counterpart

Counterpart is an interesting series on Starz that is a bit out of my comfort zone. I began watching it because it has Oscar winner J.K. "Schillinger" Simmons in a dual role. It's a hybrid, part espionage thriller, part sci-fi parallel worlds tale. It is admittedly quite ingenious, but a lot of it is over my head. I tend to get lost in the plots of espionage thrillers ... can't follow what's going on ... and the sci-fi angle doesn't help, since it expands the thriller in ways that exponentially increase my confusion level. At a basic level, I'm always wondering which of the parallel worlds we are in from one scene to the next. And Counterpart is not like my beloved Philip K. Dick stories, where the parallel worlds have a hallucinatory feel.

Well, Simmons and the rest of the cast (Olivia Williams, Sara Serraiocco, Stephen Rea, Lotte Verbeek, Jamie Bamber, Richard Schiff, Jacqueline Bisset, and many others) kept me interested through Season One. Interested, but confused. And I've stuck with it through about half of Season Two. The most recent episode, the 16th overall, was directed by series creator Justin Marks for the first time, so you know it was going to be a big deal. As if to emphasize the unique nature of this episode, J.K. Simmons is absent from everything except Previously On. The episode, "Twin Cities", takes us back to the beginning of the story, when the world split in two. By the end of the episode, I had a much clearer understanding of the basis for the show. I wish I'd seen it 16 episodes ago. Thus, I was mystified by a review from Robin Burks which appeared on Screen Rant.

As Burks noted, "This episode explained many of the mysteries that surrounded Counterpart in its first season with a focus on what happens next." But then Burks added, "Most shows would not give up their mysteries so early." Well, this was Episode 16, and it was the first time we were given any clue about what the hell is going on, so for me, at least, it was far from early.

The question is, will I find subsequent episodes more interesting, now that I've gotten the backstory? Ask me in four more episodes.

I should add that somewhere along the way, Starz has become quite the network for original series. Ash vs. Evil Dead, Outlander, Counterpart, Vida ... and those are just the ones I watch.

 


tv quickie

Quick thoughts on three favorite Sunday shows that are all disappointing in their own way.

Outlander has one more episode in Season 4, which has turned out to be the worst so far. "Worst" is harsh, for the show retains much of its appeal (i.e., Claire and Jamie Fraser). But this season takes place mostly in colonial America, and the folks in charge don't seem to know what to do with slavery or Native Americans. A few episodes take place on a family plantation, and here, Outlander is only marginally better than Gone with the Wind. In fact, the black "characters" (most of them don't rise to even the level of an identifiable character) exist mostly to show how the white heroine is disgusted by slavery. That is, the problem with slavery isn't being a slave, it's being a sensitive white person. Meanwhile, the Native Americans are never more than plot devices. I understand that there is only so much time to squeeze in everything from the books on which the series is based, but this is worse than nothing.

Shameless returns for the second half of Season 9, also known as The Season Where Emmy Rossum Leaves the Show. Shameless has been on a downward spiral for a long time, now. It took longer than usual for a Showtime series, but it's barely worth watching now. I'm sticking with it until the end of the season ... I feel I owe it to Rossum. But it's a shadow of its former excellence.

SMILF just began its second season. It's a unique half-hour charmer, unlike most other shows, and Frankie Shaw, who created, writes, and at times directs, while taking on the title character, is a revelation. It's the one show of these three that looks to still be at the top of its game. Except ... there are accusations of misconduct on the set, and you can't watch SMILF without remembering that fact.

 


angie tribeca, season 4

For those with long memories, Angie Tribeca is a child of Police Squad!, the short-lived series the led to the Naked Gun movies. It is stupid and silly, and you'll know after watching two minutes of any episode whether Angie Tribeca is your cup of tea. Season Four brings the total number of episodes up to 40, which is 34 more than Police Squad! ever got (although Angie hasn't gotten any feature-length movies yet).

The easiest thing for me to do is offer a couple of lists. Consider them a consumer guide ... if they sound funny to you, watch the show (it's on TBS, with the first three seasons on Hulu).

First list: some character names from the first three seasons.

Detective Jason "Jay" Geils. Lieutenant Pritikin Atkins. Dr. Scholls. Sgt Eddie Pepper. Mayor, then Vice-President Joe Perry and his wife, Katy. Diane Duran. Angie's mom Peggy, played by Peggy Lipton. Pierre Cardin. Jean Naté. Fisher Price. Special Agent Laurie Partridge. Samantha Stevens. Dr. Moreau. Betty Crocker.

Angie Tribeca has also managed to corral an amazing list of guest appearances (this list is far from complete):

Alfred Molina, James Franco, Heather Graham, Lisa Kudrow, Bill Murray, Gene Simmons, Aaron Carter, Joe Jonas, Michelle Dockery, Natalie Portman, Lizzy Caplan. Season Four added such actors as Anjelica Huston, Rose Byrne, Gina Torres, Carl Reiner, Kathryn Hahn, and Carol Burnett as the President of the United States.

