Friday, September 06, 2013

The Sound and the Fury

Do you have any idea how long it’s taken me to write this post? I’ve been trying to sit down and write a review of Father Brown for months, ever since the first episode aired. I thought the first episode was decent – not particularly good, but not out-and-out terrible either. But it didn’t inspire me in any way. I didn’t feel like watching more of the show, nor could I write a half-decent review of the first episode. Along with Elementary, it’s one of the few things I’ve watched which I simply couldn’t review. I tried and I tried, but everything I wrote seemed absolutely terrible. I even tried writing a post comparing the flaws of Elementary with the flaws of Father Brown, and abandoned it after writing two pages. Even in that aborted attempt at a post (abandoned in mid-May), I complained about just how difficult it was for me to write a review about Father Brown. Here is the relevant excerpt:

***

G. K. Chesterton’s original tales are remarkable works, some of the finest short stories ever written. Father Brown solves mysteries not with the dropped handkerchief or burnt cigarette ash, but with his knowledge of the human spirit and the evil of which it is capable. And how did he get this knowledge? His religion: as a priest, he has seen all kinds of evil and has heard it in the confessional booth. I’m afraid, however, that someone at the BBC missed the entire point, and like the editor in The Purple Wig, decided that “God” should be replaced by “circumstances”.

The resulting series, Father Brown, truly defeated me for once. I sat down and tried to write a review of The Hammer of God, but I could come up with nothing coherent. I had plenty of thoughts on the episode, but I could not even determine an appropriate way to start talking about them. And there I sat in front of an empty computer screen, wondering what I could possibly say. Because the series is not terrible but it misses the central point of its source material so badly that I cannot in good conscience call it “good”.

Author G. K. Chesterton
You see, throughout the series Father Brown is constantly attacked by skeptics and anti-religious types of all sorts. But instead of being allowed to defend his faith, he is only allowed one or two politically-correct sentences when he should be getting an entire sermon. None of Chesterton's remarkable conviction made it through to the screen. Chesterton is such a polarizing figure because he was so adamant in proclaiming his beliefs were true, thereby implying that all others were false. This is an extremely unpopular idea in our society, and the BBC shows just how uncomfortable it is by side-stepping the moral issues involved in the story. In the first episode, The Hammer of God, all the original story’s theological ideas are replaced by one single line: "God is not your scapegoat!" And so long, G-man; you're not popular enough in our target demographic to be discussed any more in this episode. And that piece of dialogue is politically correct enough to be shown on TV – hooray! And hey, as if that wasn’t enough, we get to show religious people being evil and the Poor Misunderstood Homosexual Being Mistreated By Society… and we can write awkward and inconsistent jokes and ruin the source material??? Oh, happy days are here again!

Our society prides itself on its moral relativity, a standpoint that Chesterton would have mocked to death. (In fact, you could argue that he does just that in Chapter 2 of Orthodoxy, where he takes jabs at many of its core principals.) The reason I'm going on and on about it is that the show endorses precisely the kind of moral relativism that Chesterton would have found as absurd as the philosophies of Nietzsche. It’s the wonderful philosophy of “You can do whatever you want, but don’t tell me anything about it and while you’re at it, only do it in private and only with people who agree with you 100% and don’t educate any children that way because they’re just kids, you arrogant twat… oh, and you better be sure there isn’t even the slightest possibility of me accidentally seeing you do any of it or I will be offended as hell!”

At the end credits, I was expecting the lady from the BBC who voices over all the end credits to begin narrating: “Aren’t we at the BBC so clever? Yes, we know a lot of people back in the 1950s really really hated gay people, but in this universe everyone is totally cool with it except for the killer. We don’t want any children to get any wrong ideas, do we? Anyways, tune in for Inspector Morse, coming up next, in which Morse has a cup of decaffeinated coffee with unsweetened sugar while trying to quit smoking, exercising in order to become healthier, and maintain a skeptical distance from all organised religions because that’s what’s cool these days.”

Perhaps you can see why I couldn't end up writing a review.

