Lunchtable TV Talk: A Touch of Cloth – The John Hannah School of English


Firewall and I have created the imaginary John Hannah School of English to acknowledge Hannah’s brand of exaggerated, overenunciated English as spoken by a Scot – that’s John Hannah! I love it. We love when his voice suddenly comes on in a voiceover. In this show, the voice is matched only by the determined (but intentionally overacted) intensity on Hannah’s face.

In much the same way that Hannah’s way of speaking is a kind of parody of actual English, A Touch of Cloth spoofs procedural police dramas. Virtually every action, every word they say is an inside joke, a reference (“You’re nicked.”) to something else (often within the same genre) or over-the-top parody of the Law & Orders (and other shows like it) that have long saturated the airwaves.

Also, the boss, Tom Boss (of course), looked familiar – finally I realized he is one of the prisoners in the Australian show, Banished.

But what else is there to say except to concede perhaps that the cop investigation and justice system procedural has gone too far, if something like this show is possible? (Indeed, in interviews, Hannah has said as much. He asked his agent to stop sending him cop procedural scripts but changed his mind when he got the Touch of Cloth script. Why wouldn’t he, considering that it blows up the whole genre and laughs at it?)

What is fresh and refreshing about the show is that you could watch it a few times over and catch new things each time. In the first episode, for example, Hannah’s character, DI Jack Cloth, gets irrationally angry and violent (a la Elliot Stabler in Law & Order: Special Victims Unit) in the interrogation room with a potential suspect – to the point that even he admits in a worked-up frenzy that he doesn’t know what he is doing. Afterwards, he realizes that the suspect is probably innocent, but his boss forces him to arrest the guy anyway. Cloth goes to the local pub, where his partner (Anne Oldman, pronounced repeatedly as “an old man”) meets him; he complains, “Yeah I always come here when we lock up and innocent man, helps me forget everything.” His partner: “You in here a lot then?” Cloth: “Have no idea.” And the bartender hands Cloth Cloth’s mail. Haha. Then the female partner gets a phone call, and her ring tone is kd lang’s “Constant Craving” – as if to beat us over the head with the “lesbian cop” trope. Here I don’t really mind because that’s the point, right? Every single minute of this show is something equally as ridiculous. If it weren’t quite this ridiculous, it might be offensive. But when it doesn’t hit, it seems stupid but innocuous, and when it does, it’s quite funny – in the same vein of, for example, Airplane!.

Lunchtable TV Talk: The Brink


Eager to find out how The Brink, a satirical comedy focused on a geopolitical crisis that ignites in Pakistan, ends, I keep watching. It’s a relatively funny journey – not too taxing or challenging given the political story (which can bog down shows attempting to be “light”, as this one aims to be). What sets this show apart is its stellar ensemble cast. Just when I get pulled into the scenes with the incorrigible, frenetic Jack Black and his driver, played by the multitalented Aasif Mandvi, the shift focuses to the sex-obsessed, liberal but never-taking-his-eye-off-the-ball US Secretary of State, played to perfection by Tim Robbins. But the show also has somewhat smaller but still standout roles for Pablo Schreiber, Carla Gugino (who also turned in a good performance recently in Wayward Pines) and John Larroquette.

On an entirely unrelated note, Larroquette’s presence sent me off on a nostalgic mental parade of past television, including Larroquette on the 80s sitcom classic, Night Court, of which he was the best part. But Night Court also included Harry Anderson, a most non-descript guy who nevertheless carved out a niche for himself as a magic aficionado and as a night-court judge, as a frequent guest star in Cheers and in the 80s/90s sitcom Dave’s World, based on the life of comedy writer, Dave Barry. And my twisted obituary-laced brain immediately recalls that Dave’s World’s Meshach Taylor (also famous for his turn as Anthony the ex-con in Designing Women) is dead – too young. Going back to Night Court, once again, whatever happened to Markie Post, the female lead in the show? Back in the 1990s she was in a little-watched but nevertheless entertaining Hearts Afire with the late John Ritter. (Of course my brain would lead me here – always the grim reaper.) Hearts Afire ended up being about a married couple working on a hometown newspaper in the south, but it started off being thematically not too different from Alpha House and The Brink – without the farce, of course. Incidentally, Hearts Afire also starred Billy Bob Thornton. But people were not quite ready for Billy Bob yet.

