Dragon Fatigue

We’ve watched the first few episodes of House of the Dragon on HBO, and I would pronounce it shrug-worthy. They’ve obviously spent a lot of money on costumes and settings and special effects, but the show really isn’t very compelling. Unlike Game of Thrones, this prequel of sorts not isn’t must-see TV. Instead, it’s a big meh.

Why is this so? I think there are a lot of reasons. For one, there really aren’t many likeable characters. In fact, I would argue that there is only one: King Viserys. He seems like a good, decent, peace-loving guy who doesn’t want to fight wars or ride dragons and would rather spend his time building his replica of King’s Landing in his room. But he’s about it. Every other character seems to spend all of their time scheming, misbehaving, working to claw their way to the top, and engaging in every kind of sinful behavior you can imagine. Even their young kids seem like terrible jerks. You’d be hard-pressed to identify any likeable characteristic or endearing quality of any of the Targaryen clan, the other nobility, or the royal hangers-on. It makes you long for the Starks hanging around the great hall at Winterfell.

Second, the story is moving way too fast. We’re hopping directly from one great event to another, without much character-building story-telling going on in between (see point one). Characters are introduced, promptly die in childbirth or are killed in bloody, violent fashion, and the tale races on. There seems to be more interest in showing scenes that are graphic or disturbing than in providing any meaningful background or context, and as a result it’s hard to care much about anyone or anything. In contrast, the first few seasons of Game of Thrones–the best seasons, in my view–moved at a very deliberate pace, and gave the viewer a lot of time to find out interesting things about the world of Westeros, the noble houses, and even the common folks. We’re not getting any of that in House of the Dragon.

Third, the overall story arc pales in comparison to the white walker/winter is coming/end of the civilized world plot of Game of Thrones. And there really aren’t any good bad guys to hate with every fiber of your being and root against, either. The brooding brother of the king doesn’t hold a candle to Joffrey Baratheon, Cersei Lannister, Walder Frey, Ramsay Bolton, or Littlefinger. You couldn’t wait to see those horrible people get their ultimate comeuppance. I don’t feel that way about Daemon Targaryen. He’s mostly there, brooding and frankly being more annoying than horrible.

Finally, there’s very much of a been-there, done-that feel to this show. Swordfights, palace intrigue, sea scenes–it all seems like a rehash of what we’ve seen before. And throwing in the obligatory scene of someone riding a dragon doesn’t move the needle much, either. Good special effects, to be sure, but there’s nothing intrinsically interesting about an unbeatable superweapon. Showing flying dragons and having characters shout “dracarys” so someone can get immolated doesn’t solve the fundamental problems with this show.

We’ll continue to watch, but so far House of the Dragon has been more drag than dragon.

Back To Borax

Yesterday I had a very juicy burger for lunch. When I went to the restroom to wash my hands after I was finished, I found this soap dispenser offering “Boraxo” powdered hand soap to help with the wash-up process.

Boraxo? As in 20 Mule Team Borax, the long-time laundry soap sponsor of Death Valley Days, the old TV western that Dad used to watch?

Borax is a sodium compound that is found in places like Death Valley–hence the logic of the old TV show sponsorship–where water evaporated and left behind dried mineral deposits. Boraxo soap is a white granular powder. You use the plunger at the bottom of the dispenser to apply Boraxo while your hands are wet. The water dissolves the powder into a gritty, soapy substance that, in my view, does a very effective job of giving your hands a thorough cleansing scrub.

Borax used to be a popular cleaning ingredient, but it fell out of favor with some people because its grittiness and alkaline component can irritate your skin. But the Boraxo dispenser in the bathroom suggests that it is being rebranded as “naturally sourced,” “non-toxic,” and “eco-friendly.” In short, they’ve apparently got the 20-mule teams at work again and headed out to the Death Valley deposits to gather the borax.

