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Dench Gets Dark

GSAS dean shares the gritty streaming dramas that sustain her during the pandemic

It’s been a long 12 months since Harvard—and much of the rest of the world—adopted sweeping measures to limit the spread of the global COVID-19 pandemic. To cope, even leaders of the GSAS community are turning to the ever-widening selection of streaming video services for programming that enlightens, engages, or simply distracts from the isolation and stress of the times. GSAS Dean Emma Dench is one of them.

“There are two things I have to do every day,” says Dench. “I have to go for walks and I have to watch my streaming shows. Apart from that, honestly, it’s pretty relentless.”

Creating what she calls a “sacred viewing space”—cats fed and sleepy, no smartphones, and no interruptions—Dench and her husband, Jonathan Bowker, immerse themselves each evening in their favorite shows. But rather than seeking escape from the darkness of the COVID era, Dench embraces it, choosing programs that feature flawed characters living through stressful situations. (“I feel a strange affinity with people going through a difficult time,” she says. “It breaks through the isolation.”) She shared recently with GSAS Communications five shows that have kept her enthralled during the long lockdown. 

There are two things I have to do every day [during the ‘lockdown’],” says Dench. “I have to go for walks and I have to watch my streaming shows.

Gomorrah, Season 3 (HBO Max)

“Gomorrah is a dramatization inspired by the book by the Italian writer Roberto Saviano. It focuses on a Naples-based clan and the coming of age of Gennaro—Genny for short—the son of the clan leader. It’s a tense story of gang warfare and the drug trade. Much of it is in the Neapolitan dialect, which I enjoy. (I don't understand much at all, but I like to kid myself that my Neapolitan’s getting better!) It’s very frantic. Really nasty. Shows the backside of cities. It’s definitely violent and I don’t love the violence, but I love the tension. The show is really about interpersonal relationships and people in extreme situations behaving in very flawed ways. We’re loving every minute of it.”

The Crown, Season 4 (Netflix)

“I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to watch the newest season of The Crown [the Netflix series about the British royal family] because I don’t have particularly fond memories of the ‘80’s, which I experienced as a difficult decade. But the show doesn't minimize the grimness of Britain then. It gets the class structure right. The colonialism. It gets gender about right. And it’s extremely well-written. I’m not a great fan of the royal family. I found it difficult to relate to Princess Diana. But The Crown presents them as flawed people, emotionally inadequate and unable to relate to their subjects or to each other. It helps me process a lot of things about my earlier life when I was coming of age in Britain and what a weird country it was.”

Chernobyl (HBO Max)

“I think it's my taste for Greek and Shakespearean tragedy that draws me to stories about things gone spectacularly wrong; situations where you can’t put things right, you just have to draw on whatever you’ve got. That’s what happens in this mini-series about the disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine in 1986. It’s beyond the worst possible nightmare anyone could have. I first watched it on a plane in 2019, and found it completely harrowing. I told my husband, our son, and his girlfriend about it and we all watched it together over winter break. My son studies engineering and was struck by how the scenes of the meltdown looked so much like the footage of Chernobyl that he discovered on YouTube.”

My Brilliant Friend, Season 2 (HBO Max)

“Back to Naples but a little bit lighter than Gomorrah. This is a series based on the books by Elena Ferrante about two childhood best friends who grow up and go to school together in the inner city. They live in apartment blocks, crowded in with each other. The story starts in the 1950s and you’ve got the memories of the war and fascism being played out in the family characters. It’s very honest about how even a short life can feel very long, about being defined by where you grow up, and about the complicated dynamics of female relationships.”

I May Destroy You (HBO Max)

“A really well-written British drama. It’s a mostly Black British cast set in the kind of London neighborhood that I used to live in. The script really nails the way contemporary Londoners speak, and makes me feel homesick: it isn’t what you hear on Masterpiece Theater, thank goodness. The stories revolve around very painful subjects: sexual assault, consent, betrayal. The show is really complicated and thoughtful. It’s about where you go and what you do after terrible things have happened to you, or you’ve been party to terrible things. Amazing acting. Really good dialogue.”

Banner image courtesy of HBO

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