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.

New Digs

We’re now officially landowners again.  On Friday afternoon we closed on our new house located smack dab in the middle of German Village, located near Lindey’s, G. Michael’s Bistro, and the Book Loft.

IMG_4641It’s an older brick home built, we think, in 1906, and there’s a fair amount of work to be done before we move in.  Kish is acting as a kind of general contractor, coordinating the appearance, estimates, and work of painters, hardwood flooring firms, electricians, landscapers, and cabinet companies who will be getting the house up to Code — in this case, Kish Code. Already, work has begun.  We met with the painter yesterday morning, and he and his assistant spent the day patching holes and putting on the priming coats.

In the meantime, Kish has been fielding helpful advice from a decorator and friends who have that feng shui flair, particularly on the big sticking point — light fixtures.  What should we hang in the foyer, and what in the dining room?  Should they match in some way?  How do we thread the needle of three desires:  wanting fixtures that are physically attractive, put out sufficient light to serve their real purpose, and are easy to clean and don’t require impossible physical manipulations when it’s time to change a bulb?  We’ve looked at so many light fixtures that all of the pop-up ads on any website we access immediately cycle to lighting products and special deals on chandeliers.

It’s an exciting time for us.

Mary Poppins And Dr. House

We recently inherited an umbrella stand, and an eclectic collection of umbrellas and canes, from Kish’s Mom.  We have frilly, polka-dotted umbrellas and sober black umbrellas, umbrellas with bone handles and umbrellas that could easily be hurled, javelin-like, at an approaching foe.  We have rattan canes, and riotously colored canes, and canes with sturdy black handles that are all business.

Whenever I look at this umbrella stand and its contents, I inevitably think about England’s most famous nanny and Princeton-Plainsboro’s irascible diagnostic genius —  two very mismatched fictional characters whose signature accoutrements nevertheless fit quite comfortably together.


Last House

Tonight Fox will air the last episode of House.  It will be a two-hour finale, and then the show will be relegated to The Happy Land of Perpetual TV Reruns.

Kish and I have watched House, faithfully, from the beginning of the first season until tonight’s end.  I don’t know how many TV shows I can say that about.  Cheers was one; I’m not sure there have been any others.  Not many long-running shows can hold my interest from beginning to end.  Often they become rote and predictable, or they take a turn for the worse, or I just lose interest.

One reason House is the rare exception is that the show has maintained a high quality level throughout its run while at the same time staying true to its core premise and themes.  Dr. Gregory House, that brilliant diagnostician who has a predictable “Eureka!” moment just about every episode, has remained a broken, deeply disturbed, drug-popping jerk who can’t maintain a normal human relationship.  The show’s creators haven’t married him off, or had him adopt a child, or required him to take some other out-of-character step to try to boost ratings or keep the show “fresh.”  I respect that, and I also respect that star Hugh Laurie and the creative brain trust of House have decided to call it quits while the show is still on top.  There is nothing more painful than a TV show — or a professional athlete — that stays on until it is well past its prime.

I’ll miss House, but I’ll look forward to seeing the awesomely talented Hugh Laurie in other roles that allow him to stretch his acting abilities.  Right now, I’m just hoping that the last show of this terrific series doesn’t fall prey to the disastrous finale syndrome that has caused other legendary shows to end with an embarrassing whimper rather than a well-deserved bang.

Touch, And Its Liberal/Conservative Messages

With House drawing to a close, Kish and I are casting about for another TV show to watch on a regular basis.  We’ve watched the first few episodes of the new Fox series Touch, and it’s intriguing enough that we’ll keep watching.

The show’s back story is complicated.  Kiefer Sutherland is Martin, a former reporter whose wife was killed on September 11.  Since then, he’s bounced from job to job and struggled to connect with his 11-year-old son Jake (David Mazouz).  Jake has never spoken and screams if he is touched by another human being, but his calm inner voice narrates the episodes.  It turns out that he is one of a handful of people who see the numerical patterns in the world that connect us all.  With the help of a rogue psychologist played by Danny Glover, Martin has figured out that Jake is trying to communicate with him through numbers and guide him to help make connections between people.  In the meantime, the state Department of Social Services, through a social worker played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, questions Martin’s ability to care for Jake and may take him away.  Throw in two giggly young Japanese women who wear ridiculous outfits and pop up from time to time and a cell phone that is being randomly passed from person to person, and you’ve got the general gist of the show.  (Whew!)

