#MeToo changed everything, certainly in terms of entertainment. Chivalry ostensibly has been designed to explore a landscape that was inch by inch evolving past ingrained sexism and exploitation but the hashtagged movement shoved over an enormous cliff.
It was a reckoning for the entertainment world a long time coming. Rocked in Britain at least by the even more ghoulish Operation Yewtree at the start of the decade, as long-standing national treasures were steadily outed as systemic child sex abusers following the horror of Jimmy Savile (which Chivalry co-star Steve Coogan will soon explore in The Reckoning, playing the monster himself), it was #MeToo that went global following the exposure of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein as a rapist and sex abuser of aspiring, and successful, actresses across decades. The floodgates opened.
Sarah Solemani, the co-star and writer opposite Coogan of Chivalry, has herself described instances where she too was objectified and potentially exploited by men in power (one anecdote recalls an unnamed fifty something director asking her youthful self to strip at a dinner to prove she was happy with on screen nudity), so she writes and portrays up and coming arthouse director Bobby from a position of understanding. She’s a woman in the entertainment industry – she’s been there. Which is why what Chivalry becomes across these six episodes is rather bizarre, given how it starts from a position of exciting, fresh and incisive comedy potential, and completely squanders it.
In short, Chivalry is two shows. The first is the one it promises to be. The second is the very cliche it has presumably been designed to deconstruct.
Across the first three episodes, Chivalry is precisely the show Coogan and Solemani, when discussing the series, mooted. Solemani talked about the origin of their partnership:
We were filming Michael Winterbottom’s Greed together when #MeToo happened, and Steve would play devil’s advocate, saying that it had gone too far and that you couldn’t say anything any more. I’d answer him back and we’d end up laughing. But our conversations were dialectic. Steve would ask me about the movement’s end goals: what we were trying to do, the strategy. My position is that any campaign that comes from the people is not going to be neat; it is going to be chaotic, maybe even contradictory, because it’s coming from a place of deep, deep pain. How can you say that it’s ‘gone too far’?
In some respects, this comment feels like Solemani ameliorating the questionable direction Chivalry ends up taking but it also establishes the core contradiction inherent in the central characters. Bobby is a traditional modern feminist brought in by Wanda Sykes’ amoral studio executive Jean (surname Shrill just to make the point) after the sudden death of Pierre (Djilali Rez-Kallah), an old school, misogynist film director to reshoot problematic sex scenes in romantic WW2 drama he had finished shooting. She is paired with the film’s producer Cameron (Coogan), an awkward overhang from the pre-#MeToo space who is entirely clueless about both Pierre’s problematic nature and Bobby’s agenda. What follows, at first, is a clash of both ideals, genders and generational assumptions.
“I’m trying to be nice but sometimes it comes out horrible” admits Cameron as Coogan hits a register with his old-school producer somewhere between Alan Partridge and the fictionalised, suave version of himself in Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip. Pierre, who the show very quickly kills off, is the Weinstein figure in danger of cancellation, not Cameron. He has the potential for such controversy, and the show hints at the dark liberties he has taken in the past, but Coogan never makes him loathsome enough for Bobby to truly dislike. He is, from the beginning, a man looking in essence for redemption, even if it doesn’t at first know it. So while in the first few episodes, the two clash, Chivalry very quickly lets him off the hook.
It feels like Coogan & Solemani find the core of what Chivalry is across the first three episodes before losing the thread entirely. Bobby watches Pierre’s film, as Sienna Miller’s exploited A-list actor Lark is subjected to a sex scene she reported to Cameron (who previously slept with her, likely to give her favours in the business), but on which he didn’t act, and decides the sex scene has to be completely re-shot. “This isn’t sexy!” she assures Cameron, who completely misses how a woman being subjected to sex rather than being part of the act is sexless to women viewers. He purely sees it from the male gaze.
