A different tongue.

I stumbled into watching this show on Apple+. “Physical.” It stars Rose Byrne and it’s set in the ’80s, about a woman who finds her calling in teaching aerobics. (Remember aerobics, ladies? Grapevine left, grapevine right, all that? Ah, memories.) The main action is set in 1986 and 1981, and I keep spotting what I’m calling linguistic anachronisms, i.e. people using words and phrases that they didn’t use in 1981. Hey, I was there. I know.

Such as? The main character says to herself, “I will eat clean,” an expression that is very, very recent, not 40 years old. Her husband, a professor at a crappy college, has one of his students as the last guest at a party and tells his wife, privately, “I think she wants to hook up with us,” another wrong-o. A 1981 man would have used the term “menage a trois,” the term of the era; hookup is a hip-hop era term. Some surfers call her a “bee-yotch,” another nope from me. And one more: “Impactful,” which is so recent it still sets my teeth on edge.

I guess there are two schools of thought about this. One is that, as a writer, you want to reach the audience you have, so if it takes eating clean and bee-yotch to do it, no one really cares. The other is that a period piece is a period piece, and people need to speak in the language of the time you’re portraying. (Except in strange in-between spaces that are almost a form of magical realism; I tried to watch the Emily Dickinson thing, also on Apple+, and the language was so jarring I just couldn’t, as the kids say. I couldn’t handle Emily telling her pals, “You’re so extra.”)

But it bugs me. “Mad Men” was famously loyal to all that stuff. There was some hoo-ha early on where Don was wearing a watch in 1960 that didn’t hit the market until 1961, and I recall Laura Lippman saying something about a character noting a driving time between Manhattan and Rehoboth Beach that was insanely incorrect, but I only noticed a few linguistic anachronisms that took me out of the action, and now I can’t even remember them.

One final note about “Physical” – the husband character loses his job at the crappy college and dispiritedly tells his wife the only school that seems to be interested in him is Denison. “In Ohio?” the wife says, with the same misery in her voice. OK, sure, there’s snow, but given that he’s a student-fucking sleaze bag, ending up at Denison would be like driving your car off the road and landing in the master suite at the Ritz-Carlton.

Pretty dumb show, yes.

Speaking of Laura Lippman, I have her new book and would rather be reading it than doing this. So I leave you with just this, an advance look at yet another Trump book, this one about the pandemic:

In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, as White House officials debated whether to bring infected Americans home for care, President Donald Trump suggested his own plan for where to send them, eager to suppress the numbers on U.S. soil.

“Don’t we have an island that we own?” the president reportedly asked those assembled in the Situation Room in February 2020, before the U.S. outbreak would explode. “What about Guantánamo?”

“We import goods,” Trump specified, lecturing his staff. “We are not going to import a virus.”

Kiiiiinda wish we’d known this earlier, but OK, whatever. Guantanamo. I ask you.

OK, one more. Tonight’s dinner, an asparagus/ham/shallot/mushroom souffle, and the best one yet:

It was delicious.

Posted at 8:53 pm in Current events, Television | 81 Comments
 

The gray.

In our foolish faith that one day, HBO will get good again, Alan and I have been watching “The Investigation,” a Danish series. It’s a dramatized version of the painstaking police work it took to imprison the killer of journalist Kim Wall, in 2013.

Wall went for a ride in a Peter Madsen’s submarine and never came back. Madsen lied and lied and lied, first claiming he put her ashore, then saying she was killed by a falling hatch cover, then switching his story to suffocation, and that’s as far as we’ve gotten. (His dismemberment and dumping of her body was harder to explain, but it was something like, “I panicked and wanted to bury her at sea, but I couldn’t carry her up the ladder to the exit hatch, so, y’know, I parted it out.”)

Anyway, I like to think of myself as a fairly sophisticated consumer of filmed entertainment. I don’t mind subtitles, I respect artistic choices even if they are not what mine would be, and I enjoy foreign films, if only for the glimpses they provide of life in other countries. But man, is “The Investigation” ever slow.

And by “slow,” I mean I said this the other night, as the main character left his office for the day: “You watch. We’re going to follow him all the way down this long hallway, and out the doors,” and we did. About 30 seconds of screen time, an eternity, all to say: He’s leaving work now.

