Saturday, October 25, 2003

JUNIOR BUNK TOOK IT DOWNTOWN: Matt Marcotte, whose Life From 5 Minutes Ago blog you ought to be viewing anyway, took a cue from a debate we've been having on the ER thread as to what was the best hour of drama in the past decade -- ER's "Love's Labor Lost" episode or The West Wing's "Two Cathedrals", which I haven't seen yet (it's on Bravo next week), but which was described by the TWoP recapper as "It's not King Lear or The Book of Job, but it's as close as you're going to get on primetime television."

So, anyway, Matt has seen fit to compile his list of "the ten greatest TV Drama Episodes of the Past 10 Years." It's here, and it's not bad.

Parts of it I can't analyze: I've never watched Alias, Buffy or L&O:SVU, which comprise about half the list. But beyond that, and without spending the night putting together a top 10 of my own (Isaac, Phil: please chime in), here's a few notes:

1. Of the episodes of The West Wing I've seen, I'd put in "Somebody's Going To Emergency, Somebody's Going to Jail" ahead of "In the Shadow of Two Gunmen", not that Matt's pick was bad at all. I just appreciated the Lowe-centered-Henley-titled episode, with its great sins-of-the-father plot dealing with the pardon of a deceased (alleged) spy and the neat Cartographers for Social Equality subplot which ended up pulling the whole "up is down, left is right" metaphor through the episode without dropping anvils on my head. Whatever Sorkin was on when he wrote that one, he should stay on.

2. You will get no quarrel from me in recognizing My So-Called Life on any list like this. I'd just have gone with the final episode, "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities", over the pilot or the Juliana Hatfield Xmas show, because I thought the whole think with Brian Krakow and the letter was just heartbreaking, and that last scene, when Angela realizes . . . oh, it's just too much. Plus Graham and Hallie Lowenthal get close to doing the hippity-dippity, and it's so, so wrong.

If I had to pick a second, it'd be "Resolutions", the one with Ricky/"Enrique" and the substitute teacher.

3. There's three shows that Matt missed entirely, whether from inadvertance or because he didn't watch the same television I did (for shame!). But I did, and these would clearly make my top ten:
a. Homicide: Life On The Streets. I feel weird isolating it to a few episodes -- pretty much anything involving Bayliss' years-long investigation of the Adena Watson murder or the slickly evil drug kingpin Luther Mahoney rules the planet. Or any case that's a "red ball".

But I'll limit it to three: "Subway", in which Vincent D'onofrio played a man trapped between the subway car and the platform in a way that ensured his death the moment the train moved; "Deception", in which Kellerman takes down Mahoney in cold blood; and "Fallen Heroes", in which Junior Bunk (Mekhi Phifer!) takes his revenge for Mahoney's death and Det. Frank Pembleton puts Kellerman and Lewis in The Box, forcing them to take responsibility for their sins.

b. NYPD Blue. "A Death In The Family" (Andy Jr. gets it; Andy hits the bottle again) or "Hearts And Souls" (Bobby sees the pigeons one last time, so to speak). I can't believe this show is still on the air, but man, Sipowicz is a wonderfully complicated character.

c. The Sopranos. Um, Matt? Forget anything?

I know that "College" is the favorite of a lot of people, but it's not mine. That'd be "Pine Barrens", in which Christopher and Paulie go on search in the white woods for a Russian who ought to be dead, with the runner-up being, gosh, "Whoever Did This" (Joey Pants gets whacked)? You tell me.

I've also got a soft spot for the L&O three-parter where they go to LA to make their most explicitly OJ-influenced episodes, with the death of the film executive and all of the great fighting between Jamie Ross and her ex, but, okay, enough yammering already.

Tell me and Matt what we both missed.
WHAT ELSE IS ON? In the most important news for the world of professional illusionists since one of them inexplicably starved himself in a box in London for a long time, revolutionary advances in youth market analysis recently permitted American media scientists to apply the cultish appeal of goth aesthetics and the intellectual hook of professional wrestling to the tired genre of television magic acts. But there are worse things to watch, even when you're not watching ER. Like how about the plot of Early Edition on the set of After Hours with the conceit of Groundhog Day, a twist of John Edward and the worst name thus-far in the whole bastard-children-of-Good-Will-Hunting-and-Felicity trend in show titles (Crossing Jordan, Judging Amy, Joan of Arcadia, Alan Keyes is Making Sense… blah): Fox Network’s mortician-with-ESP-dramalette Tru Calling.