In some ways, ensemble shows like The Brink, as topical and sharp as they are, end up making me more interested in making connections – playing some kind of six-degrees-of-Kevin Bacon connect-the-dots. Obviously. Nothing about the unfolding crisis and underhanded political rivalries playing out in high-stakes, behind-the-scenes conflicts should lead someone to forgotten two-season sitcoms like Hearts Afire. But for a TV-crazed lunatic like me, they do.

Lunchtable TV Talk: Key & Peele


I read that Key & Peele ends at the end of the current season. It’s sad but it goes out on a high. Will miss it and the instantly recognizable Reggie Watts sound of the theme music.

Where else will we see an over-the-top skit where two dudes go nuts praising “Liam Neesons” and follow-up in their onstage repartee with, “Why do we love Liam Neeson so much?” “I’ll tell you what… Ethan Frome – that’s my jam right there!” HAHA. Does anyone even remember that film version of the book?

Until overdosing on the most recent season I had completely forgotten that Key and Peele were in the first season of TV’s Fargo.

At least there’s a new season of Fargo coming up.

Lunchtable TV Talk: Alpha House – “One nightmare at a time, girl”


I have not seen Haley Joel Osment since The Sixth Sense or possibly some tabloid “reporting” on his drunk driving or something similar. Oh the nightmares of being a child star (see “cast of Diff’rent Strokes” for the ultimate case study in child-stars gone awry). Suddenly, though, I started watching Alpha House during a brief Amazon Prime freebie month, and there he was. And noticed that he’s also in the IFC productions, The Spoils of Babylon and The Spoils Before Dying. Tons of great, funny and interesting people in The Spoils, so Osment is not exactly key. But I noticed him most because of his long absence from the public eye – and then his sudden reappearance in a bunch of stuff – referred to as an unusual “second act”. Osment has made no difference to Alpha House, but I had to note the presence.

I plowed through the first season of Alpha House – it did not start out particularly well. I may have had higher expectations because the show was created by Garry Trudeau. Alpha House focuses on a handful of Republican politicians sharing a house in DC together – it’s meant to be a comedy but until the middle of the season, it does not pick up speed. But eventually there are laughs and insights here and there – most of the characters, even though they align closely with stereotypical caricatures of politicians (egomaniacal sex addicts; uber-conservative closet cases; lazy lifelong politicians who have lost their way, etc.), come out as relatively likeable, human people.

John Goodman is more compelling in every single other role he’s played but then he only seems to come to life near the end of the first season – and this may be by design. His character is a complacent senator who rediscovers his values only once his seat is truly challenged. Mark Consuelos… well, does anyone think of him as anything more than Kelly Ripa’s husband and secondarily – maybe – as an actor on whatever soap opera he met Kelly on when they were both in the show? Actually he is better than that, but because he is possibly the biggest stereotype in the bunch it is easy to pigeonhole him as the Hispanic politician relying on his “roots” even though he does not understand a word of Spanish and as the player/sex addict who may destroy his career with these common pitfalls. Clark Johnson plays another of the politicians sharing the house, and he is pleasant and funny – but there is not much to say about him. (I have not seen much of Johnson since his days in Homicide: Life on the Street. Happy to see him, though – love him!)

Only Matt Malloy is immediately and consistently watchable as a very homophobic Republican senator who wins an “anti-sodomy” award for opposing gay marriage when it is suggested at every turn that he is deeply closeted himself. While the “closeted political operative story” was somewhat more highly charged with Cyrus Beene in Scandal during the flashback scenes depicting his coming out, Malloy’s character trajectory is much slower, certainly less exigent. Maybe that storyline is not gripping – almost nothing about the show is – but it grew on me. Malloy has always been one of those everywhere-everyman actors who plays small roles all over the place although I mostly think of him as the milquetoast “Howard” from the brutal film In the Company of Men. Seeing Malloy in a leading but ensemble role is refreshing – and even greater – Amy Sedaris as his rigidly Mormon, wholesome wife. Too much!