One episode consisted of the police shuttling between various undecorated offices. All the walls were white, lightly tinged with gray. All the officers have the same Scandinavian efficiency in their speech, movement and dress. No one talked about a partner at home, or their children or dogs. No one goes out for a drink after work. No one swears or throws a file folder down on a desk in disgust. No one is particularly good- or bad-looking. The only gun fired is a shotgun, because Jens, the main character, shoots skeet and duck-hunts. The search for the remains by divers is about the only break from tinged-gray white walls we get, and even that is agonizing. They dive, and find nothing. They dive again. They dive again. Etc.

Jens is the most well-rounded, if only because the writers tacked on a subplot of him trying to connect with his adult daughter, who is drifting away from him because he works so hard and is never there for her. They have short, tense conversations in which much is unspoken. Jens expresses sadness through his wide-set eyes. It looks a lot like all his other expressions.

And yet, still we watch. I did some outside reading, and learned that all these choices were deliberate, that the intent was to concentrate on the work it took to bring Madsen to justice, not the lurid crime itself; in fact, Madsen’s name isn’t even spoken aloud. Journalists hear that a lot: Why do you even tell us the bad guys’ names? You’re glorifying them. And no, that’s not true, unless you think having your photo all over the news under headlines like SPREE KILLER constitutes glory. I guess it’s good for the casual viewer to learn that police work, like most work, can be a slog, that it’s interviews, lab testing and diving again and again in hopes of finding human remains. But man, talk about Scandinavian bleakness.

Will I finish watching it? OF COURSE.

What else to report at week’s end? Not too much. I made a spinach soufflé for dinner last night, with roasted potatoes on the side. It turned out OK:

People act like soufflés are alchemy, but it’s all about folding egg whites. I could teach you, I promise.

So, have a great weekend, all.

Posted at 8:11 am in Television | 72 Comments
 

Bad night, bad day.

Whenever Trump pulls some shit, I sleep badly the following night, and it was very true last night, when I awoke at 2:30 a.m. and never really got back to sleep. It’s going to be wine and a little cannabis edible for me tonight, and no water after…well, after now. No middle-of-the-night peeing! I’m going for seven hours, uninterrupted.

My mood today has been murderous. I drafted and trashed tweets and Facebook comments off and on all day. Just not the right day to do that, although god knows I was tempted. The display last night was almost literally stomach-turning. The only smile I got all day came from Tom & Lorenzo:

So I leave you today with…OK, two sick-making pieces, both from the WashPost, but both worth your time, plus another that’s less so. First, Gene Weingarten’s Sunday cover story, on what’s so awful about right now. After a long indictment of the president, he writes:

Mostly, I cannot forgive him for what he has taken from me, personally. It’s not money — with his mismanagement of the virus, eliminating my travel and restaurants, and with his tax policies that favor the economically comfortable at the expense of the poor, he probably has actually made me money. What he has taken from me are two things: First, my genuine lifelong feeling that the United States, for all its weaknesses and failures, deserves, and has always deserved, the benefit of the doubt. Second: I find myself profoundly disliking and disrespecting almost half of my countrymen and women — that is, the group of Americans that support Trump. I have never felt such antipathy before, even in other sharply polarizing times, and it feels absolutely terrible.

Also, it has a great kicker.

The other WP piece is another investigation of just how obviously, and blatantly, and shamelessly, the president has poured money into his own pockets for four years. Forgive the extended excerpt, but it has a rhythm to it I don’t want to disrupt:

President Trump welcomed the Japanese prime minister at Mar-a-Lago, in front of a towering arrangement of roses. The two could have met in Washington, but Trump said his private club was a more comfortable alternative.

“It is, indeed, the Southern White House,” Trump said, greeting Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in front of the press in April 2018.

For Trump, there was another, hidden benefit. Money.

At Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s company would get paid to host his summit.

In the next two days, as Trump and Abe talked about trade and North Korea, Trump’s Palm Beach, Fla., club billed the U.S. government $13,700 for guest rooms, $16,500 for food and wine and $6,000 for the roses and other floral arrangements.

Trump’s club even charged for the smallest of services. When Trump and Abe met alone, with no food served, the government still got a bill for what they drank.

“Bilateral meeting,” the bill said. “Water.” $3 each.

Indeed. This chiseling bastard. No wonder he had to buy a club to get a toehold in Palm Beach.

Finally, a break from the misery, again via T&L, who like me have been watching “The Queen’s Gambit” on Netflix. (The novel was written by my college roommate’s father, who died years ago. I feel bad because I never read it, and I guess I should buy it, now that his children control his literary estate.) The production is gorgeous, all midcentury modern design and wardrobe, and everyone’s favorite gay uncles have picked out how many of the costumes have a chessboard theme to them. Reminded me of their Mad Men analyses.

