Showing posts with label TV. Show all posts
Showing posts with label TV. Show all posts

21 January 2018

Lost in the Eighties


Scarecrow and Mrs King
Nope, not touching upon the implications here.
Last week, I reviewed Gin Phillip’s Fierce Kingdom.

The protagonist makes several references to a mid-1980s television spy series, Scarecrow and Mrs King. I’ve spent decades without television, so the program was unknown to me. Gin Phillips managed to sufficiently interest me, I streamed the first (out of four) seasons.

The principals, Kate Jackson and Bruce Boxleitner, are attractive and humorous. John le Carré this is not, but it is fun, especially when housewife Amanda King cleverly thwarts baddies and their plots.

For those unfamiliar with the series, I offer this condensed version.
The Spy Who Came In From the Mall

June, 1983, Washington, DC. Intelligence Chief Billy Melrose calls an emergency meeting.

“A dastardly foreign-looking, culturally sophisticated attaché…”

“Culture, that’s suspicious,” says Agent Lee Stetson, aka Scarecrow. “And attaché… that seals it. Only foreigners use diacriticals.”

“Anyway, an undercover operative has stolen the last Galactic Man action figure in Washington.”

“Someone stole it?” Scarecrow asks.

“Well, not if you’re going to be technical. They used a coupon on top of a Toys-Я-Us diplomatic immunity discount card.”

“So what does that mean, boss?”

“It means I have to drive to Baltimore to buy another one for my nephew. The Soviets bought it as part of an incomprehensible kidnapping scenario. I’m foggy on the plot but their operatives, Putin and Pulitov, plan to sabotage national elections. That could never, ever happen, but we have to stop the kidnapping. I mean to send you, Scarecrow, but we need someone to pose as your wife.”

Scarecrow and Francine Desmond
Scarecrow and Francine Desmond
“Me, me! I can do it.” Agent Francine Desmond frantically waves her hand in the air.

Scarecrow’s handsome brow furrows as he stares off in space. “Who could do the job?”

Francine jumps to her feet. “Me, me! I’ve worked here nine years; I can do the job.”

“I don’t know who,” Melrose says. “Barbie’s pregnant and Paula’s on assignment.”

“Me, me! I’ve got two masters and a doctorate in spyology.”

Stetson snaps his fingers. “What about Petunia Oggleswort?”

“Out sick. The entire steno pool fell ill. We’ve run out of options, Lee. Who do you think, Francine?”

“Oh, Chief, I’m so glad you finally asked…”

Whump! The door swings open. Amanda King bouncy-steps in carrying a tray.

“Hi everyone. I brought fresh cookies.”

Francine mutters under her breath. “Oh, no. Go away, you b-b-bitc—.”

Chief Melrose brightens. “Oh hi, Amanda. I’m afraid we’re too busy to chat. We’re in the midst of a crisis trying to figure out who…” He stops and looks significantly at Stetson. “You thinking what I’m thinking?”

Scarecrow selects an oatmeal chocolate chip. “I’m thinking we need coffee with the cookies.”

“No, I mean the op. Right in front of our noses: Amanda! We use Mrs King! She could pose as your wife.”

“Oh no,” says Stetson, vigorously shaking his head. “Not a civilian.”

Francine nods. “Exactly. She’s just a silly suburban tw—“ She stops as everyone turns to stare at her. “… uh, twenty-nine year old housewife.”

Amanda distributes more cookies. “Twenty-six and no, I don’t want the job. I have to run home to head up the birthday party for my son, uh, whats-his-name and my other boy, um, er… His name will come to me too. And my mother’s babysitting right now although she’d rather be cleaning the refrigerator and I have to take my station wagon in for the twenty-two thousand mile oil change and visit the book store where we killed that mafia guy and grab lunch at the tea shoppe where those foreign agents shot at us and and buy vegetables although I can’t understand why people like broccoli or eggplant, and do my nails and watch my soaps and MacGyver and Cheers and I never miss Columbo so you see I’m very busy.”

“Hmmph. Busy seeking endless praise and admiration, you attention craving c—…” Francine suddenly realizes she’s mumbling aloud. “Er, I mean cunning manipulator, just too perfect for poor spies like us.”

“It’s settled then. Scarecrow, you and Mrs. King check into the resort as a honeymoon couple. Francine, see to the details.”

Francine throws up her hands. “Oh, no, no. I’m not covering for that skinny-ass—“ She stops. “… assiduously slender housewife. Okay, okay, I’ll do it. I’ll do it. Then shoot me.”


In his subtle silver Porsche 365 with NOT•A•SPY license plates to disguise the car, Lee Stetson speeds with Amanda to the Lake Coochy-Coo Resort. At the bar, he orders a ’78 Grand Cru des Saults Ste Marie.

Amanda sips a glass. “I’m afraid I don’t know these fancified wines and stuff. Now my mother loves colorful booze, pinks and pastels. I feel so outclassed. Really, that time you bought me steak tartare I thought it was raw hamburger, but that shows you my taste or lack of taste, as I’m sure you already know because I’m happy with Burger King where they cook the steak tartare and put it on a sesame seed bun with pickles and onions and…. Oh, look! There’s our quarry.”

“Shh, Amanda. Don't stare."

“But he looks so much like Francine.”

“It is Francine. She slipped into disguise to fool the bad guys. Let’s find our room and get some sleep.”

Once they unlock the door, Amanda protests.

“There’s only one bed.”

“Yes, of course. We share one bed in episodes 2, 20 and 33. Our cover is we’re on our honeymoon.”

“Not me, buster. I wasn’t raised that way. Maybe Mr. King said my notion of oral sex was endlessly talking, but that’s why he’s the ex-Mr. King ’cause he expected hanky-panky on our honeymoon and I’m not that kind of girl, I mean he’s still Mr. King I guess but I’m not his Mrs ’cause that’s not my sort of thing although you and I glow with repressed sexual attraction and everyone except McMillan & Wife has been bangin’ since the 1960s, well, 1920s and before, I mean look at the court of Louis XIV, but anyway I’ll take the sofa because you won’t fit, on the sofa I mean, or you can stay up and hide in the hallway closet– there’s a metaphor if I ever said one– and spy on the guy about to be kidnapped, anyway I think it’s wrong of the agency to put us together like this and… Are you snoring? Hey, are you awake? Well, I’ll just slip out and look for the kidnappers on my own.”


Next morning, Lee Stetson awakes to the sound of the telephone.

“Scarecrow, where are you? The kidnappers nabbed their victim along with Amanda. They made a run for the get-away limo, but they couldn’t unlock it. They’re headed for their escape chopper.”

“I’m on my way, now.”

Stetson arrives in time to see the helicopter start to lift off. Abruptly its engine chokes, coughs black smoke, and the whirlybird settles back to the ground as it backfires and dies.

The kidnappers fire several machine gun rounds before the doors burst open and the bad guys fall out, knuckling their eyes. Amanda steps down, holding a can of hair spray.

