Reviving Perry Mason

Kish and I have spent the last few evenings watching the first season of the new HBO series Perry Mason.  The show is a reboot of the classic ’50s TV show that gave viewers the idea that dramatic courtroom confessions were an inevitable part of any criminal trial.

Putting a new spin on Perry Mason is a challenge, because the Perry Mason created by Raymond Burr in those black-and-white broadcast days was an iconic TV character–and the theme music of the show was one of the best theme songs of any TV show, ever.  Clad in sober suits with creases so sharp they could cut your hand and sporting a shave so close it made his craggy face look almost blue, Burr’s Perry Mason was always totally in control, in the office or the courtroom, ready to reduce any adverse witness into a quivering, sniveling mass as Perry, assisted by the faithful Della Street and investigator Paul Drake, delivered another acquittal for his client against seemingly impossible odds.  (And poor Hamilton Burger, the District Attorney who couldn’t win even an open-and-shut case, would add another devastating L in the loss column — yet somehow keep his job and be back, ready to lose again, next week.)

The new HBO show puts Perry in a different place and headed in different direction.  When we first meet Perry, during the depths of the Great Depression in 1931, he’s not in control of anything, and he’s not a lawyer:  he’s a private eye working for an old-line L.A. lawyer.  His life is a wreck, he’s separated from his wife and his son, he drinks too much, he’s still wrestling with the demons caused by his horrifying experience in the trenches in World War I, and his personal ethics are lax, at best.  Even more shocking for those of us familiar with the Raymond Burr character, he’s regularly unshaven.  But with the help of the lawyer’s savvy associate, Della Street, Perry ends up where he must inevitably be:  in the courtroom, representing a woman wrongly accused of killing her own child.  Paul Drake plays a pivotal role in helping to see that justice is done, and along the way we get our first look at Hamilton Burger — who actually helps Perry pass the bar and advises him on trial tactics.

Matthew Rhys is a decidedly more rumpled, and more human, Perry Mason who is easy to root for, and Chris Chalk burns with inner intensity as Paul Drake, who has to make his own difficult moral choices and deal with everyday racism as an African-American police officer who gets treated like a second-class citizen.  But the beating heart of the show is Juliet Rylance, who is terrific as the formidable Della Street, the brainy, hard-working character who puts Perry on the right path and doesn’t mind breaching a few ethical boundaries in doing so, either.  And don’t miss John Lithgow, who is wonderful as E.B. Jonathan, the likeable but puffed-up old-school lawyer whose office brings Perry and Della together.

Normally I am not a fan of courtroom shows; as a lawyer, they are typically so unrealistic that I can’t get past the outlandish plots and absurd courtroom antics.  But this show keeps that to a minimum, and the fact that the series is set in the early ’30s, when the practice of law was definitely different than it is now, helps in that regard.  We liked the new Perry Mason quite a bit and were glad to hear that it was renewed for a second season.  When Perry, Della and Paul return for their next big case — and may, perhaps, be matched up against poor Hamilton Burger — we’ll be watching.

Old Movies

Our cable TV set-up in Maine isn’t quite as . . . robust as our arrangement in Columbus.  We don’t have Roku, or Netflix, or a lot of the other on-demand options, and many of the channels offer only pay-per-view movies.  If you’re in the mood for TV watching rather than reading your current book, the choices are a bit limited.

Fortunately for us, one of the options is Turner Classic Movies on demand.  This summer, we’ve been catching up on some old movies, and it has been a real pleasure.

thin20man-1200-1200-675-675-crop-000000Our practice is to go to the TCM channel, scan through the menu of movies that are available for viewing, and pick whatever strikes our fancy.  We’ve gone on a mini-Spencer Tracy marathon, watching Captains CourageousAdam’s Rib, and Father of the Bride.  We’ve screened High Sierra and Spartacus and The Magnificent Seven and 2001 and a weird western called Three Godfathers about would-be bank robbers who help deliver the baby of a dying woman and then get the baby to safety.  And on Sunday night we watched The Thin Man, the classic William Powell-Myrna Loy vehicle that was so popular with audiences that it produced five sequels.  And we’ve enjoyed them all.

