Category Archives: Popular culture

Why were so many of those TV people single?

Brian Keith’s character had no wife, although he had Mr. French to help with the kids.

I don’t mean the actors; I mean the characters they played.

Robert Ariail raised the question in a comment back on that post about the picture of all those CBS stars:

One more comment since you brought up Ernest T. It took me a while to realize this , but do you know why everyone in the Andy Griffith show was so happy? No one was married.

Excepting Otis , the town drunk and Clara( was that her name?) Bee’s friend who was a terrible gossip and we never even saw her husband.

Just sayin’…

Well, that got me going to where I thought I should turn my response into a separate post. So here goes…

The Ernest T. reference he mentions was this, which I posted in response to a video from Bill.

As a former Ernest T. impersonator, let me point out, Ernest T. wanted to be married. He wanted it more than anything. That was the whole point of sprucing himself up to go to Mrs. Wiley’s mixers. And it was his main motivation in other episodes. It’s even why he wanted a you-nee-form

That aside, you’re completely right — not so much that people were HAPPY because they weren’t married, but that they simply weren’t married. (I don’t think Clara was married, either, was she?)

And this went way, way beyond “The Andy Griffith Show.”

I remember that dawning on me at some point in the ’60s. It was noticeable. In the world in which I grew up, grownups were married. My parents, and the parents of pretty much everyone I knew, were married. Some of them may not have been on their first marriage, but they were married, generally speaking. It was like it was a rule. (At this point, someone will rush to point out that “that’s because you had a privileged upbringing!” Well, no. Kids today know a lot more grownups who aren’t married, and yes, it’s a phenomenon that goes up as you move down the economic scale. But I think it you look at demographics from the 50s and 60s, you’ll see it was far more the norm.)

And I think it was simply a matter of giving the writers of shows more to work with. An unmarried person is in a position for his (and as you’ll see, we’re talking mostly men) life to go in more different directions. The viewer can wonder, “Will Miss Ellie Walker be the one for Andy?” But no, along comes the nurse, Peggy, and of course later on, Helen Crump. And others briefly in between. It gave the writers more possibilities for plots.

Everybody on Gilligan’s Island was single except the Howells, and who cared about them? From the perspective of Boomers, they were absurdly old. You had Brian Keith on “Family Affair,” and the show that was actually called, “Bachelor Father,” and “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father.” And of course, it was “My Three Sons,” not “Our Three Sons.”

Yep, they were mostly men — if they were parents, and leading characters. Probably because the plight of the single mom was seen as sad — and of course even today, it’s more of a predictor of economic distress. If you wait to the 70s, you get “One Day at a Time,” which was sometimes funny, but even the title suggests a certain state of hardship. It took awhile to get to Murphy Brown. (Sure there were some earlier examples such as “The Ann Sothern Show,” and Lucille Ball’s efforts after Desi. But Ann Sothern was kinda before my time, and I have little memory of those later Lucy shows.)

Of course, all of the Clampetts — Jed, Granny, Ellie Mae and Jethro — were single, as was Miss Jane. Which was very important to the plots. From that same comedic universe, no one on “Petticoat Junction” was married, either. Not even Uncle Joe, who’s a movin’ kinda slow. Although with Kate Bradley, we did have a lead who was a single mom.)

Never mind comedy. Think about the leads of “The Rifleman,” or “Bonanza,” or any of the Warner Bros. Westerns. All single, near as I can recall (I’m not really familiar with some of those Warner Bros. shows). And that’s just one genre.

Speaking of Miss Ellie… Of course, there were  shows about married people. Elinor Donahue was the official older daughter on “Father Knows Best” and other shows like it. But I ask you, which was funnier: “The Donna Reed Show,” or “The Beverly Hillbillies?”

I rest my case. It was all about giving the writers more potential plots to work with…

Would Ellie be the one? As it turned out, no…

Is this real, or Photoshopped? I think it’s real…

Here’s another fun pop-culture thing, one that I found way more engaging than I would have thought if someone merely described it to me.

My friend Steve Millies in Chicago retweeted this the other day:

I assure you I looked at it more than a minute.

It didn’t look like anything particularly engaging at first. OK, so we have some people who were big in TV in the ’70s all dressed up and having their picture taken together.

Yeah, there’s Mary Tyler Moore right at the front, looking as she did when she was probably the hottest star on CBS with her show that ran from 1970-77. OK.

But wait. Alfred Hitchcock is standing next to her. And on the other side of him, Walter Cronkite. Whoa…

So you start looking around. And you have to hunt, but eventually you find:

  • All four stars of “All in the Family,” scattered separately here and there.
  • Chester, from “Gunsmoke.” Yeah, I know that at this time, he was McCloud, but to me, he’ll always be Chester. Anyway, everybody else in this picture was affiliated with CBS, as was “Gunsmoke,” and “McCloud” was on NBC. So I think he’s there for being Chester.
  • Lou Grant! Which makes sense, since Mary is there.
  • Andy, Barney, Opie and Gomer, scattered about the picture.
  • Carol Burnette.
  • Lucille Ball.
  • Art Linkletter and Art Carney. And Arthur Godfrey, I think.
  • Steve Allen? Yeah, I think so.
  • Adrienne Barbeau! Yeah, I see at least one other person from “Maude” there, but who cares? There’s Adrienne Barbeau, whom we all know from certain other classics as well…
  • Danny Thomas.
  • Telly Savalas.
  • Betty White, with red hair!
  • One of the Gabor sisters, but I can’t tell which. Probably Eva. When you zoom in, the quality is poor.
  • Hang on! There are Roy Rogers and Dale Evans!!! And Roy’s duded up in black tie…
  • Is that Danny Kaye near George Burns?
  • I’m not sure about this, but do I see Captain Kangaroo, only out of uniform?

There are so many others I could name — big stars. But I’m going to let you find them yourselves.

I guess this was like the Emmys or something, and CBS must have really gone to a lot of trouble to make this happen.

Of course, maybe it was Photoshopped. But I don’t think so. As remarkable as it is, I think it’s real.

The only reason I have to doubt it (aside from the logistical difficulty of getting them together at the same moment) is the fact that these people weren’t all on the network at the same time. Overall, it seems like a shot from the ’70s. Steve speculates it was at a certain point in that period: “Good Times/Barnaby Jones overlap suggests 1973-74.”

But when someone was on a show isn’t a limiting factor. Hitchcock hadn’t been on CBS since 1964. And Dennis Weaver, although a former star of “Gunsmoke,” was at this time on a competing network. But they’re in it, too. And this has to be a CBS effort, based on who’s in the picture.

It doesn’t sound like it would be fun, but I thought it sort of was…

 

 

 

 

 

Top Five Best Vacation Spots from Movies

‘There wolf. There castle…’

I read yesterday about this fun idea, poorly executed:

If you like scary movies, as the ghostly voice famously asks on the other end of the phone, you can now stay in the original house from the horror movie “Scream.”

Because this Halloween season marks the film’s 25th anniversary, Airbnb will be offering three one-night stays for up to four people at the Northern California estate where the movie took place….

Besides just being really scared, guests will have the opportunity to explore the two-story property in Tomales, Calif., and see eerie details such as knife marks on the doors to the garage. They will also get a virtual greeting at check-in from their host, David Arquette, who will be reprising his role as small-town sheriff Dewey Riley….

As one who loves movies, I think this is a tremendous idea. And when I say “poorly executed,” I don’t mean they didn’t follow through properly on details. For instance, here’s a picture of a room in the house, which you see comes complete with such time-appropriate items as a cordless landline phone. Also, it appears that when you watch the four movies in the series, they will be on VHS. Nice.

The trouble is, they chose a movie — or movie franchise — that I have never seen, and never intend to see. In fact, I’m not into the genre. My favorite work in this vein is this Geico ad, which makes fun of it wonderfully. So they’re not getting my hard-earned vacation bucks.

But there are some I would at least consider, assuming I had the money, and if certain impossible things were possible. Note that these are not my Top Five movies or anything. I thought about that. For instance, I thought about the Bailey home from “It’s A Wonderful Life.” But beyond having the top of the newel post on the stairs come loose every time you grabbed it, I wasn’t sure how to perfectly create the feeling of being in that particular house. So I just picked five movies I like that were set in places that lend themselves to the concept:

Number Five: “Home Alone” house — This is at No. 5 because it really didn’t require much creative thought. But I had to include it because among films I actually like, I can’t think of any that is more about a house as much as anything. Sure, Macaulay Culkin and Joe Pesci are both very entertaining, and who can forget John Candy’s cameo as the reassuring Polka King? But the house itself plays as important a role as any of the humans. “Home” is even in the title. I came away from watching it thinking, “I’d like to live in that house.” And it’s a real house, in the actual suburbs of Chicago. It’s still there. But since it sold for more than $1.5 million in 2015, you’d be better off aspiring to rent it through Airbnb.

Number Four: Almost Famous” bus — Why does it have to be a house? Rock bands’ tour buses have places to sleep on them, right? Of course, for this one to work, you have to assume a little magic: The actors from the movie would all be there, too, and they would all be the same ages they were when the film was made in 2000. Well, Patrick Fugit wouldn’t be there, because the idea is that you, the paying guest, would be that character. But you’d see Russell Hammond and Jeff Bebe and the other members of Stillwater. And here’s the best part: You’d get to sit next to Miss Penny Lane! You’d all be on your way to the Riot House in L.A., which would be a long way away as you drive through Midwestern farm country. And all of you would be singing “Tiny Dancer” together.

Number Three: Young Frankenstein” castle — As you approached your destination, Eye-gor would announce, “There wolf. There castle.” Assuming you wanted him to talk that way, which you would. You, of course, would be back in the hay with Inge. Once at the castle, you would be led to your chamber by the housekeeper, Frau Blücher (the horses outside all whinny loudly), carrying an unlit candelabra. She would warn you to stay close to the candles, for the stairs are treacherous. Then she would offer you Ovaltine before you retired. The fun would start when Inge came to your bed to wake you up from your Nachtmare, and the two of you would then follow the secret passage (“Put… the candle… BACK!”) down to the hidden laboratory, which would be filled with the actual, functioning equipment from the movie this one was lampooning.

Number Two: Cool Hand Luke” barracks — Hey, if people will pay money to be in a place where a horror movie was set, why not a prison? And you can have a lot of fun here, playing poker with your fellow guests for a cold drink. If you get tired of that, you can bet everyone you can eat 50 eggs. Why 50? It’s a nice, round number. Then, after everybody’s in their bunks, Dragline will keep you all awake by talking endlessly — in great, steamy detail — about “Lucille.” Speaking of the bunks, remember that clean sheets come on Saturday, at which time you put the clean sheet on the top, the top sheet on the bottom, and turn in the bottom sheet to the laundry boy. That’s a rule. There are a lot of rules, but don’t complain about it. If you do, that will be regarded as back-sassing a free man, and you’ll spend the night in the box. And you don’t want that.

