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orange is the new black

What a nice surprise this show turned out to be. The basic concept (middle-class white woman goes to jail) was easily described in those combo-terms people joke about (“a cross of Oz and The L Word was pretty commonly mentioned). But almost everything that could go right does in Orange Is the New Black, the first Netflix series that I had to binge-watch (at least by my standards … I don’t usually do binges). House of Cards has the famous names, but it’s been on Netflix forever, and I still have nine episodes to go. I finished Orange pretty quickly.

While there is a central character at the core of Orange (Taylor Schilling as Piper), showrunner Jenji Kohan takes full advantage of the large diverse population in the prison. As with Oz, we gradually learn how the various women ended up in jail, with different characters featured in each episode. This background filler gives depth to the characters, and a bunch of wonderful (and, to me at least, largely unknown) actresses make each character their own. Most of them have a visual cue that lets us know who these women are, but as we get to know them, we learn that the visual cues aren’t telling the whole story. A personal favorite of mine, Natasha Lyonne, is her usual wonderful self, and Laura Prepon, one of the better-known cast members from her eight years on That 70’s Show, brings a perfect blend of self-assurance and vulnerability. (She also uses her 5’10” height effectively … one fellow inmate calls her Sasquatch, and it’s true that Prepon’s Alex Vause usually seems to take up a lot of space … Taylor Schilling is only two inches shorter, yet she seems tiny next to Prepon.) There’s also Kate Mulgrew for the Star Trek fans, playing a red-headed Russian immigrant, and Lyonne’s American Pie buddy Jason Biggs as Piper’s boyfriend.

Orange Is the New Black doesn’t just cast for diversity, it treats diversity with a fair amount of honesty. It generally avoids the kind of anvilicious self-congratulation that ruins so many similar attempts at diversity. The lesbians are lesbians, an accepted part of the prison community. There’s a transgender woman (played by a transgender actress/activist), and a bull dyke (played by the multi-talented dyke, Lea DeLaria) who somehow manages to both fit the stereotype and break it down to show the person behind the façade. The show accepts the reality of the tribal nature of the prison community … when an advisory council is formed, the coalition is made up of one person each from groups like whites, black, Latinas, lesbians, “golden girls”, and “others”. That the council is toothless makes an interesting point, but what I liked more was the way everyone understood that the coalition would be chosen by “groups”. In the beginning of the series, we’re told that people stick to their own, but over the course of the season, we see plenty of examples of people crossing those lines. When this happened on Oz, it was usually part of political maneuvering, but with Orange, you see some genuine affection when people cross over the barriers.

It’s also nice that Piper isn’t a particularly nice person. It is true that the anti-hero is at the center of much great TV these days, but they are usually men. And it would be easy to just coast on the concept of the clueless white girl stumbling blindly but charmingly through her jail sentence. But it doesn’t play that way. Piper hurts people because she is too self-absorbed to appreciate that she is affecting others, and since we are attached to many of the characters, we are hurt as well by Piper’s insensitivity. It’s a tricky thing to pull off, and Taylor Schilling has a lot to do with how successful it is so far.

Jenji Kohan previously gave us Weeds, which was very good for three seasons. Unfortunately, it was on for eight seasons. Perhaps that suggests that Orange Is the New Black will have a short shelf life. But three seasons as good as this first one would be just fine with me. Grade for Season One: A-.

what i watched last week

56 Up (Michael Apted, 2012). Latest in a long British television documentary series. If you’ve heard of it, you know what 56 Up is. If you haven’t heard of it, this isn’t the place to start (that’s Seven Up!). Every seven years, beginning in 1964, the series looks at a group of 14 people (all of them seven years old in 1964), to see what they have been doing the previous seven years. The original was intended to make a statement about the persistence of the importance of social class in British society, and in theory, the upper-class kids would become upper-class adults, while the lower-class kids would never rise above their station. There are all sorts of problems with this scenario, not least that the seven-year-old kids didn’t necessarily fit the class standard they were supposed to represent in the first place. In many cases (but not all), the class structure has stuck with the various people. Apted (who worked on the first film and has directed all of them since) has said he realized eventually that the keys to the films were more personal than political, and he seems less concerned now with forcing everything into a predetermined structure. The films become more fascinating with each permutation, as we learn more about the various characters, which is reflected in the fact that I rated the first three in the series 6/10, and each one since then 7/10. I don’t intend to miss any future episodes; I’ll always want to know what everyone has been up to. But it becomes especially apparent in 56 Up that the series hasn’t always been a good thing for the people in front of the camera.