And I haven't mentioned Jagger as Hoffman, a crucial member of the team. Jagger is a dog, as is Hoffman.

Meanwhile, Bobby Cannavale joined the cast as Angie's son Angela Geils, Jr. At the beginning of the season, Angie is getting out after spending 20 years in jail for murdering Angie Tribeca (I told you it was silly). When she emerges from jail, she looks the same, as do all her workmates. Cannavale is her son, and by the plot would appear to be around 22 years old, but neither he nor Rashida Jones wear any makeup to help them look different ages. There was the episode "Freezing Cold Prestige Drama" that parodied Fargo, and one called "Irrational Treasures" (I'll let you guess which movie that one takes on).

Hoffman may be the best joke the show has. Because it's the same joke every time ... a dog is doing police work ... and somehow it's as funny at the end of Season Four as it was at the beginning of Season One.

Image result for angie tribeca season 4 gif


black mirror: bandersnatch

So, what the hell is this? Is it an episode of Black Mirror, a movie from the Black Mirror crew, or something else? It feels like a Black Mirror episode, albeit a movie-length one. But I've noticed in the couple of days since I watched it, that I refer to the experience as "playing", as in "when you're playing it, if you choose X". So maybe it's just a fancy video game. I'm at a loss for how exactly to evaluate it.

In case you've missed the hype, "Bandersnatch" is an interactive movie that works like a Choose Your Own Adventure book. Every once in awhile, a choice of two items appears on the screen. For instance, at the beginning, our young hero, a games programmer, comes down to breakfast. His father asks him what he wants, Frosties or Sugar Puffs, and those words are shown at the bottom of the screen. You choose one, and the story proceeds, informed by your choice. (I took Frosties.) The choices get increasingly troubling, such as deciding which character will kill themselves by jumping off a balcony. This being Black Mirror, there are no happy endings ... although there are apparently at least five possible endings, none of them work out well for the protagonist.

You can see why this is hard to evaluate. Just on a basic level, the "Bandersnatch" I saw, which followed my choices, is different from the one you will see, or even from any subsequent viewings by myself (there are supposedly over a trillion unique permutations). There's no use judging the plot, because it's never the same from one viewing to the next.

The question thus becomes, does this stunt have value beyond the playfulness of its construction? At least in the one time I watched/played, the movie was seamless. There were never any glitches to remind me I was watching/playing a movie that was making decisions every step of the way. Because of that seamlessness, it's easy to forget the technical aspects. Honestly, though, I can't say "Bandersnatch" had much going on beyond the trickery, which isn't to say it was pointless ... it was fun, even intriguing. The best part came when the hero starts thinking he is being controlled by some force, some other people. At first, it just seems like part of his growing alienation and paranoia, but then he gets specific: I don't know why I chose Frosties over Sugar Puffs, I just did, someone controlled my decision. And the viewer realizes that we have become part of the story, for we are the ones controlling him.

It's all perfect for the kind of endless examination of minutiae that flourishes on the Internet ... within hours of its release, people were posting flowcharts of all the possible choices, and spotting the frequent Easter eggs, many of which are call backs to other Black Mirror episodes. This is not where I would suggest people start who are new to Black Mirror ... it is far from the best episode. But it is a different kind of viewing experience, worth a shot (or two, or five, or a trillion).

 


the karen sisco award

[The introduction is largely copied from previous years.]

In 2010, I started a new tradition. I called it the Karen Sisco Award, named after the short-lived television series starring Carla Gugino. Sisco was the character played by Jennifer Lopez in the film Out of Sight, and the series, which also featured Robert Forster and Bill Duke, was on ABC. They made ten episodes, showed seven, and cancelled it. Gugino was ridiculously hot (no surprise there) and the series, based on an Elmore Leonard character, got about as close as anyone did to Leonard’s style until Justified came along.

When I posted an R.I.P. to the show, my son commented, “Every year there is a new favorite Daddy-O show that gets cancelled mid-season. … You have some sort of fixation with doomed shows, did it start with Crime Story or does it come from your upbringing?” (In fairness, Crime Story lasted two seasons.) The Karen Sisco Award exists to honor those doomed shows.

Previous winners were Terriers (2010), Lights Out (2011), Luck (2012), Agent Carter (2016), and Sweet/Vicious (2017).

And in 2018? There is no winner.

For one thing, it's hard to know when a series is cancelled. Some shows get a two-season order before any episodes have aired. Many cancelled shows get rescued ... Sense8 lasted two expensive seasons on Netflix before getting cut, only to revive for a final movie-length episode due to fan uproar:

Later tonight, another cancelled show, Timeless, which also lasted two seasons, will get a two-hour finale. Timeless might have been a Karen Sisco winner after its cancellation after one season, but the cancellation only lasted a few days before NBC reconsidered. And Deadwood, one of the greatest shows of all time, which ran its final episode in 2006 after three seasons, has been revived with the original cast for a two-hour movie to appear in 2019.

