Tuesday, June 21, 2005

TV: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

In the end, the envelopes got to me.

Online DVD rental outfits like Netflix and GreenCine want you to hang on to movies for weeks at a time; it improves their numbers. But I’d see those envelopes stacked up next to the TV and feel guilty. I really ought to turn those around, I’d think.

The trick is to rent discs that take days to get through. Titles like Kino Video’s silent film compilations, for instance.

The ideal solution would be to rent TV shows. I don’t watch much TV, so I’d have plenty to choose from. I could catch up on ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT or dig into FX’s highly lauded lineup (THE SHIELD, NIP/TUCK, RESCUE ME). As for older series, I wouldn’t know where to begin. Here I shamefacedly admit that I haven’t seen a minute of classics like, picking two at random, THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW and GREEN ACRES.

But I can’t do it. If I can get by without watching TV shows at their appointed airtimes, why should I binge on them once they reach DVD?

So I struck a compromise. I’d rent long-form programs, what ABC used to call “Novels For Television.” All the comfort of a series, with the satisfaction of an actual ending. I began with this 1979 adaptation of John le CarrĂ©’s book, often hailed as one of television’s finest productions.

Alec Guinness stars as George Smiley, a cashiered intelligence officer brought back into the fold to determine which of four key players in the service is a Soviet mole.

In many respects, TINKER, TAILOR hasn’t aged well. It takes its time; one scene consists entirely of a shot of Guinness in a ratty cardigan reading a file, and like every shot in the series, it’s held several beats too long. Only one of the four suspects is developed in any way, so it’s no surprise when he’s revealed to be the traitor.

But the series exerts a powerful hold, and does an extraordinary job of depicting how isolating intelligence work can be. As for Guinness’ performance, no other actor could make reading a file while wearing a ratty cardigan so compelling.

The sole extra is a 2002 interview with le Carré, in which he speaks in dense, perfectly formed paragraphs for thirty minutes.