Frugality and austerity trump creativity: the top 25 global TV series in 2023
Sunday, 14 April 2024 11:02

Frugality and austerity trump creativity: the top 25 global TV series in 2023

Dennis Broe reviews this year's TV series from around the world. Above image: Kenneth Branagh as Boris Johnson’s Churchill without the statesmanship 

American TV series, which had led the world in both number, length and amount of episodes, were severely cut back this year in light of a general retrenchment in the industry, a trend that will continue next year. Expect shorter series, fewer episodes and faster pulling of the plug so that the landscape begins to look more like frugal, budget-conscious series from around the world.

Of my Top 25 series this year, though many are “limited” series, many others have either been cancelled or have ended prematurely. Only 6 series are returning. First to go, of course, are series that are socially relevant. Heading the list of unconscionable cancellations are Alaska Daily, with Hilary Swank as a reporter helping to lay bare the local power structure. Also, oddly, Walker Independence, a Western sequel from the CW that focused more than most not only on frontier prejudice but also the power of the railroads and Eastern capital in the development of the West.

The most egregious cancellation though was Warner Brother Discovery’s decision to refuse to air, after it had already been shot, season four of Snowpiercer, Boon Joon-ho’s nakedly anti-capitalist climate catastrophe series.

Who has time anyway to watch series that deal, even if obliquely, with power relations and social problems amid the plethora of game shows (Let’s Make a Deal, The Price is Right) , reality TV (World’s Funniest Animals, House of Villains), and reruns (Yellowstone) that the producers have foisted on the general public? All because of the writers’ and actors’ strikes but also due to their general cost-cutting, with the hope that some of this bottom-of-the-barrel cheap fare will outlast scripted series due to arrive next year.

A year in which it has been increasingly difficult to find progressive series also featured shows that, for the sake of gimmicky last-minute twists, utterly changed the trajectory of the series, as well as nominally interesting series that because of inane and cliched political assumptions floundered dreadfully.

Greedy producers and studios

Two Irish series fell into these categories. Clean Sweep was, up until its last moment, a suspenseful series which had us sympathizing with a former IRA agent now living a quiet life with the British policewoman pursuing – or rather haunting her – presented as a Les Misérables Javert-type villain. Until the end, when the former spy commits a reprehensible act that utterly reverses our sentiments towards her and validates the cop’s pursuit. A surprise yes, but a psychotic one that attempts to cancel out our understanding of this woman and that represents a failure of nerve on the part of the creators and the network.

Worse than that was Hidden Assets, where a series about an Irish female cop investigating a drug ring seemingly led by a dashing financier. Instead, the story turned into a “terrorist” tale tied to Syrian bloodletting, that utterly misrepresents the role of the West in trying to wreck that country. Yuck! Series with similar failings appear in my 5 worst.

Nevertheless, I have culled 25 worthy series from 10 countries and 5 continents, from the approximately 135 series I watched this year, which proves that creators can survive and thrive even in the challenges and rubble left them by greedy producers and studios.

Top 10 Series

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Elizabeth Olson in Love and Death 

Love and Death“I’m just a soul whose intentions are good” goes the Eric Burdon theme in a gospel rendering in this series, with a stunning Elizabeth Olson as a Texas suburban housewife who in the dawning of the Reagan era awakens and wants something more than the dull, drab existence to which she is confined. She chooses to have an affair which releases all kinds of tensions within her and this extremely repressed town, which is Anytown America, then and now. Writer/Director David E Kelly (Big Little Lies, Goliath) is at his most extraordinary in a masterpiece of empathy for a woman craving freedom, carved from the most exploitative of genres, True Crime. The series ends with the word “shhh,” a shushing and directive to maintain this repression. (Prime)

This England – Michael Winterbottom’s expertly rendered account of the British state during COVID is a paean to the British working-class health workers and to the colonial minority and aged victims of despicable policy management. Kenneth Branagh is Boris Johnson, obsessed with Shakespeare and Churchill but utterly blind to the plight of his actual countrymen and women. He illustrates the way, not only during COVID but since, Western leaders are utterly cut off from their constituents. Dominic Cummings (Simon Paisley Day), Johson’s advisor, who had put across Brexit, is full of callousness and contempt for the jewel of the British welfare system, the National Health Service, wanting, as a good neoliberal, to clean house and privatize. The critique in this marvelous mini-series extends far beyond COVID as it figures the greedy malaise that is turning Western voters faster and faster to the far right. Beyond prescient. (Apple TV)

