Showing posts with label television. Show all posts
Showing posts with label television. Show all posts

05 October 2020

A Touch of Frost


Inspector Frost with one
of many new sergeants
One of the downsides of advancing age is an inability to read as much as one once did. This is a nuisance for everyone, but especially for writers, for whom the written word is up there with food and drink. Lately of an evening, I have found myself looking at wavering lines of print and clicking on the TV to Britbox, a combined service of the BBC and ITV which was a Christmas present last year.

The service has an assortment of good programing, but, especially in this time of virus and isolation, I've been favoring Gardener's World and A Touch of Frost. The latter was a long running UK favorite, originally from Yorkshire TV, starring David Jason as Inspector William "Jack" Frost, a self-described street copper with a nose for crime and good-sized problems with bureaucrats and authority.

He's old fashioned and quick-tempered and not altogether loath to cut corners, characteristics that look less desirable in cops these days than they probably did back at its debut in '92. His saving grace, besides being an excellent, even obsessive, investigator, is his sympathetic knowledge of his community, including the many poor but decent folks who wind up in difficulties.

David Jason in A Touch of Frost
Inspector Frost, himself is often in trouble, especially with his ambitious and rather dim Superintendent Mullett. Out of the office, Frost's absorption in his cases drives any number of nice women out the door, even while his grumpy charm attracts new ones. As played by David Jason, this character proved durable and extremely popular.

And he had good scripts. These are formulaic, unsurprisingly, given that some 42 episodes were made, but well done, nonetheless. Most episodes had two cases running simultaneously, one involving a death, the other less serious. Although there was a solid cast of regulars, the Inspector was frequently paired with new sergeants and constables, some of whom seem to have been assigned with the express purpose of exasperating him, others for whom he comes to feel genuine affection.

Frost expects all of them to work hard, and there is a good deal of cooperation and delegating of duties except for the last twenty minutes of most episodes, when, despite his years of experience, Inspector Frost rushes off on a hunch of his own, confronts various bad guys and winds up in an obstacle laden chase or facing a gun or a serious fight.

Even at the start of the series, Jason, small and a bit plump, was getting up in years, so it is not too surprising that he finally retired from the role at 68, noting that a real detective would have been off the force eight years earlier. During his long run with A Touch of Frost, however, Jason managed to finesse the problem of his advancing years with the vigor of his performances and the robust physicality of his acting – catch the pop eyes and flushed face when he's angry or the sly twitch of a smile when he has outsmarted some crook.

Frost's nemesis,
Superintendent Mullett
He's good in quieter scenes, too, suggesting a genuine sympathy that counterbalances his brash personality and impulsiveness. This sense of balance is reflected in the scripts, too. They are clever without being obscure; the perpetrator's motivations are plausible, and at least some of the criminals are in morally complex situations.

There's enough surprise to keep the stories interesting, and enough familiarity in Frost's unending struggles to thwart Superintendent Mullett, to rescue the romance of the moment, or to finish his mostly rushed and unwholesome meals to make the show relaxing of an evening. This is definitely one of the better mystery imports.

08 April 2020

Prodigal Son


Here's a binge candidate I wasn't sure about, but after watching the pilot season, a couple of which I missed the first time around, I'm down with it. Miami Vice.

The show went on the air in 1984, but it didn't crack the Nielsen top thirty until the second season, which was arguably its most influential. After that, NBC began to screw around with its scheduling, and audience numbers fell off. The fifth-season finale drew 22 million viewers.

Watching it thirty-five years later is somewhat of a mixed bag. Certain aspects date badly. Not so much the fashions, as in the clothes, but the fashion of narrative tropes. (There is the matter of Marty Castillo - Edward James Olmos - wearing ties that are less than an inch wide, but that's very much in character.) More problematic is the predictability, that morally compromised good guys are unlikely to survive an episode, for example, or that any fleeting romantic interest is clearly doomed. And why are Trudy and Gina always going undercover as hookers, not even once in a while as, say, lawyers?  

On the other hand, once you re-acclimate to the rhythm and conventions of the series, you find yourself moving to some familiar dance steps. You forget that the color palette was a real departure, back then, the sun-bleached stuccoes and desaturated pastels during daylight, and the heavy, deep, silken darkness of night, streetlights a hot, retinal glare. The look is a character. That, and of course the soundtrack. A little Phil Collins goes a long way, but the use of music bridges as structural was transformative.

