Penny Dreadful: City of Angels (first impressions)

I’ve been watching Penny Dreadful: City of Angels, a new Showtime series in the horror/dark fantasy genre.

In pre-WWII Los Angeles, much is going on: The LAPD is finding mutilated bodies in the dry concrete basin of the Los Angeles River. Dark entities from Mexican folklore are causing mayhem. Corrupt city officials and law enforcement officers are waging war against LA’s chicano population. The chicano population is waging war back, led by zoot-suited gangsters.

And (of course) the Nazis are maneuvering in the background, doing the sorts of violent and underhanded things that Nazis always do. But they have to compete with out-of-town gangsters. (This is the golden age of the mafia, after all.)

I noticed that this show has very mixed viewer ratings. It’s rated 6.1/10 on IMDb, and 76% favorable on Google. This would give it a grade of “C”. 

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Overall, I like the show. This series has a fast-moving plot, with lots of twists and turns. Something is always happening. Continue reading “Penny Dreadful: City of Angels (first impressions)”

‘Bosch’ season 4: what I’m binge-watching

As I’ve written here before, I am a long-time fan of Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch LAPD detective series. I’ve been reading the novels since 2004, more or less.

Since last month, I’ve been binge-watching Bosch on Amazon Prime Video, starting from season 1.

I’m now most of the way through Season 4. I’m still enjoying this original series immensely. Very, very good stuff.  

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Season 4 is based on the Bosch novels Nine Dragons and Angels Flight

Or should I say, “inspired by” these two novels? Continue reading “‘Bosch’ season 4: what I’m binge-watching”

Watching ‘Bosch’ on Amazon

Different from the novels, but good nonetheless

Tonight I started watching the Amazon original series, Bosch

I’m a little behind on this one, I know. (The series premiered in 2015.) But hey—I got to The Sopranos only a few years ago. I am, however, a very longtime reader of Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels, so I knew that I would eventually find my way to the Amazon series, too.

First things first: This isn’t the Harry Bosch of the novels. The Harry Bosch of the novels is now about 70 years old. The onscreen Harry Bosch (played by Titus Welliver) is a old Gen Xer or a young Baby Boomer. (The actor, Welliver, was born in 1962.) Continue reading “Watching ‘Bosch’ on Amazon”

Pete Buttigieg on ‘Jimmy Kimmel Live’

He’ll never be my choice for president; and he went after Amy Klobuchar with an uncalled-for vindictiveness during one of the Democratic debates. But as I’ve said before, never let it be said that Pete Buttigieg is without intelligence

And never let it be said that he is without a sense of humor, either. Earlier this week, the former candidate guest-hosted the Jimmy Kimmel Live show. He dished up some genuinely funny jokes, many of which were gamely self-deprecating.

Among other remarks, Buttigieg said that he was “the first gay man to wear pleated pants in 30 years.” 

Pete Buttigieg doesn’t apologize for his sexuality; but he doesn’t wear it on his sleeve, either. Nor does he have a chip on his shoulder about it. Now that society is increasingly normalizing LGBTQ individuals…and being gay (or trans, etc.) is not such a big deal anymore… Mayor Pete’s ability to poke fun at all aspects of himself is a quality that others should emulate.

And yes, I practice what I preach in this regard. I’m heterosexual and unambiguously cisgendered; but I always enjoy a good joke about middle-age bald men. 

The sundry thoughtcrimes of ‘Friends’

Now the culture scolds have come for Friends, too.

Just in case you were living under a rock throughout the 1990s, Friends was a weekly sitcom about a group of young suburbanite transplants to New York City. They struggled with romantic misadventures, career setbacks, and other slings and arrows that typically accompany that stage in life.

The sitcom was highly successful, and deservedly so. (It was  the last sitcom that I followed with any regularity.) Friends was funny—unlike most of what passes for situation comedy today. The characters were likable—as likable as twentysomething characters in a sitcom can reasonably be expected to be, anyway. 

There is going to be a Friends reunion in the near future on HBO. That prospect is raising some eyebrows, because—wouldn’t you know it–Friends is problematic when held against the humorless standards of twenty-first century political correctness and speech codes. Although the last primetime episode of Friends aired in 2004, the show has never really gone out of syndication. But a bevy of bloggers and culture nannies have been quick to denounce the show’s perceived lack of sensitivity and diversity.

In keeping with this trend, London-based writer Holly Thomas recently joined the pile-on with her opinion piece, “What the ‘Friends’ reunion makes me hope for”.

Here’s a taste:

As even devoted fans can recognize now, “Friends” often ended up on the wrong side of cultural history, highlighting many troubling norms of its time.