Number One: HMS Surprise — Really, I just wrote the whole post for this one, because it is truly the ultimate. And like the “Home Alone” house, the venue actually exists. The filmmakers adapted HMS Rose to look and sail exactly like Surprise herself, and with ol’ Boney dead and the war over, it’s probably available now. At the start of your experience, instead of being greeted by a video of David Arquette like in the “Scream” version, the real-life Killick himself (as portrayed by David Threlfall) will walk up to you, as ornery as ever, jerk his thumb back over his shoulder, and announce, “Wittles is up!” That will be the start of a magnificent feast featuring soused hog’s face, flying fish that just happened to land on the deck moments before, an unending flow of wine (“The bottle stands by you, sir!” the captain will say repeatedly), and some sort of pudding, maybe even Spotted Dick. And that’s just the start. Your stay won’t last a weekend, or even a week, but months and months, because you’ll be sailing to the Far Side of the World. And it won’t cost you a thing. In fact, you yourself will be paid — not much in wages, but prize money is guaranteed! When you catch up with the chase, the captain will give you a pep talk, then give the poor sods a broadside, and you’ll board ’em in the smoke — a pistol in one hand and a heavy cavalry saber in the other! And you can’t say fairer than that, can you, mate?

I look forward to your own ideas.

Some of your shipmates aboard Surprise. That’s Killick pouring the wine.

Top Five Social Media I Hate (Personally)

The above is an email I got today. My reaction was, “LinkedIn deserves to be ‘moentized,’ far as I’m concerned. I may moentize it myself, next time I see it…”

We’ll talk another day about people who send out such emails, and are so careless with their headlines. Today let’s stick to LinkedIn, shall we? I hate it.

Which inspired me to write this quick-and-dirty list of social media I hate. And when I say “quick and dirty,” I mean even quicker and dirtier than the sloppy one about the Top Songs earlier.

I think I spent way less than one minute coming up with the five. Which is fitting, when writing about social media, don’t you think?

Anyway, here’s the list. Note that this is a personal list. I have to deal with some of these professionally, and in truth for many in business something like LinkedIn actually is useful, and I often help people make it more useful to them. But for me, I don’t get much out of it. This is partly because I’m not at a point in life when I’m trying to a) get a job or b) build a career. In other words, this is not business; it’s strictly personal:

  1. LinkedIn — Years ago, a colleague persuaded me to sign up for this, because it was the “professional Facebook,” or something like that. Not long before that, someone had persuaded me to sign up for Twitter, and I had loved that, so why not give this a chance, too, I figured. Also, I was briefly persuaded that in my post-newspaper career, I needed to be on LinkedIn. I no longer am. In fact, I haven’t been for years. Persuaded, I mean. Maybe y’all can argue me into believing again that it serves a purpose to me. Have at it.
  2. Snapchat — OK, I think maybe this feature has changed, but I’m not going to look it up, because I don’t care. I mean the feature that anything you posted there would soon disappear. This was touted as a feature rather than a flaw, which means it was being pushed to people who were stupid enough to post, on the internet, things they did not want other people to see. Here I was, glorying in the fact that anything posted on the Web could stay there forever (unless one’s blog disappeared), meaning that I would never in my life have to type or copy or in any way again publish the “background” we used to have to put in news stories — all you had to do was link to the old material, because it wasn’t going away! That was possibly the one most wonderful thing about the Web. And these people were giving it the finger. So I hate it.
  3. Instagram — It’s about pictures, and yet you can’t right-click and save a picture from it. How stupid and pointless is that? I can grab pictures, if I need them, from anywhere else. But not from here. Which I realize is intentional, and that irritates me no end. I’m responsible with pictures, and careful not to use them if I don’t have permission to do so, within the boundaries of Fair Use. (Ask Paul DeMarco.) So I stay away from it.
  4. Reddit — Listen, I know a lot of intelligent people who really like this medium. But I don’t, because I don’t understand it. I’ve tried using it, and couldn’t find any reason way in which it was a helpful or useful tool, and decided I didn’t understand it. Which meant the people who love it must be smarter than I am. And what do I think of a social medium that shows me other people are smarter than I am? I hate it.
  5. Facebook — It’s a little weird that this is only No. 5 on my list, because I’m sure that I say “I hate Facebook” more than I say I hate all other social media combined. But that’s just because I deal with it that much more. So does everyone, because it is by far the most ubiquitous. And one of many reasons it’s so dominant is that in many ways it is useful. Like for sharing pictures and news with a group of friends and relatives. For instance, one branch of my family has a members-only group from which I’ve gotten lots of great old family pictures for my tree. And Facebook does that better, and more conveniently, than most other instruments. Of course, if you start using FB as your sole Source for News and All Knowledge, it will mess you up. But that’s your fault. So really, I just occasionally dislike it fairly strongly, and other days enjoy what I get out of it….

Of course, there are other social media I love, even as I see their profound flaws and worry about the Rabbit Hole phenomenon. Those include Twitter — use it responsibly — and YouTube.

Then there are in-between social media — such as Pinterest. I go surf through it occasionally, and it intrigues me, but I can’t shake the feeling that it could be so much better

A slapdash ‘Top Ten (plus) Songs of All Time’ list

A Pre-Raphaelite take on “Greensleeves”…

Just to start a conversation…

I mean, a serious Top Ten Songs of all Time would take years to think through and put together, and even then I’d probably hesitate to publish it without lots of caveats, protesting my own ignorance and forgetfulness. How do you construct such a list and have confidence in it?

Think about it. I doubt that any of us would even be familiar with a tune dating back before, maybe, the 9th century (see my list below). And surely there was something catchy going on somewhere in the Roman Empire — not to mention the many thousands of years homo sapiens was kicking around before inventing writing. Some caveman might have had a great groove going on around the campfire (assuming fire had come along).

Because “all time” is a long time.

But even within my own lifetime, I’m sure that if I tried to do it, within five minutes after posting, I’d remember something I’d forgotten. And then I’d remember something else.

Nevertheless, I’ve been thinking about doing such a list for awhile, and I was reminded of that notion today when I saw this tweet, shared by our own Bryan Caskey:

Bryan had replied, “Rolling Stone Magazine is just trying to stay relevant and avoid relegation into the lower tier.” (I sort of wondered what he meant. What about that list made it “relevant?” And relevant to whom, in what context?)

In any case I jumped in, criticizing specifics: “Seems like they’re trying a bit too hard to ‘take care of TCB,’ to cite a painfully redundant phrase I heard somewhere. And ‘Like a Rolling Stone?’ I’m not sure that would even make a list of top ten songs by Dylan alone…”

I was overreacting a bit. That probably would make a Dylan Top Ten. But fourth best song of all time, by anybody? Come on…

Anyway, here’s the Rolling Stone list.

And now, my own slapdash effort. I’m just going to throw a bunch of songs out there, with some of them being representative of several other songs I might have chosen in the same category. And to save time, I’m not going to worry about paring it down to 10, much less my usual five, because that takes extra work. Note that these are all popular songs; I’m not trying to be all arty with you. (You may argue that Veni, veni, Emmanuel is sacred plainchant — or something like that; I’m no expert — but I will say it had to be really popular to last 12 centuries.)

Oh, and I’m not ranking them, just listing sorta, kinda chronologically. Here we go:

  • O Come. O Come, Emmanuel” — If you’d perused the charts back in the 9th century, you’d probably have known it as Veni, veni, Emmanuel. Definitely my favorite hit from before the Norman Conquest. And I guess it’s the oldest song I know — or the oldest that I know is that old. The Church plays this a lot during Advent — it’s sort of the Advent song. But they never quite play it enough for me.
  • Greensleeves” — Or, as it was known when published in 1580, “A Newe Northen Dittye of ye Ladye Greene Sleves.” As you probably know, Shakespeare mentioned it. I first heard the tune myself when I went to see “How the West Was Won” as a kid. Now, I usually hear it at Mass in the weeks after Advent ends, as “What Child Is This?” Whatever the lyrics, it’s an awesome tune. So congratulations, King Henry. This was your one chance to make the list, and you did it! (Just kidding.)
  • La Marseillaise” — This is the only national anthem on the list, I promise. I love our own, and “God Save the Queen,” and the Russians have a nice one. I can even say positive things about “Deutschland über alles” (or, as it is correctly called, the Deutschlandlied — but we don’t usually call it that because it’s a lousy song name). But I think the French take the prize in this, if in nothing else. If you doubt the song’s power, go watch “Casablanca” again.
  • Lorena” — There were a lot of hit songs during the Civil War, but of all those Ken Burns weaved so artfully into his TV series, I find this one most appealing. It predated the war, but during the fighting it was huge among both the blue and the gray. Here’s a version with words.
  • “I’ll Be Seeing You” — Same here. Written in 1938, but during the war, this one most powerfully captured the yearning of so many millions to be back with their loved ones. One of the most wistful songs ever.
  • Hard-Headed Woman” — Had to get in some Elvis P. This one was my fave when I was about 3 (the year it came out), and I’m just going to keep it there. It’s special because it represents a certain category in my mind, which is songs that really rock out, no holds barred. You could say the same about “Tutti-Frutti,” or maybe another Little Richard track such as “Good Golly Miss Molly.” Creedence made a solid entry in the class with “Traveling Band.” But this is my favorite. When I was a kid, I definitely had a favorite line. I used to go around saying, “You better keep your cotton-pickin’ fingers out my curly hair…” Oh, and if you like some Wanda Jackson, here you go.
  • Summer Wind” — I’m also making a special effort to get in some Sinatra, and to me, this one blows away all the others.
  • Yesterday” — OK, I’m being hard on the Beatles here, only allowing them one song. Especially hard on Lennon, since as even he admitted, he had nothing to do with this one. If you want to be kinder to John, you can substitute “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” or maybe “In My Life.” If I spent years working on this list, really did the homework and the sweating, I might end up with more than one Beatles song on the list, but this one will have to represent the rest.
  • Just Like a Woman” — My answer to Rolling Stone including “Like a Rolling Stone.” Yes, that’s very emblematic of him, but it’s easy to name a bunch of his works that are simply better songs, no doubt about it. And if you don’t think this is the best thing from “Blonde on Blonde,” I’ll allow you to substitute “Visions of Johanna.”
  • Soldier of Love” — This me pulling a real Barry (from High Fidelity) move, going with a pop song that’s sort of esoteric. I loved it when I heard the cover of it on “The Beatles on the BBC,” but I think I might have enjoyed the Pearl Jam cover even more. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever even heard the original, whoever did it. (Oops, found it.)
  • Mas Que Nada” — If you want to evoke the 1960s in the mind of someone who actually lived through them, you’ll play this perhaps even more readily than something by the Beatles or the Stones. That’s what Austin Powers did, and it worked. Coming from me, it also represents my love of samba music from that era. So you could also have chosen “One-Note Samba,” “Desafinado,” or the ultimate standby, “The Girl from Ipanema.” For that matter, just get Astrud Gilberto to sing anything, even if not samba, and I’ll be happy.
  • Green Shirt” — My official Elvis C. entry. Again, could have been any number of others, but we love this one down at the Quisling Clinic.
  • Hallelujah” — I’ve raved about this a number of times in the past, but I tell you — this Leonard Cohen masterpiece would probably make the Top Ten list even if I spent the rest of my life on it.
  • Creep” — Wanted to get in something good from the early ’90s — the very last gasp of rock music — and probably would have been happy with something from Weezer or Green Day, but for now this will do. The boys from Abingdon did a great job on this one. And if you’d like a fun cover, here ya go.
  • Hey Ya” — Here, I’m just being perverse by including one song from the Rolling Stone list. It was the only pick that I found at all original or thoughtful, and I’m sure Barry would say the same. So I’m throwing it in. It ain’t “Greensleeves,” but it’s catchy.