Granted, you're shooting as many as two dozen episodes a season, they're gonna be uneven. Some of them are, to be generous, no better than pot-boilers. And then, just when your patience is running low, they serve up an episode like "The Maze" (S1, Ep18), which demonstrates how strong the show can be, without its aggravations. The other thing this particular episode points up is that Philip Michael Thomas, who I always thought was the weakest link, is a lot better than you remember, or gave him credit for. "Evan" (S1, Ep22), also from the first season, has a showcase of a scene - as written and acted - between Tubbs and Crockett, that allows Don Johnson to take all the air out of the room with unexpected discipline: the guy's got serious chops.

The idea that Miami Vice was a game-changer is part of its mystique, and it was used to promote it at the time. Was it all that different? If you compare it to Hawaii Five-O or Mannix, or even Hill Street Blues, you'd have to say yes, because Miami Vice used a less linear narrative. It also moved the goalposts for Standards and Practices, for content, and what followed. It's hard to imagine Wiseguy getting past the network censors, if Miami Vice hadn't come first.

I don't want to stake too broad a claim. American commercial broadcast television has never been known for daring, and cable has changed the environment entirely. Not necessarily for the better. The primary instinct for the lowest common denominator, for audience share, is still dominant. But in a landscape that was often vapid and inauthentic, not to mention technically primitive (stuck following the restrictions of a three-camera set-up, like the soaps, establishing shot, close-up, reverse), the surface tension, the urgency, the angles and the edits, the information overload, gave the show an invigorating edge.

In retrospect, it's probably fair to say that we get the TV we deserve. There was in fact a Golden Age, with scripts by Rod Serling and Paddy Chayevsky, directors like John Frankenheimer and Arthur Penn, and a huge stable of actors. But let's be honest, plenty of that live drama was crap. There was at the time, though, a kind of free-for-all, an open market for programing. Locals were by and large network affiliates, and they had to provide a lot of their own content.  Then the marketing challenge changed, and the Big Three dominated, and predictability and stagnation set in. I'd guess it lasted from the late 1950's to the middle of the 1970's, but that's also when PBS got legs. As the market fragmented, with UHF and then cable, the audience became more directly engaged. When there was no selection, and only three choices, ratings depended on audience fatigue, or indifference. The yardstick for the broadcast was least offensive - you didn't have to like what you were watching, but you liked whatever else was on less. It made for homogenized material. As a sort of object lesson, a show like Miami Vice could be seen as emblematic. It came along when we needed it.



22 January 2020

Once Upon a Time


This is a quixotic sorta thing, but Once Upon a Time in Hollywood got me thinking about Who It Might Really Be. Granted, it's a counter-factual narrative, and part of its weirdness is how and where the real world overlaps the fantasy. Sharon going into the matinee and watching herself in The Wrecking Crew is an enormously charming conceit. Her murderers going to the wrong house and finding Brad Pitt stoned out of his mind is a lot more disturbing, because in real life the Manson crew did actually go to the wrong house, and Terry Melcher wasn't home.

Anyway, some of you might have noticed that Edd Byrnes died last week. He was obviously most famous for 77 Sunset Strip and Kookie. He was also from a generation of actors who caught the last gasp of the studio system. He was under contract to Warners, along with Ty Hardin, and Peter Brown, and Troy Donahue. Doug McClure signed with Universal, as did James Farentino and Guy Stockwell. They did a lot of series TV with their respective stablemates, for their specific studios, and they got feature work, but again, they were locked into longtime studio commitments.



The part that Leo gets in the pilot for Lancer was in fact played by Joe Don Baker, who was in his mid-thirties at the time. Jim Stacy and Wayne Maunder, series regulars, were in that same age band. It's one of those simply odd things, that one of these guys breaks out. Steve McQueen, for instance, after Wanted: Dead or Alive, the model for Rick Dalton's show. Burt Reynolds and Clint Eastwood came out of the same Petri dish, but bear in mind that for every one of them there was a Vince Edwards or a George Maharis.