There are two patterns at work. One is like what happened with Sense8 and Timeless, a fairly instant chance to close loose ends. The other perhaps speaks to a certain lack of imagination ... it's when old and popular shows are rebooted, or, like Deadwood, just continued. With all of this, the question of when a show is finally finished is messy at best.

It's also true that the catalogs of the big streamers mean a lot of shows never go away.

So, most of the shows I mentioned in my earlier wrap-up of 2018 TV are either still with us, or properly ended. In fact, the opposite problem remains ... a show like Shameless will seemingly last forever, no matter if it's still worth watching.

With all of the great television in the still-active era of Peak TV, it may not be necessary to single out shows that only lasted one season. So many people have yet to watch The Americans, which means you have a lot to look forward to. And you can still catch up on some of the best shows still out there ... Atlanta, Killing Eve, GLOW, Outlander, Vida. It's hard to mourn shows we've lost when there are still so many that have so far gone unseen. Sense8 only has 24 episodes ... you can binge that. Vida, which just finished its first season, only has 6 half-hour episodes ... if you can find it, you can watch the entire season in three hours. And you can always find recent classics like Rectify. Or Sweet/Vicious, for that matter, since if anything it is even more timely than it was when it ran.

And don't sleep on Peggy Carter, who knew her value.

 


springsteen on broadway

I had to ask myself, when choosing category tags for this post, what exactly is Springsteen on Broadway? I threw my hands in the air and tried to be inclusive (Bruce Springsteen, Film, Music, Television, and Theater, although I could have also included Books). I should specifically note that I am not referring to the actual show Bruce performed in a theater on Broadway, a show that ran for more than a year. Nor am I referring specifically to the newly-released soundtrack of the show. I'm talking about the version that turned up on Netflix a few hours after the final show in the run had concluded. I mention all of this because there is plenty to say about how well the theater show translates to Netflix, but I'm here to talk about it as a video I watched, as a Bruce fan of close to 45 years. Nonetheless, from this point, when I say "The Show" I mean all of its variants, even though I personally am talking about the Netflix edition.

Springsteen on Broadway is an interesting amalgam of things long-time Bruce fans have enjoyed for a long time. For instance, Bruce does a lot of talking in this show ... there's 16 songs, but it runs for 2 1/2 hours, which is actually kind of short for a Bruce concert but when he plays for 3+ hours, he'll usually work in 30 or so songs. The soundtrack album demonstrates how it works ... it has 30 tracks, which include the songs and their introductions. "The Promised Land (Introduction)" lasts 11:34 ... "The Promised Land" itself lasts 4:01. Still, there is a familiar feel to it all for hard-core fans, who have been listening to Bruce tell his tales in concert since forever. (There is a website, "Storyteller", that offers 1,237 stories Bruce has told on stage, from a show in Union, New Jersey in May of 1971 to a June 2018 show from the Broadway run.) The music in the show is stripped down, just Bruce and his guitar, with an occasional piano or harmonica, and Patti Scialfa for two songs. This is also something we've seen before, most notably in his tours in support of The Ghost of Tom Joad and Devils and Dust. Finally, if you've read his memoir, Born to Run, you have heard many of these stories specifically, since the show is based on that book.

Thus, despite the newness of the presentation (as the title says, Springsteen ON BROADWAY), ultimately there isn't a lot new here. And that's appropriate. For while Bruce was once famously called The Future of Rock and Roll, he has always been an artist who brings together the familiar shared moments from our past into the fired-up present. A show built around the story of Bruce's life and career necessarily looks at the past, as he has always done. But it also reevaluates that past in the context of the present, which he has also always done.

Something did strike me as odd, though. When he hit the scene, Bruce Springsteen was a refreshing departure from the emerging singer-songwriter genre of "I've seen fire and I've seen rain" navel gazing. He wrote about the boardwalk, Greasy Lake, Sandy and Rosie, Thunder Road and Jungleland. He created a world out of memorable characters and settings, and sure, he grew up on the Jersey Shore and you could imagine he was talking about himself in those songs, but the songs weren't about him, they were about the world he created. Jungleland was never a real place, after all. This tendency was so marked that it took him 8 albums before he finally recorded something that felt "personal" in the ways of singer-songwriters (Tunnel of Love). However, in Springsteen on Broadway, through his narrative introductions, Bruce ties his songs to his biography in a way that was only suggested at the time those songs reached an audience. The song selection forces this upon us. The first four songs are among the ones that most obviously connect to his biography ... not myth-making classics like "Rosalita" or "Jungleland", but "Growin' Up," "My Hometown," "My Father's House," and "The Wish," his paean to his mom and the Japanese guitar she got him for Xmas. After this setup, "Thunder Road," which follows, becomes less myth-making and more biography. Bruce constructs a singer-songwriter out of his work.

