peak tv

Quickie notes on a bunch of TV series I’ve been watching:

Supergirl: First two episodes were enjoyable. I haven’t given up yet. Some of the creators also work on Arrow and The Flash, which I don’t watch, but if you do, you might find some similarities in tone. I also don’t know much about Melissa Benoist, who plays the title character. Basically, I started on this because of some good reviews, and haven’t found any reason to quit watching.

Fargo: Not a new show, but it takes place in an earlier time period with a different cast from the first season (or the movie, for that matter). This is at least as good as Season One, and Season One was very good. It has an interesting cast that delivers in every case. There are people you know from other TV shows (everyone from Ted Danson to Jesse Plemons, Jean Smart to Michael Hogan). The are the people who will remember, but perhaps hadn’t properly appreciated before (Bokeem Woodbine is killing it ... I haven’t enjoyed him this much since The Big Hit). There’s even Kirsten Dunst, who gets top billing. This is definitely one for the binge-streamers among you.

Ash vs. Evil Dead: Delivers exactly what its intended audience wants. If you don’t know what the title refers to, you probably don’t want to watch this, but for the rest of us, it’s a fine continuation of the Evil Dead franchise, with Bruce Campbell returning to his greatest role. The gore on this is beyond excessive, to the point where people like me think it’s hilarious, but you’ve been forewarned ... this isn’t The Walking Dead.

Master of None: A new Netflix series from Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang. It’s a semi-autobiographical setup starring Ansari ... his real-life parents play his character’s parents on the show, and they are real scene-stealers. I’ve only watched the first two episodes and I’m already sold.

Plus the usuals, many of which are streamers or are currently in their off-season: Sense8, The Knick, The Leftovers, The Returned, The Walking Dead, Jane the Virgin. As is the norm for this period in television history, I can’t keep up with all of them ... heck, I just thought of a Hulu series I’m watching and liking, Casual, which I completely forgot about.

the strain, season two finale

I'm a fan of the movies of Guillermo del Toro ... of the ones I've seen, my ratings range from 6/10 for Hellboy to my highest 10/10 for Pan's Labyrinth. I enjoy watching The Strain, which is co-created by del Toro and Chuck Hogan from the books of the same name.

But I don't think The Strain is better than any of del Toro's movies. I suppose it's on the level of Hellboy, but that's about it.

What The Strain has going for it: delightful performances by Richard Sammel as an undead follower of "The Master" and Joaquín Cosío as a former luchador who also starred in Mexican masked wrestler movies. They are delightful because they know The Strain can be funny. Too many of the other actors are far too serious for a show about vampires with long tongues. It's also nice to see Samantha Mathis.

The worst thing about The Strain is the character Zach, the latest in a long line of awful children who do nothing but muck things up. Not everyone is Sally Draper. Zach's actions in the season finale were so stupid as to defy belief, except the character is regularly stupid. You'd think with so many vampires running around, one of them would do us all a favor and eat Zach, but no.

Like I say, I enjoy watching it, but it's not as good as The Walking Dead. It's certainly not as good as Penny Dreadful, which isn't quite the same genre but which is better than most shows. I guess it's about as good as Fear the Walking Dead, the prequel that just finished a short run. In today's crowded TV lineup, it's impossible to keep up with the good shows. Still, there's a place for second-level junk if it strikes your fancy, which is why I'll be there for Season Three of The Strain.

anthologies and me

With the publication of Talking About Pauline Kael: Critics, Filmmakers, and Scholars Remember an Icon, I have returned to the world of anthologies. I was once asked why I had never written a book, and my reply was truthful, if also a bit smart-ass: I’m too lazy and unambitious to write a book. Now, to take just one example, the combined posts on film this blog has featured over the past 12+ years would fill a couple of books. It’s not the writing that drags me down. But doing anything with that writing beyond posting it here ... I’d just as soon give it away for free.