For starters, the “Friends” reunion might take a stab at talking about the original show’s glaring lack of diversity. While there were equivalent non-white sitcoms in the 1990s, it was a gigantic oversight for arguably the decade’s biggest program — set in one of the biggest, most diverse cities in the world — to have such poor representation of anyone not straight, white, middle-class and thin.

And so on…

You would think, based on the above lines, that Friends was a show overflowing with hate speech. It wasn’t. The most oft-cited thought crimes of Friends usually come down to the following points, which Holly Thomas of course reprises:

1.) The show had an all-white cast. Gasp!

2.) The young male characters on Friends were generally uncomfortable with homosexuality. (A recurring joke on the series was the man-to-man hug that ended abruptly, lest either party be mistaken for being a “homo”.) Double gasp!

3.) Over the show’s long run, it included several comic LGBTQ  storylines, like Chandler’s transgender father. Triple, sputtering gasp!

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My short answer is: So what? But lets explore the thoughtcrimes of Friends in a bit more detail, in order.

1.) First, the race issue. Yes, Friends was pretty white. But again: so what? There have been plenty of shows over the years that featured a predominately African American cast (Good Times, Sanford and Son, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, etc.) For a while in the 1990s, Margaret Cho starred in the series All-American Girl, which had a predominantly Asian cast. Why is a show with an all-white cast uniquely racist?

2.) The so-called homophobia. To begin with, no one used words like “homophobia” in 1995. I’m a member of the generation depicted in Friends. (I’m the same age as several of the actors, more or less.) I can tell you—from experience—that a young, straight male, circa 1995, would not have wanted to be mistaken for gay, if he thought such an impression existed (especially if the male in question were single). This is exaggerated a bit for comedic effect in Friends; but that’s a fairly accurate depiction of young male attitudes of those times. 

3.) Whatever happened to satire? The nattering class wants to tell us that every time an LGBTQ character appears in a book, movie, or sitcom, only the most reverent, politically correct depiction is permissible. Will it ever be possible to have a funny gay character, without the full weight of the dour culture police coming down on the creators?

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These aren’t the only thoughtcrimes committed by the screenwriters of Friends during the 1990s, of course. As Thomas and others have noted, the show also contained the thoughtcrime of “fat shaming”. A character concerned about the sexual history of his date was guilty of “slut shaming”.

And so on. 

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Holly Thomas and similarly minded scolds prove that they are only able to think in a single dimension, that they’re incapable of deciphering the multiple layers of meaning in a comedic work.

When the young male characters on Friends became discombobulated with fear of being mistaken for “homos”, the joke was on them, and their masculine insecurities…not on gay people. But ideological literalists like Holly Thomas are only capable of looking for violations of speech codes and political correctness.

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Finally, consider the lack of comparable situation comedies nowadays.

In 2020 there is nothing in our culture remotely close to a Friends or a Seinfeld—a widely popular sitcom that most people faithfully watch. Google “situation comedy”, and you’ll mostly get examples from the 1990s, 1980s, and 1970s. This century is a barren wasteland on the situation comedy front, as it is a barren wasteland in so many other areas of culture. 

If you want to thank someone, you can thank the finger-waggers like Holly Thomas. Thank our constant kowtowing to political correctness, our panic over the slightest deviation from the orthodoxies of the politics of race, gender, and sexual identity. 

The things that make us uncomfortable (like two straight men experiencing discomfort over a brief, comradely embrace) are often sources of comedic fodder. But nowadays, anything that might make anyone even vaguely uncomfortable is immediately denounced as “problematic”. 

Like Friends.

There are commonsense limits, of course. Any Hollywood producer who  suggested a sitcom set in a Nazi concentration camp or a Southern plantation where slavery was practiced would rightly be fired. But that would have been the case in the 1980s or 1990s, too. Creative types in Hollywood usually practiced a degree of common sense back then.

And so, for that matter, did professional critics of culture. But those days are gone.

Success in political commentary, and those attractive young women on the right

After yesterday’s post about Kent State “gun girl” Kaitlin Bennett, one of you sent me the following question in an email:

“Do you think that attractive young women have a natural (unfair) advantage as conservative commentators? ”

That’s not an unreasonable question. At present, there are a number of easy-on-the-eyes young women who have gained large audiences in the conservative commentary space. At the top of this heap are Candace Owens and Tomi Lahren, who appear regularly on television. (I believe that Lahren has her own show on Fox.) On YouTube, I’m most familiar with Lauren Chen, aka “Roaming Millennial”.

Let’s begin with the issue of scarcity value. Then we’ll consider the issue of physical attractiveness, and how important (or not) that might be for one’s success as a commentator. 

