I know I’m boring y’all with these, but I continue to enjoy the daily job listings I get from Daybook.
That’s because almost all the jobs they show me are ones I would actually be interested in. And you just have no idea what a novelty that is to me, after the thousands of emails I’ve gotten in the years since getting laid off, almost none of which have any basis in who I am or what my skills are or what I might actually like to do.
But the folks at Daybook get me. I think what did the trick was my stint as communications director for James last year. That seems to have been the missing ingredient. Combined with other things in my background, it suddenly caused the algorithms to start churning out some cool jobs, things I might actually like to do in my post-newspaper career.
Today’s coolest job is “Cyber Threat Analyst.” It might not be as cool as being one of the Navy codebreakers who enabled us to win the battle of Midway, but I guess being the guy who, say, warns the country that the Russians are trying to make Donald Trump president of the United States is as close as it gets these days. (Although it seems maybe that may have been more humint than sigint.)
Never mind that I’m totally unqualified for the position. I’m not planning on applying for it. I just like the sound of it.
It appeals to me the way various fantasy jobs appealed to Jethro Bodine — medieval knight, Army general, double-naught spy. It momentarily engages my enthusiasm.
That’s not much, but it’s something. And I enjoy the momentary distraction…
I’ve never been fond of “man-on-the-street” interviews. I prefer “people-who-know-what-they’re-talking-about” interviews. Guess that makes me an elitist. That, and… other stuff.
Anyway, this morning on NPR — I think it was on “The Takeaway” — there was this long string of short clips of Real People answering the question of whether they’d be watching the impeachment hearings on TV today. As usual, I could only take so much of it before switching it off.
If I remember correctly, most of the Real People were not planning to watch the hearings. (Actually, I just went back to check, and all of the ones I heard said that. There was a string of people who said “yes” after that, but I had turned off the radio before they came on.)
Presumably, I was supposed to be interested in their reasons for watching or not watching, as though there would be something edifying in these reasons, as though I would be somehow wiser for having heard the usual comments like “I’ve made up my mind,” “It’s all a partisan farce,” “I have a life,” etc.
And I’m thinking, Who can sit and listen to TV all day — TV about ANYTHING? And moreover, who on Earth would WANT to?
Or NEED to in order to be an informed citizen? I take in news and analysis from quite a few competent professional services every day. I’ll get all the information I need from those sources. (Unlike the president, I trust professionals to do their job — and I know if one slips up in doing it, the next one will fill in that gap.) If — and this seems doubtful — I feel the need to watch a portion of the testimony, to get intonation or whatever, I can go back and find and watch it with little trouble. In fact, I most likely won’t even have to look for it, because so many sources will be throwing the clip at me.
So in other words, the Real Person who sounded most like me was the one who said he would not be watching, but “I will pay close attention to the media recaps.”
Which will give you more than anyone needs to know. In fact, you’ll have to scan the whole mess with skill, discernment and alacrity if you’re going to get anything else done that day.
So I clicked on this new movie on Netflix called “The King,” curious to know which king. The promo blurb gave me a clue:
Yesterday, he was a drunken fool. Today, he’s king…
Sounds like Henry V, right? Well, it is.
And here’s the weird thing about it… I watched a few minutes, and rather than being some historical Henry V freshly drawn from independent sources — or fantastical one drawn from the writer’s imagination — it’s basically (so far) the Hal from the plays (I say “plays,” plural, because I can’t recall which bits are in the Henry IV plays, and which in “Henry V.” I’m especially mixed up for having watched “The Hollow Crown” straight through.). It even has Falstaff in it, a fictional character invented by Shakespeare. I haven’t watched long enough to see whether Doll Tearsheet is mentioned.
So, it’s “Henry V,” only with no iambic pentameter. In other words, a wonderful play, without the thing that makes it wonderful.
You know, sometimes I feel like I get popular culture, and I really get into it, but other times I don’t. This is one of the other times…
I decided to share what I put on the walls of some of my many bedrooms (as a Navy brat, I moved around a lot).
And the Web being what it is, I was able to find actual images of five of them. So we’ll just call those the Top Five — especially since I can only remember six, and I can’t find the Eric Clapton poster I had on my dorm wall at Memphis State, or even remember what it looked like.
The first two of these were on my walls in Tampa and Honolulu in high school, the next two from college, and the final one high school (I think):
Steve McQueen from the set of “The Great Escape” — That’s the one above, or close to it. I think maybe the poster I had included more of the frame, showing the sidecar. I found that image on the Web, but the file was of poor quality. Note that this is not an actual still from the movie, because he was nowhere near the Stalag in the motorcycle scenes. Of the posters on this list, it’s the first one I acquired (when I was in either the 10th or 11th grade, so sometime between 1968 and 1970), and easily my favorite. Which stands to reason since, when I was a kid, this was my definitely my favorite movie. Back when it came out in 1963, the scene where he jumped the barbed wire was the coolest thing I’d ever seen in a movie. Tame stuff today, but back then it was really something.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid — See below. The very last frame of the movie, with our antiheroes coming out, blazing away, to their certain death. When I was in high school, I found that moment way existential. I thought no one could be more alive than Sundance was a moment before that, when he was out there in the plaza alone with two six-guns, spinning left, right and all around, firing at the adversaries who surrounded him, giving Butch covering fire. (From 00:56 to 01:24 in this clip.) Yeah, I was a dumb kid. My romanticization of that moment is all the evidence you need that teenage boys are candidates for protective restraint.
