cityscapes: city hate


Oslo is a lovely city, particularly when the weather turns nice. I will never be able to understand or explain why I hate it so much. I am here for a few days, and no matter how much time passes since I lived in the city several years ago, I cannot quite shake that sense of dread that the city filled me with back then. I sometimes wander in Gothenburg, in Sweden, and just feel comfortable, happy, right where I should be – but I have never once felt this sense in Oslo. I cannot put my finger on it, and I suppose I never will. After seven years of being in the area – and working in Oslo for the better part of five years – it just does not work for me. I guess there is not a real reason. It just does not work. I go to stores, I see the sites, I drive on the ridiculous roads (no matter how much construction and “improvement” they introduce to roads in and around Oslo, it seems they just manage to make it worse).

Lunchtable TV Talk – Nurse Jackie: The walking dead


Addiction is a hard thing to face for addicts – and even more for those who love them.

Science on addiction is evolving – Dr Carl Hart at the forefront of publicizing it, but many voices and study results are showing that addiction is not all about chemistry. Addiction is, in fact, not what we think it is.

Of course I’m all for discoveries that help us better understand the nature of addiction but would also appreciate knowing on an individual level: if addicts lack connections and relationships and a sense of community and connectivity – and that partially explains what they are doing – how can an individual help? How does an individual, the non-addict in the addict’s life, cope? Every study in the world, every book in the world that explains what addiction is does not change the day-to-day challenges of living with, loving or trusting an addict.

In the many seasons of Nurse Jackie, at once dramatic and comedic, we have seen a flawed but high-functioning addict in the form of Jackie Peyton (Edie Falco). Other than her hidden identity as an addict, we only know Jackie as a nurse, a wife and a mother – but mostly a nurse, and as we go into this final season, we can see her struggling against losing this key piece of her identity. She is willing to fight for it – harder and stronger than she ever fought for her family or her sobriety.

I have written before about Nurse Jackie, first with regard to the increasing difficulty of relating to or sympathizing with Jackie.

“I used to have a lot more sympathy for and interest in Jackie, but like most users – users of drugs and of people – Jackie has become extremely hard to like. Some of the antics in the hospital where she works are still interesting enough, and the cast is still a joy to watch, but it is painful to watch how people are affected by and duped by her lying (which grows worse and worse, despite a brief moment of sobriety). It’s hard to say where this will go in its next season, as last season ended with an unexpected revelation from her husband.”

At the time I had very little direct experience with this sort of thing. This changed last year. As someone who loved and cared for an addict, it was not like anything I imagined. But, as a recent article about Nurse Jackie described, the show is one of the few accurate portrayals of addiction. It’s rough, somehow unpredictably painful even if the pain and challenges are predictable, and it opens a door to caring unconditionally for the recovering addict even if never quite being able to trust them again. Addicts sometimes feel a bit like the walking dead.

And where the early seasons of Jackie offered a bit more comedy (the show was never necessarily designed as a comedy, even if it had its moments), showing unbelievable events with few, if any, consequences, each subsequent season has escalated with its drama and equally escalated consequences.

Taken as a whole, the earlier parts, where Jackie is managing the balancing act of nurse, wife, mother along with addict and girlfriend/affair partner with her hospital’s pharmacist (direct source to her poisons), show the “good part” where the addict thinks they can and will manage flawlessly. Every season, she takes bigger risks to maintain her high and continue to conceal her growing addiction. And things inevitably spiral out of control. In the background of Jackie’s personal travails, we also see the challenges of the American healthcare system, its understaffing problems, its bureaucratic problems, humanity versus automation and the general frailty of human relationships when strained by outside forces. I am sorry this is the last season, even if it feels like the right time for it to go.

TV: The understated villain


Does anyone remember the TV sitcom Dear John? Newly divorced John Lacey (Judd Hirsch, appearing these days in Forever) joins a support group, which is full of its own oddball characters. But the most memorable character is the slimy, would-be “ladies man” “Kirk” played by Jere Burns. Back then, who would have thought that Burns would show up just about everywhere as shady, menacing villains who appear so unassuming that they just slip under the radar? In the last decade, Burns has turned up in these kinds of roles so many times I can’t count. When I caught his turn in Bates Motel, I had to think, of course, of his long-running role in Justified playing exactly the same kind of criminal and his equally surreptitious bad guy role in Burn Notice. (He has also turned up in roles, such as in Breaking Bad, as Jesse’s rehab group leader, but these roles are not the ones in which Burns shines.)

I love this guy.

Lunchtable TV Talk – Bates Motel


At first I avoided Bates Motel – for no real reason. I had no expectations going in, and I did not realize until I started watching that the formidable Vera Farmiga is one of the main players. This makes Bates Motel automatically worth at least trying out. Then realizing that Nestor Carbonell is the town sheriff seals the deal.

