I miss the 1990s, too

The headline read, “American Girl declares the year 1999 ‘historical’ and ’90s kids are losing it: ‘I’m getting old’”. 

Indeed, it is hard for some of us to believe that the 1990s began more than 30 years ago, and ended almost 24 years ago. But it’s true. Do the math. The 1990s are no longer recent. Just ask a current 20-year-old, who wasn’t even born yet.

As for me, I am not a child of the 1990s. I’m a child of the 1980s. I was a young adult of the 1990s. I was 21 years old as the decade began, and I was 31 on December 31, 1999. 

Although I had a pleasant [1980s] childhood, it is the 1990s that evoke the most nostalgia in me. The 1990s was a good decade for me personally, and overall, a better decade in the world at large. The USA was at peace, the economy was booming, and our culture still had a sense of humor. (The 1990s was a time when you could watch F·R·I·E·N·D·S without a lecture from the finger-wagging “woke” crowd, for example.)

Bill Clinton was in the White House. I didn’t vote for him in either 1992 or 1996, and I thought he left much to be desired as POTUS. But I would welcome him back with open arms, compared to what we have now. 

The 1990s represented a brief Goldilocks era for digital technology. In the 1990s, digital technology was making life more convenient, without taking over everything and making it weird.  Continue reading “I miss the 1990s, too”

The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps

The period between the two world wars was the golden age of the pulp fiction magazines. This was a time before television, or (of course) the Internet. Entertainment options were limited. (Heck, they barely had radio in those days.) Many people therefore turned to magazines that specialized in quickly written and fast-paced stories of romance, western adventure, crime, science fiction, or horror.

What happened to pulp fiction? The pulp magazines weren’t the victims of television, as is commonly thought. They were the casualties, rather, of the cheaply printed paperback. Modern paperback books were first introduced in 1935, but they really caught on during and shortly after World War II. The paperback completely changed the publishing and bookselling landscape, much as Amazon would about sixty years later. 

Some of the original pulp content is still with us, of course. Horror fans who adore H.P. Lovecraft may not know that favorites like “At the Mountains of Madness”, “Dagon” —and most other Lovecraft stories—were originally published in Weird Tales, a pulp magazine founded in 1922. (Note: Weird Tales technically still exists, though its format has undergone some modifications; the magazine has a site on the Internet.)

A cover of Weird Tales from the H.P. Lovecraft era

I’ve read and reread Lovecraft’s oeuvre  as much as I care to. So when I was recently in a mood to do some reading off the beaten path, I decided to indulge in a bit of vintage pulp crime fiction. 

Or actually, quite a lot of vintage pulp crime fiction. The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps contains forty-seven stories and two complete novels. Writers represented in this collection include well known names like Raymond Chandler (1888-1959) and Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961). There are also plenty of stories by writers who are long forgotten. 

The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps

Why read pulp fiction? Well, you probably already watch pulp television. 

I’m a longtime fan of pulp TV, in fact. During the 1980s, I regularly tuned in to action television shows like The A-Team, Knight Rider, Airwolf, and the original MacGyver. These shows were all escapist television, with plots that roared out of the gate like a 1981 DeLorean or a 1987 Toyota Supra. 

My favorite was The A-Team. An episode of The A-Team kept you on the edge of your seat. Each episode ended with a blazing gunfight, in which no one was usually killed or seriously injured. The A-Team made absolutely no attempt to provide any sort of messaging on social, political, or philosophical issues. The other aforementioned 80s-era pulp TV shows were done in a similar vein.

An iconic combat scene from The A-Team

Most of these shows did not age well. For nostalgia’s sake, I recently tuned in to a few old episodes of The A-Team and the original MacGyver. In the MacGyver episode, the eponymous hero found himself in the Soviet Union, where everyone conveniently spoke English. The Russians even spoke English with each other. I managed to sit through about twenty minutes of this. Life is too short.

The same might be said of the stories in The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps. You can detect the literary and storytelling skills at work; but you can also tell that you’re reading fiction produced in a different era, when expectations were very different. My 1980s pulp TV shows did not have to compete with Netflix. The writers whose work is collected in The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps did not have to compete with Michael Connelly or Lee Child. 

The stories in The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps are interesting as artifacts of the pulp era, in the same way that a Ford Model T is an interesting artifact of automobile technology in the 1920s. But as entertainment for present-day audiences? Keep in mind that some of these stories are more than eighty years old. You had might as well ask me if I would like to use a Model T for my daily commuting needs. 

I suspect that this massive tome (more than one thousand pages in print) is so massive for a reason. The editors knew that the phrase “your mileage may vary” would be very applicable here.

