Saturday, March 5, 2016

Revolutionary Television, Last Tango in Halifax

It may sound funny to describe a show like Last Tango in Halifax -- a character-driven show featuring an older couple that finds romance again after 60 years -- as cutting edge tv, but in an era when violence, youth, loud music and flashy sex are so much the established norm, I think it is ground breaking to do something that goes so decidedly against the flow. This show is so unlike what feels typical on tv that it takes my breath away and surprises me constantly.

I won't deny that my main purpose in tuning in was to see Nicola Walker, who I love, but for whom I still couldn't stomach the dark tension of River (another show on Netflix featuring Walker). But the reason I continued to watch had everything to do with everything else this show does extremely well. That would include the calm pacing; the deeply sympathetic if quirky characters; the gorgeous photography and locations; the treatment of middle-aged people as complex and interesting and worthy of sexual relationships that are also complex and interesting; the treatment of older people as intelligent and worthy of viable new romantic love; the treatment of teens as deep and nuanced, capable of being both thoughtful and self-centered; and the dialog which accentuates all these meaningful relationships.

Perhaps, best of all, is the uniformly outstanding acting.  The show stars Derek Jacobi and Anne Reid as Alan and Celia the central pair whose reunion (after ages of life have passed between them) throws these two quite different but equally compelling families together in many odd ways. Both Reid and Jacobi are treasures and inhabit these folks with a depth fitting the situation. Yes, they do make lots of love-dove eyes at each other and fall quickly into a state of deep care and closeness, but their path is not perfect. They deal with decades of baggage, family woe and joy that do not always blend seamlessly.

Their 40-something year-old daughters, Gillian and Caroline, are played by Nicola Walker and Sarah Lancashire each with a poignancy that is palpable. One of my favorite scenes involving the adjustment to all that life is dealing them, comes when Gillian (Walker)'s dad has decided to move to the small guest quarters at Caroline's home, about an hour's drive away from Gillian's farm. Gillian of course wants what is best for her dad, but you can feel her pain and emptiness as he takes his company away from her daily endeavors. There is an enormous sense of the emptiness of life when change comes, despite everything happening the way it must and it should. Many such moments are handled extremely sensitively and again cause me to think: "revolutionary television is going on here!"

The supporting characters are numerous and also exceptional, including several teenage-to-young adult boys, various ex-husbands, ex-lovers, friends and romantic partners including an extremely well-handled lesbian pairing that add plenty of comedy and charm along with the drama. Yes, the show dips deep into that drama at times, leaving the viewer on the occasional emotional roller coaster, but overall, the excellent qualities far outshine the weaknesses.

The show does another remarkable thing in giving us closure and contentment at the end of each season. There is a lovely book-like finish that is extraordinary and appreciated. I can't speak to the fourth series, but only to the first three in this regard, but so far they have really given us an incredible expansive feeling of warmth to end out each story, that it feels worth all the jerking around we get in the interim.