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big love: season two finale

I've been thinking about why people decide to watch certain shows rather than certain other shows. Mostly it's been because I realize as the season two premiere approaches that I found Dexter to be an excellent series so far. There is simply no way anyone I know is going to watch that show, no matter how good it is, because the title character (and nominal hero) is a serial killer. Clearly that hasn't stopped everyone from watching … it did get called back for a second season, and the books on which the first season was based apparently sell well enough. But the people I know … not the people whose stuff I read on the Internet, but the people I call my friends … there isn't a single one who watches Dexter, and there probably never will be. People are up for good television, but there are lines that they will draw, and I guess serial killers is one of those places where a line appears.

I wonder if there's something similar about Big Love. Many more people of my acquaintance watch it than watch Dexter, but I think that's more HBO snobbery than any actual value judgment about the shows. Most people who only have one premium channel still choose HBO, so they don't even have to decide about Dexter. Having said that, and knowing that a lot of my friends watch Big Love, there still seems to be something disreputable about it, as if polygamy isn't as good a topic, inherently, as Jersey mobsters. I don't want to go too far with this … plenty of people do watch Big Love, it certainly isn't as embarrassing to admit you watch it as it was to say "I like the American version of Queer As Folk." But I suspect one reason it isn't taken to be quite as good as other HBO shows (not just Sopranos, but even shows like Rome) is because polygamy as a topic bothers some people and seems unimportant to others.

Having said all of this, I confess that by my standards, the real problem is that Big Love, good as it is, simply isn't as good as the best HBO offerings. It's not up there with the Sopranos/Wire/Deadwood triumvirate … it's not even as good as Rome … yet in the end, that's hardly condemning the show, to say it's good-not-great. But I know that most people think they only have time for a certain amount of television watching in their lives, and if such a person were to ask me what they might watch, Big Love would be a bit of a ways down the list. It would make the list, though.

The biggest flaw with Big Love is that there are two co-primary storylines, and one is far more interesting than the other. Were the show just about the political mechanisms that drive the religious cult which is a central part of the plot, you'd have a decent show that I would have given up on after a few episodes, perhaps apologizing for not sticking with it. On the other hand, if the show focused more of its energies on the main characters in the "family" plotline, it would rank up there with the best of these series. Because Big Love really shines when it deals with the lives of the three women who are the wives of Bill Paxton's polygamist "hero." And it's not hard to figure out why. Those three wives occupy what would seem to be a fairly passive, uninteresting, smothered kind of role, yet, as played so well by actresses Jeanne Tripplehorn, my fave Chloë Sevigny, and the revelatory Ginnifer Goodwin, these women are in fact active, interesting, and far from smothered. The best parts of Big Love revolve around the efforts of those women to find a place for themselves within a lifestyle that wouldn't seem to be a positive experience. They aren't perfect, by any means … Sevigny's Nicki is quite devious … but it is fascinating to see how they use their individual skills to improve their lives while still participating fully in the polygamist world. Polygamy as practiced in Big Love would seem to be the ultimate version of It's a Man's World, but the husband is really not much different from any other husband, trying to make it in the business world while fighting off the demons of his family's past. The women … I don't want to say they are the real "power behind the throne" because that would be too easy (and it wouldn't make for much of a TV show) … they inhabit their roles but they refuse to be defined by those roles, and it's the process by which they live their lives that makes Big Love fascinating. And that's what I meant when I said it's not hard to see why the wives are the best part of the show: when you put interesting characters into situations that seem on the surface to be stifling, and then give those characters a chance to deal with those situations in ways that suggest depth, struggle, and the occasional victory … that's a good show. (The terrific new series Mad Men offers a similar presentation of women characters, in that case, women in the transition from 50s mystique to 70s second-wave feminism.)

So Big Love is in the "A" range and the "B" range at the same time. I'm giving Season Two a B+, as I did for Season One, because it's only half-great. But I look forward to Season Three.

best whatever of their time

We were at the ballgame today, and as baseball fans in particular will do, we were discussing players we'd known and loved, talking about all the goofy lists fans will make when they're bored. You know what I mean if you're a fan, too ... Best Team Composed of San Francisco Giants Who Hit Left-Handed, or All Hair-Team ... stuff like that.