The return of borax soap in the name of eco-friendly cleaning makes me wonder if we might see the resurgence of Lava soap, which was made with actual pieces of pumice–volcanic rock that also could accurately be described as “naturally sourced.” Lava commercials featured large male hands covered with axle grease that were quickly scoured to a pristine state after a rough encounter with the Lava soap, and mothers everywhere thought that if Lava soap could defeat axle grease, it might actually get the layers of dirt and grime off the hands and faces of 9-year-old boys before they say down to the family dinner.

With the emphasis on eco-friendly products, we might be moving back to the era when cleaning products were a little bit tougher than the fragrant soaps and foams that dominate modern bathrooms, but aren’t found in nature. You might want to give Boraxo a try–and keep an eye out for Lava at your neighborhood supermarket.

Understanding Mr. Green Jeans

When I was a kid, I enjoyed watching Captain Kangaroo. I liked the Captain, of course, and Dancing Bear and Mr. Moose and Bunny Rabbit, but my real favorite was Mr. Green Jeans. He would come on the show, wearing his trademark green jeans and usually a straw hat and flannel shirt, perhaps play a guitar or sing a song with the Captain, and maybe show you a plant or animal and talk about it. But Mr. Green Jeans was at his best in helping Mr. Moose and Bunny Rabbit play a gentle prank on the Captain–one that usually involved the Captain getting showered with dropped ping pong balls. It was a gentle prank for a gentle show.

I was thinking about Mr. Green Jeans the other day in connection with the gradually dawning concept of people having jobs. As adults, we’ve lived with the concept of work for so long that we’ve forgotten that the notion of people getting paid to do something isn’t necessarily intuitive, and has to be learned like other lessons of the world. For me, at least, Mr. Green Jeans and Captain Kangaroo were part of that process.

At first, a very young watcher would take a show like Captain Kangaroo at face value, as if the broadcast somehow gave you a brief peek into the actual life of the Captain, Mr. Green Jeans, and their friends. At some later point, you come to understand, perhaps because your Mom patiently explained it to you, that the show wasn’t “real,” in the same way life in your home was real, and that Mr. Moose and Bunny Rabbit were just puppets, and that Captain Kangaroo was a show put on for kids like you to watch and enjoy.

Later still came the realization that Captain Kangaroo and Mr. Green Jeans were actors, that being on the show was their job–hey, just like your Dad left every day to go to his job!–and that the Captain and Mr. Green Jeans were getting paid to be on the show. That last step in the understanding process was a big one, because it required you to get the concept of money, too, and why people needed to work, so they could eat and have a house and clothes and a car–and the fact that you would undoubtedly need to work, too, at some point. It was part of a bigger realization that the world was a complicated place, and there was a lot more to it than the Captain reading stories and pranks involving ping pong balls.

By then, as you watched Captain Kangaroo with your younger siblings, you thought that being Mr. Green Jeans would be fun. But by then your sights had changed a bit, and your friends were talking about being firemen or astronauts when they grew up.

A Football-Free Sunday?

Having watched a terrific college football game last night, my appetite is whetted for more. I’m ready to plop myself down on the couch, crack open a cold one, and watch some NFL football today. I’m ready to hear the pads cracking and revel in the extreme athleticism, speed, and power of oversized human beings racing around on the gridiron.

Except . . . there is no NFL football today. Even though we got a full slate of college ball last night, football fans hungry for another pigskin fix will be hearing crickets over the Labor Day weekend. The NFL regular season doesn’t kick off until Thursday. So what are football fans to do? Watch the U.S. Open, baseball, or golf? Catch up on HBO’s House of the Dragon? When you’ve got a hankering for clashes on the turf, nothing else really satisfies.

What’s up with this sad reality? Can’t the NFL schedulers and the college schedulers get together and declare that the football season is formally here, so fans can get into their normal Saturday college/Sunday pro routine? Getting only the Saturday half of the equation is like getting the yin without the yang.

The Monkees, Redacted

The Federal Bureau of Investigation has been in the news a lot lately. Many on the right think the FBI has recently become politicized–but the reality is that the agency has been involved in investigations of political matters for decades, ever since it was asked to look into loosely defined “subversives” back in the 1930s. Back in the J. Edgar Hoover days the FBI collected information on Martin Luther King, the civil rights movement, anti-war protests, and . . . the Monkees.

