The Pleasures Of Paper

Earlier this week I went to the office. I was working on comparing and organizing and incorporating the contents of two different documents, and I decided that would be easier and more efficient if I would print them out, bring them home, and do the comparison and organization work on paper, where I could lay the documents out side by side.

It’s the first time I’ve actually worked with paper in months, rather than editing and moving things around and cutting and pasting from one document to another on my laptop. When I was working from the office before the shutdown occurred, I was paper-oriented, although I was trying mightily to become more electronic, so as to minimize the need for paper files and storage boxes. But when the shutdown occurred, working on paper really was not an option, so I went full electronic of necessity.

Working with physical documents made me realize that I miss paper. Creating and editing documents on a computer is fine, of course, but there is a tactile element involved in working with paper that you just don’t get with a computer. Writing on the paper, drawing brackets and arrows to shuffle content around, crossing out duplicative sections with a definitive flourish, using an actual highlighter with that unique freshly opened highlighter smell, and then crumpling up and discarding the paper with a set shot at the recycling container when the work is done — each act has its own little satisfactions. If I had a spindle, I’m sure I would enjoy folding, spindling, and mutilating, too.

I suppose that, at heart, I’m a Dunder-Mifflin guy.

My return to paper was enjoyable, but it will be brief. The reality is that paper, for all of its pleasures, is just too bulky for remote work, and it’s easier, cheaper, less wasteful, and more environmentally friendly to do everything on the computer screen. But I did enjoy my brief return to the paper days.

Goliath

We’re constantly on the lookout for TV shows to binge watch during the never-ending shutdown period–especially when it’s snowy and frigid outside. On recommendations of friends, we just finished the three seasons of Goliath, starring Billy Bob Thornton as an alcoholic lawyer. It’s an interesting show with some really well-drawn characters, but boy! It has got to be one of the most consistently shocking and disturbing American TV shows, ever.

Thornton plays Billy McBride, a once-successful lawyer who has crawled into a bottle after his legal work in a criminal case led to a very bad incident. McBride is a high-functioning alcoholic for the most part, though, and in each of the seasons he tackles a particular case–but it’s not really a courtroom drama show, although there are plenty of courtroom and law firm scenes. (As a lawyer, I simply adopt a willing suspension of disbelief when watching any show about the law and the workings of law firms because of the inability to portray legal work realistically, and any lawyers will need to do that with Goliath.) Much of the show involves deeply unsettling characters and situations: people with disfiguring burns, sexual predators, soullless defense contractors, people who use amputation as punishment and people with amputation fetishes, cold-blooded and crooked politicians, a brother and sister whose dysfunctional relationship involves playing suicide games, and of course Billy’s raging alcoholism and the never-ending issues it causes. It’s one sick, ongoing parade in Billy McBride’s dark little corner of the world.

It doesn’t make for bad TV, although you sometimes will want to cover your face with your hands and watch through the cracks between your fingers. Thornton is quite good as Billy McBride, but our favorite characters are his support team, which includes his daughter, his co-counsel, an escort who serves as his paralegal, and his indomitable legal secretary, who is capable of going through a storage unit of documents by herself to find helpful evidence. We particularly like Nina Arianda, who is just great as Patty Solis-Papagian, a realtor-solo practitioner who becomes Billy’s trusted co-counsel and who has to constantly tell people how to correctly pronounce her name. She’s shown at the far left in the photograph above. Patty’s wisecracks, and the glimpses we get of her family life, are hysterical and much-needed comic relief against the dark backdrop of the show.

We’re told there will be one more season of Goliath, and we’ll watch it with interest just to see what happens to Patty, Billy, and the other characters we’ve come to like. But we’re bracing ourselves already for another deep dive into the seamy, sick world that Billy inhabits.

Some Suggested Topics For Dr. Rick

Kish and I always get a chuckle out of the Progressive Insurance commercials featuring Dr. Rick, the “Parenta-Life Coach” who tries to help young homeowners avoid turning into their parents. Part of what makes the commercials so funny is that they are spot on — especially the point about making noise when you sit down or rise from your seat — and “We all see it” has become a catch phrase in our household.

