It's nice that CBC is airing a three-part Agatha Christie adaptation from Britain. One wishes the public broadcaster was a little more adventurous when it comes to offering non-Canadian programming. We recently had a new adaptation of Jekyll and Hyde on CBC from over there.
But it is what it is, and this Christie adaptation is both highly unusual and a pleasure to see. Let's assess.
And Then There Were None (CBC, Monday, 8 p.m.) is one of many adaptations of Christie's classic novel. It has been much adapted because it is a mystery and maddening puzzle, but it is not a whodunnit. No dapper detective or amateur elderly lady sleuth turns up to sort out the shenanigans and point to the guilty person. A group of people is invited to a remote house on the coast by a mysterious host and then they're killed off. That's the gist.
This adaptation by Sarah Phelps shows the distinct influence of Nordic noir – the emphatic sense of gloom in place and location, the wariness of metaphor apart from nature, and a preference for plain-speaking characters who are, it seems, existing under a dark cloud of hidden guilt. A lot of that genre has aired in Britain – unlike here, take note, CBC – and is widely appreciated, so it makes sense to apply the style to Christie.
Pointedly set in August, 1939, on the cusp of war, the plot involves taking examples of English society, most of them cocksure about their status and examining them under a microscope. And from the opening scenes, in which the coast of Devon looks as craggy and formidable as a Norwegian fjord, there is a sense that under the polite society there is an ocean of treachery and bloodshed.
So, 10 strangers are in a big house on an island, either as invited guests of a certain "U.N. Owen," whom they have not met, or as hired employees of the same figure. As they try to enjoy their first meal together (previously we have seen the meal prepared by the servants and the lurid blood and guts of food preparation is striking), a mysterious voice tells the group that each of the 10 has committed a murder and got away with it. And then, one by one, they start to die.
The British all-star cast, which includes Sam Neill, Miranda Richardson, Charles Dance and Aidan Turner, may lead some viewers to expect a traditional, predictable production. But while the series is stylishly made and there is great attention to costume and detail – Maeve Dermody as Vera, a woman accused of murdering a child in her care, looks ravishing yet sinister in the 1930s clothes and accessories – it isn't a conventional period-piece drama.
It is, in fact, an intense, very contemporary psychological portrait of a group of malicious but frightened people who turn on one another in the face of anxiety and guilt. At the same time, they are obliged to help each other. It's a portrait of a society, coolly and objectively done. It might be an old Christie novel, but it is socially realistic and socially critical. There isn't an ounce of coziness and the adaptation is the better for it.
Also airing tonight
2 Broke Girls (CITY, 9:30 p.m.) is interesting tonight. Not because the series is much good week after week, but because tonight's episode is the original pilot. We meet Caroline (Beth Behrs), the daughter of a gone-broke billionaire who takes up waiting at a diner when her trust-fund money evaporates. She's a bit Paris Hilton, and her workmate Max (Kat Dennings) is a born skeptic with firm working-class roots. Max also delivers smartass remarks with aplomb. They decide to share an apartment. What is fascinating is that in the pilot there's a hard edge to the comedy – it's a celebration of sisterhood, not the endless series of innuendo and vaguely racist jokes that the series has become.