Category Archives: Television

DeMarco: Anderson, I’d Like Conservative Backlash for $1600

The Op-Ed Page

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Editor’s note: What, Paul again already! Well, yeah. He actually sent me this one before I’d actually posted the one on the statues. I didn’t read this one until after I’d done that. I should have posted this one first, because it’s more perishable. The statue one was pretty evergreen. Oh, well. I’m making up for it by going ahead and posting this now.

By Paul V. DeMarco
Guest Columnist

And the answer is: the Daily Double! It was bound to happen; now even “Jeopardy!,” perhaps the least offensive television show on the market (in a tie with “Bubble Guppies”) is in the crosshairs of our ever-expanding culture wars.

At the beginning of the show that aired April 27, three-day champion Kelly Donohue did something heinous. He (get ready) held up three fingers and tapped his chest. Scandalous. In the usually awkward opening montage, most contestants stare directly into the camera with a stale smile as they are introduced. Donohue did a little business after each of his three wins, holding up one, then two, then three fingers on successive nights. (I know, can you believe this guy?)

The position of his hand (commonly known as the “OK” sign) has until recently had positive connotations. In 2017, some white supremacists began using the gesture as a white power symbol – the three extended fingers are the “W” and the middle finger plus the index finger/thumb circle are the “P.” It would be interesting to know how widely known the malevolent interpretation of the “OK” symbol is. I suspect it would be less than the majority. I first learned about it in December 2019, when several Naval Academy midshipmen and West Point cadets were falsely accused of flashing the sign during ESPN’s broadcast of the Army-Navy football game (turns out they were playing the circle game).

In response to Donohue’s gesture, a harshly critical letter was posted the next day (the next day!) on Medium that has now been signed by almost 600 former “Jeopardy!” contestants. I have reprinted parts of the letter with my comments in italics. It reads in part, “(His) gesture was not a clear-cut symbol for the number three (only if you wanted to see something different)… This, whether intentional or not (your intent, no matter how benign, matters less than my thin-skinned interpretation), resembled very closely a gesture that has been coopted by white power groups… People of color, religious minorities, and other marginalized groups already live in a United States and a Canada that have structural and institutional racism, sexism, antisemitism, ableism, homophobia, and transphobia embedded into their history and function (you have mistaken his gesture for a white power symbol. But don’t miss a chance to connect him with multiple OTHER forms of discrimination)… These people deal with microaggressions nearly every day of their lives (So let’s fight a perceived microaggression with an 1,176-word macroaggression to make ourselves feel superior)… We cannot stand up for hate… Is the production team of Jeopardy! prepared for… the backlash and ramifications should one of those moments ever become tied to real-world violence? (I’m envisioning an army of white supremacists hitting the books so they too can qualify for “Jeopardy!” and influence the masses with coded symbols. And when you play the tape backwards, you can faintly hear the “14 Words.”)… We would like to know whether a sensitivity and diversity auditor is involved in the show’s writing (Sigh…).”

Listen my “Jeopardy!” friends, I’m on your team. America is engaging in a long-awaited racial reckoning. So much good is happening. Faces long ignored are being seen and celebrated; voices long silenced are being amplified and uplifted. Black women and men are finally coming to center stage, to full citizenship. It is, in my view, an unequivocally marvelous development. I am nothing but grateful for and supportive of honoring the achievements of people of color as well as an unflinching look at our history and the obligations that history engenders.

But many white Americans are not yet comfortable with this new consciousness. They want to marginalize the participants in this movement as a “woke leftist mob.” My sense as a white ally is that most people, black and white, who support the new Civil Rights movement are even-tempered and sensible. But the untethered assumptions, anger, and lack of charity conveyed in this letter do not reflect well on them and do not help our effort.

If you, “Jeopardy!” letter writers, were concerned about Donohue’s gesture, why not just reach out to him quietly and personally. His story is certainly believable. He was making the number “3” with his fingers after having made “1” and “2” on previous days. He has the zeitgeist on his side; the iPhone still includes an “OK” hand emoji. It takes a conspiratorial mind to assume that his motive for appearing on “Jeopardy!” was to win three games and flash a white power symbol.

We who want to advance racial justice should understand that it’s a hearts-and-minds effort. Think of how much more effective you would have been if you had reached out to Donohue and he had written a Facebook post beginning “It’s been pointed out to me that….” What if he didn’t say anything? Then you don’t say anything. You let this one go, because an objective observer would tell you he didn’t mean anything by it.

We would do well to exercise a little restraint. If you want to be a civil rights advocate, pattern yourself after the young John Lewis. He and other students underwent rigorous training in non-violence to prepare for lunch counter sit-ins. They knew they were right so they sat down and said nothing. That silence was more important than anything they could have spoken.

Remaining silent is, of course, not always the most effective option. We must speak when real injustice is being done. But you are playing a self-righteous game of “Gotcha,” and hurting our cause.

Your letter has convinced no one to come over to the movement. You have only given fodder to the conservative media outlets such as Fox and the Wall Street Journal to rightly lampoon you. The WSJ’s May 2 editorial defending Donohue and castigating your “manic search for racial guilt” is entitled “Jeopardy: Mass Hysteria for $2,000.” Hey, you say, you plagiarized your headline from them. Nope, as Brad is my witness, I titled my piece the day before the WSJ piece. The response to this kind of foolishness is deservedly predictable.