Dashiell Hammett, 1934

What about their usefulness for writers? Those of us who write fiction are always thinking of a story in market analysis terms, after all.  

I wouldn’t recommend that any twenty-first century writer try to imitate the style of these stories, exactly. At least a quarter of these tales contain plot holes that you could drive a Model T through; and almost all of them contain hackneyed dialogue. (“He’s on the square!” “The place looked swell.”) 

And oh, the eyebrows that will be raised among the finger-wagging social justice crowd. While these stories aren’t intentionally sexist, they are the product of a different time, when ideas about men and women were different. They overflow with gendered terminology that would make any writer the target of an online pitchfork mob today (“honey,” “doll”, “sugar”, “dame”, etc.). 

The female characters in these crime stories are mostly props. But then, so are most of the men. These stories are all about plot, plot, plot.

And that is where this book may be instructive for writers who have found themselves too immersed in navel-gazing literary fiction. The writer who suspects he is spending too much time on flowery descriptions and internal monologue may learn something valuable here: how to get to the point, or to the plot. The pulp-era writers were certainly good at that, despite their other shortcomings. 

Joe Pickett and the Everyman/Everywoman hero

For your Sunday, a little writing advice…

Some mystery and thriller series feature heroes with almost superhuman capabilities: Doc Savage, Dirk Pitt, James Bond, Jack Reacher, etc.

Such characters provide escapism, but there is a notable downside here. Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt and Ian Fleming’s James Bond may be fun to read about, but they are difficult for most of us to relate to. In fact, it is hard to imagine Dirk Pitt or James Bond even existing, as real people.

This is why competent but fallible heroes like Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch are far more common in commercial fiction. We can imagine Harry Bosch actually existing, even if we can’t imagine such mastery in ourselves.

But what about the hero who is all too ordinary? Continue reading “Joe Pickett and the Everyman/Everywoman hero”

‘Ozark’ and microtension

Unlike some people who write books, I’m not hostile to television, especially good television.

And Netflix’s Ozark is very good television. I’m now binge-watching the series, and I’m already in the fourth season. 

I’m sort of dreading the end of the fourth season, because that’s all there is! Netflix has already announced that there will be no fifth season of Ozark.

Here’s the premise of Ozark, briefly stated. Marty Byrde (played by Jason Bateman) is a Chicago-based financial advisor. Despite being a whiz with money, he’s never quite been able to keep his head above water.

Then Marty is courted by the Navarro drug cartel as a money launderer. After extensive discussions with his wife, Wendy (Laura Linney), Marty reluctantly agrees to the proposition.

But Marty’s old college friend and business partner, Bruce (Josh Randall), makes a fatal mistake. Bruce attempts to cheat the cartel, by skimming some of the laundered cash. 

And as we all know, cheating Mexican drug cartels is never a good idea. The cartel eventually finds out what Bruce is up to. Cartel operatives show up in Chicago. They execute Bruce, along with his fiancée, and the father-son trucking company owners who were also involved in the theft.

Marty witnesses the massacre. Needless to say, he is shaken…but alive. Continue reading “‘Ozark’ and microtension”

The Greatest American Hero, John Hinckley Jr., and Connie Sellecca…oh, my!

The Greatest American Hero was a comedy-drama superhero series that ran for three seasons, from 1981 to 1983.

Here’s the premise: Ralph Hinkley, (later Hanley—I’ll explain why in a moment) is a substitute teacher in the Los Angeles public school system. Extraterrestrials bestow on him a suit that gives him superhero powers. 

After that, Ralph (played by William Katt) works with his FBI sidekick, Bill Maxwell (Robert Culp) to thwart criminals, and carry out the usual superhero endeavors. 

Ralph is also aided by his divorce lawyer, Pam Davidson (played by Connie Sellecca).

The show premiered on March 18, 1981. On March 30, 1981, a whackjob named John Hinkley Jr. shot then President Reagan and three other individuals. This was an association that the show’s producers obviously wanted to avoid. So Ralph Hinkley became Ralph Hanley.  Continue reading “The Greatest American Hero, John Hinckley Jr., and Connie Sellecca…oh, my!”

My grandmother’s favorite TV show

I didn’t realize that all four of The Golden Girls had passed. Betty White, the last of them, died on New Year’s Eve, 2021.

But I suppose I should not be surprised, given that the show has been off the air for 30 years, and the actresses were rather advanced in years even when the show was filmed.

Back in the day, I wasn’t a fan of The Golden Girls (1985-1992), not because I actively disliked it, but because I was outside the show’s target demographic. I was between the ages of 17 and 24 while The Golden Girls was in primetime. A sitcom about four elderly women was difficult for me to relate to at the time, I guess.

