Good for What Ails You: Breathless | In Breathless, The Sexual Revolution Comes to a 1960s London Hospital

TV Reviews: Sept. 3-9, 2014

Oliver Chris as Dr. Richard Truscott, Zoe Boyle as Jean Meecher, Natasha Little as Elizabeth Powell and Jack Davenport as Dr. Otto Powell in Breathless.

Critics have dutifully fallen in line for The Knick, an arty period hospital drama that makes its points with buckets of blood (see below). I recommend a more enjoyable period hospital drama: Breathless on Masterpiece Mystery! (Sunday, 8 p.m., PBS). It’s set in early 1960s London and, like Mad Men, explores the era’s social codes. In this week’s episode, a surgeon harboring a dangerous secret (Jack Davenport) woos a virtuous nurse (Catherine Steadman), while his wife (Natasha Little) comports with a sinister inspector (Iain Glen) who threatens to destroy her family. Other characters struggle with life and love in a time when abortion is illegal but the sexual revolution is revving up.

  Where The Knick is intentionally ugly, Breathless is elegant. The stylists have fun with the lacquered hairdos, and the costume department goes nuts with the pearls and white gloves. The British actors do what they do best: imply tumultuous emotion with little more than a raised eyebrow.

It’s amazing how much more some filmmakers can communicate with a raised eyebrow than others can with buckets of blood.

The Knick
Friday, 9 pm (Cinemax)

I recoiled from Steven Soderbergh’s new series about the nastiness of a turn-of-the-century hospital. To me, the storytelling isn’t strong enough to redeem the vile protagonist (Clive Owen as drug-addicted Dr. Thackery), the monstrous surgeries or the relentless racism — the kind of racism that Soderbergh is officially “against” but that he happily wallows in to get a reaction. In fact, last month’s pilot was so sickening that I had to close my eyes and repeat the words “fluffy bunnies” to get it out of my mind.

But other critics have loved The Knick, so I thought I’d give it another try. This week’s episode begins with a stringy-haired miscreant emptying a bag of rats for other miscreants to stomp to death. Then comes another botched operation, rendered in gory detail. Then comes Thackery’s racist taunting of an African American colleague.


The Chair
Saturday, 10 pm (Starz)

From the executive producer of Project Greenlight, this reality series offers a glimpse at the working methods of two young first-time film directors. Shane is an Internet star who cavorts on YouTube in a blond wig; Anna is a graduate of NYU’s screenwriting program with roots in the indie-film scene. Both are at once confident they can make a great movie and plagued by insecurities. In other words, the classic personality type for a film director.

“It feels like such a cruel joke when all your dreams come true and you feel like you’re going to puke the entire time,” says Anna, nicely encapsulating an artist’s deep-seated fear of success.

The Chair presents both Anna and Shane with the same script and chronicles what each one does with it; actor Zachary Quinto serves as mentor to both. The director who makes the best film (as determined by viewer votes) gets $250,000 and a leg up in the industry.

One can only imagine the puking that will entail.

Sunday, 9 pm (CBS)

I’ve been enjoying this sexy soap opera about rival lawyers in Charleston, S.C. Jamie (Anna Wood) is a hottie from the North who dresses in tight red skirts; Roy (Cam Gigandet) is a hunk from the South who, one imagines, spends more time at the gym than he does at the law library. In this week’s episode, they prepare for their big trial: Jamie representing a cop who has sued the police department in a case involving sex and corruption; Roy representing the other side.

Don’t expect much in the way of a legal debate when these two encounter one another on the eve of jury selection. Instead, Roy propositions Jamie, speaking of their upcoming courtroom date as if it were a sexual act. “We can either do it tonight in private or we do it tomorrow in court,” he says, leering. Jamie turns him down while one-upping his double entendre. “I’m coming at you with everything I’ve got,” she says. “I just hope you’ll still respect me in the morning.”

This might be the first trial in TV history that requires contraceptives.

Love Prison
Monday, 9 pm (A&E)

This new reality series finds people who know each other only from online dating, then puts them in a “love prison” (a house on a deserted island) for a week with nothing to do other than relate to each other. That would make for fascinating drama if the couples themselves were fascinating — say, Woody Allen and Mia Farrow, or Bill and Hillary Clinton. In the pilot, unfortunately, we’re stuck with Billy and Jeanne. He’s a shallow New York guy with an annoying sense of humor; she’s a shallow California gal with the annoying habit of shrieking at Billy’s jokes. These two are trapped together in the house, and we’re trapped with them as they trade banalities about “commitment” and “trust.”

“I wonder what is underneath all those layers of him,” Jeanne asks in one of her confessional-camera spots.

I suspect the answer to that question — “nothing” — will have viewers plotting their own jailbreak from the Love Prison.