I started thinking about how I've constructed some of my course syllabi in the past, and realized there was something similar involved. Let's say you're doing what we were doing this afternoon, trying to name the best players at each position that we'd seen play who weren't in the Hall of Fame. For Yankee fans like my friend, this is often called the Don Mattingly Award (Giants fans might name it after, oh, Jim Ray Hart, A's fans could mention Gene Tenace). Well, that's what you do when you are teaching a course on, say, Teenagers in American Popular Culture since the 1950s. I taught such a course once, and for that class, I showed one movie from each of five decades (50s thru 90s). I'm not sure I even remember all of the movies now ... let me try ... Blackboard Jungle, Wild in the Streets, Saturday Night Fever, River's Edge, maybe Boyz n the Hood. Doesn't really matter what I picked ... might have worked Breakfast Club in there, can't recall. The point is, I was playing the same game baseball fans play when they name an All Facial-Hair Team.

Try it yourself ... heck, leave a comment if you'd like. Maybe I should be more specific, to make this manageable, or maybe no one cares enough to leave a comment, which is certainly possible, perhaps likely. So here goes:

You are teaching a course on American Popular Culture of the past 50 years. As part of that course, you will be spending a few weeks on the 1970s. You have time to include one movie, one book, and one television series, and you will spend one lecture talking about the most representative pop music of that decade. What would you choose? Just like the baseball fan who has to reject Will Clark in favor of Norm Cash, you'll have to eliminate all but one movie, or book, or whatever.

The only easy answer for me is a cheat: I'd show the first two Godfather movies (I always treat them as one). For the rest, I'd have to think on it.

might as well add myself to the rush to call it hbo-ver

HBO still has The Wire. The Sopranos and Deadwood are gone. Or perhaps Six Feet Under and Sex and the City were more to your liking. They're gone, too. Rome? Gone.

Meanwhile, on Showtime, you've got Dexter, better than anything still on HBO outside of The Wire. You've got Weeds, about which you could say the same. The Tudors and Californication? OK, maybe that's stretching things a bit, but really, is Entourage clearly better than Californication? Right now, the big show on HBO is Big Love, and it's a good show, but it's also emblematic of certain changes. For a long time now, networks like Showtime have striven to be like HBO. But that's not quite the case nowadays. As I wrote back in March of last year, "Big Love is a Showtime series that just happens to be on HBO." HBO is looking more like Showtime all the time, and it's not just a case of Showtime becoming more HBO-ish, it's also a case of HBO losing some of its sheen.

I was talking to Neal about this … he's a big HBO fan … and he countered my argument by noting that right now, he's enjoying watching Deadwood and The Wire reruns. To which I say, precisely. The three best television shows of the last several years were all on HBO. Two of them are finished, the third has only one season to go. I've been known to watch a Wire rerun or two myself, and I don't imagine I'll ever tire of Deadwood. But Deadwood ain't coming back. And I understand that people don't want to shell out for two premium channels … heck, most people don't want to shell out for ONE such channel. But in the past, if you only got one, the choice was easy: HBO. The choice isn't so easy any more. Right now, if you have HBO, you get to watch Entourage and Big Love … if you have Showtime, you get to watch Weeds, which is better than both of those shows. And come September, Showtime will have Dexter, which has probably taken over from The Wire as the Best Show No One Knows About, since the incessant howling of Wire fans like myself have at least brought that show to people's attention. Robin and I are the only people we know who watch Dexter, and while part of that is probably due to the subject matter, most of it is just the remnants of people's notion that the best TV is still on HBO.

The comparison to The Wire is appropriate, I think. Dexter isn't up to that level, but neither is any other show, so that's no real putdown. Where Dexter is now is where The Wire was after its first season: it's a great show that no one watches, which inspires the few who do watch to hassle everyone, trying to get them to watch the damn thing. I mean, Robin and I both have shows that no one else we know watches … I could make a list of shows Robin watches and I bet if I threw in a fake title, most people wouldn't get it, because they've never heard of the real ones (Painkiller Jane, anyone? Burn Notice?) Me, I often stay up a few extra minutes to watch Craig Ferguson's monologue, and I don't know anyone else who does that, but monologues are pretty much up to taste preferences anyway. My point is that Dexter, like The Wire, isn't one of those obscure shows that no one cares about because they're adequate time-fillers. No, when Dexter shows up next month, it will be the best show on the air at that time. And no one will care.

Maybe Nikki Finke has it right when she says "The only problem is that Showtime, unlike HBO, can't market worth a damn. Or else the riveting Dexter and its upcoming 2nd season would be the pay channel series everyone is talking about. Instead, the silence is deafening. HBO now has crap but promotes it well, and Showtime has good stuff and can't get it arrested. I say HBO and Showtime should swap marketing departments."

friday random ten, 1989 edition

1. Neneh Cherry, "Buffalo Stance." I was getting old by the time 1989 rolled around … all of 35 … I had no idea what a buffalo stance was, anymore than I understand why they're called buffalo wings. But the loopy hook of this song was hard to resist. Cherry has recently turned up as the co-host of a BBC cooking show, Neneh & Andi Dish It Up. The video link is from 1988, so somebody's cheating on dates … I think the single came out that year, the album in '89, which is why I'm letting it stay on this Random Ten. Oh, and the video is from a famous Top of the Pops performance, where Neneh shook it while seven months pregnant.

