When I was a teenager and checking out every Josh Hartnett movie from Blockbuster, I thought my obsessive celebrity love would be something I would outgrow. Yet here I am over a decade later, watching as many things with Toby Stephens in them as possible. For (probably only my own) your enjoyment, a ranking of everything I’ve seen Toby Stephens in!
1. Black Sails
This is the show that brought Stephens’ genius to my awareness (and through my inability to shut up – to many other people’s awareness as well). As James McGraw turned Captain Flint, Stephens is electric. He is the personification of “hurt people hurt people,” and throughout four seasons we see him wrestle with the trauma of his past while he steps all over people in pursuit of a better world. He is my sweet murderous baby, and there is no contradiction.
(If you want to read my episode reviews and essays, head on over to my separate Black Sails website.)
2. Mangal Pandey: The Rising
One of the great joys of searching movies by actors is that you wind up finding treasures that would otherwise have eluded you. Such is the case with Mangal Pandey, a Bollywood movie about the British empire/comany’s influence in India and the uprising against them. Stephens is a Scottish officer who befriends Mangal and questions his allegiance when Mangal rebels. It’s glorious, and I’m so glad my obsession led me to such a beautiful film.
(make sure you use Closed Captioning for English subtitles)
3. And Then There Were None
This is a deliciously moody adaptation of Agatha Christie’s murder mystery, and while it is FULL of excellent British actors, my eyes were only on Toby Stephens (okay, and Aiden Turner). His increasingly anxious and paranoid Dr. Armstrong is a delight, and the scene in which the final four have a cocaine-fueled party? MY FAVORITE.
4. Jane Eyre
As an adult, I know that Mr. Rochester is all shades of sketch, but he plays right into my “sassy authoritative man who would die for you” fantasy, so Teenage Tricia is very gratified to see Stephens playing one of her longest lasting fictional crushes.
God bless Twitter for letting me know that this comedy police procedural starring Toby Stephens is now available on Netflix. Unlike everything else on this list, Vexed is Toby at his silliest. It’s pure British comedy, which is sometimes painful and other time hilarious. Toby’s character is a lazy asshole who is still somehow charming (perhaps I am blinded by his Toby-ness), and the crimes are very much secondary to the interpersonal conflict and humor between him and his amazing partner Kate. Just how I like it.
This movie is TERRIBLE, but Stephens is a wonderfully sneer-y villain that would have defeated Bond if I’d had my way. I mean, I can’t stress how bad this movie is – horrible action sequences, 90s filming techniques, painful innuendos, everywhere sexism – but I also cannot stress how gratifying it was to see Stephens running around sword fighting in a white tank top with suspenders.
*TO BE UPDATED AS I CONTINUE TO WATCH TOBY STEPHENS’ FILMS*
I have spent the last week watching the first three seasons (28 episodes) of Black Sails, an impossibly compelling television show that could easily have been just a blood and boobs pirate tale, but instead chose to let its action-packed historical adventure be the foundation upon which discussions of race, gender, sexuality, storytelling, and the nature of mankind could unfold.
I have not interacted with a single person this week and not mentioned the fact that I am watching Black Sails. I successfully converted one friend and stayed up until 2:00 a.m. so that I could text with her while she finished binge-watching the entire first season in one day. I harassed strangers on Twitter so that I could engage with other obsessive fans. Every hour I could not watch the show, I had earbuds in listening to a podcast that analyzes the nuances of each episode so that I could relive past stories while ingesting new ones.
We Get It, You Like Black Sails – But WHY?
This is a show that understands storytelling, which is good, since one of its central themes is the power that a well-told story can wield (like the stories that circulate around pirate captains, transforming and growing so mythical that ships surrender without a fight for fear of a name). This is an intentionally slow-building story that gives us rich characters with myriad motivations who must form and reform political alliances in order to survive and maybe even create a better world.
