Lunchtable TV Talk: Fleabag

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That quiet lull between the summer TV season and the standard, full-throttle autumn season gave me an opportunity to watch some stuff I might not have, such as the ITV production Victoria (don’t bother – it’s kind of crap except for Rufus Sewell, who is always good even when he is given crap material to work with; still, the series was renewed for a second season) and the dark comedy self-humiliation fest that is Fleabag. Let’s not get into the fact that I also dipped my toe (oh, who am I kidding? I jumped in the deep end) into the six seasons of Sex & the City, which I had so carefully avoided during its first incarnation. Despite there being no shortage of original summer programming that began and ended in almost staggered shifts, I still found myself, at times, with an empty queue (have watched most of what interests me so far on HBO Nordic and Amazon; can only access Swedish Netflix now so there are a lot of lovely films I cannot see in my old American queue. Kind of frustrating because I was not even trying to cheat the system: I pay for both an American and a Swedish subscription).

Maybe it’s this “empty queue” idea that also drives the nameless anti-heroine of Fleabag. She’s very funny, very awkward and a total mess – and she knows it. She breaks the fourth wall and talks directly to the viewer quite often, and it works. I keep seeing lazy comparisons to Bridget Jones and Girls’s Hannah Horvath – but as I write, these are just that – lazy. Our nameless mess of a woman is so much more than both and completely confident in her lack of self-confidence. (Must be – even The Economist got in on the action of writing about Fleabag.)

It’s funny, it’s ironic, it’s sarcastic, it’s pretty realistic, and in that way, it’s also heartbreaking. It somehow manages to be both the wound and the salt you pour into it yourself because you think you deserve to suffer, or like Canadian poet PK Page posits, because you believe that “suffering confers identity”. For the show’s lead, her “empty queue” is not a tv-watching list: it’s the emptiness of her life without her best friend, who has accidentally committed suicide; it’s the more distant but still fresh loss of her mother to cancer and the subsequent, if metaphorical, loss of her father to an uptight and horrible stepmother; it’s the tense but close relationship she shares with her sister. It’s mindlessly filling the emptiness with a queue of men and a, shall we say active, graphic and even rugged sex life? Sex queue as coping mechanism, and only through the six episodes do we see exactly how winding, dark and byzantine are the problems she is trying to fuck into oblivion or at least avoid.

Flea photo (c) 2014 Matt Brown.

Lunchtable TV Talk: Sex & the City

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It will sound strange that I am ridiculously embarrassed to admit that I have been binge-watching Sex & the City this week. I readily admit my shamefully frequent hate-watching of shit like Zoo or the relentless and neverending decades-worth of cop and legal procedurals without the kind of shame and self-disappointment I feel at admitting that I’ve succumbed to watching this. I’m watching, and I cannot even call it total drivel – it’s not that bad. But it was so overhyped when it was new that it should/could not have been seriously watched during its heyday. Sure, watching it the way I’ve been watching puts too fine a point on the annoying parts – and they are many. But there are moments, when I set aside the fact that this is a show built around the pathetic idea that successful, independent, sexual, attractive women pretty much let their lives revolve around meeting someone, that elicit some kind of provocation or pique an emotional response. I think SaTC spoke to so many people at the height of its popularity because there are a lot of women in the same situation. Most of us can relate to some part of SaTC, whether it’s the elusive hunt for “the one”, thinking we’ve found “the one” only to be jerked around, or even the sad but seemingly ridiculous storylines like falling in love with the micropenis man, the out-of-control alcoholic, and god knows whatever else. Or a few pearls of Samantha Jones wisdom, i.e. in the new millennium (which was just dawning as this aired), sexual orientation will end up being more fluid and about experience and individuals over gender. We’ll see – but we’ve certainly moved in a more fluid direction in the 16 years since it aired.