The show features an interesting interplay of messages.  The notion that we all are interconnected, and that a bottle cap placed under a school window in Africa might later affect a crowd at an international dance contest, has obvious touchy-feely, let’s all have a good hug New Age heightened consciousness overtones.

At the same time, however, there seems to be a definite conservative, anti-government message lurking underneath.  Jake is well-fed and lives in a safe, secure home; why is a busybody government agency pestering Martin and presuming to judge whether he is fit to care for his son?  And although the government agency blames Martin for incidents where Jake escapes his school and climbs to the top of towers, after the agency takes Jake for evaluation it incompetently lets him escape, too.  And the positive connections that are made are solely the result of the actions of Jake, Martin, and other individuals — not any government program or bureaucracy.

If you’re in the mood for some frivolity when the 9 p.m. Thursday showtime rolls around, play a drinking game where you take a swig of your adult beverage of choice every time Martin shouts “Jake!”  (Of course, Jake doesn’t answer — you’d think Martin would have learned that by now.)  But pace yourself — with Jake’s escape artist abilities and the ineptitude of the social workers, it happens dozens of times an episode.  If you don’t watch out, by the end of the show you’ll be seeing your own special patterns in the world around us.

House’s End

Hugh Laurie and David Shore, the main creative forces behind the TV drama House, have announced that the series will end this year — after eight years of putting the acerbic, misanthropic Dr. Gregory House into every imaginable situation and seeing him solve every imaginable diagnostic problem.

House has been one of my favorite shows since it began.  It’s still good, and it’s still one of the few shows that we automatically record on our DVR.  I’ll be sorry when it ends, but I also understand and appreciate the decision to bring the series to closure.  I hate watching favorite shows go inexorably downhill, sometimes to the point of embarrassment.  If the actors and writers and producers conclude that the creative string has been played out, as apparently is the case with House, I’m inclined to trust their judgment.

With the announcement of the series’ end, the question now becomes — how will it end?  There really haven’t been many great final episodes of TV shows, and often the final episode is awful.  I hope that the House crew resist the temptation to tie up all the loose ends, bring back House’s ex-wife Stacy, Cameron, and Cuddy for final bows, and have House cure Wilson of cancer.

Whatever else may happen, let House be House — in all his brilliant, miserable, appalling glory — to the inevitably bitter end.

House In The Big House

When we last caught a glimpse of Dr. Gregory House, he was in a bar by a sandy beach in the Caribbean, having just crashed his car through the front window of his ex-girlfriend and boss, Dr. Lisa Cuddy. Last night we saw him a year later, imprisoned, finishing his sentence for property damage, reckless endangerment, fleeing the scene, and probably countless other offenses.

The creators and writers of House have always played a bit fast and loose with the House timeline — as Dr. Greg himself observed the classic episode Three Stories in season one, “time is a fluid concept” — so the shift into the future isn’t a complete surprise. I think the creative team at House wants to take this familiar, by-now iconic character and give him some new challenges in an effort to avoid the creeping staleness that is fatal to so many long-running TV shows.

So, last night we got to see Dr. House implausibly locked up in a prison with violent offenders, doing his diagnostic thing on fellow prisoners and the intrigued, rule-breaking female doctor in the hospital infirmary. We learned that no one has called or visited him in a year — not even his best friend Wilson, or the sycophantic Chase! And now House will have to reintegrate himself into society, and reestablish his ties with his old friends and colleagues.

This scenario should create some interesting storylines.  Does ex-con House even have a medical license anymore?  Will Foreman lord it over House when he springs him from the slammer to help on cases?  Is Cuddy married?  How long will it take to repair the House-Wilson friendship?  (I’m betting part of one episode.)  Will Taub and Chase take House’s cruel comments?  Will House and 13 trade stories about their respective times in the pen? 

