A Shameless Ending

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.

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.

Godless

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.

Saturday Morning, Revisited

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.

Yellowstone

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.

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!