The 2021 holiday season seems like an extraordinarily strange and possibly terrifying time to release a miniseries adapted from Emily St. Louis' brilliant 2014 novel. John Mandel.season elf.
season elfesone of my favorite books of the 21st century so far, and its blend of magical realism, mechanical plot, post-apocalyptic setting, and intricate structure provides enough imaginative diversions to make HBO Max's 10-episode TV adaptation enjoyable. (The first three episodes premiere on Thursday. After that, two episodes follow every Thursday until the finale falls on Jan. 13 only.)
butseason elfit is also a book about the world before and after a devastating plague that wiped out most of humanity. Its resonance with the present moment is so strong that in March 2020, days before most of the United States goes into lockdown,Vulture interviewed Mandelabout the intersection of his book with the present. So it might seem daunting to tell a story about a disease so deadly that only one in 1,000 people survives "at this point in history" (heavy quotes).
And what's moreseason elfmakes several adaptation decisions that alter some of the core elements of Mandel's novel. Two characters who met just before the Georgia flu ravaged the world are now blessed companions in the early days of the apocalypse, and the book's main villain has been drastically overhauled. It would have been so easy to create a version of this story where these changes left the series toothless and meaningless.
But few works of post-COVID-19 fiction have been as refreshing to me as this television adaptation ofStayWriters Patrick Somerville andAtlantaDirector Hiro Murai. Instead of imagining something darkseason elftakes Mandel's book and amplifies its cozy post-apocalypse feel, where humanity unites instead of tearing itself apart. I entered the series deeply skeptical and left at least half hopeful of what humanity could become after the finale.
"This strange and horrible time was the happiest of my life"
in book form,season elffollows three characters who meet on stage at a Toronto theater during a production ofKönig Lear🇧🇷 Kirsten is a child actress who played the role of one of Lear's daughters as a child. Arthur is a brash movie star trying to build his reputation playing one of Shakespeare's greatest characters. And Jeevan is an aspiring doctor trying to save Arthur's life after he collapses due to a heart attack during a performance.
The book then traces three timelines. Jump 20 years into the future to follow Kirsten as an adult riding horses across the Great Lakes with the Traveling Symphony theater company, to a world after the Georgia flu killed so many. Jeevan remains in the present as he huddles in an apartment with his brother and watches the world end from above. And go back in time to chart Arthur's rise along with his many friends and colleagues. Mandel inserts brief interchapters that tell the stories of several other important characters in the narrative, most notably Arthur's ex-wife Miranda, whose chapter is my favorite part of the book.
in the form of a television series,season elfmove some things around. The most notable change is that Jeevan's (Himesh Patel) encounter with Kirsten (Matilda Lawler as a child, Mackenzie Davis as an adult) at the theater leads him to try to help her find her parents. (In the book, they briefly meet and then go their separate ways.) When he tries to help Kirsten, her sister calls to say that the Georgia flu is in Chicago (the series' new setting), and it's really, really bad. 🇧🇷 He and his brother Frank (Nabhaan Rizwan) take Kirsten in and establish a connection between the characters that didn't exist in the book, but is the foundation of the series.
Optimizations like this are everywhereseason elf, the television series, all designed to underscore the connections between characters, some more unlikely than others. Mandel's book is a beautiful meditation on humanity's resilience and the way in which art can bring us together, but it is also a mechanism in which each element of the story has a raison d'être that ends up falling into place. If done well (as the book says), this technique can seem a bit magical when the author reveals all his cards. Badly done (as has been the case with so many TV shows), The Watch Shop can come across as a writer who insists everything is connected in a way that sounds hypocritical.
Previous Somerville Miniseries -Netflix vehicle Emma Stone and Jonah Hill Maniac- seemed too much, like Somerville insisting that everything matters.So at least he had some concern about his attitude.season elf, where so many things could have gone so wrong. But Somerville also learned to create a mechanical plot for television.StayCo-creator Damon Lindelof, and he put all those lessons into action.season elf, but without the occasionally ultra-wild tone of the previous series. (It was ultra-dark on purpose, butwe are not here to repeat that.)
