Posts Tagged ‘Television’

The Thinker

Second viewing: M*A*S*H (the TV show)

When you are retired you often find you have time on your hands. Netflix streaming provides lots of content, but much of it is comfort content, i.e. stuff you have seen before. So I’ve slogged my way through all eleven seasons of M*A*S*H, mostly in microbursts, over the last few months.

For a show that began in 1972, it is still surprisingly good. “Good” is relative, however. In a time when most markets had four or 5 TV stations, you took what you could get. For its time, M*A*S*H was excellent TV. Today, it just rates as very good. Why is this? It’s because forty years later TV has gotten much better. This is due to the proliferation of cable and pay TV. While lots of dreck can still be found on TV, there is now so much excellent content on TV that it is excruciatingly hard to decide which ones merit your time. I’ve finished three seasons of House of Cards. While waiting for new episodes I have been watching Mad Men. Each episode of Mad Men sends jolts of adrenaline to my enjoyment system: it’s just so well done!

So M*A*S*H is comfort TV, although the harshness of that war would not normally make it something you would want to watch. There had never been a TV show that showed the reality of war before M*A*S*H. It showed life at a mobile Army hospital during the Korean War, and the crazy antics and horrifying things that happened there. Going through it again, I realize that I have seen every episode, not just once, but several times at least. I’m not sure when I found the time to see them so many times. I’m guessing it was when they were endlessly repeated on late night TV. Thirty plus years of distance has at least made me a more critical viewer. Some modern day reflections and observations:

  • The show is actually a reflection of the emerging values of its time (the late 60s and early 70s) than the time of the Korean War. Hawkeye (Alan Alda) and Trapper John (Wayne Rodgers) might as well be flower children with shorter hair. Their liberal and antiwar positions would have put them in the extreme minority in the early 1950s, and dangerously so. Both would have been children of the Great Depression but they are all flower power. The 1969 movie by Robert Altman provided the template for the show, and in 1969 the Hippie movement was everywhere, the Vietnam War was obviously a disaster and cynicism was rampant. It’s entertaining as hell, but it’s simply not an accurate reflection of the years it purports to represent.
  • You can sort of break down the show into three rather distinct segments: the slapstick/buffoon comedy years (Seasons 1-3), the serious comedy-light years (Seasons 4-7) and the extended mediocre denouement years (Seasons 8-11).
  • The first year is particularly hard to watch today. Its blatant sexism and the casual way women are treated as objects rather than people is actually hard to endure today, and this is good. We have evolved.
  • The second segment is actually the best part of the show. The horrors of war and the imperfect way its characters react to it is the heart of the show.
  • There are some good episodes in the third segment, but it’s perfectly okay to stop at the end of Season 7. Those last seasons will disappoint if you’ve seen the other seasons. The show feels played out, particularly since the show lasted eleven seasons and the Korean War lasted less than four years.
  • Alan Alda won a number of Emmys for his performance as the surgeon Capt. Hawkeye Pierce. I found myself having a love/hate relationship with both the actor and the character. I don’t think there was that much difference between the actor and his character, aside from the fact Alda is not a doctor. Alda must have been insufferably difficult to work with on the set. He dominates the show in frequently unhealthy ways, making it hard for other characters to shine. On the other hand, he’s really good, very intense and totally convincing. It’s not too surprising that Wayne Rodgers left after three seasons, sick of playing Harpo to Alda’s Groucho (in some episodes literally). McLean Stephenson must have felt the same way portraying Lt. Col. Henry Blake.
  • In spite of Alda’s overwhelming presence, most of the other characters do make their marks. Most notably is the maturation of Major Margaret Houlihan (Loretta Swit), the head nurse. For three seasons she played comic relief but in the second segment she becomes human, matures and deepens as a character. It’s lovely to watch and an excellent reason to stick around.
  • Who’s the better sidekick: Trapper John or B.J. Hunnicut? Seeing it again, I found Trapper more real and interesting. M*A*S*H would have been a much better show if directors had restrained Alda a bit more so Trapper’s character could shine. Mike Farrell is not really funny, but Wayne Rodgers certainly is. Rodgers was intense where Farrell was understated. It was a real loss when Rodgers left the show.
  • Who’s the more entertaining commander: Henry Blake (McLean Stevenson) or Sherman Potter (Harry Morgan)? Henry Blake for sure, even though he was there for only its first three years. Stevenson was consistently hilarious but somehow grounded in the insanity going on around him. Harry Morgan is not a comedian at heart, and it showed. The show lost a lot of its luster when Stevenson exited stage right.
  • The series most memorable and adorable character is unquestionably Radar O’Reilly (Gary Burghoff), who was the only character that also appeared in the movie. He is an innocent thrown into a complex adult game that remains a good person with childlike tendencies. He’s cuddlier than his frequently present teddy bear.
  • Corporal Clinger (Jamie Farr) makes good comic relief but simply does not convince in any other role other than a Section 8 seeking transvestite. He should have been kept in a dress and probably let go after a couple of seasons.
  • Larry Linville as the one-dimensional Major Frank Burns was actually an excellent comedian. His character is so insufferable that it is hard to see this. I don’t think he ever won an award for portraying Major Burns, but he should have.
  • David Ogden Stiers as Major Charles Emerson Winchester did much to make the second half of the series worth watching. It declined steadily anyhow, but Winchester was certainly an interesting and quirky character.
  • Some of the sporadic characters are delicious, particularly Sidney Freedman (Allan Arbus) and Colonel Flagg (Edward Winter). Any episodes with either of them in it are worth watching, and in one episode they both appear together. Flagg is actually the funniest character in the whole show; he just appears so irregularly.

