Men without women, getting wet – after Melville, Sinbad, and the Greeks, I thought I had exhausted my interest in this subject. I wasn’t even a childhood reader of C. S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower novels. Which isn’t to say that I can’t imagine why so many generations of English schoolboys were roused to savor the cannon’s boom, the taste of salt, and the sting of the lash. All that flogging probably reminded them of Eton. But the TV adaptations of the Hornblower saga are another matter and a kick. As Horatio on his long careerist haul from 17-year-old midshipman to Royal Navy admiral, Ioan Gruffudd is back for two more fraught installments, The Mutiny and Retribution, so handsome, brave, honorable, and sensitive, even at his court-martial, that it’s more like rooting for Billy Budd than, say, for Julien Sorel or Stephen Dedalus.
Bad things happen to Horatio before he ever gets to the West Indies. He’s a lieutenant now, with a new captain, David Warner, and a bigger boat, with 74 guns instead of 36, on its way to Santo Domingo, where the slaves and the Spanish are both revolting. (I know, you are wondering what happened to the French. Aren’t we talking about the Napoleonic Wars? And, to be sure, the ideological delinquencies of the French Revolution are the subtext of all the Hornblowers: “Liberty, fraternity, stupidity,” says Warner’s Captain Sawyer, who imagines himself a sort of Sun King. But the British Navy goes where British trade needs its muscle.) And so, too, will the officers of the H.M.S. Renown revolt, against an autocrat on the ship’s bridge. Sawyer may be “one of Nelson’s own,” the hero of the Nile, but he could give lessons on lunacy to Ezra Pound and Captain Queeg. While he can’t flog Hornblower, who is an officer, he can make him stand watch for 72 straight hours and punish him with death for nodding off.
It’s an amazing performance by Warner, paranoid even before he’s concussed, so bravura in fact that we almost don’t notice how good everybody else is – Nicholas Jones as Buckland, Paul McGann as Bush, Jamie Bamber as Kennedy, Sean Gilder as Styles, and, especially, David Rintoul as Doctor Clive. They are called upon to be Hamlet – ambivalent rather than Ahab-excessive – and so seem sometimes soaked in all the violent weather. But not, of course, Gruffudd, who has learned to keep his impetuous lip zipped, and who is as steadfast, dignified, and sincere while explaining himself to his mentor, Robert Lindsay, as he is in scaring away a couple of French frigates with an ad hoc bluff or diving overboard, underwater in the bay and under fire from Spanish cannons, to disentangle a stuck anchor. He will also, in the fourth hour, get a glimmer of what the French Revolution may have meant to those unfortunates at the bottom of the caste-and-class hierarchy, even though he has to kill them.
So even I was roused. This is, besides a boarding school, a penal colony, and a psycho ward, not to mention a symbolic Freudian parricide, all four in a wooden tub on a wine-dark sea. “Full fathom five thy father lies,” said Shakespeare in one play. And, in another: “Too much water hast thou, poor Ophelia / And therefore I forbid my tears.” To which Mark Spitz famously added: “I swam my brains out.”
Even if you prefer your Mozart straight, Great Performances: Don Giovanni Unmasked is just short of marvelous. Barbara Willis Sweete has reconceived the 1787 masterwork as an hour-long exercise in the Theatre of the Absurd, as if George Bernard Shaw had conspired with Pirandello and Ionesco to hum a few bars of Wolfgang while playing dress-up. Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky plays and sings both parts – the Don’s servant Leporello imagines himself as the face behind his master’s mask – while showing snippets of a black-and-white film version of the opera that he’s apparently directed himself, to a colorful contemporary audience consisting of the rest of the cast, who are out of uniform and who sit on folding chairs in a screening room that is part Greek temple and part American drive-in movie. His own erotic fantasies both amaze and appall him, especially when he must face the fires of hell for them, or at least an L.A. earthquake. Hvorostovsky, called upon to be a one-man duet, actually seems to sing in two different registers. Why? Well, why not?
American High (Wednesdays, April 4 to June 20; 10 to 11 p.m.; Channel 13) reruns the first four episodes of R. J. Cutler’s nonfiction series about one year in the life of a Chicago high school, and then picks up where Fox left off to follow Kaytee, Morgan, Brad, Anna, Robby, Allie, Suzy, Pablo, and Tiffany all the way to graduation. Frederick Wiseman meets Survivor.
Second Sight (Thursdays, April 5 to May 17; 9 to 10 p.m.; Channel 13) brings back the almost-blind British police detective Ross Tanner (Clive Owen), his colleague and sometime lover Catherine Tully (Claire Skinner), and a whole new set of murderers and their victims (a superstar violinist, the sleepwalking lord’s daughter, neo-Nazi thugs) for six hours of “Mystery!” that shame every cop show on American television except C.S.I.
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band (April 7; 9 to 10:45 p.m.; HBO) is last summer’s Madison Square Garden concert that reunited the Boss with Roy Bittan, Clarence Clemons, Danny Federici, Nils Lofgren, Patti Scialfa, Garry Tallent, Steven Van Zandt, and Max Weinberg. It takes about 45 minutes for Springsteen to bully the rest of them up to fever pitch, but then it really hits the streets. For an encore: “41 Shots,” remembering the gunning down of Amadou Diallo, as powerful a piece of protest music as has come along in three decades.
The Mutiny and Retribution
More episodes from the Horatio Hornblower series. Sundays, April 8 and 15; 8 to 10 p.m.; A&E.
Don Giovanni Unmasked
Adapted from the Mozart opera by Barbara Willis Sweete; starring Dmitri Hvorostovsky; Wednesday, April 4; 9 to 10 p.m.; Channel 13.