While I could spread on thick layers of superlatives about Farmiga’s range and talent, I would rather write a brief love letter to Carbonell. I love how he pops up frequently and, of course, is very different in each role – as quality acting requires. Whether he is hero, villain or somewhere in between (as is the case in Bates Motel), he delivers. But what I love about him most of all is looking back on his comedic role in the gone and mostly forgotten Suddenly Susan in the 1990s. A starring vehicle for Brooke Shields (and also starring Judd Nelson and Kathy Griffin), the show was usually stolen out from under Shields and the rest of the cast by Carbonell as Luis Rivera and the late David Strickland as Todd Stities. Together, this duo stole many scenes and kept me watching even when the show was annoying (and believe me – it grew increasingly so). (Interestingly the show also humanized Shields a bit for me – and I had never really cared much for her work before.)

Sadly, Strickland committed suicide at the age of 29 in 1999 (RIP) – but Carbonell, happily, was just getting started. He has turned up everywhere – both in one-time guest roles in popular TV shows and in longer-term appearances, such as a role in one-time network ratings juggernaut, Lost.

With Farmiga and Carbonell at the helm, Bates Motel really seems to work and stand out. Even the sometimes overly dramatic tone and plot are deftly managed in these actors’ hands. Many of the other actors are all right – kind of a go-to list of every non-descript Canadian actor who turns up in every Canadian or Canadian-produced show (for example, Ian Tracey as “Remo” – I stared at him for ages before realizing he was one of the stars of the Canadian legal drama Da Vinci’s Inquest – something that was never shown any time that I lived in the US but did turn up on late-night TV in Iceland). While the actor who plays Norman Bates, Freddie Highmore, should attract more accolades, there are times that his character’s awkwardness and mental illness feels a bit too ham-handed and overacted, making me think that while the part is well-cast, there is a bit too much “putting it on” that does not feel authentic. Highmore manages to balance innocent, sheltered, overprotected son with increasingly unstable, mentally ill “psycho” quite well – he is fantastic at “creepy” – but nevertheless isn’t really the star of the show.

Without the main cast working well together, though, the show would not be nearly as addictive as it is (and it has been addictive). Once I started the first season of ten episodes two days ago, I could not stop and am already caught up (we’re nearing the end of season three).

Lunchtable TV Talk – Fresh Off the Boat: Really fresh?


Each week,I get a few laughs from Fresh Off the Boat and like a lot of people have given a lot of thought to how it’s possible that this is only the second sitcom in the past 25 years to focus on an Asian American family. The first, All American Girl, fronted by comedienne/actress Margaret Cho, did not last long and was probably the victim of the wrong timing. Many shows don’t find an audience, a voice or popularity – not because of their themes but because they just don’t find their footing in the right place or time. All American Girl was that show.

Fresh Off the Boat, focusing on a family of Taiwanese immigrants who move from Washington D.C. to Orlando, is the first show to try to take the Asian American immigrant experience mainstream on network TV. It’s got its stereotypes and sometimes falls back on racial/immigration-related tropes, which could be mined for cheap laughs or could serve a bigger purpose of highlighting those tropes in order to make fun of the stereotypes. Either way, the show usually transcends the awkwardness that could come of the stereotypes and if it gets the chance to have a second season, it might grow into something much more genuine. As an introduction to the kinds of things immigrants may face when they move and adapt to the United States, the show offers a glimpse into what it might be like. It being a half-hour comedy, it will look for laughs more than in-depth understanding or insight into immigrant life or integration. But the issues highlighted begin to show some key points – how immigrant parents struggle with how their children are more products of their new environment than the culture from which they came, how cultural clashes are inevitable, how an immigrant’s own perspective, habits and taste change.

Inspired by a memoir written by Eddie Huang, who has been highly critical of how the show handled the source material, it is hard to tell, if given the chance, whether the show will redirect itself to address some of Huang’s concerns. I wonder, reading some of Huang’s ire about the show, whether it is more a matter of the process and creative stifling from the network – what else could one expect from one of the big three? Can the show and the network come to a place where creativity does not clash with buttoned-down network demands? When you sell off the rights to your work, you can criticize but you have signed away creative rights. Right?

I think Huang could be right – not only that the show does not follow his own memoir closely (in which case maybe the show shouldn’t claim to be based on it) but also that the show isn’t really representative of the immigrant experience. But does that mean it is not valid? That it is not in fact fresh? Is it enough to start with just to get more diversity on the screen, even if the stories are more an overbaked caricature of that diversity? Could it be a stepping stone to something better to come?

