james debate
james debate

Monday 30 November 2020

Created by Peter Morgan
Network Netflix
Starring Olivia Colman, Tobias Menzies, Helena Bonham Carter, Gillian Anderson
Genre Historical drama
Running Time 45-60 minutes

the crown season 4 four princess diana margaret thatcher elizabeth queen colman foy corrin gillian anderson helena bonham carter best new show 2020

Until now, Netflix's The Crown has been something of a nostalgic fantasy. A sumptuously crafted, if highly romanticised, depiction of historic events and figures that are grounded enough in the world around us to feel relevant, yet distant enough to seem almost like the malleable icons of Arthurian legend. Yet as the story rapidly draws nearer to present day and enters the time of living memory, these depictions inevitably land closer to home and to controversy.

As a series, The Crown has something for everyone: history, politics, melodramatic posh people. Through it all, what makes the series so brilliant is the absolutely superlative production quality. It's been consistently brilliant and won a bunch of Debbie awards, plus a few others that no one cares about like the Emmys. But no matter how good a series is, I rarely come back to do a review of later seasons unless there is something noteworthy enough to justify a revisit. This is one of those situations.

With its fourth season, The Crown enters the 1980s. You all know what that means. Any drama about the royal family was inevitably going to reach this point. It was always going to be a headline moment in the series. It was pretty much guaranteed to be a shitshow in one way or another. Yes, this is the Princess Diana series.

The depiction of so beloved a figure presents challenges. Diana's deeds and untimely demise have ascended her image almost into the realm of national folklore. To write this person's story in such a way as to present the real individual without offending the... is a bold undertaking, doubly so for the actress who will be tasked with capturing this essence, and in doing so become for many people the living image of Diana as she is seen in the public discourse. 

But Diana is not the only figure of controversy here. Season four of the Crown also marks the first appearance of Margaret Thatcher, one of the more divisive political figures in recent British history.

So how do you even begin to analyse this? Ultimately I think there are two questions to ask here: 1) how accurate/fairly are these figures being depicted. and 2) how well written/acted are they (and thus ultimately, does it make for "good television"?).

The Royal Family, much more so than in previous seasons, is depicted as cold and arrogant. Frequently they are shown to belittle those beneath their level and regard others as pawns in their political machinations. This extends to Princess Diana, who is depicted as a marriage of convenience, a camera-friendly smokescreen while Charles continues his affair with Camilla basically throughout. Diana herself is not portrayed as some kind of saint, as we have become accustomed to seeing her depicted in recent years. This Diana is shown to be an ambitious, self-centred drama queen who craves status and attention.

There have been accusations that the writers of this show are playing up the drama for sensationalist reasons. But truthfully a lot of what is shown here matches up quite closely to that which is publicly known and confirmed. Many of the incidents of Diana craving the spotlight are based on documented events. If anything, the writers have shied away from depicting probably the most shocking of all documented incidents, one which Diana herself confirmed in a BBC interview: that she deliberately threw herself down the stairs while pregnant with William, basically as a cry for attention. 

To be fair, there are some instances where the truth appears to be stretched here in the name of drama. I have seen credible doubts raised as to whether Charles really was pursuing an open affair with Camilla throughout the marriage. In one scene Phillip appears to threaten Diana in what can only be seen as an ugly nod to the despicable Diana conspiracy theories. But ultimately the truth is that the Charles and Diana marriage really was a messy, ugly story in which no one comes off particularly well, and that appears to be fairly depicted here.

Margaret Thatcher on the other hand has quite the interesting portrayal here. At first the writers seem almost to want to humanise her character to an unrealistic degree, depicting her as meek and awkward in the face of the Royal Family's arrogance and snobbery. They emphasise her middle class roots and show her struggles against the repressive political patriarchy. In fairness they do also allude to her darker side: the allegations of corruption, her callousness towards the poor, her megalomania, her baffling views on gender equality, but it seems strangely at odds with how she is depicted at other times during the season and I am not sure if the writers really do as good a job as they can (or as was done in the film Iron Lady) in depicting a complete portrayal of the character.

But controversies aside, have they maintained the high quality of production from the previous seasons? Well it's The Crown, of course they have. The acting and production is for the most part as impeccable as you would expect. 

Emma Corrin is the big newcomer as Princess Diana and she provides a captivating performance in a difficult role that manages to dominate every scene in which she is a part (as Diana should do). Her Diana is in equal parts adorable and troublesome, sympathetic and frustrating. Corrin looks every bit a star in the making and I look forward to seeing where she goes in the future.