The Good Mothers This tale follows the efforts of three brave women in the south of Italy, in Calabria, who sometimes forcefully, sometimes reluctantly, take on the male violence and “omerta” or silence of the local mafia, the ’Ndrangheta with sometimes liberatory but often tragic results. Unlike most mafia series which focus on physical violence, this one concentrates on the emotional violence used to maintain this power. When brutal force is invoked though it comes as such a surprise that it drives home the way one underlies the other. Superb series about resisting entrenched male power. (Hulu)

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Hilary Swank as lead reporter on a local muckraking paper in Alaska Daily

Alaska Daily – Hilary Swank is excellent as a no-holds barred reporter, dedicated to telling the truth and opposing corruption for which she has been exiled to a local Alaskan daily. One wishes there were even a single Hilary Swank left in the corporate media and her exile illustrates what happens these days to truth tellers. The series main line is about a murdered indigenous woman. Along the way the series also highlights bribery in that state involving its politicians and media to open up protected Alaskan land for mineral exploitation. A series far too good and explicit about actual power relations both in the state and in the media to survive, and indeed it was cancelled after one glorious season. (Prime)

Little Bird/Bones of CrowsTwo Canadian series which deal with the same subject matter, the ethnic cleaning that continues to this day of that country of its indigenous population. The first is an intimate portrayal of one woman, wrenched from her family by the Canadian state, as she wakes to her heritage and attempts to surmount the obstacles in her way that maintain this suppression. Her awakening is painful and in one instance at least tragic, but it is presented with painstaking clarity. The second covers a longer history of this forced march of cultural genocide from before World War 2 to the ’60s and in a way fills in the gaps of the first series with Reservation Dog’s Paulina Alexis as the most shipwrecked victim of this systemic abuse. (Prime)

Nordland ’99 – This Danish series set in the not-to-distant past gives us a glimpse of maximal creativity within the new constraints of series austerity. A less than half hour format shot in rural exteriors with its eerie Twin Peaks air of menace created through night-time effects like the swaying of the wind in the forest. Its subject also recalls David Lynch’s masterwork as three teens search for their missing compatriot and uncover a dark adult world that threatens to engulf them, but by remaining true to themselves they survive. Extraordinary work by series creator Kasper Møller Rask. (Mubi)

The Last of Us – This next zombie apocalypse, after The Living Deads, is much meaner with fascists both in the organized government and power structure, as we have today’s Biden neoconservatives, and street fascists outside in the form of Trump-like racist Kansas City vigilantes. The only respite is a socialist community, “a true democracy,” encountered by the battle-hardened warrior leading a young girl who could perhaps save the world. Episode 3, nominated for multiple Emmys, is a self-contained survivalist love story that illustrates the concentration in this series, whose crude source is a digital game, on character at the expense of the infrequent appearances by the genre’s staple, zombies. Only in the last episode does the series veer into a zombie and human kill zone, and succumb to the temptation to return to its gamer origins. (Max)

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The magnificent Chloe Sevigny in Poker Face 

“Rest in Metal,” Episode 4, Poker Face The rest of this series is a slightly above average remake of Columbo here replaced by Natasha Lyonne’s heavy metal waif in episodes that alternate between being clever and gimmicky as the character Charlie Cale closes in on her quarry. However, Episode 4 rises way above the rest as Chloe Sevigny’s down and out rocker, who will do anything for a return to her glory days, lays bare the emptiness behind the music industry’s star-making and star-breaking machine. Extraordinary work from a peerless actress. (Peacock)

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Killing County 

Killing County – Blacklisted footballer Colin Kaepernick produced this documentary series about Bakersfield California, where the sheriff and his men kill with impunity and then cover up the murders with their control over the coroners’ office and their presenting the victims as hardened criminals. Utterly different from most “True Crime” reality series which simply and blindly cover up police violence. Here the patrolling and in some cases eliminating of a Mexican population by Caucasian cops is held up to scrutiny instead of lauded. (Hulu)