As I wrote to a friend: “I am horrified at myself because I ran out of crap tv to have on in the background while I work so I have done something I swore I would never, ever do: I am watching Sex & the City. It is funny though what impressions you get of things while they are happening but you are not really watching. I had very misguided ideas on what happened in the Carrie/Big relationship, for example, based on water-cooler office talk and shit. I had during its original run seen an episode here or there … like one ep from season 1 and one ep from season 4 so it was not like I had any great continuity of plot – even though it is not hard to piece together or guess.” And being who I am (tv addict) I knew a LOT about it without ever watching it, but then actually watching it there are a lot of things I did not know.

The most fun part of the show actually has been realizing how old it is. It started almost 20 goddamn years ago. It featured loads and loads of actors who were nobodies who went on to do other things – people I barely recognized because the first season was from 19-fucking 98! What? The first two seasons included Justin Theroux in two different roles, Timothy Olyphant looking a little creepy (has he maybe had his teeth done since?), fucking Donald Trump, and even Gabriel Macht long, long before his success in Suits. There was even a 30-second scene of a silent Mireille Enos in the episode Valerie Harper was in.

Maybe when the show debuted it felt fresh – it did, after all, help to usher in an era of prestige TV that has led to this flood of vast and quality TV choices. But looking at it today is it provocative, as it clearly was meant to be? No, not so much. In fact, at certain points it feels hateful, full of all kinds of discriminatory BS, privilege and stereotypes. Can I overlook that?

Yeah, because, oh well now that I am watching it it is nowhere near as obnoxious and overblown as it was to me when it was new and everyone was obsessed with watching it. Now that we are awash in a sea of varying quality shows that are still better than network tv, it no longer feels like there is much novelty around something like SaTC.

Lunchtable TV Talk: Better Things

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I stumbled on Better Things rather by accident. I had not read anything in the lead up to its being shown, and then was happily surprised to see that Pamela Adlon stars and is a co-creator with Louis C.K. It’s only two episodes in, so, like most things I feel compelled to talk about prematurely, it’s early days. I don’t know where it will go. But I like the confident-but-vulnerable feel the show projects even from its first moments.

Adlon is Sam, a working actress and single mother of three daughters. It’s clear she struggles (as you would trying to balance all that), but it’s also clear – in almost effortless but not particularly linear – storytelling that she has a complete identity: her professional identity, her parental identity, her daughter identity, her sexual identity. And some of the best moments so far are when some of these collide. In episode two, driving in her car with her troublesome (and unlikeable) teenage daughter, she gets so angry that she pulls the car over hastily and delivers the most frustrated, honest “lecture” I’ve seen on tv. Her irritation is clear (at having to escalate things just to get her daughter’s attention, being wounded by the unfairness of her daughter’s comments while at the same time being furious about the fact that she knows the daughter is smarter than that and is just being manipulative). And she calls her daughter out on it in a real way.

But every mother has also been a daughter, and we see the strange relationship her character has with her own mother. Somehow it reminded me of a scene in the long-lost HBO show, Enlightened, starring Laura Dern. I found it to be frustrating and did not really like Dern’s character, but in her own mother-daughter relationship, Dern’s character comes to the realization that “The mother is just a child, too”. In viewing Better Things, we have a weekly window into that sentiment (along with many others). No parent, or daughter, or whatever else we define ourselves as, is going to be perfect – and as Adlon explains to an audience at the end of episode 2, we’re all just making it up as we go along.

And that – an easy answer that is not really an easy answer at all – is why I think I am going to like this show.

Living on soup: Black bean soup

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So a few weeks ago I decided to make spicy black bean soup, and I went way overboard on the spice because I made something that was inedible. I made it edible, eventually, watering it down with water, broth and coconut milk, but it was still so incredibly spicy that I was eating less of it at a time than I normally would as a serving, meaning that it lasted far longer than it should have.

Now, wanting a more palate-friendly version of the soup, I tried again, shying away from the several teaspoons of chili powder the original recipe called for, and I am happy to say this was perfect and has kept me in delicious soup for days.

