mchale's navy thrown to italy

The fascinating website Television Obscurities (“Keeping Obscure TV From Fading Away Forever”) has spent the last 12 or so months taking a weekly look at TV Guide during the 1964-65 season. All by itself, TV Guide qualifies as a throwback for me ... we never missed an issue when I was growing up. Here are some items from their look at the July 17, 1965 issue.

  • The cover article, on McHale’s Navy moving to Italy, was written by Peter Bogdanovich.
  • Also appearing in that issue: Curt Gowdy, Walt Disney, Agnes Moorehead, and Nancy Wilson.
  • “CBS is working on a series for British singers Chad and Jeremy, said to be a musical version of Route 66.”
  • “Kate Smith will make six TV appearances next season”.

Here is the first episode of McHale’s Navy in Italy:


penny dreadful, season two finale

I don’t know if I can get the essence of Penny Dreadful into just one word. Excessive? Loony? Dreadful, in a good way? There is a kitchen sink feel to it all, as if creator John Logan had a bazillion ideas and wanted to squeeze them all in. Just looking at the characters reveals this. There’s Dorian Gray, Dr. Frankenstein, his monster, the monster’s bride ... there’s “Ethan” Lawrence Talbot, who is (hard to tell) either The Wolfman, his dad, or maybe his grandfather. There’s Mina Harker, and Doctor Van Helsing. Meanwhile, the apparent main characters, played by Eva Green and Timothy Dalton, are original to the series. (Off the top of my head, I can’t recall another show with both a James Bond and a Bond girl ... given that Logan writes 007 movies ... well, my head is going to explode.)

You get the feeling Logan has no intention of limiting himself. Religion matters, in a good-vs.-evil way, and Eva Green’s Vanessa takes a very personal road, believing in God but using her powers (demonic?) to the point where, knowing “who she is”, she rejects at least the symbols of God. The show’s presentation is voluptuous, full of gorgeous settings and moody music and supernatural happenings ... this is not a show that looks cheap. While Logan has a long tale to tell, he isn’t afraid of jumping this way and that for the sake of a good scene, so continuity isn’t always immaculate. Hey, you know what you’re getting from a show called “Penny Dreadful,” right?

There is some wonderful acting going on. Rory Kinnear’s take on the Monster is both frightening and heartrending, as it always is when the script allows and the actor is up to the challenge (i.e., The Bride of Frankenstein). Many of the others look their parts, which is half the job on this show. When you see Reeve Carney, you can believe he’s Dorian Gray before he has actually done anything. The same goes for Josh Hartnett as the token American.

But this is Eva Green’s show. Emmys aren’t given to the likes of Penny Dreadful, so Green is likely to join her Showtime stable mate Emmy Rossum as an actress doing terrific work without being noticed come Emmy time (pun intended, as always, re: Rossum). Green is totally fearless as Vanessa Ives. Her acting goes from quietly pensive to over-the-top, depending on what the scene requires. It’s in her over-the-top scenes that she really shines. It’s not too much, because it’s closely attached to the show’s overall tone ... she fits right in. Penny Dreadful would be an interesting show without her, but I doubt I’d be writing about it.

(I can’t talk about Green’s Vanessa without noting how much she reminds me of the great Barbara Steele, another dark-haired, odd-looking beauty who had the ability to grab a scene by the throat.)

Perhaps the most representative Penny Dreadful scene came in the finale. Dr. Frankenstein interrupts Dorian Gray and Mrs. Monster as they dance in a large ballroom in Gray’s mansion. First he shoots the monster, but it has no effect ... he doesn’t yet grasp what he has created. He then shoots Gray, but of course, he can’t die. After getting a picture of his future from his creation, Frankenstein leaves, and Gray and the Bride continue with their dance. They are dressed in white ... as they dance, a pool of their blood forms on the floor, while their clothes are increasingly soaked, as well. It makes no sense ... there is more blood than would have occurred if they were ordinary humans, and as near-immortals who cure themselves, they aren’t likely to bleed much, anyway. But the imagery is so extravagant, so soaked with atmosphere as well as blood, and Logan isn’t about to let a little nonsense stop him from giving us such decadent beauty.