More dishearteningly, you have alienated some of those who were leaning our way. You have humiliated Donohue, who based on his Facebook post was an ally. Cudgeling Donohue has no effect on true racists. They are usually unreachable. Ignore them. Focus on the fair-minded who are feeling threatened but could be convinced that America still has much work to do before we reach the Promised Land.

Our fair-minded opponents must be respected and not treated as enemies. When they see you treating an ally in this manner, they have no reason to come over to our side.

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Top Five Fictional Detectives

detectives

– “Who is your favourite person from history?”
– “Sherlock Holmes.”
– “Well, he’s fictional.”
– “Whoa! I think you’d better check your facts there. Fictional? Who took care of the business with the giant dog that was eating everybody? It wasn’t Watson. Don’t tell me, I suppose he was fictional too? Maybe there was no giant dog….”

— The IT Crowd

I was kind of excited, initially, about the interactive feature I found Sunday on my Washington Post app.

The headline was “Pick the best fictional detective,” and it was presented in an interactive graphic meant to evoke the NCAA tournament “brackets” that everyone (even I, despite my lack of enthusiasm for sports) filled out mere days ago.

So, you know, if you enjoy both mysteries and sports, it was extra fun. A cool idea.

But this is no proper way to figure out even who you, yourself, think are the best detectives, much less who the best actually are. (For instance, say two of your five best detectives face each other in the first round — that means one of your top five gumshoes won’t even make the top 32, assuming you’re starting with 64. That’s not right. No way it’s right. It’s a false system of selection. With basketball, it works. Not with detectives.) Another problem is that too few of my fave detectives were even on the bracket in the first round.

The only professional, scientific way to determine the top dicks is to draft an actual Top Five list, and then argue about it with everybody. Stands to reason. The immemorial custom of the blog, and so forth…

Coming up, I was never a big fan of mysteries. I wasn’t an Agatha Christie enthusiast. Nor was I into Conan Doyle, even though I always enjoyed the Basil Rathbone movies. I just wasn’t that much of an admirer of formulaic fiction. Just as I’m not big into blues, or reggae. To me, the songs just sound too much alike. One is fine, but not a whole album. I mean, you know, a blues progression is a blues progression.

Even with Edgar Allen Poe — I preferred the horror stories to “The Purloined Letter.” I got into Poe when I was about 10, and we 5th-graders shared the stories to chill each other’s blood. And “she was buried alive!” does that way better than “the letter was in plain sight!”

But then, things happened. I started reading books that broke the mold, such as Martin Cruz Smith’s wonderfully original thriller Gorky Park and Len Deighton’s alternative history novel SS-GB. And you know what a le Carre fan I am. Well, his first books about George Smiley cast him as a Christiesque amateur solver of mysteries.

And then, along came streaming, and my wife and I got hooked on a range of British murder mysteries and police procedurals. And entirely new forms, such as Nordic noir, and, believe it or not, Welsh noir.

Anyway, here’s the list. I’m sure I’m leaving out somebody awesome, but let’s get the party started:

  1. Arkady Renko — The only Russian in the bunch — almost the only non-Brit, come to think of it — he just blew the doors off the genre when he arrived in Gorky Park, and kept it up over the next few novels. I love a book that puts you in an unfamiliar place and makes it real, and that novel made you feel you were actually in the middle of the Soviet criminal-justice system in the middle of the Cold War — even though Martin Cruz Smith had never been there (just as Patrick O’Brien had never been aboard a Royal Navy frigate during the Napoleonic Wars, but he could absolutely put a reader there). I also think highly of Renko’s American counterpart in the novel, William Kirwill, but it would be cheating to put him on the list, too. Just please don’t picture William Hurt from the movie when you think of Renko. That was a horrendous instance of miscasting. For Renko, you need a Daniel Day-Lewis, to invoke my last Top Five list. He would have been perfect, when he was about 35. Kirwill, however, was perfectly cast — when I was reading the book long before the movie, I was sort of picturing Brian Dennehy.
  2. Sergeant Gerry Boyle — OK, I don’t understand the Irish Garda system all that well, so I’m not sure that Boyle technically is a “detective.” But he’s a good copper, anyway. And again, I’ve got my last Top Five list on my mind, because this was the wonderful, deeply flawed character brought to life by  Brendan Gleeson in “The Guard.” The other night, I watched a few minutes of “48 Hours” — which frankly is about as much of the film as I ever could stand. Anyway, you know the rumpled, interesting character Nick Nolte is trying to play? Gleeson does it right in “The Guard.”
  3. Detective Chief Inspector Gill Murray — The cop show we’re currently obsessed with is “Scott & Bailey,” but I couldn’t choose between Rachel and Janet. Of the two, of course, Janet is the grownup (usually), but I still didn’t want to choose. Anyway, even though she sort of gets third-place billing and isn’t even in the 5th season, Gill is far and away the best cop on the show. Possibly because the actress, Amelia Bullmore, actually wrote some of the episodes, but her character just gets smarter and smarter.
  4. Christopher Foyle — This is the star of “Foyle’s War,” a cool series in so many ways. It’s historical. It’s about WWII. It’s about how life on the home front was affected, and not in the usual way, like folks saving tin cans or whatever. Also, it’s got Honeysuckle Weeks in it, and the fact that Foyle has her as his driver should qualify him alone, if only on the basis of her awesome name.
  5. George Gently — OK, I really debated whether to put this one in the Top Five, but I’m doing it out of frustration as much as anything. It really ticked me off that Prime let us watch the first season “free,” and then cut us off. I hate that. And I’m anxious to see the rest. But he also makes the list because he’s probably the best of a type that you see so much in these productions: the world-weary old hand, filled with almost as much irony and cynicism as investigative skill — of which he has plenty. I just think he does this better than Morse, or Lewis in his modern-day iteration, or Tom Barnaby, or Foyle, or any of those guys. I also think Lee Ingleby — whom Aubrey fans will remember as Hollom in “Master and Commander” — does a great job as his troublesome young assistant.