“Hi everyone! I haven’t been trained with mace, but I had my big-hair-spray can and let ’em have it. And I put fingernail polish in the limo locks so the bad guys couldn’t get in and I borrowed, well, purloined actually, maple syrup from kitchen and poured it into the helicopter gas tank. I didn’t know if it would work, but figured it worth a try, and it did pretty well, didn’t it? Didn’t it?”

“Congratulations, Mrs King,” says Chief Melrose. “I’m sure the President wants to award you another secret commendation.”

Francine stares daggers. “Why you scheming, sleazy, slu…” She stops under the glare of Melrose and Stetson. “I mean sultry, sultry and silky Mata Hari.”

“Matty Harry who? I’m just a simple suburban housewife and mother of uh, two, I think, let’s see… one… yes, two, and I’m so pleased I could stop the bad guys and speaking of stop, I should be at the bus stop to pick up my kids, no wait, maybe Mom will pick them up or they can walk. But any awards should go to Lee because he’s the best secret agent ever and I’d do him if we didn’t work together and I love Francine who alerted the bad guys we were on to them spooking them with that innovative disguise that put them on the run. Anyway, I promised to make meatloaf for next week’s royal heiress episode.”

“You’re adorable,” says Stetson.

“Winsome,” Chief Melrose says. “Isn’t she a darling, Francine? Francine?”

“Uh-oh! Francine’s choking,” cries Amanda. “Quick, I learned Cub Scout CPR.”

09 January 2018

Rest In Peace, Major Crimes


SPOILER ALERT. If you watch the TV show Major Crimes and haven't seen the episodes that aired on December 19th, stop reading and go watch. Then come back.
For nearly thirteen years, I have been invested in the Major Crimes squad of the Los Angeles Police Department--the fictional one, as depicted in two series on TNT: The Closer, which ran from 2005 - 2012, and its spin-off, Major Crimes, which began in 2012 and which will air its final episode tonight. I have loved these two shows because of the writing and the acting, because the audience was allowed to become invested in the characters as well as the cases, and because the people behind the show--until recently--were able to give the audience a good balance of episodes, some serious, other lighthearted. Put simply, these shows made me happy.

But with the final episode just hours away from being aired, I must confess I'm not happy anymore. I'm not happy that the powers behind the cable network apparently put pressure in the last year on the people behind Major Crimes to make the show darker and edgier and to come up with story lines that wouldn't be resolved in a single episode but instead dragged on and on and on.

While I'm okay with overarching character issues that continue throughout a series--seeing Sharon and Andy, for instance, grow from friends to husband and wife--and while I'm okay with larger plot issues that reoccur from time to time (such as the ongoing case involving serial killer Philip Stroh), I didn't like that Major Crimes changed its format recently from having a murder that was solved each week to a murder case that would take several weeks to be solved. Those multiple-episode cases became too hard to follow, and they were all so so dark and serious.

I'm also unhappy because Major Crimes killed off the star of the show, Sharon Raydor, a few episodes ago. It was shocking and heartbreaking and completely unnecessary. When a canceled show goes off the air, I like to think that the fictional characters are still out there, doing their jobs, living their lives. I might not get to check in with them anymore, but in my mind, they are riding off happily into the sunset. But when the main character of a TV show is killed off, there is no happily ever after. There is no joy any longer.

I read a Variety article a few weeks ago in which the amazing Mary McDonnell, who played Major Crimes's star, Sharon Raydor, talked about the decision by the show's executive producer and creator, James Duff, to kill off Sharon. The death wasn't done for shock value or as an F.U. to the network. It appears the decision was made thoughtfully and with the audience in mind. Duff wanted to allow the audience to grieve, and he thought this would be a good-send off for the character. Maybe there are viewers out there who enjoyed this closure. But for me and for every person I've talked to about this, it was a kick in the gut--a major miscalculation. I didn't want grief forced on me. I wanted to believe Sharon and Andy would live happily ever after. I wanted Sharon to continue leading her squad. If I had to put up with the show being canceled, I at least should have been given the ability to believe that everything would continue to be well with all my favorite fictional police detectives. That would have left me satisfied.


All of this agita leads to an interesting question. When a series is ending, be it a TV show or a mystery novel series or any other type of series, how much does the author/showrunner owe to the readers/audience? After nearly thirteen years as a viewer of these two TV shows, I feel ownership of the characters and want them to have a happy ending, as I expect most loyal viewers do. But if I put on my author hat, I realize that my reaction is quite presumptuous. I might be a loyal viewer, but these are not my characters, not my story lines, not my shows. I don't own the copyright. I didn't dream up these dramas. I didn't bring the characters to life. As an author, I own the stories I write, and while I keep my readers in mind as I write, I choose the twists and the endings, and I would be aggravated if readers started telling me that I should craft my stories differently. My stories are mine. So from this perspective, I can understand Duff's desire to end the show on his terms. I just wish his terms weren't so different from mine.

Major Crimes certainly isn't the only series (TV or books) to end on a note that readers didn't like. (And I should add that while I'm unhappy with Duff's choice to kill off Sharon, the episodes since then have been wonderful, and I expect the final episode tonight too will be good.) The final episodes of other shows and books have not been so well received either. The last episode of Seinfeld, for instance, was terrible. Viewers wanted to imagine Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer living out their lives in New York, going about their days where nothing happens in an amusing manner. No one wanted to imagine those characters in prison. And when Arthur Conan Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes, readers were so unhappy, thousands apparently canceled their subscriptions to The Strand magazine, in which the offending story appeared. I read that Conan Doyle wanted to send Holmes off with a bang. But what about what the readers wanted?

It's a hard line for writers to walk, wanting to keep strong to your artistic vision as you wind up a series, yet give your readers/viewers the payoff they want. It must be especially hard when the decisions are made with care, yet they aren't received as expected, at least by some.

So it will be with a heavy heart that I watch the last episode of Major Crimes tonight. I expect that the serial killer Stroh will finally be caught. I expect that justice will prevail. I expect that no other characters in the squad will die. And I expect that no matter what happens in the episode, I will be in mourning as the final credits roll, because these are characters whom I've grown to love, and I'll miss them. And that is something Duff and McDonnell and everyone involved in Major Crimes and The Closer before it can be proud of. It's no small thing to create a world that brings others joy, even if some readers/viewers don't love every aspect of the way the story comes to an end.

26 April 2017

Life on Mars


Life on Mars is another one of those oddball Brit TV shows you come across from time to time. It ran in the UK from 2006-2007, and then fell off the radar, although David Kelley produced a short-lived American remake, and there were Spanish, Russian, and Czech versions. Later on, the original creative team developed the sequel Ashes to Ashes, which BBC One broadcast from 2008 to 2010.

I came to Life on Mars backwards, by way of an entirely different series called Island at War, about the WWII German occupation of the Channel Islands. Island at War had a high-powered cast, for those of you familiar with British TV - Clare Holman, Saskia Reeves, James Wilby, Laurence Fox, along with a guy who hadn't caught my eye before, Philip Glenister. The show's a little reminiscent of Foyle's War, because of the period, for one, but also the slightly off-center POV. The crushing weakness of Island at War is that it stops dead after six episodes (it apparently didn't pull in enough audience share), so what happens to these characters we've become invested in can never be resolved. They're marooned, foundlings, lost from view. The fates we imagine for them go unsatisfied.

