Watercooler Wednesdays: It’s a Sin, Bridgerton, Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo
Watercooler Shows, the trending series that everyone talks about the next day at the office, around the water cooler … today there are no longer offices to go to, the movie theaters are rather closed than open, and the content on the streaming platforms is increasing exponentially. Watercooler Wednesdays seeks to be a (critical) guide through the VoD maze: from masterpiece series to guilty pleasures, and from blockbusters that keep you on the edge of your couch to hidden gems; if it leads to binging, then it’s exactly what we’re looking for.
We kick off this new column with three series about forbidden sexuality, repressed and then debauched, and sometimes even punished. Two of them have already broken audience records for the platforms they stream on, and take place in the super chic and stylish London, but two centuries apart. It’s a Sin offers an empathic look, from the inside, without prejudices and especially without remorse, on a much more devastating pandemic, but also more selective, than the present one. Bridgerton is a Hollywood foray into the pinnacle of the British aristocracy during the Regency: a sexually segregated society, where marriages are arranged according to titles and wealth, and the slightest indiscretions can ruin an entire family. The third series, Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo, might also become a popular success, following the bestseller it adapts: the autobiography of Christiane F., a heroin addict and prostitute at only 14 years old.
It’s a Sin (Russell T Davies, 2021)
Kill your darlings. It’s a classic bit from creative writing textbooks, a way to urge the screenwriter to give up the notion of character, narrative arc, trope, for the good of the whole. The British series It’s a Sin seems to be built with this very formula in mind. In the first episode, we meet the most adorable gang in the recent history of TV/online series, the type of people you would have liked to spend your college years with. Well, not if you’re homophobic, although … It’s a Sin pulsates with such intensity and joie de vivre – it’s almost a musical – that might even succeed in some conversion work. And then the HIV pandemic begins. Kill your darlings. Each episode ends with a funeral, and the critical view slips from your mind and you turn into those grandparents who scream at their TV when their favorite character in the soap opera is about to fall into a trap.
“Don’t throw away the condoms from your father!”, it’s what I would have shouted at Ritchie as he crossed the English Channel to get to college in London. Ritchie leaves behind an impressive collection of gay magazines and a family that has no clue about his preferences. He makes fun of his father, of his petty-bourgeois preoccupations and macho jokes (not to get any girl in trouble, but at the same time to make good use of the pack). It’s an annoying sequence due to its apparent demonstrative tone, but the demonstration arises later, and at that point it reveals a dramaturgy mechanism explained very well by Hitchcock: suspense sets in when viewers have more information than the characters.
Ritchie and his group of friends start living their best years when the first signs of the HIV / AIDS epidemic appear in the UK, hence the suspense. This kind of “signs” works every time in the case of the spectator who’s quite familiar with the subject (that is, almost everybody, now 40 years later). Every piece of information on the disease (what it is, how it’s transmitted, who’s targeted, false theories, etc.) is met with a nod and digested with a pit in the stomach: only if they had known. And it works because you care, you root for these guys (and a girl) the way you root for your favorite team. It’s a fondness that has less to do with the script and more with their acting. But not necessarily in the sense of craft or versatility, but rather in terms of charisma and being photogenic. Most of the actors are newcomers, a big part of those playing the lead roles have never appeared in film before. This is also the case of Omari Douglas, whose character is a performance by itself.
Empathy is the lofty concept that runs through this miniseries. And it blends in very well with a particular flavor of britishness, beyond all the references that might be more or less obvious to someone outside the community, be it gay or British (such as the title, a diagonal reference to Derek Jarman via Pet Shop Boys). I’m talking about a Victorian prudishness that exists at the very heart of the majority community, a discomfort that doesn’t mitigate the level of racism, misogyny or homophobia, but rather conceals them and makes them more expressive from a cinematic angle. Here, not only homosexuals, but also homophobes are in the closet. It’s easy to picture what an American version of the series would have looked like, that fact that it would have been more focused on depicting the violence and the fight with the system, at the end of which only the heroes, the villains and the preachers would have been left standing, and the drama would have turned into tragedy. Whereas the strength of the series lies in the very fact that it normalizes the disease and decodes its rituals, it brings it into everyday life. Hospital visits and funerals, support groups and talk about new treatment, protests against medical discrimination and the exhausting fight with the families who refuse the diagnosis (the sexual one, not the medical) – they are all limited to gay identity.
