For the past week or so, I’ve spent an awful lot of time laying on my couch, with a bag of frozen peas on my belly. You see, for the past two years or so, my body decided that it wanted to grow a golfball-sized rock in my gut, so it helpfully did, perhaps thinking it was giving me some of the joy I would never experience since I had not been born a woman who could grow a child instead in that near vicinity. Helpful. But the rock (and the gall bladder that birthed it) came out several days ago, and I’ve been laying around ever since.
During this time, I got to watch a fair amount of television. With some great recommendations from friends, I discovered some new favorites: I’m one-third through an amazing Canadian TV show from 2003 called “Slings & Arrows,” notable for being a very early role for Rachel McAdams, who had to be written out of the show because she hit the big time. It’s some seriously great television, in that sweet spot that is funny and poignant and sad, all at the same time.
But I also watched the 1986 BBC miniseries “The Singing Detective” during this time, and it was a deeply memorable experience. It washed over me like a six-hour fever dream, spread out over several days, and I still find myself thinking back on it.
Here I find myself challenged with how to describe this miniseries. I don’t want to tell you very much about it. I want you to have the experience I had. I watched it with zero expectations and next-to-zero knowledge. I knew that it was considered one of the great achievements in British television. I knew that people within the television industry considered its writer, Dennis Potter, to be a storytelling visionary. I knew that it starred a young Michael Gambon (Dumbledore the Second). And I knew that it was, as the title suggests, a musical.
It is indeed a musical, but there are no singing cats or lions or French people. It created a genre that is woefully under-used, the television musical. If “The Singing Detective” didn’t exist, then neither would “Blackpool” or “Cop Rock,” and that would be a terrible shame. Nor would there be a thing called “Glee.” I understand that one is quite popular with the kids these days.
It is a somewhat hallucinatory story, told backward for most of its length and revealing its secrets slowly. It has bits of film noir and it has dance numbers and it has wonderful music from Cole Porter and The Ink Spots and Bing Crosby and Vera Lynn (does anybody here remember her?). And at its core, it is a profoundly sad story of a father and a son, and maybe that’s why it resonated so strongly with me.
I don’t want to say any more about it, I just want to implore you to watch it, if you are at all intrigued by this little tease. It is currently not available on any on-demand services that I know of, but the discs are in the Netflix by-mail inventory, and it is of course available on Amazon. Would love to hear what you think of it.