Of this group of actors, what you might call male ingenues - like Robert Wagner or Jeffrey Hunter a couple of years earlier - I've always thought Guy Stockwell was the most poignant. He got some really good breaks. So did Doug McClure, for that matter, but Guy was an actor with more range. (They worked together twice, in Beau Geste and The King's Pirate, both of them dogs.) Brad Pitt has himself remarked that there are a lot of pretty boys out there, and a lot of pretty boys who can act, but it's still purely a crap shoot. Guy did a bunch of guest shots, and then he was signed for Adventures in Paradise. A year after that, he joined Richard Boone's repertory company for Boone's anthology show, which unhappily only ran one season. Then we get The War Lord, with Boone and Chuck Heston (and James Farentino), Blindfold and Tobruk,  with Rock Hudson, and Banning, with Wagner, and Farentino again, and Gene Hackman - right before Buck Barrow. Not too shabby a playlist.




He doesn't catch fire. It doesn't help that he gets cast in some real stinkers, but he goes back to guest work in television, much like Rick Dalton. Lancer (you guessed it), Bonanza, The VirginianThe F.B.I. (more cross-collateral with Once Upon a Time), and like as not, playing a charming psychopath. As he gets older, character parts.



It isn't that his career went in the tubes. That's not what happened. It's that he couldn't or didn't leverage his early advantage. Maybe he was disappointed in the parts he was offered. Maybe he didn't have enough animal magnetism. He reinvested himself in theater, and was a highly-praised acting teacher. It's not like he lost his chops. It's one of those unfathomables. He should of been a contender, along the lines of Bob Culp or Brian Keith.



All the same, he's got a legacy, whether or not he's the real-life model for Rick Dalton or not. That's just a conceit on my part. Every time I watch The War Lord, I think, Jeez, this guy is good. And this is a picture, basically, where everybody overacts. On the other hand, it seems so physically authentic. The bare stone tower, the winding stairs. When do any of these people bathe? you can only wonder to yourself.

So there it is. My little paean to Guy Stockwell, probably over-thinking on my part, conjured up by Tarentino.

13 July 2019

A Morning in Conan Doyle Land


I woke up on Saturday morning not feeling well (this was a month ago, I'm all better). I was resting on the sofa and doing the swipe through Netflix's recently added and currently trending lists, looking for something new and interesting to amuse, entertain, maybe even enlighten. Finding nothing that "grabbed" me, I moved over to Amazon Prime. Flicking down through the rows, I passed the children's section, and a title in that row reached out and took hold.

A Study in Scarlet. 

An animated telling of a Sherlock Holmes tale? For kids!? Seriously?!? I selected the program and let it start playing, the cynic in me chortling, this will be good for a laugh. I went in with zero expectations; in fact, minus expectations. I expected Dr. Watson to be played by Scooby Doo.


The opening shot is a moonlit set of rooftops; a dark and stormy night in Victorian London. A police constable is on the street, patrolling with a lamp. He winds up on the Brixton Road. He's joined by another bobby. There's a light on in an empty house. They enter. In a dilapidated drawing room, there's a dead body of an elderly gentleman on the floor.

Two and a half minutes in, and I'm thinking, this ain't too bad. The animation isn't going to win any awards, but the storytelling seems to be faithful to the source, and it has mood and atmosphere.
The opening credits started, and I was about to turn the thing off, when the following credit appeared: "With Peter O'Toole as Sherlock Holmes." That got my undivided attention. Naturally, I let the program keep playing. I could happily listen to Peter O'Toole read aloud from the phone directory, or recite the Periodic Table (have I mentioned My Favorite Year is one of my favorite movies?). I had no idea he had ever played Holmes. 

For the next 50 minutes, I was away (once again, happily) in Conan Doyle land. The program did indeed prove to be a reasonably faithful telling of the story, Watson was not played by an exuberant Great Dane, and nothing in the story's telling was "watered down" or "rendered appropriate" in any way for children; my biggest fear while watching.

And it's funny, when you think about it: an adult tale of murder, forced marriage (i.e., rape), revenge, and justice filed away for children's viewing pleasure alongside the likes of Anne of Green Gables, the Cat in the Hat, and Spongebob. I presume this was because it was animated. There persists (in some minds) that quaint notion that if something is animated, it must be for kids, that all animations are simply "cartoons" and should be dropped into the "Kids and family TV" box. (I gleefully await the addition of Fritz the Cat.) Had the exact same script of A Study in Scarlet been filmed as a live action drama, then it would have gone straight into the adult drama box. No questions asked.

But I'm glad it did, one way or another, wind up in front of kids. They seem to get so much rubbish in their TV diet. Let them find this quiet little doorway into the world of grownup mystery fiction.