House has been on for years and has covered a lot of territory.  I like the show, I applaud the effort to keep it new, and I hope it works.

Fun House

I’ve very much enjoyed watching House this season.  Many of the overarching issues that have dominated the show since its inception — House’s addiction, Cameron’s naggy prissiness, Foreman’s insufferableness, and so forth — have been resolved, as least for now.  The decks have been cleared for some different approaches, and the show has taken advantage of that opportunity.

Hugh Laurie and Amber Tamblyn

The writers are venturing into new territory for all of the characters, and they are coming up with interesting story arcs.  How would House behave in a serious relationship?  What kind of mother would Cuddy have?  Wouldn’t Taub’s and Chase’s serial philandering eventually have consequences?  How would House deal with Cuddy’s child?  And although most of the characters are familiar, two significant new characters have been introduced to help keep things fresh.  Amber Tamblyn plays a brainiac medical student with Cameron-light preachiness, and Candice Bergen has burst onto the scene as Cuddy’s outspoken Mom.  Watching Hugh Laurie and the rest of the talented cast deal with all of these new plot threads and characters has been a joy.

I think this is the funniest season of House, ever.  The writers have mined the new situations for real comedic gold, while leaving House true to his ultra-logical, sarcastic aloofness.  Only House would reason that the best way to deal with the unpleasant dinner-time hectoring of Cuddy’s Mom would be to drug her — and Wilson, to boot.  Only House would try to help Cuddy’s little girl get into the best pre-school by applying dog training techniques to teach her how to ace the evaluative games.

Most TV shows that have been around for multiple seasons get stale and predictable.  So far this season, at least, House has avoided that fate.

Whither Huddy?

As any reader of this blog knows, one of the TV shows I watch regularly is House.  I’ve followed the acerbic diagnostician as he has dealt with a crush from Cameron, tried to rekindle his romance with Stacy, endured an unreasonable chair of the hospital board and a vengeful police detective, and ultimately spiraled down into drug abuse, hallucinations, and institutionalization before kicking his Vicodin habit.  All the while, his  friend Wilson tells House how miserable he is.

The challenge for a long-running series like House is to avoid falling into an uncreative rut while not ruining the characters that fans have come to know and love through ridiculous plot contrivances.  This season’s big story arc has Dr. House grappling with a torrid affair with his boss, Dr. Lisa Cuddy.  So far, I don’t really know what to make of House and Cuddy — called “Huddy,” for short, by fans.  At times, it seems that the primary purpose of the plotline is to have an excuse to show some skin in the bedroom scenes.  Sparking romances between characters also is pretty trite TV fare.  But then the writers will toss an interesting idea into the mix, like how the relationship causes both House and Cuddy to act differently in their sparring about House’s outlandish proposed treatment of the patient of the week, that indicates that the plot line could work.

The most recent episode introduced House to Cuddy’s adopted daughter.  I was glad to see that when the girl chewed on House’s cane, Dr. House didn’t dissolve into misty-eyed wonderment at being around a toddler.  Instead, in true House fashion, he looked upset that the bratty kid had slobbered on the cane.  Maybe this could get interesting.

What’s Up With House?

Regular readers of this blog know that I don’t watch much TV, but I do watch House.  Monday’s episode was the finale for this season, and frankly I thought it kind of blew.

Here’s why:  it seemed incredibly contrived and incredibly inconsistent with the long-standing character traits of Dr. Gregory House and Lisa Cuddy. 

