I’m not all that optimistic about most of the new television series that are popping up from every possible provider. Even some of those that are touted as the best of the best leave me cold.
But that’s as it should be, really. Because each new venue for television programming is satisfied with much lower numbers than the old Big Three (then Four, then Five) networks used to demand, niche programming is possible.
I’m simply not in the niche for, say, Orange Is the New Black or Better Call Saul or, for that matter, Breaking Bad. A high school teacher who starts manufacturing illegal drugs so his family will have something to live on after his terminal disease ends his life?
Clever premise — but I knew that I would never care about any character in the series, because I generally don’t like hanging around with people for whom crime is an option.
So a lot of the streaming series from online sources blow past like a wind outside my house. I can see the leaves moving — I read reviews, I see comments about these series — but I don’t feel anything about them myself, except a generalized indifference.
Why in the world, then, when SAG/AFTRA, the screen actors’ union, pulled up my name randomly as one of the nominating committee members, did I opt in? It would require me to watch shows that I did not actually want to watch.
And watching a performance against your will is the surest way to give it a hostile reception. If I hate the whole subject matter, as with, for instance, any series with the words “Walking” or “Dead” in the title, how am I going to be able to pay attention well enough to notice when good acting was taking place?
Yet I am so glad that I have broken through some of my aversive attitudes and watched some of the streamable shows.
First there was The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, one of the best television shows I’ve ever watched — you can stream it from Amazon. But that was last year’s surprise hit.
This year, there’s one that is nowhere near as funny — because nobody in it is supposed to be a stand-up comic — but now stands at the head of my list of Great Television This Year.
It’s a series called Sorry for Your Loss. It opens with a young widow named Leigh Shaw (Elizabeth Olsen) speaking to her support group about how she’s trying to cope with the death of her husband.
From there on, every episode bounces back and forth between scenes from her marriage — her first meeting with husband Matt (Mamoudou Athie) on through every stage of their life together — and scenes from her widowhood, dealing with Matt’s brother, Danny (Jovan Adepo) and Leigh’s own sister (adopted? Half-sister?), Jules (Kelly Marie Tran), as well as her mother, Amy (Janet McTeer).
Yeah, this whole series is about dealing with death. It’s not even till episode 6 that we get any idea of how Matt died, and even then we aren’t sure whether it was suicide or accident.
Nor was the marriage idyllic. They had a real connection — and believe me, that’s hard to write and hard to act — but they also irritated each other, with Leigh determined to fix things in Matt’s life that he thinks he already has under control.
A couple of dogs also figure importantly in the storyline, and while dogs are even worse actors than children usually are, if you can ignore the way they constantly look past the camera to see what their handler wants them to do next, then the dogs do their jobs well, too.
Kelly Marie Tran is in the awkward position of playing a prickly ne’er-do-well who resents it when people expect her to continue behaving as she has always behaved, because doggone it, she has changed. (Never mind that she has “changed” many times before, and always goes back to her old ways within a few weeks.)
When an actor plays an obnoxious character well, the problem is that we don’t enjoy the time we spend in her company. And I didn’t, though I understood her function in the story and I recognize that there’s nothing wrong with Tran’s performance. I’m just impatient for her storylines to end so that someone else can use the screen.
Jovan Adepo, playing Matt’s brother Danny, is a much more interesting — and likeable — character, though certainly not on the day he descends on the apartment Leigh shared with Matt, demanding to be able to take things that are, or might be, precious mementoes to Leigh.
He even says to her at one point that her bereavement isn’t as tragic as his, because she’s young and good-looking and so she’ll be able to get into a new relationship and have a new husband, if she wants one, while he can never get another brother to replace Matt.
Outrageous as it is to say such a thing, we have plenty of chances to see that these brothers were unusually close, and Danny has a lot of resentment stored up against the widow who, in his view, was an intrusion in the lives of these two brothers.
It’s all about grief, and for many audience members that might seem like such a downer of a subject that you’ll turn away from the series. I completely understand that impulse. But I’ve known enough death of beloved people in my life that to me, these stories feel current and vital.
Nobody likes hanging out with someone who may burst into tears at any moment, when a memory or a yearning is triggered. I know that, which is why I try to control my own instant-tears subject matter when dealing with most friends and family members.
As someone points out in Sorry for Your Loss, “They’re over it, so they expect you to be over it, too.” And you’re not.
The glue that holds everything together is Elizabeth Olsen, who plays Leigh. While Olsen is an attractive person, she isn’t glamorous in her attitude — that is, in this role there is no implication that she is aware of being pretty or desirable. Quite the contrary — she plays Leigh as a real person, and glamor and glitz don’t come into her performance.
She is one of those actors who suggest the great depth of the character through stillness. We don’t know what she’s feeling at every moment, unless the script tells us — but Olsen is alive in the role every moment, so we know that something is going on inside.
The result is that every moment she’s not on the screen feels a tiny bit wasted; we’re impatient for her to get back to the screen because that’s when the events in the show matter most.
This is pretty powerful stuff, for someone whose initiation into film and television came through her childhood appearances in the movies and videos about her older sisters, the Olsen Twins.
But she has earned her own way through some big-budget but not-the-star roles in Marvel movies and the Godzilla reboot in 2014. She was not memorable — she could only have been memorable by doing a laughably bad job. So … forgettable was the goal when the part was being written.
There isn’t a forgettable moment in her performance in Sorry for Your Loss. With this role, we get a glimpse of what Olsen is going to become, for she has range and power that seem to be effortless. We never see her sweat, unless her character sweats.