Peter O'Toole did four Holmes animated stories. They were all made in 1983, they're all 50 minutes long (with the exception of Baskerville, 70 minutes), and they're all on Amazon Prime (here in NZ, at least).
  • A Study in Scarlet 
  • The Baskerville Curse 
  • The Sign of Four
  • Valley of Fear
I've watched all of them. And as I said, there's nothing overtly special about the animation. The specialness of the telling lies in the stories themselves, and in this instance, the actor playing Sherlock Holmes (not that the films' imagery bears any resemblance to the man). If it's a wet Saturday morning, and you're unwell, I can recommend this medication.






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12 January 2019

Stephen's TV Chocolate Box 2018


It's January, so it's a good time for me to reflect on the things I watched last year on television (TV shows, movies). And just a reminder, the best chocolate in the box for 2017 was Breaking Bad (which I finally got around to bingeing, after everyone else on the planet). Needless to say, there were a few Bertie Bott's farm-dirt flavored chocolates in 2018's box, and they were duly spat out. So, on to the good ones:

Dark Bittersweet 

I watched a handful more episodes of Black Mirror and its self-contained tales of technological terror, and it's still as great as ever. If you don't know this show, it's like the Twilight Zone, if Rod Serling had been British, on serious narcotics, and obsessed with messing with your head. Best episode in 2018: "Metalhead" — because it was taunt and tight, gave no ducks, and was in black and white (because at the end of the world there will be no color left).


Almendra de chocolate 

El Ministerio del Tiemo (The Ministry of Time). I like history, and I like science fiction. This show (3 series, 34 episodes) came out of Spain and put the two together. The premise of the show is that the Spanish government has a top secret division that has the facility to travel back in time; and their job is to put things right when historical events go astray, e.g., Salvador Dali painting a cell phone, the Spanish Armada actually defeating the English, Alfred Hitchcock getting kidnapped at the premiere of Vertigo. The show has a lot of humor; there's even a reference to the US having its own facility to travel in time: The Americans call it a "Time Tunnel." (Time Tunnel was one of my favorite TV shows when I was a kid.)





Nougat Nutty 

The Lobster. I like weird movies. And they don't come much bat-shit weirder than this one. If I told you the premise of this movie, you'd think I was nuts. Watching it, at times, reminded me of the first time I saw David Lynch's Eraserhead. Stars Colin Farrell & Rachel Weisz. Filmed in Ireland.





Salted White Chocolate

The Terror (1 season, 10 episodes). History mixes well with many genres, and here it's thrown into the icebox of the Arctic Circle along with horror. In the mid 19th Century, two ships, one of them called The Terror, set out from England to find (and chart) the Northwest Passage in the icy waters between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. The two ships, and their crews, were never seen again. All completely true. This show (based on a doorstop-sized novel) speculates (fictionally) on what happened to them. And it isn't pretty. I read a review someplace of this show that described it as "beautiful and horrific." Yep. This was without doubt the best thing I watched last year. Great cast, good script, fantastic design, music, and photography. And very scary... Terror? Oh, yeah.

Peppermint Crème

The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (first season) also had some nice writing, a great cast, and great art design (60s retro cool). It's about witches, if you didn't know. A friend of mine described it as Harry Potter dipped in acid and silly putty. If you're of the Christian persuasion (and don't have a robust sense of humor), this show might not be for you.




Other tasty treats in 2018: Stranger Things (season 2), Death in Paradise (first 5 seasons), Tientsin Mystic (season 1), Frankenstein Chronicles (season 2), The Detectorists (seasons 1 & 2), Atlanta (season 1), The Bletchley Circle (seasons 1 & 2).

So, what were your favorite TV treats in 2018?

And happy watching in 2019! I hear there's a TV adaption of Catch-22 on the horizon (a favorite book of mine from my youth).


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02 January 2019

Spy TV


I recently had an experience that carried me off on a cheerful wave of nostalgia.  Our current TV package provides access to an obscure channel called TubiTV.  And on it I was able to make my reacquaintance with The Sandbaggers, a spy series from Britain's ITV.  I had watched it on PBS back around 1980 when it premiered.  I was surprised at how much I remembered and how well it held up.  (It also seems to be available on Youtube.)

The series revolves around the Secret Intelligence Service (never called MI6 in the show), and it's Director of Operations, Neil Burnside (played by Roy Marsden, before he became better known as Adam Dalgleish).  Burnside is in charge of all the British agents in foreign countries around the world, but his first love is the Special Operations Section, known as the Sandbaggers.  These are the smash-and-grab boys, the ones who get sent to perform an extraction or an assassination (or prevent one). Please don't compare them to James Bond or Burnside will slit your throat.  He hates Ian Fleming's famous creation.