But who am I kidding? For a scene to be representative of Penny Dreadful, you need Vanessa.

Grade for Season Finale: A. Grade for first two seasons: A-.


nancy marchand

Television critic Alan Sepinwall has a tradition of revisiting a series every summer, watching and writing about one episode a week. This year, he has chosen Season One of The Sopranos. We’ve gotten through the first three episodes. I bring this up because it was on this date in 2000 that Nancy Marchand, who played Tony Soprano’s mother Livia, died.

Here is the first time we meet Livia:

https://youtu.be/o45oIge8RzY


music friday: regina spektor

Regina Spektor was born in Moscow, and eventually made it to New Jersey, where she graduated from high school. Her music is often put in the anti-folk genre. Here are three of her bigger hits:

Fidelity”.

Better”.

The Sword and the Pen”.

Of course, there’s only one reason I’m including Regina Spektor on this episode of Music Friday. The new season of Orange Is the New Black, for which Spektor wrote and performs the theme song, was released today.

You’ve Got Time”.

The animals, the animals
Trap trap trap till the cage is full
The cage is full, stay awake
In the dark, count mistakes
The light was off, but now it's on
Searching underground for a bit of sun
The sun is out, the day is new
And everyone is waiting, waiting on you
And you've got time
You've got time...

Think of all the roads
Think of all their crossings
Taking steps is easy
Standing still is hard
Remember all their faces
Remember all their voices
Everything is different
The second time around...

Animals, the animals
Trap trap trap till the cage is full
The cage is full, stay awake
In the dark, count mistakes
The light was off, but now it's on
Searching underground for a bit of sun
The sun is out, the day is new
And everyone is waiting, waiting on you
And you've got time
You've got time
You've got time...

Here’s a live version:

And the Season Three trailer for OITNB:


hard times

Today we learned of the passing of Christopher Lee, and Ornette Coleman, giants in their fields. And then that silly thing about death coming in threes slapped us again:

 

Hard times are when the textile workers around this country are out of work, they got 4 or 5 kids and can't pay their wages, can’t buy their food. Hard times are when the auto workers are out of work and they tell ‘em to go home. And hard times are when a man has worked at a job for thirty years, thirty years, and they give him a watch, kick him in the butt and say “hey a computer took your place, daddy”, that’s hard times! That’s hard times!

 

#tbt


while i wasn't watching last week

I usually start a new week on this blog with a roundup of the movies I watched during the previous week. But I didn’t watch any this time around, so that’s out. I’ve been “online busy”, but not here ... I had the usual movie post, and a couple of Marianne Faithfull-centric posts, and that was it. Most of my blogging went to my recently re-opened World Cup blog, which may get a lot of my attention over the next month.

But I also found myself having “undercover” conversations on Facebook about Caitlyn Jenner. I wasn’t really writing anything, I was just posting links. And there was the “undercover” aspect of those posts (where “undercover” just means I engaged in “conversation” indirectly).

Someone I like, whose interests are often close to my own, and who is a very smart person (i.e. he and I share a lot of opinions), went off on a Caitlyn Jenner rant after the Vanity Fair cover. He said he was “astounded at the money-making pranks of Bruce Jenner” and concluded that “Jenner is a media ho through-and-through and even talking about the douche bag does an injustice to the real dialogue we should be having about women's rights.” I didn’t reply in the comments (hence, “undercover”), but instead posted a link to a short panel discussion of the issue that aired on ESPN’s Outside the Lines:

Having decided that I wasn’t making myself clear, I later posted a link to a piece by Christina Kahrl, who also appeared on the OTL segment. She wrote:

Whether you devour or despise celebrity coverage, Jenner is an important player in that conversation, not only because of what she has to say, now and into the future, but because the nature of celebrity affords everyone else the opportunity (and excuse) to start talking about it among themselves. ...

