Daniel Radcliffe in My Boy Jack by Patrick Redmond/ Masterpiece Theater
I love it when TV can be both very, very good as well as good for you. Such is the case with a logjam of terrific historical dramas competing for attention this Sunday. Two of them had me fighting back tears (and occasionally losing the fight), and then there's Showtime's
, that stimulating royal tonic of sex, religion and other courtly intrigues. Not a lot of boo-hooing while watching this Henry VIII romp, but rarely a dull moment, either.
The quality honors this weekend go to HBO and PBS. HBO for concluding its remarkable
miniseries with an episode of quiet, pained humanity as the nation's second president (Paul Giamatti) goes into retirement with about as much grace- which is to say, very little- as he conducted himself in the political arena. Grumpy, discontent, impatient to the end and convinced he'll be forgotten by time, John never lets up. There's a terrific scene in which he's invited, in his 90s, to view the portrait of the signing of the Declaration of Independence that will hang in the Capitol. His reaction to the artist: brutal. His conclusion: "Nothing is so false as modern history." And: "I consider the true history of the American revolution as lost forever."
Not so fast, John. Or, as his wife Abigail says during a scene of domestic crisis (perhaps inadvertently echoing the classic Broadway musical
): "Oh for God's sake, John, sit down." This miniseries, based on David McCullough's Pulitzer-winning biography, reclaims Adams from the musty history books as a towering (if exasperating) figure whose legacy is still worth thinking and arguing about several centuries later.
Never does this HBO treatment sanitize or prettify the characters or the rugged times in which they live. Much of the final segment is heartbreaking, as John loses his daughter (Sarah Polley) to breast cancer- after she undergoes what looks like a barbaric colonial-era mastectomy- and later must say goodbye to his best friend and soulmate Abigail (the wonderful Laura Linney). It's all very sad, and yet ennobling as Adams repairs his estranged bond with Thomas Jefferson with moving correspondence as both near the end of their legendary lives- ironically, both passing on the same day, July 4 (!), 50 years after the signing of the Declaration.
For those with a sturdy constitution (no pun intended), HBO is running the entire
miniseries Sunday in a daylong marathon starting at 1 pm/ET, concluding in the memorable final chapter at 9 pm/ET. I can't think of a more rewarding use of one's time.
A real emotional workout awaits anyone tuning into PBS's
this Sunday, for
My Boy Jack
, a shattering wartime story that focuses on renowned author Rudyard Kipling (robustly played by David Haig, adapting his own stage play), an outspoken World War I booster and propagandist who recommends shunning any of Britain's young men who don't go off to fight. Imagine the predicament this presents when his own son Jack (
's Daniel Radcliffe, sweetly somber) has trouble passing military physical screenings because of his poor eyesight. Kipling pulls strings, young Jack steps up to the challenge of leading men (despite not even turning 18 yet himself), and then goes missing during his first major battle- which is harrowingly portrayed. The movie too conveniently juxtaposes scenes of wartime carnage with the quiet pastoral bliss of the Kipling family's rural estate, but the performances of Haig and Kim Cattrall as his wife, grimly determined to learn the truth of her beloved boy's fate, are ultimately devastating. This is a beautiful, but terribly sad, consideration of the meaning of glory, duty and sacrifice.
comes off as little more than a bawdy costume melodrama, though undeniably irresistible. We're not quite halfway through the second season yet, and the palace intrigues are at full boil, with murder plots and sexual shenanigans and religious/political turmoil ensnaring everyone in King Henry's unscrupulous entourage. With the first queen in exile, forbidden to be with her own daughter (Lady Mary, who's instead assigned to tend subserviently to her half-sister, the Princess Elizabeth), the new queen Anne Boleyn (Natalie Dormer) is finding the royal bed an increasingly treacherous roost. While the Boleyns plot to pick a proper mistress to satisfy the appetites of the increasingly volatile king (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), the showdown between Cromwell and Sir Thomas More reaches a head when More (Jeremy Northam, quite excellent) refuses to sign the national oath declaring the king the ruler of the new church. Saying no to this king comes with a high price- More takes center stage in next Sunday's tragically stirring episode- and so (as Anne is learning to his dismay) does failing to provide him with a strong male heir.
After spending so much time in the glorious, turbulent past, it's almost hard to get one's head back in the present. But the week ahead welcomes back, at last, new episodes of shows as various as
Brothers & Sisters, Gossip Girl, Reaper, Law & Order
(with Jesse L. Martin's farewell),
Ugly Betty, Grey's Anatomy, Lost, Supernatural
. Kind of an historic TV week right there, no?