All of which begs the question: Why isn’t bad tv better? Aren’t there any new ideas out there? If not, couldn’t we at least remake Battlestar Galactica? What’s that? We can!? Yes, apparently we can. Or they can, over at the Sci-Fi (-Fantasy-Horror-Occult-Conspiracy-Inexplicable Dreck-Why-Isn’t-There-More-Good-Stuff-In-This-Ad-Hoc-Conglomerate-Genre) Channel.

I'm psyched, but not surprisingly, the project has been fraught with controversy. Innovators have made impassioned appeals to the best and worst nature of sci-fi fans. Traditionalists have engaged in heavily self-interested whining. Meanwhile the rest of us are just waiting to see if the folks at Sci-Fi -- who didn't have the sense not to broadcast Roger Corman's Black Scorpion -- can do a better job with Battlestar Galactica than they did with Dune.

Until it airs, and we find out, you can get your old-school Colonial Warrior ya-yas out here, and here.
THE MOST BAD-ASS CORPORATE MASCOT THIS SIDE OF RASTUS: The Kool-Aid Man comes to life. Oh yeaaaah!


Thursday, October 23, 2003

DNR: Previously on 'ER', I cared about the damn show.

I understand the idea that they now want "to focus stories on a select cast member for particular episodes". It makes sense.


Let me be clear: no one has ever cared about Dr. Pratt, and if this episode was supposed to change that, it didn't. It was as painful as The Never-Ending Death March Of Mark Greene, only without a happy ending. (Hell, Mark's father's never-ending death was more interesting than this.)

This show is now painfully bereft of compelling characters. Who did I miss this episode? Carter, Luka (in it for a minute), Mark Greene, Doug Ross, Carol Hathaway, Donald Ansbaugh (does he still work there?), Jeannie Boulet (damn I miss the plot with her and Scott Ansbaugh), David Morgenstern, Carl Vucelich, Kerry Weaver (back when she was gay), Yosh, Doyle, Carla Reese, Reece Benton, Gallant (where did he go?), Gamma Carter, Chris Law, Wild Willie, Dennis Gant, Susan's sister Chloe, Pratt's retarded brother (another dropped plot line), Abby's mom, that old guy played by Red Buttons who kept whining to Carter when he terminally ill wife never got better, Shemp, Tag, and, above all else, St. Peter Benton, one of the best damn television characters ever. Complicated, intense, real -- unlike anything that's going on the show today.

You see how many interesting characters the show used to have?

Hell, Cleo Finch was more interesting than this shit, and she was played by a robot.

I complain because this once was the best hour of television every week, because there has not been a better hour of scripted drama in the past decade than the "Love's Labor's Lost" episode from season one.

And now, a decade later, they've pissed it all away. It's like watching Emmitt Smith still trying to play football in an Arizona Cardinals uniform, long after Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin and Jimmy Johnson have left the scene.

The only interesting character left is Rocket Romano, and God help them if they find some way to diminish his role on the show. (God help us all if we can't find anything better to watch in that case.)
THEREFORE, THE TOWELS WILL BE CANCELLED BY SEASON'S END: Is it just me, or does the new Brawny Guy look like Ted McGinley?

I'm going to miss Brawny Porn Guy.

Wednesday, October 22, 2003

POOR MRS. THOMAS . . . Fred "Rerun" Berry has passed away at the age of 52.

I don't know about you, but I can name my favorite "What's Happening!!" episodes off the top of my head: Rerun wants to dance with The Rockets, but they regard him as a big joke; Rerun is persuaded to bootleg a Doobie Brothers concert at his high school, only to learn a valuable lesson about intellectual property rights; and of course, the classic cry of urban activism, "No Roger No Rerun No Rent!".

Berry brought joy and charm to his work, and the man was a hell of a good dancer. More on his life here.
FOLLOWED, OF COURSE, BY THE LONG-AWAITED RETURN OF KEVIN MEANEY AND BARRY SOBEL: America, you've waited long enough: Sinbad is back.

