Total depravity is hot right now – at least if we’re talking TV. Breaking Bad dramatically covers a guy who hits rock-bottom with a diagnosis and then, (un)surprisingly, continues bottoming out in a series of ever-increasing grabs for power, wealth, and influence, using his chemist skills to begin a long ascent through the world of crystal meth-dealing. Game of Thrones is fascinating in the same way as a train wreck, and HBO’s Newsroom is, right now, the only genuinely optimistic (while still critically-acclaimed) show on TV.
Enter Preamar, a Brazilian show that, like Breaking Bad, starts with a fall – João Ricardo Velasco, a wealthy banker a year into his “sabbatical”, has kept the truth from his family: he was fired from his hotshot position at a leading bank for investing money in (of all things) Bernie Madoff’s fund. Over the course of season one, his family will begin discovering the truth of their impending bankruptcy, and their fall will force them to acknowledge each other, reckon with each other’s faults, and develop a closeness that had eluded them in days of success.
But it’s not so much the plot as the mood of Preamar which makes it stand out. The show moves a snail’s-pace for American viewers, but is always compelling, even captivating, in the small details. It moves with a barely-suppressed energy and joy, with decadent pans of João’s apartment (“supear-chic”) and the trilling petty commerce of Rio de Janeiro’s beach. The stark apartment scaffolding the family’s distant, disinfected intra-relationships is set off by the lively beach, the place where the tide always stands ready to bring surprises, new life, “news from across the sea.” João starts wandering the beach at the beginning of the series, looking for something new in his life, and he discovers a world of doing business on the beach, a place where he can both use his knowledge and partake of the carelessness, the freedom and spontaneity of the beach-goers and his laid-back business partners.
Achievement, and freedom from achievement, take center-stage in the show. João’s professional disgrace frees him to pursue the beach-commerce which actually makes him happy and, incidentally, a much better father than ever before. João’s wife, by contrast, finds out they’re near bankruptcy and begins scheming for any way she can to make money and keep her status – and the show’s writers punish her for her ambition by making her one of the most genuinely loathsome characters I’ve ever seen on the small screen. The family’s Faulkner-esque housekeeper, Da Guia (thinly-veiled “the guide”) is the family’s moral anchor; like The Sound and the Fury’s Dilsey, she exudes grace, instinctually knowing that she cannot provide balm for their pain, nor countervail their sporadic waywardness (spoiler alert – theft, drugs, an affair, etc). She is the watcher, the figure of God dwelling among us, hopeful but non-forcing, knowing what’s in the human heart and knowing with a pang her own powerlessness to change it, to do anything other than listen and stay close, ready to hear confession but demurring to speak advice.
The ocean is the symbol of gratuity: one day it washes up a shark prowling kid-infested waters, another day it washes up a dead body; another, humans sacrifice to its god, Iemanja, in a casually pagan show of respect for the sea that gives. In contrast to the stale social climbers and careerists, carefully captaining their small, underwhelmingly significant ships, mastering their domains, the beach is the place of surprise, gratuity, etc.
Perhaps now we’re overanalyzing – and there couldn’t be a worse mistake for looking at Preamar. It’s a show that worships the god of small things, the everyday pulse of life that underlies every day, though we’re usually too blind with ambition and achievement and compulsive control to feel it. The slow tempo and rich, protracted camera shots reveal that Preamar is primarily about taking this pulse, as we see the world through the newly-clear eyes of João Velasco. Grace abounds in the world, but it takes the death of ambition, and perhaps a few long, pointless walks, for our selves to be opened up to it. All that to say, Viva Iemanja!