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TV (The Book)

TV (the Book): Two Experts Pick the Greatest American Shows of All TimeTV (the Book): Two Experts Pick the Greatest American Shows of All Time by Alan Sepinwall
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Of course with any book like this you are going to disagree, sometimes heartily. And I do. But, overall, I enjoyed reading it and engaging the perspective of these critics, who have an amazing breadth of knowledge and experience.

I particularly recommend the essays on Roots and the Cosby Show. The latter is a deep examination of the legacy of the show in light of Cosby's later reputation. They ultimately decide that the series, for all of its importance at the time, has become unwatchable, and not just because of his reputation, but because with retrospect some of the situations and storylines seem to be Cosby making light of his sexual predation (read the essay for the details).

I was further moved by the fact that the Cosby Show essay was followed by one on the Andy Griffith Show, which they laud for holding up over time and recommend continue to be watched for its moral lessons.

My biggest complaint about a ranking was how low they put Six Feet Under, which I think among the very best shows I've ever watched.

Another strange facet is how many of the shows I haven't seen. Back in 1999 when all the list-making was going for the 20th century, I had seen at least some of almost every show that would have appeared on a list like this, precisely because most of them appeared on broadcast with the old ones in reruns (I did make my own list at the time, lost to the pre-blogging era). But for much of the golden age of cable TV shows, I have not had cable, and so many of the highly regarded shows of the last two decades, I have not seen.

But a further point on that. In 2015 I began watching The Wire, which ranks third on their list. I admired the quality of it, but eventually quit watching somewhere in the third season because I decided that I simply didn't want to watch such violence--I didn't want the negativity in my life.

High on their list are the series of cable shows in recent decades which have been about antiheroes or violent situations--The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, etc. But often such shows hold little appeal for me. I really don't feel the need to repeatedly encounter the darker sides of the human experience.

Now, in my twenties, I would have criticized my mother for saying something similar. I guess I've changed as I've aged and become a parent.

But one thing I noticed in their criteria of ranking is that nowhere were they considering whether the story was a good story. And by good I don't mean high quality in the writing or directing, I mean morally good, a story that helps to convey virtue, excellence, well-being. I frankly don't think that all of the shows high on their list will be stories told over the ages, because they aren't those types of stories.

You see, I appreciate highly shows like Little House on the Prairie and the Waltons. I also greatly admire Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which is a good story, in the way I mean it. I long believed M*A*S*H to be the greatest show in the history of TV. Six Feet Under is good story, in the way I mean it (something they seem to miss in their review of it, mentioning primarily matters of technique).

The select The Simpsons as the greatest show. I probably agree. The Simpsons is a good story.



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How Jokes Won the Election

Emily Nussbaum's piece in the latest New Yorker, which appears as a piece of television criticism, is one of the more perceptive, and scarier, analyses of the recent national catastrophe which I have read.  Online the title is "HOW JOKES WON THE ELECTION: How do you fight an enemy who’s just kidding?"

Comedy might be cruel or stupid, yet, in aggregate, it was the rebel’s stance. Nazis were humorless. The fact that it was mostly men who got to tell the jokes didn’t bother me. Jokes were a superior way to tell the truth—that meant freedom for everyone.

But by 2016 the wheel had spun hard the other way: now it was the neo-fascist strongman who held the microphone and an army of anonymous dirty-joke dispensers who helped put him in office.


John McLaughlin

Eleanor Clift delivered a fine eulogy to McLaughlin.  

Particularly in the Nineties and early Aughts I watched the show avidly.  In places I lived, primarily Oklahoma, the show aired at 2 p. m. on Sunday afternoon.  I would come home from lunch and watch just before taking my Sunday afternoon nap.

Though McLaughlin pioneered the entertaining, combative talking head show that has become such a sad fixture of American discourse, his show was always smarter and the combat was between intellects and their ideas.


OITNB, Season 3

This weekend I finished Orange Is the New Black, season three.  I think this was the best season so far, and I was particularly drawn to the presentation of faith.  The final moments of the final episode were quite beautiful.

