Sunday, February 05, 2006

Bleak Sundays in February

The other day in an item about the Navarre Beach tax case, we were, perhaps, too circumspect when we slipped in two links to the on-going PBS serial drama of Bleak House.

Let's be more specific: There are few better ways to spend your Sunday evenings this month than watching this drama. As Stephanie Zacharek of (subscription or free for an ad-watch) says:
Now more than ever, we need Masterpiece Theatre's "Bleak House."

In the past few weeks I've had numerous conversations with people, some of whom haven't looked at Masterpiece Theatre in years, who suddenly found themselves hooked on this British-made Charles Dickens adaptation, currently airing on PBS. (The series began with a two-hour opener on Jan. 22 and will continue through the month of February, ending on the 26th.) That's what happened to me: I turned the show on, never having read the book, and almost immediately slipped into its world.

Many of us have become used to the experience, pleasurable in its own right, of sitting down with a fat DVD box set (a season's worth of a novelistic TV series like "Alias" or "Lost," for instance) and watching a complete arc in a few greedy stretches. It can be fun to whiz through some six months' worth of shows at a clip -- akin to the act of reading pages as quickly as you can turn them. But the downside is that you lose any sense of anticipation between episodes. Cliffhangers become nothing more than puddles to jump. By the time you've even formulated the question "Who shot JR?" (and made a quick trip to the fridge), you can have the answer.

"Bleak House" will be available on DVD on Feb. 28, almost immediately after the series completes its TV run. But nearly everyone I know who has begun to watch the show prefers to see it the old-fashioned way, on successive Sunday nights, as it airs -- a way of approaching Dickens' work that's not far off from the way his earliest reading public would await each installment of his newspaper serials. Dickens' biographer Edgar Johnson has written about how American fans waited at the docks in New York, shouting out to the crew of an incoming ship, "Is Little Nell dead?"

* * *
This "Bleak House" is peopled with a vast assortment of characters, all beautifully cast * * * . There's Miss Flite, played by Pauline Collins, a dithery elderly woman who spends her days at the Court of Chancery following the proceedings in the Jarndyce v. Jarndyce case, and her evenings caring tenderly for the various caged birds who share her small room; Mr. Guppy (Burn Gorman), an oily and ambitious young law clerk who bears an unnerving resemblance to the young Willem Dafoe (and who, after being rebuffed by Esther, can surely be up to no good); and Ada Clare (Carey Mulligan) and Richard Carstone (Patrick Kennedy), John Jarndyce's two young wards, who potentially have much to gain from the Jarndyce v. Jarndyce lawsuit but who also, as their guardian keeps warning them, have much to lose. Carstone is likable but ridiculous (he can't settle on a profession, largely because he assumes he'll never need one), and Ada -- Esther has been brought to Bleak House as her companion -- is pretty, openhearted and bland. We don't want anything truly disastrous to befall these two, yet we're left wondering, as the case becomes more and more tangled, is there enough good to go around?

* * *
Dickens was also a man of surprises, as any master of the serial form would have to be. * * * After watching Episode 2 of "Bleak House," I now think I have some idea of where the story is going, and of at least some of the secrets that Lady Dedlock is suffering with. But I'm sure, in places at least, I'll be proved wrong. For these next four Sundays, I'll be turning the pages, figuratively speaking, with many other viewers, and on Feb. 26, I'll close the cover at last.

And then, instead of feeling confident that I already know the story backward and forward, I anticipate reading the novel for real -- alone, as we always are with a book, and yet not alone at all.
Watch the serial. Then buy the book. You can thank us later.

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