HONORABLE MENTION (or, to be honest, the next five, because I couldn’t stop)

  • Gene Hunt — There are lot of reasons to say Gene is not a good detective, even the opposite of a good detective, and Sam Tyler mentions most of them at great length, and repetitively, on “Life on Mars.” That’s sort of Sam’s thing, other than being confused about whether he’s a time traveler or just a guy in a coma. But Gene has certain rudimentary, atavistic skills, such as fairly decent gut instinct. And awful as he is, fans of the show eventually get to enjoy Gene as a guilty pleasure. A very guilty pleasure, because he is awful. In fact, he’s so awful that I think it’s kind of a libel on the world of 1973 to say senior cops were like this and got away with it back then. But if you get picky, you won’t enjoy the show anyway. I should also add that this is kind of a Jayne Cobb thing. I call Jayne my favorite character on Firefly because as a grandfather I don’t want to admit it’s really Kaylee. In this case, for Kaylee, substitute Annie Cartwright. She does get to be a detective late in the series, but most of the time, she’s a WPC. I think this picture is of the moment when Sam asks her first name, and she says “Annie!” Which is when the viewer starts to love her.
  • John River — This is my first entrant from the world of Nordic noir. And the ways in which it qualifies as Nordic noir are confusing. It’s set in London. River is a London cop. But he’s played by a Swedish actor. Of course, what makes it noir is the tone. River, you see, talks with dead people, and they talk back. All the time. Which can be an advantage when you’re a cop, if not a fun one. Also playing a key role is Nicola Walker. She’s not a household name — I had to look it up right now — but when she pops up in any role she’s impressive. Here she is as a guest star — playing a pivotal role — on “Scott & Bailey.”
  • Jimmy Perez — This is the protagonist of “Shetland.” I went back and forth on whether to choose him or the semi-hero of the Welsh noir (it was actually originally in the Welsh language, but then released in English) “Hinterland,” Tom Mathias. Both are cops out in the boonies, trying to do a tough job under trying circumstances. Ultimately, I go with Jimmy because he’s more stable.
  • Jimmy McNulty or Bunk Moreland, you decide — I just had to get someone in from what may be the best American cop show of all time, “The Wire.” I thought I’d go with McNulty since he was kind of the star, and because his bend-the-rules detective work got the ball rolling in the first episode. But “McNutty,” as Bubbles, unquestionably the best fictional snitch ever, called him, was a screwup. So I’m offering his partner Bunk as an alternative. Of course, he could be a screwup, too. But they were great together.
  • Douglas Archer — Just to pull someone in from the weird world of alternative history. I initially read this as a Len Deighton (The Ipcress File) fan, but this kind of stands out from his other books. Archer of the Yard is a classic British detective, who in 1941 finds himself working for the SS because the Germans went ahead with their invasion of Britain, and it was successful. And because you still need to catch bad guys, right, even when you’re working for worse guys. This was a great tale — way better than weirdly similar stories like Fatherland (Detective Xavier March, a 1960s cop working in a Germany that did not lose the war, is a sort of combination of Archer and Arkady Renko). I’ve never seen the TV series, because it’s on the premium level of Hulu, and I’m just not going to pay for that. I’ll just say that the actor playing Archer doesn’t look right at all, based on photos I’ve seen.

Yeah, I know — all white guys, except for one lady-type person, and Bunk, who I know you’re already suspecting I snuck in for diversity’s sake. (But I didn’t. Bunk’s awesome.) Yeah, well…. I just couldn’t get into “Luther,” as great as Idris Elba is. Speaking of Bunk and Elba — the thing about “The Wire” is that the best characters were not the cops. In fact, by far the best character in the show was an armed robber. And Omar was not only black, but gay, if you’re keeping score. Unfortunately, this is a detectives list.

And I considered a bunch of women, and almost put Marcella on the list. She’s fascinating. But man, that series really took Nordic noir (although it was set in England) to some weird places, and we got to where we couldn’t watch anymore. And while I’m somewhat intrigued by Chloé Saint-Laurent on the French cop series “Profilage,” she’s technically not a detective, and I’ve only seen her in two episodes so far, so I don’t yet know how good she is.

And no, Jackie Brown, about whom I thought for a second, wasn’t a detective. If I were doing a Top Five Flight Attendants List, she’d be a great candidate. Along with Elaine Dickinson

Oh, but wait! Back to “The Wire”… “Beadie” Russell was awesome! And she sorta became a detective during the course of the series, right? There are just too many fictional detectives out there for me to know where to stop. If I did this again next week, my Top Five might be five completely different people…

This streaming thing is great, but not as great as it should be

There's Gene Hunt! I don't know who the woman is, though...

