On wet mornings, like this morning, it’s typical to find a slug or two on the asphalt of the driveway. They come out of the ground and oh-so-slowly inch along toward the flower beds, and when I see them I use a leaf to pick them up and take them to a location away from the flowers, where they can nosh away on the weeds and random bushes in the no man’s land area between our house and the house next door.
I don’t mind slugs, or snails. Nevertheless, after observing them around here I have a different perspective on the word “sluggish,” and would never want that word applied to me. But seeing this little guy this morning made me think of a classic Steve Martin appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in which the word “sluggish” figured prominently. It gave me a laugh on a misty morning and made me realize how much I miss the old Tonight Show and its legendary host. The clip is below.
Sure, it’s baseball season, and the NBA playoffs and NHL playoffs are on, but those of us who are college football fans are pining for some gridiron activity. Early June is truly the slack period in college football, about midway between the spring game and the start of fall camp. The only real college football news is speculation about recruiting, and it really doesn’t fill the void.
Fortunately, the Big Ten Network Twitter feed is there to help out Ohio State football fans who are looking for their early summer football fix. Above is a link to a recent Twitter posting by BTN of video of every one of the 44 touchdowns that Ohio State has scored against That Team Up North during the Buckeyes’ current eight-game winning streak over the Wolverines.
Speaking as someone who cut their teeth on Buckeye football during the Woody and Bo Ten-Year War era, it’s still hard for me to believe two parts of the sentence immediately above: 44 touchdowns and an eight-game winning streak. How things have changed since the ’70s!
NBC says its comedies recently haven’t performed well in the fall, so they are saving some of their sitcom shows until winter. Instead of comedies, NBC’s fall viewers will see lots of dramas and various permutations of Law and Order shows.
Why are comedies struggling on a network that used to be loaded with them? Maybe it’s that people don’t feel much like laughing these days, or maybe it’s just that it is very tough to write a comedy in the current environment. Much of the TV comedy we remember from days gone by involved plots and storylines that pushed the envelope, with humor that often was based on making fun of someone or some thing. Modern sensitivities would find many of the shows that we laughed at a decade or three ago very offensive. How many episodes of Seinfeld or The Office, for example, would provoke howls of outrage if they were aired today? Asking a sitcom writer to be consistently funny while steering clear of any possible controversy or humor that might hurt someone’s feelings is tough duty.
You have to wonder about the future of comedy, given current views, and whether NBC’s comedy-free fall is a precursor of the future. Maybe we should change that phrase to read “comedy freefall” instead.
Normally I hate TV shows about lawyers. In the typical American TV show about lawyers, I just can’t get beyond the unreality of the plots and the outlandish depictions of our legal procedures and activities. But I’ll make an exception for shows about British lawyers, or in the case of Rake, Australian lawyers. I figure that any legal settings where barristers are wearing horsehair wigs and gowns is so far outside my experience I can’t really object to the reality, or unreality, of any of the storylines or contrived courtroom drama.
And in fairness, Rake ends up not really being a show about law at all. Sure, Cleaver Greene–the “rake” of the title who is deftly played by Richard Roxburgh–has gone to law school and does his share of work in the courtroom, but the show is mostly about his train wreck of a life. We witness his countless bad decisions, his ego-centric interactions with his ex-wife, his ex-mistress, his son who has inherited some of Cleave’s tendencies, his friends, his steadfast paralegal/assistant, and his ever-changing dalliances, and we get to hear his often hilarious observations about life in general, all set against the backdrop of an Australian political and legal system that is amazingly corrupt and inept.
And if it sounds like the show is a slam on Australia, it doesn’t come off that way. Instead, Australia is presented as a kind of charming, friendly, out-of-the-way place where everyone knows everybody else and nobody takes anything too seriously. I’d like to pay a visit to Cleaver Greene’s Australia. It’s a place where a character whose life is going to hell can say, with perfect deadpan delivery, that everything is “tickety-boo” and you know exactly what he means even if you’ve never heard that phrase before. (“Tickety-boo” dates from the days of the British occupation of India and basically means “in good order.”)