Unwittingly (production ended in January 2020), many of the details related to medical uncertainty and an unknown deadly virus resonate strongly (and often comically) with the present. From conspiracy theories (it’s a get-rich-quick scheme of big pharma) to miracle remedies (one of the protagonists even turns to drinking their own urine), to forced isolation in the name of the common good and disgracing those infected. It’s somewhat inevitable, but also unfair, for It’s a Sin to be seen through the lens of today’s pandemic. It’s unfair because, from the artists involved in the production to the final result, It’s a Sin is a queer film in the highest sense. The spotlight hits from the inside in, it’s a celebration and a commemoration at the same time of a culture and an era overflowing with sexual encounters and death.
The show is streaming on HBO Go
Bridgerton (Chris Van Dusen, 2020)
Bridgerton, the most-watched series in Netflix history, made many of its fans and critics think of Jane Austen. For me, the dominant cultural reference – which got into my head from the first episode and stayed there until the very end – is the famous Lord Buzz Killington from Family Guy. Like Buzz Killington, Bridgerton is an American fiction about the British aristocracy. The Netflix hit is just as boring and flat as Buzz’s jokes that ruin all the fun of a party. Like the platform’s famous recommendation algorithm, Bridgerton also seems to be a product of A.I.: a mixture of ingredients, some good, some (but rather) bad, and an ending as unhappy as an arranged marriage. Let’s take them one at a time.
Regency Romance. The screenplay is an adaptation of Julia Quinn, a (highly successful) American author of historical love novels. In this case we deal with regency romance, love affairs within the elite, emerging in the Regency era – a relatively short era (1811-1820) during which King George’s III madness creates a vacuum of power and responsibility, and an explosion of grandeur and social sophistication, championed by Prince George IV. Detached from the outside reality (Napoleonic wars, strikes, poverty, extreme social stratification), the British aristocracy consumes its existence in endless games of society and scandal. Bridgerton faithfully captures all these things: from the wedding season (the time of year when the nobility leaves their estates to attend the proms in London) to the uncompromising list of dos and don’ts applied to the relationship between men and women. The problem with Bridgerton is that it fails to go deeper than the surface, and so, becomes a caricature without substance that can’t commit to the historical realities and gender codes more than some anthropology trivia. It’s not the liberties it takes on that are problematic, but the limits it doesn’t know how to explore and explain. Regency romance is based on a permanent tension between inner life and outer expectations. Whereas here, the outer expectations handled as in a fairy tale, and the inner life of the characters doesn’t exist beyond monomania. There is an emptiness in the characters’ concerns (those who go through dramas included) which makes empathy impossible.