What a second–the Monkees? The zany, made-for-TV rock band that had a brief but memorable TV show, produced a series of number 1 albums, were a sensation among teenagers, and incidentally recorded some great rock music that still stands up? The FBI investigated those guys?

It did. According to the FBI’s “Vault” webpage–which, if you’re interested, allows you to search for FBI records on line–the agency has two records about the rock band: “a 1967 Los Angeles Field Office memorandum on anti-Vietnam war activities and a second document redacted entirely.” The 1967 field office memorandum was released to the public about ten years ago, and is very heavily redacted. (You can see the original report, in its redacted form, here.) The unredacted portion reports on a concert the Monkees gave in which photographs were broadcast on a screen behind the band that a redacted informant considered to be “left-wing intervention of a political nature”–which in reality reflected what was actually going on at the time, like racial rioting and protests against the war in Vietnam.

Now Mickey Dolenz, the last surviving member of the Monkees, is suing to try to get the FBI to release the full records about the band. The lawsuit seeks “any records the FBI created and/or possesses on the Monkees as well as its individual members.”

In the grand scheme of what is going on in the world, trying to determine what information the FBI collected about the Monkees is a small thing, but it also raises a big point about transparency and getting a fuller accounting of the FBI’s activities over the years. It’s hard to believe that the document from the Monkees’ FBI file that was released in 2011 merited the heavy redaction it received; what kinds of information could it possibly contain that would reasonably need to be kept secret, decades later? Now that another ten years have passed, there is even less cause for continuing secrecy. I’m hoping the lawsuit is successful and we get to see what the FBI considered so important and secretive. Perhaps the lawsuit, and the reaction to any documents that are released as a result of it, will cause a reassessment of the agency’s actions and, particularly, its continuing, overly aggressive redaction of documents that the public actually has a right to see.

In Andy’s Voice

At some time or another, everyone of a certain age probably thinks about something aggravating in the voice of Andy Rooney.

For years, 60 Minutes closed with “A Few Minutes With Andy Rooney.” Mike Wallace or Morley Safer would expose and humiliate some fraudster with a tough, no-holds-barred piece, and then there would be Andy Rooney, complaining about something in his very distinctive voice. It might be kitchen appliances, as in the photo above, or Daylight Savings Time, or Christmas, but whatever the topic Andy always had a few humorous observations and grievances to share that often got the audience nodding along with him. After the hard-hitting content of the rest of the broadcast, his descriptions of personal annoyances helped to get the viewers back in the mindset for the rest of the CBS Sunday night lineup.

Andy Rooney started many of his pieces with “why is it” followed by the topic of his criticism. Now, when a particularly irritating thing happens, I think about it in that distinctive Andy Rooney voice. I heard the voice yesterday when I was taping up a box for mailing, using one of those clear rolls of wide packing tape, shown below. Why is it, I thought in my moment of annoyance, that the tape on the roll that you’ve just cut off matches up precisely with the roll and bonds so completely that the cut end of the tape can’t be seen with the naked eye and you have to scratch the roll repeatedly to finally find the edge, but once you remove the tape from the roll it inevitably sticks to itself and puckers so that you can’t get a clean, sharp, unwrinkled taping of the center line of the lid of a box? You end up having to use multiple pieces of tape and a box that looks like it was taped up by a kindergartener.

If Andy Rooney had devoted “A Few Minutes with Andy Rooney” to the vexing qualities of packing tape–and for all I know he did, at some time or another–he probably would have ended up covered with wrinkled tape, looked at the camera with a heavy-browed, hangdog expression, and thrown his hands up in exasperation. It would have been comedy gold.

Still Digging For Jimmy

This summer marks the 47th anniversary of the abrupt disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa, the former head of the Teamsters Union. On July 30, 1975, Hoffa was last seen in a restaurant in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit; he was legally declared dead in 1982. Hoffa is one of the most famous missing persons in American history, right up there with Amelia Earhart. TIME magazine, at least, places Hoffa with Earhart on the list of “top 10 famous disappearances.”