Yeah, that was 15. I just didn’t want to do the sweating necessary to get it down to 10. I look forward to seeing y’all’s lists. And remember, “all-time” doesn’t just mean, you know, when you were in high school…

‘This Murdaugh case is like something out of ‘The Bay'”

I had not really been following the Murdaugh case, although practically everyone who still works at The State seemed to be doing so, in their professional capacities, over the last few months. I skimmed the headlines, and there were a lot of those, so I sort of knew the gist of what had been happening before it got even crazier this past week or so.

How crazy? Well, I missed a call last night at 11:37 p.m., then listened to the voicemail this morning. It was from a night editor at The New York Post. They wanted to see if I’d cover a hearing for them today in the Murdaugh case. I’m still on their stringer list, going back to that time when I “covered” Mark Sanford’s return from Argentina back in 2009, right after I left the paper. I put “covered” in quotes because all I did was take notes at the notorious marathon presser at the State House, while someone in New York wrote the story from watching it on TV. I was just an excuse for them to put a Columbia dateline on the story. But they generously gave me a byline, under the modest, understated headline, “LUST E-MAILS OF BUENOS AIRHEAD.” As Dave Barry would say, I am not making this up. Anyway, friends of mine in New York saw it, and brought it to my attention. Time has passed, but I’m not sure I’ve lived it down yet. Sigh…

Anyway, I said I was busy — which I was (a second Post editor called me this morning as I was taking my Dad for a medical appointment) — and wished them luck in finding someone.

But I wasn’t writing about that; this is about the Murdaugh case.

Wait, another digression… Any of you ever watch the Britbox streaming service? It’s pretty good. My wife and I have been enjoying it for about a year now. Anyway, the last couple of weeks we were watching both seasons of “The Bay.” It’s a Brit cop show built around a woman who is a family liaison officer with the police department in Morecambe, Lancashire.

Each full season — or as the Brits would say, “series” — tells the highly involved story of a single case. The second “series” is about a lawyer who is shot and killed at his own home in front of his young son. Then, as the protagonist Lisa Armstrong works with the victim’s family during the investigation, things get really complicated. Documents are found that indicate problems at the family law firm. Relationships among members of the family turn out to be unbelievably tangled, suggesting a number of reasons why the attorney was murdered. Someone else — actually, a main character on the show — is killed along the way. It takes every episode just to lay it all out.

So when my wife said the other day, “This Murdaugh case is like something out of ‘The Bay’,” I nodded. Because it is. Except, more people die in this real-life story.

And here’s what’s interesting about that — to me, if not to you. Often, when we’re watching another one of these tangled mystery stories — not just “The Bay,” but all of them, with bodies falling left and right and everything so mixed up you have no idea whodunit — I observe with a knowing tone that murder in real life isn’t like this.

Murder in real life is more like… Well, I remember one from many years ago in Tennessee. One drunk shot another drunk during an argument over what to watch on TV. I remember that one not because it was so remarkable, but because it epitomized the kinds of homicides you usually see — just a straightforward, disgusting mess. No mastermind carrying out a meticulous plot. Just someone who was so obvious a kindergartener could solve the case. Except you don’t even need the kindergartener, because the killer so often confesses. Even when it’s in the first degree.

Anyway, that’s the kind of killing I generally covered during my brief time as a reporter, more than 40 years ago back in Tennessee.

But the Murdaugh case isn’t like that. It’s more like the ones on TV. And we’re all still waiting for the answers to the biggest questions, as if we were on the next-to-last episode of a season of “The Bay,” or “Unforgotten.”

And that’s why the whole country is riveted. By the way, if you’ve been ignoring it much as I had been until now, it’s kind of handy to read the accounts today in national newspapers, because they have to touch on all the main episodes in the story. Here’s the one in The New York Times, and here’s the one today in The Washington Post

Just like a TV mystery. Except, of course, that it involves real people, our neighbors. I don’t know the Murdaughs, but I know people who know them. I know one of Alex Murdaugh’s lawyers, for instance, as do many of you.

And for months, I refused to be entertained by the horror visited upon this family and the people around them. I refused to be a riveted consumer of a latter-day penny dreadful. A made-up story on TV is one thing. This is entirely different.

But it’s become rather difficult to ignore, hasn’t it?

Giving NPR another try…

I thought the reboot of 'The Wonder Years' sounded OK, but I didn't watch the first one, either, so...

I thought the reboot of ‘The Wonder Years’ sounded OK, but I didn’t watch the first one, either, so…

Editor’s note: I’m experimenting with editing the new version of the blog.

Following up on my previous post about how fed up I am with most news these days…

I just did a quick walk around the block (it’s a big block, just under a mile) — after lunch and before diving back into work.

I listened to NPR One, and resolved from the start that I would immediately click past anything that had to do with any of the topics mentioned in that post. (That includes, as an extension of the ban on Afghanistan stories, anything that tried to take a “20th anniversary of 9/11” approach, which tends to get you into the same stuff). Oh, and I also clicked very quickly past anything that smacked of Identity Politics. You know how I am about that. You can take any interesting subject in the world, and ruin it by trying to interpret it solely in demographic terms.

I was trying to be optimistic. I was hoping to find something like the Myers-Briggs podcast I wrote about in this separate post.

That didn’t happen.

In the more than half an hour I walked, I only allowed three stories to play, and only one of those all the way through. Two of them dealt with people who play the piano — a 4-year-old prodigy, and a… well, I didn’t listen to enough of it to remember. (Sorry, Phillip!)

The one thing I listened to all the way through was this piece about the TV season about to be unveiled. I was curious because, this not being 1965, I didn’t realize people still seriously talked about “the new fall TV season.” In fact, if you had asked me whether any such thing even still existed, I might not have answered correctly.

I listened all the way through because I was curious to see whether any of the shows mentioned would be something I might want to watch. None met that standard…

I DID listen to this one, but it wasn't awesome...

I DID listen to this one, but it wasn’t awesome…

Hollywood’s idea of a ‘spy’ (plus, Top Five REALISTIC Spy Films)

Austin and his lovely, sexy sidekick strike the classic pose, in an only slightly more ridiculous way than Bond.

Austin and his lovely, sexy sidekick strike the classic pose, in an only slightly more ridiculous way than Bond.

The amazing thing about the first Austin Powers movie was that it didn’t have to change much from the original to make it hilarious.

I didn’t fully realize that until “Thunderball” became available on one of my streaming services some time later, and I watched it for the first time in decades. A lot of the silliest tropes — the villain with his cat, the assistant villains sitting around a table and the head guy pushing a button that sent them to their deaths when they displeased him, and other things — were copied almost frame by frame. And it was just as silly in the original, although perhaps not as enjoyably funny.

Of course, no one had to remind me that about such things as putting the hero into an unnecessarily elaborate death trap and walking away, trusting it will work. We had all seen that many times. And “Austin” had a lot of fun with it.

But all the Bond films were like that. And so were other things my generation grew up on, from “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” to “The Avengers.” Austin didn’t add much more than a goofy grin. And it worked.

And yet audiences continue to shell out money for Hollywood’s completely ridiculous notion of what a “spy” is. You know the recipe. A Hollywood spy is pretty much always:

  • Extremely violent, and outrageously good at it. You know it’s a “spy” film if the hero is posing on the poster with a handgun — sometimes held pointing at the sky, other times directly at the camera. Why the “spy” needs a firearm is somewhat bewildering, because he or she is so fantastically skilled at unarmed combat. It doesn’t matter how good the opposition is, or how well-armed, or how many there are, the hero will overcome them without breaking a sweat — usually while making corny jokes. That is, until the climactic scene, in which someone — maybe the chief villain, more likely his superhuman assistant — gives the hero a real challenge, for dramatic purposes.
  • In fact, the “spy” is pretty much a superhero, with inhuman abilities that extend beyond fighting, to driving a wide variety of hot cars and other vehicles, manipulating technology, etc.
  • Good-looking, whether male or female (and if female, extremely sexy and usually dressed provocatively). Which is convenient for our hero, because the “spy” is as sex-obsessed as a 14-year-old boy, but unlike that boy, gets plenty. Which is why that demographic tends to love these films. (That could be me!…)
  • Does almost nothing that an actual, real-life spy would recognize as intelligence work, such as collecting, you know, information. Or building a network of agents, or leaving chalk marks on lampposts, or clearing dead-letter boxes, or any of those kinds of things that can mind-paralyzingly dangerous, but aren’t that exciting for 14-year-olds to watch.

And when you add it all up, all the glittering, exploding cliches actually get pretty boring in the aggregate, no matter how much expensive property is destroyed in the chase scenes.

And in a way, everyone sort of knows that it’s a joke — I guess. Because all sorts of comedies get made using this material. Long before Austin, there was “Get Smart!,” and for that matter the first film iteration of “Casino Royale,” and today there’s… well, just look:

spycom 1

Which is fine, if you don’t mind monotony in your comedy. Hollywood has seen the absurdity in its own caricature of espionage, in fact, since the beginning of the genre, as you can see if you Google “1960s spy comedies.” Even Graham Greene himself mocked the form before James Bond really took off on the silver screen. (Of course, being Graham Greene, he did so masterfully.)

