The Individual Versus The Arc

TV has changed a lot since the three-network days of my youth. One of the more significant changes involves the basic concept of what you are trying to accomplish with a TV series. In those days, every series (that I can think of, at least) consisted of disconnected individual episodes, and what happened in one episode wouldn’t affect future episodes unless the producers decided to bring on a new character at the start of a season. Every episode began and ended with the Cartwrights back at the Ponderosa, or the Bunkers at their tidy house at 704 Houser Street in Queens, or Kirk, Bones, and Spock on the command deck of the Enterprise.

Now, many series focus not on individual episodes, but on broad season-long story arcs. Episodes may tell an individual tale within that overall framework, but each episode also must have at least some elements that advance the general seasonal story line. I’m not quite sure when the arc concept took hold, but it’s been here for a while.

Here’s the issue: the arc approach is wholly dependent on the quality of that overall story line for the season. If that story line is compelling and the individual episodes help to fulfill its promise, the show can be great. If the seasonal plot is stupid or annoying, on the other hand, each episode is yoked to that failure and weighed down by it. I was thinking of this very basic point as I watched two of the most recent Star Trek offerings. Star Trek: Picard follows the arc concept, and Star Trek: Strange New Worlds doesn’t.

In my view, Picard exposes the intrinsic weakness of the arc concept: in both seasons, the seasonal story line just has not justified multiple episodes in the telling. As a result, the show has felt bloated and self-indulgent and overly impressed with the supposed importance of its message. I’ve watched it, because I’ll watch pretty much any Star Trek offering, but it really sets my teeth on edge.

On the other hand, Strange New Worlds is freed from the heavy messaging that has made Picard such a leaden exercise. To be sure, there are some general character points being illustrated, such as Captain Pike’s (apparent) awareness of his own future fate, but each episodes stands on its own. As a result, the show has a kind of liberated, old-school feel to it that is much more in line with the original Star Trek series. Whereas watching Picard grind on to the end of season became a grueling chore, watching Strange New Worlds has been enjoyable and fun. (I say this even though I groaned, initially, at yet another show involving Spock and other familiar characters, like Uhura and Chapel, rather than exploring totally new ground, but the show’s creators and writers have dealt with that issue in an intriguing way that I’ll probably address at some point after I’ve watched a few more episodes.)

I’m not saying that the arc approach to a TV series is necessarily flawed or doomed to inevitable failure; shows like Better Call Saul would refute such an argument. I’m just saying that if you’re going to go with the arc approach, you’d better be darned sure that the story line is important and robust enough to carry the heavy burden of multiple episodes. Not every story line merits that kind of treatment, and when it doesn’t, the show suffers mightily for it. The individual episode approach, in contrast, has a kind of built-in protection against the clinker story line. There might be a lame episode here and there, but the next week the crew is back in their places and a new, and hopefully better, story is ready to be told.

Ozark Snark

This week we binged the last part of the last season of Ozark. The lure of finding out what happened to the Byrde family and what train wrecks (and, in this case, car wrecks) lay in their path was irresistible. Now we’ve done it, so we’ll have to get a bit snarky about it.

Warning: Ozark Spoilers Ahead

The last part of the last season of Ozark suffered from two problems that are common in successful “seemingly normal people behaving badly” shows. First, you have already killed off many of the good characters to keep injecting shockers into the show, until you get to the point where you are looking around, most of the interesting characters are gone, and you’ve got to figure out who the few remaining characters are going to interact with. That often means injecting less familiar, and almost always less interesting, new characters into the last season of the show. Second, the main characters who have been behaving badly have already experienced all of the plausible bad behaviors, so you’ve got to push the envelope into implausibility territory–and the show becomes a bit ridiculous and suffers as a result.

Ozark experienced both of these problems. By the end of the last season Buddy and the original Langmore crew are long dead, Wendy’s brother is dead, Helen Pierce is dead, the Snells are dead, Wyatt is dead, and so are countless others. That left the Byrdes, Ruth, the cartel lords, and the pesky private investigator. There really wasn’t anyone left for Ruth to scheme with, which is why the long-departed Rachel character had to be lured back from Florida to promptly (and implausibly) become Ruth’s stalwart partner in sticking it to the Byrdes. That’s why Wendy’s Dad, the new necessary Wendy foil, suddenly became a key figure, too. And once nephew drug lord got killed, the show had to promptly introduce mother/sister drug lord and make her (implausibly) even more cold-blooded, murderous, and connected to the Mexican drug culture and assassination cult than her son. A key indicator that Ozark had killed off too many of the good characters was that Ruth ended up having daydreams about talking to Wyatt and seeing the other Langmores again.