As for the arc of the show, it becomes increasingly surreal as the seasons roll on. If you’re looking for realistic courtroom drama, even of the horsehair wig variety, you really should look elsewhere. But if you’re looking for a show that will give you an interesting taste of the Land Down Under, a show that introduces you to Australian language and culture, a show that delivers some laugh out loud moments, and a show that recognizes it’s just a lighthearted frolic, you might enjoy watching Rake. We certainly did.
Kish was out of town earlier this week, so I seized the opportunity to indulge in a little Star Trek fix. It had to be something from the original series, of course–those shows I’ve been watching since they first aired during my childhood and that I’ve watched consistently in the more than five decades since. Some of the later Trek series are quite good, but nothing will really overtake the original series for me, with those familiar characters and plot lines that are as comfortable as an old shoe.
Of course, the viewer’s mood can affect show selection. If I’m looking for a lighter episode, I might go for I, Mudd, or The Trouble With Tribbles, or A Piece Of The Action, and if I really want to venture into the realm of guilty pleasures I might go for one of the bad, campy episodes from the third and final season. But I wanted instead to watch one of the best episodes–one of the classic shows that helped to make me into a fan of the Trek world until my last day. I thought about what my all-time favorite episode might be, and after a minute or two of reflection, I opted for Amok Time.
It wasn’t an easy call. Mirror, Mirror and Journey To Babel are great episodes, and so are Balance Of Terror and Devil In The Dark and City On The Edge Of Forever and a few others. I’ve got a soft spot for The Corbomite Maneuver, too. All of those episodes feature crisp plots, some meaningful insight into the Trek universe, and the great byplay between Kirk, Spock, and McCoy that the fans of the original series love.
Amok Time, where Spock’s biological impulses require him to return to his home planet of Vulcan to mate, and Spock and an unwitting Kirk must fight to the death due to Vulcan tradition, has all of that. It’s the first episode to give the viewers a significant look at Vulcan culture and Spock’s inner turmoil and what lies beneath that logical exterior, and the interaction between Kirk, Spock, and McCoy is all the diehard fan could hope for. I particularly love the scene where Kirk promises to risk his career to get Spock back to Vulcan, the scene where the crusty Dr. McCoy is surprised and honored to be asked by Spock to accompany him to Vulcan for the mating ceremony, and the entire final part of the show, where the quick-thinking McCoy saves the day and is rewarded with a chance to see an emotional outburst from Spock. Amok Time is just some great, vintage TV.
Now that I think of it, I probably should watch some of the other contending episodes, just to be sure that I’m right in picking Amok Time as my current favorite.
Several years ago, we binge-watched Shameless, were introduced to the appalling and yet somehow fascinating Frank Gallagher, and saw the young members of the Gallagher clan grow up–and make countless ill-advised decisions–before our eyes. We’ve followed the series since then, and watched memorable characters (like Svetlana, or Lip’s alcoholic professor) and a never-ending series of plot lines come and go through eleven entertaining seasons. And on Sunday night, Shameless came to an end with a commendable final episode.
One of the best things about Shameless is that the show’s creators and writers haven’t shied away from the characters doing incredibly stupid, often self-destructive, and occasionally venal things. It’s not surprising that they would, because all of the Gallaghers were raised in a prototypical dysfunctional household, with alcoholic, drug-addicted parents who were always ready to break the law, forsake their parenting duties, and disappear for months at a time to leave the kids to fend for themselves. If you believe that nurture is at least as determinative of a person’s outcome as nature, it’s no surprise that the Gallagher siblings are dealing with lots of issues and continuing to make bad decisions. It’s going to be their lot in life.
I therefore was glad to see that the finale didn’t try to wrap things up with a neat bow, or force some kind of implausible happy ending into the story arc. Instead, it just resolved the fate of Frank (William H. Macy’s defining role of a lifetime) and left the rest of the characters continuing on their journeys, with good and bad developments and lots of open questions. Will Ian and Mickey (our favorite characters by the end of the show) decide to adopt a child and be able to adapt to life on the west side? Will Lip finally find a job that lets him use that awesome brainpower, and will he and Tami add another member to their family? Will Carl and his police buddies buy The Alibi from Kev and V and at least preserve some small piece of the old South Side from the encroaching, suffocating, phony latte-quaffing crowd? Will Deb continue to spiral downward and make absurdly reckless decisions about her personal life? And will Liam–the only one of the kids to really care at all about Frank at the end–be able to move forward and take advantage of his obvious talents and smarts?