Diversity & Progressivism (plus a short critical detour through an unlikely critical success). Given the era and the conventions of the genre, the viewer will be surprised to see a racially integrated English nobility. Part of the critics praised the film for this “brave” decision. Some others criticized the film for doing too little: even if they are played by actors of color, the stories are still of the white, and there is no trace of racial issues. It is probably the best veil that cocoons the relative critical success of the series. More concerned with this dilemma of racial representation, the aesthetic relevance of any kind took second place. Besides, the problem is not that Bridgerton practically invents a fairy tale, an alternative reality, but that it insists on claiming to be a period piece. It’s not even the fact that it doesn’t call into question this inconsistency, not even a little bit; the racial mix could very well remain a matter of stylistics. The problem arises when, after half of the series, we are given the most idiotic explanation possible. Queen Charlotte, a real historical figure, who is said to have had some ancestors of color, enters the scene. The queen, who doesn’t appear in the novels, endorses all these matrimonial games. Her interracial marriage to the crazy King George set the example of love for the rest of society and everything became perfect. This is the level of depth in terms of screenwriting at which Bridgerton operates, the most watched series: 82 million households (this is how Netflix evaluates its audiences). There are of course productions much weaker than Bridgerton, which gathered millions of comparable views (full disclosure, I watched some of them and I don’t regret it). And it’s not the critic’s position to lecture on aesthetics. The problem is not the millions of people who watched it, but the very concept: “82millions”, used endlessly in the media that produces content, hype, buzz and spin. In-together with a kind of critical indulgence regarding the format of the series (standards are lower from the very start) and a predisposition (it’s understandable, we live after all in the binging era) to consume compulsively and look afterwards for justifications, this fabulous “82millions” crushes any critical commentary under the dozens of castles used as shooting locations, the thousands of custom-made costumes, and other production values splashed with glitter. Just like the hollow aristocracy it portrays, Bridgerton triumphs through polish, gossip and noble titles (the most watched series).
Shondaland. The series is produced by Shonda Rhimes, who created Grey’s Anatomy and other TV hits, all saturated in melodrama. Bridgerton, with its 8 episodes, throughout which the main couple argue and reconcile as many times, it would seem that it fits Rhimes like a glove. And granted, Rhimes can push a relationship between two characters far beyond the point where a new melodramatic twist has any credibility in the script. By that time, however, you have already invested too much in the characters, and so, her productions become a classic example of “guilty pleasure”. But for this to happen, you need three things: a good text (at least for a while), characters you grow fond of, and actors to deliver emotion. The somewhat non-existence of the first two makes Bridgerton‘s acting seem almost a miracle. There is, however, a palpable moment (the 4th episode), when things speed up and Bridgerton finally falls under the sign of Shondaland: forbidden kisses, characters challenging one another to duels, family bankruptcy, broken friendships, sobbing and quarrels. Bridgerton certainly gets a bit more digestible as far as drama is concerned (compared to the first half, there seems to be a giant leap), but it remains just as superficial in approach, and the plot twists become downright stupid.
Such works (literary or cinematic) are easily attacked today from progressive positions: escaping reality in an immaculate world where no one works, without any regards for the other 99% of British society at the time (these ones will make it in Dickens’s novels). It would be unfair to blame Bridgerton of that, too, and nobody had any expectations of social criticism. But the most watched Netflix series is so boring, and the world of the privileged so superficially explored, that the only thing that would have saved it would have been an angry mob with pitchforks and torches that would have put an end to this tasteless luxury.
The show is streaming on Netflix
Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo / We Children from Bahnhof Zoo ( Oliver Berben, Annette Hess, Philipp Kadelbach, Sophie von Uslar, 2021)
“David Bowie? He’s total bullshit.” You would have to show some suicidal courage to write this line in a series called Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo (We Children from Bahnhof Zoo). It’s a risky bet, but the creators behind this series have understood very well the rule of playing with literary-cinephile taboos: if you join the table, might as well raise the bet to everything you own. Following in the footsteps of Babylon Berlin and Dark, perhaps less ambitious than these two, but certainly just as stylistically fulfilled, Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo has all the chances to become the next German hit among streaming platforms.
First, a little context. WKvBZ is an adaptation of an autobiographical bestseller of the same title, the life story of Christiane Felscherinow, a 14-year-old heroin addict and prostitute. The title – We Children from Bahnhof Zoo – is a reference to the largest train station in Berlin, a place known for drug use and prostitution. The book created a stir in Germany, it was even included in the school curriculum for its shocking-educational value. There’s also a 1981 film, Christiane F. – Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo, a low budget production, shot guerrilla style, with unprofessional actors 14-15 of age, close-ups of needles going into their veins (props), children agonizing in withdrawal (make-up), and hidden camera footage of Bahnhof Zoo (real addicts).
