Lunchtable TV Talk: The Code – You are only coming through in waves

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Watching TV and films is often like riding a wave. One show or film appears, and you are carried along to the next, even if by seemingly random choice, and somehow there are always connections. Many connections between the shows, many connections to other things I have watched, whether its the appearance of various actors popping up or thematic links.

The other night in sleeplessness, I stumbled on the six-part Australian TV show The Code… I’m hit immediately by recognizable visual cues. First, the appearance of Aden Young. This is the only other place I have seen Aden Young, apart from his leading role in the underwatched Rectify. I have often wondered how he acts in other things. As the startlingly weird Daniel Holden, it is hard to imagine him in any other way. I keep expecting his actual Australian accent to come out slower and more southern, like Holden’s unmistakably deliberate drawl.

Next, I stared and stared at the actor who plays the mentally unstable hacker brother, certain that I know him from somewhere. He very vaguely reminded me of the dude who was George in Grey’s Anatomy but I KNEW it was not him. But then it hit me – Manhattan! Yes, Manhattan, which will be back soon for its second season (which ties in like a gentle wave with my recent viewing of the Norwegian production, Kampen om tungtvannet, or The Saboteurs – both deal with the race toward building a nuclear bomb).

Figures that I would accidentally select something Australian immediately after seeing the Australian film Tracks, starring Mia Wasikowska. It made me think of things I had not considered in years, such as reading one of Bruce Chatwin’s final books, The Songlines, during university. Without knowing of his appearance beforehand, there in the Australian Outback as an American National Geographic photographer is Adam Driver, from Girls.

And just the night before, I had seen Driver in While We’re Young, which is the latest output from Noah Baumbach. Fine-tuned Baumbach is great. Some of his stuff can be pretentious – not bad, per se, but makes you wonder what for. Nothing quite so true in that department than his widely praised The Squid and The Whale, which I had not thought of in years. I liked it but it’s definitely a “type” of movie. But I mention it now more because of this continuing wave of connection. The film was mentioned in Thursday’s episode of Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, when Denis Leary’s character confuses the story of Jonah and the whale with The Squid and The Whale, which is exactly the kind of thing he’d take the piss out of (and does).

In many ways, The Code was a microcosm of the point I am trying to make – lots of disconnected threads eventually cross. The story in The Code is actually three separate threads of the same story. They cross but do not quite interweave until all the threads come together. This is a lot like what television (and film) are like – a small world full of people who inhabit many imaginary worlds. We the viewers piece them all together each time.

It’s a small world on TV after all: More subtitled TV

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More than ever, creators of TV are trusting audiences (particularly English-language markets) to delve into storylines that mix in non-English-language characters (integral characters and stories, beyond the stereotypical and often offensive Spanish-only illegal immigrant or household worker). I have written about the increasing instances of more foreign language subtitles on TV – and the number of shows weaving “globalization” into the story is increasing and lending depth and credibility to stories that are often removed from authenticity by giving English-speaking actors awkward, false, non-descript “foreign” accents while still speaking English.

Finally, we see more reality coming to the screen. This is the case because non-network TV has greater leeway. It is also happening because a more international group of people is creating TV entertainment. It is also happening because people are connecting more with reality – not in the sense of reality TV (ugh!) but in the sense of wanting to see reality reflected in the characters and stories depicted on screen.

In some cases, a show is created and not primarily intended for an English-language audience but is eventually exported and subtitled, such as the recent NRK production, The Saboteurs (Kampen om tungtvannet). The story and language is Norwegian with a heavy peppering of English and German. It’s been shown on UK TV recently.

Similarly the recent Deutschland 83, an eight-part, German-led drama (supported by German RTL and US-based Sundance), is the first German-language production to air in the US.

Yet, even in almost entirely English-language shows, we’re hearing a lot more diversity. While we tend to hear more (again stereotypical) Chinese-language in contemporary crime shows (always associated with Chinese gangs, such as in the recent Murder in the First and Sons of Anarchy), the latest (and final) season of Hell on Wheels has introduced a new story about Chinese railroad workers, and in telling these stories, we do get a “Chinese villain/gangster” but he is not a caricature so much as he is depicted as a profiteer not unlike the rest of the profiteers of the time, regardless of race or background. The Chinese workers, too, get a bit more depth to their story than standing around in the background. While I cannot say that Hell on Wheels has always been a superb show, it has sometimes taken interesting perspectives on intercultural interaction, conflict and integration in both a post-Civil War and westward-moving, “manifest destiny” environment. The Chinese language and culture addition is just another layer to a show that rolled out several layers already.

The already unusual Orphan Black, in which Tatiana Maslany plays multiple, very different characters (she has finally been recognized with an Emmy nomination), shows one character who is Ukrainian (and who uses Ukrainian). This affixes yet another piece of complexity to Maslany’s expertise at differentiating each character from the others

Ultimately what prompted my writing about this topic again, though, was the Swedish-speaking couple in the new show Mr Robot. Somehow their Swedishness makes them feel like a complete “otherness” in an already strange milieu. In Mr Robot, everyone is a bit of a weirdo, and while the Swedish guy seems to have it all together on the surface, he is perhaps the biggest weirdo of all, and his very private Swedish-speaking home life feels like it adds to that division.

Language can serve that purpose, too, which is of course something common in language and linguistic fields – different languages and how you use them in your life can contribute to very different aspects to your personality. In this sense, it is deeply interesting to watch how different characters’ behavior changes based on the language they use, choose to use in specific situations and with which other characters they interact in which language.

Too-late telly: Kampen om Tungtvannet, or The Saboteurs

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Norway does not understand angst well enough to make good films or television. At least this has always been my contention. If they have ever produced a decent film, it is usually because it hits on the one area many Norwegians seem to understand and some struggle with: mental illness (see Elling or Buddy).

I have, however, been surprised by The Saboteurs. I only got around to watching it now (it’s being shown on British tv now as The Saboteurs. It was shown originally in January on NRK under an original title, Kampen om Tungtvannet, or “The Heavy-Water War”).

Only funny part is that someone seriously asked me if Werner Heisenberg was a real guy. I explained that not only was he real, another tv show (Breaking Bad) had a character who adopted “Heisenberg” as his alias/alter ego because of Werner Heisenberg.