What's a boy to do? I went looking for more Philip Glenister. There's a fair bit of it, he's got a solid list of credits, and as luck would have it, the first thing to turn up on my researches was Life on Mars, two sets, eight episodes each. I could see heartbreak ahead yet again, but I took the plunge.

Here's the premise. The hotshot young DCI, rising star Sam Tyler, is knocked flat by a hit-and-run, and when he wakes up, the time is out of joint. It's thirty-odd years in the past. 1973. Deep Purple, Uriah Heep, Mott the Hoople. There are basically three alternatives. Sam has actually traveled back in time? Um. He's stark raving nuts? Could be. Or is this all a figment of his imagination, because in the real world, his own world, he's in a hospital bed in Intensive Care, in a coma? Which is what Sam decides to believe. He's hearing voices, having hallucinations. He must be elsewhere, if he's somehow generating this fiction, this vivid alternative reality.

And into this vivid fiction swaggers Philip Glenister, playing the juiciest part in the show, DCI Gene Hunt, the 'guv,' or as the local Manchester accent has it, Dee-See-AH Hoont. Life in Mars, see, is a police procedural, but the era of Hawaii Five-O, if not Barney Miller. In point of fact, what Sam wakes up to is a cop shop filtered through a TV sensibility. There's enough "Book 'em, Dan-o" to go around, and a grab-bag of generic conceits, but the characters play both into and against type - at the same time - which keeps you guessing. Glenister certainly plays Hunt as larger than life, and Hunt is often shot from a lower camera angle. He looms. Glenister voices him at a rough pitch, too, so he seems more villain, in the Brit sense, than copper. Which makes the moments when he unbends all the more affecting. Hunt isn't confessional, he doesn't admit his vulnerabilities, you'd never catch him getting teary. Sam puts a sympathetic hand on the guv's shoulder in a scene, and Hunt shrugs it off. "Don't go all Dorothy on me," he says.

I'm showing my own hand here, because one of the guilty pleasures in watching Life on Mars is its gleeful political in-correctness. The coarse jokes, the raw vocabulary, the constant smoking - somebody's always lighting a cigarette or putting one out, it's a signature. Less comfortable is the casual violence. The lack of self-discipline is itself corrupting. This isn't a subtext, either, it's front and center, woven into the fabric. I might be reading the signs too closely. Then again, the reason a show like this strikes a nerve, and creates brand loyalty, is because it reflects some hidden thing or open secret, whether it's played for laughs or not. Life on Mars doesn't take itself too seriously, but it invites our complicity.

What, then, accounts for its extended shelf life? People keep discovering or rediscovering the show, the sixteen episodes of those two seasons out on DVD. (Ashes to Ashes, the sequel, is only available so far on Region 2, which makes it more or less out of reach in the U.S. Get a clue, guys, this is a neglected market.) For one, maybe I haven't made it plain that Life on Mars is extremely funny. Sometimes it's gallows humor, sometimes pure burlesque. For another, the cast is terrifically engaging. Glenister owns DCI Hunt, but John Simm as Sam Tyler is the tentpole character. And counter-intuitively, maybe we don't want all those loose ends tied up, everything unambiguous, the answers packaged and portion-controlled. Always leave them waiting for more.



30 January 2017

Oops! That Worn't Work


Mary Maloney is a devoted wife and housekeeper. One day her husband, the police chief, announces that he wants a divorce because he has met another woman. Mary is quite angry and kills him with a blow from a frozen leg of lamb. She calls the police and provides am alibi for herself with the story that she'd been out to the store when the murder took place. The investigating officer, Lieutenant Noonan is further frustrated when he cannot find the murder weapon. Knowing of the long and hard hours spent looking into the case, Mary invites Noonan and the other investigators for a bite to eat. They dig into Mary's leg of lamb and Noonan, still thinking about the missing murder weapon, says, "For all we know, it might be right under our very noses."
— Plot summary of LAMB TO THE SLAUGHTER, Alfred Hitchcock TV, Season 3 Episode 28. Apl. 58, written by Ronald Dahl (story) Ronald Dahl (teleplay).
What then of Edgar Allan Poe's 1843 story of THE TELL-TELL HEART. The narrator is trying to convince us he is not mad, because he so cleverly treats the old man with such caring and delights. Although that blue eye with the film over it is still looking at him. He plans for a whole seven days. Going so stealthily at mid-night every night to the old man's room and looking in on him. Until finally the great plan comes together and as he quietly opens the door the blue eye looks a him. and after not moving for over an hour begins to hear the beating of the old man's heart.  That only adds to his fury,  he jumps on the old man, the old man screams. He pulls the man to the floor and kills him. The heart is silent.

Then he carefully cuts the corpse up and deposits it under the floor boards of the bedroom chamber. Can anyone who is mad clean up everything and it only took until 4 am. Just as he gets to his own bedroom, there is a loud knocking at the door, A neighbor had reported hearing a dreadful scream.
Three policemen come in. He explains he was the one who screamed waking from a nightmare. He tells then the old man has gone to the country. He takes them all over the house ending in the old man's bed chamber to show them all the old man's precious things are still there. He invites the police to sit and he puts his own chair right over the spot where the dismembered body is located. They sit and talk but after a time he begins to hear a ringing in his ears and then hears the heart beat. It gets louder and louder. he talks more animated and the police keep talking and act as if they don't heat the heart.

Finally he jumps up, rips up the boards and tells the police. "Here, here. I did it and here's the beating of his hideous heart."

Could we ever be as calm and collected  as Mary Maloney? To murder her husband with a leg of lamb then cook and serve it to the policemen who have been investigating?

Or are we as mad and strange as the man committing murder then when he has gotten away with it, slide into total and complete madness because he still hears the heartbeat of the man he killed?

Probably not. But we can write character's who are calm and collected and get totally away with murder. Or a character like the mad man in Poe's story.

However, in real life, just keep your imagination running when you're committing a murder on your laptop. And tell your muse to take a break your are going to cook dinner. You have everything assembled in the crock pot but the final step and notice you need a little more water. You turn the water on and nothing happens. How can that be? You were just using water about five minutes ago.

And your muse says, "How will you clean up all that blood from the kitchen floor if you don't have any water?" And there is quite a lot of blood when you shot your ex-husband who broke into your house, planning to do you bodily harm.

You look up the phone number in the local directory for City Hall to send a crew out to check out what is wrong, but you accidentally dial the police department because the print in the phone book is so small you had placed your finger on the wrong similar number.

"Oops, I dialed the wrong number, Lieutenant. I have a mess on my kitchen floor and suddenly I don't have any water."