You have to be a die-hard fan to watch all eleven seasons, particularly the last few years of the show. If you are tempted to watch the show, cringe your way through very funny but hard to endure first season and stick with it through seven seasons if you can. By the end of the first season all the characters are well established. Certain shows are gems and worth watching if you don’t have the time or patience for the many episodes that endlessly repeat the same theme (war really stinks). These include:

  • Yankee Doodle Doctor (Season 1, Episode 6)
  • Tuttle (Season 1, Episode 15)
  • A Smattering of Intelligence (Season 2, Episode 24)
  • O.R. (Season 3, Episode 5)
  • Abyssinia, Henry (Season 3, Episode 24)
  • Welcome to Korea (Season 4, Episodes 1 and 2)
  • Change of Command (Season 4, Episode 3)
  • Quo Vadis, Captain Chandler? (Season 4, Episode 10)
  • Dear Sigmund (Season 5, Episode 8)
  • Fade Out/Fade In (Season 6, Episodes 1 and 2)
  • Major Topper (Season 6, Episode 25)
  • Point of View (Season 7, Episode 11)
  • The Party (Season 7, Episode 26)
  • Good-bye Radar (Season 8, Episodes 4 and 5)
  • Mr. and Mrs. Who? (Season 8, Episode 9)
  • The Life You Save (Season 9, Episode 20)
  • Goodbye, Farewell and Amen (Season 11, Episode 16 – the extended end to the series)
 
The Thinker

Laughing all the way: Parks and Recreation

No question about it: NBC’s Parks and Recreation is a funny sitcom! The NBC TV series will begin its seventh and final season next month. I on the other hand have just recently discovered it, and am streaming past episodes on Netflix.

I have found that I tend to binge on Parks and Recreation. Sometimes I will watch four episodes in a sitting, which is not a hard thing to do since each show is about twenty minutes when you take out the commercials. Then I will take a break for a week or two. As I get more and more into the series, I can’t seem to wait that long. Sometimes I watch it during the day. I just can’t seem to stop!

The series stars Amy Poehler as the deputy director for parks and recreation for the fictional city of Pawnee, Indiana. It’s a “mocumentary” from the creators of The Office (American version). I have tried to get into The Office but it never took. Parks and Recreation on the other hand was easy for me to like, in part because it’s about the civil service, and I inhabited that world for thirty plus years. Granted that I was a federal employee, and Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) and her crew are city employees, but it feels familiar. With the exception of Leslie, most of the people working at Pawnee’s Parks and Recreation department though fall into the stereotype of civil servants that spend more time goofing off than working. This is particularly true of their director Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman). Despite the fact that he does almost nothing, he is hoping to become city administrator and then to get rid of his department. Ron you see is a libertarian, but not just a run of the mill libertarian, but a severe libertarian. He wants the parks contracted out to the private sector and would like these companies to charge kids to see ducks.

Leslie is just the opposite and basically runs the whole department with cheerfulness, aplomb and dedication. It’s just that her employees emulate her boss for the most part. They include her assistant Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari), a skinny and short guy of Indian ancestry but born in South Carolina with a green card marriage to a doctor from Canada but with a passion to run a nightclub. It also includes April Ludgate (Aubrey Plaza) whose job is to keep the public from seeing Ron Swanson, Jerry Gergich (Jim O’Heir) as a large fifty-something career civil servant on the cusp of retirement and Donna Meagle (Retta) as a snappy, fast-talking black woman with an attitude. Hanging outside the office and occasionally inside it are ancillary characters Andy Dwyer (“shoe shine boy”), Leslie’s friend Anne and toward the later half of the second season Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott) and Chris Traeger (Rob Lowe), sent by the state of Indiana to help run city government, which had gotten badly mismanaged.

The mocumentary style is now well refined. The camera becomes an unseen presence that the characters interact around and with, although rarely explicitly. This gives us insight into the intimacies of each character and actually kicks up the level of entertainment. The comedy of the show of course comes from the interaction of these characters and the slow soap operas of their lives that continue incrementally from show to show. Individually no character is particularly memorable, but as an ensemble they prove most entertaining. They become more entertaining as you get to know each of them and their backstories.

Not every show is a hit but all are funny to some extent and some had me actually on the floor laughing hysterically. I watch these alone as my wife is not into mocumentaries, and it’s just as well because falling off your chair from laughter is kind of embarrassing, particularly when snot starts running out of your nose. I don’t watch a whole lot of TV series so there were doubtless many other funny TV series that I missed over the years. I can say honestly though that I have never laughed so hard at a TV sitcom in more than thirty years, since WKRP in Cincinnati entertained us for four seasons starting in 1978.

I am just starting the third season so there is plenty more laughter ahead. Most of the laughter evolves around Leslie, Ron, April and Tom. Some of the funniest episodes though involve characters that appear irregularly. Leslie’s boss Ron is a twice divorcee, one with the chief librarian of the city named Tammy (Megan Mullally). Ron and Tammy have a deeply dysfunctional hot/cold relationship. Apparently about once a season the writers invent a reason for them to come together again, and the fireworks that happen when they do are not to be missed. So far these shows have been the comic highlights of the series for me, but there are also many shows that individually are great gems. “Greg Pikitis” from Season 2, which was immediately followed by the first “Ron and Tammy” episode, were two back-to-back shows that had me laughing and careening off my chair and onto the floor. Both of these shows were particularly inspired and should have won awards for the longest periods of sustained and hysterical laughter. There are also a number of periodically recurring characters to enjoy, such as the smarmy skinny TV hostess of “Pawnee Today”, Joan Callamezzo.

As a portrayal of the civil service, the show largely goes for stereotypes. I haven’t worked in city government, but it was my experience that with a few exceptions most federal civil servants I worked with were focused, dedicated and talented. In Parks and Recreation the writers found more humor in portraying civil servants as dispassionate, web and text surfing bodies inhabiting desks. Leslie is the big exception, as was Mark Brendanawicz (Paul Schneider), a city planner, who unfortunately left the show after the second season. Stereotypes aside, this is a comedy so laughs are the important metric. It’s nice though that at least some of the civil servants in the series come across as dedicated and professional.

In any event, the show seems to be hitting almost all of my laugh buttons. If you haven’t seen the show, give it a try. Season 1 is a little rough as the characters were just settling into place. Season 2 though should leave you fully hooked. Seven seasons apparently is all we’re going to get of life in the fictional town of Pawnee. I hope it’s not ending because the writers ran out of ways to make us laugh.