George Harrison poster from “All Things Must Pass” album — It came with the boxed-set album, which I loved, so of course I put it on my wall at Memphis State. This was George in his Garden Gnome phase, post-Beatles. That video that I embedded the other day, “It’s Johnny’s Birthday?” That was from the bonus third LP in the set.
The Hawaii State Flag — This was quite small, like a foot by a foot-and-a-half (or a bit less) and made of nylon. Not strictly a poster, but it’s the only thing I remember having on the cinder-block wall of my dorm room in the Honeycombs that one semester I went to USC, the fall of 1971. It was sort of a homesickness thing, because I was missing Honolulu, where I had graduated from high school the previous spring. There was an Englishman on my floor, a student from Manchester. One day when my door was open, he was passing in the hall and stuck his head in to ask why I had a Union Jack over my bed. I explained what it was, and he nodded and said, “Oh, yes. Sandwich Islands, Captain Cook and all that. Quite.” And he walked away on down the hall. I thought that was cool.
Bobby Kennedy in a flight jacket. This is an unusual-shaped and -sized poster — a full-length photo, almost life-sized, of RFK in a Navy flight jacket standing casually with a couple of dogs. I don’t remember where I got this, and I have no specific memory of where I hung it, although I vaguely recall it hanging somewhere. But I can tell you exactly why I liked it. There were two reasons. First, the jacket he’s wearing is exactly like my Dad’s. My Dad wasn’t an aviator, but some pilots he had worked with had given it to him as a gift, and he had given to me, and I thought it was way cool. Second, I had never given RFK much thought when he was alive. But I got really interested in him when I wrote a research paper about him for a high school civics class in the spring of 1971. And I can still remember how differently I perceived time back then: I thought of his life as being way in the past at that point — even though only three years had passed since his assassination. That’s a long time when you’re 17.
Actually, I changed my mind in mid-list. I ditched this Dylan poster, which was on my dorm room wall at Memphis State, because it never meant that much to me and I wanted to include the Hawaiian flag.
The controversy over Columbus Day got me to thinking of history-based holidays we could have, if only we thought a little harder. They’re not in order of preference, but in calendar order:
Rubicon Day — OK, so this didn’t happen in America. But Julius Caesar’s decision to cross that creek with his troops had a huge effect on something that matters to Americans. It ended the last republic we would see for 1,000 years. But I’m also thinking we could have some fun with it. We could have toga parties each Jan. 10, and go around saying “iacta alea est” to each other. Maybe not your idea of a good time, but maybe we could make a drinking game out of it.
British Invasion Day — No, it’s not about 1814. It’s about 1964, and this holiday would be pure fun. We’d celebrate it on February 9, the day the Beatles first appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” We’d all play music by the Beatles, the Stones, Herman’s Hermits, the Animals, Freddie and the Dreamers, Peter and Gordon, and so forth. We’d have theme parties in which we’d all dress like the invaders, and go around saying “gear” and “fab.” And if you said bad things about the holiday, we’d all say you were “dead grotty.”
Lincoln’s Birthday, Feb. 12 — Yes, bring it back, and repeal this “President’s Day” nonsense, in order to drive home the fact that he was our greatest president, and is largely responsible for America being America, having thrown off its original sin via that war that we fight on until the slave states’ unconditional surrender — and making sure it didn’t end until the 13th Amendment was passed, so that all that bloodshed served a purpose. Sorry about the run-on sentence…
Smallpox Day — This is sort of related to the idea of “Indigenous People’s Day,” but I actually have three reasons to mark the day. First, it seems to me that the most horrific public health disaster in human history (way bigger than the Black Death) was back in the 16th century when 95 percent of the native population was wiped out by European diseases for which they had no resistance — usually before the victims had even encountered the Europeans. Something so awful should be remembered. My second reason is celebratory — celebrating the fact that we’ve been so successful at wiping out the disease that a rite of passage of my childhood, the “vaccination” (that’s what we called it; we didn’t know what it was for), is unknown to today’s children. Third, as a warning — that it could come back some day, and we need to fully prepared to wipe it out again if it does. This would be on May 17, the birthday of Edward Jenner.
Independence Day, July 2 — So that we’d be celebrating the actual day that Congress voted to declare independence, not the day that the document’s final edits were approved. This is personal, because John Adams is my fave Founder, and this was day that HE thought should be celebrated, after his weeks of hard work arguing the Congress into taking this momentous step — debate during which Thomas Jefferson, who gets the glory, sat there like a bump on a log. Harrumph…
I always remember it, and not the other Beatles’ birthdays, not merely because it comes six days after my own. It’s because of Nueve de Octubre, and that looms large because when I was a schoolboy in Ecuador, we always got a whole week off for it — while only getting a day and a half for Christmas.
At the time, I thought that it was Ecuadorean Independence Day. I mean, it would have to be at least that, right — who would take off a whole week for anything less?
But it turns out that it’s only when the province of Guayas, which contained the city of Guayaquil — where I lived — declared its independence from Spain. Not the whole country.
Bonus fact ripped from today’s headlines: Guayaquil is now effectively the capital of Ecuador, since unrest in Quito caused el presidente to have to relocate the seat of government.
Recently, it has seemed as though I can’t watch a vid on YouTube without first having to see at least part of a trailer for the “Downton Abbey” movie.