And yet, there is nothing at all funny about intelligence work. In fact, in real life it can be more than a little depressing, in its gray, sordid day-to-day exploitation of human weaknesses. But in the hands of the right creator, it can be fascinating.

There have been a few, a very few, serious spy films (and TV shows) over last few decades, and the best do what the best spy novels have always done: Dig down very deep into the complexities of the human mind, the human soul — the lies, the contradictions, the moral ambiguities, the psychological conflicts, the betrayal. The cover story, the fallback story, the real story, and the interplay between them all.

And there’s almost never an explosion or a car chase. In the most realistic such stories, the hero never so much as touches a gun. You know where some of the most suspenseful moments in John le Carre novels occur? In meetings. Irritating, apparently boring, bureaucratic affairs around a table in a conference room (“Stupid bloody cabaret” said a key character of such a gathering in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy). But they can be tense as all get out, and lives can hang in the balance.

The truest spy stories are mystery tales in which you’re often not sure, at the end, whodunit. Ever see the rather obscure “Yuri Nosenko, KGB,” starring Tommy Lee Jones? It’s based on the true story of a KGB officer who defected to us in the early ’60s. Or did he? People still debate what was really going on — was he a defector, or a plant sent to deceive us about Russian involvement in JFK’s assassination? (I think about that movie a lot when I hear people say with such certainty, “Bush lied, people died,” simply because he apparently chose to believe the wrong bits of intel among contradictory accounts that were available to him. It’s just not that simple.)

Anyway, the other night my wife and I saw a good one: “The Courier,” starring Benedict Cumberbatch. It was another one based on a true story — that of Greville Wynne, the British businessman recruited by MI6 to contact Oleg Penkovsky, one of the most important spies the West ever had in the East. He’s the guy who let us know the Soviets were putting those missiles in Cuba. The possible fate of the planet lay in the plans he sent us through a complete amateur, because it was considered too dangerous for a professional to get near him (the KGB were tailing all such people). As it worked out, matters of global importance hung on the friendship that developed between these two wildly different men from opposite ends of the Cold War divide. By the end, these two strangers were willing to die for each other. And nobody had to make it up.

By the way — here’s a sort of blog post in a blog post. You’ve heard that, between streaming and COVID, movie theaters are dead? Well, true enough. What does it cost to go to a movie these days? I don’t know, but I’m sure it’s ridiculous. And popcorn and a drink (which is where theaters’ profits have always come from) costs more.

Well, we rented “The Courier” from Apple for 99 cents. That’s almost as little as I paid to get into movies on military bases when I was a kid. Hard to beat. And I didn’t have people talking or bouncing on the seats around me, and I could turn on subtitles, and pause and repeat dialogue if I missed something. There’s no comparison.

Oh, and now I see we wasted our money, because now Amazon Prime will show it to us subscribers for “free.” I may watch it again now. (Meanwhile, you have to pay $4.99 for “The Spy Next Door.”)

Anyway, all that meandering is way too much of an intro to a very quick Top Five Most Realistic Spy Movies list. And yes, I know it seems like I’ve done this before. But you’re confusing it with “Top Five (and other) Cold War Movies” or “Top Five John le Carre novels.” So pay closer attention, people.

Here’s the list:

  1. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold — Yeah, yeah, I’ve mentioned this on other lists. Still amazing. But pay close attention, if you want to understand what’s happening.
  2. The Little Drummer Girl — No, not the recent TV show — the movie, with Diane Keaton. This one has gotten way too little attention over the years, but it’s about as pure a spy film as you’ll find: A reluctant agent is recruited by the Mossad (the part about the recruitment is the best part of the original novel) to go as deep as you can get into a Palestinian terrorist cell. I have it on DVD, but it was hard to find. If you can get ahold of it, see it. And yeah, Le Carre again. What can I say?
  3. The Lives of Others — OK, this is really marginal as a spy movie — it’s about domestic surveillance by the internal security organ of a totalitarian state, rather than the collection of information about another country — but it’s close enough, and I wanted to put it on the list just in case you haven’t seen it. Oh, yeah, it’s in German. (Yeah, Hollywood, I know: The Rock is way more bankable than Ulrich Mühe.)
  4. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy — The film was really good, but you need to see the TV show, with Alec Guinness. This is my way of urging you to do that. Also “Smiley’s People,” if you can get ahold of it. OK, no more le Carre mentions.
  5. The Third Man — More about a murder mystery and black-market crime than espionage if I recall correctly, but the setting is so perfect — Vienna right after the war, the place where Cold War spies first cut their teeth. It’s the atmosphere, you see, more than the plot, that gets it on the list.

I’d have put “The Courier” on there, but I’d already mentioned it.

Speaking of “The Third Man” — if you try googling “most realistic spy movies,” you’ll get some excellent flicks that are not on my list because they’re not spy movies. Like “Munich.” The thing is, while you see a lot of intelligence-gathering and some interesting tradecraft and truckloads of moral ambiguity, it’s a movie about a team of assassins, not your usual sort of spies.

Which brings me to something we could discuss all day: “The Bourne Identity.” I really, really liked it (although not really the sequels), even though it contains, in refined forms, some of the stuff I despised above — the super-violent figure, who has skills rising to the superhero level. But you see, it’s not a “spy” movie. It’s a thriller about people who have been re-engineered as super-assassins. Not the same thing. It’s really more from the paranoia genre — you know, the “what if powerful people in dark corners of the government were secretly doing horrible things” genre. Like “Three Days of the Condor,” which was also a lot of fun. But not a spy movie…

OK, one last honorable mention: Have you seen “The Ipcress File?” Well, you should — just so you’ll know where Austin Powers got his glasses. It’s an interesting mix of serious spy stuff and the smart-ass attitude that made the better “comical” films work. But more than that, as I’ve probably said multiple times before, go read the book. It’s the one that turned me on to spy fiction, and I’d like to see my friends get hooked as well…

Where Austin got his specs...

Where Austin got his specs…

 

‘Carl… what have you done?’

Switching to lighter subjects… (Actually, I had written most of it much earlier, and was nearly done with it over the weekend, but set it aside to work on the Afghanistan post. Since it was just sitting here, I’m posting it.)

In many ways, the TV commercial has had its day, and that day was a long time ago. Personally, I don’t even see as many of them as most people do. I generally don’t watch TV news, and since I’m seldom offered a baseball game on the few broadcast channels I get, I don’t see much sports. And beyond those two things, I can’t think of any reason anyone would watch live, commercial TV.

But I do watch Hulu sometimes, and since it’s not a premium account, I do see ads. And mostly, I’m unimpressed, if not put off entirely after seeing these things over and over (remind me never, ever to drink Grand Marnier, not that I think you’ll need to). I can tell the makers of these things are trying really, really hard — too hard, really. They try so hard to be creative, I often can’t tell you afterward what the product was they were trying to sell. Other times, I wish I couldn’t tell — such as the one with the young guy who sits there and earnestly explains that he started a company to help people with “erectile dysfunction” because of his own problems getting things up and going. Which. I. Did. Not. Need. To. Know. (By the way, I hope y’all appreciate my sacrifice here. I did a couple of searches to find a link to that ad, not knowing the guy’s name or the name of his company, so you know what the internet is going to be showing me from here on out, every time I look at a screen…)

But there are highlights. Geico can still, occasionally, make a good one. And sometimes they outdo themselves. The one they call “Lining the Field” is the best since the wonderful “Was Abe Lincoln Honest?” spot. And that’s saying a lot.

I don’t know who the genius was who decided they had to do an ad using the song “Build Me Up Buttercup,” but the Geico team took several stabs at it — and then, surprisingly, actually released several of them instead of just the best one. The others are… OK. (Here’s one. Here’s another. There are more.) But this one is brilliant. They just got so many things exactly right.

So many things that, when I first thought about writing about this a couple of months ago, I kept putting it off because there were so many things to mention, and, you know, it’s a pretty lightweight, silly topic. But pop culture interests me, and one of the things about it that interests me is the way I can hear a pop song my whole life, and then suddenly, I realize for the first time how awesome it is. And I wonder what causes that to happen. I’ve written about it before (in another lightweight post that took a LOT of time to write). Is it that my judgment has matured? Some new chemical in my brain? Or had I just not heard it in a sufficiently appealing context?

Anyway, this ad was kind of a multimedia earworm, and here are some of the reasons it grabbed me:

  • First, the song. Remember it? If you’re my age you certainly do, but I don’t recall ever taking the slightest notice of it before. I didn’t even know who wrote or performed it. When I first saw the ad and started thinking about it, I thought: East-coast beach music. It sounded like something out of the same moment and place as “Can’t Help Myself” — something that was on the radio constantly when I was at the Grand Strand in 1965. And now that I was listening to it for once, I realized it rivaled that Four Tops masterpiece in sheer pop awesomeness. But it wasn’t the Four Tops. It wasn’t even beach music, East Coast or West. “Build Me Up Buttercup” came out at the end of 1968! And it was by, of all things, a British band that hadn’t even existed in ’65 — The Foundations! This demonstrated the extraordinary degree to which I had ignored the song at the time. Since we moved every year or two when I was a kid, I can usually remember when a song was a hit by recalling where I heard it. But that didn’t work at all with this.
  • The Foundations — I knew nothing about them! So I started Googling, and right away found another great song I had ignored at the time: “Baby Now That I’ve Found You.” Yeah, it’s a lot like the other one — so much so that when both of them were stuck in my head (a double-earworm!) when I was at the beach in June, one would pop up and I’d have to softly sing a few lines to myself, walking along the shore, to remember which one it was. (Is this the one from the ad or the other one?) But I’m not complaining. None of their other songs reached out and grabbed me in the same way, but I’m happy just to have fully recalled and finally embraced these two.
  • Syncopation? I’ve learned quite a few things over the last 67 years or so. As have y’all. Or most of y’all, anyway. 🙂 But there are some things that, try as I might, I’ve just never gotten straight in my head. A lot of them have to do with music, and one of them is “syncopation.” But I keep trying to wrestle with it. For instance, listening over and over to “Build Me Up Buttercup,” I focused on the hesitation in the opening lines, the pause in lyrics after “build me up”– and again after “let me down” — and I thought, is that syncopation? But I don’t think so. I read the descriptions of the musical phenomenon the word describes, and I really don’t think so. I tried looking it up, again. I watched a video or two, and I thought this one was good. So that’s syncopation, huh? Yeah, it sort of fits the descriptions I’ve read. That’s not what’s going on in the song, I don’t think — is it? I looked at the sheet music, and didn’t see any indication something unusual was happening in the beat structure. (But can you see syncopation on sheet music? Maybe not.) What my brain perceives as hesitation (since I’m a word guy, who thinks in terms of complete sentences) is apparently just space for the background vocal. I think. But I could be wrong. Maybe it is syncopation that creates that hook that pulls you right into the song. But I can’t tell. My damaged brain isn’t up to the task. Of course, it wasn’t back before it was damaged, either. Whatever it is, I like it.
  • Casting. I have no idea who the actor who plays Carl is. (So far, Google hasn’t told me; I’ve tried.) But he’s amazing. I’m not saying he’s necessarily an amazing actor in general — he might not make an impression in a Shakespearean production. But he’s perfect for this. Or maybe it’s not him. Maybe it’s the direction, or the skillful editing. But the dialogue is perfect, and perfectly delivered: “Think anyone will notice?… Yeah. (hesitation). Yeah they will.” He’s not tearing himself apart with remorse or anything; he’s just acknowledging a point, with complete honesty. The comic timing is exactly right. Which could be all him, or could be the one out of 100 takes that the makers of the ad chose. But it’s great.
  • The helmet. Of course, “Carl” is hilarious way before that, before you even know what’s really going on. That unbelievably goofy smile as he, in his imagination, rides his bike down the curving road and really, really gets into singing the song. Not just the smile, but the way he bobs up and down over the handlebars and cocks his head to the side as he sings “and mess me around…” Just digging it. So, more good work by the actor. But you know what? I think the helmet adds a lot to it. It makes him look so different from the guy lining the field (even though his hair is kind of helmet-like) that it almost introduces an element of imperfection to the ad, since your brain has to adjust a bit to realize it’s still him. Especially since in his imagination, his smile is even goofier, has an entirely different quality, as he rides down the road. But helmets can do that. They often make people look wildly different, and hilarious in surprising ways. Just ask poor Michael Dukakis. Perhaps this is why all those goofballs protest against helmet laws. They’d rather have their brains splattered on the pavement than look like that.