Thicker Than Water – Netflix French series about racial tensions in French society, as an Algerian TV reporter is promoted to anchor but then must endure the slings and arrows of a racist white power structure in order to maintain her fragile position. Most telling is an early scene where she is told she must straighten her natural curly black hair, and dye it blonde. She conforms and gets in an elevator full of white women with the same blonde streaks, all now ascending the corporate ladder. Nawell Madani as showrunner, writer, and star manages to highlight Algerian sisterhood and contrast it with more cut-throat standard French careerism. (Netflix)

Honorable Mentions

The Curse – This lead threesome is cloying, obnoxious and difficult to watch as the woke neoliberal couple attempts to jump on the indigenous bandwagon to exploit their lands for what amounts to “socially conscious” gentrification. Meanwhile, the filmmaker whose reality series will secure their profits is beset with his own careerist anxieties. Most telling scene of a sometimes-brilliant satire is the couple having masturbatory sex where neither connects with the other and which exemplifies their disconnection to the indigenous world they’re exploiting. (Paramount+)

Woman of the Dead – Austrian series about a female embalmer in a rural hamlet who takes on the local power structure which has colluded to eliminate her husband. She disrupts the attempt to turn the area into a luxurious ski resort in her quest for truth and vengeance against a religious, civic and corporate elite who she exposes and destroys. (Netflix)

Black Snow – Australian cold case murder mystery in Queensland exposing the roots of wealth in a town where slaves from the island nation of Vanuatu were brought to harvest the cane fields. Here the investigation of the past sheds light on the single murder but also on the larger crime of appropriation of an entire people. (Prime)

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Limboland, the breathtaking beauty of the Karachi Valley 

Limboland Pakistani series set in the gorgeously verdant and breathtakingly mountainous Hunza Valley in Karachi that has an old man, now owner of a luxury hotel, reminiscing about the mistakes he made in putting greed above human relations. This is Succession but entirely critical instead of a laudatory celebration of the Murdoch empire. (YouTube)

Black Santiago Club From Benin comes this African series about a music club that is a fountain of not only musical but cultural heritage in danger of being displaced by a greedy developer who wants to build condominiums for the rich. The series’ subject is the community organizing to preserve its social treasure. (YouTube)

Never Have I EverFourth and final season has the Indian teen of the title torn between two boyfriends. That tension though is not allowed to supersede her attempts to fulfill her dream of getting into Princeton, the actual focus of the final season in a liberatory way which upsets the usual single-minded romantic focus of the teen genre trajectory. (Netflix)

Bay of FiresBeyond quirky Australian series about a thoroughly competent female executive exiled to a Tasmanian town of ne’er do wells who may all have a criminal past. Marta Dusseldorp in the title role holds the whole thing together while teaching the disorganized criminals a thing or two about more organized corporate scamming. (Apple TV)

Dark Winds Season 2 – This series, torn from Tony Hillerman’s novels about southwest indigenous, features Zahn McClarnon and Jessica Matten as Indian lawman and deputy pursuing a deadly white racist and more presciently coming to grips with the land holders who hire these types to bury their secrets. (Acorn TV)

Billy the Kid Season 2 – This epic Western began as a recounting of the prejudice the Irish encountered in America, a unique take on the story of the famous gunslinger and bandit. Season 2 is more of the same as Billy fights the Santa Fe Ring, a group of investors who are swallowing up the territory. It’s a unique take by series creator Michael Hurst which like its fellow epic Heaven’s Gate presents the West from a class and outsider perspective, often missing from contemporary Westerns only concerned with vacant mythmaking. Can you say Yellowstone?  (MGM+)

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Scrublands' murderous priest, who exposes the town  

ScrublandsFour-part Aussie mini-series with a reporter exiled to a remote backwater town to investigate the aftermath of a mass shooting by the town’s pastor. What he uncovers instead of illuminating the priest’s psychopathy sheds light on the corruption of the town’s “upright” citizens and the landholding power behind them. Well executed exposé. (BBC iplayer)

Walker Independence – Who knew that a prequel whose original was a reactionary Chuck Norris series would instead be a questioning of not only the racism of this Western town but also the collusion of Western landholding wealth with Eastern railroad expansionists. Doesn’t lose focus on these power relations and for that reason met its fate of early cancellation. (Apple TV+)

Don’t Leave Me – Employs the trope of female detective returning to her home city of in this case Venice from Rome, and here obsessed with uncovering a ring of traffickers of young boys. Though not as compelling as the Icelandic series Valhalla, the detective’s focus on saving these boys and two late reveals which suggest wider corruption lead to a satisfying conclusion. (Prime)

Neon – Netflix series about a reggaeton singer, his manager and videographer leaving Fort Meyers and attempting to make it in lascivious, money-hungry Miami. Connects all the dots of the band fighting and then making up a little too comfortably but along the way maintains a nice focus on the music, on the illicit money that circulates around the music, and on comradeship as the only way of maintaining sanity in a marketing world gone mad.