Some new Dr. Rick commercials have come out recently, which makes us hope that this will be a continuing series. To encourage some more Dr. Rick spots, here are some suggestions on other telltale signs that he might point out to his prematurely aged pupils:

  • Telling long, meandering stories about people the listeners don’t know (with Dr. Rick interrupting and responding, in exasperation: “Remember, none of us know or care about that person.”)
  • Calling the sofa a “davenport”
  • When served with a meal at a restaurant, identifying which of the foods on the plate you won’t eat because they give you “gas” (causing Dr. Rick to groan and shake his head in dismay)
  • Having a refrigerator that is totally covered with magnets
  • Asking how they are supposed to know whether their TV is “streaming” or not
  • Referring to music they like as “records”

The possibilities are pretty much endless.

The Narcos Shows

We’re always on the lookout for binge-watching options during the winter months. On the recommendation of a friend we watched Narcos, which tells the story of Pablo Escobar and the cocaine cartels in Colombia, and immediately were hooked. When we finished the three seasons of Narcos, we immediately turned to Narcos: Mexico, which follows the story of the early days of the Mexican marijuana and cocaine delivery cartels and centers on the brilliant and cold-blooded plotting of Miguel Felix Gallardo, wonderfully played by Diego Luna and shown above at right. Narcos: Mexico was at least equally good and maybe even better than Narcos, from a storyline standpoint, although it lacked the crazed, murderous, plot-driving charms of Wagner Moura, who is terrific as Pablo Escobar.

The Netflix cautionary language for the Narcos shows warns viewers that they should expect to see scenes of graphic violence, sex, nudity . . . and smoking. It amuses me that smoking is put up there with the blood and gore, but if characters smoking bothers you, you’re not going to like these shows, because the characters smoke a ridiculous amount of cigarettes, joints, and cigars. I guess if you’re always in danger of gunmen crashing into your homes and putting a bullet in your head, concerns about lung cancer aren’t at the forefront. And the warnings about violence are accurate, too. The Narcos shows are about as violent as you are going to get, with lots of characters going down in a hail of gunfire or being tortured to death. The shows clearly aren’t for the faint of heart.

But the overall stories — which so far as we can tell closely track historical reality — are riveting, fascinating stuff. The characters start off as good businessmen whose business just happens to be criminal enterprises, but inevitably greed, pride, and machismo turn them down increasingly dark, savage, evil paths, and characters who once seemed okay, apart from their criminal activities, are revealed to be ruthless, bloody psychopaths at their cores. And you’ll also marvel at the appalling dysfunction and overt corruption of the Colombian and Mexican governments and military and police forces of those historical eras, and the cowboy-like tactics of the DEA agents who are trying to stop the flow of drugs into the United States by attacking the cartels at their source. The acting is uniformly good, and the feel of historical reality is total.

It all makes for great television, so long as you don’t mind scenes of bloody shootouts and deadly beatings — and lots of smoking. We’re looking forward to the third season of Narcos: Mexico, when things are supposed to really get crazy.

The Zillopraxin Bowl

Last night Kish and I were watching TV. When the show went to break, the first commercial to be aired was for a specific drug to treat a specific ailment. This shouldn’t have come as a surprise. As the American population has aged and drug manufacturers have developed drugs targeting virtually every condition, large and small, drug commercials have assumed an ever-greater prominence on TV broadcasts.

Here’s a leading indicator of how our society is drenched in drugs: we’re seeing more and more drug commercials, even during football game broadcasts. It wouldn’t surprise me if, in some markets, drug commercials have knocked beer commercials off their long-time perch as the dominant football game ad time buyer. It’s to the point that I expect that, in the very near future, we’ll see college football bowl games sponsored by specific drugs: “Good afternoon, and welcome to the Zillopraxin Bowl, from beautiful East Adobe Springs, Texas! And remember–if you’ve got scabies, be sure to ask your doctor about Zillopraxin!”

