So, December, eh? That seemed quick. As it turns out the main effect of a global pandemic is to alter time perception. Anyway, stay safe, be gentle with yourself, you know the drill by now. There’s the usual array of Christmas specials coming up this month, but don’t let that get you down, there’s also these.
1. Heaven’s Gate: The Cult Of Cults | December 3
After a year in which most of us have been turning to escapism of one flavour or another to replace the gap left by meeting in groups of more than six, it’s worth taking in a sobering reminder of what happens when you take escapism to its logical conclusion. In 1997 – which still feels so worryingly recent – 39 people took their own lives in a doomed attempt to board an intergalactic spaceship.
This treatment of Heaven’s Gate isn’t a dramatic reconstruction in the vein of Waco (very much on the live-fast-die-young end of things, as cults go), but rather a full documentary following the full twenty-three years they were out there. Not long before that mass suicide, Louis Theroux got in contact with them, intending to make a documentary about the movement, but they turned him down – so this, now, is something of a what-could-have-been.
The best documentaries aren’t just a series of people talking directly to camera, but do their utmost to recreate what I can only describe as ‘the vibe’ of their subject. To watch them is to feel that you’re really in that place, have really met that person (hence Theroux’s success, since he actually does that). Here the challenge is to retrospectively try and get inside the heads of the Heaven’s Gate true believers – in other words, people who were, objectively, crazy.
2. Your Honor | December 6
Can we look at Bryan Cranston ever again without thinking of Walt from Breaking Bad? In fairness, before that the question was ‘can we look at Bryan Cranston ever again without thinking of Hal from Malcolm In The Middle?’ These questions are beside the point when you look at the common thread. Cranston’s established himself as a go-to teevee dad for the modern era, and this incarnation’s no different – he plays a judge, but never mind that really, he’s playing a father who’s pulling strings to protect his guilty-as-sin son.
In this light there’s links to both Malcolm and Bad, although the latter’s the more obvious parallel, with Cranston’s own refrain that he’s only cooking meth for his family’s sake, and Giancarlo Esposito’s serpentine insistence that “A man provides for his family…and he does it because he’s a man”. Nonetheless, Hal, too, was a man who had to eat a lot of shit in his role as patriarch, it was just harder to notice when it was funny. In short, by casting Cranston they’ve put the right man in the right role.
Also in the mix is Isiah ‘Clay Davis’ Whitlock Jr., lately of Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods but generally a man of greater ability than the roles he tends to get. Really he should be some hardnosed official who’s grilling Cranston, rather than the loyal associate the trailer paints him as.
3. The Stand | December 17
This Stephen King adaptation depicts life in post-apocalyptic America after the ravages of a global pandemic. Yes, yes, laugh it up. Honestly at this point it’s just a relief to see fiction imitating reality, rather than the other way around.
From there, it’s the now-familiar tale of the few survivors banding together to have a go at rebuilding society. But because the path of working up a whole new civilisation seldom runs smooth, they end up rallying around either chummy Whoopi Goldberg or obviously evil Alexander Skarsgård. Call that a spoiler alert if you wish, provided you can think of a time Whoopi Goldberg has ever been cast as a bad egg.
Although the book came out in 1978, don’t worry about yet more spoiler alerts – King’s dashed off a whole new ending for this version. Admittedly with his writing pace that’s like five minutes’ work before returning to the bathtub full of money.
4. El Cid | December 18
A Spanish-language historical drama follows the life of national hero El Cid, in a way that isn’t shy about looking a bit Game Of Thrones-y. But perhaps making that connection is, in and of itself, telling – that HBO’s folly has poisoned the well for any production that involves sword-focused battle scenes, medieval court intrigue, and the sort of history.
Thrones’s rapid disgrace did of course leave the genre practically vacant – filled only, really, by Netflix’s The Witcher, which fell very firmly on the fantastical side. Obviously everything’s ‘gritty’ and ‘realistic’ these days, but El Cid is still dealing with actual history in a way The Witcher flatly isn’t.
Still, while it may be based on history, the real El Cid is from far enough back that myths and legends start to creep in, although nothing on the level of fighting a CGI monster or cartoon peril. Mainly this is about Jaime Lorente hitting people with his sword, and whatever genres or formats might be popular or unpopular at the moment, swordfights have a certain timeless appeal.
5. Bridgerton | December 25
The usual Christmas helping of the everyday problems of incredibly wealthy people from the past. It’s like watching the Queen’s speech, only with better production values and narrative through-line.
Little Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor) wants to get married and doesn’t much care who to, but the poison pen of Lady Whistledown (voiced by Julie Andrews) has blackened her good name. But what if there was a convenient bachelor like the Duke of Hasting (Regé-Jean Page) handy? Yes, it’s that sort of show. Look forward to location shots and romantic misunderstandings.
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