Even so, he turns this construction on its head, partly by admitting all of his work is a construction. As he says in the show's opening, "I come from a boardwalk town where everything is tinged just a little bit with fraud. So am I." And later, talking about an early cross-country road trip where he had to admit he had never driven before: "I don't have a clue as to how to drive. By that I mean, the man who very shortly would write 'Racing in the Street' (pause ... he's got great timing) ... that's how good I am." He made it all up.

And that's magic, the kind you won't find from singer-songwriters. Somehow, he took his personal experiences and created inclusive worlds that reached beyond his own self, making room for all of us to join him on the ride.

If you've read his memoir, you'll notice what is left out of the show. There is nothing about his years of therapy and depression. But the show coheres as a whole.

I don't know that any of the song performances here are definitive. If I want to hear "Thunder Road" again, I'll look elsewhere. In some ways, the stories are the best part, and I imagine those won't have the staying power of the songs, so I don't anticipate pulling out the audio version every two weeks. (The one possible keeper is "Brilliant Disguise", a classic song about love gone wrong and the deceit we use to try to keep it alive ... written for his "divorce" album, it takes on new meaning with Patti along for harmonies.) That's not quite right, though ... the stories combined with the songs are the best part, and stories+songs is what you get for 2 1/2 hours, which is more than all right.

I was reminded of 1980, when we saw him five times in a week. Every night, "Jungleland" would come near the end of the show, and every night, I'd rush down to the front of the stage and watch Bruce bellow out those last notes. And I'd wonder how he did it, how could he care so much each and every night? Because we all know Bruce Springsteen is "authentic". But after five nights with "Jungleland", I finally realized he was acting. And that was OK, too. You'll see this in Springsteen on Broadway, where he works with a script, telling the same exact stories the same exact way for more than a year, and you don't see the seams, because you are too caught up in the performance. That's how good he is.

 


tv 2018

This is not a list of all the shows I watched this year. But I wrote about them, so they had some impact on me. I'll have another post or two about the current state of TV, but in the meantime.

A+ (the best show on TV):

The Americans. "The Americans sits out there, waiting to be discovered by bingers. The family on The Americans is on the wrong side of history, and we know that (it takes place during the Reagan years, and the spies, as true believers, don't know that they are going to lose). We care about them ... they are the center of the show. They are the 'bad guys', yet we root for them. And they do despicable things in the name of Mother Russia. It is one of the handful of best TV series of all time. You should watch it."

A (never missed them, in real time):

Atlanta. "It seems to be about a young black man in Atlanta, trying to make his way, his cousin who deals weed and raps, and their odd friend. It is that, but it is also simultaneously a comedy and a gripping drama. Calling it a 'dramedy' would insult what Donald Glover is doing. Atlanta oftens feels quite real, but it slides effortlessly into the surreal. One episode was so unique, I actually did get around to writing about it: 'Teddy Perkins'."

Killing Eve. "Jodie Comer is remarkable. She doesn't fall back on easy representations of a psychopath ... she reminds me of Sydney Greenstreet's Gutman describing Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon: 'By Gad, sir, you are a character. There's never any telling what you'll say or do next, except that it's bound to be something astonishing.' Comer has made Villanelle into the most fascinating character on TV. (Meanwhile, Sandra Oh is killing it as Eve.)"

A- (Flawed, but favorites, esp. The 100 and Sense8):

The 100. "Rothenberg has solved the problem of a series running too long by effectively rebooting it, not by making the show again in 20 years, but by drastically changing things now so that nothing can be the same. And yet ... I remain wary when something good happens. I fear that these oh-so-human characters will repeat past mistakes. I'll need to see it before I believe it. I can't wait for Season Six."

The Deuce. "The Deuce is a largely downbeat show ... I was going to say depressing, but I'm not sure that's the right word, so choose whichever you prefer. The best characters on The Deuce (and by 'best' I mean the most finely drawn, not just 'good guys') aspire to a better place in the world. The reason the show is depressing is that it is rare anyone actually gets to that better place. Part of this comes from our knowledge of where things are headed historically. The first season began in 1971, the second in 1977, and the third will be sometime in the 80s."

GLOW. I wrote about this show after Season One. Didn't get around to writing about Season Two, but it was better in almost every way. You should be watching this show.

Humans. "I like it at least as much as ever, perhaps more. The longer the show runs, the deeper its take on humans and machines and society gets, the more I can accept that it is its own show. Humans is not mundane, and if it deals in standard concepts, it does well with them."

Outlander. "Claire's perspective is foregrounded. Just to speak of sex (there is a lot of it in Outlander), Jamie is as much the eye candy as is Claire, and the love scenes between the two are not just highly erotic, but equal in a way you don't often see today. It doesn't hurt that stars Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan have an incredible chemistry. Both are perfectly cast for their characters, but it's as a couple that they truly shine."