OK, I’ll stop now.

I’m (rather obviously) not writing this as some kind of expert on TV commercials. Because I’m not. Oh, I wrote a few forgettable spots for an ADCO client several years back. But I’m a writer and an editor, and that’s about it.

But I know what I like, and I often spend a ridiculous amount of time thinking about why I like some scrap of ephemera that zips past me as I go through life. This one’s been loitering in my head most of the summer, and I thought I’d go ahead and try to evict it…

"... and mess me around..."

“… and mess me around…”

 

DeMarco: Anderson, I’d Like Conservative Backlash for $1600

The Op-Ed Page

Picture3

Editor’s note: What, Paul again already! Well, yeah. He actually sent me this one before I’d actually posted the one on the statues. I didn’t read this one until after I’d done that. I should have posted this one first, because it’s more perishable. The statue one was pretty evergreen. Oh, well. I’m making up for it by going ahead and posting this now.

By Paul V. DeMarco
Guest Columnist

And the answer is: the Daily Double! It was bound to happen; now even “Jeopardy!,” perhaps the least offensive television show on the market (in a tie with “Bubble Guppies”) is in the crosshairs of our ever-expanding culture wars.

At the beginning of the show that aired April 27, three-day champion Kelly Donohue did something heinous. He (get ready) held up three fingers and tapped his chest. Scandalous. In the usually awkward opening montage, most contestants stare directly into the camera with a stale smile as they are introduced. Donohue did a little business after each of his three wins, holding up one, then two, then three fingers on successive nights. (I know, can you believe this guy?)

The position of his hand (commonly known as the “OK” sign) has until recently had positive connotations. In 2017, some white supremacists began using the gesture as a white power symbol – the three extended fingers are the “W” and the middle finger plus the index finger/thumb circle are the “P.” It would be interesting to know how widely known the malevolent interpretation of the “OK” symbol is. I suspect it would be less than the majority. I first learned about it in December 2019, when several Naval Academy midshipmen and West Point cadets were falsely accused of flashing the sign during ESPN’s broadcast of the Army-Navy football game (turns out they were playing the circle game).

In response to Donohue’s gesture, a harshly critical letter was posted the next day (the next day!) on Medium that has now been signed by almost 600 former “Jeopardy!” contestants. I have reprinted parts of the letter with my comments in italics. It reads in part, “(His) gesture was not a clear-cut symbol for the number three (only if you wanted to see something different)… This, whether intentional or not (your intent, no matter how benign, matters less than my thin-skinned interpretation), resembled very closely a gesture that has been coopted by white power groups… People of color, religious minorities, and other marginalized groups already live in a United States and a Canada that have structural and institutional racism, sexism, antisemitism, ableism, homophobia, and transphobia embedded into their history and function (you have mistaken his gesture for a white power symbol. But don’t miss a chance to connect him with multiple OTHER forms of discrimination)… These people deal with microaggressions nearly every day of their lives (So let’s fight a perceived microaggression with an 1,176-word macroaggression to make ourselves feel superior)… We cannot stand up for hate… Is the production team of Jeopardy! prepared for… the backlash and ramifications should one of those moments ever become tied to real-world violence? (I’m envisioning an army of white supremacists hitting the books so they too can qualify for “Jeopardy!” and influence the masses with coded symbols. And when you play the tape backwards, you can faintly hear the “14 Words.”)… We would like to know whether a sensitivity and diversity auditor is involved in the show’s writing (Sigh…).”

Listen my “Jeopardy!” friends, I’m on your team. America is engaging in a long-awaited racial reckoning. So much good is happening. Faces long ignored are being seen and celebrated; voices long silenced are being amplified and uplifted. Black women and men are finally coming to center stage, to full citizenship. It is, in my view, an unequivocally marvelous development. I am nothing but grateful for and supportive of honoring the achievements of people of color as well as an unflinching look at our history and the obligations that history engenders.

But many white Americans are not yet comfortable with this new consciousness. They want to marginalize the participants in this movement as a “woke leftist mob.” My sense as a white ally is that most people, black and white, who support the new Civil Rights movement are even-tempered and sensible. But the untethered assumptions, anger, and lack of charity conveyed in this letter do not reflect well on them and do not help our effort.

If you, “Jeopardy!” letter writers, were concerned about Donohue’s gesture, why not just reach out to him quietly and personally. His story is certainly believable. He was making the number “3” with his fingers after having made “1” and “2” on previous days. He has the zeitgeist on his side; the iPhone still includes an “OK” hand emoji. It takes a conspiratorial mind to assume that his motive for appearing on “Jeopardy!” was to win three games and flash a white power symbol.

We who want to advance racial justice should understand that it’s a hearts-and-minds effort. Think of how much more effective you would have been if you had reached out to Donohue and he had written a Facebook post beginning “It’s been pointed out to me that….” What if he didn’t say anything? Then you don’t say anything. You let this one go, because an objective observer would tell you he didn’t mean anything by it.

We would do well to exercise a little restraint. If you want to be a civil rights advocate, pattern yourself after the young John Lewis. He and other students underwent rigorous training in non-violence to prepare for lunch counter sit-ins. They knew they were right so they sat down and said nothing. That silence was more important than anything they could have spoken.

Remaining silent is, of course, not always the most effective option. We must speak when real injustice is being done. But you are playing a self-righteous game of “Gotcha,” and hurting our cause.

Your letter has convinced no one to come over to the movement. You have only given fodder to the conservative media outlets such as Fox and the Wall Street Journal to rightly lampoon you. The WSJ’s May 2 editorial defending Donohue and castigating your “manic search for racial guilt” is entitled “Jeopardy: Mass Hysteria for $2,000.” Hey, you say, you plagiarized your headline from them. Nope, as Brad is my witness, I titled my piece the day before the WSJ piece. The response to this kind of foolishness is deservedly predictable.

More dishearteningly, you have alienated some of those who were leaning our way. You have humiliated Donohue, who based on his Facebook post was an ally. Cudgeling Donohue has no effect on true racists. They are usually unreachable. Ignore them. Focus on the fair-minded who are feeling threatened but could be convinced that America still has much work to do before we reach the Promised Land.

Our fair-minded opponents must be respected and not treated as enemies. When they see you treating an ally in this manner, they have no reason to come over to our side.

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It’s the EM-50 — the Urban Assault Vehicle!

And remember what Sgt. Hulka said: "this ain't no glamour detail we're on."

And remember what Sgt. Hulka said: “this ain’t no glamour detail we’re on.”

In a recent comment, Bob Amundson promised to send me a picture of his new Urban Assault Vehicle, a la “Stripes.”

True to his word, he did, and here’s what he had to say about it:

I’ve been meaning to email you since you posted with a mention of the movie Stripes. Attached is a photo of a REAL EM-50 Urban Assault Vehicle, which I own. The FMC Motorhome has an interesting lineage; FMC is the acronym for Food Machinery Corporation. FMC started in 1883, kept adding mechanized products, and eventually started producing amphibious vehicles for the military. During a lull in its military vehicle contracts as the Vietnam War ended, FMC turned its sights towards recreational vehicles; FMC coaches were manufactured from 1973-1976. The well-made and pricey coaches that sold for between $27,000 and $54,500 (about the same price as an average home of that era) were popular among upscale Motorhome buyers, including race car drivers Mario Andretti and Parnelli Jones; and entertainers Clint Eastwood, Carol Burnett, Pat Boone and James Brolin. But the most famous FMC owner was CBS reporter Charles Kuralt, host of the popular news feature On the Road With Charles Kuralt. By 1975, FMC had a contract to produce the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, and in September 1976 converted all tooling in its factory to the manufacture of tanks. The final tally for the FMC was slightly more than 1,000 units; there is believed to be 7-800 units still out there.

Ours is a 1975 – it is built like a military vehicle, especially the 4 wheel independent suspension and 440 turbocharged MOPAR engine. This vehicle actually has a bullet hole in it – the story is that the vehicle was confiscated at the US-Canadian Border after a gun battle between Border Police and Drug Runners. It has a fiberglass body, so for it’s size, it is relatively light. I am going to make it into an Urban Assault Vehicle; “wrapping” the fiberglass body to mimic the Stripes UAV. Throw in a few machine guns, probably a rocket launcher. We will completely renovate the interior – state of the art, top of the line, small, efficient. Once that is done, wife Joan and I will take a trip. Maybe TV? Marketing will lead to renting the UAV – I just need to figure out how much I can charge!