And the last season of Ozark had the implausibility problem in spades. It wasn’t just the new and revived characters I’ve mentioned above, it was the plot lines. I’ve written before about how the Byrdes set new standards in crappy parenting, but the last few shows made even the Byrdes prior parenting efforts seem credible by comparison. We’re supposed to swallow Marty the ace accountant going down to Mexico to act as the head of the cartel, and all of the hardened criminal lieutenants are going to fall in line? Wendy’s Dad is going to get a custody hearing set in three days? The Byrdes and their string-pulling buddies are going to be able to change extradition status and get the FBI to do whatever they suggest whenever they make a phone call? The Byrdes get into a high speed, rollover car crash and everyone walks away without a scratch? And the high rollers and kingpins of the Midwest are all going to gladly contribute to a charity headed by people who’ve just been arrested for assault and have the sketchiest imaginable background? And, perhaps most implausibly of all, none of the countless criminals the Byrds had screwed would ever go over to their hopelessly insecure house and gun down the entire family, just to be done with them?

I accepted these issues and enjoyed watching Ozark through to the end, notwithstanding these issues, just to finally seeing what happened to the Byrdes. My only complaint is that the execrable Wendy, one of the most annoying and truly despicable characters in the history of television, wasn’t killed off in some extremely painful way that included impaling her through those dimples she always showed during one of her creepy charm offensives. Seeing her on her knees about losing her kids and checking herself into a mental institution wasn’t enough for me. I wanted Marty or one of the kids to slug her when she said, as she did again and again, “we are so close” and then have her gutted, drowned, set on fire, dropped from an airplane, dragged behind one of those boats on the Lake of the Ozarks, and experience any other ultra-painful demise the show’s writers could think of.

Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. Perhaps the creators of the show wanted to leave open the possibility of a sequel, realizing that a considerable portion of the Ozark viewing audience hates Wendy Byrde with a burning passion and would gladly watch a new show in hopes of seeing her get her final comeuppance.

Pitiful Picard

I recently watched the second season of Star Trek: Picard. By the last episode I felt like Patrick Stewart looks in this photo from the show–slack-jawed, slightly befuddled, and dazed at just how crappy this show is.

The premise of the show was a little dubious to begin with. However old Jean-Luc Picard is, we know that Patrick Stewart is over 80. That means he’s not going to be out there duking it out with the Gorn or doing any of the other physical stunts and fistfights and dropkicks that Captain Kirk did in the original series. Picard’s advanced age wasn’t necessarily disqualifying, however, because he was the cerebral starship captain, the trained diplomat who understood that he couldn’t put his life and command at risk because he was curious about what might be found on an alien planet. Perhaps Picard would draw upon the diplomatic past, and give us a show about Jean-Luc negotiating a difficult treaty with a new alien species, or something that would be a little on the intellectual side?

Nah! The first season was a mess, and the second season was no better. And here is the problem: this is probably the most uncreative show in the Star Trek universe, and it is depressing, besides. It’s uncreative because the writers can’t resist bringing back characters from the past–like Data, and Riker, and counselor Troi and Seven of Nine in season one, and Q and the Borg and Guinan and a distant ancestor of Dr. Soong (Data) in season two. It makes you realize how liberating working on the original Star Trek must have been, where the writers and actors were working with a totally blank canvas and didn’t feel hamstrung by having to bring back tired old characters and plot lines.

