television 2023

Another topic where I used to write a ton, but don't get around to it much any longer. I still watch TV, although movies seem to have overtaken television as my go-to escape route. Here are a few shows I've watched in 2023. First, shows where I've at least watched enough episodes to mention here:

The Bear. Excellent show, breakout performance from Ayo Edibiri. Loved Season One, am still behind on Season Two episodes.

Justified: City Primeval. Watched a few episodes of this new sequel-of-sorts to one of our favorite shows. Liked them, too. But like a lot of television these days, we're still many episodes behind.

The Night Agent. Watch this with my wife. We like it. But we're still (get ready for it) a couple of episodes away from finishing the season.

There are still a few shows I am hooked on.

Fargo. Season Five is another good one. Jon Hamm makes a good bad guy, Jennifer Jason Leigh chews the scenery, and Juno Temple is the best.

House of the Dragon. "Hooked" might be going too far, but my wife likes it.

The Last of Us. An actual example of what used to be called Peak TV.

Outlander. Still with it, through (so far) 83 episodes.

Poker Face. A triumph for Natasha Lyonne, we have kept up fully with this modern-day Columbo.

Slow Horses. Gary Oldman is the leader of a fine group of actors/characters.

Welcome to Wrexham. One of the few shows I've actually written about here.

And my current favorite show, now near the end of Season Four:

For All Mankind. It is not an accident that two of these shows have the name Ronald D. Moore attached.

film fatales #166: the pale horse (leonora lonsdale, 2020)

This is the twenty-ninth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2022-23", "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 8th annual challenge, and my fourth time participating (my first year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", the second year at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21", and last year at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2021-22"). Week 29 is called "Cinema of Christie Week":

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film adapted from a work by Agatha Christie.

I'm not sure how I ended up fulfilling this week's challenge with The Pale Horse, which isn't actually a movie at all, but is rather a two-part BBC mini-series. It must have been on the above-mentioned Agatha Christie list, but it's not there any longer.

Leonora Lonsdale is the director, but the project was led by writer Sarah Phelps. This was her fifth Christie adaptation for the BBC. I can't speak to the comparison between the Christie novel and this series, but it appears Phelps gave us a fairly loose adaptation. The story is tricky in mostly good ways, keeping the audience a half-step of the plot twists. There is a suggestion of the supernatural that both seemed out of place and worked to take us out of the same-old same-old of an ordinary Christie tale.

Rufus Sewell effectively carries the series as an upper-class antique dealer, Mark Easterbrook, who isn't everything he seems to be. Christie/Phelps keeps us wondering if Mark is a good guy or a bad guy by keeping his character both shady and somewhat appealing. On the one hand, I imagine Christie fans will welcome any version of one of the novels, while those who lean towards a more hardboiled approach might be impatient. On the other hand, perhaps the changes Phelps devises would turn off the fans. As I say, I don't know the book so I can't say how much Phelps deviates from the original.

The Pale Horse is a decent time-filler, but I wasn't overwhelmed.

welcome to wrexham

I told this story two years ago, and I'm going to cut-and-paste from that post, with a new introduction.

Tomorrow, a new docuseries begins on the FX Network, Welcome to Wrexham:

Lifelong fans of the Wrexham team are surely astonished at the change in fortunes for their team. I am a piker ... never even been to Wales, only heard of Wrexham back in the 90s, but it's safe to say I find it mindboggling that this television series exists.

Here is that original post:

Wrexham A.F.C. are a Welsh soccer club that plays in the English soccer system. They are not a big club ... they currently play in the fifth level of the English system ... but they are an old club, the third-oldest in the world.

In the buildup to the 1994 World Cup in the USA, I read a book called Twenty Two Foreigners in Funny Shorts by Pete Davies.

