Try-hard ‘The Living and the Dead’ plummets into abyss of tropes
In the spirit of Halloween, entertainment and media outlets are (rightfully) capitalizing on all things spooky. And since one can never have too many period pieces, BBC America has wrapped up horror and 19th-century England into one package. “The Living and the Dead,” a six-episode miniseries, has the right setup for a compelling end-of-October binge, but falls flat in execution.
Nathan Appleby (Colin Morgan, “Merlin”) and his wife Charlotte (Charlotte Spencer, “Above”) inherit a struggling family farm in Somerset, England, only to be haunted by the supernatural. Nathan, a turn-of-the-century psychologist from London who believes in science and logic, spirals down a dangerous path as he seeks an explanation for the mystical forces that are plaguing his vicarage. Before long, Nathan is forced to face the memory and ghost of his dead son from a previous wife, further straining his relationship with Charlotte in the process.
The series pilot introduces “The Living and the Dead” ’s supernatural elements as a neighbor’s daughter becomes possessed by ghosts of farmers past. She’s just scared of her own sexuality, Nathan psychoanalyzes, as the adolescent girl attempts to murder one of the farmworkers. The theme of science vs. supernatural emerges early on, and is carried throughout the season as Nathan attempts (and fails) to use his practice to explain the tragedies. But the series strays from good old-fashioned hauntings when it tries to pull an original surprise — a decision that is perhaps its biggest misstep. At the end of the first episode, a woman dressed in 21st-century apparel and carrying an iPad walks through the 1894 mansion. Adding time travel is risky: the genre has developed so many tropes that it’s nearly impossible to find an original take. In the case of “The Living and the Dead,” it not only opens up room for clichés but, more importantly, completely invalidates the 19th-century England the series attempts to recreate. What is supposed to be a “twist” is so jarring and out of place that it destroys the historical feel necessary to create a believable period piece.
What “The Living and the Dead” does best is deliver an aesthetically pleasing viewing experience. The shots of countryside England are whimsical — warm and almost sepia-toned, as if taken right out of an old photo book. Colin Morgan’s jawline isn’t too hard on the eyes either, but a successful series needs more than an attractive lead to keep an audience engaged. Both Morgan and Spencer play characters that are difficult to connect with and draw on emotions that are almost too unrelatable. Their performances aren’t strong enough to grab an audience through the disconnect of both another time and a world plagued by the undead, serving to only further alienate the series from success.
Period pieces act like a mirror: they reflect an aspect of the present day through the lens of another time. Stories set hundreds, even thousands, of year back can still be unbelievably relevant to the modern viewer, because themes of humanity, justice and hope have not changed throughout the timeline of the human experience. Yet the BBC America series isn’t able to establish that connection. Without the humor of “Downton Abbey” or the thrill of “American Horror Story,” it’s no surprise that “The Living and the Dead” wasn’t renewed for a second season.