I’m not only looking for more of this series than the six episodes I’ve seen so far, I’m also looking forward to watching her in many other projects in years to come. I think she has the strength and skill to hold the screen with anyone working today. With the right scripts, she will have a brilliant career.
Speaking of the right scripts, show creator Kit Steinkellner and writer Desta Tedros Reff are credited as writers on all ten episodes in the first season. Good job, O Writer Humans: You are giving audiences stories of power and truth, and you are giving actors a chance to create real and important characters.
Sorry for Your Loss is aired on Facebook. I don’t know how you’d get to it on a regular TV; maybe you can’t. I saw it on DVDs provided to SAG/AFTRA nominators, and I can’t let you borrow mine. But we’re told that you don’t have to pay to subscribe to the series, and wouldn’t it be nice if you didn’t even have to join Facebook to see it!
Thank You for Your Service is a phrase that has become a requirement whenever you meet or see an member of the U.S. military or local police and fire departments.
Most of the time, uniformed military people recognize that these words are being addressed to the uniform, not to them personally. But I’ve heard some of them get a little testy about it.
“I sit at a desk and push papers around,” one of them said grumpily in my hearing. “There’s no sacrifice involved, nothing I do requires bravery — or even skill or education beyond junior high. What are they thanking me for?”
At the time, I had no interest in getting into an argument with a guy who seemed to be spoiling for a quarrel. But I’m going to answer him here:
Many citizens of this republic are grateful for the men and women who lay their lives on the line to keep us safe. Most of the humans in uniform do not actually risk death or serious injury any more than anyone who drives a car on American highways, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t making a sacrifice.
1. If you’re in the military, you go where you’re assigned, and you do whatever job you’re given. Police and fire department personnel usually serve locally, but still, when you’re on call, you go where you’re dispatched to. This means that you have surrendered a lot of control over your own life.
2. If you have a desk job, you may feel as if you’re somehow “lesser” than the people whose uniformed jobs are active and dangerous, but it’s simply not true. Quite apart from the old poetic adage, “They also serve who only stand and wait,” all the paper pushers are doing work that needs to be done by someone (or at least the brass think so), and so their hours “safely” at a desk are freeing up somebody else to go out and face the perils of the job.
3. People who “thank you for your service” are responding to genuine gratitude for what people wearing that uniform do. Part of your duty, wearing that uniform, is to respond to such words with grace. “Thank you for saying so,” is a complete response to the statement. So are “I’m glad you feel that way,” “I’m glad to serve however they assign me,” “Thanks for your good works as a citizen of this country/city/state.”
What is never appropriate is to refuse their words and turn them into a lecture on your own unworthiness of such praise.
You’re wearing the uniform. “Thank you for your service” is not a bullet. It is not shrapnel. It does not injure you in any way. Be gracious and patient with the ignorance of civilians. Part of your service is to help them remain ignorant … and happy.
The Christmas season approaches, and we’re continuing the tradition of offering some of my books, signed and personalized to your gift recipient, through our local Greensboro Barnes & Noble at Friendly Center.
This spares you and me the need to attend a single book signing on a certain day, and you don’t have to wait in any lines longer than the checkout line at the bookstore.
Barnes & Noble will take orders by email at CRM2795@bn.com. They will not be taking orders over the phone. They will ship anywhere in the U.S. Remote buyers will pay the actual shipping costs, but there’s no charge beyond the ordinary price of the books to local customers who pick them up in the store.
The last day to place out-of-town orders is 10 December, but local orders can be placed as late as 17 December, for pickup before Christmas.
We don’t offer this with every title — just a few that Barnes & Noble orders especially for this purpose and keeps on hand until the end of the Christmas buying season.
Here is the list of books available in this program — until the store runs out of a particular title:
Leading the group is my newest book, A Town Divided by Christmas, which came out just this past Tuesday. It’s the story of two scientists who come to conduct a genetic study in a North Carolina town, and find that, in the best Hallmark Christmas movie tradition, there is love waiting for them — if they’re willing to change their lives enough to accommodate it.
With any luck, you’ll enjoy it as romance and as comedy. But of course, a book with a Christmas setting needs to be read before Christmas, so that’s one title you may want to look at first — perhaps to see if you enjoy it, and then to send copies as gifts to people you think would also like reading it.
A Town Divided by Christmas has scientists in it, but it is not science fiction by any rational definition. No space ships. No aliens. Not in the future. Just people of today doing their best to lead happy lives constrained by the needs of others and the requirements of making a living.
Here are the titles that we’re offering to those who would like autographed and personalized copies to give as gifts this Christmas, starting now:
A Town Divided by Christmas
Ender’s Game – gift edition hardback
Ender’s Game – Young Adult trade edition (exactly the same text as in the edition for adults)
Ender’s Shadow – Young Adult trade edition
Children of the Fleet – hardcover and mass market
The Lost Gate
A War of Gifts (an Ender novel from his time in Battle School)
If you don’t care whether the book is autographed and personalized, then you can buy it in the store and take it home. But if you want the personalization and autograph, you will buy it but leave it with the store, and on Mondays I will come in and sign whatever books are waiting for me.
This offer is from our local Barnes & Noble only. The national chain and the Barnes & Noble website have nothing to do with this, so they won’t know what you’re talking about if you try to participate through them.
In addition, signed (but not personalized) copies of many of my books can be ordered directly from my own online bookstore at Hatrack.com — including my earlier Christmas book Zanna’s Gift, which I think may be the best story I ever wrote. Give us a look at http://www.hatrack.com/store/store.cgi