***

Well, in July I began to go to the gym in order to get into better shape. And to trick myself into staying longer, I took a tablet computer with me and began watching more and more of Father Brown. And the more I saw of this series, the more furious I became. By the end, I was positively foaming at the mouth. Throughout this adventure, I posted my thoughts on the series to Facebook, and frankly I can see no better way of reviewing this pile of crap. So below is an anthology of my (mostly) unedited ramblings on Father Brown and why it’s such a terrible, terrible show. [Any edits or additional thoughts are indicated in square brackets.]

***

Father Brown, a jackass, and the Comic Relief Squad
I've just seen episode 4 of Father Brown, and my goodness it's simply terrible, terrible stuff. I watched in horror as every single stupid cliché came up and was treated with deadly seriousness. I watched confused as the parish secretary went from silly comic relief to nasty old witch back to silly old comic relief over and over again. I watched as, once again, [the] characters did an absurd dance of Ring-Around-the-Rosy, moaning "Why, the killer could be absolutely any one of us except for Bob!" only for it to (once again) turn out to be Bob. Never have I thought that Chesterton's stories could be so completely misunderstood - congrats, folks, you've managed to make ITV's Marple look like a faithful series of adaptations.

The only thing that I can say in favour of this series is the brilliant casting of Mark Williams, who is truly excellent as Father Brown. Unfortunately, the good Father seems rather lost in this bizarre universe, where characters' intelligence changes between episodes depending on what the plot/comic relief requires and where murders keep happening in the same small village over the space of a few weeks... and yet, despite the fact that the priest solves the murder every time, the coppers still treat him like an idiot way in over his head. I'm convinced that it'll turn out in the end that Inspector Valentine is actually a serial killer behind all these murders and that's why he's such an ass to Father Brown.

***

It's as if someone watched ITV's "adaptation" of Murder is Easy, said to themselves "I can do that!", went on Wikipedia, read a few summaries of Father Brown stories, and then wrote the series. [Instead of a credit at the start saying “Based on the character created by G. K. Chesterton”, it should say “Inspired by the Wikipedia entry for Father Brown”.]

***

Finally calmed down enough to watch episode 5 of Father Brown, based on the Eye of Apollo. Er, *really* loosely based on the story, that is -- it's been altered so much that the people behind the Poirot [episode] Appointment With Death were probably creative consultants at the very least. As I've come to expect from the show, they miss the story's point by a mile and the characters spend a half hour waltzing around the obvious before Father Brown has the sense to point it out.

The episode nearly lost me at the beginning. Father Brown and the parish secretary go to see this new fangled cult's celebration, and the secretary is all huffy and skeptical. Father Brown shushes her with "Let's keep an open mind."

REALLY???

REALLY???

REALLY???

...

Okay, now that I've taken my medicine, let me point out the blinking obvious that, as a Catholic priest, Father Brown would be the last person in the world to say something like this. This is yet another example of the mad PC mindset of this series. Father Brown is unusually kind to homosexuals because that's PC. He's unusually kind to foreigners because that's PC. He's unusually kind to people of other religions because that's PC. Even when someone insults the Virgin Mary, one of the main points of contention between Catholicism and other Christian faiths! Chesterton would have definitely had many words to reply to the idiotic insult given. But Father Brown seems muzzled; dazed, he replies merely "I'm sorry" before going on to another topic. It made me furious.

But... the obvious villain of this episode is a delight. The actor chews the scenery so much that I swear you can see pieces of it caught in his teeth. In a room with this actor, Christopher Walken, William Shatner, and Al Pacino, this guy would win the Biggest Over-actor Ever award. The way he gets into his idiotic lines makes them laughable, but bearable. A serious taken on this villain would undoubtedly have made me throw something at my television screen.

***

Episode 6 is just insulting. To fans of GKC, to fans of Christie, and worst of all to Catholics. Our good friends the Evil Nuns make a strong comeback, so much so that they might as well have called the convent The Convent of the Heart of Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrow. You know, I thought episode 1 was harmless. A bit mediocre but harmless nonetheless. The more I see of the series, though, the more furious it makes me...