I’ve answered a few calls-for-papers ... that’s how I ended up in the Kael book. But I’ve also been handed some assignments without my even looking. If I remember correctly, I had two such opportunities in 2005. I could be wrong (insert obligatory comment about the varying reliability of memories), but I think Nick Rombes contacted me first about participating in a book on punk cinema, having seen something or other I’d written. That ended up being one of my favorite essays, “Making It Real”, which started off quoting The Adverts and ended with Sid and Nancy. My author’s bio for that one read, “Steven Rubio is a former steelworker who left the factory and picked up a doctorate in English from the University of California, Berkeley. A film major in his long-ago youth, he saw the last Sex Pistols concert to include Sid Vicious, and has waited ever since for someone to ask him to write about punk and movies in the same essay.” (The key, I suppose, is the part where I was waiting to be asked ... no wonder I never wrote a book.)

Also in 2005, I got an email from the folks at BenBella Books, who were publishing an anthology on NYPD Blue and had read something I’d written on that topic. That led to a fruitful period when I wrote six pieces for them in three years, covering NYPD Blue, King Kong, James Bond, Battlestar Galactica, House, and 24. Some were better than others ... I particularly liked the one on BSG, and both the Kong and Bond essays took on their subjects through the side door (for the King Kong book, I wrote about the mid-70s remake, and for the 007 book, my topic was the best Bond villain and I chose Klaus Maria Brandauer’s Largo in the “non-canonical” Never Say Never Again).

I was also proud to be in The Aesthetics of Cultural Studies, edited by the great Michael Bérubé. That was arguably the best academic-style essay I ever wrote, covering Bugs Bunny, Picasso, The Proms, and more.

It was in the BenBella period that I experienced a variety of editors. One, Leah Wilson, was among the finest editors I have ever worked with. But on a couple of occasions, they used “star” editors. So Say We All: Collected Thoughts and Opinions on Battlestar Galactica was “edited” by actor Richard Hatch. The oddest one, though, was Jack Bauer for President: Terrorism and Politics in 24. The general idea was that we should avoid being too polarizing in our essays ... you might recall that in its day, 24 elicited a lot of heat, both pro and con. My piece was called “Can a Leftist Love 24?” Late in the project it was announced that the guest editor would be Richard Miniter, whose most recent books included Shadow War: The Untold Story of How America is Winning the War on Terror and Disinformation: 22 Media Myths That Undermine the War on Terror. I joked to one of the actual BenBella editors, “This project has come a long way, from not wanting to be polarizing, to signing up Richard Miniter!” I had been told that he was “extremely enthusiastic about the project”, and now I was informed that “he really seemed to like your essay”. Hearing that, I just asked that no one told my friends in Berkeley. (My author’s bio for that one began, “Steven Rubio has never been cornered by a mountain lion.”)

If I made an anthology of my writing, a “Best of Steven” if you will, I imagine there would be a connected feel to it, primarily because “I” is an important part of all my writing. What is interesting about being in an anthology, though, is that you aren’t connected to yourself, you are connected to others through a common topic. In the spirit of this realization, I decided to read Talking About Pauline Kael from start to finish, hoping among other things to see how I “fit”. (Until the book arrived, I had no idea who the other writers were.) My essay comes late in the book (the 20th essay of 22), so I figured by the time I got around to re-reading what I’d written, I’d have a sense of the context into which I’d been inserted.

The first two sections of the book, “Friends, Neighbors, Confidantes” and “Knowing Pauline: At Home and at the Movies,” are written by people who had a personal connection to Kael. Polly Frost and Ray Sawhill were introduced to each other by Pauline (they later married). Frost’s essay is the first in the book, and it begins, “Pauline Kael liked to dial up her friends at all hours, engaging in long conversations.” I like that the book starts with a personal anecdote, because even those of us who didn’t know Kael felt that we “knew” her, and the inspired subjectivity of her writing encouraged that kind of relationship. Frost’s thesis, echoed in the title of her essay (“Performing Pauline”), reminds us, from the perspective of someone who really knew her, that “Pauline Kael” was not the same as Pauline Kael (a point I make in my own essay). “I suspect that one of the reasons Ray and I, and a few others, became as close to Pauline as we did was that, even during her peak years, we understood that there was a distinction between the public and private Pauline Kael.... She’d created one of the great characters of our age and had given one of the era’s great performances”. Frost finishes her essay with this sentence: “Pauline taught me that in the end it’s all in how you play yourself.”

