Category Archives: Television

Maybe it would help to have a POINT to the story

The Washington Post ran a review of the new Tolkien prequel — financed by the newspaper’s owner, Jeff Bezos, or at least by his company — today.

It was headlined, “‘The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power’ is beautiful, banal boredom.

Which, frankly, was about what I expected. I think if Tolkien thought what had happened (in his imagination, not Tommy Westphall’s) in Middle Earth 3,000 years earlier was as compelling as The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings, he’d have written the stories out, rather than summing them up in an appendix.

Coincidentally, the Jesuit magazine America ran something related today, headlined “C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and the Inklings: Telling Stories to Save Lives.

It concentrates on those Oxford writers as besieged Christians taking comfort from their friendship — and their work — in a time and place of growing indifference and even hostility to faith, and it’s worth reading. You can probably do so without subscribing as I have — as I recall, America still uses the model in which you can read two or three pieces before the pay wall goes up.

Frankly, when I read Lord of the Rings, I saw it as a warning against the isolationism that was so dominant in Britain and this country before the Second World War. (The writing of the work started in 1937 and continued until several years after the war.) I tended to see Sauron as Hitler, Saruman and Wormtongue as the quislings who were undermining Europe — I mean, Middle Earth — ahead of the orc blitzkrieg, and Gandalf as the sort of Churchill/Roosevelt figure who ran about trying to wake everyone up before it was too late.

But yes, Tolkien’s mind was working on deeper levels as well, as the piece in America notes:

Everyone loves an underdog, of course, but these tales feel more meaningful than a standard superhero film because their authors had their eyes on a deeper set of truths. Sin and corruption are real, but salvation is still available. They knew, as Tolkien explained to Lewis in the early years of their friendship, that the Christian story is the truest story, of which all others are echoes. When all appears to be lost, we always have recourse to the deep magic from the dawn of time.

Recently, I drew your attention (or tried to, anyway) to a homily by Bishop Barron in which he used the experiences of Bilbo Baggins as an example of what God expects of us — that we’re supposed to get out and encounter the world and have a great adventure, not sit comfortably in our hobbit holes smoking choice Shire pipeweed, and enjoying the copious food and drink of our larders.

Anyway, however you interpret it, it helps for your story to have a point, and consist of more than breathtaking CGI scenery and battle sequences. Those can leave you feeling rather empty…

I just learned about the Tommy Westphall Hypothesis

And I enjoyed learning about it, however belatedly.

I had never heard of it, possibly because I never watched a minute of something called “St. Elsewhere” back in the ’80s. Nor do I feel compelled to go find it and binge it, as interesting as the hypothesis is. After all, the hypothesis itself tells me the show and its fictional universe are ephemeral things, with which I need not concern myself.

But I do read Alexandra Petri’s humor columns, which I’ve mentioned before. And Alexandra taught me about Tommy Westphall. And she did it in a cool, offhand sort of way. Did she say, “Brad, I’m about to tell you about something interesting, something everyone else already knows, something you will be grateful to have learned.” She did not. She wrote a fun column about the stunning lack of originality of our film and television industries, as evidenced by some of the silly “prequel” shows that keep coming out.

The column was headlined “Our new fantasy show is definitely a prequel to something you love.” And as I say, it was fun. But then, she slipped in the reference. It was just a passing reference, in the course of mocking the prequel madness:

Could we theoretically just make a totally original show and then zoom in on a little grain of sand and watch it get heated and cooled and become glass and zoom out and reveal that, yes, this was the origin story of the iconic “Friends” apartment window? You know, that’s a possibility. Lots of things are possible; most TV takes place inside Tommy Westphall’s snow globe…

Which makes no sense unless you know about Tommy Westphall. And, of course, his snow globe. So I started looking into it. And it was very cool. I learned that Tommy was the young autistic son of one of the lead characters on the show, a physician named Donald Westphall.

The reference is to the end of the last episode of the series. Wikipedia describes it this way:

Tommy Westphall enters the office and runs to the window, where he looks at the snow falling outside St. Eligius.[3] An exterior camera shot of the hospital cuts to Tommy Westphall sitting in the living room of an apartment building alongside his grandfather, now being portrayed by Norman Lloyd (aka “Daniel Auschlander”). Tommy’s father, still being portrayed by Ed Flanders (aka “Donald Westphall”) arrives at the apartment wearing a hard hat.[3][4]

Wearing a hard hat, you see. So suddenly, he’s not a doctor. And he starts talking, and says to the grandfather, “I don’t understand this autism thing, Pop. Here’s my son, I talk to him, I don’t even know if he can hear me. He sits there, all day long, in his own world, staring at that toy. What’s he thinking about?” Then, Wikipedia continues:

