One of the hot books coming in 2020 is Rolf Dobelli’s Stop Reading the News. In it the bestselling self-help author takes a few hundred pages to explain his premise, “News is to the mind what sugar is to the body.”
This column is not going to endorse it. But it will acknowledge that respite from the news is profoundly necessary. A respite is a tonic and there are fewer better respites than an unguarded, thrillingly cockeyed adaptation of Jane Austen.
Sanditon (starts Sunday, Masterpiece, PBS, 9 p.m.) is based on the unfinished novel Austen left behind -- a mere fragment, really, but it establishes key characters and setting. Veteran period-piece writer Andrew Davies took it upon himself to adapt and finish the story for ITV in Britain. As some Austen fanatics, the Janeites, will see it, the result is more assault than adaptation, but pay them no mind. It’s fabulously distracting, lavish, humane, funny, romantic and sexy as all get-out.
In truth, the erotic charge in it is breathtaking, but done with good intent, expanding the story and characters well beyond the prim boundaries of an Austen novel. From the start, we are warned, as the heroine is, that lax morals are on the horizon. When Charlotte Heywood (Rose Williams) leaves the sleepy countryside for the glamorous new seaside resort of Sanditon, her old dad says that in such places, “The normal rules of conduct are often relaxed, and even flouted.”
Charlotte is barely arrived in Sanditon when she encounters one Edward Denham, brother to her host Tom. In minutes, Edward is extolling the virtues of bathing in the sea. Charlotte says, “I haven’t been in the sea, yet.” And Edward informs her of the joys of, “The gentle play of the currents on your naked limbs.” Charlotte is intrigued, shall we say. There ensues a scene with naked men swimming, the women undressing and going for a dip in the sea wearing chemises and pantaloons, followed by some shoe-shopping for Charlotte and then a walk in the woods during which she observes a sexual act being performed al fresco.
All of this is setting up the main inciting incident: Charlotte meets Sidney Parker (Theo James, who played the chap who was offed while having sex with Lady Mary in the early going of Downton Abbey.) Sparks fly, but in the Austen manner. He’s formidably handsome, but gruff and judgmental. She’s a wide-eyed ingénue who knows more than she gives away. A few episodes in, the attraction turns volcanic.
Around the central couple there is a swirling social circle. In part these characters are Austen’s creation, but their lives and entanglements are essentially broadened for the series to add a zesty relevance. Principally, the secondary story revolves around Georgiana Lambe, who Austen describes as “half mulatto” in her unfinished novel. Lambe (Crystal Clarke) has a few things to say about racism and slavery. The fact that she is very, very rich adds pungency.
In the end, Sanditon (there are eight episodes) does not resolve as Austen fans might expect or like. Love or loathe the ending, the journey there is enthralling, amusing, carnal and diverting as is necessary in these woeful days. Dear heavens, it is gorgeous.
The Outsider (starts Sunday, HBO/Crave, 9 p.m.) is a different kind of distraction. Adapted from the Stephen King novel (by Richard Price, famous for his realistic writing in The Wire and The Night Of), it is tonally dark and literally gloomy. Simultaneously a grim crime drama and fantasy-nightmare fiction, it’s gripping, but not easy going.
In a small Midwest town, earnest cop Ralph Anderson (Ben Mendelsohn) arrests local teacher and well-known nice guy Terry Maitland (Jason Bateman, who also directs) for the murder of a young boy. It’s clear he did it because the evidence is emphatic. And then there emerges equally emphatic evidence that he could not have committed the crime. So who, or what, is responsible? The town descends into more murder, suicides and other violence as it becomes clear that a force of evil has taken over. Based on the evidence of early episodes – there are 10 – this is one grim, but gripping story with perplexing complications arriving often.
Also airing this weekend
Who was General Soleimani? (Saturday, CBC News Network 10 p.m. on Passionate Eye, and repeated Sunday, 10 p.m.) is a smart last-minute insertion to the schedule. It’s a one-hour BBC report, a profile of Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian general killed by U.S. forces last week, and examines why his assassination has set the world on edge. The CBC release says “assassination.” In it, a U.S. diplomat calls him “the Darth Vader of contemporary Middle-Eastern politics."