OK, I’m going to order takeout and hope for a better night. Hope you have one, too.

Posted at 5:49 pm in Current events, Television | 86 Comments
 

What immortal hand or eye?

Like many of you, I spent seven hours of my life watching “Tiger King” on Netflix this week. Kate and I got into it; it was our mother/daughter quarantine jam.

I have two (2) experiences with so-called private zoos to share before I get into “Tiger King.” When I was at Bridge, I reported on a story about some bills that were introduced not long after the 2012 incident near Zanesville, Ohio, when a mentally disturbed owner of a private zoo — a state, after watching “Tiger King,” you may assume most of them live in — killed himself, but not before opening all his cages and freeing his animals to roam. By the time the police were done dealing with the grisly aftermath, I believe most of the animals were dead and at least a couple had “disturbed the corpse” of their former keeper, which is how they put it at the news conferences.

There’s only one reference to this in “Tiger King” — a brief snippet in the opening sequence, in which the governor or someone says, “We were amazed that anyone can just own a tiger or lion.” Yep, they can, and my story, which seems to have been re-topped with maybe some editing notes lost in a CMS migration or two, because that’s really not my style, only scratched the surface of the weirdness of private zoos.

In Michigan, as I remember it, some members of the traditional zoo community — facilities like your city’s zoo, with a board of directors and responsible habitat duplication and so on — were pushing legislation that would have made private zoos like the one in Zanesville much harder to establish and run. The legislature, always happy to help out a pal, countered with a bill to protect a single roadside outfit in the Upper Peninsula, where orphaned bear cubs were available for visitors to pet, hold and have their photos taken with them.

As I worked on this, I was introduced to the tension between the AZA, or Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and the ZAA, or Zoological Association of America. What’s the difference? Here’s me:

“The confusion is that AZA and ZAA are basically two different things,” said Tara Harrison, veterinarian at Lansing’s Potter Park Zoo and an opponent of the legislation. “The AZA is the gold standard.” It is the accreditation body that recognizes the zoos most people visit, five in Michigan – Potter Park, the Detroit Zoo, John Ball Zoological Garden in Grand Rapids, Binder Park Zoo in Battle Creek and the Saginaw Children’s Zoo.

The ZAA, Harrison said, is for smaller, frequently privately owned “roadside zoos” where visitors can not only see animals, but sometimes interact with them.

To differentiate the two, Harrison says, she points to the AZA’s 70-page application for accreditation, as well as numerous protocols pertaining to safety of animals, enclosures and visitors, veterinary care and more, while the ZAA’s, available on its website, “is three pages.”

Here’s one of the pushback bill’s co-sponsor’s take on Big Zoo:

Hune thinks the difference is also one of size and market. The AZA, to him, is the big-money, big-zoo club trying to quash the entrepreneurial upstarts who represent competition for not only visitors, but prestige. The use of the term “roadside zoo” is offensive to many who keep these smaller facilities, and rely on tourists or limited trading of animals to survive.

Very Tea Party, that guy. But reporting gave me an excuse to go visit his family’s camel farm on my way home from Lansing one day:

To Hune, who raises Bactrian camels on his parents’ farm outside Fowlerville in Livingston County, the Zanesville incident was an outlier, a rare and random act by a mentally unstable individual. Not that he would deny animals can be dangerous – in 2004 his father, David, suffered a skull fracture when one of his son’s camels picked him up by the head as he worked nearby.

“It wasn’t an attack,” said the younger Hune. “He just wanted attention.” The incident left the elder Hune with a plate in his head, but that didn’t dampen the family’s enthusiasm for exotic livestock; four camels still live on the farm, along with ponies, donkeys and a few head of cattle David Hune raises for freezer beef.

Anyway, my point is: There are legit zoos and there are “Tiger King” zoos, and I bet even the ZAA wouldn’t want shit to do with that guy. Which brings me to my second anecdote, which happened years ago, when I was sent to write about a private zoo, with tigers, down in southern Ohio, around Logan. I took my friend Becky along for company on the drive and what the hell, how often do you get to spend a day at work visiting a tiger outfit.

This zoo, near Logan, was pretty much a dump, run by two guys who drank beer most of the day and messed around with their animals. I really don’t remember much, but I remember feeding time, which was terrifying. One guy came out with a bucket of meat and the other guy drew a large-caliber handgun and covered him.