Tommy, who is shaking a snow globe,[5] is told by his father to come and wash his hands. As they leave the living room, Tommy’s father places the snow globe upon a television set. The camera slowly zooms in on the snow globe, which is revealed to contain a replica of St. Eligius hospital inside of it.[3][1]

The foremost interpretation of this scene is that the entire series of events in St. Elsewhere were dreamt by Tommy Westphall, and thus, products of his imagination…

So… kind of a cool, creative ending to a TV show, and one that ticked off a lot of fans. Because it told them, Ya know this was all made up, right? But that’s just the beginning of what it means.

As another website explains:

St. Elsewhere didn’t exist in a bubble. Like most shows, there is some degree of crossover between it and various series. Some of these series ran along side of it, some of them ended before it even began, but most simply call back to it, well after St. Elsewhere comes to an end.

Here is where the Tommy Westphall Universe Hypothesis really kicks in. The concept is simple: if St. Elsewhere is all in the mind of Tommy, then every show connected to it could also be just in his mind. So, taking that into consideration, what all has Tommy dreamed up?

How many such shows are there? Yet another site counts 441. How does that work? Well, think about the overlap between, say, “Cheers” and “Frasier.” Or The “Andy Griffith Show” and “Gomer Pyle, USMC.” And while I never saw the show, I read that “The doctors had visited the bar on Cheers in one St. Elsewhere episode.” And we’re off…

A huge portion of the connection is between fictional characters who appear in multiple shows — as did storekeeper Sam Drucker in “Petticoat Junction,” “Green Acres” and “The Beverly Hillbillies.” Which I noticed at the time and thought was interesting at the time, but people didn’t go around blogging about such silly things back then, because there were no blogs. And no social media.

A lot of that Sam Drucker stuff goes on. Richard Belzer has portrayed cop John Munch on 11 different series — one of them being “Homicide: Life on the Street,” which included some characters from “St. Elsewhere.” So he’s sort of a superspreader of this snow globe virus. So are the guys who played Cliff Clavin and Norm Peterson on “Cheers.” John Ratzenberger and George Wendt appeared as those characters on seven series each, one being, of course, “St. Elsewhere.”

So among the shows that exist only in Tommy’s imagination are “Breaking Bad,” “The Office” (both versions), “Supernatural,” “The Andy Griffith Show,” “Firefly,” the old ‘60s “Batman,” and about 400 or so more. Including, maybe, this.

You’re probably scoffing at me right now, because I suspect everyone on the planet except me knew all about this. In fact, there seems to be a bit of an industry in other series paying homages to Tommy’s snow globe. I’m sure I saw some of those, and didn’t get them until now.

I may be late to the game, but I’m digging it….

Richard Belzer as John Munch.

The Ned Stark gimmick

Apparently, a prequel to “Game of Thrones” is about to air, and some folks are very excited about it.

Perhaps you are among them. I am not, although I confess I made a point of watching the original series. Each year that a new season appeared, I signed up for HBO Now (later succeeded by HBO Max) for a few weeks to watch it — and catch up with such things as “Barry.”

I found it entertaining in its own weird way, but was not a fan in the original sense of a fanatic. For instance, I wasn’t the sort to sign petitions demanding that the final season be reshot with a different ending. I thought the ending was fine. I mean, come on — Daenerys needed to go, and if you can’t see that, I suspect you might be one of those who believes the 2020 presidential election was stolen. And the ways the writers tied up the other loose ends were, I suppose, satisfactory. Time to move on, people.

Now the prequel is about to start, which I know because this morning The Washington Post went on and on about it, in five separate stories by my count. You see four of them in the screengrab above. And no, I’m not planning to sign up for HBO Max to watch it. I did skim through some of the stories, though.

For instance, this one, which tries to parse the alleged 6,887 deaths that occurred in the series, began with this (I’d say SPOILER ALERT here, but if you don’t know this, you obviously don’t care about the topic, and therefore haven’t read this far):

The season that started it all. When Ned Stark, the main hero and character supposedly least at risk, was beheaded, viewers everywhere realized that no one was safe.

Exactly. And this reminds me why, from the very beginning, I would never love this series. I don’t like being manipulated that way.

And this was major-league manipulation. You have bewilderingly numerous cast of actors you’ve never seen before (with the possible exception of Aidan Gillen, if you’re a fan of “The Wire”), but you know Sean Bean, right? And he’s the hero, right? So at the end of the first season, he gets killed off, so that two things will happen:

  1. You’ll get more invested in the other characters, whom you’ve sort of gotten to know over the course of the first season.
  2. You’ve been shocked into believing, with all your heart, that anybody can get killed at any time, which adds suspense during every subsequent second of the rest of the series. (Which only makes the Red Wedding slightly less shocking.)

