The dreaded Mad Men-shaped vacuum is now in effect until Breaking Bad Season 4 begins. Whatever shall one watch? I turn to previous miniseries that are just as spectacular. With discipline, one can make the following delights last beyond the new year. Then again, it’s quite wonderful when something is so good that you just inhale it in a 4-8 hour binge.
The Best of Youth (pictured above) is a 2003 stunner from Italy that spans 1966 to 2000. It naturally features gorgeous Italians; like New Yorkers, even the non-gorgeous Italians tend to be intriguing, with lived-in faces and bodies. This saga about two brothers reminded me of the 70s Big Event Rich Man, Poor Man, but it’s Italian, so it’s a lot sexier. Also, meatier. The story gets kicked off by the brothers trying to help a beautiful woman who’s been committed to a mental health program, and their thwarted efforts take them down separate career paths, one as a psychiatrist, the other a cop. There’s a marvelous sequence that reenacts the Florence flood of ’66, where one brother forms what will be a literally explosive relationship with an anarchist who’s also an ace pianist. That’s all the spoiling I’m comfortable with. It’s a thrilling six hours that leaves you wanting more even as it ends perfectly.
I discovered the superb adaptation of Trollope’s The Way We Live Now when the book it’s based on was all the rage (it made some list in Newsweek or something). Miffed by the length of the library waiting list, I settled for the DVD, only to find I hadn’t settled at all. In it, a rather terrifying nouveau riche Italian family barges their way into British society, something the Brits hate but are of course far too polite to openly bitch about. It’s kind of like if the Corleones decided to move into the Magnificent Amberson’s house, except of course it’s Victorian and the class machinations and general unease are much more intricate and subtle, not to mention bitchy. (In the American version, they’d just put horse heads in the beds and be done with it.) The underrated Matthew MacFadyen and intriguing Cillian Murphy play two of the young men due for comeuppance (only one of whom deserves it), but in a wonderfully cast and acted ensemble, Shirley Henderson (you may recognize her as she’s been in dozens of movies, most recently Life During Wartime) steals the show with her driven, unpretty performance as a woman on the verge of a hostile takeover. With her squeaky voice and burnin-down-the-house gaze, she is five feet to be feared.
Prime Suspect got a fair amount of play once Americans discovered that Helen Mirren was one hot old lady. In case you haven’t gotten to it yet, here’s a quick breakdown: Season 1 kicks everything off with a bang, 2 is just as good, 3 features 3 discreet episodes rather than 1 crime over 4 episodes and is the only one that feels like a bit of a compromise but only because the others are so good, 4 comes roaring out of the gate and stays out front AND has drag queens, 5 features a really, really sickening criminal and is the most sadistic, 6 goes to Bosnia and is heartbreaking without being cynical, and 7 shows our girl as a drunk who can’t say no to booze. It’s freaking great, is what it is. And Helen Mirren is one helluva lot more than a hot old lady.
The Jewel in the Crown is an oldie but a goodie. You may remember this one from when it first came out in 1984, when mini-series were still a regular part of the network TV menu. Watch it again; it’s aged wonderfully, and it’s fascinating to see actors who you’ve seen a hundred times since in their first big roles, including Tim Piggott-Smith, Charles Dance, the lovely Geraldine Jones, and the lovelier and much-too-underused for my taste Art Malik. The story, a distillation of Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, has the richness and depth that was hinted at in David Lean’s surface-beautiful but ankle-deep Passage to India. It has a wonderful Dickens nooks and crannies kind of feel, and, in years when western filmmakers went a bit India-crazy and didn’t bother to find out Bollywood was Rather a Large Industry, is the closest you’ll get to an exploration of how badly the British f’d things up on the subcontinent, albeit from a Brit point of view.
Finally, not a true miniseries, but a 3-hour epic that breaks with perfect symmetry into 3 parts (they’re even introduced by title cards with Roman numerals in the film) is Olivier Assayas’ Les Destinées. Ravishingly beautiful without being precious, the movie begins at the turn of the century and almost immediately sweeps you from a disintegrating marriage to a ball where all the women wear white and float across the dance floor like magnolias, a flower that will figure into the plot. Somehow, the French can make the history of a porcelain manufacturer utterly compelling. There’s not a false note in this entire, exquisite movie, which reminded me of Polanski’s masterpiece Tess, and no one will blame you for wanting to savor it. But be warned that if you schedule only an hour, you may likely get sucked into the entire three. Enjoy breaking your other appointments.