Yes, that Sinbad.
A SIGHTING! Today on South Street, between 6 and 6:15 pm, Jen, Lucy and I saw the Budweiser Clydesdales, marching down the street to greet the many bars which stock Anheuser-Busch products, and also ran into rap artist Nas, shopping for clothing with a friend.

Top that, Spaceman.
NOT THAT ALCOHOLISM OR DOMESTIC VIOLENCE ARE THINGS TO JOKE ABOUT, BUT, I MEAN, COME ON: Was I the only one who read David Gest's complaint against his ex-wife-to-be, and was struck by these passages:
"During the time between when Ms. Adams purchased the alcohol and returned to the automobile from the Chinese restaurant, the defendant consumed one (1) bottle of vodka and poured the other into a water bottle." (par. 9)

"The defendant repeatedly pounded plaintiff's head with her fists. The alcohol gave her remarkable force and strength." (par. 15)

"Finally, after a number of attempts, Mr. Benavav (Gest's production manager) was able to free himself and run into an adjoining room. Upon entering the room he said in substance, 'She grabbed me so tight it was hard to breathe. She's stronger than any woman I've ever seen. I'm worried about her health and safety. We need to get her some place where she can be looked after. She could really hurt herself or somebody else. I just can't believe how strong she is on alcohol.' " (par. 30)

So, God help me, but I can't read these passages and get this image out of my head -- of Liza Minnelli, guzzling down a fifth of vodka, then whistling the Popeye theme as she opens a can of whoop-ass on Gest/Bluto.

I know it's wrong. But I had to share.

Monday, October 20, 2003

LET'S HEAR IT FOR THE BOY: Hello, David Smith.

Well, The Next Joe Millionaire has started (is its sequel, The Joe Millionaire After That already in production? Will they call it Seriously, Dude, Where's Joe Millionaire?), and so far, so good, I guess. The episode was padded more than John Olerud's batting helmet, but when it's quallity trash, who cares?

We don't know a lot about our cowboy friend yet, other than that he's real polite and mannerly like Willard, Kevin Bacon's dorky friend in Footloose -- you remember, the guy who he tried to teach how to dance -- and he's not that smart. ("Where's 'Dutch' again?" he said, pointing at the map.) Also, he loves his horse Hurricane, maybe more than the fourteen women vying for his affections -- and, maybe, it's justified. The horse, unlike the women, had no problem being awake before noon.

I can't yet tell most of the women apart, other than that the dark-haired ones seem more attractive and smarter than the blondes, and that one of the Italian women looks a lot like Alotta Fagina.

It's interesting -- not only is this show playing off of American stereotypes of nicotine-addicted Eurotrash girls, but also of European stereotypes of "the cowboy", highlighted when some of the women started humming the "Dallas" theme. "What's a rodeo?" they wondered, along with musing about the "villages" in which they believed people lived in Texas. They'll learn.

Another thing the women will learn, apparently, are the conventions of the reality-dating show. On the basis of the previews, they don't yet realize that there's going to be eliminations during the course of this show. Heh.

I've got a good feel for the editors this time -- the little "bing!" every time David correctly referred to the butler as "Paul" and not "sir" was a nice little wink to the audience, and the clips from the women emphasized all the silly, superficial, stupid things we watch these shows in order to see.

But David's still a bit of a mystery: how does he feel about participating in a fraud? Is he really looking for love, or did he just want to be on television? (My thoughts on this why this matters are here, in case you missed it.)

We will watch, and we will learn.

Anyone else?
THE LEFT HAND VS. THE RIGHT HAND: Mark Bittman ("The Minimalist"), in the NYT's Dining & Wine section, on October 8:
That we don't celebrate the arrival of native bay scallops with the pealing of church bells and the setting off of fireworks — as the first asparagus is heralded in Germany, or the first cloudberry near the Arctic Circle — says more about our history than about these scallops.

Native bay scallops are a precious resource, carefully managed (and more plentiful than 10 years ago). They are among the most delicious of foods, difficult to find, and always expensive. If you are not paying at least $15 a pound, you are dealing with either a philanthropist or a crook.

But, umm, see Jonathan Reynolds, writing the Food column for the NYT Magazine, on October 19:
As for bay scallops, just turn the other way and buy frozen shrimp if you have no other choice. For reasons I've never been able to fathom, bay scallops -- the little ones -- were in vogue for a while during the 70's and were actually more expensive. Bays are difficult to cook without them stiffening like little corks and turning chewy. They have neither the melting texture nor the sweetness of sea scallops.