There’s Gene Hunt! I don’t know who the woman is, though…

What a fascinating modern age we live in.

Now, you can get almost music, movie or TV you want and experience it in seconds.

Except when you can’t.

And the times when you can’t sort of drive you nuts. Or they do me.

I mentioned one of the services I subscribe to, BritBox, in a comment on a previous post. One of the main reasons I signed up for for BritBox — which is only five or six bucks a month — was so I could watch the whole two seasons of “Life on Mars” again. Which, in the months since I signed up, I’ve already done twice. It’s also handy to have because my wife and I both enjoy British cop shows, like “Scott & Bailey” (which we’ve actually been watching on Prime, but never mind) and comedies like “Upstart Crow.”

Anyway, at some point in recent years I heard about the sequel series to “Life on Mars,” which was called “Ashes to Ashes.” Nothing I ever read about it made me want to see it very much — the plot sounds contrived in a particularly convoluted way. But then, if I’d read a description of “Life on Mars” before seeing it, I might not have known I’d enjoy it, either.

Anyway, “Ashes” has some key characters from “Mars,” such as Philip Glenister as Gene Hunt, Dean Andrews as Ray Carling, and Marshall Lancaster as Chris Skelton. It didn’t have the star from “Mars,” John Simm, but that’s fine. I’m more concerned that it doesn’t seem to have Liz White as Annie Cartwright. Her I miss.

But I’ve wanted to see it anyway, so periodically I go Googling for it. And the other day, I thought I’d hit the jackpot! Check it out: There it is, on BritBox! Sure, I’d searched for it there before without success, but there it was…

So I immediately went to the tube here in my home office, called up BritBox on the Roku, and… there it wasn’t. Every way I tried searching for it after logging into my account, on the Roku or my phone or my laptop — no, it does not come up.

Of course, I didn’t want to click on the “Try for free” button on that page, because they’d want me to create an account and I already had one. And for some reason, when I tried to “sign in” on that page, I couldn’t get in. I had to come in some other way (I forget how, but it probably involved opening a different tab).

I don’t understand it. If it used to be on BritBox, but isn’t any more, why does this page still come up?

OK, I see in the URL that this is https://www.britbox.co.uk/, whereas the login that works is on https://www.britbox.com/us/. But what difference should that make? Isn’t this the WORLDWIDE Web? Do ones and zeroes have to show a passport at national boundaries?

You wouldn’t think so. But I had a huge surprise when I was in Thailand. We were in Kanchanaburi, the home of the real-life bridge on the River Kwai, and I wanted to show my daughter the movie on Netflix, and… you couldn’t watch Netflix in Thailand. Yeah, I understand they have such oppressive barriers in Red China, but Thailand? Turns out Netflix wasn’t available just everywhere you have internet. (Although I think Thailand has it now.)

I dunno. I just want to watch the TV show. And no, I’m not going to shell out $259.99 for the DVDs to watch something in which I have a mild interest. I mean, who does that today anyway? This is 2021….

They got me sorted good and proper, but I still can't see the show...

They got me sorted good and proper, but I still can’t see the show…

Summing up the culture of 2021, in a headline

I assure you I didn’t read this story this morning, but the headline did grab me:

emotional

That headline should go into a time capsule — if people still do time capsules (actually, why would they, when Future People should be able to check out our times, digitally, in excruciating detail, the poor creatures?).

Talk about quickly summing up the ills and obsessions of our culture in 2021: “In an emotional finale, Bachelor Matt James breaks up with the winner over racially insensitive social media posts.” Admittedly, it doesn’t get everything in, but hey, give it a break! It’s just a headline. And for a humble headline, give it credit. It works in:

  • Reality TV. I doubt Future People will understand the current American affinity for this genre — at least I hope not, because I hope they’ll be smarter than we are — but it pretty much pegs our time. Putting it in the capsule as a way of saying, “No, we can’t explain it to you, but take our word for it — people actually liked this stuff.” You know, it’ll be like pole sitting seems today — stupid and pointless, but we knew people used to do it.
  • Emotion. It’s not just a finale — so don’t miss it! — but an “emotional” finale. Which, at least on paper, makes an attempt to explain Reality TV. It says, “People like this because it appeals to their emotions.” And I suppose that’s as good as any explanation. I mean, it certainly isn’t appealing to their minds. (By the way, the one word that seems out of place here is “finale.” That seems more like something people got excited about in a previous time, before streaming. I mean, I’m supposing there was excitement when the last episode of “The West Wing” aired. But I didn’t start watching it — and watching it and watching it — until years later. Oh, and remind me in a separate post to share my indignation over the series leaving Netflix…)
  • Intrusion into things that are none of our business. I really don’t get dating as a spectator sport, but boy is it popular. I really appreciate the coverage of actual news that Jeff Bezos has invested in at this newspaper, but there’s other stuff on my app that just occupies screen space — such as a weekly feature called “Date Lab.” Really? Why do I want to know how things went on a date some strangers had? How is that any of my business? Why is a staff writer spending time on this? And what’s the appeal to readers? Hey, I’ve been there. I actually did some dating, back in the ’60s and early ’70s, and it wasn’t anything I want to relive, even vicariously. But obviously, plenty of people do. Maybe that’s the appeal: Schadenfreude. It’s other people undergoing the awkward ordeal…
  • Race. Hey, if “racially insensitive” doesn’t pull them in in 2021, nothing will. Once again, I’m being optimistic — way optimistic — but it would be nice if that makes the Future People scratch their heads, wondering what all that race stuff was about. (Yeah, I know how unrealistic that is. I foolishly thought we had that sorted out back in the ’60s, then along came Trump, etc.)
  • Cancel culture. Whatever it was that was said, it caused this guy to “break up” with the person who said it. People who attend events like CPAC love talking about that, so it’s a definite audience draw.
  • Social media. Here I go being outrageously optimistic again, but maybe in the future they’ll look back on social media the way we look upon, I don’t know, telegrams. Or carving messages on stone tablets. Or pole-sitting. Maybe they’ll be over it. I’m hoping people will not only still know how to read, but will be into Long-Form Journalism or Dostoevsky novels or whatever.

