John Luther is not a man of great style, he is not a hero, he is not a soldier, and although he is a brave man, he is not a man of great bravery. Unlike Dexter Morgan, the voices of demons in his heads are the voices of real people, in their flesh that torment his waking hours. He is not a serial killer but at times, he wants to act like one. He is intelligent, haunted, but a good detective, one who battles as many demons as criminals, and he would be perfect for American television.
Luther is a BBC produced television series that aired in the UK this past May, a brutal, distinctly British examination into the life of a murder detective and the evil within and around. Starring Idris Elba (American audiences will be familiar with him from The Wire and more recently, The Office) as John Luther, the series does not hold back from the always difficult life of a police detective- juggling his disintegrating private life (a crumbling marriage) with that of a crime fighter. While topically familiar, it is the method in which this 6-part series plays out that makes it truly memorable. Like The Wire, there is an honesty that paints a picture of grit and turmoil, an underlying imperfection that plagues Luther as a man. When the series begins, Luther is recovering from a botched assignment in which his mental well-being is put into question. Suspension from duty leaves him with nothing but his thoughts to contend with and from here, we see the character’s many layers unfold.
Through circumstances (details withheld to prevent spoilers) he meets a psychopathic woman named Alice Morgan (played with an eerie brilliance by actress Ruth Wilson) that serves as a catalyst for Luther’s constant battles with himself. Alice tortures him mentally, and the fragility of his mind comes as the cost of those around him (most notably his wife Zoe (Indira Varma). His struggles to maintain these pieces gives him an edge over more noted American television characters- who while are dealt with certain turmoil, are never quite taken down a path so dark that we, as the audience, feel genuine fear and sympathy. Unlike the Horatio Caines of the television world, the series creators seem unsympathetic towards Luther- making him strong one moment and distinctly weak the next, almost crippled. Dexter Morgan is perhaps the most similar character on television- except his demons aren’t real- they manifest themselves in his head from ghosts of his past. John Luther however, is tormented by someone who will call him on a miserable afternoon to torture for pleasure.
Procedural television series (CSI, Cold Case et al.) will sometimes have longer story arcs that prevail over the course of the season or over a few, but they will linger, leaving the audience rather exhausted over the 22 (or how ever many) episodes. Luther however, gives you 6 in which all the drama plays out with great urgency. Much of the series is beautifully shot amongst London’s monolithic cityscape. There is great use of light and momentary pauses that enhance the atmosphere of the show. Unlike the machine gun editing of their American counterparts- Luther benefits from the slower, more natural scene-to-scene transitions that rely on a little patience and imagination to hold the viewer’s attention.
Tony Soprano is long gone and time will tell whether the new series of Dexter (does Rita become another ghost in his head?) will hold as much as the previous, American television needs another strong, multi-faceted but fragile leading man. Compelling dramas like Luther come every so often to HBO, series that leave the audience with a sense of accomplishment and intrigue. The ground may have already been covered before but rarely has it been done with such conviction.
Another Case of Willed Amnesia: Bob Dylan and the Rolling Thunder Revue
Rolling Thunder Revue is a masterly addition to both Scorsese’s and Dylan’s steady work
At a concert in New Haven on the 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue tour, someone in the crowd repeatedly shouted “Bob Dylan! Bob Dylan!”, just as the artist was setting up for a reworked version of “Tangled Up in Blue”. Dylan, in character as ever, replied: “No, I don’t think so. I think you’ve got me mistaken for someone else.”
This story appears in Time Out of Mind by the late Ian Bell, Dylan’s greatest biographer. Bell wrote perceptively about that tour, its participants, and what it might have meant, if anything at all. It’s helpful to have a guide, as Dylan wasn’t especially clear on things at the time, and is even less so now. At least at first glance.
What, exactly, was that legendary tour all about? In an early scene in Martin Scorsese’s unmissable Netflix documentary, Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story, Dylan tells the viewer:
“It’s about nothing. It’s just something that happened forty years ago. And that’s the truth of it . . . I don’t remember a thing about Rolling Thunder. It happened so long ago, I wasn’t even born, you know?”
Here, separated by decades, are two amusing and obviously insincere denials of Dylan’s participation in his own tour. Not since Dylan growled “Must Be Santa” on the Christmas in the Heart album have so many fans been left scratching their heads. What the hell is he up to now?
With perspicacity, Bell described the tour as;
“a kind of erratic developing essay on identity, on disguises, on human contact. The concerts would also be, by turns, pretentious, acute, self-indulgent and enthralling. Rolling Thunder would become a piece of theatre, a radical artistic gesture, a travelling circus, a movable movie set, a gypsy caravan and the realisation, intermittently, of a superstar’s old dream of creative emancipation. That was the general idea, at any rate.”
