A Chronicle of One TV-Loving Household’s Struggle Amidst the Strike
With the recent joint strike of the WGA and SAG-AFTRA, productions on many of the television shows I was eagerly awaiting the return of were put on hold. In our home, this caused a dual problem: what could we watch while we waited for the strike to shake itself out, and also, what should we choose to watch when it feels like there is already way too much content out there on streaming services? Narrowing down options felt near impossible. I’m here to give you a brief report on some of the programming we watched (or attempted to watch) in hopes that it will:
1) give you some options until production on struck shows resumes; and
2) find some humor in the fact that we descended into some really bleak AF territory in the process.
This was something we had missed entirely on its first run on HBO but we were absolutely delighted by it. Based on the Stephen King novel of the same name, this miniseries from January 2020 features performances by Ben Mendelsohn, Cynthia Erivo, Bill Camp, Paddy Considine, Mare Winningham, and Jason Bateman (who also directed the first two episodes), as members of a community in Cherokee City, Ohio work to solve a series of grisly murders. In the process, they uncover a mysterious supernatural force that might be responsible for these crimes. There have been many adaptations of Stephen King’s works over the years and this is one of the better ones, featuring exceptional performances by the entire cast - especially Erivo, as Stephen King's fan-favorite recurring character, Holly Gibney, an eccentric, but extremely gifted, private investigator, and Mendelsohn, as the lead detective investigating the case. It’s on HBO Max - if horror/suspense is your thing, and especially if you are a King fan, it’s well worth the time.
So after we got done with The Outsider, I went down a Stephen King Wikipedia rabbit hole and discovered that Holly Gibney was first introduced in his Bill Hodges trilogy and that there had been a three-season show based on these books premiering back in 2017, on the short-lived Audience Network. Mr. Mercedes features the always delightful Brendan Gleeson as Hodges, with memorable turns from Holland Taylor, Mary-Louise Parker, Harry Treadaway, and Justine Lupe as Holly. Truth be told, it was strange to meet a young Holly played by a white actress after first seeing Cynthia Erivo’s interpretation of the character, but despite the suspension of disbelief required to somehow reconcile the Holly Gibney backstory canon between the two shows, it was still fun to spend time with her. Mr. Mercedes, unfortunately, is a show that seemed to be aiming for the veneer of Prestige TV but fell a bit short, feeling a bit more like a normal network TV procedural - the Audience Network (a part of the DIRECTV umbrella) just can’t compete with HBO's budget and production values. That said, I’m always happy to see Gleeson be a loveable grump, and Mr. Mercedes certainly delivers on that front. We unfortunately did not make it all the way through all three seasons; season three was attempting to take on way too many story elements at once and it got very cluttered and hard to follow. Multiple disparate but eventually connecting plot points are something that works just fine in novel form (Stephen King’s books are notoriously long, dense, and complex) but is difficult to translate well on the small screen. All three seasons are available to stream on Peacock and eventually, we’ll go back and finish out the last season.
Top of the Lake
After engrossing ourselves fully in the environment of Stephen King adaptations, I wanted to go back and try Top of the Lake, a show I fully intended to watch when it first aired in 2013, but I never got around to, that I’d heard shared elements of King’s trademark grimness. Top of the Lake, created and written by Jane Campion and starring Elisabeth Moss, was filmed concurrently with the last few seasons of Mad Men but before The Handmaid’s Tale, and it kind of serves as a strange connecting thread between the adventures of Peggy Olson and the dystopian nightmare that is June/Offred’s existence. Moss portrays Robin Griffin, a detective haunted by her past (a well-worn police story archetype seen in both The Outsider and Mr. Mercedes but given a slightly new take via Moss’ performance) from Sydney, Australia, returning to visit her mother in New Zealand, who then gets caught up in the investigation of a missing child’s case while at home. Moss does some great character work as Robin, (A+ to whoever her dialect coach was, by the way) but the story overall was oddly structured and fragmented and my boyfriend bailed after two episodes. I saw the whole season out and ultimately enjoyed it, but then I attempted to watch the second season and bailed because the plot was all over the place and the characters were impossible to sympathize with, even with the welcome addition of Nicole Kidman to the cast. This is a show that was best suited to remaining a standalone miniseries. Both seasons are on Hulu and trust me, you won’t be bored. Or at least, you won’t be bored by season one.