Our prevailing reaction after our summer of vintage cinema has been:  they don’t make them like they used to.  Of course, TCM isn’t listing the Ed Wood catalog or the other dogs of the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, so comparing the TCM offerings on any given night to what might be available on HBO On Demand isn’t really a fair comparison . . . but TCM regularly offers more movies that we’re interested in seeing.  You can’t help but notice some key differences.  No superhero movies.  No hyperviolent movies, or movies with lots of computer-generated scenes or explosions or extended car chases or lots of overt sex scenes.  Instead, the older films tend to feature simple stories and plots that are character-driven, letting the cast carry the load.

The Thin Man is a good example.  Although the story arc is about whether a reluctant detective can solve a series of murders, the plot is almost an after-thought:  the film is really about the obvious and enjoyable chemistry between Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy), their dog Asta, and their cocktail-drinking, high-living, formal dinner party hosting lifestyle and relaxed, bantering, funny, and obviously deeply loving relationship.  We don’t really care much about who committed the murders, because we’re fascinated by how many cocktails Nick can imbibe, Nora’s wardrobe, and their delightful repartee.

When human interactions can carry the story, there’s no need for explosions or robots or superheroics to keep the audience entertained.  Perhaps modern moviegoers just don’t have the patience or appetite for movies like The Thin Man anymore.  It’s too bad.  In years to come, though, I expect people will continue to enjoy movies from Hollywood’s golden era.  Will they still be watching Transformers remakes, too?

The Comfort Of Cooking Shows

Since we’ve been up in Maine we’ve spent a number of evenings watching competitive cooking shows.  There are two reasons for this.  First, our cable provider offers a surprisingly limited number of options.  And second, there’s just something pleasing and comforting about competitive cooking shows that seem to fit well with the crazy period we are experiencing.

1407187942730We’ve watched and enjoyed Guy’s Grocery Games, Chopped, Big Time Bake, and Beat Bobby Flay.  The shows all follow a kind of playbook.  The contestants are introduced, we learn where they are from, and we hear about their backstory and what they are going to do with the money if they win the competition, so “rooting interests” can be established.  Then we meet the judges and see what curious culinary curveballs are going to thrown at the contestants — who must try to whip up an entree that uses, say, pickle-juice popsicles or ingredients that they can balance in a pizza delivery box.  And, of course, the competition proceeds pursuant to a clock countdown, so there’s always the risk that a contestant will fail to get their food on the plate before time is called.

Why do we like these shows?  For one, the contestants inevitably end up impressing you with their know-how, poise, and creativity, whether they win or lose.  You can pick up some useful cooking tips and techniques along the way, too.  But mostly, for me, there’s a comfort in the fact that the shows and contestants are all good-natured, nobody takes the competition super-seriously, and the stakes just aren’t that high.  The contestants would all like to win the money, or the trip to some tropical location, sure, but they are going to do just fine, regardless.  And they are working on food, not life or death scenarios — and most of the dishes they produce look pretty darned good.

It would be interesting to know whether the ratings of cooking shows has increased during this crazy time.  And I also wonder:  when the world does return to normal — as it will one day — and we get back to a more robust cable system, will we still watch these shows, or will the need for the simple comfort they provide have vanished?

The Alternative Calendar’s Tale

My longstanding practice is to put things on my work calendar as soon as I plan them, even if they are not going to happen for months.  It’s not unusual for me to have deadlines and appointments on my calendar a year in advance.  In my experience, I’m just less likely to create a scheduling conflict or double-book myself if I keep my  calendar current.

0frjo3qnmby6xfgkoNormally, there’s nothing strange about this.  The planned dates and deadlines arrive, the appointments and conferences and meetings happen, and the calendar pages turn and fade into the past.

