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Should You Hunt For National Treasure?
A beloved comedian faces a decades-old allegation of sexual assault. Are there too many capital-I Issues to fit into a four-episode Hulu miniseries?
What is this thing?
Paul Finchley, half of a Martin-and-Lewis or Fry-and-Laurie comedy team well into the Thalberg-trophy phase of its career (well...of the other half's career, any road; National Treasure opens on Paul introducing his more actorly former partner, Karl, for a lifetime-achievement award), is hit with a rape allegation dating from 1993. The four-episode series follows his case from his arrest to a verdict, and along the way, it explores the compromises made in a marriage to a famous person; the viewing public's role in tolerating all-too-human (or inhuman) behavior in our heroes; the divide between the public persona or "brand" and the old man or quiz-show PR team behind the scenes.
When is it on?
All four episodes drop March 1 on Hulu. (For real this time; here's hoping this signals a permanent shift on Hulu's part to just Netflixing its series instead of releasing them weekly.)
Between Paul's repeated grumbling that "they think I'm Jimmy fucking Savile," the not-entirely-thrilled response to Casey Affleck's Best Actor win the other night, and, you know, the rape culture in which we all continue to dwell, the timing makes perfect sense.
What's its pedigree?
In front of the camera, it's the great Robbie Coltrane as Paul; Julie Walters (the Harry Potter films' Mrs. Weasley) as his long-suffering but sharp wife Marie; and Bloodline's Andrea Riseborough as their troubled, prickly daughter Dee, among others (Alan Carr shows up as himself).
Behind it, Jack Thorne (The Last Panthers) wrote all four episodes. Marc Munden (Utopia) directs. Channel 4's the production arm.
At times, National Treasure strains to make sure we see the various points: the repeated front-hall POV, the camera pushing slowly in on the Finchleys' front door, that underlines the demarcation of public and private spaces, safety and danger; Dee's pointedly combative relating of her dream when Paul comes to visit her in rehab, which could have put this correspondent in mind of Dylan Farrow at half the length; that cops and lawyers and anyone else who crosses Paul's path is a big fan, or has a story to tell about enjoying his and Karl's show as a family. We all live in the world, and because Bill Cosby already exists, we can do without the more meditative take on the abstractions involved. Best to just tell the story of this specific character and the ripples of this specific stone hitting the water.
Paul is a shambling house of a man with a cane who, even in extremis legally, is not able to resist staying out all night in the bed of a woman not his wife, or to confine his porn-watching to his laptop, and because Coltrane physically presents as past it and rather harmless here, it lets the writing investigate whether he's actually harmless in a garden-variety opportunistic-sleaze way, or if that sleazing in those opportunities is much more toxic. Riseborough is also excellent at pointing up the ambiguities of Paul's situation, because you sympathize with her -- Paul clearly would rather not visit, and treats her like a slow child; whatever led her into her addictions, it's evidently related to Paul or his fame in some way -- but at the same time her performative counting to six when Paul is triggering her, her throat tattoo, and her caustic self-pity make her tough to like.
And while the build of the show is occasionally a bit didactic as it poses the questions like "How much should fame count for or against an accused person?" and "Why do we as a society tend to think rushing to judgment in a later case makes up for refusing to judge in earlier ones?", the questions remain compelling, because we still haven't answered them. We still haven't sorted out whether, or how, to separate great art from the often not-great humans who create it.
What's more, because this is not a network production, National Treasure will not feel like it has to avert its eyes from the uglier calculi of, for instance, how many other accusations "typically" follow on the first one in cases "like this," or the fact that, were Paul hosting a late-night chat show instead of an afternoon quiz program, he might be allowed to keep working. This isn't what I'd call a fun sit, and Coltrane's performance implies that Paul is physically not very robust, which adds a certain suspense and pathos to his scenes...and then a bit of resentment, remembering that the Cosbys of the world trade on that sort of thing.
It's only four episodes, and National Treasure is put together with thoughtful confidence; I'm interested to see where it goes.