TV postsFriday May 17, 2013
On the Final Episode of 'The Office'
Over on the Atlantic site, Kevin Craft has a nice piece on the final episode of the NBC series “The Office”: why it was once great, why it couldn't remain so:
Set in Scranton, Pennsylvania, in the sales office of a nearly obsolete paper company, the show's characters at first didn't develop as much as stagnate. Like their dead-end jobs and the dead-end lives that inevitably spring from such jobs, these people were just passing time, one prolonged meeting at a time. Just as reality television soothes a viewer's inner narcissist by telling stories of even more pronounced narcissists wreaking havoc on their surroundings, The Office made its audience feel better about their professional lives by showcasing a workplace with even drabber décor and more grating coworkers. ...
The original theme it explored—office work sucks—is only funny if the characters never grow. What made the early episodes so dryly funny and morbidly relatable was that the seasons and the names of the meetings changed, but the paper-pushing remained the same. Just-another-cog-in-the-wheel syndrome only engenders pathos if the wheel spins indefinitely and the cogs stay put. But writers can only use constructed bonding experiences, like an awkward sexual harassment training session or an impromptu “Office Olympics,” so many times to illustrate the lengths to which white-collar drones will go to survive another excruciating day. In television, things have to change.
“...the lengths to which white-collar drones will go to survive another excruciating day.” Nice.
Patricia and I watched the final episode last night but it was a bit too sweet for me. And it wasn't like the final episode of the British “Office,” in which Ricky Gervais gave you a cherry on top (Tim and Dawn finally getting together) of the shit sundae he'd been serving all that time (every other excruciatingly brilliant episode). No, this was just too sweet. A happy ending for everyone. Right? Doesn't everyone get what they want? Jim takes the dream job and gets out of Scranton (with his family, of course); Pam paints murals; Dwight gets to be office manager (and, in the only brilliant touch of the last season brilliant touch, he also becomes assistant to the assistant to the regional manager, or the direct report of his own direct report). Erin finds her parents, Andy finds fame (or infamy), Stanley gets to kick back away from everybody.
I'm with Kevin Craft here. I wanted more fourth-wall moments at the end. How did it feel once the cameras went away? How did it feel once they showed up in the first place? That's something “The Office” never really dealt with. Was it easier surviving another excruciating day because you were being filmed doing it? Did that make it seem relevant? Like you had an audience that most of us don't have? Did that change the behavior of the people there? Give me some Heisenberg principle, kids.
I know. Network TV. But we're not getting any younger. Or smarter.
Even so, farewell “Office.” You were my last network show.
Jeff Wells Goes 'Lincoln' on Bendedict Cumberbatch
The only serious standout element in JJ Abrams‘ Star Trek Into Darkness, the only thing that makes you sit up and go “whoa, wait…this is good,” is the lead villain performance by Benedict Cumberbatch. The poor guy has a somewhat oddly shaped face and weird demon-cat eyes so he’ll never play the good guy, but he’s a serious world-class actor with a kind of young Richard Burton quality and an energy field that just grabs hold and lifts all boats.
Right. And apparently Clint Eastwood's adam's apple was too big and three guitar/one drum groups were on the way out. Besides, who'd listen to a band from Liverpool?
If you've seen Cumberbatch, you get what Wells is saying. Even so, dude's playing Sherlock Holmes in a great modern adaptation on the BBC:
Yes, his Holmes is a bit of an ass. But to say he couldn't play the good guy? Holmes is the greatest fictional detective ever. That's right, Batman. Take a back-bat-seat.
The beauty of the Intenet. Even on a day when you have nothing to say, someone gives you something to say.
Mad Men Myself
That's supposed to be me in the center there. A couple of things wrong with it. The clothing options at the “Mad Men Yourself” site didn't really include anything I would wear (bike gear, T-shirts, etc.), so I'm stuck with this. They did have a kind of suit-vest thing, and I often wear sweater vests at work, even post-Rick Santorum, so that probably would've been the best choice; but I was putting this together with Patricia, who, I believe, is anti-sweater vest and chose the outfit she preferred on me rather than what I would wear. Men everywhere, mad or not, nod in understanding.
I'm also not that tall (although maybe on a Hollywood set?), and I don't drink much soda anymore (coffee, beer), and I mostly read the newspaper online.
But the biggest problem? I'm facing the wrong way. Joan's behind me. That's just wrong. To quote Truman Capote in “The Muses Are Heard”:
A tall, striking blonde, Miss Ryan was wearing a low strapless dress that hugged her curves cleverly; and as she swayed down the aisle, masculine eyes swerved in her direction like flowers turning toward the sun.
I'm a flower that's turned away from the sun.
The new season begins tonight. It's 1968 apparently. Wonder when Don's going to stop using Vitalis. Wonder when he's going to get muttonchop sideburns and a flowered shirt with wide collars. Wonder how he's going to try to hang on as the world, particularly the advertising world, gets younger.
That's been the appeal of “Mad Men” for me since the second season. We know what's going to happen but we don't know what's going to happen to them. We want to warn them about the future because we can't warn ourselves about our own.
Kirk, Spock, and Mad
While searching for a good image to go with the recent post about MAD magazine's movie parodies, I came across this shot on the set of the original “Star Trek”:
How cool is that? Can anyone figure out the episode they were shooting? Tim?