Anyway, that’s what I thought when I saw that headline. So congratulations, headline writer. You encapsulated our times as neatly as a Nashville songwriter sums up country music in a song titled, “My Woman Done Left me and Took My Dog, and I’m Drinking My Sorrows Away.” No, wait, I forgot to work my pickup truck into that…

Eleanor Roosevelt as a game show contestant

Eleanor

No, I am not making this up.

I was looking up something entirely unrelated on YouTube when it suggested this to me. Which kind of startled me.

You know, I was ragging on current TV the other day, when I encountered a new twist on the unfortunately familiar realm of Reality TV:

In case you don’t know what that is, count yourself blessed. But I was referring to this. It’s the collision of two national obsessions: Reality TV and sports. In other words, it’s a fake sport, being treated as “reality.”

But this thing I encountered today reminds me that once upon a time, game shows were occasionally interesting. And when I say “once upon a time,” I see that this installment originally aired exactly 15 days after I was born — and before most of y’all came along. So I remember “What’s My Line?,” but not this episode.

Of course, even though the host answered the panel’s first few questions — since panelist would easily have recognized the contestant’s voice — Dorothy Kilgallen figured out who it was fairly quickly.

Wow. I wonder how this appearance came about. Eleanor Roosevelt as a game show contestant? This is weirder than Bill Clinton playing the sax on Arsenio’s show

Dorothy Kilgallen

Dorothy Kilgallen

Here we are now, in a world without Chuck Yeager

2560px-Chuck_Yeager

There’s a blog post I’ve been meaning to write in recent days expressing my great disappointment with the Disney+ TV series, “The Right Stuff.” It is a strange, flat, uninviting and even depressing retelling of the tale of the seven Mercury astronauts. That’s it, just the astronauts. Nothing about the context in which they came into being. Nothing about the culture of test pilots that produced them, and set the standard they wanted to live up to.

No Chuck Yeager. How can you name a series after that concept Tom Wolfe introduced into our popular lexicon, and leave Chuck Yeager out of it?

Chuck was the embodiment of the Right Stuff, and the whole world — the world of pilots, at least, knew it. Early in Wolfe’s book, he wrote about the way airline pilots act and talk — their matter-of-factness, their lollygaggin’ lack of concern about potential problems in flight (“I believe it’s that little ol’ red light that iddn’ workin’ right…”), their folksy accents — and traced it all to back to the influence that one man had upon the world of aviation, that man being Yeager. They all wanted to fly like him, they all wanted to be him, and failing that, they would at least sound like him.

Because he not only had the right stuff, he was the right stuff.

What, exactly, was this “ineffable quality” of which Wolfe wrote?

… well, it obviously involved bravery. But it was not bravery in the simple sense of being willing to risk your life. . .any fool could do that. . . . No, the idea. . .seemed to be that a man should have the ability to go up in a hurtling piece of machinery and put his hide on the line and then have the moxie, the reflexes, the experience, the coolness, to pull it back in the last yawning moment–and then to go up again the next day, and the next day, and every next day. . . . There was a seemingly infinite series of tests. . .a dizzy progression of steps and ledges. . .a pyramid extraordinarily high and steep; and the idea was to prove at every foot of the way up that pyramid that you were one of the elected and anointed ones who had the right stuff and could move higher and higher and even–ultimately, God willing, one day–that you might be able to join that special few at the very top, that elite who had the capacity to bring tears to men’s eyes, the very Brotherhood of the Right Stuff itself….

And at the top of the top of that ol’ pyramid was Yeager.

It’s not just about breaking the sound barrier. Yeager was just the ultimate pilot’s pilot. Yes, he was a natural stick-and-rudder man, and the wonderful movie version of Wolfe’s book back in the ’80s captured that and played it for all it was worth, but he also thoroughly understood the machine he flew on a fundamental level. He wasn’t an engineer — he had his friend Jack Ridley, and others, for that — but he was a guy whose reports the engineers liked to read, because he knew what they needed to be told.

And yes, he was a hero, long before breaking that demon that lived in the thin air. A fighter pilot was considered an ace when he’d shot down five enemy planes. Yeager did that in one day. He shot down Me-109s and Focke-Wulf 190s, and even one of those jets the Nazis built. He had sort of a superpower: With his unaided eyes, he could see the enemy coming 50 miles away. But mainly, he outflew and outfought them. Not that he was invulnerable. He got shot down behind German lines, but escaped back to England. That meant he had to go home — he knew things that could endanger the underground if he were shot down again and captured. But he bucked it all the way up to Ike, and Ike let him stay and keep fighting.