By episode five, the only thing that really piqued my interest was the appearance of musician Charles Bradley (as himself). But by episode seven – the prayer brunch episode, which includes the very funny Wanda Sykes (she’s in several episodes) – the show hits its stride, and I finished season two the very next day. (Who turns up, in fact, in the final episode but Josh Pais, the everywhere-everyman actor I wrote about just the other day?)

With no word yet on season three, I am surprised to find myself – after a very slow beginning – hoping it will return.

Lunchtable TV Talk: Sense8 – “This is the real fucking world – nothing’s fair”


After the first episode of Netflix’s Sense8, I was disappointed and did not even want to continue watching. I am not alone in this sentiment. The show is uneven in its pace and not every thread makes sense (maybe it does not have to – that might not be the point). The cited Hitfix article praises the show as being ambitious and sometimes great despite its weaknesses, and as I made my way through the show, I felt the same way. There were many touching moments, many hilarious moments, and many concepts that struggled against the ordinary to find greatness.

I won’t get into the premise of the show – it’s scifi, it’s about strangers in different parts of the world suddenly experiencing a mind-body connection that enables them to see, hear, feel each other. If that vague idea sounds interesting, watch it to find out for yourself if it means anything to you.

Hitfix also pointed out that many of the supporting characters contributed more entertainment value and depth than supporting characters generally do. This is particularly true, just as the article says, of Freema Agyeman’s tough, clever Amanita. (She’s better known for her role as Martha Jones in Doctor Who – and for me, who has oddly never seen any of the storied Doctor Who franchise, Law & Order UK, as prosecutor Alesha Phillips.)

The same cannot be said always for the stories of some of the main characters. I found myself most irritated by the story of “Riley” – the supposedly Icelandic character. Her character cites some vaguely “Icelandic” things – half the stuff she says comes back to sentences that begin with, “In Iceland…” – but most of it is the kind of drivel spouted in tourist handbooks. At least the people Riley encounters when she returns to Iceland from her home in London are actual Icelandic people – including her father, portrayed by an Icelandic folk and blues singer, KK.

It might be that much of this show feels inauthentic in that all the characters around the world speak English. There are moments when the characters’ lives collide, and only in those moments, the characters speak in their own native languages (the Korean girl speaks Korean, the German guy speaks German, etc.), but almost immediately “adapt” to understand each other but the entire show is in this lingua franca of English. Given how much of television is now being presented in languages other than English, it feels lazy and assumes laziness to make Sense8 this way when it is otherwise, progressive and full of diverse identities. Does using English help more people in a broad audience connect to a broader spectrum of diverse characters? Does it break down barriers rather than create one in the form of language? Possibly. This show does not always hit the mark, but its sights were set high enough that adding the layer of language might have just been too complex for an already complicated story. That said, though, I feel that “original” language has added so much to other shows that I wonder what might have been added (or taken away) here. (I have already written about original language use on TV, the new subtitling revolution – and I don’t love fake accents in place of the actual language – again, the “Icelandic” girl who is actually a Brit using a put-on Icelandic accent instead of just using Icelandic with subtitles….) Lovely scenery of Iceland, though.

The show is best when it reveals its many small moments of insight – even if they are not “deep” or hidden insight – moments of clarity that reflect on the duality and universality of the main characters’ lives overlapping. One small example – in episode 9 when Lito, the Mexican soap star, states while drowning his sorrows in a bar, “I was living in two separate worlds”. He could just as well be referring to his status as a Sensate, colliding into multiple worlds although he might be talking about his public life as a famous actor and his private life as a closeted gay man and the struggles and losses that has caused for him. “A secret self”, as Lito discusses with the bartender before it degenerates into self-hating homophobia.