Great Expectations/All The Light We Cannot See – Two series by Peaky Blinders and A Christmas Carol creator Steven Knight. The first uses Dickens again to spotlight the greed and vanity of imperial England as the ingenue Pip inhabits an utterly corrupt landscape with the stench of the colonial and capitalist industrial project suffusing and destroying personal relations. The second, lampooned by corporate critics for its unfaithfulness to the award-winning novel, instead employs the devices of series TV to heighten the melodramatic tension between a blind girl and a German soldier in the last days of World War 2 as they find purpose and redemption amid the ruins of the Nazi debacle. (Max/Netflix)

Daryl Dixon Second Walking Dead spinoff, after the bland Dead City, has the motorcycle redneck of the title marooned in France. Leave it to showrunner extraordinaire Angela Kang – leading light behind the neoliberal critical Season 11 of the mothership series and exec producer here – to infuse this examination of Daryl’s sensitive side with a Marine Le Pen subplot that has the a protofascist band attempting to rule France, not so different from the situation that the country in the wake of the failure of the ultracapitalist Macron finds itself in now. (Amazon)

Retro Series of the Year

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The greed behind the Frontier fur 

Frontier Season 1 – This Canadian series, about the British, French and American exploitation in the 18th century of the country’s indigenous, its land and its resources in the European craze for furs is, in the first season, a model historical series that lays bare its era. The budget kept decreasing in each of the subsequent three seasons as did the ingenuity of the writing but that takes nothing away from a truly remarkable opening season lost when it first came out in 2016 because it seemed to be nothing more than a Revenant rip-off. In fact, it was far more subtle than that overheated film. (Netflix)

Five Worst

High Desert/Based on a True Story – The first has the usually reliable Patricia Arquette swirling in the sand as a Stevie Nicks waif and for no conceivable reason. The second has the now increasingly vapid Kelly Cuoco, who has exhausted her post Big Bang cache, as part of a careerist couple who decide to let a serial killer roam free in order to promote their True Crime podcast. Supposedly funny, but actually just disgusting. 

Bupkis – The flavour of the month Pete Davison in a supposedly outré series with Joe Pesci that purports to be pushing the boundaries around sex but in the end quickly conforms and, as we’ve all seen for Davison, starts to look like just another Taco Bell ad.

Night Agent/Red Skies Politically regressive series from, in order, the U.S. and Israel. The first has an FBI agent pursuing terrorists and MAGA representatives inside the White House with no hint of irony about the real threat that lies within not from a mole but from those in charge of today’s White House, where its leaders are now attempting to start three world wars. The second claims to be an Israeli/Palestinian co-production centered on a mixed group of students but as soon as an attack comes betrays its initial premise and shifts into a billboard for Israeli repression and reprisal.

Under Control This French series attempts to be a more likable version of Veep, the HBO series about a vain politician. The problem is, unlike the former series, which took the gloves off and presented politicians as narcissistic media mongers, this one attempts to be amiable to all – as the lead character thrust into a key cabinet position is simply beset with turmoil – and in so doing instead becomes as Seinfeld proclaimed “a series about nothing,” but in this case not in a good or funny way.  

Found Horrible, smarmy, and smirking series about an African American female troubleshooter who, as does much of Washington, prides herself on stomping on other’s rights in her self-righteous quest to protect her clients. Full of horrible neoliberal police state sentiments like, “Sometimes the good guys win.” Turns a fascist vigilante into Sister Theresa. Much better is the erstwhile and humble detective of The Irrational who contests and is the former victim of white supremacy.  

Bonus Bad:

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The Buccaneers saluting wealth 

The Buccaneers – How does this series go wrong? Let me count the ways. Combine The Bridgerton faux casting which eliminates prejudice from history with the gutting of the critical thrust of its Edith Wharton source and the Sofia Coppolization via its rock soundtrack and jazzy montage in this story about rich New York young women who journey to Britain to marry and preserve decaying British wealth. Add a dose of Gilded Age (the series not the novel) concentration on the wealthy as the only characters in the 19th century with nary an ounce of Henry James’ critical examination of that class on both sides of the Atlantic and you have a series which simply celebrates money and status. Insipidly yours.