Take Jenner’s looks and the corseted glamour shot, for example. Sure, there’s a lot of money invested in achieving the look; Jenner had the means to spend it and chose to do so. Some might fidget over women allowing themselves to be sexualized in such a way, but Jenner has made a choice that other famous and beautiful women such as Scarlett Johansson and Kerry Washington have been free to choose. There’s something ultimately transgressive in putting a beautiful 65-year-old trans woman in that kind of company. ...

So let’s welcome Caitlyn. She’s not just a conversation-starter, not merely a celebrity or just a person with privilege that some might envy. She is first and foremost a beautiful woman, a parent, an accomplished Olympian. But most of all, like all of us, she is somebody trying to make her way in the world. Let her do things her way, and karma might just pay you back by letting you do the same.

I was sadly not surprised when my posting of this link led to a comment from a friend that went on another rant against Jenner. In this case, I actually inserted myself into the conversation, asking if the commenter had read Kahrl’s piece. She admitted that she had only seen the Vanity Fair cover that accompanied my link, and hadn’t noticed that I wasn’t just posting the picture but linking to an important article.

I used to write more on this blog about what gets the category tag “Current Affairs”. I do much less of this now, because I don’t feel I have enough personal insight or expertise, but even more, because other people who do have that insight and expertise have already written what I want to say, and I don’t often see the point of just posting a bunch of links. Even here, I am focusing less on my opinion re: Jenner, instead looking at the dynamics of Facebook conversations while letting Christina Kahrl say what I think needs to be said.

There’s another thing. Over the years, I have grown tired of a certain method of bringing up a subject that first insists on establishing a distance from that subject. For instance, “I have never once seen a reality TV series, and I couldn’t name a single Kardashian other than Kim, but I think ...” followed by an explanation of why this one thing a Kardashian did was good. Such an approach is more interested in proclaiming the writer’s immunity from popular culture than it is in making its supposed point. I do this myself, of course, but I try to catch myself in advance. So I didn’t want to frame a discussion of Caitlyn Jenner with my own take on reality television or the Kardashians. My relative ignorance about those subjects does not lead to insights, but rather means I lack knowledge in the area being discussed. So I fall back on links to the work of others.


mad men series finale

After Mad Men finally ended, my wife said she was sorry our show wouldn’t be on anymore.

While “our show” is a general term meaning “show we both watch”, I usually thought I liked it more than she did, so in a way, I was pleased by her comment. (Similarly, when she joined the audience applause after Mad Max: Fury Road, I was very happy that she had liked it.) I don’t think there’s a pattern to “our shows” ... some I like more than she does, some the opposite. You can usually tell when more than one show is on the DVR ... the person who picks what to watch is demonstrating a taste preference. I probably like Penny Dreadful more than she does, she probably likes Outlander more than I do. She definitely liked Sons of Anarchy more than I did, while Treme was more my favorite. What is most important is that these are shows we both like. Thus, as I began to process the end of Mad Men, I wasn’t alone, which seems to matter.

If I had to name my worst character flaw, the thing that led to actions I wish I could change, near the top, I’d note my willingness to piss on other people’s pleasures. I recall quite clearly when Frank Zappa died, and in the midst of heartfelt expressions of sadness, I said something glib about how Frank Zappa sucked. Time and place, as they say. I did this all the time. Even now, when I try much harder to be more tolerant, it slips out on occasion. Well, I suppose we all do it, but it’s usually the case that one can express their own taste preferences without trashing the differing tastes of others. Especially in something as taste-related as art, where there are no absolutes. Pitch Perfect 2 outdrew Mad Max: Fury Road on their first weekend, and that’s an interesting factoid worthy of a cultural context analysis. But liking one shouldn’t negate the possibility of liking the other, and it’s pretty much irrelevant anyway ... unless you’re looking at that cultural context, you don’t need to mention Pitch Perfect 2 in your review of Fury Road. And if you loved Fury Road, there is no reason to dismiss Pitch Perfect 2, especially if, like me, you haven’t seen it yet.