At least, it was that way for awhile.
Anyway, today something made me remember my favorite “Downton Abbey” trailer of all time — the one SNL did imagining how the show would be promoted if it appeared on the now-defunct Spike TV. A sample from the voiceover:
It’s about a bunch of honkeys who live in a church — or maybe a museum — either way, they don’t got WiFi…. There’s a MILF and a dad, and they’ve got three daughters named ‘Hot,’ ‘Way Hot’ and…’The Other One.’ And they all hang out with this old lady that looks like a chicken.”
Yeah, it’s lowbrow humor, and not overly respectful of the best character of all, the Dowager Countess. But it cracked me up at the time. And back then, I actually watched “Downton”… (I stopped doing so when they killed off a main character in a way that I thought was particularly emotionally manipulative.)
First, I may have just missed it. I may have left the room for a minute during one of the episodes of Ken Burns’ series on country music, and maybe my guys were mentioned then. So if that happens, I’ll back away while quoting Emily Litella: “Never mind…”
But all through this series, night after night, I keep hoping that The Band, possibly my favorite musical act of all time, will make an appearance.
You may say, “But The Band isn’t a country group!” And you could have a point, although Wikipedia lists “country rock” as one of its genres (see screenshot at right). And if you click on “country rock,” you get Bob Dylan, the Byrds, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, the Eagles and Linda Ronstadt — all of whom show up in one way or another in the series thus far.
In fact, one of the great things about the series is the way it explores multiple ways that country overlaps and interacts with other genres. But The Band gets ignored. I mean, come on — there’s a long, lingering, detailed examination of the recording of Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s epic album, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” which is fine — but couldn’t they have spared a minute or two of that for my guys?
One of the reasons this bugs me is that, loving The Band as I do, I’ve always wanted to understand its musical roots (and yes, “roots rock” is another way it’s described) better. I mean, what sort of song is “The Weight?” It feels… western… but in some mystical, dreamlike, maybe even surreal way. I see the “Nazareth” in which the action takes place as a dusty, tumbleweed-littered place that’s on its way to becoming a ghost town. And the characters — Fanny, ol’ Luke, Miss Moses, young Annalee, and of course Crazy Chester — sound like Western characters. Or country characters. Or country-western characters.
I’m basing this on the narration from the very beginning of the first episode of his new series about country music.
You hear Peter Coyote say:
Most of all, its roots sprang from the need of Americans, especially those who felt left out and looked-down-upon, to tell their stories…
Which sounds to me like the very words used over and over to explain Trump voters.
And since I’ve never understood that phenomenon, and never fully appreciated country music, either, I was thinking this would be a doubly educational experience for me. Lessons I needed to learn.
I’ve often felt kind of bad about the fact that I’m often on the opposite side of issues from everyday, working-class, less-educated folk, and I’ve always worried about the extent to which my strong objections to the things they like is based in some sort of class snobbishness. I always conclude that no, that’s not it — I have very good reasons to reject, say, flying the Confederate flag at the State House, or video poker, or the state lottery.
Or Donald Trump. But as much as I explain my revulsion objectively and analytically, there’s also that voice in my head that keeps saying, But can’t they see how TACKY he is!?!
And that makes me feel a bit guilty.
But just a bit.
Anyway, this series isn’t over yet, and I still hope for a revelation that helps me understand both country music and populism.
First, it grabbed me because I’ll read anything about “The West Wing.” Ask Google; it knows this, based on the items it keeps showing me. Second, it grabbed me because someone thought it necessary to defend “The West Wing.” Finally, my mind was boggled by the idea that someone who thought it needed defending would would do so only modestly.
As I said on Twitter:
A “modest defense” of that which needs no defending? Anyone, especially any Democrat, who doesn’t love the show should be ignored. And if you do feel moved to mount a defense, there should be nothing modest about it…
So anyway, I read the piece, and was not mollified. You can tell why from the subhed: “The show was not perfect, but it’s way better than 2019 Democrats remember it.”
Not perfect? Say, whaaaat?
First, my scorn was engaged because the people who criticize the show are apparently the kids who think AOC is cool, and conventional postwar liberalism sucks. They’re the ones who have no tolerance of anyone who disagrees with them about anything. They look forward to getting 50 percent plus 1 so they can cram their policy proposals down the world’s throat, and they blame their elders for having thus far failed to do that. They’re the ones who, laughably, think they discovered social justice and are qualified to lecture people who were alive in the ’60s about it.
They’re the ones who…
… minor digression here…
I’ve been watching the new Ken Burns series about country music, and thinking about writing about it, pondering what I like and don’t like about it (for instance, it concerns me that it only seems interested in Country as an economic phenomenon, starting with the first practitioners to have success with radio and recording, largely ignoring the centuries of folkways that went before). But before writing about it, I was curious what others were thinking. So when I saw there was a review on Slate, I eagerly read it.
The reviewer also has a problem with it. The problem is that it’s made by Ken Burns, “and his compulsion to transform conflict and difficulty into visions of reconciliation and unity is vintage white baby boomer liberalism.”
Oh, give it a rest, kids. That constitutes an argument?
Anyway, it’s people like that with whom the writer in the Post is remonstrating, oh, so gently.
And again, it needs no defense. The only question is, is “West Wing” the greatest TV show ever, or does something else edge it out?
