Lunchtable TV talk: Lockdown viewing

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I’ve said it about a million times before, much like addicts promise to get better, stop destroying themselves and hurting others: I will stop watching so much television. This is not a promise I ever end up keeping.

For a while this “promise” endured because I was busy with so many others things: work, study, travel, friends. Slowly I started letting more televisual entertainment slip into my field of view, and before I knew it, I was binge-watching all six seasons of Lost in the course of about one week (seriously). (I never saw Lost during its original run and felt like it was a strange gap in my pop culture knowledge.) Was I failing to do the things I needed to do in life? No. Was I neglecting relationships? Probably not. This excessive consumption has taken hold and had the chance to expand during the enforced isolation of Covid times. I am not alone there (well, in the most literal sense I am) — most streaming platforms have seen exponential (and semi-sustained) jumps in subscribership during this time.

With this confession, then, I am going to dump a random list here of things I’ve watched in recent months with a few short words about each (in most cases). You will notice that not all of them are new (case in point: Lost). Some are comedy/sitcoms, some are dramas, some are documentaries. Some are in English, some aren’t. I haven’t made an exhaustive list of what I’ve watched – there is a whole lot I have not listed here, if you can believe it. But it’s also not a list of things that I necessarily liked. These are the things that stuck in my head for one reason or another, so I’ve included them in this list. I know I’m going to forget some good stuff because… well, I am a total addict, I don’t keep close enough track of stuff as I watch, and I consume so much that I can’t possibly call it all to mind easily. For instance, I almost forgot to list Black Monday — and I loved that.

There is not much reason for this list other than… the fact that I like to keep track of stuff I watch and read. But I do know that lots of people are running out of stuff to watch after force-feeding themselves all their streaming platforms had to offer in the early days of lockdown. We may face multiple lockdown rounds, in which case, I am sure everyone really wants to know what kind of entertainment I would recommend (or not).

So here, in no particular order at all, are some of my recent viewing vices:

Brockmire: This is by far one of my favorite shows in this entire list. It’s a shame so few people have seen and heard of it. Led by Hank Azaria, supported by Amanda Peet, the four short seasons of Brockmire traveled from a semi-redemptive story about a fast-talking, loudmouth baseball announcer who lost it and went on a multiple-year drinking and drug bender to a future in which the titular character finds meaning in family life and something approaching simplicity. I don’t do it justice… but it’s razor sharp, hilarious, sad, a cautionary tale about baseball, technology and the broader, darker future we have in store for us. But its emotional resonance comes from the soulful performance Azaria delivers throughout the character’s journey. I urge you: WATCH THIS. If you watch anything at all from this entire list, let it be Brockmire.

Mr Inbetween: I cannot recommend this Australian show enough. I am not sure why but it struck me in a big way when I watched it. Read my further thoughts on Mr Inbetween here. (There’s also a nod to a Canadian show, Mary Kills People, about a doctor who helps terminally ill patients die, in the Mr Inbetween write-up; Mary Kills People is not worth watching but is something I watched in recent months.)

Bosch: A take on the dark, semi-rogue cop story, this detective procedural offers a slightly offbeat constancy… whether it is crime, corruption or the prevalence of inscrutable grey areas. Perhaps it’s the offbeat nature of it that makes it addictive and comforting – with ten hours flying by (while other shows feel like they drag). The writing is not bad, acting decent, good cast… and there are several seasons to sink your teeth into.

Hightown: I watched all eight episodes of the first season, never quite making up my mind until the end that I thought it was okay. I am frustrated with characters who are their own worst enemies, which is the case for Monica Raymund‘s Jackie. It’s a murder story with hints of organized crime/the drug underworld with not particularly engaging characters or character development, making this one that I’d recommend skipping.

Normal People: I have not read the book on which Normal People is based, but am told that it is in most ways quite faithful to the source material (with a few notable exceptions). Perhaps I watched it in an unusually emotional state because I found it… grating, although still gripping enough that I wanted to see it through. Mostly it irritated me because the two main characters were such poor communicators and most of the problems they faced as a couple came from not talking to each other, not making their wants and needs clear, and ending up in deeply unhappy and unsatisfying situations as a result. On the other hand, we are talking about two very young people, neither of whom had exceptional communication abilities or the propensity to form open, close connections with others (given what we learn about the woman character especially). For as much as critical buzz spoke about the realistic nature of the abundant sex scenes, I found it interesting that these two people could continually find their way back to each other and share a tremendous amount of physical intimacy that never seemed to cross over into an openly emotional intimacy (which, over time, is better explained by what we learn of each person’s life and past).

Ramy: I really despised the character Ramy, a young Egyptian-American man struggling with his identity in modern America. Inclined to be more tied more actively to his Muslim faith than his family, he seems to be on a constant quest for spiritual fulfillment but at the same time is succumbing to temptations ranging from sugar addiction and copious porn-assisted masturbation to ongoing sexual affairs with various women, including a married member of his community. Perhaps as viewers we are not meant to like him or his struggle. Because most of the story is told from his POV, I think we get a one-dimensional view of women in general, and more particularly of Muslim women. I found myself enjoying the rest of Ramy’s family and the imam in season two (Mahershala Ali) much more than I cared for Ramy himself, and I was glad that the show had an expansive enough approach to storytelling to include these tales as well. I did find that the, erm, creative and unusual situations Ramy got himself into made the show well worth watching, even if his foibles, mistakes, poor choices and shortcomings were often cringeworthy.

Hanna: Comprised of two quite watchable seasons of action, this is no masterpiece and doesn’t really explore some of the moral questions that the themes of the show could and should invite. I found myself drawn to the performance of Esme Creed-Miles (daughter of actors Samantha Morton and Charlie Creed-Miles — whom I’d never heard of or seen acting until recently when he turned up in about five things I’d watched in short succession). I’ve never seen the film version of this (Saoirse Ronan played the lead), and I wouldn’t say that the tv version inspires me to go back and watch the film. But the tv version is a decent distraction.

Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story: I am not sure when I fell in love with Amanda Peet, but it happened a few years ago (and happily two of her other vehicles are listed in this post — The Romanoffs and Brockmire). And she is the only reason I decided to watch this. If you were alive and probably American at the time this story took place, you probably heard about the dramatic double homicide perpetrated by Betty Broderick — she killed her ex-husband and his new wife. But the tabloid retellings of the time didn’t quite capture the story the way this did. Sure, this is a semi-fictional account, meaning that we see a relatively sympathetic take on Betty Broderick, who spent her youth making sacrifices for and supporting her husband, only to have him run off with his young assistant later, once he’d achieved great financial and professional success. Not a novel framework by any means, but certainly the outcome differs from most woeful “he left me for a younger woman” stories.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: I have been watching this documentary while reading the book it’s roughly taken from. Michelle McNamara was a gifted writer who humanized murder victims and seemed to really care about who they were as people, and the losses the people around them suffered once they were gone. Obsessive, driven, talented but undermined, it seems, by a kind of impostor syndrome, McNamara never quite embraced the idea (again, it seems) that she was as bright and talented as she really was. Sadly, she died before the book was completed, and before the murderer she’d relentlessly chased in her amateur detective work was identified and caught. But it’s a fitting tribute that the book has received as much attention as it has, and a documentary series is a perfect companion piece to showcase the publicity-shy, engaging McNamara in her element.

Little America: Having grabbed an AppleTV trial subscription solely to watch Visible: Out on Television, I felt I had to take advantage of the time on Apple before the week was up. There is almost nothing, otherwise, ON AppleTV, which is why I will be damned if I am going to shell out any money at all. You kind of have to bring the content, right? But I did quickly snack on this imperfect but charming collection about different immigrants in the US. Adapted from a number of true stories based on real people’s experiences, these semi-fictionalized accounts splashed just enough emotion (both happy and sad) to engage me even in the slower moments of the storytelling.

Flesh and Bone: Digging through Amazon content I stumbled onto this ballet-driven drama and did watch all eight episodes, but apart from depicting with a veneer of accuracy the physical torture of elite ballet (projected as the most delicate and transcendent movement experience a body can convey), the characters and stories often didn’t make sense, felt contrived and seemed needlessly dark and designed for audience shock value. It was particularly difficult to discern the motivations for many characters’ actions, and even though this problem started to resolve as the series went on, it felt as though there was not adequate time to fully resolve lingering motivational issues while still being able to hold the audience’s attention with the thin plotline(s). Nevertheless, the ballet created for the series itself and the talent of the cast – actual ballet dancers, thankfully – gave this a boost in terms of credibility.

Visible: Out on Television: I watch pretty much everything like this – documentaries on the struggle for equal rights and against violence, and of course at the core of these kinds of programs is the fight for AIDS treatment and research. I can’t emerge from watching these things without uncontrollably sobbing, thinking about all the people who were lost during that truly frightening time. You’d think we’d have learned something about compassion from the AIDS epidemic and how it was handled, but watching the way the current COVID crisis is unfolding, it seems we haven’t. The public “discourse” (it can’t even be called that) is so divisive and memories seemingly so short that I’ve pretty much lost whatever sliver of faith I had in humanity (or at least in the United States). In any case, this is so worth watching to see how LGBTQ representation has changed on TV (hint: there’s more of it at last, but there’s still some way to go).

Dead to Me: I’ve watched the two seasons of Dead to Me, and enjoyed their dark humor, but I can’t explain why. I guess I really like Linda Cardellini and also like Christina Applegate, and both play characters who make unlikely friends who have to stick together because of a few dark, shared secrets. It’s not always easy, and I suppose there is where the dramatic tension and some of the humor comes from.