Sense8. Returned from the dead for a series finale after the show had been cancelled. It was a love letter to the show's fans. I honestly can't remember how the byzantine plot resolved itself, if it ever did, but then, the plot was the least impressive thing about Sense8, which really was a show you couldn't describe, you just had to watch it. I'm not sure if any show of recent vintage extracted more overwhelming emotions from me as Sense8. I wish I'd never seen it, so I could binge it for the first time.

Vida. "Vida doesn't just pay lip-service to diversity. It's about two Mexican-American sisters in East LA. It's about class and about gentrification. It's about gender, it's about grief ... it is all of these things and more, but they are all in service to the story, rather than the other way around."

Honorable Mention (I watched 'em, I liked 'em):

Counterpart. "J.K. Simmons is the best reason to watch. It's surprising that I like it ... honestly, I'm not sure how much I like it, because the plot (involving parallel worlds) is hard for me to follow, and my patience with such things is weakening." (This was written before the Season 2 premiere, which I am looking forward to.)

Homecoming. Based on a podcast, with an excellent star performance from Julia Roberts in her debut as a TV regular. But the person whose presence was most felt was Sam Esmail of Mr. Robot, who directed every episode.

The Looming Tower. "It stuck closely enough to the facts to feel real, it was fairly clear in presenting the byzantine plot, and it mostly avoided kissing the ass of the FBI or CIA. If it sounds good to you, you'll probably like it ... it delivers. I wouldn't say it was great, though."

Shameless. "Season 9 has too much Frank, as have too many recent seasons. Meanwhile, it seems like the writers no longer know what to do with Fiona. I don't blame Rossum for announcing she is leaving the show. I'm still sticking with it, at least until Rossum is gone, but it's a pale shadow of what it used to be."

Can't Go Without Listing Them (I watched them, I liked them, if not quite as much as what appears above):

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Altered Carbon
Electric Dreams
Sharp Objects
Timeless


season finales and premieres: the deuce and outlander

Two of television's best series took important steps Sunday, with The Deuce concluding the second of its three seasons on HBO and Outlander beginning its fourth of at least six on Starz.

David Simon is fated to have everything he does compared to The Wire, and one of the wonders of his career is that his subsequent work belongs in the same room with that classic. He often uses actors multiple times, which increases the chances you'll think of The Wire. The Deuce features Gbenga Akinnagbe (Chris Partlow on The Wire), Chris Bauer (Frank Sobotka), Lawrence Gilliard Jr. (DeAngelo Barksdale), Method Man (Cheese), and Anwan Glover (Slim Charles). Many have noted that The Deuce is more like Simon's Treme than it is like The Wire ... all of the series feature large casts with plenty of characters to keep track of, but where The Wire had unifying themes for each season as well as for the series as a whole, Treme and The Deuce are more scattered. The characters' evolution is more important in the latter two than is a plot that keeps your attention over seasons. Me, I think The Wire is the best series ever, but I also loved Treme. The Deuce is a largely downbeat show ... I was going to say depressing, but I'm not sure that's the right word, so choose whichever you prefer. The best characters on The Deuce (and by "best" I mean the most finely drawn, not just "good guys") aspire to a better place in the world. The reason the show is depressing is that it is rare anyone actually gets to that better place. Part of this comes from our knowledge of where things are headed historically. The first season began in 1971, the second in 1977, and the third will be sometime in the 80s. The series relates the story of the emergence of the "Golden Age" of porn, focusing in particular on Eileen "Candy" Merrell (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a prostitute who first sees porn as a safer alternative to a life on the streets, and then sees opportunities to better herself by moving into directing films. Nothing goes easy for Eileen (or for anyone else, especially with the Mob getting its fingers in everything), but by the end of Season Two, she can envisage a future as a money-making director, having released a hit porn film. What we know and she doesn't is that the Internet is coming, making a lot of those hoped-for profits into something less than that.

Outside of Gyllenhaal, the biggest name in the cast is James Franco, playing twin brothers. But The Deuce revolves far more around its women characters than its men. In most cases, those women's lives are tied in unfortunate ways with men, most obviously in the relationship between pimp and whore. But The Deuce takes care to present this from the perspective of the women, and it makes a difference. And we really want the women to free themselves from their circumstances, which is why their failure to do so seems so heartbreaking.

Here is a scene of Eileen and Lori (Emily Meade), a prostitute with pimp problems that Eileen wants to cast as the lead in her porn version of Little Red Riding Hood:

Meade is a real standout on the show, but also deserving special mention are Dominique Fishback, Gbenga Akinnagbe, and Margarita Levieva.