I come down on the side of “greatest ever.” Or at least, greatest drama. Or at least, greatest drama ever in the last 20 years, this Golden Age.
At least, those were the Top Five, back in June. Since then, Bryan got me to start watching “Friday Night Lights,” and I’m really enjoying it (in spite of the, you know, football theme) during my morning workouts on the elliptical. In fact, I’m now in the middle of the 5th season, and sorry that it will be ending soon.
When it does, I’ll report back on whether it makes the Top Five. But I’ll tell you, “Breaking Bad” may be in trouble…
It’s great, and I’m really digging it, but will it make the Top Five?
And I’m like ah, yes, “Purple Haze”… It prompts two memories immediately. I can hear it coming from the jukebox in the cafeteria of Robinson High School in Tampa, Fla., where I attended the 10th and 11th grades. Other biggies on that box were “Fire” and “Hey, Jude.” In fact, that was the first place I ever heard “Hey, Jude,” as I was walking across campus and passing the cafeteria door. It made a huge impression as it echoed off the wings of the school within the courtyard that served us as a place to stand for assemblies (we had no auditorium). It was unworldly, transporting. How did McCartney produce music that magical?
But even more, my mind recalls hearing it from the garage bands that used to play at the “teen club” on MacDill Air Force Base. They used to have these dances for us “teens,” I suppose to keep us out of trouble. The bands would play “Purple Haze,” “Sunshine of Your Love,” “Magic Carpet Ride,” and so forth. Sometimes, I’d hear those songs covered by a garage band before I’d heard the original. That was the case with the Beatles’ “Birthday.” I was late getting to the White Album.
Which makes me think, what associations does the song have for Bryan? That was so long before he was born…
Which in turn brings me to this tweet of President Obama’s a couple of days ago:
With summer winding down, here’s a sampling of what Michelle and I have been listening to — some new, some old, some fast, some slow. Hope you enjoy. pic.twitter.com/BS5ri1lvxz
And while I may remember him fondly as our last honest, normal president, I have to think: Really? Is he really into all that new stuff, from “artists” I haven’t even heard of?
I mean, seriously — where’s he even hearing that stuff? Is it from his kids? Or is he daily, earnestly Googling to see what’s hot, then making himself listen to it so he can seem “with it?”
Because, as I’ve noted before, we live in a time of musical fragmentation. Back in the ’60s, and continuing through maybe the early ’90s, we all experienced a media environment in which current, popular songs were everywhere. Whatever age you were, whatever your tastes, you heard what was hot at the moment — on your radio, on the three available TV networks, or just passing by a cafeteria door. It was ubiquitous.
And some pretty compelling pop music came out of that period — compelling enough that young people like Bryan are familiar with it, and like it. (Something I never experienced — when I was a kid, what grownups had listened to 20 and 30 and 40 years earlier was an unknown country to me. I wouldn’t have known Ella Fitzgerald’s “How High is the Moon,” to name one item from Obama’s list that predates me.) Because since then — since the early ’90s, by my reckoning, about the time MTV and VH-1 changed their formats and downplayed videos — it’s been harder for a song to get a grip on your brain.
That’s because it doesn’t seek you out anymore. You have to actively go out and find it. Music is personal now, not communal. You have no idea what the person right next to you is listening to via earbuds. It could be some awesome new pop tune, or the collected speeches of Adolph Hitler. (The people who carried around boom boxes back in the ’80s were obnoxious, but hey — at least they were sharing.)
And now Obama’s telling us that “Too Good” by “Drake ft. Rihanna” has as much a grip on his consciousness as Van Morrison’s “Brown-Eyed Girl.” Maybe it does. But it feels like he’s trying too hard to be broad in his tastes. Of course, being Obama, he’s probably worked hard enough at it that he really does like the items on this eclectic list more or less equally. Maybe it’s just a matter of trying hard enough. After all, awhile back I was dismissive of LMFAO’s “Party Rock,” but my son made me try it again, and now I honestly love it. (Although I need to watch the official video to get the full effect.)
There’s something about Obama’s effort in this that makes me smile. My best friend when I lived in New Orleans — 1965-67 — was Tim Moorman, and his Dad was a Navy chaplain. Chaplain Moorman was a great guy who on weekends used to take us kids regularly up to the amusement park at Lake Pontchartrain. It was quite a drive from Algiers, and as we rode, he’d have the radio on a Top 40 station and he would loudly and enthusiastically sing along with us. His fave was the bubble-gum classic “Sweet Pea,” by Tommy Roe. It was obvious that he thought the song was ridiculous, but we thought it pretty silly, too, and did not mind his condescension. Because his enjoyment in singing along was sincere. As he would say, he really wanted to be “hip” and “with it” along with us kids. Or enjoy us being so.
So I’ll think of Obama’s special effort to be current that way. And it will make me smile…
Whatever it is, I’m shocked at something I couldn’t remember today.
Someone had said to me that Steph Curry had played basketball at Davidson, which I knew was supposed to impress me, but all it did was cause me to go look up “Steph Curry.” (And it turns out he IS quite impressive).
Because, you know, I don’t do real-life sports. I do frequently enjoy fictional sports (I like the idea of sports more than the reality), so I can tell you all about Roy Hobbs and Bartholomew “Bump” Bailey and Willie “Mays” Hayes and (now that Bryan has me watching “Friday Night Lights”) “Smash” Williams, Tim Riggins and Matt Saracen.