Lunchtable TV Talk – Community: Magic is gone


In the beginning, I loved, recommended and defended the beloved but difficult TV show Community to anyone who would listen. I bought the DVDs and sent the boxsets to people I thought would like it. My advocacy grew louder and more vociferous the more the show was threatened. But after the controversial departure of original show creator, Dan Harmon, the one season made without him completely lost it. It was already a show that many would argue had “lost the plot” because it was so complex and strange – but it had been, until Harmon’s contentious exit, beautifully, creatively messy – or at least seemed messy. It was always well thought out and tightly executed with intricate in-stories, meta humor and extensive pop culture references, which meant that deeper understanding could be possible but even on the surface it could be enjoyed. There is not much point trying to describe it in its glory days – you just have to watch it yourself.

Without Harmon, though, the show lost its vision and became increasingly boring and tiresome. I continued to watch, but I was relieved when it was canceled. Honestly, though, by the end of that dreadful season, I was not even excited to see that the show had been resurrected from cancellation by Yahoo! Screen (yet another non-TV channel coming along to offer original content as an original distribution method). Dan Harmon was brought back to run the show, and I have been watching, but the magic is gone. I actually hate it now and dread watching, but I keep doing it out of habit hoping I might see some of the magic again. But it’s just not there.

For a truly enriching viewing experience, watch seasons one through four and skip the rest.

Lunchtable TV Talk – Daredevil


There is already a lot of press about the murky, dark, dramatic, gloomy, moody and brooding Netflix offering, Daredevil. I won’t add much to it. I loved the lead, Charlie Cox, in his ill-fated role in Boardwalk Empire, and he’s almost as great here. It speaks to his abilities that I did not recognize him at first – he seemed that different from his role as Owen Sleater in Boardwalk. I can say I have never liked Rosario Dawson better. I can’t explain it, but I really liked her in this. I don’t like Deborah Ann Woll – from Jessica in True Blood onwards, she is just not a very good actress, and if anything, seems to be getting worse. Everything else occupied me to the degree that I could not stop watching until I was done with all 13 episodes.

I was ready to go to sleep at one point, but the transition between episodes five and six shows the masterful level of suspense this show can creates, which forces the whole binge-watching phenomenon (“Just to see what happens, then I will stop” or “Just one more episode”. Famous last words.)

I liked it, but maybe my enjoyment has been tempered by the fact that my USB thumb drive died – and I only managed to extract about a quarter of the data it contained. Oh, it hurts.

Lunchtable TV Talk – Battle Creek: Embattled


Even if Battle Creek gets the axe (which seems pretty likely right now), the first half of its one and probably only season has been entertaining. I recognize that I pull out the “entertaining” word an awful lot. It suffices often enough for these shows that don’t knock it out of the park but pass the time reasonably and pleasantly. But average adjectives are just about all that distinguish TV shows that fail to distinguish themselves.

Battle Creek’s cast should have done half the work by virtue of its experience and talent. The cast, anchored by comeback kid of sorts Dean Winters (best known for playing “Dennis”, Tina Fey’s on-off, loser boyfriend in 30 Rock, “Mayhem” in a long-running series of ads for Allstate Insurance, Ryan O’Reilly in the disturbing HBO prison drama, Oz as well as Rescue Me and Law & Order SVU) as Detective Russ Agnew, comes together within the beleaguered Battle Creek, Michigan police department. They’re led by the multitalented Janet McTeer as their commander, and the police department has basically no resources with which to work. In comes Josh Duhamel as dapper, charming FBI agent, Milt Chamberlain.

The story, with this group of actors, should gel better. The premise pits two very different detectives with two different perspectives on investigative work and on life against each other, but forces them to partner up. Agnew is cynical and distrustful (and his reasons for being this way become clear in the course of the show); Chamberlain, at least from what we have seen in the few episodes we’ve seen, is cheerful and trusting (but we don’t get a very good look at what motivates him or is behind his actions). They work together, improbably, to solve crimes, and the acting should complement the story – but I don’t feel like the show has unfolded a compelling enough story for us to care or to make people watch.

It’s unfortunate because there is potential. Its DNA has a little bit of Vince Gilligan (creator of Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul); guest casting has been clever and fun (a superb and hilarious as well as topical guest appearance from the great Patton Oswalt as Battle Creek’s mayor – a terrific comedic send-up of Toronto’s former mayor Rob Ford; Candice Bergen as Detective Agnew’s con-woman mother).

The actors – both regulars and guest stars – have done their part with the material they have, but the show itself, so far, has not been tight enough, has not been more than middling. If given a chance, I imagine that the show could hit its stride (many shows have surprised us after slow starts in their first seasons). Now it’s just a matter of Battle Creek getting that chance.

