The Sinner

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.

Weeds

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.

Monty Python’s Almost The Truth

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.

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.

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.

Five Essential Inventions For A Tolerable Quarantine

We’ve been self-isolating for more than three weeks now, and while many people are complaining about being cooped up for so long, I think it’s important to recognize those things that have made our collective bout with quarantine more tolerable.  I’ve come up with a list of five things that I think have been essential, listed in reverse order of their first invention.  Two of them are about as old as civilization, interestingly.

  1.  Alcohol — Where would we be without wine, beer, and other adult beverages?  At the end of a hard day of working at home, a glass of wine or a cold tumbler of suds sure make the graphs showing how curves can be flattened and the news about ventilator production go down a bit easier.  Liquor sales spiked after the shutdown was announced, and it quickly became clear that Americans put alcohol on the same exalted level as toilet paper when it comes to being absolutely certain of having a more than ample supply.  As somebody said, it’s not clear that people are drinking more during the work-at-home period, but they’re sure not drinking any less, either.  As for the invention of adult beverages, humans have made both wine and beer for so long that their dates of creation have been lost in the mists of time.  Scientists recently discovered earthenware jars containing wine residue that indicated humans were guzzling fermented grape juice more than 8,000 years ago, and beer is the subject of the oldest recorded recipe in the world — instructions that were found on ancient Egyptian papyrus scrolls that date back to 5,000 B.C. 
  2. Soap — You’ve got to give people something to do during a pandemic to make them feel like they are pitching in, and for Americans the instructions are clear:  wash your hands, thoroughly and repeatedly.   As soon as we get back from our allotted exercise walks we head dutifully to the sink for our required 20-second bout with lathering, scrubbing, and rinsing.  It may not sound like much, but those constant 20-second scrubbings add up and help to pass the slow-moving quarantine time, and they make us feel good about doing our part.  Soap also dates back thousands of years, with historians believing that the Babylonians invented the first soap, made from fats boiled with ashes, about 5,000 years ago.
  3. Canned food and crock pots — It’s probably safe to say that people are cooking more at home than they’ve done in the last 50 years, and because there’s an interest in trying to minimize trips to the grocery store, people are trying to stretch their food stores and leftovers farther than ever before.  That’s where canned food and crock pots really strut their stuff.  In fact, I think it is safe to say that no single device is more adept at converting aging leftovers into tasty meals than the crock pot.  Whether it’s stews made of random items hauled from the cupboard, or last night’s chili made with leftover meat loaf, leftover sausage, a can of black beans, some chopped onions, and liberal doses of Texas Pete’s hot sauce and sriracha sauce, our crock pot has been a high-producing kitchen item during the last few weeks.  The smells coming from the crock pot also help to make the quarantine household a happy place, too.  Canned foods were first invented more than 200 years ago, and the first slow cookers — the precursors to the crock pot, which was first call the “bean pot” — were invented about 80 years ago
  4. PCs — Where would we be without personal computers and laptops?  For many of us, they are the one, essential device that allows us to work from home, and without them the unemployment statistics in America would be much, much worse.  They also allow us to get the latest news with a few touches of keyboard buttons, and to catch up on our friends and check out the latest coronavirus memes and political rants on social media websites.  The laptop PC is the fulcrum that has moved the working world, and the COVID-19 quarantine is the singular event that will probably change our approach to how people work and do business, forever.  The first personal computer — the Altair 8800 — was invented in 1975, and the first laptop — which weighed more than 30 pounds, incidentally — was released in 1981.
  5. Netflix and other streaming services — One very popular topic among friends on social media these days is swapping information about nightly viewing options.  Everybody’s got an opinion, because we’re all watching a lot of TV during this shut-in period, and we’re running through viewing options faster than ever before.  (The ten episodes of season three of Ozark, for example, flew by far too quickly.)  Netflix and other streaming services allow us to pick from an enormous array or TV shows and movies, old and new, and then advise our friends on whether options like Tiger King or Messiah are worth checking out.  What would we do without constant entertainment?  Netflix first started streaming content in 2007 — just in the nick of time, relatively speaking.

So there you have it — millennia of human invention and creativity, all combining to make the Great Coronavirus Crisis of 2020 a bit more tolerable for American shut-ins.  Thanks to the ancient winemakers, the Egyptians and Babylonians, and the techno-geeks and food canners.  We owe you a great debt of gratitude.

And now, it’s time to check out a few websites and think about what we’ll be making for dinner tonight.

Breaking Badathon

Kish and I admittedly have been derelict in our hot TV show watching.  We have never watched Mad Men, or Dexter, or the vast majority of the other shows that have dominated the national conversation and shifted the zeitgeist over the past decade or so.

That includes Breaking Bad.  And our out-of-itness meant that, for years, when one of our friends would ask what we thought of the latest episode, we could only shrug and say we don’t watch the show — a response that was typically greeted with a puzzled look and then a heartfelt “You’ve got to watch it!”  But somehow, with everything else on our plates, we just never got around to it . . . until now.

We’ve decided to do a crash course in cultural catch-up.  With AT&T U-Verse as the platform, we’ve subscribed to Netflix, installed Roku, and started our studies.  Breaking Bad is the first class on the schedule, and each night after I return home from work we’ve become immersed in the weird world of Walter White and his pal Jesse and his crooked lawyer and watched mini-marathons of episodes.  We’re now nearing the end of season 3, and things just seem to be getting worse, big picture, for the ever-rationalizing OCD cancer-battling chemistry teacher turned bad-ass meth cook.

Some people argue that Breaking Bad is the best show that has ever been broadcast on TV.  Based on what we’ve seen so far, I would say it is a superior show, although I’m not sure that it is quite at the level of The Sopranos or The Wire.  Still, it’s got all of the elements of a great show — fascinating characters that you care about, great acting, evil, unexpected violence, stone-cold criminals, difficult moral choices, and little touches that just make the show a bit more interesting, like a character who always wears purple.

But here’s my problem:  I simply can’t watch too much non-sports TV programming without dozing off.  I don’t care how good a show is, and whether Hank is in mortal peril — there’s something about sitting on a couch and watching hours of TV that makes me nod off.  Three episodes is about my limit, and that’s OK by me.  I prefer to parcel out and savor the episodes of a great show, rather than watching them all in one big gush.

Will You Binge On Arrested Development?

I never watched Arrested Development when it was on network TV.  Richard recommended it highly, and said it was one of the greatest sitcoms ever, but for whatever reason I never found time to watch it.

Now, seven years have gone by, and long-deprived Arrested Development fans are overjoyed.  Netflix is offering the resurrected series, and has posted all 15 new episodes at once.  It’s how Netflix — which is trying to break the stranglehold of broadcast TV, and get Americans to think differently about how their home entertainment should be delivered — does things.  And the release of a block of 15 new episodes raises a crucial question for the dedicated fan:  do you consume, in gluttonous fashion, all 15 new episodes in one gorging, eating-Cheetos-and-guzzling-caffeinated-beverages-sitting, or do you, in refined fashion, carefully limit yourself to one episode per day, or per week, to string out the pleasure of becoming reacquainted with a show and its characters that have become like an old friend?

Call me hopelessly undisciplined, but I’d be tempted to watch as many episodes as I could in the shortest period of time.  If someone told me that there was an entirely new season of Deadwood or The Sopranos with their original casts I’d plop myself down in front of the tube and have at it for as long as I could bear.

So if you know someone who loved Arrested Development, don’t be troubled if you can’t get ahold of them this weekend.  They may just be indulging their gluttonous side, and we shouldn’t get in the way of their pleasure.