I mention all of this after reading a large number of pieces on Mad Men since the finale. Mad Men is a smart show, and several critics noted that they raised their own efforts just to keep up. There has been a variety of critical responses to the finale, but the discussion still exists in a zone of respect ... one critic doesn’t hate on another critic because they don’t agree about this or that angle in the finale. My sense, though, is that those of us who are part of the “non-professional” audience don’t feel the same need to respect. We have our take on Mad Men, and those who disagree are idiots. Too often, I’ve acted that way myself. I like to think I’m better now ... blame the meds. But if I can change, or at least improve my behavior, how can I relate that to Mad Men? How can I turn this post into my longtime template, “Mad Men and Me”?

Well ... a major theme of Mad Men throughout its run revolves around the question of whether anyone really changes. As we got our final glimpses of the lives of these characters, I felt, not that the characters had all changed, but more than many of them had finally become comfortable with who they always were. Peggy has changed outwardly, going from secretary to copy chief, but her character arc wasn’t about her evolution as much as it was about how she fought to stay in the game, rising close to her real worth. She already had worth at the start of the series. By the end of the series, that value was more recognized. But it was always there. Similarly, Joan figures out how to get into a position to accomplish things she was capable of from the beginning. She isn’t a different person, just differently placed thanks to her hard work. (Both women have to fight to be recognized by others in this world, of course.) At first, Roger was a boozing, womanizing raconteur. At the end, Roger was a boozing, womanizing raconteur. He found the right woman at last, but he hasn’t changed ... he has just accepted who he is.

But what about Don? Much of the discussion about him is directed at that question, does he change? Some think the way he gradually lost the trappings of Don Draper over the final episodes prepared us for an actual change. Others look at the ending, where it is implied that Don, hanging out at Esalen, will eventually return to advertising and be a massive success, and see a pile of cynicism about how in the end, nothing changes, especially Don.

I think it is very hard for any of us to get outside of ourselves at times like this. I’m not even sure if we should try to be distanced. I know that it has long been accepted that critics should avoid having their opinions tainted by too much personalizing. I also know that I pattern myself after Pauline Kael ... hence, “Mad Men and Me.” Specifically, I think that what we brought to the finale seriously impacted how we interpreted the finale. For the most part, we saw what validated our already-existing impressions. And since Mad Men was a complex series, and because the audience is made up of complex humans (a redundant phrase), a variety of people constructed a variety of impressions, so our takes on the finale are diverse.

I will give you a rather embarrassing example. A popular game as we neared the finale was to guess what the last song would be. My own guess was Rod Stewart singing Dylan’s “Only a Hobo”, which I suppose reflects my notion that Don would never change, that he would never outgrow the hobo mentality. As “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” came on, I was locked into that guessing game. I saw the slight smile on Don’s face as he chanted “Om”, subconsciously thought about how I wanted Don to turn out, and decided that smile meant that he’d finally seen the light ... about his life. I thought the song was appropriate, if ironic, and I took it almost at face value. (Keep in mind, in the fall of 1970, I was acting out my desire to be a hippie, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I wanted something similar for Don.)

Imagine my surprise when I find that virtually everyone saw the connection between Don’s smile and the Coke ad as a sign that Don had returned to McCann, pulled off that Coke ad, and once again returned to the top of the ad game. That never occurred to me, although it seems obvious with hindsight.

Again looking at what I was bringing to the table: I don’t like advertising. The fact that Mad Men focused on advertisers worked on me rather like The Sopranos did by focusing on mobsters. In the age of the television anti-hero, I rooted against the characters as much as I rooted for them. Don was a brilliant ad man, but he was an ad man, just the same. Since I ultimately wanted to like Don, I wanted his escape from advertising to be real. So I didn’t even see that he came up with the Coke commercial at Esalen.

I’m not exactly “wrong” ... Matthew Weiner at least left things open-ended enough to leave room for multiple interpretations. But the point remains: my interpretation of the final scene was impacted by what I personally brought to the table. Which is always the case with criticism, in my oft-stated view ... it’s just a matter of whether or not the critic admits it.