 
The Thinker

House of Cards: entertaining but ludicrous

I finally surrendered and replaced my twice a month Netflix DVD plan for the “all the content you can watch online for $7.99 a month” plan. Actually, I chose the $8.99 a month plan, which lets me see shows on two devices: handy when my iMac is more convenient than the high definition TV in our entertainment room. It’s a good deal any way you look at it. It is made more so by Netflix’s exclusive programming. There are a number of series that Netflix is producing but I started with House of Cards, since it was their first and got much critical acclaim. And I must say that I am enjoying it. I haven’t had this much fun with a show based on Washington, D.C. since The West Wing.

House of Cards, at least Season 1, which I am watching now, is a TV show for conspiracy theorists. Frank Underwood (portrayed by Kevin Spacey) is a Democratic congressman from South Carolina who is also the House whip. In case you are not familiar with this role, this is the guy tasked to round up votes to push the party’s agenda. He’s the third guy in charge in the House of Representatives, and reports to the Majority Leader, who reports to the Speaker of the House. Underwood however is the real power broker in the House, subtly pulling strings and influencing people to advance not quite his party’s agenda, or even the president’s agenda, but his agenda on how he thinks government should work. He sees himself as the government’s master clockmaker. By oiling this spot and not oiling that spot, he sets in motion many a Rube Goldberg machine wherein things usually go his way. He is ruthless enough to bring down his own boss, the Speaker of the House, with Republican votes and those from the Congressional Black Caucus, if it suits his agenda. At least so far it doesn’t appear that he aspires to a much higher office. He realizes that by being the master clockmaker he is closer to being the center of power than he would be as majority leader or even speaker. Like Dick Cheney, he does his best work by not being seen too much.

It is frankly quite an addictive show to watch, so I feel like I am getting great value for my $8.99 a month subscription. The West Wing though was at least kind of, sort of plausible. House of Cards is not, although it is great entertainment. Hillary Clinton is reputedly a fan of the show and I’m not surprised. If in their upper 60s Hill and Bill are finding it hard to find couples time, they are probably finding it by watching this show together. Slick Willy can learn a lot of lessons from watching Rep. Frank (“Francis”) Underwood.

Some part of me desperately hopes that our government actually worked this way. That’s because it would make a whole lot more sense than the way it actually does work. It’s hardly news that right now government hardly works at all. Certainly Congress is barely functioning. There is no Frank Underwood slicing and dicing his way through Washington politics. Instead there is pretty much complete dysfunction.

House of Cards might have been more realistic if it has been set in the early 1960s instead of the 2010s. Lyndon Johnson, before be became vice president and then president, was not unlike Frank Underwood. Few have been more skilled at getting legislation through Congress than Lyndon Johnson. For much of the time he was in Congress though he was blessed with Democratic majorities, at least in the House of Representatives. It’s not so hard to wield power when your party dominates a house of Congress. Maybe Underwood could have been portrayed as the Senate’s majority whip in the early 1960s, and we could have seen how Senator Underwood’s machinations tilted the presidential election in Kennedy’s favor. It’s still implausible, but it would have a lot more plausibility than this series actually has.

You don’t have to study government too hard to see how it really works. Government these days is largely controlled, not by a Frank Underwood, but by corporations and vested interests, who buy influence. One of the curious things about Frank Underwood is how little he is affected by this stuff. Or frankly how little time he spends outside of Washington and attending fundraisers. Representatives spend more time fundraising to keep their jobs than they do actually legislating. I guess that would not make good television. Congress also spends much more time on recess than it does legislating, yet Underwood rarely travels back to his South Carolina district. You also have to ask yourself: he’s a white Democrat representing a district … in South Carolina? There are seven congressional districts in South Carolina. Six of them are held by Republicans, all male, all white. The one Democratic district was one specially carved out for African Americans and is held by James Clyburn, an African American. Blacks comprise 28% of the population of South Carolina, which is 68% white, yet get only one congressman of the 7 to represent it. South Carolina is gerrymandered to the extreme toward the Republicans.

No doubt Frank Underwood is a fascinating character. He is both ruthless and somehow humane, pragmatic and relentlessly focused, artificial but quietly revolutionary. Perhaps one of the most interesting dynamics is his relationship with his wife Claire (Robin Wright), who is also quite a contradiction: ruthless enough to fire half her staff of her non-profit while maintaining what appears to be a purely emotional marriage with Frank, who she loves, while each allow the other to play around. Frank chases Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), an up and coming reporter and that’s okay with Claire, particularly when we realize that Frank’s affair with Zoe is only tangentially about the sex. It’s much more important that he sees her as someone he can use: another chess player on his four-dimensional chessboard.

This month I retired from 32 years in the civil service. Obviously I was never a member of congress, or even someone on its staff, although I spent a year making the computers work at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. I have though worked in three departments over 32 years. I have known a lot of bureaucrats including some in pretty senior leadership positions. I also done a lot of watching the machinations of government, and it is a chaotic process, today more than ever. The sad truth is there is not, and rarely is there any politician that would even warrant a B in oiling the machinations of government. It’s not because talents like Frank Underwood are not out there, it’s because of the vast kudzu of government. There is no superman out there than can really cut through it and way too many huge egos titling at windmills for any Rube Goldberg machine spawned by a Frank Underwood to work.

If we were interested in truly understanding how government works, time would be much better spent looking at how outside groups like the NRA wields their disproportionate influence. The Koch Brothers are already the subject of a fascinating documentary. I doubt Hillary Clinton will be adding Citizen Koch in her leisure viewing. House of Cards is far more entertaining. It is just, unfortunately, completely ludicrous.

 
The Thinker

Thoughts on Downton Abbey

It’s been forty years since the long running British TV series Upstairs, Downstairs first débuted here in the USA on a rather new and largely unwatched network called PBS. Upstairs, Downstairs would do much to reverse PBS’s image, for it was a classy show with each episode feeling like a movie. For most of us Americans, the series was also a revelation in British culture, with lords and ladies living privileged and opulent lives while a working class of servants obsessively catered to their every need. Like Upstairs, Downstairs the British ITC series Downton Abbey also immerses the viewer in the world of English social class on a large Yorkshire estate in Edwardian England. Like Upstairs, Downstairs, it is a hard series not to like.