(And no, this was not a big surprise to those who had read the books, I suppose, but I’m not a member of that set.)

Anyway, I had seen this before, and the first time, I was more impressed by it. Remember the opening scene of “The Hurt Locker?” It starts with Guy Pearce, as a bomb-disposal specialist, getting suited up to approach and disarm an IED. Every little detail of the scene persuades you that he will be the star of the show. He’s obviously the central character of this scene, suiting up for his task with a certain heroic elan. And you know him, from L.A. Confidential and, more impressively, from “Memento.” He’s the only then-famous actor in the whole movie, with the exception of the brilliant David Morse, whose later scene as a wound-too-tight colonel pretty much steals the movie.

And then, in that very first scene (SPOILER ALERT, although you’ve certainly seen this coming), he gets blown up. And the “star” of the rest of the movie is Jeremy Renner, whom at this point in his career, you’ve probably never seen before. (Really. Check out IMDB for any major flicks in which he was the star before this one.)

And you watch the rest of the film thinking, “This nobody could get blown up any second. Hey, they killed off Guy Pearce at the very beginning!”

This is such an obvious and effective gimmick that I’m sure Hollywood had used it before. Maybe you can give me a Top Five list of previous films that did the same thing. (In fact, here’s such a list on which Guy Pearce shows up as No. 6.) But this was the first time I really noticed it, and identified all the elements. It was quite well done. And it impressed me.

When I saw it again in “Game of Thrones,” I was far less impressed. In fact, I was kind of ticked, particularly since they didn’t hit me with it until I had watched a whole season.

Next time I see it, I’ll probably just stop watching…

Guy Pearce, in the opening scene of “The Hurt Locker.”

Top Five (and Ten) TV Shows of All Time

Sure, I could have gone with Omar for ‘The Wire,’ but I’m going with my man Bubbles, who doesn’t get enough credit.

One nice thing about a Top Five list of TV shows is that you can bill it as “all-time” and still stick to stuff you know from your own lifetime. You don’t feel like you have to go back and pull in “Greensleeves” or “Veni, veni, Emmanuel” to make up for neglecting Top Songs before Elvis.

Sure, there was some TV before my time, like “Your Show of Shows,” which went off the air about eight months after I was born. But while I’ve heard people rave about it, I suspect I didn’t miss all that much. I mean, I’ve seen some of Sid Caesar’s stuff, and he was good, but to me, Imogene Coca was the cavewoman on “It’s About Time” — which I assure you isn’t going to make my Top Ten.

I thought at first that I wouldn’t have the discipline to stick to the Top Five format, since this is a pretty broad field — All TV Shows, ever. I figured I’d do 10, and then go back to the Nick Hornby standard when we do top sitcoms or something narrower like that.

But after I’d made a list of 10 and started trying to rank them, I realized the Top Five were very clear, and stood out well above 6-10. So I did five, and then another five. I hope Barry will be proud.

And yes, this is inspired by what I mentioned a couple of days ago — the Rolling Stone list that outrageously didn’t include “Band of Brothers” in its top 100. Bud already reacted with his own Top Ten list, which I urge you to peruse as well.

Anyway, here goes:

