Welcome back to “Don’t Touch That Dial,” a seasonal series in which I, your friendly neighborhood television addict, break down some of the shows screaming for your attention. The winter hiatus is upon us, and while the major networks are all reruns all the time, streaming networks apparently haven’t gotten the message. Today we’re looking at a brand new show (The OA), two returning fan favorites (Black Sails and The Man in the High Castle), and a cancelled series probably taking up space in your To Watch queue right now (Whitechapel).
The Road So Far: What began as a Deadwood-esque prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island has now taken on a life of its own. James Flint (Toby Stephens) is a sometimes pirate captain in 18th century Nassau. John Silver (Luke Arnold) is unwittingly thrust into his life during a quest to steal Spanish gold and eventually becomes a major player in the fight to wrest Nassau from the British. Eventually they wind up on a maroon island with a tribe of escaped slaves. With the help of their new comrades in arms, a pirate armada, and secret allies on Nassau, Flint and Silver take on the colony’s hot-headed governor Woodes Rogers (Luke Roberts) and Eleanor (Hannah New), a grudge-bearing merchant’s daughter. Season 3 premiere—Sun Jan 29, 2017 (Starz).
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: I can see why some viewers think Black Sails is boring. It’s a pirate tale less concerned with swashbuckling adventure than with heady debates on personal responsibility and the cost of freedom. Yes, there are acts of astonishing violence and buckets of blood, but those elements are only there to add to the ethical evolution of Flint and Silver. There’s no good and evil here, only different shades of gray. Everyone has an agenda and dark secrets, but they’re all so morally complex that trying to decide who’s the hero and who’s the villain is a moot point. Everyone is both and neither at the same time. Black Sails is more interested in seeing how characters react and change when put in the worst circumstances than in the actual circumstances, but the result is a gripping show built like a seasons-long movies. This is character development at its finest.
Every episode leaves me with bated breath and on the edge of my seat. I binged through three seasons in one week. I called in sick to work because I couldn’t wait to find out what would happen to Vane in that pirate slave colony. I stayed up way too late to sort out how genuine Max’s intentions toward Anne were. I am already planning my rewatch in anticipation of the fourth and final season. And not only does the show have a killer right hook, it’s also deliciously diverse. There are more queer relationships in Black Sails than straight ones, and most of them are interracial. The extras are just as likely to be PoC as white. Even better, when the show deals with the terrible consequences of slavery, it never shies away from confronting racism head on.
TL;DR: You might not think you need a gorgeously shot, stunningly acted, viciously crafted period piece about gay pirates, but you do. It’s everything I’ve ever wanted in a television show and more. As a side note for aspiring authors, I highly recommend the Writers Panel podcast featuring the Black Sails creators for a crash course on research and character development.
The Man in the High Castle
The Road So Far: Juliana Crane (Alexa Davalos) starts season 2 off as the enemy of both the Japanese and the Resistance. After a quick and fruitless meet-and-greet with the Man in the High Castle, she defects to the Nazis and inserts herself into the lives of Obergruppenführer John Smith (Rufus Sewell) and his family. Frank (Rupert Evans), Ed (DJ Qualls), and Childan (Brennan Brown) get tangled up first with the Yakuza and later in a plot to attack their Japanese occupiers. Trade Minister Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) goes on an interdimensional walkabout to reconnect with his family. Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank) meets his father Reichsminister Heusmann (Sebastian Roché) and learns he likes being at the top of the Nazi hierarchy a little too much. Seasons 1-2 available on Amazon.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Visually, the show is beautiful, with well-crafted edits and cinematography, skillful directorial choices, and impressive set/costume design. The acting is strong and nuanced and the premise interesting. On the surface, it’s an exciting alternate history tackling big topics, but if you dig a little deeper you’ll find nothing at all. Season 2 had the supreme misfortune to premiere right in the middle of ongoing debates about whether and how far America is slipping into the grips of fascism, white supremacy, and neo-Nazism. There’s no way showrunner Frank Spotnitz (or producers that replaced him when he quit midway through due to creative differences) could’ve foreseen what has transpired since November 8. Regardless of the outcome of the election, the show would still suffer greatly by failing to participate in the conversations the rest of us have been having for decades, a fault that lies at the feet of Amazon for failing to put a strong leader in charge.
Good science fiction shows us how we are; great science fiction shows us what we could become, serving as both a warning and an aspiration. High Castle doesn’t even hold up a mirror to the audience, it merely describes some vaguely similar situations, tells us to discuss it amongst ourselves, then sits back with a self-satisfied smile. It gestures suggestively at comparisons between real world America and fictional fascist America, but leaves it up to the audience to decide what’s right and wrong It’s a show that, as another Tor.com reviewer pointed out, wants the audience to empathize with the bad guys, but it does so without ever considering why they’re demanding such a concession or why many people refuse to. I don’t need anymore “dapper Nazis” talking points, nor will I ever empathize with Nazis, fictional or otherwise. High Castle’s insistence on “let’s hear both sides” is carelessly irresponsible at best, normalization of white supremacy at worst. There are no “both sides” when one group simply wants the right to exist and the other wants the first group dead. To watch the show and consider empathy as a valid topic point is to have the privilege to do so.
