Tag Archives: Sundance Channel

Summer 2015 Review: Deutschland 83

6 Jul

Deutschland 83

Deutschland 83 has the proud distinction of being the first German-language series to air on a U.S. network, which is kind of cool. I’m not sure whether the Germans behind it realize this, but it is yet another in a recent string of shows that seem to be modeled in the wake of the fantastic The Americans. Deutschland 83 is better than most of the other contenders, and has some important differences, but it’s still hard not to have The Americans in mind, as a point of comparison, while watching the pilot and it’s unsurprisingly not in that class.

Deutschland 83 takes place in, well, 1983, just about the same time as The Americans. The Cold War has tensed up again for one last moment before the thaw of the second half of the ‘80s, but to those at the time unaware of what the future would bring, it may have as if it could last forever and get inexorably worse. Lenora and Walter work for the East Germany spy organization, the Stasi, while outwardly working for the East German embassy in West Germany. They see Reagan’s tough talk, which increases their concern about the Americans’ and West Germans’ actions, and decide they need a spy placed very close to an important West German general. Ideally, they need someone who could take the place of a young man who was recently appointed this general’s aide-de-camp. Luckily, Lenora has just the right person in mind! Her young newphew, Martin, a devoted East German, currently in the East Germany military.

As a party celebrating Martin’s weekend leave, Lenora gives him the tough sell, with a combination of positive and negative reinforcement. After interviewing Martin, she and her superior kidnap him, bring him to West Germany, but then promise him a house for him and his girlfriend and surgery for his sick mother if he completes just one important mission. Her and a local spy posing as a professor teach him the spy tricks of the trade in a short montage that presumably takes a few weeks, and he’s ready to go, filling in as aide-de-camp acting all natural and West German-like, while waiting to take a photo of some important documents to relay back to his handlers.

He gets the job done, but that’s when things get tricky, He makes a novice blunder at a party held by the general, being overheard by a relative, and realizes he’s in the big leagues when his contact tells him he has to drug the woman, and may have to kill her. He’s doubly thwarted when his boss tells him he can’t go home just yet after all – the content of the photos scared his superiors, meaning his job isn’t done.

The similarities with The Americans are obvious– a communist spy plying his trade in a Democratic country in the early ‘80s. There are some differences as well. Martin is a novice. He’s not a trained spy, and it shows –every bit as experienced and veteran Elizabeth and Philip are, Martin is not, both in his tradecraft, and his emotional responses to his work. While the USSR and the US are seen as polar opposites, West and East Germany are siblings, with as much the same as different. They’ve only been separated by 30 short years of history, but a lifetime in some ways, and literally Martin’s entire lifetime. Martin is overtaken by the indulgent and lackadaisical way West Germans live.

From one episode, I don’t know exactly which direction the show is going to go in. The most obvious would feature Martin having to fall deeper and deeper into the world of espionage, figuring out where his own personal moral boundaries are and how strong his devotion to his country is. Another less likely but possible direction could have him end being somewhat seduced by Western culture and lifestyles. He doesn’t have the years and years of training of Philip and Elizabeth, making him more susceptible to the types of moral quandaries that they’ve hardened to.

The show was decent but not spectacular. It’s somewhat unfair to judge shows in the wake of similar shows that come before, but only somewhat; the existence of The Americans that anything similar has an uphill battle to climb, and in one episode Deutschland 83 doesn’t quite do it. The German aspect though is definitely an interesting parallel to hold on to; there’s something far rawer and more real in the battle between two halves of a divided country that share a border and a history. Watching further will be on some faith that subsequent episodes will develop further the more compelling possible aspects of the show, and deeper Martin’s character, and I could really see the show, while never being terrible, having an equal chance to really impress or limp along in averageness.

Will I watch again? Yes. I wasn’t blown away by any means, but it’s short, which is important, at only eight episodes, and I’m intrigued by watching at least one show from different nations, which admittedly is not in and of itself a great reason to watch, but it really was at least pretty decent, if not great, so a way to break a tie.

