tv 2021

It's been slim pickings for me and television this year, not because there was nothing good to watch, but because I didn't watch much of it, good or bad. I've tried to figure out why this is true, and I have no clue, to be honest. I watch a LOT more movies than I used to (far more than 300 over the last two years), which takes up a lot of screen time. I checked my TV 2020 post, and none of the shows I mentioned have been on during the past year, some because they were cancelled, others because the pandemic has slowed production. I look forward to the return of such shows as Gentleman Jack, Atlanta, and Outlander. But the show I am most excited about is the second season of Euphoria.

The pattern nowadays is that I watch and episode or two, get behind, and forget to catch up. This is true of some shows I have been watching for years, like Curb Your Enthusiasm. More often, I check out new shows, like them, and forget to keep watching: Mare of Easttown, PEN15, Reservation Dogs, Blindspotting, Hacks, Gangs of London. We just started watching Station Eleven, and we might stick with it. A series I caught up on was La Casa de las Flores.

Four 2021 series did stick out for me. Two were mini-series of a sort. Get Back, Peter Jackson's extension of Let It Be, was wonderful for Beatles fans, and McCartney 3,2,1 could have been appreciated by all music fans. The White Lotus was an imperfect but intriguing show from HBO. And the Korean series Squid Game was an international phenomenon that I watched when we were in Spain. I'd recommend all four of those shows, although Squid Game requires a tolerance for violence.

The White Lotus had a great cast, and Alexandra Daddario gave her best performance yet.

get back some more

I finished Get Back on Sunday, when the final episode turned up. It's a treasure trove for Beatles fans. I'm not sure how much it would appeal to non-fans ... it's better than the average "behind the scenes" documentary, but I'm still not a big fan of the genre (I've always thought Don't Look Back was overrated). If I were to introduce someone to The Beatles today, I'd play the music and show A Hard Day's Night. Then I'd get to Peter Jackson's project. I don't mean this as a knock ... I am a Beatles fan, I gobbled up the entire thing and wouldn't mind doing it again.

Jackson deserves our thanks for showing the joy that was always part of the Let It Be sessions, along with the downsides. I've always thought the rooftop concert was odd, because they were having such a good time, and that didn't match the reputation of the sessions. Jackson shows us that it all made sense.

Rob Sheffield is the best at whatever topic he decides to write about. His book Dreaming the Beatles is essential. He wrote two pieces for Rolling Stone about Get Back. First was "‘Get Back’: Meet the Beatles Once Again, Courtesy of the Most Emotional Fab Four Doc Ever". Then, after we'd had the chance to watch all 8 hours, he gave us "24 Reasons We’ll Keep Watching the Beatles’ ‘Get Back’ Forever". Between the two, you'll get the perfect reading companion to the series. And there's this, from "24 Reasons":

The highlight of the rooftop concert: the joy of seeing Maureen Starkey, Ringo’s wife, bop her head to “Get Back.” Nobody on the roof is a bigger fan than Mo. She was a screaming girl back at the Cavern Club — she’s the only person here who ever stood in line and paid money to hear this band. (The first time she met Ringo, she was asking for his autograph.) She’s waited years for this gig. At the end, Paul looks over and says, “Thanks, Mo” — a beautiful moment that sums up what the Beatles were all about, but also sums up what they are about, even now, which is why this story refuses to fade into the past.

I also enjoyed the comments from my friend Tomás Summers Sandoval, not only because I enjoy his writing, but also because he watched with his kid. Since I wonder how the Beatles continue to be relevant to later generations, I found his family-based viewings particularly interesting.

casino royale (william h. brown, jr, 1954)

I no longer remember when it was ... it was when VHS still ruled the roost, and Pierce Brosnan was 007 ... my wife and I decided to watch all the James Bond movies up to that point, timing it so we finished just as the new one came out in theaters. This wasn't the easiest task. On Demand barely existed in those days, so we had to work hard to gain access to the movies, and it didn't help that we watched them in order of their release. We had seen most of them already, but not in a binge, not together. It took awhile, but we pulled it off, even working in the non-canonical 1967 version of Casino Royale and the Sean Connery return of Never Say Never Again. Of course, once we accomplished this feat, we had to keep it up, so we've seen every Bond movie since, when they came out. No Time to Die came out when we were in Europe, so we had to wait a few weeks, but we saw it Tuesday and we're caught up again.