Marco Rubio's Stephan Seely Moment
By now Marco Rubio's Poland Springs water-bottle moment just three days ago seems old news: first laughed at, then mocked, then satirized, and now dismissed and forgotten almost as if it were Michael Dukakis in a tank or James Stockdale at the '92 debates. The moment the epitaph was written. (Warning: “You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore” was such a moment, too.)
The best thing I read on the ordeal was posted by Ian Crouch on The New Yorker site. It's pretty funny:
By the second minute of Marco Rubio’s official Republican response to the President’s State of the Union address last night, it was clear that the Senator’s body was betraying him. His lips caught each other in the way they do at moments of stress, when we are suddenly confronted, after long lapses of unthought, with the actual mechanics of speech. Under the hot lights, Rubio’s mouth went dry. A few minutes later, sweat trickled down his right temple, and he moved his hand instinctively to wipe it away. The dry mouth persisted, and, at times, his eyes flashed with a kind of pleading and mounting desperation: the speech was less than halfway over, with words and words to go. His hands, already large in the frame when he kept them low in front of him, flashed a few times to his lips. And then back to his temple.
By the eighth minute, he seemed to have adjusted, and it looked as if he might push through to the end. But then, three minutes later, he made a gamble and reached for a water bottle offscreen: he lurched down to his left and fumbled a bit, making a terrifyingly intimate moment of eye contact with the audience before taking a quick sip from an unfortunately tiny bottle and then ducking to put it back. He quickly returned to his speech, and spun out the final few minutes. But, by then, those eyes had turned faintly sad; while continuing to perform the words, Rubio looked as though he knew he’d made a mistake, and that all anyone would remember in the morning would be the image of him stooped to the edge of the frame, sheepishly grasping for the smallest plastic bottle of water in the District of Columbia.
Crouch focused less on the water bottle and more on the reason for the water bottle: the nervous, dry mouth. In this way, too, Rubio reminded me less of a potential presidential candidate (how he's been touted for years) and more of Stephan Seely.
Name ring a bell? Did you ever watch SCTV? Stephan, played by a bewigged John Candy, was the co-host, along with the bouncy, zippy Alexis (Catherine O'Hara), of “Preteen World,” which was a takeoff on “Zoom,” or “Wonderama.” And while Alexis was glib, Stephan, bless his heart, always put in a good effort but he could never get the words out. Too nervous. Mouth too dry. Half his time was spent hard-swallowing mid-word. I think he made me laugh harder than any John Candy character. His discomfort was such a joy to me. Probably because I identified. Even at that age, my body was constantly betraying me.
I couldn't find a good clip online of Stephan but this one isn't bad. He's only in the first minute or so, and his dry-mouthed swallows are subtle, but you get the idea:
Yes, we're a shallow culture to knock out a potential presidential candidate because of one dry-mouthed moment; but Rubio wouldn't be where he is if we weren't already shallow. He's there because his politics fit the base (rabid), his ethnicity fits the demographics (growing), and because of the way he looks (handsome). Plus the focus on the water bottle probably did him a service, rather than a disservice, since his speech was the usual GOP BS.
Hell, I might actually have a bit of sympathy for Rubio now. He reminded me, for one brief, vulnerable moment, of Stephan Seely, patron saint of the betraying body. In that moment, and only that moment, he seemed like the type of guy I'd want to have a beer with. Or at least buy one for.
Stephan Seely (right), patron saint of the betraying body.
The Seven Words Women Long to Hear
“I do love you so terribly much.”
--Matthew Crawley (Dan Stephens) to Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery) on last night's season 3 premiere of the BBC Series “Downton Abbey.” It's an awful show. Sorry. I watch it because Patricia likes it but it's a soap opera with high production values. But there are rewards. Chiefly:
- Anything the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) says. God, she's good.
- Anywhere Jessica Brown Findlay (Lady Sybil) stands. Yowsah.
Last night I liked the battle between O'Brien and Thomas. Hope it continues. I like the chumminess, as men marrying into this crazy family, between Matthew and the bomb-throwing chauffeur dude.
That's it. Get better, show. And somebody give me my mash-up between “Downton” and “Boardwalk Empire.”
My Name is Saul Berenson; You Attacked My Country; Prepare to Die
Me: You think she's leaving him?
She: How can anyone leave Mandy Patinkin?
--Conversation between Patricia and myself while watching Season 1, Episode 5 of “Homeland,” starring Damian Lewis, Claire Danes and Mandy Patinkin. The show, which we're obviously late to, ain't bad.
What's the Sweet Spot for Nostalgia: 20 Years? 40? Or Is It All About the Boomers?
I got some smart reaction to the post the other day about Adam Gopnik's “Mad Men”-inspired 40-Year Golden Rule on nostalgia. I basically argued for 20 years.
From Larry Rosen:
Ridiculous thesis statement by Gopnik. The sweet spot for nostalgia moves at exactly the same pace as baby boomers age.
From Chris Knapp:
I agree with your rejoinder to Gopnik on the nostalgia cycle. Twenty years is the primary lookback because nostalgia is typically about recapturing a feeling of innocence or wonderment — and so for most creators it means looking back to when they were 11-12 (maybe 13) years old. MAD MEN is the exception rather than the rule, because it is not looking back at Matthew Wiener's “age of innocence” but at the apex (and subsequent erosion) of American credulity. In that sense MAD MEN is not really a nostalgia tale but fits more in the genre of tragedy.