Lenox Hill: I am kind of a sucker even for fictional medical drama, but this is a documentary that follows doctors in Lenox Hill hospital in New York over the course of several months. I enjoyed each story and the doctors the show followed, but I especially loved David Langer, the Chief of Neurosurgery. It’s probably weird to say that you’d fall in love with anyone from a show like this, but I suppose its emphasis on humanizing the somewhat mysterious work of physicians helps achieve this rush of feeling. After I devoured the first set of episodes, I noticed that there was a new one – they made a Covid-specific episode to chronicle how the hospital was coping with this new crisis.

Hunters: This was over-the-top and not particularly satisfying. Even though, especially in this day and age, you’d think it would be: a group of unlikely “heroes” come together to form a secret society of Nazi hunters in the 1970s. Not a bad premise, and while the show itself it not entirely bad, it’s just underbaked somehow. Still, when I watched it, I was drawn in enough to finish watching. But it seems that this could have been done differently and better. A wasted opportunity.

Sex Education: This one doesn’t need much introduction — it’s been streamed like mad, and rightfully so. It’s funny in a charming and embarrassing kind of way — both for awkward teenagers and for the adults who play it cool but are still just as confused as the rest of us. Gillian Anderson is great here as Jean Milburn, sex therapist/expert who nevertheless struggles with commitment and intimacy, and the plot of the show is driven by the intelligent but insecure Otis, Jean’s son, who delivers sex advice to his classmates to make some money. It’s often quite heartbreaking, heartfelt and reminds one of the trials of high school. Ugh. Well worth watching.

The Romanoffs: The Romanoffs, perhaps unfairly, was overlooked when it was released. Overshadowed by other content in a newly overstuffed streaming landscape, and buried under the weight of expectation. It’s not that this was flawless, but it was creative and unusual and had a great cast across each of the very loosely related vignettes. I think I saw some advertising for this around the same time The Kominsky Method came out, and the two Slavic-sounding names canceled each other out in my mind (because I watched neither until several years after they were released). Of course it was clear from the advertising about The Romanoffs that its premise was that all the characters were meant, in some way, to be descendants of the ill-fated Romanov dynasty. Whether they were or not was immaterial to, and only tangentially related, to the real stories the vignettes aimed to tell. Each of those stories was hit or miss. For example, I liked bits of the first story about an old French lady whose American nephew and his materialistic French girlfriend are just waiting for the aunt to die and leave them her apartment. They hire a housekeeper/caretaker who happens to be a Muslim woman, and the old lady is rude, racist, and incensed — but her anger seems less directed at the housekeeper and more toward being left alone and ignored in a world that is passing her by. The story gets a bit strange, but it has its rich moments. My favorite of the stories was the episode, “Expectation”, in which Amanda Peet and John Slattery are just so human that it’s hard to watch. A close second is “End of the Line” when a childless couple (Kathryn Hahn and Jay R. Ferguson) travel to the Russian Far East to adopt a baby. The scene is so drab and suspect, hinting constantly that something could, and will, go wrong at any moment. The final episode is also interesting. But then several of the episodes are utterly forgettable. Like I said, hit or miss.

Modern Love: Like The Romanoffs, Modern Love is a anthology of vignettes. It’s in fact The Romanoffs without the Romanoff thread… it’s stories of people falling in and out of love — different kinds of love and care, different places in love affairs, the loss of love, and so on. It’s engaging enough that I did feel drawn in and watched it all. Also a supremely talented cast, including John Slattery (who featured in The Romanoffs), and a duo of “everywhere, in everything” people –Julia Garner and Shea Whigham.

The Jewish Enquirer: Imagine a low-budget sitcom modeled on the awkward misanthropy and political incorrectness of Curb Your Enthusiasm, only set in London, focused on a mostly unsuccessful journalist at a niche newspaper, and you might dream up something like The Jewish Enquirer. As it likes to say in reference to itself, it’s the UK’s 4th most successful newspaper… which should tell you everything you need to know. Hapless protagonist, Paul, gets into scrapes and situations that are reminiscent of Larry David‘s Curb antics… meaning that you’re not sure whether to laugh or cringe or both.

Black Monday: I nearly forgot to include this, but when the show returned from a hiatus recently with a Halloween episode that had Don Cheadle and Dulé Hill dressed in competing Coming to America themed costumes, challenging each other to a Bobby BrownMy Prerogative” dance-off, and Andrew Rannells dressed as George Michael from the “Faith” video, the brilliance and hilarity of this frenetic show came rushing back to me. It’s not always spot-on in terms of what it’s trying to do, but it effortlessly captures the volatility and excess of the era it’s portraying, and has us laughing while it does.

Ozark: Ozark started off by introducing us to Marty and Wendy Byrde, accidental money launderers who have to weasel their way out of trouble with a Mexican drug cartel. They both turn out to be so successful at money laundering that it takes over their lives, and changes their entire life path (the whole family is affected, but it’s Laura Linney‘s Wendy who seems to embrace this sinister lifestyle and immerse herself in it). Jason Bateman is a steady hand (as he is in everything), and Julia Garner, who has been everywhere in recent years, is superb, despite some script-related character fluctuations that didn’t feel aligned with her character, Ruth.

Unorthodox: A young woman escapes her oppressive ultra-Orthodox life, leaving her husband and only life she’s ever known in Brooklyn, and runs away to Berlin, where her mother (who has also long ago fled the Orthodox life) lives. It’s a fascinating story about claiming an individual identity when layers of some other cultural and religious identity and “tradition” have been forced on you. She finds her path, and begins to make her own decisions.

Shtisel: Following on the very popular Unorthodox, I watched the two series of Shtisel, an Israeli show that follows a fictional ultra-Orthodox family through their daily lives, particularly as they all bend and break some of the rules of the strict community they live in. (Shira Haas, who plays the lead in Unorthodox also appears.)

Our Boys: There’s something about this Israeli-American production that both angered me and made me inconsolably sad. Perhaps it’s the hopelessness of the situation between Israelis and Palestinians as an overhanging theme. The story starts with three Israeli teens being kidnapped and killed, apparently by Hamas. In a retaliatory kidnapping a Palestinian boy is taken away and killed. While the reactions of both the Jewish and Arab communities are explored, the hardest thing to watch was the grief and pain the family feels, and how much their differing reactions leads to the fragmentation of their family.

Kalifat: A Swedish drama/thriller about a young woman, Pervin, who is married to an IS fighter in Syria. She is desperate to leave and return to Sweden and is told that she has to exchange intelligence on IS activities for an escape route for her child and herself. The urgency of each moment, and how much risk Pervin is taking to get out of her perilous situation, is keenly felt in fast-paced action and seemingly constant threats. There are secondary — and important — stories, such as a thread about a “recruiter” who is grooming/brainwashing girls in Sweden to send them off to IS-controlled Syria. But it’s Pervin’s story that makes this worth watching.

Bobby Kennedy for President: It’s possible I watched this while I was descending into a maudlin period anyway, but I couldn’t help but cry multiple times as I watched this documentary series. Not so much because of Bobby Kennedy’s assassination, but for the turbulence and loss of innocence that enveloped the 1960s — and Kennedy’s death was like a bookend to a period of sweeping social change that ultimately went into self-obsessed hibernation during the stagnant and ugly 1970s. I did enjoy the evolution of Bobby Kennedy as a thinker and politician, as he moved (at least rhetorically) away from dogmatic law and order to more social-justice-oriented policy and thought. His ascendancy and moment as the incumbent Democratic nominee, snatched away in minutes, is yet another one of history’s pivotal moments in which we are left to forever wonder, “What if?”

Years and Years: I sort of stumbled onto this British miniseries, and I ended up being quite surprised by its startling parallels with the current period we live in. We’re mired in a big mess, — politically, socially, economically, environmentally — and the real future, as well as the one projected in Years and Years, is grim and dark.

Hollywood: This won’t go down in history as a classic, but it was certainly inventive. A surprising emotional at times take on “what if…?” What if Hollywood had been different in the post-war era? What if gay actors could have just been who they were and lived with who they loved? What if black actors, writers and actresses would have had equality and visibility as they deserved? The generous artistic license here both let the imagination soar momentarily while also beating it down with the realization that no, we’re actually still not in a place of such openness.

Sorry for Your Loss: I wanted to find this better. But the endlessly whiny and exceedingly selfish character, a young widow played by Elizabeth Olsen, made this almost unwatchable. The supporting cast shines when they have the opportunity, but Olsen’s Leigh sucks all the oxygen out of every scene, making it difficult to enjoy the other parts and stories. Her husband appears to have killed himself, and through flashbacks, we see how deep his lifelong depression is, and how dismissive Leigh has been of his struggles. And it just makes her selfishness all the more annoying. I couldn’t force myself to watch the second season.

Stateless: Anyone in doubt of the great range of Yvonne Strahovski‘s talent should look no further. If you put together her anguished, confused portrayal here with her controlled, manipulative role as Serena Joy in The Handmaid’s Tale and her breakout performance as Hannah in Dexter — all very different roles, it’s hard to imagine why she hasn’t made a bigger mark. Stateless is the true story of an Australian woman who, after a psychotic break, ends up in an Australian detention center meant for refugees.

I Am Not Okay With This: Based on a comic book, I Am Not Okay With This straddles fantasy, sci-fi, teen coming-of-age dramedy and somehow manages to pull it off. The story focuses on angry and confused teen, Syd, who discovers she has out-of-control telekinetic powers. It’s not terribly different from many other high school angst films and tv shows, but its irreverence and a touch of the supernatural make this worthwhile entertainment.

