January 30, 2021

All Creatures Great and Small: "Andante"

After watching the first two episodes of the new Masterpiece series All Creatures Great and Small, you'd be forgiven for thinking that each episode will end happily for all the animals you encounter. The bucolic setting and guileless protagonist lend themselves to uplifting stories. But the life and work of a country veterinarian can be difficult and unpleasant, too. 

The series is based upon the book of the same name, a memoir by James Herriot, chronicles of his early years as a vet in Yorkshire in the mid 20th century. In the book's fifth chapter, Herriot must euthanize a horse who is suffering great pain and a slow death as a result of a torsion of the bowel. The young vet must then await confirmation of his diagnosis via a postmortem conducted by his boss, Siegfried Farnon. It is this chapter that is adapted into the third episode of the PBS series. 

James Herriot (Nicholas Ralph) examines a patient.
Source: pbs.com

The series's creators and writers deftly adapt the source material. The characters of Mrs. Hall (Anna Madeley) and Helen Alderson (Rachel Shenton) are bought forward to expand the main cast, and a romantic rivalry between James and Hugh Hulton (Matthew Lewis) for the affections of Helen is added. Herriot's accounts of his patients are lifelike on the page, and the series pulls a few of the vignettes from in the book into each episode, creating a vivid picture of his work.  In episode 3, writer Lisa Holdsworth builds the bulk of the story out of the seven short pages of Chapter 5, and only makes additions that either raise the stakes or enhance character development. 

While the horse in the book is both beloved and valuable, tension is added in the episode by also making the stallion a racehorse. Unnamed in the book, the horse is called Andante here, and is the also the favorite to win the upcoming Darrowby Classic. Every local at the pub has put their money on it. Everyone, that is, except Tristan Farnon (Callum Woodhouse). Seigfried's brother finds himself in a bit of a tight spot, having accidentally spent the payments he was supposed to have collected from the local farmers. Seizing rather questionably upon the not-yet-public news of Andante's death, Tristan puts what's left of his money on the second favorite, ultimately recouping his losses. By making Andante a racehorse, James and Tristan's storylines can be woven together. Plus, we get the chance to see another little scheme of Tristan's. While not drawn directly from the pages of the book, it's behavior consistent with the character the reader meets there. 

The postmortem examination looms over Herriot for the second half of the episode. Confident as he was in his diagnosis, television James second guesses himself in the face of angry and litigious stable owner Hugh Hulton. Book James has no such reconsiderations; the postmortem is standard, expected, and comes and goes within a few paragraphs. By letting the viewer live in Herriot's fears for the night, awaiting confirmation of his decision, the stakes are raised. Strangely, we viewers find ourselves relieved to ultimately find out that the horse was, in fact, dying at the start of the episode.

The farmer at James's next appointment rather distressingly refers to him as "horse killer." This and other contemptuous reactions from the Darrowby locals are not found in the book, but are believable. In both book and adaptation, the young vet faces an uphill battle toward acceptance in the community. In "Andante," Herriot's newfound reputation gives Siegfried (Samuel West) an opportunity to defend his assistant. Here, Siegfried is offered the position of veterinarian at the Darrowby racetrack, if he fires James. But Siegfried defends James. Perhaps more importantly, he defends James's veterinary philosophy. "Yesterday, you agreed the welfare of the animal came first. Today, it seems that's not the case," he tells the racetrack manager. The reader comes to know Siegfried as a soft-hearted, if a bit irascible, man. The episode allows the viewer to see that as well. 

Turning the short chapters of a long book into one-hour episodes of television cannot be an easy task. This is not the first adaptation of All Creatures Great and Small, but it is a successful one. This is because the writers understand the source material; while the stories are embellished, the setting and characters are true to their inspirations. Furthermore, those embellishments only serve to enhance the stories, adding the tension necessitated by the medium. 

January 21, 2021

Superstore: "Hair Care Products"

When scripted TV returned to production in the midst of COVID-19, writers and showrunners had two choices: continue with their story as if the pandemic never happened, or incorporate it into the plot. I have preferred the former. If ever there was a time for escapist TV, this is it. To say nothing of the ever changing experience of the pandemic. As EW's James Hibberd put it, "Nobody can correctly make an authentic drama about this pandemic right now. It’s been noted many times before that you cannot make a great movie about a war until years after the war has ended.” Can the experience be accurately fictionalized when it has not yet been fully lived?

Mateo and Cheyenne watch the ceremonial
unlocking of the hair care case. 
Source: tvfanatic.com
Superstore opted to try to find out. In the season 6 premiere, the titular Cloud 9 Superstore is facing the same pandemic the viewers are, and the episode drags as a result. The premiere also prolonged the exit of series lead America Ferrera, a departure which would have been tidier as the season 5 finale. By its title, the second episode of season 6 is actually the second half of the season 5 finale, but the COVID-themed opener "Essential" interrupted the two. In these first few episodes, there are jokes about mask wearing and about who might be contagious, but nothing about it feels unique to the show or even relatable to the viewer, despite the similarity to our own lives. Maybe it's because we've heard those jokes. We've made these jokes. The show is just slapping a mask on a cardboard cutout mascot. 

So imagine my surprise when the fifth episode of the season, "Hair Care Products" finally delivers a snapshot of COVID that feels true to life with a punchline that's true to the show. The B plot of the episode sees Cheyenne (Nichole Sakura) and Mateo (Nico Santos), the break room's popular crowd, decide to do something "so nice" for the less popular Sandra (Kaliko Kauahi) and invite her to their upcoming movie night. Sandra politely declines. When pressed, she reveals she's not comfortable with Mateo and Cheyenne's loose adherence to COVID guidelines. It feels like a real conversation. Heck, you've probably been on one side or the other of that same conversation. But unlike earlier jokes in the season where the punchline was just, "Oh no! He's contagious," the humor here is in watching Mateo and Cheyenne bend over backward to accommodate the one person they didn't intend to invite in the first place.

Earlier seasons of the show tackled timely and heavy topics like parental leave, PTSD, and even an ICE raid. It comes as no surprise that they'd try to tackle COVID. The pandemic isn't even the heaviest or timeliest topic in this episode. The A plot sees Garrett (Colton Dunn) begrudgingly lead the employees in developing anti-racist policy suggestions for corporate. And if that feels like way too big a task for a single retail store to handle, it's because it is. And fortunately, Superstore knows that. When corporate decides to reverse the policy on keeping Black hair care products in a locked cabinet, white characters' responses are mostly tone deaf. Meanwhile, Garrett is eager to point out the puniness of the change, but is frustrated when asked to speak and lead on behalf of all Black people. "It's not my job to call out every racist thing I come up against," he says. "It's my job to announce sales and pretend not to notice when people return used swimsuits." 

I'm glad to see that Superstore is back to its solid formula of addressing real world issues in their own little big box store, with their signature character-based humor. If the rest of Season 6 proceeds like this, I'll keep tuning in.