Streaming Services Put Female Characters At The Center With 'Anne' And 'Dick' | KUOW News and Information

Streaming Services Put Female Characters At The Center With 'Anne' And 'Dick'

May 12, 2017
Originally published on May 16, 2017 8:13 am

On Friday, two different streaming services present the first seasons of new drama series. Both are based on novels written by women, both have female characters squarely at their center — and both come to TV with accomplished women producers overseeing their adaptations.

One of them, on Amazon, is a fairly modern story, with Jill Soloway, the creator of Amazon's groundbreaking Transparent, adapting Chris Kraus' provocatively titled 1997 novel, I Love Dick.

The other, a Netflix co-production with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, is a new, somewhat less glossy version of a children's classic. Moira Walley-Beckett, an Emmy-winning writer-producer from the Breaking Bad team, adapts the long-cherished 1908 Lucy Maud Montgomery novel, Anne of Green Gables.

Set a century apart, these two different stories, and two different TV series, actually have a lot in common. Both are adapted in creative and exciting ways. Both are exceptionally good at getting into the heads of their main characters. And both of the protagonists in these stories are fighting, almost with every breath and every word, to free themselves from the confining norms and rules and expectations of their surroundings — especially the ones aimed at suffocating or limiting their gender.

Anne of Green Gables was made into an outstanding miniseries shown by PBS in 1985. I adored it, and so did my young daughter. This new version, called Anne with a E, can also be shown to, and enjoyed with, young children. But it's a few shades darker and deeper, injecting occasional flashbacks showing the young orphan Anne's traumatic experiences before being sent to live with an elderly brother and sister at Green Gables.

These brief but disturbing scenes — the equivalent of Cinderella being abused by her family — explain why Anne escapes into books and has a vocabulary and imagination as large as her heart.

Matthew Cuthbert, the soft-spoken elderly brother, escorts Anne home by horse-drawn cart after meeting her for the first time. He barely gets a word in edgewise. But by the time that trip is over, Matthew is charmed by her completely — and so are we.

R. H. Thomson plays Matthew, and Amybeth McNulty, in a perfectly nuanced star-making turn, is Anne. Red-haired, pig-tailed and freckled, Anne is so eager to love and be loved that she even sees trees as friends.

The orphanage, though, had sent Anne to Green Gables by mistake. Matthew and his flinty sister, Marilla, played beautifully by Geraldine James, had requested a boy. When Anne arrives at the farmhouse, Marilla tells the girl they must return her tomorrow — but Anne, and her feminism, won't give in without a fight. Why, she asks, can't she do what a boy can do? What if, suddenly, there were no boys?

Over at Amazon, on Soloway's I Love Dick, a wannabe filmmaker named Chris fights a similar fight. Played with admirable rawness and perfectly timed humor by Kathryn Hahn, the rabbi from Transparent, Chris' fight is against one man — the successful and charismatic artist named Dick, who runs a residency artist program in Marfa, Texas, to which her husband has just been accepted. And her fight is complicated, because, paradoxically, she's extremely attracted to him — immediately, and almost to the point of obsession.

That mixture of infuriation and infatuation is easy to understand when Dick is played, playfully and perfectly, by Kevin Bacon. When Dick, Chris and her husband, played by Griffin Dunne, have an introductory dinner together, Dick starts talking to the husband — but pivots, almost immediately, to confront Chris.

Dick plays with Chris by pushing her buttons — and it works. He tells her that maybe she hasn't made a film because she doesn't have the passion to — and besides, that women just don't seem to make very good films. She responds by spurting out names of female filmmakers she respects — and leaving the table. But his fiery combativeness stays with her.

Chris begins to take out her frustrations and explore her fantasies by writing letters to Dick that she doesn't send. That's her verbose way of coping, at first. And back at Green Gables, Anne talks herself into, and out of, every situation that comes her way.

By the end, Anne's won her way into the hearts of everyone around her. Chris, on I Love Dick, not so much. But both of these new series are as strong, and as dynamic and entertaining, as the female characters at their center.

Copyright 2017 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli. Today two different streaming services present the first seasons of new drama series. Both are based on novels written by women. Both have female characters squarely at their center, and both come to TV with accomplished women producers overseeing their adaptations. One of them, on Amazon, is a fairly modern story with Jill Soloway, the creator of Amazon's groundbreaking "Transparent," adapting Chris Kraus' provocatively titled 1997 novel "I Love Dick." The other, a Netflix co-production with Canada, is a new, somewhat less glossy version of a children's classic. Moira Walley-Beckett, an Emmy-winning writer producer from the "Breaking Bad" team, adapts the long-cherished 1908 Lucy Maud Montgomery novel "Anne Of Green Gables."

Set a century apart, these two different stories and two different TV series actually have a lot in common. Both are adapted in creative and exciting ways. Both are exceptionally good at getting into their heads of their main characters, and both of the protagonists in these stories are fighting, almost with every breath and every word, to free themselves from the confining norms and rules and expectations of their surroundings, especially the ones aimed at suffocating or limiting their gender.

"Anne Of Green Gables" was made into an outstanding miniseries shown by PBS in 1985. I adored it and so did my young daughter. This new version, called "Anne With An E," can also be shown to and enjoyed with young children. But it's a few shades darker and deeper, injecting occasional flashbacks showing the young orphan Anne's traumatic experiences before being sent to live with an elderly brother and sister at Green Gables. These brief but disturbing scenes, the equivalent of Cinderella being abused by her family, explain why Anne escapes into books and has a vocabulary and imagination as large as her heart.

