In the opening episode of the weekend’s big-ticket new drama series there is a long scene featuring two characters dealing with a fraught situation. One is having a meltdown and the other is trying to cope. The scene goes long, allowing both actors to go full-throttle into the emotional landscape. This column was thinking, “Emmy nominations, right there.”
The series is I Know This Much is True (Sunday, HBO/Crave, 9 p.m.) a six-part adaptation of the bestseller by Wally Lamb. It is formidably good and grim, far from the escapist content that some viewers want right now. It rewards, mind you. Just don’t expect much light before you reach the end of this tunnel of pain and family trauma.
The series features Mark Ruffalo in dual roles, playing twins Dominick and Thomas Birdsey. Tom is schizophrenic, and when we meet him he’s having an episode in a public library, trying to cut off one of his hands. Dominick is an even-tempered everyman, but carrying the burden of his brother’s illness and, it seems, the weight of the world. We go back to their childhood and see both brothers terrified of their stepfather, a man drenched in male toxicity, and clinging to their mother (Melissa Leo) for nurturing.
The storyline is entirely balanced on emotion; it seems this family is cursed by something in their history, some tendency toward self-destruction. As the mother figure is dying of cancer she gives Tom the manuscript of her father’s self-declared life story. It’s written in Italian and Tom takes it to a PhD candidate, Nedra (Juliette Lewis) who promises to translate it. It is a scene between Ruffalo and Lewis that kick-started that “Emmy nomination” thought. There is something in the family history, perhaps locked in that manuscript, which might shed light on the darkness that engulfs this family.
There are scenes of high visceral impact, especially with Tom being confined to a maximum-security facility and Dominick being enraged. Those scenes are often lengthy, with grave anger and poignancy. (Derek Cianfrance, who made the movies Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines, wrote and directed every episode with filmic emphasis on raw human rage and pain.) There is equal power in scenes of quiet discomfort and regret, and Kathryn Hahn is particularly dynamic as Tom’s ex-wife.
Once you adapt to Ruffalo playing dual roles – there is nothing showy in the technical difficulties of dramatizing that – you are on a journey into a very American kind of soulful, family heartache. It’s less a tragedy than it’s a series of tragic actions. It takes you by the throat and it’s a long time before catharsis happens, but on the way there, you are watching some stunning performances.
Also airing this weekend
Good People (CBC Gem from Friday) is a new documentary series (made by CBC and Vice), which arrives at a good time. It’s about people and communities who have found solutions to severe social problems. Or, at least, are getting there. It asks the questions, “What if there was a place where no one was homeless?” or “Is there a place where 90 per cent of opioid addictions were in recovery?” and find the answers. Host/reporter Mark Sakamoto is an engaging, no-fuss guide. The first in the series, about homelessness, is particularly powerful. Sakamoto goes from Hamilton, where there is a tent city of homeless people, to Medicine Hat, Alta., where the issue is being tackled with great results. He also visits the tiny basement hotel room where his own mother died, homeless in all but name. The series is made with considerable visual vigour and a sense of optimism. Highly recommended.
Mother’s Day on Sunday is marked by several specials. Call Your Mother (Sunday, Comedy Network 10 p.m.) is a comedy – documentary: “An ode to moms and the way they have shaped the work of some of comedy’s biggest stars, including Louie Anderson, Awkwafina, Jimmy Carr, Jim Gaffigan, Tig Notaro, and Roy Wood Jr. talk about their moms.” And some are obliged to call mom, on the spot. There is also Saturday Night Live Mother’s Day (Sunday, NBC, Global 10 p.m.), a compilation special and, by the way, the season finale of SNL airs Saturday, NBC, Global, 11:30 p.m.
Finally, this column continues with a “stay-at-home-period daily-streaming pick.” Today’s pick is The Little Drummer Girl (CBC Gem), the excellent BBC/AMC adaptation of John le Carré’s novel. It’s a gorgeous-looking, taut and slow-burning thriller, vastly entertaining and thoughtful in its approach. It concerns finding and killing the terrorist Khalil (Charif Ghattas) and others like him. Khalil’s modus operandi is recruiting attractive young women to carry out his killing deeds. One agent’s job is to seduce, hire and persuade Charlie (Florence Pugh), a young actress, to enter Khalil’s world.
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