Outlander is based on a series of historical romance novels by Diana Gabaldon, although "historical romance" somewhat limits what is actually going on in the books, which importantly involve time-travel. When the series begins, the primary eras are England in 1946 and Scotland in 1743 (don't hold me to any of these dates). Claire is the Englishwoman ... Jamie is the Scotsman. I had never really thought about the question "why time travel?", and Gabaldon's explanation is fascinating and makes perfect sense:

I had meant OUTLANDER to be a straight historical novel; but when I introduced Claire (around the third day of writing–it was the scene where she meets Dougal and the others in the cottage), she wouldn’t cooperate. Dougal asked her who she was, and without my stopping to think who she should be, she drew herself up, stared belligerently at him and said “Claire Elizabeth Beauchamp. And who the hell are you?” She promptly took over the story and began telling it herself, making smart-ass modern remarks about everything. At which point I shrugged and said, “Fine. Nobody’s ever going to see this book, so it doesn’t matter what bizarre thing I do—go ahead and be modern, and I’ll figure out how you got there later.” So the time-travel was all her fault.

There is more to this anecdote than just explaining how time-travel worked its way into the plot. It is crucial that Claire takes over the story. On the series (I have only read half of the first novel, so I'm going on TV), Claire's perspective is foregrounded. Just to speak of sex (there is a lot of it in Outlander), Jamie is as much the eye candy as is Claire, and the love scenes between the two are not just highly erotic, but equal in a way you don't often see today. It doesn't hurt that stars Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan have an incredible chemistry. Both are perfectly cast for their characters, but it's as a couple that they truly shine. Simply put, without Balfe and Heughan working together, Outlander would be nowhere as good as it is. (Also, Tobias Menzies, who plays two roles, is horrifyingly awful as the bad one of the pair.)

The excellence of the show lies in good part on the source material ... without Gabaldon's novels, there is no series. But it's more than that, and I have no idea who to credit for the show, other than to mention that when Ronald D. Moore develops a show, I am always going to give it a shot.

 


still in the mood for love (anthony bourdain edition)

I revisited In the Mood for Love after watching an episode of the late Anthony Bourdain's series, Parts Unknown. I watched Bourdain at the encouragement of a friend who had asked me to do so earlier this year when Bourdain died. He specifically suggested the Hong Kong episode, and I finally got around to it. I get recommendations from people all the time, and sometimes it takes me forever to get to them ... a couple of weeks ago I watched a DVD someone had given me a few years ago, for the first time. It takes forever ... but I keep track, and I do get to them eventually. (Hint: the comments section is always a good place to make requests.)

I know very little about Anthony Bourdain. I know he died. I know he was partners with Asia Argento. What I know of his work comes completely from when he wrote for Treme. I also knew nothing of the series Parts Unknown. Honestly, I thought it would be a food show and nothing more.

Well, it was great. And when it began, and I heard music that sounded a lot like In the Mood for Love, I was instantly happy. Then I found out Christopher Doyle, long-time collaborator with Wong Kar-Wai and the co-cinematographer for In the Mood for Love, is in the episode. Watching Doyle, I couldn't believe I'd never encountered him anywhere but behind the camera, so to speak. I love his work, and left it at that. To find out he is such a character fascinated me. Of course, I had to look him up, and found that he is famously rambunctious. I felt at times that I was watching a camera-toting Keith Richards, and liked finding out that he has called himself the Keith Richards of cinematographers. Like I say, I can't believe it took me this long to learn about him as a person.

There are things I don't think I quite get, given I am coming to Parts Unknown cold. It was a bit creepy knowing this was the last episode shown before he died. It was also creepy knowing Asia Argento directed it, given her own recent problems. I guess I'm lucky I found it, since apparently CNN removed her episodes from their streaming site.

I often think, when watching food or travel shows, that I wish I was adventurous. I don't like to travel to unfamiliar places, and my taste in food is notoriously narrow. Seeing Bourdain wandering around HK and eating any damn thing they put in front of him reminds me of how limited I am.

I admit, this didn't make me want to immediately watch more of the episodes of the show, but it did make me want to watch In the Mood for Love yet again. That film was #38 on my Fifty Favorites list of a few years ago. At the time, I wrote:
In the Mood for Love is a perfect title for this movie. The two main characters are most definitely in the mood; they also don't ever get beyond being in the mood. Repressed emotions have rarely been so charged as they are here. While on one level, "nothing really happens," Wong Kar-wai does a great job of making us anticipate what is about to happen. Of course, our expectations go unfulfilled.

This time around, I think I better appreciated why some people wouldn't love the film as much as I do. The haunting waltz that is played throughout the film might simply seem repetitious, and those unfulfilled expectations might just be irritating. Not for me, I must add. As beautiful as the film is to look at, it takes an extra leap because of its stars. As I once said, "The plot, whereby a man and woman discover that their respective spouses are having an affair, isn’t particularly far-fetched. But they are played by Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Maggie Cheung, two of the best-looking actors in the world, and you can’t help wondering why anyone lucky enough to be married to them would have a roving eye." Ultimately, I'm not sure In the Mood for Love felt different when seen partly through the filter of the Bourdain show. But the two make a perfect, if tragic, pairing.