Charles Dickens, social realist cinema and the need for a humanist, critical and writerly eye
Sunday, 14 April 2024 11:02

Charles Dickens, social realist cinema and the need for a humanist, critical and writerly eye

Published in Films

On the 210th anniversary of Charles Dickens' birth, 7 February 1812, Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin writes about Dickens, how social realist cinema has filmed his books, and how modern society needs the same kind of sharp, critical, humanist and writerly eye

Between 1935 and 1952 seven films were made based on the novels of Charles Dickens (7 February 1812 – 9 June 1870). Silent films were made too but this article focuses on the talkies. They were filmed in the social realist style, a style that was popular after the Great Crash and reflected the hardships facing people at the time. Social realism is a style often used by directors, artists, composers and writers to expose the living conditions of the poor and government lack of action.

Dickens's works on film, as in their literary forms, satirise the money lenders, bankers, the rich, the aristocracy, and the landed gentry, while at the same time showing the effects of poverty on the working class in what some would see as overly sentimental depictions. This is not surprising as sentimentalism was an earlier literary movement at the time and which Dickens was likely to have been influenced by. However, Dickens's novels went way beyond the sentimentalist style and delved into critical realism which made them ideal for later social realist films. These films stand in stark contrast to much cinema today for their satire, humanity and empathy with the downtrodden. Here I will look at the ideas and influences in Dickens's novels and why they are still important as a standard for contemporary literature.

Was Dickens a sentimentalist or realist?

The extent of extreme poverty in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is not disputed but at the time few wrote about the poverty and less cared about it. Robert C. Solomon, in A Passion for Justice: Emotions and the Origins of the Social Contract, wrote that:

There have always been the very rich. And of course there have always been the very poor. But even as late as the civilized and sentimental eighteenth century, this disparity was not yet a cause for public embarrassment or a cry of injustice. [...] Poverty was considered just one more "act of God," impervious to any solution except mollification through individual charity and government poorhouses to keep the poor off the streets and away from crime.

Enlightenment ideas eventually gave rise to social trends that emphasised humanism and the heightened value of human life. These trends had their complement in art, creating what became known as the 'sentimental novel'. While today sentimentalism evokes maudlin self-pity, in the eighteenth century it was revolutionary as sentimental literature:

....focused on weaker members of society, such as orphans and condemned criminals, and allowed readers to identify and sympathize with them. This translated to growing sentimentalism within society, and led to social movements calling for change, such as the abolition of the death penalty and of slavery. Instead of the death penalty, popular sentiment called for the rehabilitation of criminals, rather than harsh punishment.

So how did the elites react to such criticism of their way of life in literature? In the eighteenth century, as Ralph Fox writes in The Novel and the People :

'Society,' by which we mean the ruling class, could not allow the moral perversion of the 'public'". However, the writer of the English novel in the eighteenth century could "sit apart and observe the life of the nation, to be angry, ironical, pitiful and cruel as the occasion demanded" as "there was no chance of any but the smallest number of his characters, the wealthy and the privileged ones, reading his books.

However, this all changed as books became more affordable and a large reading public developed in the nineteenth century. Literary style moved from the subjectivity of sentimentalism to the objectivity of realism:

Realism as a movement in literature was a post-1848 phenomenon, according to its first theorist Jules-Français Champfleury. It aims to reproduce "objective reality", and focused on showing everyday, quotidian activities and life, primarily among the middle or lower class society, without romantic idealization or dramatization. It may be regarded as the general attempt to depict subjects as they are considered to exist in third person objective reality, without embellishment or interpretation and in accordance with secular, empirical rules.