And speaking of plot lines, Picard season two follows a too-traveled road of alternative history, where Picard and his band need to reverse some event that changed history. Of course, the new history is unrelentingly bleak, violent, and racist. But then, every plot line on Picard is pretty darned bleak. We learn of a terrible incident in Jean-Luc’s past that shaped his life that you’re likely to guess early on, but that takes forever to fully depict. (Silly me! I thought the Next Generation Picard was just a stiff-necked, duty bound, by the book captain who thought he would be better at his job if he didn’t pal around with the crew, and I kind of respected him for that.) But everyone on the show is struggling with some kind of depressing problem, whether it is Q, or Guinan, or Dr. Soong, or the astronaut who needs to get on her history-changing flight. It’s a downer, which is the exact opposite of what the Star Trek universe is supposed to be all about. The show is so grim that, when Picard is hit by a car at one point in season two, I kind of hoped that the poor old guy would be put out of his misery. Alas! It was just another excuse for a bit more psychoanalysis.

The original Star Trek promised to “go where no man has gone before.” How about living up to that promise for a change? How about forgetting the Borg, and Data, and Guinan, and trying to develop some totally new characters and concept, like Star Trek: Deep Space Nine once did? Regrettably, I’m not holding my breath.

Determining Kim’s Fate

We love the Kim Wexler character on Better Call Saul. She’s whip-smart, she’s a great lawyer, her heart is in the right place, she is about as loyal as you can be, and her ponytail is a nifty signature look. The main thing we don’t like about her character (aside from the fact that she has a dismal grasp of her lawyerly ethical obligations) is that she hasn’t recognized that Jimmy McGill is fatally flawed and that she would be much better off if she put her hair in that ponytail, packed her bags, and sprinted as far away from Alburquerque and Jimmy as she can get. Of course, that hasn’t happened.

One of the really interesting aspects of Better Call Saul is that it is a prequel. We therefore already know what happens to Saul in Breaking Bad, and we know what happens to Gustavo Fring and Mike, too. We even get occasional glimpses of Saul post-Breaking Bad, when he is in full hiding mode and working as the nebbishy manager of a cinnamon roll shop at a generic mall somewhere far from Albuquerque. But Kim, as well as some of the other Better Call Saul characters, didn’t show up in Breaking Bad. We already know what happened to several of them–including Jimmy’s brother–but the fate of Kim and her ponytail remains undetermined.

This creates a dynamic like you might see if you watched a car crash happen in slow motion. We know something bad is going to happen, we just don’t know what it is, and we can’t stop watching. And since this is the last season of Better Call Saul, we know that whatever is going to happen is going to happen soon. As a result, I feel like I should cover my face with my hands when I watch a new episode of the show, because there are only two choices for Kim: she gets killed as the inevitable result of Jimmy/Saul’s decision to become “a friend of the cartel,” or she finally wakes up after Jimmy takes another ill-considered wrong turn, recognizes that she has no future with this guy, and goes on to live a happy life somewhere else, where Jimmy can’t put her in danger any more. Either way, it’s not going to be pretty for Jimmy, and the loss of Kim helps to explain why he spiraled down into full Saul Goodman mode, with a gold toilet and the most garish, bad taste home decorations this side of Al Pacino’s mansion in Scarface.

Obviously, we hold out hope that Kim leaves and survives. I wonder if we’ll see a scene in the last episode where she meets up with Jimmy at that cinnamon bun shop, recognizes him–and then flatly rejects his attempt to get back together with her so salvage something from the miserable ruin he has made of his life.

Rewatching And Rereading

The new season of Better Call Saul is out. We watched the first two episodes of the new season and realized that we had lost track of many of the plot threads in the two years since the last episode of season five of the show was aired. We’d completely forgotten, for example, that Mike put himself in harm’s way with neighborhood thugs, got beat up, and then was sent to Mexico to recuperate (and, being Mike, fix a window), and we hadn’t recalled all of the nuances of the Mesa Verde/Tucumcari call center plot line, either.

Obviously, we needed to brush up on the BCS characters, so we are going back and rewatching the fifth season to be primed with all of the information needed to enjoy the sixth (and apparently last) season. We briefly toyed with the decision of whether we needed to go back two seasons, or even longer, to fully appreciate what the heck is going on, but decided one season should be sufficient.

This is not a new phenomenon. Whether it is TV shows or books, rewatching or rereading a series has become an increasingly common requirement. It didn’t use to be that way, of course; you could watch a new season of Mission Impossible, or Seinfeld, without remembering all of the different episodes from the season before. But with the complex, continuing plotlines that we see in current TV drama and books, rewatching and rereading has become essential, and you wonder if the creators and authors plan it that way. And of course, the very act of rewatching or rereading, knowing what is coming later, gives a different perspective on the characters and their activities. (Rewatching Better Call Saul, for example, makes me continuously shake my head in wonderment at how the savvy, hyper-cautious Gus and Mike ever got taken in by “Heisenberg” in the first place–or, more accurately, in the post-Better Call Saul world to come.)

