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Gristmill: To the Nunnery

Thu, 05/23/2024 - 12:14
Nuns clamming somewhere on Long Island in the 1950s.
Toni Frissell Collection / Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division

In yet another succinct evisceration of cultural norms by a New Yorker cartoon, one recent one showed a fortune-teller prognosticating that her supplicant “will watch a new, totally mind-blowing TV series, only to forget about it completely a couple months later.”

You, too, may have found yourself wondering about the staying power of even the best of “prestige television.” As good as HBO’s “Succession” may have been, for example, what remains?

I’ll tell you what remains. The dismissive patriarch’s catchphrase (here cleaned up for a family newspaper): “Eff off.” A sense of the interpersonal awfulness at the upper echelons of a family-run media empire. A deeper sense that the Brits run circles around us Yanks with their acting chops. And the certainty that they can pull off American accents better than we can theirs.

Surface matters, in other words. It’s not exactly “Lord Jim.”

But your friendly neighborhood columnist comes not to disparage, only to help. If you’re looking for streaming fare that’s weirdly unshakeable, there’s “Mrs. Davis” on Peacock, in which a battling nun makes it her mission to rid the world of an all-encompassing, domineering A.I. entity. It’s odd, for all its ingenuity and topicality, and some of the comedy doesn’t land entirely, but amid much else on this madcap quest there is the most moving depiction of a nun taking her vows you’re likely to see. 

This is Sister Simone, played by Betty Gilpin, who happens to be a graduate of the great Jesuitical university of New York. (That would be Fordham.) And when she falls deep into prayer, she’s transported to a place where she speaks to Jay, or maybe J., whom she loves, and seems to marry. What’s interesting about this conception of Jesus, beyond his portrayal by Andy McQueen, a Canadian with heritage out of the Indian subcontinent, is that he’s met in a deserted cafe. A screen door, Formica countertops, coffeepots on the Bunn-O-Matic — it’s seen better days. His eternal reward, as it were, is to be its proprietor.

It’s bold, this limited series from last year, with a self-disappeared magician, a gruesomely anatomical Holy Grail, a roguish Aussie leader of a burner phone resistance. It’s creative. These are different times, and this is what it takes to lodge a lasting impression with a viewer.

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