music friday: motown edition

A few days ago I was asked if I’d like to take part in a poll regarding the best Motown singles of all time. I didn’t have a lot of time, so I’m sure my list missed a lot of good stuff. But on short notice, here is what I came up with.

The clear #1: The Jackson 5, “I Want You Back”.

I placed the next four in order, but they could have been rearranged, depending on my mood of the day:

#2: The Four Tops, “Reach Out (I’ll Be There)”.

#3: Thelma Houston, “Don't Leave Me This Way”.

#4: The Temptations, “Papa Was a Rollin' Stone”.

#5: Smokey Robinson, “Cruisin'”.

I listed the rest of my top 20 in alphabetical order:

The Jackson 5, “ABC”.

The Four Tops, “Bernadette”.

Martha and the Vandellas, “Dancing in the Street”.

The Contours, “Do You Love Me”.

Stevie Wonder, “Fingertips, Part 2”.

Martha and the Vandellas, “Heat Wave”.

Gladys Knight & the Pips, ”I Heard It Through the Grapevine”.

Boyz II Men, “It's So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday”.

Stevie Wonder, “Living for the City”.

The Miracles, “Mickey's Monkey”.

Stevie Wonder, “Sir Duke”.

The Undisputed Truth, “Smiling Faces Sometimes”.

Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, “Tears of a Clown”.

The Miracles, “Tracks of My Tears”.

Edwin Starr, “War”.

[Edited to add Spotify playlist]

good old-fashioned doubleheader

If you want proof that baseball, for all its pleasures, remains mired in nostalgia, just think of the ways announcers use the term “old-fashioned”. I’ve always thought it funny that if you are watching a game with a score of 10-9, the announcers will explain that it’s a “good old-fashioned slugfest”, while a game that is scoreless after 7 innings is a “good old-fashioned pitchers’ duel”. In both cases, the announcer wants us to appreciate the quality of what we are seeing, while connecting it to baseball’s past. “Old-fashioned” is always accompanied by the word “good”, for in baseball, nostalgia reigns supreme.

Olivia and I went to yesterday’s “good old-fashioned doubleheader” between the Reds and Giants. Some things had little to do with the past, or even the present as I understand it. The extra game was a replacement for an earlier postponement in Cincinnati that couldn’t be played in Ohio. So for one of the two games, the Reds were the home team and wore their home uniforms, while the Giants were the road team with road unis. I lost track of all the special instructions, but for some reason, the second of the two games played that day was the make-up game, so in the first game, the Reds batted first and the Giants last, while in the second game, the Giants hit first and the Reds hit last. Despite all of this, in the statistical record book, both games are considered home games for the Giants.

One result of this was that the second game (the one where the Giants were the road team) opened up the possibility for one of those “you go to the ballpark and you see something you never saw before” moments. The Reds came up in the bottom of the 9th trailing by two runs. If they had scored three in the 9th to win the game, the winning hit would have been perhaps the first-ever “walk-off” hit in the losing team’s park. Thankfully, Sergio Romo took care of that problem by striking out a bunch of guys to ensure the Giants’ victory.