24 September 2016

Things that drive Crime Writers CRAAAZY


I’m a crime writer. Hell, I’ll put on my other hat (the one with the pointy top) and say it. I’m even a fantasy writer (my corvette reminds me every day, as those are the books that bought it.)


So I know about suspension of disbelief. I’m willing to admit that as an audience, we might agree to ‘suspend belief’ for a little while.

But enough is enough. Television, you go too far. CSI Hoboken, or wherever you are, take note. Here are some things that drive otherwise fairly normal crime writers (oxymoron alert) crazy:


1. Crime scene people in high heels and raw cleavage.

Of all the !@#$%^&* things that television distorts, this is the one that bugs us the most. Ever been on a crime scene? Ever been in a LAB?

For six years, I was Director of Marketing for the Canadian Society of Medical Laboratory Science. I’ve been in a friggin’ lab or two. Take it from me: it ain’t a place for fuck-me shoes and long loose hair. You want my DNA messing with your crime results?

Network producers, stop treating us like ignorant adolescents who need to be sexually charged every single moment. Stop. Just stop. It’s insulting.

2. Gunshot victims who give their last speech and then die, Kerplunk.

Full disclosure: I was also a hospital director. People who get hit with a bullet to the heart die, kerplunk. They aren’t hanging around to give their last words. People who get hit in the gut may take many hours to die. It’s not a pretty sight. Take it from me. They usually aren’t thinking sentimental thoughts.

3. Where’s the blood spatter?

If you stab someone while they are still living and breathing, there is going to be blood spatter. Usually, that spatter will go all over the stabber. So sorry, producers: your bad guy is not going to walk away immaculate from a crime scene in which he just offed somebody with a stiletto. You won’t need Lassie to find him in a crowd, believe me.

4. Villains who do their ‘Fat Lady Sings’ pontification.

Why does every villain in boob-tube-town delay killing the good guy so he can tell the soon-to-be-dead schmuck his life story? I mean, the schmuck is going to be offed in two minutes, right? You’re going to plug him. So why is it important that he know why you hate your mother and the universe in general?

Someday, I am going to write a book/script where one guy gets cornered and before he can say a word, this happens:

<INT. A dark warehouse or some other cliché. >

BLAM.

The smoking gun fell to my side as Snidely dropped to the floor.

“Dudley!” gasped Nell. “You didn’t give him a chance to explain!”

I yawned. “Bor-ing. All these villains go to the same school. You heard one, you’ve heard them all.”

“Isn’t that against the law?” said Nell, stomping her little foot. “Don’t you have to let the bad guy have his final scene?”

BLAM.

The smoking gun fell to my side as Nell dropped to the floor.

Melodie Campbell writes silly stuff for newspapers and comedians, and usually they even pay her. You can catch more of her comedy on www.melodiecampbell.com, or better still, buy her books.

12 July 2015

Techno-dull


Mr Robot
Edgy. It’s what a new USA Network television, Mr Robot, is trying for, so edgy that producers are getting ulcers trying to make it happen. And cyberpunk. It’s oh, so cyberpunk, rebel without a clause, pass the opiates please. It’s new, it’s now, it’s different, and it's supposed to be ultra-tech-savvy. It has exciting technology working for it… or does it?
One of Dorothy Sayers' novels, The Nine Tailors, is noted for its portrayal of campanology– professional bell-ringing. Sayers was largely complimented for her accuracy of detail. In a small way, she created kind of a techno-novel. Since then, many authors have created stories detailing technology of one kind or another– military, espionage, aerospace, medical, or computing.

Bluffing computer experts is tricky, especially the ‘leet’, the priesthood as it were, the 1% of 1%, the dei ex machina, code-slingers, bit busters, programmers of the programs that run programs. Rendering a story about computers takes more than networking verbiage and Unix gibberish. Bear with me as I wade into technical detail.

Going Viral

John Brunner’s Shockwave Rider introduced the concept of viruses, but most novels and virtually all movies get the technology wrong. That doesn’t mean a reader can’t enjoy some stories. Thomas Joseph Ryan’s The Adolescence of P-1 was a good read. 2001 A Space Odyssey was smart, the letters HAL being one displaced from IBM. And for hopeless romantics, Electric Dreams gave movie-goers a Cyrano de Bergerac love triangle featuring a computer named Edgar.

But a story shouldn’t pretend to be something it isn’t. An Amazon review about a computer novel by a top-rated mystery writer said the commenter got laughs reading aloud excerpts to employees in the company lunchroom. That’s not the kind of critique anyone wants.

Dennis Nedry
Dennis Nedry from Jurassic Park
Casting Stones

Casting is another problem with computer shows. Techno-geeks’ IQs typically run high, but that’s seldom how computer experts appear on the screen. One example of awful rôle selection occurred in Jurassic Park, that of an unlikely computer sysadmin, the oafish and creepy Dennis Nedry. We’re going to talk about lack of subtlety: Nedry / nerdy, get it?.

If Hollywood doesn’t stereotype a sallow, shallow wimp with taped glasses, they opt for the opposite, a busty beauty in a skin-tight action figure costume. Movie makers think an eye on the décolletage prevents audiences noticing thin characterization.

When I think of actual top geeks (someone without my movie star looks– stop laughing), I think of colleagues like my friend Thrush, programmer Bill Gorham, software architect Steve O’Donnell, or a handful of others. These ordinary guys possess the extraordinary ability to make machines dance to their own tune.

Robin Hoodie

The show’s idea of characterization appears twofold. First, dress the part: Make the protagonist, Elliot Alderson, sullen, slurring, antisocial, slouch through life in his hoodie. Have ruthless, junior exec Tyrell Wellick wear designer ties and suits. Decorate drug dealers with lots of tats. Mission accomplished.

The other part of the simplistic characterization is the creation of a polarized ‘them versus us’ atmosphere: hoodies v suits, punks v preppies, young v old, crackers v hackers, morphine users v tweakers v coke-heads, Anonymous v the establishment, bad guys v the other bad guys, capitalists v socialists v nihilists v anarchists… which might be interesting if someone had bothered to delineate a bit.

Elliot, the main character, is a morphine-addicted presumed programmer– he once mentions source code. The guy is a pathological liar who lies even to himself, then follows up by telling people in slurred speech, “I’m just being honest.” He drinks ‘appletinis’ and tells his shrink he’s not a junkie, even as he snorts his drug of choice. Supposedly this doesn’t impair his ability to dig into the bowels of computer networks.

A major problem here is that mainly druggies find drug users entertaining. One shouldn’t have to be stoned to appreciate a television show, but drug use and overuse underlies a major theme of Mr Robot. Elliot’s Asperger’s syndrome one can deal with, but his continuous mumbling is hard to stomach.

Of all the cast, only the female characters appear likable and worthwhile, Elliot’s shrink, Gloria, and his childhood friend and co-worker, Angela. Elliot and Angela telegraph to the audience their unrealized attraction as in a third-rate romance novel.