This Daily Beast article reviewed the role of faith in the show, and hits the nail on the head.  

Orange Is the New Black is a show about how Big Faith, what Soso calls “capital-R Religion,” is a trap—the kind of faith that believes in ultimate justice and in final answers, the kind that says you can be confident in how the story ends. It’s the kind of faith that’s brittle, fragile, that sets you up for a brutal fall. Orange Is the New Black is a show that, as its fans can attest, takes great pleasure in keeping you from knowing how anyone’s story will end. It’s a show that’s deeply skeptical that everything happens for a reason and everything works out in the end—as anyone who’s spent any time studying the real-life prison system would be.

But the other kind of faith? Little Faith? Faith as tiny as a mustard seed? The kind that won’t throw away the armor of cynicism but will take it off long enough for a swim, that says that there’s no clear path by which everyday kindness and love will fix this broken world and bring a happy ending to our story? That’s the kind of faith that, by not asking for too much, isn’t too easily broken. It’s the kind that can survive betrayal, suffering, hypocrisy—even prison.


A Dance with Dragons

A Dance with Dragons (A Song of Ice and Fire, #5)A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This volume was more of a mess than any of the previous books in the series. It started out fine, but the last third was a jumble as the story lines from volume four began to re-emerge. There were simply too many things going on and at the conclusion one felt that there were all sorts of dangling threads. We had detailed chapters on Tyrion's float down the Rhone or Asha's march through the northern snows and then suddenly in the final third all sorts of plots moved too quickly. More time should have been spent on Aegon's storyline. We should have been left in less of a puzzle about what happened around Winterfell. And the appearances of Victarion's plot seemed undeveloped and disconnected.

In another complaint the entire Quentyn Martel plot seemed a distraction and waste.

I also thought the TV show did a better job with some things, particularly Hardhome and Cersei's walk of shame.

Now that I'm finally caught up with the novels I'm annoyed that I may have to wait years to find out what happens next.

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Lev Grossman

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"Fantasy is a way to re-encounter what we struggle with in the real world," said Lev Grossman today in Linsly-Chittenden Hall with the Tiffany window looming nearby.  He admitted the intimidation of returning to speak at Yale where he had been a graduate student.  His nervousness apparent in his personal ticks, like buttoning and unbuttoning his jacket.

He referenced his depression in his lecture and was asked if he would talk about it during the Q&A.  "Yes.  You'll find I'm very confessional about it."  He continued, "People romanticize depression.  It is not where my fiction comes from.  Depression should be treated aggressively.  I was more productive as a writer after therapy and medication."  

"The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe taught me what novels are for.  And every time I've read the book after that first time as a child has been an echo of that primal experience" (here's a link to an article by Grossman on Lewis).  I resonated, for the Chronicles of Narnia have served a similar function for me.  Narnia represents a spiritual idea and ideal, luring me onto my best.  Which is why Grossman's The Magicians fucked with me so.  Then I preached about the novel.

Grossman had written and published for fifteen years without finding his authorial voice and began to believe that such a thing was a myth that other writers made up.  Then, in a conversation with Philip Pullman on what Pullman loathes about Lewis, he was awakened to the possibility that one could write a novel about the magic of adulthood instead of the magic of childhood.  And that he could talk back to Lewis, including all the things that Lewis and others in that tradition leave out.  While also leaving out of his story all the obvious organizing and meaning-making characters (no Gandalf, no Voldemort) because those were absent from his life.  As a young man he had to figure meaning out on his own.  Every day he didn't awaken with the task of vanquishing some evil force.  Real life was more complicated than that.

So, he wrote The Magicians literally sitting between a copy of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, aiming for Franzen's realistic style in describing the fantasy world of his novel.  (Here are the passages I copied down from Grossman's novel when I read it in 2013).

You might remember that I didn't like the ending of the novel.  I thought it drew back from the obvious end of the story--Quentin dying of acedia.  Grossman confessed today that he didn't go far enough in the novel.  I hope I get the opportunity to ask him about that further tonight.  I have not read the sequels.

