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the night of

Great television series can be found everywhere these days, including some surprising places like Lifetime and USA, not to mention all of the streaming possibilities. Still, when HBO offers a prestige mini-series event, it gets our attention. HBO still represents quality for most people. So The Night Of has a lot going for it from the start, and it must be said, for the most part, it delivers on its promise. The first of eight episodes is as good as TV gets, and if the rest of the series can’t live up to that introduction, it’s still plenty good. The story of a Pakistani-American college student who is the prime suspect in a brutal murder case, The Night Of casts a wide net as it examines the effects of institutions on people, not just victims but the people working within those institutions.

That first episode takes us through a long night where college student Nasir “Naz” Khan (Riz Ahmed) meets a girl, has some wild times, wakes up to find she has been murdered, rather accidentally gets arrested, and spends time waiting in a police station before he is finally locked up. The dread is overwhelming ... it’s almost guaranteed they can’t keep this up for eight episodes, and they don’t, but at least the audience gets to breathe. Ahmed is the best thing about the series ... somehow, using only his eyes and the way he walks, he shows us Naz as a scared kid who gradually, in his time in jail, becomes harder. It is the most subtle kind of acting, and needs to be seen to be believed. John Turturro, perhaps the biggest name here, is fine in a role originally intended for James Gandolfini ... his defining visual characteristic is his eczema. There are a few other names I recognized in the cast, most notably the always great Micheal K. Williams, along with Jeannie Berlin, Glenne Headly, and Williams’ old Wire buddy J.D. Williams.

Richard Price and Steven Zaillian are trying to do at least two things here, a character study and a procedural. The procedural is what makes us wonder what will happen next, and of course, the inevitable whodunnit angle keeps our attention. There is no reason why these two can’t coexist, that we can learn about how the process affects the people it swallows while also learning what happened on the night of. But in the final episode, the procedural took over, and not for the better. Bill Camp plays a retiring cop, Dennis Box, who identifies a suspect on the first night (Naz) and doesn’t look at anyone else because the initial evidence is good, and, one assumes, he wants to go home with his new golf clubs. They needed to establish this about Box with more clarity, though, because in the final episode, feeling uncertain about the case, he finally applies his strong detective skills to the case, becoming convinced Naz was innocent. If Box was as good as he seems, he would have done this work sometime during Episode Two, but that wouldn’t make much of a mini-series. Meanwhile, several characters throughout the series act like morons, not because they are stupid but because it allows for an eight-episode mini-series. So Naz gets himself in a predicament, but he makes it infinitely worse by pocketing a bloody knife that turns out to be the murder weapon. One of his attorneys, who seems as bright as any other lawyer, kisses Naz in front of a jail camera ... dumb ... and later smuggles drugs to Naz in her vagina. The only reason she turns stupid is so Turturro, who has just sat at the defendant’s table the entire trial, can give the closing argument (he does fine, the speech is fine, but it’s like a movie about horse racing ... the ending is always great because horse races are exciting, and this works because closing arguments always work).

When you spend seven episodes with something as good as The Night Of, you won’t want to have stupid things turning up in the last episode just to make the mystery more entertaining. Zaillian and Price work hard to elevate The Night Of above the usual crime drama, then turn it into something far more ordinary at the end. It’s a shame, because much of that last episode is equal to what came before. The result is a series where the first episode was an A+, the next six episodes were A/A-, but the last episode fluctuated between A and C.

al collins, grasshopper pie, and me

I want to call Al “Jazzbo” Collins a local legend, except “local” is hard to define. His long radio career included extended stays in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, and many smaller areas, most in the greater San Francisco Bay Area. Besides radio, he was briefly a host for The Tonight Show when they were looking for a new person (they eventually decided on Jack Paar). He had a morning TV show in San Francisco in the early-60s. He even cut a few records, hip fairy tales they were called:

His radio shows, no matter the station, were always broadcast from “The Purple Grotto”, several floors underground. His theme song was “Blues in Hoss Flat” by Count Basie:

Starting in 1959, he was on KSFO in San Francisco. They (and he) played my parents’ kind of music, and hey, I was only six. It wasn’t exactly a “normal” show:

His shtick with the Mexican banditos from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, well, I don’t know how it started. But if you were a guest on his show, you had to get “majuberized”, which meant you had to recite the quote from the movie. (Later in his career, he had a call-in talk show, and people would call solely to get majuberized.)