And as for slitting your throat, he is himself a former Sandbagger, and as ruthless as they come.  And yes, this crowd is pretty ruthless.  In the 20 episodes you will see virtually all the characters lying to each other, and often doublecrossing their superiors and allies.  Burnside would defend himself by saying he is true to the service and to his ultimate goal: destroying the KGB.  And he is willing to destroy his own career to do it.

An example of Burnside's charming personality.  In one episode he is in a restaurant and someone informs him: "I just saw your ex-wife out on the street."

"Best place for her."  Like I said, charming.

One thing I love about the show is the title.  I like to imagine it made John Le Carre, the master of fictional spy jargon, terribly jealous.  His name for the same type of group was the Scalphunters, but Sandbaggers is so much better.  "To sandbag" means "to launch a sneak attack" but it also means "to build emergency defenses."  Clever, eh?

The show had its flaws, of course.  The SIS is seen to be strangled with personnel shortages but it felt like that had more to do with TV budgets than anything else.  The inside sets look like a high school drama club production.  So many of the international crises take place in Malta that one can only assume ITV had a deal with the local tourist board.  And the last episode of the show only makes sense if you forgot everything that happened four episodes earlier.

None the less, it has been called one of the best spy shows of all time, and I'm not arguing.

The show was created, and most episodes were written, by Ian MacKintosh, a former naval officer.  Because of the series' sense of realism there was speculation that he had been involved in the spy world, but he played coy about it.  The series ends with a (hell of a) cliffhanger, because MacKintosh died unexpectedly and the network decided no one else could do it justice.

But I oversimplified when I said MacKintosh died.  In reality he and his girlfriend disappeared in a small airplane over the Pacific Ocean after radioing for help. The plane disappeared in a small area where neither U.S. nor Soviet radar reached.

I wonder what Burnside would make of that.

Oh, the show also has a great musical theme (just about the only music ever used in the program). Listen all the way to the last note.



But wait, there's more!  In the midst of my Sandbaggery I discovered a very different spy show which is, curiously, both older and newer than The Sandbaggers.  Available on Netflix A Very Secret Service (Au Service de la France) was created in 2015, but is set in 1960. And now let's give Grandpa a moment to marvel here over the fact that The Sandbaggers is set closer in time to 1960 than to 2015.

The series (in French, with subtitles) tells the story of Andre Merlaux, a naive young man who is forcibly recruited into the French Secret Service, which promptly makes it clear that they don't much want him.   It is a rather peculiar agency where doing your job is much less important than turning in proper receipts and wearing suits from the correct tailors.

On his first day on the job Merlaux gets in trouble for committing the incredible faux pas - I know you will be stunned by this blunder -- of answering the ringing phone on his desk. Quel imbécile!

This show is wildly and wickedly funny.  In one episode Merlaux assumes that a suspect cannot be a terrorist because she is a woman  His tutor firmly instructs him: "In cases of terrorism women must be considered humans!"

In another episode the French capture a German on his way from Argentina and suspect he is a Nazi. Fortunately they have a scientific survey which allows them to detect such barbarians.  (Sample question: "Adolf Hitler: pleasant or unpleasant?")

The best spy in the bunch is Clayborn, who will never get promoted because she is a woman.  All her operations are described as "courtesy missions," which means they involve getting naked with someone, but don't think that means they don't also involve theft, blackmail, and murder.

At one point Merlaux pours out all his troubles to Clayborn. She is, of course, sympathetic: "You feel out of place.  I understand.  This is the women's bathroom."

Neil Burnside would not be amused, but I was.


22 December 2018

Why I could never be a Modern Fiction Novel Heroine
(back to humour for Bad Girl. Tis the season for frivolity, after all)



Let’s call her Tiffany.  Nah, too twee.  How about Jen.  Meet our fiction heroine, Jen.  She’s a modern girl. Has her own condo. Drives a car. Lives in the city. Has a meaningful job.  All in all, a typical    
modern heroine of a fiction novel.

