Though I’ve dabbled with TV reviews on this site, most notably with my entries on HBO’s Chernobyl last year, I haven’t been able to cover as many shows as I’d like to. I think part of the reason is the demands of writing about new episodes every week while staying on top of new film releases and making sure I’m keeping up with other blog series I’ve started (Movies that Get Carded Now, B&W Cinema, etc.). But due to the pandemic and new film releases being harder to come by, I think I’m going to start writing about TV more but in a way that isn’t the typical weekly episode recap. I’m going to start a show, whether it’s a drama, comedy or miniseries, and write about the first episode and my first impressions. Then, when the season/series comes to an end, I’ll provide my thoughts on the show overall and offer a little more in-depth analysis that will cover many, if not all, of the episodes.
This week, I want to talk about the premiere of Showtime’s adaptation of The Good Lord Bird. Based on the National Book Award for Fiction winner by James McBride, the series tells the story of an enslaved child named Henry Shackleford (Joshua Caleb Johnson) who becomes a member of the abolitionist army led by John Brown (Ethan Hawke). Hawke also serves as producer and writer here, and as soon as I heard he was attached to the project I was hooked, as John Brown’s story is in some ways akin to that of Pastor Ernst Toller in First Reformed. If you haven’t seen that incredible performance by Hawke, in which he plays a troubled man of the cloth who begins an environmental crusade, you absolutely need to check it out. Both men take up righteous causes in ways that cause controversy and involve violence.
The Good Lord Bird couldn’t arrive at a more appropriate time, as many white people in the U.S. are still wringing their hands about how fiercely we should fight back against racism and hatred. Writers Ethan Hawke & Mark Richard understand this, and while I don’t know what the first words of McBride’s book are, the first lines of narration in the series convey that many people think Brown was a hero, while some think he was an extremist and others even think of him as just another white savior in U.S. history. The first episode, “Meet the Lord,” opens with Brown being hanged, then flashes back to Bleeding Kansas and the how Henry and John meet.
I like that John Brown is a presence in this episode and a compelling one, but that the focus isn’t on him for every frame. Henry is the series’ protagonist, and though the show certainly pays credit to John Brown and his noble actions, it doesn’t lose sight of the stories of the enslaved. The writing also crackles with wit, humor and the right amount of irreverence. That tone in no way undermines the important statements at the show’s core. When Brown does get going on his sermons (and he does so often), it’s a pretty damming indictment of those who would use the Bible to support slavery (or oppose Black Lives Matter and defunding the police). I also liked how even though Brown is almost constantly quoting scripture or invoking the lord’s name, we see some quirky sides of him. My favorite Hawke moment in this episode is when Henry takes a bite of an onion that Brown is showing him, only to realize he has destroyed Brown’s good luck charm. Hawke’s reactions in this exchange are perfect and for all the bloodshed and speechifying, it’s little moments like that I want to see more of. I also appreciated the dynamic that results from Brown mistakenly believing that Henry is a girl, whom he nicknames onion. In an early scene, Brown hears Henry’s name wrong, and Henry doesn’t correct him out of fear of angering Brown, who may be an abolitionist, but is still a white man. Henry is, understandably, skeptical of Brown. Is he too good to be true? Is he really trustworthy? What are his motives? I like that whatever connection will ultimately be forged between these two characters as the series unfolds is happening slowly.
One technical aspects of “Meet the Lord” that surprised me was how relatively mild the onscreen violence was. This may change as the series goes on, but most of the deaths are shot at wide angles, minimizing the blood, or at night when the most graphic images are difficult to see through the darkness. The sound effects are more grisly than anything shown.
Though the story of John Brown is something I know about in very general, college history textbook terms, I’m looking forward to seeing how the remainder of the series renders him. I’ll probably do a little research into what is fact and what is fiction after each installment airs. The Good Lord Bird is off to a promising start and I’ll be back with my thoughts on the additional six episodes next month.