The ”REAL” EM-50 UAV was a GMC Motorhome, and about 36,000 of those we made. I think my find is cooler, and I found it less than a mile from our RV Park. Another time I’ll tell you about the classic 1965 Airstream Travel Trailer I bought from the Park’s neighbor. It has a “GRIMM” story.

Heal soon!

So it’s almost ready to roll, and as I look around at you people, I’m thinking, “These are exactly the kind of go-getters I want working on my EM-50 project in Italy!”

Is anyone actually watching the Oscars tonight? If so, why?

Why don't I watch the Oscars? Because this.

Why don’t I watch the Oscars? Because this.

I know that the awards show is on, because I’ve seen signs of it on social media. Also I’ve been reading about the Oscars in various newspapers for the past week, and that’s always a warning sign.

I used to love the Oscars, but I haven’t followed them in more than 20 years. I think it was 1998 when they gave the best picture statuette to “Shakespeare in Love.” That was an amusing, fun little light entertainment. But to choose that over such a masterpiece as “Saving Private Ryan,” or such a jewel as “Life is Beautiful,” was obscene. (The other nominees were junk, so I don’t care about them.)

Everything that is wrong about the Academy Awards was brought out on that night, particularly Hollywood’s absorption with itself. Hey, a fun movie about actors! Bound to win, right? That Harvey Weinstein had something to do with this travesty, of course, makes it much worse.

I wrote a column about it at the time which I’ve not finding a link to. But here’s a blog post where I summarized my indignation. (I think I’ve moaned about it several times here, but that was the first such instance I found.)

Perhaps you feel differently. Perhaps you actually care who won what in this year that no one went to the movies. Perhaps you’d like to share your views. And maybe you can help restore some of the enthusiasm I once had for these events.

Probably not, but please give it a shot. I’d like to be able to enjoy this stuff again…

‘Any a you sumbitches calls me grandpa…’

grandpa

My wife cut my hair last night, and we decided on something new — instead of using a No. 7 guard on the top and a 4 on the sides, we went with 4 all over. A lot of white hair fell, I can tell you. This is probably the shortest my hair has ever been, at least since the Beatles came to America in 1964.

Afterwards, regarding myself in the mirror before showering, I thought I looked familiar.sam as sgt maj

Oh, yeah… Sam Elliott in “We Were Soldiers.” Except his hair was a bit longer than mine — the damn’ hippy…

By the way, unlike the sergeant major, I have no problem with being referred to as a grandfather. And I won’t kill anybody over it. I actually think being a grandfather is pretty great. That was just the first quote that came to mind. It’s at 1:20 on the clip below.

Just don’t try to tell me what a nice day we’re having.

Anybody notice that that bit of dialogue seems ripped off from “Stripes?” Never mind. If the sergeant major ever actually said it, he did it long before “Stripes.” And he had every right to. I wouldn’t have argued with him…

Top Five Fictional Detectives

detectives

– “Who is your favourite person from history?”
– “Sherlock Holmes.”
– “Well, he’s fictional.”
– “Whoa! I think you’d better check your facts there. Fictional? Who took care of the business with the giant dog that was eating everybody? It wasn’t Watson. Don’t tell me, I suppose he was fictional too? Maybe there was no giant dog….”

— The IT Crowd

I was kind of excited, initially, about the interactive feature I found Sunday on my Washington Post app.

The headline was “Pick the best fictional detective,” and it was presented in an interactive graphic meant to evoke the NCAA tournament “brackets” that everyone (even I, despite my lack of enthusiasm for sports) filled out mere days ago.

So, you know, if you enjoy both mysteries and sports, it was extra fun. A cool idea.

But this is no proper way to figure out even who you, yourself, think are the best detectives, much less who the best actually are. (For instance, say two of your five best detectives face each other in the first round — that means one of your top five gumshoes won’t even make the top 32, assuming you’re starting with 64. That’s not right. No way it’s right. It’s a false system of selection. With basketball, it works. Not with detectives.) Another problem is that too few of my fave detectives were even on the bracket in the first round.

The only professional, scientific way to determine the top dicks is to draft an actual Top Five list, and then argue about it with everybody. Stands to reason. The immemorial custom of the blog, and so forth…

Coming up, I was never a big fan of mysteries. I wasn’t an Agatha Christie enthusiast. Nor was I into Conan Doyle, even though I always enjoyed the Basil Rathbone movies. I just wasn’t that much of an admirer of formulaic fiction. Just as I’m not big into blues, or reggae. To me, the songs just sound too much alike. One is fine, but not a whole album. I mean, you know, a blues progression is a blues progression.

Even with Edgar Allen Poe — I preferred the horror stories to “The Purloined Letter.” I got into Poe when I was about 10, and we 5th-graders shared the stories to chill each other’s blood. And “she was buried alive!” does that way better than “the letter was in plain sight!”

But then, things happened. I started reading books that broke the mold, such as Martin Cruz Smith’s wonderfully original thriller Gorky Park and Len Deighton’s alternative history novel SS-GB. And you know what a le Carre fan I am. Well, his first books about George Smiley cast him as a Christiesque amateur solver of mysteries.

And then, along came streaming, and my wife and I got hooked on a range of British murder mysteries and police procedurals. And entirely new forms, such as Nordic noir, and, believe it or not, Welsh noir.

Anyway, here’s the list. I’m sure I’m leaving out somebody awesome, but let’s get the party started:

  1. Arkady Renko — The only Russian in the bunch — almost the only non-Brit, come to think of it — he just blew the doors off the genre when he arrived in Gorky Park, and kept it up over the next few novels. I love a book that puts you in an unfamiliar place and makes it real, and that novel made you feel you were actually in the middle of the Soviet criminal-justice system in the middle of the Cold War — even though Martin Cruz Smith had never been there (just as Patrick O’Brien had never been aboard a Royal Navy frigate during the Napoleonic Wars, but he could absolutely put a reader there). I also think highly of Renko’s American counterpart in the novel, William Kirwill, but it would be cheating to put him on the list, too. Just please don’t picture William Hurt from the movie when you think of Renko. That was a horrendous instance of miscasting. For Renko, you need a Daniel Day-Lewis, to invoke my last Top Five list. He would have been perfect, when he was about 35. Kirwill, however, was perfectly cast — when I was reading the book long before the movie, I was sort of picturing Brian Dennehy.
  2. Sergeant Gerry Boyle — OK, I don’t understand the Irish Garda system all that well, so I’m not sure that Boyle technically is a “detective.” But he’s a good copper, anyway. And again, I’ve got my last Top Five list on my mind, because this was the wonderful, deeply flawed character brought to life by  Brendan Gleeson in “The Guard.” The other night, I watched a few minutes of “48 Hours” — which frankly is about as much of the film as I ever could stand. Anyway, you know the rumpled, interesting character Nick Nolte is trying to play? Gleeson does it right in “The Guard.”
  3. Detective Chief Inspector Gill Murray — The cop show we’re currently obsessed with is “Scott & Bailey,” but I couldn’t choose between Rachel and Janet. Of the two, of course, Janet is the grownup (usually), but I still didn’t want to choose. Anyway, even though she sort of gets third-place billing and isn’t even in the 5th season, Gill is far and away the best cop on the show. Possibly because the actress, Amelia Bullmore, actually wrote some of the episodes, but her character just gets smarter and smarter.
  4. Christopher Foyle — This is the star of “Foyle’s War,” a cool series in so many ways. It’s historical. It’s about WWII. It’s about how life on the home front was affected, and not in the usual way, like folks saving tin cans or whatever. Also, it’s got Honeysuckle Weeks in it, and the fact that Foyle has her as his driver should qualify him alone, if only on the basis of her awesome name.
  5. George Gently — OK, I really debated whether to put this one in the Top Five, but I’m doing it out of frustration as much as anything. It really ticked me off that Prime let us watch the first season “free,” and then cut us off. I hate that. And I’m anxious to see the rest. But he also makes the list because he’s probably the best of a type that you see so much in these productions: the world-weary old hand, filled with almost as much irony and cynicism as investigative skill — of which he has plenty. I just think he does this better than Morse, or Lewis in his modern-day iteration, or Tom Barnaby, or Foyle, or any of those guys. I also think Lee Ingleby — whom Aubrey fans will remember as Hollom in “Master and Commander” — does a great job as his troublesome young assistant.

HONORABLE MENTION (or, to be honest, the next five, because I couldn’t stop)

  • Gene Hunt — There are lot of reasons to say Gene is not a good detective, even the opposite of a good detective, and Sam Tyler mentions most of them at great length, and repetitively, on “Life on Mars.” That’s sort of Sam’s thing, other than being confused about whether he’s a time traveler or just a guy in a coma. But Gene has certain rudimentary, atavistic skills, such as fairly decent gut instinct. And awful as he is, fans of the show eventually get to enjoy Gene as a guilty pleasure. A very guilty pleasure, because he is awful. In fact, he’s so awful that I think it’s kind of a libel on the world of 1973 to say senior cops were like this and got away with it back then. But if you get picky, you won’t enjoy the show anyway. I should also add that this is kind of a Jayne Cobb thing. I call Jayne my favorite character on Firefly because as a grandfather I don’t want to admit it’s really Kaylee. In this case, for Kaylee, substitute Annie Cartwright. She does get to be a detective late in the series, but most of the time, she’s a WPC. I think this picture is of the moment when Sam asks her first name, and she says “Annie!” Which is when the viewer starts to love her.
  • John River — This is my first entrant from the world of Nordic noir. And the ways in which it qualifies as Nordic noir are confusing. It’s set in London. River is a London cop. But he’s played by a Swedish actor. Of course, what makes it noir is the tone. River, you see, talks with dead people, and they talk back. All the time. Which can be an advantage when you’re a cop, if not a fun one. Also playing a key role is Nicola Walker. She’s not a household name — I had to look it up right now — but when she pops up in any role she’s impressive. Here she is as a guest star — playing a pivotal role — on “Scott & Bailey.”
  • Jimmy Perez — This is the protagonist of “Shetland.” I went back and forth on whether to choose him or the semi-hero of the Welsh noir (it was actually originally in the Welsh language, but then released in English) “Hinterland,” Tom Mathias. Both are cops out in the boonies, trying to do a tough job under trying circumstances. Ultimately, I go with Jimmy because he’s more stable.
  • Jimmy McNulty or Bunk Moreland, you decide — I just had to get someone in from what may be the best American cop show of all time, “The Wire.” I thought I’d go with McNulty since he was kind of the star, and because his bend-the-rules detective work got the ball rolling in the first episode. But “McNutty,” as Bubbles, unquestionably the best fictional snitch ever, called him, was a screwup. So I’m offering his partner Bunk as an alternative. Of course, he could be a screwup, too. But they were great together.
  • Douglas Archer — Just to pull someone in from the weird world of alternative history. I initially read this as a Len Deighton (The Ipcress File) fan, but this kind of stands out from his other books. Archer of the Yard is a classic British detective, who in 1941 finds himself working for the SS because the Germans went ahead with their invasion of Britain, and it was successful. And because you still need to catch bad guys, right, even when you’re working for worse guys. This was a great tale — way better than weirdly similar stories like Fatherland (Detective Xavier March, a 1960s cop working in a Germany that did not lose the war, is a sort of combination of Archer and Arkady Renko). I’ve never seen the TV series, because it’s on the premium level of Hulu, and I’m just not going to pay for that. I’ll just say that the actor playing Archer doesn’t look right at all, based on photos I’ve seen.

