Get yourself ready. The spring saturation point of the peak-TV era is upon us. This weekend, there arrives a wonderful and uniquely sinister BBC drama, based on a story that is confounding because it is true. Also, two classic HBO comedies return. And that’s just old-school TV. If I told you what’s on the streaming services, we’d be here all day.
Mrs. Wilson (Sunday, PBS, 9 p.m. on Masterpiece) is the strongest British drama to air in the Masterpiece slot in ages. Among its many merits is an extraordinary performance by star Ruth Wilson (best known for Luther and The Affair). What adds to the baleful bite of the story is the fact that she is playing her own grandmother, Alison.
The story opens in 1963 and Alison returns to her home in the suburbs of London, anxious to prepare a meal for her husband, an older man named Alec Wilson (Iain Glen). While she bustles about in the kitchen Alec collapses and dies of a heart attack upstairs. In shock and in grief she remembers his instruction that she call a certain number if anything happened to him. She calls and a female voice says coolly, “That’s all we need from you.”
A priest stops by and kind neighbours come to the door to offer condolence and food. Then Alison answers the door again to find a woman saying she’s heard Alec died. Looking Alison up and down she says, “You must be his landlady.” Alison says “no” and asks this stranger who she might be. The reply is this: “I’m Gladys Wilson, I’m Alec’s wife. I’m here to collect his things.”
What unfolds, shifting seamlessly between the 1940s and the 1960s, is a tangled tale of deception both personal and professional. We are taken back to the early days the Second World War, when Alison is hired to work in British intelligence as a typist. Her boss (played with characteristic sang froid by Fiona Shaw) informs her, “If anyone asks about your work, just lie. To all intents and purpose, this department doesn’t exist.”
Alison works directly for Major Wilson, a star of of the intelligence service because he’s tapped the phones of various embassies and can understand several languages. He also writes fiction books about spies and spying. “I just sit at my typewriter and make things up,” he says, making a declaration that will hang like a deep, dark cloud over the decades that follow. He also woos Alison, telling her he’s just become divorced.
A war is starting. There are air raids, great dangers and both Alison and Maj. Wilson must keep secrets. In this atmosphere, truths are malleable and perceptions tainted. It is decades before Alison realizes that her husband – if indeed they were ever legally married – conflated work with personal life and actually had several wives, mistresses and fathered children who knew nothing about each other. Under cover of intelligence work, he shaped a twisted web of personal relationships. Or was he, as Alison begins to suspect, simply an appalling man, a scoundrel who lacked a conscience and merely used his job to create fraud after fraud?
The fact that actor Ruth Wilson’s grandmother lived through this experience adds a piercing kind of poignancy to what is, in its bones, a story about the gap between official truths and personal reality. Mrs. Wilson (a three-parter continuing the following Sundays) is a spy story with a very particular kind of disturbing power.
The second season of Barry (Sunday, Crave/HBO, 10 p.m.) is even more darkly funny and shrewd than the first, Emmy-winning season was. It’s still a comedy and a twisted-assassin drama, but it has Barry (Bill Hader), an ex-soldier and hired killer who longs to become an actor, trying to put his assassin life behind him. He tries to set aside the darkness of his real life even while the other budding actors around him remind him daily of the pleasures of pretending. Henry Winkler continues almost to steal the show as the bewildered acting teacher Gene.
The seventh and final season of Veep (Sunday, Crave/HBO 10:30 p.m.) comes after a two-year hiatus, because star Julia Louis-Dreyfus was battling cancer. The hiatus helped it, thematically and structurally, as the real-world Trump political-theatre began to beggar the political shenanigans on the show. What might former Vice-President Selina Mayer (Louis-Dreyfus) do now? Well, let’s say the profoundly bizarre business of launching a presidential campaign tempts her. And that storyline arrives just as real long-shot presidential campaigns are actually being launched. No show has ever captured the flim-flammery of politics with as much elan and a fondness for the most baroque profane language.
Finally The Canadian Screen Awards Broadcast Gala (Sunday, CBC , 8 p.m.) concludes a five award-giving-events marathon and promises it will be “showcasing this country’s best screen talent and recognizing their achievements.” Mary Walsh receives the Earle Grey lifetime achievement award. There are no hosts this year, which is probably just as well.