I cannot summarize the show better than the essay that initially interested me, so here is an introduction to the plot (I recommend reading the whole thing, because they are better writers than me):
Flint [the main character] is violent, charismatic, and obsessively driven to ~save the pirate town of Nassau in the Bahamas. Nassau is run by a merchant’s daughter named Eleanor Guthrie, and she & Flint want the town to remain independent from the British Empire. To do this, they plan to steal an infamous haul of Spanish treasure, the Urca Gold. Other lead characters include real historical pirates like Anne Bonny and Calico Jack, plus Long John Silver and others from Treasure Island, and new fictional characters like Max, who begins her role as a sex worker, and later becomes a political fixer.
Black Sails is ultimately about the struggle over “civilization,” which the British Empire attempts to assert over Nassau and the pirates through slavery, capitalism, and the violent rule of law. The main characters all have different visions of how they can escape this fate through theft, violence, or manipulation. It’s wonderfully well-written from a structural and characterization POV. A perfect balance of machiavellian politics, queer romance, and sea battles.
All the Characters are Flawed and Lovely – Except for You, Dufresne
When we are introduced to our central character, Captain Flint, he is sullen, ruthless, weak, and about to be deposed. And YET, there is never any doubt that this show means for us to love him, despite any and all of the horrible things he will do. His backstory isn’t revealed until the second season, and the agonizing wait to discover just what is driving him to mania results in a beautiful payoff that has an equally long denouement. He is a tragic hero par excellence, and I felt his emotions so deeply that when someone vaguely complimented him I actually burst into tears.
There are so many other wonderful characters, from self-admittedly selfish and clever John Silver (yes, this IS in fact a prequel to Treasure Island) to brutally noble Captain Charles Vane to ambitious businesswoman Eleanor Guthrie to empathetic and brilliant Max to the best pirate couple Jack Rackham and Anne Bonny. It physically pains me to stop the list there, but these are arguably our central characters, and everyone else will be a delight for you to discover.
Other Reasons to Watch
Captain James Flint – I have only put silly pictures of him here because it is nice to see some version of humor at his tragic expense, but mostly because I LOVE HIM VERY MUCH. Toby Stephens gives a phenomenal performance, and there were multiple times that I either pumped my fists in the air at his triumphs or literally clapped my hands in delight when he launched into one of his world-shakingly charismatic speeches.
The ships and the sea and beautiful way they are portrayed – I’m ready to go!
The various relationships displayed, from toxic to uplifting and everything in between. I have never before watched a threesome develop and thought, “Wow, this is the healthiest relationship on television.”
Powerful women! It would be so easy to let a Pirate Show revolve entirely around men, but the showrunners of Black Sails remind viewers that, oh hey, women totally exist too. Whether its giving dignity and ambition to prostitutes at the Nassau brothel, allowing a woman to go toe-to-toe with the pirates and tradesmen, or letting us wonder at the mystery of a silent and deadly pirate queen, this show makes sure it passes the Bechdel test with flying colors. None of these women feel anachronistic. Instead, the ambition they are allowed to pursue is indicative of the freedom Nassau offers from the tyranny of “civilization.”
The tyranny of “civilization”! We know pirates are murderous thieves, but Black Sails repeatedly forces its viewers to ask if they are actually any worse than British forces that enslave, bribe, and torture. It is a gorgeously thought out theme that takes us through an emotional roller coaster (the last two episodes of season 2 are especially brutal in this respect and I want to rewatch them fifty times), forcing us to consider uncomfortable philosophical questions.
A thoughtful and empowering story of escaped slaves – although admittedly, I found the treatment of African characters severely wanting in the first season, we are slowly introduced to their world until in season 3 we are literally treated to pirates and escaped slaves teaming up and respecting and defending each other and IT IS BEAUTIFUL.
[A single forewarning: at the top, I did say that Black Sails rises above being just a blood and boobs tale, but there is still a lot of blood and boobs. If explicit violence and sex is not your thing, you may need to let this Stunning Gift pass you by.]
Raise the Sails, Moving Onward
These are my feelings after three seasons, and I still have the final season – ten more episodes – to go. From scanning the Internet with half-closed eyes, I gather that the series ends beautifully and intentionally, so I doubt I’ll feel less in love with it when it’s over. Though I suppose I might find more things to love!