Consider the kind of person you generally expect a conservative to be. When you hear the words “conservative” or “Republican”, you probably think of a middle-age white male living in someplace like Ohio.

In other words, someone a lot like me. I’m as white as Wonder Bread, I’ll be fifty-two this year, and I live just outside Cincinnati, Ohio. If I tell you that my politics lean conservative, you won’t exactly be shocked. That fits, you might say.

On the other hand, we typically expect young women to be Democrats…or worse. And, in fact, all of the polling I have seen since the 1980s shows that young women lean toward the Democratic Party. 

There are perfectly logical reasons for this. Let’s set aside the historical anomaly of President Donald J. Trump for a moment. The Republican Party has always emphasized national defense and rugged individualism—values that appeal to men. The Democratic Party, on the other hand, has always had a communal emphasis; and their message appeals to women. (Once again, this long predates President Trump, or the 2016 Trump presidential campaign.)

So when a young (under 35) woman comes out as an advocate for free markets, or Second Amendment rights, or rugged individualism in general, that is a statistical anomaly. And statistical anomalies have a way of garnering attention. 

Then there’s the fact that the audience for conservative commentary is disproportionately male. Most politically liberal men are either wimpy or physically unattractive; so it is not uncommon for liberal women to go with conservative-leaning men whose political views they despise. (If only the “Bernie Bros” with girlfriends were allowed to vote, Bernie Sanders wouldn’t be doing nearly as well as he currently is.) We all crave agreement and acceptance. There is, therefore, something refreshing—from a male perspective—in coming across a young woman who agrees with your views.

And then there’s the cheesecake factor. Let’s not be coy here. Kaitlin Bennett, Tomi Lahren, Candace Owens, and Lauren Chen—these are all hot-looking women, if women are what you’re into. If you don’t find any of the aforementioned women the slightest bit attractive, then you’re probably hoping that Pete Buttigieg will get back on the market soon. (And I’m sorry if that’s you—he seems to be quite happily married to his husband, Chasten.)

Bennett, Lahren, Owens, and Chen all gravitate toward the visual mediums of television, YouTube, and other forms of video. None of them seem to be active bloggers (though they’re all on Twitter). Candace Owens and Tomi Lahren have both published books, though these are clearly ancillary products for their video presences. 

Let’s be deliberately blunt once again: All things being equal, attractive people—especially attractive women—have a natural advantage in visual formats like video. This is neither fair nor unfair, but simply the way it is.

I’ve watched a number of Lauren Chen’s videos on YouTube. She’s no airhead, but nor is she a philosophical innovator. (And let’s be fair on this point: She’s also twenty-five years old.) Mostly what she does is translate established conservative talking points into easy-to-digest nuggets for her YouTube audience, which seems to be overwhelmingly young and male. 

We could certainly make the argument that Chen gets a lot of YouTube views from men who simply want to check her out. Yes, we could make that argument…to a point. YouTube is literally awash with pretty young women. When a young woman gains a real audience on that crowded platform (Chen has more than 409K subscribers) it is almost always for more than simply being another pretty face. 

Once again, looks count. If you’re physically attractive, and you have a certain camera presence, there is nothing wrong with making that part of your arsenal in the marketplace.

But this isn’t only about pretty women and sex appeal. People who succeed in any public arena usually bring a diverse package of skills to bear. Ronald Reagan won the presidency in 1980 partly because of his (conservative) ideas. In an era of high taxes, excessive government regulation, and détente, Reagan proposed a return to free markets, and a renewed competition with the Soviet Union. If you are old enough to remember the year 1980 (I am), you’ll understand why those were the right ideas for that time.

But Reagan also succeeded because he was personable, humorous, and nonthreatening. Reagan had a background in show business, and he knew how to work an audience. He told jokes. He couched his rhetorical barbs in aw-shucks appeals to folk wisdom and common sense. 

Sixteen years earlier, Barry Goldwater had tried to win the presidency on a similar platform, and failed miserably. But Barry Goldwater often came across as a madman who was looking for excuses to drop bombs on people. Goldwater once quipped about lobbing a nuclear warhead into the men’s room of the Kremlin. Not funny, in the context of the Cold War. Reagan, on the other hand, regaled audiences with long and often humorous anecdotes about the privations of daily life in the Soviet Union.

Why am I talking about Ronald Reagan, when I promised you talk about hot-looking women? None of the millions of voters who flocked to Ronald Reagan in 1980 did so because they wanted to sleep with him. Sex appeal is an undeniable advantage in the public arena; but it isn’t a prerequisite for success, nor is it necessarily the decisive factor.