  1. The West Wing — If not for streaming, I would not even be a fan. I never watched my first episode until years after the show ended. I’m so glad I was able to watch it on Netflix. I regret that it’s only available now on a service I don’t subscribe to. Why do I love it? It makes me feel happy about the world I live in. (It makes me actually appreciate human beings, and have hope for the species.) Not many things do that out there in the media universe. But someone who understands America as well as Aaron Sorkin does can do that.
  2. Band of Brothers — You should understand that I felt invested in this from the beginning, long before the first episode appeared on HBO. I had been thinking for some time about what an awesome TV series Stephen Ambrose’s book would make — if it were made by the right people. Specifically, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, who brought us “Saving Private Ryan.” (I was also thinking about “From the Earth to the Moon” as a model, so I should probably mention Ron Howard as well.) I even thought about writing them to suggest the idea, but I’ve never done fanboy stuff like that. As it worked out, I didn’t have to. They went ahead and did it anyway. You might say I wished it into being — and it was everything I had wished for. I need to figure out how I did that, so we can finally get that Jack Aubrey series
  3. The Wire — Wow. This was just so awesome on so many levels. It’s a newspaperman’s fantasy — an amazingly high-quality production that shows exactly what things are like in his city. And of course, it was written by an unusually gifted newspaperman, former cops reporter David Simon. He switched careers for a very newspaperman reason: “I got out of journalism because some sons of bitches bought my newspaper and it stopped being fun.” Well, it was often intensely painful to watch, but The Wire was also fun. I will end by simply naming some favorite characters: Omar, of course. Major Rawls. Kima Greggs. Beadie Russell. Jay Landsman. Brother Mouzone. Tommy Carcetti. And most of all, Bubbles the snitch.
  4. Firefly — I’m not going to go into the horrible thing that happened, and how all the people in charge at Fox network are a buncha gorram idiots. Although obviously they are. I mean, come on! It’s the only series ever that’s about space cowboys — something that previously only existed in the imagination of Steve Miller. That made it automatically better than any show that was merely a space opera or merely a western. And then, the characters and the writing took that advantage and blasted it clear across the known ‘verse. The use of language alone — “‘verse,” “shiny,” and the odd bits of Chinese thrown in — made it irresistible. Not quite on a “Clockwork Orange” level, but way up there. Favorite characters? Well, I guess Kaylee was my true favorite, but my publicly admitted favorite (so I don’t seem to be a dirty old man) is Jayne. Third would be Mal. Sorry, captain…
  5. The Andy Griffith Show — Yep, I’m a sentimentalist. If I wanted to be critical and judge it by Golden Age of Television standards, I’d object to the flaws. Like, how come only about two characters beyond Andy have Southern accents? Or how come, if he’s the sheriff, he seems to work for the mayor of Mayberry rather than being a separately elected county official? Why did Andy go from being the main comic figure to being the straight man in later seasons? But never mind all that. I love it, and I’ve loved it almost all my life (it wasn’t around for my first few years). If you want to love it as well, remember the main rule: Never watch an episode that’s in color. The good ones are all in black and white. Favorite character? Ernest T. Bass. Second fave is Floyd the barber. But I love the others as well. Except some of those who came along after Barney left.

Just barely got in one comedy, because the list needed it, and because I love me some Mayberry. Here’s the next five:

  • The Sopranos — I didn’t mean to disrespect you, Tony. Really. The show was awesome, and probably launched the whole Golden Age. I respect Rolling Stone‘s decision to make it No. 1 on their list. And I had it in my Top Five, truly. But then I realized I had completely forgotten “Firefly.” Anyway, fave characters: Paulie Gualtieri (played by an actual Wise Guy), Silvio Dante (possibly the most inspired casting decision in TV history), Adriana La Cerva, Artie Bucco.
  • Seinfeld — This came just about as close as you can get to being the perfect sitcom. And there was never another one like it. It did not fit in any kind of category. I could say much more, but do I really have to convince you? The only way I can imagine you disagreeing is if you get on my case for not having it in the Top Five.
  • 30 Rock — And this one may have been THE perfect sitcom. It took the same foundation upon which Carl Reiner based “The Dick Van Dyke Show” — in his case, his experience writing for “Your Show of Shows” — and expanded upon it and went wild with it. So many great characters, from Liz and Jack down to guest stars like Al Gore playing themselves (“Quiet!… A whale is in trouble! I have to go.”) But the one who amazed me the most, and could alone have put it on this list, was Kenneth Ellen Parcell.
  • Hill Street Blues — Kind of dated now, but wow was it impressive at the time. We had a sort of minor cult following at the paper in Jackson, Tenn. I remember one night watching it over at the publisher’s condo. He and his wife, who was our business reporter, served nachos. I had never heard of nachos. Of course, I couldn’t eat them anyway. But we all enjoyed “Hill Street.” Capt. Furillo was my ideal leader. As news editor at the paper, I wanted to be just like him in dealing with my reporters. But my favorite character? Renko.
  • Mad Men — One of the most glittering examples of Golden Age TV — brilliant in writing, direction, cinematography and acting. Like entering another world — one in which we got to see Christina Hendricks way more than we did in “Firefly.” For some reason though, once we got way into the 60s and people started dropping acid, I stopped watching. I need to go back and finish. I suppose I’ll have to start from the beginning, dagnabbit. Favorite character? Not sure. Maybe Joan. Or maybe Roger, the acid-dropper. Now I’ll do something different and list by far my least favorite: Pete Campbell. What a creep and a half.