And so, the moment that hit hardest for me in the finale was directly related to my personal life. I have said since the first season that Betty Draper reminded me of my mother: talented, good-looking, giving up her talents to be a housewife and mother, submerging her best qualities. When Betty shot those birds with a cigarette hanging from her lip, I saw my mom, even though as far as I know she never shot a firearm in her life. As the end of Mad Men approached, Betty got cancer. It was inevitable that someone on the show would get it ... the incessant cigarette smoking was a running joke throughout the series. Well, my mom died of cancer, too. And when I picture her last days in my mind, I see her sitting at a dining table, cigarette in hand, insisting on enjoying one of her only pleasures until the end. The picture in my mind looks exactly like how Betty Draper looked, the last time we saw her. For the average viewer, that shot fit into their vision of Betty Draper. For me, that vision meant I saw my dying mother, cigarette in hand.

Mad Men was never perfect (except, perhaps, when Don gave us The Carousel). The disappearance of gay art director Sal Romano was sad, and he never returned. At least Sal had his time as a significant character ... it is hard to feel badly about the disappearance of any particular character of color, because there were so few of them, and they were so marginalized. Betty Draper was written so inconsistently that January Jones never got credit for her fine acting.

But the pleasures far outweighed whatever problems existed. If I had to list some of those pleasures, I’d point to the actors. Who knew Jon Hamm before this show? I sure didn’t. Elisabeth Moss was the president’s daughter on The West Wing ... on Mad Men, she was a grownup. Before Mad Men, her great work on Top of the Lake would have been startling. After Mad Men, it was just further proof that she was very, very good. And Christina Hendricks, a fave since Firefly, finally got the break she needed ... now everyone knows who she is.

Best of all was Kiernan Shipka as Sally Draper. Only six years old when the series began, Shipka made it possible for Sally to become increasingly important over the years by being that rarest of creatures, a child actor who just keeps getting better. Mad Men could have existed without Shipka ... witness Sally’s brother Bobby, who was played by four different actors over the years. But it would have been a different Mad Men, because Shipka brought it year after year. By the end, Sally Draper was clearly the one character that would have made you watch a spinoff. And a delightful future is in store, as we get to watch Shipka continuing to grow. (It doesn’t hurt that Sally was the one main character who was an actual baby-boomer ... she was born a year after I was. Much of Mad Men consisted of people acting like my parents did. Sally acted like I did.)

Was Mad Men one of the greatest of all TV dramas, or just one of the best? It maintained a high level over its entire run, it gave us a multitude of interesting characters, it showed us a vision of the 1960s, it introduced new-to-us actors ... maybe it was never perfect, but it came closer than most series. When it was on, it was always one of the top shows ... if all of our shows were on the DVR, Mad Men would have been the first choice as often as not. Yes, I’d say it was great. People already miss it so much, they’re filling the Internet with arguments and memories, and the show hasn’t even been gone for 24 hours yet. Grade for series: A+.


marvel's agents of s.h.i.e.l.d., season two finale

The best thing I can say for Agents of Shield (special spelling be damned) is that I am not the audience for it, yet I’ve stuck through two erratic seasons. The Joss Whedon connection is why I watched in the beginning, which is odd, because while Joss is listed as one of the creators, he seems to have had very little to do with the series after the pilot. Also, despite my loyalty to Whedon, I am nowhere near the level of fanboy that others are ... I loved Buffy, eventually came around on Firefly/Serenity, liked some of his other stuff. The series did not get off to a great start ... it felt like they hadn’t decided what kind of show they wanted to produce, and it always seemed like a little sibling to the big Marvel movies.

Things picked up in the later part of Season One, and Season Two has had some interesting episodes. But the truth is, I preferred Agent Carter, which ran during a mid-season break for SHIELD. (Even there, I suspect I was more entranced by Hayley Atwell than by the show itself.)