Even the Resistance is meaningless. They call for freedom but without any follow through as to what that looks like. If they defeat Imperial Japan then the Nazis take over. If they defeat the Nazis then Imperial Japan takes over. If they defeat both, then what? The Resistance has no governmental system, no political philosophy, nothing. They never decry racism or white supremacy, never speak out in favor of feminism or equality, it’s just violent revolution. If the show wants us to believe they’re as bad, morally speaking, as the Nazis, then to what end? High Castle treats Nazis like set dressing. It neither asks any substantial questions nor promotes introspection of the real world. It sits at its place of privilege and spouts off empty pundit talking points.
TL;DR: Where the first season was thoughtful and sporadically intriguing, if a little slow, the second is hollow provocation. There is no depth or complexity, just a trope-laden conflict between good and evil and lacking any relevance. It’s an exercise in squandered potential.
The Road So Far: This show is nearly impossible to summarize without spoilers. The short of it is a young blind woman named Prairie (Brit Marling) disappears and returns years later able to see and calling herself The OA. While she won’t talk to her parents she tells her story via flashbacks to a captivated group comprised of four teenage boys and their teacher. As her tale becomes increasingly bizarre, the veracity of it is scrutinized. Depending on your tolerance for group dance numbers and cryptic for cryptic’s sake, the ending will either leave you desperate for more or ready to throw your television out a window. Season 1 available on Netflix.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: It’s never a good sign when a studio releases something without fanfare or media blitz. It usually means the movie or show is (A) terrible; (B) stupid; or (C) difficult to market. The OA is (D) all of the above. Let me spare you the hassle of deciding whether or not to watch it: don’t. There are millions of hours of better television you could watch instead of The OA. The ending is perfunctory and hollow, a scene of shocking almost violence that comes out of nowhere and is resolved in the dumbest way possible while claiming to be profound and mysterious.
Riz Ahmed (Bodhi Rook in Rogue One) singlehandedly betters every scene he’s in and is also completely wasted in his role. As the villain, Hap (Jason Isaacs) gets some nice moustache twirling moments, and Phyllis Smith is endearing as the kind-hearted Betty. The rest of the acting is fine enough, but hampered by unsubstantiated plot machinations. Key plot points involves a dance sequence that looks like something a drunk experimental dancer came up with after watching two tomcats fight, flashbacks within flashbacks, and interdimensional goddesses. It has all of Sense8’s absurdity with none of its grounding, storytelling skills, or vibrant characters. I’m glad we live in an era where something this oddball gets made, but I’m also glad I have the freedom to watch literally anything else.
TL;DR: This show is determined to kill me through second hand embarrassment. I can’t even.
The Road So Far: The first season hits the highs and lows of a copycat Jack the Ripper, the second takes on the legend of the Kray brothers, and with the third the premise shifts toward crimes that can be indirectly explained with historical precedents. Investigating the cases are DI Joe Chandler (Rupert Penry-Jones), DS Ray Miles (Phil Davis), and historical researcher Edward Buchan (Steve Pemberton), along with assorted colleagues. It’s a pretty standard trope-laden cop show with one helluva possibly fantasy but most certainly idiotic twist in the final two seasons. Seasons 1-3 available on Hulu.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: At first, Whitechapel is a standard cop show. It’s a bunch of cis-het white dudes solving brutal murders. A female detective, Megan Riley (Hannah Walters), is added later but doesn’t do much except mother the men, talk to her kids on the phone, and cry. Detectives Emerson Kent (Sam Stockman) and Finley Mansell (Ben Bishop) get a touch of shading—mostly Kent whose sexuality is teased as if he’s deviant and perverted instead of, you know, just gay—and the rest are basically glorified extras. Penry-Jones gets some skillful acting with Chandler’s OCD, but it’s clear the writers didn’t actually know what OCD was. But logic isn’t a quality the writers of Whitechapel particularly cared about. A lot of people really loved this show and were distraught at its cancellation. Maybe they weren’t bothered by the superfluous stylistic choices, hokey dialogue, and eye-rolling gender politics. If nothing else, it gave me my Rupert Penry-Jones fix between rewatches of Persuasion and Black Sails.
I thought The Walking Dead was the epitome of televised failed potential until I saw Whitechapel. It starts as a crank-‘em-out cop procedural and ends with an immortal elderly woman targeting Chandler’s team with increasingly labyrinthine cases for reasons that are never explained. The series dabbles with paranormal trappings but they never stick. One day poor Kent is attacked by a couple of wannabe Kray spawn and the next ghostly footsteps are haunting Miles in the station at night. Like, what? I just…I don’t…but why…help me. Is it worth watching? *shrugs*. Do I want you to watch it? OMG yes. I desperately need to commiserate with someone and AO3 needs more Kent/Chandler fics.
TL;DR: WHO THE HELL IS LOUISE IVER?!
Alex Brown is a teen librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter and Instagram, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.