Here is an interesting video essay on the movie from "Nerdwriter1":


dan quayle was right

I wrote this in 1992. It was the first quasi-academic piece I ever published. Because of the title, it was linked to by a few right-wing sites, who likely didn't read the article but just agreed with the title. I'm reposting it here because Murphy Brown has been rebooted. I've included the entire text, because the site that holds it (Bad Subjects) has been flaky of late.

Dan Quayle Was Right

"Few contemporary forms of storytelling offer territory as fertile as television for unearthing changing public ideas about family.... The shared experience of tele-history has become one of the major ways in which we locate ourselves in time, place, and generation, and at the heart of that history lies television's obsession — the family."
— Ella Taylor, "TV Families: Three Generations of Packaged Dreams"

Dan Quayle doesn't think Murphy Brown sets a good example for the people of America. It seems that Dan decided, without actually watching any of the programs in question, that Murphy's decision to have a baby out of wedlock represented the crumbling of traditional American family values under the corrupt influence of the liberal entertainment industry in Hollywood. "It doesn't help matters," commented Dan, "when prime-time TV has Murphy Brown — a character who supposedly epitomizes today's intelligent, highly paid, professional woman — mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone and calling it just another 'lifestyle choice'." It is unclear how much more damage could be done to the image of the American family after decades of watching such exemplary leaders as the Kennedys and the Reagans collapse across our front pages, but Dan apparently sees the popular culture of the 1990s as significantly more dangerous than the J(G)ennifers of George and Bill.

When I first heard Quayle's attack on "Murphy Brown," I wasn't surprised to find that Dan had never actually watched the show. His reading of the program's subtexts was so different from my own that we might have been watching different programs, and in a sense we were, since I was paying homage to the "text," watching the program on my teevee while Dan was "watching" the program in its broader cultural "context." Nor was I surprised when the "liberal media" rose up in arms against Dan's attack. The Veep has never been a favorite of theirs, anyway, and now he was vilifying their product in a most obvious way. What did surprise me, though in retrospect I'm not sure why, is the direction their response took. The general argument that arose against Dan Quayle's read on Murphy Brown went something like this: Dan Quayle is a moron because he thinks a teevee show has something to say about ourselves and our culture.

Master ironist Dave Letterman echoed the refrain of the media when he stuck his face a few inches from the camera on his Late Night show and yelled out, "Dan! It's a TELEVISION SHOW!" There seemed to be a general agreement amongst the "liberals" in Hollywood and the media in general that this time, the Vice-President had really flipped his wig. He couldn't tell the difference between real life and television ... imagine that! He had the cockeyed notion that a program watched by tens of millions of Americans every week might actually illuminate our culture, and for this he became, once again, the butt of our national jokes. But, in a warped way, Dan Quayle was right. Or rather, he was right where people thought he was wrong, for Murphy Brown is important. Dan's sense that sitcom values are markedly different from his own was a bit misguided, and the simplistic nature of his attacks belie the complexity of the relationship between the producers and consumers of popular culture, but his belief that our popular culture reflects the values of the culture as a whole is absolutely correct.

What seems most ironic about the faux-battle being waged between Quayle and the entertainment industry is that, whether they admit it or not, they are on the same side. Perhaps it is to be expected in a country where the moderately conservative presidential candidate attacks the conservatively moderate candidate for being too "liberal," but the difference between the positions of Mr. Quayle and the folks at Murphy Brown are barely significant. In the absence of real choice in the U.S. election of 1992, this minor tiff between the "cultural elite" and the actual "elite" is blown out of proportion, effectively burying the deadly, boring sameness of the major parties under a pseudo-war of massive unimportance.

If Dan Quayle had deigned to watch the 1991-2 season of Murphy Brown, he would have seen a tale of a pregnant woman who decided against having an abortion (never has a show been so proud of itself for what it didn't do: we had to hear endless paeans to the greatness of Murphy Brown because they allowed Murphy to choose, as if CBS wasn't still thinking about the uproar in the 70s when Maude actually DID have an abortion ... surrrrrre Murphy had a choice). She has the baby; don't you think Dan would have been pleased? Unfortunately, Dan was too busy to watch any of the episodes in question, and so he was stuck on the absence of a father in the new baby's life, and was unable to appreciate the importance the newborn Brown had in Murphy's life.

In any event, Dan Quayle was obsessing about fathers and children, and so could perhaps be excused for missing the underlying point of Murphy's motherhood. However, Mrs. Dan, Marilyn Quayle, might have been sneaking a peek at the teevee screen when CBS aired that classic season-ending, ratings-bonanza episode of Murphy Brown where Murph actually has the damn baby. At the Republican convention Marilyn spoke about the "essential nature of women," and echoed Murphy, sitting up in her hospital bed at the end of another profitable teevee season, holding her baby in her arms and singing "you make me feel like a natural woman." Essential nature, indeed. The viewer is left to decide on their own whether Murphy influenced Marilyn or vice versa.