Tyrell Wellick represents the only alpha male in that universe, a ruthless junior exec but one who keeps his eye on the prize. As the best drawn character, he’s a sadomasochistic and exploitative bisexual who goes all out for what he wants. The actor speaks fluent Swedish but god-awful French, more than once butchering the word ‘bonjour’. Wellick does win on other points: When his pregnant wife asks for a bondage session, he’s reluctant to proceed, trying to be gentle.

Anonymous

A major factor– or malefactor– in the series is Mr Robot, a sociopathic anarchist played by Christian Slater looking exceedingly bored throughout. ‘Mr Robot’ is the name of a tech support company, passed on to Slater.

He’s formed ‘fsociety’, a squad of hackers patterned after the group Anonymous. Instead of Guy Fawkes masks, fsociety uses the likeness of that Parker Brothers’ mustached tycoon, Rich Uncle Pennybags aka Mr Monopoly.

Uncle Pennybags © Parker Bros.
In reality, fsociety is disappointingly unlike Anonymous. The latter is focused on justice and exposing inequity and corruption, not anarchy for its own sake. Anonymous gives an impression it values human life, unlike the show's producers who suck hours out of your life never to be returned.

Unsubtle

Those of us in the US tend to confuse and conflate capitalism with a free market economy; Mr Robot drops any distinction at all. Fsociety is dedicated to gutting Evil Corp (which deserves it) within a larger goal of bringing down the economy.
  • E: Evil Corp– that’s its unimaginative nickname– is the company that Elliot, Angela, and Tyrell work for. Obviously, subtlety isn’t held in high regard among the writers. The company’s E logo simultaneously hints at an actual secretive government provider and evokes ‘E for everyone’ entertainment ratings.

  • F: Two guesses what the F in fsociety stands for, subtle like a sledgehammer.

I tried to imagine the original cocaine-fueled pitch for the series. I think it went something like this:
“Like okay, man… (sniffff) There’s this guy, hacker dude, we’ll dress him in a hoodie so everyone thinks Robin Hood, see. (sniffff) And there’s this evil corp, we’ll call it Evil Corp so the audience can’t miss it. (sniffff) Listen, I confuse free markets and capitalism, but let’s say we burn down the economy… What do you mean, how would I cash my paycheck? What does that have to do with anything? Oh, irony, I get it. That’s good, that’s good. We’ll include irony.”

Verisimilitude

The series makes a stab at hi-tech realism, not particularly savvy, better than some shows, not as good as others. Writers drop a few Unix buzzwords (Gnome, KDE, TOR) and gloss over how their network was penetrated.

Elliot identifies a supposedly infected file that fsociety wants him not to open: fsociety00.dat. Amusingly, the IP address associated with the bogus file is 218.108.149.373, an impossible address like movies using 555-1234 as a phone number. (Geekology trivia: An IP address resolves to four bytes in binary, so each number of the group must be less than 256.) Mr Robot offers no specifics how Elliot tracked down the file in error, but the date and a bogus IP address should have clued in even a noob, never mind our ersatz hero.

Elliot passes the file on to a colleague, saying he’s done the hard work and ‘all’ that’s left is the encryption, as if that’s nothing. *bzzz* Wrong answer.

The program promulgates the notion that if someone has a root kit or hacker tools, they’re somehow an ultra-savvy user instead of being like any other mechanic with the right toolbox. The real guys with the smarts are the black hats who write the hacker tools and the white hats who find ways to combat them.

The show also advances the prejudice that ‘old people’ (presumably over 25) can’t deal with technology. A little reflection would have shown that the very systems Elliot and his hacker friends are using were designed by the old guys who themselves built on the shoulders of greater giants. (Articles on Anonymous have shown that the inner core of the organization isn’t strictly young guys as popularly imagined, but largely socially conscious programmers from the late 1960s and early 1970s who range upwards in age into their 50s and 60s.)

Elliot sneers at the CEO of E-Corp for carrying a Blackberry, ignoring the fact that an executive can run a company or tinker with technology, but probably not both, not at the same time. The US State Department deliberately uses Blackberries because they’re less susceptible to hacking… but that sort of realism would cut the series short.

Later, Elliot denigrates a hospital IT manager, William Highsmith, but even as he’s disparaging the IT guy, Elliot uses his supposed superior hacking skills to type the word NEGATIVE into his drug screen. Nothing screams phony like spelling out a presumed binary value instead of clicking the bit setting like true experts and their grandmothers would have done.

In the third episode, Elliot gives a stoned soliloquy on debugging. He’s correct in that finding a bug is usually the hardest part of the problem, but then he awkwardly extends an analogy of bugs into the real world of people and society.

Commodore 64
Halt and Catch Fire

Based on a single episode, a competing series Halt and Catch Fire has a much better and more realistic grip on technology and story-telling. Their team planned how to fake an AT&T computer by kludging together parts from a Commodore 64. Unlike the vague buzzword-dropping, watch-the-other-hand unexplained ‘magic’ in Mr Robot, the HCF scheme could actually work.

From both a writing standpoint and a hi-tech background, Mr Robot disappoints. I expect more… more characterization, more plot, more realistic tech. And less morphine, please, much less. I’m a minority, but my tech-savvy friend and colleague Thrush, who still keeps his hand in the land of Unix, also expressed dismay, finding the show dark and dismal with a poor handle on technology.

Mr Robot is like a 1960’s drug culture anti-establishment film, entirely unentertaining. But that’s my take. What is yours?

28 September 2013

A Series Discussion


A couple of years ago, I discovered a good way to watch mysteries. It's actually a good way to watch many different genres--though most of my time's spent with mystery/crime/suspense. I'm talking about the wide availability now of TV series on Netflix and other outlets, via either snailmailed DVDs or streaming video. So far, I've found the best of these to be made-for-cable series (especially those created by HBO) but I've also seen some great productions from places like A&E and BBC. Two excellent series that I've watched recently--House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black--were produced by Netflix itself.


In the past I've posted often about favorites of mine: authors, novels, short stories, novellas, movies, sequels, remakes, directors, actors, villains, sidekicks, even soundtrack composers. Today I'm at it again. Here, in no particular order, are twenty TV series that I've watched and thoroughly enjoyed over the past few years. (Again, most are mystery/suspense offerings, but I've included a few comedies, fantasies, Westerns, etc.) I've not included those that I didn't like, or that for one reason or another I just stopped watching after the first episode or so, like Continuum and Vegas and Shameless. By the way--and as always--I'd be interested to hear your take on the following shows, and any recommendations you might have for series I have not yet discovered.

Here are my favorites:



Longmire (A&E) -- The adventures of Sheriff Walt Longmire of Absaroka County, Wyoming. Aside from the gorgeous scenery, the title character is the reason for watching: he's a dedicated, complex, and conflicted guy, a bit like police chief Jesse Stone.

The Newsroom (HBO) -- A behind-the-scenes look at modern-day newscasts, set in the offices of the fictional Atlantis Cable News channel. I think Jeff Daniels won an Emmy the other night for his portrayal of anchor Will McAvoy.

