It is a testament to the openness and fluidity of television these days that the series that leads off this column even exists. Time was, it would have been futile for a writer or producer to pitch a series so lacking in genre-specificity. Further, it’s a testament to the viewer’s openness that the show can be recommended without wariness – the show is indefinable, but you can deal with that.
Run (starts Sunday on HBO/Crave, 10 p.m.) is a romance, a mystery, disarmingly oblique and unique. You have no idea where it is going, but not in the sense that it’s a twisty tale. At times hilarious and heartbreaking, as TV it is stylistically utterly distinctive. In part that’s because one has a sense of it being rooted in theatre: Two characters stuck in a confined space and their situations being slowly unpacked. That’s not to say that it’s limited by its theatricality. The only limits are in your mind as you wonder about these two people.
They are Ruby (Merritt Wever) and Billy (Domhnall Gleeson) and you gather they were sweethearts in their late teens. They made an agreement: If at some point in the future, one texted “RUN” to the other, and got the same reply, they would both abandon their lives and meet up, on a train leaving New York’s Grand Central Station. What happens at the start is that Ruby, bored by the thought of another yoga class, while sitting in a parking lot in California, gets the text message, thinks for a few seconds and replies. They are both now on the run.
It is of course a foolish act. They’re adults now, with complicated adult lives. It takes a while for that to emerge because, yeah, at first they are fiendishly mad for each other, although halting in the step toward consummating their reunion. Ruby is particularly reluctant as her body is 15 years older than when last seen by Billy. Meanwhile, Billy is holding back something about his personal life – he became a well-known life-coach and best-selling self-help author – and the viewer wonders about something sinister in his unrevealed backstory.
There they are, on a hurtling train, these two mercurial figures. That’s it. But, for a start, the two actors are wonderfully alive in the roles. Weaver, who won a supporting-actress Emmy for Nurse Jackie in 2013, and later got another for the Netflix series Godless, and shone on Unbelievable last year, is sublime. She can do affable, gregarious and self-deprecating like no one else. Gleeson is ideal as an Irishy man-boy, all cleverness and charm masking a woebegone core.
Run was created by Vicky Jones, long-time creative partner of Fleabag’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge (who executive-produces here and makes a brief appearance), and it has an urgent bite and a melancholy aspect. (Jones explained some of it in a charming interview with The Globe’s Barry Hertz.) It’s a risky show as an entertainment vehicle but highly recommended for anyone willing to take a risk on a genre-defying journey.
Also airing this weekend
Baptiste (starts Sunday, PBS 10 p.m. on Masterpiece Classic) is definitely anchored in a genre. It’s a slow-burning atmospheric mystery-thriller. Title character Baptiste (Tchéky Karyo) was a key figure in two seasons of the brilliant miniseries The Missing; that wily elderly detective working on one last case. Here, in a series produced by the same team as The Missing, he’s in Amsterdam.
A young English sex worker (Anna Prochniak) has disappeared into Amsterdam’s red-light district and her uncle Edward (Tom Hollander) believes she’s been murdered. Hardly anyone else seems to care. Baptiste takes on the case, which leads him into the arena of Romanian gangsters, local pimps and drug dealers. A quietly unfolding drama in six episodes, it’s coolly gripping and well thought-out.
Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert (Sunday, NBC, 7 p.m.) first aired live in 2018 to acclaim. A madcap, crazily inventive production of the musical, it’s a marvellous, dizzying two hours. John Legend plays Jesus and Alice Cooper steals the show with wicked turns as Herod.
Finally, this column continues with a “Stay-at-home-period daily-streaming pick.” Today’s pick is What/If (Netflix). A masterful hybrid of old-school soaper and neo-tawdry mystery, it’s cheesy but please-y in its rabid insistence on outrageous melodrama. One intriguing aspect is that the callous miscreant is a woman. Renée Zellweger plays a wealthy woman who agrees to help finance the work of young entrepreneur Lisa. In return, she wants a night alone with Lisa’s husband, Sean (Blake Jenner), a young, burly former major-league baseball star-turned-paramedic-turned-firefighter. How could a woman do this terrible deed to another one? Just watch her. It’s been called “divine trash” and that’s accurate.
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