Gillian Anderson's Thatcher is sadly a bit more disappointing. Anderson is a wonderful actress, but her Thatcher comes off as far too cartoonish with the over the top neck craning, posture and belaboured vocal impression. Sometimes when it comes to portraying a historical figure less is more.

Otherwise longtime fans are likely to find the same series that they know and love. The Crown's fourth season is another lavish piece of prestige television, except with an added dose of melodrama. If you ever found yourself wishing that The Crown could be a bit more like Downton Abbey, this season is for you.

Sunday 22 November 2020

Created by Mike Flanagan (based on the works of Henry James)
Network Netflix
Starring Victoria Pedretti, Olivier Jackson-Cohen, Amelia Eve, T'Nia Miller
Genre Supernatural
Running Time 45-65 minutes

netflix haunting of hill house bly manor mike flanagan best new show 2020
I had high expectations coming into this. Creator Mike Flanagan is establishing himself as one of the leading names in horror through a growing filmography of spooky hits that include the likes of Oculus, Hush, and Ouija. The first season of his The Haunting anthology series, The Haunting of Hill House, has so far been his crowning achievement: just the right amount of scary with a level of production quality and artistic ambition far beyond its peers - one episode is audaciously filmed as (seemingly) a single camera shot, while another "The Bent-Neck Lady" remains some of the finest horror story telling of the past thirty years. In particular, I was impressed by the subtle attention to detail of the series - the first season famously would do things like change the position and expressions of statues in between camera shots and hide ghostly figures in plain sight without drawing attention to them. Subtle and barely perceptible details that are nevertheless noticeable enough to create a general sense of unease. The Haunting of Hill House earned a runner-up place in the end of year Debbie Awards for best new TV series.

The Haunting of Bly Manor is the second season of this series. Same actors, but completely different characters, setting and source material. Whereas Hill House was based on the 1959 novel of the same name by Shirley Jackson, Bly Manor is based on numerous works of 19th Century author Henry James, most notably 1898's The Turn of the Screw. But while this is ostensibly a continuation of Flanagan's Haunting anthology, viewers would do well to temper their expectations. This is in no way The Haunting of Hill House 2.

Without wanting to spoil too much, the setting is this: a young au pair arrives at the country estate of Bly to look after its two young children who have lost both their parents to tragedy. The manor is populated by a team of full time staff and various other entities, but as the au pair begins to settle in to her new life she finds herself haunted by the pain of a past romance. To be honest I'm not even sure I would classify this as a horror series (I have gone with the genre "supernatural" instead). Sure, there are ghosts, but for the most part the ghosts aren't anything to cause fright. In Bly Manor, ghosts are more like sad memories than malevolent entities. A reminder of lost loves and unspeakable wrongs, rather than Hill House's cruel tricksters. That's not to say that the show lacks for scares or chilling imagery, but these moments are used more sparingly and do not take the primary focus of the series in the way that was the case with Hill House.

Bly Manor is essentially a gothic romance where the true evils reside in the base instincts of man and the unjust machinations of society. The spooks and ghouls, such that they are, are more tragic figures to be pitied than feared, and the main drivers of conflict lie in the weight of personal duty and familial obligations. It all makes for an impressively complex and psychological tale, albeit a slow burning one that never feels fully formed until its final moments.

While this may be a very different type of show, the quality is still generally high. Bly Manor is well made, with gorgeous visual and audio and a slick production (and yes the hidden ghosts return, although to a much lesser extent). The filmmaking in general comes off as a bit less artful and ambitious than its predecessor, which is perhaps not surprising with Flanagan largely stepping back from directorial duties, but this is still a very competently composed series. I will say that the narrative feels a bit weaker than Hill House, perhaps due in part to its slow-burning nature. The story itself is not bad, but the way it unwinds over some ten hours feels less focused, less tight, and a bit more self-indulgent. It almost feels as if they had to stretch it out in order to fill Netflix's ten hour runtime request. Ultimately it does all come together in a satisfying, if emotionally manipulative, ending, but I can't help but feel that they could have been more disciplined in editing and cut out a fair bit of the repetition in getting us there.

I have to commend the creators of this series for being willing to try something so completely different to what worked in the first season. Television is an industry where fans and critics alike like to be able to neatly categorise everything, and from its first season The Haunting was neatly categorised as horror. But as Bly Manor reminds us, that word "haunting" can have many different meanings. If the first season gave us a haunting of nasty thrills and chills, Bly Manor gives us a haunting of a more lingering and tragic nature. It is nevertheless a very bold move to switch up genres to such an extent, one that risks alienating an existing fanbase. But the payoff is that The Haunting is now much more than just a genre pastiche. This is a vehicle capable of exploring any creative niche its creator so chooses. I, for one, am excited to see where he takes us next.