Orange is the New Black (Netflix) -- Based on the book by Piper Kerman, this is a comedy/drama about life in prison, seen from the viewpoint of a thirtyish woman arrested for transporting drugs. Surprisingly good.

Rome (HBO) -- Okay, I know this is way off the usual fare--but it's an outstanding series about Rome in the first century B.C., filmed mostly in Italy. It ran for only two seasons.

Dexter (Showtime) -- Proof that a serial killer can be the hero of a show. The secret? Unlike Hannibal Lecter, this dude hunts down criminals that evaded justice. Another quirk is that this weird vigilante's day job is blood-spatter analysis for the fictional Miami Metro PD.

The Wire (HBO) -- One of the best-made TV productions ever. Set in Baltimore, this series presents an truly authentic view of police work through the eyes of both cops and drug dealers. A little slow getting started, but it's well worth it.


Downton Abbey (BBC) -- Who says I don't put some variety into these crazy lists of mine? This is a show I thought I would hate, and watched only because I knew my wife would love it. I found it fascinating. A chronicle of the lives of the Crawley family and their servants in early-twentieth-century England.

Weeds (Showtime) -- The polar opposite of Downton. This is a hilarious comedy/crime drame about the zany adventures of a suburban widow who decides to start growing and selling marijuana. Sort of a low-voltage version of Breaking Bad. I watched all eight seasons via Apple TV, almost back-to-back.

24 (Fox) -- How many ways can counter-terrorist agent Jack Bauer find to save the world (or at least save the nation)? Plenty of them. I especially liked the always fast-moving plots and the real-time narration technique.

Veep (HBO) -- Another comedy, this one with Julia Louis-Dreyfus as the U.S. Vice President. Better than you might think--and I'll watch anything anyway that features Seinfeld alumni.

House of Cards (Netflix) -- The betrayals, blackmailings, and backroom politics of U.S. Congressman Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey). A unique feature: he sometimes "breaks the fourth wall" and speaks directly to the camera.

The Sopranos (HBO) -- Simply the best of the best. Gandolfini did one of the finest, most convincing protrayals I've ever seen by an actor. No description needed.

Boardwalk Empire (HBO) -- Has there ever been a more unlikely leading man than Steve Buscemi? Doesn't matter--he's great. He plays politician/gangster Enoch (Nucky) Thompson in this authentic look at Atlantic City during the Prohibition era.

Game of Thrones (HBO) -- Seven families battle for control of the mythical continent of Westeros. Based on a series of fantasy novels by George R. R. Martin. A well-done production, and another that I didn't think I'd like before seeing it.

Copper (BBC) -- A super-authentic historical mystery series. This is the story of an Irish cop in New York City's Five Points district in the 1860s. Dark but interesting.

Californication (Showtime) -- The life and times of Hank Moody (David Duchovny), a novelist who suffers from writer's block and a Porscheload of other problems as well. There's something in this series to offend just about everybody, but (God help me) I like it.

Breaking Bad (AMC) -- The story of Walter White, a brilliant high-school chemistry teacher who's diagnosed with lung cancer and starts cooking and selling crystal meth to pay the bills. I'm only two episodes into this one, and it's already good.

Borgia (HBO) -- This is almost as much a crime show as a historical drama. Set amid the nonstop corruption and violence of the Italian Renaissance, it deals with the infamous Borgia family and its struggle to gain and retain power. You'll never see another Pope like this one. (Not to be confused with the Showtime series The Borgias, which I've not yet seen.)

Fringe (Fox) -- Sort of a J. J. Abrams version of The X-Files. A female FBI agent teams up with an institutionalized scientist to investigate unexplained phenomena. The title refers to their use of "fringe science" to solve mysteries involving a parallel universe.

Magic City (Starz) -- Another behind-the-scenes story, this one about the world of hotels and gangsters in Miami Beach in the late 1950s. Jeffrey Dean Morgan does a great job as Isaac (Ike) Evans, manager of the fictional Miramar Playa hotel.



In my opinion, the top five of these are HBO products: The Wire, The Sopranos, The Newsroom, Boardwalk Empire, and Rome. I absolutely loved those--although I should use present tense in the cases of The Newsroom and Boardwalk, where there are apparently (and hopefully) more seasons upcoming.


Other series that I enjoyed a great deal over the years, and that I faithfully watched every week on TV rather than later on DVD, were Hill Street Blues, ER, and Lost. And six that I somehow never got around to seeing regularly but that I now wish I had, were Heroes, Six Feet UnderThe West Wing, Mad Men, 30 Rock, and Castle. So many shows, so little time. For what it's worth, I still think the alltime best-written comedy series were Cheers, M*A*S*H, and Frasier.

Anyhow, there you have it. I think I've now managed to list my favorites in every visual and printed medium except maybe video games.

Anybody remember Pac-Man?

12 July 2013

The Crazy Crawl


I’m busy today, so I’m stealing a page from Leigh’s book on Florida News, but crumpling it up my own way.


I’m sometimes rather disappointed by television news. Many of the stories are interesting – at least on network evening broadcasts – but, with the exception of the NewsHour on PBS, I find most stories seem to get a bit short-changed.

Few bits, however, are less informative than the “crawl” on the morning news broadcast of a local station here in The Valley of the Sun.

The “crawl” I’m talking about, of course, is that strip of text, which slides slowly by along the bottom of the screen, as an anchor or reporter covers the day’s stories. It doesn't often have much to do with the story being reported, but is instead, I believe, supposed to serve as a sort of televised headline, letting folks know what major stories have transpired since the last news broadcast.

Evidently the idea had its origin with the thought that some viewers might tune-in after a major story had already been covered, and the newscasters wanted to be sure all viewers got at least a clue about what happened.

At any rate, that’s how the crawl seemed to make its debut.

And, these days, I’m hard-pressed to find a televised news broadcast that doesn't include a crawl. Even sportscasts tend to have recent game scores sliding inexorably by along the bottom of the screen.

On that local station I mentioned earlier, however, the crawl is something else entirely.

What is it?

Well, I’m not sure. But, I think it might be some form of odd advertisement.

Either that, or maybe somebody at the station has a problem that needs immediate attention.

Items entered in the crawl, on this station, tend to be completely disassociated with any reality that I’m familiar with. Often barely complete sentences, they usually fail to provide important information, almost invariably leaving a reader to fill in the blanks. 

Here are just a few examples, gleaned over a recent period:

The dog was found in a car at a downtown Phoenix Circle K. 

THE dog?

This begs the question: “Which dog?”

Was it this dog, or that one?

And, I’m confused: What was going on that caused its being “found” to be important? Was the dog missing, or did he do something wrong? Were the police searching for this dog, because it had committed a crime? Assaulting a Post Office employee, perhaps?

Maybe s/he (we don’t know the gender) was a circus dog with special training; perhaps s/he was driving the car, but when police tried to pull him/her over s/he sped away, only to stop at a local Circle K, with tongue lolling. Is that what happened?