Agatha Christie
[Actually, I want to take some more time to explain just how heinous this episode is. This is an episode which dares to lecture to you, the audience, on Just How Tragic Murder Is. It’s more patronizing than Robert B. Parker at his worst. You see, there’s a nun who has read one too many Agatha Christie novels, and she spends the episode helping Father Brown catch the killer. But once the killer is identified, the nun is crushed and tells Father Brown that she thought a murder would be an exciting thing. He finishes the sentence for her, saying that in reality, it’s a terrible business, quite unlike anything in Agatha Christie’s stories…

I’ve already covered what a stupid statement this is in many essays, one of the most-viewed being A Rant Against the Word “Cozy”. If you haven’t read it, then please do. Then you might understand me when I tear out my hair and scream at the television set. Go to hell, Father Brown! (The show, not the character.) You haven’t earned the right to inaccurately lecture us about how “shallowly” Agatha Christie treats murder. You’re the show that’s doing a second-rate impression of Marple, let me remind you. In fact, you end this very episode with a forced, awkward, and unnecessary bit of humour with the secretary switching characters from Evil Witch to Silly Elderly Irish Woman. The added insult to Christie fans is that this patronizing lecture is given by this show. This show is about as morally complex as a kids’ TV show, one which ends every episode with the characters gathered together and laughing over a joke which isn’t all that funny. You heard it here first, folks: Father Brown has all the moral and ethical complexity of a typical episode of The Magic Schoolbus.]

***

And I thought episode 6 of Father Brown was bad... Well, it was, but episode 7 manages to be worse, although not nearly as offensive to Catholics. Father Brown's political correctness gets annoying once again, especially when he uses the modern buzzwords "intolerant", "ignorant", and "judgmental". But the story is so wildly un-Chestertonian that I am now convinced that nobody writing the scripts read any Chesterton ever in their lifetime.

It's about a nuclear scare, a girl who has a mysterious disease and a town that is paranoid over radiation. Mrs. McCarthy, the parish secretary, is a nasty old witch in this episode again, that is except for the bits where she does the "silly comic relief" bit. God, I hate this character - no consistency whatsoever between episodes, or even in the same episode, where her personality wildly flip-flops as the situation demands. And none of these personalities are in the least bit interesting! If I had five minutes alone with Mrs. McCarthy, I would murder her and then burn her award-winning scones until nothing but a charred, caramelized mess remained.

Anyways, the characters again spend a half hour waltzing around the obvious before Father Brown puts an end to it all. I have not been surprised by a single episode thus far. Not even slightly. They always manage to make the twist so bloody obvious!

Inspector Valentine is a bit of a jackass as usual. I don't get it, man. Within the last few weeks, you've had six mysterious murder cases and Father Brown has solved every one of them. By this point, wouldn't you just let him poke his nose around instead of threatening him to keep out of the investigation or else? Oh wait, no, that would make far too much sense.

Oh, and someone finally remembered they had a Polish refugee camp in episode 1, and brought the action back there for this episode. I love how they introduce these random elements to the village and then forget about them for the rest of the series. Consistency, thy name is Father Brown.

*sigh* Only 3 episodes left of this abomination. What I hate most is that the work of an author I adore has been hijacked and altered for the sake of political correctness and a really bad Agatha Christie impression that honestly makes no sense. Worst of all, throughout all these episodes Father Brown passively implies that he approves of and practices moral relativism, a concept that Chesterton himself would have laughed at.

***

OK, that is IT! I've had it with Father Brown! Damn it all, episode 8 was tedious as usual but harmless. But episode 9, it is absolute tripe. Absolute rotten tripe. It is *terrible*, full of the worst dialogue I've heard in a while. [The very first piece of dialogue after the opening credits is the most awkward exchange I’ve heard in 2013, with characters delivering such obvious exposition that I expected Captain Exposition to turn up on screen and give everyone a thumbs up.] I would call the characters cardboard cut-outs, but that would be insulting to a useful packaging material.

But Father Brown's political correctness has finally reached the point of no return. A little girl is introduced to him and the first thing she says is "I don't believe in God." Her father apologizes for her rudeness, but Father Brown shushes him with "An independent thinker, with a questioning mind: qualities I value highly." Chesterton would have some choice words to say about *that* statement... (In fact, he had some very choice words indeed in the book Orthodoxy. But since the people behind this series seem to be working from a Wikipedia entry on Father Brown, I'd hardly expect them to show any knowledge on this point whatsoever.)