Of course, in 2020 nothing is normal.  In 2020, all of the appointments and meetings and trips that were planned were cancelled — but they have remained on the calendar because there’s no point in going through the effort needed to delete them.  As a result, each week I get notices of what I was supposed to have been doing if the coronavirus pandemic hadn’t thrown us all a gigantic curve ball.  I’ve gotten reminders of haircuts missed, dinners that didn’t happen, performances that never occurred, and business and personal trips to places like Austin and Chicago that simply vanished on the wings of the wind.

Looking at those calendar entries that I made long ago has been a very weird experience.  It’s like unexpectedly catching sidelong glances of yourself in a mirror, where your reflection is reversed, or getting a glimpse of my life in one of those parallel universes that have been fodder for so many Star Trek episodes and sci fi novels, movies, and TV shows.  And, because all of these things were actually planned, they are far more plausible than the scenarios where the Nazis won World War II or an evil empire controls the galaxy.  If anything, the reverse is true:  Alternative Bob’s life seems a lot more plausible than one where the United States shut down for months due to a virus.  In fact, the sudden emergence of a virus causing the world to close its doors seems like a pretty contrived plot device.

I’ve been following his exploits with some interest, and I can tell you that, so far, Alternative Bob has had a heck of a 2020.

Seinfeld — In The Nick Of Time

Last night Kish and I watched the new Jerry Seinfeld special, 23 Hours To Kill, on Netflix.  It was a great way to end a nice Mother’s Day, at a time when just about everyone can use a hearty laugh.

s2In the new special, filmed before the coronavirus consumed New York City, Seinfeld touches upon some familiar Seinfeld topics — such as breakfast foods, how we communicate with each other, and relationships — and some new topics, like how the decade where you are in your 60s is his favorite decade of life so far.  As always, it’s a treat to watch a real comedic pro at work, as he combines facial gestures, careful language choices, coordinated body movements, vocal inflections, and deft timing to wring every ounce of humor out of his observations.  This is a person who obviously has worked very hard at his craft and isn’t resting on his laurels.

And he clearly hasn’t lost his touch, either.  Some of the pieces — like those about the invention of Pop Tarts, and how marriage is different from dating — had me laughing helplessly, while other observational bits about things like why people like to text and why they should change the name of “email” had me smiling, chuckling, and nodding, just as with Seinfeld humor of the past.

The special was filmed at a packed theater before the advent of social distancing, but there is one bit — about why New Yorkers would want to live packed together, rather that in the beautiful surrounding green countryside — that reminded us that we’re in the midst of a pandemic and densely packed Manhattan is once again ground zero.  For the most part, though, it was nice to enjoy something that didn’t focus on COVID-19 and was simply intended to be funny.  The special is well worth a watch — and maybe a rewatch, too.  This Seinfeld special seemed to come in the nick of time, to give a much-needed laugh to a bored, homebound world.

As always, Jerry Seinfeld’s sense of comedic timing is impeccable.

After Life

We’ve been watching a lot of TV lately.  Who hasn’t?  When the workday ends, you’ve been reading from a computer screen for nine hours straight, and you’ve just taken your third walk of the day around your neighborhood, what the heck else are you going to do?

after-lifeI’m not sure you could call this a positive, but because of abundant TV sampling we’ve watched some shows that we probably wouldn’t have watched otherwise.  And, because of the high-volume exposure to the boob tube, I’ve also identified a core problem with me, as a TV viewer.  The problem is that, instead of simply enjoying a show, I always try to figure out what the creator of the show wants me to think about the main characters.  When I watched House, for example, I always wondered whether the creator of the show wanted me to grow to like the brilliant main character, or sympathize with him because of his bad leg, or think he was a colossal, egotistical jerk who would never have a friend like Wilson in real life.  Dr. House’s complex, multi-dimensional character (brilliantly played by Hugh Laurie) was one of the things that made that show a good watch in my book.