The Mother of all rereadings will come if George R.R. Martin ever finishes the final two books in the Game of Thrones series. If that happens, I’ll probably have to go back to the first book and reread the whole series, just to make sure I’m fully up to speed on everything that is happening in Dorne or the Iron Islands or with the reanimated Lady Stoneheart. But I’m guessing I will enjoy every minute.

Hollyweird

I haven’t watched the Academy Awards broadcast in decades, so I didn’t see the slap incident involving Will Smith and Chris Rock that happened Sunday night. Of course, that incident ended up being the focus of news reports on the show–rather than who actually won the Oscars in the various categories–and has been a huge topic of discussion in opinion columns and on social media.

My primary reaction to the whole thing is that it’s another in a long line of illustrations of just how weird and awful the whole Hollywood culture really is. In any normal reality, no rational person would even consider marching up on stage during a television broadcast, striking a person across the face because of an offensive joke, and launching an f-bomb for the national viewing audience, but the entertainment industry isn’t a normal reality. Instead, it’s an otherworldly, toxic culture, a witches’ brew of countless sex scandals, substance abuse, philandering, cheating, colossal egos in constant search of recognition, cowardly failures to expose sexual predators, toadying, posing, lack of accountability, and just about every other negative quality you can identify.

In saying this, I’m not blaming the culture for what Will Smith did; he’s got to be responsible for that. Instead, I’m just making the observation that no one should be surprised by anything that happens in Hollywood these days, no matter how inappropriate or shameful. The messed-up culture is fertile, enabling ground for misconduct, and this incident won’t be the last example of it.

Chris Rock apparently handled the incident with incredible professionalism on Sunday night, which is the only thing that kept the matter from escalating still further. The entertainment industry should recognize that it is forever in his debt for that. Not many people would have been able to restrain themselves from responding in kind to a slap, and if Rock didn’t show enormous self-control we would have been treated to the unseemly spectacle of tuxedo-clad celebrities brawling on live TV. As for Will Smith, he’s now issued a public apology to Chris Rock, and the celebrity culture will undoubtedly promptly close ranks and say that the incident is behind us and it’s time to move on.

But for many of us, we’ll still wonder what on earth is wrong with these people–and we’ll be grateful that we aren’t part of their titanic weirdness.

Airports Without CNN

Airports changed during the pandemic. One change, of course, is the mask requirement, but there’s another significant one: the TV sets playing CNN Airport News at all times are gone from the gate seating areas.

This is truly a positive development. Every airport I’ve flown through on this trip—Columbus, Santa Ana, and Phoenix—is noticeably quieter without the constant background noise. And the reduced noise levels seem to have reduced the stress levels among the people in the gate area seats, too. Maybe being forced to listen to a barrage of news reports about bad things that are happening in the world just isn’t good for the traveler’s psyche.

The mask mandate will hopefully end soon—perhaps sooner than we thought possible just a few months ago—but I hope to never hear a CNN broadcast in an airport again. It really makes for a much more pleasant travel experience.

The Gilded Age

We’ve started watching The Gilded Age, a new HBO drama about New York City in the 1880s. The show is a prototypical period drama about an era when fortunes were being made and spent, the gap between the lifestyles of the poor and the wealthy became an immense gulf, the wealthy wore elaborate outfits (and changed multiple times a day) and adopted elaborate manners, and some people, at least, cared deeply and passionately about high society pecking orders and codes of conduct.

The series focuses on the households of the Van Rhijns and the Russells, who just happen to live across the street from each other in one of New York’s toniest neighborhoods. The Van Rhijns are old money and old New York, with all of the uber-snobbishness that attends that status, whereas the Russells are new money–lots and lots of new money, in fact–and have built an enormous mansion and happily engage in ostentatious displays of super-wealth, just to get some attention. In short, the Russells desperately want to be accepted into New York society, and at least some of the Van Rhijns are equally desperate to prevent that from ever happening.