2. The B-52's, "Love Shack." You could call this a comeback, except until "Love Shack" the B-52's had never been a huge success … this was their first Top 40 song (it made #3). It came out ten years after their first album, and they'd been fading ever since their second album in 1980. Guitarist Ricky Wilson had died a few years earlier, after which the band disappeared for a couple of years. In 1979, their sound was delightfully retro … by 1989 it sounded modern.

3. Faith No More, "Epic." Influential precursor to rap metal, with a killer riff worthy of Jimmy Page. As for the song's meaning, I can do no better than to quote somebody on Wikipedia:

Some perceive the lyrics as a reference to masturbation. The lyrics also possess themes of rape. Other sources indicate that the lyrics may intertwine with people not being able to achieve what they want. Such as an accomplishment or goal. This contests to the "masturbation" conception stated above. Although, many people feel that the video for the song explains the second theory better. Which is not about sexual deviance at all, but more along the lines of people not acquiring what they desire most. For example, the fish at the end who dies without water.

There is also the possibility that the song's pervasive 'it' is a variable for whatever is the 'it' in modern culture. Various senses are tantalized throughout the song to give it a broader appeal. Any pop culture trend that disappears as quickly as it appears seems to fit as 'it'.

So all you college professors out there, if you ever find the phrase "Various senses are tantalized" in a student's paper, you'll know where they got it from.

4. Nirvana, "About a Girl." From Nirvana's first album, which reportedly sold 6,000 copies. At least, until Nevermind introduced the rest of the world to the band … Bleach has now sold upwards of four million copies. There's a story to be told about the different between 6,000 and 4,000,000.

5. Madonna, "Like a Prayer." My personal favorite Madonna song. To steal a famous quote, she had me at "God." As for the video, it's been said, and if you haven't read it, well then, Google is your friend. VH1 named it the #2 video of all time ("Thriller" was #1).

6. De La Soul, "Jenifa Taught Me (Derwin's Revenge)." It's perhaps hard to remember how much baggage people attached to this fine album, a runaway winner of the year's Pazz & Jop poll. It wasn't enough that the music was terrific … it had to stand in for the hope that the future of hip-hop would grow out of its positive innovations. In other words, it wasn't Straight Outta Compton. History would suggest that those hopes were never realized, but the music is still great.

7. Beastie Boys, "The Sounds of Science." There are albums you play over and over because of the pleasure they give you … you just have to hear that song one more time. And then there's Paul's Boutique. You could play this album a thousand times and never get to the bottom of it. Partly this is because of the astounding depth of the album, in particular its use of sampling. But what made Paul's Boutique especially unique in subsequent years was Grand Upright Music, Ltd. v. Warner Bros. Records, Inc., aka Gilbert O'Sullivan sues Biz Markie. That decision was handed down 2 ½ years after Paul's Boutique, and effectively ended the bottomless well of sampling as a legal artistic outlet. OK, that's an interesting legal note in music history, that helps explain why you don't hear albums like this anymore. But the prevalence of mashups on the Internet remind us that messing around with sound bytes isn't hard at all … what's hard is getting it right. And no one ever got it more right than the Dust Brothers and the Beasties on Paul's Boutique. While the title "The Sounds of Science" might suggest a confrontation between bratty rappers and mellow-folkie singer/songwriters, in fact the primary source of samples for the song is the Beatles, in particular "When I'm 64" and "The End." Both of those songs are used in a sore-tooth manner, such that you can't quit running your tongue over the spot that hurts. The "64" rip takes two notes from the oboe-y musical intro to the original and loops it over and over … there isn't a baby boomer alive who won't want to scream at the stereo, "PLAY THE REST OF THE LICK, DAMMIT!" There wouldn't seem to be anything more entrancingly aggravating … and there isn't, until they rework a guitar riff from Abbey Road in a similarly annoying way. It's guitarus interruptus, as the first chords of the guitar raveup at the end of Side Two of Abbey Road get repeated over and over and over and over … and they never resolve the moment, so all you can do is listen to the song again, hoping this time they'll finally get to the gee-tars. And they never do ... it's like an old vinyl album that gets stuck. Hurts so good.