Lunchtable TV Talk – Togetherness: The ark of the ache of it


The ache of marriage
-Denise Levertov

The ache of marriage:

thigh and tongue, beloved,
are heavy with it,
it throbs in the teeth

We look for communion
and are turned away, beloved,
each and each

It is leviathan and we
in its belly
looking for joy, some joy
not to be known outside it

two by two in the ark of
the ache of it.

Today is my parents’ wedding anniversary. I spend a lot of time thinking about marriage as an institution. It is not something I ever really wanted, and as I have become older, it seems less than desirable and more of the “ball and chain” that it’s classically described as. Not being a religious person or in need of some kind of monetary or tax benefits that might come from legal marriage – and not being particularly sentimental – marriage is not a priority. That said, I also think a lot about marriage and the equality of access to it. If someone – anyone – wants to marry, s/he should be legally permitted to.

Fie on Love
-James Shirley

Now, fie on foolish love! it not befits
Or man or woman know it:
Love was not meant for people in their wits;
And they that fondly show it,
Betray the straw and feathers in their brain,
And shall have Bedlam for their pain.
If single love be such a curse,
To marry, is to make it ten times worse.

But then, I see a nuanced TV show like HBO’s Togetherness and wonder why anyone would want to sign up for marriage. The ache of marriage is fully alive here. I wasn’t totally into the idea of Togetherness when I read about it. It sounded like an unfolding tableau of overprivileged ennui, as middle-class midlife boredom clashes with midlife identity crisis. People stop being individuals, give up on their dreams, are stuck in the humdrum of daily life. This is at the heart of Togetherness, and could easily have been either as dull as HBO’s Looking or as self-indulgent and preachy as the recent miniseries The Slap. But Togetherness walks the tightrope and avoids conventional appearances – largely because of its cast, and the handling of its creators, the seemingly ubiquitous Duplass brothers, Mark and Jay, and Steve Zissis. It could easily sink to a whiny, pretentious semi-sitcom focused on a 30-something married couple with two small children. They seem to have everything a young couple, Brett and Michelle (Mark Duplass and a transcendent Melanie Lynskey) could want – the marriage, the happy family, the house and the white picket fence. Against this “stable background”, Brett’s best friend (an out-of-work, down-on-his luck actor, Alex, played by Steve Zissis) and Michelle’s sister (Tina, an event planner, played by Amanda Peet) both move into Brett and Michelle’s place temporarily, and this change seemingly upends the bored equilibrium Brett and Michelle have settled into.

Both “sides” see the beauty of the other side. Alex and Tina, who have a really powerful chemistry but keep denying it, represent the initial spark we all recognize that comes from the beginning of a relationship and envy what Brett and Michelle have – but only because they are not trapped by the constraints. Brett and Michelle envy the freedom Alex and Tina have, and start to search outside the relationship for diversions – not necessarily diversions that lead them to infidelity. But just other entertainment, other sparks, ways to find their way back to who they used to be before middle-aged family life.

The bottom line, what I took away, what Togetherness imparts, with some humor and humanity, is that whether or not we are “together” with someone, we are still alone. We swallow so much of ourselves, not because someone else forces us to, but because we let some of ourselves go naturally with the march of daily responsibility and priorities. In following this path, sometimes when we are together with someone, we are more alone than ever.

“Together Alone” – Crowded House

Lunchtable TV Talk – Hawaii Five-0: A Steve and Danny Love Story


I did not think I would like the reboot of Hawaii Five-0, but once I gave up my prejudice against cheesy TV action shows, but I have slowly fallen in love with the silly hilarity and the love-hate-love relationship between the two central characters driving 5-0: the straightlaced, New Jersey born Danno (Scott Caan) and the island-reared, Navy lieutenant commander, Steve McGarrett (Alex O’Loughlin). Their arguments and repartee keep me coming back. A recent McDanno episode in which the guys are on a stakeout and tell an elderly neighbor lady (Cloris Leachman) that they are a gay couple and proceed to argue about whether cats or dogs are better solidified my love. Other cast members round out the joy. I love Battlestar Galactica’s Grace Park. Daniel Dae Kim is also a favorite. And Chi McBride has been a good addition. Some recurring roles, such as one delivered by Michael Imperioli, have been nice diversions. Others have been like freak shows of bad plastic surgery to hold back natural aging (ring any bells, Melanie Griffith?) or just aging to the point of the unrecognizable (Tom Berenger). And we can’t discount the occasional appearance of Larry Manetti (Rick from Magnum PI).

The show employs a lot of stunt casting, but in a show like this, we can’t mind it too much because this is just the nature of it. It also has a lot of very unlikely, completely unrealistic stories that wrap up just a bit too neatly without anyone ever getting into any real trouble. But suspend disbelief, and enjoy the Steve and Danny bond, and Hawaii Five-0 will be satisfying.