Sunday, January 11, 2009

Combustible Hardy on 'Masterpiece'

For years -- make that decades -- Sunday at 9 p.m. generally has meant one thing to me: Masterpiece Theater. [1] Now split into three -- Classic, Contemporary, and Mystery -- it is still what it has always been: very good, and occasionally even superb, entertainment. I know it's not some people's cup of tea, and I know that others have derided it as middlebrow since the days when the late Alistair Cooke was the host. [2] If middlebrow denotes unchallenging and readily accessible, then ninety percent of television is middlebrow, so leveling this criticism is like firing a blunderbuss at a sparrow.

Middlebrow, shmiddlebrow. Take Masterpiece Classic's version of Tess of the D'Urbervilles, the second and last installment of which I saw this evening. The score was a bit overbearing, but the acting was excellent. Indeed, the chemistry between Gemma Arterton (as Tess) and Eddie Redmayne (as Angel Clare), particularly in the last half-hour or so, was such that if they had generated any more heat, the screen might have caught on fire. A friend recently said to me, apropos of sex in the movies or on television: "Less is more." I'm inclined to think this is true. Which is more erotic: on one hand, a movie like Body Heat or -- to take the closest thing to an X movie ever given an R rating -- Boogie Nights, or on the other hand something like this adaptation of Tess? There's no comparison. Hardy wins.
1. Except for those (not insubstantial) periods of time when I didn't have a TV.
2. Cooke was irreplaceable, which is why, after one or two false starts, they decided not to replace him. The host/ess (typically a youngish, attractive, often well-known actress or actor), now stands, rather than sits, and says much less than Cooke or his immediate successor, Russell Baker, did.

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