As with any period drama, a lot of what’s interesting about the show relates to the setting and the recreation of the attire and practices of the era. The creators of The Gilded Age have done a meticulous job in that regard; the “production value” of the series is obvious, and the show is worth watching just for the ladies’ elaborate hats. But the incessant social scheming is entertaining, too, as is the upstairs-downstairs interaction between and among servants and served. Throw in overt insider trading in the unregulated post-Civil War era and business activities designed specifically to crush rivals and leave them ruined and destitute, and you’ve got a winner in my book.

Carrie Coon (an Ohio native who we first saw in The Leftovers) deftly plays Bertha Russell, who will do whatever it takes to claw her way into the highest levels of society, and Christine Baranski is delightfully snooty and formidable as Agnes Van Rhijn, the matriarch of the Van Rhijn contingent. The kids in each household act as a kind of buffer between that irresistible force and immovable object. My favorite characters so far are George Russell, played by Morgan Spector, the railroad baron who is good-humored home but implacably ruthless as the head of the Russell Trust Company, and Denee Benton as Peggy Scott, shown in the photo above, a smart and sensible young woman who has the talent and ambition to be a successful writer but will have to overcome the racism and sexism of her time to do it.

It’s hard to imagine there was a time when people cared so much about social conventions and family lineage, but one of the joys of period pieces is catching a glimpse of those long-ago worlds during their heyday. The Gilded Age does an excellent, and entertaining, job of recreating the era that gave the show its name.

Sad Ads

Super Bowl LVI featured a close, hard-fought game, some officiating controversies to spice up discussions of the result, and a halftime show that some generations, at least, argue was the best of all time. But forget those ancillary items for a minute, and let’s focus on the important things: what about the commercials?

Traditionally, the Super Bowl is when Madison Avenue rolls out its best, and often funniest, stuff, and the vast viewing audience watches the game expecting to get a laugh or two during the breaks in the action. The commercials also typically give us a peek into what’s going on in American society at the time. Usually the prevailing zeitgeist involves drinking beer, Coke, or Pepsi, eating fast food, driving a car, working in an office, and some kind of leisure activity. The best Super Bowl commercials, from the Mean Joe Greene and kid Coke commercial to the Larry Bird-Michael Jordan game of “horse” to the hard-charging office linebacker, are the memorable stuff of TV legend.

So what does this year’s crop of Super Bowl commercials tell us about modern America? Evidently it’s a land of cryptocurrency, electric car charging stations, and electronic gizmos in your house. And, sadly, it’s not a very funny place, either. I may have missed one during a bathroom break, but I can’t remember any commercial that actually provoked a laugh, or even a mild chuckle, and many didn’t even try.

In my view the absolute nadir was reached with the commercial that consisted entirely of a floating QR code on the TV screen. I expect that some ad types would argue that the QR code spot was the edgy stuff of marketing genius, specifically designed to appeal to the young people who always have their phones at hand, ready to scan, and to make the commercial an interactive effort. For many of us who despise the sprouting of QR codes everywhere, though, it was nothing but a soulless irritant. Is this really what Super Bowl ads have come to and what the future holds for those of us who remember Spuds Mackenzie?

Maybe, as we (hopefully) near the end of a pandemic, it’s too much to expect some legitimately funny stuff during Super Bowl commercial breaks, but it also seems that right now is when we could use a laugh the most. The Super Bowl ads didn’t deliver.

The Unwatched Olympics

The 2022 Winter Olympics are underway in Beijing. I haven’t watched one minute of the broadcasts, and I haven’t talked to anyone who has. In fact, the only reason I’m aware the Winter Olympics is going on at all is that I’ve seen news reports about how terrible the ratings have been for the broadcasts.

The ratings say that I’m not alone in my non-Olympics viewing habits. The 2022 Beijing games are on track to be the least-watched Winter Olympics in American history, with audiences that are about half, or less, of the audiences of the 2018 games . . . and the ratings keep declining. The Olympics programming is being broadcast on three networks–NBC, USA Network, and Peacock–and was viewed as a way for Comcast to bring subscribers to the Peacock streaming service. The ratings are so bad that financial analysts have started evaluating the impact on Comcast and considering whether the upcoming Super Bowl, which will be broadcast on NBC, will offset the dismal Olympics showing.