And here’s another thing about the drug commercials. Every person who is featured in the commercial is portrayed as leading the richest, most active life imaginable. They’re shooting rockets into the air, taking samba dance classes in public parks, riding cool convertibles to exotic open-air markets to try on jewelry, getting together with hilarious friends at great bars, jogging, swimming, hiking, and doing just about everything other than being sick and sad and homebound. And nobody in the commercial seems to be suffering from the endless roster of side effects that the announcer intones while you’re watching the drug-takers have the time of their lives–especially the one “rare but potentially fatal” condition that apparently has befallen a tiny minority of people who tried the new drug during clinical trials.

I’m sure there’s a lot of message-testing that goes into making these drug commercials, and the results indicate that these commercials are appealing and compelling to the sick people who are the intended audience. It’s weird to think that drug prescriptions for serious health conditions are being driven by the patients, rather than their doctors, raising potential treatments. It also seems kind of cruel to play on the emotions of people who are sick, but maybe the commercials give them hope that, if they just ask their doctors about enough drugs, they’ll eventually find the right one that will allow them to get out to the park for those samba dancing lessons.

In any case, the constantly increasing stream of drug commercials tells us that they are an effective way of selling drugs. That’s why it will be just a matter of time before we’re all watching the Zillopraxin Bowl.

In The Cable TV Tug Of War

This afternoon the Cleveland Browns will play what is easily their most important game in a decade. (That’s not saying much given the Browns’ dismal recent record . . . , but still.) the 8-3 Browns travel to Tennessee to play the 8-3 Titans in a game that features two of the best rushing teams in the NFL and lots of playoff implications.

Alas! We won’t be able to watch the game on our TV, because of some financial tug of war between TEGNA, the owner of the local CBS channel that will broadcast the contest, and AT&T U-verse, our cable provider. If you go to the channel that will broadcast the game, you see the message above that blames TEGNA. And before TEGNA took the channel off our cable, it ran annoying banners on the channel during last week’s Browns game urging viewers to contact AT&T to make sure it does what is necessary to keep the channel on the cable system.

So today we central Ohio Browns fans who are on the AT&T U-verse system are trapped in the middle, peons in this dispute between two corporations that really don’t care about anything but the bottom line. They know people will be upset because they won’t be able to watch this game. Each side wants us viewers to put pressure on the other side to knuckle under, but I’m not going to do that. Other than NFL football games, I don’t watch any CBS programming, so I really don’t give a crap about getting TEGNA’s channel. And I’m sure not going to carry water for a cable TV provider.

And here’s what is really appalling — I have the sneaking suspicion each side might have factored the COVID pandemic into their decision to enter into this corporate game of chicken. In normal times, if this happened you could go to the local sports bar, order a cold one, and watch the game on the direct network satellite feed, but with the pandemic that’s not an option. That means the ability to use an NFL football game as a pressure point in negotiations is increased by orders of magnitude.

So I say, a pox on both their houses. We’ll figure out how to follow the Browns game, somehow. but I won’t forget the ugly willingness of these two companies to ruin the simple pleasure of watching a big game on the TV.

Spam, Spam, Spam, and Spam

Our days often begin with a review of our email boxes to delete the spam. The other day, as I was performing this mindless chore, I wondered: why are random, unwelcome emails (and now, phone calls too) called “spam”?

Even though the internet and email are recent developments in the arc of human history, the true origin of “spam” to refer to unwanted emails seems to be lost in the mists of time. “Spam” apparently is not an acronym, nor is it some kind of direct slam on the canned meat of the same name that is produced by the Hormel Foods Company and is evidently beloved in Hawaii. Instead, the most plausible explanation I’ve seen is that, in the very early days of the internet, undesired email was called “spam” as a reference to the Monty Python spam sketch, in which a diner menu recited by a waitress features multiple dishes made with spam, a gang of Vikings sing a song about spam, and a fed-up British matron is forced to confess that she doesn’t like spam.

Some claim the term “spam” was first used to describe email in 1993, when an early email user mistakenly sent multiple copies of the same email message; others say it dates back to the ’80s. In any case, the fact that there is a lot of spam email (like the spam-oriented dishes on the diner menu) and the spam email is not appreciated (like the diner patron who doesn’t like spam) seems to have been the connection that gave spam email its name.