For what it's worth, I made Bittman's recipe for Roasted Bay Scallops With Brown Butter and Shallots about a week ago -- using sea scallops because that's all that was available -- and I have to say, wow. If you like scallops, it's a simple, quick, excellent preparation.
COMPLETING THE TRIFECTA: Whatever the dangers of media concentration are when it comes to tv, radio and print, I just don't see how they apply to Gregg Easterbrook and this situation.

If neither ESPN/Disney nor The New Republic want Easterbrook posting his tired, recycled football analysis on their sites, then he's free to start up his own blog -- at no cost -- and run his football and/or political columns there. For free.

(If he wants it, is still available, as is Also, these guys have offered to host his column.)

He doesn't need ESPN/Disney to prop him up, and so long as his writing's good, people can find him and will link to him. After all, that's how "Sports Guy" Bill Simmons was discovered. He went from a personal website, to being recruited by AOL Digital City-Boston, to ESPN, and now he's writing for Jimmy Kimmel Live. All because his writing was good.

In this era, good writing gets read. (After all, who was this guy three years ago?)

If the Baseball Primer and Baseball Prospectus guys don't need ESPN/Disney money or web-address placement to sustain their sites and lead readers to them, why should Gregg Easterbrook? Especially, now, where readers are increasingly willing to pay to support their favorite writers, who needs ESPN/Disney at all?

Why does it matter at all where on the internet his site is, so long as he's free to publish it? A.J. Liebling famously once said that "Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one." Well, thanks to Blogger, we're all owners now.
CULTURE WARTS: Whatever you think of Gregg Easterbrook, please do not allow his short-comings as a commentator, journalist or human being to get in the way of the compelling and important fact that Kill Bill is not a very good movie. As wise men have noticed over at Chez Earthling, all the aesthetic merit in the world will not save a movie if the basic emotional fuel it's running on "is the sort of forced, amoral angst you'll see in life-hating crap like American Beauty."

I think that's exactly what's wrong with Kill Bill: other than the flashback fiat of the injustice she is avenging, we have no reason to like the Uma Thurman protagonist. It's kind of fun watching her kick ass, and watching Tarantino play with ass-kicking genres, but beyond that Kill Bill just hangs there begging us to appreciate (or excuse) it for its film-school-cum-art-historical merit without giving us the first thing that any story (filmed, written, acted or lived) should provide: a connection with its characters sufficiently compelling to justify the attention we pay to their excesses, escapades, mistakes or shortcomings.

Reservoir Dogs passed this test. So did Pulp Fiction. And each added a glorious varnish of hard-boiled and pulp genre parody to a well thought-out story populated with characters passably and/or ingeniously suited to their uniquely stylized world. Jackie Brown was less easily pigeon-holed, and less of an aesthetic package, but perhaps more realistic than the prior work. Kill Bill, however, jumps into the void of its chosen aesthetic without the anchor of solid characters to bring the audience along. Better films do not make this mistake. Even when they're pure genre pieces presented simply because they're enjoyable as such, they should have more than a mere fig-leaf of human drama.

Among such better films, I would include American Beauty, to which Mr. Earthling ascribed the complaint I quote above. American Beauty was about the temptations of an extended or perpetual adolescence, something that American society pushes upon us at every turn. (Note that last link showed "Results 1-10 of about 5,060,000" as of 10pm Sunday night.) American Beauty is about the difference between willing superficiality and the actual ecstasies of innocence, the danger of confusing the two, and the way sins that the former might indulge as simple pleasure-taking can damage the very potential in our society for the experience --however fleeting-- of the latter. American Beauty is not amoral -- even if it is scary as hell and a little bit clumsy in the inexplicably-psycho homophobe nextdoor neighbor department. Rather, it is moral precisely because it is about America's struggle with amorality in this uncomfortably comfortable age.

(On this point, I think it's very funny to read these two Ebert reviews back to back.)