The English Game: This isn’t exactly a masterpiece but does take a surface-level look at how football changed and became a “passing” game once Scottish players came onto the scene. Football was at the time (the 1870s) seen as a wealthy upper-class man’s pastime, but the Scots who played were working class men who felt that the game not only could be a team effort but also a vocation for which players should be paid. He was by no means the main character, but I loved Craig Parkinson as James Walsh.

Queen Sono: I had to watch this if for no other reason that it was Netflix’s first African production. It’s not a masterpiece, but it held my attention and felt, for once, like something different.

Taste the Nation with Padma Lakshmi: I get pulled into these food and cooking shows sometimes, but most of them aren’t things I’d single out to mention. For example, I have watched most of the cooking-related shows available on Netflix (Ugly Delicious – but David Chang seems dickish enough that I can’t recommend it to anyone else; Chef’s Table, which I actually love; The Chef Show – which is fairly informative and made me have a new appreciation for Jon Favreau; Somebody Feed Phil, which is highly obnoxious and repetitive but does visit some interesting places – it in fact made me think I wouldn’t mind spending a bit of time in Chicago, even though I don’t have an ounce of desire to spend even one minute in the United States). Having listed all these things, I do single out Padma Lakshmi’s Taste the Nation because I very much enjoyed how she struck a balance between different groups of people and their food and the contradictions and adaptations of those foods and how they have been adopted and co-opted. In the first episode, for example, Lakshmi travels to Texas (the El Paso/Juarez border) and meets a second-generation Syrian immigrant who is a Trump supporter who claims to love his Mexican employees, Mexicans and Mexico — and runs a gas station/Mexican diner that employs Mexicans who have to cross the border to come to work every day. Padma, bless her, doesn’t comment on the cognitive dissonance that would allow someone to praise and vote for Trump at the same time as praising and relying on Mexicans for his livelihood… The whole show is full of these kinds of small cultural anomalies and twists, and it’s this stealth that made it enjoyable.

Nadiya’s Time to Eat: A breezy and informative British cooking show with a friendly but not annoying woman (that’s a hard balance to strike on these kinds of shows, I think), Nadiya. She sometimes made some weird stuff but overall it was just a pleasant thing to have on in the background, and to watch Nadiya as she traveled to different spots in the UK to see, for example, salmon farming, sugar processing and Marmite manufacturing in action. (I made a wee mention of this in another post on vegan candy making.)

Jett: Mostly mindless entertainment with the lovely Carla Gugino as an ex-con, high-end burglar also featuring Giancarlo Esposito. I’ve already confessed to enjoying Jett but not in a way that would make me tell you that you should watch it yourself.

Life in Pieces: I never got around to watching this sitcom when it was new, and over the course of a few weeks binge-watched the whole thing. There were moments that were funny, of course, but for the most part this always felt like it was trying too hard.

Star Trek: Picard: I will probably love anything Star Trek that you throw at me, and this was not an exception. There were some misfires (why was Alison Pill and her character even there?), but overall I loved this, and if you’re a Trek person, you probably will too. Oh, those Romulans.

The Plot Against America: I read Philip Roth‘s book in February 2018, and it seemed sufficiently terrifying. Then I watched this – the David Simon/Ed Burns adaptation – and, if possible, felt more terrified. Why? Was it because the tv version gave life to something that was once only on the page – making it closer to real? Was it the fact that by the time I saw this we were two more years into the implosion of the United States under Donald Trump? What Plot does best is expose the insidious hatred, racism and anti-Semitism that have always been living just below the surface — and when circumstances and characters enter the public stage — and gain power — permission to unleash these various forms of hatred seems to be granted and comes out into the open. Who could ignore the striking parallels to how Americans are living today?

The Kominsky Method: I’ve written a bit about Kominsky before, and continue to recommend it — apart from being funny it captures the past-middle-age, but not quite old (at least in the minds of the protagonist) ennui of life, peppered with moments of disruption, loss and the only kind of news people get at a certain point in life: bad. I’m not sure how a premise and plot points so soaked in themes of death, illness, tax and financial problems, and dealing with struggling middle-aged children can still manage to be as humorous as it is. Perhaps it’s because of these themes – we can’t shy away from them (it’s life, after all), so we make the best of them. Anyway it’s worth watching solely for Alan Arkin, but Michael Douglas isn’t bad either.

Breeders: I can never make up my mind about Martin Freeman. He’s great in most of the stuff he’s in, but there’s just something about him that makes him seem like he would be an insufferable asshole. And while I enjoyed Breeders a lot, I feel like the character he plays here is very likely not dissimilar to how he might be in his real life. Impatient, often unpleasant, prone to outbursts. Obviously I have no way of knowing this. Perhaps it’s just that he is so good in this role that it became hard to separate the role from the man/actor. I’ve written about Breeders before, so I won’t go on about it. Just know that it’s a bang-on embodiment of the duality of parenthood: when else will you be willing to die for someone that you so frequently want to kill? (I wrote in the same post about the Canadian show, Workin’ Moms, which travels some well-trodden — and some not so well-trodden — ground on parenting challenges, but I didn’t think it warranted a separate entry here.)

Giri/Haji: I kind of struggled to get through this one -it moved a little slowly and it was sometimes not entirely clear what was going on. I am not sure I found the blooming “love story” aspect believable but I liked when the Japanese protagonist tells Kelly MacDonald something like, “I know nothing about you except that you are English.” And she of course, happily, corrects, “I am not English.” As I’ve written somewhere else in this list, before a glut of things like this, I could not have told you who the hell Charlie Creed-Miles was… but then he was here, in Peaky Blinders, Five Days, Injustice, and a few other things…

Startup: I watched Startup in a fit of… I don’t know what. I couldn’t find anything to watch that didn’t require my attention, which usually sends me down a path of hitting “play” on almost anything that looks like it could be … tolerable. Now, far removed from when I originally watched it, I don’t remember everything about it except that Martin Freeman (previously mentioned) plays a crooked FBI agent in it (another convincing asshole role that lends some credence to my theory that his default is “asshole”), and a trio of mismatched strangers end up trying to launch a digital currency together. I suppose I found it interesting in large part because there aren’t that many TV shows that discuss digital currency at all, and if they do, they get it all wrong. In fact offhand the only other show I can recall mentioning cryptocurrency (in this case ETH) was Queen of the South (also not a bad time-passer as tv goes). Would I recommend this? I don’t know. Probably not, but it’s also not terrible.

After Life: I’ve got my mixed feelings on Ricky Gervais… there’s a genius in there somewhere, but at the same time, he can’t seem to help himself from letting a very petty, uncompassionate dude off the leash sometimes. Then again, people are stupid and it’s hard to always have compassion when patience is taxed at every turn. And that’s all exacerbated by grief. But I’ve enjoyed After Life — for the most part. The first series was better in that his fresh grief and pain from losing his wife made his character both relatable and insufferable, but it’s hard to watch in a second series. Sure, we all know that grief and the accompanying expanse of emotions has no timeline or limit, but in a half-hour, semi-comedic show it’s harder to justify letting it go on unchecked, despite how realistic it might be.

Marcella: At the conclusion of the second series of Marcella, I couldn’t really see where they could take the show. But take it somewhere they did – to Northern Ireland. Marcella assumes a new deep undercover identity and tries to take down a crime family. Her own mental state has continued to deteriorate, and even though there is something captivating about this (the way a car wreck is), I can’t say this is a good show or a good use of time to watch. Never mind that it stretches all credibility in terms of how things would actually play out.

Deadwater Fell: I don’t know if David Tennant just enjoys these brief UK-TV miniseries in which he plays possible murderers, but this is another one not unlike others I have seen. This time Cush Jumbo is in it, but she didn’t make this any more compelling.

Westworld: My interest has fallen off completely after the intriguing season one. By the time this latest third season concluded, I couldn’t tell you why I had continued watching or even what was going on.

Devs: I actually could not finish this. It was just overwrought and filled with overacting. I really don’t care for Alison Pill for some reason, and watching her in this right after her “why are you even here?” role in Star Trek: Picard made this even less interesting. It’s also hard to take Nick Offerman seriously as anyone but Ron Swanson in Parks and Recreation.

Billions: I have written about Billions more than once, and I will just say that it started off and remained exciting for a couple of seasons, but has become a weird pissing contest with tiny slivers of inspiration in what, if I recall, is its fifth (?) season. Worth watching the early bits, not so much worth following through to the end.

Mrs America: A much-needed account of the history of how the ERA and the promise of women’s equality were quashed in the 1970s and 80s, mostly through the efforts of the conservative women’s movement driven by Phyllis Schlafly. Really well done, stellar cast – I wrote more about it here, and why it’s necessary viewing.

The Good Fight: The perfect dramedy, capturing the utter absurdity of the moment we live in. An even better, freer extension of The Good Wife, this time Christine Baranski takes the lead along with a stellar supporting cast. Although I’ve liked the show from the beginning, it feels less constrained now that Rose Leslie and her Madoff-like-dad storyline is gone.

Run: I mentioned Run in a post on women’s paths on television, and although I didn’t go deeply into the story of Run, I should mention that it is something I watched during this overdose-on-tv period. I didn’t really buy into the premise – two former lovers have arranged that they will text each other the word “Run” and if the other answers with “Run”, they will both run from whatever they are doing in their lives and meet at some predetermined place. Despite never really finding footing in that backdrop, the interaction and chemistry between the show’s stars, Merritt Wever (who must also be seen in Netflix’s Unbelievable) and Domhnall Gleeson, made me come back each week for me. The secondary stories and characters, including Archie Panjabi as Gleeson’s vindictive business partner and Phoebe Waller-Bridge as someone the two main characters come across during their “run”, were interesting diversions – and they didn’t entirely “fit” in the story, kept it quirky. It was nice to see Panjabi do something after The Good Wife, for which I am sure she is typecast and best known; Panjabi also appeared in the dark, depressing but nevertheless well-executed tv adaptation of I Know This Much Is True (also on HBO).