Except ... there has always been a hole in our project, for in 1954, in an episode of a TV series called Climax!, James Bond made his first appearance on the screen, in a presentation of Casino Royale. It was a stripped-down version ... Climax! was an hour-long show with commercials ... in many ways, it's barely recognizable, given what 007 has become as a pop culture artifact. But we finally decided to watch it, so we could really catch up with our monumental binge. You can find the entire thing on YouTube:

It doesn't stink, and it's fun to see James Bond before the routine set in. But it's not really much good. It was filmed live, the budget was small, and while everyone does their best, it wouldn't be worth watching if it wasn't for its historical status. Barry Nelson plays Bond ... yes, Nelson is American, so is Bond in this production, sometimes they call him "Jimmy". Peter Lorre plays Le Chiffre, and Peter Lorre is always good. Felix Leiter becomes Clarence Leiter, and to balance out the Americanness of Bond, here he is British. Given the norms of the time, the famous torture scene makes it past the censors, although it all happens off-screen and all Le Chiffre does is take a pair of pliers to Bond's feet. An interesting curio, and no more. But hey, it's better than A View to a Kill ... it's even better than the 1967 Casino Royale.

[Letterboxd list of James Bond films]

joining the rest of the world

In my search for things to watch that were accessible via streaming from Europe, I decided I would join the rest of the world and watch Squid Game.

Squid Game, which was released a little over a month ago, is the most-watched series (from its launch) in the history of Netflix as I write this. It reached #1 on the Netflix TV charts in 90 countries, including Spain ... when I logged onto the service from Nerja, the website said "#1 in Spain!"

With all of this, I admit that while I knew of the cultural explosion around the show, I had no idea what it was about. Nor did my wife, about which more in a bit. I settled in for Episode One, expecting some excess, in line with some of the Korean horror films I'd seen. For the first 40 minutes or so, I saw an interesting setup about some people suffering from immense debt, who agreed to play a large-scale game for a chance to win a lot of money.

What follows here includes necessary spoilers for that first episode. A total of 456 players are taken to a hidden compound. They will play a series of six games, with a big payout for anyone who finishes. The first game is "Red Light, Green Light", a variation on the children's game. They have five minutes to reach a finish line, but they can only move at certain moments; anyone who moves during the stay-still periods is eliminated.

The game begins, the players move forward towards the finish line, the call to stop comes, the players stop, and the ones who move are eliminated from the game. Their elimination results in their being shot down and killed. By the time the five minutes are up, more than half of the 456 are dead.

There are underlying themes about class and money, reminiscent perhaps of Parasite. But I've only watched two episodes so far, and I can't really comment on those themes. In fact, this post isn't really about analysis at all, but rather at the fascinating (and rather sad) reaction of my wife when I explained the first episode.

My wife watches a lot of TV while she knits, often shows from other countries. She chooses shows by browsing, sometimes selecting something Netflix or other services recommend based on her past viewing. She is mostly uninterested in stuff that goes viral, so while she had heard of Squid Game, she knew even less than I did about the series, and didn't have any interest in watching it. I made what I see in retrospect was an insufficient description of the show's concept, so that she didn't know the show is fictional. To her, I am describing a Survivor-like reality show, so when I got to the part where half of the people died, she was disgusted. Not just with the show, but with her husband, who seemed to look forward to Episode Two. She didn't think I was the kind of person to watch actual killing for entertainment purposes, and while she couldn't really believe such a show existed, times are bizarre, and so when I kept insisting that the game's losers really died, saying "it's Korean!" in reference to Korean horror films, she thought I meant there was a show from Korea where people were being murdered.

I admit I was, and am, a bit frightened that she would think I would continue to watch the show she thought I was describing. But then, based on the look on her face. she was just as frightened that her husband of 48 years was the kind of person who would indeed want to watch more.

It's safe to say we were both relieved when I did a better job of explaining that the show was fiction. I went on to watch the second episode, but I don't think she will be putting it on her Netflix queue anytime soon.



film fatales #120: the sit-in: harry belafonte hosts the tonight show (yoruba richen, 2020)

Several times during The Sit-In, we are reminded that the week when Harry Belafonte hosted The Tonight Show was largely buried in the history of television. Yoruba Richen, who directed and co-wrote the documentary, emphasizes this because she believes Belafonte's hosting stint was an important moment in television ... she wants to ensure that it is forgotten no longer. She succeeds ... The Sit-In will be there for anyone who wants to discover (or rediscover) the week that was. It's a noble, even necessary, endeavor.