As much as I would have liked to see one last glimpse of Fiona, I respected the decision not to bring her back–although I note that Frank still thought of her, along with the other kids, at the end. And the final show managed to deftly combine the ever-present challenges in the Gallagher kids’ lives with an affirming message. (Spoiler alert!) As Frank rose to the heavens, perched on a bar stool and with beer in hand, the Gallagher kids gathered outside The Alibi to laugh at some rich geek whose high-priced car had caught fire and sing a song that drew upon their shared South Side roots. Whatever might happen to them, they’ve still got that strong connection. And for the Gallaghers, that’s as good as it is going to get.
We’ve been enjoying The Sinner, a drama series now available on Netflix, and have just finished season three of the show — which offers an interesting twist on detective shows.
The Sinner focuses on detective Harry Ambrose, played by Bill Pullman, who works at a police department in a small town in New York. Each season focuses on a crime (or crimes) committed by an apparently normal person. There’s no doubt about who committed the crime; the show is more about figuring out why they did it. That’s why some people describe the series as a “whydunnit.”
Harry’s methods are unconventional, to say the least, and he becomes more invested in the people who he is investigating than a dispassionate police officer should. As Harry peels back the layers of their characters and learns more about their back stories, he begins to understand their true motives for their actions. And in the process, we learn more about Harry himself, who has a history that is just as brutal and jarring as the other characters and who has been scarred by it, too.
This is an interesting, extremely dark show that will appeal to people, like us, who like the psychoanalysis of characters. Bill Pullman is great as Harry, and there’s lots of good acting by the other cast members who populate each of the three seasons. Don’t watch The Sinner if you want to see good mothering–the show features some pretty awful Moms who will make you appreciate that your childhood wasn’t filled with routine, everyday emotional torture and trauma–or if you can’t bear disturbing scenes or imagery. And don’t watch it if you are looking for by-the-book detective work, either, because you’ll find yourself yelling at the screen as Harry takes another novel and reckless approach to figuring out the “why” of an otherwise inexplicable crime.
The Sinner has been renewed for a fourth season, which is supposed to come out this year. We’re eager to see the new direction Harry will take and to learn more about his tough life–and get in some more yelling at the TV, besides.
Most of the TV shows and movies I write about get positive reviews. When I watch a show and like it, I enjoy working through exactly why I have that reaction and then writing about it. This has caused some faithful readers to wonder whether I’m so shallow and accepting of TV fare that I like all TV shows I watch.
I don’t. Take Weeds, the show that was broadcast for a number of years on Showtime. We read an on-line review that noted that the Weeds run on Netflix was coming to an end on March 31 and recommended the show as some bingeworthy viewing, so we gave it a chance. In fact, we gave it more than a chance — we watched all of season 1, and halfway through season 2, before we just gave up and decided life was too short to waste it watching Weeds.
Why did we say “Weeds begone”? Because there basically wasn’t a single character on the show that we liked, or frankly even found mildly interesting. In fact, the contrary was true: we thought Weeds featured some of the most cliched, poorly drawn, and intensely annoying characters we’d ever seen on television. From the wide-eyed, coquettish lead character and would-be dope lord Nancy Botwin, played by Mary-Louise Parker, to her weird and unlikeable kids, to her irritating loser brother-in-law, to the other brainless and self-absorbed characters populating the vapid town of Agrestic, California, we disliked pretty much everyone. Not surprisingly, it’s hard to like a TV show when you have no connection to the characters and hate seeing them on screen.
And there wasn’t much that was original in the show’s plotting or the writing. Although Weeds is described as a “comedy-drama,” we didn’t find much of either. I’m not sure I ever actually laughed out loud at anything that happened in the show, and I certainly didn’t find it very dramatic, either. Good comedy involves creativity and an element of surprise, both of which were sorely lacking in Weeds. And drama requires some characters you actually care about, which Weeds didn’t have, either. The only character who even came close to that standard was Isabelle, the poor daughter of Nancy’s appalling friend Celia Hodes, who we hoped could get away from her ridiculous, domineering, body-shaming mother. But our passing interest in that minor plot line couldn’t carry the day in the face of the onslaught of other irksome characters and groan-provoking plot devices.