“Is that necessary?” I squeaked.

“Oh yeah,” the other guy said. Dinnertime ended without serious incident, but it made me far more appreciative of the Columbus Zoo, where the big cats managed to be fed without Smith & Wesson getting involved.

Anyway, like I said, Joe Exotic, the titular star of “Tiger King,” was leagues beyond these guys — a narcissistic, half-nuts redneck who ran a private zoo in Oklahoma where he bred and sold tigers to terrible people and antagonized a particular animal-rescue sort named Carole Baskin, a feud that led to his downfall. My takeaway: Don’t pick a fight with a deep-pocketed woman married to a lawyer.

That’s really the TV Guide synopsis. It is so, so much weirder than that. I lack the energy right now to describe it, so I’ll defer to New York magazine:

Every time you think you’ve gotten a handle on what exactly the crimes are in this true-crime series, Tiger King throws you another curveball. Thought it was going to be about illegal animal breeding? Well it’s also about murder. But not the murder you thought! Well okay, yes, it is about the murder you thought, but it’s also about more murder. All of that seems like plenty for one series, right? Ha ha, there are also cults! And polygamy! And everyone has lions and tigers just lying around their homes, all the time! Tiger King is absolutely “good,” in that I watched all of it as quickly as possible, often with my jaw on the floor.

…There’s a whiff of class tourism here, not that different from shows like Toddlers and Tiaras or Here Comes Honey Boo Boo — shows that treat their subjects like sideshow acts in a circus, where the circus is poverty. You feel okay watching this?

No, not entirely. But I did. It beat watching CNN.

Kate and I went for a much-needed bike ride today. The river was blue, the sky was blue, and it was warm for once. It felt very good. Of course, the information never stays at bay for long:

Have a good weekend, all. Stay separated.

Posted at 8:17 pm in Current events, Television | 59 Comments
 

Take a deep inhale.

My old Russian teacher called the other day. I hadn’t heard from her in quite a while, so it was nice to catch up. I told her that Alan and I were thinking about traveling to Russia with some friends, maybe next year or the year after. They want to see St. Petersburg, I want to see Lenin laid out in his tomb. So I said I should start watching some Russian movies, get used to hearing the language again. She recommended a show on Netflix called “The Sniffer.” I watched an episode yesterday. It is hilarious.

The premise: A Russian investigator of some sort possesses a superhuman sense of smell. This is established in the first scenes, where he boards a plane. As he settles into his seat, another boarding passenger walks down the aisle, arm in a cast, and he determines that the cast contains plastique and a blasting cap; the passenger is a suicide bomber. So he calls the stewardess and calmly asks for the pilot, who appears reluctantly, hears the story, and asks just how this chill gent knows all this.

The same way I know you had sex with this lovely lady in the cockpit. Thirty minutes ago. Twice, he says. And that’s how we meet the Sniffer — and that’s his character’s name, he doesn’t have a regular one — who solves crimes by smelling them.

It’s plainly influenced by the CSI franchise. When the Sniffer inhales, special effects swirl around him, sometimes taking human form. He is able to take a few deep breaths and sketch out how the crime was committed — by a woman in her 40s, left-handed, who showered this morning, stopped menstruating four days ago, etc. It’s ridiculous, and yet, it’s in Russian, and I can pick up a few words. Two episodes in, and I am totally invested in the Sniffer.

You might ask yourself the obvious question: When you have the sense of smell of a million bloodhounds, how the hell do you keep from gagging around, say, a public toilet? (One reason hounds are hard to train is, their noses are like satellite dishes of smells, and it’s, shall we say, distracting. They have a hard time concentrating on your commands.) The answer? The Sniffer wears a plastic nose piece that presumably blocks the worst of it.

Like I said: Ridiculous. Shot in Ukraine, though, which brings us to the events of today, of which I can only say this: I can’t. I can’t even. I can’t even EVEN.

I feel confident that as I start this sentence, something will happen before the end of it that will upend anything I might write. So I will leave you with this:

I somehow wrangled a media pass to Kanye West’s “Sunday Service” concert, which is popping up in Detroit tomorrow, and which I am attending. Ooh, exciting. I’ll give you a report on Monday. For now, let’s grab our popcorn and watch everything unfold.

Happy Friday, happy weekend, God save the United States of America.

Posted at 9:03 pm in Current events, Television | 39 Comments
 

Hot days, a little A/C and teevee.