Beginning on the Downton Abbey estate shortly after the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, this series traces the life of the fictional Lord Grantham, his wife, his three daughters, his cranky mother the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) and a crew of servants. Lord Grantham is of course just a title. His real name is Robert Crawley. With his well moneyed American wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) who provides the wealth to run the estate and their three daughters Mary, Edith and Sybil, Lord Grantham gets to live the surreal life of an English gentleman. You could not really count yourself a gentleman unless you were so filthy rich that you had nothing to do. It’s a world entirely of leisure and luxury and features being obsessively fussed over a devoted staff managed by the butler Charlie Carson (Jim Carter).

Late to the series as always, I have been playing catch up and have almost finished the first season, consisting of just seven episodes. At first it is hard to understand the appeal of the series. It doesn’t take much viewing though before you realize what the series really is: a fancy and elaborately staged soap opera. Because it deals with earls and ladies, buttoned down people, starched collars and fox hunts it is easy to forget that there is little substance to this series, other than to revel in its characters and the tensions between them. It looks way too fancy to be a soap opera, but that is its essence.

If life is a stage as Shakespeare wrote, Downton Abbey makes a great stage for character actors to strut their stuff. The real world does intrude from time to time on Downton Abbey, but mostly Downton Abbey exists to keep its family isolated from the real world, including that of its servants. It’s a world where your family dinner demands formal dress every night, where invitations arrive by mail on proper stationery and where gentlemen callers flirt politely with Lord Grantham’s daughters. Everyone has a role to play and no one more so than Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville). It’s a world where people have jobs that seem surreal and unnecessary. What exactly does a footman do? There is no equivalent here in the United States, but a footman’s job seems to be to keep his gentleman from ever having to lift his finger. It’s a world of suits, white gloves, stovepipe hats, gourmet dining and so much leisure that the Dowager Countess cannot tell weekdays from weekends.

The most interesting parts of Downton Abbey thus are mostly found in the kitchen, the back stoop where the staff smoke cigarettes and in the austere servants’ quarters. It too is a strange hierarchy, overseen by butler Charley Carson and Housekeeper Elsie Hughes (Phyllis Logan) and it too has its own strict peculiar social order. Footmen obsess over becoming valet someday, the valet hopes for butler, or even assistant butler. Housemaids aspire to be head housemaid and even an assistant cook someday aspires to be cook. It seems surreal, pointless and ultimately without value, but this is a world that Lord Grantham feels entirely devoted to preserving. To the extent that he works it is to make sure that Downton Abbey always has future generations of Crawleys to be obsessively catered to by an omnipresent staff.

In short, if you are a Lord or a Lady, Downton Abbey is kind of like heaven on earth except there is not much to do. You have staff to do the heavy lifting. They make sure the food is always great, the bed sheets are replaced every day, the fireplaces are well stoked, the chandeliers are immaculately dusted and you only have to lift a hand to have a footman refill your glass with wine.

And yet there is a price. The staff is stiff and surreal, at least until they are behind closed doors when the backbiting can begin in earnest. Lady Mary, the Earl’s eldest daughter, feels trapped in her comfortable web, doesn’t quite want to be there, but doesn’t know what else to do and sure doesn’t want some distant cousin who actually works for a living to inherit the estate. It’s a world where ladies must always be beautiful, chaste and well-mannered. It’s a world where a lady is not allowed to succumb to the charms of a roguish Turkish ambassador, but finds herself human enough to do so anyhow. It means being resentful when Lord Grantham’s army friend is appointed valet to the position long aspired to by one of the footmen.

Ultimately, interest in Downton Abbey is sustained purely from these tensions and conflicts, and it makes for a surprisingly entertaining time for us to observe it all. It is a fun show to watch, but also is an eye opening perspective to a period largely in our past. Living a lavish life made possible through unearned wealth seems so vapid and meaningless. Titles, dowries and inheritances ultimately sap a society of its creative energy. It’s not surprising then that at the end of World War II that Great Britain was bankrupt and its empire destroyed. It happened in part because families like the Crawleys were wasting their lives in unproductive pursuits upholding customs that deserved to die centuries earlier. In places like America this talent would be unleashed for more useful purposes.

 
The Thinker

Sherlock: The reincarnation of Sherlock Holmes

Perhaps Sherlock Holmes was part vampire. It seems that no matter what Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did to get rid of him, the public demanded more Sherlock Holmes. So, following a tradition that would be repeated in movies and TV shows too numerous to mention, Sir Arthur was forced to reincarnate him, or at least explain why his certain death at Reichenbach Falls was not quite what it appeared. He had to keep inventing more stories of his famous detective to pay the bills and satisfy his fans, even though he was bored to tears with his character. Even turning him into an opium addict would not cool his readers’ ardor for Holmes.

Sir Arthur eventually met his maker but Holmes proved immortal. Sherlock Holmes books never go out of print. Most of his stories have been made into TV shows; many have been reprised in plays. There is probably no more frequently recurring character in the movies. Most fans would agree that no actor did a more memorable job of portraying Holmes than the late Jeremy Brett, who along with Edward Hardwicke (who sadly died last month) as his sidekick Dr. Watson acted in various BBC Sherlock Holmes series produced between 1984 and 1994. Real aficionados require a complete set of DVDs to enjoy over and over again.