For those of you who missed the episode, here’s a synopsis.  The story begins when House gives Cuddy a book written by Cuddy’s grandfather as a present for her moving in with the private investigator.  She seems kind of weird about it and we later learn it is because she and the p.i. got engaged the night before, unbeknownst to House.  In the meantime, a huge crane accident has created a scene of bomb-like devastation in some nearby town.  Cuddy and House both go to the scene, House finds a woman underground whose leg is pinned under the wreckage, and he repeatedly crawls down to help her.  He encourages her to not allow her leg to be amputated.  Cuddy rips House for his advice and for continuing to be a sophomoric, self-centered jerk while she and Wilson are “moving on.”  House eventually changes his mind, spills his guts to the trapped woman, and convinces her to have her leg amputated so she can be freed from the wreckage as an emotional Cuddy looks on.  The trapped woman does so, but dies in the ambulance from some arbitrary post-amputation complication.  A distraught House yells at Foreman, then goes home and is ready to dip into some super-secret Vicodin stash when Cuddy shows up, says she’s broken off the engagement because she loves House, and they end up making out.

Huh?  How realistic is that plot?  Since when would Dr. Gregory House buy a thoughtful gift?

Some Random Thoughts on 2001

I really enjoyed Richard’s post about 2001:  A Space Odyssey, and it got me to thinking about one of my favorite movies.  (It also is a movie that you really haven’t seen unless you’ve seen it on a big screen.)   I think it could be reasonably argued that 2001 is one of the most influential movies of the last 50 years, for at least two reasons.

First, 2001 ushered in the golden age of movie special effects.  Before 2001, movie special effects were little used and were pretty much confined to Ray Harryhausen pictures or stop-motion effects.  2001 was a quantum leap ahead.  Whether it was the classic space station docking scene, or the weightless pen grabbed by the stewardess on the space shuttle, or the astronauts jogging in a seemingly endless and weightless circle, or the giant fetus floating in Jupiter orbit, the special effects on the movie just blew people away.  2001 seemed to destroy all of the barriers and preconceived notions about what could be depicted, visually, on the big screen.  Thereafter, special effects became hugely important parts of movies — some might argue too important.  In any case, films like The Matrix, The Abyss, The Fifth Element, Blade Runner, Star Wars, Jaws, and countless others owe a great debt of gratitude to 2001.

Second, 2001 seemed to be one of the first movies to fully integrate music and on-screen action.  If you watch movies from the ’50s and before — at least, movies that weren’t musicals — the soundtracks typically are muted, background music, where strings might play in a particularly sappy scene.  In the late ’60s, however, soundtracks began to assume a more prominent role.  In 2001, the soundtrack music really played a crucial role.  Everyone remembers The Blue Danube Waltz and the space station docking scene because it was a perfect marriage of sight and sound.  But the scene where the apes discover that a bone can be used as a weapon as Also Sprach Zarathustra rises to a crescendo, or the creepy “eeeeeeeeeeee” music that is heard during some of the suspenseful scenes, or the sad music that plays as the space ship takes its lonely voyage to Jupiter, are equally stunning and effective uses of music.  Now, the use of music to specifically convey messages and advance storylines is so commonplace that it has invaded TV as well as cinema.  On House, for instance, it is not unusual for the final scene to involve no dialogue, but only a carefully chosen song that plays as the show cuts from character to character as they deal with the events of the preceding hour.

2001 is a masterpiece, and it shows that Stanley Kubrick was a genius.

The Unexpected Freedom Of A Rainy Sunday Morning

It is raining cats and dogs in New Albany this morning.  Steady rain, with an occasional thunderstorm, is expected to be an all-day thing.  So, the weekly round of Sunday golf has been canceled, and at 9 a.m. I look forward to the day and wonder what I will do to fill it.

There is something a bit exciting about an unexpectedly open weekend day and the unforeseen choices it presents.  You can be industrious, of course.  You could do the work you brought home, and perhaps tackle some of the chores that have been piling up.  In my case, those chores would include straightening up the basement, shining my work shoes, and putting the overflowing coins that have been spilling out of the box on my dresser into paper coin sleeves for eventual deposit.  (The chores that I really need to do, like weeding our brick patio and back beds, can be rationally deferred due to weather conditions.)  Or, you can be intellectual and inclined toward self-improvement, and curl up with a good book and catch up on reading.  Or you can have some fun, and work on a personal project like editing your Ipod.  Or you can be lazy, turn on the TV, and sink blissfully into the rich silt of American popular culture, remote at the ready.