But my grandmother, who was born the same year as Betty White and Beatrice Arthur (1922), absolutely loved it. My grandfather, born in 1921, watched it, too. (My grandfather loved television, and would watch almost anything.)

I have fond memories of dropping by my grandparents’ house in the late 1980s and early 1990s, to find them both tuned in to this much loved, bygone television show. The show delighted my grandmother to no end. 

So I suppose I am a fan of The Golden Girls, after all. I just didn’t know it back then.

The VCR revolution: December 24, 1984

Though I certainly do remember Christmas, 1984, I can’t claim to remember the above cover of Time magazine. But as the magazine cover proclaims, VCRs were a big deal back then. 

My parents had purchased a VCR a few years earlier…probably in 1982. It was my favorite device in our household, and my parents loved it, too.

If you’re too young to remember the world before the VCR, then you don’t remember the days of fitting your schedule around your favorite TV programs. Continue reading “The VCR revolution: December 24, 1984”

The Archies and children’s breakfast cereal, poorly marketed in the 1970s

I personally had a happy 1970s childhood, with loving parents and grandparents, and a supportive environment. I’m not complaining about my own lot back then. 

But the culture of that era, still stuck in that of the generally unwholesome 1960s, had a tendency to ignore—or overlook—the needs of children. Nothing like the child-centric, helicopter-parenting decades that would follow. This was also an era when divorce rates were skyrocketing, and “broken homes” were becoming more commonplace.

Someone at Post Consumer Brands in the 1970s had the bright idea that the Archies offered the best way to market Super Sugar Crisp, a children’s cereal. Children under 12 were the product’s target market. Continue reading “The Archies and children’s breakfast cereal, poorly marketed in the 1970s”

Kirstie Alley (1951-2022)

Actress Kirstie Alley has passed away following a long battle with cancer, according to the late actress’s spokespersons.

I remember Kirstie Alley as Saavik in The Wrath of Khan, the 1982 Star Trek movie. But my fondest onscreen memories of her are from her long role (1987-93) as Rebecca Howe on Cheers. Alley joined Cheers after the situation comedy had already been running for five years. She replaced Shelley Long as the show’s female lead.

Cheers was already the best sitcom on television, and Kirstie Alley made it even better. Many of her scenes opposite Ted Danson can still make me guffaw.

A great actress who leaves behind some memorable performances. Some of television comedy’s best, in fact. 

Kirstie Alley, 71, R.I.P.

East New York: quick review

Television can’t get too many good cop shows. Right now, there a slew of them that I regularly tune into: Blue Bloods, Chicago P.D., and—of course—the three FBI-themed shows on CBS.

East New York is a new show about Deputy Inspector Regina Hayward (Amanda Warren), who has just been promoted to a commanding position in the NYPD’s 74th precinct in Brooklyn, New York.

East New York dips its toe into larger, real-world concerns like race, use of force procedures, and the challenges of policing with slashed budgets and reduced staffs. But these topics don’t overwhelm the 45-minute plot lines. What we mostly have here is standard, cops vs. criminals fare. Police procedurals.

Since the main character is a black woman promoted to a managerial position, there are of course a few angry white males who automatically assume that hers was a diversity promotion. Such topics are fair game, in a show about big-city policing in 21st century America. To the credit of the writers and producers, though, these matters are handled with balance and subtlety.  Continue reading “East New York: quick review”

WKRP turkey drop

Today is Black Friday, and I suspect that many of you spent the wee hours waiting in line for stores to open. The Best Buy near my house opened today at 5 a.m. 

Not me…there is nothing in the stores that I want that badly, even at a steep discount. 

To close out Thanksgiving here at the blog, I present you with this Cincinnati favorite, the infamous “turkey drop” episode from WKRP in Cincinnati, a sitcom that aired on CBS from 1978 to 1982. 

Cincinnati, Ohio has never gotten much attention from Hollywood, even though several movies (Rain Man, Fresh Horses) were filmed here in the late 1980s. So to have a primetime sitcom named after Cincinnati, and set in Cincinnati, was kind of a big deal. (Keep in mind: this was before the Internet or cable TV, and folks were more easily amused.)

The above ‘Thanksgiving turkey drop’ episode, which originally aired in 1978, has long been a cult favorite. This is one of those television memes that just never goes away.

Rewatching the pivotal scene above, I found it “mildly amusing”, worthy of a chuckle.

But worthy of four decades of persistence in the collective memory? I’m not so sure, my predilection for nostalgia notwithstanding. 

