Lunchtable TV Talk: Deutschland83

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Four-three-two-one… earth below us…

I have been blown away by the German eight-part spy drama, Deutschland83. I love Germany, and Berlin in particular, but I cannot say I have ever understood German tastes. And when it comes to TV, it’s not like the Germans churn out anything that anyone outside of the German-speaking world wants to watch or copy. As I wrote the other day, the US and UK seem to travel on a fast-track highway of exchanging each other’s entertainment. The Nordic countries have infiltrated, exporting both their “Nordic Noir” dramas and the ideas behind them (to be adapted and redone to varying degrees of success). And even France has joined the fray, offering up stuff like Les Revenants, already remade into The Returned, and Engrenages (Spiral), and Les témoins (Witnesses). And Israel is a rich source of inspiration. But Germany? Not so much. Don’t believe me? I’m not the only one to think so.

“For decades, German TV drama was seen as reflecting the kind of cultural tastes that made David Hasselhoff a nation’s rock god: trite, unadventurous, psychologically challenging only when the lead actor of one particularly long-running detective show was outed as a former SS member.”

Until now.

The premise: a young East German guy, Martin, is forced to become a Stasi operative in West Germany as a West German military officer named Moritz. His aunt is an upper-level Stasi operative herself, and she recruits him, against his will, and uses carrots (the promise of an apartment and car) and sticks (indirectly threatens her sister, his mother) to keep him in line. The story is taut and aligned with real events from the early 1980s. I am totally disappointed that it is only eight episodes long, but I was duly impressed with not just the pacing and storytelling at work but with the way the period is handled – so many of the events and fears of the moment (everything from nuclear annihilation to AIDS), so much of the music (“99 Luftballons” of course!), the “high-tech” developments of the time that young people today would be as clueless about as Martin is when he encounters them (he goes to steal a document and instead only finds a little plastic square with a hole in it – a floppy disk!).

I can’t recommend the show enough. I wrote about it the other day, highlighting the fact that it is the first program to be shown in the US with English subtitles for its almost exclusively German-language script. Even when an American military general appears in the story and starts to talk, you’d expect everything to switch to English (he is an American after all!), everything continues in German. International programming has more to offer than ever, and while one could say that the content was always there and we were not paying attention, I doubt it. It’s a lot like US programming… as distribution has changed and major networks are not the only channels through which content is available, creativity is being unleashed everywhere.

Even in Hasselhoff’s Germany.

Lunchtable TV Talk – The Returned – I am not returning

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I like seeing Battlestar Galactica alums in current TV shows, but for every Grace Park kicking ass on Hawaii Five-0 or Katee Sackhoff solving crimes in an equally kick-ass fashion on Longmire (am I alone in being beyond relieved about Longmire being saved by Netflix after its merciless killing at A&E’s hands?), there’s something sort of dreadful, like Tricia Helfer (and Michael Trucco) in the rightfully short-lived Killer Women – or Aaron Douglas in The Returned. These misfires aren’t the faults of Helfer, Trucco or Douglas. The shows they’re in just aren’t good.

I am always impressed with Aaron Douglas – and his performance in The Returned is as good as any of his work. It’s just that the show doesn’t quite cut it. I have not seen the original French Les Revenants but tend to believe the original source material usually can’t be beat or recreated (with notable exception – I was quite taken with the US version of The Bridge, for example). The Returned, at its most basic, is about individuals who return suddenly from the dead and the effects this return has on the community in which these resurrections take place. Five episodes in, I don’t really know what’s going to happen but am not interested enough to care.

I love some of the actors in the US version of The Returned. I’ve already cited Douglas; Jeremy Sisto is masterfully diverse; Kevin Alejandro is a pop-up-everywhere kind of guy. India Ennenga is not bad either – her role in HBO’s Treme explored (as much as that giant ensemble of loosely intersecting stories could) teenage grief and identity. Oh, and I almost forgot – the inimitable Michelle Forbes! She dominates (in a good way) everything she’s in – had nearly forgotten her Battlestar connection. She almost makes me want to keep watching The Returned… but not quite.

But I don’t have enough time to keep watching things for which I don’t feel either love or hate. Just a few actors I happen to like isn’t reason to tune in. I’ve chronicled my hate-watching and desire to give up some of the shows, like The Following, that cry out for ridicule. I’ve also written about shows I love. But the mediocre middle ground, where shows like The Returned live, isn’t a place I want to spend more time.