Joan wants to know what you think.
Adam Gopnik on 'Mad Men' and Nostalgia: Is He Off by 20 years?
I'm a fan but hackles were raised early in Adam Gopnik's New Yorker piece, “The Forty-Year Itch,” about nostalgia and “Mad Men.” He writes that...
...it seems time to pronounce a rule about American popular culture: the Golden Forty-Year Rule. The prime site of nostalgia is always whatever happened, or is thought to have happened, in the decade between forty and fifty years past.
My immediate thought: Shouldn't that be the 20-year rule? In the 1960s, “Hogan's Heroes” and “Batman,” which was a satire of the 1949 serial “Batman & Robin,” “Happy Days” and “Grease” in the 1970s, and “That '70s Show” in the 1990s. The 20-year gap seems primed to allow for kids to grow up and attain a position of creative power, from which they render their childhood for everyone else. It allows the culture a period from which to grow up (or down), and miss (or disparage) what once was.
But Gopnik marshalls his 40-year arguments:
- 1940s: “Meet Me in St. Louis,” “The Magnificent Ambersons,” and “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” all set during the first decade of the 20th century.
- 1950s: “The Seven Little Foys” and “A Night to Remember”: weak arguments.
- 1960s: Apparently there was a series called “The Roaring Twenties”? Musically, though, you had “Westminster Cathedral” and the '20s pastiche numbers of a Beatles-era Paul McCartney: “When I'm 64,” “Your Mother Should Know,” “Honey Pie,” etc. But that's Paulie more than the culture, isn't it? Please don't tell me, Adam, that your argument hinges on the oddities of little Paul McCartney.
- 1970s: “The Sting” and “Paper Moon” and... that's it. A better argument is “Star Wars,” which, though it took place a long ago, was like a compressed 1930s serial with better special effects. A better argument: “Annie” on Broadway.
- 1980s: “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (which Gopnik mistakenly places during World War II rather than 1936), “Hope and Glory,” “Empire of the Sun” and “Biloxi Blues.” But didn't the greater WWII-era nostalgia come about in the late '90s/early '00s with Brokaw's book, Spielberg's movie, and HBO's “Band of Brothers.” So is that the 50-to-60 year cycle?
- 1990s: a '50s-era love for Hush Puppies and Converse All-Stars? Plus skinny ties? I'm not feeling it. It wasn't like the greaser love we had in the blow-dried 1970s.
And that brings us to the '00s and “Mad Men.”
Further down, Gopnik admits that the 40-year nostalgia cyle...
...carries epicycles within it: the twenty-year cycle, for instance, by which the forty-somethings recall their teen-age years, producing in the seventies a smaller wave of fifties nostalgia to dance demurely alongside the longing for the thirties.
A smaller wave? From where I sat in the 1970s, which was generally on the floor watching TV as a teenager, the '50s boomed: “Happy Days,” “Grease,” Sha-Na-Na, and ultimately “Diner,” which was early '60s, but was released in the early '80s. Twenty-year cycle again.
The bigger point, which Gopnik doesn't delve into, is whether the 20-year or 40-year set piece is true nostalgia (a wish for a pristine, simpler time) or anti-nostalgia (mocking that earlier, dopier time). The first season of “Happy Days,” for example, never felt particularly happy to me. It was only later, with the rise of Fonzie, that the ostensible lead, Richie Cunningham, came out ahead at the end of each episode. Before that, the “Happy Days” title always felt a trifle ironic to me: an antidote for those who doted on the '50s.
“Mad Men” is even stronger in this regard. The show is advertised nostalgically (when men were men and women were curvy and more easily fondled) but presents such a horrific vision of chauvinism that even a semi-chauvinist like myself longs for women's lib to come along and right the damn ship. The show, beloved for its early '60s fashions, which are about to disappear in a haze of pot smoke and long hair and hippie, bearded naturalism, seems as much a comment on our times as its times. Think of that early scene when Sally Draper plays spaceman with the dry cleaner bag over her head and her mother warns that the clothes that were in that bag better be in good shape, young lady. Modern audiences laugh: “She's not concerned her daughter will suffocate!” At the same time, deep down, we know we're overconcerned. Back then, adults were adults and kids seemed unbreakable. Now there's something childish about us even as we treat our kids like fragile objects: carrying them from playdate to playdate.
In the end I think there's nothing golden about Gopnik's 40-year rule. And better to concentrate on what the nostalgic piece says about us. Do we think we're hipper now (which is how we got “Batman”), too complicated (which is why we needed “Happy Days”), without national purpose (thus “Greatest Generation”), or uptight (why we long for “Mad Men”)?
There's always something wrong with the present; there's always something good somewhere in the past.
“Mad Men”: Buttoned-up but revealiing our modern uptightness.
Izzy Iskowitz, Heavyweight Champ, 1977
YouTube is increasingly killing me. I can lose whole mornings on the site now, mostly with comedic stuff: Louis CK, Ricky Gervais, old Eddie Murphy. I'm not sure how I came across this but it's a bit from “The Tonight Show,” July 11, 1977 when Rob Reiner, of all co-hosts, was co-hosting, and late in the program he brought on Harry Shearer and Billy Crystal who did a Tom Snyder/ Muhammad Ali bit. Apparently Ali was changing his name and religion again; he was now going to be Izzy Iskowitz. The whole thing is so well-done and smart. “Portnoy's Complaint” is even referenced:
But my favorite part is when Muhammad/Izzy/Billy talks up great Jewish athletes and mentions Rod Carew. “He's going to hit .400 this year,” he says, “but for you .395.”