For most shows, figuring out how you’re supposed to react to a character isn’t a problem, because most shows are written so that it’s quickly apparent that a particular character is supposed to funny, or repellent, or heroic, or whatever.  It’s pretty rare for a show to leave that central issue ambiguous, where the creators are comfortable with different viewers, perhaps, reacting to a particular character in different ways.

After Life is one of those rare shows.  Written and created by, and starring, Ricky Gervais, it features a main character, Tony, who is one of those ambiguous characters.  He’s obsessed with watching highly personal videos of his life with his wife, now dead of cancer, and has been toying with the idea of killing himself because her death makes him so sad.  That’s pretty sympathetic, but a lot of the videos that he watches reveal him to be a kind of annoying prankster and a bit of a jerk.  (His wife, on the other hand, seems like a real saint to laugh, for example, when he sets off an air horn while she’s sleeping.)  He’s a colossal jerk with some people, for no readily apparent reason, and a nice, supportive guy to others.  He’s ridiculously mean to people who wouldn’t challenge him, but won’t say boo to the world’s worst therapist who’s supposed to be helping him deal with his grief.

So, what are we supposed to think of this guy?  Dismiss him as a weepy sad sack who just can’t move on?  Feel sorry for him because he’s so totally distraught?  Think he’s funny because of his witty snark?  View him as a jackass who’s just pushing away most of the people who are trying to help him?  Decide he can’t be all bad because he’s got a great dog that he obviously cares about, and anybody who’s got a relationship like that with a dog must have some redeeming qualities?  The perspective on Tony keeps shifting.

It’s worth watching.

Starved For Sports

Yesterday the National Football League draft broadcast set an all-time record for viewership.  And it didn’t just sneak past the prior record, either — it obliterated it.  Some 15.6 million people tuned in to watch the draft, which is 37 percent more than the number of people who watched the 2019 draft.

5ea250d00ec19.image_Gee, I wonder why the viewership numbers went through the roof?  After all, the NFL draft is normally one of the most overhyped, boring events imaginable, with a bunch of delays between picks and countless talking heads yammering about the best player still “on the board.”  And this year, where all of the participants in the draft were carefully maintaining social distancing and sheltering in their different houses, there was even less drama than normal.  No rational person would spend hours watching the NFL draft — unless it turns out to be the only live event for a major sport in, say, six weeks, and a bunch of sports-starved Americans are dying to watch something, anything, that wasn’t recorded in 1988.

I’m guessing that the rest of the NFL draft will set records, too — because what else are you going to watch?  And if some of the lesser sports want to increase their fan base, they might just decide to put on some made-for-TV event that allows Americans to satisfy their lust for sports.  Badminton?  Curling?   Bocce?  They all allow participants to maintain some appropriate distance, and yet also involve that essential element of competition.  At this point, the true sports nuts would probably be willing to watch two geriatric guys at some retirement center in Florida play a death match on the shuffleboard court.

The interesting thing about the NFL draft is whether the extraordinary ratings mean anything about what fans are going to do when the restrictions are lifted and sports begin to actually be played again, in arenas and stadiums.  Will they go watch live, or has weeks of social distancing caused them to want, instead, to only watch the games on TV?  I’m guessing that there’s a fair number of people who will happily don their masks and go to see their favorite team play — especially if its an event that is played outdoors.

The Nazi Alternative Universe

We’ve been watching the excellent HBO mini-series The Plot Against America.  It’s a gripping, well-acted, and very difficult to watch story that is part of the “alternative history” genre.

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In the show, Charles Lindbergh — still a hero to millions for his solo flight across the Atlantic years before — decides to run for President in 1940 on an isolationist platform.  Lucky Lindy barnstorms across the country in the Spirit of St. Louis, giving the same short speech about America’s choice being between Lindbergh and war.  Lindbergh surprisingly defeats FDR, and the result is catastrophic for American Jews generally, and one Jewish family in particular, as the country slides into a cozy relationship with the Nazis, fascism, and virulent anti-Semitism.  (And I haven’t had the chance to watch the last episode yet, so no spoilers here.)

