Culture

Television

Its own reward: ‘The Virtues’

By Craig Mathieson

Topping February’s streaming highlights is a four-part series examining trauma and addiction, propelled by Stephen Graham’s affecting performance

Stephen Graham as Joseph McCarthy in The Virtues

In The Virtues, a staggering four-part series on Stan from the English filmmaker Shane Meadows, words aren’t enough. “Don’t be sorry,” Joseph McCarthy (Stephen Graham), an alcoholic on the verge of cracking up, will tell someone trying to comfort him, even though it’s what he desperately needs. Much of what Joseph says in the initial episodes is a tacit admission that he can’t articulate the anguish inside him. “I said I wouldn’t do this,” he tearfully mutters at a goodbye dinner for his former partner and son, who are relocating to Australia, but it’s an apology rendered insignificant by his obviously parlous state. PJ Harvey’s accompanying score is a selection of frayed hums and scraped strings, or the sound of someone holding on by their fingernails above an abyss.

After a bender of brutal proportions, delivered with such yearning need and self-destructive zeal by Graham that it’s physically affecting, Joseph leaves England for his homeland of Ireland, finding the sister he hasn’t seen since they were separated as children, Anna (Helen Behan). He’s also drawn back to County Louth by the presence of the boys’ home he was put into and ran away from as a nine-year-old. It is clear from early on, via snatches of menacing flashback, that the institution failed Joseph, and Meadows wants the audience to know this. The drama is not driven by the mystery of what happened to Joseph, but rather how he will remember it and whether he can even attempt to deal with a trauma lodged so deep inside him that it’s leached into his bones.

Stephen Graham, a recurring cast member in Meadows’ productions such as the 2007 movie This is England and its subsequent television series sequels, has a cinder block frame and a roiling energy; in Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman his gangster ‘Tony Pro’ drove Al Pacino’s Jimmy Hoffa to paroxysms of fury. Here he reveals Joseph’s deep wounds and fearful avoidance through a performance that embodies his pain without changing him: Joseph has long, difficult conversations with Anna and then her sister-in-law, the also troubled Dinah (Niamh Algar), which are plaintive and halting, accompanied by tears and clichéd responses. No one suddenly delivers stirring monologues, nor does Meadows divert from his unblinkingly succinct framing and editing. The Virtues is the riveting product of not just inspiration, but also immense dedication. It’s as if it was chiselled out of those who made it.

Netflix’s docuseries Pretend it’s a City is many things, including a portrait of its subject, the author and humorist Fran Lebowitz; a taxonomy of Manhattan traditions; and a tribute to the vitality derived from fiercely held opinions. The show’s best quality, however, is the life-affirming pleasure to be had watching Lebowitz crack up her good friend Martin Scorsese. Serving as both the director and Lebowitz’s on-screen sidekick, America’s greatest living filmmaker consistently bursts out laughing at Lebowitz’s bons mots. With her expressive hands and sharply attuned sentences, Lebowitz is a pleasure to listen to, even if her vision of New York is a narrow and in many ways privileged one, but Scorsese’s helpless mirth – he really laughs a lot – is a restorative tonic.

Having conquered multiplexes, the Marvel superhero-industrial complex comes to television with the Disney+ spin-off WandaVision, which gives two supporting players from the Avengers movies, Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany), their own weekly serial. Within the setting of an imaginary television world created by the grieving Wanda, the show uses the history of Hollywood family sitcoms to house a plot of deception and discovery – the first episode (in black and white) assumed the gags and set design of Bewitched, the seventh recreated the mockumentary style of Modern Family. As an act of homage it’s amusing, but as a study of repressed torment it is – with two episodes left – barely more than nominal. For Marvel it’s a new medium with familiar limitations.

Created by Russell T. Davies, one of the most prominent creative voices on British television, It’s a Sin is a deeply felt act of remembrance – equally consumed by joy and tragedy – for the generation of young gay men who arrived in London in the early 1980s. They would be the recipients of newly won social freedoms, but also the unaware targets of the HIV virus, which with official ignorance that bordered on the criminal would quickly become the AIDS crisis. Davies’ work has long been influenced by his sexuality – one of his earliest successes was 1999’s Queer as Folk – but this wrenching ensemble piece is a powerful act of autobiography. The share house milieu is casual and intimate, but the cumulative result is immense.

In brief: The French mystery thriller Lupin (Netflix) is a slick but somewhat shallow series, complete with blunt exposition about its wider themes, but at the centre of each intricate heist is the effortlessly charismatic actor Omar Sy (The Intouchables), who elevates every scene. The second season of Staged (ABC iview) continues the consistently witty lockdown travails of actors David Tennant and Michael Sheen, whose bumbling video interactions as comical versions of themselves are augmented by numerous famous guests who actually deliver; the seventh episode is blithely astounding. Finally, the original five series of The Muppet Show, circa 1976 to 1981, are now streaming on Disney+, which is a terrific get from the archives of the Jim Henson Company. Approximately 20 episodes have a content warning for “negative depictions”, but much of this groundbreaking variety show remains wonderful family viewing, strings and all. Look for John Cleese, Carol Burnett and Steve Martin appearing in guest slots.

Craig Mathieson

Craig Mathieson is a television critic for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, an author, and the creator of the Binge-r streaming newsletter.

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Stephen Graham as Joseph McCarthy in The Virtues

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