In the 47 years since Hoffa vanished, the FBI has spent a lot of time, and done a lot of digging, looking for him. An interesting article this summer by a current Harvard Law School professor recounts the high points of the extensive, long-running, and so far totally fruitless search for Hoffa’s presumed remains. As the article explains, over the last 47 years a rogue’s gallery of criminals, with the kind of nicknames you would expect if you’ve watched The Sopranos, have claimed knowledge of what happened to Hoffa and where he can be found. Their stories have differed, placing Hoffa’s remains in Florida swamps, in the concrete under Giants Stadium, in a Georgia golf course, and at various locations around Michigan. The FBI has investigated the claims, often to the point of digging, and nothing is found. The most recent, nine-month-long investigation focused on a former landfill under the Pulaski Skyway in Jersey City, New Jersey, and the FBI reported just last month that the effort came up empty.

Based on the record, it’s probably only a matter of time before another colorful character claims to have been involved in Hoffa’s disappearance, identifies a new spot, and the FBI gets out the shovels and does more digging for Jimmy. But after 47 years, it seems like the trail must be awfully cold. Whoever actually knew what happened to Jimmy Hoffa hasn’t talked about it, and unless we get a verifiable deathbed confession, we’ll probably never know. But at the FBI, the shovels are still at the ready, just in case.

Safe Travels, Lieutenant Uhura

I was saddened to read over the weekend of the death of Nichelle Nichols at age 89. She brought to life Lieutenant Nyota Uhura, one of the greatest Star Trek characters from the original series. Her portrayal was so good that later shows in the Star Trek universe, such as the current Star Trek: Strange New Worlds couldn’t resist exploring new facets of this very compelling character.

Lieutenant Uhura–the name is based on the Swahili word for freedom–was the communications officer on the original crew of the Enterprise. She was always poised at her comm station, with her cool receiver in her ear as shown in the photo above, ready to open a hailing frequency, put an image on the view screen, or announce that an important message had been received from Starfleet Command. Along with Spock and Captain Kirk, Lieutenant Uhura was a mainstay on the the bridge crew. The guys at the helm and on other stations on the bridge might change, but Uhura was a rock of stability and such a good officer that from time to time Captain Kirk would call upon her to fill in as navigator, too.

Lieutenant Uhura was one of my favorites because she was one of the most well-developed characters and she seemed like a real human being. She laughed, she sang, she hummed songs she liked, she enjoyed furry, trilling tribbles, and she hung out with the other members of the crew during her free time. You got the impression that Lieutenant Uhura would be a great friend and crewmate. And, in many of the episodes, Lieutenant Uhura was the voice of common sense and reason, pointing out something that others missed. One website has collected some of her most memorable moments here.

My favorite Lieutenant Uhura moment came during the classic episode City On The Edge Of Forever. She was on the landing party that went down to the planet’s surface to try to find Dr. McCoy, who had inadvertently injected himself with a powerful hallucinogenic drug. When McCoy eludes the crew and goes into the past to change history, Kirk and Spock decide their only option is to also go into the past to try to find McCoy and stop him from changing history. The task seems impossible, and each member of the landing party is told that they will have to try, too. When Kirk and Spock prepare to depart, Mr. Scott, the ever-proper engineering officer, says “Good luck, gentlemen.” Lieutenant Uhura, in contrast, says: “Happiness at least, sir.”

“Happiness at least.” That was Lieutenant Uhura as portrayed by Nichelle Nichols. We wish her safe travels.

The Headset Question

We’ve got a transition underway at our workplace. The phones on our desks are being removed, after decades of faithful service, and now we’ll be doing all of our calling through our computers. I’m okay with that. In the modern world, any technology that has been around for decades has done its job but almost certainly can be replaced by an improved approach. And getting rid of the desktop phone also means eliminating the annoying need to constantly untangle the cord connecting the handset to the rest of the phone.

