After a reader suggested I write about the importance of television viewing in our later years, I began publishing a list in January of Glen’s and my favourite TV series of the year. We enjoy programs for the conversations they stimulate, between us as well as among family and friends. Such exchanges often influence my opinion or interpretation.
Awhile ago our son Brandon gave me the idea to write about individual shows on my blog, hence the introduction today of TV Thursdays. There may be spoilers, so you must decide whether to read the post before or after seeing a show. Each program will receive a rating, five ♦ being the highest.
THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT (Netflix) ♦♦♦♦½
Who knew the Queen’s Gambit, Sicilian defence, Caro Kann and other bewildering names pertain to chess openings? Not me! But my rudimentary knowledge of the game didn’t impair my viewing of this hit show about a female chess prodigy, orphan Beth Harmon. Adjectives that come to mind: delightful, poignant, uplifting, nostalgic, satisfying.
This show has depth in its trip through the fifties and sixties, hinting at big issues to come, starting with feminism. Beth presents as a feminist in her ambition to dominate in a male-dominated game. But the show also reminds us why women sought liberation. Given the constraints of a patriarchal society, unhappy ‘housewives’ seek to escape through alcohol — or suicide in the case of Beth’s mom. We watch her adoptive mom, stifled in a sour marriage with a latent talent as a pianist, drink herself to death. Beth runs into a high school classmate who’s realized her dream — a husband, a house, a baby — yet also totes a familiar bag from a liquor store. Think “Mad Men,” another show set in the ’60s. It could’ve been called “Mad Women” for all it revealed about the inequality of women’s rights and opportunities at the time.
After Beth proves her remarkable ability by winning numerous championships, a journalist asks “aren’t you too glamorous to play chess?” Did anyone ask Ernest Hemingway if he was too good-looking to write? Or Andre Agassi too handsome to play tennis? Or Tiger Woods too attractive to golf? Actually, both Beth and Tiger had to break through barriers to realize their exceptional prowess.
The character of fellow orphan Jolene anticipates the civil rights movement. At the orphanage she says to Beth, “no one wants a black girl.” Despite her impoverished background, Jolene grows strong. It’s rather radical that a black woman saves a white woman, but that’s what happens. Jolene knocks unexpectedly at Beth’s door, helps her overcome her substance addiction, and loans her 3000 hard-saved dollars — in the name of family — for Beth to compete in the Moscow Invitational. (An aside about racism: the girls’ home state of Kentucky did not overturn its anti-miscegenation law prohibiting interracial marriage and interracial sexual relations between whites and blacks until 1974!)
The show also foreshadows gay liberation in the character of Townes. He and Beth feel mutual attraction, love even, but his sexuality, revealed awkwardly in a hotel room, prevents them from consummating a relationship. She’s upset. Heartbroken. However, because she develops her humanity, Beth is able to embrace Townes as a friend, not a lover, when he shows up in Moscow.
It wouldn’t be Moscow in the ’60s without alluding to the Cold War; a federal agent accompanies Beth to Moscow, likely scouting for would be defectors. The Russians are said to play chess communally. On a conference call (a stirring scene), a collection of Beth’s chess friends helps her during the adjournment. Ultimately though, her intuitive play wins the game. Score one for American individualism. And score another for civility in her rival Borgov.
Oh yeah. The show’s also about chess, and the exciting matches, so arrestingly filmed, may well inspire women, men too, to take up this challenging game.
Ideally readers will submit their views on this show in the comments and/or write a piece about a different one. Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org for TV Thursdays. BTW: you needn’t be as long-winded as me! •
P.S. While the show was shot mainly in Berlin, Toronto and Cambridge ON stand in for Lexington KY in some scenes.
P.P.S. Although Glen and I discuss programs, we don’t always agree on their ratings. He gives The Queen’s Gambit ♦♦♦½.