A Seamless Wonder and a Pretentious Quagmire

Two well-intentioned cable series surfaced in the past month, and they offer a stark lesson in the difference between good and bad filmmaking. 

First, I am happy to report that The Queen’s Gambit, Scott Frank’s adaptation of a Walter Tevis novel from 1983 I was unfamiliar with, is probably the best original production I have ever seen from Netflix, a seven-episode limited series that does not have one moment without brilliant acting, writing, direction, set design, music, and photography. Its story is so simple and seamless, it allows for its main character, fictitious chess prodigy Elizabeth Harmon, to move through her remarkable young life with perfectly displayed loneliness, grief, and joy, in a performance by 24-year-old actress Anya Taylor-Joy that will likely be remembered at the next Emmy soiree. 

I’ve played quite a bit of chess in my time, but understanding the game’s strategy is not essential to loving this series. The memorable chess players Beth meets in her growing career are smart and caring of each other, and discuss their moves in an entertaining way that never talks over the audience or feels detached from the scene. In the same vein, the numerous chess matches are filmmaking marvels, concisely directed for the most dramatic impact and staged in rooms that move from high school gyms to four-star-hotel lobbies to a grand palace in Moscow. The impeccable production design by Uli Hanisch and Steven Meizier cinematography paint every set and carries us along in a fluid stream of visual engagement, while giving us ample opportunity to identify with Beth and feel her emotions. 

I can’t recommend The Queen’s Gambit enough, and my only issue is why it took so long for this novel to find a home on screen. Tevis, who also wrote the Fast Eddie Felson books that became Paul Newman’s role in The Hustler and The Color of Money, died a year after Gambit was published. Heath Ledger reportedly was going to use it as his directorial debut, but after Ledger passed, the project languished for years. Like Beth Harmon’s chess-playing abilities, the series is an absolute gift, and one I can certainly imagine re-watching sometime.

* * *

On the other hand, a series I have no intention of re-watching or even finishing is the fourth go-round of Fargo, Noah Hawley’s Coen Brothers-inspired creation that produced a fabulous first and second season and a third one that wasn’t as unforgettable but was still entertaining enough to enjoy. After a long hiatus, showrunner Noah Hawley apparently decided he needed to write some kind of political metaphor for the turbulent, racist times we currently find ourselves in. The result is an overproduced, over-directed mess of a plot with far too many characters and virtually none we find ourselves engaged with. 

What made the first two Fargo seasons so great was the smaller scale, and the handful of quirky upper midwesterners we liked spending time with—even Marvin Freeman’s doomed anti-hero Lester Nygaard and Billy Bob Thornton’s ruthless killer Lorne Malvo from the opening year. Season Four has abandoned all of that Coen-ish charm and settled on a cold, stylized treatment closer to a wannabe Tarantino epic. Two warring crime syndicates in 1950 Kansas City, one African-American and the other Italian, form an uneasy truce, but the considerable murderous mayhem that follows is dragged out like pretentious, tooth-cracking taffy, and despite Hawley’s artistic skills at re-creating the time and place, I find many of the scenes unnecessarily obtuse, the motivations cloudy, and there isn’t one character, aside from a 16-year-old black daughter of a funeral home family who seems to be narrating the story in the opening episode but is then dropped, who I care even a smidgen about.

Obviously, The Queen’s Gambit and Fargo Season 4 are completely different in terms of genre and mood, but their use of visuals and style to enhance their stories are like a symphony compared to a garage band. One Fargo scene from Episode Two, in which a Sicilian brute visiting from the old country recruits two henchman at a bar to perform a murder for him, seems to take five exasperating minutes to play out. The Queen’s Gambit would have finished the same scene in thirty delicious seconds.

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