Yeah, I know — all white guys, except for one lady-type person, and Bunk, who I know you’re already suspecting I snuck in for diversity’s sake. (But I didn’t. Bunk’s awesome.) Yeah, well…. I just couldn’t get into “Luther,” as great as Idris Elba is. Speaking of Bunk and Elba — the thing about “The Wire” is that the best characters were not the cops. In fact, by far the best character in the show was an armed robber. And Omar was not only black, but gay, if you’re keeping score. Unfortunately, this is a detectives list.

And I considered a bunch of women, and almost put Marcella on the list. She’s fascinating. But man, that series really took Nordic noir (although it was set in England) to some weird places, and we got to where we couldn’t watch anymore. And while I’m somewhat intrigued by Chloé Saint-Laurent on the French cop series “Profilage,” she’s technically not a detective, and I’ve only seen her in two episodes so far, so I don’t yet know how good she is.

And no, Jackie Brown, about whom I thought for a second, wasn’t a detective. If I were doing a Top Five Flight Attendants List, she’d be a great candidate. Along with Elaine Dickinson

Oh, but wait! Back to “The Wire”… “Beadie” Russell was awesome! And she sorta became a detective during the course of the series, right? There are just too many fictional detectives out there for me to know where to stop. If I did this again next week, my Top Five might be five completely different people…

This streaming thing is great, but not as great as it should be

There's Gene Hunt! I don't know who the woman is, though...

There’s Gene Hunt! I don’t know who the woman is, though…

What a fascinating modern age we live in.

Now, you can get almost music, movie or TV you want and experience it in seconds.

Except when you can’t.

And the times when you can’t sort of drive you nuts. Or they do me.

I mentioned one of the services I subscribe to, BritBox, in a comment on a previous post. One of the main reasons I signed up for for BritBox — which is only five or six bucks a month — was so I could watch the whole two seasons of “Life on Mars” again. Which, in the months since I signed up, I’ve already done twice. It’s also handy to have because my wife and I both enjoy British cop shows, like “Scott & Bailey” (which we’ve actually been watching on Prime, but never mind) and comedies like “Upstart Crow.”

Anyway, at some point in recent years I heard about the sequel series to “Life on Mars,” which was called “Ashes to Ashes.” Nothing I ever read about it made me want to see it very much — the plot sounds contrived in a particularly convoluted way. But then, if I’d read a description of “Life on Mars” before seeing it, I might not have known I’d enjoy it, either.

Anyway, “Ashes” has some key characters from “Mars,” such as Philip Glenister as Gene Hunt, Dean Andrews as Ray Carling, and Marshall Lancaster as Chris Skelton. It didn’t have the star from “Mars,” John Simm, but that’s fine. I’m more concerned that it doesn’t seem to have Liz White as Annie Cartwright. Her I miss.

But I’ve wanted to see it anyway, so periodically I go Googling for it. And the other day, I thought I’d hit the jackpot! Check it out: There it is, on BritBox! Sure, I’d searched for it there before without success, but there it was…

So I immediately went to the tube here in my home office, called up BritBox on the Roku, and… there it wasn’t. Every way I tried searching for it after logging into my account, on the Roku or my phone or my laptop — no, it does not come up.

Of course, I didn’t want to click on the “Try for free” button on that page, because they’d want me to create an account and I already had one. And for some reason, when I tried to “sign in” on that page, I couldn’t get in. I had to come in some other way (I forget how, but it probably involved opening a different tab).

I don’t understand it. If it used to be on BritBox, but isn’t any more, why does this page still come up?

OK, I see in the URL that this is https://www.britbox.co.uk/, whereas the login that works is on https://www.britbox.com/us/. But what difference should that make? Isn’t this the WORLDWIDE Web? Do ones and zeroes have to show a passport at national boundaries?

You wouldn’t think so. But I had a huge surprise when I was in Thailand. We were in Kanchanaburi, the home of the real-life bridge on the River Kwai, and I wanted to show my daughter the movie on Netflix, and… you couldn’t watch Netflix in Thailand. Yeah, I understand they have such oppressive barriers in Red China, but Thailand? Turns out Netflix wasn’t available just everywhere you have internet. (Although I think Thailand has it now.)

I dunno. I just want to watch the TV show. And no, I’m not going to shell out $259.99 for the DVDs to watch something in which I have a mild interest. I mean, who does that today anyway? This is 2021….

They got me sorted good and proper, but I still can't see the show...

They got me sorted good and proper, but I still can’t see the show…

Top Five Irish Actors

Lincoln

Best on the list — and I didn’t even have him pegged as Irish

I was thinking about doing a rant against Identity Politics, which I still might do if I find time today or tonight, because now that Trump’s gone, it seems to be all we can talk about (the argument over motivations in the Atlanta shooting, this business over who gets to play on girls’ teams in school, the unrelated battle over whether enough resources are committed to female sport on the college level, etc.) when there are far, far more important things we could be talking about (the deteriorating relations with China and Russia, the Biden administration’s upcoming $3 trillion spending plan — yes, that number is correct — and a host of other things that I won’t mention because this parenthetical, and the sentence of which it is a part, are both far too long now).

But that would take a long time, and I have less than zero time available for it. So I’ll go completely in the opposite direction. Earlier, I randomly ran across a picture of Maureen O’Sullivan as Jane in a Tarzan movie, and idly thought, “Whose Ma was she again?” (Mia Farrow’s, for the curious.) And I found on Wikipedia that she was listed No. 8 on a list in The Irish Times of “The 50 greatest Irish film actors of all time – in order.”

So of course I had to look at it, so I could disagree with it. And not just with the fact that it’s undisciplined to list 50 when the proper number is five.

Anyway, just choosing from this list of 50 (there could be others, but I’m not going to spend time thinking about it), here’s my five. I’ll start with my apologies for not putting Maureen O’Hara at No. 1 the way they did, or even on the list. I mean no disrespect to the lady. Here’s my list:

  1. Daniel Day-Lewis — First, I had no idea he was Irish. I thought he was a Brit. But he’s definitely the best. Interestingly, some of my favorite performances by him were as iconic American figures: Abraham Lincoln, the ultimate frontiersman Natty Bumpo, and violent nativist Bill the Butcher. They had him at No. 2, behind Ms. O’Hara, but he’s the best.
  2. Kenneth Branagh — Also would have pegged him as a Brit. He certainly impersonates one well. He can be overbearing, but the man can act. I agree with them that he was most impressive as Henry V. But they were wrong to put him way down at No. 20 on the list.
  3. Brendan Gleeson — He’s just magic in everything. If you haven’t seen it, try to find The Guard and stream it. He’s great. They had him at 18.
  4. Maria Doyle Kennedy — You may remember her as the hottest of the Commitmentettes. (Yes, I know Angeline Ball — in the center in that picture — was the prettiest, but I found Maria, whom you see to Angeline’s right as well as below, more appealing.) They had her at 46, and she deserves much better. She’d probably have been higher, except that — and this bugs me — you so seldom see her. But occasionally she’ll crop up where you don’t expect her — as Catherine of Aragon in “The Tudors” or Siobhán Sadler in “Orphan Black.”
  5. Chris O’Dowd — OK, he’s no Daniel Day-Lewis, or even particularly great at all, but I’m a huge fan of “The IT Crowd,” and I don’t think it gets enough attention, so I’m promoting him from where they put him, at 39. Mind you, if Richard Ayoade were in any way Irish, I’d have included him on my list — there’s a guy you don’t see enough, even less than Maria.

Honorable mention, with their ranks on the Times’ list:

8. Maureen O’Sullivan

9. Michael Fassbender

11. Barry Fitzgerald

24. Colm Meaney

That’s it. Back to work…

My favorite Commitmentette.

My favorite Commitmentette.

Summing up the culture of 2021, in a headline

I assure you I didn’t read this story this morning, but the headline did grab me:

emotional

That headline should go into a time capsule — if people still do time capsules (actually, why would they, when Future People should be able to check out our times, digitally, in excruciating detail, the poor creatures?).

Talk about quickly summing up the ills and obsessions of our culture in 2021: “In an emotional finale, Bachelor Matt James breaks up with the winner over racially insensitive social media posts.” Admittedly, it doesn’t get everything in, but hey, give it a break! It’s just a headline. And for a humble headline, give it credit. It works in:

  • Reality TV. I doubt Future People will understand the current American affinity for this genre — at least I hope not, because I hope they’ll be smarter than we are — but it pretty much pegs our time. Putting it in the capsule as a way of saying, “No, we can’t explain it to you, but take our word for it — people actually liked this stuff.” You know, it’ll be like pole sitting seems today — stupid and pointless, but we knew people used to do it.
  • Emotion. It’s not just a finale — so don’t miss it! — but an “emotional” finale. Which, at least on paper, makes an attempt to explain Reality TV. It says, “People like this because it appeals to their emotions.” And I suppose that’s as good as any explanation. I mean, it certainly isn’t appealing to their minds. (By the way, the one word that seems out of place here is “finale.” That seems more like something people got excited about in a previous time, before streaming. I mean, I’m supposing there was excitement when the last episode of “The West Wing” aired. But I didn’t start watching it — and watching it and watching it — until years later. Oh, and remind me in a separate post to share my indignation over the series leaving Netflix…)
  • Intrusion into things that are none of our business. I really don’t get dating as a spectator sport, but boy is it popular. I really appreciate the coverage of actual news that Jeff Bezos has invested in at this newspaper, but there’s other stuff on my app that just occupies screen space — such as a weekly feature called “Date Lab.” Really? Why do I want to know how things went on a date some strangers had? How is that any of my business? Why is a staff writer spending time on this? And what’s the appeal to readers? Hey, I’ve been there. I actually did some dating, back in the ’60s and early ’70s, and it wasn’t anything I want to relive, even vicariously. But obviously, plenty of people do. Maybe that’s the appeal: Schadenfreude. It’s other people undergoing the awkward ordeal…
  • Race. Hey, if “racially insensitive” doesn’t pull them in in 2021, nothing will. Once again, I’m being optimistic — way optimistic — but it would be nice if that makes the Future People scratch their heads, wondering what all that race stuff was about. (Yeah, I know how unrealistic that is. I foolishly thought we had that sorted out back in the ’60s, then along came Trump, etc.)
  • Cancel culture. Whatever it was that was said, it caused this guy to “break up” with the person who said it. People who attend events like CPAC love talking about that, so it’s a definite audience draw.
  • Social media. Here I go being outrageously optimistic again, but maybe in the future they’ll look back on social media the way we look upon, I don’t know, telegrams. Or carving messages on stone tablets. Or pole-sitting. Maybe they’ll be over it. I’m hoping people will not only still know how to read, but will be into Long-Form Journalism or Dostoevsky novels or whatever.