Ultimately the unanswered questions, the potential and the little insights may provide a path for a second season. Fingers crossed.

It’s a small world on TV after all: More subtitled TV


More than ever, creators of TV are trusting audiences (particularly English-language markets) to delve into storylines that mix in non-English-language characters (integral characters and stories, beyond the stereotypical and often offensive Spanish-only illegal immigrant or household worker). I have written about the increasing instances of more foreign language subtitles on TV – and the number of shows weaving “globalization” into the story is increasing and lending depth and credibility to stories that are often removed from authenticity by giving English-speaking actors awkward, false, non-descript “foreign” accents while still speaking English.

Finally, we see more reality coming to the screen. This is the case because non-network TV has greater leeway. It is also happening because a more international group of people is creating TV entertainment. It is also happening because people are connecting more with reality – not in the sense of reality TV (ugh!) but in the sense of wanting to see reality reflected in the characters and stories depicted on screen.

In some cases, a show is created and not primarily intended for an English-language audience but is eventually exported and subtitled, such as the recent NRK production, The Saboteurs (Kampen om tungtvannet). The story and language is Norwegian with a heavy peppering of English and German. It’s been shown on UK TV recently.

Similarly the recent Deutschland 83, an eight-part, German-led drama (supported by German RTL and US-based Sundance), is the first German-language production to air in the US.

Yet, even in almost entirely English-language shows, we’re hearing a lot more diversity. While we tend to hear more (again stereotypical) Chinese-language in contemporary crime shows (always associated with Chinese gangs, such as in the recent Murder in the First and Sons of Anarchy), the latest (and final) season of Hell on Wheels has introduced a new story about Chinese railroad workers, and in telling these stories, we do get a “Chinese villain/gangster” but he is not a caricature so much as he is depicted as a profiteer not unlike the rest of the profiteers of the time, regardless of race or background. The Chinese workers, too, get a bit more depth to their story than standing around in the background. While I cannot say that Hell on Wheels has always been a superb show, it has sometimes taken interesting perspectives on intercultural interaction, conflict and integration in both a post-Civil War and westward-moving, “manifest destiny” environment. The Chinese language and culture addition is just another layer to a show that rolled out several layers already.

The already unusual Orphan Black, in which Tatiana Maslany plays multiple, very different characters (she has finally been recognized with an Emmy nomination), shows one character who is Ukrainian (and who uses Ukrainian). This affixes yet another piece of complexity to Maslany’s expertise at differentiating each character from the others

Ultimately what prompted my writing about this topic again, though, was the Swedish-speaking couple in the new show Mr Robot. Somehow their Swedishness makes them feel like a complete “otherness” in an already strange milieu. In Mr Robot, everyone is a bit of a weirdo, and while the Swedish guy seems to have it all together on the surface, he is perhaps the biggest weirdo of all, and his very private Swedish-speaking home life feels like it adds to that division.

Language can serve that purpose, too, which is of course something common in language and linguistic fields – different languages and how you use them in your life can contribute to very different aspects to your personality. In this sense, it is deeply interesting to watch how different characters’ behavior changes based on the language they use, choose to use in specific situations and with which other characters they interact in which language.

Lunchtable TV Talk: Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll


On the surface, I don’t think Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll would appeal much to me. But then, when have I limited my TV viewing to things that appeal to me?

The show is ostensibly about trying to keep the washed-up drug addict former lead singer of a band called The Heathens (Denis Leary) off drugs long enough to write a few new songs. It turns out he has a daughter he never knew about, and she turns up with money and the intention of putting the band back together – with her as the lead singer. Leary created the show, and more than anything, it showcases his fast-paced, smart-ass, sharp humor better than anything I’ve seen him do lately.

Leary as Johnny Rock: “Bowie had this haircut in 1973, this is an iconic look.”

John Corbett, as Flash, one of Johnny Rock’s old bandmates: “Bowie’s been drug-free since 78.”

Johnny: “Talent-free, too, bro. Let’s dance… let’s not, David….”

