Detective Stories and Objective Truth

Murder mysteries are a strange place to go looking for stories that point out the sacred, but in reading The Last Policeman series I was reminded of the British period drama Foyle’s War we had watched and enjoyed several years ago. Although both stories center around a lone male detective, most similarities end there: one is the story of American Henry Palace in the world’s final days, the other the career of Englishman Christopher Foyle in the shadow of World War II.

Though both men cling to the mores of a dying world, challenged by those who find their allegiance to duty futile under the circumstances, neither detective is simply a bureaucratic ritualist adhering to mindless rules at the cost of his humanity. Instead, both Palace and Foyle highlight a strength of the murder mystery: its affirmation of the vital importance of morality even in the face of dire circumstances. Read More »

Marilla of Green Gables

So, my mom made me promise I’d wait until I was home for Christmas to watch the Gilmore Girls reboot with her, so instead I’ve been watching PBS’s new L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables. I am the only Anne girl of my generation who’s neutral at best on the Megan Follows Anne but I know the book almost by heart, and I love West Wing-era Martin Sheen devotedly so I had high hopes.

And I thought this version was…ok. I didn’t love the casting of the girl playing Anne and I thought the whole production was a little rushed and saccharine. I’d show it to Pippin, I guess, but found myself bristling at cheesy additions like pig-chasing and thin ice drama.

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But I think that’s because the original novel works simply because of Marilla. Anne is wonderful, but she can be a little hard to swallow. (Could many actors deliver those lovely lines in a way that isn’t completely sickly sweet?) A careful reading of the novel, though, reveals that much of the humor comes from Marilla’s perspective.

The new movie gets some of this right, shuffling plot lines with wild abandon to make Marilla’s realization of her love for Anne the central conflict, but I don’t think we get enough of early Marilla, prickly but prone to unholy laughter, to make the victory truly sweet. It’s like a romantic comedy where you want the delightful heroine to get her 2D hero just because that’s what she wants.

I love that the new movie includes a noncanonical reference to Marilla being short for “Amaryllis” — an allusion perhaps to hidden depths of feeling and beauty in practical Marilla Cuthbert that only Anne can draw out. But it feels like a wasted opportunity. While I never loved the old Canadian Anne movies (and stuanchly refuse to watch the weird WWI installment), that version got the casting for Marilla right: exasperated, amused despite herself, completely unaware she is falling in love with this strange little girl.

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I propose that it is the story of Marilla, transformed by (untraditional) motherhood that makes Anne of Green Gables so much stronger than its sequels, when Anne leaves the safety of Green Gables and Marilla’s wry and watchful eye and heads out into the world. Anne Shirley (or later Anne Blythe), undiluted by the contrast of Marilla’s pragmatism, is all fancies and rainbows and ultimately too light, and bright, and sparkling. It’s a difficult feat in a film to capture Marilla’s perspective, but ultimately in the new L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, no amount of breathtaking island vistas and homey fiddle score can make up for its absence.

The Allure of the British Costume Drama

If you traffic much in Catholic blogs, you’ll have heard the strange place and people names that make up much of the TV consumed by this segment of the population: Granchester, Downton Abbey, Call the Midwife, Lark Rise to Candleford, Foyle’s War, and now Poldark.

J and I are guilty of indulging in the historical drama, too. It’s a tiny trend, but I think it makes sense. After all, most of these shows concern themselves with the question of how to live — what I should do versus what do I want. Lord Grantham wants to save the estate, not just for his own continued privilege but to provide for the household for whom he feels an inherited obligation. Ross Poldark makes a mistake, taking advantage of someone under his protection, and determines to make it right by providing for her. On the other hand, shows like Grey’s Anatomy are much more concerned with the deeply individualistic what do I want. (Or who do I want?) And that can be fun, soapy escapism. But for someone in the trenches of grown-up life, trying to figure out what one ought to do — especially in light of community and Church authority — is a much more central question.

In these dramas, the only Catholic character who comes to mind is the (dreamy!) Tom Branson, but for most of the characters, church is an intrinsic part of the rhythm of life, whatever their conflicted relationship with faith might be. This, too, is something with which we contemporary American Catholics can identify. Christopher Foyle quietly attends church between solving crimes; Reverend Sidney Chambers tries to reconcile his calling with the brokenness he sees in his town and which haunts his memories of the war. The young midwives who find themselves living at an inner-city Anglican convent see up close the lives of religious. Contemporary American primetime television has plenty of weddings, but the BBC historical drama also offers baptisms, funerals, even the occasional boring old Sunday worship.

Your worship would never be boring, Rev. Chambers.

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A baptism brings all the Crawleys to the (Johnny Foreigner papist) church

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Compare this with the Braverman clan of Parenthood, whose religion is baseball (though there’s a refreshing foray into faith with Jabbar’s praying in Season 4), or Gilmore Girls, which remains resolutely ignorant of even such obvious differences as Catholic imagery and fundamentalist distaste for crucifixes. I adore those Gilmore girls, but are these ladies really comfortable in a church?


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I don’t need or even want all my characters to be devout, wooden caricatures of proper faith, but I like it when a show at least admits religion as a factor in the everyday lives of some of its characters. You’ll notice that some of the posts linked above have fights to pick with the historical dramas, and that’s how it should be in good television. After all, I’m not looking for didacticism in my TV, and I shy away from just about anything labeled “inspirational.” Instead, these shows are asking real questions and standing for something, and while it doesn’t always align with the Catholic worldview, at least they’re trying. Because TV can do better than “I believe in good…versus evil.

Starting a petition for the inclusion of more nuns on television — who’s with me?

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