God, it’s been a week, and it will continue to be a week for another day or two. So in the meantime, a TV recommendation, at least for those of you with premium cable – “Years and Years,” now playing on HBO, via the BBC.

It’s a near-future sci-fi series about the journey of a northern England family, the Lyons – four adult children, one grandmother, a dead mother and an absent father. In the opening episode, one of the adult children, Rosie, is having her second out-of-wedlock child, with which everyone is totally cool. This is a modern family. One son is gay, one’s in an interracial marriage, a daughter is a globe-trotting do-gooder and the second daughter is the one having the baby, little Lincoln Lyons. As the first episode ends, the gay brother holds the baby in his arms and wonders what life will be like for him.

Answer: Not good.

We’re only on episode three, and the action has moved forward about seven years. (It starts in 2019.) And so far, we’ve seen a nuclear strike on one of those man-made Chinese islands, a global financial crisis, the rise of a Trump-like (but far, far smarter) British politician and a movement toward “trans humanism,” wherein young people seek to upload their consciousness to “the cloud” and “recycle” their bodies. All of this is interspersed with the stuff of ordinary human life — birthday parties, Christmases, commuting to work, etc.

I remember, during the financial crisis, reading the daily stories of financial mayhem, closing my laptop and looking out at the street. Why weren’t people rioting, fighting over bags of rice? Because even in extremely stressful times, children need to be fed, showers taken, birthdays celebrated. “Years and Years” strikes that balance of the mundane details of human life and the grand movements of human history.

It runs on Monday nights. I think I need to save it for the weekend, because it scares the ever-loving shit out of me.

Emma Thompson plays the politician. Very well.

Trust me, it’s worth your time.

What else is happening today? Epstein, etc. I can’t keep up. Been very busy.

I’ll be back before week’s end.

Posted at 9:38 pm in Television | 30 Comments
 

At least no trains and tunnels.

I envy those of you who have vivid dreams, funny dreams, the kind with truly David Lynch-ian symbolism and imagery. I hardly ever remember my dreams, and when I do, they involve one of two things, and sometimes both: Houses and water.

In dream symbolism, these are primary colors, no-brainers, the sort of thing Sigmund Freud would delegate to the interns. Houses are oneself, water is…well, it’s usually emotions, but it’s also anything you might find in poetry. I never wake up groggy and think, “What did that mean?” I know as soon as I wake up.

When I was pregnant, I had a recurrent dream of a koi pond. I could see the brightly colored fish moving around just under the surface, with one occasionally breaking the surface long enough for me to catch a glimpse, then diving down again. It was so obvious. I was very disappointed in my unimaginative subconscious.

Here’s my typical house dream: I am living in one, and one day I open an interior door and find…a previously unknown room. Which is actually part of a whole warren of undiscovered rooms, in a variety of states of repair, but usually good, but maybe with outdated decor. In the end, I realize that my house is far bigger than I knew.

Then I wake up.

I am large, I contain multitudes — of rooms.

How was your weekend? I put a couple of 2018 things behind me, and now truly feel ready for the new year. I was going to have a schvitz, but opted to clean a bathroom instead. One makes me feel as good as the other, and the schvitz will be there next weekend, whereas my bathroom needed cleaning now.

The auto show begins tomorrow — it’s already begun, actually — and that means the Charity Preview is Friday, and that means I have to spend a few days thinking about whether it’s OK that my jewelry is silver and my clutch, sorta gold. Weigh in, if you like.

Bloggage: This is a terrible story that will make you hate the pharmaceutical industry even more than you do already:

In the meantime, a portion of the more than 7 million diabetic Americans who take insulin are stuck with debilitating costs. Though most don’t pay the full list price for insulin because of insurance coverage and other rebates, some do, especially those who are uninsured, underinsured or facing a coverage gap through Medicare. “The most vulnerable patients are subsidizing the system,” William Cefalu, the chief scientific, medical and mission officer of the American Diabetes Association, told a Senate committee in May.

At the same hearing, a father from Maine told senators that a 90-day prescription for just one of his son’s insulins would cost him $1,489.46. That’s with his high-deductible insurance. He testified that he has taken to buying the same three-month supply from a Canadian pharmacy for about $300 plus $50 in shipping. (It’s technically illegal to import medication from other countries, but the Food and Drug Administration generally doesn’t prosecute individuals if it’s a short-term supply for personal use.) He is not alone in his dilemma: The website GoFundMe has thousands of posts with people pleading for help to pay for insulin.

