It’s… been quite a year, hasn’t it?
I know there’s a running gag to refer to each new year as “the worst one ever,” but in retrospect, it feels like we were tempting fate. We’ve never experienced a calendar year like 2020, and I think I speak for everyone when I say that after we rip our calendars to shreds, burn them to ash, and salt the earth upon which they were cremated, I hope we never, ever experience one like it again.
Reflecting now on the last eleven months (good lord, it’s still not over), I’ve been trying to figure out what kind of article to write. I considered writing a piece about the long-term effects COVID-19 is having on the film and TV industries. I considered writing about the continuing harm that social media. I drafted pieces about modern police dramas and the election and all sorts of nonsense. (If nothing else, this was a good year for nonsense.)
But knowing how tough things have been for so many people, I decided to avoid all that. There has been so much negativity in 2020, so much anger and pain and loss, and I really don’t feel like adding to the dogpile.
Instead, I’d like to talk about one of the bright spots of the year – a TV show that, rather unexpectedly, became a beacon of comfort to so many of us in this discomforting time. That show, if the headline four paragraphs and one photo above is any indication, is The Queen’s Gambit.
The Queen’s Gambit premiered on Netflix in late October, at least six or seven news cycles ago. But it’s gained in recognition over the last several weeks, and, as of this writing, it’s still in the streaming service’s Top 5. According to site data (a bit spotty, as Netflix does not release full viewing numbers), The Queen’s Gambit is the most-viewed scripted miniseries in the website’s history (the “scripted” qualifier is necessary because the show fell just short of Tiger King in first-month viewership), and is one of the most successful individual seasons the website ever produced.
How precisely did a drama about chess, of all things, become so popular? Let’s have a look.
Based on the 1983 book by Walter Tevis, The Queen’s Gambit centers on Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy), a teenage orphan growing up in 1960s Kentucky. Beth doesn’t have many friends, but under the tutelage of the orphanage’s janitor (Bill Camp), she develops an uncanny talent for the chessboard. Encouraged by her adoptive mother (Marielle Heller), Beth soon begins competing in male-dominated tournaments – local, state, national, and beyond. As her journey progresses, she begins to struggle with other issues, concerning family, romantic relationships, and a recurring drug addiction.
Developed for television by Allan Scott, with all episodes written and directed by Scott Frank (Godless), The Queen’s Gambit is not what you’d call a groundbreaking show. It is largely predictable, unspooling an underdog story over seven episodes with very few deviations from the formula. The pacing is at times uneven, but the culmination of the story is never truly in doubt.
Yet despite (or perhaps because of) this, it has become something of a cultural phenomenon. To understand why, we need to understand how TV and movies have reflected on the world over the decades.
For many years, American pop-culture has succeeded by capturing the zeitgeist. During the ’70s, space travel was on the minds of many Americans, leading to a sci-fi boom that yielded Logan’s Run, Close Encounters, and Star Wars. In the ’80s, Cold War fears set people on edge, as reflected in films as varied as WarGames, Red Dawn, and The Day After. In the ’90s, an economically stable world had Americans worrying over natural threats, driving flicks like Twister, Dante’s Peak, and Armageddon to the top of the box office.
These trends continue to the modern day, particularly as TV has eclipsed film as an efficient means to deliver fast stories that capitalize on current events. Antihero dramas boomed following 9/11, as we began rooting for people who broke the rules in order to get things done. When the stock market collapsed in 2008, Americans turned to middle-class family comedies to see themselves reflected in unstable times. (You don’t think Modern Family was a hit because it was funny, do you?)
In 2020, the zeitgeist might seem difficult to pinpoint, what with all the anger and resentment being pushed in the news, online, and the halls of power, as well as a global pandemic that has damaged our economy and sense of security for years to come. But in times of crisis, we look for the simplest and most straightforward cures. We look for avenues that allow us to forget the larger troubles of the world and, even for an hour or so, feel good.
And that is precisely why The Queen’s Gambit succeeds: Because it makes you feel good.
The show tells its story in a straightforward manner, but it doesn’t take the traditional route of creating generic villains for Beth to fight on her way up the ladder. Every man she competes against, even the ones who initially appear to be rude or egocentric, is eventually revealed to be a decent guy. The show toys with the fact that Beth is a woman playing a “man’s” game, but the misogyny she encounters is never laid on too thick – it’s there to set the tone for her challenges, not to make heavy-handed statements about the Mad Men era.
And Beth herself is an incredibly likable heroine. Spectacularly played by Taylor-Joy (a rising star in her most imposing vehicle yet), she is smart and well-mannered, drawn to compete but not to crush, with a compelling self-identification arc that plays out across the show and deepens the story as her wins pile up. Prodigies are tough to write – in less capable hands, they can come off as haughty and irritating – but Beth strikes just the right balance of sensitivity and stoicism, making us worry for her even when her victory seems assured. Beth goes through several rises and falls through the miniseries, with Frank and Taylor-Joy capturing each one with poignance and grace.
Visually, too, the series is a treat. It’s gorgeously filmed, with spectacular locations (ranging from New York to Soviet Russia) and beautiful interior designs. The period fashion is as eye-catching as any modern TV show or film set in the era, and the cinematography (by Steven Meizler, who previously collaborated with Frank on Godless) is outstanding.
These ingredients all swirl together to make The Queen’s Gambit a uniquely pleasant viewing experience. Yes, we’ve seen similar underdog stories before. Yes, the story would probably benefit from some arc tightening, to be told in four or five episodes instead of seven. But that this series has become such an unanticipated hit in our current moment speaks to how hungry America is for something sweet and charming – a prestige TV show that gives us a group of positive-thinking characters worth rooting for.
We’re so often drawn to darker and more subversive programming, with moodiness often seen as a benchmark for great, buzzy television. But shows like The Queen’s Gambit remind us that dramas can be uplifting and formulaic and still be good. Though it helps if they come along at just the right time.
All episodes of The Queen’s Gambit are currently streaming on Netflix.