So anyway, defending myself, I boasted that while I don’t know this Curry guy, I can name all the Hickory Huskers from “Hoosiers.”
But then, privately, I tried to do so, and without looking them up, all I came up with was this:
I focused on it more than usual because of a quirk in the way it’s recorded: During the day, I almost always listen to music or anything else involving sound with earbuds. (I don’t wish to bother my neighbors.) And apparently the lead vocal was on the right side, where I’m almost completely deaf.
It gave the song an eerie sort of feel. So I listened to it a couple of ways as an experiment, including putting the buds in the wrong ears. I’m still adjusting to this hearing loss thing, and find it interesting to explore the limits of it.
As a result, it lodged somewhere in my brain, good and tight, and then emerged this morning, and kept playing over and over in my mind.
Which is strange, because I don’t remember taking much note of the song when the album came out and I listened to it over and over. Like everyone, I listened a lot to “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,” to a lesser extent the musical joke “Smile Away,” and maybe “The Back Seat of My Car.” (Yes, I was 17, and my tastes weren’t terribly sophisticated, or even cool. If they had been, I might not have bought the album in the first place.)
But now, I learn to my surprise that “Dear Boy” is an infectious tune. And I can’t seem to shake it…
I also enjoyed Lennon’s send-up of the cover, several months later.
Can you name them? Not these guys, the ones in the book…
I love it when I find out that someone somewhere has, at least for a brief moment, obsessed about something trivial that had obsessed me.
It makes me feel… almost normal. Or at least, human.
In the past, as an illustration of the perverse way that my brain works, I have bragged/told on myself for remembering the names of all the characters in The Dirty Dozen, which I read when I was about 13.
The book, mind you. I wouldn’t expect anyone to be able to name the 12 in the movie, because the movie doesn’t fully introduce them all.
Oh, and the list is different. This is partly because, for whatever reason, Archer Maggot — played by Telly Savalas — was a mashup of three very different characters from the book. Maggot was a redneck career criminal from Phenix City, Ala., a really malevolent, violent guy. Calvin Ezra Smith was a prison convert who constantly quoted Scripture. Myron Odell was a shy little rabbit of a man who was scared of women, and supposedly had killed a woman who came onto him sexually (which he vehemently denied).
I’m not sure why they combined those three into one, but somehow Savalas pulled it off, so hats off to him. But then they had to make up a couple of names of characters to replace Smith and Odell. Then there was the fact that Jim Brown’s character was nothing like the one black character in the book, so they changed his name from Napoleon White to Robert Jefferson. White had been an officer and an intellectual (he and Capt. Reisman have debates about the writings of T.E. Lawrence), which I guess they thought didn’t fit Brown, so they made Charles Bronson the ex-officer.
They went on to change several other characters’ names — sometimes just the first names — for reasons that would only be understandable to a Hollywood producer.
Anyway, I’m going on about this because today, while looking for something totally unrelated, I ran across this Los Angeles Timesstory from way back in 2000. And it contained this paragraph:
Can you name all 12? Roll call: Charles Bronson as Joseph Wladislaw; Jim Brown as Robert Jefferson; Tom Busby as Milo Vladek; John Cassavetes as Victor Franko; Ben Carruthers as Glenn Gilpin; Stuart Cooper as Roscoe Lever; Trini Lopez as Pedro Jimenez; Colin Maitland as Seth Sawyer; Al Mancini as Tassos Bravos; Telly Savalas as Archer Maggott; Donald Sutherland as Vernon Pinkley; and Clint Walker as Samson Posey.
Wow, I thought. There’s someone else on the planet who has wasted gray cells memorizing the names of the Dirty Dozen! Worse, memorizing the names of the ones in the movie, not the real ones!
It gave me a fellow-feeling, if only for a moment, for this Donald Liebenson who wrote the piece…
‘Long as I got a job, you got a job; you understand?’
I don’t know why I just ran across this a week or two ago. The piece ran in the NYT back in January. But for some reason I saw a Tweet about the list just days after the end of “Game of Thrones.” And to me, that made now a better time for pondering such a list than several months ago. Since everyone speaks of GoT as such a landmark and all…
Anyway, the headline was “The 20 Best TV Dramas Since ‘The Sopranos’.” It represents the consensus of three TV writers. (Consensus. I like that about it. That’s how we made decisions on the editorial board. Not enough decisions are made that way. It’s a great process.)
It’s a pretty good list. Of course, it contains a number of shows I’ve never seen, so I can’t judge whether they deserve to be on the list: “The Shield,” “Battlestar Galactica,” “Veronica Mars,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Friday Night Lights,” “Adventure Time,” “Enlightened”… hang on…. I just realized that I’ve never seen well over half the list.
That’s all right. Some of us are not paid to watch TV and write about it. Some of us are just people living our lives in a certain time and place and looking around us and occasionally trying to make some sense out of the tiny slices of existence we have time to experience.
Anyway, I have a snobbish disdain for Top Twenty lists. They lack discipline. They are promiscuous and indiscriminate. I continue to believe that Nick Hornby’s Top Five system represents perfection. You have to work at it. You have to choose. You have to be ruthless, and let the also-rans fall by the wayside, gnashing their teeth. You have to have standards, and stick with them.
