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Z on TV
Critic David Zurawik writes about the business and culture of TV
Entertainment TV & Media Z on TV

Want 'Poirot,' 'Happy Valley'? Don't look to PBS

One of the biggest events of the TV year and one of the finest new series of the summer arrive on the small screen the next two weeks.

In the past, both productions would have been on PBS.

Instead, they are on Internet television — Netflix and the Maryland-based Acorn subscription service. Together, they offer a snapshot of both the way technology is radically changing the manner in which we watch TV and the extent to which a downsized PBS is melting away to nothingness except fundraisers, Ken Burns and “Downton Abbey.”

On Wednesday, Netflix will release all six episodes of Season 1 of “Happy Valley,” a taut and hard-edged BBC drama set in West Yorkshire. It’s written by Sally Wainwright and stars Sarah Lancashire as a police sergeant trying to be an honest cop in a rural area ravaged by drugs and a changing economy.

Lancaster’s character, Catherine Cawood is the breadwinner and emotional ballast in a troubled household that includes her sister, a recovering heroin addict, and her grandson, who has serious mental health issues after the death of his mother, the sergeant’s daughter.

If Wainwright, Lancashire and West Yorkshire seem familiar, that’s because all three are also part of “Last Tango in Halifax,” the Derek Jacobi series about a late-in-life love affair now playing on PBS. Wainwright created “Last Tango,” Lancashire plays Jacobi’s daughter-in-law in the series, and, yes, it’s set in the same part of the U.K. as “Happy Valley.” See what I mean about PBS seeming like the logical U.S. home for this?

But nothing shows the decline of PBS and the rise of subscription-based, on-demand streaming TV quite like the Aug. 25 premiere of “Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case,” taking place at Acorn.TV rather than public television.

You don’t have to be an Agatha Christie fan to know what a pop-culture milestone this film is: It’s the 70th and final made-for-TV version of a Christie book featuring the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, portrayed by David Suchet. All 70 Poirot stories in Christie’s canon have now been done by Suchet and ITV productions in the U.K. That’s an epic achievement, particularly when you consider the excellence of Suchet’s performances, the meticulousness of the script and casting in supporting roles, and the richly textured Art Deco look and feel of the films.

And PBS, which first introduced American viewers to these lavish ITV films 25 years ago, is no longer part of the action. The game has moved on to greener fields.

It’s awkward and a little pathetic to see public TV in such decline. Last week, I watched an ITV-produced special on Maryland Public Television, “Being Poirot,” in which Suchet talked about his landmark work in the role and reflected movingly on the intense emotion of playing some of the last scenes in the Aug. 25 finale.

Between breaks, MPT personnel were raising money by telling viewers how special public television is by nature of being the source for shows like “Poirot.” Except it isn’t any more; the final scenes Suchet was talking about could only be seen this month at Acorn — not MPT or PBS.

In fact, the last three films in the Poirot canon are available only at Acorn: “Elephants Can Remember,” which became available Aug. 11, “The Labours of Hercules,” which debuts Monday, and “Curtain.”

Furthermore, PBS allowed itself to be used to prime the pump for this Acorn exclusive by airing the first two of the final five Poirot films, “The Big Four” on July 27 and “Dead Man’s Folly” on Aug. 3. Talk about being reduced to a supporting role.

The mix of distilled emotion, intensely disciplined acting by Suchet and such loving Christie touches as filming parts of the last episode in her home makes “Curtain” one of the most moving farewells to a beloved character and fictional world that you will ever see on television — oops, I mean, Internet TV.

And this is not a one-off, either. It’s part of a new model for distribution of the best of British TV in the U.S. — a model that places PBS at the back of the line looking for seconds or thirds.

Last November, Acorn bought U.S. rights to Season 6 of “Doc Martin,” a popular U.K. comedy starring Martin Clunes as a big-city medical doctor forced to work in the sticks. A large audience for the series had been built on public television stations the previous five seasons.

Fans could still see Season 6 of “Doc Martin” on public stations like MPT, but only months after it debuted at Acorn.TV and on DVD.

Worse news for PBS is the fact that Netflix, the big dog of on-demand streaming, is getting into the best-of-British-TV market in a major way with series like “Happy Valley,” which debuts Wednesday, and “Hinterland,” which arrives Sept. 1.

I love “Happy Valley.” It opens with the heroine, Sgt. Cawood, on her way to try and stop an angry young man from setting himself on fire in a playground with a bunch of kids around.

The way the scene plays out is the perfect overture to a core narrative of the series: Most of the violence and much of the craziness of modern life is caused by out-of-control men. Women have their issues, too, but they are usually more interested in defusing a crisis than blowing up the world because they’re angry and don’t know how to express their feelings.

Cawood is a very appealing lead character: She’s agitated by modern life, like most of us, and she has a lot of attitude that she uses verbally as a weapon on the job and in her life. She’s no saint, and her emotional life is fairly messy. She sleeps with her ex-husband, a newspaper reporter who is living with another woman. But she’s practical, competent and mostly caring.

There is a current of rage in her life connected to the death of her daughter. The tension of the series is whether she can control it. A very bad man connected to that rage re-enters her world in the pilot, and one can’t help thinking nasty things are going to happen when the two meet.

And “Happy Valley” isn’t even the new Netflix Brit series with the big buzz. Last week, The New York Times featured “Hinterland” in a story out of London.

It’s dark, stark and unlike anything else on American TV — at least, in its stunning location setting of Wales. I like the alienated police inspector (Richard Harrington) who lives alone in a trailer on an isolated, windswept promontory, but I watched the pilot mainly dazzled by the bleakly mythic, breathtaking landscape.

Netflix stock has risen from $54 in 2012 to $451 last week, in large part on the strength of its move to original content, according to analysts. Most people think of Baltimore-made “House of Cards,” which premiered in February of 2013, when they think of Netflix and original content.

But “Happy Valley” and “Hinterland” are original content, too, for subscribers in the U.S. and Canada where these series debut in coming days and weeks. And it’s a lot cheaper to simply buy U.S. and Canadian rights to a British-made series than to be the primary funding source for a huge production such as “House of Cards.”

Operations like Netflix and Acorn are only going to be buying more and more content from U.K. producers like ITV. And that means less and less for PBS.

The question is: Will American fans of quality drama keep giving money to PBS if they now have to pay subscription fees to distributors like Netflix and Acorn to see the very best of it?

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

On TV

“Happy Valley” debuts Wednesday and “Hinterland” on Sept. 1 at Netflix.

“Labours of Hercules” debuts Monday and “Curtain” on Aug. 25 at Acorn.TV.
 

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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