Schitt’s Creek: When I finally got around to watching Schitt’s Creek, it grated on my nerves at first, but I heeded the warnings about how it gets better and grows on you. For the most part this is true. It’s about as quirky as you’d expect, given the cast and premise. I still haven’t seen the final season, but everything up to that point is enjoyable enough that you can lose yourself, setting aside, if only briefly, the endless thoughts of pandemic, impending national collapse and potentially destabilizing presidential election (if you’re in the US).

Pure: Apparently there were two shows called “Pure” that came out around the same time. I started a show, thinking I was watching one of them, when in fact I had accessed the other. What I ended up seeing was a program about Mennonites involved in the drug trade, but what I meant to see was a UK-based show about a young woman suffering from debilitating and disturbing impure, deviant, sexual visions that were disrupting her entire life (and her search for relief/solutions). In the end I’ve seen both, and while I would not actively recommend either of them, I preferred the Mennonite Pure, despite the fact that I’d never set out to watch it in the first place.

Killing Eve: I keep watching this even though I hate it. I really hate it. I cannot put my finger on what exactly I hate about it, but it’s just … what’s the word? I’m glad that most of the lead roles are women, even if they seem mostly unhinged, and that the show’s creator is also a woman. But this seems more a showcase for strangeness and a platform for …something. But it’s not great. I don’t understand the compulsion that draws Eve (Sandra Oh) and Villanelle (Jodie Comer) together time and again, and this is meant to be what draws the viewer into the show week after week. Apart from short glimpses of entirely other things — such as the damaging effects poor parents have on their children and the difficulties of, in fact, parenting, the core of this show feels rotten and hollow.

The Morning Show: I somehow thought this was a half-hour comedy. Maybe because people have tried so many times (and mostly failed) to make half-hour comedies about morning shows. But no, I was quickly set straight and realized that watching this was going to take much more time than I had anticipated. This is a thinly veiled version of the Matt Lauer sexual assault story, and the NBC coverup (recounted in detail in Ronan Farrow‘s Catch and Kill) that kept Lauer out of harm’s way and damaged countless women, their self-esteem and their careers. Not bad source material. Steve Carell‘s dramatic stock-in-trade is surface-level nice guy veneer papering over a deeply flawed, self-absorbed, abusive asshole. He uses this to perfection here, probably pulling off the most believable performance among the leads. I’m not a big fan of Reese Witherspoon or Jennifer Aniston, but both are passable, and better than usual (in my opinion). The supporting cast/roles were the biggest draw, as many of the production staff characters have compelling backstories, great personalities, and convey the real damage they have suffered from the sexual abuse they’ve experienced. And the best thing about the show, which is only a secondary thread, is Néstor Carbonell‘s weatherman character. You can’t help but love him.

The Outsider: I read a few good reviews of The Outsider (not to be mistaken for the heels of bread, ootsiders, as many Scots call them), and I like Ben Mendelsohn. But I don’t like Stephen King adaptations much, and this was not an exception. The basic idea: a murder that at first seems straightforward turns out to be not at all what it seems, and the lead investigator’s winding journey to find out what really happened. It’s not to say that this was bad – it was in fact as well done as a story with supernatural elements can be (and maybe that’s what is hard to swallow for me). Performances and characters were all great — so I should just be glad there was something redeeming here.

AKA Jane Roe: Documentary on “Jane Roe” (Norma McCorvey), who was the plaintiff in the landmark, always-under-threat case, Roe v Wade, which granted American women the right to legal abortion. McCorvey was a difficult and challenging woman — shifting from a pro-choice “icon” to a mouthpiece for the anti-abortion Christian right. Her move to the right was a blow to the movement, and even had a personal cost for McCorvey (who had to renounce her longtime partner because the religious movement to which she’d tied herself considered homosexuality a sin). If there were a living, breathing embodiment of an unreliable narrator of one’s own life – McCorvey qualified. At the very end she says she was using the religious right as much as they were using her, and she was being paid to renounce her pro-choice beliefs and be a public voice for the anti-abortion movement. But in life, as on film, McCorvey never establishes that much of what she presented was true or real, so it’s hard to know what to believe.

Showbiz Kids: It’s hard not to feel bad for the kids (now adults) who appear in this documentary about kids who have grown up on film or tv sets. Nothing has been normal about their lives, and many don’t cope well (if they make it out alive) with it when they get older, particularly those who don’t successfully make the leap into being actors as adults.

Various standups: Standup comedy is a bit hit or miss, but I’ve found that some comedians are reliable for providing something I will enjoy, namely Marc Maron, Colin Quinn, Patton Oswalt and Hannah Gadsby. All have stuff streaming on Netflix. And you need a laugh. Go for it.

*Postscript 1*

A few items I forgot to add:

Homecoming

Shrill: I found Shrill to be surprisingly cutting and forthright — I didn’t expect to enjoy it as much as I did.

Quiz: The backstory on a cheating scandal that rocked Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.

The Great: Satirical and fictional take on Russia’ Catherine the Great. Not perfect but entertaining.

Dispatches from Elsewhere: I’ve already written about this unusual and fascinating journey.

Mrs Fletcher: I love Kathryn Hahn, and I’d add this because of her anyway. But this was an interesting journey about a divorced middle-aged empty-nester coming to terms with who she is and taking a new path. It fails on some fronts and feels a bit directionless at times, but that seems to serve the character’s unsteady, unsure steps toward identifying who she is.

*Postscript 2*

I thought a bit more about things I had consumed and decided to add a few more, even though some were things I watched a long time ago. Some shows, like The Americans and Halt and Catch Fire deserve much more attention and praise and viewers than they had when they originally aired. A handful of other shows are similar. And then there are the shows I just forgot watching (regardless of their quality — that’s what happens when you watch as much as I do. You are submerged by a wave of viewing.

Succession: I had forgotten about this until someone told me about a frightening documentary about the Murdochs that’s been airing in Britain of late. And while I don’t feel the urge to lavish uncommon levels of praise on Succession, I have enjoyed it.

Better Things: I will never be able to praise Pamela Adlon and Better Things enough. I’ve written about it more than once and think, despite critical acclaim, it should receive a lot more attention for the craft and creativity of its realism.

I May Destroy You: I found this to be uncomfortable to watch. Not just because of the subject matter (sexual assault) but because the main character is deeply unlikable. She seems to drift through life mostly partying and not really showing much concern for others around her. Other characters were far more compelling and sympathetic, and it’s a testament to Michaela Coel‘s (writer, director and star) talent that she makes the main character’s story ambiguous and challenging.

Never Have I Ever: Light fare — high school girl longs for popularity and a boyfriend and tries to come to terms with her father’s death, her difficult relationship with her mother, and her ambivalence about living in two cultures (as an Indian-American). It’s an interesting look at how we all see ourselves as outsiders/others, how we are all vulnerable but don’t acknowledge it, but sometimes we get a chance to see others’ vulnerability and it opens us up to revealing our selves more fully.

Better Call Saul: It’s a different show from Breaking Bad, and as it has developed – slowly – I have come to prefer it over Breaking Bad. The characters in Saul are so compelling, changing throughout, morphing into who they will eventually become. It’s fascinating to see how they get there. For a long while it was Jimmy/Saul and his struggle with his brother Chuck that kept me glued to the screen, but over time it has become Kim Wexler‘s complex inner journey and decision-making that drive this narrative forward.

Search Party: A small show that has certainly evolved from its beginnings. I guess seeing Alia Shawkat‘s Dory change from a self-absorbed young woman on a mission into a manipulative sociopath is what makes this interesting. The other characters, Dory’s group of friends, feel mostly one-dimensional and inconsequential, and in many ways detract from the show (even if it would not necessarily work without their involvement). I was happy to see Louie Anderson in a supporting role as a defense lawyer and Michaela Watkins as a prosecuting attorney in season 3. Probably the highlights for me.

Baskets: Speaking of Louie Anderson, Baskets (a vehicle for and by Zach Galifianakis) was always one of the strangest shows on tv while it lasted. Galifianakis as Chip Baskets, a kind of loser who wants desperately to become a (serious) clown, is oddly poignant. Anderson plays Chip’s Costco and Arbys-obsessed mother, Christine. I don’t think it does justice to the unique nature of the show to try to describe it… but it’s one of those under-the-radar things that I feel like I’m the only person who has ever seen it.

Goliath: So… Billy Bob Thornton as a kind of washed-up lawyer. The only show I’ve ever seen that has used the word “uvulopalatopharyngoplasty“. Not that that makes for a recommendation. Me, I will watch almost anything Billy Bob makes.

The Marvelous Mrs Maisel: I love Tony Shalhoub, and it is for this reason that I have continued to watch this mostly insufferable show. As most critics and viewers have pointed out, it seems highly unlikely that every person who meets the titular heroine, Midge Maisel, is going to fall head over heels in love with her, requiring that each scene in which this character appears be lauded by “you’re so amazing!” praise. This is the biggest complaint I have, but the secondary problem for me is the Amy Sherman-Palladino problem. Her style feels unnatural (this was nowhere more true than in the hate-watched Gilmore Girls). While I genuinely enjoyed the first season of Mrs Maisel, I found that each successive season felt more like work to get through, despite enjoying the presence of both Luke Kirby as Lenny Bruce throughout the series and Sterling K Brown in a season 3 role.

Little Fires Everywhere: Save yourself the trouble. Read the book instead.