And Richen does what she can with the existing material. But here she is let down, which is unfortunate for her audience. First, she explains that in the 1960s, networks like NBC regularly recorded over tapes, so that, in the case of Belafonte on The Tonight Show, only segments from two of his five episodes exist today. So a look at the guest lists for his episodes is impressive, but we only get a handful of those guests. The truncated list remains impressive ... The Sit-In features Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (who tells a joke!), Bobby Kennedy, Paul Newman, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Nipsey Russell, and others. But a lot of the brief (75 minutes) running time of The Sit-In consists of interviews with people who express surprise that these episodes existed at all. I'm always glad to hear from Questlove and Whoopi Goldberg, but their contributions to The Sit-In are extended beyond usefulness. Understandably, given the absence of much footage from the event, but it becomes a bit repetitious.

Richen does a good job of placing the episodes in the context of 1968, and ultimately, The Sit-In is a helpful, if incomplete, addition to our understanding of our history. It's not a classic, but you take what you can get.

la casa de las flores

La Casa de las Flores is a telenovela made by Manolo Caro for Netflix. I just finished Season 1, which came out in August 2018 (there are two more seasons). It was my first telenovela, although it is often referred to as a "millennial telenovela", which is what it sounds like (think Jane the Virgin). I've often heard that watching telenovelas is a good way to improve your Spanish, and we've got a (fingers crossed) trip to Spain coming in October, so I went for this one. And it's an eyeopener.

La Casa de las Flores centers on an upper-middle class Mexican family, de la Mora, that owns a popular flower shop called "La Casa de las Flores" and a cabaret of the same name. Outwardly, the de la Moras are an exemplary family: patriarch and matriarch, two daughters and one son. Of course, the surface is deceiving. The father has a mistress of long standing ... they have a daughter who seems to be a pre-teen. The mother regularly smokes weed she grows herself. The eldest daughter was once married, and has a son ... her marriage ended when her ex came out as a trans woman. The younger daughter has been living in New York with her African-American fiancé. The youngest son is beginning to accept his bisexuality.

In the first minute of the show, the mistress hangs herself in the flower shop. It turns out she was doing shady things with the father's money, and he ends up in prison, setting in motion the plot for the first season.

La Casa de las Flores is a solid mixture of humor and emotion, all presented in the exaggerated manner of telenovelas. I did not recognize any of the actors. Verónica Castro, who plays the mother, is a major star in Mexico, as a singer and as a telenovela star, and her addition to the cast was a major coup for Caro. The emerging star, though, is Cecilia Suárez, who was in a couple of scenes in Sense8. It's silly to call her "emerging", of course ... she was in her late-40s when the series began, with a long, award-winning career in film. She is called the muse of Manolo Caro, appearing in nearly all of his works. She plays Paulina, the eldest daughter, and the performance of Suárez has led to the character becoming a cult figure. Paulina's speech patterns are impossible to forget once you've heard them. Wikipedia explains:

The character's languorous speech pattern, which is often slowed down even further to enunciate syllable by syllable, became popular among viewers, spawning the '#PaulinaDeLaMoraChallenge' on social media. In the challenge, fans upload videos where they imitate Paulina's voice, often with some of the character's lines. The challenge was started by Mexican actor Roberto Carlo, with the stars of Cable Girls being the first to take it up. When Netflix and Suárez responded with their own version of the challenge on Twitter, it became a trending event on the website, based on popularity and coverage; at this point, there were over 69,000 fan videos of the challenge. The response to the challenge is one of the only times that Suárez has spoken in Paulina's voice outside of the show. She initially said Netflix restricted her from using the voice, but clarified this as being "a suggestion" that she follows to not break the magic of the fiction. Scholar Paul Julian Smith has noted that videos of Paulina's memorable lines recorded from the show have been uploaded to the Internet by fans and received hundreds of thousands of views.

After watching an episode, I found myself imitating Paulina, even though I'd be speaking English and she spoke in Spanish.

I can't compare La Casa de las Flores to other telenovelas, since I haven't seen any of them. But I'm guessing the addictive quality of the show is shared with others in the genre. You never know what it going to happen next. Add to that the "millennial" trend, and I couldn't get enough of La Casa de las Flores.

the switch (bobby roth, 1993)

This is the twenty-third film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 6th annual challenge, and my second time participating (last year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20"). Week 23 is called the "Tangerine Dream Week".

You know how every film nowadays seems to go for that retro synth sound aesthetic? Well these folks are a big reason why that's a thing. As a German electronic band, Tangerine Dream lent their musical style to a number of films that gave the 80s its signature sound.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film with a soundtrack by Tangerine Dream.