With the elimination of the old phone, we’re being offered options. Apparently the sound qualify if you simply talk into your computer on a phone call isn’t ideal for the person on the other end of the conversation. (And, in any event, you probably don’t want to encourage people to shout at their computers, anyway.) So we need to make a choice: do you go with a headset, or a speakerphone attachment?

Headsets probably make the most sense, but unfortunately I associate them with Ernestine, the snorting, cackling busybody character Lily Tomlin introduced on Laugh-In. There’s also a clear techno vibe to a headset, with a one-ear headset edging out the two-ear headset in the hip, technocool ranking. I frankly question whether I’m well-suited to either. So, I’m going for the speakerphone attachment as my first option, with one of the headsets a distant second in case the supply of speakerphones isn’t sufficient to meet demand.

It will be interesting to see whether speakerphones are a popular option, or whether my colleagues will go all-in on the headsets. I’m guessing that the choices will vary by age group, with the older set being more amenable to speakerphones–if only so they won’t hear “one ringy-dingy, two ringy-dingy” in that sniveling Ernestine voice whenever they use the headset to place a call.

Reaching New Heights In Sports Programming

Last night I turned on the TV and was doing some channel surfing when I came across this broadcast. I had to rub my eyes and look twice to confirm that I was, in fact, seeing a televised match of performers in the “American Cornhole League.” That’s them, on a screen busy with sports betting information, wearing their jerseys covered with sponsor logos, weighing their respective beanbags before giving them carefully calibrated flight toward the target. The contestants exhibit professional concentration as they toss their beanbags, grimace if they don’t find the corn hole, and then walk down to the target to do it again. I didn’t have the sound on, so I don’t know whether there was a play-by-play guy breathlessly describing the action and a color guy providing detailed analysis.

Cornhole is a fun game to play at a tailgate or cookout, with beer in hand and a willingness to suffers the taunts of your friends if you make a bad throw. As sports TV goes, however, it’s not exactly riveting stuff. Even Howard Cosell couldn’t make it interesting.

If you’re going to have a professional yard game league, why not lawn darts instead? At least that involves the risk of contestants being impaled.

James Caan

I was sorry to read of the death yesterday of actor James Caan. Caan, who had a long career in Hollywood, died at age 82.

Of course, most people will remember James Caan most for The Godfather and his depiction of Sonny Corleone, the explosive hothead son who temporarily took over leadership of the Corleone crime family after his father, Don Vito Corleone, was gunned down in a drive-by shooting. That’s not surprising because Caan absolutely nailed that role and was riveting as a man who loved his family–memorably explaining to his little brother Michael about how Mafia killings are messy, up-close and personal affairs and then kissing him on the head–but eventually was done in by his temper and impulsiveness.

My favorite James Caan role, however, was his pre-Godfather turn as Brian Piccolo in the 1971 ABC Movie of the Week Brian’s Song. That film tells the story of Piccolo, a running back trying to make the team for the Chicago Bears and competing with the legendary Gale Sayers. After Piccolo does make the team, he and Sayers develop a great respect for each other that deepens into a loving friendship that helps Piccolo deal with a devastating disease that tragically cuts his life short at a young age. Caan was perfect as a guy who was cocky, funny, mischievous, decent, and a good football player, too, and his memorable performance and obvious chemistry with Billy Dee Williams, who also was excellent as Gale Sayers, helped to make Brian’s Song one of the best movies about sports ever made.

James Caan was good in other roles, too: as the writer at the mercy of lunatic Kathy Bates fan character in Misery, as Buddy’s Dad in Elf, and as the star player in Rollerball (which is also a pretty good sports movie). He even co-starred in a western with John Wayne. But the best testament to his acting skill, in my view, was his ability to portray Brian Piccolo and then, one year later, convincingly present himself as the volcanic Sonny Corleone. James Caan clearly could act. He will be missed, but his legacy lives on on screen.

The Last Kingdom

I’ve been watching The Last Kingdom on Netflix. It’s a show that’s worth checking out if you want to feel better about the modern world, because the world of The Last Kingdom–which takes place in England circa 970 A.D.–is not a great place. Everyone is dirty and bloody, and at any given moment marauding Danes might swoop in, kill everyone in your village, torture the priests and monks in the local church, and turn everything upside down in their quest for silver. In short, it’s not really a happy place.