Consider another successful conservative commentator: Ben Shapiro. Shapiro is a guy, and not a very charismatic one at that. He has a nasal voice that sometimes makes him come across as shrill. No one will claim that Shapiro succeeds on the basis of his appearance. 

Ben Shapiro finds an audience because he is a skilled and relentless debater, and he is willing to visit hostile environments like university campuses. Shapiro is also very prolific. He constantly puts out content. He won’t shut up, he won’t stop typing.

In conclusion, then: attractive women do have an advantage in the conservative commentary space. Attractive women—attractive people—have certain advantages in every field of endeavor. 

But—as Ben Shapiro and Ronald Reagan demonstrate—you don’t have to be physically comely in order to gain an audience for your ideas. Beauty always garners some initial attention; but in the battlefield of ideas, beauty alone will only get a person so far. 

Michael Rapaport’s President’s Day meltdown

I admired actor Michael Rapaport’s work in Boston Public and Public Morals. In recent years, however, Rapaport has become yet one more profane, sputtering celebrity, intent on lecturing lesser mortals who don’t share his views.

To celebrate President’s Day 2020, Rapaport posted a rambling video on Twitter in which he basically tried to pick a fight with everyone who voted for President Trump in 2016. 

Rapaport had nothing new to say. His monologue was a rehash of all the familiar leftwing talking points. Reprising the Great Russia Hoax, Rapaport made sure to throw in a sexual metaphor about President Trump and Vladimir Putin.  

Rapaport is no Johnny Depp or Harrison Ford, and maybe that’s part of his problem. Public displays of Trump Derangement Syndrome seem to be most irresistible to aging stars who are losing their relevance (Robert De Niro comes to mind here), and stars who never quite became household names in the first place.

Michael Rapaport, at the age of 49, has spent a quarter-century on the edge of real fame. He’s been a supporting actor in scores of movies, but never the star. He’s landed roles in television series with real promise, only to see these opportunities pulled from beneath his feet due to cancellations. (The aforementioned Boston Public lasted four seasons. Public Morals was canceled after a single season.)

Likewise, when you think of actress/comedienne Kathy Griffin, you probably think of her mock beheading of President Trump on Twitter, not her bit parts in ER and Seinfeld

Real creative success in Hollywood is difficult. Recording a jumpy, rambling home video about how much you hate President Trump is easy. And while the publicly profane celebrity is no longer big news, such publicity stunts might mean a momentary bump in interest in a celebrity’s Twitter feed.

The problem is, this is a schtick that has become predictable, old, and—quite frankly—dull. Michael Rapaport, you’re no Robert De Niro. 

‘Black Sheep Squadron’: WWII with a 1970s twist

Between 1976 and 1978, Black Sheep Squadron (also known as Baa Baa Black Sheep) was one of the coolest shows on television. Yours truly was then in the 3rd and 4th grade, and I never missed an episode when I could help it. This was the show that we all talked about on the playground during recess.

Black Sheep Squadron dramatized the exploits of U.S. Marine aviator Greg “Pappy” Boyington in the Pacific during WWII. The show starred Robert Conrad (who died earlier this month), but the real Greg Boyington made cameo appearances in several episodes. (See the video embedded above.)

Black Sheep Squadron was not a serious show, in the sense that it made no attempt to depict the real-life horrors of World War II combat, or combat in general.  This was war as entertainment. But when you’re nine years old and a show has cool scenes involving  American Vought F4U Corsairs shooting down Japanese zeroes, you can make allowances for such crimes of dramatic license. 

I recently caught a few old episodes of Black Sheep Squadron on cable. Watching the show at the age of 52 (as opposed to 9), I still find it entertaining. But it’s a far cry from HBO’s The Pacific

‘Dark Shadows’, the original novel

One rainy afternoon during the summer of 1982, I found myself out in the country in a double-wide trailer. My only real source of entertainment was an old Zenith television set that received but two or three channels. (I’ll spare you the backstory of all that.)

It was on this day that I discovered—quite by accident—that old vampire soap opera, Dark Shadows

And yes, Dark Shadows, which originally aired from 1966 to 1971, was old even then. I was skeptical as the opening credits played. But like I said, this was a rainy summer afternoon and I had no other sources of diversion. I gave this old show a chance…

And I discovered that…Dark Shadows was pretty darn good. 

Not quite a horror show, not quite a conventional drama, Dark Shadows is filled with interesting characters and intrigue. I don’t like Dark Shadows nearly as much as I like some modern series like The Americans or The Sopranos (two other serial dramas about families with secrets); but this is still quite impressive for television that was written and produced when I was a babe in diapers.