No, you can’t kill Sherlock Holmes, just like you can’t seem to kill a vampire or Star Trek. You can’t kill their reincarnations either. Still, it’s getting harder and more expensive to do period Sherlock Holmes movies. Recreating a late 19th century London is expensive. So perhaps with the death of Edward Hardwicke the timing was right to reimagine Sherlock Holmes cast in modern times instead of the 19th century.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes

Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes

That’s the premise behind Sherlock, a slim Sherlock Holmes series from the BBC now on its second season which is, in a word, terrific. Its limited availability here across the pond is probably inhibiting more widespread knowledge, as is its very limited “season” (three episodes each in 2010 and 2011). An actor with a name every bit as peculiar as Sherlock Holmes, Benedict Cumberbatch, gets to create a modern day Sherlock Holmes at the same address of 221B Baker Street, with the same side kick Dr. Watson and the same landlady Mrs. Hudson (Una Stubbs). It’s just that it all takes place about a hundred or so years later. This reincarnation and modernization of Sherlock Holmes is strangely and unusually compelling and is in many ways better than the series featuring Jeremy Brett. Freed from its 19th century constraints, and a fifty-something version of Holmes (Cumberbatch is 34) we get a much more fun and in many ways more interesting interpretation of Sherlock Holmes.

And strangely, it all works so very well. Lord of the Rings fans quickly forgave Peter Jackson for casting Frodo with an actor thirty years younger than the character in the books. You will quickly forgive creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss for casting Cumberbatch as a younger version of Holmes, putting him in the modern day, and for removing his pipe (although he does wear three nicotine patches to get a similar high). Still, I do see similarities with the last BBC series. Cumberbatch’s interpretation of Holmes is about thirty percent Jeremy Brett. There are times when watching him act that you see a younger Jeremy Brett. Like Brett’s interpretation of Holmes, this is not a detective who can stay for long in a stuffed chair. He is like a panther, constantly in motion, his mind always racing ahead of the rest of us. And he is completely comfortable with technology, with his smartphone ready at hand.

All the characters you have come to know and love are generally around, including his gifted brother Mycroft (who shows up in the first episode) and even the evil Moriarity (who shows up early, in episode three), but also Inspector LeStrade (Rupert Graves). Mrs. Hudson is a whole lot more fun than the dowdy lady who is usually portrayed as well. Perhaps the most welcome change in this recasting is with Dr. Watson, now a fully fleshed out human being played by Martin Freeman. This Dr. Watson is a war veteran too, but of the Afghan war, and navigates through London’s infamous fogs in a mental fog of his own. He’s not quite the starry-eyed intellectual lightweight that Sir Arthur portrays him, but a guy with issues whose life almost through happenstance gets wrapped around Sherlock Holmes. Holmes brings him some measure of the crazy excitement he found in Afghanistan.

Nonetheless, this is principally a series about Sherlock Holmes and fans should not be the least bit disappointed by Cumberbatch’s portrayal of the detective. It is every bit as good as Jeremy Brett’s but still distinctive and in many ways much more fun. Holmes’s sexual identity was always suspect. Cumberbatch portrays a Holmes more asexual than sexual; it’s just way down on his list of priorities. Besides, it seems there is no woman out there who can begin to keep up with him. When he is on a case minor matters like eating and sleeping simply recede.

If you have cable TV, there is a good chance you have BBC America as well. If so, check its schedule carefully so you can sample the series. Or throw caution to the wind and order its slim set of DVDs. Even if they can only produce less than a handful of new episodes per season, you will find them worth the wait. Sherlock transcends mere television. Whatever this reincarnation is, it is really, really good. If you are a Sherlock Holmes fan, you’ll kick yourself if you don’t drag yourself out of Edwardian England and enjoy this contemporary version.

 
The Thinker

Review: Horatio Hornblower, Collectors Edition

When like me you don’t watch much TV, you don’t have to be worried about being sucked into the latest TV miniseries. I knew about the Horatio Hornblower miniseries, but because I don’t watch TV I had only caught part of one episode on TV when it originally aired, and that only was because my sister told me about it. It was much more convenient for me, more than a decade after the first episode aired, to sit down and watch all eight episodes in a row over a few days while I convalesced.

Like with most miniseries, there is a mental disconnect between what you read in the books and the miniseries. My mental imagining of Horatio Hornblower was little like Ioan Gruffudd’s portrayal. Director Andrew Grieve’s version of the famous fictional 19th century British naval captain took some getting used to, but overall I very much liked it.

If there is a problem with the miniseries, it is that it covers the least interesting parts of the novels: Hornblower’s career starting as a midshipman through a commander. C.S. Forester actually started with the fifth book and wrote the novels that constituted his early years much later. To put it kindly, I suspect that like me most readers would agree that the latter half of the series was more interesting than the first half. This is in part because a naval captain can have a much more interesting time than a midshipman or lieutenant. The good news is that in the unlikely event that more of these adventures will make it onto film they should only get more interesting. This is because the finest novel in the series is probably the very first written, Beat to Quarters. The TV series ends just as Hornblower is promoted to Post Captain. Moreover, since Gruffudd is aging along with the character, if someone could produce Beat to Quarters, Gruffudd would be just about the perfect age to portray Hornblower, as Gruffudd is 36.

Turning a book into a TV series always involves a number of deviations from the books. If you have read the series a half dozen times like I have you will notice plenty. In spirit, the series is faithful to the series, and perhaps that’s what counts the most. The naval battles were rendered much better than I anticipated, as was life aboard a British naval ship at that time in general. If you watch the DVD extras, you realize the producers actually had to construct a frigate as well as a number of other ships. This is not an easy thing to do these days, as frigate building is something of a lost art. Moreover, constructing 19th century naval vessels is very expensive. So the same ship stands in for a number of ships because to really show the variation of naval ships would have been cost prohibitive. For example, most gun decks were below the main deck, not on the main deck. The ship in the TV series also looks suspiciously new and overly clean, which in fact it was at the time. Although sailors did their best to keep their ships shipshape, in reality most British naval ships of the period were creaky and barnacle encrusted.

Most of the characters are dead on. I particularly like Robert Lindsay as Sir Edward Pellew and Paul McGann as Lieutenant William Bush. Bush is a recurring character in the later novels. He becomes Hornblower’s sturdy and dependable right hand man. As for Gruffudd’s portrayal of Hornblower, his Hornblower shows a streak of friendliness as well as humanity that was absent in the books. In the books, we knew Hornblower felt this way, but he considered it unmanly to actually behave this way. In short, Hornblower becomes likeable, rather than the isolated and removed character portrayed in the books. As Forester made clear, Hornblower was a secret humanitarian (and by today’s standards would be a liberal) but in the British navy of the 19th century where discipline was foremost, it was frankly not allowed. Just as if you were a gay, you kept your humanitarian instincts deep in the closet.