What is dangerous about the Quayles, from the perspective of the entertainment industry, is that they suggest that a sitcom warrants our critical attention. Granted, the level of critical thinking practiced by Dan and Marilyn is pretty rudimentary, but in positing Murphy Brown as relevant, Dan and the missus are perilously close to those members of the "cultural elite" who hang out in universities, wasting taxpayers' money studying "TV Families: Three Generations of Packaged Dreams." What is worse, the Quayles take their opinions straight to the masses. No ivory tower for old Dan; he goes right on the evil Teevee itself to trumpet his message of shattered family values.

And in this Dan Quayle is right, and so is Pat Buchanan, for there most certainly is a cultural war going on. Has been for years. Where Dan and Pat go wrong is in their assumption that Hollywood and the "liberal media" are on the other side. This is nonsense. If Murphy Brown were really anti-family values, her sitcom might look something like a John Waters movie circa Pink Flamingos: just imagine Murphy chowing down on the baby's placenta while Eldon made a sandwich of baby poo and saliva. (Although, now that I think about it, a case can also be made that a certain type of family values are at work even in John Waters' early work.) The world of Murphy Brown is a world where imaginary choices are touted as the real thing, where an independent woman finds her essential nature in bearing a child, where controversy is exploited for the ratings it engenders. It is a world remarkably like the world of a presidential election in the United States in 1992: mock choices and "natural women," with one eye always cocked on the latest polls.

No one wants to question the notion of family values. Everyone just wants to prove they have them, whatever they are. The Republicans believe in family values. The Democrats respond by saying the Republicans don't really believe in family values; if you want a true "big tent" come to the Democrats, who know what family really is. Meanwhile, on teevee, Murphy Brown finds her true self in the wonders of childbirth. These people are all cavorting in the same playground, and a playground is what it is, a place where everyone has "fun" and no one questions whether or not a playground is appropriate.

It is indeed a tangled web of which we speak, where Dan Quayle is mocked for critiquing popular culture, where said culture is nowhere near as dangerous to Dan and his cohorts as they would suggest, and where any real and legitimate discussion of the values promoted by Murphy Brown and their ultimate similarity to the "family values" of the Republican and Democratic parties is almost entirely missing. Quayle gets pilloried for attempting what cultural studies scholars attempt every day: critiquing contemporary culture. That his "critique" is wrongheaded is not news; that he dares to critique at all is the issue. The uproar over the importance of culture overshadows the very real similarities between the world views of Murphy Brown and the mainstream political parties in the United States. The Republicans attack Hillary for being anti-family, Hillary touts her own work in behalf of children, while Murphy Brown sings "Natural Woman" to her baby, echoing Marilyn Quayle's bizarre notions from the Republican convention. The Republicans and the Democrats fight for votes, CBS fights for ratings, but it's all part of the selling of the mainstream.

Thus, we shouldn't be too surprised to discover that Dan Quayle did promo spots for Murphy Brown. Seems Dan was giving an interview to a local teevee station in L.A. that had just begun showing Murphy Brown reruns. After the interview was over, Dan agreed to tape a couple of spots advertising the reruns of his "favorite show ... NOT!" For a few seconds, the symbiotic relationship between the "liberal media" and Dan Quayle was laid bare; then Dan went back to stumping on family values, and Murphy Brown writers went back to creating ever more tart putdowns of the Veep for the ratings-bonanza season opener for 1992.

Postscript:Murphy Brown did indeed take on Dan Quayle in the 1992-3 season opener. Midway through a special hour-long episode that had until that time dealt mainly in standard sitcom humor revolving around a new baby in the house, Dan Quayle appeared on Murphy-the-character's teevee screen as we, the viewing audience, watched Murphy-the-program on our teevee screens. Quayle once more spouted the sacrilegious remarks about "Murphy Brown." Murphy-the-character tried to avoid the ensuing controversy, while reporters (actually actors) camped out at her house and George Bush (actually George Bush) made a Murphy joke on Murphy-the-character's teevee. Murphy-the-character finally went on her own fictional teevee show, "FYI," to respond to the Vice-President's "real" remarks, capping her speech by introducing some "real," not-quite-traditional families ("real" people, not actors). The following day, the "real" Associated Press sent the text of the "fictional" Murphy's speech across their newswire for subsequent quoting in papers across the country. Though Dan Quayle was ridiculed for "confusing" fiction and reality, "Murphy Brown" won kudos for doing the same.

The ratings were very good. Sponsors paid $310,000 for one 30-second spot. Dan Quayle watched the program at long last, and stated afterwards that it was "basically another Hollywood contribution" to Bill Clinton's campaign. Dan was right once again.