I’ll be frank; after this, we started flailing a bit. We took a time-out from television and decided to go down a path of watching movies about artists. Here’s what that looked like, along with some impertinent "hot takes" for those who might be interested:
Lust for Life
This is a 1956 biographical film about the life of Vincent Van Gogh, starring Kirk Douglas as Van Gogh and Anthony Quinn as Paul Gauguin. It’s a very straightforward, linear depiction of Van Gogh’s coming into himself as an artist and Douglas does a great job of making Van Gogh very likable and warm, despite his debilitating mental illness; that being said, we did not find it nearly as moving as the 2018 film At Eternity’s Gate, starring Willem Dafoe as Van Gogh and Oscar Issac as Gauguin, about the final years of the artist’s life.
Andy Garcia portrays artist Amedeo Modigliani in this 2004 biopic. I love Andy Garcia, but this was probably the most horrendous film I have seen in a very long time, and most definitely, the most horrendous performance I’ve seen Garcia give (and yes, I include the atrocity that is The Godfather Part 3 in that assessment). Do not recommend it.
This 2000 biopic was Ed Harris’ passion project, and he certainly threw himself into the role; that said, the main takeaway one gets from this story is that Pollock (played by Harris) was a fucking piece of shit of a human being, and his wife, Lee Krasner, was a saint for putting up with his abusive ass. Marcia Gay Harden does an excellent job playing Lee (her Oscar was well-deserved) and she is easily the most sympathetic character in this whole mess.
So after we gave up on artists, for whatever reason, we went down an Alfred Hitchcock rabbit hole, maybe because we were craving a return to grimness and horror. Some impertinent hot takes on those films to follow here:
This 1941 film was the first time Hitchcock collaborated with Cary Grant; Grant plays Johnnie Aysgarth, a loveable cad who marries the wealthy Lina McLaidlaw (Joan Fontaine) after knowing her for less than a week, and then proceeds to behave exactly like the kind of guy who is going to kill his wife for her money. This movie should be scary, but it’s silly AF, Lina’s obliviousness is cringeworthy, and Grant mostly acts like a clown. Don’t marry men you’ve just met, Joan Fontaine.
This film from 1940 is one of Hitchcock’s most famous, with Laurence Olivier giving a wonderfully tortured performance as widowed millionaire Maxim de Winter, Joan Fontaine plays Maxim’s kind but naive second wife (referred to only as “the second Mrs. de Winter) whom he met on vacation and married impulsively, and Judith Anderson creeps us all out as Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper at the de Winters’ massive gothic mansion, Manderley, who is bizarrely obsessed with de Winter’s late first wife, Rebecca, to the point that she… starts showing the second Mrs. de Winter all of her bespoke underwear and bras that she’s preserved? While caressing them? (Hitchcock had to have known that he was treading the waters of the queer villain trope here.) The memories and presence of the first Mrs. de Winter are a constant presence in the life of Maxim and his new wife, with Mrs. Danvers all too eager to stir the pot and drive the couple apart, due to her fixation on the late Rebecca. Joan Fontaine needs to stop marrying men she just met, because it does not work out well for her.
This is the 1963 film where Hitchcock notoriously sexually harassed and abused Tippi Hedren after she spurned his advances onset, so, that’s depressing. That being said, this movie is weird as fuck. Hedren’s character, Melanie Daniels, is an impulsive socialite dilettante who falls in love with lawyer Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) after meeting him only once and then stalks him back to his hometown and hangs out with him for a weekend, during which time… well. You know. The birds. Lots of birds. Birds who attack and kill. Birds who are a menace. Birds who terrorize a town. Birds. Scary birds. Angry birds? And then... Melanie and Mitch flee the town with his sister and mother after Melanie is viciously pecked to shreds by the birds, hoping the birds don’t come after them. Look, I don’t know what the takeaway from this movie should be, honestly. It’s very strange.
After The Birds we decided we needed a break from Hitchcock. A long break. (They can't all be masterpieces like North by Northwest and Rear Window.)
Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs
After a The Silence of the Lambs-related Jeopardy clue one night, I confessed to my boyfriend that I had never seen the film - I only knew the famous, “fava beans and a nice Chianti,” Hannibal Lecter line. Tim insisted that despite The Silence of the Lambs being made first back in 1991, we start with Red Dragon, the 2002 prequel, starring Ed Norton as FBI investigator Will Graham, working with the infamous imprisoned Lecter while trying to hunt down Ralph Fiennes as Francis Dolarhyde (known as the Tooth Fairy serial killer).
It did provide some nice context for the Lecter we meet in The Silence of the Lambs - although, I do have to say, that the Tooth Fairy from Red Dragon was way scarier, to me, than Buffalo Bill, the serial killer Clarice Starling is trying to track down in The Silence of the Lambs. Foster as Starling was, predictably, brilliant, but honestly, I don’t think it matters in what order you watch these films. The stories stand alone just fine, and Anthony Hopkins just owns the screen with each scene he’s in; it’s easy to see how Hannibal Lecter has become such a pop culture icon. (He’s only onscreen for about 20 minutes total in The Silence of the Lambs!)
This naturally led us to attempt to watch the TV series Hannibal, which ran for 3 seasons on NBC before being canceled in 2015. The series is about Graham and Lecter’s relationship before Lecter was caught and imprisoned for his crimes. It’s now available to stream on Hulu. It was critically acclaimed. We had high hopes. Reader, we made it through one episode and gave up. Nothing against Mads Mikkelsen, but it’s just too hard to watch anyone aside from Hopkins play Lecter. We also question the choice to make Will Graham: 1) conspicuously mentally unstable and, 2) whose capacity for empathy is a result of being on the spectrum. Edward Norton was able to let us see how Will Graham’s capacity for empathy caused him emotional distress with a lot more nuance, and without leaning hard on problematic depictions of mental illness and neurodivergence. Here, Hugh Dancy as Graham, blurts out his assessment of crime scenes in stuttering agony while refusing to make eye contact with anyone, as if he has some sort of Tourettes-laden ESP about the criminal, and everyone around him just takes it as the gospel truth? It’s contrived as hell. Maybe it gets better as it goes along? I don’t know. We don’t know. We’ll never know. We’re not into it. #sorrynotsorry
The Kids in the Hall
At the end of the day, after a lot of grimness, horror, and mediocre art, we landed back on Prime Video, where one can watch all five seasons of the classic Canadian sketch comedy show The Kids in the Hall. This show originally aired jointly on the CBC and HBO in the early 90s (when their Gen X core audience first found them), then it had a second wave in copious reruns on Comedy Central in the early aughts (when they found their supplemental core audience of Elder Millenials - this is how I came to them), and thus, it staked its claim as the best sketch comedy since Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Dave Foley, Bruce McCulloch, Kevin McDonald, Mark McKinney, and Scott Thompson were and are, comedy geniuses, and their humor is sharp, smart, and absolutely timeless. The mighty Lorne Michaels knew a good thing when he saw it in this scrappy little comedy troupe at The Rivoli in Toronto in the mid-80s, and god bless him for it. It’s incredible how well the humor stands up 35 years later. It’s better than Saturday Night Live by far, (don’t @ me, people, I’m just giving you the truth.) Watch it. And then watch the revival season they did last year on Prime Video as well. These boys will always have a special place in my heart.
And that’s where we are now - halfway through season 3 of The Kids in the Hall. All that being said, I am heartened to see that there seems to be an end to the strike in sight. Hooray for unions, and also, hooray for our sanity, because as you can see, once we’re done with The Kids in the Hall, we’ll be in trouble…
Reeya is a musician and writer based in New York's Capital District. Her debut album, “The Way Up,” was released on January 27, 2022. She can frequently be seen in her car on the NYS Thruway cursing traffic on her way to the Hudson Valley for band rehearsals or to Brooklyn for recording sessions. In her other life, she works as a staff accountant for a management company that oversees veterinary practices nationwide, enjoys watching Law & Order SVU returns while eating gummy bears, and has a film degree from Vassar College that she does not use.