If Beale Street Could Talk
Jenkins’ decision to let the original storyteller live and breathe throughout If Beale Street Can Talk is a wise one.
I wrote recently about puzzle box shows like “Rellik” and “Westworld,” and how the genre is getting a little exhausted. Sometimes you just want an old-fashioned adventure series, a way to leave behind the worries of the day and truly escape. Along comes Netflix’s high-budget re-do of the Irwin Allen camp TV classic “Lost in Space” to fill exactly that spot in your entertainment rotation. There’s nothing particularly challenging here narratively, and the series starts on some rocky terrain before it finds its footing, but this is high-caliber escapism, the kind of well-done show that develops a propulsive rhythm as you get to know the Robinson family. Like the great serial adventure shows and films that Allen used as his template, “Lost in Space” pushes you to watch another one and another one and another one. In other words, you may want to change your weekend plans.
I have to admit that my impression of “Lost in Space” didn’t start off so positively—so please don’t @me after only the first couple episodes. While very well-directed by Neil Marshall (“The Descent”), the opening two chapters feel somewhat manipulative and unsure of what show this is going to become. In those two hours we meet the Robinsons, led by former soldier John (Toby Stephens) and brilliant scientist Maureen (Molly Parker). Actually, we meet John, Maureen, and their three children as they’re plummeting to a planet from the Resolute, a ship designed to send new colonists to a place called Alpha Centauri. The Robinsons were chosen for the trip, something went wrong, and now their Jupiter spaceship is about to break the atmosphere of a distant planet.
Of course, it wouldn’t be an iteration of “Lost in Space” without a Will Robinson to get into danger and that role is ably filled by young Maxwell Jenkins, who smartly balances this young man’s newfound independence with his understandable fear. More confident are the older Robinson children, played by Taylor Russell and Mina Sundwall. Russell’s Judy Robinson is the oldest, and therefore often tasked with the most to do, but she’s nearly killed in the premiere, and so trauma becomes an identifying characteristic. Russell gets better with each passing episode. Sundwall is charming as Penny, the child who often doesn’t get enough attention but is carving out her own identity within the Robinson family tree. Casting here is key, and all five members of the Robinson family work well together, and independently. They’re increasingly enjoyable, especially as the young actors develop their voices and characters over subsequent episodes. The first two kind of use them as devices—either putting them in danger or just out of radio contact.
As any good fan of “Lost in Space” will tell you, the Robinsons aren’t alone, but the nefarious Dr. Smith has been gender-swapped and is now played by the formidable Parker Posey, who is phenomenal. She doesn’t overplay the villain role, instead capturing the truth of a woman who seems willing to take any opportunity that presents itself. Posey and the people behind “Lost in Space” capture how villainy doesn’t have to be associated with power—her Dr. Smith is a lying, opportunistic, egocentric monster, but Posey keeps her fascinatingly loose and almost relatable. After all, the line between life and death can often be about how far you’re willing to go to save yourself. Future episodes introduce us to other interesting supporting characters, including a brilliant counterpoint to Smith in Don West (Ignacio Serricchio), a profiteer who hasn’t lost his conscience; a potential leader named Victor Dhar (Raza Jaffrey) and his son Vijay (Ajay Friese); a victim dealing with trauma named Angela (Sibongile Mlambo); and, of course, a beautifully-designed robot who loves to say three words: “Danger, Will Robinson.”
“Lost in Space” balances standalone stories about fuel-sucking alien worms with the overall plight of the Robinson family very well. It’s essentially about how much we bring our problems with us no matter where we go—family issues won’t be solved by moving, even to another planet—and about the difficulty of changing who you are. Dr. Smith, the robot, even the Robinsons have pasts with which they no longer identify, but that past behavior is likely to return, especially in times of stress. It’s a show that gets more confident and engaging as it goes along, not so much suffering from the typical Netflix sag that accompanies the mid-season of so many of their shows as having a bit of trouble figuring out how to distinguish itself in early episodes. Parker gets more playful, Serrichio injects a new energy, and the kids get more comfortable when not in pure “where are we” panic mode. It helps that the great Vincenzo Natali directed the sixth episode—the “Splice” and regular director of “Hannibal” (the NBC version) grounds the series just when it needs it most.
In the end, “Lost in Space” didn’t just remind me of the Irwin Allen hit that gives it a name and a template, it echoed other stories of far-off places and fantastic robots that I loved. Yes, there’s a little bit of “The Iron Giant” in this story, and that’s never a bad thing. And there’s certainly a bit of Michael Crichton and Steven Spielberg in it (although both those men were influenced by Allen too). Like so many of our favorite adventure series, “Lost in Space” doesn’t ask much of the viewer but to sit back and enjoy the journey, but unlike so much mindless escapism, it somehow still feels like a rewarding one.
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