Then he added that morning TV show, and it was a joy, even for a tyke. Memories are tricky things, but among the stuff he did, I can remember this little toy where you put a coin in it and a little hand came out and grabbed the coin and pulled it inside. Jazzbo loved crepes, and he was always having a chef making crepes on live TV.

Eventually in, I think it was the late-70s, he ended up with a call-in talk show. The channel, KGO, had nothing but talk shows, and reached all along the West Coast at night. Once in awhile, someone would call in berating Jazzbo for not talking about politics, but he would kindly explain that his show was a little different.

It is here where we finally get to the grasshopper pie. As always, Jazzbo loved to talk about his favorite foods, and he frequently spoke of how much he loved grasshopper pie. He’d talk about the recipe ... you started with grasshoppers ... I can’t really remember it very well, and I had never heard of grasshopper pie, but he got my attention as I drove home from the factory after midnight.

Eventually, I figured out that the pie was based on a cocktail my mom used to make called “grasshoppers”. I thought for a long time that grasshoppers were fairly traditional ... I mean, my mom made pitchers at home ... but apparently it’s one of those remnants of post-war American culture, and they went out of fashion. I haven’t had a grasshopper since I was old enough to drink legally (admittedly, I don’t go to bars just looking for the cocktail). But once, 30+ years ago, I was on a jury, and the city paid for our lunch. We went to some fancy restaurant in Oakland, and on the dessert menu was Grasshopper Pie. I had to order it, see what it tasted like, and yum!

Here is a video showing how to make “real” grasshopper pie:

And here’s a bartender making a cocktail:

My mom made hers in a blender.

So now you know my personal history with grasshopper pie. It turns out there’s a restaurant in Oakland that has grasshopper pie on the dessert menu, so my wife and I went there for dinner. The restaurant is called Homeroom, and they pretty much only serve macaroni and cheese. We both got the “classic mac”, and it was delicious (also v.good microwaved the next day ... the servings are huge, you can’t finish one). Then I ordered grasshopper pie for dessert:

grasshopper pie

It was yummy yummy. It wasn’t “real” grasshopper pie, and I knew in advance ... in place of crème de menthe and crème de cacao, they used chocolate mint ice cream, and apparently, this is standard nowadays. It tasted like a really good Baskin-Robbins cake. The taste was like a real grasshopper if it didn’t have alcohol.

Of course, I had to tell our waitress all of this. I wasn’t surprised she knew nothing of the cocktail, but I admit I felt very old when she said she had never heard of crème de menthe. Even my wife, whose parents didn’t drink like mine, had crème de menthe on the shelf when she was a kid, to pour on ice cream.

Anyway, I’m satisfied now. I hope Jazzbo heard about it in the Purple Grotto.

Here’s a link to an article about the cocktail:

It’s Not Easy Being Green: The Weird History of The Grasshopper

music friday: the fillmore, 50 years ago today

Here was the bill for a show at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco on August 26, 1966:

The poster was done by Wes Wilson, and can be seen on the SF MOMA website:

If the link works (it does now, but there’s no guarantee it will always be there), you’ll see that while the 13th Floor Elevators were apparently the headliners, Grace Slick was the drawing card. It probably says something about those days that I couldn’t find any info about the actual concert, but it was easy to find the poster.

This is the moment when I have to decide how much I need to explain. I only have a few regular readers, but a good portion of them weren’t even born in 1966, and I don’t know if the three bands on the bill are known these days. So I’ll assume they are new to most folks.

Sopwith Camel was a San Francisco band that suffered from not fitting into the “San Francisco Sound”, whatever that was. They were the second S.F. band to sign a record contract, and ... well, let’s quote from their website:

Because the Camel shared the same label and producer (and similar musical tastes) with the Lovin' Spoonful, most people thought they were from New York. Their friends in San Francisco groups "accused us of being sellouts. That's absurd; back in those days, we were all looking for hits. It's just that ours was the first." The Camel's big return to San Francisco met with disaster. "We were headlining over the Airplane and the Dead. The Dead did one of their long, long sets, and by the time we were on, we were only able to do three tunes before the cops pulled the plugs before curfew. We took it to be a sign of some sort."

