I haven’t been taking in culture too much these past weeks, mainly because we’ve been moving. I won’t go into the stresses of moving, because everyone knows the spiel: after death and divorce, it’s the most traumatic life event (which in our case included passing from fiber optic internet to plain ol’ high speed – talk about traumatic).
We’ve now moved to a smaller suburb outside Paris, which means our place is much bigger but the cultural offerings are more limited. We were very spoiled in Boulogne with a large movie complex plus an art house cinema, a wonderful local theatre for music and dance, and of course the metro into Paris. Sèvres, where we now live, doesn't have the metro. It does have its own art house cinema/theatre, which I hope to check out soon, but in the meantime, I’m reliant on itunes, Netflix and various other TOTALLY LEGAL methods for my entertainment. This has been mainly TV, since my brain can’t handle anything longer than an hour at a time. I’m slowly catching up on the new fall shows and here are the ones I think are worth taking a look at so far:
“Jane the Virgin”. This series is based on a telenovela, so check your disbelief at the door. Jane is a twenty-something year-old studying to be a teacher while working at a Miami hotel. She is engaged to Michael, her very patient cop boyfriend, and is still a virgin. This is in large part due to pressure from her grandmother, who never lets her forget that Jane was born out of wedlock. Through a mix-up at the gynaecologist (don’t ask), Jane is accidentally impregnated with the sperm of her hotel owner boss, Rafael, on whom she once had a crush.
Ridiculous premise aside, Jane the Virgin is one of the most warm-hearted shows on TV. The series quite impressively mixes humor, romance and the more outrageous soap opera elements (of course there’s a murder and various other intrigues), while remaining grounded. Although Jane was not necessarily planned, she is deeply loved by her mother and grandmother, both of whom are fully fleshed-out characters. Other supporting characters that could have been one-note (Jane’s newly found birth father, Rafael’s scheming wife) are also allowed to show different sides of themselves. Both of Jane’s romantic options are equally likeable (and dislikeable at times). And it’s just so much fun. When’s the last time you saw a show that was actually fun?
“Outlander”. This series, an adaption of the popular books by Diana Gabaldon, is at the other end of the dramatic scale. I never really got into the books for various reasons, but I did admire the way it mixed political intrigue, action, romance and supernatural elements. When I first heard this series was going to be adapted by Ron Moore, who created the rebooted “Battlestar Galactica”, I thought it was a strange choice. Until I remembered how much I loved that show for the way it mixed political intrigue, action, romance and spiritual elements. And I love this new show, too. Everything about it is gorgeous – the setting, the costumes, the actors – and the writers have done a great job of keeping all the good parts of the book and improving the parts I didn’t think worked as well.
Quickly, the premise: Claire is a WWII battlefield nurse who is on holiday in Scotland with her husband after a long separation due to the war. She touches some druid stones and travels back to 18th century Scotland (don’t ask) where she encounters a group of proud Scots who are fighting for their independence from England, including Jamie Fraser, a hunky virginal soldier who has a price on his head for a murder he didn’t commit.
A lot has been made of this show’s “female gaze” and it is worth noting how rare it is on TV. Claire is an intelligent, strong, pro-active woman, ahead of her time even in 1945. The story is not only told through Claire’s eyes, but when she is forced to marry Jamie to keep from being handed over to a sadistic English soldier, he is as much the object of her sexual desire as the other way around. The series airs on Starz, which is well known for pushing the adult-content envelope, but it would be a shame to reduce the show to its sexy sexiness (which, for the record, is off the charts). The Scots’ fight against the English and Claire’s emotional tug-of-war between Jamie and Frank, the husband she left behind, are equally important. I have no idea when this show is coming to France, but I presume it will at some point and I dare you not to become addicted.
I’ll end with a couple of comedies. “Marry Me” is from the creators of the dearly-lamented “Happy Endings” and shares that series’ rapid-fire jokes and quirky characters (the word “quirky” gets a bad rap, but I’m not sure how else to describe them). There’s not much of a premise here – it just follows the adventures of a newly engaged couple and their entourage, but the cast is chockfull of great comic actors and engaging silliness.
More polished is “Blackish”, a show about a successful black ad-man, married to a successful half-black doctor, who realizes his kids know nothing about the struggles of black people. Each show starts with the dad (a terrific Anthony Anderson) trying to make some point about race, and things spiral out of his control. The great thing about this show is that at its heart, it’s a family comedy, and there aren’t that many good family comedies out there. The show does include some pointed commentary about race and class, but its main point is to be funny and heartfelt and it largely succeeds (my main quibble is with the “adorable” younger siblings, whom I find insufferable).
An added bonus recommendation: “Homeland”, which has been pretty sucky for the last year and a half, has actually gotten good again! Yes, it’s become much more like “24” than its psychological drama origins, but it’s doing it well. Plus they are finally giving Quinn (surely everyone’s favourite character by now) some bad-ass stuff to do. And no, you don’t have to watch season 3 to understand what’s going on (translation: don’t watch season 3).
With the holidays coming up and most series in re-runs, I may be able to catch up on some other good shows and hopefully some movies too. In the meantime, I’ll be enjoying the added space of my new place (his and her sinks! A laundry room! Two, count them, two toilets!) I may not be able to walk to the Cineplex anymore, but I have many more rooms to stream my favorite shows in.