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 diced red onion (any kind of onion you like will do, though)
1 or 2 diced carrots, depending on how much you like carrot
2 cloves crushed garlic
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon turmeric
4 cups vegetable stock
2-3 containers of black beans (drained)
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 container (about 15 ounces/425g or so) stewed tomatoes

Heat oil, cook onion and carrot on medium heat for five to ten minutes, add garlic, cook for another minute. Keep stirring. Add spices (except black pepper). Stir and cook for about a minute. Add vegetable stock and 2 containers of black beans and the pepper. Bring to a boil.

Meanwhile, blend the tomatoes and other container of beans together in a blender and add to the pot. You could experiment here and add more beans to the blend (for a thicker soup). Stir while cooking for about another ten minutes.

You can also experiment with what you throw into the soup. If you like red or green bell peppers, chop some up and throw them in at the beginning with the onions and carrots. If you like spice, you could always chop up and throw in some jalapeno. Maybe you like corn – “liberate” some corn from the cob or throw in a drained can of corn. It’s up to you. Similarly, at the end, if you like a creamier soup, you could also add some coconut milk or cream/milk as well.

It was great when newly made but the leftovers the next days were REALLY good because the flavors had a chance to develop and the base of the soup got a bit thicker.

Berlin in a world of lists

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Berlin is always changing. I was just at Berlin Tegel a couple of weeks ago and the “restaurant” in terminal C has changed from one thing to something entirely different in that time. This place has banh mi and pho ga and is apparently here temporarily until the new airport opens. Haven’t we been hearing about the mythical opening of Brandenburg airport for … an eternity already? Will it ever happen? I will believe it when I see it… except that does not really apply here because, well, you can see the new airport. As you disembark flights at the other airport, Schönefeld, you can see the disused, empty shell of the long-promised Brandenburg Airport in the distance. So instead, maybe I will see it (open) when I believe it.

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I was doing my Germany sojourn during a merciless heat wave, which, if you know me, you know I hate. I experienced small mercies at various stages – empty seats and rows on some of my plane rides, a traffic-free taxi ride between Schönefeld and Tegel (could potentially have been pretty annoying to schlep across the entire city from one crappy Berlin airport to the other).

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Nothing to say about the details of the trip – was just getting away for a while.

And, sitting for too long in the airports as I always do, I have some time to reflect on random stuff. As everything around me grows more digital and I lose some of the traditional tools, I sometimes do go backwards into the world of handwriting. I bought a 2017 daily planner book from the Fabriano store at Tegel – one of the few stores there and the only interesting thing in that terminal. I make lists, and I prefer making them on paper. It’s been years since I had a formal annual planner (perhaps the last one was 1998?). I wonder if it will help.

Lunchtable TV Talk: Lucifer

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A few years ago, I had an ill-advised entanglement of sorts with a British guy, and the smarmy voice and overly confident, cheeky accent on the Lucifer lead reminds me so much of him and his shenanigans. He, king of “bobbing and weaving” his way through life, whether by his own wits or by manipulating and using other people, has rather turned my general views on English people from pleasant to … well, puke-inducing. Listening to them makes me feel sick – especially if they sound like this. When the lead actor says, “Previously on Lucifer…” at the start of each episode, I cringe. This was reason number one for not giving Lucifer the time of day.

But then add to it, reason two for not wanting to follow the show: the female lead, Lauren German, who is one of the worst, least believable actresses on TV today. This lack of skill could be disguised to some extent in German’s previous role in the ensemble cast of Chicago Fire. She did not have the carry half the load of the entire show… and she does not succeed in carrying half the load here either. Tom Ellis as Lucifer sucks all the oxygen out of the room and thus is the undisputed star. And the surrounding constellation of supporting actors also outshine German – from Kevin Alejandro as German’s character’s ex-husband and fellow detective to Rachael Harris (best known to this point as Louis Litt’s Harvard-obsessed former love, Sheila Sazs, in Suits) as Lucifer’s therapist.

I won’t get into the crime-of-the-week, procedural nature of the Lucifer show or the supernatural doubts of the Lucifer character. Lucifer, in the end, is the only reason to watch. Somehow, he is engaging as a classical narcissist (much like my own British “friend”). Eventually you have to break away lest you get swallowed whole.