It’s a difficult show to watch, of course, because no one wants to see the kind of America depicted on the show — but as I watched I found myself thinking about the role of Nazi Germany in the alternative history genre of fiction.  So many books and shows revolve around “what if” questions in which the Germans win World War II — The Man in the High Castle is one recent example — that it almost seems as if Nazism was responsible for the creation of the alternative history genre in the first place.  And it’s interesting that, of all of the potential turning points of history, World War II seems to be the source of far more interest than others.  There might be alternative histories written about “what if” worlds in which, say, the British won the War of 1812, or the Kaiser emerged victorious in World War I, but if so there aren’t many of them, and they’ve remained in obscurity.  The Nazis, in contrast, always seem to take center stage.

Why, exactly, do the Nazis command so much more interest and attention?  Part of it is that their creed and philosophies were so murderous, hateful, and outlandish that it’s hard to believe that they controlled a country and were able to launch and fight a global war, and implement the Holocaust, less than 100 years ago.  There’s a certain amazement about the fact that it happened, and that the Nazis actually existed in an era of automobiles and planes and telephones.  That still-shocking realization gives a powerful narrative punch to alternative history stories about what might have happened had those terrible, soulless murderers won, even 80 years after the Nazis were hurled into the dustbin of history.

Whenever I see or read an alternative history about a Nazi triumph and what it would have meant for the United States, I’m always reminded of a quote from Tom Wolfe in the ’70s, when he observed that “the dark night of fascism is always descending in the United States and yet lands only in Europe.”  In short, people have long loved to predict that America is teetering on the brink of fascism and totalitarian repression.  World War II, perhaps, was the closest those predictions came to being realized.  Part of the reason that the Nazi alternative history genre is so crowded may be that the Nazis are a storytelling device that allows people to imagine that fascist America that has for so long been predicted, but has never come to pass.

I doubt that The Plot Against America will be the last alternative history in which America has fallen in World War II and fascism reigns in the former land of the free and home of the brave — and that’s OK.  Depictions of what a fascist America might look like helps us to keep our guard up.  That’s a big part of the reason that the “dark night of fascism” has never landed on our shores.

 

Close Talkers (Video Conference Version)

I’d say that I have participated in more video conference calls over the past three weeks than in the rest of my extended work life, combined.  And, as I participate in the calls, I realize I’ve got a lot to figure out.  Other people do, too.

forehead man wrinkles before and afterRecently I was on a multi-party video call with one of those split screen set-ups.  One of the participants was positioned too close to his camera.  His oversized eyes and forehead, positioned in the upper left corner of my computer screen, loomed over the other talking heads like he was Gulliver among the Lilliputians.  It made me think that, if there was a Seinfeld about life during the coronavirus pandemic, one episode probably would be about close video conference talkers.  (And I expect that, in the COVID-19 Seinfeld world, Kramer would undoubtedly violate all social distancing requirements and still barge into Jerry’s apartment to eat his cereal.)

The gigantic forehead incident made me realize that I need to think carefully about my  video conference presence.  Am I too close to the little glowing dot at the top of my computer screen, or too far away?  Is your video conference head supposed to pretty much fill the screen, or is the proper dimension three-quarters of the screen, or one half?

And the position of the head is important, too — especially for the older guys like me.  If your head is tilted forward, you’re giving the unfortunate viewer a huge dose of your forehead, receding hairline, and thinning scalp.  If you lean back, on the other hand, you’re forcing the viewer to focus on the multiple chins and the vibrating neck wattles.  Either way, it’s not exactly a pretty picture.

There’s also the issue of what kind of attitude you’re projecting with your video position.  If you’re leaning in, you look earnest and engaged, but also perhaps hard of hearing.  If you lean back, your look “cooler,” but maybe uninterested.  And if you’re somebody who uses his hands to accentuate the point you are making, as I do, how can you be sure that the screen is capturing those carefully calibrated gestures?