That first hit was “Hello, Hello”, which hit #26 on the charts. The single hadn’t been released in August of 1966, which may explain why they were on the bottom of the bill. It was their only hit. For some reason the original is nowhere to be found on YouTube, so here they are in 2011:

The Great Society were the spawning ground for one of the best artists from that period. They had actually released a single for Autumn Records (owned by the legendary Tom "Big Daddy" Donahue) earlier in 1966 that went nowhere. A story goes that Sly Stone, a producer for the label, gave up on the band after they spent (depending on who is telling the story) 50 takes on one of the songs without getting it right. Less than two months after the concert that is the focus of this post, the female lead singer left the band, taking two songs with her, with the result that Jefferson Airplane, with Grace Slick, recorded their own versions of “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit”. Here is The Great Society’s version of “White Rabbit”:

There is a reason The 13th Floor Elevators headlined. They already had a hit single, “You’re Gonna Miss Me”. They were out of Austin, Texas, and had been together less than a year in August of ‘66. Of all three of these bands, The Elevators are the most influential. Singer Roky Erickson has lived a rough life, but he is a truly unique artist. Here is their big hit, on American Bandstand ... this song still packs a punch, even 50 years down the road:


There are television shows (and movies, for that matter) that my wife tends to avoid because they have no characters to “root for”. It’s not about a contest, it’s just that she likes to have a least one person who has some chance of becoming a good person, if they aren’t there already.

For this reason, I’ve told her that she should avoid Unreal, a series that takes us behind the scenes at the making of a reality dating show. Almost every character has ulterior motives (some actually wear their motives on their sleeves, so I guess those aren’t ulterior) ... almost every character is concerned almost entirely with their own personal agendas of advancement. Shiri Appleby is presented as the one person with a conscience ... when the series begins, she is returning to the dating show (called Everlasting) after having a nervous breakdown during the show’s previous season. She is very good at her job, which requires that she manipulate the women who appear as contestants trying to win the heart of the man of their dreams, doing what she can to get them (and that year’s Man of Dreams) to act in a way that will make for a good season of Everlasting. Over time, she abuses every one of the women she deals with, but because she has a conscience, she feels bad about what she does. Thus, we think she might become a good person.

Except, at least through Season One, she never makes it. She is still pulling shit as the season ends. And she is what passes for a likable character. (I haven’t yet watched Season Two. It has drawn some seriously negative reactions ... I threw out a query to some of the critics I trust most, whether I should continue watching Season Two, and the best I got was Mo Ryan saying the first two episodes were good, but that then it went downhill.)

The thing is, the people behind Unreal are quite aware of what they are doing with these characters. They are not meant to be likable. I don’t think the creators of Casual are in that place, however. Casual, a Hulu series which just finished its second season, is about a woman who is breaking up with her husband and moves, with their daughter, into her brother’s home. Once we meet the siblings’ parents, we understand why they are having such trouble as adults ... they had a rough childhood in a psychological sense. And over two seasons, the three main characters work gradually towards becoming better people. All three of them are extremely self-absorbed, but when they step outside of themselves we see some pretty decent people. The characters feel real, with all of their flaws, and we root for them.

Except ... the brother is the #1 amongst equals when it comes to self-absorption. He tramples on the lives of others, always thinking that he is the one who is suffering (in fairness, he often is). I know this kind of person ... I am this kind of person. And I try to do better, as does the character. But he is so horrible that, using my wife’s criteria, he is practically unwatchable. The writing is good, the acting is good, but I simply can’t stand that guy. I don’t even like when he gets a comeuppance, because I know it will lead to more scenes where he thinks only of himself and his traumas.

Let’s just say he hits too close to home for me. It’s a good show, but I can’t say I enjoy it much.