8. Phranc, "M-A-R-T-I-N-A." A classic from the "All-American Jewish Lesbian Folksinger." Phranc's another one of those artists who have done a lot of different things in their lives … Neneh Cherry may have a cooking show, but Phranc sells Tupperware, as documented in Lifetime Guarantee: Phranc's Adventure in Plastic. If De La Soul was seen as the anti-gangsta (whether they wanted to or not), Phranc was the anti-Olivia folksinger, funny, with a background in punk rock. And you have to love the way she spells "Czechoslovakia."

9. k.d. lang and the Reclines, "Pullin' Back the Reins." Phranc's influential and all of that, but here's the lesbian singer who rules the roost. Lang has one of the finest voices in contemporary music. Absolute Torch and Twang was the culmination of her country period, and to this day my favorite of her albums. This is my favorite song from that album.

10. Digital Underground, "Doowutchyalike." I can't decide if this is a good shuffle-play move or not. On the one hand, this song belongs back with De La Soul and the Beasties … on the other hand, can you think of a better summation of k.d. lang and Phranc than "do what you like?" Digital Underground was the most obvious inheritor of certain George Clinton traditions … others were as good or better at co-opting the Funkadelic sound, but Shock G/Humpty Hump had it over everyone else in creating a visual image and overall funky goofiness that owed much to Clinton. Digital Underground also points to the future: while they reside in the "alternative rap" world of De La Soul rather than in the gangsta rap world that was becoming dominant, they had a hand in the latter: one of their roadies/dancers was a man named Tupac Shakur.


Thanks to the Undercover Black Man for finding a fellow who goes by the handle "spoonfedcornbread." Spoon (I have no idea how to address the gentleman) has something fascinating going on over on YouTube, one of the finest examples I've seen/heard combining old school and new. Watching and listening to music on YouTube is fairly commonplace nowadays, but not the way spoonfedcornbread does it. Mr. Bread (I'll keep trying until I come up with something that sounds right) apparently owns a lot of vinyl 45s. What he does with them is pretty enjoyable for fans of retro music. He turns on his video camera and points it at a turntable. Then he puts a 45 on the turntable and places the needle on the record. The rest of the video is simply the 45 playing. You get to watch it go 'round and 'round while you listen to the song. Couldn't be simpler.

Lots of folks are tuned into Spoonfed … the UBM is just where I heard about it first (and, while I'm at it, that's a fine blog to read … UBM is the nom de blog of David Mills, Emmy-winner for The Corner and writer for, among other things, NYPD Blue and The Wire). Nor is Cornbread the only person who does this 45-spinning video trick. Whatever … it's way more fun than you'd think, worth scrolling through his contributions. Here's one chosen at random:

[ed. note: I'm leaving this post up, although Spoon was disappeared from YouTube]

so long urge, we hardly knew ye

I can't shed too many tears over the news that URGE, the MTV/Microsoft music subscription service, was merging into Rhapsody. A little more than a week ago, I dumped URGE for Rhapsody myself ... there was a lot to like about URGE, but it crashed a lot and was big and clunky. Rhapsody isn't perfect, but it (and the other subscription sites) do what iTunes doesn't: allow you to access music for a monthly fee, rather than buying songs one at a time for 99 cents or whatever they're charging these days. Like I say, it's not perfect ... you don't "own" the music, you "rent" it, so, for instance, when I cancelled URGE in favor of Rhapsody, I could no longer play the downloaded URGE tracks. (Not all that big a deal, since I can just download the Rhapsody version instead.) Since Sandisk, who makes my MP3 player, now has a "Rhapsody" model that allows you to download Rhapsody music via wi-fi, we're getting ever closer to my oft-stated dream, every song ever recorded, available at any time, in any place.

family reunion

The Rubios had a family reunion on Sunday in Pleasant Hill. Thanks to my sister Sue for being the main person to put it all together! "The Rubios" in this case are the descendants of my Spanish grandparents. No one of my father's generation is still alive, so my generation is now the oldest. By my count, which can't really be trusted, ten members of my generation of Rubios showed up, representing three of the five Rubio siblings of the previous generation. There were also a lot of next-gen people, and even a few next-next-gen ... i.e. a few of my generation are now grandparents.

