Ashley Spurgeon is a lifelong TV fan — nay, expert — and with her recurring television and pop-culture column "And Another Thing," she'll tell you what to watch, what to skip, and what's worth thinking more about.
Whether you’ve read one of the novels or seen one of the many adaptations starring him, you probably know the character Hercule Poirot. Belgian (not French), mustachioed and fastidious, our strange little detective spends his life and career solving devious murders, blackmails and other schemes that plague well-heeled early-20th-century Brits, some of whom even have it coming. Typically, the bloody deeds happen in small, gorgeous little English villages and stately manor homes, but also, sometimes, in Egypt, Iraq or on a train trapped in a snowbank. (I’ve always liked the one where Poirot deduces that someone is not who she claims to be ... because her knees don’t look young enough. A male author could never.)
Recently, I was given the Poirot Complete Cases collection (used, obvi) and could not be more delighted. This is a tremendous gift. I mentioned the many adaptations: Poirot has been portrayed by Albert Finney, Peter Ustinov and most recently Kenneth Branagh, but for my money, the quintessential Poirot is right here on TV, in the form of David Suchet. Thirty-three discs, 13 seasons, 70 episodes across 25 years.
There are many pleasures to be found here. The costumes. The set design and art direction. You also get to witness the changing style of TV, from the late ’80s to early 2010s. The episodes get longer, the editing gets choppier and much more willing to play with timelines, and the last few adaptations had a habit of tweaking the original stories — sometimes to give people who know the originals a little surprise, sometimes because a character needed condensing or de-racist-ing. The feel was slicker, “sexier” and altogether oddly modern take on a very, very old-fashioned character.
It’s a pleasure to watch David Suchet age along with Poirot — he started the show at age 42, and got to kill the character off in 2013, having dramatized every one of the books. Suchet, like a lot of actors, put his own life into the role: They both grew in religiosity as they grew in age, and it worked well for the Poirot, especially in the adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express. You might even have imagined Suchet’s face when you saw the name “Poirot,” I know I do.
I sometimes wonder what life is like for actors who end up forever associated with one particular role, for better or worse. I read about the physical work Suchet did in terms of changing his walk, and manner of holding his body. The acting process fascinates me more and more; this is ostensibly a television column, about TV shows and TV goings-on. Film criticism is another thing entirely, and considering I don’t even like most movies, I generally stay in my lane and leave that to the professionals.
That said, I was surprised at how much I was emotionally affected by Chadwick Boseman’s death. Yes, he died a movie star, but a quick glance at his IMDb shows that, for a good stretch of his career, was a grinding on TV procedurals: He’s got credits on Third Watch, Law & Order, CSI: NY, ER, Cold Case, Lie to Me, Castle, Justified and Fringe, as well as a recurring role on ABC Family’s Lincoln Heights and a lead part on Persons Unknown, a mystery drama NBC aired in 2010. This is the kind of meat-and-potatoes TV that puts food on the table. Before all that, Boseman was a young playwright. Third Watch was his first television role. He also taught acting from 2002 to 2009 at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, located in Harlem and a part of the New York Public Library system.
All this to say: I was affected by the actor's death because it suddenly struck me just how good an actor he was, and that he clearly, obviously, fundamentally understood the power of it not just as a profession or means to an end for narcissists, but as a vehicle that allows the gifted (and lucky) to evoke feeling in an audience — and leave yourself behind in their subconscious as a symbol, or an icon.
Beyond the first flash of sympathy for the deceased, as well as bereaved loved ones and fans, I couldn’t shake from my head Boseman's face as T’Challa. Literally, I shook my head to try and think of something else, and found it to be a struggle. That’s acting. Furthermore, his final filmography doesn’t tiptoe around his priorities or beliefs: He knew he was sick, aimed for the fences and knocked it out of the park.
Boseman died at 43, only one year older than Suchet after his start as Poirot. Boseman didn’t get the opportunity to be with a character for a quarter-century, to use more of his life in his art. But at the very least, there’s the opportunity for a bittersweet kind of pleasure in watching some of those old TV shows he guested on, knowing that, for at least this guest star, he got to make the art he wanted to make.