The past isn't even past. It's on YouTube.
Quote of the Day
“There was an unabashed movie-ness to the sequence — an exuberant yet controlled showmanship — that the drama has never before attempted. There wasn’t a trace of Coppola-style solemnity; the sequence just flew by, and the camera seemed to be tap-dancing around the actors. Jimmy’s last moments were nearly as old-movie cinematic. Having a psychologically damaged vet buy it in the shadow of a war memorial was already verging on too much; and yet somehow having the shocking double-cross and execution happen on a melodramatically dark-and-stormy night put the whole sequence over the top in a good way. 'To the Lost' director Tim van Patten, who helmed some of the best 'Sopranos' and 'Boardwalk [Empire]' episodes, is the kind of filmmaker who would have anonymously directed five B-pictures a year under the old studio system, then been discovered in the 1960s by the French.“
--Matt Zoller Seitz, ”'Boardwalk Empire' does not want your forgiveness," on Salon.com
R*I*P: Harry Morgan (1915-2011)
I assume I first saw him as Officer Bill Gannon in a late '60s reboot of the “Dragnet” series, “Dragnet 1967,” clean-cut and serious and busting hippies. Then I might have seen him in a “Partridge Family” episode, faking a neck injury to bilk the Partridges of imagined dough but still stooping to pick up a handkerchief dropped by a pre-“Charlie's Angels” Farrah Fawcett. Did I see him as the nutso general, Bartford Hamilton Steele, in a great, early episode of “M*A*S*H,” or did I come across that gem only in re-runs, only after actor Harry Morgan took on the role of Col. Sherman T. Potter, the gruff, lovable, former cavalry officer, doctor and commander of the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital unit? It was part of the show's seamless transition after its third season. Actors McLean Stevenson and Wayne Rogers wanted out, so their characters were replaced by new characters, with new personalities, that still allowed the dynamic of the show to remain the same.
“M*A*S*H” was central to my life for a while, particularly from 1975 to 1977, with both Morgan and Mike Farrell on board, but before the departure of Larry Linville's Frank Burns, and, more importantly, before the departure of producer Gene Reynolds. In retrospect, I see the show as brilliant during its first three seasons (under the guidance of both Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds), good during its next two years, (under the guidance of Gene Reynolds), and then increasingly preachy and anachronistic (proto-feminist) for the last seven. Its final episode drew record ratings but by that time, in 1983, its anti-war message was lost in the chest-thumping, gung-ho era of Ronald Reagan, which, in a certain sense, we haven't left.
I haven't thought of those “M*A*S*H” episodes in years, although, for a time, being a short man, I often quoted one of Col Potter's lines: “When I was younger I was short,” and then with a twinkle, an upright carriage, and a jaunty bounce, “not like I am now.” Col. Potter also introduced me to his favorite western, “My Darling Clementine,” now one of mine, which the 4077th watched one evening. Then there was the episode Radar O'Reilly adopted a horse, against regulations, and, as a way to keep it, and keep it safe, he gave it to Col. Potter, who, tearing up while walking around it, suddenly slides on a mess the horse made on the floor. “That's disgusting!” Frank Burns says. “Son,” Col. Potter responds with a smile, “to me, that's a tip-toe through the tulips!”
In 1996, Morgan said of Sherman Potter:
He was firm. He was a good officer and he had a good sense of humor. I think it’s the best part I ever had.
Morgan was a character actor who often played the sidekick, as in “Dragnet,” or in his sixth film, which turned out to be one of the great films, “The Ox-Bow Incident,” in which he plays Art Croft, the partner of Henry Fonda's Gil Carter, two drifters who get caught up in a town posse and witness the lynching of three men for murder. In the final reel, it's discovered that the men are innocent. Too late. Fonda plays the conscience of the story; Morgan, as he often did, as he did with both “Dragnet” and “M*A*S*H,” plays the man who stands with the conscience of the story.
The obit from The New York Times can be found here.
R*I*P., Colonel. May we all live such long, fruitful, creative lives.
Looking at a painting of a woman “who could do better,” and about to order a whisky, which is all they had, at the beginning of “The Ox-Bow Incident” (1942).
No No Nanette; Yes Yes Ken Burns
Did anyone watch Ken Burns' “Prohibiton” doc on PBS last week? It's good stuff. I like the overview of the types of movements we had, and have, in this country: what inspires them, what drives them, what ultimately causes them to succeed. You could argue that Prohibition succeeded, or at least was passed into law, for three reasons: 1) the creation of the U.S. income tax in the 1910s (meaning the U.S. government no longer needed to rely on taxes on the sale of liquor); 2) anti-German sentiment during and after WWI (since the big breweries were all German-American); and 3) the usual feelings about human perfectability. Plus misconceptions about what the Volstead Act entailed. Many didn't think prohibition would apply to beer, for example.
There's a good section on Seattle, too, which I never knew was a bootlegging hub. But it makes sense. There's proximity to Canada, with all its booze, and the islands and coves of Puget Sound, with all its places to hide.