Kill Bill is not similarly motivated, useful or insightful. While I would not go so far as to say it was affirmatively offensive, no doubt others would. But if you're in that kind of mood, click here for a longer-winded and more tediously detailed discussion of morals and morality. Then, when you're bored with Bork and Hume, take advantage of this shameless but heartfelt product plug for a harmless and enlightened return to adolescence that won't make you second-guess or closely consider the settings on your moral compass, or tempt you to throw the dammed thing out entirely.

Sunday, October 19, 2003

PUNK AGAINST ROCK AGAINST DRUGS: Just read Gene's post here. Now look here, so that I may enjoy the illusion of providing value-added information and content while actually doing nothing more than predating on a friend's blog. As it is in punk rock, so it is the world over: you've got to know who you're kidding, and know who's kidding you.
NATION'S PRODUCTIVITY TO RISE 20 MINUTES PER MALE WORKER ON OCTOBER 21: In a recent post on his blog, Gregg Easterbrook, a senior editor at the New Republic and regular football columnist on's Page 2, criticized Harvey Weinstein and Michael Eisner for what he believed to be the pervasively immoral violence in Tarantino's Kill Bill. Nothing unusual there. Easterbrook, however, seemed to attribute Weinstein and Eisner's motives to the fact that they are "Jewish executives." Easterbrook wrote:

Disney's CEO, Michael Eisner, is Jewish; the chief of Miramax, Harvey Weinstein, is Jewish. Yes, there are plenty of Christian and other Hollywood executives who worship money above all else, promoting for profit the adulation of violence. Does that make it right for Jewish executives to worship money above all else by promoting for profit the adulation of violence? Recent European history alone ought to cause Jewish executives to experience second thoughts about glorifying the killing of the helpless as a fun lifestyle choice.

Now, according to Roger Simon's blog (and implicitly confirmed by the fact that, Soviet-style, Page 2 has silently deleted all references to Easterbrook on its columnist index and has deleted all of his stories from its archives), has fired Easterbrook. Obviously, there's a lot to say here, but here are just four thoughts:

1. Simon is disappointed that fired Easterbrook, but for heaven's sake, let's get serious here. Disney owns Eisner runs Disney. Easterbrook accused him of being a money-worshipping Jewish executive -- emphasis on the Jewish. However you feel about whether members of the press generally should be immune from the consequences of irresponsible things they say, publicly slurring your boss is going to take the shine off your halo.

2. Easterbrook's apology is just plain bizarre. Easterbrook said that his heart was in the right place, but the devil was in the details: his mistake was "not realizing that words having to do with Jewish identity have a triggering effect based on thousands of years of history." First, huh? Never heard the one about Jews and money? Second, if, as he says, Easterbrook didn't mean to associate the "worship [of] money above all else" to the Jewishness of the executives, then what did he mean? The passage literally reads as if he is expecting Harvey Weinstein to say "but you can't criticize me for worshipping money above all else! I'm Jewish! Don't I get a pass here?"

3. As Adam (himself a Jewish professional, though I hazard to say that his worship of TV surpasses his worship of money) has pointed out, Easterbrook's column is tired anyway. In his NFL column, Easterbrook was positively evangelical about a lot of things (blitzing, play-action on second down, rushing late in games, NFL Sunday Ticket, "thong-based" pictures) but had a zealot's inability to see that there are valid, or sometimes irrefutable, counterarguments (e.g. that there is no antitrust violation in the NFL's decision to let DirecTV be the exclusive provider of Sunday Ticket -- a topic about which Easterbrook's brother Frank should know a thing or two). And already seemed to be trying to rein Easterbrook in -- for example, Easterbrook in the last few weeks stopped including links to cheerleaders' calendar pictures.

4. Which brings up another point: Easterbrook's column had a proudly lecherous streak (he had a particular, um, soft spot? for the Eagles' cheerleaders' lingerie calendar). what kind of a religious conservative is Easterbrook if he is opposed to violence but is a vocal proponent of T&A? The moral of this parable? Presbyterianism must be fun.

That's all for me, but I'm sure that's not all from you.
THE POETS DOWN HERE DON'T WRITE NOTHING AT ALL: California Governor-elect Schwarzenegger gets to name a new state poet laureate.

Andy Lloyd is soliciting nominees, and you can submit your application to the new governor here.

Originally, I suggested Randy Newman to Andy, but when I think about it, who is more 'California' than Brian Wilson?