Here are two of my favorite pictures. One is of most of the attendees ... it's really too hard to see everyone in this small version. The other picture is of two of my favorite family members:

Rubio family reunion

african-american directors series: inside man (spike lee, 2006)

I'm usually about a year behind on my movie watching, and something like Inside Man is exactly the kind of film that slips through my cracks, so to speak. I'll watch 30 movies in a month leading up to the Oscars, but Inside Man, a genre picture, is apparently a movie that Oscar tends to avoid. (Although I wouldn't say Inside Man is a "black" movie, it's interesting that while it received no Oscar nominations, Spike Lee won a Black Movie Award, a Black Reel Award, and an Image Award for his direction, with Denzel Washington getting an acting nomination in all of those competitions.) I watched it now because I was thinking of using it in my fall class (and now that I've seen it, I think it'll make a good fit). It's a very strong movie … Spike Lee is an erratic director, but he was on a roll last year, with this film and the New Orleans miniseries When the Levees Broke. Denzel is the perfect combination of movie star and actor (the two don't have to go together), Jodie Foster nails her few scenes, the supporting cast is fascinating … there's a lot to like here. It's also an intelligent movie, or perhaps more accurately, it assumes an intelligent audience (as Stephanie Zacharek said, "This is a mainstream entertainment designed for that forgotten movie audience, grown-ups who have brains").

I'm mentioning Inside Man here because of the similarities between the film and the Spike TV miniseries The Kill Point that I was cajoled into watching for a couple of episodes. The Kill Point is decent enough, with some good actors and some reasonably tense action scenes. But the entire series is far too reminiscent of a dozen other bank-robbery hostage dramas. Inside Man is what The Kill Point wants to be: smart and stylish, but with characters who break free of the stereotypes that informed their creation. The moments meant to reveal character in The Kill Point reveal nothing we haven't seen before, so that you can predict what's coming even when you can't predict what's coming … when John Leguizamo gives a passionate speech about how poorly served he has been by the country that he himself served with honor, it's a good speech and he does a good job of presenting it, but there's nothing in it that you haven't heard in other movies about other veterans of other wars. But the characters in Inside Man are much harder to predict, because they're closer to real human beings, with all of the quirky randomness that implies.

The plot twists are enjoyably complicated, enough so that I'm not spoiling any of them here. But I'll give one thing away, what you might call the biggest joke Spike Lee plays on the audience: he casts Clive Owen as the head of the bankrobbers, and Clive Owen is like a white British version of Denzel, he's better looking than the rest of us and knows how to use his looks to supplement his acting chops. So what does Lee do? He has Owen spend most of the movie hiding his face behind a mask.

(Here is a letterboxd list of movies with African-American directors.)

bonnie and clyde

This post isn't really about Bonnie or Clyde, but I'm in a hurry and wanted to at least remind myself to talk about this at some point. In a letter to the New York Times, a reader talked about seeing Bonnie and Clyde when she was a teenager. She found the violence extremely disturbing, but that's not the point either. It's what she then wrote:

I thought the point of engaging with a narrative was to identify with those portrayed and thereby enlarge one’s own experience.

I suppose it goes without saying how wrong-headed I think this statement is. But for now, consider this a bookmarker, in case I come back to the point later.

the power of the stereotype

Don_draper_2 Don Draper is the central character of the new AMC series Mad Men, which takes place in 1960. Draper's life isn't a very happy one ... on the surface, it's fine, he's got a good job, he commands the respect of his fellow workers, good-looking wife, two kids, blah blah blah. But he's got some big secrets, one of which is that he suffers from existential angst. He doesn't talk much ... he is, in fact, the epitome of the strong silent type. He looks like Neal Cassady if Neal Cassady wore nice suits and worked for an ad agency.

And, like I say, his life is pretty miserable. He's not alone in this ... one of the core themes of the show is that no one is very happy (a stereotype in itself, that there is darkness underneath the sunshine in suburbia, although what Mad Men does with the use of 1960 is very astute ... both men and women are on the horizon of changes in relations between the sexes, and some of them even seem to know that, and they might even welcome the changes considering how unhappy they are, but they aren't anywhere near making the big jump yet ... it's a Feminine Mystique era). As played by Jon Hamm, Draper is a man's man who shows us just how much is missing from the inner life of a man's man.

And I don't want to compromise on this point, because Mad Men doesn't compromise, either: this isn't a case of having cake and eating it too, not a DeMille film where we get to enjoy the scandalous lives that are being attacked. There really isn't anything about the life of Don Draper that would make a person say "I wish I was him."

But ... and I wonder if this is because I'm a 54-year-old American male whose ideas of masculinity were formed in the same general era that the show depicts ... I find Don Draper irresistible. I DO watch the show and wish I was him, wish I could get away with being silent if not strong, wish I could pretend everything was all right. It's very appealing. I'd understand it if this was some kind of Rat Pack homage, showing how cool it was to be a man before those darned feminists ruined everything, but it's not ... Draper sure isn't enjoying himself much. I feel like a doofus everytime I wish I, too, was Don Draper.