Wednesday, August 31, 2016

On "Likely Stories"

Neil Gaiman is one of my favorite living authors, but I'm not as familiar with his short stories as I am with his work in comics and novels. So, I was very excited when I heard that Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard were adapting four of his short stories for a television anthology, "Likely Stories." Each episode runs half an hour, just long enough to tell a brief, creepy tale. The production values aren't very high, though some of the talent is very strong. Ultimately, the series is a very mixed bag. Most television anthologies are, but there are installments here that are worth a watch, and I think it's best to consider each of the episodes separately.

First, there's "Foreign Parts," starring George MacKay as Simon Powers. Simon is a young man afflicted with a mysterious venereal disease, despite being barely sexually active. The episode reminded me of an old Ray Bradbury story, except with much more body horror, raunch, and embarrassment. McKay's performance is what sells this one, slowly changing Simon's behavior as the disease progresses. There's a subplot involving one of his doctors that doesn't really go anywhere, which is a recurring problem with this series. The storytelling simply isn't economical enough for 30-minute episodes. It also feels like very little happens, as an awful lot of time is taken up with digressions, tangents, and small talk.

Take "Feeders and Eaters," the next episode, where a waitress named Joyce (Montserrat Lombard) has an encounter with an old friend, Eddie (Tom Hughes), who tells her a sinister story about his neighbor, a strange old woman named Effie (Rita Tushingham). The episode is set up to be one of those odd, creepy encounters that people have late at night. This one, however, is a little too strange and graphic to be a casual encounter, and too short to really do justice to the material. It's not so much creepy as weird and a bit campy, ultimately. It's also terribly abrupt, with an ending punchline that simply isn't timed well. I liked the characters and the performances, enough so that I wondered what an hour-long version of this episode would have looked like. In its current form, it takes much too long to get to the meat of the story that Eddie relays to Joyce.

"Closing Time," the third episode, has a similar premise and issues. A writer named Danny (Johnny Vegas) has a few late drinks at a pub where the regulars exchange spooky stories. Danny's story is brief enough and ambiguous enough that it adequately gets across a feeling of uneasiness and dread, but first we have to sit through the other patrons' tedious small talk. The ending bit also doesn't work at all, and reeks of trying too hard. I think the trouble with both "Feeder and Eaters" and "Closing Time" is the storyteller framing device and the nature of the stories themselves, which are very fragmented, piecemeal things. With many of the details missing, the act of storytelling itself becomes the main event. It's not enough to sustain these two episodes.

The one story where this conceit does work is the final one, "Looking For the Girl." A celebrated photographer, Dean Smith (Kenneth Cranham) tells an interviewer, Miranda, (Monica Dolan), about his muse, a young woman named Charlotte (Chloe Hayward). Dean spins a full, rich, and complete story that spans several decades. And while it does have a clear genre component, the story is clearly not concerned with the mechanics of how the possibly supernatural Charlotte lives as she does, but rather her effect on Dean and his obsession with her. I should note that this was the only episode written by Forsyth and Pollard, while the other three were scripted by Kevin Lehane.

Each of the four episodes is also tied together by appearances by Neil Gaiman himself, through television and interview clips incorporated into each story. I found this distracting and unnecessary, but Gaiman is such an engaging speaker that I couldn't bring myself to mind much. His appearances are the best part of more than one episode, I'm afraid. So, the only one of these "Likely Stories" I can recommend without reservations is "Looking for the Girl." The rest are interesting curiosities, but clearly not what they could have been.


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