Fall 2013 Review: The Returned

13 Dec

A returned

The Returned is a French show, which first aired in the fall of 2012, but which recently made its stateside debut on the Sundance Channel, a channel which has already seen strong outings this year from Top Of the Lake and Rectify.

I love shows that are not easily characterized or categorized because that usually means that they are new and interesting and The Returned is both. It may be more clear what direction Returned is heading in after a few more episodes, and there are a few logical general options but I have absolutely no idea which and I’m glad.

Let’s take it from the beginning. Four years ago before the show’s present, a bus full of children embarking on a school trip topples over a cliff on a tricky piece of road, killing everyone on board. Or so it seems.

In the present, all is not well, and the people of the French town in which The Returned takes place are still grappling with the tragic events of four years prior. The parents are meeting in a regular group where they discuss a memorial being built in honor of the dead children. Tensions are still high, and some parents are dealing better than others. Clearly these adult relationships have been shaken up and some broken up by the events. Camille, one of the girls who died in the crash, seems to be the central figure in the show, and her parents have separated, while her twin sister, who feigned illness to get away from the trip is a fun-loving but possibly guilt-ridden 19-year old.

Camille, four years after she died, just picks up and walks into her house, the same age she was when she died, remembering nothing, and her mother is terrified, overjoyed, and above all confused, displaying the entire array of emotions one would expect to if faced with a similar situation. She calls Camille’s father, who naturally doesn’t believe her, until he sees Camille with her own eyes. He leans more toward the scared beyond belief side of the scale with his reaction.

Camille isn’t the only one who comes back; there’s also a young man seeking his girlfriend, who appears to have moved on without him, and there’s a young boy who returns to the apartment in which he believes he lives, leaving the current resident who doesn’t recognize the boy frustrated and confused.  People are returning from not just the bus crash but from earlier deaths as well. An old man is disturbed when his wife returns from the grave; he burns his house down and kills himself in reaction.

There’s a lot bound up here. There’s obviously supernatural and horror elements, as people coming back from the grave pretty much rules out reality or likely science fiction (yes, there’s a way to make this premise science fiction – but this isn’t that).

The story is intriguing on its own without any deeper themes, as it should be to keep the viewer involved. This is a slow, subtle supernatural show. There’s no huge opening event involved comparable to those in the bloated supernatural and sci-fi broadcast network shows like Lost, The Event, Revolution, or Terra Nova. It’s quiet and makes you figure out the questions, which are, to be fair, pretty obvious, rather than asking them extremely loudly. And those big questions are there just as they are in those other shows – namely – why are these people coming back, and since I’m not sure there’s a way to answer that satisfactorily, at least, what does this mean for the town?

There’s also, and this is what separates merely suspenseful shows which can certainly be enjoyable but depend heavily on satisfying answers and conclusions, with shows one tier greater, a deeper personal level to the drama beyond the plot, through strongly written characters, dialogue, and stories. The grappling of the parents with their tragedy reminds me of the all-too real situation faced by the people of Newton, Connecticut. Fissures break under that type of pressure and tragedy.

The big thematic question seemingly dealt with is in The Returned, at least through one episode, is how people respond to the return of something they had thought lost forever, and which they had made, if not peace with, at least some sort of resolution. They had survived by slowly but surely moving on. Early in the episode, during the parents’ support group, one parent makes that exact point; the tragedy is still poignant but things have gotten better – people simply can’t linger in that tragedy at those initial depths forever and live with themselves. Even in this episode everyone deals with the returned people in different ways; happiness, denial, confusion, fear, and any number of emotions in between and combining these.

This combination of mysterious, subtle suspenseful story with fascinating characterization and personal situations is a winning one, one episode in.

Will I watch the next episode? Yes. I’m curious. I’m not sold the show will be amazing yet, but very few shows can that confidently promise that in one episode. I am honestly curious where the show is going and what’s going on, and if a show can make me feel that way after its first episode it’s doing its job.