There were a lot of other great shows out there, some of which didn’t even get a mention from Rolling Stone. So here’s a random bunch of honorable mentions:

  • Key and Peele — I suppose this is the thing on this list that I got into most recently — like, within the past decade. These guys are incredibly brilliant, and there’s no one else like them. However they first met and teamed up, we’re lucky they did. Best bits? Well, I love the obvious choices, such as “Obama’s Anger Translator,” “Substitute Teacher” and “I Said (I quickly look around before continuing) Biiiiiiiitch.” But my fave might be “Retired Military Specialist.”
  • The IT Crowd — For years, I saw this available on Netflix, and ignored it, having no idea what it was. Then my younger son talked me into watching one episode — and now I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve watched the whole three seasons. It’s hard to describe how funny it is. Now, I’ll watch pretty much anything that has the players in it. Fortunately, Chris O’Dowd has gotten a lot of work, and if I need a Richard Ayoade fix, I can always watch some “Travel Man” on Prime. But my greatest frustration is that it’s hard to find my favorite, Katherine Parkinson, anywhere. Last time I saw her was in “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society,” and it really wasn’t all that funny. Best episode is either “The Work Outing,” “The Dinner Party,” or “Are We Not Men?”
  • Breaking Bad — Are you thinking it’s kind of weird that this didn’t make either the Top Five or the next five? I sort of am, too, but I just kept thinking of things I liked better. It might be that this was the most stressful TV show I have ever watched, and the stress has lingered. But it still seems worthwhile to have watched it all, because if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have appreciated the last episode, and that was really good.
  • Green Acres — I have mentioned a number of times that the possibly the most amazing night ever on television (from an 11-year-old’s perspective) was Sept. 15, 1965, the night that “Lost in Space,” “Green Acres” and “I-Spy” all debuted. We had returned to America — and to television — five months earlier after two-and-a-half years in Ecuador, and I was already overdosing on popular culture, and loving it. But that was the biggest night. At the time, my fave was probably “Lost in Space,” but “Green Acres” was definitely the one that aged the best. As was written in my favorite reference work, The Catalog of Cool, “To be truly cool, one must genuinely understand the uselessness of logic and reason in a world gone mad. ‘Green Acres’ understood it better than any other show.” I’d never seen anything like it before, and I haven’t since. Favorite character? Eb, of course.
  • The Office — The real one, the British one. Absolutely brilliant, although admittedly sometimes hard to watch, because David Brent. Favorite character? Probably Gareth.
  • Friday Night Lights — I’m sort of putting this here as a way of thanking Bryan for getting me to watch it. But I’m also putting it here because it was really, really great. Even though it was about, you know, football…
  • The State — I loved MTV when it started, when it knew its job was to show music videos, and have them be introduced by people like Martha Quinn or Daisy Fuentes. And it was wonderful. Then it got into other stuff. I will never forgive it for launching the scourge of reality TV. But I can almost forgive “The Real World” when I consider “The State.” If only it had lasted. And if only I could find the old skits online somewhere. Best one ever? “Prison Break.” (But that’s “off-limits”…)
  • Life on Mars — OK, this show was really uneven, and sometimes the writing was shaky. But it was a lot of fun, and I’ve watched the two seasons (the two series, since it’s British) several times. And not just to see Liz White as Annie. When I saw it on The Guardian‘s 21st-century list, I decided I had to mention it. A warning, though: Do not try to watch the American imitation. I couldn’t even make it through the first episode. Sure, it’s got Harvey Keitel in it, but he couldn’t save it.

Finally, I know I’ve forgotten something. Maybe several somethings. The way I was almost done when I remembered “Firefly.” But you’ve got to start a discussion somewhere…

Yes, I am a sentimentalist.

But he’ll remember with advantages What feats he did that day

This is pretty cool.

A significant number of the actors from HBO’s “Band of Brothers” did this a couple of years back, 20 years after the release of the series. But I didn’t see it until now.

I wish I’d seen it on D-Day itself, but hey, the Battle of Normandy was still far from won on June 7. So I pass it on, and hope you enjoy. Curahee!

It starts with “Captain Winters,” but you’ll recognize a number of the guys. Quite a few are Brits, which works well with Shakespeare, as they don’t have to put on American accents. But there are some Yanks as well — “Malarkey” and yes, the incomparable “George Luz.” (Actually, Luz should have done it as an impersonation of Major Horton.)

One or two of the guys look too young to have played soldiers two decades earlier. But on the whole, you see graybeards who seem ready to play the “old man” part of the “Henry V” speech:

He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian:’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.’

Of course, the real old men, the ones with real scars to show, are all gone now. At least, all the ones whose portrayers in the series had speaking parts. (Unless you know of someone I don’t know about.) To them truly should go the honor.

But I also honor everyone involved in this series. And I’m glad quite a few of the real guys were still alive to see the tribute, and be a part of it.