The interest in documenting the living and working conditions of the poor in objective literary works could be seen in such works as The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845) by Friedrich Engels, London Labour and the London Poor (1851) by Henry Mayhew, and Past and Present (1843) by Thomas Carlyle. The works of Mayhew and Carlyle had a profound effect on Dickens. The incorporation of such observations and detailed contemporary reports into Dickens' style of writing effectively made him more of a realist than a sentimentalist. In fact, the critical nature of his work and the popularity of the realist style led Marx to comment:

The present splendid brotherhood of fiction-writers in England, whose graphic and eloquent pages have issued to the world more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together, have described every section of the middle class from the “highly genteel” annuitant and fundholder who looks upon all sorts of business as vulgar, to the little shopkeeper and lawyer’s clerk. And how have Dickens and Thackeray, Miss Brontë and Mrs. Gaskell painted them? As full of presumption, affectation, petty tyranny and ignorance; and the civilised world have confirmed their verdict with the damning epigram that it has fixed to this class that “they are servile to those above, and tyrannical to those beneath them.”

Films based on Charles Dickens' novels

Here I will summarise briefly not the plot of each movie but the characters and their treatment that Dickens wants to draw attention to:

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David Copperfield (1935)

David's father dies before David is born and his mother remarries with Murdstone, a harsh man who is intent on beating education and respect into the young boy with a cane (reflecting changing attitudes towards children and childhood). David is sent to work in a bottling plant and this gives Dickens a chance to show working conditions and child labour (of which he knew from first-hand experience, Dickens was forced to leave school and work ten-hour days at Warren's Blacking Warehouse). David leaves the factory and seeks out his aunt who appears harsh at first but is actually a humane person who deals kindly with her mentally unstable friend, Mr. Dick (reflecting changing attitudes towards the mentally ill).

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A Tale of Two Cities (1935)

An historical novel set in London and Paris covering several years before and during the French Revolution. It deals with the inhumane attitudes of the aristocracy which led to the revolution. Dickens shows that not all were bad as the main aristocratic villain's nephew, Charles Darnay, is sympathetic to the plight of the oppressed and impoverished French masses. He is denounced by his uncle, relinquishes his title and goes to England to begin a new life. The long suffering peasants gather to see the aristocrats' executions at the guillotine. Dickens also depicts the ultimate in heroism as the cynical lawyer Sydney Carton switches places with Darnay, who is innocently condemned to die at the guillotine.

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Great Expectations (1946)

Orphan Phillip "Pip" Pirrip lives with his shrewish older sister and her kindhearted blacksmith husband, Joe Gargery. Pip meets an vicious escaped convict, Magwitch, who threatens him into bringing some food and drink back to him the next day. This he does and the convict thanks him. However the convict is caught and is seen quietly being returned to prison. A rich spinster arranges for him to visit and play with her adopted daughter. Six years later Pip is informed that he has a mysterious benefactor who has offered to transform him into a gentleman. Grown up and living in London Pip is visited by Magwitch and is shocked and anxious after his childhood experience. Magwitch tells Pip that he escaped from prison again and made a fortune sheep-farming in New South Wales, Australia. He then tells Pip that he was very taken by Pip's kindness in bringing the food instead of revealing his whereabouts to the police, and resolved to help Pip have a better life with his new found wealth. Here Dickens shows the basic humanity of convicts as victims of an oppressive society who can change for the better, in line with popular sentiment that called for the rehabilitation of criminals, rather than harsh punishment.

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The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (1947)

Nicholas Nickleby, travels to London with his mother and his younger sister Kate, to seek help from their wealthy but cold-hearted uncle Ralph, a money-lender. Nicholas gets a job teaching at a boarding school which is run like a prison. The owners "physically, verbally, and emotionally abuse their young charges on a regular basis". He meets Madeline Bray whose father gambled away his fortune and now is indebted to Nicholas's uncle. In this narrative Ralph's past deeds catch up with him and he faces prison and financial ruin, but instead commits suicide.

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Oliver Twist (1948)

Here Dickens shows up the institutional abuse of the parish workhouse as children go hungry and corrupt officials live well. Oliver runs away to London and falls in with a street gang whose leaders corrupt the boys and train them to steal valuables for their benefit. In his spare time Dickens campaigned vigorously for children's rights, education and other social reforms.

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Scrooge (1951)

Scrooge is a well-known film and adaptation of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol (1843). The plot revolves around Scrooge being informed that he will be visited by three spirits: the Ghost of Christmas Past (a device to show Scrooge's lonely childhood, and broken engagement because of his dedication to "a golden idol"),  the Ghost of Christmas Present (a device to break down Scrooge's misanthropy and cynicism), and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (a device to show that unless he changes his ways he will leave no positive reputation or respect behind him). Thus, Dickens "catalysed the emerging Christmas as a family-centered festival of generosity, in contrast to the dwindling community-based and church-centered observations, as new middle-class expectations arose."