Everyone loves Leon, though:


(I wrote about the first half of Season One last year.)

picnic at hanging rock (peter weir, 1975)

Reminiscent of L’Avventura in both the mysterious disappearance of a character(s) and the ambiguous non-resolution of the mystery at film’s end. The similarities don’t reach too far, though. By the end of L’Avventura, everyone has given up wondering about the missing woman, while in Picnic at Hanging Rock, the mystery still matters after you leave the theater. Both disappearances serve as MacGuffins, in that the movies aren’t really “about” the mysteries. In Antonioni’s film, the disappearance is just a way to introduce the main characters, whose alienation is the central theme of the movie. In Hanging Rock, the disappearances distract us, at least a little, from the subtext that drives the picture. Weir relies on cinematography and the soundtrack to create an almost other-worldly ambience, such that the mystery feels ominous, and there is always the possibility that something extra-ordinary is behind the events. But what is truly unsettling is the undercurrent of sexual repression, between the schoolgirls, but also between the girls and the school’s headmistress. There are a couple of young men who also have their eyes on the schoolgirls, but you never get the feeling they’ve got a chance. Nothing is overt ... it’s like watching These Three, the Children’s Hour adaptation from the 30s where lesbianism is transformed into heterosexual infidelity. Meanwhile, Anne-Louise Lambert, as one of the missing girls, Miranda, is nearly angelic. Part of this is Lambert’s performance (and, to be honest, her looks), but just as important is the way she is photographed, as if she is simultaneously of this world and outside of it. You can see why people would obsess about her. #586 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 8/10.


music friday: once i was

Tim Buckley was prolific. By the time he died of an overdose at the age of 28, he had already released nine albums, and I’m not counting the inevitable posthumous releases that always accompany the death of a musician. (Not that there haven’t been plenty of those, including SEVEN live albums since his passing.) Musicians know who he is, as do fans of late-60s folk-rock, but for most people, he is known, if at all, as Jeff Buckley’s dad.

Buckley was an adventurous musician, who often went in new directions with each album. His second, Goodbye and Hello, is considered by many (i.e. me) to be his best, but by his fourth album, Buckley had integrated jazz into his music, and by his fifth album, Lorca, he jumped into the deep pool of experimentation, losing a lot of his audience in the process. Greetings from L.A. was a bit of a return to accessibility, but it was too late. (I’m not making a value judgment here ... granted, I mostly lost track of him over the years, but he was committed to his art, and his later works have fans to this day.)

Goodbye and Hello is a seminal work of 60s psychedelic folk (or, as AMG called it, “Psychedelic/Garage”), and as such, is unsurprisingly one of my favorite albums. I admit that in 2016, some of Goodbye and Hello sounds a bit silly and dated (like that’s a bad thing!). Song titles like “Hallucinations” and “Phantasmagoria in Two” are indicative. But the propulsive backing on “I Never Asked to Be Your Mountain” is hard to resist, even as the lyrics (“O Flying Flying Fish, please flutter by my door”) are charmingly clunky::

The pinnacle of this style in Buckley’s music came on his next album, Happy Sad. “Gypsy Woman” occupies, to my ears, the perfect spot between the folk-rock of his beginnings and the more experimental work to follow:

But this post is titled “Once I Was”. This quiet song, from Goodbye and Hello, holds a special place in my heart. Once long ago, I listened to it after the departure of a loved one, someone I thought I’d never see again. And ever since, “Once I Was” is my go-to song for such moments.

And sometimes I wonder
Just for a while
Will you ever remember me?

robert johnson, the king, and the president

Today marks the anniversary of the death of The King, Elvis Presley. I consider him the most titanic pop culture figure of my lifetime. I remember where I was when I heard the news of his death. I wrote my honors thesis for my bachelor’s degree on Elvis. It’s not unusual that I think of him every August 16.

Robert Johnson was one of the crucial artists in the history of American music. He recorded somewhere between 40 and 60 tracks in 1936 and 1937, before dying at the age of 27. He is mostly known today as the writer of many songs made famous by rock musicians, most notably the Rolling Stones (“Love in Vain”, “Stop Breaking Down”) and Eric Clapton (“Crossroads” with Cream, along with many others, including an entire album of Johnson songs). This is a fairly ordinary tale of a great black innovator being co-opted by white artists, although at least the Stones are arguably at Johnson’s level. Suffice to say that for many, Robert Johnson is the greatest of the early bluesmen, which is to say one of the greatest progenitors of rock and roll music. The Post Office even put him on a stamp back in 1994.

I think often of Robert Johnson. I don’t play him as much as I play Elvis, or the Rolling Stones ... there is an intensity to most of Johnson’s music that doesn’t lend itself to casual listening, so I need to be ready to sit down and allow Johnson to force me to pay attention. I don’t include him on many mix tapes for the same reason. Of course, this does not mean his music is poor ... on the contrary, it is evidence of how vital it remains.