This stupid country. A friend just got back to the U.S. after an extended stay in France. He’d needed an ultrasound while he was there, and had to pay out of pocket. “But it’s so much money!” the clinician fretted. Never mind that, he said; he’d pay. The bill was $60. For an $800 procedure in the U.S.

Couch-based entertainment update: Now watching “Killing Eve” (excellent), just finished “Leave No Trace,” which is merely heartbreaking.

Hello 2019, hello auto show. Hello, week. Hope yours is good.

Posted at 9:33 pm in Movies, Same ol' same ol', Television | 91 Comments
 

Trump country, on both sides of the bars.

One of the lesser-remarked-upon gifts of the holidays came from Kate, who, because she’s a college student, gets Showtime for practically nothing, bundled with her already low-cost Spotify account. She loaded the app on our TV box when she was home, and as a result we were able to watch “Escape at Dannemora” over these past few nights.

I liked it. A lot.

It’s a seven-part series about the 2015 escape, by inmates Richard Matt and David Sweat, from Clinton Correctional Facility in upstate New York. You probably remember; they got out with the help of a female civilian employee, and stayed out for more than three weeks, surviving on food stolen from a series of Adirondack hunting cabins, using the dense forest cover to escape detection from an intense manhunt. But they didn’t get away clean, because how often does that happen? Matt was shot to death, and Sweat was also shot, but taken alive. The civilian employee, Joyce “Tilly” Mitchell, who it turned out was having sex with both of them in the course of supervising them in the prison tailor shop, ended up behind bars for her role in all of this.

I read a few reviews of this when it was released about a month ago. The primary complaint was that it was too long, suffering from “Netflix bloat,” i.e., the tendency for projects like this to be padded out to make a season out of what could be a two-parter. I didn’t find this to be true, mainly for the way it observed the entirety of the Clinton Correctional universe, particularly the corrupt culture among the prison staff, which made it easy to smuggle contraband hacksaw blades and other tools into the facility, blurring the line between the criminals and those charged with keeping them behind bars. You really feel how shitty and depressing life is on both sides of the cell door; Dannemora is referred to as “Little Siberia” for its deep winters, and working at the prison is probably the best gig in town for the working class. But it sucked, because how could it not?

My favorite episode was the penultimate one, a flashback compilation that introduces the three main characters via their histories, the two prisoners committing the crimes that landed them in Clinton, and Tilly’s shady romantic affairs with her ex-husband and the one who takes his place. We see her working at a shoe factory maybe 20 years before the escape, already dumpy and frowzy, trading sex to get ahead in the world, in a place where sex is about the only pleasure to be had outside of food and Bud Lite. It’s not surprising to see her working later in the prison, because the shoe factory probably closed, its jobs sent out of the country. (A little Googling shows that was indeed the fate of the Tru-Stitch facility.) After a while, what’s the difference between living in a cell and living in a house nearby? In many ways, not all that much.

Some critics have pointed out that the “escape” doesn’t happen until the final episode, but honestly, I didn’t mind. And if there were a noticeable number of long, contemplative shots of the Adirondack forest rolling off to the horizon in waves, well, all it did was remind me what it must have looked like to a man who hadn’t seen freedom in many years.

All three leads were outstanding. Paul Dano captured Sweat’s keen intelligence and patience. Patricia Arquette must have gained 60 pounds to play Tilly, and is nearly unrecognizable. And Benicio del Toro as Matt did a great job of embodying a man who, it turns out, not only belonged in prison, he did everything possible to get himself back there — until he was shot to death. And Ben Stiller directs with a confidence that surprised me. But I guess an actor knows how to work with actors.

Anyway, the nights are still long and cold, and will be so for a few more months. It’s worth your time.

So.

Big news today, obviously. I just read this in the Axios PM newsletter:

Between the lines: The two sides of the House chamber looked drastically different today, Axios’ Caitlin Owens notes.

All but 13 House Republicans this Congress are men, and the vast majority are white.

While the GOP side of the chamber was filled with dark suits and red or purple ties, the Democratic side was filled with colorful attire and people of varying racial and ethnic backgrounds.

I think that says it all, and I’ve gone on for a while. Time to walk Wendy and think about dinner. Have a good weekend, all.

Posted at 6:00 pm in Current events, Television | 41 Comments
 

Literate men.