OR…

Perhaps there was no dog. Maybe a woman with an abrasive personality was found in a car at a local convenience store (that’s what a “Circle K” is, for those who don’t know), and the witness who relayed events to the reporter described the woman in unflattering terms, and the reporter misunderstood what the witness said, thus concluding that a dog had been in the car instead of a woman.

I don’t know. There was no story about ANY dog, that I saw, on that morning’s broadcast. On the other hand, I didn't see any stories about a woman being found in a car, either.

The family was living in a rented home, when it burned down according to Mesa Police. 

No, I can’t tell you anything about this family. There was no story on the broadcast about a home fire, or a family that had been burned out by one. Not even the Mesa Police showed up on the broadcast – even though the way the sentence was written, it would almost appear that the police have been implicated in arson. 

The car fire has been extinguished and the city says the intersection will be open at 10:00 am today. 

Thank god this one was posted on a different day, or I might have been led to believe that the family above was living in their car. I wonder what intersection was closed for awhile?

Tito said Thursday, baseball’s drug agreement could be undermined by leaks to the media about whether players are cooperating with an investigation by the commissioner. 

TITO said???

THE Tito? The one who used to rule Yugoslavia?

Or, is one of Michael Jackson’s brothers perhaps involved in baseball negotiations?

And, just which drugs are they all agreeing to take, here?

The man and a woman approached an apartment near 29th Avenue and Camelback road, drew a gun and demanded to talk to someone they believed was inside. 

At least this one gave me a good visual. I mean, whoever opened that apartment front door must have been wearing a mighty surprised face.

“The man and a woman … drew a gun…” Well, that must have been awkward. Did they both reach into the top of his pants (or inside her jacket) at the same time? And, which one is left-handed? (I would think that’s an important consideration when two people are drawing the same weapon.)

I can’t help wondering: Why is it “THE man”? I read that, and I get the idea I should know who this guy is. 

And, why is he with “A woman”? That makes it sound as if there’s a certain distance between the two. Maybe they had an argument over breakfast that morning. Or, maybe they just happened to approach the apartment at the same time. After all, it doesn't say, “The couple approached…”.

The latter is doubtful, of course, because: How could two people know to draw the same weapon at the same time, if they’d never previously met? Drawing a weapon together, it seems to me, connotes a fairly intimate relationship.

Conversely, perhaps the reporter was simply being chauvinistic. “THE man and A woman… yeah, that’s how it should read! Gotta keep those women in their place(s).” To wildly misquote Rudyard Kipling: “The man is THE MAN, a woman is only a woman, but a good cigar is a SMOKE!”

The President of Chattanooga State Community College said he didn’t know Federal Wildlife agents would kill the geese they removed from the campus.

As long as the geese were removed from the campus of Chattanooga State Community College at the behest of the school president, I think this one almost gets the green light.

Why almost?

Well, certainly Chattanooga State has a very pretty campus – even including a river walk – but, I can’t help wondering why residents in the greater Phoenix-Mesa-Metro area of Arizona would be interested in the ignorance of a guy who heads-up a small school in Tennessee.

On the other hand, Chattanooga is a fun word to write -- so maybe that’s why it wound up in the crawl this morning.

And, the geese– approximately 100 of them– were actually removed from the college campus, last week, and subsequently put down because no alternate location could be found for them. I know because I googled it.

And, that’s what makes me think this whole thing may be nothing but a form of advertisement.

I strongly suspect my local news station is putting incomplete and puzzling stories on their morning crawl in an attempt to make me google the story – hopefully including their station identifier in the info I type into google – as a way to drive more readership into their website.

If so, the plan is brilliant in its conception, and confusing to the end!
(Note: No dogs, bow-tied men, or books were harmed in the writing of this blog post.  And, I'm not the one who did-in the geese.)

See you in two weeks,
Dixon

08 November 2012

Notes from the Eurozone


My husband and I went on vacation for two weeks and it went quickly.  We were on a cruise to the Canary Islands, which left from and returned to Barcelona, and then we spent a couple of extra days in Barcelona before heading back.  This meant we were lucky on many counts:

(1) We had a great time.  Great food.  Warm weather.  Incredible flowers and fruits.  Great seafood.  And we got to spend time in Barcelona, which was so fantastic that Allan (who's been an artist all his life, primarily sculpture) said that if he'd known at 20 what Barcelona was like, he'd have moved there.  I'll include, at various stages, some of the reason, mostly Gaudi.  (When I first saw his cathedral, I thought, like Dennis Hasset in "Oscar and Lucinda", "many things at once... that it was a miracle... a broken thing... a tragedy... a dream..." I loved it.)

(2) Because our flight was from Amsterdam to Minneapolis, we managed to miss Hurricane Sandy, thanks to flying over Greenland.  Some turbulance, but no cancellations!

(3) Because we were gone for 2 weeks, we missed 2 weeks of election coverage, spin, advertisements, campaigns, and the whole nine yards.  May God be praised.  And I am not going to say another word (no matter what the results) about it.  :)

(4) I got to watch, once again, European TV.   After a long day's hiking around a foreign city, I love to kick off my shoes and turn on the tube.  For one thing, it's so comforting to know that it's not all like it appears on PBS.  In fact, most of it's shlock - bad sit-coms, worse game shows, really boring news shows, and endless cop shows.  Just like America.  Except that in Europe, the women are sometimes actually naked, and the cop shows mix in a lot of humor, mostly slapstick, with their grit and gore.  Oh, and we do have some sense of reality in America.  For example:  (and, in case you're wondering, no, I don't speak Spanish - but I could get the gist of it, and most of it was practically in pantomime.)

Only on European TV would the cop's wife show up at the office to discuss things with the mistress (who is also a cop), and then go home to her lover. 

Only on European TV would another female investigator, dressed in the mandatory skimpy clothing, skid off a bridge during the mandatory car chase, have her car sail out and then crash land twenty+ feet below, UPSIDE DOWN, on top of a bunch of other cars, crushing the roof, without any damage to her hair, body, make-up, or clothing.  Instead, she managed to climb right out of that car and walk.  In fact, I think later that evening she had sex. 

Only on European TV would the slapstick partner have no idea that there's an illegal substance in that gift pillow and, at the party later that night, get everyone at the party so stoned that they all pass out.  The next day, everyone had a good laugh but not, I noticed, any investigation of either the drugs or the partner.

All of this was on the same episode, in which the main investigation was of a middle-aged female serial killer whose victims were elderly women she met at bingo, befriended, and, after smoking a ritual cigarette in their bathroom (don't ask me why), came out and killed them with a wet towel.  She was also the cook at the local cafe, and fed every cop on the show her world-class tortilla (Spanish omelet with potatoes and onions), and it broke their hearts when it turned out she was the killer.

Love that Euro-TV!

04 July 2012

Five Red Herrings, the Second School


1.  Missed connection
On this blog and its predecessor I often write about my Work In Progress, whatever that happens to be.  On the rare and wonderful occasions when one of them turns into a Work In Print I usually mention the previous column, but this time I forgot.  My story "Shanks Commences" was published this spring, but I wrote about the process of writing it back in 2009  and I even quote a draft of it here. 