But in middle of all this, there are some things I like quite a bit, starting with some of the cast. You can’t go wrong with Clark Gregg, and Ming-Na Wen is ever-watchable as a fairly small woman, aged 50 or so, who is extremely believable as an ass-kicker while also providing depth to her often stoic character. Adrianne Palicki has been a welcome second-season addition (she’s another good actress, and she’s half-a-foot taller than Ming-Na), as has Henry Simmons (who is welcome in anything, is another good actor, and is half-a-foot taller than Palicki). The show makes good use of what I assume is a relatively limited budget, and is entertaining enough that I haven’t given up on it yet.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is the work of Chloe Bennet as Skye, a young hacker who for awhile just seemed like an annoyance. Bennet had little acting experience prior to SHIELD ... only recently turned 23, and born Chloe Wang, she moved to China when she was 15 to be a singer, and later returned to the U.S., where she was on a few episodes of Nashville. It is safe to say I knew nothing of her, and given the annoying character and disappointing series quality, I was ready to dismiss her as a pretty face. But in almost every case, the actors on SHIELD have improved as the series improved, which is to say, they were solid from the start but it was hard for us to notice. By the end of Season Two, Skye is arguably the second most important character on the show, and Bennet seems fully capable of handling the added responsibility.

Still ... when I say a show is “almost as good as Agent Carter”, there’s an element of faint praise in the air. I’m not up to snuff on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so I can’t follow occasional plot threads, but then, that also means I don’t do much comparing of the TV series to, say, The Avengers. It’s a decent show with enough interesting things going on to keep me around. I seem to be skipping the grades on TV series of late, but if I gave a grade here, it would be in the high-B range.


jane the virgin, season one finale

Let’s get the spoilers out of the way. Yes, Jane has the baby in the finale.

Jane the Virgin is one of those shows that scares people away from the start, just because of the title and/or premise. A young woman becomes pregnant despite being a virgin ... that’s all many people need to know. It sounds like a wacky concept with nowhere to go. But if you’ve never seen Jane the Virgin, you’ve missed one of the most innovative series on TV right now, and not because of the premise.

So much creativity is involved in Jane the Virgin that it’s hard to know where to start. It doesn’t just borrow some of the frills of a telenovela ... it is a telenovela, albeit a very knowing one. The genre is treated with love, even when the exaggerations become more joke than tragedy. There is a narrator (“Latin Lover Narrator”, according to the closed captions), played by Anthony Mendez, who becomes a character in his own right. Jane’s abuela speaks only in Spanish, with English subtitles, but Jane speaks to her in English, and she understands. When people text, we see the texts on the screen. There is a telenovela within the telenovela. There are outrageous plot developments (one man, Roman, dies by being impaled on an ice sculpture; then later his twin brother Aaron turns up; still later we find “Aaron” is actually Roman, who killed his twin). Everyone wears their hearts on their sleeves. Excess piles on excess, and somehow it all works.

Part of it is due to the excellence of the cast. Deservedly, Gina Rodriguez gets the most attention as the title character, but also worthy of extra mention are Ivonne Coll, a legendary Puerto Rican actress who plays Jane’s grandmother, and Mexican actor Jaime Camil, who plays Jane’s telenovela star/father, Rogelio. There’s even Bond Girl Priscilla Barnes as a Czech schemer in a wheelchair.

More important, the family feels real. The relationship between the three generations of Villanueva women comes across as natural, even when the plot sends them to silly places. And, despite the silliness inherent in the premise and in the telenovela approach, Rodriguez’ Jane is always grounded. She connects so fully with the audience that we can latch onto her as the narrative swirls surrealistically.

Ultimately, the plot shenanigans threaten to overwhelm the series. The cast may do a great job of convincing us in an individual scene, but they are asked to be too inconsistent. I love you, no I don’t, well yes I do but I can’t tell you, yes I do, no I don’t ... the repetition got to me after awhile. It feels like a show I’ll lose interest in. For now, given the brazen use of multiple genres, given the diversity not only of the cast but of the milieu, given the fine balancing act between the absurd and the moving ... Season One was a nice ride, and it will be interesting to see what next season offers.