First in a series, TV for Our Times
We are living in a “golden age of television,” or so television critics repeatedly tell us. As the genesis of this golden age, the program that set the gold standard as it were, these critics invariably point to “The Sopranos,” the “edgy” drama about a mob boss who “whacks” his rivals and takes his attendant anxieties to a psychiatrist, which after its premiere 20 years ago became appointment TV for millions. Since then, “edgy” has become the dominant motif, while “normal,” not so much. Which is why, in these not-normal times presided over by an amoral president and his attendant sleaze, I do not watch much scripted TV, preferring instead news, documentaries, the English Premier Soccer League, and, for relief from today’s anti-heroic fare, Turner Classic Movies.
But in and among the super-abundance of TV programming today, there are singular offerings to be found that, like a strobe-light, illuminate, with superb filmmaking and quality acting, the particular force-fields that mark the early 21st century. This series will feature programs with protagonists who, if not the heroes of old, break out of the anti-heroic mold of pathology and ennui, to, at the least, endure, and at their best, contend. Two such offerings, aired recently, follow. (Spoilers also follow, but they should not detract from the overall viewing experience.)
“OUR BOYS” (HBO)
This probing and moving mini-series takes on the most intractable of subjects: the Israeli-Palestinian divide, now of many decades’ duration, and the gulf between the two tribes so rarely breached. Based on an actual event in 2014 that led to war in Gaza — the murder of a Palestinian boy who was targeted, hunted down, and burned to death by a group of Israeli boys, in revenge for the killing of three Israeli boys by Hamas militants — “Our Boys” focuses on the revenge act taken by the Israeli boys and on the tough self-investigation undertaken by Israel’s internal security agency Shin Bet, once it confirms the unsettling evidence that “Our killers are Jews.”
In every scene, we see how blinding the hatred between the sides is — and how rare it is for someone even to step into the other realm. Simon, the lead Shin Bet investigator, once it is determined that the chief suspects are boys from an ultra-Orthodox clan, infiltrates the clan and ultimately gets enough evidence to arrest. For this betrayal, he is disowned by his own ultra-Orthodox brother and, once the news of the arrests breaks, he is targeted with death threats from his own countrymen. For his own safety, ultimately Simon must leave the country.
On the Palestinian side, it is Hussein, father of the slain boy Mohammed, who breaches the gulf, when in his grief he seeks justice for his son by daring to deal with the Israeli legal system. For this betrayal, he is denounced by his community and even shunned, initially, by his surviving son and his own wife, Suha, who refuses to accompany him into enemy territory. In deeply moving scenes — the son in a meeting of the community, the wife privately — both come round to support the embattled Hussein.
Always palpably present in the Palestinian story is the reality that the Palestinians have no state of their own — a reality voiced in a heartbreaking outburst from the otherwise stoic Hussein with his Israeli lawyer. In his deeply humane portrait of Hussein as the grieving father who summons the wherewithal to deal with the enemy, actor Jony Arbid is peerless. Shlomi Elkabetz, well-known to Israeli audiences, plays the Israeli investigator with haunted reserve.
While “Our Boys” at ten episodes might have benefited from cutting, still the length gives the viewer an immersive experience in the mindset of both the Israeli and Palestinian universes, notably the message imbibed by the young — “our boys” — that it is permissible, even heroic, to kill any representative of the hated enemy. Also eye-opening is the extent to which Israel has become a surveillance state. Dialogue is in Hebrew and Arabic, with English subtitles.
This series sparked fierce protest from the Israeli public for its central focus on the Palestinian boy’s death, while the instigating murder of the three Israeli boys is treated only tangentially (also here). But an international audience will see in this series some evidence of Israeli self-critique, something not seen much during Benjamin Netanyahu’s ultra-right tenure. (Netanyahu called for a boycott of the series, denouncing it as “anti-Semitic” and besmirching “the good name of Israel.”) In this Israeli-American co-production, the show’s creators Joseph Cedar (Israeli) and Tawfik Abu Wael (Palestinian), who also directed their respective casts, are to be commended for shining a light and bringing a humane sensibility into what remains still — and tragically so — No Man’s Land.
“PRESS” (PBS, “Masterpiece Contemporary”)
Very much front and center now, with the current occupant of the White House attacking the press as “the enemy of the people,” is the question: Where do we get our news? Can our news sources be trusted? In sum: What is truth, what is fact, what matters?
“Press,” a six-episode BBC series, focuses on two London newspapers — one, The Herald, a left-leaning broadsheet where fact, confirmable fact, is king, and the other, The Post, a tabloid where — well, facts are fungible and political viewpoint is not as important as photos of scantily-clad young women and the latest tidbit (gotten by scurrilous means) on the sex lives of the powers-that-be. A Post reporter would be the one pushing a microphone at the grief-stricken to ask, “How do you feel?” (and employing scurrilous means to get onto that doorstep for the “death knock”). In lieu of fixed principles, the tabloid is of the firm belief everyone is rotten and it knows how to find the rot.
No surprise, it is the tabloid that is thriving, with an expanding newsroom in a classy building, while at the Herald, finances are so tight that, as the editor of its rival snarkily puts it, “You have mouse-traps in every corridor.”
Of necessity, the characters representing these two opposites are introduced as hero and villain. In this corner, representing the Herald, is Holly Evans, a no-nonsense former reporter now editor, who snaps at colleagues and seems to suck lemons; and in the other corner, the tabloid’s editor, Duncan Allen, who as the Devil (as literary critics tiresomely tell us) has all the best lines. Additionally, Holly, per the modern anti-heroic script, has to be sullied: She gets drunk and has sex with a reporter from the Post, whom she naively invites to become her flat-mate — which flat-mate palms her notes on a breaking story and appropriates it as his own.
This stereotype-overload dismays, but when it’s put to work in episodes 4–6, the drama is ripping. True to heroic form, Holly confronts Duncan — “You stole my work”; his reply — “Your flat-mate stole your work, I published it” — says it all about tabloid ethics. In this scene, the series’ best, Duncan plies Holly to come write for him — not edit but write, as special correspondent, any story she likes. This exchange elicits their opposing world-views: Holly, a half-cynic, says the world may be “crap,” but “at least at the Herald we try to make it a bit better,” to which the full cynic says (something we hear a lot these days), “And how’s that going?” While Holly’s paper tries to change the world by exposing its hypocrisies, his paper, Duncan says, shows the world as it is and even influences it, with “the most outrageous story-telling.” In this last, Duncan, brilliantly acted by Ben Chaplin, lets flash across his face the self-hatred eating at this formerly serious journalist.
Holly does come work for the tabloid — and lasts one day — returning to her natural home, the Herald, to write, not edit (and once there flashes a smile for the first time). She brings with her a major lead regarding national security that Duncan had revealed to her, which sets up the rival papers for a final epic contest. In this appropriation of a lead, Holly acknowledges she is as ruthless as Duncan. For his part, Duncan ultimately is allowed some redemption.
Playwright Mike Bartlett, whose recent hit play “King Charles III” imagines the current Prince Charles ascending the throne, structures this long-form drama to a breath-taking climax; he also has the humanity to allow the Devil some redemption. The diverse cast is uniformly strong, with Charlotte Riley ably playing Holly, the most challenging role in this series and indeed in our cynical world today.
With offerings like “Press” and “Our Boys,” grappling with the knottiest crises of our dark and tumultuous times, TV may be in, if not a golden age — there is still a lot of brass in the system — then a gleaming silver one. Tune in and engage.