22 foreigners in funny shorts

It was written for the American market, a way to introduce us to the world's game. Davies broke his story into three basic parts: a history of the sport, and two ongoing sagas, one of European soccer at the time, and one of his local club. He wanted the reader to get a sense of the scope of soccer, from the top to the bottom, so he included that local club, which was in the fourth tier, telling the events of the 1992-1993 season, which saw the club winning promotion to the third tier. That club was Wrexham.

In those days, there wasn't much soccer on U.S. TV after the World Cup had ended, and the Internet as we now know it was a much smaller affair. So it was hard to keep up ... our own league, MLS, didn't start until 1996. I did my best on the old CompuServe sports forum, and because they were as available to me as the biggest clubs in Europe, all things considered, I adopted Wrexham, feeling I knew the players after reading Davies' book. I asked around, and a man named Rhys Gwynllyw was kind enough to update me on Wrexham (he later founded The Webbed Robin, and I believe he is now a Math Professor). I started an email list with his help. Here is something Gareth Collins wrote about that list in 2018:

"Rhys and Steven were the Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin's of their time. I can still remember being totally overjoyed when I first came across The Webbed Robin, I seem to remember Rhys used to type up (or perhaps OCR?) Wrexham news articles from the Evening Leader and Daily Post that I think his Dad used to mail him. This is in the days before either of those publications had a web site. So if you lived say 100 miles from Wrexham at that time you'd get no detailed news and would have to rely on 2 sentences on Teletext. The Webbed Robin was amazing in its day. Tons of detailed match reports and detailed news stories all lovingly curated. The Webbed Robin and the ISFA e-mail list were like going from the stone age to the electric age in one massive leap for fan-kind."

I have followed Wrexham from afar for more than 25 years now. Saw them on TV a couple of times, and these days, even small clubs have an Internet presence, so I can watch highlights and interviews of them.

The most famous match in Wrexham history is probably their FA Cup match against Arsenal in 1992. The previous season, Arsenal had won the championship, while Wrexham finished last in the lowest division. The match was sure to be a blowout.

for all mankind

This is the TV series, not the fine 1989 documentary film. Season Three just ended, and I finally caught up, watching all three seasons over the course of a month or so. I'd skipped it before ... no reason, just too much to watch. But critics have come around on it (the Metascores are 65 for S1, 75 for S2, and 84 for S3), and it's co-created by my fave Ronald D. Moore of Battlestar Galactica and Outlander fame ( the other creators are Matt Wolpert and Ben Nedivi, with Maril Davis as executive producer). It's on Apple TV+. I knew I'd get around to it ... I didn't know how much I would love it.

Do I need spoiler alerts for a show that already has three seasons and thirty episodes? It's no real spoiler to say that For All Mankind is an alternate-history sci-fi drama, but once I get into the alternate in that history, I'm giving things away. The story begins in 1969, as the USA and USSR race to be the first to land a human on the moon. The initial trailer gives away the biggest alternate that sets off the story, and I've given you all the warning you're going to get, since I can't believe anyone reading this doesn't already know: the Soviets get to the moon first.

Many of the subsequent alternates to our own history are interesting, but if alt-history was all the show offered, it wouldn't be much to watch. Some vague non-spoilers: people from our world live or die at different times than in "real life", and politics are different (Nixon is President when the show begins, Reagan gets two terms, Clinton runs as the Democratic nominee in 1992, but other presidents differ from our own). One thing I wish were different ... in the For All Mankind universe, Kirk Gibson still hits that homer against Dennis Eckersley.

The narrative is driven by the show's alt-history, and it spans a long period (the season that just ended finished in 2003). But what makes For All Mankind more than just another sci-fi show is the characters, how they are written and how they are portrayed by an excellent cast. A few of the characters are real people, especially people from the space program: Deke Slayton, Wernher von Braun, Gene Kranz. Some of the astronauts have parts that amount to cameos ... people like Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin and John Glenn are portrayed by actors. And the show effectively uses archive footage (and what appears to be some excellent voice mimics) to work the likes of Nixon and Reagan and Clinton and even John Lennon into the mix. The main characters are played by a lot of "that guys" you will recognize, people like Joel Kinnaman, Michael Dorman, Jodi Balfour, Sonya Walger, and Wrenn Schmidt. Everyone does a stellar job ... it took me almost three seasons to realize this, I just accepted the actors as their characters, and it took watching Dorman in Patriot for me to understand these folks were acting.