I’ll let you be the judge, upon watching the video clip above.

I like Amazon’s ‘Reacher’

With all the post-midterm election negativity here and elsewhere, I feel gratified to give you all some good news, even if it’s only a recommendation for a TV show. The Reacher television series, launched earlier this year on Amazon Prime Video, gets two thumbs up from The Daily Ed.

I’m a longtime fan of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books; and I would argue that fans of the novels are the ideal audience for the eponymous television series. There are so many little Reacherisms (like the main character’s love of black coffee) that you might miss in the TV format if you aren’t looking for them. But even newcomers to the Jack Reacher character will find much to like here. Continue reading “I like Amazon’s ‘Reacher’”

“That’s Incredible”/Dynamite

I remember That’s Incredible, an early forerunner of 21st-century reality shows. The show ran on ABC for five seasons, from 1980 to 1984. That’s Incredible featured unusual human interest stories and investigations into alleged paranormal events.

I remember Dynamite, too. I am (just a little) embarrassed to admit that I was an avid reader of the magazine in 1977 and 1978, when I was between the ages of 9 and 10. 

Dynamite specialized in celebrity interviews and bios that were clean enough for elementary kids to read. That was no easy task during the coke-and-sex-fueled Swinging Seventies.

Original story idea vs. execution: which is more important?

The other day, one of you emailed me to get my take on an age-old debate in writing, filmmaking, and storytelling circles:

Which matters more…the big, highly original idea, or the execution of the story, regardless of its originality?

Many writers fret constantly about people “stealing their ideas”. They put off writing because they “don’t have any original ideas”. They worry about forgetting ideas.

So which is more important? There is evidence for both.

Star Wars took off in 1977 partly because it was such an original idea. Here we had the rough equivalents of cowboys and samurai warriors in space. There had never been anything like that before.

In 2013, I first read about The Americans in the television and movie review section of a magazine. The highly original premise of The Americans— deep undercover Russian spies in Reagan-era America—instantly intrigued me.

The Americans intrigued a lot of people. The Americans ran from 2013 to 2018. During that time, the Cold War period drama received high marks from reviewers and viewers alike. The series has a 96% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The Google composite review score is 4.8 out of 5. That’s pretty close to unanimity, at a time when people widely disagree about almost everything.

Nevertheless, it is easy to imagine The Americans having become nothing more than a Tom Clancy-esque knock-off for cable television. Why didn’t that happen?

The Americans is, indeed, based on a highly innovative “big idea”, what movie and fiction folks like to call “high concept”. But it is in the execution that The Americans really shines: the depth and arc of the characters, the nuts and bolts of each episode.

Plenty of stories succeed in the world of books and film without being very “high concept” at all. Consider the success of Downton Abbey. There is no high concept in Downton Abbey. It is little more than a soap opera set in Edwardian England, in fact.

When I watched the first episode of Downton Abbey, I didn’t know what I was going to think of it. But I was blown away. Not because of the “big idea” (there was none), but because of the execution: characters and individual episodes. The success of Downton Abbey is all in the execution.

An example in the book world would be Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. Jonathan Franzen is inconsistent as a writer. (He takes an average of about 6 years to write each book.) He is eccentric as an individual. But he scored a home run with The Corrections in 2001.

I remember getting my hands on this book over the Christmas holiday of 2001. I sat down and read it cover-to-cover, over a period of about 48 hours.

There is no high concept in The Corrections, either. A highly autobiographical novel, The Corrections is a fictionalized adaptation of people and events from the author’s life. But the world that Franzen creates in this book, while mundane, pulls you in. It pulled me in, and it pulled in millions of other readers, too.


On the opposite side of this coin are the high concept stories that fall flat because of poor execution.

We have all been bored by stories with incredibly high stakes: literally the end of humanity, in some cases. They bore us because of flaws in characterization, pacing, or depth.

This shows up in a lot of 2- and 3-three star Amazon reviews, that begin with phrases like, “I really wanted to like this book, but…”. Others outright say, “Great idea, but poor execution.”

For me, The Expanse fell into this category. This was true of both the book(s) and the Syfy series.

The premise of The Expanse did intrigue me: neither a near-future alien encounter tale, nor a space opera set in deep space, The Expanse is set a few centuries from the present, within our solar system.

But when I actually dug into the first book, it left me cold. The characters were flat, and there were too many of them. The narrative was unfocused. I had the same reaction a few years later, when I tried the Syfy series. I just couldn’t get into it.

Some of you will disagree with me, of course, but I’m not the only one who found the execution of The Expanse lacking. And I am not someone who dislikes science fiction. I loved the original version of Battlestar Galactica in the 1970s, as well as the “reimagined version” in the 2000s (though with some reservations).