I can't say this was a disappointment. I can blame myself for an uninspired pick. I could have picked Michael Mann's Thief with James Caan, or William Friedkin's Wages of Fear remake Sorcerer. Instead I chose The Switch, directed by Bobby Roth. Roth has had an interesting career, directing countless TV series and movies. He has also done a few independent films, a couple of which I have fond memories of (The Boss' Son and Heartbreakers). Most importantly for my purposes, it turns out The Switch was a TV movie, and it shows. It doesn't look cheap ... Roth is an efficient pro who makes good use of what in retrospect are clearly only a few sets, and the cast is full of underrated actors, many known mostly for their television work (Gary Cole, Craig T. Nelson, and Max Gail, not to mention Kathleen Nolan, who starred on The Real McCoys and was later president of the Screen Actors Guild, and Hinton Battle, who had a memorable appearance in the Buffy musical Once More, With Feeling). Beverly D'Angelo has a fairly substantial part, although for some reason she is uncredited. Put it all together, and there is no reason why The Switch would be a bad movie. And that is true ... it is not a bad movie.

I can't go much further, though. It begins with the dreaded words, "based on a true story", which never bodes well. It's the story of Larry McAfee (Cole), who is quadriplegic after a motorcycle accident. At first, he fights for the right to end his life ... by the movie's end, he has found meaning and wants to live. (Ironically, McAfee died a couple of years after the movie was released.)

Roth and company do what they can, but they are held back by the realities of television in the early 90s. Nowadays, we're used to productions like Game of Thrones, with big budgets and bigger ambitions and big-screen cinematography, but The Switch has the 1.33:1 aspect ratio then standard for TV, and Roth makes extensive use of closeups, I'm guessing because in 1993, with our small TV screens, closeups wouldn't seem oppressive, but in fact be welcomed.

The is nothing wrong with The Switch, and the people involved gave it their best. No one seems to be just cashing a paycheck. Beyond that, there is no particular reason to run out and watch it.

If you can't resist, her is the entire movie on YouTube:

Oh, and Tangerine Dream? I suppose the soundtrack was OK ... I didn't really notice it, to be honest. On the other hand, it was hard not to notice the appearance of Bruce Springsteen's "Human Touch" a couple of minutes in.

film fatales #102: jane eyre (susanna white, 2006)

This is the fifteenth "film" I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 6th annual challenge, and my second time participating (last year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20"). Week 15 is called "Miniseries Week".

As we move into our holiday hiatus, I wanted to try something a little different. Instead of focusing on specific holidays this year, I want you to use this week (and the weeks in between this and the return from break if need be) to tackle a miniseries. They're essentially just long movies anyway. These things can range in length, from the runtime of your average film to over a dozen hours depending on what you're looking for. So don't feel too daunted with this challenge, and enjoy the break!

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen miniseries. Try looking here or here for starters.

It's part of every adaptation of a classic. The first thing everyone wants to know is, who plays the main characters? Indeed, that's how we keep them apart in our memories. I've seen at least three Jane Eyres, and while I could distinguish them by year (1943, 2006, 2011) or director (Robert Stevenson, Susanna White, Cary Joji Fukunaga), I remember them as the one with Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles, the one with Ruth Wilson and Toby Stephens, and the one with Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender. The approach taken by the film makers matters, the use of the original text is crucial, but to some extent, this Jane Eyre, like the others, is about the casting as much as anything. And yes, there are other characters besides Jane and Rochester, but no one remembers the adaptations by the actresses who played Mrs. Fairfax (for the record, Edith Barrett, Lorraine Ashbourne, and Judi Dench).

Both Wilson and Stephens look the part in this BBC mini-series version. Jane Eyre shouldn't be too pretty, and here Ruth Wilson is presented as a plain woman (which is no reflection on Wilson, a lovely-looking woman who is made up so her looks match the character). Toby Stephens (son of Maggie Smith) is suitably brooding, and as with Wilson, he does a fine job in his part. It's Wilson's show, but Stephens keeps up throughout the four hours. Wilson's performance belies the fact that it was only her second on-screen role (the other being a supporting character in a television series).

The production gets most things right. The story is fairly faithful ... the early parts of the novel are offered in a rather hurried manner, but nothing crucial is missing. Screenwriter Sandy Welch, a mini-series veteran, earned an Emmy nomination for her work here. The film looks properly gorgeous, and while it's out of my field of expertise, the costumes were well-received.