He hadn’t been to college, and wasn’t an officer when he started flying in the war. But he broke that barrier, too — he was a captain when he flew the X-1 into history, and his repeatedly demonstrated skill, courage and dedication took him all the way to the rank of brigadier general.

And now he’s gone, and we won’t see his like. As bad as it is to have a TV show called “The Right Stuff” without Yeager in it, now we all have to live in a world that doesn’t have him. Man is mortal, and bound to end up this way. But Yeager packed an awful lot of awesome stuff into the 97 years before that….

‘The State’ emerges from extinction to endorse Jaime


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Hi, we’re The State.

A post shared by Thomas Lennon (@thomaspatricklennon) on


Oh, you thought I meant The State? No, no, no, I meant the comedy troupe, “The State.”

I appreciate them going to the trouble to get together and do this, even though only one of them even momentarily wears a mask. Of course, they did it on Instagram, making it harder to just grab the video and embed it, and they also called The other State South Carolina’s oldest newspaper, which it isn’t, but why would you expect them to know better? They’re actors.

However, after an instant’s reflection, they did have the sense to back Jaime, which not all actual newspapers had the sense to do, so let’s give them some credit.

And it’s good to see them together again. I’ve often wanted to use a clip from that series on the blog — such as the practical advice of “Pants,” or “Prison Break,” which if you recall was made impossible by the fact that the open road was “off-limits” — but have had trouble finding them online.

It’s been so long. The series goes all the way back to the days when MTV was still watchable, and rock ‘n’ roll was still alive.

So enjoy….

the state

Tempted for once by the grocery checkout rack

Now THAT is tempting...

Now THAT is tempting…

I don’t think I’ve ever bought anything from the magazine racks at the grocery checkout.

But a publication devoted to “The West Wing?” Now that’s tempting…

But I still passed.

And you know, part of it is — why do I need a print product full of “West Wing” stuff? Don’t I have Google? Can’t I already access whatever I want about the show, or any of the characters, or analysis or full transcripts of any episode? Content that is available to me wherever I go, via phone or iPad, without carrying around something as awkward as a magazine?

Yep, it’s printed on nice, glossy paper. But here’s the thing… At some point in the latter part of the ’80s, I first saw a color picture on the screen of a Mac. And I was blown away — even though the resolution and color saturation on that screen was probably pretty pathetic, compared to, say, my phone today.

It was just so — bright and alive. Since then, I’ve never seen a hard copy photo that could compare.

Not to mention the fact that if you want to share something in the mag, the person you’re sharing it with has to be standing right next to you. There’s no sharing by text, email or social media.

So… what’s the appeal of the magazine version?

Everything I used to read on paper — the newspapers I subscribe to, magazines, what have you — I now read on my iPad. Which is always with me.

Compelling content. But the wrong medium…

Netflix is trying to guilt me into bingeing. Really…

Netflix IT

In the course of my life, I’ve had many people try to make me feel guilty about many things — usually successfully. Often, this has involved tasks I started but had not, at the time of being nagged, completed. I have at times become a bit sensitive on this point, I’ll confess.

Now, Netflix has weighed in, via email. But this time, the charge of not having followed through is utterly unjust, and I stand before you an innocent — even laudable, in terms of having applied myself assiduously to the task — man.

I’ll have you know that when it comes to watching “The IT Crowd,” I am an over-achiever. I have “finished” it multiple times. I have watched certain episodes, such as the one Netflix attacks me for stopping on in this instance (“Are We Not Men?”), many more times than that. That is one of the very best in the series, if not the best. It shows what can happen to guys like us — I mean, guys like Roy and Moss — when they make deceitful use of a website that empowers them to talk about football (soccer, to American friends) and therefore seem to be “proper men.” The site teaches them to say things like, “Did you see that ludicrous display last night?” I’ve used that one myself on several occasions (but not always, I’ll admit, with impressive success).

I only stopped on that one this time because I wanted to save it to savor on another occasion. I didn’t want it to get stale on me. It was like not allowing myself to watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” more than once a year, on Christmas Eve. That sort of thing.

I have never been a slacker when it comes to watching. I have not been a Roy. Whenever anyone has asked me to help him or her by watching “The IT Crowd,” I have not hesitated. I have not tried to put anyone off by saying “Have you tried turning it off and on again?” I have immediately stopped whatever I am doing — reading my iPad, playing a video game — and watched it from start to finish.

And I just wanted all of you to know that….

are we not men

‘Trump plays tic-tac-toe with Jared, who lets Trump win…’

As you can see, the TV in my home office is an old SD model. But the resolution is usually better than THIS. Weird...

As you can see, the TV in my home office is an old SD model. But the resolution is usually better than THIS. Weird…

Lately, what with the weather, I’ve been doing more of my steps on the elliptical in my home office — indoors, with the A/C. And that means watching the Roku more.

So, of course, I’ve been rewatching “The West Wing” yet again. And of course, suffering the pangs of watching a show about a White House full of competent, decent, intelligent people who care deeply about serving their country — while I live (for the moment) in Trump World.