Johnny: “Name one great band or rock star that doesn’t get high.”

Rehab, former bandmate: “Coldplay.*”

Johnny’s daughter, Gigi: “Morrissey.”

Bam Bam, another former bandmate: “Radiohead.”

Johnny: “I rest my case. Every time I hear a Radiohead song, I feel like I’m failing the SATs all over again.”

This coupled with a few zingers about Pat Benatar and her husband, Mr. Pat Benatar had me chuckling through the first two episodes. Sadly that’s all that’s been broadcast so far.

Of note, the band manager, Ira, is the actor Josh Pais… who is one of those unafraid to be non-descript guys who shows up everywhere. He is the quietest, pent up and most unassuming dentist in the indie film Touchy Feely but then is this angry, volatile, perv, Stu Feldman, in Ray Donovan. I love actors who blend in but deliver wildly and widely varied performances, and Pais is great at this even if he is upstaged here by Denis Leary and John Corbett. He may always be upstaged because he blends in well and does exactly what his character is there to do.

Overall, it may be that you have to have a soft spot for Denis Leary to like this in the first place, but I suppose I qualify even if I have no fondness for the kind of selfish, ne’er-do-well character he represents.

*I would argue that Coldplay is NOT a great band, whatever their reach and popularity. Agree there with Leary’s resting the case.

Lunchtable TV Talk: Rectify – When you don’t do yourself any favors


The quiet, weird calm on Daniel Holden’s surface occasionally erupts in blind rage – leading to events he does not remember. And he never does himself any favors – either in committing these impulsive and violent acts nor in how he goes about handling them. It’s frustrating as hell as a viewer but makes for very unusual storytelling – especially for episodic tv. Things Holden did sometime in the first season of the show are only coming back to light in the third season.

This is how Rectify operates. Very slow-moving drama, following Holden and his family and the other people in the town into which he is released after 20 years in prison. It is never clear that Holden is innocent. DNA more or less exonerates him, but the town (especially its power structure) remains suspicious of him. His odd behavior, speech and mannerisms make people uncomfortable enough that they are never sure he is innocent either. In fact, neither is he.

The show is deliberately slow and often so poetic and thoughtful in its dark and quiet explorations on different themes. As such, it does not surprise me that it is not widely watched – and not just because it lives on Sundance, not the most visible network. Cited many times by many media outlets as a hidden gem, too slow for many but worth the effort, it’s hard not to feel for and be frustrated by everyone involved – peculiar Daniel Holden, his impassioned sister, Amantha (one of many TV roles nailed by Abigail Spencer – see also the latest season of True Detective, previous seasons of Suits), his mother and stepfather and step-siblings (who have their own issues), and even his long-suffering and frustrated lawyer.

The frustration is a part of the beauty of the show and its character development. It moves more at the pace of real life, does not offer neat or happy endings and is as challenging to draw conclusions from as everyday life is. Thanks to Netflix, you don’t have to rely on reruns to see the previous seasons.

Homemade paneer – experimental dinner

Ready to eat

Ready to eat

When I hosted a guest at my place recently, I made my own paneer hoping to make this experimental pseudo-Indian dish. I always overestimate how much food I will need when people visit. I plan for breakfasts, lunches and dinners but prepare such elaborate breakfasts (a nice way of saying that I overdo it in a big way usually – even though I get better all the time), no one wants lunch.

Finally I got around to making this potato-paneer filling for red peppers, cooked in a tomato-curry sauce, accompanied by basmati rice and fried onions. Oh, how I love onion rice.

How did I do this? Well, I started a few days ago by making paneer. How do you make paneer? It’s pretty easy.

You need:
1 liter milk
1/8 cup lemon juice
Cheesecloth for straining

Put the liter of milk in a heavy saucepan, stirring every couple of minutes while you wait for the milk to come to a boil. Once it reaches boiling point, remove from heat and add the lemon juice in slowly until the milk completely curdles.