Anyway, that’s what I thought when I saw that headline. So congratulations, headline writer. You encapsulated our times as neatly as a Nashville songwriter sums up country music in a song titled, “My Woman Done Left me and Took My Dog, and I’m Drinking My Sorrows Away.” No, wait, I forgot to work my pickup truck into that…

Eleanor Roosevelt as a game show contestant

Eleanor

No, I am not making this up.

I was looking up something entirely unrelated on YouTube when it suggested this to me. Which kind of startled me.

You know, I was ragging on current TV the other day, when I encountered a new twist on the unfortunately familiar realm of Reality TV:

In case you don’t know what that is, count yourself blessed. But I was referring to this. It’s the collision of two national obsessions: Reality TV and sports. In other words, it’s a fake sport, being treated as “reality.”

But this thing I encountered today reminds me that once upon a time, game shows were occasionally interesting. And when I say “once upon a time,” I see that this installment originally aired exactly 15 days after I was born — and before most of y’all came along. So I remember “What’s My Line?,” but not this episode.

Of course, even though the host answered the panel’s first few questions — since panelist would easily have recognized the contestant’s voice — Dorothy Kilgallen figured out who it was fairly quickly.

Wow. I wonder how this appearance came about. Eleanor Roosevelt as a game show contestant? This is weirder than Bill Clinton playing the sax on Arsenio’s show

Dorothy Kilgallen

Dorothy Kilgallen

Best and Worst Comics (in The State, currently)

Not great, but not bad, either, considering this is 2021.

Not great, but not bad, either, considering this is 2021.

I hated having to add those qualifiers — (in The State, currently) — because it’s sort of lame limiting oneself to the comics in one paper at a given moment.

You find yourself leaving out legendarily good and bad comics from over the years — from “Calvin and Hobbes,” which is unquestionably the best strip in history, down to lame ones such as … I don’t know… “Snuffy Smith,” or “Kathy.” Or “the Yellow Kid,” for that matter.

Also, y’all know I believe strongly in the Nick Hornby Top Five principle, and if I limit myself to what’s in The State now, it’s hard to come up with that many, for best or worst.

But here’s the thing: These are the only comics I’ve regularly seen, for decades. I subscribe to several newspapers, but since I read them through the apps, I never see the comics — if they have comics.

So for those reasons, while I’ve wanted to compile such a list, or pair of lists, for years, I’ve repeatedly put it off. But now, I see The State is about to revamp the comics, so it’s now or never. (“The State is refreshing our comics and puzzles offerings beginning Monday,” an email ominously announced Friday.) If I’m going to pass judgment on the ones we know, it must be done now.

So, let’s start with the “best,” which is a short list, and a sad one. This is a dying art form (a subset of a dying industry), and has been for some time. At the end of 2020, there was a good piece in The Washington Post about “1995, the year that comics changed forever.” It was accompanied by another headlined, “‘Calvin and Hobbes’ said goodbye 25 years ago. Here’s why Bill Watterson’s masterwork enchants us still.” I recommend them both.

There has been nothing nearly as good on comics pages since that fateful year a quarter-century ago. The first story I mention above reminds us that Watterson ended “Calvin & Hobbes,” Gary Larson stopped doing “The Far Side,” and Berkeley Breathed, the creator of “Bloom County,” abandoned his Sunday-only “Bloom County” spinoff, “Outland” — all in that same year, 1995.

It’s one of the tragedies of the genre that they quit the way they did — although maybe that’s why we remember their work so fondly. They deliberately quit before sliding into the habitual monotony of cranking out repetitive garbage decade after decade — which regularly happened, because once a strip was established, it didn’t have to maintain any standards. Newspaper readers, back when such existed, were creatures of habit who would howl if their familiar strips disappeared.

We all would have been right to howl, though, in 1995. We’ve had an occasional chuckle since then, but not the everyday brilliance to which we were once accustomed.

Here are the best that are left, in this one paper. While they are nothing like the great stuff we once knew, these two rise far above the best:

  1. “Overboard.” It was launched in 1990, and we started running it in The State almost right away. I remember Jim Foster, then the features editor, bringing proofs of it for me to see. I was delighted — while they weren’t “Calvin and Hobbes,” they were really good. I have tried many times to Google my favorite from that era, without luck. It went like this: Two of the pirates are standing by their ship’s rail. I think one is drinking coffee. Otherwise, they’re doing nothing, which is fairly standard with these guys. Another pirate comes and stands on the rail, preparing to swim. He asks the first two whether those are shark fins or dolphin fins down there. One of them says, “Dolphin,” and the swimmer dives in. The pirate who said “dolphin” turns to the other and says, “Like we’re ichthyologists or something….” Now I’m not saying this strip is still as good as it was. (OK, so maybe you needed to see it.) But it still stands out, even though it has resorted to one of the oldest shifts in the book: moving largely from the pirates to concentrating on personified dogs, cats, mice and sharks. But it’s still mildly amusing, and that’s remarkable these days.
  2. “Dilbert.” A lot of people adored this when it came out. I thought that reaction was a bit much. I saw it as good, but even within the limited class of workplace satire, I didn’t like it as much as, say, Mike Judge’s “Office Space.” (Which was brilliant.) But as I say, it was good, and it has stayed almost as good as it started out being. Which is always remarkable, and rare, which is why Watterson quit at the peak of his game — he wanted Calvin and his tiger to be remembered at that level. Scott Adams soldiered on, and hasn’t fallen completely on his face yet, except in the area of political commentary. So he deserves credit for that. By the way, I thought I saw some significant changes in the title character’s arc this past year: Did you notice that during the COVID crisis, the formerly deadpan Dilbert started occasionally getting really frazzled and upset? Like, freaking out? Maybe it’s just my imagination. But I need to say this for Adams: He and Chip Dunham of Overboard did more with the pandemic than any other strip that I paid attention to.

There are miles between those and any others. I still look at “Peanuts” every day, out of respect. Even though they’re all reruns, I’m a traditionalist, and Charles M. Schulz was doing fine work back when no one else was. Looking around further on that page, I can remember when “Zits” was occasionally amusing, but that was a long time ago.

It’s been a quite some time since “Doonesbury” has appeared in the daily comics. (Based on the Sunday version, we’re not missing much. It lost the raw freshness that made it something special in the early days, decades and decades ago.)

Now, for the worst. This is tough, and the competition is fierce. Two lie far below the others, and I’m likely to pick either as worst depending on my mood. But at the moment, I say:

  1. “Funky Winkerbean.” This was always, always awful, even in its original iteration. Remember when it was a high school “comedy,” a sort of lame forerunner of an actual good strip, “Kudzu?” (Remember that? We lost it in 2007, upon the untimely death of Doug Marlette.) “Funky” was never funny, but it seemed to be making an honest, though inept, attempt to be. It was bad, but in a perfectly ordinary way — not so it would stand out. It could have continued in that vein indefinitely, and I’d be ignoring it now, because it would blend into the herd. But Tom Batiuk wasn’t satisfied. He jumped not only a shark, but an ocean of them. The strip has gone through two inexplicable major changes, with the characters aging. And call me mad for saying it, but I think this was a failed attempt at seriousness. When I read it now, there is often a smirking, smug stab at something that I think is intended to be seen as… meaningful or something. Only it isn’t. Wikipedia respectfully describes the current state this way: “Since the 1992 reboot and especially since the 2007 time jump, the strip has been recast as a serialized drama, though most strips still feature some humor, often based on wordplay.” Yes. I’ve seen some of those puns. The fact that Batiuk has gone to so much effort to take the strip from bad to much worse, and done it in such an odd way, is what earns him the bottom ranking. The other “worst” strip just didn’t try that hard, ever, in my lifetime.
  2. “Mary Worth.” For decades, I have mocked this one as the worst, but frankly, it doesn’t deserve the distinction, because it has never made the kind of effort that Batiuk has invested. How to describe “Mary?” It’s like someone took the worst soap opera on TV, and determined to strip it of anything — sex, or whatever — that might seem even slightly interesting to anyone on the planet. (You know how in soap operas — at least, on the ones my grandmother used to watch — two characters would sit and talk about nothing over sherry, and the conversation would go on for weeks? This is like that, only without the sherry.) This all took shape well before I was born (the strip began in 1938), and it has just lain there and stagnated ever since. Anyway, it feels like I’ve been making sarcastic remarks about this strip for my whole life. About 10 or 15 years ago, I think someone at Free Times heard one of those remarks and misinterpreted it, think that I was saying I liked Mary Worth. I gathered this from a couple of remarks I heard from different people at that paper, who seemed very amused that That old guy Brad actually likes “Mary Worth.” At least, I think that was what was happening. Each time it did, I would challenge the person speaking, and that person would just smile and change the subject. Anyway, it occurs to me that this is by far the funniest, and possibly most interesting, thing that has ever happened in connection with this “comic” strip.

OK, I’m tired now, and frankly, the comics pages are so sad that it’s not really worth it to pick on any others, as lame as “Garfield” and “Dennis the Menace” and “Hi and Lois” and “Sally Forth” (not to be confused with the softcore pornographic classic by the same title, which at least on its own terms was interesting) are. I just don’t have the heart.

The comics were once a wonderful thing, back when newspapers were thriving. We live in a different time now…

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Nice job there, Ah-nold

Just thought I’d share this video Arnold Schwarzenegger put out yesterday.

It’s gotten a lot of positive reactions. Conan O’Brien said, ““This is the most powerful and uniquely personal statement I’ve heard from ANYONE on where we are right now as a country.”

I thought it fitting to quote O’Brien, since in the video, Arnold wields his “Conan” sword…

Conan sword