Anyway, the synopsis of this episode really jumped out at me. Boy, would that need rewriting to be current and relevant.

In case you can’t read it on that low-res screen, it says, “Bartlett engages both Sam and Toby in intricate chess matches that mirror the wily game of brinksmanship that Bartlett is playing with the Chinese.”

Today, we’d have to say something more like, “Trump plays tic-tac-toe with Jared, who lets Trump win to boost his confidence before he goes to the Chinese to beg them to help him get re-elected.”

Or maybe you can think of better words.

Oh, and before someone says “Aw, ‘The West Wing’ is fiction,” I’ll say that it’s fiction based on the reality that we knew, no matter which party held the White House, for all of our lives before 2016. I was reminded of that when I (re)watched a subsequent special episode in which presidents and their aides — from both parties — shared the kinds of observations about working in the West Wing in reality that the show worked so diligently, and brilliantly, to mirror…

That seems a little desperate there, cable people…

My computer just made me watch this ad while I was waiting for something.

And all I could think was, “Wow, cable is really getting desperate.”

Streaming is so complicated, it’s… evil?

OK, so, if you’re very technology-averse, I suppose it’s a little complicated. But the complexity is wonderful. With cable, you watch what is “on” now. And in my experience, there is pretty much never anything “on” at a given moment that I have any interest in seeing. I don’t mind a bit of clicking around through various services to find something that interests me. I find myself watching more TV than I did in cable days. Which is not necessarily good, but I do it because the new way is much more appealing. It has a lot more to offer.

And claiming that it’s too expensive? Really? Have you actually checked out the pricing? I’ve got Netflix, Prime, Britbox and Disney+, and the monthly total is, what — about a fourth of what most people pay for cable? Maybe I’m doing the math wrong, but I don’t think so. Of course, at the moment I’m getting the Disney free because of… I don’t know… something to do with my Verizon account.

Not that there’s not the potential for things to get too messy, or too expensive. Once, there was just Netflix, and it seemed they had everything — or at least, more than I had time to watch. But now we’re moving toward every content producer pulling out their stuff and making you sign up for yet another service. And that’s not good.

But it’s still way better than cable, right?

monsters

No. No. No. Rob Gordon CANNOT be a woman

It was bad enough to make Rob an American. But that, at least, WORKED.

It was bad enough to make Rob an American. But that, at least, WORKED.

OK, I’m a little upset now.

I sort of heard on the radio this morning that Nick Hornby was going to be on Fresh Air tonight. I got a little excited about that, being such a huge fan of High Fidelity and all.

So I went looking to confirm what I’d heard. And I ran across this.

It seems that “High Fidelity” is being rebooted for Hulu. And in this version, Rob is female.

No. Way.

Why do I love High Fidelity? Well, for one thing, it’s hilarious. And the pop culture stuff is fun, especially the Top Five lists. But those aren’t the reasons why I think it’s one of the most profound books written by a living author.

My reverence for the work stems from the fact that no one else has ever come close to expressing something essential about the relationships between men and women in the slice of history in which I have lived and had my being. In other words, it is to my time what Jane Austen’s work was to hers.

Rob’s problem — an inability to see that what is truly important in life is our relationships with other human beings — takes a form that is particular to young (and, perhaps, old) males in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Rob cares about, and devotes most of his mental and spiritual energy to, pop culture. Specifically pop music, but movies and other manifestations as well.

It’s a problem that feeds on itself when similarly emotionally stunted young males gather, such as when Rob, Dick and Barry stand about in the usually empty record store arguing about their Top Five lists — while women are (presumably, since we don’t see them in this venue) off somewhere actually living life.

That’s the problem he has in his relationship with his typically far more emotionally mature girlfriend Laura.

SPOILER ALERT: One incident in the book illustrates the dichotomy beautifully. After their spectacular breakup (which finally was so painful that finally makes Rob’s Top Five list of worst splits), Rob and Laura are trying to make a go of it again, and whether they will succeed remains very much in doubt — on account of, you know, Rob.

They go to have dinner with some friends of Laura’s, a couple Rob doesn’t know. During the initial stages of the evening, Rob is really impressed. He likes these people. Laura observes this.

Then, when the couple is out of the room, Laura urges Rob to indulge his habit of inspecting his hosts’ record collection. And he is appalled. Their taste, in his exquisitely refined opinion, is horrible.

Laura knew this would be his reaction. And she watches to see if there will be an epiphany.

There sort of is, as Rob admits, but only to himself:

… that maybe, given the right set of peculiar, freakish, probably unrepeatable circumstances, it’s not what you like but what you’re like that’s important. I’m not going to be the one who explains to Barry how this might happen, though.

And feckless Rob, who is feckless in a particularly male sort of way, takes a tiny step toward maturity. But grumbles about it, accusing Laura: “You did that deliberately,” he says on the way home. “You knew all along I’d like them. It was a trick.”

It’s not that every male is like Rob, and every female like Laura. But the conflict between them, the gap between them, was colored by an essential difference that stated impressively true things about the relationships and differences between men and women.

Listen, sometimes it’s OK to change the gender of a character. It worked in the TV adaptation of The Night Manager, when Jonathan Pine’s case officer — who was a man in the book — is played by Olivia Colman. There were other changes that didn’t work, but that one was a great move. It gave the case officer/agent relationship an extra something that it didn’t have in the book.