End of Season Report – Rectify, Season 1

17 Jun

Everyone gets ready to eat dinner

Rectify had an excellent first season overall and may have been the best new series from the past year.  In discussing the season, I’d like to start with the end, the powerful and vicious scene that closed Rectify’s debut season.

Few recent television scenes have incensed me with the furor that the last five minutes of the final episode of this season of Rectify did.  A pack of masked small-town middle-aged men descended on main character and freed death row convict Daniel as he visits the grave of the woman he was convicted of murdering and simply beat the living tar out of him.  Daniel, helpless, lies on the grass as blows are rained down on him by the masked men.  One of the men, the older brother of the woman whose gravesite Daniel is lying by, finishes the job by peeing on him.  Rectify had previously shown threats to Daniel by angry townspeople, including a damaged mailbox, but nothing even close to this extent. As I watched Daniel lie doubled over in pain before an ambulance arrived, I wanted to for someone to come and make these guys pay for what they did, legally or extralegally, but they just got back in their cars and went back from whence they came.

This scene triggered such strong emotions largely because so few shows aspire towards the level of realness of Rectify.  Moments in shows like Game of Thrones certainly supply anger and a visceral gut punch, but there’s always a detached perspective of a fantasy world.  Even shows like Breaking Bad take place in our world, but in a heavily stylized version of the world.  Not so with Rectify.  Few shows this side of David Simon truly feel like reality.  Everything in Rectify feels like it could actually happen in our world, a view enhanced by the gentle pacing and the emphasis on seemingly mundane events, like eating pieces of cake and taking trips to the store. Rectify led me to believe that I could drive down I-95 for a day and reach the town from the show, and it’s because of that sense of reality that each blow Daniel took raised my blood pressure and made me want to sock each and every man in masks.

The minimalism of the show also helped increase the power of that scene.  Unlike shows in which episodes routinely feature action and fighting, a punch means something in this world.  Violence isn’t something handed out in every episode.  This beating was an extraordinary event, that stood out starkly from the every day.

This reality is one of the factors that separates Rectify from everything else on television.  The whole season takes only a couple of days, and few shows make so much out of so little plot.  Little emotional moments are at the heart of Rectify, and they consistently hit.  The last scene was so powerful because you come to empathize with the characters.  We don’t yet know what really happened to the girl Daniel allegedly killed, but we do know that Daniel is a man who suffered deeply for two decades and who is honestly trying to face up and reckon with the opportunity for freedom he’s been given.  He still hasn’t quite figured out how to do make that peace, but his attempt at finding it stands in sharp contract to the simple-minded physical violence eye-for-an-eye strategy employed by the punks who beat him.

Flashbacks are difficult to use well, and in the past I’ve called out many shows for unnecessary flashbacks, which I think can be a crutch for exposition or character development best handled in the present.  I absolutely love the flashbacks in Rectify though, which show Daniel’s time in prison.  Daniel interacts primarily with another prisoner in the cell next to his, and their contact seems more free and natural than Daniel’s contact with anyone in the outside world once he gets out. Over time, this one fellow prisoner becomes his link to the remainder of humanity. The last episode features a moving scene in which Daniel’s friend is finally taken to die, and in his last moments finally sees Daniel, after years communicating only by sound, and confidently pronounces that he is sure that Daniel is innocent of murder.  It’s difficult to even imagine the very real plight of being released from prison after twenty years. At least in regular prison there’s at least a yard and some connection with the outside world, unlike death row.  Daniel has been in a box for twenty years, which has to have a huge effect on his ability to communicate with people who haven’t been.

People don’t know how to react around Daniel, and that difficult to bear awkwardness comes right through the screen.  People expect him to have trouble adjusting, but to have less trouble than he actually does, and to get over it real fast.  They project what they imagine twenty years in prison must be like onto him, even though it’s absolutely impossible for them to really understand. When he doesn’t sound unabashedly enthusiastic to be out of prison, people think he must be guilty.  He’s so haunted by the idea that he might be guilty that he’s convinced himself, over the years, that he’s not even sure what happened.  The difficulty that even simple person to person interaction poses Daniel is beautifully rendered and can be difficult to watch and enthralling at the same time.

