I made SO MANY great new discoveries this month. Let’s dive right in, shall we?
After years of putting it off and only watching the occasional episode, I finally tore through the first four seasons of the Doctor Who revival (the entire Russell T. Davies era, featuring Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant as the eponymous Doctors). This turned out to be a fortuitous decision, as it was taken off Netflix at the end of the month.
Davies-era Doctor Who is wildly inconsistent. You’ll watch three great episodes and then a fourth one that makes you never want to watch it again. What’s great about the show is how it borrows plots, tropes and story structures from the whole history of science-fiction and fantasy. It’s become a game for me to see how many allusions I can spot to classic works like Back to the Future, Aliens and Harry Potter. It’s also given me a greater sense of how stories are told, and a wealth of new ideas with which to tell them. I have been taking copious notes.
The other big story of the month, TV-wise, was my introduction to a little show called Gilmore Girls, about a woman and her daughter living in a tiny New England town called Stars Hollow. They read books and sip coffee and quote 1940s screwball comedies and listen to Nick Drake and Belle and Sebastian and the show is basically perfect. It’s the best possible counterpoint to the frenetic zaniness of Doctor Who.
Movies! So many good movies this month. Raise the Red Lantern (1991) is a gorgeously filmed story about a woman working as a courtesan in early twentieth-century China and slowly losing her mind. The Thief of Bagdad (1940) adapts several of the most famous stories in the Arabian Nights to create a visual and imaginative spectacle that rivals The Wizard of Oz. In a Lonely Place (1951) is another in a string of movies where Bogart plays a dangerously unstable man who self-destructs. Black Narcissus (1947) is a beautiful and often frightening melodrama about two nuns who are driven to jealousy and obsession over their shared love of a man, culminating in a shocking but entirely plausible act of violence. The Gospel According to St Matthew (1964) is probably the best cinematic depiction of the life of Jesus, because it portrays him as an idealistic young man rather than a mysterious and unknowable deity. Love and Mercy (2014) hops back and forth in time to tell the story of Brian Wilson (played by Paul Dano and John Cusack), his ambition to make the greatest album of all time, and his subsequent mental breakdown.
The Hold Steady! The Beach Boys
New Series and Miniseries
I’ve gotten hooked on two new series that premiered this month. One is the BBC’s six-part adaptation of War and Peace, penned by Andrew Davies (he of the 1995 Pride and Prejudice) and starring Paul Dano as Pierre Bezukhov. Davies draws out the finest dramatic moments in Tolstoy’s novel while necessarily omitting the endless layers of characterization that made the novel brilliant. If you try not to think too hard about all that’s being left out, you can more easily appreciate the lavish visuals and the best Pierre we’ve ever gotten.
The other great literary adaptation of the month is SyFy’s The Magicians, a multi-season adaptation of Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy (2009-2014). The first Magicians novel was one of my favorite novels of the last decade, because it took some of your favorite stories and filtered them through a haze of disillusionment and melancholy. The TV series retains the central premise, about a group of twenty-somethings who attend a magical school in New York, but makes it less reflective. The actors are doing great work, however, and have succeeded in making their characters equally as memorable and endearing as the ones in the book. Of the four episodes aired so far, each one is an improvement over the one before, even if the plot is steadily drifting further and further from Grossman’s original.
What about you? What did you discover this month?