It amazes us that Weeds ran for multiple seasons, which just shows you that one man’s trash can be another man’s treasure. In our view, though, there are a lot of good TV shows out there to watch–and Weeds isn’t one of them. We think Netflix did the right thing in pulling Weeds.
Netflix offers an awesome array of content — including documentaries. If, like me, you are a fan of Monty Python, I recommend tuning in to Monty Python’s Almost The Truth, a six-part documentary about the troupe that really bent the comedy arc.
Good documentaries answer your questions. In the case of Monty Python, there are lots of those questions. How did these guys get together in the first place? What caused them to develop such a hilarious, zany, irreverent, subversive view of the world? How did a lone American break into this supremely British group? Who came up with ideas like the fabled Parrot Sketch or the “bring out your dead” scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail? Why did animation feature so prominently in what they did? Who came up with the great songs, like the ditty about Brave Sir Robin? And how and why did the group spin apart?
This documentary answers those questions. Made in 2009, it featured interviews with the then-surviving Pythoners, as well as comments from other people who were involved and well-known fans of the group talking about what it was like to watch their work. (I recommend fast forwarding through the comments by Russell Brand, who comes across as supremely self-absorbed and irritating.) I particularly enjoyed learning about the early days of the members of the group — including the important role now-forgotten figures like David Frost inadvertently played in the group coming together — as well as the TV and radio shows that influenced them. Later episodes drill down into the Flying Circus years, their battles with BBC censors, their creative process and some of the tensions that drove it, their legendary live performances at the Hollywood Bowl, the making of their films, and ultimately the untimely, early death of member Graham Chapman.
Influential social figures that touched the lives of millions and forever changed the way we think about their idiom — like the Beatles, or Monty Python, or the first cast of Saturday Night Live — deserve this kind of look back after years have passed and their true impact can be assessed with the perspective that only time can bring. Monty Python’s Almost The Truth gives you some of that perspective and a peek behind the curtain. It’s fascinating stuff.
Most of our video watching these days relies on recommendations from family and friends. Godless, a 2017 Netflix mini-series, was an exception. We hadn’t heard anything about it, but flipping through the Netflix offerings it looked interesting, so we gave it a gander. Boy, are we glad we did!
Godless is set in the American West of the 1880s. Frank Griffin leads a notorious outlaw gang of more than 30 men that has been terrorizing the territory, and he is searching for a former member of the gang that has betrayed him. The former member of the gang, Roy Goode, finds shelter with a widow and her family who live on a ranch on the outskirts of the off-the-map town of LaBelle, New Mexico. LaBelle has its own interesting back story: a devastating mine disaster has killed every able-bodied man in the town, leaving the women of LaBelle to fill the void. When Griffin’s search brings his army to LaBelle, fireworks ensue.
Godless is a powerhouse of a drama that grabs you by the throat from the get-go. It reminded me of Lonesome Dove in that its presentation of the old west is unadorned, random, and dangerous, with people coming in and going out and violence, death, and disaster seemingly around every corner. And the show is full of carefully sketched characters–from Mary Agnes, one of the LaBelle widows who finds that she likes wearing the pants in the family, to Bill McNue, the sheriff of LaBelle who is battling self-doubt caused by his declining eyesight, to Truckee, a boy who is trying to overcome his fear of horses, to Callie Dunne, the former LaBelle prostitute who becomes the town schoolteacher because she can read and write. Two of our favorite characters were Iyovi, the Native American grandmother of Truckee who can heal a bullet wound and shoot and dress a deer without blinking an eye, and Whitey Winn, the sweet, skinny deputy sheriff who has developed impressive quick-draw skills but can’t play the violin to save his life.