TV types also are wondering why no one is tuning in, and have come up with a lot of theories. Some point to the fact that NHL players aren’t participating in the Olympics hockey competition; others wonder whether viewers are boycotting the broadcasts as a kind of political protest because the games are being held in China. Another theory is that the crappy Olympics ratings reflect internal divisions within the United States, but I don’t see why political differences in America would affect viewership. Thanks to the COVID pandemic, people are watching TV more than ever. They just aren’t watching the Olympics.

I’m not sure precisely why I’m not watching. I don’t really care about the events, per se, but I think it is mostly that I can’t bear the over-the-top ceremonial trappings, the rote human interest stories about particular athletes overcoming adversity and other predictable topics, and the additional filler that make the broadcasts groan-worthy and unwatchable. It’s just not very compelling stuff, and with countless other viewing options on any given night, why would you watch something so leaden and formulaic?

The Origin Of “Couch Potato”

In a recent post about the benefits of getting exercise, I used the phrase “couch potato.” I chuckled as I wrote it, because the phrase perfectly captures the concept of the sedentary TV watcher sunk back on the sofa, ready to absorb whatever brainless programming might be thrown his way. It made me wonder about the history of this evocative phrase that has become so commonplace.

“Couch potato” traces its origins back to the 1970s and Pasadena, California, when comic artist Bob Armstrong created a “couch potato” club to celebrate inveterate TV watchers and designed buttons, like the one shown above, and t-shirts with a reclining, couch-bound, fez-wearing tuber next to a TV set with rabbit ears. Armstrong borrowed the phrase, with permission, from his friend Tom Iacino, who coined it and used it within his circle of friends.

The phrase so aptly described American TV culture that it was featured in an article in TV Guide magazine–a publication that was found in virtually every American suburban household of that era–and quickly entered the lexicon. The Merriam-Webster dictionary cites the first general use of “couch potato” as happening in 1976, and in the years since then it has become immensely popular, being used so often that the dictionary puts it in the top 4 percent of words. And the term isn’t limited to the English-speaking world, either–the couch potato concept is so universal that the phrase has entered other cultures as well. The Swedish term for “couch potato,” for example, is “soffpotatis,” and the equivalent French phraseapparently is “pantouflard.”

Imagine coming up with a phrase the just nails an element of popular culture, and then living to see your invention used just about everywhere. Here’s a hat tip to Iacino and Armstrong for the deft turn of phrase and popularizing visualization. Our lives would be a little less rich without “couch potato” in the vocabulary.

The New Parenting Mendoza Line

Baseball has its “Mendoza line.” That’s ballpark slang for a .200 batting average, named for Mario Mendoz, a banjo-hitting shortstop who played in the big leagues decades ago and who frequently failed to reach that line. If you are a professional baseball player, you don’t want to be anywhere close to the Mendoza line, much less below it.

On Ozark, Marty and Wendy Byrde have established a parenting version of the Mendoza line–and with each new season they amazingly manage to lower it. Their parenting approach is so pathetically incompetent that they have somehow managed to fall below the pitiful parenting shown by the Donovan clan on Ray Donovan, a show that was the previous frontrunner in the “how not to parent” derby. In fact, the Byrdes make the Donovans look like the fantasy families on Father Knows Best , Leave It To Beaver, or The Waltons.

The Byrdes haven’t exactly been great parents before, primarily because their money-laundering exploits routinely put their two kids in great physical peril. In fact, every time the family turns out the lights on their sprawling, window-laden home on the bucolic shores of the Lake of the Ozarks, you expect a truckload of Kansas City mobsters, local opium growers, and Mexican drug cartel members–or perhaps all three, acting together–to drive up, leave every member of the Byrdes riddled with bullets, and firebomb the house for good measure. Carefully providing for your children’s physical security is Parenting 101, and the Byrdes have always failed dismally at that basic, threshold step.

Warning: Ozark parenting spoilers ahead!