For All Mankind isn't perfect, although a lot of the problems come from overambition. Just the fact that they have gone forward almost 35 years in three seasons leads to some unfortunate messes ... the aging makeup on the actors isn't always believable, and too many characters are left without the slow, contextual buildup that would help us understand their actions. But ultimately, the worst part about the Season 3 finale is that I have to wait a year to watch Season 4. The perils of binging.

music friday: tom snyder

Tom Snyder had a long career in radio and television, and is best known for his late-night talk shows. His presence was eccentric enough that Dan Ackroyd made it one of his SNL impressions.

During the punk/new wave era, Snyder had a lot of great musical guests. Everyone from John Lennon to John Lydon to KISS. He loved Wendy O. Williams and the Plasmatics. Ramones, the Clash, Iggy, Elvis Costello, Patti Smith, he had them all. He never pretended to be anything other than what he was, a middle-aged media personality. But he treated his guests with respect (as long as they didn't throw shit back at him), and it was pretty refreshing at the time. Here is a show from 1978 that includes Joan Jett and Paul Weller, as well as Kim Fowley, Bill Graham, and Robert Hilburn.

Snyder died on this date in 2007 at the age of 71.

gentleman jack

A couple of years ago, I wrote of the first season of Gentleman Jack, "Gentleman Jack is a based-on-fact historical drama set in England in the 1830s. 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." The second season was delayed due to COVID, and now that it has finished, HBO has announced it won't return for a third season. I don't think the creators knew this year was the end, and in fact, Sally Wainwright has suggested another season might turn up somewhere else.

In the meantime, the things that made the first season enjoyable were still present in Season Two. Suranne Jones climbs back into the title role of Anne Lister ... it's still the only thing I've seen her in, so it's hard to imagine what she's like in other movies, although she is a fine and funny guest on talk shows. She's not the only standout ... Sophie Rundle is her match as Lister's wife, and the two have an excellent on-screen rapport. Gemmas Whelan and Jones are also regulars. This isn't quite as dark as Sally Wainwright's Happy Valley, but not many shows are. Wainwright also gave us To Walk Invisible, about the Brontës, and it was also quite good. Wainwright is always worth checking out. In a time when there are so few "appointment" TV series due to streaming, we managed to almost keep up with the broadcast schedule for Gentleman Jack, which is something (it's also one of the few series my wife and I both enjoy). If this is indeed the end, the season finale works as a series finale as well.

4k tv

This is a piss poor representation, but as we watched out first show on our new 4K TV, my wife took a picture with her phone of the picture on the screen:

4k tv

Not much here on the page, but in reality, the picture was so good it was distracting.

better things series finale

Pamela Adlon created a miracle. Semi-autobiographical, which is no guarantee of success. She had to deal with the flak from the early involvement of Louis C.K., which mostly just meant she threw herself into the show even more than before, directing everything, while of course also starring and often writing. She gave us a believable family of mom, three daughters, and grandmother where each character was distinctive. She blended funny and dramatic seamlessly.

I think one example of how well Adlon made the show work is the three daughters. They don't really look related, nor do they look related to Adlon. Yet, thanks to the writing and the acting, they are exactly what you'd expect three sisters to be like. There are no false moments with those three. It's easy to just cast actors that look alike, but to build characters that are real and, to say that word again, believable is v.hard. Adlon did it episode after episode, season after season.

At the end, she said something important: don't feel sad that the show is finished, feel glad that now you can watch every episode on Hulu whenever you want.