But this was a good old-fashioned doubleheader in the most important way: the two games were played with only a 30-minute break between games, and one ticket got you admission to both games. For most of baseball history, this is how doubleheaders were handled … Dusty Baker, manager of the Reds, said in his playing days, he wouldn’t even bother to shower between games because there wasn’t time … and doubleheaders were more frequent. Wikipedia has a nice entry on baseball doubleheaders, where we learn that the number of doubleheaders declined over the years because the owners wanted the addition gate revenue from playing only one game per ticket sold, because unionized players were able to argue against playing two games in one day, and various other items. Wikipedia also differentiates between three kinds of doubleheaders. Olivia and I were at a “twi-night” doubleheader, where the first game in played in late afternoon and the second game, which starts after the first game (duh), is played at night. The so-called “classic” doubleheader (I guess this is the true “good old-fashioned” version, and it’s what I remember from my childhood) is like the twi-night version, except the first game is played in early afternoon and the second game in late afternoon. Finally, there is the “day-night” doubleheader, where the first game is played in the early afternoon, the second game is played at night, and each game requires its own ticket.

My memory isn’t what it used to be, but as far as I can recall, yesterday marked only the second time the Giants played a good old-fashioned doubleheader at China Basin. The first was on August 18, 2004, and yes, I was there. That was so long ago, the visiting team was the Montreal Expos. The Giants lost the first game, won the second by ten runs with Barry Bonds hitting a homer, and by the end of the day, there weren’t many people still at the park.

Olivia proved her Gamer Babe status by sticking out both games last night. The first game was an ugly affair, with the Giants getting pounded. When it was over, I told her we could go home, but she said since she didn’t get out to the park very often, she figured we should stay for Game Two. Which we did. The Giants won, I got to see my fave Giant (Romo), and people went home happy (and sleepy).

This was my first trip to the ballgame since I turned 60. Interesting that I saw a “good old-fashioned” twin bill.

dennis farina

I was going to watch Midnight Run again, maybe say a few words about it, but I’ve got a full schedule today (by my standards), so I’ll be more general in my comments.

First, in case the people who read this have different items on their Must Read plates, a link or two. TV critic Alan Sepinwall’s favorite movie is Midnight Run, so you might imagine he’d have something to say about Farina, and indeed, his piece was one of the best: “Remembering Dennis Farina, the great cop-turned-character-actor”.

Matt Zoller Seitz reminded us of a video essay he’d created a few years ago about the TV series Crime Story. It was part of a series on Michael Mann, but Farina gets a lot of attention, as well. Seitz also had a fine piece yesterday: “Late to Acting, He Made Up for Lost Time”.

As is usual nowadays, celebrities turned up on Twitter to express their condolences. What I noticed was the breadth of the types of people who posted (Ashton Kutcher, Rosie O’Donnell, Shawn Ryan, Zooey Deschanel, Mario Lopez, Robin Williams, Seth Green, Donald Faison). Farina was noticed by more than one generation.

Midnight Run is what will become the go-to item when people talk about Dennis Farina in the future, and with good reason. It’s got Robert DeNiro when he was still good, playing hate-buddy with Charles Grodin, who is perfect. But what people remember is Farina’s Jimmy Serrano:

But there is so much more. He was so fine in Luck, kicking back with Dustin Hoffman, talking about nothing. There was a brief TV series in the late-90s called Buddy Faro … it bombed, they only showed 8 episodes and let 5 others sit on the shelf, but the part of Faro fit Farina like the proverbial glove. For me, it all goes back to Crime Story. It premiered in 1986, when I was just two years out of the factory. That matters, because for ten years I’d worked swing shift, missing most of the good shows of the time. I’d quit that job just in time for Miami Vice, and when I started watching Crime Story, I was interested because of the Michael Mann pedigree. But the series won me over. And there was some fine acting going on, but Dennis Farina, about whom I knew nothing, was the top of the list. That show … talk about big ambitions, Mann wanted to make an American Berlin Alexanderplatz … talk about influential, Scorsese noted it as part of his inspiration for Casino. I loved Miami Vice, at least during its first seasons, but I get the feeling it wouldn’t hold up well. I bet Crime Story would still look good.

