“In life, you have to do a lot of things you don’t fuckin’ want to do. Many times, that’s what the fuck life is: one vile fucking task after another. But don’t get aggravated. Then the enemy has you by the short hair.” — Al Swearengen
The tubes are overflowing with paeans to the “golden age” of television, and you can hardly open a browser tab these days without someone telling you about some new “best” or “great” show you just have to start watching. Though I will attempt to avoid most of that genre’s hyperbolic declarations, I will confess up front that this is another entry. So if your DVR is full and your Netflix list runneth over, feel free to stop reading right now.
If, on the other hand, you might be interested in another best great show, let me tell you about Peaky Blinders.
It’s a BBC show (Netflix licenses it here in the States) about a small time family gang in Birmingham, England right after World War I. Their somewhat odd name comes from the fact that their trademark is slashing people with razor blades they’ve sewn into their caps (“peaky” for the caps, “blinders” for the blades). And in its bleak outlook and nearly lyrical portrayal of a hardscrabble time, the only recent American program to which it really compares is HBO’s unjustly cancelled masterpiece, Deadwood.
Please understand that I do not invoke Deadwood lightly. If you have not seen it, you may not understand this, but Deadwood has a borderline fanatical following, in large part because there has never been any other show quite like it. It was a foul mouthed, literary historical drama that was ridiculously well written and often laugh out loud funny. It had everything from David Hume to fart jokes, and the acting was top to bottom superb.
Peaky Blinders starts giving off a distinctly Deadwood vibe right in its first scene as we see Chinese immigrants in a tizzy over something the white folks are doing. Then a man rides in on a horse. Instead of South Dakota, 1870s, it’s Birmingham, four decades later in 1919. This is the highest of high brow entertainment minus any fun killing stuffiness (just like Deadwood).
There is one (sort of) drawback to Peaky Blinders, one with which Deadwood fans are familiar: you actually have to watch it. The show is dense as hell, and if you’re not paying attention you will quickly get lost. The scripts are brimming with rich dialects that positively sing once you know how to listen to them, but that also take some time to truly understand. This is not a program you can turn on in the background while you’re doing something else or watch out of the corner of your eye while you browse Twitter.
The upshot of that demand on your attention is that Peaky Blinders does not waste your time. It packs more story, more great lines, and more fantastic acting into its six episodes per season than most serial dramas do in a dozen or more. The backhanded compliment one often hears about Boardwalk Empire, Breaking Bad, House of Cards, or just about any high quality (and wanna be high quality) drama is “slow burn”. Peaky Blinders is a fast burn.
In the first fifteen minutes of the first episode, you the viewer get:
- Fixed horse races
- A possible looming mob war over said horse races
- The Shelbys, a petty bookmaking gang
- Their leader, recently returned from France Tommy (Cillian Murphy)
- Their recently deposed wartime leader, Tommy’s aunt Polly (Helen McCrory)
- Communist agitation
- post WWI PTSD
- a theft of machine guns from the British government
Shortly after that we’re introduced to Sam Neill as Inspector Campbell, a Northern Irish cop sent by Winston Churchill(!) to recover the guns. By the end of the premier, we’ve seen a brutal interrogation, an undercover agent infiltrate a gangland pub, secretive sex, a fake killing, and more. Tommy, Polly, Campbell, and all the other deeply imagined characters make moves and counter-moves with decisive speed such that Peaky Blinders advances its plot more in twenty minutes than most dramas do in two hours.
While other programs give you pay off eventually, Peaky Blinders is all payoff. Murders, weddings, betrayals, war flashbacks, endless scheming, every episode is wall-to-wall. Game of Thrones takes half a season to set up as much crazy fun shit as Peaky Blinders goes through in an average half an hour. But the story is so finely interwoven that nothing feels like fan service or pandering. When something happens, there’s always a reason.
For example, in the third episode, Tommy’s boys are arming up to go not rob a racetrack. (It makes sense in context. Everything is tightly tied to everything else.) On another show this might be your standard briefing scene, on Peaky Blinders there’s a couple of blink-and-you’ll-miss-them jokes and plot points. The former includes a very young boy having the vicious looking knife he’s chosen for the fight taken away by one of the adults . . . in favor of a machete.
Quick hits like that abound and make actually watching it worthwhile and totally engrossing.
Since it’s set in Birmingham in 1919, the cast is (understandably) almost exclusively “white” faces. But the Irish were on the brink of revolution at the time and the the Shelbys are part Gypsy (and routinely deal with their full Gypsy cousins), so you can’t say it’s racially dull. Quite the contrary, Peaky Blinders is keenly aware of the complex ethnic and class expectations that underlie the society it portrays. And that’s before Tom Hardy shows up as an ultra-tough Jewish gangster in Season 2.
Similarly, while the cast is more male than female, things are just as nuanced and insightful on the gender side of things. In addition to Polly, there’s Ada (Tommy’s sister), and Grace, the above mentioned undercover agent. In episode two, after Ada’s been knocked up by her Communist boyfriend (I told you this show moves fast), Polly, counseling an abortion, drops this devastatingly accurate gem:
“You know the words. You’re a whore. Baby’s a bastard. But there’s no word for the man who doesn’t come back.”
Later there’s a Gypsy matriarch, a posh society lady, and so, so many more.
I could go on and describe the ridiculously perfect soundtrack (it has its own Spotify channel), the fact that the opening credits are a new part of the story each week (like I said, it demands your attention at all times), the complex political intrigues (“This is England, not Belfast, bodies thrown in the rivers wash up in the papers here”), the beautiful way it’s shot (see below), or a dozen other reasons that Peaky Blinders is worth your viewing time. But I’ve said enough.
If you loved Deadwood, try Peaky Blinders. If you’ve never seen Deadwood but you enjoy other serial dramas that people write thinkpieces about, try Peaky Blinders. (Then try Deadwood.) If you’re just looking for a new show on Netflix, try Peaky Blinders.
It won’t take long. If you’re not hooked in the first half hour, it’s probably not for you. Even if you are hooked, the first two seasons are only twelve total episodes, so it’s never a slog. But get watching, because Season 3 starts in Britain on BBC Two a week from today (May 5th), and will be on Netflix not long after.
Originally published at charliesweatpants.com.