Ray Sawhill reiterates this in his piece, the longest in the book. “She trusted us, and a few others ... I think this was mainly because we let her be herself – not the “Pauline Kael” of legend, but the quirky person who’d created and put over that larger-than-life character.” (Sandwiched between the Frost and Sawhill essays is a reprinted column by Roy Blount Jr. which seems placed there because he was Kael’s neighbor.)

The next essays follow up on the “we knew her” theme, as witnessed by the titles: “Conversations, 1968-2001”, “Knowing Pauline”, and “Encounters with Kael, 1975”. And the following section, “Objects of Her Affection: Critics, Journalists, and Movie Makers”, continues this from a different angle. David Denby (a “Paulette”), writer/director “Paul Schrader” (whose essay is called “My Family Drama: Pauline Kael, 1919-2001”), writer Joan Tewksbury (who tells an anecdote about Kael on the set of Thieves Like Us), all accompanied by a couple of “What I Learned from Pauline Even Though I Never Met Her” pieces. This section also includes a reprint of Sanford Schwartz’s introduction to the Library of America anthology of Kael’s work, and it is here that we get the first evaluation of her writing that comes from a place other than the personal.

Finally, halfway through the book, we come to “Stop Making Sense: Academics Consider Pauline Kael”. I say “finally” because my impression, from the Call for Papers to my interactions with editor Wayne Stengel (a professor at the University of Central Arkansas, and a pleasure to work with) to the way I approached my essay (which isn’t quite filled with academese, but I did include notes), was that this would be an “academic” book (I was thinking of the potential audience, but I suppose another way to separate “academic” from “non-academic” writing is that I didn’t get paid for this book, unlike, say, my work for BenBella). I’d say it’s the best kind of book, a blend of the academic and the ... I don’t really have a word for the opposite. Nonetheless, this section, featuring two professors, two graduate students, and Stengel himself, is pretty clearly marked off from what has come before. It is in many ways the most interesting section of the book, for Kael was well-known for her anti-academic stance (note that this was not the same as anti-intellectual ... she was never the latter, despite being accused of it on more than one occasion).

Steve Vineberg actually talks about her writing (I call him a professor, but his essay is a reprint from 1992 ... he might not have been teaching yet). Susie Linfield compares Kael to Siegfried Kracauer, which is fascinating in part because of the oddness of the subject. (She starts, “To discuss Pauline Kael and Siegfried Kracauer in the same essay seems, at first glance, exceedingly odd. And not just first glance.”) In “The Ghost of Pauline Kael,” Amanda Shubert asks for a moratorium of sorts on a certain kind of critique of Kael: “Pauline Kael lingers in a half-life in the cultural imaginary, unjustly pigeonholed and damned by derision and faint praise. It would be a grace finally to allow her to die. How else can we give her work a rebirth?” (Shubert also states, “My own frequent conversations with Pauline Kael have taken place solely in my head. There’s a good reason for that. I was only thirteen years old when she died in 2001.” Those “conversations in my head”, which resonate with people like me, remind me of the relationship between Six and Baltar in Battlestar Galactica.) Jason Kelly Roberts, like Linfield, takes on a topic that has been curiously ignored, Kael’s early essay “Movies on Television”. This piece benefits greatly from the focus Roberts can place on a single text. Finally, Wayne Stengel discusses “Performance Art and the Siren Songs of Pauline Kael”, where he claims that Kael “cultivated the most distinctive, jarring, and sexualized performance voice of any culture critic America has produced.” We’ve come full circle from Frost’s notion that Kael created “Kael” to Stengel’s recognition that Kael gave us a performance.

And then, at last, we come to the section that includes me, “Unraveling Pauline: Origins and Influences”. Maureen Karagueuzian offers an analysis of the now-legendary Berkeley Cinema Guild (in my bio for this book, I wrote that I “once lived half a block from the building where Pauline Kael had run the Berkeley Cinema Guild”), and Lisa Levy notes the importance of R.P. Blackmur on Kael’s approach to criticism. Which leads to my piece ... I’ve gotten to that point where I know what has come before, and can apply context to what I wrote for the book.

I’m trying to explain myself to myself.

