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Searching for TV and streamed shows that speak to this COVID-19 moment | COMMENTARY

'Homicide' (1991), directed by David Mamet, combined elements of a traditional police procedural with a more personal story of Jewish identity and heritage for Bobby Gold, a Jewish detective, who stumbles across a shadowy Zionist organization. Joe Mantegna (left) plays Gold. It was filmed in Baltimore.
'Homicide' (1991), directed by David Mamet, combined elements of a traditional police procedural with a more personal story of Jewish identity and heritage for Bobby Gold, a Jewish detective, who stumbles across a shadowy Zionist organization. Joe Mantegna (left) plays Gold. It was filmed in Baltimore. (Triumph Release)

Like many of us, I am being changed in deep and fundamental ways by the pandemic ― ways I can barely discern while they are happening.

One of those changes that I only started to understand this week involves what I have been choosing to watch on-screen the last two months, and the way I watched it.

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The short version of this change is that in the past, I was looking for productions that featured innovative narratives, great performances and, most of all, resonance with our lives and the cultural beat of the country. But now without realizing it, I have started seeking out productions that I think could offer answers to the kinds of cosmic questions that you might grapple with in a good liberal arts college or university program. What is the moral life? What is an authentic identity and what’s a mask? What is character? What is courage?

In retrospect, I can now see why I wrote in these pages last month about the Ricky Gervais Netflix series “After Life” and praised it so lavishly for offering an answer to the question of how someone goes on after the person they have lived with and loved for decades dies.

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Here is a look at four other productions that I have viewed in recent weeks. Not only do they have the ability to transport viewers to a world beyond the jittery COVID-filled one in which we now live, they also offer answers to some of the larger existential issues we all face as human beings especially as the pandemic focuses our thoughts on mortality. One has a new season starting June 18 on Sundance Now, while another debuted in 1942 and won six Oscars. Wisdom is wisdom whether it’s brand new or 78 years old.

“Homicide," a David Mamet film

I thought I had seen every production that ever filmed in Baltimore, at least since I came to The Sun in 1989. But I missed this one, and this is a big one to have missed.

This 1991 feature film written and directed by Pulitzer-Prize-winning playwright David Mamet (“Glengarry Glen Ross”) is a dark gem, and not to be confused with “Homicide: Life on the Streets,” the TV series produced by Barry Levinson and Tom Fontana that was also filmed in Baltimore. A gem in its own right, the NBC series debuted in 1993.

The type of characters and setting are the same: homicide detectives on some of the most blighted streets in Baltimore. In Mamet’s film, the two principal detectives are played by Joe Mantegna and William H. Macy. Their characters are tracking a cop-killing drug-dealer played by Ving Rhames. Nice cast, no?

All three are outstanding, but it is Mantegna’s film as Bobby Gold, a detective who is pulled off the big manhunt against his will to investigate the death of an elderly Jewish shopkeeper. Because Gold is Jewish, a prominent relative of the dead woman believes he will be more diligent in finding her killer. The relative pulls strings to get Gold assigned to the investigation, and the detective resents every second of it.

Gold’s self-hatred is at the heart of this meditation on identity and tribalism in urban America. The story goes in all directions beyond the elderly woman’s murder and includes coldblooded young killers, anti-Semitism, racism, betrayal, Zionist arm smugglers, a jaded police department, political pressure from City Hall and a city in ruins. The dialogue sings to a Mamet rhythm, and under his direction, the only stops in the action are when the characters talk about life and death issues as they reveal themselves to be something less and more than you think they are.

Criterion has the streaming rights, but you can also see it on DVD from Netflix as I did.

The Bureau

This French spy drama, which begins its fifth season June 18 on Sundance Now, has been compared to Showtime’s “Homeland.” I loved “Homeland” for a time. But the “The Bureau” is a far wiser and deeper political thriller. Furthermore, as a French production, it offers the added pleasure of allowing American viewers to see the world of politics and spy craft through the prism of another culture. I fell behind on the series, and have been binge watching to make sure I am caught up when Season 5 starts. #lostinarabbithole.

“The Bureau" is steeped in issues of identity, lies, tricks, technology, betrayal and the explosive politics of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. It focuses on the “Bureau of Legends” within France’s Directorate-General for External Security. Think of deep cover agents in the Central Intelligence Agency.

At the heart of this universe is Guillaume Debailly played cold, hard and unreadable by Matthieu Kassovitz. The series opens with him returning to France after six years undercover in Syria where he has fallen into a dangerously deep relationship with a woman. (I’m not sure with all the identity issues he has that he is capable of love; that’s why I am not using the word.)

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While Debailly is an enigmatic and compelling leading man, the women characters are the ones to watch: Sara Giraudeau as Marina Loiseau, a young agent who goes deep undercover in Iran in Season 2; Lea Drucker, as Dr. Laurene Balmes, a psychiatrist who wears her own mask;, and Florence Loiret-Caille as Marie Jeanne Duthilleul, who goes from being Debailly’s handler to something much more faceted as the series goes on.

You cannot watch two episodes of “The Bureau" and not appreciate how fluid and artificially constructed all identities are. The series asks: Who is the real Debailly? It will have you asking: Who is the real me?

Available at Sundance Now.

Mrs. Miniver

This 1942 film, which won six Oscars including that of Best Picture, inspired me and stiffened my spine more than any other production I saw or heard the last two months.

The setting is World War II England, but it speaks directly to our COVID-19 crisis today. It opens on the eve of Germany’s invasion of Poland and the beginning of World War II in 1939. Greer Garson stars as Mrs. Miniver, an upper-middle-class wife and mother living a comfortable life ― until the German bombs start falling every night, and food, housing and safety become a daily struggle.

She becomes a symbol of leadership and empathy, reading to and comforting frightened children in bomb shelters, rallying her family to action after a bomb badly damages their home, and never letting her husband, grown son or his fiancee lose their nerve as the nation faces the fear of nightly death and a Nazi invasion.

Unlike President Trump with his empty claim of rising to meet the moment, Mrs. Miniver really does in this film. I identified with the way her family’s life changed so dramatically in a matter of days just as ours did in March. And I was inspired by the way she responded to the crisis. You don’t need to be an Anglofile to be uplifted by “Mrs. Miniver.” Watching it is like listening to a recording of a Winston Churchill speech at the height of the bombing. See why Greer Garson is a Hollywood legend.

Available on YouTube TV, iTunes, Google Play, Vudu, Amazon Prime and at warnervideo.com.

Failsafe (ABC)

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This live TV production by ABC in 2000 is also a study of character and people in crisis. The crisis comes when a computer glitch sends an American plane armed with a nuclear bomb headed to Moscow, and Russia threatens to launch its nuclear arsenal in return.

Watching it reminded me how much better American TV could have been than it is today.

This production, which aired live and without commercials, had a cast that included George Clooney, Brian Dennehy, Richard Dreyfuss, Don Cheadle, Harvey Keitel, Noah Wylie and Hank Azaria. It was directed by Stephen Frears (“The Queen” and “Philomena”). And it has a most unhappy ending ― something prime-time network TV productions almost never have these days.

But it also sent me down more metaphysical paths.

In the final moments, Frears gives us close-ups of the president’s agonized face as he tries to bargain with the Russians.

If COVID-19 hasn’t done it, watching these scenes will get you thinking deep thoughts about mortality.

You can watch it on Amazon Prime.

David Zurawik is The Sun’s media critic. Email: david.zurawik@baltsun.com; Twitter: @davidzurawik.

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