 million viewing the first episode.

The political conversation surrounding it is even huger, with warring op-eds in every major newspaper and Trump referencing the show in speeches. Certainly, its eponymous star has made clear she isn’t afraid to champion the voters who put him in the White House. Among her character’s many zingers, during prayer she thanks the Lord for “making America great again.”

It’s ironic Roseanne has become a symbol of resistance to the leftist cultural tide, given that the original Roseanne was one of the first shows to promote gay marriage. For all the hand-wringing about Roseanne being a vocal Trump supporter, her new show demonstrates awkward contradictions with the old liberal one, but rarely an outright rejection.

The Conners say grace before meals and would likely count themselves Christians as part of their regional identity, but they demonstrate no real walk with God. Thus, Dan’s main concern about his 9-year-old grandson’s cross-dressing is that the boy might get bullied. He never voices any philosophical objections to it. (Still, John Goodman’s superb acting captures the mixed-up feelings a loving grandfather would have in this situation.)

Even more intriguing is how reluctantly Roseanne recites the catechism of a woman’s right to choose when Becky announces she’s donating an egg for easy cash. Roseanne and Dan can’t hide their horror that their daughter could be so casual about giving away a child. Neither retracts liberal orthodoxy on these hot-button issues, but they do at least force the issues to some uncomfortable conclusions.

So while it’s far from a bastion of conservative viewpoints, the new Roseanne does seem to be—in the first five episodes, at least—honestly dedicated to exploring class and cultural divisions in a way it hadn’t always done before.

Ideologically, the show is muddled, contradictory, and combative, and doesn’t belong to any political outlook. Perhaps that’s what makes it television’s truest reflection of 21st-century America.

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