There's good stuff on Assistant Attorney General Mabel Walker Willebrandt, the most famous woman outside of Hollywood in the 1920s, and the rise and fall of George Remus, perhaps the biggest bootlegger in the country, who was done in by, of all things, a dame. Plus Al Capone.
But I was most amused by this shot. You could argue it's merely a generic shot of New York City in the 1920s. But there's no way that Ken Burns, official documentarian of Major League Baseball, doesn't know the true meaning of “No No Nanette.”
Entourage's “The End”: Good Riddance
Was any final episode worse than “Entourage”'s final episode, which aired Sunday night, Sept. 11th, but which Patricia and I didn't watch until last night? I barely made it through the final 30 minutes. You saw where it was going, even if where it was going seemed impossibly stupid, which it was.
So Eric gets back together with Whatsherface, who is pregnant with his child, but who left him because her father hated him. Vince decides to marry the uptight British Vanity Fair writer, but why, and why does she choose him, and did we even see them dating? Ari gives it all up for his awful, awful wife wearing her awful, awful dress. It ends with the breakup of the entourage and multiple marriages. Cute. It thinks it's Shakespeare but it's closer to Conrad. The horror, the horror.
“Entourage” started out as a charming, boys-will-be-boys show about the Hollywood minutia between the moviemaking—the premieres, the talk-show appearances, the reviews, the girls—with everyone focused on the just-taking-off career of Vinny Chase. Ari, the agent, pushed for the big-budget blockbuster; Eric, the friend and manager, pushed for good scripts; he pushed for indie and respectable. That was the dynamic. What became the dynamic? There wasn't any. Instead of revolving around Vince, everyone twisted in an orbit of themselves and the show couldn't keep it all together. It became charmless and the boys became assholes. Eric started an agency, Turtle started a company, then another, then another. He became svelte, dated impossibly good-looking women, talked to lifelong friends as if they were clients. Everything sounded like a business deal except the business deals. It all felt false.
It began with four guys from Queens stumbling their way toward Hollywood stardom and ended with charmless, successful men giving it all up for charmless, shrewish women. It steals its big scene from “Shawshank”: the aria, swelling through Ari's offices, and setting him free from work. Everyone quits their job. In the middle of a recession. For women. Is that the Hollywood line? You can't have a J-O-B if you want to be with me?
This is Ari, to his wife, way back in season 2:
You can have it if you want to live in Agoura fucking Hills and go to group therapy, but if you want a Beverly Hills mansion, a country club membership, and nine weeks a year in a Tuscan villa, then I'm gonna need to take a call when it comes in at noon on a motherfucking Wednesday!
In the end, she wins. She gets it all. They move to Italy. Lord. Or maybe I should say they're about to move to Italy. Apparently there was a coda after the credits in which Ari is finally given the chance to run a studio, which he's always wanted to do, and the camera closes in on his face. In that second, I imagine, he becomes Ari again: calculating, ready to convince his awful, awful wife to give up her dream of doing nothing for his dream of doing something. That's key, actually. He becomes Ari again. Because in these final episodes he stopped being Ari, just as Vince stopped being Vince. So does Vince become Vince again in another coda? Does Turtle gain 50 pounds?
Hollywood changed our boys. Only Drama stayed true to character. Only Kevin Dillon continued to charm by bumbling.
The show closed with Led Zeppelin, “Going to California,” but it should've closed with The Doors:
This is the end, beautiful friend
This is the end, my only friend, the end
Of our elaborate plans, the end
Of everything that stands, the end
No safety or surprise, the end
The boys-will-be-boys beginning.
The end: So very tired.
My Long and Winding Road to a Piece of “Twin Peaks” Cherry Pie
In 1990, I watched most of the first season of David Lynch's “Twin Peaks” at my father's house in Minneapolis, caught the second-to-last episode at my sister's place in Seattle, and saw the final episode of the first season about a month later, in Taipei, Taiwan, when my father (finally!) shipped it to me. You could say I was hooked.
Initially I assumed its locale was Michigan: all those Douglas firs and proximity to Canada, I suppose. Turned out it was Washington state, where I moved in 1991. For a time I worked at the University Book Store, where the diary for Laura Palmer had been bought by someone on Lynch's production team, and every so often I visited North Bend, the true locale for the show, for a hike up Mt. Si. But I never went into Twede's Cafe, formerly the Mar T Cafe, home of cherry pie and that damn fine cup of coffee. Hey, is that how the whole coffee thing began? Does Howard Schultz owe his fortune to David Lynch and Special Agent Dale Cooper?
Haven't really thought about the show much since, to be honest, but Sunday I drove out of Seattle early to hike up Bare Mountain, whose trailhead is approximately 24 miles north of North Bend, mostly on dirt roads. The hike turned out to be a bust. In the first hour I had to climb over five trees that had fallen on the trail, each one an omen; then the trail became so overrun with vegetation, six or seven feet high, that I practically needed a machete to keep going. I fought my way through one patch, then another, weeds scraping my shins and drawing blood; but when the third patch appeared, and I couldn't for the life of me see where the trail might finally rise above the tree line, I feared I was on the wrong path and backtracked, then wound up backtracking all the way to the trailhead. So instead of summiting on a sky-blue day, I had a two-hour walk in the woods and weeds. Not that there weren't rewards:
Driving back over the dirt road, I decided, in order to salvage some part of the day, to finally stop at the Mar T, now Twede's, to check it out.