However, I intend for this to be my one and only rec post, because I don’t think I can say anything else with massively spoiling something.
Enjoy Black Sails, and I’m sorry for all the emotional devastation that I have introduced to you!
1| Intrepid Travel has created a year-long adventurer’s trek across the world, and I want to go so badly! Covering “34 countries, 5 continents and over 200 breakfasts” (lol) it’s not a bad deal at $75,000. Anyone want to fund me?
2| I am so late to the Kid President game, but his pep talk is a thing of pure beauty. “We got work to do – we can cry about it, or we can dance about it.”
3| J.J. Abrams explicitly says his new Star Wars movie was made so that women and girls would feel included in the universe, and my 8-year-old self is SO HAPPY. I’ve seen commercials where a young brother and sister team up to take down Stormtroopers with lightsabers, and I’m so glad a new nerdy generation will be raised without all the “I’m a girl – should I like this?” shame that I did.
4| I’ve never watched The Tudors, but this emotional reaction to the historical inaccuracies feels like it could apply to most TV shows (and movies.)
5| One Direction was on The Late Late Show with James Corden, where Harry lost a game of tattoo roulette and Louis sat on James’s lap pretending to be a cat, and I had absolutely zero feelings involving tearing my eyeballs out of their sockets and/or shouting into the sun.
6| White Walls & Wanderlust put together a list of Christmas gift ideas, and I fell in love with the Etsy shop ResilienceStreetwear, which has t-shirts that say things like “Single and ready to get nervous around anyone I find attractive.”
Jane the Virgin
2014 – current
1 Season on Netflix (22 episodes)
Jane is a 23-year-old virgin, determined to save sex for marriage. When her gynecologist accidentally inseminates her with the sperm of an attractive hotel owner that she works for (and that she kissed five years ago) who cannot have any other children because of cancer, how will she break the news to her fiancee? And that’s just, like, the first ten minutes of the first episode.
I am forever indebted to my new Memphis friend Jenna for introducing me to Jane the Virgin. It is over-the-top dramatic in the best way possible. Based on a telenovela, everyone’s relationships are convoluted and the plot twists are ridiculous. But the narrator’s voice breaks the tension with snide remarks that allow you to feel above the drama even though you’re totally digging the hilarious twists and turns.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Netflix
1 Season on Netflix (13 episodes)
Kimmy Schmidt is one of four Indiana Mole Women who were kidnapped by a cult preacher and grew up in an underground bunker to wait out the apocalypse until they were rescued and realized their whole life was a lie. Kimmy vows to start over in New York City, making absurd friends and empowering people to live fabulous and free lives.
The theme song is one of the best in existence (“Unbreakable! They alive, damnit! Females are strong as hell.”) and the show boasts some of the quickest jokes in existence. Titus Andromedon is a true comedic talent who will make you cry with laughter (“But I’ve already done something today!”) This is definitely for fans of absurdist comedies like 30 Rock, and everyone else will think it’s super weird. Which it is, but that’s what makes it awesome.
The Great British Bake Off BBC Two
2010-current 1 Season on Netflix (10 episodes)
Ten contestants compete in a series of baking competitions to discover who is Britain’s best amateur baker. I’m not usually much of a cooking show fan, but I loved this show! After some self-reflection, I came up with three reasons. One, it’s British, and everyone has British accents: automatic plus. Two, the people in the show are normal-looking people. Even the hostesses where schlumpy jeans, and the contestants look like average people from real towns. It’s so refreshing! Three, for a reality show, it is decidedly straightforward. There isn’t annoying recaps of what you’ve been watching before and after commercial breaks, and they announce the winner and loser without reliving the previous 45 minutes and with very little fanfare. I would watch so much more reality TV if this were always the case!
Human Planet BBC
1 Season on Netflix (8 episodes)
Made by the people who created Planet Earth, this show focuses on the various people groups who live on our beautiful planet. Like it’s nature-based predecessor, each episode focuses on a different climate (desert, arctic, mountain, etc) and the people who live there. It’s a fascinating look at the ways people adapt to their surroundings and create really stunning things despite limited technology (the 30-foot tall treehouses in the Jungles episode is especially impressive).
