Oh ye of little faith. No, you are not condemned to watch only treacly holiday movies and special episodes of standard series. No, you are not restricted to gormless but heart-tugging tales.
It is the task of commercial TV to make people feel good during this season. Feel good and buy stuff. The medium assists with the classic rituals of watching A Charlie Brown Christmas or It's a Wonderful Life. And there are so many TV movies constructed and produced to make viewers feel cozy and optimistic. These days, many are aimed at female viewers, and the idea is to make them optimistic that they will hook up with a nice chap. You've seen them advertised, I'm sure.
That's commercial TV. On the sideline, but easily accessed, there is more. Oh by Jove there's more – murder, gore, sex, death and all manner of mad shenanigans, courtesy of Mr. Shakespeare.
The Hollow Crown: The War of the Roses (Sunday, PBS, 9 p.m. on Great Performances) should be on your radar. It's absolutely ideal as an alternative for the time of the year. It is the second instalment of the BBC's streamlined Shakespeare and stars Benedict Cumberbatch, Hugh Bonneville, Dame Judi Dench, Tom Sturridge, Sophie Okonedo and Keeley Hawes. It's in three two-hour parts – brisk TV adaptations of Henry VI (Part 1), Henry VI (Part 2) and Richard III, airing over three consecutive Sundays.
It has a rip-roaring start on Sunday with Henry VI (Part 1). The realm is being quietly run by the Duke of Gloucester until Henry VI comes of age. He does, and long-haired, whiny-voiced Henry (Sturridge) is less than a man to be reckoned with. Gloucester (Bonneville doing a sort of grimly efficient Earl of Grantham) is still pulling the strings, and the Earl of Somerset (Ben Miles), all macho cunning, is out to get him. Along comes Queen Margaret (Okonedo), who has eyes for Somerset and, in one memorable scene, she's in serious bodily ecstasy with him while old Gloucester is murdered. That scene is not in Shakespeare, but the point is to condense and organize the plays into one thrilling, epic arc of disorder while staying largely faithful to the text.
That means a thrilling sequence involving Joan of Arc (Laura Frances-Morgan), the fierce warrior leading a class war against the oppressor. The battle scenes are short but grim and bloody. (The staging and style reminded me of Robert Bresson's Lancelot du Lac, with its hard, unglamorous depiction of famous battles, but highlighting grime and butchery, not glory.) Joan's speech, as she is burned to death at the stake, is fabulously done.
It is segments such as that burning that obliged reviewers in Britain (where this production aired in the spring) to draw comparisons with Game of Thrones. There's an interesting, inescapable link because the War of the Roses storyline might as well be the root origins of Thrones – the quarrelling, scheming siblings and cousins, the loathing of powerful elders, the fierceness of the battles for control and then the sudden bloodbath to end a dynasty and install a new order.
This is not to say that this version of Shakespeare in The Hollow Crown is oversimplified. The dialogue and the speeches are all Shakespeare, but the plays are whittled down deftly to unify the propulsive storyline.
It is no surprise that Cumberbatch comes to dominate the entire production. He's creepily evident on the sidelines, telegraphing menace in the second instalment, and he utterly sizzles in the third as Richard. "I hate the idle pleasures of these days … this weak piping time of peace," he hisses, revealing the canny, murderous intent in his mind.
Like many in this cast, Cumberbatch is highly skilled at manoeuvring for the camera, and with Shakespeare's vital lines on his tongue, he's wildly compelling. At times he speaks directly to the camera, his face morphing from sanctimonious regret to wheedling wail to pure rage. His "Now is the winter of our discontent" speech is only the get-go to his ownership of the role and the series.
There is a point where Richard III says: "I shall despair. There is no creature loves me; and if I die, no soul shall pity me. Nay, wherefore should they, since that I myself/Find in myself no pity to myself?" And the trickery of Shakespeare's dramatic strategy is that this comes from a man who is also an axe-wielding monster on the battlefield. You admire him while you also loathe him.
There is a lot to admire in this production. The plays themselves are not the Bard's finest. But as so often with Shakespeare, we can find meaning that applies to our own time – a time of strong-men leaders rising to power on a tide of populist disgust with the old order. Behind their lust for power and control, you find lusts more base and grim. All of that is here in a madcap, lilting, gory excursion into the politics of power and paranoia. Suitable viewing for any season.