I had not really thought much of this show in a while (it’s away on summer break), but I was driving home recently and a song came on, one of the gems that my own British Lucifer-wanna-be created, that made me think suddenly of this sneering, lascivious sounding “Previously on Lucifer” intro. Suddenly I was thinking about how my manipulative British acquaintance so readily mirrored TV’s Lucifer in his insistence and demand, in his attempts to lure innocents down his own dark paths. I shuddered, really, remembering spending time with this person – even though I never traveled down these paths, I’ve seen and heard about the people who have. I don’t think I need a TV show that echoes that experience. Nevertheless, when Lucifer returns next week (Sept 19th premiere), I will probably end up watching. God help me.

Photo (c) 2005 by Sophie.

Lunchtable TV Talk: Rizzoli and Isles

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In a transitional week – in many ways – during which I attempted to “decompress”, I decided to binge watch the TV show Rizzoli and Isles. Why this show? Perhaps because I had never seen any of it; perhaps because it would not require much attention (would allow for the thoughtless decompression I desperately needed); perhaps because there are seven near-mind-numbing seasons with which to anesthetize my brain. It could also be other, more random things like remembering with some sadness the mid-show suicide of one of its leads, Lee Thompson Young; the entertainment value of the older detective character, Vince (Bruce McGill), mostly because I have a weird obsession with the movie My Cousin Vinny, and I could play a “Hi Bob!”Bob Newhart Show-esque drinking game, downing a drink every time McGill utters one of the words or statements that were made so distinctive by his rendering of them in Vinny. (Seriously, after McGill got to repeatedly utter the phrase “Sac o’ Suds” in Vinny, I never imagined being able to hear him say “suds” again – but he did, in an R and I episode about a murder in a car wash). Really I could cite a whole list of reasons why I chose this show over anything else. But none of it much matters.

As I write this, I am heading into watching the final season, which just ended its cable run after seven series. I can’t really write a “comprehensive review” (do I ever?) but here are some of the things that struck me:

  • Lead Angie Harmon: I like her character, Detective Jane Rizzoli, and want to like her, as an actress, but it’s hard to reconcile with the Bush-supporting, religious nut conservative she seems to be in her real life. The interplay she has with her socially awkward best friend, Dr Maura Isles (Sasha Alexander), helps with the objectivity.
  • I like that most of the time, when the characters are not okay and are struggling with something, they say so. When someone says, “Hey, are you okay?” most of the characters feel comfortable enough to say, “No, I’m not.” I notice this because in most shows, every character is either unhinged and obviously not at all okay or is portrayed as being tightly wound and bearing a stiff upper lip (never being able to admit to some vulnerability). Particularly in these kinds of procedurals. This made Rizzoli and Isles feel more human and real.
  • I felt that Lorraine Bracco’s presence as Rizzoli’s mother, particularly in the first season or two, was completely wasted, annoying and out of place. The character’s development has helped.
  • I felt genuinely sad when, in season 4/5, the real-life suicide of actor Lee Thompson Young, was handled on the show (as an accidental death). I remembered seeing him play a role in the ill-fated and stupid show FlashForward, in which his character kills himself.
  • The fun part of watching the seven seasons of this procedural retrospectively is seeing all the guest stars who went on to other things – Cameron Monaghan from Shameless, Taylor Kinney from Chicago Fire (and former Mr Gaga), the red-haired dude who has been Jiminy Cricket in Once Upon a Time and is now a detective on Murder in the First – and a whole bunch of others. Even Jerry from Parks & Recreation.
  • There is nothing particularly important or special about this show, but its near-blase approach to women in powerful or not traditionally female positions is a positive shift. When you consider the near radical feminism of putting Cagney & Lacey on tv in the early 80s as real women with real problems who also happen to be detectives, and the novelty of that (and much scholarly research and writing, believe it or not, has been written on the subject), it’s remarkable to see Rizzoli as an experienced detective who has not had to endure quite as much sexism as her predecessors. She undoubtedly experienced plenty – it’s just that she probably does not face it from everyone she meets, including her colleagues in the department.