My essay is called “Kael’s Influence: Expansive Subjectivity”. I don’t remember who came up with the title, but Wayne Stengel was quite taken with my concept of “expansive subjectivity”, so I suppose it was bound to be in the title somewhere. That phrase may turn out to be the one thing that lasts from my piece ... if you ever see anyone using that term, I did it first (at least, to the best of my knowledge). I used it as a counterpart to what Kael called “saphead objectivity”. The subjective part is obvious ... it’s also the easiest to emulate. Any writer who wants to attach themselves to whatever prestige comes with the Kael name can cite her whenever they offer a completely subjective response to a work. (I’m of the opinion that all criticism is subjective, but it’s kind of like fiction writers who want to write like Kerouac, or rock critics who want to write like Lester Bangs ... they copy the easy stuff, don’t understand the complicated stuff, and end up producing writing that borrows the worst from their idols.) It is crucial, I think, to understand how Kael’s subjectivity was expansive:

Kael demonstrated the freedom a critic could have to be subjective, but to this quality she added her understanding of the humanities in general. ... Kael didn’t confine her review [of The Bostonians] to the film adaptation; she also discussed in detail James’s novel and James’s life, and considered the effectiveness of the movie as a vision of the writer. Yes, her approach was subjective, but it was expansively subjective. For Kael, the movies did not exist solely for her opinions about them; she was no solipsist.

The way I honor her influence on me (and I hope I do more than emulate) shows itself in multiple ways. My first paragraph is about the Kael section at the website, as a way of showing how her influence reached beyond film. I talked about the “progressive passing along of influence”. I wrote about this many years ago, after Kael and another personal influence, political science professor Michael Rogin, died.

Cultural critics like Pauline Kael and Michael Rogin are rare, but their influence is long lasting. We miss them when they are gone, but one can state with assurance (and without resorting to New Age mysticism) that in important ways, they aren't really gone at all. Their work lives on, and by "their work," I don't mean only the words they published. I mean that one day, a young scholar named Greil Marcus took a course from a professor named Rogin, he read a book by a critic named Pauline Kael, and the next thing you know, he was writing books of his own. I mean that one day, a young factory worker named Steven Rubio read one of those books Greil Marcus wrote, and with sudden (and unusual) clarity, knew the direction his life would necessarily take, and down the road, he was writing and teaching himself.

I argue that the whole notion of “Paulettes” who followed Kael in lockstep was nonsense. “For the critic who truly wanted to follow in Kael’s footsteps, subjectivity would necessarily be crucial, and that subjectivity would ensure that the critic wasn’t merely parroting Kael.”

I addressed the idea that she was anti-intellectual by separating it from her very real rejection of “respectable tradition”. “[S]he never tried to hide her intelligence nor her range of reference in making connections between high culture and bastard, hybrid, but equally valid artistic impulses. She loved the pedigreed and the cur with equal ardor.” (That last sentence is a sign that my essay was carefully edited. It wasn’t in my original, and I don’t know that it “sounds” like me. But when I read it, I wished I’d written it.)

I finish with my oft-told anecdote about publically claiming that Kael was the most influential woman in my life. As always, there’s some hyperbole involved ... as I note, the real person for that role is my wife. But I was offering “some existential intention”. Perhaps it was this conclusion that led Stengel to call my essay “charming” in his introduction.

The final section of the book contains pieces by Kael’s biographer, and the editor of a book of Kael interviews.

So, where do I fit? I didn’t sense any great drop off when my essay came up. If the writing overall isn’t as idiosyncratic as my usual, well, that often happens to me in anthologies. The idea of giving your work over to someone else for improvements is perhaps essential to anthologies, and in general over the years, I’ve been happy with the results. It’s not as if I submitted a book of my own writings and it was accepted without edits ... every published book involves an editor (or it should ... I guess with the easy access to vanity-press self-publishing in the Internet age, more unedited material is out there, starting with blogs like this.)

What makes me happiest is that I am finally part of a group of statements about Pauline Kael. It’s good company ... can’t go wrong with the likes of Joan Tewksbury. But it remains odd to see my thoughts contextualized by the thoughts of others. It’s the furthest thing possible from a blog post. But now, when someone asks what I think of Kael, I have a place I can point them to.

tv blues

In “How We Went From Television's Golden Age to 'Peak TV' Blues”, Rob Sheffield writes:

You can no longer give your friends the speech about this amazing new show they need to watch, right now, seriously, now. Your friends will nod politely and lie to your face. They're already overpromised and overbooked. They will run out of 2015 before they run out of the TiVo space they have emotionally and socially committed themselves to unclogging.

