lunchtable TV talk: this kind of nerd

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Many times, I have claimed that I have ‘given up’ television, and compared to what I used to inhale (night and day viewing, really), I have. I also don’t write obsessively about my thoughts on tv shows I do watch, so it looks like I’m following my own rules.

Yet, if I were to talk to almost anyone else I know, I still watch much more tv (however carefully selected it is now) than most people I know. I recently finished by the heartbreaking but often very funny, and always timely, Hap and Leonard (set in the 80s, yet with timeless and important themes, woven so tightly into the narrative that they never come across as “Important Themes”, such as those you’d see on “very special episodes of…”). It is also one of those shows that gets better with each season, which is one reason why I am pulling for renewal. (As the most recent season ends, there is no word on whether it will come back. But it really deserves to.)

I can’t really say enough about Hap and Leonard and the performances of its two leads, James Purefoy and Michael K. Williams. Both are actors I like anyway, but the humanity and depth of friendship/love for each other that they breathe into these characters puts both of them – and the show – over the top for me. I think it’s a shame that more people haven’t heard of the show. I suspect this may have something to do it with its being on the very quiet Sundance network, where many brilliant shows live quiet, critically acclaimed but often little-seen lives. This was certainly true of Rectify. Despite very few people seeing Rectify when it was on, Sundance let it continue to live – and I hope the same will be true for Hap and Leonard.

In Hap and Leonard, I also enjoy small nods to things in the show that may or may not be intentional, e.g. the sheriff in the racist town portrayed in the latest season is played by Corbin Bernsen, and as Hap and Leonard are driving through town while businesses are boarding up in anticipation of a big storm, the town cinema reader board displays the film Major League as what’s playing. If you don’t know or remember, Bernsen played a vain, aging, jack-ass baseball player in Major League (more similar to his role in LA Law than anything he has done in his later years).

Having sung the praises of Hap and Leonard and told everyone I can about it, I should also sing the praises of an Italian series, 1992 and 1993. Today I tried to moved on to watch 1993, an Italian drama that follows, logically, 1992. When I watched 1992 several years ago, I loved the storytelling and nods to that period in time (and learned a bit more about what was happening in Italy at the time). I have commented before that I am not entirely sure that there were *so many* Italians into the kinds of music that made up the 1992 soundtrack, but I can forgive that. What struck me is how the main character, an ad exec, Notte, whose savvy and forward-looking ability to see trends, leads him to politics and a bold, seemingly out-of-left-field prediction that someone like Silvio Berlusconi had a viable political future, something most others around him do not agree with. In my favorite part of the series, the Notte caused everyone around him to laugh, poking fun at his naivete in thinking that someone as ludicrous as Berlusconi could ever be a politician. One character, if I recall, argues something, through condescending laughter, like, ‘That would be like Schwarzenegger trying to be a politician.’ We all know now, of course, that both Berlusconi and Schwarzenegger went on to have dubiously successful political careers. But now, in the post-Trump era, the warnings about grotesque media figures like Berlusconi becoming politicians, and no one caring about the scandals, wrongdoing, corruption and rumors swirling around them, feel even more prescient and … sad.

I still didn’t get around to watching 1993, as it happens. I didn’t have time to pay as close attention as I would have needed to, so I turned instead to Westworld, which I tried to watch when it was new but couldn’t get into. Sometimes it just takes time, and I have managed to dive in. I don’t have anything particular to say about it because it’s not something that needs more attention or my amateurish praise. It’s far more important that less visible gems like Hap and Leonard get a polish and the chance to shine.

 

Heeding the political precedent

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Media, political parties, political analysts and pundits, popular culture and just about any person you talked to in the US or abroad laughed off the Donald Trump presidential candidacy as a joke. Whether because Trump himself would lose interest, because it was such an outlandish proposition that it seemed impossible, because eventually he’d go too far and no one would stand for it any longer, because people love sensationalized stuff (they do, after all, love drama and reality television), because one of the “serious” candidates would surge ahead, everyone chose to ignore what was unfolding. And they chose to ignore the real-world precedent of the laughed-off, joke candidate who swept into power and did real damage.

World history is full of examples (Ronald Reagan was just a bad actor), but I think back again to watching the Italian TV series, 1992, which explored the idea of Berlusconi as an unlikely, laughable political leader (and its joking about how that would be as ridiculous as a Schwarzenegger political career…). No one seems to heed the warnings of these previous disasters, and we are doomed to repeat what we have not learned from.

Photo is from Piñateria Ramirez’s Donald Trump piñata via the Piñateria Ramirez Facebook page.

Penmanship and Italian tastes

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Growing up – and still – I had a lot of pen pals. It seemed that penmanship was a national trait in many countries. Every French person formed their letters and numbers in the same way. Every German, every Russian, every Italian, too. Unique handwriting for each person, but you could always tell from the envelope and the way the letters looked what country the letter came from.

I wondered the other day, as I watched the surprisingly good (for the most part) Italian TV drama 1992, about the soundtrack. It fit its time perfectly – but I wondered how many Italians at that time were really listening to most of the stuff included? Screaming Trees (the one song on the Singles soundtrack) – yes. Smashing Pumpkins – probably. But Teenage Fanclub and Primal Scream… eh, I have my doubts. There were not THAT many people listening to those bands anywhere, let alone in Italy (a place I perhaps unfairly judge in matters of pop culture). Or did I see this through my own faraway prism, imagining that because Fanclub and Scream were indie/off-the-beaten-path where I came from, they also were for everyone else?

I don’t let Italy fool me and do have many good Italian friends who also have great taste (in music, too), but images of Berlusconi, the ridiculous bimbo-filled TV game/variety shows and crap like Eros Ramazzotti (or other things I cannot identify) always spring to mind. Maybe some of these trusted Italian friends can set my biases straight. Were people really getting that down to the sounds of early 90s Glasgow bands? (I grant you – the show only included the two best-known songs from these bands – but it still surprised me.)

 

Lunchtable TV Talk: 1992 – Italian TV

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Don’t let Italy fool you” – the one motto that remains constant in my life. This motto, usually holding true, sometimes prevents me from watching some otherwise riveting film – and surprisingly television.

1992, a ten-part Italian TV series, tells a story of lives that intersect across several Italian cities in 1992. From perspectives that span the law, politics, corruption and scandalous outcomes of these intertwining areas, it’s a gripping story with deep, interesting characters, each with his or her own challenges, and quite a bit of insight. Modern stories that plumb the past not just to spin a tale of historical fiction but to shine a light on universal and enduring truths are common enough (we’re seeing echoes of this in the current TV dramatization of the OJ Simpson trial in American Crime Story: The People v. OJ Simpson), but are they always edge-of-your-seat TV? Not always. But in this case, I’ve been on a binge.

Admittedly though I’ve had this lined up to watch for more than six months. I kept putting it off because I don’t know Italian and did not really have time for reading subtitles. I got halfway through the first episode twice before finally getting through the whole thing in a third-time’s-a-charm result. Now that I devoted a whole day to gobbling this up, I can’t believe I didn’t watch it sooner.

Of note is the great soundtrack that is just so 1992 (“Nearly Lost You” by the Screaming Trees, for example). And also one character’s insistence that we have a leader in Silvio Berlusconi – and everyone else around him is discounting this vision as pure folly, scoffing at an opinion poll he’d done with youth. One man even laughed and told him the list of popular public figures he’d compiled, with Arnold Schwarzenegger in the number three slot, was patently ridiculous because – guffaw, guffaw – who on earth would take the idea of old Arnie as a politician seriously!? Haha. We know what happened there. And look what happened for Berlusconi in 1994 (and a few times thereafter).