On a couple of points, I’m right there with the NYT writers. On others, I have to wonder where they’ve been, or at least what they’re thinking. Anyway, here’s my list:
“The West Wing” — No surprise there, right? It topped the NYT list, too. And in describing why, Margaret Lyons admits that yeah, it’s a fantasy, “a fantasy about caring… because you’re my guys, and I’m yours, and there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for you.” Or as Leo said, long as I got a job, you got a job. It’s about much more than that — the people care not only about each other, but about Things That Matter — but that’s an important part of it. When I went to work for the campaign, I told James I wanted to be a part of something again with a bunch of people who cared about things. Like on “The West Wing.” Go ahead and mock me. I was perfectly serious, and I’m glad I got that chance. Not everyone does.
“Band of Brothers” — This didn’t fit into the parameters of the NYT list, because they defined a series as something meant to go more than one season. But before I saw “The West Wing,” this was unquestionably the best thing I’d ever seen on television. I knew it would be that back before it existed, when I was toying with the idea of writing a letter to Spielberg and Hanks to suggest it (but I didn’t have to; I guess after they connected with Steven Ambrose it was just that obvious). And of course, aside from being wonderfully acted and directed and crafted, it was a story that mattered.
“The Sopranos” — This is a guilty pleasure, probably the ultimate example of that phenomenon in the annals of TV. It represents sort of the opposite of the first two, which are about good and decent and admirable people who care about the right things and are willing to work and sacrifice for them. The Sopranos is more typical of the serious Golden Age dramas, in that it lacks a moral center or characters to admire or regard as heroes. But it was supremely engaging, and again we’re talking craftsmanship. I have debates with my wife about this, which she always wins. She asks why time should be spent on stories and characters completely lacking in redeeming qualities, and I reply that it’s so well done! Which is a vapid answer, I know, but I’m a sucker for things that are done well…
“The Wire” — Best thing about the NYT feature is that the bit about The Wire is in the words of actor Michael K. Williams. You know: “Omar coming!” This series had a lot of contemptible characters in it, too, but you cared about so many of them, from soulful snitch Bubbles to the infuriatingly self-destructive McNulty to the Greek-tragedy labor leader Frank Sobotka. This was a work of fiction with hugely ambitious journalistic aspirations: This season is about drugs in the projects; this one is about the dead-end life on the docks; this one is about Baltimore public schools; this one is about city politics; this one is about the newspaper. And it really worked.
“Breaking Bad” — This was the hardest to watch, but I had to keep watching. It gave me something of a complex. I’d watch it at night after my wife had gone to bed — again, not her thing and I love her for that — and after another hour of Walter White’s traumatic slide into evil, I’d slip into the dark bedroom feeling guilty, as though I were the one building a drug empire and lying to my family about it. I think I half expected my wife to wake up and say, “Why do you have two cell phones?” or “Who’s Jesse Pinkman?” That’s how deeply the show implicated me in Walter’s evil madness. Which was not fun, and probably the main reason I haven’t rewatched the whole thing since it ended. I mean, I “lived through it” once, and that was enough…
So that’s it. Two that are about honor and courage and decency, two that are sordid as all get-out, and one — “The Wire” — that hovers between the two, although leaning toward the sordid.
The NYT writers allowed themselves a “Toughest Omissions” list, so I will, too:
“Firefly” — Was it a drama? Was it comedy? Was it fantasy? I don’t know, but it was awesome, and I can’t believe those gorram network people cancelled it before the first season was even over. The only funny, heartwarming, witty, inventive show about space cowboys in the history of the medium. But even if there were a hundred such, this would have been the best one.
“The Walking Dead” — I was determined I was never going to watch this, but one of my kids talked me into trying it and I was hooked. For awhile. I finally got to the point that it was no longer watchable for me. That happened in that hopeless episode in which Rick and the rest were captured by the Saviors, at the end of the sixth season. I don’t know what happened after that.
“Barry” — I’m just trying to be topical, since this is newer than anything else on the list. As long as I still had HBO NOW for watching “Game of Thrones” (which you’ll notice does not make my list), I went ahead and finished the second season of this show about a hit man who wants to be an actor. I may sign back up when the third season comes out. This is worth watching for NoHo Hank if for nothing else. There’s also Stephen Root. And Bill Hader’s always great.
Yes, this is about as insubstantial as a blog post gets, but I enjoy life’s little coincidences.
Friday, I was at one of the Relic Room’s monthly Lunch and Learn sessions, which I help publicize (and y’all should come check them out, because they’re all interesting). The speaker this time was Sumter attorney Frank Shuler, talking about his experiences as an Air Force officer serving in a nuclear missile silo during the Cold War. (Here’s a release about that.)
At some point, someone asked him about the sidearms he and the other guy down in the capsule buried 60 feet under North Dakota were required to wear while on duty — originally .38 revolvers, later changing to 9 mm semiautomatics. He said that they weren’t really for the purpose depicted in the movie “WarGames.” He was referring to this, the opening scene.
Well, this morning I was looking for something new to watch on the Roku during my workout on the elliptical, and I noticed something new on Amazon Prime: “WarGames!”
Actual missile silo blast door.
So I started watching, initially to see how accurate the depiction was, after what I had learned from interviewing Shuler and writing that release. And a lot of it was pretty much on the money — but one thing was wrong for sure: They showed the guys closing the massive, vault-style blast doors by pressing a button. In reality, someone had to pump the hydraulics on those doors, by hand, and it was a strenuous, tedious process — both opening and closing.