And so have you, my friend. So have you. You keep promising to catch up, but you are guaranteed to fail and disappoint your TV. You have written TV a check your eyeballs can't cash. You are officially a deadbeat viewer. So say we all. (Speaking of, how did Battlestar Galactica end up? I'm a few seasons behind.)

I used to write a lot about television on this blog. Much of my published writing covers topics related to television. I watch a lot of TV to this day. But I’m not writing about it as much. Back in May, Mad Men finished its run, and I wrote about it. In the four months since then, I have written the following blog posts with a “television” tag:

  • Comments on the Women’s World Cup
  • A discussion on Kaitlin Jenner
  • A few thoughts about rassler Dusty Rhodes
  • The theme song to Orange Is the New Black
  • A mention of Nancy Marchand of The Sopranos
  • An actual review of Penny Dreadful
  • A link to a video of McHale’s Navy
  • A video of Jon Stewart’s last episode of Daily Show
  • An actual review of Sense8, tied to its use of the song “What’s Up?”
  • A Throwback Thursday to the remake of Bionic Woman

That’s it for four months of writing. Two items that pass for reviews (the Penny Dreadful piece is the only one that really qualifies).

Sheffield is talking about how hard the glut of great TV shows is on today’s viewers. (“Television remains our dirtiest, guiltiest national secret, except now instead of feeling guilty for watching too much, we're guilty of not making more time for it.”) Other critics, specifically TV critics, have described their frustration at not being able to keep up with all the great stuff, and if the critics whose job it is can’t keep up, how can the rest of us do it?

I’m not exactly a critic. I’m just a guy with a blog. But The Glut has forced me to confront my own purposes. Movies are timeless, in that I can write about old movies and they might still resonate with someone just catching up to them. In the past, TV was of the moment, so I’d write about premieres and finales, and stick to current programs. But people don’t watch television the same way any longer. In some ways, this makes my job easier ... I just tell people to binge-watch Terriers. But I confess I don’t know what to do about current TV.

Right now, we’re watching Masters of Sex, The Strain, and Fear the Walking Dead, all of which operate under the old rules (one episode a week). We are, of course, behind on two of them. We are also watching Longmire and Sense8 on Netflix, which were available for binge watching all episodes the moment they appeared for streaming. There’s also Deutschland 83, which I think is on Amazon ... I can’t even recall when it was made. I’m watching a French show, Spiral, on Hulu ... this one is a few years old, I’m on Season Three of five (so far). Meanwhile, we decided to watch Battlestar Galactica from the beginning ... we only have 74 more episodes to go. And many series are about to return, including The Bastard Executioner, which premieres tonight. I don’t know how to write about all of these shows. I suspect I need to give myself over to the move from the immediate to the timeless that accompanies the new forms of watching series. I don’t need to tell everyone to watch a show when it airs ... it’s just as useful to promote the show later, when the whole thing can be binge-watched.

While I figure this out, here are some very quick and very short thoughts about some of the shows I mention above.

  • Masters of Sex: Still great acting, but I don’t sense that it’s getting better. Not a problem, except I find myself getting behind by a couple of episodes.
  • The Strain: Completely ludicrous, but still good for fans of Guillermo del Toro.
  • Fear the Walking Dead: Too soon to tell, but it’s always nice to see Kim Dickens.
  • Longmire: Steady as she goes, and it’s always nice to see Katee Sackhoff.
  • Sense8: I spent some time talking about it here.
  • Deutschland 83: I should have done a better job of binging. As it is, when I finally get around to a new episode, I can’t remember the plot.
  • Spiral: A French version of American procedurals. I can’t honestly compare, because I only watch the American ones in passing, but the primary characters in Spiral are real human beings, and Caroline Proust’s Captain Laure Berthaud is the equal of Helen Mirren’s Jane Tennison.
  • Battlestar Galactica: It’s always nice to see Katee Sackhoff.

throwback: september 10, 2007

So I don’t always get them right. Here is what I wrote eight years ago about the pilot episode for a new series: “A show like this could go a lot of different ways, and one episode isn't likely to be enough to establish potential greatness. But you should be able to tell if it's gonna stink, and based on the pilot, [it] will not stink. We will be back for more.”

