Thursday, March 26, 2020

The Valhalla Murders | Lefsetz Letter

The biggest story in TV this week is “The Tiger King,” the four part Netflix documentary that might look unappealing if you’re not a big cat aficionado, but the people are so whacked, you cannot take your eyes off it. The funniest thing is this was all happening under our noses and we were unaware of it, or at least I was, illustrating what a big country it really is and how stories fall through the cracks. We are only one episode in, but I can see why everybody is hooked, the players are neither totally good nor totally bad, and they’re so passionate about big cats and you realize everyone needs something to live for, but this? My inbox has been going crazy about “The Tiger King.” Somehow, big media has missed the mania, they’re still reviewing films when it’s about TV, especially while we’re all stuck at home. Meanwhile, have you noticed how newspapers no longer have a separate sports section, both the “New York Times” and the “Los Angeles Times” are folding a couple of pages into the front section. No one is playing, there’s nothing to talk about.

Before “The Tiger King,” we watched “The Valhalla Murders,” also on Netflix.

Now I wonder if “The Tiger King” is so big because Netflix is featuring it on its homepage. And it truly is big, it’s the number one show watched on Netflix. So do price and position always triumph? Imagine what might break on the homepage of Spotify or Apple if they weren’t locked up with relationships with the major labels. Then again, word of mouth would have been incredible on “The Tiger King” anyway, it’s just too bizarre and funny and jaw-dropping.

Today I finished Erik Larson’s “The Splendid and The Vile.” I cannot recommend it. It reads like a paste-up job, a completed jigsaw puzzle of his research. I don’t remember his previous books being this bad, but nothing is said unless someone said it or wrote it previously and as a result, the narrative suffers. However, I will say the book did take me away from the coronavirus, which I have to commend it for. A good book takes you to a special place, you almost feel like you’re in Churchill’s London, although there’s got to be a better book about that era than this one.

As for “The Valhalla Murders”…

It too was on the Netflix homepage. But it wasn’t on the top of my list. Because the ratings were just not high enough, and the reviews were not quite good enough. But Felice couldn’t resist the landscape and I must say, that’s a reason to watch this, especially as winter turns into spring. It’s hard to describe Iceland. There are these giant peaks covered in snow but they’re almost untouchable, almost unreal. We went at the end of 2018 for Airwaves and I’d go back in a heartbeat, one of the few places where everybody speaks English that really feels different.

So, the problem with “The Valhalla Murders” is it’s too linear, too focused, it’s like a much better network TV crime drama.

And then it’s not.

Because the people are complicated.

The show stars Nina Dogg Filippusdottir, who you will know if you watched “Trapped,” which you should, before this anyway. But Olafur Darri Olafsson, as Nina’s estranged husband in “Trapped,” puts that show over the line. He is a big bear of a guy, who is so understated, but you can see his mind turning. And he’s also a producer and screenwriter. The smaller the country, the more opportunities you have, and the stardom is smaller, so instead of being caught up in your fame, you can focus on your work.

So, after an episode or so of “The Valhalla Murders,” you realize there are concurrent stories running under the theme of the murders. Nina and her son, and her ex, and her mother. Did she work so much that she broke up her marriage? I’ll let you decide.

And Bjorn Thors, who is Nina’s counterpart in criminal investigation, is harboring history, which slowly evolves over the series.

And then there’s that landscape. Maybe you never lived where it snowed, maybe you hate the cold, but if you ever lived in winter the landscape will resonate. The long stretches of highway with nothing on either side but snow. And there’s one moment where an actor gets out of his vehicle without his coat and eventually walks into a building. That’s how it is if you live where it really gets cold, you kind of adjust, you don’t bundle up heavily for every sortie. Sure, you’re wearing a long sleeve shirt, maybe even a sweatshirt on top of that, but the cold is invigorating, especially on a sunny day.

So, in the era of peak TV, when there’s no way everybody can see everything, I would not put “The Valhalla Murders” at the top of your list. If you like police shows, “Spiral” on Amazon is far superior, they both feature subtitles, and maybe people find it easier to just watch Netflix, but I cannot stop harping on how good “Spiral” is.

Now I downloaded a sample of Emily St. John Mandel’s new book “The Glass Hotel.” Did you read her prior work, “Station Eleven”? In theory it’s not really my kind of book, as it is set in the future. I like hard core reality, neither fantasy nor science fiction, but “Station Eleven” is one of the best books I’ve read in the last ten years, even though it’s set in the future it seems so real, and the book is so readable.

But to tell you the truth, we’ll finish “The Tiger King,” but what I’m really waiting for is Friday, because…



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