And Dennis Farina would be a big reason for that.

what i watched last week

Nostalgia for the Light (Patricio Guzmán, 2010). Gorgeous documentary, hard to describe, equally hard to forget. The focus is on three groups (astronomers, archaeologists, and women searching for lost family) who converge at the Atacama Desert in Chile. This desert is one of the best places in the world for astronomers, because of the height and lack of pollution, city lights, and other distractions. It is valued by archeologists for its pre-Columbian artifacts. And it is the site of a concentration camp created by Pinochet, as well as a mass burying ground. It is the latter that leads to women who search the desert looking for traces of missing family. Guzmán manages to tie all three groups together in an elegant manner … nothing is forced, the insights come gradually. All of the groups are searching for truth, and all are searching in the past (even the astronomers are looking at things that happened long ago). The filmmaking seems effortless, which leaves room for the beauty of space, the harshness of the desert, and the philosophical underpinnings of the three groups’ searches. #178 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 250 films of the 21st century. 9/10.

A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011). Oscar winner as Best Foreign Language Film, A Separation seems rather straightforward at first, and the description might not excite you. In the first scene, a married couple in Iran make their case for a divorce in front of an unseen authority. The wife wants to move out of the country to improve their daughter’s life; the husband agrees, but can’t leave because he is caring for his father, who has Alzheimer's. From this simple beginning, Farhadi constructs a terrific melodrama that is part family drama, part police procedural, part an examination of life in Iran, all with more than a touch of Rashomon. There are no bad characters in the movie, and everyone seems to be trying to live a good and moral life. But they don’t all agree on what is good and moral, and the realities of their lives make compromise almost inevitable. I can’t overstate how good this film is. Only a year old, it is already #832 on the TSPDT list of the top films of all time, and #29 on the 21st-century list. 10/10.

Intolerance (D.W. Griffith, 1916). I left this off of my Facebook Fave Fifty list, and watching it again, I’m not sure why. It was one of the last films I cut from the list (it was #63), but that’s no excuse. Perhaps it’s that I hadn’t seen it in a long time, and decided my high rating was based more on its reputation than on how highly I actually regarded it. It is one of the great cinema classics. It’s not perfect … no film as full of ambition as this one is going to be 100% successful … and allowances must be made for some of the acting (which often reflects silent movie styles). Some of the four stories work better than others, and the Catherine de' Medici story is largely absent for large portions of the first half of the movie. But the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre is horrifying, as is the second attack on Babylon. The scale of the Babylon scenes is, to use the clichéd term, colossal, and the audaciousness of the final 45 minutes, when images from the four stories and Lillian Gish’s baby rocking come closer and closer together, is impressive in 2013 … it’s hard to imagine what people made of it in 1916. #88 on the TSPDT top 1000 list. 10/10.

stating the obvious

And repeating myself, as well. Watching the U.S. Men’s National Team defeat El Salvador 5-1 in the Gold Cup quarterfinals, I was reminded of why it’s more difficult to hate individual soccer players than it is in other sports.

A Dodger is a Dodger, always the enemy. But soccer operates on two levels, club and country, and that complicates things. Yes, I’m aware that there are various outlets for national team solidarity in the major sports … the Olympics, the World Baseball Classic or whatever they’re calling it. But at least for me, those events are not very noticeable compared to the regular seasons for those players. I don’t care if a Dodger does well for the U.S. in the Baseball Classic.

The current squad for the U.S. includes three San Jose players: Chris Wondolowski, Clarence Goodson, and Alan Gordon. Goodson scored a goal, Wondo had an assist, Gordon didn’t play. Among the other players who had key roles in today’s 5-1 win, Landon Donovan was the best, with a goal and three assists. Landon was, of course, a member of the two San Jose Earthquakes MLS championship teams, after which he took a circuitous route to play for Los Angeles, which made him Public Enemy #1 for San Jose fans. But he has also scored many memorable goals for the national team, most famously this:

Really, how can any American soccer fan hate Landon Donovan?

Joe Corona scored for the U.S. against El Salvador, as well. Corona plays for a club in Mexico. Mikkel Diskerud scored … he plays for a club in Norway. Eddie Johnson scored after he’d only been in the game for 14 seconds, and later added an assist … he plays for Seattle, a team that has a bit of a rivalry going with San Jose. The team’s goalkeeper Nick Rimando plays for Real Salt Lake, as does midfielder Kyle Beckerman. Defender Matt Besler plays for Kansas City.

All of these guys will be booed when they come to San Jose on the visiting team. But we also spend time cheering for them when they play for the USA, which removes a lot of the hate. It clarifies things: it’s the jersey that gets fans riled up, not the person.

I suppose I should include a video of what Landon Donovan did to make all of those people go bonkers, especially since it is probably the most famous goal call in U.S. broadcast history (Ian Darke at the mic).

Props to Tim Howard for that outlet pass.

Might as well add Darke’s second-most famous goal call for the U.S.:

Ah, what the heck. Andres Cantor is probably the most famous soccer announcer in the U.S., especially for the casual fans. Here’s his call of Landon’s goal:

friday random ten, 1958 edition

1. The Danleers, “One Summer Night”. One-hit wonders who scored with their first record. It’s a bit odd that “one-hit wonder” sounds like a bad thing … that one hit is usually really good, as in this case.

2. Buddy Holly, “Rave On”. Holly died at 22, yet he was far from a one-hit wonder. This is one of my two or three favorites of his recordings.

3. Blossom Dearie, “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top”. I know very little about Dearie, who lived a lot longer than did Buddy Holly (she died at 84). Just by her name, I assumed she was a singer from the 20s or 30s, but in fact she didn’t start recording until the 1950s.

4. Louis Prima and Keely Smith, “Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me/I’m in the Mood for Love”. The Wildest Show at Tahoe was a very popular album at our house when I was a kid. I love watching Louis and Keely … the way he mugs his way into her heart clearly had a big impact on my own notions of how to woo the ladies, even if Louis and Keely’s marriage didn’t last.

5. The Champs, “Tequila”. Wikipedia tells me that Danny Flores, who wrote the song, played the sax solos, and shouted “Tequila!”, was the “Godfather of Latino Rock”. The Champs were pretty much one-hit wonders, too.

6. Chuck Berry, “Johnny B. Goode”. You could argue that this is the most important song in rock and roll history, and I wouldn’t put up a fight. The story of Johnny is the story of countless young rockers, not the least being Elvis. Hell, it was sent into outer space in 1977 as part of the Voyager Golden Record. The video link is to the Back to the Future rendition, which tells its own story of rock and roll. Marty McFly is sent from 1985 to 1955, and he plays “Johnny B. Goode” at a dance. Chuck Berry’s “cousin” calls Chuck and says he thinks he’s found that new sound Chuck was searching for, holding the phone out so Chuck Berry could hear the white boy play Berry’s song before Berry has written it. it is the ultimate time-loop thank you … Chuck Berry changed lives, and Marty McFly is able to return the favor.

7. Eddie Cochran, “C’mon Everybody”. I suspect some people think of Cochran as a one-hit wonder for “Summertime Blues,” but he had several fine records, including this one.

8. Little Richard, “Good Golly Miss Molly”. Elvis may be the King, and Chuck Berry may be the poet laureate, but damn, without Little Richard, rock and roll wouldn’t be the same. Sure like to ball, indeed.

9. Peggy Lee, “Fever”. Eddie Cooley and Otis Blackwell wrote it, Little Willie John recorded it, and it hit #1 on the R&B charts. Two years later, Peggy Lee covered the song, replacing a couple of verses with others she wrote herself. Oftentimes, the white cover of the R&B tune is markedly worse, but Lee was a great artist, and her version wasn’t worse … in fact, it was different, not just in the lyrics but in her more jazz-like vocals. Her version made the Top Ten on the Billboard charts. Two years later, along came Elvis, just out of the Army. While he was famous for covering R&B songs, this time he was essentially covering Lee, not Little Willie John. His version uses Lee’s lyrics, and his arrangement is almost identical to hers.

10. Little Anthony and the Imperials, “Tears on My Pillow”. Ten years after this came out, it was still a staple at our high-school dances. One of my favorite moments ever came a few years ago when my friend Tino Sanchez, who sang the song at those dances, gave us an a cappella rendition in a bar/restaurant in Antioch.

[Edited to add Spotify playlist]