For some reason, we are into a short period of seriousness in television; less noise and clamour, more traditional acting, talking and directness. This is good. We all need a break from whiz-bang bedlam and cascades of special effects.
Solos (streams Amazon Prime Video) is an anthology set of monologues, done by good actors and with a connecting theme of suspicion about our high-tech present and future. It could be classified as a pandemic-era production, since the seven episodes (each about 30-minutes long) feature actors in isolation. But in essence it’s simplified storytelling about subjects that aren’t simple. It’s theatrical and that too is both a blessed relief and a testament to the sheer expansiveness of the streaming arena.
The episodes can be watched in any order but the one at the start of the list has Anne Hathaway as Leah, a 34-year-old woman attempting to conquer time travel while living in her mom’s basement. She’s surrounded by an array of gadgets and trying reach someone – anyone – in the future. Mostly though she’s talking to herself or her sister on the phone. When she actually reaches somebody with her devices, it is, unsurprisingly, herself. There follows an intricate three-way conversation with three Hathaway figures arguing. It’s not deep, this little drama, but it’s not a dud. It has one stated theme: “If you travel to the future then do you escape your past?” What gives it some heft is the fact the Leah figure feels very familiar, but as a male, basement-dwelling tech-geek obsessive, not a woman.
Helen Mirren gives an excellent, controlled performance as Peg, a 71-year-old woman in the near future. She’s on a space craft travelling to the unknown and her one companion is a computer that sounds like Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Part of the power in the monologue comes from the discomfort of hearing Peg’s nostalgia for technology that we, in the present, see as either novel or menacing. But the grit is in Mirren’s almost despondent depiction of a woman who feels useless, with nothing to contribute and nothing to engage her mind. And the core of her story is timeless – a chance not taken in adolescence that still haunts her.
The most flinty, raw episodes are less about future-technology and more about human rage. Constance Wu plays Jenny, an angry foul-mouthed woman full of self-hate about her attempts to have a baby with a hopeless man and then falling for her handsome neighbour. Another episode rings uncannily true: Uzo Aduba plays Sasha, a woman in a post-pandemic world, reluctant to leave her home and engage with those outside. Created by and mostly written by David Weil, who created Amazon Prime’s perplexing series Hunters, Solos is a rather like a small festival of intense, layered storytelling.
Also airing thus weekend – Oslo (Crave/HBO, Saturday, 8 p.m.) has its origins in theatre: the Tony-winning play by J.T. Rogers about the months of negotiations that led to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat shaking hands at the White House in 1993 and signing an agreement known as the Oslo Accords. As such, it has a powerful, doleful resonance today. Adapted for HBO, it’s an exquisitely sombre piece about the plausibility of intractable enemies finding common ground. Ruth Wilson and Andrew Scott play Mona Juul and Terje Rod-Larsen, the married Norwegian diplomats who used their experience in the Middle East and personal friendships to slowly and carefully arrange to bring both sides together on neutral ground. A drama about talk, it still has tension, like an espionage thriller, as the ferocity of official opposition to the secret negotiations is as dangerous as gunfire and bombs. There is also great strain on both diplomats as they try to push the meaning of the talks upward from civilian level toward grandstanding politicians. Ruth Wilson in particular embodies a plaintiveness that’s heart-wrenching.
The Donut King (Sunday, PBS, 10 p.m. on Independent Lens, also streams CBC Gem) is a fine if erratic documentary anchored in a food-business phenomenon. Consider this: There are about 5,000 independent doughnut shops in California, and Cambodian immigrants own 80 per cent of them. The doc focuses on the story of trailblazer Ted Ngoy, a refugee. His devotion to doughnuts and ingenuity made him a competitor with the big chains. Then his life went awry. The doc made by Alice Gu moves, albeit awkwardly, between his story and that of others in the doughnut field, some of whom escaped from horror in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge in the mid-1970s.
Finally, note Internment: The Untold Stories (Sunday, TLN, 8 p.m.). It’s about the 600 Italian-Canadian men who were held in prisons and remote internment camps, during the Second World War, a story most Canadians know nothing about. And it is time to follow the Prime Minister’s historic apology to the Italian Canadian community.
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