Later in the episode, the same little girl talks with Father Brown about how unfair it is to be a girl, and why can't married women have careers?
My reaction to the script by this point...

What? That's it? You can't be any more bloody obvious than that??? Come on, here are a few helpful pieces of dialogue for series 2 of Father Brown:

"Oh, I'm sorry, I was just thinking how young people these days are so rebellious and full of life and that maybe ten years from now, there'll be a massive cultural and sexual revolution against the ways of the old world. Sprightly young things, aren't they?"
"You know, it's such a shame that people of different races don't have equal rights as we white people. There really should be some sort of equalizing law about that."
"I certainly hope England abandons capital punishment, hopefully by 1965. It really is terrible, what they do to those poor prisoners."
"Have you read in the newspapers, about the political unrest in Vietnam?"
"Ha, I can't believe how terrible the English football team is! At this rate, we'll be lucky to beat West Germany in the 1966 World Cup!"

Chesterton is probably rolling in his grave. [That probably explains the recent UK earthquake – that was his massive bulk giving a shudder from the after-life.] I've frankly had it with this series. Mark Williams is brilliantly cast as Father Brown, but he's given such piss-poor material that it makes the Peter Ustinov adaptations of Appointment with Death and Three Act Tragedy look like masterworks of cinema.

I miss the days when one of my biggest problems about this series was it showing a pair of supposedly-devout Catholics eating pastries before coming into church for Mass...

[Oh, and another moment that is insulting to Catholics: Father Brown implying that the murder victim is in Hell. Lovely. That's pure Catholic doctrine at its finest right there. Goodness gracious, the script goes through so many clichés it feels like someone was trying to rip off Downton Abbey, Agatha Christie, and every soap opera ever written all at the same time.]

***

I didn’t write anything for Episode 10. Episode 10 actually wasn’t that bad by this series’ standards. The first part is one of the most faithful adaptations of the source material to date, doing a rather decent adaptation of The Blue Cross. But this is Father Brown; they have to ruin even that. The whole thing falls apart in the second half, an original piece of padding story which feels like someone was trying to write an action movie without any action. The character of Flambeau is ruined, acting in ways that quite simply don’t suit his character in the least. If you read The Queer Feet, you will read a fascinating exchange between Father Brown and Flambeau… but Flambeau’s character, as outlined by Father Brown in that story, does not match the megalomaniac we meet in this episode. A megalomaniac who very nearly murders someone in cold blood, I might add, and given a few more minutes he would have done just that. Flambeau has no sense of honour in the least, and the second half of the episode feels like a slap in the face to any Chestertonian who may have enjoyed the first half.

That’s all I have to say about this series. This is probably my worst review since The Long Goodbye, but it’s the closest I’ll ever get to coherence on this issue. There is only one way to react to this series and the way it distorts Chesterton's stories, and I’d like to illustrate that way below:

22 comments:

  1. Informative, incisive, and wildly entertaining. This blog never fails to capture my interest, and I'm so glad that you took the time to post this digest of your off-hand critiques of the television series. Reading this was like driving past an accident on the motorway. I'll steer clear of Father Brown (2013), then. You've hit upon an increasingly problematic concern: tragically, we seems to have reached a point at which the media is incapable of producing true period pieces. Undoubtedly, future scholars will have much to say about modern day "adaptations" such as Father Brown.

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    1. Brian, I'm glad you enjoyed these mad little ramblings. It seems that very few people are willing to go back and try to accurately recreate a period. Walter Mosley did a splendid job in DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS, but that was a novel written from an African-American perspective and so the elements of racism are apparently more acceptable in such a context. It does seem that novels and TV shows/movies set in the early 20th century have plenty of remarkably enlightened characters. When overdone, it can be quite grating, as FATHER BROWN proves...

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  2. BRAVO! An excellent review and you've given good, rational reasons why you dislike this series so very much. I applaud you, and wish that more reviews reflected this kind of critical thinking.

    The new PC Fr. Brown makes one wish for the days of Kenneth More . . . and for another Chesterton to arise and cut through the slack thinking in contemporary society!