An even smarter way to customize is to switch between narration modes. Weird Episodes expand the aforementioned intermediate episodes to full hours of TV viewing. The Miranda chapter, my favorite of the book and now my favorite episode of the series, makes up the entire third episode as Miranda (Danielle Deadwyler) embarks on a long and strange journey to try and get back home for her love's funeral. 🇧🇷 life even when the world is ending around her.
Meanwhile, the even-numbered chapters follow adult Kirsten's journeys with the theater company, performing Shakespeare and exploring the joys and sorrows of a post-apocalyptic world. The show's plot emerges more in these episodes than the others, but the plot wouldn't work without the character development of the more self-contained odd episodes. Switching between storytelling modes also gives the show a nice pace once you get enthralled.
Somerville's approach to the material is perhaps best reflected in a character's line in the series trailer: "That weird, horrible time was the happiest of my life."season elfhe uses all these unlikely connections to express his admiration that people connect.
It is said that Jeevan and Kirsten never met. In a vast universe, on a planet full of people, everything prevents them from finding each other and forming a family bond. But they meet. And tie them. Even at the end of the world there will be moments of pure beauty and hope.
What if the end of the world was just as beautiful?
The unexpected beauty of the end of all things is also reflected in the direction of the series, most notably in the two episodes directed by Murai (the first and third). Murai is one of the great visual stylists working on television today, and the opening seconds of the series serve as the thesis for everything that follows.
In the opening series, wild boars scour plant life in a room once built and inhabited by humans. Some notes mark the theater where Arthur (played here by Gael García Bernal) died on stage while playing Lear. Murai cuts to the remains of the seats, now covered in green vegetation. And so, on the night of Arthur's last performance, he took those seats. The theater is now a living space where people can enjoy a great play. But it feels less alive than when its only inhabitants were plants and wild boars.
Television has been flooded with programs that rely too heavily on blurry, gray images and digital color corrections that reduce the image too much. Yeaseason elffailed on all other levels, it would at least be worth seeing how it bucks that trend. Post-apocalyptic sections explode with a natural color palette, dominated by green. The semi-apocalyptic sections are a bright white thanks to the snow everywhere, with warmer tones for the apartment in which Jeevan, Kirsten, and Frank are hiding. And the sections set in the past are even hotter, as different characters reminisce about their happier times.
Using color allows viewers to instantly know where they are in the show's timeline, which can seem overwhelming. The series never manages to do anything visually stunning like these close-ups, but there were several moments per episode where I was deeply impressed by the show's willingness to tell its story in pictures, even if the dialogue Somerville and its writers came up with is poetic and rarely overstimulated. (I said rarely. Sometimes it's pretty exaggerated.)
I can complain, I think some episodes of the series try too hard to cram too much story or too little story into an entire hour of television. (All episodes run about an hour, though some are only 43 minutes.) Dan Romer's score is generally pretty, but at times the pulsing music felt a little like it was trying to tell me exactly what it should be. feeling. And occasionally I felt like I needed a graph to go along with the time jumps, especially in some of those weird flashback episodes.
But these are just subtleties. above all I'm happyseason elfhas come to the end of a long and difficult year for many of us, as its embrace of glee and gloom and love of snowy expanses mark it as the perfect miniseries for the holiday season. For example, in one episode, surrounded by a dying world, young Kirsten sings "The First Noel" to Frank and Jeevan, with twinkling lights in the background. At the end of the year, in the cold, in the dark and in the gloom, we come together to make things a little warmer, a little brighter, a little happier. Why shouldn't we do the same at the end of the world?
season elfpremieres Thursday on HBO Max. The first three episodes are available that day, with two episodes each debuting on December 23, December 30, and January 6. The final takes place on the 13th of January. Yes, as mentioned, this is an oddly fitting Christmas season.
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