TV Diary

No Escape

I hoped watching The Durrells In Corfu would offer an escape from the dark of winter, but instead, found a meditation on the male bumbler.

Last month, as the winter began, I was hoping to escape but there was nowhere to go: the surge of cases due to holiday travel had filled the hospitals across the country, and the weather was cold, which made socializing into cold walks with friends where we wore masks and yelled to each other from across the street. Indoors, I tracked the bad-faith contesting of the election by conservatives, the attempt to overturn the results in the courts and in state legislatures, and the botched vaccine roll-out by the Trump administration, all of it seeming to culminate in the assault on the Capitol Building. With 400,000 dead, it seemed just plain evil that the governmental priority of the now former ruling party was to overturn the election that sought to hold them accountable for such mistakes as lead to those deaths — including officials who had won their elections and yet, for the president’s sake, declared just his part of the vote fraudulent. The idea that Trump might steal the presidency back despite his resounding defeat — that he thought for one second we wanted more of his awfulness, or the rising death toll, or his daily antics online, or his destruction of our civil rights, the environment, the economy, all of that was a lot to handle without any of the other responsibilities we all had, which we all did have.

So the dark just seemed too hard as soon as it came. Every night felt a little too much like a hood being pulled over my head. After the sun had set, it felt like I had only gotten a diet portion, and so I found myself wanting to binge on sun — to look at least at pictures of the brightest sun I could find. And at first, The Durrells in Corfu, an adaptation of the naturalist Gerald Durrell’s trilogy memoir about his family, My Family and Other Animals, seemed perfect.

The show is loosely based on the books, and tells a story about a single mother of four who escapes from England to the Greek Island of Corfu in 1935 with her family to take up residence in a crumbling home beside the ocean and start her life and the lives of her children over. And sure enough, the view of the house and the water is a regular character as much as any of member of the family.

The oldest son is the novelist Lawrence Durrell, and the youngest became the author of the memoir under adaptation, the naturalist Gerald Durrell. In the world of the show, Lawrence, or Larry as he is called, is a handsome young man, theatrically typing away at his first story manuscripts, and wailing in frustration when he is stuck. Gerald is a ferociously smart animal loving child of 11 with a penchant for bringing them home to take up residence in the house, gradually turning their house into a zoo. Between them in age, there’s also a teen sister, Margo, given to falling in love with her brother’s literary friends when they visit, and another teen, Leslie, a brother, who is militaristic, impatient with art, and loves guns. In the pilot episode they arrive with their mother on Corfu, utterly clueless as to the island’s history, the Greek language, and, it seems, each other. Which brings me to my next point:

There’s a theory in writers rooms, I suspect, that the clueless character who goes around infuriating everyone is just good for TV. Whether that is true or not, many shows have this as a formula. It is rarer though that every member of a family in one of these shows is clueless.

Corfu was once a former British colony, returned to Greece, something never quite described but which lingers in the background, visible in what they see as the unreasonable hostility from some of the islanders. As they settle in, afraid of being like the other expats, only their mother, Louisa, seems concerned about money, or fixing up the crumbling house. They are often half-dressed for some reason and at first it feels as if they’re on a long holiday. At some point they realize Gerald is not going to school, to his dismay. But they are surrounded by highly educated Greeks and expats, and some fading aristocrats — my favorite is an agoraphobic countess who hires the sister eventually as her companion.

Louisa Durrell, the mother, is the most recent iteration of her generation, and believes giving orders to her children confers with it the knowledge of how to do what she’s asking. And yet she teaches her children very little except that they should avoid her, if possible, which draws out her schemes to engage them. Is that the plot? Perhaps. The show soon settles into the familiar lines of that kind of show — character doesn’t know X, suffers because they do not know, eventually learns it or… doesn’t learn it. This makes for some ups and downs. And when, in one episode, a father to another family asks her to educate his daughters, I confess I wondered what she could teach them.

I’d always meant to read the memoir and now I wonder if I will.

The show soon managed to both satiate the part of me that needed to see the sun and those skies, and also irritated the hell out of me, with the way it veered from the funny to the mawkish to the offensive and back again. I had thoughts about other shows like this, with characters I liked in the grip of writers I could no longer respect. By the end, I liked it more than I disliked it, and my husband and I managed to watch all of the seasons once I determined the pattern I am describing — I became interested in it as culture, if not art. ButI was, all the same, a little like a gambler who keeps thinking this time the game won’t cheat him.

The blindness of the characters is also in the show: the family doesn’t seem to realize that what they call poverty is, to their Greek neighbors, doing well enough — if you can hire a driver, are you really so poor? Or that the reason the home they live in is so cheap is the devastated economy of the country and the island, or that it is insulting of them to expect the residents of Corfu to speak English and help pick up after their every disaster.