It’s all pretty confusing for the novice video conferencer who doesn’t want to assume the Gulliver position in the upcoming conference calls.  It makes me think that the picture element adds a really significant dimension to the communication that requires you to give some careful thought to these issues before the calls start, and position yourself accordingly — and deliberately.

Better Call Saul

Normally I will not watch TV shows or read books about lawyers.  I hated L.A. Law, for example, and the few John Grisham books that I tried.  The problem for me is that I just can’t get past the implausibility of most of the plot lines and that unrealistic (in my experience, at least) depictions of lawyers and legal scenarios.  My inner groaning at the dubious fictional reality always made it impossible for me to enjoy the book or the show.

Then Kish and I started watching Better Call Saul, and I finally got beyond my fictional lawyer mental block — and in the process found a really great TV show.

better-call-saul-recapBetter Call Saul is a prequel to Breaking Bad.  When we first meet Saul Goodman on Breaking Bad, he’s a classic lawyer caricature — crooked, conniving, duplicitous, and seemingly designed purely to provide some comic relief.  I groaned when Saul Goodman was introduced, because he was everything I disliked in a fictional lawyer character.  But Breaking Bad was such an excellent show that I watched despite my initial dislike of Saul Goodman — and as the show progressed the character grew on me a little, and I found that I could accept Saul.

Still, when Breaking Bad  ended and I heard that a new prequel was being filmed that would focus on the Saul Goodman character, I was skeptical that I would like it.  It only took a few episodes for me to get hooked on Better Call Saul, and only a few episodes more for me to get to the point where I think you can make a reasonable argument that Better Call Saul is, arguably, a more groundbreaking show than Breaking Bad.

Better Call Saul takes us back to when Saul was known by his given name, Jimmy McGill.  We meet a bunch of new characters — including Jimmy’s lawyer brother, Chuck, and Jimmy’s love interest and stalwart, dependable friend, Kim — as we go back to several years before Breaking Bad begins.  Jimmy’s got a sketchy history back in Illinois, but after a close brush with the law he’s come out to Albuquerque, where Chuck is a prominent lawyers, he’s met Kim, and he’s tried to pull himself up by his bootstraps.  Jimmy McGill has some endearing qualities — he’s a natural charmer, and loyal, and he goes to great lengths to help his brother, Chuck, deal with a very odd condition, for example — and he’s even gone to a correspondence law school in secret and passed the New Mexico bar.  From time to time, at least, it’s not hard to see why go-getter Kim finds Jimmy attractive.

But life and the fates seem to conspire against him, and — here’s the lawyer part — whenever he is confronted with an ethical issue he makes the wrong decision.  In fact, Jimmy’s ethical instincts are so unfailingly misguided that law professors could have their students in an ethics class watch the show and follow the rule of thumb that if Jimmy is doing it, it’s violating every ethical rule known to the organized bar.  And there’s a tragic element to that, because Jimmy actually would be a pretty darned good lawyer if he could just avoid the ethical snares that trip him up.  He’s hardworking, and creative, and has a good eye for legal problems and potential claims — but the ethical issues are his Achilles heel.

Jimmy McGill’s story would be enough to make Better Call Saul an enjoyable show, but what really makes it must-see TV is the whole narrative arc that comes from being a prequel.  In short, we know how this narrative must end.  In addition to Jimmy/Saul, many other Breaking Bad characters are prominently featured, and it’s both jarring, and unnerving, to know what’s ultimately going to happen to them.  But that’s only part of the “prequel” effect.  We know that other characters who are new to Better Call Saul don’t have a role in Breaking Bad — and we wonder why not, and what happens to them between now and then.  It really puts the viewer on pins and needles, and it’s why you really need to watch all of Breaking Bad before you try Better Call Saul.  I think this whole “prequel effect” makes Better Call Saul a truly groundbreaking show.