Matthew Cuthbert, the soft-spoken elderly brother, escorts Anne home by horse-drawn cart after meeting her for the first time. He barely gets a word in edgewise. But by the time that trip is over, Matthew is charmed by her completely and so are we. R.H. Thompson plays Matthew. And Amybeth McNulty, in a perfectly nuanced, star-making turn, is Anne - red-haired, pigtailed, freckled and so eager to love and be loved she even sees trees as friends.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ANNE WITH AN E")

AMYBETH MCNULTY: (As Anne Shirley) That cherry tree is my first friend here on the island. What did that cherry tree, all white and lacy, make you think of?

R.H. THOMPSON: (As Matthew Cuthbert) Well, now, I don't know.

MCNULTY: (As Anne Shirley) Why, a bride, of course - a bride all in white with a misty veil. I've never seen one, but I imagine what she would look like. I never expect to be a bride myself. I'm so homely. Nobody would ever want to marry me - unless he was a foreign missionary. I suppose a foreign missionary mightn't be very particular.

But I do hope someday I shall have white dress with beautiful puff sleeves. That is my highest ideal of earthly bliss. Am I talking too much? People are always telling me that I do, and it seems to cause no end of aggravation. Would you rather I didn't talk? If you say so, I'll stop. I can stop when I make up my mind to it, although it's difficult.

THOMPSON: (As Matthew Cuthbert) I don't mind.

MCNULTY: (As Anne Shirley) I'm so glad.

BIANCULLI: The orphanage, though, has sent Anne to Green Gables by mistake. Matthew and his flinty sister, Marilla, played beautifully by Geraldine James, had requested a boy. When Anne arrives at the farmhouse, Marilla tells the girl they must return her tomorrow. But Anne and her feminism won't give in without a fight.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ANNE WITH AN E ")

GERALDINE JAMES: (As Marilla Cuthbert) I'm sorry to disappoint you, but there's nothing to be done. We want a boy to help Matthew with the farm work. A girl would be of no use to us. Do you understand?

MCNULTY: (As Anne Shirley) I can't say that I do.

JAMES: (As Marilla Cuthbert) I beg your pardon.

MCNULTY: (As Anne Shirley) I don't mean any disrespect. But couldn't I do the farm chores even though I'm a girl?

JAMES: (As Marilla Cuthbert) That's not the way of things, and you know it.

MCNULTY: (As Anne Shirley) But couldn't I? I'm as strong as a strong boy, and I prefer to be outdoors instead of cooped up in a kitchen. I don't understand the conundrum. For example, what if suddenly there were no boys in the world, none at all?

JAMES: (As Marilla Cuthbert) Fiddlesticks.

MCNULTY: (As Anne Shirley) It doesn't make sense that girls aren't allowed to do farm work when girls can do anything a boy can do and more. Do you consider yourself to be delicate and incapable? - because I certainly don't. Anyway, since I'm here now, couldn't you consider it?

JAMES: (As Marilla Cuthbert) I could not. And put those fool notions out of your head.

BIANCULLI: Over at Amazon, in Jill Soloway's "I Love Dick," a wannabe filmmaker named Chris, played with admirable rawness and perfectly timed humor by Kathryn Hahn, the rabbi from "Transparent," fights a similar fight. But her fight is against one man, the successful and charismatic artist named Dick who runs a residency artist program in Marfa, Texas, to which her husband has just been accepted. And her fight is complicated because, paradoxically, she's extremely attracted to him - immediately and almost to the point of obsession. And it's easy to get that mixture of infuriation and infatuation when Dick is played playfully and perfectly by Kevin Bacon. When Dick, Chris and her husband, played by Griffin Dunne, have an introductory dinner together, Dick starts talking to the husband but pivots almost immediately to confront Chris. He's playing with her by pushing her buttons, and it's working.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "I LOVE DICK")

KEVIN BACON: (As Dick) My guess is that she doesn't want to be filmmaker because if you wanted to be a filmmaker, you'd be one. It's just a question of desire, not timing or talent or circumstances. It's pure want - which you don't possess. And don't confuse desire with entitlement around your filmmaking. Am I wrong?

GRIFFIN DUNNE: (As Sylvere) It's also a question of finances.

KATHRYN HAHN: (As Chris) If all it took was desire, Dick, there would be a trove of amazing films by women filmmakers. But...

BACON: (As Dick) Well, unfortunately, most films made by women aren't that good. See, I think it's really pretty rare for a woman to make a good film because they have to work from behind their oppression, which makes for some bummer movies.

HAHN: (As Chris) Sally Potter, Jane Campion, Chantal...

BIANCULLI: Chris begins to take out her frustrations and explore her fantasies by writing letters to Dick that she doesn't intend to send. That's her verbose way of coping - at first. And back at Green Gables, Anne talks herself into and out of every situation that comes her way. By the end, she's won her way into the hearts of everyone around her. Chris on "I Love Dick" - not so much. But both of these new series are as strong and as dynamic and entertaining as the female characters at their center.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARIS LYTRAS' "MISS YOU")

BIANCULLI: We're celebrating 30 years of FRESH AIR as a daily national program. You can tweet us your favorite interviews or moments with the hashtag #FreshAir30. That's FRESH AIR 3-0. Or find us on Facebook and leave a comment.

Monday on FRESH AIR...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FARGO")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) I got a place - turns out a place that needs some robbing - a little robbing, not wholesale burglary - just looking for a certain item.

BIANCULLI: The FX series "Fargo" is back for a third season with more murder and mishap. We talk with series creator and writer Noah Hawley. He also created the FX series "Legion" and has a best-selling novel. Hope you can join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our engineer today is Adam Staniszewski with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARIS LYTRAS' "MISS YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.