That’s what I watched on Netflix in October! What about you? Leave a comment and give me some recommendations!
New this fall, I have already watched the first two episodes of Best Time Ever twice over. I figured that this talk show/game show/variety show would be good, because NPH has a golden touch of awesome. I was so right! While most shows put forth some mildly interesting things before building to a climax, I get the sense that while planning each show segment, NPH and staff decided to make each event THE BEST EVER. Their commitment to over-the-top pranks, stunts, music, and showmanship makes every second really enjoyable. I started watching Best Time Ever like I do most shows – while getting ready in the morning. I couldn’t do it! I kept drifting to my computer screen, forgetting about the straightener in my hand.
There are around ten celebrity guest stars in every episode, and it’s so fun to see them doing something outside of their norm (like Reese Witherspoon trash talking NPH before ziplining down 15 stories). The show opens with a ridiculously pre-planned and elaborate surprise for an audience member. The first had my jaw dropping, and the second made me cry. Who knows what extreme emotion tonight’s episode will cause! The End of the Show Show is truly spectacular. You just get the sense that everyone participating is having such a good time, which, in turn, makes it fun to watch. I’m hooked.
Watch it now on Hulu (or your preferred TV viewing platform)! I think the ratings are already awesome, but let’s make them phenomenal, so that we’ll definitely get a renewal after the planned eight episodes.
This is the time of year that I panic, unready to dive back into ongoing TV shows when there is still so much on Netflix I need to watch (I only just discovered Scandal!). However, with the help of Entertainment Weekly‘s fall TV guide, I’ve put together my must-watch list for the new season. Apparently I’m very committed to my bite-sized half-hour comedies, and I’m only willing to consider committing to some hour-long dramas.
The Mindy Project (September 15)
I think The Mindy Project has been getting better and better with each season, so I was super bummed when it was cancelled. Thank goodness for Hulu’s saving grace! More Mindy (Kaling AND Lahiri) please!
Doctor Who (September 19)
Even though recent seasons have not elicited the emotional ferocity I felt for seasons 1-4 of New Who, Doctor Who is a forever favorite. It is, after all, a show about the triumph of intellect and romance over brute force and cynicism (check out Craig Ferguson’s awesomely weird tribute to the show if you didn’t catch that quote).
I’m not very interested in reality TV. I have gotten intensely involved in So You Think You Can Dance, and one summer I cared deeply about who would win The Bachelorette. But most of the time, I find reality TV repetitive and needlessly dramatic. Plus, I’ve never found anything that can live up to The Mole.
The Mole was, on the surface, a typical mission-based travel game show. Contestants had to perform challenges to add money to a group pot, and the winner of the show would take it all home. Part of the fun of the show came from the varied nature of the challenges, which included bull fights, laser tag, art shows, and jewelry appraisal. What elevated The Mole above similar shows, however, was the twist its name implies. Amongst the 10 contestants was one mole–a man or woman whose purpose was to sabotage the games and keep the winnings as low as possible. At the end of each episode, everyone took a quiz to identify the mole (which often included absurdly detailed questions like “At the start of the “Crusoe” mission, was the Mole wearing a hat?” The person who scored the lowest was eliminated, and the show went on. Continue reading →
I don’t know if I should call Miss Fisher a female Sherlock Holmes or instead compare her to an Agatha Christie sleuth. To be honest, neither comparison does her justice! I put this show in my Netflix queue ages ago, and on a whim decided to give it a try before deleting it. It was love at first scene! Continue reading →
Gilmore Girls is a dangerous show, especially now that it is on Netflix and can go from episode to episode without requiring me to stand up and change DVDs. In the last two weeks, I have watched four seasons of the show. My obsession is just bad enough that I’m a little bit ashamed that I have not watched more. Spending so much time in a fictional TV world has messed with my emotions, sometimes for better, and sometimes for worse. Continue reading →