I think this is James Madio, who played Frank Perconte. Isn’t it?

Doesn’t everyone do this? And if there are people who don’t, what is wrong with them?

This Tweet raised a number of questions:

My initial response was simply to reply, “I don’t know what this has to do with ‘parents,’ unless it was written by a child. Doesn’t everyone do this? And why isn’t IMDB mentioned?”

But seriously, people, when all of us are sitting there with smartphones, who doesn’t do this?

I don’t mean with Steve Buscemi. If you have to look him up, you should just quit partaking in popular culture altogether. I mean somebody a little harder, like Zoë Wanamaker. I see her all the time, of course (such as, recently, in “Britannia”), but I was thrown because she appeared in an episode from the first series of “Prime Suspect” in 1991, and I hadn’t seen her when she was that young. Also, she distracted me by stripping off her blouse to flash her breasts at a cop who was surveilling her.

Of course, some of us do it to a greater extreme than others. Like me. My wife goes, “Who is that? Where did we see her?” But then, she generally returns her attention to the show and follows the action.

Meanwhile, several feet away, I’m on my phone’s IMDB app, researching away. Which, of course, sometimes takes several steps. Sometimes with a TV show, simply calling up the entry for the show won’t tell you who this actor or actress, who may only have appeared in this episode, was (either because the person is buried in a long list, or, too often, is missing entirely from the main page). So I might have to look up the series on Wikipedia, and find the title of the specific episode, and then go back to IMDB and search for that episode by name, and that leads to success. I then call up a representative photo of that person, and show it to my wife, and tell her where she has seen him or her before.

And my wife says, “Yes,” and goes back to the show.

This presents a bit of a problem. Because even with my new hearing aids, I’m very dependent on subtitles to help me follow the dialogue. So after a couple of minutes of looking at my phone, I’m a bit lost as to what’s going on.

So I ask my wife. And tolerant as she is, this sometimes makes her a bit impatient with me. But she doesn’t call me a “parent.” She just, you know, thinks I’m a bit of a compulsive idiot.

But I can’t help it. In a world in which the computer — phone, tablet, laptop, what have you — is always right there, and always connected to the Web, I have to do this.

Before the Internet, I was sorta kinda able to focus on what was going on. The biggest problem back then was the dictionary. Always right there on the desk. Fortunately, I didn’t use it much, because I’m a fairly literate guy, and if I had to look the word up to be sure I was using it correctly, that was an indication that I probably shouldn’t be using it in the newspaper.

But I did look sometimes, and that meant I’d be lost for awhile. On the way to the word in question, I’d run across other words that would trip me and tie me down and force me to study them and the other words they led to, and it just went on and on from there. Eventually I’d get back to work, but it took awhile.

And the Web is millions of times worse, of course.

But it’s not because I’m a “parent.” It’s because I’m the most easily fascinated person on the planet. It’s like my superpower, although not very empowering…

Helen Mirren and Zoë Wanamaker in “Prime Suspect” in 1991.

Stop nagging me, Netflix!

I get emails like this all the time. Do you?

They seem weird to me. I find myself wondering why Netflix cares whether I “finish 30 Rock.” I assume this is simply about making sure I’m watching Netflix, period. But if that’s the purpose, it seems to have at least a couple of problems as a strategy:

  • If AI has any actual intelligence at all — and I’m talking minimal smarts — it would know that I engage with Netflix quite frequently. Not all the time, because I have Prime and Britbox and Hulu and other streaming options. But often enough that I don’t need to be bugged about it — one would think.
  • Also, if you’re tracking me and my habits, why don’t you know that I’ve watched every bit of “30 Rock” multiple times? And I think I did so at least once on Netflix. This makes me less than impressed with your technology.

Maybe they just want to stay in touch with customers, and they don’t care how stupid the excuse is.

Anyway.

Do y’all get these? And do you have any idea why?

Best John le Carré dramatization yet (non-Smiley division)

Gadi and Charlie visit the Acropolis…

It’s not the best le Carré ever, because we have to face the fact that the Alec Guinness version of George Smiley is out there, in both “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” and “Smiley’s People.”

But if you consider only adaptations of the non-George novels, I think this is the best.

And I wasn’t expecting that — at all. In fact, when I heard they had remade The Little Drummer Girl as a TV series back in 2018, I was, as usual, irritated. Why mess with success?

The 1984 version, starring Diane Keaton, wasn’t perfect, but it was pretty great. She was good as Charlie, Klaus Kinski was just as good as Kurtz, and Yorgo Voyagis — of whom I had never heard before or since — was very impressive as the conflicted, lugubrious Israeli hero Gadi Becker.