Halt and Catch Fire: Please just watch this. Stick with its slight missteps in season one and follow through. So worth it.

The Americans: I’ve never been able to understand why The Americans never made a bigger splash — it’s got so much in it. Stellar performances (Matthew Rhys, Keri Russell, Noah Emmerich, Annet Mahendru, Alison Wright, Frank Langella, Margo Martindale and Costa Ronin are all outstanding), timely themes, the 1980s, spycraft. It’s just so well done. I recall being told as the 1990s were coming to an end that my interest and study of Russia and the Russian language was “useless” because “that war is over”. But even as the Soviet Union itself crumbled, the long-term view clearly depicted a different future in which enemy countries will continue to fight but things will just become more subtle, more technological. We are seeing that play out now. This show is a powerful introduction to the ways spycraft worked as the 80s came to a close and the Cold War as we knew it was ending. The ideologies that these spies defended were so far removed from how power and everyday life both played out in the Soviet Union — and to watch the two main characters struggle with this in very different ways made The Americans a must-see.

Chernobyl: Speaking of the Soviet Union crumbling, the dramatization of the Chernobyl disaster, the attempts to cover up and deny the scale of what was happening, and the horrifying and long-lasting effects was handled with care, without exaggeration. The disaster was perilous enough that turning it into a spectacle was unnecessary. An understated story put together by Craig Mazin is brought to life by an incomparable cast, from Jared Harris to Emily Watson, from Stellan Skarsgård to Jessie Buckley. An exceptional story that, like many historical events, gets lost with time, we luckily have storytellers who continue to bring history to life in film and literature.

Perry Mason: A strange TV revival, a rather dark remake of Perry Mason — but nothing like the old 1950s-1960s tv show of Raymond Burr (see more about Burr in Visible: Out on Television) fame. No, Matthew Rhys is Mason here, and although ostensibly the lead, many other characters play at least as important a role in unraveling the mystery central to the story. Like much of the prestige TV listed and discussed, the plausibility and watchability comes down to casting. I continue to watch for Rhys, everywhere-man Shea Whigham, Tatiana Maslany (who else misses Orphan Black?), Chris Chalk and Juliet Rylance… but everyone here is great, even in the smallest of roles (Justin Kirk, Gretchen Mol, for example).

Trust Me: There was nothing groundbreaking about this medical drama. Over the course of two disconnected series, two characters are at the center of mysteries and lies within a hospital setting.

Taboo: I’m still not sure what to make of this series. It wasn’t enjoyable, but somehow felt… gripping anyway. Conceived of by its star (Tom Hardy) and his father, this story follows James Delaney (Hardy) as he returns to 1814 London when his father dies. Delaney has been absent for years, presumed dead. His return upends the order of things. Some plot points are a bit complex, so more useful to watch than read about. (And the lovely Jessie Buckley turns up here too.)

Barry: I’ve mentioned Barry before in writing about hit men. It’s an entertaining take on murder-for-hire.

Casual: It’s been over for a while, and even though it wasn’t perfect, I enjoyed the sibling relationship at the center of the story. Michaela Watkins is fantastic as the co-lead of the sibling duo… and Tommy Dewey, as the other part of the sibling duo, plays a shallow character who begins to evolve as a person. In fact all the characters evolve, and it’s nice to see characters change in subtle ways — sometimes for the better, sometimes not. Most shows aim for character change, but the evolution feels too much like a plot path. Here it feels more organic and realistic.

Catastrophe: Imperfect marriage; very flawed people. Often very funny, sometimes heartbreaking. That’s kind of the whole plot.

Who the (Bleep) Did I Marry?: One weekend I was out of things to watch that wouldn’t require my attention or thought, so I turned this on. It was interesting to see some of these real-life tales that I’d seen in the news (the wife of the Green River Killer, or Mary Jo Buttafuoco) depicted from the point of view of the unsuspecting partner. Mostly this felt like a lot of naive, gullible, lonely people who were so desperate to be with someone that they did no due diligence to find out if anything about their partner was true. But oddly addictive if you got sucked in.

Underground: This harrowing show only lasted for two seasons, and while it was not perfect, it dealt with a subject matter that America should reckon with frequently and in great depth. Sure, a fictional account of slaves making their way to freedom isn’t going to fix anything, but it too is a form of representation and making sure that parts of history are not just swept away or softened.

City on a Hill: Kevin Bacon as a corrupt FBI agent and Aldis Hodge (who was fantastic in the aforementioned Underground as well as in TURN: Washington’s Spies) as a District Attorney in 1990s Boston. It took me a while to get through this, but I think by the end of the first season I hoped for renewal.

Pose: Failed to include this in the list originally… but quite a show. Even if the show itself weren’t fabulous, the cast and concept are. Nevertheless it’s so watchable and sometimes so sad.

Liar: I’m kind of a sucker for Ioan Gruffudd, so I watched Liar mostly for him — even though he definitely isn’t a good guy. The problem here is that I really do not care for Joanne Froggatt (Downton Abbey fame) — her voice grates on me, and then this character feels more histrionic than necessary. Sure, she is a victim of sexual assault and later accused of murder. This would make most anyone histrionic. I think it’s a lot of her behaviors — often overly defensive and not doing her any favors — that make her hard to believe and watch. At the same time, if she didn’t behave in these ways, her character, who was being railroaded, would likely have been convicted of murder.

The Valhalla Murders (Brot): It’s Icelandic, and even though it captures (or reminds me of) how small and insular the place is, it made me feel desperately homesick.

Call My Agent! (Dix Pour Cent): A French comedy-drama about professional entertainment agents. Entertaining, satisfying and lovely to listen to French.

Frayed: An Australian semi-dramatic comedy. A woman’s wealthy husband dies in rather questionable circumstances; she loses everything and has to go home to Newcastle, Australia. I quite enjoyed its six episodes… I like reflecting on the idea of trying to “go home” again to a place you never felt at home in, especially after you’ve worked hard to erase the person you were. But you cannot completely escape that person. The “Simone” we meet in the beginning in London has been a hard-won, long-con fabrication identity, but it’s so hard-wired by the time she returns with her tail between her legs to Australia, that it’s hard to imagine that she will return to the “Sammy” she was growing up (but she does).

Lunchtable TV talk: The woman’s hidden path: Transformation by need or desire

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In the same way as Crime and Punishment is ostensibly about Raskolnikov, its women are the compelling draw of that make me continue to think about the story, years after last reading it. What influence do they have, what sacrifices have they made — and why?

In many of modern television’s biggest draws, women characters embody and drive the growth, change, multidimensional development and complexity of the story, sometimes even within stories in which the men’s experience is the story. The women’s transformative journey isn’t given the same fanfare as men’s… but it’s arguably a more dramatic, if understated, journey. Not unlike everyday life.

The show that got me thinking about this transformation was Better Call Saul. We know — both from Breaking Bad and from the development of the lead, Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman — that Jimmy/Saul is going to go through professional and familial upheaval, and given what we learn about his early life, return to his “Slippin’ Jimmy” origins on a grander scale. The quieter transformation, though, happens more slowly, with Jimmy’s counterpart, Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn). Built incrementally over the entire series, Kim’s transformation has been hinted at, as she occasionally joins Jimmy in some of his minor pranks and cons and seems to enjoy it. But her conscientious, driven, all-business demeanor imply that Kim is always going to be on the right side of the law. Yet time after time, when most would expect Kim to be the voice of reason, she retorted with something unexpected. Despite these surprises, it was never as though Kim acted completely out of character, jarring a viewer into finding the journey unrealistic or unearned. Instead she became more multilayered and complex as a character, which is not what I anticipated when the show began. In fact when Better Call Saul premiered I dismissed Kim as a secondary, possibly temporary, on/off love interest kind of character (I should really have known better, considering the creators of the show).

With Kim, as with all things in her life, she is controlling her transformation and choices, never letting the out-of-her-control circumstances make the decisions (or so it seems). Some of television’s latest and greatest shows offer glimpses of women at crossroads and turning points, as well as points of vulnerability, projecting creative and unexpected evolution for their characters. (Some of these transformations are the best — and only engaging — parts of the programs they appeared in.) A few of my picks include the transformation of Sarah Paulson‘s character, Alice, in Mrs America; Merritt Wever‘s spontaneous grab for a life that almost-was in Run; Kathryn Hahn‘s role as Eve Fletcher, as Eve moves from single mother to empty nester trying to figure out who she is, particularly sexually, in Mrs Fletcher; Shira Haas embodying a young Hasidic woman running from everything she knew to discover an entirely different kind of life in Unorthodox; almost all of the women in The Deuce experience transformation – some quite involuntarily but others, in particular, Maggie Gyllenhaal‘s Eileen/Candy, Dominique Fishback‘s Darlene, and Emily Meade‘s Lori, look to find voice and agency in a changing city in tumultuous times. Similarly, all the of the women in the underrated show Queen Sugar (Rutina Wesley, Dawn Lyen-Gardner, Tina Lifford and Bianca Lawson), have transformed completely — many times — and continue to evolve — as the show continues. It probably goes without saying but needs to be said that the women of Pose are television’s most transformative and inspiring group of all.

This is what women are uniquely good at doing — not just transforming, but adapting to changing realities. An unfortunate example from real life is Norma McCorvey, remembered best as Jane Roe, the plaintiff in the landmark case Roe v Wade, which made abortion legal in the United States. After the precedent-setting ruling, McCorvey became an anti-abortion activist, but nearing death, she confessed that she’d never actually changed her mind — but instead had been paid for her anti-abortion activism. This is chronicled in a new documentary called AKA Jane Roe. Sometimes the journey involves inconsistency that benefits the individual — never mind the social impact or ethical position.