Sounds reasonable, but I couldn’t be her.  I’m all for ‘suspension of disbelief’ in fantasy, but my world requires more human elements.  To wit:

THINGS THAT BUG ME ABOUT MODERN FICTIONAL HEROINES

1.  They look great all the time.
By this I mean: she gets up in the morning, perfect coiffed.  (Not quaffed. Except maybe in my loopy Goddaughter books.)  She dons clothes for her work day.  Maybe goes for a jog.  And spends absolutely no time in front of the mirror swabbing on makeup or doing her hair.  Did you ever notice fiction novel heroines look great in the morning without doing anything?  They may have a shit-load of angst about their personal lives, but apparently, they have Barbie doll hair.

As of immediately, name of heroine is changed to Barbie.

2.  They never eat.
Oh, they got out to dinner a lot.  You may even hear them order food.  But when it comes, do they ever eat it?  No! Barbie is far too busy arguing with her dinner companion, and then getting upset.

So many books, so many meals where our intrepid plucky heroine says, “oh my, I’m so upset, I couldn’t eat a thing.”

What is it with these feeble women who can’t eat?  Who the hell are they?  What do they exist on? 
When I’m upset, I eat, dammit.  Gotta fuel up for the famine that’s going to come sometime in the next 400 years.

If I hear another TSTL (too stupid to live) heroine say she’s too upset to eat, I’m going to shove the virtual dinner in her vapid virtual face and watch her choke to death.  Oh.  But then someone would have to rescue her.

EAT THE DAMN MEAL.

3.  They never go to the bathroom.
Twenty-four hours a day, we’re with this dame.  Does she ever go to the loo?  I mean, for other than a quick swipe of lipstick and a gabfest with friends?

Do none of these women have periods?
Do they not have to offload some by-products?  EVER?

Oh right.  Barbie is always too upset to eat a thing.  Therefore, nothing to offload. What was I thinking?


4.  They run into the haunted house.

“Oh, a haunted house!” says our plucky heroine. (Note use of the word ‘plucky’ to demonstrate she’s not a chicken <sic>)  “I’ll just pop in there and see what the fuss is all about, shall I?”
WHOMP
(Plucky heroines taste good with ketchup, in my parodies.)

Listen up, modern day heroines! Do NOT be so stupid as to walk into an abandoned place where you know someone was murdered, or even stupider, confront the murderer, all by your little selves! 

Let it be known: when I am pretty sure I know who the killer is, I do NOT confront him all on my own in an isolated location.  Instead, I pretty much run like hell in the opposite direction.  ‘Cause experience has taught me (apparently, I do this a lot) that if someone has killed once, they won’t hesitate to bop my bean.  Even Barbie with half a brain can figure out it ain’t a smart move. 

Modern day heroines, rise up! Rebel against these tired tropes!  Fight back against the lazy mucks who make you appear as dumb as dough.

GO ON STRIKE AGAINST YOUR AUTHORS!  Or alternatively, strike your authors.
I’ll leave now.

Author disclosure:  Just so you know, Gina Gallo of The Goddaughter series loves her food.  You’ll see her eat it.  She sneaks off to the bathroom (offstage, so don’t freak.)  She looks like shit in the morning. Just like me.  Even Rowena of my fantasy books goes to the outhouse and enjoys her meals.  (Not at the same time.)

HAPPY HOLIDAYS EVERYONE!

31 March 2018

Space Opera and Horse Opera


Those who know me know I like to write--and read--mostly mystery stories. As for the writing part, my "genre specialty" is made easier because almost any story involving a crime can be considered a mystery.

Today, though, I want to tell you about two pieces of fiction that I recently discovered from other genres, and they're stories that I found exceptional. One's a western and one's science fiction, but both are chock full of crime and deception; does that mean they could be loosely defined as mysteries? Probably not. But I liked 'em anyway.

The first is a Netflix Orginal series called Godless. And I need to clarify that a bit. A lot of TV shows that I've watched lately, like Goliath, True Detective, Fargo, etc. (and unlike Longmire, Game of Thrones, Stranger Things, House of Cards, and most others), have been what's become known as "limited-series" presentations--stories that are told start-to-finish in one season. There might be some degree of similarity and continuity between seasons, but mostly the story ends when the season ends, and you wind up with what amounts to a single seven-to-ten-hour, full-character-arc movie. I usually binge-watch them.


