'Wolf Hall': Peak TV's Peak TV

Mary Rylance as Thomas Cromwell. (Photo: Courtesy of Ed Miller/Playground & Company Pictures for MASTERPIECE/BBC)) 

Wolf Hall originally aired on PBS back in 2015, during the year that saw the rise of the phrase "Peak TV". For those unaware, "Peak TV" is a phrase coined (and mostly used) by television writers and nerds to discribe the current era of programming, as the phrase "Golden Age of Television" has already been improperly co-opted by the 1950s. This Golden Age is not one marked by shows that last 15 minutes, or air in black and white. Instead it is the time of the most expensive, lavish, high end television programming, populated by A-list talent, and aiming for a level of prestige that programmers could have never have imaged back in the middle of the last century.

But Wolf Hall's timing was less than ideal in 2015. It aired on Sundays at 9pm, against a block of already established Peak TV shows, including that monster Game of Thrones and the final round of the show that is seen as kicking off this era, Mad Men. Now PBS has brought it back for a second run, airing at 10pm on Sundays, directly following Home Fires' final season. If you missed out the first time, we strenuously suggest making time to tune in. 

For those who missed it the first time, this show is a retelling of the story of Henry VIII (Damian Lewis) and his famous first divorce and subsiquent marriage to Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy, in the role she should have won the Emmy for). It also focuses on the schism with the Catholic Church that begat the Church of England as it stands today. The title comes from the name of the estate Wulfhall, which was the seat of power of the Seymours - as in Jane Seymour, Henry's third wife. (Spoiler alert and all that.) The focus is on the rise of Thomas Cromwell (played by the magnificent Mark Rylance), and how his power waxed and waned with the rise and fall of Anne.

Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell. (Photo: Courtesy of Ed Miller/Playground & Company Pictures for MASTERPIECE/BBC)) 

But from the opening episode "Three Card Trick", it becomes apparent that Wolf Hall is not just Peak TV. It has all the hallmarks of the genre. The sumptuous settings were filmed in an embarrassingly long laundry list of historical Tudor-era castles and locations all over the UK. The costumes are stunning in their period attention to detail. There will be no fluffy posts here about the jaunty hats, a la Downton Abbey. These are the 1530s, thank you very much, where hats were utilitarian devices to hide the fact that everyone desperately needed a wash. 

But when it comes to being "event television", it is clear from the first episode that this is the sort of programming Peak TV wishes it could acheive. Peak TV shows, like the aforementioned Game of Thrones, or Mad Men, pride themselves on being shows that moveed slowly, that let you enjoy the meal before setting the plot twists on you--the slow build with the grand payoff, as it were. Wolf Hall is beyond that. Wolf Hall is not slow. It is still. It would like you to sit and regard its beauty as one does a painting. (In fact, for the art history nerds, there are shots that are recreations of famous paintings of the era.)

Damien Lewis and Claire Foy as King Henry VIII and Anne Boelyn.  (Photo: Courtesy of Ed Miller/Playground & Company Pictures for MASTERPIECE/BBC)) 

It's hard to describe Wolf Hall in normal TV terms. One could say that the show is "complex." But then again Game of Thrones is complex. And yet, Game of Thrones works hard to decomplexify itself. It uses themes to join together disparate scenes and adds plenty of exposition and dialogue to give the audience pointed reminders of who characters are (especially when we haven't seen the in a while) and what their relationships are to everyone else on-screen. Wolf Hall isn't interested in simplifying itself for you. It assumes you know your history when it comes to the subject matter and demands you worry about keeping up. Google and Wikipedia are required tabs to have open on your device while watching. (It also helps to know your BBC actors, since characters arrive and leave without so much of an explanation of who they are or what they are whispering about, and if you can identify who that is, so you can look up who they are playing, it saves a lot of time.)

The show is also dense, but not like your typical drama dense. Breaking Bad was dense, and watching a season was like eating a seven course meal. Watching one episode of Wolf Hall is a seven course meal. This is not a show designed for binging. You're going to want a few days to ponder what you've seen before the second installment. Speaking of which, said second installment, "Entirely Beloved" will be airing this coming Sunday April 9th, at 10pm on your local PBS station (including WETA). If you missed last week's first epsidoe, you can catch up on the website, where it will be streaming for the rest of the week.