Battlestar Galactica, whether in the hands of Glen A. Larson in the 1970s, or SyFy in the 00s, featured good execution.

But was Battlestar Galactica high concept? Highly original?

20th Century Fox certainly didn’t think so. In 1978, 20th Century Fox sued Universal Studios for allegedly ripping off Star Wars. The lawsuit claimed that Battlestar Galactica had filched more than thirty distinct ideas from Star Wars.

Whether you accept this notion or not, there is no doubt that the original BSG rode the coattails of Star Wars, which was then a monolithic phenomenon of popular culture.

And the rebooted BSG wasn’t original at all. It was based on the 1978 series, which owed much to Star Wars.


I’m therefore going to come down on the side of execution over big, original idea.

There are so many stories that we’ve all seen time and time again:

The rough-edged police detective who chafes against “the brass”, but will go to any length to catch a criminal…

  • The star-crossed lovers…
  • The ex-green beret whose daughter has been kidnapped…
  • The sympathetic vampire
  • Aliens/zombies/other monsters disrupt human society…
  • and so on…

Nevertheless, both novelists and filmmakers continue to find fresh new angles on these old ideas…new ways to execute them.

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For example: I recently enjoyed the final season of Bosch on Amazon Prime Video.

Bosch is based on Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels. The Harry Bosch novels are about a big-city homicide detective, Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch.

I don’t think that Michael Connelly would mind me saying: that’s a very old idea. Nothing original at all in the “concept”! But the Harry Bosch novels represent some of the best genre fiction out there.

Why? Because Michael Connelly’s execution of the character of Harry Bosch, of the murder cases, is so darn good.

Originality, in other words, might be overrated. To be sure, there is a place for it. (It is also a bad idea to jump on literary bandwagons; but that’s a separate topic for another day).

It is probably better to focus on the superlative execution of a “good” story idea—even if it’s been done before—versus waiting around for one superlative idea to come the writer’s way.

I discovered Zane Grey

As I’ve mentioned before, I like to listen to audiobooks while I mow the lawn. This past weekend, I started listening to a new title, The Fugitive Trail, by Zane Grey. I had about four hours worth of yard work to do, so I made my way through about half of the novel.

I’ll confess that I’ve never been a big fan of westerns. This may be partly due to generational factors. I started watching television and movies in the 1970s, just as our culture was becoming more cynical and “ironic”. The post-Vietnam cultural shift diminished the market for the big John Wayne-style western, with all-American heroes, and unambiguous lines of good and evil. Watch a cowboy movie made prior to 1968 today, and you’ll find any number of violations of political correctness.

I’ve watched Clint Eastwood’s spaghetti westerns, the films he made with Italian director Sergio Leone during the Vietnam era. I generally like Clint Eastwood, but the antiheroes he plays in these films are not endearing. The John Wayne version of the cowboy, while arguably less realistic, is far more sympathetic.

Zane Grey (1872 – 1939) lived, wrote, and died long before our culture turned against itself in the 1960s. His most popular book, Riders of the Purple Sage (1912) was published the year the Titanic sank…before World War I.

I’d been vaguely aware of Zane Grey for years, of course. I’ve been told that my paternal grandfather was an avid reader of Zane Grey’s novels. (He used to read them during his breaks on the night shift at Cincinnati Gas & Electric, according to my father.) But I’d never gotten around to reading any of his books myself.

Until I happened upon a discounted audiobook version of The Fugitive Trail, that is. I began the book prepared for anything—including the possibility that I might hate it. But as chance would have it, I liked the book a lot.

Zane Grey was a master of “pulp fiction”. He wrote fast-paced stories with passionate heroes and heroines, driven by universal human drives.

Speaking of modern sensibilities: The heroine of The Fugitive Trail, a young woman named Trinity Spencer, is no helpless damsel in distress. She takes the initiative in determining her own outcomes, and has no qualms about standing up to the men in her midst. Imagine that: popular fiction had strong women characters decades before anyone was “woke”.

That said, some of the language and dialogue in the book is dated, even clichéd. But that’s part of the fun.

Zane Grey probably won’t become my favorite author. This is fortunate, I suppose, since he’s been dead for 82 years and won’t be writing any more books. But The Fugitive Trail won’t be my last Zane Grey book, either. I already have my eye on the aforementioned Riders of the Purple Sage.

Check out The Fugitive Trail on  Audible.com

(BTW: While not a western novel as such, fans of western novels (and good vs. evil adventure tales) may want to check out my Kentucky crime novel, Blood Flats.)