It took a second for my eyes to adjust to the darkness of the restaurant. One o'clock on a Sunday but the place was bustling. A few booths were open but I opted for the counter, then opted for a burger and fries. So far that day I'd only had coffee and sweet things (trail mix, etc.), so coffee and cherry pie didn't appeal. As I was eating, I did something Dale Cooper couldn't do back in 1990: I checked my email on my smartphone and found a back-and-forth between Patricia and our neighbor Ward about an outdoor dinner party we were all attending that evening in downtown Seattle. Ward talked about picking up the ingredients for a peach pie; Patricia suggested she and I get bread or cheese on the way. To me, an alternative immediately suggested itself:
Two birds. We wouldn't arrive empty-handed and I could finally have my “Twin Peaks” cherry pie after all these years.
Patricia was initially against the idea. Ward was baking a pie, she said, so it seemed gauche, or at least territorial, to bring a pie of our own. Ward overruled her. “You can never have too much pie,” he wrote.
The dinner party overlooked Puget Sound. Drinks and food flowed. The sun set over the Sound.
But as the sun faded, so did Patricia. She'd just had arthroscopic surgery and was still in the recovery phase. In fact, the dinner party was her first night out. So we left. Before the pie. Which we left behind.
The next morning after the usual chores and ablutions—feeding Jellybean, showering, making coffee—Jellybean, now fed and sassy, was meowing by the door. We live in a condo but she still meows by the door to be let out into the hallway, which she thinks is hers. It's part of her morning ritual. And just try to stop a cat from her morning ritual.
When I opened the door, I noticed something on the floor: A white cardboard box. Jellybean began sniffing at it. I lifted it up and, yep, there it was, three-quarters of the Twede's Cafe cherry pie, which Ward, my hero, had brought back for us.
So after more than 20 years, I finally had my slice of damn fine cherry pie. And it was.
Now if I could only get me some of that grapefuit—freshly squeezed.
Peter Falk (1927-2011)
I reference him every now and again. I'll be in email correspondence with a subject I'm writing about, asking maybe a follow-up question, and then I'll realize there's another. So I'll write back, and apologize by way of a 1970s TV reference: “Not to sound like Lt. Columbo here, but I have one more question...”
Do people under 30 get that? Under 40? It was an indelible character, one of the most indelible characters of the '70s, but I don't think it'll live on much longer. Do new fans go for it? Or are the production values of the show not high enough?
What of Peter Falk's long career will survive? According to IMDb.com he was in 127 movies and TV shows. After “Columbo” I immediately thought of “Wings of Desire” and then “The In-Laws.” There's the Cassavettes stuff, most of which, I'm ashamed to say, I haven't seen. I liked him in “Murder by Death.” But it was my colleague Evan who mentioned the obvious. “I loved him in 'Princess Bride,'” he said. “He made a great grandpa.”
The New York Times fills in the details I didn't know or forgot:
His death was announced in a statement from Larry Larson, a longtime friend and the lawyer for Mr. Falk’s wife, Shera. He had been treated for Alzheimer’s disease in recent years.
Mr. Falk had a wide-ranging career in comedy and drama, in the movies and onstage, before and during the three and a half decades in which he portrayed the unkempt but canny lead on “Columbo.” He was nominated for two Oscars; appeared in original stage productions of works by Paddy Chayefsky, Neil Simon and Arthur Miller; worked with the directors Frank Capra, John Cassavetes, Blake Edwards and Mike Nichols; and co-starred with the likes of Frank Sinatra, Bette Davis and Jason Robards.
And now that I've looked at IMDb's list, maybe I was wrong about Columbo not lasting. Rarely watching TV anymore, particularly network TV, I didn't realize Falk kept playing the part: 24 times since the show was originally canceled in 1978; into the 21st century. It kept going and going. Just when you thought that was the end of it he'd turn around and tell the audience, “Just one more thing...”
Not a bad line to carry with you. Rest in peace, Lt.
Which Star Trek Series Would You Like to Guest On?
In one of those increasingly popular polls on Facebook, my friend Tim, of StarshipTim, who was also Captain of the U.S.S. Brock during that big Romulan-Borg hullabaloo, answered the question “What [Star Trek] series would you like to guest on?” with “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.” No surprise. He's been big on that series for a while.
I answered the original series, the one with Kirk, Spock and McCoy, TOS to fans, and relayed my reasoning to Tim in a series of posts:
- The miniskirts alone answer that question for me.
- Plus I want the pointy sideburns, the boots, and my shirt torn and the trickle of blood during a fight. Hopefully with Finnegan.
- Plus I want to ignore the Prime Directive at my discretion.
- But it's mostly the miniskirts.
I'm not saying it wouldn't be dangerous...
“Klingons? What? Attacking? Huh?”
“Make It Go”
The Pakleds, for the non-geeks in the audience, are a race of low-browed, backwards humanoids from a fourth season episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” entitled “Samaritan Snare,” who nevertheless manage to travel through space. They do this by kidnapping members of more advanced species--such as Geordi La Forge (Levar Burton) in this episode--and utilizing his advanced technology. They gather around him and say things like “We look for things” and “Make it go.” Eventually Geordi escapes, of course.