Scorsese has brilliantly captured and expanded these ambitions. And it’s quite a clever setup. We’re introduced to the central cast: Joan Baez, whom Dylan memorably describes as looking “like she’s just come down from a meteorite”; Allan Ginsberg, the beat poet of piffle, whose empty philosophising hints that maybe the tour wasn’t really about anything serious at all; and the absolutely mesmerising Scarlet Rivera, whose allure and haunting violin steal the viewer’s attention in every scene.
The unknown Rivera, as the story goes, was exiting her building when Dylan saw her with a violin case. He invited her to an all-night rehearsal, and she eventually joined the tour and became famous. Even though it sounds like fiction, or at least imaginatively embellished, that story is actually true. Much of the rest of the film, the real stuff, anyway, is interspersed with some rather inventive bullshit.
Dylan and Scorsese begin to introduce some other characters and talking heads, and their participation should immediately cause the raising of eyebrows, as well as a wry smile.
Stefan van Dorp, a haughty European filmmaker who allegedly contributed to a behind-the-scenes look at the tour, appears frequently to offer insights, claim unrecognised credit, and disparage everyone else. His unused footage is what we’re watching, and he even seems to have been there, in 1975, chatting with Dylan, Patti Smith, and various concert-goers.
He’s an actor, though. They all are, even the real ones. At one point, the older Dylan misnames him as van Dorf. An underage and mischievous Sharon Stone was there, too, apparently, as well as the former Congressman Jack Tanner.
A number of guides have already arrived on the Internet, alerting viewers to what’s true and what’s fake. The giveaway, after all, was always in the title: A Bob Dylan Story. This was never going to be a documentary with a concern for historical veracity.
And nor should we expect it to be, really. A straightforward recounting of events as they happened would somehow seem, well, out of character. Dylan doesn’t do things twice. Bell called this willed amnesia – Dylan’s commitment to a performance in the moment, and then its abandonment. Despite its success, there was never a repeat of Rolling Thunder. Bell noted:
“Dylan had no patience whatever for the idea that he might, now and then, retrace his steps. The revue meant a lot to him while it was happening; when it was gone, it was gone.”
The French writer Paul Valéry claimed that an artist never finishes a poem; he merely abandons it. Dylan’s willed amnesia is a kind of rejoinder to that. At the Rolling Thunder concerts, Dylan began to reimagine and rewrite his own songs with new lyrics, melodies, and meanings. Bell observed that Dylan had been toying with this beforehand, but in 1975, it became a permanent feature. In the documentary, we see and hear the country ballad “Tonight, I’ll Be Staying Here With You” transformed into a blistering hard rock number. “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” receives the same treatment, and a new energy. In “Tangled Up in Blue“, a change of voice, from first person to third, also seems to change everything.
Willed amnesia allows Dylan to reflect, at the finish, on what remains of the tour now:
“Nothing. Not one single thing. Ashes.”
That’s true, in a sense. But it’s also true to say that Rolling Thunder Revue is a masterly addition to both Scorsese’s and Dylan’s steady work. It’s also a reminder, not that we really needed one, that no one, especially in what passes for music in today’s scene, does things like Bob Dylan. Despite his protestations, you certainly couldn’t mistake him for anyone else.
Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story is streaming now on Netflix.
Swamp Thing: The Futility of Saving a Good Thing
DC’s best show, Swamp Thing, creeps to its death with no one to save it
Swamp Thing, the only good television show DC has produced in decades was abruptly canceled after just one episode. Despite glowing reviews and a small but devoted following, hopes for its survival and saving are unfortunately as futile as the idea of DC making good television and knowing what to do with it. It’s not like I haven’t given DC TV a chance either. But after countless attempts at trying to enjoy Arrow or Supergirl, hoping that one of their myriad of poor crossovers would ignite a desire to watch more, my hopes are all but dead in the swamp after they pulled the plug on the only good property they have. To make matters worse, Swamp Thing is not only great, but it was great right out of the gate- gripping, dark, and intoxicating. A wonderfully violent change to the cartoonish junk that DC is associated with.