Bly Manor is good, but not as good as Hill House. Viewers coming into this series expecting more of the same will probably be disappointed - this is more Patrick Swayze's Ghost than Wes Craven after all. But those who can come into this with an open mind will find a polished and strangely nostalgic haunting of a different nature.

Saturday 7 November 2020

At this time last year, with Donald Trump on the verge of impeachment for high crimes, I said that there was little doubt we were witnessing the final days of the Trump Presidency. So it has turned out. The results of the 2020 election are in. It's done. Trump is out. He will lose by a substantial margin in both the popular vote and electoral college, and in doing so become only the fourth President in modern history to lose a bid for re-election. Here's how it happened.

2020 us presidential congress election house senate results roundup 46 trump biden democrat republican single term president
First I would like to clarify, the purpose of this post will be simply to discuss the election results. What happened, what they mean, and what happens next. This is not going to be a review or retrospective of the Trump Presidency as this blog posted back in 2017 for Barack Obama. That will come later. Now it is time just to observe and digest the events of the past week.

Joe Biden has been elected President. While the results in many places have yet to be finalised, it now appears likely that he will end up having won the national popular vote by several million votes as well as the electoral college by a significant margin that includes the "blue wall" that Clinton lost in 2016 and adds formerly deep red states such as Arizona and Georgia. Joe Biden has won more votes than any Presidential candidate in American history and will likely win by the second largest margin since 2000 (the largest being Obama's first victory in 2008).

Meanwhile in the Congressional races Democrats have once again won a majority in the House of Representatives. As I have previously discussed, this is no mean feat considering how historically gerrymandered the House districts are; an anti-democratic practice essentially meaning that Democrats need to win by a wide margin just to scrape a bare majority. This majority looks like it will end up being slightly less than that won in 2018, which itself is no great surprise given that they were up against an incumbent President this time, and still represents a solid majority of the national vote.

As expected, Democrats will also make gains in the Senate, however at the time of writing it remains to be seen whether they will take a majority. With the two races in Georgia entering a runoff election, we will likely not know the answer to this until January.

These results are largely in line with what was expected pre-election. My own prediction at the start of the week had Biden winning 313 electoral votes. It is currently expected that he will win 306, with every state having been called correctly aside from Iowa (6 votes) and Maine's 2nd Congressional District (1 vote). I say this not to brag, but to show how close to pre-election expectations the results have ended up being. The forecasts were, once again, more or less correct.

Despite this, a narrative seems to have formed early on that the pollsters were all wrong. It is fair to say that the margins are narrower than predicted, but the discrepancy appears to have been greatly exaggerated by the unprecedented election day/mail-in vote difference that has been caused by the combination of Covid-19 and the Republican party's own deliberate machinations. 

When all the votes are counted it appears likely that Republicans will have over-performed relative to the polls by about 2-3%. Such a polling error easily accounts for an underperformance in the House of 10 or so seats. Difficult to comment on the Senate with races still outstanding. The potential results range from -3 to +1 as compared to my prediction. If you land somewhere in the middle and say that Democrats underperformed by 1-2 seats in the Senate, that is also very much in line with a 2-3% polling error. It's a modest discrepancy, but hardly unusual and potentially explained by causes other than polling error.

For starters, a 2-3% polling error is well within historical expectations. In most cases it is also well within the pollsters' stated margin of error. To the extent that there may be any actual polling error, there are many plausible explanations for why this may be. If there was momentum in Trump's direction in the closing days of the election then it is entirely normal that his performance would beat the polls by 1-2% (conversely this effect may also be behind Joe Biden's surprise win in Georgia). 

My readers will also recall that I raised in my election preview the possibility of there being an unaccounted for "pandemic factor" in the pre-election polling, ie perhaps Democrats were less inclined to turn out because they were worried about catching the virus, whereas Republicans have been told for months that the virus is not a big deal or even non-existent and so had no such reservations. Alternatively maybe the pandemic presented a response bias where those who were able to work from home had a greater response rate than those who were out in the world. Personally this is what I consider to be the most plausible explanation for any apparent broad polling miss, and could easily explain a 2-3% discrepancy.

That is not to say that there were not some anomalous results that require further analysis. There were clear significant polling errors in Florida (just as there were in 2018) and Wisconsin, as well as the Senate race in Maine that are not explained simply by the broad 2-3% error suggested above. But despite the hype you may have heard, the level of polling error apparent across most results appears to be neither unusually large, nor particularly surprising.