Language is interesting, and “spam” email is a good example of why. In this instance, some early email user was a Monty Python fan who thought of the connection to the sketch and attached the name, it stuck and was used by early internet users, and then it spread to become the common term used by your iPhone, the filters on your computer, and the world of email users at large. It’s short, it’s as good a name as any, and if you’ve watched that classic Monty Python sketch, you know it’s apt. Like the high-pitched, purse-clutching English lady, we all “don’t like spam“!

Bridging The Sci-Fi Gap

As I’ve mentioned before, if you made a Venn diagram of Kish’s and my tastes in TV shows and movies, the areas of intersection would be a lot smaller than the untouched parts of the “Kish” and “Bob” circles. One of the genres that would be squarely on my side of the circles would be science fiction.

Until Away, that is. There have been a few sci-fi shows that Kish has tolerated, like Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, but Away is the first show I can remember that Kish actually really liked. There’s a reason for that: unlike many science fiction films and TV shows, which get caught up in technology or aliens or grim visions of humanity’s future, Away is all about the people. The plot of this Netflix show involves a five-person, multinational crew that is making a three-year voyage to Mars, but the mission also provides a structure for the backstories of the principal characters. For every depiction of weightlessness on the crew’s ship or every technological mishap the crew must deal with, there are plenty of flashbacks and lots of human drama. We liked the characters — led by Hilary Swank’s driven but tender mission leader Emma Green — and were interested in what was going to happen to them and their loved ones. More than other science fiction show we’ve seen, Away struck a very neat balance that reeled in both of us.

Of course, it being 2020, that means Away had to be cancelled this month, after just one season. We finaly find a sci-fi show that falls within the intersection part of the Venn diagram, and it is snatched away just as it is getting good! And it seems as if the healthy dollop of personal stories might be part of the reason for the cancellation: some critics felt that the show didn’t have enough of the science and technology elements that diehard sci-fi fans crave. And no doubt the cost of the show — which had a lot of “production value” and high-end special effects — had something to do with the cancellation decision, too.

We’re sad that Away was cancelled and hold out hope that some other streaming service or channel will pick it up — but even if that doesn’t happen, I’m encouraged that Away found a means of bridging that difficult sci-fi appeal gap. Away has shown it is possible, and maybe somebody will advance the ball even more next time. And if science fiction offerings can be moved from my circle to the intersecting zone of the Venn diagram, anything is possible. Who knows? Someday, someone may actually find a formula that would move period-piece melodramas from Kish’s circle to the intersection zone.

Nah!

Savoring The Small Stuff

So much of what goes on in the world these days is vast and sweeping and far beyond the capability of normal people to control. It can make people feel overwhelmed and helpless.

That’s why I think it’s important for us to step back and focus on the small stuff. We may not be able to determine when the coronavirus pandemic will end, but there are bound to be little things that we can change to make our lives incrementally better. If we focus on those little adjustments, we can accomplish something that we can feel good about.

Here’s an example of what I mean. We use a Roku device to get access to Netflix and Amazon and other streaming services. It worked like a charm . . . until one day a service called Crackle appeared on the Roku menu and immediately made using Roku an unpleasant annoyance. Ever time we tried to access Netflix or one of the other services, we’d hear a “bee doop” sound and the screen would take us to Crackle —which we didn’t want and will never, ever want. Whether by glitch or design, we were unwillingly routed to Crackle multiple times every time we tried to use Roku. It made what was supposed to be the pleasant diversion of watching TV into a frustrating exercise in high blood pressure irritation.

This week I decided to take action. I actually watched a Roku tutorial to see how to delete a channel, followed the instructions, and successfully deleted Crackle. Obviously, I should have done that long ago. But last night, we were able to use Roku and watch shows without seeing the hated Crackle logo or feeling the blood pressure soar. It made for a very pleasant evening.

It’s a small victory, but I’ll savor it nevertheless. And I’ll be on the lookout for more of that small stuff to change.

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.