Watching “Schitt’s Creek,” a pre-pandemic Canadian production that has become a binge staple in millions of mid-pandemic U.S. households, you may find something odd happening around the middle of Season 3. The motel room where much of it takes place starts to remind you, with every new exterior establishing shot, that you’re in lockdown, in late 2020, watching a comedy of confinement. This is getting away from it all?
I like and occasionally love “Schitt’s Creek,” but it’s no wonder many of the same millions have fallen for “The Queen’s Gambit,” [the seven\-part streaming phenomenon](
Evoking the image recycled by so many old Westerns, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in early November: “The cavalry is coming.” The COVID-19 vaccine race looks promising indeed. As if she hadn’t done enough for us as a nation already, [Dolly Parton invested $1 million in the development of Moderna’s vaccine](
Meantime: I screen, you screen, we all screen ‘til our eyes scream.
Some of us look backward, not just to stories such as “The Queen’s Gambit” taking us away from 2020 but to TV shows that were huge a few years back, and are happily new to a new generation.
My 20-year-old son, for instance, has fallen hard for “Mad Men.”
“I got into it,” he wrote me the other day, “because I’d finished ‘Billions’ with Paul Giamatti (highly, highly recommend) and wanted another slow-burn cutthroat office show. I didn’t get into it because it’s a departure from the work-from-home rut too many of us are in. But I do appreciate it as a 1960s time capsule … when there were seemingly no rules in an office culture.” Misogyny and day-drinking, it’s a throwback to a time, as he put it, “when something like an office Christmas party might be on the docket.”
There’s no predicting what might hit our sweet spot during this peculiar, isolating holiday season. On paper, a Netflix adaptation of August Wilson’s breakthrough play “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (Dec. 18) seems an unlikely seasonal winner. Set largely inside a 1927 Chicago recording studio — on stage, it never left that location — director George C. Wolfe’s tightly compressed film is all about confinement and waiting.
In harsh and eloquent ways, scored by beautiful dramatic poetry, “Ma Rainey” takes us back nearly a century. It illustrates, through music and feeling and reflection, how Black talent in America has been forced to work around, and through, a white system of commercial exploitation.
[The late Chadwick Boseman finished filming](
There are, for the record, other streaming platforms besides Netflix. [“How To with John Wilson,”](
Forced into digital release by the novel coronavirus — and by the way, I’m ready for the novelization of the film version of the coronavirus right about now — some huge mainstream enticements have already announced late 2020 streaming dates. Disney/Pixar’s “Soul” made its world premiere in October at the BFI London Film Festival; it’ll be [available Dec\. 25 on Disney Plus\.](
Over at Warner Bros., studio chiefs have several nerve-wracking options regarding “Wonder Woman 1984,” which has been in the can for nearly a year now. They can stick with the Dec. 25 theatrical release plan, which seems unlikeliest. They can give theaters a go for a couple of weeks, where pandemically open for business, and then whisk it onto HBO Max, to drive up subscribers. Or they can wait ‘til deep into next year, as have so may other franchises, from James Bond to the “Fast and Furious” fossil-fuel maniacs.
Such proven global draws remain the stuff that film exhibitors’ dreams are made on. Now more than ever, many of us crave watching destructive mayhem on a large canvas.
And yet other, old-fashioned pleasures, such as the courtroom drama genre, may live as long as Bond has. The courtroom drama has, in fact, lived a lot longer already. Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7” (Netflix, now streaming) unfolds largely inside a much higher-ceilinged and better-looking courtroom than the real Chicago 7 coped with. Even so: Sorkin’s [entertaining, balderdash\-y version of events](
But there’s a far better, richer courtroom drama streaming right now on Amazon Prime. “Mangrove” launches director and co-writer Steve McQueen’s ambitious[five\-film anthology titled “Small Axe,”](
Like “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” “Mangrove” gets its dramatic juice from recent judicial history. In 1970, a group of Black British citizens, whose families came from Trinidad, Jamaica and elsewhere, were arrested and tried on charges of rioting and assault against members of the London police. The Mangrove Nine case took its name from the Notting Hill community restaurant, bar and gathering place, under constant scrutiny and frequent attack by the police.
It’s much more than a courtroom drama: McQueen’s first hour of “Mangrove” revisits the West London immigrant landscape in scene after beautifully observed scene, full of music, movement and ideological fervor. The trial itself, which takes up the second half of “Mangrove,” makes for fascinating viewing. But as we see in the first half, as well as in the entirety of McQueen’s narratively relaxed, atmospherically stunning “Small Axe” film, “Lovers Rock,” sometimes it’s enough to simply hang out with the right actors inhabiting the right scenario. Like “Ma Rainey,” “Small Axe” — another gift this holiday streaming season — shows what it means to look directly at the new face of a nation. Any nation.
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