December 13, 2018, 23:47

What We’re Watching This Week: “Wormwood,” “Alias Grace,” and “Fringe” |

What We’re Watching This Week: “Wormwood,” “Alias Grace,” and “Fringe” |

Photograph by Zach Dilgard / Netflix


In 1958, my great-grandmother was mysteriously
shot, and a couple of years ago I became obsessed with trying to piece
together the muddled details of what happened. To figure out whether it
was a suicide attempt, as the police believed, or something more
sinister, I conducted newspaper-archive searches and made inquiries with
local town officials. Recently, I was reminded of my brief foray into
family-tragedy sleuthing when I watched “Wormwood,” Errol Morris’s new
six-part Netflix documentary-drama, which examines the genre on a grand
scale. The series tells, or attempts to tell, the true story of Frank
Olson, an Army scientist working with the C.I.A. who died, in 1953, in a
ten-story plunge from a New York City hotel room. At the time, the
government told his family that the death was an accident. But years
later, in 1975, the Olson family was given a cache of documents by the
C.I.A. that said Olson had taken LSD as part of a government
experiment, and had in fact committed suicide. The documents were
incomplete and incomprehensible, and, feeling deceived, the family
started a decades-long search for the truth.

The central interview subject is Olson’s son
Eric, who has spent his entire adult life trying to peel back layers of
lies and coverups to find out exactly how, and why, his father died.
Eric is a completely engrossing storyteller: dynamic, articulate, and
surprisingly funny, given the subject matter. In the first episode,
describing the basic circumstances of his father’s death, he agonizes
over and dissects three simple words: “fell,” “jumped,” “accident.”
Morris has assembled a slick mix of interview and archival footage, with
moody dramatizations of the 1953 scenes, starring Peter Sarsgaard as
Frank Olson, weaved in. These scenes are intentionally confusing,
because they are based on the 1975 documents, and so the viewer remains
in a constant state of skepticism about what’s being shown. The show is
a fascinating examination of the limits of information—Eric wonders
aloud, more than once, whether anything he could possibly uncover would
satisfy him—and it comes at a particularly relevant time, rounding out a
year overrun with “fake news” and “alternative facts.”—Maraithe Thomas

Photograph by Jan Thijs / Netflix / Everett

“Alias Grace”

This Netflix series is based on a novel by
Margaret Atwood from 1996, which in turn is based on the true story of
a murder that took place in 1843 in the British colony of Upper Canada.
Grace Marks, a sixteen-year-old housemaid, and James McDermott, a
farmhand, were both convicted of killing their employer, Thomas Kinnear,
and his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery, who were found dead in the cellar
of Kinnear’s house—Kinnear shot, and Montgomery beaten and strangled.
Marks and McDermott were caught after fleeing the property with a load
of stolen goods, and McDermott was later hanged. Marks, probably
because of her youth and good looks, got life in prison.

The show takes place years after the murders.
A committee has formed to try to get Grace acquitted and brings in a
flashy young psychiatrist whose job it is to fill in her now patchy
memories of the killings. The psychiatrist’s sessions with Grace, which
are calm and civil but psychologically fraught, frame the story. It is
unclear whether Grace or McDermott actually committed the murders. Grace
herself seems not to know, and her recollections are intertwined with
other traumas—childhood abuse; the death of a friend in scandalous
circumstances; the unremitting sexualization of her presence in the
world as she makes her way through it, pretty and alone.

The obvious thing to say about “Alias Grace
is that its examination of the ways in which women navigate the
relationship between sex and power feels very of the moment. (Last year,
the director, Sarah Polley, wrote about her experiences with Harvey
Weinstein and other men in the film industry for the Times.) But I
don’t want to emphasize its topicality at the risk of passing over its
other fascinations: the way the story moves fluidly from whodunnit to
psychological thriller to political commentary to ghost story to
coming-of-age tale, and back again; the minutely expressive face of
Sarah Gadon, the actress who fully embodies the character of Grace as an
all-telling narrator and the central cipher in the story she relates;
the delicate portrayal of anger, anguish, jealousy, joy, fear, and
desire, and a multitude of ambiguities in between. Please watch it.
—Andrea DenHoed

Photograph by Ben Mark Holzberg / 20th Century Fox / Everett


The continued success of “Star Wars” and “Star Trek” suggests an odd
truth: for all its focus on the future, sci-fi is often repetitious and
nostalgic. All the more reason to check out “Fringe,” one of the most
original sci-fi shows ever made. The show, which ran from 2008 through
2013, has a wacky premise: it follows an F.B.I. agent, Olivia Dunham (Anna
, who now stars in “Mindhunter”), as she investigates bizarre events
with the help of a dropout named Peter (Joshua Jackson) and his
mad-scientist father, Walter (John Noble). Walter has just been released
from a mental institution; it turns out that, in the nineteen-seventies,
he was a pioneer of “fringe science,” who fried his brain by doing a
little too much research involving sensory-deprivation tanks and LSD. In
the present day, however, his discoveries may be the key to solving
Olivia’s psychedelic mysteries. In a typical episode, a man turns into a
giant porcupine and the team—the trio plus Astrid Farnsworth (Jasika
), their genius lab tech—does drugs to figure out why. The magic
of “Fringe” is that a tremendously moving story emerges from the
weirdness. As the monster-of-the-week episodes give way to a more
serialized tale, the show turns out to be a mind-bending exploration of
the nature of reality, and a meditation on guilt and forgiveness, the
nature of personality, and the way we’re all changed by the people we
know. Its central theme may be the love between a father and his
son—“Fringe” has a tenderness rarely seen in sci-fi (or anywhere else).
A few of its Season 1 episodes are wobbly—at first, you may find this
“watch it or skip it?” guide valuable—but the series as a whole concludes ideally, resolving all of
its story lines and achieving a level of emotional profundity that’s
unusual in the genre. It also helps that the cast is stellar: in
addition to Noble, whose performance is one for the ages, it includes
Lance Reddick (Cedric Daniels from “The Wire”), Blair Brown (of “Altered
States” and “Orange Is the New Black”), and Leonard Nimoy, in one of his
last non-Spock roles. —Joshua Rothman

In search of new TV shows? Every Thursday, our writers and editors tell you about the shows they’re watching. Browse The New Yorker Recommends to discover more cultural recommendations from our staff.


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