Godless is a western, and one of the best I've seen. It features a few familiar faces like Jeff Daniels and Sam Waterston and a bunch of lesser-known actors that have become better known as a result of their being cast here. The story involves a legendary outlaw in pursuit of a former friend who betrayed him, but the strangest thing about the show is that it takes place in the fictional La Belle, New Mexico, which is a town of mostly women--all the men have been killed in a catastrophic mining accident. I won't get into too many details here, but this seven-episode series is truly well done, in every way. The writing, the acting, the direction, the cinematography, everything just works. By the way, any of you who might still think of Jeff Daniels in Dumb and Dumber or Michelle Dockery in Downton Abbey will barely recognize them here. Daniels is as good in this as he was in the HBO series The Newsroom, and that's saying a lot.

My other recent discovery was a novel called Artemis, by Andy Weir (who also write The Martian). I loved The Martian--book and movie--and I thought this second novel was just as good. The protagonist, a young woman named Jasmine (Jazz) Bashara, is as tough and resourceful as any hero/heroine I've seen in a long time, and outrageous as well. At the start of the book Jazz is a wannabe tour-guide for some of the attractions around Artemis, the first and only city on the moon, and since she can't seem to pass the test to become a guide she makes a living smuggling certain items when they arrive from Earth to her customers here in space. Long story short, because of her lack of funds and need for employment she finds herself a part of a get-rich-quick scheme that instead gets her into deep trouble, including dealing with hitmen who are sent from Earth sort of like the four gunmen in High Noon. You'll wind up cheering her on, while you learn (or at least I did) a lot about life on the Final Frontier.


That's my sermon for today. And don't get me wrong, I've watched a lot of other good movies lately--Wind River, Baby Driver, Arrival, Logan Lucky, Gerald's Game, Hell or High Water, No Escape, Wonder Woman, Bushwick, Mudbound, The Last Jedi, Get Out, Blackway, Bullet Head, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri--and I've read some other good novels too--The Cuban Affair, The Fireman, The Girl from Venice, Dragon Teeth, Home, Gwendy's Button Box, World Gone By, Blackjack, Mississippi Blood, Sleeping Beauties, Goldeline, Fierce Kingdom, El Paso, The Midnight Line, Paradise Sky, The Big Finish, A Column of Fire, etc.--but I believe these two stories were as good as any of them, and better than most. If any of you have seen Godless, or read Artemis, please pass along your thoughts.

I also wouldn't mind some recommendations. I've been devouring collections of short stories lately, mainly those by Bill Pronzini, Charles Beaumont, Ray Bradbury, John Cheever, Richard Matheson, Fredric Brown, Annie Proulx, and (believe it or not) Tom Hanks. I need to get back into some novels.

Meanwhile, happy reading, and viewing.

21 March 2018

Get Off the Premises


Fairy Glen, Isle of Skye, Scotland
There is a comedy adage  attributed to Johnny Carson: If you buy the premise, you buy the bit.

I translate that as follows: If the audience accepts the underlying concept of the joke, they will laugh at the punchline.

In fiction we call that the willing suspension of disbelief, which comes from the well-known stand-up comedian Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

This is on my mind because I recently watched (or tried to) a TV movie called Bright, on Netflix.  I gave up halfway through because I couldn't buy the premise.  It takes place in a world in which elves, fairies, and orcs live side by side with humans.  Will Smith plays an L.A. cop partnered with the first orc police officer.

And none of that is the part I have a problem with.  In fact, I was excited about it because it reminded me of a TV series I  loved, Alien Nation, which also featured an L.A. cop, this time in a world adjusting to the arrival of half a million extraterrestrials.

But therein lies the problem I had with the premise of Bright.  It suggested that humans and faerie folk have knowingly  lived side by side for thousands of years, and yet we ended up with a society essentially the same as our own.  And that's what made my disbelief go splat on the floor.

See, Alien Nation took place just a couple of years after the Newcomers landed.  It made sense that our society would be changing as we got  used to them.

Now, compare this to a TV series from New Zealand I have recently been watching.  The Almighty Johnsons is a dramedy with another far-out concept.  Axl is the youngest of four brothers living in the modern N.Z. city of Norsewood.  On his 21st birthday his siblings inform him of the family secret: they are all Norse gods and are about to find out which one Axl is.

Far-fetched?  Of course.  But so far (I'm nine  episodes in) the premise works.  These incarnated gods are weak shadows of their former selves so the society they live in looks just like the reality we know.  Of course, there is a quest and if Axl completes it successfully they will gain their full powers.  If he fails they will all die.  "So, no pressure," he says dryly.

Have you ever given up on a book or a show because the premise went to far?  Tell me about it in the comments.  And watch out for Thor's hammer, because that dude is crazy.

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.”