PBS tells a winding and forever love story with the series ‘Alice & Jack’


NEW YORK — Like most kids, Victor Levin was raised on fairy tales — and still resents it. Those stories in books, movies and TV that inevitably ended up with everyone happily ever after — and they seemed dishonest.

“It’s nonsense,” says the writer-producer. “We human beings are deeply flawed creatures, and sometimes from the best of intentions, we make grotesque mistakes and hurt each other. This is the nature of being human and this is the nature of love. It’s messy.”

Levin is ready to prove his point with the powerful new six-part PBS “Masterpiece” series, “Alice & Jack,” which traces a modern couple spending years in the messy, giddy, crazy push-pull of love.

“This is a very valuable emotion that can do great things. It can also hurt people, but it can do great, great things. Let’s not take it for granted,” says Levin, who previously worked on the series “Mad Men” and “Mad About You.”

“Alice & Jack,” which starts airing Sunday, stars Andrea Riseborough and Domhnall Gleeson as they come together, fall apart and reunite, through marriages to others, births and death. Their gravitational pull remains.

“They really leave a huge mess in their wake, but they also are clearly meant to be connected for the time that they’re on this earth,” says Riseborough. “I think that, in of itself, is something that’s very hopeful and something that I really identified with — the imperfect nature of love.”

Alice and Jack don’t exactly meet-cute. They connect on a dating app and their first date is at a pub. They go back to her place, but in the morning he is bluntly told to leave. “I’ll call you?” he offers. “Thank you, but if it’s OK with you, I’d rather you didn’t,” she responds.

Time and circumstances seem to conspire against this pair. “You’re like the incarnation of everything I’ve ever wanted,” she tells him. Yet she’s not ready, still having to process a dark childhood. Years later, he chooses to get married to another woman. “We throw away our blessings at our peril,” he tells her.

Levin says it’s taken decades for him to create a project that tries to answer the question: Are the forces that bring us together stronger than the ones that would tear us apart?

“Ultimately, I am not smart enough to know any answers. But maybe every now and then I ask the right question. And so my job, as I see it, is to give you something to think about after you shut the TV off,” he says.

“Alice & Jack” takes place in London but Levin originally intended it to be set in New York City. “I would like to think that it could be in any city, with any two people,” he says.

His choice of the actors wasn’t negotiable, however. Levin is a huge fan of Riseborough and Gleeson and waited for both to be available to do “Alice & Jack.” He adored their acting but also their ability to listen.

“I knew that a lot of this story was going to be told on reactions. That is to say, not just the person who’s speaking, but also the person who is receiving the information,” Levin says. “You are learning as much from the person who is listening as you are from the person who is speaking.”

With Riseborough and Gleeson, he had two fine actors who also happened to have been paired up in the past onscreen — they were partners in “Never Let Me Go” and brother and sister in “Shadow Dancer.”

“So I had great speakers, great listeners, great talents, great brains, by the way,” says Levin. “Just intellectually brilliant people — emotionally high IQs, comedically high IQ, dramatically high IQ. I mean, that’s winning the lottery for a writer.”

Levin lured each actor with finished scripts for the first and last episodes and a sketch map for where he wanted to go in between. The writer then used the actors’ idiosyncrasies and put them into the characters as he finished the project. “He injected us into the story,” Riseborough says.

Levin hopes “Alice & Jack” can spark conversations among viewers about romantic love but also other forms of love — like fraternal, familial and parental.

“We are living in a very troubled world and if you can say for a second, ’Let’s talk about love and what it means and how we can show it respect and treasure it, not ask too much of it, but ask a lot of it, understand what it is and how valuable it is’ — if we can have that conversation for a second, I think that can only be helpful.”


Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits


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