Here’s the thing. Robert Johnson died on August 16, 1938. Elvis died on August 16, 1977. Yet I feel like today is the first time I realized that coincidence. I was alive when Elvis died, maybe that’s why I remember it. But while I know that Johnson died, and the reputed circumstances of his death, I’ve never attached a date to it.

And that says something about how we think of black artists. If anyone was as important a music figure as Elvis, it was Robert Johnson. Yet on August 16, Johnson is forgotten under an avalanche of Elvis nostalgia.

“If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day” is not Johnson’s greatest song. (As with all great artists, my idea of which is the best changes regularly, with “Come on in My Kitchen” and “Hellhound on My Trail” always at or near the top.) But it has the greatest title, one that makes every other blues title seem minor in comparison. This isn’t “if my baby came back to me”, or “if I could just get out of this town”. No, this is Johnson imagining he has the power of God itself. (It is Johnson’s version of the blues standard “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” ... Johnson's title was purposeful. The lyrics are not nearly as fantastical, just Johnson bemoaning the loss of his woman.)

An as example of Johnson’s influence, here is my favorite cover of his songs, performed by Mick Jagger:

And finally, this brief clip of “Sweet Home Chicago”, first recorded by Johnson, here with the President of the United States on vocals:

triumph's summer election special 2016

Last night, as my wife was reading in bed, I joined her, opened up my Kindle, put in my ear phones, and turned on Triumph the Insult Comic Dog’s latest special on Hulu, Triumph’s Summer Election Special 2016. If you are unfamiliar with Triumph, imagine Don Rickles’ shtick coming out of the mouth of a hand puppet doggy operated by Robert Smigel. He made his name for his occasional appearances on Conan O’Brien’s various late-night shows, where he often got tossed out of events he was “covering” (most famously the Westminster Dog Show, more than once). Arguably his most famous sketch is his demolition of Star Wars fans waiting in line for the premiere of one of the movies. A favorite at our house is when, for some reason, a Hawaii TV station asked him to substitute for the local weather reporter.

The new Election Special comes on the heels of an earlier edition that has actually been nominated for an Emmy.

After I was done watching, I pulled out my ear phones, at which point, my wife said she had rarely, if ever, heard me laugh so much for an extended period of time. Oh, a minute or two here and there, but consistent, full-throated laughter for an hour? She was amazed.

I’m not going to try and analyze why this is. Suffice to say that I find Triumph to be hilarious at his best, and always worth watching even when he’s not as good. What interests me here is how Triumph has become a political comedian with these two specials. He’s been here before ... he did bits in both the 2004 and 2008 presidential campaigns ... but for the most part, he’s famous for those Star Wars fans, and Bon Jovi fans, and American Idol contestants, and the Tony Awards, etc. His act never really changes, which is one reason I’m surprised that I still find it funny. He works his way into situations where he can pepper people with questions that are either insulting, or lead to insults. You may feel a bit guilty for laughing at his victims, although apparently as his fame increases, he often gets asked by fans to be tormented on camera. Triumph is first and last a comedian ... there is no social commentary to his bits.

Except when he’s dealing with politicians. It’s one thing when he makes fun of Star Wars fans (confronted with a fan in a Darth Vader costume, he points to a box of buttons on the costume and asks which button calls up his parents to pick him up), but another when he applies the same basic techniques to politicians (and, more often, their representatives):

Triumph’s comedy is based on insults, but when he addresses politicians and their lackeys, he asks the questions “real” journalists would not. OK, there’s only so many jokes you can make about Bernie Sanders’ age, or Hillary Clinton’s hair, or Donald Trump’s anything. But when his insulting questions are directed at actual issues, you see how the need for politeness mutes even the most “hard-hitting” journalists.

Triumph is an equal opportunity insult artist ... in this special he takes on Democrats and Republicans alike. But Donald Trump is so easy that he gives Triumph his best material. At one point, Triumph says he has footage of Trump visiting neighborhoods with mostly minority residents. We imagine Donald pressing the flesh, but when we see the footage, Trump shows up in a tank, speaking through a megaphone about how he loves black people and Mexicans, showing nothing but his hand waving out of the top of the tank.