What to do?

From House To White House To Hollywood Again

The Washington Post is reporting that Kal Penn, whose real name is Kalpen Modi, is returning to Hollywood.  Penn left the cast of House to join the Obama Administration and fill a position in the White House Office of Public Engagement.  After working there for only nine months, Penn is hitting the road to film the next sequel in the Harold and Kumar series — which is supposed to be a Christmas movie.

I was sorry when Penn left House because I liked his character and thought he added a needed dose of humor and humanity to the show.  I thought it was awful that the writers had the character commit suicide, and now I am doubly sorry they did so because it would be nice to have him back on the show.

In any case, I’m not surprised he has decided that a political job is not for him.  Politics sounds very exciting and interesting when you first hear about it, but staff jobs can be a long, hard slog.  You work with a lot of functionaries and career hacks, and after a while you have to decide whether you want to join their ranks.  Resurrecting Kumar’s character sounds pretty good when the alternative is becoming a soulless bureaucrat in some government office no one has heard or or really cares about.

Happy About House

I have been pleased with the new season of House, which I think is shaping up to be one of the best ever.  The entertaining Dr. House already has survived an extended stay in a mental institution, kicked his Vicodin habit (for now, at least), lost his medical license, shown his cooking ability, moved in with Wilson, watched his team kill off a ruthless African dictator, and generally shed a lot of the baggage that, I think, weighed down the show last year.  How often can you watch House pop pills, act like an ass, treat people like dirt, and then see that all is forgiven because he solves the unsolvable medical mystery after an epiphany with about five minutes left to go in the show?  Predictability breeds viewer fatigue.

Last night’s episode was a good example of how old story lines apparently are ending and the characters are moving on to promising new vistas.  For years, House has treated Wilson like crap, with rare exceptions.  Last night, after House kept Wilson from committing a career-killing move and then made Wilson feel better with some straight talk, you got a sense of why Wilson honestly considers House to be his best friend.  For years, House and Cuddy have danced a smoldering, unconsummated sexual samba.  Last night, when House decided to finally act on his interest in Cuddy, he learned that he had waited too long and Cuddy was going out with House’s brilliant and exceptionally odd former private investigator.  Even better, House seemed to accept the news with some maturity, rather than pulling a crude prank or plotting some painful method of revenge.  For a few episodes now, Foreman has actually seemed like a likeable human being rather than an arrogant jerk.  Chase and Cameron have gotten some camera time, and now they will have to deal with Chase’s decision to tell Cameron about his cold-blooded murder of the perpetrator of African genocide.  From the previews, it looks like Taub will be returning and 13 too; I pray only that the leaden, completely unconvincing romance between Foreman and 13 isn’t resurrected and thrust in our faces yet again.

I don’t know where it will all lead — which is the main reason I am finding this season so enjoyable so far.

House: The New Season

I was traveling last week and didn’t get a chance to watch the two-hour season premiere of House until this past weekend.  Kish and I had different reactions to it:  she thought it was pretty mediocre, and I thought it was pretty good.  I liked most of the new characters in the psychiatric hospital and the fact that House had to work to earn the recommendation letter that was essential to allow him to return to doing what he loves, which is to solve puzzles while practicing medicine.  Although there were some groaner plot devices — and the inevitable reminders of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, but with Lady Musicbox instead of Chief Broom — I liked the notion of House finally coming to realize that he needed to make a change for himself.  Finally, I thought the psychiatrist was an evenly matched foil for House, and I hope he remains an occasional character.

Last season Dr. Gregory House came to be such a jerk that the show was, at times, incredibly difficult to watch, much less accept as the product of ordinary dramatic license.  I’m hoping that this season House struggles to behave like a human being while trying to preserve his extraordinary diagnostic skills.  That story arc will be a lot more interesting than the lame “romance” between Foreman and 13, Cuddy’s decision to adopt a child, or the other forced plotlines that made last season such a weak one.