This is a remarkable, exceptionally well-acted show, featuring Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy/Saul, Jonathan Banks reprising his role as Mike from Breaking Bad, and Kish’s and my favorite character, Rhea Seehorn as the hardworking, supportive Kim, a great lawyer with a heart of gold but also a nagging desire to visit the dark side now and then.  But all of the actors are good, all of the characters are compelling, key characters from Breaking Bad are starting to show up, and we’ve reached the point in the narrative where things are about ready to spiral downhill and out of control.  We’re just holding our breath and waiting to hear the first mention of “Heisenberg.”

Whether you’re a lawyer or not, Better Call Saul  is well worth watching.

Alien Greetings

It’s pretty hard to see a silver lining in this coronavirus mess right now, but if there is one, maybe it is this:  as a society, we’ll finally ditch the firm handshake or kissing the cheek or hugging as a form of greeting and go with something that doesn’t involve physical contact and potential germ transmission.

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Like, say, the Vulcan “live long and prosper” greeting.

I’ve seen people openly advocating for the general adoption of the Vulcan greeting during this coronavirus period, and I think it’s a good notion.  Of course, if we were to follow Vulcan activities, we would want to go with the split finger salutation, and not the Vulcan mind meld — which involves precise touching of the meldee’s face, which as we know is verboten in the world of the COVID-19.  That’s one reason — one reason among many, I might add — why we would want to go with the Vulcan gesture and not the Mork from Ork greeting, which involves twisting your ears and therefore would be forbidden, too.

Over the years, people have tried to introduce different kinds of greetings to replace the handshake and the cheek kiss and the hug, without much success.  The fist bump never really caught on, and neither did the elbow touch.  But the Vulcan greeting seems like it would have a better chance of general adoption.  It shows the open hand, so people will know you’re not hiding a weapon — which apparently is one explanation for why handshakes started in the first place — and it’s got a certain retro element to it, while at the same time a kind of ironic coolness, too.

4a7ef654a8a57bfe096343f88eb3d245And, although the Star Trek writers always came up with scripts that tried to make humans feel superior to those logical Vulcans who never really came to grip with their emotions — and therefore missed out on “those things that make us human” — any true Star Trek fan saw a lot to admire in the Vulcan approach and culture.  For example, we can be pretty sure that, if those ultra-logical Vulcans were confronted with the coronavirus situation, they would not be out engaging in panic purchases of enormous quantities of toilet paper and hand sanitizer.  And they wouldn’t be wringing their hands about it, either.

The only problem with the Vulcan greeting is that some people, like poor Dr. McCoy, can’t make the split-finger sign.  I don’t think that should discourage us from going full Vulcan.

Live long and prosper, folks!

Into The Coronavirus Binge-Watching Zone

You’re worried about the coronavirus, and even more worried about the fact that people seem to be weirdly panicky about it.  You’ve washed your hands to the point where they are almost raw.  You know you’re supposed to avoid large crowds and try to minimize your interaction with other people.  So, what else can you do?

shameless-cast-2017Binge-watching.  In fact, you could almost argue that the Great Coronavirus Scare of 2020 was custom-made for binge-watching.  In fact, if viewing options like Netflix and Roku didn’t exist already, we’d probably have had to invent them to deal with this latest soul-twisting crisis.

Kish and I therefore have been spending our evenings being good citizens and binge-watching shows we haven’t seen before.  As a public service, I offer the following recommendations to those of you who want to be compliant with the latest instructions from the CDC:

Shameless — if you haven’t watched any of the exploits of the Gallagher clan, you should give it a shot.  It’s well designed for Coronavirus binge-watching for two reasons.  First, there are more than a hundred episodes, so it will keep you occupied even if you’re going on a 14-day self-quarantine.  Second, the characters in that show have the most miserable fortunes and do the most appalling things imaginable.  It almost seems like the writers must lay awake, thinking of bad things that can happen to the youthful members of the Gallagher family — most of which happen because of their awful, amoral, deadbeat father Frank.  No matter how sorry you might be feeling about things, the Gallaghers have it worse.  Also, Kev and V are the best comedy couple since Burns and Allen or Lucy and Desi.

