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BBC/Drama Republic


BBC/Drama Republic

Television

False innocence

Film makes a wealthy family the unwitting villains

In 1912, the Birling family of England seems to have it all. In their beautiful home, with servants rushing during a lavish dinner, Arthur and Sybil Birling celebrate daughter Sheila’s engagement to Gerald, son of another wealthy family. Gerald is helping run his father’s factory.

Mrs. Birling assures her daughter that she is “securing her future” with this excellent match. In the drawing room after dinner, Mr. Birling is equally confident. “You’re getting married at the best time possible,” he informs his prospective son-in-law. 

“What about a war?” asks youngest son Eric.  

“There’s not going to be a war,” his father insists.

The Birlings’ bold confidence crashes with a police detective’s unexpected visit. Inspector Goole’s questions cannot wait until the morning. A young lady named Eva Smith has killed herself, and her diary’s accounts have given the policeman suspicions.

Mr. Birling has cloudy recollections of the victim that sharpen when the inspector investigates further. The detective next grills daughter Sheila, who feels horrible when she realizes her callous complaints cost Eva her job. Worse yet, Gerald and Eric have both had extramarital relationships with Eva: She was pregnant when she died.

Inspector Goole seems to know each Birling’s selfishness contributed to Eva’s descent into desperation and poverty. He digs deeper and deeper, with the family’s guilt becoming clearer and clearer. Then, as suddenly as he arrived, Goole leaves the Birlings to ponder their past sins and next steps.

Now available on Amazon Prime and elsewhere, this 2015 adaptation of An Inspector Calls, a play by J.B. Priestley, brings to mind other examinations of the wickedness of man, such as William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Priestley holds out no hope for the older generation of wealthy industrialists: They didn’t see the wars coming, didn’t look beyond their own enrichment and selfishness, and were not generous toward the downtrodden. 

When it seems they may be free from charges and potential disgrace, Mr. and Mrs. Birling celebrate: Wine flows as they quickly dispatch their guilt. But Eric and Sheila show genuine remorse, and the viewer may hold out hope for changes of heart and behavior.

The play An Inspector Calls premiered in the Soviet Union in 1945, near the end of World War II. Priestley hoped socialism would answer the world’s problems. The movie accurately depicts mankind’s depraved condition but cannot prescribe a remedy that works. 

While mostly family-friendly, the film does broadly hint at the sexual nature of Eva’s relationships, and characters take God’s name in vain several times.

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Shalhoub: Andrew Eccles/USA Network/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images; Laurie: Scott Garfield/Universal Television/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images

Tony Shalhoub (left) and Hugh Laurie
Shalhoub: Andrew Eccles/USA Network/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images; Laurie: Scott Garfield/Universal Television/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images

Television

A tale of two series

Wounded lead characters and their approaches to life couldn't be more different in award-winning shows

Looking for a break from wondering what the world will be like when the lockdown ends? Two multiple-award-winning TV series from the dawn of this millennium might give you the diversion you need.

Monk (2002-2009) stars Tony Shalhoub as Adrian Monk. House (2004-2012) stars Hugh Laurie as Gregory House, M.D. The shows overlapped by six years and also overlapped in awards. Monk won eight Emmys (three for Shalhoub’s acting), House won five. Shalhoub and Laurie dominated the Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild Awards for best acting from 2004 to 2009. Both shows can be streamed on Amazon Prime Video, iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, and Vudu.

Why all the attention? The awards are a clue, but the deeper reason is the two strong, complicated main characters. Both Monk and House are idiosyncratic, wounded healers. Both have a gift: One solves unsolvable murder cases, the other solves the most mysterious medical ones. Similar but very different.

What about Adrian Monk draws viewers to him? A former San Francisco Police detective, Monk loses his badge when his wife dies in a car bombing and he breaks down. This is the one case Monk cannot solve—until the end of the series.  

Monk is afraid of 312 things—from milk, harmonicas, heights, and tight spaces to ladybugs, messes, nudity, and foods touching on his plate. Germs may be among the most frightening. Every time Monk touches anything he needs a wipe. 

Still, his idea of propriety is skewed. He only provides one beer each for the guests at his beloved friend Capt. Leland Stottlemeyer’s bachelor party. If that’s not enough to dampen the fun, his best man’s speech focuses on the captain’s divorce from his first wife and his last girlfriend’s current address: She’s in jail for murder. At that the guests think it’s time to go.