What follows is uncharted comic territory Chivalry tackles well – the reshot sex scene in a #MeToo environment where care and attention has to be paid to the performers. As Cameron looks on in bafflement (and one suspects he isn’t too far removed from Coogan’s reaction to this), his looks and asides mined for comedy, Bobby brings in a friend Tatiana (played with fun brio by the always enjoyable Aisling Bea) who, post-pandemic, has re-branded herself as an ‘intimacy co-ordinator’ (based partly on trailblazer Ita O’Brien no doubt). Miller plays Lark as the jaded starlet, used to exploitation but hopeful of better treatment, and these scenes come alive. Chivalry finds the comedy within these gender politics spaces as men and women seek respect and tolerance, though we see Bobby’s feminism clash with her on-set determination to get what she needs done.
This is where Chivalry starts to lose its way as the series, perhaps admirably, tries to prevent Bobby becoming a rather shrill, one track feminist who audiences might have struggled to sympathise with, and the Hollywood machine begins to eat her alive. Perhaps the most powerful moment comes in the third episode, in which Bobby torpedoes an attempt to get more financing for the unfinished picture by telling Fraser Schwartz (a gregarious Peter Mullan), head of the studio, that a friend of his in the business raped her at a party when she was younger. The air is entirely sucked out of the room as Bobby tells an ultimate story of power being abused, as Cameron squirms, but it almost sets the series onto a very strange and questionable track.
The catharsis seems to free Bobby of the horror she had shied away from when it comes to Hollywood. She thaws to Cameron’s wealthy charm. She starts treating flunkies poorly and agreeing to stay at luxurious beach houses. She agrees to make a dumb franchise picture rather than an Iranian feminist treatise. She begins neglecting her husband Aston (Adjani Salmon), the main caregiver of their son Noah (Kaylen Luke), who luckily turns out to be an adulterer which gets Bobby somewhat off the hook. Chivalry in the second half stops being about the #MeToo decryption of traumatic establishment norms and morphs into what can only be described as a traditional romantic comedy drama. It becomes about Bobby not heeding Jean’s promise early on that Cameron will fall in love with her and warning her: “don’t let him”.
Quite why Chivalry takes this route is hard to fathom. Why did it not remain an exploration of #MeToo’s impact on making cinema or television? It feels like a series that had lots of options and directions of greater interest that it didn’t take. Why not explore the legacy of Pierre’s probable abuses of power, or more appropriately Cameron’s? Why not do more with Lark or her own relationship with Bobby as a feminist looking to make a positive difference in this world? Why not do more with Tatiana’s intimacy coordinator and continue exploring that intersection between the depiction of sex on screen and the exploitation of talent? All of this was on the table and being dealt with and suddenly Coogan & Solemani swerve the piece into more of a vanity project where they both look fabulous in exotic locations. It’s baffling.
Indeed, rarely has a television show—one that manages at the beginning to so deftly balance awkward comedy with a timely dramatic punch—undercut itself so spectacularly within the same series. One can only assume they believed Chivalry was about Cameron’s redemptive arc and Bobby coming to realise she was becoming him, beaten eaten up and churned out by Hollywood’s allure and power, but her eventual realisation feels forced, hollow and hackneyed. Did Coogan not want to compromise his own image here, one that in the real world has seen him embroiled in numerous tabloids reports about sex and bad behaviour? Did he worry that by making Cameron too abrasive or toxic that audiences would be alienated? Were we supposed to root for Bobby—a mother and wife—and the abusive film producer? That’s what Chivalry in the end seems to suggest.
Though absolutely containing moments of genuine thought-provoking and interesting dramatic and comedic beats, entering controversial and fertile storytelling territory, Chivalry utterly fumbles the ball. It becomes the very cliche we’re led to assume it’s railing against. Maybe that’s the point. Maybe that’s why it is ultimately so unsatisfying.
★ ★ ★
DIRECTOR: Marta Cunningham
WRITERS: Sarah Solemani & Steve Coogan
CAST: Sarah Solemani, Steve Coogan, Wanda Sykes, Adjani Salmon, Kaylen Luke, Sienna Miller, Peter Mullan, Aisling Bea
NETWORK: Channel 4