There’s a theory going around that consuming horror, ghost stories and grim-thriller content is a mood-booster in pandemic times. It’s not exactly scientific, this theory. It mainly rests on the proposition that you, on the couch, take solace in the fact that things could be a lot worse than they are right now, outside your cozy home.
Fair enough. Hence the popularity of The Haunting of Bly Manor on Netflix since its release last week. It’s more spooky tale than horror-filled and undoubtedly unsettling in storytelling and style. It’s an expansion of the very popular The Haunting of Hill House although Mike Flanagan, who created that, isn’t involved in all nine episodes. The series is (very) loosely based on the Henry James story The Turn of the Screw and other works by James.
It’s the late 1980s and Dani (Victoria Pedretti), a twentysomething American, is in England. She is interviewed by lawyer Henry Wingrave (Henry Thomas) for the position of live-in au pair/tutor to his orphaned niece and nephew at his sprawling manor house in the country. She seems not a good fit for the job, but eventually begs for it. Why? Well, when Dani leaves her London hotel we get a glimpse of a woman haunted by something.
Once at the country manor, gloom seems to drench everything. Housekeeper Hannah (T’Nia Miller), gardener Jamie (Amelia Eve) and the orphaned kids, Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) and Flora (Amelie Bea Smith) are creepily disturbed figures. The slow buildup to fright is less Grand Guignol-style than it is low-key Gothic. Miles was expelled from school under strange circumstances, and Flora sleepwalks and maintains a dollhouse full of faceless figures. If there isn’t a sub-genre of Hollywood characters called “Scarily Articulate British Kid,” there should be.
The Haunting of Hill House was underpinned by issues of regret, grief and past mistakes that can’t be undone. Here, it’s more a matter of manufactured chills, mysterious strangers lurking around the place and a slow unveiling of Dani’s backstory. This series is all mood, and much of that mood is rooted in repression of romantic and lustful feelings. There is a lot of explanatory talk, taking away the subtlety of Henry James’s stories. Still, if a distracting, longwinded spooky story is what entertains you now, you’ve got that, right here.
The Trouble with Maggie Cole (Sunday, PBS, 8 p.m.) is a real oddity. This new British series stars the familiar Dawn French as Maggie Cole, an apparently super-jolly figure in the picturesque coastal town of Thurlbury. She runs a gift shop and prides herself on being the historian of the place. She is, in fact, an annoying busybody. Her husband is the local school headmaster, her best pal is also a teacher and everybody in the town seems sweetly normal. In the opening episode Maggie is delighted when a radio reporter asks to interview her about the town and its charms.
The reporter, Jez (John Macmillan), senses that Maggie knows way more than historical trivia and plies her with many gin and tonics. Drunk, Maggie tells him about the local doctor, whose husband disappears on weekends to meet his gay lover; the local pub owner who used to be a London criminal; and the daughter of the shopkeeper, a young woman with more lovers than Maggie can count. When the interview is broadcast, Maggie, in one move, destroys the tranquility of the town. That’s the gist. What makes it strange is the tone – it’s a comedy about embarrassment that stops shy of being genuinely excoriating about standard stories of cozy English villages.
Also airing this weekend
The much-praised adaptation, by Spike Lee, of the hit stage show David Byrne’s American Utopia (Saturday, HBO, 8 p.m.) arrives on TV not long after it was at TIFF. Clap along and embrace Byrne’s optimism. Enslaved (Sunday, CBC 9 p.m.) is the start of a multipart series on the story of the transatlantic slave trade, and opens with Samuel L. Jackson going to meet the tribe of his ancestors.
Finally, Drive (Sunday, 9 p.m. on the documentary channel) is a beautifully made look at the future of driving. That is, the self-driving vehicle. And it’s a very skeptical look. It celebrates old-school driving as “exhilarating, liberating, empowering and plain old fun.” Various driving enthusiasts, including singer Jully Black and chef Michael Bonacini, rhapsodize about driving a car. Vroom-vroom is the upshot.
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