What keeps us watching? Shalhoub, for one, whose acting masterfully balances obsessive compulsive disorder with the pain of losing a wife and, with it, a place in the world. And Monk himself can be endearing.

Yes, he is a cheapskate, constantly forgetting to pay his assistant. He is always cleaning. He cuts his food into squares. He focuses on himself. But, when Monk is deathly ill, we can’t help but smile, watching him separate his pills into red, yellow, and blue before he can take them. And he is outraged by murder: His goal is to stop people who do it from doing it again. Then, when everyone least expects it, he does something, yes, endearing.

So, what draws us to House? He is the scary brilliant head of the diagnostics department, created especially for him, at a private hospital in a town that seems a lot like Princeton, N.J. He is alone. A misdiagnosis left him with never-ending, excruciating pain that gives him reason for a Vicodin addiction and a very short temper.

But House loves solving puzzles, particularly the puzzle of why someone is dying. House’s innovative diagnostic hypotheses often challenge the rules of hospital procedure. His boss, Dean of Medicine Lisa Cuddy, keeps him on because, more often than not, he gets it right. 

And House can be almost human. In one episode House assists at an in utero surgery for a baby boy with lesions on his lungs. As House drains fluid from the cavity, the baby stretches up his tiny hand to clasp House’s giant finger. House stares, mesmerized, tender. Those moments give you hope that he can change.

House takes pleasure in making other people squirm.

But House doesn’t believe in transformation. His motto: “Everybody lies.” Even himself. He lambastes patients while curing them. Most of all, he lambastes the very idea of God. Some characters believe out of experience or need—they just can’t live without God. House pulverizes them. He is the unhappiest character in the show but also the smartest. Why keep watching? Laurie’s acting takes you inside not only House’s impatience, anger, and frustration with himself and everyone around him, but also his obvious need for and yet terrible fear of love.

House takes pleasure in making other people squirm. Every time he gets close to dealing with his demons, he chooses not to. He admits himself to a rehab clinic but disagrees with and ditches his psychiatrist. He sours his long-hoped-for relationship with Dean Cuddy because his fear of losing her keeps him from standing by her in the face of a cancer scare. When she ends the relationship, he drives his car into her dining room window. That lands him in jail.

Monk is a show about a troubled person who wants to make the world right, wants to be a better person, and tries against great odds to do it. House, on the other hand, is a man angry at a father, who wasn’t his biological father, for being hard on him. He is angry about his leg. Most of all, he is angry at the universe for not making life easier. The show is filled with references to God, all of which House regularly shouts down. “Everybody lies.” 

In the end, Monk finds resolution. The show is a classic comedy. The villain who ordered the death of Monk’s beloved wife is cornered and kills himself. All the good people in Monk’s orbit—the nurse, the assistant, the captain, the lieutenant—find true love. Monk goes back to work with the captain and his assistant.

House, though, is a tragic anti-hero. His one friend, the oncologist Dr. James Wilson, has terminal cancer. House’s gift for diagnosis can’t save Wilson, so he buys two motorcycles. The two will ride across the country until Wilson is too sick to go on. House will care for him until he dies. And, then? Nothing.

Monk, a show of old-fashioned hope amid adversity, has little talk of God, but people act as though He might exist. House is a saga of defeat amid adversity with an ending that couldn’t be more nihilistic if written by Friedrich Nietzsche.

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Supper Club


Supper Club

Television

Trial by Media’s sobering verdict on society

Netflix’s new documentary series Trial by Media uses six high-profile criminal cases to illustrate how tabloid television and purple prose have influenced American journalism and, by extension, our justice system, for the worse.

Each episode’s subject, from a murder that grew out of an episode of The Jenny Jones Show to Rod Blagojevich appearing on Celebrity Apprentice, holds up an unflattering mirror to our culture. Even in the most serious matters, it charges, we are a deeply unserious, easily manipulated people.

Thus, lobbyists and political movements fashion cause célèbres out of isolated, local crimes for their own ends. The media’s rush to frame a story often results in wrong details. Pundits simplify complex problems, dividing us into tribes, feeding a rapacious desire for conflict and grievance.

Yet what the series, which contains some profanity, fails to grapple with seriously is the free speech first principle that allows for trashy talk shows and yellow journalism.

The series’ most beneficial element perhaps is it cures the desire to ask, “Why were the old days better than these?” It can be a little depressing to see the same arguments, the same national strife, playing out over decades. But it’s also reassuring to realize there’s nothing new under the sun.

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