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.