It seems unlikely that more episodes will be made. After sponsoring eight episodes, A&E finally figured out they were too expensive to continue. The good news is that Gruffudd loved playing Hornblower and would be glad to make some more Hornblower movies. Presumably, he needs some underwriters. Sign me up to buy a few shares of any future Hornblower movies. It would be a pleasure as I age to watch Gruffudd act through the best part of the series. All the remaining books deserve to make it to film. Given the constraints of miniseries, they were not the epitome of a Hornblower realization for the screen, but they came close. My hope for a proper Hornblower movie with this cast is likely to remain a fantasy.

If you haven’t seen the series of eight you can always buy the DVD set, of course. By the end of the eighth episode, Duty, like me you might feel crestfallen that there simply are no more episodes to enjoy. The good news is that if you have not read the books, you will have the pleasure of reading them.

 
The Thinker

Review: The Prisoner (AMC Version)

Number Six is back, along with Number Two, and along with many other villagers who have numbers but not names. The Village, which used to be on a mysterious island somewhere, is now in the middle of the desert yet has all the conveniences of modern life. Patrick McGoohan (the original Number Six) unfortunately went to meet his maker earlier this year at the age of 80. In his place is Jim Caviezel, who has starred in a number of prominent movies and actually played Jesus Christ in Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ. This Number Six (or just Six) doesn’t work for the British Secret Service, but for some murky company based in New York City called Summakor. The company spends a lot of time monitoring people. Also, it’s a really good idea not to resign from Summakor unless retiring to a sterile village in the middle of nowhere is your idea of fun.

In the original series, the character playing Number Two usually switched with every episode. In this abbreviated mini-series version of The Prisoner (just six episodes) we have a recurring Number Two played by Sir Ian McKellen. This Number Two does not seem quite as obsessed about Number Six as in the original series. Yet, somehow this Number Six often ends up spending his nights in a clinic where dubious things are done to him largely without his knowledge.

In short, this is not your father’s The Prisoner. Yet of course it is creepy, just in different ways. This village comes complete with families, schools, and even village tours. Rover, the big amorphous weather balloon straight from the id is still around to try to frighten those trying to escape, but for the most part these villagers are too torn up inside from dealing with the surreal life in The Village to do much in the way of escaping. For most of them, the plasticity of The Village is ripping their souls apart.

In many ways, this version of The Prisoner is creepier. Gene therapy was not even in Patrick McGoohan’s wildest nightmares back in 1967, although in both versions we have many really long needles puncturing open flesh. Whatever Summakor is up to, they are good at getting people to forget their past lives, but not so good at making them hide some internal often-inchoate angst.

In many ways, this version is more of a homage to the final episodes of the original The Prisoner, as it operates on a much more metaphorical level. In the original show, you knew The Village was an actual place. In this version, it soon becomes clear that The Village may exist wholly in our minds. Using many flashbacks, we can see that many of the people who populated Six’s life when he lived in New York are also in The Village, although it takes him a long time to understand this.

This Village comes complete with its own underground, in this case a place where you can go to let off some steam, have some illicit sex and engage in activities like congregating with your fellow homosexuals that are not allowed on land. One of the villagers with sexual preference issues is 11-12 (Jamie Campbell Bower), the son of Number Two. His largely comatose mother spends much of six episodes mysteriously in bed in Two’s palatial home.

In this version, Six does try to escape a few times but seems much more engaged in Village life, and even helps spy on his fellow villagers. Mysterious holes open up on the grounds of The Village, sometimes swallowing up villagers. There is love to be found in The Village, but it is hard to know if it is real or genetically induced.

For me the best parts of this miniseries are the flashbacks to New York, particularly with Lucy (Haylee Atwell), a fellow employee of Summakor who has a brief but intense relationship with Six. Over the course of six episodes, Six’s past starts to fill in. For those of you who have seen the original series, in some ways its ending parallels that version, but in some ways not. This village is more a metaphor of modern society, man’s place in it, and the relationship if any between reality and detached consciousness.

Whether you find it better or worse than the original will depend in part on whether you saw the original. In many ways this version, while shorter, is better. In other ways, it is not quite as engaging or as fun. It is a delight to spend six episodes with Sir Ian McKellen because he is such a fine actor, but he is not your classic, obsessive Number Two. Rather he is more like a village caretaker, but why? To find out, watch all six episodes. I have seen all six episodes, all of which may not have yet been broadcast here in the states. I have my ways.

I doubt anyone who sticks with this version will be disappointed. I was not that happy with Jim Caviezel as Number Six, but at least he was more human and emotionally expressive than Patrick McGoohan’s ultra stoic version of Six. Instead, enjoy the minor characters. Ruth Wilson as 313 and Jamie Campbell Bower as 11-12 are particularly excellent.

The only real drawback to this version is that the story felt too rushed. To fully explore this village and its many permutations and eccentricities, they needed a more leisurely seventeen episodes, like the original series. Perhaps there will be a sequel to this miniseries where we get to learn more. Without giving any plot points away, I can say that at the end you will find out there is a new Number Two in charge.

 
The Thinker

Review: Battlestar Galactica (Season One)

The original TV series Battlestar Galactica (1978-1980) was so bad that even someone desperately looking for science fiction on TV like myself could not watch it. It was dreadful! I may have made it through one episode, but one was enough. It was a little more than a painfully cheap Star Wars rip off. I found R2-D2 in Star Wars annoying, but it was positively adorable next to Muffet II, the annoying robotic dog in the original BSG. Lorne Greene played Commander Adama and he made William Shatner look good. The show was also too 70s. From Richard Hatch’s blow dried hair to its token African American Herb Jefferson, Jr., the show leeched the worst of what had come before it. Still, Americans were so desperate for science fiction on television that it somehow managed to hang on for three years before it was mercifully put out of its misery.