So when the audiobook of Marilyn Ross’s original Dark Shadows novel was on sale recently, I decided to give it a try. 

The novel is pretty good, too. Once again, this is entertainment from another era; and you have to judge it for what it is. But here, too, the story of Victoria Winters’s interactions with the mysterious Collins family is well, oddly captivating. 

If you’re in the mood for something a little different, this might be for you. 

68 Whiskey: M*A*S*H for the War on Terror?

68 Whiskey, a new show on the Paramount Network, is a comedy-drama about American military personnel serving at a mobile medical outpost in a combat zone.

Sound familiar? If you think this sounds a lot like M*A*S*H (1972 – 1983), you wouldn’t be entirely wrong. But 68 Whiskey is set in the present day in Afghanistan, and the overall vibe is different from that old favorite of the 1970s and early 1980s.

The tone of 68 Whiskey is a lot like The Sopranos (1999-2007), in that it injects black humor into what would ordinarily be serious subject matter. Like The Sopranos, 68 Whiskey features a moderately suspenseful, ongoing storyline, alongside deadpan deliveries of dialogue and situations that are intended to make the viewer chuckle.

How else does 68 Whiskey compare to M*A*S*H, that long-running comedy-drama about the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital in Korea?

First of all, the creators of M*A*S*H had the discretion, when dealing with the touchy balancing act of satirizing war, to put some distance between the present and their subject matter. M*A*S*H debuted in 1972, just as America’s war in Vietnam was winding down. M*A*S*H definitely tapped into the pessimistic  zeitgeist of the Nixon years, when many Americans were cynical about our institutions.

But M*A*S*H was set in the Korean War—then twenty years in the past. 68 Whiskey, by contrast, deals with a conflict that is still very much a present and going concern.

It was one thing to laugh at the antics Hawkeye and Trapper John when the veterans of the Korean War were all in their forties or fifties. It’s another thing to laugh at a war which still produces some American casualties, and produced quite a lot just a few short years ago.

As with M*A*S*H, 68 Whiskey presents a generally unflattering view of the military. Officers are depicted as venal and buffoonish. Personnel of the lower ranks are more concerned with scams and hedonism than with their jobs.

This is what satire is all about, of course. But the question is: How well will such satire go over? I would expect that some recent military veterans will take exception to the portrayals of them and their comrades in this show.

Also, the sex in the show is overdone. The first episode opens with a scene of two soldiers (a man and a woman) copulating atop an empty shelf in a storage room. Sex was certainly implied in M*A*S*H, but this was borderline softcore porn. 

I’m now in my fifties, and there isn’t much that shocks me at this stage in life. But I know from experience that an over-reliance on sexual titillation (unless it is an actual porn film) is usually a sign of lazy screenwriting. This aspect of the show struck me as self-indulgent. Or—to put it another way: Just because you can say words like “dick” and “clit” on cable TV, that doesn’t mean that you actually should.

Despite its flaws, 68 Whiskey is entertaining. The characters (even if they aren’t complimentary representations of Americans in uniform) are distinctive and likable. The action sequences contain enough humor to keep things light, but not so much humor that you lose your ability to suspend your disbelief. I’ve finished watching the first episode, and I’m eager to see episode #2.

‘Deputy’: new crime drama on Fox

I’ve started watching Deputy, a new crime series on Fox. 

Deputy is a genre blend—of the old-style Western, and the gritty, modern police procedural.

The premise is this: a fifth-generation, old-school lawman named Bill Hollister (Stephen Dorf) suddenly becomes the acting sheriff of Los Angeles County. He must contend with ICE raids, human traffickers and drug gangs, as well as media who are hostile to the police. 

Oh, and his personal security deputy is a Millennial, non-binary lesbian (Bex Taylor-Klaus).

The show opens on a controversial note, as Hollister (hours before he’s named sheriff) is called on the carpet for interfering with an ICE raid. Hollister believes that if LA County deputies cooperate with ICE, they won’t be able to maintain the trust of the large immigrant community in the area. 

I don’t agree with every point that the creators of Deputy are trying to make, but I admire the way in which they’re going about it.  This show throws a lot of stuff at the wall—a lot of issues, and a lot of action and conflict. Most of it works. 

This is a show that makes a serious attempt to address the ambiguities and culture wars of the twenty-first century. The arguments made herein won’t completely please anyone. While Hollister is clearly opposed to ICE roundups of illegal immigrants, he channels Dirty Harry when going after bad guys—of all races and ethnicities.

Bill Hollister will delight the most diehard Clint Eastwood fans. Progressive viewers, meanwhile, finally get a show that champions at least some of their priorities, that isn’t a total borefest. 