Better Call Saul — We’re watching this now.  It’s extremely well done, and Jimmy McGill, like the Gallagher kids, is a hard-luck type who can’t catcht a break.  An added bonus is that, if you’ve watched Breaking Bad, you know what ultimately is going to happen to some of the characters, which makes the show an interesting extended flashback.  And if you haven’t watched Breaking Bad, what the hell?  Put that on your Coronavirus binge-watching list, for sure.

The Borgias — This is perfect coronavirus binge-watching fodder because (1) it happens in Italy, where the entire country has now been put into a coronavirus quarantine, and (2) it involves characters dealing with mass deaths due to the Black Plague, which makes coronavirus look like child’s play.  The central character is the most immoral, lecherous Pope in history and we also get to know his equally immoral, incestuous kids.  Terrific production values, too.  The downside — it’s only three seasons long, having ended mid-storyline with an all-too-early cancellation.

Ozark — Another nailbiter with characters who have it a lot worse than we do and lots of excellent performances and storylines.  Not as many seasons as Shameless, but if you time it right you can watch the last episode and then roll right into the new season, which starts at the end of this month.

It’s binge-watching time, folks!  Pass it on and help your neighbors with a few recommendations of your own.

Capturing The Moment

Every once in a while a TV commercial aptly captures the prevailing zeitgeist and popular culture of the moment in a way that ponderous news articles or pontificating academics simply can’t match.

So it is with the classic, current “sunset heart hands” commercial for Taco Bell, which makes me laugh every time I see it.  It’s not only hilarious, it also deftly skewers the phony, social media-obsessed, it’s all about the photos world in which we now live.  Faced between a choice of eating some tasty chicken rolled tacos and taking another pointless Instagram photo, what self-respecting person wouldn’t opt for the tacos — even at the price of a snarling girlfriend?

The Kominsky Method

Sometimes actors tend to play to type.  From movie to movie, their characters seem to operate within pretty much the same emotional range and have the same basic reactions and mannerisms.  Humphrey Bogart would be an example of this type of actor, and John Wayne would be another.

kominsky1-e1567030523175I had the same general perception of Michael Douglas, viewing him as most comfortable in playing Gordon Gekko or another unlikable, bullying jerk who you hope gets his just desserts at the end of the film.  Then Kish and I watched the two seasons (so far) of the Netflix series The Kominsky Method, and my preconceptions about Michael Douglas were absolutely destroyed.  The show is a classic example of a  well-known actor playing against type, and doing so brilliantly.

The title of The Kominsky Method refers to the acting class of Sandy Kominsky, played by Douglas.  Sandy’s in his 70s, but he’s not ready to give up teaching — or acting, for that matter.  The show centers around Sandy’s relationship with Norman Newlander, Sandy’s long-time agent and best friend played by Alan Arkin.  Norman has been very successful financially and had a long-lasting marriage, whereas Sandy has gone through multiple wives, failed to pay his taxes, and hasn’t led the most responsible life — although he drives a terrific car.  Now Sandy and Norman are dealing with the kinds of problems that men in their 70s must deal with — like prostate problems, energy problems, memory problems, sexual problems, health problems, and relationship problems.

The interactions between Sandy and the dry, biting Norman as they address the issues they are confronting are often hysterical — at least, to this reviewer who isn’t all that far from his 70s — and there is a fine ensemble cast that includes Sandy’s daughter, his daughter’s aged boyfriend, Sandy’s new girlfriend, and the students in Sandy’s acting class.  The acting class scenes in particular are really interesting, as Sandy watches his students perform, teaches his approach to acting, and shows that he still has a lot of passion for trying to get people to take acting seriously as a craft.  Sandy’s got some warts, but on the whole he’s charming, vulnerable, funny, and likable.  You wouldn’t mind having a beer with him — but you might have to pick up the tab.

Michael Douglas, playing a vulnerable, likable character?  That’s a big part of the reason Kish and I binge-watched and really enjoyed The Kominsky Method, and why we’re looking forward to season three.