TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Like many of us, our critic at large John Powers has been stuck at home. We asked what new TV shows and books have kept him distracted.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: The Russian poet Joseph Brodsky once said that prison is a lack of space counterbalanced by a surplus of time. Of course, our current lockdown isn't nearly so bad as being locked up, but with so much surplus time on our hands, many of us are eager for stories that will help us escape endless thoughts of coronavirus. Here are three that did that for me.
The desire for escape underlies the appeal of "Unorthodox," the four-part Netflix series that has viewers whooshing through it in a single night. Loosely based on a memoir by Deborah Feldman, it stars the electric Israeli actress Shira Haas as 19-year-old Esther "Esty" Shapiro, who flees her husband and their tight Hasidic community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, jetting off to Berlin, where a group of music students take her under their wing. Meanwhile, she's pursued by her mama's-boy husband Yanky, played by Amit Rahav, and his cousin Moische - that's Jeff Willbusch - who's something of a thug. What exactly is he planning to do with that gun?
Here, early on, Esty is driving with her new friends, who are quite different from the folks back home.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "UNORTHODOX")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Where are you from, Esty?
SHIRA HAAS: (As Esther Shapiro) New York.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) You don't sound like you're from New York.
HAAS: (As Esther) Never been anywhere else. Where are you from?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Yemen. But I grew up near Munich.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) And I'm from Israel. Axmed's from Nigeria. Clemens' German, but your parents came from...
LORENZ MARIA KRIEGER: (As Clemens) Poland.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Poland, right. And Robert's the only one of us who is actually from Berlin. So he can answer all your burning questions about the war.
HAAS: (As Esther) My grandparents lost their whole families in the camps.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) So did half of Israel. But we're too busy defending our present to be sentimental about our past.
POWERS: "Unorthodox" is an uncommonly seductive show because, for both good and ill, it feels like pure Hollywood. On the bad side, it ignores or fudges every hard question about Esty's motivations or religious practice, and its swooning portrait of attractive multicultural Berlin - director Maria Schrader is German - could have been commissioned by that city's tourist board. Yet like a good Hollywood movie, "Unorthodox" moves along so briskly, boasts such terrific acting and offers enough surprises that you sink easily into its upbeat tale of a woman who escapes into a glorious new future.
The future has come and failed in "Baghdad Central," a gripping new noir series on Hulu. Set shortly after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, it centers on Muhsin al-Khafaji - played by the wonderful American-born Arab actor Waleed Zuaiter - a former Baghdad police inspector whose world has collapsed. His rebellious daughter Sawsan has gone missing. His sweet daughter desperately needs dialysis, and he has no job. Then a Brit named Frank Temple - that's amusing Bertie Carvel - offers Khafaji's daughter medical care if he'll work as a cop for occupation forces. Khafaji soon finds himself threatened on three fronts - by the slippery Temple, by an arrogant American military honcho well played by Corey Stoll and by his fellow Iraqis who despise him for collaborating.
Based on a novel by Elliott Colla, "Baghdad Central" takes a well-worn scenario, an honorable cop caught in deadly circumstances, and uses it to show us something new. Uprooting the usual Arab stereotypes, it explores how the occupation was experienced by its supposed beneficiaries. As Khafaji travels around Baghdad, the series depicts things we haven't seen - the way daily life became nearly impossible in occupied Iraq, the reason some Iraqis collaborated while others did not and how the Coalition bungled things so badly that Iraqis thought of Americans as fools and incompetents, not as liberators.
For his part, Khafaji has a clear plan, as he tells his hospitalized daughter.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BAGHDAD CENTRAL")
WALEED ZUAITER: (As Muhsin Kadr al-Khafaji) Yesterday, I was a terrorist. Now I am an official.
JULY NAMIR: (As Mrouj al-Khafaji) You will be a collaborator.
ZUAITER: (As Muhsin Kadr al-Khafaji) Yes. No matter. I will work for them for as long as it takes to make you well and for as long as it takes me to find Sawsan. And then we will leave.
POWERS: Leaving is also the dream of Gina Vitay, the spoiled 15-year-old heroine of "Abigail," a 50-year-old Hungarian novel by the late Magda Szabo, best known for her staggeringly great novel "The Door." The scene is World War II Hungary, and Gina is a general's daughter who's abruptly shunted from her family's elegant Budapest home to the Bishop Matula Academy, a hyper strict religious girls school in the provinces. Entitled and arrogant, she's been compared to Jane Austen's Emma Woodhouse.
Gina instantly runs afoul of her fellow students, suffers the disapproval of the gorgeous but strict Sister Susanna and plots her escape back to her adored father. She feels like a prisoner. It sounds a bit dreary, I know. Yet in Len Rix's superb translation, "Abigail" is a delightful page turner. There is an air of enchantment about the school. The book takes its title from a statue that supposedly grants the students' wishes. And Gina begins to have adventures - some quite funny, others that bring tears to your eyes.
"Abigail" is beloved in Hungary, where it even became a musical, and it's easy to see why. Rather like "Huckleberry Finn," it tells the story of a frivolous young person gaining moral awareness by an encounter with painful truths. During her months of confinement in the school, Gina learns the fallibility of her own judgment, the worthiness of other people, heroes aren't always those you expect them to be and the existence of a historical world outside the bubble she's been living in. With luck, my own months of confinement may make me a bit wiser, too.
GROSS: John Powers reviewed "Unorthodox" - which is streaming on Netflix - "Baghdad Central" streaming on Hulu and the novel "Abigail."
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, are you getting bored with your own cooking yet? We'll talk about cooking at home at a time of social isolation with Sam Sifton of The New York Times. He's been the paper's restaurant critic, its food editor, and he's now writing about how to make interesting dishes with whatever you find in your kitchen. He has a new cookbook called "See You On Sunday." I hope you'll join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN DIMARTINO'S "ISFAHAN (ELF)")
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN DIMARTINO'S "ISFAHAN (ELF)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.