The Past Month on TV #67

This month: real-life grief in HIV/AIDS drama It’s a Sin; superhero grief in WandaVision; and “good grief, what have they done to The West Wing?” in a charity special. Plus, more classic Twilight Zone.

It’s a Sin
It's a SinThe latest series from writer Russell T Davies is a story he’s been mulling for a long time — I seem to remember it first being mentioned in his book The Writer’s Tale, which chronicles his final couple of years on Doctor Who, over a decade ago now. It’s had a bumpy ride to the screen, with the pitch being rejected by several networks, and eventually the planned eight episodes being negotiated down to just five. If this were a lesser writer then you’d assume the concept must have some fundamental flaw(s), but perhaps it was just the subject matter that scared so many commissioners: it’s about the emergence of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s, told from the perspective of a gang of mostly-gay twentysomethings who’ll see the disease rip their world to shreds. Not exactly a cheery topic, and one still affected by taboos and ignorance all these decades later. But that’s why this is a story that needed to be told, and here it’s safe in the hands of a master screenwriter.

That matters, because the series is balanced perfectly. You expect this story to be tragic and sad, and it is, but it’s also not some kind of misery-porn. It doesn’t hide from the devastating effects of the virus, but nor is it dwell on them unnecessarily. Nor does it sanctify the victims — they didn’t deserve what happened, but they’re human beings. Some of them deny its existence, even as evidence mounts. Some don’t take the proper precautions. Some are nice and sweet. Some are selfish. They’re human, and that’s the really important thing. Yes, this is a sad drama about young lives cut tragically short, and a condemnation of the cruel way some people (family, friends, colleagues, politicians) chose to handle that. But, more than that, it’s a celebration of those people whose lives were lost. The reason it’s so good, and so worthwhile, is because it never forgets that they weren’t just “people who got sick and died”, but people who lived.

WandaVision  Episodes 5–8
WandaVisionWandaVision had seemed to settle itself into a nice little groove in its first few episodes, each edition spoofing a different era of sitcom with an occasional hint at what was really going on, before episode four came along to blow that up with a raft of revelations about what had been happening outside Wanda’s little fantasy all this time. I was worried how the ensuing episodes would deal with that, as we’d been promised more eras of sitcom spoofery, but now the cat was kinda out of the bag. Well, thankfully it didn’t do the ’90s thing of following an arc-plot-heavy episode with a series of non-arc episodes that act almost as if the big developments didn’t happen. Instead, we got what I thought was a pretty nice balance between continued era-specific sitcom emulation and the exploration of what was actually going on. The latter meant sacrificing the mystery and some of the strangeness that helped those first few episodes feel so unlike anything the MCU has attempted before, but in its place we got the comforting familiarity of mystery box-style plotting. It’s certainly not as special, but it is engaging in its own way, and led to some nice surprises (Pietro) and unsurprising inevitable reveals (it was Agatha all along!)

Now, the stage is set for the finale. Many people have expressed surprise that the show will be able to wrap everything up in a single episode. We’ll see, but I have three thoughts on that. One, don’t discount the MCU’s ability to focus hard on plot and therefore cram an awful lot into a relatively short space of time. Two, there might be less to wrap up than we think — a lot of the pervading mystery is thanks to multitudinous fan theories, and the show has already suggested it might not be being as complex as some think. And three, we know Wanda will be a major part of Doctor Strange 2, so don’t write off the idea that this series will actually leave a lot open-ended for that movie to pick up on. It would be a shame if it did that too much, because it would render the whole series as little more than a backstory-expanding prequel to the movie, but I don’t for a second believe the finale will tie everything up in a neat bow only for Wanda to return afresh in Doctor Strange — the two will surely be connected. Only a few days until we get our first idea of how…

A West Wing Special  to Benefit When We All Vote
A West Wing Special to Benefit When We All VoteIt’s been a very long time since I watched any of The West Wing, and I never saw it in full, but I always meant to go back and watch the whole thing properly. I thought watching this one-off charity reunion thingy might ignite my interest in finally doing that. And, indeed, this did make me want to go back and rectify that — by, ironically, clearly not being as good as the show used to be.

I don’t know if this actually aired in the UK in the end, because it’s very much focused on getting Americans to vote in last November’s election. To achieve that, the original cast of The West Wing reunited to reenact a season three episode of the show, Hartsfield’s Landing, which is all about voting and democracy and stuff. The fact it was made in 2020 means it had to deal with COVID protocols, although that doesn’t really factor in the final result (some behind-the-scenes clips are thrown in to reassure us that they observed all the stuff they should observe) — I presume that performing it in an empty theatre with sparse props and scenery is more to do with evoking that “this is a one-off for charity” thing than a pandemic necessity.

Anyway, as for what I was alluding to in my opening paragraph, the direction and staging of this production are nicely done, but I think you can feel that the cast are no longer on well-practised form to deliver the snappy dialogue as it’s meant to be done, and some of the original episode’s B-plots struggle in this setting by being parts of arcs that were never meant to stand alone like this. Of course, the entire thing is really just an excuse on which to hang voting PSAs, which are delivered by some celeb cameos that are kinda fun… even if the entire point is (a) limited to the US, and (b) now expired. Though it does make for a surprisingly condensed and sad reminder of how the US has, despite its unwavering national self-belief, consistently failed to actually be an exemplar of how free and fair democratic elections should work.