So far: 4.5 out of 5 stars. 

Vintage ‘Magnum P.I.’ on Hallmark

It still like the original version…

About a year ago I wrote a quick review of the rebooted version of Magnum P.I. that’s now in its second season on CBS. 

As I wrote in 2018, I like the new Magnum. Jay Hernandez does a fine job in the titular role, and I don’t mind the decision to make Higgins a female character in the 21st century reboot. (Perdita Weeks arguably makes the show.  And the chemistry between Hernandez and Weeks is even better than the old banter between Selleck and Hillerman.) Moreover, Tom Selleck is now in his seventies. He’s in good shape for a man that age; but Thomas Magnum is clearly a role for an actor in his prime. Old school though I am, I wasn’t about to make the case for casting Selleck in the rebooted version of this 1980s weekly crime show.

That said, I recently noticed that episodes of the original Magnum P.I., which ran from 1980 to 1988, were playing on the Hallmark Channel. I watched a few of them to see how they would hold up to the test of time.

The good news is: quite well. Yes, some of those 80s fashions are cringeworthy today—even to an 80s relic like me. But the scriptwriting and the action are still engaging. 

Magnum P.I. always had a lighthearted aspect. This is, therefore, light entertainment. Magnum P.I. never had any pretensions of being thought-provoking or heavy. That was as true in the vintage series as it is in the reboot.

I watched many episodes of the show back in the 1980s, but not all of them, by any means. For me, the years 1980 through 1988 comprised  junior high through the middle of college. This was before video-on-demand and DVRs. Sometimes I tuned in, and sometimes I didn’t. 

But it’s been more than 30 years since the last vintage Magnum P.I. episode was broadcast for the first time. I don’t remember any of the storylines, really. I am therefore having a good time watching them again, as if for the first time.

‘Treadstone’ is not to be missed

I’ve been watching the USA Network’s Treadstone. Loosely based on the premise of the Jason Bourne novels, Treadstone is an ambitious espionage action/adventure series with deep-cover agents, international locations, and multilayered plots.

I had been anxiously waiting for something like this. Since The Americans ended last year, there hasn’t really been much on television in the espionage genre.

Like The Americans, Treadstone involves a complex, ongoing story. It might be possible to jump in anywhere and begin watching; but you’re advised to start with the first episode and work your way forward.

The producers of Treadstone also take pains to make the show authentic—down to the details of language. Characters in North Korea actually speak Korean. When the action crosses over to China, they speak Mandarin. (There is even a storyline set in Hungary in 1973, and these characters speak Hungarian.)

I would like to see more television like this. I’m sick of goofy superhero retreads, and endless stories about teens performing magic.

Treadstone is an engaging series for an adult audience. I don’t like Treadstone quite as much as I liked The Americans, but I like it a lot. 

Stephen King adaptations

Not all of them are equal, as an article in The Boston Herald reminds us.

The article includes a list of must-see Stephen King adaptations.

I have one  quibble with the list. The 1994 TV miniseries adaptation of The Stand (starring Molly Ringwald and Gary Sinese) is not included.

Yes, it aired 25 years ago. Nevertheless, that was a top-notch television adaptation of very complex and visually challenging piece. 

‘The Pacific’: HBO

I’m watching The Pacific on HBO. This series is a significant investment in time, but well worth it. 

There haven’t been nearly enough films and novels about the Pacific war. World War II movies and fiction tend to gravitate to the war in Europe.

Perhaps that’s to be expected. The war in Europe took place in the middle of Western Civilization, in countries that everyone is familiar with: France, Germany, Russia, etc.

And, of course: Hitler, the Nazis, and the Holocaust. Probably half the documentaries on the History Channel are about the Third Reich. 

Much of the war in the Pacific (the part that we were involved in, anyway), was fought on thinly populated, remote islands. While the ideology of the Third Reich is well known to anyone with even basic historical literacy, few Americans grasp the essentials of the Japanese Empire, and its major players. 

Those are among the reasons why the war in the Pacific has been such a challenge to storytellers, and–as a result–often neglected by them. But this HBO series does a great job of bringing “the other World War II” to life.

Catherine the Great: the HBO miniseries

I’ve been watching the Catherine the Great television miniseries on HBO.  A few observations, in no particular order:

This is based on a period of history that many American viewers won’t know much about. You will get far more out of this miniseries if you have a familiarity with Russian history. No–you don’t need a PhD. But if you don’t know who Catherine the Great actually was, and her historical significance, you might want to skip this one. The HBO miniseries is primarily entertainment, but it assumes a certain degree of background knowledge.