But this season the Byrdes’ parenting has gotten much worse, no matter how many times Marty might plead for the kids to come around for a “family dinner” to enjoy “Mom’s chicken.” Their smart, bike-riding 14-year-old son Jonah is not only guzzling brewskis on his off-time, he’s pedaling away every day to launder money for opium growers. And he clearly hates his mother with a deadly passion and will never forgive her for killing her brother. Jonah hates his mother so much, in fact, that he would rather spend time with an obviously deranged, murderous opium-growing lunatic who wouldn’t blink an eye before killing him if she thought it served her interests. Marty’s response is to try to get Jonah to come home for family dinners. Wendy still thinks she can command Jonah to do what she wants, and when that doesn’t work she concludes that flagging Jonah’s money-laundering scheme for the feds is the appropriate parenting response, because it will teach Jonah a valuable lesson and any juvenile conviction will be expunged when Jonah turns 18.

That’s not the kind of approach that Dr. T. Berry Brazelton or modern parenting experts would endorse.

Jonah’s total estrangement is troubling enough, but in some ways the Byrdes’ parenting of their high school-aged daughter Charlotte is worse. Charlotte has totally bought in to the Byrde criminal enterprise. She works at the family-owned casino as a kind of floor boss, she walked out on her SAT exam and has seemingly given up on going to college, and Marty and Wendy casually enlist her to convey threatening messages to her friend who might otherwise rat them out. Wendy evidently thinks it is a good idea to bring Charlotte a big tumbler of bourbon when it’s time for a mother-daughter chat. And, worst of all, the Byrdes seated their teenage daughter next to a ruthless thirty-something wannabee drug lord for the Mexican cartel at a restaurant and got to watch as the guy cozied up to Charlotte, slurped oysters with her, and made his disgusting interests all too plain. Any rational parent would have yanked her out of there and run screaming, but Marty and Wendy stoically accepted it because it furthered their long-term schemes.

The bottom line is that, when it comes to parenting, Wendy Byrde is soulless and delusional, and Marty Byrde is able to clinically rationalize pretty much any and every bad thing so long as the family sits down to dinner and he can still believe he’s somehow going to be able to extricate his family from the mess that he’s made.

The “Byrde line,” like the Mendoza line, sets a ridiculously low standard. Ozark should make every other Mom and Dad on the planet feel like Superparents by comparison.

Predictable Plotlines

Spoiler alert: This post will discuss events occurring on episode 5 and earlier episodes of 1883.

We’ve been enjoying 1883, the prequel (by about 140 years or so) to Yellowstone. The most recent episode, however, had one of those plotline developments that you could see coming from a mile away.

1883 follows the story of the Dutton clan. The show begins as they arrive in Texas, ready to head north to Oregon territory. The Dutton family includes flinty-eyed, hard-as-nails father James Dutton, equally tough mother Margaret Dutton, young son John, and daughter Elsa Dutton, shown above upon her arrival, who is ready to take it all in. The Duttons join a ragtag band of hapless German and Eastern European settlers who will form the wagon train, led by Sam Elliott and his faithful lieutenant LaMonica Garrett, that heads north for Oregon and into danger.

Young Elsa narrates the show–a device that I personally find annoying, frankly–and displays more naive, wide-eyed wonder than you might expect from a young woman or that era. She gets to experience the personal freedom of the old West, ditches her dress for pants and becomes a kind of cowhand who helps to move the herd accompanying the settlers, is dazzled by the land, develops a love interest in cowpoke Ennis, goes on and on about her first kisses with him, and finally can resist the primal urges no longer and has her first intimate encounter with Ennis at the edge of the camp.

At that point, we knew poor Ennis was dead meat. And sure enough, only a few scenes later and thanks to the handy arrival of bandits, poor Ennis gets shot and killed, Elsa’s heart is broken, and she presumably will lose her rose-colored narration forever.

1883 is one of those shows, like Lonesome Dove, that hits you over the head with incident after incident that shows that the old West was a violent, deadly place. Already we’ve seen multiple shootings, smallpox deaths, an attempted rape, dysentery, theft, bandit attacks, a suicide, drownings in river crossings, and clueless German settlers bitten on the butt by rattlers as they’ve answered the call of nature –and we know an Indian attack is coming, too. But none of those prior events really dented Elsa’s doe-eyed sense of innocent wonder about the world, and the viewer knows that if she’s going to make it she needs to become a tough and worldly as her parents. And that’s why poor Ennis, who was a very likeable character, clearly had to go, and why viewers like us could see it coming.