But that book wasn’t trying to say something deep and true about the relations between men and women, and ways in which they are different.

High Fidelity was. (Actually, I don’t know that Hornby was trying to do all that, but he did. When I recommend the book to friends, I always describe it in those terms. That’s what’s impressive about it.)

I’ll try watching it, if it’s on the level of Hulu that I can get. (Some things, including some things I’d really like to see, aren’t.) But I suspect I’m not going to like it. It was a big enough leap that the original movie made the characters American instead of English. But it still worked because American males can be just as stunted as British ones, and in the same ways.

But with this change, that remains to be seen.

Why is everything worth watching initially aired on Sunday nights?

From "The Sopranos" through "Game of Thrones," HBO has been squatting on Sunday nights for almost a generation. And the guys and I are getting tired of it...

From “The Sopranos” through “Game of Thrones,” HBO has been keeping us up on Sunday nights for almost a generation. And the guys and I are getting tired of it…

First, this seems like a stupid thing even to be thinking about at this stage in the 21st century. It’s been decades since the scheduled time of a TV show was a thing that regularly concerned me.

When I was a kid, when something came on was a huge factor in how I planned my life. Back in about 1965 and 1966, I didn’t even need a TV Guide — I knew when everything came on on the three channels we got in New Orleans. I had the schedules memorized. I was TV mad, after having spent two-and-a-half years living in South America without television — we left our set in our bodega, not even plugged in. Those first couple of years back in the States, I was mainlining it all — comedies, dramas, variety shows, talk shows (Merv Griffin, anyone?), reruns, even occasionally soap operas. I even loved the commercials. As I’ve mentioned here before, the night of September 15, 1965, was a major landmark in my life as an 11-year-old, because on that night, “Lost in Space,” “Green Acres” and “I Spy” all premiered.

But then I got older, and got a life. But I still looked forward to some shows, such as “Hill Street Blues” in the ’80s. But about that time, we got a VCR. And every development since then — DVDs, streaming, has made me increasingly apathetic about when something comes on.

There are exceptions to this. For instance:

  • Every decent show that comes on PBS, which is the only broadcast station I regularly watch, is initially broadcast on Sunday night.
  • Every new HBO show I may want to watch — say, “Game of Thrones” — is released on Sunday nights.
  • Remember that string of great shows AMC introduced in recent years — “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad,” “The Walking Dead?” Guess when they came on.

And I have to wonder: Why does every time-sensitive thing I want to see schedule its first broadcast at a time that keeps me up on the night before Monday morning? It really kind of makes me feel like TV schedulers hate me.

But I’m one of the lucky ones, as I was reminded this past week by a piece in The Washington Post headlined “Move the Super Bowl to Saturday, already. And the Oscars. And most of HBO.

Well, I couldn’t care less about when the Super Bowl is on. (But don’t get me started on baseball games that keep me up half the night for the convenience of the West Coast. If those people want to watch baseball, they should move back to civilization.)

And I care even less about the Oscars and other celebrity strokefests.

But yeah, you’ve got a point with HBO.

And it’s not just Sundays. Alyssa Rosenberg notes that we’re in for a bruising week this week:

2020 offers a particularly punishing schedule for American television watchers. The Super Bowl kicks off at 6:30 on Sunday, Feb. 2, and a week later, the Oscars begin at 8 in the evening on Sunday, Feb. 9. That means two late nights and two underslept Monday mornings for Super Bowl and Oscar viewers — and in between them, the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 3, President Trump’s State of the Union address on Feb. 4 and a Democratic primary debate on Feb. 7…

But the main problem is Sundays. And I’m tired of it. You?

 

NO, I’m not watching TV all day. Are YOU?

live tv

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 who’s watching? And why?

the room

Shakespeare without the Shakespeare? Why?

Promotional image from "The King."

Promotional image from “The King.”

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…

Anyway, here’s a dose of the real thing:

Remembering my fave ‘Downton Abbey’ trailer

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.)

OK, Ken Burns, what about The Band?

The_Band_(1969)

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.country rock

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.

And if “The Night They Drove Ol’ Dixie Down,” “Up on Cripple Creek,” “Rockin’ Chair,” and “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)” don’t explore country themes, what does? (And that’s all from one album.) Of course, they also explore… some other stuff that I can’t put my finger on, but which makes The Band unique.

Yeah, I know, you can’t mention everything, but I thing The Band deserves at least a nod or two.

Oh, and another thing: Where’s Creedence?

I thought Ken Burns was going to explain Trump to me…

IMG_0091

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.

I’m ever hopeful…

IMG_0092

If you don’t like ‘The West Wing,’ who cares what you think?

If you don't like 'The West Wing,' you don't like America.

If you don’t like ‘The West Wing,’ you don’t like America.

Saw this in the Post this morning. The headline grabbed me: “A modest defense of ‘The West Wing’.”

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:

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.

As I said before, the Top Five are:

  1. “The West Wing”
  2. “Band of Brothers”
  3. “The Sopranos”
  4. “The Wire”
  5. “Breaking Bad”

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…

But will it make the Top Five?

It’s great, and I’m really digging it, but will it make the Top Five?

Top Five TV Dramas of this Golden Age

'Long as I got a job, you got a job; you understand?'

‘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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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…
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
What, no Honey-Nut?

What, no Honey-Nut?