Those of you who follow me on Twitter might be familiar with my cover photo, which I never tire of examining — Pete D’Souza’s over-the-shoulder shot of President Obama and his then-speechwriter, Jon Favreau, working on his health-care speech, delivered to Congress in 2009. You can see it here.

I love it because it shows just what sort of writer Obama is — careful, meticulous, not afraid to draft and redraft. Favreau may have done the first one, but he wasn’t going to get away without making sure every word was right, “this has always been our history” revised to “this has always been the history of our progress.” I know Favreau and Obama had a close relationship, the old two-halves-of-one-brain thing, but writing is personal and the president put his personal stamp on his. (This is another reason I guffaw at the idea Obama had a ghost for his two books. Get outta here with that crap.)

Anyway, here’s today’s commander-in-chief and his editing style:

Nice cufflinks, too. I bet they cost a lot, and are of very high quality. The best quality. The best. An incredible pair of cufflinks.

And yes, “collusion” is misspelled. Thanks to MMJeff for finding that one.

I needed a laugh today, after yesterday. I have tried to keep up with all the outrage takes, but I’ve run out of steam. Shock supply: E. It’s all about swatting these distractions away and marching relentlessly toward the next election. Also, I am closing in on the end of “The Americans,” which arrived on Amazon Prime’s video stream in June. I banged through the five available seasons like a junkie, and bought the final one on iTunes. I know how it’s going to end, basically; spoilers are held at bay for maybe 18 hours after a prestige-TV event, and then everybody talks about it. No biggie — I’m still enjoying every hour.

I’m also pleasantly surprised at how much Russian is spoken therein; none of this just-have-them-do-a-Boris-and-Natasha-accent business. Long scenes with subtitles are a lot to ask of an American TV audience. It’s weird how, even though I haven’t studied it in a while, immersion cracks a door open in my brain, and more comes back to me. The characters address one another formally, as Russians in a professional setting would do — first name and patronymic. No courtesy titles in Russian. Schoolchildren address their teachers as Natalia Ivanovna or Sergei Ivanovich. But when two of the characters are rolling around in bed, it’s the diminutives and informal address.

Fun fact: Russians can make diminutives — nicknames, pet names — from almost any word, and especially names, just like us. Mikhail is Misha, Pavel’s friend call him Pasha, you get the idea. Most names have multiple diminutives, just as our Michael might be Mike, Mikey, Mickey, etc. The -ka ending in a diminutive carries an implication of naughtiness, the way your mother called you by first, middle and last name when she was mad at you. When Mikhail is in trouble, his mom might call him Mishka. When Pasha, a troubled teen on “The Americans,” comes home with a black eye, brushes off his mom’s alarm and stomps up to his room, his mother yells up the stairs at him, “Pashenka!” Authentic.

And now you know how the Russian word for water, voda, became vodka.

So, bloggage:

Looks like ol’ Coach Jim Jordan may find himself giving discovery depositions one of these days.

I’m following the discussion in the previous post’s comments, about billionaires setting public policy, in this case Bill Gates and his ideas about education. A few days ago, short-attention-span billionaire Elon Musk took a break from saving the world to tweet that he would slice off another bit of his limited time on earth to do something about the water in Flint. I don’t even have the energy to can’t-even over that one.

So now let’s turn to my next TV commitment, “Fauda” on Netflix, and hold “The Americans” at bay for another day.

Wednesday ahead. Enjoy.

Posted at 9:20 pm in Current events, Television | 63 Comments
 

A ‘Christmas Story’ story.

So, in the recent enthusiasm for what’s inevitably called “the high-wire act of live television,” Fox did a live musical version of “A Christmas Story” the other night. Hank hated it, and I will take his word for it. I, too, have grown weary of “A Christmas Story,” mainly because I’m tired of all its, what’s the term? Brand extensions. So to speak.

That would include, a few years back, stories about the guy who bought the house that played Ralph’s house, in Cleveland, and turned it into a museum. I wrote a column on an entrepreneur in Fort Wayne – surely there are dozens more – who started building and selling leg lamps. (“Of course they come in a big box with FRAGILE stamps all over it,” she enthused.) The where-are-they-now/you-won’t-believe-how-the-actors-look-today junk slideshows turn up in social media for weeks every year. And then there are the wags upon wags who trot out the familiar lines at office mixers, in elevator small talk, and everywhere else from Halloween through New Year’s: You’ll shoot your eye out, kid being only the most familiar.

