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’”

On Oprah’s (surprise?) Fetterman endorsement

Television host Oprah Winfrey—who does not live in Pennsylvania—has endorsed John Fetterman in that state’s Senate race.

The media claims this is a “surprise” endorsement, because Oz appeared frequently on The Oprah Winfrey Show in the early 2000s, beginning in 2003.

The 00s were a different time, and that was a different Oprah Winfrey. The Oprah Winfrey Show aired for 25 seasons, from 1986 to 2011. The show’s host was not overtly political until near the end, and most notably when Barack Obama first ran for president in 2008. Oprah publicly endorsed Hillary Clinton for POTUS in 2016. Continue reading “On Oprah’s (surprise?) Fetterman endorsement”

“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.

‘Interview with a Vampire’: I’ve bailed

I decided to sample AMC’s adaptation of Interview with a Vampire. I never read any of the original novels by Anne Rice; and I didn’t see the 1990s movie version starring Tom Cruise. So I came in with no preconceptions. 

I had high hopes during the first fifteen minutes of Episode 1. I liked the early twentieth-century New Orleans setting. I liked the Creole cultural elements. I liked the premise of the journalist being summoned for the interview. 

As soon as LeStat (Sam Reid) saw Louis de Pointe du Lac (Jacob Anderson) and got that twinkle in his eye, I could tell this was going to have a gay storyline. And I was okay with that, in principle. I saw Brokeback Mountain, after all, and found it a reasonably interesting drama set in the mid-20th century American West. 

But Interview with a Vampire rapidly fell down the rabbit hole that trips up so many contemporary vampire tales. It became a romance story with a few rote vampire motifs thrown in. 

By the middle of the second episode, Interview with a Vampire was all about the relationship between Louis and LeStat, and the former’s sensual fixation on the latter. For me, this quickly became as tiresome as Bella’s fixation on Edward in Twilight. 

I finished the second episode, but I won’t be tuning in for the third. There is just too much good television to choose from nowadays. 

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.

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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.

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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.)

‘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”. 

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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”