Most revealing, if perhaps too reminiscent of an old Daily Show sketch, is when Triumph sets up a legitimate focus group of Trump supporters and asks their opinions on various proposed ads for the campaign. The fake ads are ridiculous, but the supporters find something to like about all of them. After one ad, where Trump says during the time the wall is built, he will put up an electric fence and force all Mexicans to wear collars that will shock them if they try to cross over into the U.S., the focus group spends a bit of time not condemning the ads but analyzing the logistics to make the plan work better.

Still, for me, it comes back to laughter. And so I preferred the segment when Triumph couldn’t get into the Republican convention. He turns up with a Roger Ailes lookalike. It works.

music friday: rob sheffield on bowie

I love Rob Sheffield’s books. His first, Love Is a Mix Tape, was an explicitly autobiographical memoir, a moving and beautifully written story about his life and subsequent marriage with Renée Crist, who dies unexpectedly. He tells this story by blending in a series of mix tapes, which suggests the direction his next books would go. The second book mentions Duran Duran in the title, the third is about “the rituals of love and karaoke”. It would be hard to find two subjects that interest me less than Duran Duran and karaoke, but I loved both books. I love that they continue his use of memoir to illuminate broader topics, such that by the time I finished the books, I had a much deeper understanding of those things I had thought were uninteresting.

What makes Sheffield’s books work is that while he is a central character, his presence is used to illuminate the world around him. Some writers (myself included) tend to turn everything into a story about myself, but that’s not what Sheffield accomplishes. Instead, he uses his personal connections in the service of his subjects. It’s quite a skill, one I wish I could master.

Sheffield loved David Bowie, and when Bowie died, Sheffield’s heart was broken. He says his latest book, On Bowie, “is a love letter to Bowie ... a thank-you for the beautiful mess he made out of all our lives.” Reading this, I realize that on some level, every book Rob Sheffield has written is a love letter of sorts, and that provides a lovely structure for whatever he is writing about. In one moving passage, he writes about hearing Bowie had died. “I thought about waking up my wife to tell her. But I wanted her to sleep one more night in a world that had Bowie in it.” In those sentences, we feel how important Bowie was in people’s lives, but also how Sheffield’s personal response includes the desire to protect his wife for a few more hours.

Here’s the thing: we learn a lot about Rob Sheffield in On Bowie, just as we have in all of his books. But, more than that, we learn a lot about David Bowie. Sheffield’s critical analysis of Bowie’s work is idiosyncratic ... of course it is, it should be, he’s not trying to put a canon in concrete. By attaching his own life history with Bowie, Sheffield stands in for the fans, and that helps a non-believer like me appreciate how Bowie and his fans fed off of each other. The biggest implication is always there ... substitute your own favorite for Bowie, and you’ll recognize a lot of what Sheffield goes through over the years. But by working with the memoir structure, Sheffield always brings those larger implications back to the specific story of David Bowie.

I recommend every one of Sheffield’s books: Love Is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time, Talking to Girls About Duran Duran, and Turn Around Bright Eyes: The Rituals of Love & Karaoke. If you are just starting, read them in order, although if you are a Bowie fan, you’ll want to read that one first. But trust me on this: Rob Sheffield has never written a book that was less than wonderful.

Here are a few of my favorite Bowie songs. I only scratch the surface ... another use for On Bowie is to uncover hidden gems from Bowie’s recorded work. Me, I’m a greatest-hits kind of guy when it comes to Bowie ... well, I also love The Man Who Fell to Earth, one place where Rob and I do disagree. These are in no particular order, probably chronological although I’m not checking. “Stay” would be atop my list.

Suffragette City

The Jean Genie

Rebel Rebel

Young Americans


Modern Love


Bonus track:I Got You Babe

the man in the high castle (tv series)

I have a tendency to judge adaptations of the works of Philip K. Dick by how much I think they reflect the spirit and tone of his novels. I suppose we all do this, and it’s not like there’s an official stand on which everyone agrees. Dick is said to have loved Blade Runner, while I felt that movie left out the wrong parts from the novel. There is also the disorienting feeling his books bring on the reader. This is something that has rarely been captured on film ... one scene in Total Recall did it, and A Scanner Darkly got it for an entire movie.