In 2003, the SciFi Channel agreed to air an expensive “reimagining” of the show by producer and writer Richard D. Moore. To the extent that I was aware of it, I tuned it out. The bad vibes emitted from the original Battlestar Galactica convinced me the show had to have a jinx on it. I would likely still be unaware that I was wrong had various family members and friends not prodded me to watch this incarnation. A few months back I gave in and bought the first season on DVD. My wife and I have slowly been making our way through it, sometimes resting a few weeks before trying another episode.

Our rests between episodes is to some extent understandable because the BSG universe is an ultra dreary place. In case you are not familiar with the show, Galactica is the warship for a rag tag fleet of interstellar spaceships containing the last remnants of the human race. Unlike the Jews, who had Yahweh in the desert to send them manna from heaven, these humans get nothing but silence from the Gods of Kobol that many of them worship. (Why am I thinking it’s the Gods of COBOL? Do they really worship Grace Hopper?) Rest assured they get nothing but grief from the Cylons, a model of robots that humans created to serve them that got all uppity. The Cylons have evolved to the point that they are virtually indistinguishable from humans. One thing is abundantly clear: they want to exterminate the human race right down to our last strand of human DNA. Whenever they find any humans, they send out a vast horde of Cylon raiders to destroy them. Cylons are like roaches in that they seem to be everywhere but often hidden yet never invited in. That they are so hard to tell apart from human beings makes the humans very paranoid, unable to tell friend from foe.

The series starts with a terrific pilot, which is a full-blown movie in its own right. No question about it, it is slick! It is hard to think of it as a pilot because from the first frame it feels like the actors have been playing their parts for years. You can feel the close quarters and almost the smell their perspiration. Lorne Greene died in 1987, so he was unable to reprise his role as Commander Adama, which is just as well. In this incarnation, you get the craggy faced and raspy voice actor Edward James Olmos instead. Thankfully, Olmos is a 1000% better actor than Greene. I won’t mention all the ancillary characters as it is better to explore them for yourself. Most of the names have been retained from the original series but in some cases, some surprising changes were made.

Starbuck for example had a sex change operation and is played with impertinent eloquence by Katee Sackhoff. Boomer, instead of being African American is female and Oriental as well as potentially a Cylon, although she is not certain of it. Captain Apollo (Lee) got a much-needed haircut but still seems a bit too handsome, yet is convincingly played by Jamie Bamber. The best part: the only annoying robots are the Cylons, and most of the Cylons, while being villainous, are at least interestingly evil characters.

The principle Cylon in residence is the foxy and evil Six (Tricia Helfer), who appears only to ship physician research scientist Dr. Gaius Baltar (James Callis). She exists to taunt him, to tease his high-strung libido and to make him loathe himself by doing things to his species he should not do. They are quite a toxic pair; clearly, she is the dominant, and he is pussy whipped. If you have to loathe a character, Dr. Baltar is easy to loathe, since he is so easily manipulated by Six and not nearly as much fun as Dr. Smith was in Lost in Space. In fact, I was hoping the writers would do us a favor and kill him off. No such luck.

Richard Moore likes to tease his audience as mercilessly as Cylons do humans. If you like intrigue, you will love this incarnation of Battlestar Galactica, because it piles on the layers of mystery so deep it frequently feels suffocating. How is a lowly TV viewer supposed to parse through all the subterfuge? Clearly, those Cylons are way smarter than us humans, so maybe we deserve extinction. Somehow, a diminished set of humans seems to hang on from episode to episode against overwhelming odds thanks to an overextended set of pilots and the smart, fearless leadership of Commander Adama.

While the acting, special effects and writing are typically first rate, there are some oddities about this reimagining. Perhaps because the SciFi Channel wanted to pinch a few extra pennies, it has a very early 21st century feel to it. Obviously, it is cheaper to shoot exterior shots if you can go with today’s architecture, so we get cities on planets like Caprica that look suspiciously like Vancouver. Clothing too looks present day. Civilians like President Laura Roslin prefer to dress like Hillary Clinton. Some aspects are even more antiquated. Galactica is showing its age. Much information spits out of printers. No communicators for this crew. POTS (Plain Old Telephone System) will do just fine. Anyhow, it’s apparently much more secure to be low tech when dealing with those ultra shrewd Cylons.

Nor is it clear how the citizens of this ragtag fleet get their supplies. There seem to be no lack of consumables like printer paper, booze and cigarettes. They sure aren’t making pit stops on Earth, which is lost and half mythical anyhow, and their home world of Caprica is full of Cylon-induced radiation that destroyed all human life (well, almost all).

Battlestar Galactica is space opera, of course, so it is best not to trouble yourself with these details. Have a beer yourself and enjoy the show (if you can use that word with a show that is such an unrelenting downer) for what it is. After a terrific start, the show does sag a bit in the middle of the season. A couple episodes in the first season, like “Tigh Me Up, Tigh Me Down” are frankly below subprime. Naturally, like all shows hoping to be renewed, it ends on one of these impossible cliffhangers. This being BSG though it will have more dimensions, layers, shock and perturbations than a Matrix movie.

Anyhow, I’m hooked, so I better go buy Season Two. If you haven’t seen the series, based on its first season it may be depressing stuff, but it is really well done depressing stuff, so go buy it and enjoy.

 
The Thinker

Second Viewing: City on the Edge of Forever

Watching movies and shows online can be both fun and convenient. On Christmas Eve, I watched the British film Cashback streamed live to my desktop computer. Last night I watched classic Star Trek, specifically the episode City on the Edge of Forever from the show’s first season. Many Trekkers insist this was the best episode in the three-year run of the original series and I am inclined to agree. It was ostensibly written by science fiction author Harlan Ellison, but had to be substantially rewritten by staff scriptwriter D. C. Fontana to keep it within the show’s budget and fifty-minute length.