I think the main takeaway for you all is this: despite all the noise, all the drama, the shenanigans and the slow trickle of results, it looks like the election has gone basically as expected. There was no massive shock, no credible claims of malfeasance (though that evidently hasn't stopped them from putting forward a litany of non-credible ones!).  We expected the election night results to be skewed in Trump's favour, but it has been pretty clear since at least Wednesday that this election would end with a Joe Biden victory. Perhaps the most surprising thing from the 2020 election is just how unsurprising the final results appear to be.

These results are not surprising. The outcome has been clear for weeks, if not months. Anyone who says otherwise simply hasn't been paying attention. 

Donald Trump entered this race as the incumbent President. Incumbency advantage is a very real phenomenon in American politics. Americans do not like to admit they were wrong, and to be quite frank a lot of people don't really follow political news that closely and simply vote for the person they know. Under any other circumstance, he should have been heavy favourite to win this election. But Donald Trump entered this election with a historically low approval rating, a pandemic raging out of control, and the ignominy of being the only President in modern history to oversee a net reduction in jobs over the course of his tenure. Those weaknesses have ultimately cost him re-election.

It is worth noting that even before the pandemic began, Trump trailed Joe Biden in the polls. This was not some late game-changing shift, Trump has been historically unpopular throughout his Presidency. A constant cloud of corruption and scandal has left Trump as one of only four President in modern history to have majority disapproval at the end of their first term. So perhaps it should come as little surprise, then, that he will become one of only four Presidents in modern history to lose a bid for re-election.

Really the only thing that has made this election feel even vaguely uncertain has been the unprecedented disparity between election day/mail-in votes and the deliberately drawn out counting process. In truth this has been little more than a mirage that has resulted in an election that feels markedly less decisive than the final results are likely to show. It is important to stress here that this is absolutely by design. Trump and the Republicans spent months telling their voters to vote in-person rather than by mail, then fought tooth and nail in the courts and state legislatures to delay the counting of mail-in votes as much as possible. It's a baffling and cynical strategy. The intention was clearly to have numbers look as favourable as possible on election night, with a view to claiming victory before all the votes were counted. As far as electoral strategies go, this has to be one of the most asinine I can recall. It didn't work, and it's baffling that they really thought that it would.

These sad, silly games aside, the outcome of the election was rarely in doubt. The outcome was obvious to most people as early as Wednesday morning when it became clear that Biden would carry the rust belt. Once the final vote tallies have been counted Joe Biden will lead by decisive margins close to those predicted. This should not come as a surprise to anyone who has been looking at the numbers, not just in recent weeks and months but years.

A defining feature of this Presidency has been the perpetuation, by the President, of an alternate reality bubble. This is an alternate world where the news outlets are fake, where literally fictional terrorist attacks become real, and where every scandal and negative event is simply a non-existent hoax. It's an alternate reality bubble where 20,000 lies become true. Millions of Republican voters bought into it, because they wanted it to be true, and Republican officials played along, because they like winning elections.

What we are seeing now is that bubble crashing hard against reality. Donald Trump's pretend world was never real. All those bad things that happened under his presidency really happened, and the news media for the most part reported it fairly. I don't want to come off as overly harsh, but there really is no other way to say it. Facts are facts regardless of whether you like them. This is reality, and in 2020 reality bites hard for Republicans.

The election is over now, but the hard work begins. This country needs to be rebuilt, our divisions need to be healed. It is time to call an end to the conspiracy theories, the silly games and hyper extreme "partisanship to the bitter end" that we have seen in recent years. Donald Trump's rhetoric over the last few days has indicated that he is willing to burn down the country rather than accept his defeat. This cannot be tolerated by his supporters. Enough is enough Republicans, it is time to end the nonsense and move forward together.

On a final note I would like to pay great tribute to the election workers throughout the country and from both parties who have largely conducted this election in a smooth and orderly fashion despite unprecedented circumstances and unique pressures being applied from various sources. In recent weeks we have seen disgraceful attempts to influence or suppress the vote, to pressure the electoral process. We've seen armed protestors making personal threats against poll workers and their families, and now we appear to be ending the Trump presidency amid a fog of delusion and conspiracy theories. They have faced deliberate attempts at sabotage from forces both domestic and foreign. Yet, throughout it all America's proudest institutions have held strong and prevailed. It is a great victory for America and a victory for democracy in general.

So there it is. Democrats win the White House, the House of Representatives, and make gains in the Senate. There will be much more to discuss in the coming weeks and months, including a final retrospective on the Trump Presidency, and a preview of the priorities and expectations of the Joe Biden administration. Until then, rest easy, the national nightmare is over. 

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