But then I noticed something that delighted me: The officer who refused to turn his key to launch the missiles was my hero, Leo McGarry!
Well, not really Leo, but the actor who played him, John Spencer. I’d had no idea, because when that movie came out, “The West Wing” was far from even being a twinkle in Aaron Sorkin’s eye.
It’s sort of bittersweet to see him unexpectedly. John Spencer was only 58 year old when we lost him and Leo simultaneously. But it was a treat. Especially since, as I think about it, what else did I ever see him in, but this and “West Wing?”
Of course, you know that Leo himself served in the Air Force, but not down in a bunker. He flew the F-105 Thunderchief with the 355th Tactical Fighter Wing out of Thailand during the Vietnam War. Which is the personal experience from which he was able to ‘splain military service and national security to President Bartlet…
It’s likely you’re already aware of the dissatisfaction with the conclusion tweeted hither and yon — six weeks of nitpicking complaints, first-class nerd whining and an ungodly amount of postgame analyses. Consider all those hastily posted diatribes or that pointless online petition with a million deluded signatures on it, demanding (demanding!) to have Season 8 scrubbed and remade. In some ways, “Game of Thrones” had grown so popular that it made its viewers look embarrassingly out of touch with life itself.
This can only happen when we love our popular culture a little too hard, crossing some line of personal investment, forgetting when a TV show is only just that. It was our fault for coming to regard the show as the apogee of the medium itself. It’s also why I’m glad some unnamed, unwitting hero left a coffee cup in the camera shot in the episode that aired May 5. That one coffee cup humanized the whole endeavor. It reminded us that a TV show, no matter how absorbing, is a folly, a fake, a job that someone is hired to do, so that an HBO subscription can be sold to you. The coffee cup will be scrubbed away with a quick flick of magic technology; but before it’s entirely gone, I hope they give it an Emmy….
I hereby go on record as being one of the few who are satisfied with the ending, and happy to move on. About the only criticism I agree with was the rushed nature of the last two seasons. I guess it was just really hard making episodes that went beyond the original books, and this was all the show runners had in them. But it did make the tying up of loose plot threads seem a bit too hurried. Maybe if it had taken more time — say, the usual 10 episodes per season — there’d be less dissatisfaction out there.
Of course, while I am satisfied, I do have a few questions, objections and observations remaining. Here are some of them, in no particular order (SPOILER ALERT):
So how many troops did Dany have? Raise your hand if, like me, you thought the Dothraki were wiped out in that ill-advised charge (the Red Woman lit up their sickles, and they just went bananas — they were excitable boys — and charged off to their deaths) at the start of the Battle of Winterfell. And yet, at the end, she seems to have more of them than ever. Not to mention all of the Unsullied, apparently. Enough for a Nuremburg-style rally that put the icing on Dany’s Mad Queen cake. As of that moment, it seems that the troops she brought over in a few small ships outnumbers anything in Westeros. Which sort of defies expectations.
Dragons got higher-order thinking skills! So, in the final, climactic moment, when Jon is sure the dragon (no, I don’t know its name; I’m not going to waste gray cells learning something like that) is going to light him up, that being the one thing dragons know how to do, the dragon apparently goes, Wait! His death would be meaningless. I should instead burn a symbol, because they mean so much to me. Ah! The Iron Throne — the cause of all the trouble! If I melt that, it will truly achieve my mistress’ (I’m not going to say “my mother’s;” that was always kind of ridiculous) goal of Breaking the Wheel! That’s what I’ll do, even though most humans in Westeros are probably too dim to come up with such an idea… Did you know big lizards were way philosophical? Neither did I.
I thought Arya, not Jon, was going to kill Dany. The penultimate episode had set that up nicely. She was the one survivor who had seen the horror of the incineration of King’s Landing up close and personally. She was horrified, traumatized and ticked off. The Hound had talked her out of the vengeance that had been her Purpose since the first season. All that training had to be for something. (Taking out the Night King doesn’t seem enough.) And only Arya would be able to get to her no matter how many murderous mindslaves surrounded her.
Why did the Unsullied go so easy on Jon? In one scene, they’re slitting the throats of captives just because they served in Cersei’s army. The next, they deal with Jon’s murder of the woman they view as more or less divine by — locking him up. Oh, and how did they know he did it? There wasn’t even a body. We are left to assume he told them. (“Guys, you notice how the Khaleesi isn’t around? That’s because I killed her. I actually feel kind of conflicted about it, if that helps…”) Which brings us to…
Right to the end, Jon Snow knew nothing. When he told Dany she was his queen, now and forever — even as he stabbed her to death — I think he really meant it. It just never sank in for this boy. Ygritte was right about him all along, and it’s easier than ever to understand why she shot him. Up to this point, everything had been pointing toward Jon being the one to sit on the Iron Throne: He was pure of heart, the people loved him, and it turned out the bastard actually had exactly the right pedigree for it. But what kind of king would he have been with so little between his ears? I’m trying (and failing) to find a link to something I read this morning about Jon standing there with a confused “This doesn’t seem right” look on his face during the Nuremberg scene. It pretty well summed him up.