-Not every minute is exciting. There are plenty of gunfights, riots, and decapitations, as befits any historical depiction of czarist Russia. But there are also many explorations of Catherine the Great’s relationships with men–both political and sexual. (In her case, the two often overlapped.)

-Helen Mirren is amazing. She is 74 years old, and she handles those ballroom dancing scenes like a woman half her age. Quite impressive. I hope I do so well when I’m in my seventies.

FBI: Season 2

I was lukewarm about CBS’s FBI during its first season. For season 2, however, the producers of the show have really upped their game on the scriptwriting front. 

Episode 2 centered around the kidnapping of the child of a famous (fictional, of course) “mommy  blogger”.

There were lots of twists and turns, with a surprise ending that I didn’t see coming.

The show is not perfect, of course. This is network television, after all; and some of the gunfights (to cite one example) aren’t completely realistic. 

Overall, though, FBI is a solid cop show; and it augments CBS’s already strong lineup in that genre. (CBS is also the home of Blue Bloods, Hawaii Five-O, and S.W.A.T.)

‘Speed Racer’, my favorite Japanese import in 1972

I can tell you what I was doing, most afternoons at 3 pm in 1972. (I was four that year.) I was sprawled out in front of my parents’ boxy Zenith television set, tuned in to Cincinnati’s Channel 19, WXIX. 

That was the time and place in which Speed Racer aired.

The Speed Racer franchise began in Japan in the 1960s as a manga comic series. In 1967, a Speed Racer animated cartoon was developed; and this is what found its way to the US market (dubbed into English, of course).

The best way to describe Speed Racer is as follows: The series concerns the adventures of “Speed”, the driver of the technologically advanced Mach 5 racer. 

Like many Japanese manga, Speed Racer takes place in a setting that is the real world, but not quite the real world. There are unrealistic technological menaces (like the “Mammoth Car”); and the series may have had a monster or two. 

I didn’t know back then that Speed Racer was a Japanese import. (I also didn’t know that many years hence, I would learn the Japanese language; but that’s another story.) At the age of four, I may not have even been aware of Japan. 

I just remember being thrilled by the adventures of Speed and the Mach 5. These were fun cartoons, filled with action, and instantly accessible. Speed Racer is the first television series that I ever became a fanatic of; and in 1972, I was a Speed Racer fanatic. 

I recently watched a few episodes of Speed Racer on YouTube, for nostalgia’s sake. These cartoons fascinated me at the age of four. And even at the age of 51, they retain for me a certain charm. 

Speed Racer intro, 1967

Binge-watching ‘The Sopranos’ in 2018

 

I have always loved mafia movies. I am one of those guys who has seen The Godfather more times than I feel comfortable admitting.

I also watch all the documentaries about the mob. I know the name John Gotti, of course, but also Paul Castellano, Carlo Gambino, and Aniello Dellacroce. The Italian mafia made an appearance in my first novel, Blood Flats. I’m sure I’ll write more stories about the Italian mafia in the future.

I was therefore a natural audience for the HBO series The Sopranos (1999 – 2007). But for various reasons, I didn’t get around to actually watching The Sopranos until this year, when I binge-watched all six seasons of the series over several months.

Yes, I’m a little late to this party. (It wouldn’t be the first time.) Pages and pages have already been written on the Internet about The Sopranos, dating back to the aughts. I will therefore keep my comments brief. (Er, well, fairly brief.)

The Sopranos is probably best categorized as a drama, but it’s a drama that’s loaded with plenty of physical threats and suspense. (In this regard, The Sopranos is similar to The Americans (FX), my all-time favorite television series.)

The Sopranos  employs a great deal of black humor. Murders are often committed with a smirk.

Black humor is completely absent from The Godfather. But 1972 moviegoers didn’t expect a film about the mob to have a laugh track. By 1999, however, incessant “irony” was thoroughly embedded in our culture, and it would probably have been difficult for The Sopranos to be played completely deadpan for six seasons. Black humor is not usually my thing, but in The Sopranos, it mostly works.

It is important to consider just how difficult this high-wire act was, from the moment of its conception through the last scene of its execution. The creator of The Sopranos, David Chase, faced a two-sided challenge:

When conceiving characters who were mafiosos, Chase had to portray his subjects’ amoralism and brutality, without turning them into unsympathetic monsters. If a main character (even an antihero) is completely unsympathetic, audiences don’t become emotionally invested in him, and don’t care about his fate.

But at the same time, Chase had to make his characters sympathetic, while never allowing the viewer to forget that they’re ultimately criminals. Crooks. Thugs. Bad guys. So it really was a very difficult balance.