Here's the question of the day: Are the Pakleds an after-the-fact metaphor for all the non-techies in the world, such as myself, who gather around the techies of the world with our broken smartphones and TV remotes and laptops and say, “Make it go”? Or were they conceived as such by Robert L. McCullough, the writer of the episode?
I have no idea. I just know this: teeth are for chewing.
How Market Research Almost Destroyed the Most Popular Shows in TV History
I'm late to the Maclolm Gladwell parade. I read his stuff in the New Yorker but didn't check out any of his books until I had to read "Outliers" for work—I interviewed M&A lawyer Joseph Flom, who is the subject of that book's fifth chapter, "The Three Lessons of Joe Flom"—and was particularly impressed, not only with the Flom chapter, but with the first chapter, in which Gladwell dissects the success of youth hockey players in Canada and the puzzle over the preponderence of early-month birthdates among them. Lots of January, February and March babies playing in the NHL. Why? January 1 is the cut-off date for youth hockey, so at an early age a January 1st kid will be competing against a December 31st kid and have a year advantage in growth and coordination. That January kid will play in more tournaments, and get more coaching and practice, and what began as an accident of birth will become a self-fulfilling prophecy: He'll be better. We're never the meritocracies we think we are.
"Blink" isn't quite as good but I did enjoy the chapter, "Kenna's Dilemma," for its confirmation of my own thoughts on audience test scores. Two years ago, when this blog was a baby, I wrote how "The Office" (both versions) got some of the lowest audience test scores in their respective networks' histories, as did "Seinfeld." I asked:
If you don’t recognize Seinfeld and The Office and The Office for what they are, or what they might be, what good are you? How many other Seinfelds are you turning into something ordinary and short-lived? How many millions are the money-people blowing?
Thanks to Gladwell, here are a few more names to add to the list:
In the late 1960s, the screenwriter Norman Ler produced a television sitcom pilot for a show called All in the Family. ... All in the Family scored in the low 40s [out of 100, in market research]. ABC said no. Lear took the show to CBS. They ran it through their own market research program... The results were unimpressive. The recommendation of the research department was that Archie Bunker be rewritten as a soft-spoken and nurturing father. CBS didn't even bother promoting All in the Family before its first season. What was the point? The only reason it made it to the air at all was that the president of the company, Robert Wood, and the head of programming, Fred Silverman, happened to like it...
That same year, CBS was also considering a new comedy show starring Mary Tyler Moore. ... The [market research] results were devastating. Mary was a "loser." Her neighbor Rhoda Morgenstern was "too abrasive"...
"Archie Bunker [should] be rewritten as a soft-spoken and nurturing father." That's one of my new favorites.
In case the lesson isn't obvious, Gladwell drives it home:
The problem with market research is that often it is simply too blunt an instrument to pick up this distinction between the bad and the merely different.
I wrote much the same a year ago January, regarding a Tad Friend New Yorker piece about audience testing, in which it was mentioned that "Pulp Fiction" received some of the lowest test scores in its studio's history and "Akeelah and the Bee" received some of the highest.
"Pulp Fiction," "All in the Family," "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "Seinfeld," "The Office," "The Office."
What's Good in "The Pacific"
I've been watching "The Pacific" without being a big fan of "The Pacific." We never know these guys well enough, and we get the feeling that they don't know each other well enough. In "Band of Brothers," to which "The Pacific" will forever be compared and forever found wanting, the characters felt like they'd already gotten past the get-to-know-you stage and thus engaged on a deeper level. Here, they're forever introducing themselves. Guys come, guys go. We watch guys cry for guys we don't know and don't know why. We're not always following the same group, either, the same platoon, so cohesion is an issue, but the filmmakers make it more of an issue. The stories are as spread out as the Pacific islands they're invading.
Worse, the series feels slightly off, slightly false. In the midst of unspeakable horrors—which the series handles well—we'll get a speech that feels like a speech; like it was drafted by Henry Luce. The series is trying too hard.
The one bright spot for me is a dark spot: Rami Malek as Merriell Shelton. When we first see him, part of the same platooon as Eugene "Sledgehammer" Sledge, our innocent Southern boy, he's an annoyance. He's got a faraway look and a sing-songy voice that implies the world isn't as neat as Eugene thinks it is. One gets the feeling the war didn't do this to him, either; he showed up this way. But the war ain't helping.
With every episode he's grown on me. He's the one guy who feels real. Last Sunday we watched him toss pebbles into the open skulls of half-decapitated Japanse soldiers. At one point our boys ran into a non-combat soldier who asked them, these exhausted Marines, if anyone had a souvenir, a Jap sword or flag, he could bring home with him, and while the others were silent or combative, Shelton was matter of fact. "Nobody's going home" he said almost joyfully.
I doubt it's a star-making turn but I hope it's a character-actor-making turn. "The Pacific" is slightly off, but Malik's Shelton is gloriously off.
Why We Watch "Mad Men"
Adam Cohen has a peculiarly limp piece on "Mad Men" in The New York Times today. Or yesterday. Who the hell knows anymore?