As in real life, television’s transformations often come about less willingly, driven by circumstance and need. In the Canadian Pure, a Mennonite pastor and his stubborn rigidity and black-and-white view of the world continue to cause trouble and harm to his family, but his wife Anna (Alex Paxton-Beesley) adapts to the situation at hand with greater skill, being able to operate in greyer territory. Skyler White (Anna Gunn) in Breaking Bad represents a slow but sly turn to “the dark side” as it becomes clear what she is being forced to do. Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) in The Good Wife is forced to return to work after being humiliated by her husband’s infidelity and malfeasance. He goes to prison, and she begins to practice law. Somewhere along the line, her naivete and sense of being overwhelmed are supplanted by wily dealing and shrewd calculations about her future. Ozark‘s Wendy Byrde (Laura Linney) follows a similar path, reviving her past as a political operative/adviser and applying it to altogether more nefarious enterprises. In many of these cases, it appears as though these ambitions have always lay dormant and get triggered unexpectedly.

 

Photo by Chandra Oh on Unsplash

No more sunlight on lunches

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When this year dawned, I gave up a lot of TV. Many know that I was basically addicted and was watching all kinds of shit. Sure, there were gems mixed in with the shit, but it was mostly… just shit. I cut way back, and in many ways have cut back on a lot of things while boosting the output/input of other things, such as reading books and aurally hoovering up a whole lot of music.

Also, apart from the increasingly rare lunch I spend working in an office environment, there is no lunchtable any more. No more lunchtable, no more lunches, no more lunchtable TV talk.

That said, there are still bits of TV-style content that seep in. Of late, Patriot, I Love Dick, Catastrophe, Goliath, Fargo, The Leftovers, Silicon Valley, The Americans, Better Call Saul, Bloodline … among a couple of other things, even American Gods, which I had no intention of watching since I have never read the book and did not have much interest in. Some of it has been quite entertaining but … on the whole, it’s not really for me any more.

Instead there is poetry and more poetry, and reading and re-reading “To Marina”, one of my long-time favorites, which I have now been reading and re-reading for as long as the 25 years the poet marvels at having passed in the poem itself. A poem that makes me think, makes me laugh, makes me wonder, makes me feel empty, makes me feel sad, makes me feel nostalgic, makes me feel imaginative and has been a part of my life, making me feel so many different things – and combinations of things – as my own life has changed.

To Marina
Kenneth Koch

So many convolutions and not enough simplicity!
When I had you to write to it
Was different. The quiet, dry Z
Leaped up to the front of the alphabet.
You sit, stilling your spoons
With one hand; you move them with the other.
Radio says, “God is a postmaster.”
You said, Zis is lawflee. And in the heat
Of writing to you I wrote simply. I thought
These are the best things I shall ever write
And have ever written. I thought of nothing but touching you
Thought of seeing you and, in a separate thought, of looking at you.
You were concentrated feeling and thought.
You were like the ocean
In which my poems were the swimming. I brought you
Earrings. You said, these are lawflee. We went
To some beach, where the sand was dirty. Just going in
To the bathing house with you drove me “out of my mind.”

It is wise to be witty. The shirt collar’s far away.
Men tramp up and down the city on this windy day.
I am feeling a-political as a shell
Brought off some fish. Twenty-one years
Ago I saw you and loved you still.
Still! It wasn’t plenty
Of time. Read Anatole France. Bored, a little. Read
Tolstoy, replaced and overcome. You read Stendhal.
I told you to. Where was replacement
Then? I don’t know. He shushed us back in to ourselves.
I used to understand

The highest excitement. Someone died
And you were distant. I went away
And made you distant. Where are you now? I see the chair
And hang onto it for sustenance. Good God how you kissed me
And I held you. You screamed
And I wasn’t bothered by anything. Was nearest you.

And you were so realistic
Preferring the Soviet Bookstore
To my literary dreams.
“You don’t like war,” you said
After reading a poem
In which I’d simply said I hated war
In a whole list of things. To you
It seemed a position, to me
It was all a flux, especially then.
I was in an
Unexpected situation.
Let’s take a walk
I wrote. And I love you as a sheriff
Searches for a walnut. And so unless
I’m going to see your face
Bien soon, and you said
You must take me away, and
Oh Kenneth
You like everything
To be pleasant. I was burning
Like an arch
Made out of trees.

I’m not sure we ever actually took a walk
We were so damned nervous. I was heading somewhere. And you had to
be
At an appointment, or else be found out! Illicit love!
It’s not a thing to think of. Nor is it when it’s licit!
It is too much! And it wasn’t enough. The achievement
I thought I saw possible when I loved you
Was that really achievement? Were you my
Last chance to feel that I had lost my chance?
I grew faint at your voice on the telephone.
Electricity and all colors were mine, and the tops of hills
And everything that breathes. That was a feeling. Certain
Artistic careers had not even started. And I
Could have surpassed them. I could have I think put the
Whole world under our feet. You were in the restaurant. It
Was Chinese. We have walked three blocks. Or four blocks. It is New
York
In nineteen fifty-three. Nothing has as yet happened
That will ever happen and will mean as much to me. You smile, and turn
your head.
What rocketing there was in my face and in my head
And bombing everywhere in my body
I loved you I knew suddenly
That nothing had meant anything like you
I must have hoped (crazily) that something would
As if thinking you were the person I had become.

My sleep is beginning to be begun. And the sheets were on the bed.
A clock rang a bird’s song rattled into my typewriter.
I had been thinking about songs which were very abstract.
It was really a table. Now, the telephone. Hello, what?
What is my life like now? Engaged, studying and looking around
The library, teaching—I took it rather easy
A little too easy—we went to the ballet
Then dark becomes the light (blinding) of the next eighty days
Orchestra cup become As beautiful as an orchestra or a cup, and
Locked climbs becomes If we were locked, well not quite, rather
Oh penniless could I really die, and I understood everything
Which before was running this way and that in my head
I saw titles, volumes, and suns I felt the hot
Pressure of your hands in that restaurant
To which, along with glasses, plates, lamps, lusters,
Tablecloths, napkins, and all the other junk
You added my life for it was entirely in your hands then—
My life Yours, My Sister Life of Pasternak’s beautiful title
My life without a life, my life in a life, my life impure
And my life pure, life seen as an entity
One death and a variety of days
And only on life.

I wasn’t ready
For you.

I understood nothing
Seemingly except my feelings
You were whirling
In your life
I was keeping
Everything in my head
An artist friend’s apartment
Five flights up the
Lower East Side nineteen
Fifty-something I don’t know
What we made love the first time I
Almost died I had never felt
That way it was like being stamped on in Hell
It was roses of Heaven
My friends seemed turned to me to empty shell

On the railroad train’s red velvet back
You put your hand in mine and said
“I told him”
Or was it the time after that?
I said Why did you
Do that you said I thought
It was over. Why Because you were so
Nervous of my being there it was something I thought

I read Tolstoy. You said
I don’t like the way it turns out (Anna
Karenina) I had just liked the strength
Of the feeling you thought
About the end. I wanted
To I don’t know what never leave you
Five flights up the June
Street empties of fans, cups, kites, cops, eats, nights, no
The night was there
And something like air I love you Marina
Eighty-five days
Four thousand three hundred and sixty-
Two minutes all poetry was changed
For me what did I do in exchange
I am selfish, afraid you are
Overwhelmingly parade, back, sunshine, dreams
Later thousands of dreams

You said
You make me feel nawble (noble). I said
Yes. I said
To nothingness, This is all poems. Another one said (later)
That is so American. You were Russian
You thought of your feelings, one said, not of her,
Not of the real situation. But my feelings were a part,
They were the force of the real situation. Truer to say I thought
Not of the whole situation
For your husband was also a part
And your feelings about your child were a part
And all my other feelings were a part. We
Turned this way and that, up-
Stairs then down
Into the streets.
Did I die because I didn’t stay with you?
Or what did I lose of my life? I lose
You. I put you
In everything I wrote.

I used that precious material I put it in forms
Also I wanted to break down the forms
Poetry was a real occupation
To hell with the norms, with what is already written
Twenty-nine in love finds pure expression
Twenty-nine years you my whole life’s digression
Not taken and Oh Kenneth
Everything afterwards seemed nowhere near
What I could do then in several minutes—
I wrote,
“I want to look at you all day long
Because you are mine.”

I am twenty-nine, pocket flap folded
And I am smiling I am looking out at a world that
I significantly re-created from inside
Out of contradictory actions and emotions. I look like a silly child that
Photograph that year—big glasses, unthought-of clothes,
A suit, slight mess in general, cropped hair. And someone liked me,
Loved me a lot, I think. And someone else had, you had too. I was
Undrenched by the tears I’d shed later about this whole thing when
I’d telephone you I’d be all nerves, though in fact
All life was a factor and all my nerves were in my head. I feel
Peculiar. Or I feel nothing. I am thinking about this poem. I am thinking
about your raincoat,
I am worried about the tactfulness,
About the truth of what I say.

I am thinking about my standards for my actions
About what they were
You raised my standards for harmony and for happiness so much
And, too, the sense of a center
Which did amazing things for my taste
But my taste for action? For honesty, for directness in behavior?
I believe I simply never felt that anything could go wrong
This was abject stupidity
I also was careless in how I drove then and in what I ate
And drank it was easier to feel that nothing could go wrong
I had those feelings. I
Did not those things. I was involved in such and such
A situation, artistically and socially. We never spent a night
Together it is the New York of
Aquamarine sunshine and the Loew’s Theater’s blazing swing of light
In the middle of the day

Let’s take a walk
Into the world
Where if our shoes get white
With snow, is it snow, Marina,
Is it snow or light?
Let’s take a walk

Every detail is everything in its place (Aristotle). Literature is a cup
And we are the malted. The time is a glass. A June bug comes
And a carpenter spits on a plane, the flowers ruffle ear rings.
I am so dumb-looking. And you are so beautiful.