***

Two other good nuggets from his talk.  "Reading Mrs. Dalloway is why I stopped being a chemistry major.  It is the greatest novel of the twentieth century."

Another was his discussion of George R. R. Martin, and the radical thing he did in the novel Game of Thrones using realism to write about this fantasy world.  Right now I'm reading Martin's Feast of Crows, the fourth novel in the Song of Fire and Ice series.  Martin is a skilled writer.  I stand in awe of some of his paragraphs (I should share some excerpt here, but I don't have my copy with me at the moment).  

Reflecting on Grossman's discussion of Martin, I realized part of what is missing in this season of the TV show and maybe one reason the season is unsatisfying.  Martin enriches his story with common folk.  Earlier seasons of the show allowed us to encounter this world through the stories of a prostitute and a smith, but those common folk as rich characters are largely missing this year.  There appears to be less realism this year and more fantasy.  Which fails the test of what Grossman stated in his lecture "Fantasy is a way to re-encounter what we struggle with in the real world."


George Pelecanos

George Pelecanos

"I wrote about things I needed to understand."  George Pelecanos grew up in Washington, D. C. where he was a minority and during a time of racial conflict.  His father owned a diner, and George began working at age eleven.  He said that American fiction is usually about people who win.  He wanted to write about those who don't.  Crime fiction and television drama are his genres.

He researches by spending time with the people he writes about--police, criminals, etc.  "You learn to write," he said, "by reading and living a full life."  I liked that last bit.

He said that life is long and that our window for doing our thing as writers is wide open.  Athletes and other artists may have some physical limitations to when they can do their work.  We can write until our deaths.

"My goal and your goal should be to be a better writer tomorrow than you are today."

He treats it as his business, dressing each day for work and locking and unlocking his writing space at home.  When he's working on a book, he writes seven days a week.

He doesn't outline or plot things out.  For him the stories arise from the characters.  He works on getting the characters correct.

He answered lots of specific questions about The Wire.  Of course many people argue that it is the best television show ever.  It's one of those I intend to binge-watch sometime, but have never seen.

His favourite film is The Wild Bunch and True Grit his favourite novel.  "I want to write a Western some day."


Twenty-Five Years Ago Today

Twenty-five years ago today, I was fifteen years old.  I awoke and went to the family room in order to turn on the Today Show and watch the morning news.  I vividly remember as the image filled the screen, and there was Tom Brokaw standing, as he had done many times before, in front of the Berlin Wall.  But behind him, the wall was covered by a swarm of people, and . . .

I started yelling for my mother, and she came running through the house, wondering what was wrong, and I said, "Look" and pointed toward the television screen.  And she looked and said, "Oh!"  

And then we stood there before the television screen, holding each other, and crying.


Standing Ovations

Last night the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences acted like the U. S. Congress during a State of the Union address--they kept jumping to their feet.

Remember the days when you could only guarantee two standing ovations during an Oscar telecast?  One for the Lifetime Achievement Award winner and one for some other aged or recently ill star who showed up to present an award.  On the rare occassion that a winner received a standing ovation it really meant something.

Now they stand for almost every performance and almost every winner.

But in this way they are like the general culture.  I remember as a kid that when a play, concert, or recital ended, there was simply applause, not standing.  Occassionally there was a standing ovation, but usually only at the final show in a run or when something especially moving had happened.  Now people stand for every performance.  It may not be a bad development, but it has lost its special meaning.

Oh, and on those Lifetime Achievement Oscars.  I miss the segment of the show where that award and the Jean Hersholt and Irving Thalberg Awards were given.  They've been missing for a few years now, having been moved to another night with their own dinner.  This was the part of the show that real film fans really enjoyed and was the least like the contemporary awards show, which is probably why it got axed.  

On one hand, I don't mind them moving them to a special event on another night, but I have minded that they don't broadcast that ceremony.

On the other hand, I do mind them being eliminated from the Oscar telecast.  As a kid it was during these segments that I first encountered Akira Kurosawa and Satyajit Ray.  It was a time to introduce some in the audience to the film arts that they may have never seen in their small town.