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HBO's 'Parade's End' review: Watch for wit

HBO's "Parade's End" -- with Rebecca Hall and Benedict Cumberbatch -- begins in an hour, and before this day gets completely away from me, I wanted to give what few readers who wander across this blog a sense of whether to watch.

By all means: Watch.

Starts at 9, continues Wednesday and ends Thursday.

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This five-hour mini is based on a Ford Madox Ford novel series from long, long ago (Ford, who died in 1939, was a hugely prolific writer of English and German heritage). But of more importance -- the screenplay is written by Tom Stoppard, one of England's most renowned playwrights ("Every Good Boy Deserves Favour," "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead") and a great wit whose "wit" isn't always what you'd call "jocular." (So don't expect big laughs.)

A quick overview: Set just before the "Great War" begins, English aristocrat Christopher Tietjens (Cumberbatch) has a fling with a woman, Sylvia Satterthwaite (Hall) on a train. A baby is born nine months later -- although Sylvia, in the meantime, has other flings, while Tietjens refuses to, even though his Yorkshire neighbor, also landed gentry, Valentine Wannop (Adelaide Clemens), wants to get to know him a little better, if you know what I mean. The war begins, Tietjens -- a cold, brilliant, towering figure of proper English rectitude -- enlists. 

Many excellent actors here (Stephen Graham, Rupert Everett, Janet McTeer, Miranda Richardson), some beautiful scenery, period details, and a "Downton Abbey" vibe. But do not be fooled – this is no “Downton.” It's initially cold to the point of being frozen, and – as a viewing experience – can be like hugging an ice statue that's perfectly carved, and which slowly...slowly...melts. (And who'd want to do that!)

Yes, "Parade's End" is tough to love, or hug, but consider that it was written by Ford, who -- with his dual nationality -- struggled to understand why England and Germany (his nations) came to blows and wiped out a generation of men.

He was in no position to understand what came after (he died in 1939) but many English writers obsessed deeply over the war, and its causes, and consequences. Ford – and Stoppard – want  to demonstrate the failure of humans to understand one another. (We speak but fail to communicate...) Easy to see Stoppard's interest here: A Czech-born Jew whose family had to flee the Nazis, he's spent a brilliant career trying to understand the horrors humans inflict upon one another. Cumberbatch's cold, brittle, unemotional Tietjens -- who slowly thaws -- and the passionate emotional Sylvia (yes, a bit sexist, but this IS a period piece)  represent that (forgive the word) dichotomy.

 There is something contemporary about this message, and it’s not hard to see what that is. So watch. If you hate this, blame me.

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