(As always, may contain spoilers.)
More about what I’ve been watching lately.
It’s interesting to see some of the things that Netflix has been coming out with — they really seem to be aiming for a broad possible audience.
This month, we’ve watched two season 1s of series that I loved when I read: Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency and A Series of Unfortunate Events. One of the more interesting aspects of these two series is that they have taken almost exactly opposite approaches.
Dirk Gently, rather than attempt to divine a plot out of the books by Douglas Adams (and I say that with great love, because I adore the books), takes the main character and places him in a different (but logical, given the books) situation. New characters (compared to the books) are introduced to accompany Dirk, including the very-Arthur Dent-ish Todd and the kick-ass security expert Farah. The story, which includes time travel, body-swapping, a corgi, police, the traditional shadowy ‘government agency,’ and a holistic assassin (and more!), works well and we went through the full eight episodes quickly. The show is funny, bloody, and bizarre. I like to think that Adams would have been very happy with how it has turned out.
While Dirk Gently takes the premise of the books and goes in another, though complementary, direction, the serial version of A Series of Unfortunate Events is a very true-to-the-books rendition. Also an eight episode first season, each book is covered in two episodes (which works, predictably, way better than the movie of 2004, which tried to include the first three books). This version is absolutely delightful. Neil Patrick Harris is a perfectly creepy Count Olaf and the children are ideal for their roles. The small parts are wonderfully cast with an impressive list of actors — Catherine O’Hara, Alfre Woodard, Joan Cusack, Aasif Mandvi, Don Johnson, and Will Arnett, amongst others. And the casting, along with settings that have a Wes Anderson-level of detail, makes this darkly comedic series work. (The literary aspect of the books comes through, as well — thanks in large part to the presence of Lemony Snicket as a narrator.)
Film-wise, we watched The Martian recently and I rather liked it. There were elements that I found unlikely but were necessary for plot purposes (such as why the ship had to leave Martian orbit immediately), but that is always the case with SF. Matt Damon was good (better than Elysium, not at the level of Bourne). And, honestly, there could have been more about the growing potatoes. But the story — about an astronaut inadvertently left behind on Mars — is solid (I need to read the book it was based on). The initial attempts by the astronaut to contact Earth, the work both by Earth and the astronaut to find a way to get him back — it unfolds in a nice back and forth. Good pacing.
And, just before Christmas, the latest season of Midsomer Murders began. We love Midsomer Murders and have been watching it weekly as it airs (well, a day or two after it airs, to give it time to proliferate on the various, slightly dodgy sites that allow us to watch current ITV programs outside of the UK). This season does not disappoint! One of the things that works so well with Midsomer Murders is that it absorbs new characters easily — the Detective Sargent position should have turnover, of course, so it makes sense that they don’t last long. The television series has long since diverged from the (much shorter — seven books versus 19 series over the last 20 years of the tv show) series of books by Caroline Graham (that I quite enjoyed when they were originally published, beginning in the late 1980s), but the stories continue to be great. I especially like that they are each given the time (an hour and a half per episode) to unfold gradually, without rush.
In addition to just keeping track of things for myself, I’ve been thinking about what to take away from what I have been watching as a writer.
- Midsomer Murders is an excellent demonstration of how to make a low-key murder mystery very compelling. The resolutions per se are not the most important part of the stories (although they always make sense!) — there are complex webs of relationships found in each of the villages that form the backdrop for the violence that ensues. The characters and their stories — both recurring and not — are more important than anything else.
- The Martian demonstrates a nice balance between the personal and technical in telling a story.
- A Series of Unfortunate Events shows how a, in some ways repetitive framework for a series, can explore very divergent ideas. These books are remarkable in many ways. I first started reading them to Maddy (before the series was complete) at the same time we started reading the Artemis Fowl books. I thought I would like the latter more (based on the descriptions of the books), but that wasn’t the case. I always struggled to remember which Artemis Fowl books I had read, because they all blended together, whereas the Series of Unfortunate Events were, despite the superficial similarities, strikingly different, one book to the next. (Oddly, I had the same experience when I bought, years before, books by C.J. Cherryh (Foreigner) and Harry Turtledove (Worldwar: In the Balance) at the same time, thinking I would prefer the former and actually loving the latter so much more.)
- Regarding Dirk Gently, I think there is a lesson in how a particular character or premise has many possible uses. As a creative type, we just need to find the right one for the right purpose.