Line a strainer with the cheesecloth and drain the milk-lemon mixture. The liquid will drain away and you will be left with the thick curdled milk. Twist the cloth tightly and squeeze repeatedly from different angles to ensure that the liquid completely drains.

Turn the cloth over and place about one kilo of weight on top of it and leave for several hours to really make sure the liquid drains. This will create a solid paneer block, which you can use immediately or refrigerate for a few days – be sure to cover with water in a container if you are keeping it to ensure it does not dry out.

Now you can cut it into cubes, as many recipes call for, or use it the way I used it in my potato-paneer experiment.

potato paneer spice filling mixture

potato paneer spice filling mixture

Boil four small, peeled potatoes until soft. Mash them together with one cup of crumbled paneer. Mash in the following mixture of spices:

¼ teaspoon red chili powder
½ teaspoon cumin powder
¼ teaspoon garam masala
1 tablespoon of chopped cilantro
salt and pepper, to taste

Mash all of this together and then hollow out a couple of red peppers, discarding the insides and seeds and slice rings you can fill with the potato-paneer filling.

Pepper rings, ready to fill

Pepper rings, ready to fill

Filled pepper rings, ready to grill

Filled pepper rings, ready to grill

Set aside the filled pepper rings while you prepare the easy curry sauce and sauté the onions for the rice. (Prepare the rice at the same time in a separate pot.)

Nothing like onions the spice up rice

Nothing like onions the spice up rice

For the curry sauce… there is no exact recipe here, and you can adjust spices and heat levels to your own taste buds. I erred on the side of too spicy this time, but it was still quite tasty.

2 tablespoons oil
1.5 chopped onions
1 tablespoon garlic-ginger paste
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon coriander
1/8 teaspoon chili powder or cayenne pepper (I accidentally added far more than this)
1/4 teaspoon turmeric powder
about 20 cherry tomatoes, cut in half
about 1/2 cup of tomato passata
salt and pepper to taste

Sauté the onion for about 20 minutes on low heat, add the ginger-garlic paste and heat through. Add the spices. After a minute or two, add the tomatoes and passata. Let cook for about five minutes on low to medium heat. Add a tablespoon or two of cream or coconut milk. Puree in a small food processor and return to oven-safe cast iron skillet to keep warm.



Now put the stuffed pepper rings under the grill and brown them and warm them.

Add the pepper rings to the sauce and heat on the stove or the oven.

Fluff the rice and add the fried onions on top.

The finished products

The finished products

Having completed this experiment once, I know where I went wrong and where I can improve. My next guest will benefit from my learning…

Lunchtable TV Talk: Dead TV We Never Heard Of – The Divide


The Divide only lasted for eight intense episodes. It never had a chance. I never even heard of it until it had already long been cancelled, finding it in a list of “shows you should binge watch now”. The Divide came well before the much-praised American Crime – but it tackles many of the same issues of race, injustice, capital punishment, small compromises that lead to bigger corruption, a broken justice system and handles these issues with similar deft subtlety. But no one ever heard of The Divide, while American Crime (not much watched but certainly a critical darling) at least enjoyed its share of media attention. Maybe it was the timing, maybe it was the network each show debuted on (The Divide played on WE TV – have you ever heard of it or watched anything on that channel? American Crime is on a major network – ABC.)

I enjoyed the cast of The Divide (a whole bunch of actors from The Wire), and the story, had the show known it was going to be cancelled, could have been wrapped up in its eight-episode run. Instead, I guess they held out hope that the show would continue and the last episode opened a whole bunch of new threads and left most of the existing ones unresolved… meaning that there was no satisfaction at all. The final episode, in fact, felt really “off” after a relatively tight seven episodes leading up to it. The episode introduced a bunch of seemingly nonsensical and out-of-character activities, particularly a scene where two guys (one a cop and one a guy helping his brother-in-law, the DA, investigate something surreptitiously) hatch an unclear plan to entrap someone – but the plan is not at all clear and the situation goes terribly awry. Maybe it could have been explained had a second season happened. Disappointingly, we’ll never know.