More of  The Twilight Zone
This week has brought news that the Jordan Peele revival of Twilight Zone (the launch of which first provoked my visits to the original series back in March 2019) has been cancelled after two seasons. I haven’t started that version yet (I’ve been watching these ones!), but it seems a shame — it’s such an iconic show, you feel it should do well in any era. But we’re spoilt for choice with TV nowadays, and I don’t recall any real chatter around the release of season two, so this cancellation is hardly surprising.

What You NeedThat news aside, let’s return our gaze to the 1959–64 iteration of the programme. Having already reviewed many of the best and worst episodes of that original run, I’m now covering episodes that happened to pique my interest. First up this month, What You Need, which jumps straight onto my list of the series’ best episodes. It’s the story of a peddler who can provide people with the one small item that will be of invaluable use to them shortly, and the punter who wants to exploit this power. The episode has a nice balance of sweet whimsy and darkness; the length is perfectly paced for the half-hour; and, although it’s not got one of Twilight Zone‘s famous massive twists, the end is fitting and in-keeping. It’s nicely directed too, particularly the scene where the punter confronts the salesman in his apartment. An excellent episode that deserves to be better regarded.

Next is an episode that some do hold in high esteem, The Night of the Meek, which is effectively a Twilight Zone Christmas special — it originally aired on 23rd December 1960, and it certainly plays up to its airdate. It’s about a drunken department store Santa, adorned in a grubby costume and matted beard, who can’t even show up for work on time, but who nonetheless has more Christmas spirit at heart than any of the sober, responsible people he encounters. It’s a little bit twee and cheesy, but also kinda charming in that “only at Christmas” way. It’s a shame it was one of the half-dozen episodes shot on videotape, because it looks absolutely terrible and that emphasises the tackiness. If it looked slicker, it might come across a bit classier, and then it might earn the “you’ll want to watch it every Christmas” accolade that I feel should be the ultimate goal of any Christmas special or movie.

Person or Persons Unknown has a good setup: a man awakens after a drunken night out to discover no one remembers him and there’s no evidence he ever existed. It’s the kind of existential psychological horror that’s the fuel for many a good TZ tale, and it does play well for a while, but writer Charles Beaumont doesn’t have a proper ending to offer us, resorting to that most clichéd of cop-outs, “it was all a dream”. It’s a shame, but not exactly a surprise: the episode offers no clues about where it might be going or why this might be happening, so you begin to think Beaumont either has something very clever hidden up his sleeve or the reveal is going to be a tacked-on disappointment. Sadly, it’s the latter.

I Sing the Body ElectricFamed sci-fi writer Ray Bradbury’s only formal contribution to the series, I Sing the Body Electric, is another case of a great premise writing cheques the rest of the episode can’t cash. Here, rather than running out of steam, the places it takes us to are morally questionable and raise more questions than they answer. The plot is almost like a sci-fi twist on Mary Poppins: a widowed father is struggling to bring up his three kids, so they get a robot grandma, but one of the daughters doesn’t like her. It’s eventually revealed that the daughter’s distrust stems from the belief that her dead mother “ran away” and she thinks robot-granny will do the same — but it’s okay, because granny’s a robot and can live forever. Hurrah! Maybe your mileage will differ, but the idea that mothers who die have run away from their kids, or that this grief is best handled by giving the kid a parental figure who will never die, all seems a bit distasteful. And that’s before we get to the ending, where we learn that RoboGran’s consciousness will gather with others of her kind so they can share what they’ve learned. It’s spun as if this is somehow a good thing, but to me it sounds like a prequel to The Matrix

That good ol’ Twilight Zone staple of a man confused by his predicament arises again in Judgment Night, set aboard a passenger ship crossing the Atlantic during World War II. Maybe it’s just a coincidence of the visual style of 1960s US TV, but the way it’s shot feels very in-keeping with all those ’40s movies set on passenger ships, which helps make its setting feel authentic — if this had been made as a film in the ’40s, it would look exactly the same. Everyone aboard is concerned they’ll be sunk by a U-boat, with our protagonist particularly het up about the idea. Of course, we eventually learn why. The twist isn’t hugely surprising — it’s the kind of thing you expect from TZ and so can predict — but, like I’m finding of many episodes in this middle-ground between the series’ best and worst episodes, it’s a solid piece of work.

Also watched…
  • Dial M for Middlesbrough — The third in Gold’s annual series of comedy murder mysteries (after 2017’s Murder on the Blackpool Express and 2018’s Death on the Tyne) aired at Christmas 2019, but I’ve only just dug it out from the depths of the DVR. I thought it was the best one yet. It’s a kind of magnificent silliness, from the first murder (which involves impalement by a swing ball pole punctuated by a perfectly-chosen pop song on the soundtrack) to outlandish plot twists (a hidden Chicago hitman) to Jason Donovan chewing up all the scenery as a former love interest for one of our heroes (complete with flashbacks to 1999 that look ever so ’80s. I guess it takes pop culture a long time to make it up north…) I presume they had to sit out 2020 because of the pandemic, but I’d welcome another outing this Christmas, please.
  • For All Mankind Season 1 Episode 1 — Finally made a start on this Apple TV+ series (which is currently releasing its second season). Season 1 review next month.

    Next month… I’m gonna review For All Mankind — didja not just read that bit? Also the WandaVision finale, plus more of “More of The Twilight Zone”.