Predictability in storylines isn’t necessarily a bad thing. When you get readers, or viewers, interested enough to be thinking about what’s going to happen you can be pretty sure that you’ve got them hooked. Now that Elsa has had her brutal firsthand experience with the terrible realities of life, she’ll be changed forever. We can only hope that we get a little bit less of the voiceover narration in the bargain.

Living In Record TV Time

The ’60s was when people first became concerned about television. Social scientists and commentators railed against the “idiot box” that was turning our brains to mush and converting formerly active, intelligent, inquisitive people into soft, slack-jawed shmoos soaking up whatever mind-numbing offering might appear on their TV set.

Those of us who lived through the ’60s somehow survived our constant exposure to the TV set that had a prominent place in our living rooms. But I’ve got news for you, folks: when it comes to TV, the ’60s was nothing compared to where we are right now. As The Hollywood Reporter noted yesterday, the number of English-language scripted TV shows that are available for viewing in the United States hit an all-time high last year. Across broadcast, cable, and streaming services, in 2021 559 English-language shows were available. That’s 13 percent more than in 2020 and 5 percent higher than the previous record in 2019. And consider this astonishing statistic reported in the THR article: “The total number of scripted shows has more than doubled in the last decade; in 2011 there were 266 scripted series.” What’s more, that 2021 record number doesn’t include any of the non-English-scripted shows that people are watching, like Squid Game or Money Heist.

In short, Americans are literally saturated with TV these days. Unlike the ’60s, when there were only three broadcast channels and one or two snowy UHF options, all of which terminated their broadcasts at some point in the early morning hours, you now could watch programming 24 hours a day, every day–and not even scratch the surface of what is available for viewing. And in the COVID era, it’s become increasingly easy to ditch the masks, slouch back on your couch, and immerse yourself in TV, rather than going out to do anything. I’m sure that part of what is driving the TV production boom is the fact that so many worried people are choosing to stay home rather than venture outside into the scary potential omicron infection zone. Rather than take that risk, why not just camp out and watch the latest hot streaming series?

As I mentioned, those of us who lived through the ’60s somehow avoided the confident predictions that we would become a bunch of brain-dead zombies–at least, I think we did– and hopefully that will prove true, again, in the aftermath of the current TV-soaked period. But it is concerning that TV shows have become such a huge part of our lives, to the point where our voracious appetite for programming is driving the TV production industry to new heights. We’d all be better off if we decided to get off the couch now and then, turn off the TV or computer, and get outside to interact with other living human beings.

Mayor Of Kingstown

Every once in a while, you watch a TV show that makes you wonder: could parts of our modern world really be like that? is there somebody who actually has that kind of job, and lives that kind of life?

Mayor of Kingstown, on the Paramount + network, is one of those shows. Set in a town where the main business is prisons, with multiple correctional facilities within a small geographic area, the show focuses on the complicated and explosive balance between guards and gangs, prisoners and police. And the so-called “Mayor” is the guy who is tasked with maintaining the peace between all of the competing factions. Part diplomat, part strategist, and part tough guy who isn’t shy about cracking heads, the Mayor keeps the channels of communication open, advises the guards and the gangs, brokers compromises, and basically does whatever he can to keep a desperate peace in place.

Calling this show “gritty” doesn’t really begin to capture it. It’s about as grim as it gets, with characters who clearly feel trapped in a seamy underworld of violence, crime, and horror. It’s a world where characters drop the f-bomb every second or third word–and you definitely understand why. But the premise is compelling, the show is very well-acted, and the sense of reality, whether in prison or out on the streets, is solid. Jeremy Renner is excellent as Mike McLusky, the poor guy tasked with an impossible job. And we particularly like Tobi Bamtefa as “Bunny,” the smart drug dealer who spends all of his time sitting next to a cooler on a lawn but has his finger on the pulse of the town and helps Mike keep the lid on the pressure cooker, and Nichola Galicia as Rebecca, MIke’s capable, do-everything assistant. Every show like this also needs a fearsome and convincing “bad guy,” and Aidan Gillen more than fits that bill as the cold-blooded, sociopathic Milo Sunter.

Season 1 of Mayor ended with a bang. We’re glad to hear that the Hollywood scuttlebutt is that the show will be renewed for a second season, with new episodes to begin airing later this year. That should give us enough time to brace ourselves for another dip into the grime.