As a writer, it makes sense to me to ferret out arcs, plot and character in unlikely places if only to knock loose that most elusive of creatures: the impish muse. And so, it was to that end that I began binging in earnest eclectic series on Netflix, Crave and the now defunct and sorely-missed Shomi platforms.
What an odyssey! Binging not only allowed this student to pick out problems with continuity, pacing, character cred and sagging middles (season four of almost anything) to name a few, but it also sling-shotted back the fixes that, I think, really make a story groove.
It is to this point that I’m delighted to highlight a story-telling gem that I cannot get enough of, the incomparable Turkish period soap MAGNIFICENT CENTURY (available on Netflix Canada and other adventurous steaming outlets). Debuting in 2011, this 16th century historical romance details the triumphs and travails of Crimean-born Alexandra aka Roxelana aka Hürrem Sultan who turned the house of Sultan Suleiman upside down at a time when Ottoman rule was mounting an ambitious and often ill-fated sweep into Europe.
Maybe it’s a visual thing?
Sold into the harem by her Tatar kidnappers, 15-year-old Alexandra not only wins the favor of the Sultan (after much soul searching—she is the daughter of an Orthodox priest) but goes on to marry and live with her volatile spouse for the entire span of her life.
Those who know a little about Ottoman history know how uncommon a move like this actually was, given that sultans typically packed off their concubines with the princes they produced once the ‘young lions’ turned 16 and were deemed old enough to govern a principality of their own.
Hürrem, famously captured by the artist Titian (another first), took no prisoners when it came to protecting herself, her off-spring and even her sultan. Against tradition, she became the legal wife of a king in a royal house that did not have queens, bore five sons and a daughter against the one son per concubine policy, and was laid to rest in a tomb far grander than her spouse’s and immediately adjacent to him in the Süleymaniye Mosque.
A reinterpretation of history for art’s sake? No.
That this ‘character’ was actually real and pulled these rabbits out of her magical hat will be the subject of further personal study.
History, without question, drew me to this story. But what keeps me there (humorous subtitles notwithstanding) is the inane and highly unusual circumstances major and minor characters alike find themselves in. What, for example, distinguishes a major execution from a minor one? How far can second concubine push her agenda when the Haseki (1st concubine) and Valide (sultan’s mom) precede her and really, really don’t like her? And how does one remove a greedy grand vizier from the picture when his friendship with the sultan borders on a bromance to end all others?
The show runners of HBO’s excellent ROME series remind us that a lot of what the characters feel and do in this type of genre is governed by a culture and belief system that so totally predate everything we know in the current CE that we at times question the credulity of the plot. We shouldn’t. Duking it out over who sits under the canopy is normal. Hürrem Sultan would rather commit suicide than allow a new Russian concubine into the harem and tells her sultan so with flourishing soundtrack to back her up. And she’d do it were it not for the fact that she knows him so well!
Melodrama at its best!
With the soap genre allowing for glacial pacing (finding the stolen ring happened over a three-episode arc) the story still grooves, thanks to ambitious characters, raucous political and personal agendas, and costuming that, frankly, thrills.
The art direction, too, is luxe and adventurous, at times using painted murals (a la the old Sinbad movies of the Sixties) and digital gaming CGI that we know is ‘fake’ but is no less satisfying and entertaining. (Note: watch for the same flying bird patterns over the Vatican, the Buda palace of King Louis of Hungary and the Topkapi palace in Constantinople.)
Over the top and fast forward, even at snail’s pace, may not be new, but if MAGNIFICENT CENTURY is any indication, it somehow works and might be a grand fix for many things writerly.
What I could do if I could bring kitsch und vroom to the page. Maybe I’ll give it a try.
Adult, unapologetic and wholly cognizant,
#amwriting #amwatching #magnificentcentury #writerslife