Sitting in the Hudson Tube
Walking up the fusky street
Always waiting to see you
You the original creation of all my You, you the you
In every poem the hidden one whom I am talking to
Worked at Bamberger’s once I went with you to Cerutti’s
Bar—on Madison Avenue? I held your hand and you said
Kenneth you are playing with fire. I said
Something witty in reply.
It was the time of the McCarthy trial
Hot sunlight on lunches. You squirted
Red wine into my mouth.
My feelings were like a fire my words became very clear
My psyche or whatever it is that puts together motions and emotions
Was unprepared. There was a good part
And an alarmingly bad part which didn’t correspond—
No letters! No seeming connection! Your slim pale hand
It actually was, your blondness and your turning-around-to-me look
Good-bye Kenneth.

No, Marina, don’t go
And what had been before would come after
Not to be mysterious we’d be together make love again
It was the wildest thing I’ve done
I can hardly remember it
It has gotten by now
So mixed up with losing you
The two almost seemed in some way the same. You
Wore something soft—angora? Cashmere?
I remember that it was black, You turned around
And on such a spring day which went on and on and on
I actually think I felt that I could keep
The strongest of all feelings contained inside me
Producing endless emotional designs.

With the incomparable feeling of rising and of being like a banner
Twenty seconds worth twenty-five years
With feeling noble extremely mobile and very free
With Taking a Walk With You, West Wind, In Love With You, and
Yellow Roses
With pleasure I felt my leg muscles and my brain couldn’t hold
With the Empire State Building the restaurant your wrist bones with
Greenwich Avenue
In nineteen fifty-one with heat humidity a dog pissing with neon
With the feeling that at last
My body had something to do and so did my mind

You sit
At the window. You call
Me, across Paris,
Amsterdam, New
York. Kenneth!
My Soviet
Girlhood. My
Spring, summer
And fall. Do you
Know you have
Missed some of them?
Almost all. I am
Waiting and I
Am fading I
Am fainting I’m
In a degrading state
Of inactivity. A ball
Rolls in the gutter. I have
Two hands to
Stop it. I am
A flower I pick
The vendor his
Clothes getting up
Too early and
What is it makes this rose
Into what is more fragrant than what is not?

I am stunned I am feeling tortured
By “A man of words and not a man of deeds”

I was waiting in a taxicab
It was white letters in white paints it was you
Spring comes, summer, then fall
And winter. We really have missed
All of that, whatever else there was
In those years so sanded by our absence.
I never saw you for as long as half a day

You were crying outside the bus station
And I was crying—
I knew that this really was my life—
I kept thinking of how we were crying
Later, when I was speaking, driving, walking,
Looking at doorways and colors, mysterious entrances
Sometimes I’d be pierced as by a needle
Sometimes be feverish as from a word
Books closed and I’d think
I can’t read this book, I threw away my life
These held on to their lives. I was
Excited by praise from anyone, startled by criticism, always hating it
Traveling around Europe and being excited
It was all in reference to you
And feeling I was not gradually forgetting
What your temples and cheekbones looked like
And always with this secret

Later I thought that what I had done was reasonable
It may have been reasonable
I also thought that I saw what had appealed to me
So much about you, the way you responded
To everything your excitement about
Me, I had never seen that. And the fact
That you were Russian, very mysterious, all that I didn’t know
About you—and you didn’t know
Me, for I was as strange to you as you were to me.
You were like my first trip to France you had
Made no assumptions. I could be
Clearly and Passionately and
Nobly (as you’d said) who I was—at the outer limits of my life
Of my life as my life could be
Ideally. But what about the dark part all this lifted
Me out of? Would my bad moods, my uncertainties, my
Distrust of people I was close to, the
Twisty parts of my ambition, my
Envy, all have gone away? And if
They hadn’t gone, what? For didn’t I need
All the strength you made me feel I had, to deal
With the difficulties of really having you?
Where could we have been? But I saw so many new possibilities
That it made me rather hate reality
Or I think perhaps I already did
I didn’t care about the consequences
Because they weren’t “poetic” weren’t “ideal”

And oh well you said we walk along
Your white dress your blue dress your green
Blouse with sleeves then one without
Sleeves and we are speaking
Of things but not of very much because underneath it
I am raving I am boiling I am afraid
You ask me Kenneth what are you thinking
If I could say
It all then I thought if I could say
Exactly everything and have it still be as beautiful
Billowing over, riding over both our doubts
Some kind of perfection and what did I actually
Say? Marina it’s late. Marina
It’s early. I love you. Or else, What’s this street?
You were the perfection of my life
And I couldn’t have you. That is, I didn’t.
I couldn’t think. I wrote, instead. I would have had
To think hard, to figure everything out
About how I could be with you,
Really, which I couldn’t do
In those moments of permanence we had
As we walked along.

We walk through the park in the sun. It is the end.
You phone me. I send you a telegram. It
Is the end. I keep
Thinking about you, grieving about you. It is the end. I write
Poems about you, to you. They
Are no longer simple. No longer
Are you there to see every day or
Every other or every third or fourth warm day
And now it has been twenty-five years
But those feelings kept orchestrating I mean rehearsing
Rehearsing in my and tuning up
While I was doing a thousand other things, the band
Is ready, I am over fifty years old and there’s no you—
And no me, either, not as I was then,
When it was the Renaissance
Filtered through my nerves and weakness
Of nineteen fifty-four or fifty-three,
When I had you to write to, when I could see you
And it could change.

Lunchtable TV Talk: Falling Skies

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I am combing through a long list of TV I have watched … a lot of it. It should not have, but it did stun me when I realized I had seen 30 of 35 of the best shows of 2015 (according to Vox). The Vox list was a longer version of other recently published 2015 reviews, most of which cite similar lists. I think it’s easy to forget some of the really good stuff that happened earlier in the year (like Better Call Saul – it was not perfect but it was so much better than a lot of stuff on TV) because we are so spoiled by a constant stream of high quality programming. It is easy to leave out stuff that felt new and exciting, felt groundbreaking, or really just felt like something powerful. Because there is just too much of the stuff.

With that in mind, I wanted to say just one or two words about Falling Skies, which ended this year without much fanfare. It was never going to make anyone’s top-ten or even top-35 shows. It was over the top and too much for most of its run – but it had its moments. It went too far and squandered its potential most of the time. Some of the storylines about infighting among humans were just… overwrought and took away from the bigger stories, which might have been explored with better handling had there not been so much wasted time. After all, we are sometimes brought down by the enemy within or near – pettiness, power struggles, etc. – and external enemies can just stand on the sidelines and watch us tear ourselves and each other apart.

I can’t say, even at the end, that things became particularly clear. What was the point of this show? It was a less well-executed version of The Walking Dead – a group of people running, hiding and fighting an enemy greater than itself. Sure, in The Walking Dead, it’s an enemy that is greater only in number. In Falling Skies, the enemy is extraterrestrial invaders with exponentially superior firepower who destroy almost everything except some kind of fighting spirit in the humans who remain. (There was way too much thinly veiled American-style patriotism here, with the protagonist being a former history professor who cites tales of Revolutionary War “heroes” and battles while backed up by a few actual military personnel, who have together formed a new militia, making the whole show feel a bit like a post-apocalyptic Revolutionary War re-enactment. I suppose this was by design, but it felt heavy-handed at best and inauthentic at worst.)

What did the show get right? Questions of suspicion and trust. Who do you trust when your back is against the wall, when survival is at stake? In this case, aliens invade. But when a different group of aliens arrives and offers to help, claiming that the original invaders are a shared enemy, do you cautiously accept their help and choose to trust them or reject all outsiders, anyone not like you, because it is more likely to be a trap? These kinds of themes are timely in an era where American presidential candidates want to do things like create databases of Muslims in America and shut out all new Muslim entrants?! Fundamentally, who is the outsider, and by what definition or authority is it okay to suspect everyone for the heinous actions of a few?

The show, improbably, shows the power of the collective. When a group of people band together in solidarity for a single purpose, they can achieve the impossible. The odds were against them. But the group, for the most part, survived. But the show also reveals (much as we have seen in The Walking Dead) that survival is only part of the equation. It’s not going to happen without losses, and no one gets out unchanged.

Maybe they were able to pick it back up again, but in this case at least, the sky really was falling.

Lunchtable TV Talk: Major Crimes – In the wide TV universe

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Lately I have been watching Major Crimes, which is neither a good nor bad show. I never watched its predecessor, The Closer, and I am not totally sure why Major Crimes is on my viewing docket now. In any case, the only thing I have to say about it, other than poking fun at the weird pacing of Mary McDonnell’s speaking voice, is that Jonathan Del Arco, the medical examiner character in the show is one of those guys who has turned up in a lot of places … surprisingly many. I remember of course that he was in Nip/Tuck a number of times – obviously memorably so.

But the strangest realization (and I had to find this by looking him up) was that he was “Hugh” in the Star Trek: Next Generation episode “I, Borg” – one of the episodes in which an individual Borg begins to show individual thought and behavior. It should not be a “strange realization”, I guess, but it is just one of those things that seems really surprising once you make the connection.