But what’s that got to do with David Bowie? Christiane F. instantly became a cult film also thanks to the soundtrack signed by the artist. Moreover, Bowie has a consistent cameo in the film, and the real story is that Christiane first injected herself with heroin at one of his concerts. It’s not surprising that the reactions to the series have been mostly negative so far, most of the commentaries falling under the “nothing to do with the original story” tagline. Bowie is just the tip of the iceberg, practically everything that doesn’t comply with the book, but especially with the film, is aesthetically devalued: from music to costumes, from the fact that it has nothing to do with 1970’s Berlin to the fact that they cast actors who are obviously of age.
The line quoted above is just one from a long series of references, practically Bowie appears in one way or another in almost every episode. On the day of the big concert, we find out that almost the whole gang sold their tickets for heroin doses. All these references are by no means an insult, but they are clearly a controversial anticipation of a possible kulturkampf. More importantly, they provide a key to understanding and appreciating the series (and even a short postmodern commentary on how autobiographical “realities” are created in fiction). This series is not for the nostalgic, that pretty much sums it up: it’s not for the Bowie nostalgic (though it’s clearly an homage, albeit a bit naughty), it’s not for the nostalgic Berliners of yesteryear, and it’s clearly not for those nostalgic longing for sordid visions of destroyed childhoods.
Because yes, although it’s based on a source material that makes your skin crawl, although it visually pays homage to films like Trainspotting and Requiem for a Dream, this series gives a new meaning to the concept of “heroin chic”. Heroin kills you, that’s pretty clear from the movie. Addiction pushes you to survival sex, which is degrading and dangerous, and that’s clear, too. What is different here is the perspectives, and the deviant ways in which this series captures the deviance could be proclaimed as brave if it had any ethical agenda behind it. For example, the really comical scene in which Christiane and a client she had just flogged eat cereal and milk lying on the couch and giggling at a documentary about lazy people. Another atypical sexual predator is Günther, a friendly hulk infatuated with one of the girls in the gang, whom he wants to marry as soon as she turns 16. For everyone else, Günther is a true father figure, and for Stella he’s actually the fool with money who offers them a place to stay while she makes money on the street for buying drugs. Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo offers in fact the “children’s” perspective. In the end, when the curtain is pulled, they will obviously come out as victims, but until then they are in full control of their actions, until they are not anymore.
Speaking of curtains and perspectives, I can’t go on without also mentioning the production design of this series. It’s actually the most important mention. I left it at the end because if I had started with it, this review would have been a long line of explanations on how the setting, the objects, the textures and the colors become as important as the characters. Because the vision is somehow coming from within (from the perspective of the drug user), the physical, palpable reality is handled with a certain lightness. Some things are obviously the product of a hallucinatory mind, either from drugs, or from mental problems, or simply from daydreaming. Others, on the other hand, are not obvious at all, such as a romantic scene taking place on the rooftop – a cliché of teen movies – with a huge mountain chain looming just two feet away from Berlin. The remarkable thing is that all these elements integrate perfectly with the logic of realistic fiction, there is never the issue of magical realism and in no case of “everything was a dream”. The sensation is rather one related to the memory process (the first episode even starts with a flashback), we are dealing with products of memory, not events that happen and are recorded right this moment. The emotions attached to these memories invade their objective reality. It is also a reference to the very genesis of this film from an autobiography, a memory.
Besides these outings in/out of the setting, Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo is like a huge warehouse of props and sets – only that everything is ordered, inhabited, lived, has a purpose, even if that purpose is barely perceptible at a single viewing. More than the actors’ performances (they’re very good by the way), I was fascinated by the “performance” of the props. From the Fuhrer’s mummified shit (yes, you read that right) part of the collection of a Nazi supporter to the bright orange Porsche that tells you everything you need to know about Christiane’s dysfunctional family, to a love letter written in invisible ink, to the Berlin TV Tower (a giant syringe), WKvBZ is a series whose density in terms of set design should be taught in film schools.
The show will be streaming on HBO Go starting February 27