The show tells the story of Uhtred, son of Uhtred (he says this at the beginning of every episode), a Saxon whose family was killed by Danes. That’s him in the middle of the photo above. Uhtred was adopted by the Danes and he in turn adopted their way of life. He’s developed into a formidable fighter who basically beats everyone he goes up against. He’s also a charmer who is irresistible to women and a born leader of fighting men, who are intensely loyal to him. (Uhtred also is apparently ageless, because he’s still an unbeatable stud even as others are growing up and growing old around him.)

Unfortunately, Uhtred hasn’t inspired the same kind of loyalty in King Alfred, the annoying and literally holier-than-thou King of the kingdom of Wessex. (That’s Alfred on the left in the photo above.) Uhtred ended up pledging himself to Alfred and is easily Alfred’s best fighter, best strategist, and only hope against the Danes, but Alfred can’t accept that Uhtred is a pagan who isn’t moved by Alfred’s constant prattling about prayer and God. So even though Uhtred has saved Alfred’s children, Alfred’s life, and Alfred’s kingdom on multiple occasions, Alfred doesn’t trust him, never gives him the credit that is his due, and always ends up sentencing him to death or banishing him, until the Danes invade again and Alfred needs Uhtred to pull his chestnuts from the fire. Simply put, Alfred is just about the biggest ingrate you’ll ever run across. He’s a horrible king, for sure, but he’s the only king they’ve got.

I’m in the middle of season three, and the long and tortured tale of the relationship of Uhtred and Alfred seems to be finally coming to a close. After season three, there are two more seasons to go. I’ve found The Last Kingdom to be an interesting show that casts some light on the Dark Ages period of England, before the Norman Invasion in 1066. And speaking of light, after watching the show I find myself really appreciating electric lights, showers, soap, refrigerators, and other wonders of the modern world.

Hacks

Over the past few weeks I’ve been enjoying the HBO comedy Hacks. I was looking for something on the lighter side and had heard good things about the show, which turned out to be true.

Hacks tells the story of an aging comedian who has done thousands of performances on the Las Vegas strip, Deborah Vance, and her interaction with Ava Daniels, a young comedy writer who is desperately looking for a gig. At first, Ava’s approach to comedy doesn’t quite fit with Deborah’s one-liner style, and the two don’t quite mesh on a personal level, either, because Deborah is a Diva with a capital “D” and Ava is more of a flannel shirt-type whose general worldview is self-deprecating. But as they work on Deborah’s shows, they grow closer personally and professionally–although there are a lot of hiccups and blow-ups and cringeworthy moments along the way.

The show does a good job of combining comedy with a serious understory. The situations the characters find themselves in are funny (and at the edge of Las Vegas plausibility), as are many of Deborah’s (and Ava’s) one-liners, but it’s also clear that both Deborah and Ava have faced and will continue to face challenges as women working in a male-dominated industry. And another underlying message also comes through loud and clear: comedy is hard work, and the life of a comedian is not an easy one.

Jean Smart is wonderful as Deborah Vance: funny, unabashedly and unapologetically flamboyant, totally unpredictable in her reactions, and tough as nails in protecting her brand and her career. Smart has totally assimilated her character and radiates authenticity and believability. Hannah Einbinder also is excellent as Ava, who is drawn to Deborah–first out of desperation, but increasingly through admiration and genuine affection. The two have great chemistry, and it shows. And like any good comedy, Hacks has its share of interesting and zany ancillary characters, including members of Deborah’s staff, the filthy rich casino owner (very well played by Chris McDonald) who is trying to get Deborah to retire but also serves as her sometimes love interest, Deborah’s and Hannah’s agent and his unfiltered assistant, Deborah’s daughter, and Ava’s Mom.

Two seasons of Hacks are out and available for streaming, so it’s a good bingeing option during the hot summer evenings, with enough episodes to give the viewer a connection to these characters. Season three is on the way. I’ll be interested to see what happens next.

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.