It hurts. I used to love this movie. It was so sweet and charming. Then NBC sucked up rights to “It’s a Wonderful Life” and turned its annual screening into a national celebration of commercial television. So the thing you used to find in your holiday insomnia, playing on some UHF channel at 2 a.m. when you were likely to be feeling dark and hopeless, like George Bailey was in most of Act II, is now a primetime spectacle clogged with ads and celebrity interstitial moments and GET IN THE SPIRIT, AMERICA admonishments. “A Christmas Story” became a kind of counterprogramming on cable, with the 24-hour repeat broadcast on TBS finally wearing through whatever veneer of goodwill toward men I still have by Dec. 24.

Or, in so many words, “A Christmas Story” is now the TV version of Aretha’s “Respect” – if I never see/hear either again, I’d be perfectly happy.

(Meanwhile, another Frank Capra film from the same era, “Meet John Doe,” with a strong Christmas plot line, is ignored year after year. Go figure.)

And all of this is happening after the death of Jean Shepherd, the humorist whose story “A Christmas Story” is. I think a few years I wrote about the Clinic, which was a tradition at the Columbus Dispatch, where I used to work. The Clinic was our annual all-staff, year-in-review gathering (even though it was held in March), at the publisher’s family’s garishly decorated country retreat, the Wigwam. We’d have a few speakers, and then break for cocktails and dinner, followed by more drinking among the cigar-store Indians and various souvenirs of the family’s considerable influence in Ohio – a framed thank-you letter from Spiro Agnew, who had once been lodged there when a snowstorm cancelled his flight, was a highlight of the many glory walls in the place. The evening was raucous and absolutely drenched in alcohol. Very Mad Men, very Front Page in many ways; it has since been significantly revamped, and is dry, I believe.

My first year, all the young people on staff except me ate marijuana-laced brownies on their way to the Wigwam and I guess they kicked in sometime during the speakers’ portion of the event. As I recall, the keynoter was the president of the Associated Press, and just about as scintillating a public speaker as you’d expect from that outfit. Anyway, he repeatedly pronounced the 50th state Huh-WHY-yuh, with each repetition setting off muffled giggles in the rows around me, which should have been a clue what was going on, but honestly, I had no idea. I only learned of this much later. I suspect the management eventually did, too, because in a subsequent year, one of the brownie-eaters – the film critic – was made chairman of the following year’s Clinic. The naming of next year’s chairman was the climax of the evening, indicating a mix of favor and let’s-test-your-mettle assessment by upper management. He or she had to plan the whole shitshow, with wide latitude, and when the critic’s Clinic rolled around the keynote speaker was Jean Shepherd.

The two had met when the critic had gone to Cleveland to report a story about the making of “A Christmas Story.” I’d never heard of Shepherd, but suffice to say, he could pronounce Hawaii and knew how to hold a room. (He was, in addition to a writer, a successful actor and superb radio personality.) He didn’t talk about journalism at all, but just told wonderful shaggy-dog stories about his childhood. He skillfully wound it all up with the Ovaltine anecdote, and that’s what I remember when I see it in the movie: Shepherd acting out the Little Orphan Annie decoder ring action up there at the podium, building to the punchline, with the historically inaccurate murals of Indians all around. The story, as he told it, had nothing to do with Christmas.

Anyway, I wish he’d lived to see all this. At the very least, he could have used the money.

So, as we skip to the bloggage, let me see a show of hands of those who are watching “The Crown,” or just have an interest in the British upper classes…only a few? Pity. Well, you’ll still want to check out Nicole Cliffe’s Twitter thread about British boarding schools through the years. Or you will after you watch “Paterfamilias,” a positively wrenching episode of “The Crown” dealing with Prince Philip’s insistence that his firstborn son attend the brutal Scottish academy he did. The place was a veritable penal colony, and is said to have been the seed of the father-son estrangement that followed. Anyway, Cliffe’s thread is both funny and fascinating:

I recall, as a child, lapping up stories of English children away at various schools/penal colonies/great houses isolated in hostile countrysides. I loved “The Wolves of Willoughby Chase” best of all.

If you have approximately a week to fall down a YouTube rabbit hole, I suggest Freshout, the series about life in and out of, but mostly in, prison. Fascinating material covering everything from sex to gangs to recipes for a County Taco.

And if you have an interest in Everest, you should enjoy this lavishly presented NYT piece about the removal of corpses from the highest reaches of the mountain. It’s no easy task. And it’s a good story.

As for the rest of the day’s events, well.

Posted at 5:54 pm in Movies, Television | 121 Comments