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TV IS THE NEW CINEMA: Skip ‘Helix,’ Watch ‘Sherlock,’ ‘Girls’ Nudity Debate & More ‘True Detective’

TV IS THE NEW CINEMA: Skip 'Helix,' Watch 'Sherlock,' 'Girls' Nudity Debate & More 'True Detective'

Sherlock” (PBS) returns for a third season on Masterpiece, recently announced as its penultimate. This is a season likely to divide fans, taking further large steps in the direction of being less a detective series than a drama series about a detective. Viewers who hated the seasons of “Doctor Who” that presented the possibility that the Doctor might have a life outside the Tardis (notably in the all-time-great season three two-parter “Being Human” and “The Family of Blood”) are likely to bristle at the overtly bromantic spectacle of Sherlock making the best man speech at Watson’s wedding, or canoodling in the tub at 221B with an apparent girl friend. 

The revisionism comes to a head in episode three, in ways at which I will not even hint. The episode also introduces the show’s most deliciously loathsome bad guy, upstaging even Andrew Scott’s Moriarty. “I have a condition,” purrs Charles Augustus Magnussen (Denmark’s Lars Mikkelsen, brother of Mads), who has chronically sweaty palms. “The world is wet to my touch,” he explains.

The Magnussen episode makes visually inventive use of the notion of the Memory Palace, a mnemonic technique dating back to the Middle Ages, before it was possible to put a library on a thumb drive. In fact, the visual virtuosity of this short season of three episodes is impressive even for “Sherlock,” which has always found clever graphical equivalents for the Great Detective’s quantum speed mental processes.

The bar has been set dauntingly high for brainy SF on television, notably by “The X-Files,” “Battlestar Galactica” and “Orphan Black.” So a show as fundamentally square and conventional as “Helix” (SyFy) won’t pass muster. We can reach back as far back as “The Andromeda Strain” (1971) and any of the three versions of “The Thing” (1951, 1982 and 2011) for all-too familiar antecedents to this plot about a runaway strain of mutagenic bacteria in an isolated Arctic research station, transforming the infected into homicidal berserkers. The actors, from leading man Billy Campbell on down, are too TV-pretty to be convincing science heroes from the CDC, and most of the dialog is standard military back chat, as guys in haz-mat suits caterpillar through ventilation shafts. The introduction of lurking government drones plotting a coverup made us fear the worst. If the secret experiments have anything to do with creating super soldiers, we’re gone.

Viewers who make it to episode two of “True Detective” (HBO) (it’s not a show that will enrapture everyone) should be aware that “The King in Yellow,” ominously referred to as a possible key to the mystery, is not an invention of series creator Nic Pizzalotto. The title refers to a collection of interconnected supernatural tales first published in 1895 by the American writer Robert W. Chambers. “The King in Yellow” is also a play within the stories “which induces despair or madness in those who read it.” The book was an acknowledged influence on H.P. Lovecraft and his creation of that dread volume of occult lore, The Necronomicon. (You can read “The King in Yellow.”) The use Pizzalotto makes of the motif will be one more interesting thread to follow in what promises to be a great existential puzzle show.

“That’s a provocation!” is a protest flung at Jemima Kirke’s Jessa during a group session at a re-hab clinic in the third season opener of Girls(HBO). As I was watching the scene, I realized that “provocation” was the word that was missing from the loaded discussion of nudity inequality among the show’s cast members. A critic who had the temerity to raise questions about this during a Television Critics Association panel discussion last week was shut down hard by producer Judd Apatow and creator Lena Dunham with accusations of sexism and misogyny, scare words that in that context are not intended to explain anything but only to shame the questioner and shut down the discussion. (In the wake of this incident we are being told that Dunham “is forcing us to reconsider what bodies we value and why” and that “Dunham’s body is an inherently political statement.”)

I will leave the verdict on those utterances to you and your personal bullshit detector. I would only add that it is also possible to raise aesthetic questions about the way the show handles nudity. The most sensible statement I ever read about writing sex scenes in fiction declared that the only rule that matters is consistency: Write about sex the way you write about everything else, as realistically or surrealistically or humorously. Authors known for rigorous authenticity who figuratively pan up to the drapes as soon as their characters go to bed are committing the primal sin of inconsistency of tone.

Both Dunham and Apatow have implied that the nudity on “Girls” is a gesture of realism, as she says,”a realistic expression of what it’s like to be alive.” Apatow hit on a more likely practical explanation when he was ostensibly making the same point, saying that as a filmmaker he always favors nudity in the staging of scenes in which it would naturally occur in life, as long as the performers are comfortable with it. And if they’re not, you get scenes, like some of those not involving Dunham in past seasons of “Girls,” that could have been clipped from a much more coy sort of program in which the actresses carefully position their arms over their chests.

Those are the scenes that should make Dunham uncomfortable, as a produce, writer and director on the show, if not as an actor. I would argue for a sort of favored nation status for nudity. Either everyone strips of noone does. Either you shoot that material with the complete casual ease of a film from France or Denmark, or you avoid it, lest it stand out like a sore…whatever. You find a way to shoot it that honors the prime directive of consistency. If you knowingly violate consistency in order to make a political statement with your body, you are, to that extent, making propaganda and not art. Discuss.

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