2.  Quite Interesting

This has nothing to with crime or writing, but I know a lot of us like puzzles.  Go to Youtube some time and search for QI Fry.  QI (Quite Interesting) is the most intellectually challenging quiz show you are likely to run across.  The questions are so deliberately obscure or tricky that the panelists are not expected to answer any of them correctly.  Therefore they get points for coming up with interesting wrong answers.  However, they are penalized for boring wrong answers (boring defined as any answer the show's writers predicted).    The panelists are usually comedians which keeps it entertaining. 

If one of our American networks every wants to bring their own version I know one of our citizens with the brains and wit to replace Stephen Fry as host: Ken Jennings.

3.  The Horror...The Horror
If you haven't had your recommended daily allotment of schadenfreude, let me commend you to this piece.  Mandy DeGeit writes horror fiction and she recently had her first story accepted for an anthology published by Undead Press.  She bought boxes of the book for friends and relatives and then made the mistake of opening one of them.  The title of her story appeared as:

“She Make’s Me Smile”

Okay.  So an apostrophe had wandered in where God never intended one to be.  Not so tragic if everything else is okay.  At least the editor didn't, for example, add a couple of paragraphs describing animal abuse that were not in the original piece.

Oh, wait.  The editor did that?

And more, as it turned out.  DeGeit wrote to the editor to discuss this and for her trouble she received a reply complaining about "unstable" and "ungrateful" writers.  And you thought you were having a bad day.


4.  Parks on the Road to Hell


I just discovered Richard Parks blog  courtesy of Sandra Seamans' invaluable blog My Little Corner. This is one of the best pieces about the importance of first lines I have come across.  Quite a different view than you usually hear.


5.  Dr. Doyle, call your office.

I have been reading the Mystery Writers of America Annual, which is provided to everyone who attends the Edgars Banquet, and then sent to other members.   One of the many essays is by Leslie S. Klinger, the editor of the New Annotated Sherlock Holmes.  He mentions that after giving a presentation at a library he was thanked by an enthusiastic member of the audience.

"I'm so glad I came today," she said.  "I'm a huge Sherlock Holmes fan, and I didn't know there were books!"

Hoping life holds some pleasant surprises for you as well.

18 January 2012

A little film music, please...


The other day I was watching a n episode of the cop series Blue Bloods, and a character came into a room where a woman was rehearsing a song for party. The song was Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah."

All I could think was that the producers were running a bit late. It was about five years ago that I concluded that the FCC had passed a new rule requiring every TV show to feature "Hallelujah." It was getting bizarre there for a while. They even put it one of the Shrek movies. A great song yes, but children's music? Not hardly.

Anyway, that got me thinking about songs in TV and movies. I am not talking about musicals, but songs that pop up in non-musical shows, either because one character starts singing, or because it simply appears in the soundtrack. Happens all the time, of course, but sometimes the combination is so synergistic that it changes how I feel about the song. So here are a few of my favorites.

An episode of The West Wing called "Two Cathedrals" ends with the staff rushing off to a press conference where they will discover whether their boss intends to launch what they think will be a doomed run for re-election. The music is Dire Straits "Brothers In Arms" which both captures and sets the tone of a determined team going to a crisis.


I used to have friends who played Irish music in an Irish bar. Audience members would often ask for "Danny Boy," which they loathed. They always pointed out that it was written by an Englishman (okay, the tune was Irish traditional). But now when I hear this song I always think of this scene from one of my favorite movies, Miller's Crossing. Amazing use of the soundtrack, no? (By the way, if you haven't seen the movie, and think you might some day. please skip this clip. I don't want to spoil one of the best scenes.)


In this episode of Scrubs the hero, J.D., makes friends with a woman who is waiting for a heart transplant. She tells him that her dream was to be a Broadway star, but she couldn't sing. The song was written by Colin Hays, and like all the songs in this column, it was NOT written for the show.


And now we get back to my favorite Jewish Canadian Buddhist. The first three songs on Leonard Cohen's first album were "The Stranger Song," "Winter Lady," and "Sisters of Mercy." Those are also the songs that appear in McCabe and Mrs. Miller. It's almost as if Robert Altman grabbed the first album he saw and slapped the first few tracks into his movie, except that they work perfectly as themes for the title characters and the prostitutes, respectively. A friend of mine was astonished to hear that there were three songs in the moviie. Not a fan of Cohen's voice, he thought they had all been the same one.



So, what shows changed the way YOU look at a song?

07 December 2011

At the end of your trope


So, all you writers out there: have you ever been tempted to hang a lampshade on  a weak point in your plot?  Have you ever been reduced to the use of oven logic?  Or do you have no idea what the hell I'm talking about?
If the latter than you might want to discover a cool webpage called TV Tropes.  It is a wiki and, as the home page explains, it is "a catalog of the tricks of the trade for writing fiction."  Don't think it is limited to TV, by the way.  There are plenty of examples from literature, movies, comic books, and even video games.

If I have a problem with the execution it is that they love clever names for the tropes, which can make it hard to find the one you are looking for.  (If you find one that is almost what you are looking for, check the related tropes at the bottom.

Here are a few of my favorites.

Absence of Evidence  In mystery fiction this is known as the dog in the night-time. 
Black Best Friend  Doesn't need much explanation, I guess.
Bolivian Army Ending  As in Butch Cassidy.  Nobody here gets out alive.
Bond Villain Stupidity.  I found this one in the index by typing in "Goodbye, Mr. Bond."  The villain (not necessarily in a Bond movie) at long last captures the good guy, sets up an elaborate death trap, and then doesn't stay to see if it works.  The movie Austin Powers mocked this perfectly.
Bus Crash  A character is killed  retroactively, that is, after the actor has left the show (and therefore doesn't get a dramatic death scene).  Most famously, I think, Henry Blake on MASH.
Crazy enough to work  As the wiki noted, this is practically Captain Kirk's middle name.  I hate when it shows up in a story, but what about when it happens in real life?  Apollo 13, anybody?
Lampshade Hanging You have a plot point so weak or unlikely the audience may refuse to bite.  So, illogically, you call their attention to it.  As the page points out, even Shakespeare hung a lampshade or two.
Mr. Exposition  Hello, hero.  Let me tell you everything that has been going on, which you probably know, but the autdience doesn't.
Oven Logic  Old comedy  premise.  We need to cook it faster so double the temperature and half the time!
Red Shirt Army  If you ever watched Star Trek you understand this one.  Why can't the storm troopers ever shoot straight?
Tomato Surprise  A specific kind of twist ending, one that depends on the audience suddenly learning something that some of the characters have known all along.

And finally....
Not worth killing   The bad guy lets the puny mortal go, as not worth his attention.   But what I was looking for and couldn't find was the situation where the hero is about to destroy his career/violate his code by killing the bad guy in cold blood and the side kick says "Don't do it!  He's not worth it!"

I hope you find TV tropes to be worth your time.