Hope And Wire: Part One
Hi. I’m here for a redemptive reading of Hope And Wire, the first two hours of which I caught last night - we'll be doing this on Fridays for the next two weeks. The first hour was an exercise in adjusting my exercises downwards (the short, sharp shock of watching what passes for NZ flagship drama after watching what passes for flagship drama virtually everywhere else) , but I found a lot to admire in the second half. I gather Twitter has been lukewarm on it too – the broadstroke treatment of the issues, the clunky moments of expository dialogue, the variable acting. In short, it comes in for all the kinds of flack that a pilot episode normally does, except now they’ve only got two episodes to go. Fuck. Oh, and someone compared it to an act of rape, of course.
What’s more interesting is seeing the show work out those kinks in its first third. We’re given our set of suitably disparate characters – older, working-class couple Len (Bernard Hill) and Joycie (Rachel House); the young, aspirational construction worker Ryan (Jarod Rawiri) and his wife Donna (Miriama McDowell), the well-to-do Merivale set of Jonty (Stephen Lovatt) and Ginny (Luanne Gordon), while Joel Tobeck presides in full on lech-mode as property developer Greggo. The September 2010 quake – no direct fatalities, just heartrending destruction - takes place in the first five minutes. There’s then a lot of what feels like marshalling people into their respective destinies for 12.51pm on 22 February, a kind of fumbling towards agony that works for some storylines but not others.
That works well for some, but less so for others. Like fellow British elder statesmen Bernard Cribbins and Jim Broadbent, Hill is able to imbue his 1970s migrant, who remembers New Zealand as a “socialist paradise…a more boring Romania”, with the unbearable gravitas of a man who lived most of the 20th century trying to express what’s been lost along the way. It sticks, even when he’s prostrate in a singlet on a backyard couch. Meanwhile, McDowell’s handling of her character’s PTSD after the first quake is understated and sensitive – no mean feat given she gets the lion’s share of the tears and outbursts in the first installment.
Things are distinctly rickety elsewhere, though. Tobeck’s rich and greasy and horrible! Look at him! That’s it! Though there’s a great, bathetic set-piece when the second quake hits involving a dose of thrush at the GP’s, both the teenage characters come off underdeveloped. And I couldn’t tell you what the ‘dark secret’ underpinning Jonty and Ginny’s picture-perfect household was five minutes after it had finished, despite poor Luanne Gordon being given some of the worst piece-to-camera lines a New Zealand actor has ever been asked to deliver in order to exposit it. “I was just an ordinary person…no hidden cracks.” “I suddenly found myself skittering…on a surface of artifice”. Jolisa Gracewood commented on the bravery of the simple, plain performances in the first instalment. I agree. But pair those with hyper-stylised dialogue that shouldn’t have made it past the first draft, and you’ve got a real problem.
More thought could have gone into the fourth wall in general – some characters do it disproportionately, some not at all. One extra with five lines ducks out of the moment to do it mid-stroll; everyone else gets documentary style cutaways that vary in effect. Rawiri’s Ryan has the most devastating with his first of these – an initial reveal to show him in the back of a truck with all of his belongings in a pit of liquefaction. Others feel like they’re telling, not showing – purple prose summaries of what the medium’s meant to convey to us. The ones that hint at what happens next are more tantalising – I initially assumed that the documentary cutaways would let us know who lives and who dies, but come the end of the first part, I’m not so sure.
And the final 40 minutes – the day of the quake itself – is where things start to turn around. In publicity, Preston made it clear she didn’t want a disaster movie, and that Hope and Wire was going to be about aftermath and consequences. So the disaster is brisk, frightening and judiciously spliced with actual footage. The characters, once they're given something huge and terrible to react to, are more invigorating. And it feels like a sort of clearing of the decks. No more flanneling - from here, everything happens for a reason (fingers crossed).
It does something else interesting, too. The first hour gave us a lot of stiff upper-lip males who woodenly bear up and get things done, and a lot of women who appear to worry too much or just smile indulgently. By the end, the men are helpless, incompetent, or probably dead. It’s Donna who makes the call to get out with her kids despite the heartbreak and head for the North Island; it’s Ginny who gets to her children quickly while Jonty impotently honks in the seat of his written-off Merc.
And it’s House who absolutely elevates the proceedings in the last 20 minutes as her character goes about her day as an aged carer, not knowing if her partner’s alive or not. I’m not sure if the plot will let her maintain this intensity for the remaining two parts – if it does, we’ll be looking at one of the bravest and most moving performances that’s ever been on local TV. Anyway – the feminist thrust of the narrative is quiet, real and refreshing, more so for involving older women.
It should be clear that Hope And Wire isn’t operating along the lines of a David Simon series, or even a Top Of The Lake. Nor, I argue, should it: to make a television show that starts using the quake as another ingredient, part of the mix with other genre conventions, is probably going to feel unbearably crass for a while – especially on a NZ budget. For better or worse, here’s the first draft of this point in modern history, and it’s likely to offer lessons both on how things should be done and how they shouldn’t before it ends. The bottom line is that I want to see what happens next, and so on that simple pass/fail test, Hope And Wire is comfortably through.