Here’s what I wrote about the show in my year-end review: “Trainwreck of the Year. Grade for series, at least the episodes I watched before I gave up: D-.”

Just what was this TV show?

And yes, that was Katee Sackhoff as The First Bionic Woman, in case you wondered why I watched it in the first place.

music friday: linda perry, pink, "what's up?", and sense8

In 1992, a San Francisco band called 4 Non Blondes released what would be their only album, Bigger, Better, Faster, More! The second single from that album, released in 1993, was “What’s Up?” It was a hit, and the video for the song was very popular on MTV. When the dust had cleared, that one album by 4 Non Blondes had sold six million copies. Critical opinion of “What’s Up?” varies ... it makes lots of One Hit Wonders lists, and also makes lists of the worst songs of all time. It’s got a catchy sing-along chorus, and the lyrics are vague and hippie-like.

Now, I would have thought this song came and went, occasionally recalled by folks nostalgic for that time in the early-90s when they were teenagers and this was their anthem. People like Alecia Moore, better known as Pink, who was born in 1979 and was a big fan of the song and Linda Perry, who wrote it and sang it. Pink asked Perry to work on her second album, Perry offered up the song “Get This Party Started”, and the album, M!ssundaztood, eventually sold thirteen million copies. On tour, Pink would sing “What’s Up?”. I caught this the first time I saw her in concert in 2002, and then again when she played the Fillmore in 2006. After that show, I wrote:

Her audience was completely in love with her ... there were a lot of young girls there, young women as well, as is appropriate, and it was their show, they knew every song and sang every lyric. They even knew every word to 4 Non Blonde's "What's Up," which Pink claims as her own. No matter how corny the song, or Pink's delivery of the same, it's quite a moment when all those youngsters throw the peace sign in the air and sing "hey hey hey hey, what's going on?" In fact, it's this element of pop community that I like best about Pink concerts, it would seem, since I wrote about a singalong in my blog post about that earlier show four years ago.

What's odd is that Pink hooked up with Linda Perry for M!ssundaztood, and Perry wrote a lot of the songs for that album, when in fact Linda Perry had written the ultimate Pink song eight years before the two even met. So now Pink sings that song as if she's known it all her life, and based on the voices in the Fillmore who sang every word, her audience has known it all their lives as well, and it's a great pop moment that reflects the optimism of the young just as other Pink songs reflect their sadness. The song indeed no longer belongs to Linda Perry, it belongs to Pink and the fans who know and sing all the words.

Which brings us to the new Netflix TV series, Sense8. Briefly, Sense8 tells the story of eight strangers who have some kind of psychic/emotional link to each other (we’ve only watched four of the twelve first-season episodes, so I’m guessing this gets more clear as the show progresses). Near the end of the fourth episode, one of the eight drunkenly attempts to sing “What’s Up?” at a karaoke bar. All of the other Eight feel the song inside them, and it binds them together in a beautiful way that correctly identifies why “What’s Up?” works no matter how bad or irritating the song might be.

There wasn’t a dry eye at my house. Kinda makes me hate the song, but damn, does it work!

In a fascinating article on the series (“Sense8 and the Failure of Global Imagination”), Claire Light argues convincingly that the show offers “a beautiful vision, if you believe in universality”, but that “To put it plainly: Sense8’s depiction of life in non-western countries is built out of stereotypes ... The universality being promoted here is a universality of American ideas, American popular culture, American world views.... ‘Universing’ everything under an American idea — an American set of choices — is a contradiction in terms”. (“The Icelandic DJ in London puts on 4 Non Blondes’ hideous anthem ‘What’s Goin’ On?’ and infects the entire cluster with a dancing/singing jag.”)

And yet ... that hideous anthem, which did indeed come from America, approached the universal long before Sense8, and not just because young girls knew all the words at Pink concerts. “What’s Up?” hit #1 in Austria, Belgium, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland. Granted, this only disputes Light’s claim by half ... Africa and Asia and South America are missing from these charts. Her essay is very enlightening. But the pull of that “hideous anthem” somehow seems just right in this case.

Here are two more versions of the song. First, Linda Perry is joined by Pink for an acoustic version:

And finally, the version many think is the best, by He-Man:

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: