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serial radio

The NPR podcast Serial is getting a lot of attention these days. An offshoot of This American Life, it’s an ongoing reinvestigation of an old murder case by an intrepid reporter, Sarah Koenig. The trick is that Koenig is, to some extent, making it up as she goes. She digs up evidence, she thinks about it, she interviews people, she tells us what tentative conclusions she has, and she moves on. She regularly changes her mind as new evidence comes to her, and it’s interesting to listen as she talks her way through inconsistencies in the story. The result is that, while there are some intriguing characters, including Adnan Syed, who is serving time for the murder, the central character is Sarah Koenig. She is the person we identify with … she is the person doing our work for us, digging through old evidence, interviewing Syed, and rehashing everything in her mind.

Serial is increasingly popular (popular being relative … I’d guess it’s far more popular with NPR listeners than with the general populace, who likely have never heard of it). Reddit hosts discussions, there are parody versions, and critics jabber back and forth about what it all means. From a technical standpoint, it seems to be generally agreed upon that Serial marks an important point in the history of podcasts. Also, Serial invites the same kind of communal attention of many television series today. As far as I know, in that, Serial is unique. We don’t use radio that way any longer.

Well, this being Throwback Thursday, I thought perhaps I’d take this time to confess once again to one of my more obscure pastimes: I listen to Old-Time Radio. I “use” OTR the way we currently use Serial. Obviously, I don’t get together for coffee or tea to hash over the most recent edition of The Adventures of Sam Spade. But the act of listening to the radio as a form of narrative entertainment, which for a couple of decades prior to the growth of television was how most people used radio … well, let’s just say I don’t find it hard to take in the format of Serial.

And so I thought for Throwback Thursday, I’d stick an old radio show on the blog. It’s not easy to make a selection. Gunsmoke was probably the best radio drama, Jack Benny probably had the best radio comedy series, and there are other surprisingly good shows (surprising to us, because of what those shows became). I’m thinking in particular of Dragnet, which in its 60s version was something us hippies and hippie wannabes watched for the laughs it provided. Jack Webb as Joe Friday offered a stone-like image that imprinted itself on our brains, such that when they remade Dragnet as a movie in the 80s, Dan Ackroyd didn’t play Friday as much as he inhabited the ghost of Jack Webb.

But when you listen to a lot of old radio shows, you begin to appreciate Jack Webb. He had a vision for Dragnet, and if it played goofy on TV in the 60s, well, it worked just fine on the radio in the 50s. And it wasn’t a dumb show … on the contrary, Webb placed a vice on Dragnet so that it always did what he wanted. And what he wanted was reality. This was most famously shown (er, heard) when Friday had to make a person-to-person long distance phone call from Los Angeles to a small town in Utah. Webb wanted to be sure he got it right, so they made an actual long-distance call and recorded it for use in the show:

Spellbinding stuff!

A few years before he made his name with Dragnet, Webb appeared in Pat Novak, for Hire, a private-detective show that is less famous than the ones devoted to characters like Sherlock Holmes, Sam Spade, or Philip Marlowe. Pat Novak needs to be heard to be believed. it’s not quite a parody on the level of a Naked Gun, which actually makes it more fascinating. Pat Novak, for Hire is the most hard-boiled of hard-boiled series, such that it spills over into comedy. And the dialogue is often so hilarious that you must believe the people behind the show knew what they were doing: making a comedy. It’s unlike the Jack Webb of legend. Here’s an episode, chosen at random (i.e. I found it on YouTube):

the comeback, season two premiere

Nine years ago, Lisa Kudrow’s The Comeback debuted on HBO. At that time, I wrote:

The show isn't funny, but I don't think it's supposed to be. Kudrow's character, Valerie Cherish, is as out of touch as David Brent of The Office, and Valerie is as excruciatingly uncomfortable to watch, but for a different reason. Brent thinks he knows it all but doesn't, thinks he's cool but isn't, thinks he's a good boss but he's the worst. You laugh at him even as you cringe ... in Season Two, you cringed more than you laughed, so awful he got. Valerie is desperate, she's scared ... and she comes across as clueless, but as Kudrow plays her, you realize that Valerie knows what impact she's having, knows things are falling apart, which wasn't true of David Brent. And Valerie Cherish is a 40-year-old actress very close to being a complete has-been. There's something much more sympathetic about a woman losing her position to younger babes with younger bodies, than a boss who's creepy. It's much, much easier to want things to go well for Valerie. And it doesn't, and I suspect it won't, and it's not funny, it's almost impossible to watch, so if you're looking for a new sitcom, avoid this one, but if you can stand the uncomfortable feeling you'll get watching this character be humiliated, it's worth a look. As Kudrow herself said, "Watching a person lose their dignity used to be uncomfortable, and now it's an expected part of the program that we're becoming comfortable with. A loss of dignity can be funny if no one notices it going except the audience. When everyone can see it being taken away, or handed over as payment for fame, it's hopefully uncomfortable."

The series was cancelled after one season, which is understandable, since it was almost impossible to watch. For a handful of us, that impossibility is what made it a good show. The key was always the way Kudrow played Valerie Cherish, as a woman who knew she was embarrassing herself, but who did it anyway because that was the price for fame. Her fame wasn’t very large, which made her willingness to abase herself to seem even more pathetic. But Kudrow had a way of letting us know that she had self-awareness, which was not true of the David Brents and Michael Scotts and Larry Davids. That self-awareness implicated the audience, and that’s why we were uncomfortable. We laughed at David Brent, comfortable in the knowledge that he wouldn’t understand our laughter. That comfort level didn’t exist on The Comeback, because Valerie Cherish understood all too well.

Somehow, The Comeback became a bit of a cult favorite over the years, and now, after all this time, HBO decided to run a second season. The setup is, if anything, even more excruciating than before, if only because Valerie (Kudrow) is a decade older now, and the problems of an actress in her 40s are magnified as she approaches her 50s. She gets shit on more than ever.

And no, it’s not funny, but it’s fascinating in a train wreck way. Tim Goodman ripped the show, which he didn’t like in the first place:

Nine years later, The Comeback is back, as unwatchable and unfunny as the first time around. … It wasn't just painful to watch The Comeback the first time around in 2005 — it seemed pointless. What it was trying to do had already been done in vastly superior iterations. This time, however, it’s almost unbearable. I could only get through two episodes, and I wanted to throw my TV through the window at the end of the first, and myself through the window at the end of the second. … Is that a show? Is that even comedy?

Goodman claims that Valerie “lacks self-awareness”, and that’s the one place where he and I disagree. I think it’s precisely her self-awareness that makes her character so pathetic. Other than that, and his desire that the show be a comedy, we mostly agree. For some reason, I find this, if not entertaining, then at least compulsively watchable. Grade for Season Two premiere: B+.

P.S. The Newsroom began its final season. More of the same. Yawn.

happy valley, season one

The last few years have seen several mini-series (is that what we call them now?) featuring strong but flawed women in positions of authority, usually with the police. Prime Suspect with Helen Mirren is the biggest influence on these series. Most of them come from England: The Bletchley Circle (ex-codebreakers during WWII solve crimes), Broadchurch (Olivia Colman and David Tennant, remade as Gracepoint for U.S. television), The Fall with Gillian Anderson, and, from New Zealand, Jane Campion and Gerard Lee’s Top of the Lake, with Elisabeth Moss. Now we have Happy Valley, written by Sally Wainwright and starring Sarah Lancashire as a police sergeant in a small town with a drug problem, which has been made available in the U.S. via Netflix.

As is usual for these series, the acting is good, and the lead is more than good. You could argue that without a compelling actor in the lead role, you wouldn’t have much more than an adult procedural, and we’ve got plenty of those. This time it’s Sarah Lancashire, unknown to me although she’s 50 years old and has been acting for at least half of her life. (I didn’t recognize anyone in the cast.) Lancashire has the weariness of the cop down perfectly. And her character has a personal connection to the kidnapping that is the focus of the police’s attention: the prime suspect, in her mind at least, is a young man who, in her mind at least, raped her daughter, who later killed herself.

The element of revenge isn’t new to Happy Valley … there are plenty of examples of crime-solvers with a past. In Happy Valley, we’ve moved past the time when Helen Mirren’s Jane Tennison had to fight for respect from her co-workers and underlings. There are no assumptions about Lancashire’s Catherine Cawood … her gender is barely addressed. But the specifics of her desire for revenge, rooted in what she believes was the rape of her daughter, are connected to her being a woman. That the kidnap victim is a young girl ties Catherine to the case as well.

I’m describing a series that is a notch above the rest, if not a classic to be remembered in the years to come. If you like mysteries with good acting and a strong sense of place in its setting, Happy Valley is for you.

Except … even in these times when seemingly anything is possible, I must note that when Happy Valley is violent, it is frighteningly so. It’s not so much what they show … rather, it’s what we know is being done, and how it grabs us emotionally. Apparently there were some complaints when the series ran in the UK, leading to a response from Wainwright, saying she was “saddened” by the attempt “to make a thing of it, when shows like Game of Thrones have so much gratuitous violence against lots of people,” adding “All the women in this are seen to suffer in some way.” By far the most disturbing scene came at the end of the fourth episode, but one reason it disturbed was that there were only a couple of scenes like it … Alan Sepinwall did his usual excellent job of describing the feelings that scene elicited:

I have watched a lot of great television this year, yet few scenes in 2014 had the kind of physical effect on me like the closing minutes of the fourth episode of "Happy Valley," the BBC crime drama that Netflix added to its library back in August.  As the scene went along, I stopped recording my usual notes and just stared at the television. I had to remind myself to take a breath a few times. I'm pretty sure I left my thumbprint permanently impressed to the underside of my desk from gripping it too hard at one point. It's a cliffhanger ending, and the Netflix interface meant that resolution was only a simple click away, yet I had to put the show on hold for a few hours just to get that moment out of my system. At that moment, I was in no condition to jump straight to the next episode and potentially see that things had gone poorly for the characters in danger. No way.

I know that Alan’s description is enough to convince many people that Happy Valley isn’t for them. That’s one reason I’ve included it here. But something else demands notice: in a world of Walking Dead and Sons of Anarchy, where butchering happens with clockwork regularity, Happy Valley gives us a feel for the impact violent acts have on good people. Grade for Season One: B+.



transparent, season one

Transparent was talked about in the beginning for reasons that had nothing to with the quality of the show. The two main points of discussion were the subject matter (transgender parent comes out to her three kids), and the distribution model (the series can only be seen on Amazon). Both of these are fruitful areas for examination … you can’t really talk about the series without looking at how it uses its transgender setup, while the Amazon-ness of the show is part of the ever-changing world of series distribution.

Transparent reminds me in some ways of The Cosby Show. That series, which was massively popular in ways that no longer happen, brought an African-American family into our homes every week. One of the most important aspects of this was that the Huxtables were presented as just another TV family. Yes, they were black, and yes, they were upper-middle class, but in the way the parents dealt with the problems that arose in everyday life, The Cosby Show wasn’t very different than other similar sitcoms. This was a step forward: an African-American family represented America’s families.

Transparent doesn’t shy away from the difficulties and the joys of coming out. But what you soon notice is that in its basic structure, Transparent is a sitcom about an American family, just like The Cosby Show was. And this family, the Pfeffermans, is beautifully drawn. There is great pleasure to be found in watching this flawed, recognizable family filled with people much like ourselves, portrayed by such a strong cast. And once you’ve settled in to this family sitcom, you notice that it’s serious as often as it is funny, and the family, recognizable as it is, is involved in the transition of Jeffrey Tambor’s Mort/Maura. The transgender parent distinguishes this family from most others, and creator Jill Soloway makes certain to keep Maura’s transition at the center of the story. But again, I think it works like The Cosby Show, as the “average” American identifies with African-Americans or trans parents because we see ourselves in the families.

There’s another thing going on … it’s not exactly a secret, you’ll notice it soon enough, but it didn’t get much play in the lead up to the series’ launch compared to the transgender angle. This is a Jewish family, presented in much the same matter-of-fact way that the Huxtables were an African-American family. The Jewish Daily Forward called Transparent “the Jewiest show ever”. The Pfeffermans are not particularly religious, but they are culturally Jewish in a rather traditional way.

None of this is straightforward feel-good stuff. The show gives off a good feeling in the way it treats its subject matter with honesty and sensitivity, but one way it is honest is that nothing goes smoothly, people have their bad days as well as their good days, families have fights and then come back together. Jeffrey Tambor is a good example of this: his Maura is heartfelt, at times tentative and at other times blossoming, but Maura is not a perfect human being, certainly not a perfect parent, and the depth of this character and how Tambor plays it makes Maura more human.

Tambor isn’t the only cast member to do great work here. Everyone is excellent … they even found three young actors to play the three siblings in 1994, and you believe all three grew up to be the adults we see most of the time. I’d single out Gaby Hoffman, but then, she’s a favorite of mine, so of course I’d single her out. Carrie Brownstein plays Hoffman’s BFF, and you know that makes me happy. And Kathryn Hahn plays a rabbi who is as complex as any of the characters … this isn’t the usual stereotypical one-note rabbi we often get.

I haven’t returned to the distribution model. In some ways, there’s nothing new here. Netflix has had a few streaming series by now, and the market for streaming is getting bigger by the minute. But Transparent isn’t just a good show for Amazon. It’s one of the best new shows of the year. It’s odd that you don’t find it on your cable box, but if/when you do get access to the series, it’s no harder than finding and streaming Orange Is the New Black on Netflix. In fact, given the prevalence of people binge-watching entire previous seasons via streaming, the only really new thing about what Amazon is doing is that the series is binge-able from the start … you don’t have to wait a year.

And I’m sure people who enjoy binge-watching finished the ten episodes of Transparent’s first season in a day or two. Me, I took about six weeks to get through it, and that was good … I’m not normally a binge-watcher.

A second season has already been promised, and the first season did a great job of making me want to know what is in store for these characters. I don’t watch too many half-hour sitcoms, and maybe Transparent isn’t quite a comedy so it fits in more with my taste preferences. But I’m already a sucker for this one. Grade for Season One: A.

writing television

I just missed an anniversary. It was 22 years ago yesterday that I made my first Usenet post. (I was talking about fantasy baseball.) While I remember my Usenet days with pleasure, I don’t think about them too often. The baseball talk (both general and Giants-related) has moved elsewhere, with many of the people who posted having become “names” in the process. Same thing with soccer talk, although without the resultant “stardom”. The most intense television talk came in It was here that a college student named Alan Sepinwall started posting weekly recaps of the latest episodes of NYPD Blue. Sepinwall wasn’t the first Internet recapper, but he was one of the best (as was Amanda Wilson, who took over the NYPD Blue gig when Sepinwall got a real job after college). Sepinwall is a good writer and an even better critic … or maybe the two feed off of each other and there’s no good/better about it. Anyway, Sepinwall’s name always comes up when people talk about the plethora of websites offering weekly episode recaps, even as he continues to expand the horizons of his writing.

Lili Loofbourow has a piece in The Guardian, “How recaps changed the way we think about TV – and our lives”. She kicks things off by stating, “Barrels of virtual ink have been spilled on the Golden Age of Television, and the time has come to take stock of its poor relation, the Bronze Age of Television Criticism.” She continues:

We may not be a churchgoing public anymore, but there remains a deep hunger for sustained, ethical, collective conversation. We are lonely. We long for a public square. But there are other aspects to our national character, such as it is: we are intellectually lazy. We fear politics. We have been shaped by centuries of Bible study. It’s no surprise that TV analysis appeals. There aren’t many situations in a post-religious society where a group of people passionately invested in a story can gather on a weekly basis to discuss its ramifications for how we live today.

“If TV is the new scripture,” she writes, “recaps are the new sermons.”

I find her argument intriguing, partly because I can bounce a few ideas of my own off of hers. A few days ago, I caught a few minutes of a new show my wife was watching, Scorpion. I can’t tell you if it was good or bad, although my wife has continued to watch it, so at least one person finds it appealing. But in the few minutes I watched, I felt that I could already categorize it into one of two categories. Now, these binary comparisons aren’t worth much, and I haven’t even figured out what to call them in this case. But in one group, you have TV shows that act as comfort food … they are familiar, like updated reruns, and some of them are very good, as you’d expect. I don’t watch many of these kinds of shows, but I can imagine myself falling into a pattern of happily watching them, one after another. The other group of shows aren’t intent on familiarity. They usually feature characters that you get to know over the long haul, which to my mind is more important than the long story arcs that are often cited as being what makes the Golden Age different. In Scorpion, there was a brief opening scene to introduce the premise of the show (geniuses save the world). All of the main characters are introduced, identified as stereotypes: the behaviorist, the engineer, the statistical phenom, etc. I realized immediately that if I turned this show on during Season Six (assuming it lasts that long), I’d recognize all of those characters. They might develop a few more quirks, or feature in an episode designed to give them a bit of back story, but their consistency is a part of what makes them, and the show, comfort food. I could be wrong about Scorpion … five minutes really isn’t enough to come up with a value judgment … but I bet I’m right, and at least, there are many other series that work in a similar manner. Take another show we watched for fifteen or twenty minutes, Blue Bloods. It’s probably a good show … well, it’s now in its fifth season, so clearly people like it. It’s a cop show, and I’m guessing here, since again, I haven’t seen this, so I’m relying on Wikipedia. Donnie Wahlberg is the co-star, playing “a top NYPD detective, holding the rank of Detective First Grade” who “is sometimes hard-nosed and does not always go by the book.” It’s a character we’ve seen a thousand times. His boss is played by Tom Selleck, who spent eight seasons in the 1980s playing Magnum, P.I. (His character’s name in Blue Bloods is “Reagan”.)

The point isn’t that these are bad shows, or good shows, or mediocre shows. It’s that they are designed to be comfort food. The best of them do that job efficiently, and if they have a good cast and writers, they can run for many seasons at a decent level. But you wouldn’t expect them to push the boundaries of their chosen genre.

Compare them to the most-acclaimed of the “Golden Age” cop shows, The Wire. Everything was ambiguous, you couldn’t easily pin down a character because they were too complex, narratives only resolved over time (and sometimes never resolved at all), the line between good-guy and bad-guy was never completely clear. Like shows such as Blue Bloods, The Wire featured fine actors. Unlike Blue Bloods, it was hard to tell exactly who the “main character” was, if indeed such a character existed (none of the more important characters appeared in every episode). A look at the Wikipedia page for The Wire gives a sense of what the cast was like. On the main page, you’ll find a section, “Cast and characters,” that begins with a link to “Main article: List of The Wire characters”. Click that link, and you are presented with links to separate pages dedicated to law enforcement characters, politicians, “the street”, schools, “the docks”, and the newspaper. Underneath that is a section titled “Starring cast”. It lists 36 separate characters.

Again, step away from value judgments here … the idea is to identify two generalized groups of television series, one I call “comfort food” and another which, lacking a better name, I’d call “shows today’s critics think make a Golden Age”. There is something about that opening minute of Scorpion that signifies it is a comfort food show, just as Blue Bloods, with Tom Selleck as “Reagan”, is a comfort food show. A show like The Wire is irritatingly complicated. If you want to take it on its own terms, you’ll have to work at it, which makes it the vegetable on your plate next to the Scorpion mashed potatoes.

Which takes us back to recaps. Recaps of comfort food shows aren’t particularly useful, although in the right hands, they can make for entertaining reading. On the other hand, recaps of “Golden Age” shows have become almost a requirement … we’re looking for help, hoping others can fill in what we’ve missed (and we know there are things we’ve missed, and we know it matters … who cares if you miss ten minutes of Criminal Minds, it’ll still be there in the same place when you get back, and if not, well, there’s always the next episode, and the next episode, and the next episode).

It’s a bit ironic that Sepinwall started by recapping NYPD Blue, which in today’s context seems fairly tame and not very outlandish … if you watched an episode today, you’d probably think it was comfort food. At the beginning, they cussed a bit more than the average network series, and you saw somebody’s bare butt, but really, it wasn’t much different from what came before. Sepinwall (and Amanda Wilson after him) made the recaps work by using analysis. There’s something else, which I argued in my essay, “From Sisyphus to Junior, Or How Andy Sipowicz Made NYPD Blue Safe for Syndication”: David Caruso’s John Kelly, the central character of the series, was an existential hero whose angst couldn’t be resolved without destroying what made the character unique. The problem was that it’s hard to get people to watch brooding angst for very long. John Kelly wasn’t a copycat example of the cop who “doesn’t always go by the book”. Kelly was gone early in Season Two, and Andy Sipowicz, played by Dennis Franz, became the main character. He had many flaws, but they were flaws that could be conquered. Despite his bluster, Sipowicz was far more comforting than Kelly, and the series ran for twelve seasons.

(I’m getting lost in rhetoric, as often happens when I do these long posts. This is what good editors do, take something with good ideas and pare it down to the essentials. That doesn’t happen very often on a blog. I haven’t gotten around to talking about the different ways we watch television compared to only a few years ago. I used to write about a show at the beginning and end of every season, the beginning because I wanted to encourage people to watch, the end because I wanted to sum up a season. But nowadays, it’s more like writing about old movies. Few of us watch TV shows in real time. As I type this, I’m behind an episode of Sons of Anarchy and Walking Dead and Homeland and a couple of episodes behind on a few others, plus there are series like Amazon’s Transparent and Netflix’s Happy Valley where all of the episodes are released simultaneouly … am I “behind” because I still have two episodes to go on both of them? And when I finally write, I’m just leaving a marker for when someone binge-watches a season down the road and wants to see if I had anything to say about it.)

by request: john wick (david leitch and chad stahelski, 2014)

This Keanu Reeves action movie, directed by a couple of stunt men, evokes other movies. More than most films, it elicits comparative reviews: “it reminded me of X”. So some will tell you it’s like a John Woo gangster flick, and others will think of old school 80s action films. The more adventurous will think of The Raid and The Raid 2. All of the comparisons are understandable, but John Wick doesn’t come off very well when compared to the better of those films.

If you’re thinking of the John Woo who made movies in America like Mission Impossible II and Paycheck, then you’d be close, but those aren’t very good movies. If you compare it to Woo’s better American films, like Face/Off, then it doesn’t look good. And if you compare it to Woo’s classic HK action movies like Hard-Boiled, well, it’s no contest.

There are a lot of similarities to the Raid movies, but again, the comparison doesn’t look good for John Wick. There is one sequence in John Wick that would look good in one of the Raids, but that’s only one scene, and one reason those other movies are so good is that they don’t let up. John Wick ratchets up the action, to be sure, but not to the extent the Raid movies manage. Also, most of Keanu’s work involves shooting people, and while the body count is impressive, and Keanu’s got the moves, eventually it gets kinda boring watching yet another gun battle/slaughter. Martial arts movies like the Raids offer much more variety, and thus, much less boredom.

John Wick does look good in comparison to old school movies like, say, Commando. And I don’t mean that as an insult. Movies that don’t reach for the stars, but just try to do one thing well, can often be enjoyable. There are a few attempts in John Wick to make us care about Keanu’s title character, and all I can say is, they didn’t work on me, any more than I really cared if Arnold rescued Alyssa Milano. I didn’t watch Commando for that.

John Wick looks even better when compared to the standard action movies of the present. Leitch and Stahelski manage to create visual action that the audience can comprehend, which is another reason is feels old school (and I don’t mean that as an insult).

Plus, Keanu Reeves has his usual solid screen presence, and there are lots of good actors in supporting roles: Alfie Allen from Game of Thrones, Willem Dafoe, Dean “Mayhem” Winters from Oz and 30 Rock, Adrianne Palicki from Friday Night Lights and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., John Leguizamo, Ian McShane from Deadwood, Lance Reddick and Clarke Peters from The Wire, even pro rassler Kevin Nash.

So, Keanu Reeves shoots dozens of people trying to get revenge, lots of interesting actors turn up, some hamming it up and others underplaying, the action is coherent, and the movie doesn’t run too long (although it does get repetitive). In the 80s, I saw movies like this every week, and liked them. But it’s 2014, where movies like The Raid and The Raid 2 get 8/10 ratings, and John Wick is nowhere near as good as those. Thirty years ago I’d probably give this 7/10. Now? 6/10.