By Lael Loewenstein
Has there ever been a stranger time?
Not in recent memory. Even during the dark, uncertain days after 9/11, the source of our collective anxiety was easier to externalize. We had seen the horrific swath of destruction unleashed by a quartet of Taliban terrorists on a death mission. In response, we rallied together, held each other close and stood shoulder to shoulder. In the COVID-19 crisis, the enemy looms under a microscope — and potentially in the breath of every person who penetrates our suggested six foot social distancing bubble; now, we literally cannot stand shoulder to shoulder. Following the shelter-in-place advisory is like huddling under a giant blanket, waiting for the storm to pass, only to realize that the blanket is not impermeable, and the storm potentially more deadly than any weather catastrophe.
That said, we are all finding ways to cope. With restaurants limited to takeout and close physical socializing a no-no, adults are embracing virtual hangouts via Zoom, Face Time, or Skype. Yoga studios are streaming classes. Home repair projects are on the rise: that curtain rod you never hung is finally getting bumped up the list; there’s no more procrastinating when you have nowhere to go. Ambitious parents are trying to home school their children, a challenge so vast that after just over an hour an exhausted Shonda Rhimes tweeted, “Teachers deserve to make a billion dollars a year. Or a week.”
For the mere mortals whose bar is not quite so high, now is the time to watch that TV show we never got around to seeing or take in that movie we always meant to revisit. And so we enter the age of “quarantainment,” a term I borrowed from a friend’s daughter that (along with the catchy “Covidiots”) seems a fitting portmanteau for these troubled times. What follows is only a partial list.
In researching options, I polled males and females ranging from Gen Z to Baby Boomers. My 14-year-old son suggested sci fi-fantasy “The Mandalorian” on Disney Plus; his older sister lobbied for comic telenovela “Jane the Virgin;” a relative in rural Massachusetts campaigned for anthology crime series “The Sinner” (both on Amazon Prime). Responses ran the gamut, passions soared, and tempers flared. When a friend berated me as the lone holdout who had yet to see “Breaking Bad,” I shot back that she had only just started watching “Mad Men” (Netflix). Under the weight of so many different agendas, I decided, at least initially, to put all suggestions aside and seek what intrigued me.
Sometimes we just need comfort food. Since last week’s “shelter-in-place” advisory, Olivia Colman has been my casserole. Like Dames Maggie Smith and Judi Dench, Colman is a British national treasure. Flitting with ease between comedies and dramas, the virtually limitless Colman is like the surface-to-air missile of actors. It’s tough to name another performer who eludes genre classification as well as she.
Currently on view in Netflix’s “The Crown” as Queen Elizabeth II, Colman assumed a part that was embodied to halting perfection by Claire Foy, who starred in seasons one and two. Skeptics wondered if she could follow Foy’s star-making turn and put her own stamp on the role. And yet she’s done just that, lending the queen a weighty midlife gravitas; she’s stoic yet heartbreaking. The outstanding supporting cast, especially Vanessa Kirby/Helena Bonham Carter as attention-seeking Princess Margaret, and Matt Smith/Tobias Menzies as the cynical Duke of Edinburgh, find their match in Peter Morgan’s teleplays. There may be no writer today who articulates the human cost of leadership better than Morgan, the screenwriter behind “Frost/Nixon” and “The Queen.”
It’s a very different Olivia Colman in “Fleabag,” the raunchy, hilarious and occasionally piercing Amazon Prime series that explores post-feminism, sexuality, and family bonds in modern Britain. As the needling stepmother to both Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s eponymous character and her passive aggressive sister Claire (Sian Clifford), Colman chatters nonstop, baring deceptive gummy smiles while flaunting brightly hued headwear. At only 12 short episodes, “Fleabag” will make you laugh before it makes you cry. It’s unmissable.
Before “Fleabag,” there was “Broadchurch” (Netflix), a three-season crime mystery/thriller set in a close-knit village in Dorset County. Partnered with a crusty Scottish investigator (played by David Tennant of “Dr. Who” fame), Colman, as Detective Sergeant Ellie Miller, seems the most mundane of policewomen. On the trail of a local boy’s murderer, the detectives slowly peel back layers of the seaside community, eventually revealing a web of deception. Colman’s performance creeps up on you, earning every note of justifiable fury and wrenching loss. From creator Chris Chibnall (“Dr. Who”), “Broadchurch” was a sensation in the UK, but be warned: season one is far superior to the following two.
Also not to be missed, of course, is Colman’s 2018 Oscar-winning turn in “The Favourite,” (currently on HBO) the hypnotically comedic, gorgeously warped and oddly enthralling biopic of Queen Anne from idiosyncratic director Yorgos Lanthimos (“The Lobster”). As portrayed by Colman, Queen Anne is the emotionally labile, highly manipulable trophy in a tug of war between two ambitious cousins (Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz.) Though Colman took the award, it’s a three-way acting triumph.
With my Olivia Colman festival more or less exhausted, it was time to go back to reality. Re-entry, of course, is the downside of a viewing binge; it’s jarring to leave the courts of Queens Anne and Elizabeth II only to return to a world that seems like the scariest “Twilight Zone” episode laced with the doom of “Contagion.” With at least a few weeks left to shelter at home, I’ll continue to maintain my social distance and wash my hands till they’re raw, but in the meantime, I’m looking for my next show to binge.