by ELEANOR MORROW
creators Natasha Leggero & Riki Lindhome
Once in a generation a television series comes along which obliterates everything that came before it. M.A.S.H. Seinfeld. Firefly. The character of the Jewish butler Mr. Peepers (Michael Ian Black) in Natasha Legero and Riki Lindhome’s triumphant new series set in turn-of-the-century Newport, Rhode Island has never before been attempted, and it probably never will be again.
The ever-young Ian Black, 43, is an actor who has bounced from project to project without being taken seriously as a dramatic fulcrum. In Another Period, his essential Jewishness at first seems suppressed, only observable below the surface. He is invisible as a Hebrew to the member of the wealthy family he has so dutifully served for most of his life.
The Commodore (David Koechner) enlists Mr. Peepers to keep his secret: he is bringing his mistress (Christina Hendricks) onto the family’s staff, both to create easy access for his selfish, cheating trysts, and to ensure that she does not get restless waiting for him to separate from his morphine addicted wife Dodo (Paget Brewster).
Making Paget Brewster look dowdy is the work of some various makeup, but Hendricks keeps things chaste as well. This leaves the real attention to two of the Bellacourt daughters, Another Period creators Leggero and Lindholm.
Lillian (a vampish yet subtle Leggero) is in an unhappy marriage to a gay man named Albert (David Wain). In Another Period’s second episode, she plans to tell the police he has abused her in order to win a divorce. Her plan goes awry when they don’t take spousal abuse seriously, and she is forced to confront the issue with her husband. He demands financial compensation for their separation — he will pretend to be dead so that she can remarry. In return, he gets to occupy a cute little house with his boyfriend Victor (Brian Huskey), who is married to Lillian’s sister Beatrice (Riki Lindhome).
On the surface, you would think would all be played for laughs. There are moments of humor in Another Period, but there is also a deep pathos in the desperation the Bellacourt sisters feel, first because they are completely unhappy in their marriages, and secondly because the sexist society they inhabit seeks to keep them illiterate and insincere. Their sister Hortense (an unrecognizable Lauren Ash) is a suffragette who doesn’t realize her sisters exemplify the downtrodden female status every bit as much as she does.
The Bellacourts demand that their children reproduce in a timely manner, and so Lillian and Beatrice are regularly forced into semi-consensual sex but their homosexual husbands. Albert accomplishes his goal in the manner of a sneeze, masturbating into his wife’s vagina while covering her face with a napkin. Victor sucks on the finger of a nearby manservant to achieve orgasm.
In order to rationalize what essentially amounts to an imprisonment, the Bellacourt sisters take out their anger on the servant class. Mr. Peepers consciously avoids the venom of his betters, but the new house maid is the victim of Beatrice and Lillian time and again. Lillian demeans Hendricks’ mistress character by calling her Chair, and the nickname sticks.
There is no greater respect for women among the underclass. Chair is constantly harassed and abused by another member of the staff. No one steps in or comes to her aid, not even the patriarch of the house. There is a much deeper realism here than we find in English versions of the same.
Another Period never avoids depicting life as it actually was at this time: dark, nasty and downright Dickensian. Dickens made his first trip to America in 1842, when he was only 30 years old. He complained the whole time he was there, of people like the members of the Bellacourt family. Another Period answers the question of why that might be.
The show’s explicit scenes of rape and abuse are unlike any other to make it basic cable. In addition, no show on television has ever confronted the issue of incest head-on the way that Another Period does. Pushed to an irrational extreme by abuse and neglect, Beatrice finds herself falling in love with her brother Frederick. The two engage in disturbingly childish pastimes, like allowing a servant to pull them in a small boat across the grounds of the Bellacourt estate, and consummating unprotected brother-sister sex.
Ian Black’s Mr. Peepers navigates this environment as an ethnic minority in plain sight, patching together the various strands of the family into a cohesive whole. What initially seems like a parody of Downton Abbey‘s Carson becomes something far greater. Carson was just a white man beset by ill fortune to become some asshole’s manservant. In his explosively concealed Judaism, Ian Black is something far greater.
Eleanor Morrow is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in New York. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.
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