In case you have not seen the episode, at the start of the show NCC-1701 (a.k.a. the U.S.S. Enterprise) finds itself in the midst of a space-time disturbance. It jolts the ship; the usual sparks fly out of the navigator’s console and knocks out poor Lieutenant Sulu. Dr. McCoy (“Bones”) rushes to the bridge to give Sulu a small dose of “cordrazine”. When the ship is rocked again by another space-time disturbance McCoy accidentally injects the rest into himself, which turns him into a paranoid schizophrenic. He manages to elude security and beam himself down to the planet they are orbiting, which is at the center of the space-time disturbance. There on the planet a mysterious structure called The Guardian acts as a portal to human history. Dr. McCoy, still in a cordrazine paranoia high, jumps through the portal and back in time to New York City during the Great Depression.

It is not a good idea to disturb time because McCoy apparently does something to cause their present reality to disappear. Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock end up going back to the same time to try to prevent McCoy from doing whatever he did to change history. This is a tall order because there is no guarantee they can find him.

I will not give out too much more of the plot on the off chance you have not seen the episode. While I watched it online on Netflix, there are other places online you can watch it, some for free. One place is cbs.com, which is more than a bit ironic since it first ran forty years ago on NBC.

I was ten when the show first ran in 1967. For some bizarre reason my parents considered Star Trek too adult for us godly devout Catholics (perhaps it was the miniskirts the women wore), so it was off our list of approved shows. I did not actually see it until the early 1970s when it was broadcast in abbreviated form on an independent TV channel in Orlando. As I was living in Daytona Beach, this meant poor image quality and many Ronco ads. Watching it online though was a pleasure, because I could see it in full color and in higher definition than the 435 lines available to TV viewers back in the 1960s. It was like watching it projected in a movie theater. It made quite a difference.

Star Trek is of course a fantasy about the future, but to me it was a blast into my distantly remote past when I was only ten years old, we were up to our hips in Vietnam and prominent people like Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were being gunned down. As much as Gene Roddenberry tried to hide it in its 23rd century frame, the show espoused the values of those times. Back then, the network censors were pretty ruthless. Kirk’s line at the end of the episode, “Let’s get the hell out of here,” considered shocking at the time, was lucky to make it past the network censors.

Women may have worn miniskirts in the U.S.S. Enterprise but there are oddities in the shows that today’s National Organization for Women would find sexist. When time stops, for example, Lt. Uhura says (rather unconvincingly), “Captain, I’m afraid.” It was perfectly reasonable back in the 1960s for a woman, even a Star Fleet officer like Uhura to revert to wallflower when the situation got too heavy. The same was not true for Kirk or Spock. It was time to raise the shields of masculinity and exude some testosterone.

For the 1960s, Star Trek was high primetime cinema. However, the pressures of putting out twenty-six episodes a year as well as keeping to a strict budget frequently strained the quality of the show. City on the Edge of Forever is an excellent episode for classic Star Trek, yet if compared to most shows of its successor, Star Trek: The Next Generation, it would rank maybe in the middle. In the 1960s, TV was not considered to be art, but entertainment. Occasional series like The Twilight Zone showed what the medium was capable of. With the constraints on time and budget the show was under, putting out good episodes every week was impossible. Unlike the original series, Star Trek: The Next Generation was syndicated. This allowed for bigger budgets, higher production values and better actors. Watching the original Star Trek series forty years later, the lack of quality, even for the better shows, is glaring.

Still, if you can rewind your mental clock back four decades you can appreciate that City on the Edge of Forever as a really good episode. New York City in the Great Depression was portrayed on a back lot of Desilu Studios, but the scenes were quite convincingly rendered. William Shatner’s ego is kept in check by director Joseph Pevney, who probably not coincidentally directed many of the show’s better episodes. Joan Collins plays the kind-hearted social worker Edith Keeler and renders a surprisingly fine performance. Some of the dialog comes across as rather strange and the music is at times too suggestive of how you are supposed to feel, but the episode is a great blend of fun, drama and science fiction. Actually, the best performance in the episode is given by the late DeForest Kelley (McCoy). It is consistently well acted, well directed and well written. The essence of Ellison’s fascinating and tragic plot is retained and convincingly rendered.

What a pity that network executives were so niggardly with prime time shows back in the 1960s. Star Trek was obviously an innovative idea for a TV series, given its long and successful franchise. Given the relative paucity of its production values (which were considered high for the time) the original series, when it was good in episodes like this one, demonstrated what the original series could have been had it been given the time and the money necessary. Star Trek’s true glory was destined to show up in future incarnations of the show.

 
The Thinker

A favorite Christmas show

There are plenty of memorable Christmas movies and shows to enjoy this time of year. Each attempts to capture the spirit of the season that is largely absent. One of my favorites is not from a movie or a made for Christmas cartoon, but from the first season of the TV show The West Wing. The episode, “In Excelsis Deo”, was written by the series creator Alan Sorkin and Rick Cleveland.

I hate it when a show is so good that it makes you cry. Damn it, this episode made me cry, but in a good way.

If you are not familiar with The West Wing, the withdrawn and acerbic Toby Zeigler (played by Richard Schiff) is White House Communications Director. Toby also happens to be a Jew. As Christmas closes in, he gets a call from the D.C. police. A homeless man died on a park bench on The Mall. Toby’s business card was found in the coat. Toby had donated the coat the man wore to Goodwill.

The man who died turns out to be a Korean War veteran who was wounded in action. For reasons that seem to puzzle Toby, he feels compelled to make sure this homeless man he never knew receives a proper burial at Arlington Cemetery.

This episode was voted the best of the long running series by the viewers of IMDB.com, and it won probably for this last scene. This YouTube excerpt contains the key scenes from this episode. Grab a tissue or a handkerchief and prepare to feel the true spirit of Christmas. Moreover, perhaps you can do what I did today, and drop off a bag full of clothes for donation. Due to the poor economy, the number of homeless is rapidly increasing. We hit a high of 27 degrees here in the Washington D.C. area today.

Happy holidays to everyone, regardless of your faith or lack thereof.

 

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