As mentioned above, it’s often the little moments that really make Rectify stand out.  My favorite of the season was Daniel playing Sonic on Sega Genesis and rocking out to Cracker in the attic, dancing around in the way people only do if there’s no one else around.  It’s one of the few moments in the season where Daniel seems to be actually enjoying himself, appreciating the moment without the heavy emotional burden that every personal contact seems to take on him.  For a couple of minutes at least, Daniel can relax and really appreciate being free.

Spring 2013 Review: Rectify

29 Apr

Rectify ItHoly shit, a show about something different.  And it’s good!  Rectify is the story of a man exonerated from death row twenty years after being convicted of murdering a woman, when he was in high school.  Daniel was convicted, sentenced to die, and thanks to some new DNA evidence and the dogged work of his family and attorney, he’s being set free.  Twenty years in prison, in solitary confinement without even a window is a long time, and the adjustment is obviously difficult both for Daniel, and for his family, who have lived the past two decades without him and aren’t sure how to reintegrate him back into the family even though they want to, or at least some of the family does.  The family includes his mother, who is happy but doesn’t know how to behave, his sister, who is most enthusiastic and did most of the leg work, and his brother, now a teenager who is trying his best to get to know the brother he’s never met.  It always includes the step-dad his mom is married to now, his step brother, who isn’t a big fan of Daniel, and more relevantly, is concerned  his notoriety will sink the family business, an independent tire store started by Daniel’s real dad, and his step brother’s wife, who is religious, innocent, and more enamored with Daniel than her husband.  These difficulties  are compounded by the fact that this is the small town south (Georgia) and everyone knows everyone and a large number of those people, fancy schmancy legal terms or not, still think he did it and that he’s guilty as sin.  They’ll go through any trouble to make his life hell on Earth if he can’t be put into hell underground.

Now, just in case you worry it’s too focused on simply human emotions and the difficulty of people relating with one another, there’s a nice little intrigue plot to keep those who need a little suspense in their TV humming right along. Some prominent politicians are convinced of his guilt and also don’t like even the possibility of admitting they were wrong and put the wrong man behind bars and on death row for 20 years.  They want him back in jail with a retrial.  Additionally, although we don’t know for sure whether Daniel did or didn’t do it, people who may have actually been responsible for something then, are not thrilled that he’s out on the street again, throwing the events of the night in question, into, well, question.

The small town south is having its moment in the media, led by Winter’s Bone and Justified, but with others, like the recent movie Mud, coming up as well.  As I’ve written about Justified before, this culture is simply an interesting vantage point for me, as a big city/suburban northeasterner, as something that I’ve never been exposed to.  While Rectify doesn’t feature the organized crime angle of the first two southern comparisons, it does place a large forcus on the way things change but stay the same in the small town, and that way that people are harassed for things that their family did now, or decades ago.  As god of all small town southern writers William Faulkner once said, “The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.”  The small town community leaders are determined to sew up their legacies by making sure Daniel doesn’t spent a second longer than he has to after prison.

Daniel’s difficulty in coping with life outside initially is both confounding and understandable from the point of view of the people closest to him.  He’s harassed for not seeming excited enough about his innocence, and his family treat him hesitantly.  He’s unfailingly polite but mysterious and terse.  Every experience is so new and vivid to him, no matter how simple, sitting down on the grass, or staring into the sky.  It can sometimes be slightly difficult to watch, but never cringeworthy.

This is almost certainly the best pilot I’ve seen so far in 2013, and since I’m updating this part of the review after I just watched two more episodes, probably has a slight lead on The Americans to be my favorite new show of the spring season.

Will I watch it again?  Yes, I will.  In fact, I already have by the time this is posted, so this is even surer than most.  If you can figure out where the hell the Sundance channel is on your TV, you should absolutely watch it; there are only six episodes this season, and it’s new, seriously interesting and different TV, which is something I, for one, can never get enough of.