They have a resident guardian angel, in the form of Spiros, a married Greek older gentleman driver with a beautiful car who is quite obviously infatuated with the mother, Louisa Durrell, and who extends himself as a result past all reason. He almost tires of it. But also, he revels in his role as their protector.

Louisa Durrell, the mother, had many character flaws that in other writer’s hands might have been more interesting, but the one that appeared again and again was her belief that she needed to constantly intervene in the bad behavior of her children, especially her son Leslie. I want to say clearly here, I am wary of the Bad Mom genre of television, and of the cultural egging on of Hating Bad Moms. I think the writers played to her beauty and her charm, and her desire for love, all of which are sympathetic and interesting enough. What interested me was how she seemed caught in a pattern larger than her, one that extended back to the family she came from and the culture, too. Her interventions never came in the form of a lesson, say, about accountability or how to avoid the mistakes her children made. Her story was especially caught up in her attempts to deal with her gun-obsessed son Leslie, and she was always trying to help her son escape the consequences of his actions. Soon it was clear she saw that as her role for all of her sons — though not her daughter, exactly. And she never questioned it.

There she was excusing Leslie’s obsession with guns, there she was excusing him from aiding in a robbery, there she was excusing him for almost shooting someone. She even tries to bribe the police at one memorable point. Part of what was interesting to me was the ordinariness of it, and realizing that this regular move to save a young man from his crimes was in fact an accepted role for her. We know this about patriarchy and the roles women play in it, but what struck me here was how clearly it showed through. She was always despairing of each of these acts Leslie and to a lesser extent Larry and Gerry took, but in each case, she truly believed her son would get better if she saved him from trouble, not somehow realizing that all she was teaching him was that she would always be there to rescue him. She was invested in the idea that she alone could save him — an enabler’s fix, an addiction to rescuing people for the way it makes you a hero. Her son meanwhile was invested in her believing he could be saved, which would let him off the hook from having to give up his guns or his sense of entitlement to going out and making the same mistake again. Over four seasons, it makes them all miserable and they just repeat it, again and again, never seeming to learn. The mistakes are played off as daffy, but the context is sinister. Despite the heartbreak her son Leslie causes her, Louisa Durrell never once even thinks “Oh, perhaps I should take my son’s guns away.” I didn’t see her as a villain as much as someone playing a role and believing it was their only choice — which is also a part of that role.

There’s no sense in the writing that any of these struggles with enabling men in their bad behavior are the subject of the show. This dynamic between the family members is more scenery than subject. And in a memoir, after all, there’s no promise of change to follow up on. It is perhaps a contemporary expectation that the show would even bother to notice how much it is about colonialism, patriarchy or the creation of that certain kind of man who will never understand himself or others.

“Male Bumblers are an epidemic,” my friend Lili Loofbourow wrote over at The Week, in “The Myth of the Male Bumbler,” a column I think of just about every day. “The world baffles the bumbler. He’s astonished to discover that he had power over anyone at all, let alone that he was perceived as using it. What power? he says. Who, me?” The bumbler is the alibi of every man, if they want it, under this arrangement. He pretends he didn’t know better. The person trying to hold him accountable pretends it also and offers an education in what might change him. He goes on, made innocent, and the exculpator acts as if they also have succeeded, and everything just continues to go wrong.

The show ends with World War II at last sending the Durrells back to England. The last season involves a traveling circus and their involvement with it, and the transformations the circus provides are illuminating. Militaristic Leslie has the most interesting journey by the show’s end, and Gerald Durrell, the author of the memoir, was perhaps the most annoying character to me, oddly enough. My favorite was the sister, Margo, a determined and imaginative young woman who still managed to offend me also, at times, as they all did, with their blindness to who they are and why they are what they are. When the family nearly lost their inheritance — in the form of a massive jeweled necklace that Louisa believed to be a fake and was too careless with as a result — I hoped, desperately, for a comeuppance, but it never came. Which of course reminded me of what I was waiting for back in the life that waited for me once the show ended.

Each time I turned the TV off, though, I was left aware that I had seen, as in a factory, the earlier stages of the culture that has us all huddling in our homes, unable to see each other without risking death. If you have ever wondered how it is Trump has escaped, time and again, from accountability, you need only watch this show to see how ordinary this is. How ordinary boys become men who expect to be saved from consequences, and how ordinary women become women who believe they are expected to save these men — and that this is all there is to do.

Author of the novels THE QUEEN OF THE NIGHT and EDINBURGH, and the essay collection HOW TO WRITE AN AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL NOVEL.

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