    Chesterton would have liked you though, I'm pretty sure!

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    1. I only saw one episode of the Kenneth Moore series -- I think it was THE HAMMER OF GOD, come to think of it. I thought it was nicely-done, if a bit on the low-budget side. But it was far more dramatic than the new version of the same story, which had all the benefits of modern editing techniques and cameras.

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  3. Magnificent! I wish they were still giving out the Edgar for Best Mystery Criticism. You deserve it.


    On a side note, I think that "Elementary" started as mediocre and uninspired, but it improved over the course of the first season a lot, and by the second half of the first season it was "pretty good, but it's no "Sherlock.""

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    1. Chris, you're far too kind. There's no way I'm in the same league as Boucher, Haycraft, or others who won that prize. It's remarkable just how ignorant I am of the genre for someone who loves it so much -- I still have yet to read any Elmore Leonard, or Brett Halliday, or Ross Thomas... and probably many others.

      I think ELEMENTARY is fine for the most part. The only thing I really dislike about it is how it thinks Sherlock's anti-social attitude is due to daddy issues or psychological problems with women. Some episodes also make him remarkably stupid. But stories like the one with the crazy profile-defying serial killer or the Charles Augustus Milverton episode were absolutely excellent and I hope the series builds on those.

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  4. Where is it written you must review Fr. Brown, or Fr. O'Leary, or the cow that kicked over the lantern? Did you take an oath? Will your first born suffer because of your perceived lapse? MAybe you lost your job, yes? Give it up, spit it out and move on. Try dealing with a possible strike in Syria.

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    1. Carl, I enjoyed your comment. I like to think I'm my own worst critic, so I have to keep up with what the competition is saying.

      Of course there's no need for me to review Father Brown, except I have a personal policy of reviewing any mystery I come across. Not all of these reviews make it here -- if I'm asked to write a review of a book and end up disliking it, for instance, I will still write a review but will not post it here. But I do try my best to write something down in order to get my thoughts on it straight. "Father Brown" posed a challenge because although I had plenty of thoughts on it, I had no way of collecting them into a coherent package. Because it gets the work of Chesterton so damn *wrong*, I felt it was particularly important in this case to do a review and try to discuss just how wrong the adaptation got the stories.

      That being said, this is a mystery blog. I write about crime fiction, detective fiction, thrillers, and the like. It's not my job, it's just something I like doing. (For the record, I am a student. My summer job is working at a car factory. In my spare time I plot a takeover of the world in my submarine lair.) I avoid politicizing the blog because that's what the rest of the Internet is for. I like having discussions, but prefer having them on one topic instead of turning the comments section of a post into a theological seminary or a political free-for-all, which is one of the reasons this series was so hard to review.

      And sure, there are plenty of things other than this show that I could worry myself sick over. The situation in Syria is terrible, but I could just as easily worry about the outcome of the James Holmes trial, the aftermath of the recent earthquake in China, or hell, even my BMI. I chose to write this instead. If it's any comfort, at least I'll write articles like this instead of offering my take on such idiotic news items as whatever the hell Miley Cyrus did recently. (I refuse to find out what it was she did, but I'm sure it's nothing I need worry about.)

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  5. Good and fun rant, Patrick!

    The problem with adaptations, and detective series in general, is that they're being written by people who don't have the faintest clue how to plot a proper, fairly clued detective story. They're (usually) mysteries in name only. That's how you get a costumed murder drama like Father Brown that’s fine-tuned to the mores of a "sensitive," 21st century audience with historical accuracy dumped at the side of the road.

    I never understood what exactly is "political correct" about by downplaying the attitudes of the times, and consequently, the people who had to endure it and fight to change it, but all of that thrown out for a cozier few of our past. It's series like these that makes you appreciate even the worst of the Jonathan Creek episodes, because at least they’re still mysteries. Bad mysteries, perhaps, but mysteries nonetheless.

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    1. TomCat, I must agree with you. Some series do a better job than others -- LUTHER, for instance, does a fantastic job of including elements of drama but keeping the focus on the crime, and thus it *is* a mystery series, one which I would not be ashamed to compare with COLUMBO. But FATHER BROWN is a series that I would probably be embarassed to compare with the short-lived MRS. COLUMBO...