Cohen argues that the AMC show is popular in our troubled times because it offers a view of earlier troubled times—times we don't even think of as troubled. It's Sept. 1963 and things are bad all around: Don Drapper is getting pissier, Betty Draper is getting colder, Salvatore Romano has been fired because a client made a pass at him, and little girls are getting blown up in Birmingham churches. Cohen writes:
To a generation beaten down by skyrocketing unemployment, plunging retirement savings and mounting home foreclosures, “Mad Men” offers the schadenfreude-filled message that their predecessors were equally unhappy — and that the bleakness meter in American life has always been set on high.
First, I'm not sure which generation is receiving "Mad Men"'s message, since it's not a particularly watched program. Has any episode garnered a rating above 3 million? Does it do better than "Monk" or "Army Wives" or "The O'Reilly Factor"? Doesn't look like it.
Second, Cohen ignores the genius of "Mad Men." It markets itself as nostalgia—remember those finger-snappin', Kennedyesque times when drinks were drinks, dames were dames, and fun was fun?—but presents a reality that can horrify. The women are generally so mistreated, and in such an obtuse, smug way, you can't wait for the Betty Friedans and Gloria Steinems of the world to come along and right things.
Third, do we watch this thing from schadenfreude? To be honest, the show probably hooked me with good reviews, good looks, and the promise of easy sex, and now hooks me for the following reason: I know what's going to happen (in the world) and they don't. And I don't know what's going to happen (to them) and want to find out.
It's Sept. 1963. I know in two months John F. Kennedy will be assassinated. I know in five months the Beatles will arrive. I know the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 will all pass, and I know "We Shall Overcome" will become "Hey ho, Whitey's gotta go!," and I know SNCC will give way to SDS which will gave way to the Weather Underground, and I know short hair will gave way to Beatles hair which will gave way to long hair, and I know pot will give way to LSD, and free love will gave way to assassination. I know we'll land on the moon in 1969.
The ad business is a young man's game and I know it will become a younger man's game, and eventually a younger person's game, and I wonder how Don Draper, so cool and comfortable in 1960, will handle that. How old will he be in 1970? What will he look like? Balding? With muttonchop sideburns and big flowery collars? Trying desperately to fit in? Say it ain't so!
He's already missing the boat. His daughter's teacher wants to hear a replay of MLK's "I have a dream" speech, which surprises him. The big moments are happening and he doesn't see them. Those pot-smoking kids who drugged him, beat him, and took his money are like a visit from later in the decade. The times they are a changin'.
Where will Salvatore be in 1969? How will Joan and her curves handle the Twiggy era? Will Peggy become Don's boss? How will he handle that? How will she?
That's the continued appeal of "Mad Men" to me, and I wouldn't exactly call it schadenfreude. We live in uncertain times (particularly economically) and I don't know what's coming. They're about to live through uncertain times (particularly socially) and I know what's coming. There's a sense of superiority in that knowledge but also a sense of solicitude. You want to warn them because you can't warn yourself.
This season, following the disaster of Medellin, in which, in fat suit and moustaches, Vinnie Chase played (or overplayed) Colombian druglord Pablo Escobar, our movie star's career is in free-fall. He's out of money. He can't get a lead. He's resorted to sweet 16s and modeling gigs to make ends meet. He considered, for a time, starring in a “Benji” movie, then had to fight his ass off to get a supporting role in Smoke Jumpers, a movie about firefighters, when everyone knows movies about firefighters never do well at the box office.
My quick-and-easy prediction? No matter how well Smoke Jumpers does at the box office, Vinnie is nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actor — as creator/producer Mark Wahlberg was for The Departed. Then we get all that hoopla. That's my hope anyway. As soon as Walhberg was nom'ed, I hoped they would translate it into the “Entourage” world.
Question: Did Mark Wahlberg ever have a Medellin? Doesn't seem so. Some of his movies may have underperformed, and he's taken hits (OK, pings) from critics (myself included) who thought he didn't bring much to good-guy lead roles, but he's never had a gigantic bomb that prevented him from getting leads. Or so it seems from the outside.
We've come a long way, baby
A thought on the first season of “Mad Men,” the AMC show about a boutique advertising firm in New York in the early 1960s.
The show draws you in with whispers of handsome men and curvy women having martinis and cigarettes and uncomplicated sex in a time before feminism, and then delivers such reprehensible men and such sad, unsexy sex (Don't do it...don't do it...NO!) that you wind up longing for feminism to come along and finally right the effin’ ship. It’s the opposite of what it advertises. In this way it’s closer to art than product.
“The Wire”: An Appreciation
Does anyone else find it funny that the day after HBO's The Wire came down, Gov. Eliot Spitzer of New York became entangled in a prostitution ring scandal because of a wiretap on his cellphone? Apparently Mr. Spitzer didn't watch the show; apparently he's not as smart as Stringer Bell.
I met the Governor once, a few years ago. I don't know if he does this all the time but when he shook my hand, he grabbed only the fingers and shook those. In essence I couldn't shake his hand back, he could just shake mine. I felt oddly impotent. I don't know if all alpha males do this but it's effective. You should try it sometime.
The loss of The Wire is worse than the loss of Spitzer. I wrote an appreciation of the show yesterday for HuffPost. I urge everyone to watch it. It's more than a cop drama; it explains why the world is effed up. You thought it was just your office, your job, your boss? Watch the show. Keep watching for the characters but keep in mind the overall theme of who rises and who falls and why; of who's in trouble and who isn't and why. It really does explain the world.
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