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U.K. drama Apple Tree Yard is as steamy as it is woebegone

"Before I met you I was a civilized woman. Civilized. Now I don't even know what that means." Those are the first words spoken by Dr. Yvonne Carmichael, a middle-aged scientist and mother. When she says that, she is on her way to court, on trial for murder, and in her head she is speaking to her lover.

Apple Tree Yard (Sunday, Super Channel, 9 p.m.) is a new BBC four-part drama about what happens to Dr. Carmichael (Emily Watson). Her lover happens, a rape happens and a murder happens.

This erotic-psychological thriller, based on the novel by Louise Doughty, caused a small stir in Britain when it aired. The BBC promoted it teasingly for its eroticism but it is in fact, as it unfolds, chillingly forlorn, a morality tale that is maddeningly elliptical at times. It is a feminist fable of sorts, and that feminist theme is established at the point where Yvonne's life begins to spiral into dark unknowns.

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More accurately, it is in the exact tiny place where her life changes – a broom cupboard next to an underground chapel in the vast basement of Westminster, London. The scientist, a married woman in her early 50s, has just spoken to a committee of MPs about genetics, her field of expertise. Afterward, a suave middle-aged man, Mark (Ben Chaplin) flatters her with praise of her assuredness with the MPs. Then he invites her to visit the tiny, gorgeous underground chapel. And once there, he invites her to see the cupboard where the suffragette Emily Davison once hid overnight so she could enter Parliament and denounce the government on the issue of voting rights for women. Davison later died, in 1913, after being hit by King George V's racehorse during another protest to demand the vote for women.

We are meant to connect Yvonne's decision to have sex with Mark, a man she's just met, to the suffragette movement. She has the freedom Davison fought for and that includes sexual freedom for a woman in her 50s. A scientist, she is not guileless about her urges. "The lives we build keep us human, but really we are all just animals," she says later to herself.

There is, for a while, an almost celebratory quality to the way Yvonne's affair is depicted. We see her emerge from a restaurant, glowing, smiling, unsteady on her feet, after sex with Mark in the bathroom. And the title is taken from a small alleyway near the Palace of Westminster where the lovers have sex al fresco, unseen and often. Yvonne keeps her secret while her family – a husband who is an academic and two adult children – don't seem to notice anything different about her. But somebody, a male colleague, does notice and from there the drama takes on a hellish quality.

Apple Tree Yard is first an excellent thriller, tightly wound, and its twists emerge organically, not in a forced manner. It is thrilling and simultaneously disturbing; among the most disturbing you will watch this year.

On the surface, the drama belongs in that genre of English fiction derisively called "the Hampstead novel." The genre was defined by one critic as "a middle-class morality novel – probably involving adultery and shallow-masquerading-as-deep." But inherent in this story is a simmering question that's far from shallow. It engages with a theme that originates in that cupboard once occupied by the famous suffragette and asks – what do women get to do with the freedom bestowed upon them?

Watson has expressed complicated feeling about the series. On the one hand, she praised its depiction of sexuality in older women, and on the other hand said she felt traumatized by one of the scenes. Viewers might have equally mixed feelings about it, this wonderful, highly peculiar drama that is as steamy as it is woebegone, as non-judgmental as it is unnerving.

Also airing this weekend

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Birth of a Family (Sunday 9 p.m. on CBC Docs POV) is Tasha Hubbard's poignant doc about one woman's long search for her siblings and the emotionally complicated reunion that was the result.

Specifically, it's about the four children of Mary Jane Adam, a Dene single mother from Saskatchewan, who were all taken from her in what is called the Sixties Scoop, when Indigenous children were removed from their families and put into foster homes where white parents raised them. One of the four, Betty Ann, spent decades looking for her siblings and, miraculously, found them. They reunite in Banff and talk about their lives and aspirations, with the beauty of the Alberta region surrounding them. Thus, the filmmaker presents picturesque, unspoiled Canada as an ironic backdrop to what is a happy but fraught family reunion – a reunion that illuminates what is beneath the picturesque exterior that Canada presents to itself and the world.

The American Music Awards (Sunday, ABC, CTV, 8 p.m.) is always more loose and lively than the Grammys. The host is Tracee Ellis Ross (from Black-ish) and her mom, Diana Ross, is a performer and the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award. Pink and Kelly Clarkson are set to open the show together in a performance and, among other things, Christina Aguilera will perform to honour Whitney Houston. There will be speeches. Wonder what they will be about … ?

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More

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