15 December 2017

Down the river of hope

Uptrends climb a wall of worry,
downtrends slide down a river of hope.
Are we witnessing the return of classy in the field of television drama? It is tempting to think so.

First, there is Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (creator: Amy Sherman-Palladino), about a Jewish housewife in 1950s New York who turns to stand-up comedy after the failure of her marriage. True, the central premise is preposterous, and Mrs Maisel (magnetic performance by Rachel Brosnahan) seems to come from a different decade than the other characters. Standard TV ideology inevitably makes its appearance: men are jerks, women are nice and sensible, and capable collectively of solving the world’s problems, etcetera. I have not yet encountered any dastardly Republicans, but it’s probably unwise to get complacent.

However, any such minor defects are forgivable because, aside from the top-notch production values, this is the first English-language TV series with genuine pizzazz since the demise of Friends. Marvellous.

Second, on this side of the Atlantic, the BBC has confounded expectations by dramatising a literary work without indulging in the usual level of ideological revisionism. Howard’s End, a 4-part adaptation of E M Forster’s novel directed by Hettie Macdonald, provides a stunning example of small-screen filmmaking as highbrow art: superb on style, but without the poor quality of content that mars so many other visually impressive products. The acting is terrific, and allows for the build-up of complex psychology. It’s thoroughly watchable, even for those who don’t like Forster.

Two sightings of black swans might be interpreted as meaningful. But let’s not get too excited. Every downtrend has its rallies.

* * *

Why does it seem necessary for cultural producers to go back in time in order to show reasonably civilised behaviour? (Though it’s certainly not a sufficient condition — see for example Ripper Street, or Rome.)

The argument that producers reflect the realities of the time they are portraying seems like only partial explanation. Culture does not merely reflect, it selectively reinforces. In the modern era, it is as much cause as effect.

Other reviewers of Howard’s End have felt obliged to comment unfavourably on the socioeconomic inequalities, which supposedly cast a moral blight on the otherwise attractive lifestyles of the cultured middle class. This is standard, knee-jerk stuff.

Conversely, then, we can hypothesise that the dominant ideology requires the suppression of qualities which could be seen as supportive of inequality, at least in representations of contemporary life. According to this logic, politeness (for example) is seen as bourgeois, and as something which should be discouraged in favour of open aggression. Representations of the past may be exempt from this requirement, because the ideology now includes the well-accepted tenet that, on balance, the past can be ignored — it is useful only in providing illustrations of how not to run things.