Major Crimes is full of people who have past near-iconic performances, from Major Crimes’s Raymond Cruz, who might be more memorable as Breaking Bad (and Better Call Saul)’s Tuco Salamanca, and from Mary McDonnell and her long acting history – and memorable role as Laura Roslin in cult favorite Battlestar Galactica. But these are more present, more visible than Del Arco. I am happy to see that he is in the midst of a long and interesting career.

Lunchtable TV Talk – Battle Creek: Embattled

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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 – Better Call Saul: ’sall good, man…

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I often wondered, as I watched Better Call Saul from its debut to its freshman season finale: Would we watch if it weren’t the prequel to Breaking Bad? Is it good or engaging outside the explicit context of Breaking Bad? We cut it some slack and keep watching because we really liked Saul Goodman in Breaking Bad. And who doesn’t like Bob Odenkirk in just about everything he has done? Giving him a leading role in a one-hour, “dark dramedy” would seem either a genius move for which we would all reap the rewards or an overblown failure. Maybe this curiosity made us want more and made us ask the question: how did Saul Goodman come to be? (I like the small nods, winks and tips of the hat to Breaking Bad that subtly appear throughout Better Call Saul.)

But as to whether I felt the show could stand on its own merits, until the end, I was not entirely sure. In the final two episodes, during which Jimmy (the given name of our titular antihero) puts together an almost airtight class action lawsuit, despite all the factors stacked against him, he ends up finding out who has really been standing in his way all along. That storytelling and slow building of a character won me over. Seeing Jimmy struggle, take care of his brother Chuck, strive to make a name for himself, continue to try to do the right thing, only to have his efforts slapped down, illustrates exactly how Jimmy cast aside an aspirationally “good” self to aspire to – and succeed – at being his “bad” self.

At the crux of this transformation is the painful and heartbreaking relationship Jimmy has with his brother, Chuck (played to perfection by Michael McKean). A bitter and probably overdue confrontation ensues, in which Chuck spews a hateful monologue about Jimmy’s incompetence and propensity to fuck up, mocking his law degree as “not real”.

Chuck explodes: “I know you. I know what you were. What you are. People don’t change. You’re ‘Slippin’ Jimmy’.” From here, Chuck delivers perhaps the most quoted and heartbreaking line of all, citing Jimmy’s conman past: “Slippin’ Jimmy I can handle just fine, but Slippin’ Jimmy with a law degree is like a chimp with a machine gun.”

With that, the relationship is broken, and Jimmy is never turning back. The final episode of the inaugural season begins to hint at and chart Jimmy’s new course, which will eventually lead us to the Saul Goodman he becomes.

Stat Explosion and Data Overload

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May 18 skewed my blog statistics in a big way. As someone who manages a very niche, limited-reach blog for a corporation in my professional life (obviously not THIS blog), this sudden and brief explosion was an interesting look at what immediately drives traffic (a retweet from a famous person). Or rather what won’t. The corporate blog gets readers, and the number of readers and subscribers grows slowly but steadily. It is such a specialized area that it is not as though it would ever get the kind of readership that even my personal blog gets – and my personal blog is all over the place – personal, lacking in a theme or point and not actively trying to drive anything. It started as a baking/recipe blog when my colleagues (whom I had stuffed to near-death with cookies and cupcakes) demanded recipes. It evolved into a dumping ground for my thoughts and commentary on television, news/current events and all manner of other nonsense. Even if my personal blog had a steadier stream of traffic than my work blog (makes sense because the randomness of my personal blog means that all kinds of Google searches, from Mobutu Sese Seko to white chocolate macadamia cookies, from the benefits of telecommuting, to pictures of brown sugar cupcakes piled high with mounds of maple Swiss meringue buttercream and candied bacon. might lead someone to my blog), I never achieved any great reach.

on the bacon bandwagon

on the bacon bandwagon

Until today, my personal blog’s best stats never reached more than 250 visitors – and that was when I was baking a lot and posting recipes and pictures of cakes. In the absence of that, I maybe get 30 or 40 visitors. I am not that concerned with the statistics on my personal blog – I write it for my own sake and if someone else gets there and likes it, or even doesn’t like it, that’s fine with me.

But this morning, which has felt like a neverending night now that Swedish near-endless light nights are here, I posted an article about how I finally watched the witty and insightful Inside Amy Schumer, despite the misleading, one-dimensional Comedy Central ads for it that had so long turned me off. I posted about the blog via Twitter, which was retweeted from Schumer’s own account, which then led to what is for me an unprecedented avalanche of activity. Suddenly my phone was chiming: ding ding ding ding ding ding because, thanks to Schumer’s devotees (a more pleasant word than “followers”), people were retweeting and favoriting my original tweet. (Yes, I am perfectly aware of how asinine this sounds. A non-Millennial person describing the tweet and retweet process like it’s really serious business just sounds funny – even if it does have its own importance. It’s just not the be-all, end-all.)

But more than that, the link to the blog in which I wrote about changing my mind about Amy Schumer’s show made the blog statistics skyrocket. In a couple of hours, there were well over 1,000 visitors. The downside is that this opens the door to a lot of unprovoked criticism from complete strangers. But then yeah, the world’s full of haters, and that is completely fine. I hate a lot of stuff too. It is also easy to have a knee-jerk reaction (no emphasis on “jerk” or anything) – as I did to the ads, and as the commenter had to my post. But I am sure we are both cool enough people in our real lives.

The only comment on the Amy Schumer blog entry, in fact, was a negative one, basically laying into me for my “judgmental, accusatorial” observations about an ad. But, as I commented back (and I think we’re cool now), most of our judgments and decisions are kind of “split second” in nature – especially to ads. They are meant to appeal to us on some level, get our attention and in 30 seconds to make us want to do something, consume something, watch something or buy something (I won’t even use as strong a word as “persuade” since it’s more like advertisers tease and tempt with an elevator speech – so shouldn’t it be a bit more tempting, somehow?). Of course, I don’t know who the target audience was with the Schumer ads, but it’s not me – and that’s fine. But I still had to see them, and I made a judgment that watching the show might not be the best use of my time. Or that it would be as crass and shallow as the ads made it seem. That is no judgment of the show itself or Amy Schumer. And my writing about it was more like, “Hey, I was completely wrong about this – and the two people who read this blog and generally trust my opinions on these matters should know it. Watch Inside Amy Schumer!”

With a fleeting moment of greater reach, you simultaneously become a lightning strike (gone in a flash) and a lightning rod.

I suppose a celeb retweet or starting/being part of a trending topic is the sort of thing that one has to get to gain some traction. Even if, for example, in this case, it is a bunch of clicks – not “traction”. We all know it but there’s no way to predict whether any social media activity will lead to anything. Visitors to my personal blog are nice – but much like in the corporate blog environment, it’s not like they stuck around and read other things. And for personal writing, it doesn’t matter. I write what I write, I post it online and to a limited extent in social channels, but I am not writing for an audience or to achieve something.

But for the corporate writing, you sort of want to extend the reach – establish yourself as a thought leader – but you cannot do anything to damage your credibility or try to somehow get that reach artificially. It doesn’t work and won’t hold anyone’s interest. For instance I could try to steer the corporate blog in a direction where “celebrity surgeons” (is there such a thing other than the odd Dr Oz and some plastic surgeons who show up on makeover shows??) somehow feel compelled to retweet the content, but while that might extend reach for a day, it is not delivering quality or longevity or even the target audience we’d want to reach.

In a kind of related area…

“Data data data – you cannot make bricks without clay…” –Sherlock Holmes in TV show Elementary

All this discussion of statistics should lead to an action plan on how to take advantage of statistics and visitor data to guide future blog content – “give the readers what they want”. At least this is true for the corporate blog – consumer/user/customer responsiveness and centricity is really the only way to ensure continued growth for something like this.

I have been participating in a Coursera/Wharton School online class about marketing, and this week was all about customer-centricity. Since I work a lot with the ideas underpinning “taming Big Data” to gain customer insights in my freelance work, the whole idea of customer focus as one of the only real ways to differentiate makes a lot of sense – and customer data (overload) is the key to giving users what they want.

Never mind that I am totally distracted listening to the professor, Peter Fader, deliver his lectures, because he sounds too much like Bob Odenkirk – so I am supposed to be looking at a PowerPoint slide describing a couple of case studies of companies that have put customer data to good use, but it’s like I am hearing Saul Goodman explaining customer centricity to me. (And Saul Goodman arguably did put his customers first, sometimes to his own detriment and at his own peril.)

This customer-centric, data-driven approach is finally taking root in all kinds of business segments and industries. As Fader pointed out, direct marketing has always used data to target customers – but now, in the digital age, this data is readily available to almost everyone (I won’t get into the ethics of data collection, privacy, etc. except to say that while it’s great for businesses, it’s creepy for customers – see a recent article about a pregnant woman and Princeton professor who had to go to insane lengths to hide her pregnancy from advertisers, retailers and the Big Data machine.) At first companies like Google and Amazon tapped into user data because it’s in their DNA – I have spent a lot of time looking at how old-style, traditional publishers who lost both revenue and subscribers in the big digital shift are now taking back control their data (they had ceded a lot of it to third parties who started taking an ever-larger share of the pie from them) to target their website visitors, readers, subscribers with content and advertising that is highly personalized. And just today I saw a news report about a museum in London that has begun to use all kinds of data collection (traditional and digital) to continue to attract visitors. As the report stated, “Research is a key part of the museum’s arsenal.”

The application of data and personalization is the next logical step, but I wonder about the quality and longevity of this too. Collecting, analyzing and applying user data can only go so far before people feel as though someone is always looking over their shoulder. I cannot help but wonder if that sense of Big Data infiltrating one’s life will start to feel too much like Big Brother and begin to change and influence consumer behavior?

(As advertised – I rambled aimlessly!)