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.)

‘Big Sky’ season 2

I’m enjoying Season 2 of Big Sky, ABC’s crime drama based on The Highway series of novels by C.J. Box.

This show features two persistent lady sleuths, an interesting Montana setting, and lots of nasty, nasty villains.

Speaking of villains, Brian Geraghty is back for Season 2 as Ronald Pergman, the momma’s boy from hell.

I give Big Sky my highest recommendation. Don’t miss it.

‘The Osbournes Want to Believe’: quick review

Watch The Osbournes Want to Believe on Amazon 

The music of Ozzy Osbourne has long been one of my guilty pleasures. I’m from the Ozzy generation, you might say. I hit adolescence in the early 1980s, perfect timing for Ozzy’s three breakout albums: Blizzard of Oz (1980), Diary of a Madman (1981) and Bark at the Moon (1983).

By the time I graduated from high school in 1986, Ozzy Osbourne’s music  was already becoming somewhat predictable and repetitive. Or maybe I was just getting older?…Who knows? But anyway—if you were around in the early 1980s and into rock music, you’ll surely remember the energy of those first few albums. They were really something.

Ozzy Osbourne was always more of an entertainer than a technical musician. From the beginning of his solo career, the former Black Sabbath frontman effected this macabre persona, which was uniquely appealing to 13-year-old boys, circa 1981. Then there was the thing about him biting the head off a dove at a meeting with CBS record executives. (He was intoxicated at the time.)

By the early 2000s, Ozzy Osbourne’s style of music was long past its expiration date. The singer pivoted—to reality TV. From 2002 to 2005, MTV aired The Osbournes. Each episode of The Osbournes was basically a day-in-the-life with the singer and his family. I caught about fifteen minutes of one such episode, and immediately knew that The Osbournes wasn’t for me. I’m not a big fan of reality TV to begin with, and I found Ozzy’s two teenage children, Kelly and Jack, somewhat annoying.

I was therefore a bit skeptical when I tuned into my first episode of The Osbournes Want to Believe, which now airs on the Travel Channel. But the The Osbournes Want to Believe is actually not too bad…if you’re willing to accept it for what it is.

The Osbournes Want to Believe presents a new spin on the well-traveled paranormal investigation/ghosthunting TV genre. This show doesn’t feature parapsychologists and professional skeptics, breaking down videos of shadowy figures and independently moving objects. Here, instead, you watch and listen as three members of the Osbourne family give their take on such matters.

Son Jack serves as the host of the show. Yes, I found him annoying 18 years ago; but he’s now 35 and actually pretty good as a television host.

Ozzy Osbourne, meanwhile, is a shadow of his former self. To quote his Wikipedia entry, Ozzy “has abused alcohol and other drugs for most of his adult life.” In 1978, he unapologetically told a journalist, “I get high, I get f***ed up … what the hell’s wrong with getting f***ed  up? There must be something wrong with the system if so many people have to get f***ed up … I never take dope or anything before I go on stage. I’ll smoke a joint or whatever afterwards.”

The singer is now in his early seventies, and his decades of substance abuse are readily apparent. Ozzy is always likable, and at times genuinely witty; but he seems constantly on the verge of falling asleep. If not for his reputation, Ozzy could be mistaken for Joe Biden giving an unscripted press conference. (Sorry! I couldn’t resist.) No one need wonder, though, why Jack serves as the show’s moderator. Ozzy would not be up to the task.

Sharon Osbourne, of The Talk, is perfectly lucid and endlessly chirpy. Nor is she exactly unlikable. But—like the class clown of everyone’s school days— she tries too hard to turn every remark into a joke. Her humor doesn’t always miss the mark; but it rapidly wears thin because it just never stops.

The overall tone of the show is informal and conversational. The set looks like a room in one of the homes owned by Osbourne. Watching The Osbournes Want to Believe gives you the sense that you’re sitting around with this oddball family, watching these weird videos of weird happenings.

The Osbournes Want to Believe is not cutting-edge television; but it isn’t trying to be. And although I’m not an expert on such matters, it doesn’t appear to be cutting-edge in the field of paranormal research, either. Most of the commentary—however witty and occasionally funny—is purely speculative and anecdotal. 

This show seems to be yet one more attempt to cash in on the Ozzy Osbourne brand. That brand was launched more than 50 years ago, when the first Black Sabbath album hit the record stores in 1970.

How long can the Ozzy brand go on and continue to make money? Probably for as long as Ozzy can be dissuaded from completely obliterating himself with drugs and alcohol.

Lovecraft Country: quick review (through episode 3)

When I first heard about Lovecraft Country, I was intrigued. The premise of the show is: a group of African Americans traveling across segregated America in the early 1950s, dodging white racists and Lovecraftian monsters. 

There is a lot about this show that I liked: To begin with, it is superbly cast. Jonathan Majors and Jurnee Smollett have a good chemistry as the two leads. The main characters are also likable. The attention to period detail (in the sets, etc.) is meticulous. As the first episode opened, I really felt like I was transported back to the early 1950s. 

I enjoyed the first episode, too. But things started to fall apart midway through episode 2, and they collapsed in episode 3.

For one thing, after episode 1, the plot lines became not scary or suspenseful, but simply weird. By episode 3, the writers were moving the characters from one disjointed sex scene to another. (This is usually a sign that the writers have run out of ideas.) The plot went in random directions, without much structure at all.

Also, the Jim Crow/race angle. Racists of the Jim Crow era have long been stock villains of various movies, novels, and TV shows. The racial injustices in America during the 1950s were real and ever-present for African Americans. I get that; I’m not disputing it.

Good villains, however, should not be cartoon characters. Unfortunately, that’s what the human villains in Lovecraft Country became (very early on, I might add): the same old sputtering, dimwitted stock bigots that we’ve all seen in a hundred movies and television shows about the much-traversed topic of Race in America. It was as if the writers were afraid to give the villains any sophistication or wits at all (lest they appear sympathetic), and so they made them into caricatures. 

I really wanted to enjoy Lovecraft Country. This is a brilliant premise, but it is poorly executed. The show’s producers couldn’t seem to make up their minds whether Lovecraft Country should be straight horror series, a comedy-horror production, or yet another cinematic reminder that many white Americans were really, really racist in the 1950s. The final result is a show that isn’t scary, is often confusing, and is well…somewhat boring. 

I may give the series another try at a later date. But despite a few promising glimmers, the storyline and overall direction of Lovecraft Country are just too unfocused for my tastes. The writers owed Jonathan Majors and Jurnee Smollett much better scripts. 

‘Hanna’ (Amazon Prime series): quick review

I just finished watching the two available seasons of Hanna on Amazon Prime. Hanna is based on a 2011 film of the same name.

This is the setup: A CIA program called  UTRAX alters a group of children’s DNA, in order to transform them into super-soldiers/covert assassins. (In the series, at least, all of the UTRAX program’s subjects are young women.)

Most of the girls (who are coming of age as the series opens) are happy enough to go along with the program. They have known nothing else, after all. But one, the eponymous Hanna, rebels. She is aided by former CIA agent Erik Heller, who is a surrogate father figure to her.

The Bourne Identity with teenage girls/young women, then. Hanna is both a coming-of-age drama and a conspiracy thriller. That could have been a disastrous combination. Thankfully, it isn’t. Continue reading “‘Hanna’ (Amazon Prime series): quick review”

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”. 

***

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.  

***

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”

‘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.