Amazon’s TV series, The Man in the High Castle, doesn’t really get Dick, either, but that doesn’t matter as much as I thought it would. The novel is unlike his other books, so the “non-Dick” factor is built in. The premise of book and series is simple, an alternate history where the Axis wins World War II. The series does a beautiful job of world creation, especially with the sets and cinematography. Much of the world we see is dark and grimy (it takes place in 1962, with Japan in control of the West Coast and Germany controlling the East). While I wouldn’t say the tale is simple, it’s very controlled for a Phil Dick story. Once you set up the alternate history, everything else falls into place. I don’t want to overstate the ways the book differs from his other novels. The ways the characters interact with each other and with their environment are very Dickian. But the hallucinatory feel of his writing is mostly absent from The Man in the High Castle, which may be why it’s the one that won awards.

I usually attribute that psychedelic feel to drugs, both the ones Dick was taking as he wrote, and the ones that turn up in his books in the mid/late-60s. But this stuff was there, even before High Castle, even before drugs. Take this Wikipedia description of an early novel, Eye in the Sky:

The title refers to the gigantic, all-seeing eye of God; at least, that is, as a manifestation of one Arthur Silvester's personal worldview. He is an elderly schismatic Bábí World War II army veteran whose inner life is initially forcibly imposed on several other characters as the result of the involuntary formation of a gestalt consciousness after a nuclear accident.... While on a visit to the (fictional) Belmont Bevatron in then near-future 1957, eight people become stuck in a series of subtly unreal worlds, caused by the malfunction of the particle accelerator. These are later revealed to be solipsistic manifestations, bringing the story in line with Dick's penchant for subjective realities.

Or this, from another early novel, Time Out of Joint:

Ragle Gumm believes that he lives in the year 1959 in a quiet American suburb. His unusual profession consists of repeatedly winning the cash prize in a local newspaper competition called, "Where Will The Little Green Man Be Next?". Gumm's 1959 has some differences from ours: the Tucker car is in production, AM/FM radios are scarce to non-existent and Marilyn Monroe is a complete unknown. As the novel opens, strange things begin to happen to Gumm. A soft-drink stand disappears, replaced by a small slip of paper with the words "SOFT-DRINK STAND" printed on it in block letters. Intriguing little pieces of the real 1959 turn up: a magazine article on Marilyn Monroe, a telephone book with non-operational exchanges listed and radios hidden away in someone else's house.... A neighborhood woman, Mrs. Keitelbein, invites him to a Civil Defense class where he sees a model of a futuristic underground military factory. He has the unshakeable feeling he's been inside that building many times before.

Despite the enormous effect the alternate history in High Castle has on the reader, who knows what “really” happened, the characters live as if the world is “normal”. This is what makes the book different than most other PKD novels, and it’s why I think of it as simpler than his other books. Easier to take in, perhaps, but without the disorienting feel Dick is so good as portraying, The Man in the High Castle is a bit dull.

(I wrote a silly, I Ching-based post about the novel, which you can read here.)

All of this is a long-winded way of explaining why I don’t expect The Man in the High Castle television series to feel Dickian ... the novel doesn’t feel that way to me, either. It’s actually rather liberating, as the series can focus on the story and the characters, making great use of their creation of the alternate history, without worrying how close they are to Phil Dick.

When it is good, The Man in the High Castle is very good indeed. I can’t say enough about the great work of the people who put the vision of the creators on the screen. And there are a couple of excellent performances, Rufus Sewell as a Nazi bigwig, and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa as a Japanese trade minister. (Special shout out to Burn Gorman as a bounty hunter.) But one of the main characters, Joe Blake, is as boring as his name, and I can’t tell if the character is written poorly, the actor is too bland, or both, but it leaves a hole in the screen. Alexa Davalos is asked to carry much of the show, and she’s adequate, but in this case, she might be better suited to a supporting role.

Still, the world creation is remarkable, the plot moves along, and if it isn’t a great series, it at least has me looking forward to Season Two.

Addendum: Tim Goodman wrote a piece today about what he calls “Amazon’s baffling TV strategy”, which seems to amount to getting people to buy Amazon Prime where they can get free shipping for that pair of socks they purchased, and oh, we have movies and TV shows too, and oh, a few of those TV shows are ours.