There’s a lot to this show, and any description can only scratch the surface of a dense plotline. The focus of Godless, though, is strong women on one hand and Frank Griffin on the other. Jeff Daniels, who won an Emmy for the role, is fantastic as Griffin, the sociopathic, quasi-religious leader of a ruthless band of killers who can be sensitive and willing to help strangers dying of a disease in one instant and then slaughtering an entire town the next. Griffin believes he has seen his own death, and therefore faces every deadly scenario that doesn’t match his vision with supreme confidence that he will survive and the statement: “This ain’t my death.”
This is a great show that is well worth a watch. The only bad thing about it is that it is a one-season wonder. When Godless ended, it left us wanting more Godlessness in our lives.
Here’s some good news to brighten your Monday morning: classic cartoons, long gone from the Saturday morning schedules on network TV, are now being broadcast on Saturday mornings on a network called MeTV.
The MeTV schedule for this coming Saturday morning, for example, starts at 7 a.m. with an hour of Popeye and Pals — featuring a classic in which Olive Oyl runs for President — followed by The Tom and Jerry Show and then the pinnacle of Saturday morning cartoons of days gone by, an hour of Bugs Bunny and Friends. The Bugs hour for this next Saturday includes the cartoon where Bugs plays baseball and a Roadrunner cartoon featuring Wile E. Coyote, Super Genius.
It warms the heart to know that kids can once again camp in front of their TV sets, eat sugared cereal, and watch wide-eyed as cartoon characters get blown up, crushed, blasted by shotgun shells, conked with hammers, fall off cliffs, and experience the failures of Acme Products. That, and learn that eating spinach gave you super strength.
Watching these cartoons in my PJs and eating cereal on Saturday morning was a key part of how I grew up. Now, if only MeTV could expand the programming to include The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, their Saturday morning schedule would be just about perfect.
I’m not sure if kids of the modern era will watch the MeTV schedule — they would probably need a violence warning in any event — but I’m guessing that the true target audience is the grown-ups like me who want to relive a few of the Saturday mornings of their youth.
We just finished the three seasons of Yellowstone, a drama about the grossly dysfunctional Dutton clan. The Duttons fight with each other and everybody else who is trying to take away or break apart their beautiful and enormous ranch, Yellowstone, located close to the national park of the same name. Kevin Costner plays John Dutton, the tough, gravel-voiced head of the family who is both hated and revered and who always seems to have a plan to hold the ranch together.
This is a show that seemed to take a while to find its legs, but eventually it sank its teeth into us at some point in season two. The Dutton family back story is filled with death and horror, and all of the members — father John, kids Cayce, Beth, and Jamie, and head hand Rip Wheeler and his cowboy crew — have a terrible dark side. They look good riding horses, wearing cowboy hats, and standing in front of some of the most stunning countryside you’re likely to find in America, but they’re also ready to ruin you or kill you at the drop of a Stetson. If watching people get shot or hung bothers you, this is not the show for you.
In fact, after a few episodes you’ll wonder just how many dead bodies are buried in those magnificent meadows and mountainsides, and whether every person in Montana is a soulless killer. And nobody seems all that troubled by casual murders, either, including normal law enforcement and the livestock police that the Dutton clan controls. Add in the fact that some members of the family hate each other with a withering contempt, a neighboring Native American community would love to take the Yellowstone ranch and return it to the way it was before the Duttons took it 150 years ago, and greedy developers and fellow ranchers who don’t mind pushing the legal envelope themselves want desperately to turn that gorgeous countryside into Casino McMansionland, and you’ve got a pretty combustible mix.
Kevin Costner is good as the formidable head of the family — you might call him Don Vito Dutton — who shows his tender side in his interaction with his grandson Tate but won’t hesitate to do what is necessary to preserve the family legacy. Other characters also show their tender sides from time to time, but don’t let that fool you — the next death is only moments away. Our favorite characters are the ever-wide-eyed Tate, played by Brecken Merrill, who is the only true innocent in the whole show, and Beth, played by Kelly Reilly, the outrageous, insult-ready, tough-as-nails daughter who will stop at nothing to protect her Dad, but who is wrestling with her own set of demons.
We’re looking forward to season four and more exposure to that beautiful Montana scenery. Yellowstone makes us want to get back to Big Sky Country in person, but if we go we’ll be bringing along our own bulletproof vests–and we’re not going to be stopping on any dusty roads, either.
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.
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.
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