Yeah, they messed with it. For instance, they turned Charlie into an American. Because, you know, Diane Keaton. But beyond that, I was well pleased.

But still, when I fell victim recently to a come-on from AMC+ (a free week! which of course wasn’t enough to get me through this one show without having to pay!) I immediately had to go check it out.

And then, I had to watch all the way through. These last couple of days with COVID helped me get it done.

And from the beginning, I realized, “This is better.”

Especially if you appreciate dramatizations that are true to the book, in every possible way. And of course we don’t see that nearly enough. I had had high hopes for “The Night Manager,” which is probably my favorite non-Smiley le Carré. But you couldn’t get more than a few minutes into it before everything was turned this way and that. Worst of all, they updated it (shudder). As le Carré reacted at the time:

But a novel I had written nearly a quarter of a century ago reset in present time? With none of Pine’s trip to northern Quebec in the story? None of Central America? My beloved Colombian drugs barons replaced by Middle Eastern warlords? No zillion dollar luxury yacht for Richard Roper? A new ending to the story, yet to be discussed? What did that mean?

One change worked: Jonathan Pine’s handler was changed from a man to a pregnant woman. I’m still not sure whether that was an improvement because of the maternal aspects of looking after an agent in the field, or simply because the actress was Olivia Coleman. Probably both.

But the other changes didn’t work. Especially not the new ending.

But this was true right down the line. Time, place, characters and plot. Which is great because it’s a fantastic story, filled with delicate features and contradictions that could be thrown completely off with the wrong changes.

The moral ambiguity of the story is doubled, partly because of the extended time format. And that’s essential. No one — not agent Charlie, not her handler, not anyone — is supposed to be entirely sure who’s right and who’s wrong in this counterterrorism story.

And then there’s the casting. The unknown (to me) young woman who plays Charlie is just what the role demanded. She’s supposed to be an unremarkable little actress who feels she’s never been able to realize her potential. Now I realize: How could that be Diane Keaton, who at 38 was such a big star that they’d change the main character’s nationality to get her? She needs to be someone you look at and try to figure out and decide whether she’s up to the overwhelming task.

And you do. She makes you do that. A lot of women should love her in this. First, she’s not a willowy supermodel type like Ms. Keaton. Her figure — as you discover when the head of the terror cell makes her strip to her underwear as a safety precaution — is at best “average.” And yet, she has this quality that draws men’s eyes. You completely believe the thing you have to believe about Charlie — that she can bewitch everyone from her fellow actors to international terrorists.

They had to do the same with Gadi Becker. You had to believe that he could enthrall Charlie, and that it was so obvious that Kurtz, head of the Israeli team, could bank on it. And yet it was something Becker himself did not value.

As for Kurtz: Klaus Kinski was perfect, but if anything — if you’ll allow the logical impossibility — Michael Shannon is more so. An American, of course, but one who can really act, and makes this intense Israeli real. But what has Shannon ever done that wasn’t great, from Elvis to the cop in “Boardwalk Empire?” His characters are always bigger than life. And kinda scary.

Anyway, I recommend it…

Michael Shannon as Kurtz.

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…

 

 

 

 

 

‘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…

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

The Op-Ed Page

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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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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…

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

Here we are now, in a world without Chuck Yeager

2560px-Chuck_Yeager

There’s a blog post I’ve been meaning to write in recent days expressing my great disappointment with the Disney+ TV series, “The Right Stuff.” It is a strange, flat, uninviting and even depressing retelling of the tale of the seven Mercury astronauts. That’s it, just the astronauts. Nothing about the context in which they came into being. Nothing about the culture of test pilots that produced them, and set the standard they wanted to live up to.

No Chuck Yeager. How can you name a series after that concept Tom Wolfe introduced into our popular lexicon, and leave Chuck Yeager out of it?

Chuck was the embodiment of the Right Stuff, and the whole world — the world of pilots, at least, knew it. Early in Wolfe’s book, he wrote about the way airline pilots act and talk — their matter-of-factness, their lollygaggin’ lack of concern about potential problems in flight (“I believe it’s that little ol’ red light that iddn’ workin’ right…”), their folksy accents — and traced it all to back to the influence that one man had upon the world of aviation, that man being Yeager. They all wanted to fly like him, they all wanted to be him, and failing that, they would at least sound like him.

Because he not only had the right stuff, he was the right stuff.

What, exactly, was this “ineffable quality” of which Wolfe wrote?