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  6. I very much enjoyed your review. I didn't hate the series as much as you did, but it did make me wince throughout at how completely wrong they were about the 1950s, about Catholicism, and about Fr Brown. So unrealistic.

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    1. "Unrealistic" sums up the series very mildly. It's a bizarre parallel universe straight out of the Twilight Zone, if you ask me. I still don't understand why Valentine was such a jackass to Father Brown despite his demonstrated genius for solving mysteries, but I like my serial killer theory for season 2.

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  7. Very enjoyable review Patrick. I will be avoiding this series on a whole, but I'd like to read some of the original Father Brown stories as I have not yet. I really wish that modern-day adaptations of classic mystery stories remained faithful to their source material - "Marple" and "Poirot" being prime examples, though the recent "Elephants Can Remember" was rather well done. But thanks for the informative review.

    On a side note, I just finished the first series of "Elementary" on DVD, and it surpassed my expectations dramatically. As soon as I put some coherent thoughts down, a review will appear on my blog.

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    1. Nick, glad to hear you liked "Elementary". I liked it as well, with some minor caveats (Sherlock's temper tantrums) and one major caveat (IMO they got Moriarty all wrong). I hope they take the clever, story-rich episodes like the first two and use them to build season 2.

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  8. Great read,Patrick. I couldn't agree more about the insanity of political correctness. I'm a great Chesterton fan and so much appreciate your defense of him and of the Catholic faith!

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    1. Donna, I'm glad you liked reading this. I think my Facebook updates had the advantage of spontaneity. When I sat down to write an intelligent, articulate criticism of the show, it ended up sounding dry and dull. When I hit on the idea of collecting my initial reactions, I think I made the right move. Whenever an episode *really* ticked me off, it resonated, mostly unfiltered, through the entire update. Luckily I'm not in the habit of swearing so I didn't have to make any edits on that score!

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  9. The things that bug you about this show are almost exactly the same concerns I have about the forthcoming 'new' Poirot. By coincidence, I posted about that almost simultaneously with your post about Father Brown.

    To summarize: I assume the new writer will give Poirot a 2013 worldview totally out of keeping with the character we know and with his times.

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    1. I think that's the least of our worries. The fact is that unless there's an incredible story, nobody will care about this book nearly as much as Christie's own works, just like John Gardner's Bond continuations have not stood the test of time *at all*. But Matthew Pritchard will still make money out of it.

      I am also worried about the continuations. Some make sense, like Max Allan Collins completing Mickey Spillane's unfinished Mike Hammer novels or Robert Goldsborough's ingenious idea of writing a prequel to the Nero Wolfe series. But all I can see in the announcement of this new Poirot is Matthew Pritchard with dollar signs for pupils.

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    2. We could cross our fingers and hope for something that, as a pastiche, can stand on equal footing with something like Jill Paton Walsh's completion of an unfinished manuscript by Sayers and its follow-up novel, but I'm not expecting lightening to strike twice with the Crime Queens.

      The really jeering part, IMO, is that, no matter how good or bad the book will turn out to be, fans will lap it up and open the floodgates for a whole new stream of pastiches. The only silver lining is that Christie's estate probably won't allow Poroit to battle Martians or stamp out a zombie uprising in the countryside.

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    3. You underestimate Matthew Pritchard. If it raked in millions, he'd sell the rights for a Poirot crossover with 50 Shades of Grey. After all, he has the little *grey* cells... It almost feels like it *has* to be done!

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  10. "The only silver lining is that Christie's estate probably won't allow Poirot to battle Martians or stamp out a zombie uprising in the countryside."

    Don't give them ideas.

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  11. Hi Quite enjoyed reading this. I have never read Chesterton, but I did encounter Father Brown last year. Never really got much of a chance to watch it properly because of being busy. However this time I have watched nearly 5 Episodes of series 2, and was decidedly disappointed. What I disliked the most is the way the BBC have 'sexed up' the show-literally. Even characters like Sid and Lady Frencesca- and its just so silly half the time with characters snogging total strangers for no apparent reason. Ugh. Silly PC vulgarized nonsense.

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