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The Pickwick Papers (1952)

The Pickwick Papers is a sequence of loosely related adventures written for serialization in a periodical wherein Dickens satirises a wide range of English types and English life in a good humoured style.

In his books, Dickens manages to comment on every section of society and dramatise it in such a way as to create empathy where there was none, and to satirise those who thought they could enrich themselves without criticism. José Ortega y Gasset wrote in The Dehumanization of Art about the effect of realism on culture:

Works of this nature are only partially works of art. In order to enjoy them we do not have to have artistic sensitivity. It is enough to possess humanity and a willingness to sympathize with our neighbour's anguish and joy. It is therefore understandable that the art of the nineteenth century should have been so popular, since it was appreciated by the majority in proportion to its not being art, but an extract from life.

Ortega y Gasset also wrote about emotions in art, and why they are important:

What do the majority of people call aesthetic pleasure? What goes on in their mind when a work of art 'pleases' them? There is no doubt about the answer: people like a work of art that succeeds in involving them in the human destinies it propounds. The loves, hates, griefs and joys of the characters touch their heart: they participate in them, as if they were occurring in real life. And they say a work is 'good' when it manages to produce the quantity of illusion necessary for the imaginary characters to rate as living persons.

Contemporary fiction

It is in this way that Dickens's novels delighted and enraged his audiences. His style of critical realism, in terms of form and content, is still relevant today. Sally Rooney, the Irish novelist, writes this in Beautiful World, Where Are You?:

The problem with the contemporary Euro-American novel is that it relies for its structural integrity on suppressing the lived realities of most human beings on earth. To confront the poverty and misery in which millions of people are forced to live, to put the fact of that poverty, that misery, side by side with the lives of the 'main characters' of a novel, would be deemed either tasteless or simply artistically unsuccessful. [...] Do the protagonists break up or stay together? In this world, what does it matter? So the novel works by suppressing the truth of the world — packing it down tightly underneath the glittering surface of the text. And we can care once again,as we do in real life, whether people break up or stay together - if, and only if, we have successfully forgotten about all the things more important than that, i.e. everything.

Yet it is still possible to enter the mainstream with satire and humour, to recognise "the lived realities of most human beings on earth", to acknowledge the importance of social truth in art and to be sharply critical of social and political ills.

What can the writer write about? Tara Henley (TV and radio producer, on-air columnist) summarises her frustration with media policy at CNC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) while inadvertently showing so many things that can be part of contemporary fiction, without being "either tasteless or simply artistically unsuccessful". Things that may be suppressed at media policy level but not in a work of art. She writes:

It is to endlessly document microaggressions but pay little attention to evictions; to spotlight company’s political platitudes but have little interest in wages or working conditions. It is to allow sweeping societal changes like lockdowns, vaccine mandates, and school closures to roll out — with little debate. To see billionaires amass extraordinary wealth and bureaucrats amass enormous power — with little scrutiny. And to watch the most vulnerable among us die of drug overdoses — with little comment. It is to consent to the idea that a growing list of subjects are off the table, that dialogue itself can be harmful. That the big issues of our time are all already settled. It is to capitulate to certainty, to shut down critical thinking, to stamp out curiosity. To keep one’s mouth shut, to not ask questions, to not rock the boat. This, while the world burns.

Dickens did it and was hugely popular for it. Today, there is certainly plenty to be critical about. There is, of course, plenty of wealth, as there was in Dickens's day. But there is also poverty, very high rents, low-paid jobs, homelessness, avaricious banks, and a general system of economics and culture to make sure it stays that way. Sure, it does not have the same look as poverty did in Dickens's era. There are social welfare systems, better standards of housing, and better working conditions. However, overall contemporary income in many cases allows young people and the working class to just about get by without much hope for improvement, despite living in a system that produces massive amounts of wealth. In other words, there are similarities with Dickens's time but on a modern, international scale that also deserves a sharp, critical, writerly eye.

Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin is an Irish artist, lecturer and writer. His artwork consists of paintings based on contemporary geopolitical themes as well as Irish history and cityscapes of Dublin. His blog of critical writing based on cinema, art and politics along with research on a database of Realist and Social Realist art from around the world can be viewed country by country here.