When I was a kid, I remember watching the 1990 USA Network series of the same name. I drew to it on the back of my love for the Toxic Avenger and all things mutated humans. Sure, it was kitschy, but what television show from the ’90s wasn’t? Perhaps it was waiting for the right time or the right production, but the long-dormant franchise found new life in 2019. Produced by James Wan (who does horror well, big blockbusters, not so much), Swamp Thing has proven to be the very best of superhero television. Coated in dirty swamp green hues, it is beautifully gritty, and when it dives into the subject material, it does so with the fervor- unafraid of exploring mysticism and the darkness of the human soul. The new series follows the familiar story; scientist Alec Holland is turned into the Swamp Thing after meeting his untimely demise. Over the course of the series, he battles the demons and history of the swamp while trying to understand his new place in the world, flanked by familiar characters like Abby Arcane (the terrific Crystal Reed). The cast of the new series is rounded nicely with a slew of recognized faces – Virginia Madsen, Will Patton, Ian Ziering(!), Jennifer Beals – that adds to the series’ sense of gravitas. And regardless of whether you’re a long time fan of the creation, whether you’ve seen the original 1982 movie or watched the series in the 90s, this current iteration stands leagues above- which makes its cancellation all the more infuriating.
Television that resonates, like the current love for HBO’s Chernobyl, is driven by the desire to understand the deep seeded flaws of humankind and what critics have called; “a creeping dread that never dissipates“. It’s true to the latter that as you traverse the murky episodes of Swamp Thing, the crawl of inescapable horror and impending doom is ever looming. Like the swamps in which it festers in, the series slowly wraps its vines around your feet, character by character, mystery by mystery, and before you can scream for help its dragged you helplessly into the bayou.
It’s gutting to know that these 10 episodes are all we’re going to get, made more painful by the fact that this count was already cut down from the original 13-episode run. The show’s cancellation has been attributed to money of course. Early speculation pointed to errors in accounting, but in truth, most have said that the rising cost of production and the uncertainty of the DC Universe platform itself ultimately led to the show’s demise. The difficulty of an expensive, well-produced show is perhaps, far too great of a risk for a fledgling streaming service. One whose intellectual property is already average at best, hampered by the disastrous cinematic run of their most noted ones. Their TV often leaves me wondering how on Earth they have run for so long. My attempt at watching Legends of Tomorrow was spent laughing at the pilot’s campy cartoonishness. It was so bad that the idea of watching this series would be weekly self-flagellation. I wish The Flash was good (I enjoyed the 1990s series), Supergirl could be good if it wasn’t so afraid of offending anyone, and every time I think maybe Arrow could salvage the DC’s television property I’m reminded how terrible it is (if you google “Arrow is a terrible show” you will know my opinion is not a solitary one).
I’m not alone in wanting Swamp Thing to live. Fans were outraged by the immediate cancelation, and cast and crew of the show couldn’t believe it either. Unfortunately, we live in a world where network execs and bean counters are, as expected, more concerned about the tightening bottom line and the immense amount of content already out there. Why invest so much money into a quality niche product when you trot out B-grade characters in dopey costumes for 7+ seasons on the cheap? Sure, there’s a petition out there to #SaveSwampThing, and while I’m happy to sign it, a big part of me knows that it is just not feasible to save such an expensive and complicated undertaking. There’s just a sense of futility to it all, that while you can see a network saving average, cheaper fare like Brooklyn Nine-Nine or even Lucifer (why?), the thought of saving something as big as this is just unlikely. Is there hope for another network or service to pick it up? I don’t even think spend-happy Netflix are willing to put money behind a quality product when its easier to make crap Adam Sandler movies and incredibly generic racial pandering tripe. It’s too late for Swamp Thing. The swamp has literally been drained. And that’s a damn shame.
Good television lives in the darkness. It lives in the darkness of humanity and the darkness of our imaginations. Pick any great television property and you find will find it; Stranger Things, Westworld, The Wire, Breaking Bad. And for the first time, DC has found their darkness but clearly, have no idea. To make matters worse, we will probably get 5+ seasons of that horrendous looking Batwoman show.
Perhaps in a perfect world Swamp Thing would have been produced by a competent network. Perhaps in a perfect world, comic book television would be given the chance to flourish next to noted television that becomes regular discourse in our socialverse. Unfortunately, we won’t be finding out anytime soon. Netflix’s Marvel series’ limped to their end, and now DC, with the golden opportunity to become the torch bearer of great superhero television has once again shown why they are DC.
Fans of mystery and horror will find so much to love in Swamp Thing. It is a series that isn’t afraid to dive deep into the murk, bound by great writing and distinct and memorable visuals. It’s infuriating as you watch each episode knowing it creeps slowly to its end. From the house of secrets the Swamp Thing was born, and now in a shroud of uncertainty and unanswered questions, it dies again.
Swamp Thing airs on the DC Universe streaming service.