My wife is the Jane Eyre super-fan in our house, and she proclaimed herself satisfied. This version rewards both those who have memorized the novel and those who have never read it.

tv 2020

Watching the Euphoria "Christmas Special" reminded me that it's about time for a recap of the year in TV. Euphoria hasn't been on for awhile ... Season Two will get here eventually, but the virus has made it nearly impossible to get back to work. So we're getting two tweener episodes that take place after Season One/before Season Two. The first featured Rue (Zendaya) in a tailspin after her love Jules (Hunter Schafer) left on a train. (Jules will be the focus of the second episode.) Rue goes back on drugs, and the episode we just got consisted almost entirely of her and her NA sponsor dealing with the situation. I was reminded of the Velvet Underground. That band made some of the most discordant music ever, but they also had lovely songs like "Pale Blue Eyes" which carried more power for being the vicinity of the discord. Euphoria so far is not a show for everyone. It's over the top, excessive in so many ways. Because of this, though, the Christmas episode was kinda like "Pale Blue Eyes" ... it carried more power for being in the vicinity of Season One's craziness. We got a two-person, one-set hour, perfect for filming during a pandemic, with both actors (not just Zendaya but also Colman Domingo as her sponsor) putting together award-worthy highlight reels. Domingo got to be a bit more showy, but Zendaya, who was the youngest person to ever win the Best Actress in a Drama Emmy for her work in Season One, played this special episode low key. We had to watch her face to see what she was going through, and she was going through a lot. I'm excited to see what else Euphoria has in store for us.

Meanwhile, some shows I wrote about this year, and a few I didn't.

The 100. I loved this in spite of itself. The fans were, shall we say, interesting.

Agents of SHIELD. "This final season is a delight, as they use time travel as an excuse for some great looks at the past."

Better Things. "These things are in alphabetical order, but this is the best of the shows. If you only binge one series from this list, this is the one. Pamela Adlon is a genius."

Devs. "While it tended to be obscure, that seemed appropriate for a show that was about philosophical truths."

Gentleman Jack. "It's created by Sally Wainwright, who also created the terrific and dark Happy Valley. The lead is played by Suranne Jones, who I am embarrassed to admit I had never heard of, despite her acting for 25 years. Well, I've heard of her now, and I won't be forgetting her soon.

GLOW. "It doesn't get much more surprising than this. GLOW, based on a cheesy rassling show ("Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling") from the 80s, is funny, entertaining, and works as drama, as well. Alison Brie and Betty Gilpin are great as the leads, but the whole cast delivers. There is still one more season to go." (Sad editor's note: the final season was cancelled due to the pandemic.)

High Fidelity, High Fidelity. "From a Nick Hornby novel to a film with John Cusack, always very guy-oriented. This version benefits greatly from 1) making the main character a woman, and 2) casting Zoë Kravitz in the role. She's the best thing about it, although the supporting cast is appealing, as well. Never quite essential, but often fun to watch." Winner of this year's Karen Sisco Award.

Hot Ones. Not really a TV show, I guess ... I'm not talking about the game show on regular television, I'm talking about the YouTube sensation. I look forward to each weekly episode as much as I do any other show on this list. The premise is simple: invite a celebrity to eat ten wings with increasingly hot sauce, and then pump them with questions when their guard drops because they are too busy reacting to the heat. Host Sean Evans is a masterful interviewer who regularly gets compliments from his guests. Among the guests in recent seasons: Zoë Kravitz, Jessica Alba, The Undertaker, Daniel Radcliffe. Watch out for Da Bomb.

I May Destroy You. "What matters is when Arabella accepts that while she will never erase or forget what happened, she can continue with her life, can finally refuse to be defined by her assault. In what can only be called a delightful turn, she is able to clear her writer's block and finish her book, at which time, we realize the series I May Destroy You reflects the book Arabella writes, and serves the purpose for Coel that it does for Arabella."

Lovecraft Country. Mini-series version of a novel by Matt Ruff that was mostly faithful to the novel while turning the book's stylistic touches into filmic flourishes. Occasionally great, never less than good.

Outlander. "Outlander has pulled off a fairly rare feat: its fifth season was on a par with its first."

Perry Mason. "The recreation of 1932 Los Angeles is strong, and Tatiana Maslany delivers in every one of her scenes. Perry Mason is not yet a great show ... it may never be a great show. But it's a lot better than I anticipated, with room to grow."

The Plot Against America. "Anything David Simon does is worth your attention. Here, he and Ed Burns offer a miniseries based on the Philip Roth novel about an alternate history where Charles Lindbergh becomes president in 1940 and America turns fascist. As you can imagine, it feels familiar in 2020. Great cast, great writing, great world creating."

The Queen's Gambit. Not quite a trifle, with fine performances from Anya Taylor-Joy and Marielle Heller. Made chess nerds seem almost cool.

Vida. "A show that was ignored by too many people ... Hopefully, it will be discovered in future years."

Watchmen. "Watchmen is timely ... its made-up world is like our own in worrisome ways (including the fact that in the world of the show, Robert Redford is president). It's also oddly prescient, in a rather backwards way: while the universe of the show is an alternate one, it hinges on the actual events in Tulsa known as the Black Wall Street Massacre, which has been in the news of late."