… well, it obviously involved bravery. But it was not bravery in the simple sense of being willing to risk your life. . .any fool could do that. . . . No, the idea. . .seemed to be that a man should have the ability to go up in a hurtling piece of machinery and put his hide on the line and then have the moxie, the reflexes, the experience, the coolness, to pull it back in the last yawning moment–and then to go up again the next day, and the next day, and every next day. . . . There was a seemingly infinite series of tests. . .a dizzy progression of steps and ledges. . .a pyramid extraordinarily high and steep; and the idea was to prove at every foot of the way up that pyramid that you were one of the elected and anointed ones who had the right stuff and could move higher and higher and even–ultimately, God willing, one day–that you might be able to join that special few at the very top, that elite who had the capacity to bring tears to men’s eyes, the very Brotherhood of the Right Stuff itself….

And at the top of the top of that ol’ pyramid was Yeager.

It’s not just about breaking the sound barrier. Yeager was just the ultimate pilot’s pilot. Yes, he was a natural stick-and-rudder man, and the wonderful movie version of Wolfe’s book back in the ’80s captured that and played it for all it was worth, but he also thoroughly understood the machine he flew on a fundamental level. He wasn’t an engineer — he had his friend Jack Ridley, and others, for that — but he was a guy whose reports the engineers liked to read, because he knew what they needed to be told.

And yes, he was a hero, long before breaking that demon that lived in the thin air. A fighter pilot was considered an ace when he’d shot down five enemy planes. Yeager did that in one day. He shot down Me-109s and Focke-Wulf 190s, and even one of those jets the Nazis built. He had sort of a superpower: With his unaided eyes, he could see the enemy coming 50 miles away. But mainly, he outflew and outfought them. Not that he was invulnerable. He got shot down behind German lines, but escaped back to England. That meant he had to go home — he knew things that could endanger the underground if he were shot down again and captured. But he bucked it all the way up to Ike, and Ike let him stay and keep fighting.

He hadn’t been to college, and wasn’t an officer when he started flying in the war. But he broke that barrier, too — he was a captain when he flew the X-1 into history, and his repeatedly demonstrated skill, courage and dedication took him all the way to the rank of brigadier general.

And now he’s gone, and we won’t see his like. As bad as it is to have a TV show called “The Right Stuff” without Yeager in it, now we all have to live in a world that doesn’t have him. Man is mortal, and bound to end up this way. But Yeager packed an awful lot of awesome stuff into the 97 years before that….

‘The State’ emerges from extinction to endorse Jaime


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Hi, we’re The State.

A post shared by Thomas Lennon (@thomaspatricklennon) on


Oh, you thought I meant The State? No, no, no, I meant the comedy troupe, “The State.”

I appreciate them going to the trouble to get together and do this, even though only one of them even momentarily wears a mask. Of course, they did it on Instagram, making it harder to just grab the video and embed it, and they also called The other State South Carolina’s oldest newspaper, which it isn’t, but why would you expect them to know better? They’re actors.

However, after an instant’s reflection, they did have the sense to back Jaime, which not all actual newspapers had the sense to do, so let’s give them some credit.

And it’s good to see them together again. I’ve often wanted to use a clip from that series on the blog — such as the practical advice of “Pants,” or “Prison Break,” which if you recall was made impossible by the fact that the open road was “off-limits” — but have had trouble finding them online.

It’s been so long. The series goes all the way back to the days when MTV was still watchable, and rock ‘n’ roll was still alive.

So enjoy….

the state

Tempted for once by the grocery checkout rack

Now THAT is tempting...

Now THAT is tempting…

I don’t think I’ve ever bought anything from the magazine racks at the grocery checkout.

But a publication devoted to “The West Wing?” Now that’s tempting…

But I still passed.

And you know, part of it is — why do I need a print product full of “West Wing” stuff? Don’t I have Google? Can’t I already access whatever I want about the show, or any of the characters, or analysis or full transcripts of any episode? Content that is available to me wherever I go, via phone or iPad, without carrying around something as awkward as a magazine?

Yep, it’s printed on nice, glossy paper. But here’s the thing… At some point in the latter part of the ’80s, I first saw a color picture on the screen of a Mac. And I was blown away — even though the resolution and color saturation on that screen was probably pretty pathetic, compared to, say, my phone today.

It was just so — bright and alive. Since then, I’ve never seen a hard copy photo that could compare.

Not to mention the fact that if you want to share something in the mag, the person you’re sharing it with has to be standing right next to you. There’s no sharing by text, email or social media.

So… what’s the appeal of the magazine version?

Everything I used to read on paper — the newspapers I subscribe to, magazines, what have you — I now read on my iPad. Which is always with me.

Compelling content. But the wrong medium…