In these times, I think we all tend to find comfort where we can. We certainly haven’t run out of new things to watch, but Mr Bsag and I have both taken comfort in re-watching some high quality series again. I don’t know whether it is significant that both happen to be set in earlier periods (late 1950s to 1970s) — perhaps that distance in time helps to immerse us in the fiction and disconnect us temporarily from the present, I don’t know.
The two series we are working our way through again are Endeavour (the prequel to Inspector Morse), and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel which is a comedy-drama about a Jewish-American housewife who gets into stand-up comedy. Technically, Mr Bsag is watching The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (or TMMM as I’ll call it for brevity) for the first time as he only saw bits when I watched it the first time, but got drawn into it. Both series are superb, and are a rewarding re-watch for different reasons. I’ve also found myself newly drawn to some of the peripheral characters in both series.
While Endeavour is a classic detective series, it doesn’t really matter if you remember ‘whodunnit’ or not, because the way the clues unfold and Morse solves the case is the pleasure, along with the relationships between the main protagonists. Shaun Evans does a wonderful job of portraying the young Morse. He brings a similar intensity and sharpness that you see in John Thaw’s older Morse, but also a youthful frustration and energy that you can see has subsided into depression and weariness in the older man. The relationship between Morse and his boss DI Fred Thursday (the superb Roger Allam) is terrific. Thursday’s decency and steadiness makes him a kind of father figure initially, though their methods clash frequently from the start, with Morse pushing against the constraints of ‘traditional’ policing, and Thursday railing acerbically (and hilariously) against aspects of modernity.
What is interesting when you re-watch in a more continuous way (without the longer gaps between series imposed by to original transmission dates) is that the gradual estrangement and distance between Morse and Thursday becomes so much more touching and poignant. You see more clearly how circumstances (and the stubbornness and independence of the two men) conspire to gradually drive a wedge between them, but you can’t help longing for the days when they had companionable lunches together and Morse predicted Thursday’s sandwich filling based on the day of the week1.
I am also newly appreciating the supporting characters. Chief Superintendent Bright is played by one of my favourite actors, Anton Lesser. Mr Bsag and I routinely refer to him as Anton Not The Lesser, as he is fabulous in everything, and always brings subtlety and vulnerability to the roles he plays. Bright starts out as a rather pompous, ex-Colonial figure, but slowly Anton Lesser and the writers let us see the man beneath the wind-baggery, and it breaks your heart. I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but in one of the later series, there’s a scene between Bright and Dr DeBryn in which we see the moment when a tiny flame of hope is extinguished in Bright’s eyes, all with the most subtle of acting on both of their parts. It is terrific and devastating to watch.
That brings me on to the pathologist, Dr DeBryn (James Bradshaw). I love DeBryn. He gets some of the best lines in the show. His gallows humour around the corpses is awful but hilarious, but he is such a fundamentally decent character that you can’t help adoring him. He is a consummate professional and a private man, but you get occasional tiny glimpses of the emotional toll that “having a rummage around” (as he often puts it) in dead humans must have on a person. You can’t help wondering about his life. Why does he not have a partner or family? Why did he specialise in pathology, rather than practising more conventional medicine on the living (especially when we see how dynamically and professionally he rises to the occasion when there is a medical emergency)? I love the fact that the writers and James Bradshaw give you tantalising glimpses into DeBryn’s extensive hinterland, but let him remain a mystery.
On re-watching, it also becomes clear how DeBryn is the glue which holds the team together. DeBryn is semi-independent of the others, but there is a sense in which the formalised and respectful communication between him and the others at a crime scene helps them all to keep it together in the face of the horrors they see. Most of their interactions begin with “Doctor. Gentlemen.” and they have a coded understanding which means that they often don’t have to voice some of the more horrific questions. For example, with a female victim, “Is there any indication of… No, nothing of that nature…” DeBryn does his job, but he acts as a partial shield for the others and protects them from what he can. In series 6, new team members break these rituals and it is a profoundly shocking moment. If Morse’s ill-advised moustache wasn’t enough of an indication, we can see that things are breaking down. There is worse to come later and it is deeply symptomatic of the rifts between some of the main characters.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
I was late in catching on to this show. Series 2 had already been released, and everyone had raved about how good it was before I started watching it. In some ways, it couldn’t be further from Endeavour, and yet it has the same quality, depth and attention to detail, while being much lighter in tone. If you haven’t seen it, TMMM follows our heroine Miriam (“Midge”) Maisel (played by Rachel Brosnahan) as she accidentally gets into stand-up comedy and finds she loves it. This is obviously not the kind of thing that rich, upper class housewives are supposed to do in the late 50s, but Midge is in the mood to break out of conventional roles after her husband cheats on her. In fact, all the main characters find their own ways of breaking with the conventions of the time over the three series.
The witty dialogue come so thick and fast that you end up missing things the first time around, so a second viewing is very rewarding. It is obviously a fairly light-hearted show, but there are more serious moments, and all the characters have a good deal of depth. It would — for example — have been easy to make Miriam’s husband Joel into a one-dimensional and unsympathetic character. Instead we come to see him as a human who makes a mistake and who, in his own way, is as stifled by societal expectations as Miriam is. Miriam’s rather straight-laced parents, Abe and Rose, go through similar periods of soul searching. The comedy is fabulous, the period setting engrossing, and Midge’s wardrobe is awe-inspiring if, like me, you are fascinated by mid-Century tailoring. Apart from a dress that she wears on stage several times during a tour, I don’t think she wears the same outfit twice. However, compelling as Midge’s character (and wardrobe) is, it is her manager Susie Myerson (Alex Borstein) who is my favourite character.
The polar opposite to Midge, Susie is poor, short, solidly built and has maybe two outfits. While Midge lives in a palatial apartment on the Upper West Side, Susie’s one room apartment is so small that you can’t open the door when the Murphy bed is down. These cultural differences are obviously a rich source of comedy. There’s a hilarious sequence when Susie finds out that Midge is going on holiday with her family to the Catskill Mountains for two months (as they do every year) and she is simply incredulous that a) anyone would need more than a couple of days holiday at most, and b) that anyone would want to spend a holiday away form New York city, surrounded by trees and lakes and bugs. She swears like a dock worker, is constantly mistaken for a boy, and has sarcastic ripostes that can strip paint at 20 yards, but she is tough, brave and fiercely protective of Midge. Again, we get more insight into her history and emotional life as the series goes on, and Alex Borstein does a wonderful job of providing glimpses of Susie’s vulnerability under her heavily protective tough outer shell. Many of those moments are very moving because — unlike Midge — Susie has no-one looking out for her. Despite the fact that they fight and bicker constantly, their friendship is really the heart of the show.
My own pet theory is that Fred knew exactly what filling he would get. His wife, Win, had most likely been giving him the same cycle of fillings every day for 20-odd years. I think his fondness for Morse meant that he enjoyed letting the lad show off by pretending that he didn’t know what he was getting. ↩︎