How does someone get to be a Sansa fan? She just never made that great an impression on me. I guess I never got over judging her for the stupid stuff she did early on, which led to, among other things, the death of her father (I think. It’s been awhile, and I don’t commit all this stuff to memory). I mean, she had the good sense to get rid of Littlefinger, but I’ll never get to like her the way, say, Alyssa Rosenberg of The Washington Post does: “After all this time, seeing Sansa crowned should have been an absolute triumph… Jon’s admission, at long last, that Sansa… is capable, strong and brilliant…” Where does that come from? I suspect that it’s an Identity Politics thing — there were a lot of folks out there who thought it was really important that a woman end up on top. (Alyssa was also really bugged that the last we saw of Brienne, she was writing a mash note about Jaime. Me, I thought it was kind of touching.) But Sansa? Brienne and Arya were women who excelled on the macho terms of their swashbuckling culture. Sansa just sort of stood or sat like a statue most of the time.
Finally… winter actually came, right? I mean, we’d been hearing about it for all these years, and when it came, it was… unimpressive. Seriously, in what way was anyone’s life changed by it. Things went on fairly normally — the usual slaughter and associated mayhem. And near as I can tell, the southern reaches of Westeros were untouched by even a flake of snow. Reminds me of when we get this big buildup in Columbia about the possibility of snow, and… all that happens is that a couple of inches fall in Greenville.
Our discussion earlier of MAD magazine caused me to say that my favorite part was the movie spoofs.
So I did a little Googling, and came up with the above, which epitomizes what I was remembering. I was trying to recall who the artist was who did the best of those parodies. I found out.
Mort Drucker is amazing (or perhaps I should say “was amazing,” since he’s 90 now and I assume retired). The very piece you see above is mentioned on his Wikipedia page, where a writer is quoted as saying, “The way he draws James Caan‘s eyebrow is worth some folks’ entire careers.”
Exactly. And check out his rendering of Barzini in the panel below.
Oh, by the way: I don’t expect people to know who Mort Drucker is for me to consider them to be sufficiently aware of the world around them. Alfred E. Neuman is an icon; Drucker is more esoteric. Just for those keeping score.
If you’re confused about where the line it, just ask me; I’ll tell ya…
The other day I wrote something for a client that said in part, “Think Gary Cooper: Be the strong, silent type – but polite.”
Never mind what it was about, except that it was in the context of an analogy about making movies. So it made sense.
But then one of my colleagues asked whether young people would know who Gary Cooper was, and what he was known for. So I polled a millennial or two with disappointing results. At one point, I tried explaining his character in “High Noon,” and my respondent said, “Sounds kind of like my grandpa.”
Exactly. So we just cut out the reference. It was impossible to insert a later pop culture figure, because it wouldn’t mean the same thing. We don’t have “strong, silent types” any more; men are a bunch of whiny babies. Which is essentially what Tony Soprano was on about in the clip above: He was expressing his contempt for modern men like himself, whining to therapists — although you’ll notice the therapist is careful not to tell him that that’s what he’s doing, because she’s afraid of him. You can be a scary guy and still a whiny baby.
And now we’ve got the kid with the funny name dismissing the fact that Trump compared him to Alfred E. Neuman by saying, “I’ll be honest; I had to Google that… I guess it’s a generational thing. I didn’t get the reference….”
No, Pete. It’s not a “generational thing. ” It’s a basic American popular culture thing. Saying you didn’t know who that was doesn’t make you hipper than the old guy in the White House. It means maybe you missed something, something the average idiot knows, when you were learning how to speak Norwegian just so you could read a novel in the original language.
Knowing who the “What, me worry?” kid is is simply a matter of pop cultural literacy.
The Postreported on the exchange by saying Trump was “comparing him to a caricature created decades before Pete Buttigieg was even born.” Really? Well, where does that leave such characters as Huck Finn, or Romeo and Juliet, or Jay Gatsby?
OK, maybe that’s unfair; those being such major cultural touchstones. How about this: Buttigieg knowing who Alfred E. Neuman is would be… like me knowing who Will Rogers was. Or Al Jolson. Or George M. Cohan. They were all dead before I was born, but I’m familiar with the roles they played in the popular imagination. By contrast, I believe MAD is still being published, although admittedly I haven’t read one in decades.
In Buttigieg’s place, I would have said, “I’m shocked at the suggestion that Trump has actually read something, even if it’s only MAD magazine…” That would have been more to the point.
These kids today and their temporal chauvinism…
Where have you gone, Gary Cooper? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you…
Perhaps this should be a regular feature, even daily. It would be a gift to my readers, a helpful explanation. They could say, No wonder he says all this stupid stuff; look what he’s got running through his head.
The reason this was lodged there is stupider than most. I was playing a video game that involves blowing up castles. Really. I’ve got a blog post I want to write that will explain. My time-wasting pursuits are growing dumber and dumber.
Anyway, I’m not sure what the song is supposed to mean. Without having really thought about it, I’ve assumed subconsciously that it was a sort of leveling, sixtiesish nod to social equality: Who cares if castles are burning? Most of us don’t live in castles, and those who do deserve to be burned out. Anyone who lives in a castle is The Man.:
Don’t let it bring you down,
It’s only castles burning
Find someone who’s turning
And you will come around…
But maybe that’s not right. The song contains a number of alarming or at least dark images, things I don’t think people would shrug off easily — the dead man lying by the side of the road, the red lights flashing through the window in the rain. Are we not supposed to be brought down by any of that?
I don’t know. Maybe it’s just meaningless rhymes. Maybe it’s like “I am the Walrus,” which Lennon composed from random lines he would write down and stick in a drawer to use later. One day, he just pulled them out and jammed them together.