Chase pulls this feat off brilliantly. The Sopranos is filled with cynicism, violence, and betrayal. And yet…Each major character is complex and distinct.

Before you finish the first episode, you feel like you know these people, and you want to see more of them. And that’s as much as anyone can ask for.

All of the major characters are also expertly cast. I did a little research, and it seems that a majority of the actors were Italian-Americans who had some connection to the New York/New Jersey area.

Not just James Gandolfini, but also Edie Falco, Lorraine Bracco, Michael Imperioli, Vincent Pastore, etc., etc. The list goes on and on.

Did that have an impact on the authenticity of the show? I think it may have.

But there’s one character, of course, who is the tentpole, the central pillar, the focus for the entire series…and that’s Tony Soprano, played by James Gandolfini. Without the character of Tony Soprano, The Sopranos would have been a mildly interesting Godfather knockoff that would have lasted a season or two, and then would have been quickly forgotten.

I would also speculate that without James Gandolfini, Tony Soprano would not have been nearly as effective.

I’ve seen James Gandolfini in a few other films. He played a junior U.S. Navy officer in Crimson Tide (1995), for example. Gandolfini is unspectacular in his pre-Sopranos roles. But as Tony Soprano, Gandolfini is a giant. He seems to have been born for this role. (It is also unfortunate to note that Gandolfini met an untimely death, at the age of 51, about six years after The Sopranos ended.)

Tony Soprano is capable of both nobility and venality, loyalty and ruthlessness. Flashback scenes suggest that his parents were both sociopaths. Tony, by contrast, seems to legitimately care about his wife and children. But that doesn’t stop him from engaging in a string of extramarital affairs. He is, after all, a mob boss. Philandering comes with the territory.

One of the more interesting subplots involves Tony Soprano’s (nonsexual) relationship with his psychiatrist, Jennifer Melfi (played by Lorraine Bracco). Tony is tortured by crises of identity. He suffers from panic attacks. He has a spiritual side (several episodes are dedicated to explorations in this regard), even as he’s capable of being petty, greedy, and violent—exactly what you would expect a mid-level mob boss to be.

And this is, I think, why the character is so appealing. Almost no one who watches The Sopranos knows firsthand what it is like to be a mafia capo. And yet, we identify with Tony Soprano in a thousand ways.

I know that I do: I see a lot of myself in Tony Soprano, the fundamentally flawed and short-sighted human being who nevertheless harbors aspirations of doing/being better.

The Sopranos takes some dark turns in the final seasons. This may partly be related to the changes that were happening in the real world between 1999 and 2007. The first few seasons of The Sopranos has a buoyant fin de siècle feel, despite the subject matter.

Let us not forget that in 1999 and 2000, the mood of the country was optimistic. Everyone was captivated by the ever-rising stock market, and the then novel wonders of the Internet. By 2007, American politics had taken a sharply partisan turn, 9/11 had happened, and we were embroiled in two quagmire wars in the Middle East.

And so the last few seasons of The Sopranos focus—perhaps more than necessary—on the dark sides of the characters’ lives. Not just the killings, but also various personal traumas.

One of the main characters develops Alzheimer’s. Much time is devoted to the troubles associated with Tony Sopranos ne’er-do-well son.

Tony and his wife, Carmella (played by Edie Falco), separate for an entire season, when she decides that she can no longer tolerate his extramarital adventures. (Spoiler alert: Tony and Carmella eventually reconcile.)

Some of the arguments associated with the marital split are almost too realistic. While watching these scenes, I actually felt that I was an unwilling witness to the breakup of a real marriage. There were several moments when I felt physically uncomfortable.

And what about that final scene of the final episode? After a flareup of factional mob violence that leaves many of Tony Soprano’s friends and associates dead, he meets with his wife and children at a restaurant, for what is supposed to be a quiet family dinner.

The family members arrive separately. Tony has been in hiding.

While Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” (a deliberately chosen song, of course) is playing on the jukebox, Tony surveys the other diners, speculating that one of them may be an assassin sent to kill him.

First Carmella arrives. Then his son, AJ.

Finally, Tony’s young adult daughter walks in. Tony looks up at the sound of the bell above the door (the restaurant is a neighborhood diner).

And the screen goes instantly silent and black.

The ending is wonderfully ambiguous and ambivalent, downright spiritual for a show about organized crime. (I have a confession here: I hated the ending the first time I saw it. But after I re-watched it on YouTube several times, I found that I recognized and appreciated what David Chase had done here.)

And now The Sopranos is over, for me at least. If you haven’t binge-watched this show, find a way to do so now. The Sopranos is among the best drama ever to see the screen.