Lunchtable TV Talk: The West Wing

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I force-fed myself seven annoying seasons of The Gilmore Girls recently, thinking it could play unassumingly in the background while I did other things. But it was so annoying with too many fast-talking, high-pitched, histrionic characters that I could neither concentrate on and absorb it nor concentrate on everything else I was meant to be doing.

The West Wing, also seven seasons long, 22 episodes per season, is the opposite. (Hard to believe that it has been almost ten years since it ended!) It’s equally fast-talking and sometimes a bit preachy, but it is designed in a way that I can pay attention to it and do whatever else I need to do and get the most from both. I even heard Rob Lowe exclaim in exasperation, “Good night, nurse!” – an expression I had only ever heard my grandmother (and the character Mike Sloan in the long-gone but much-loved show Homefront) use (most people don’t believe me when I tell them that yes, in fact, this is a real expression).

I had seen isolated episodes of The West Wing during its original run, but most of it happened during a period when I did not watch much telly, much less ingest it like a pig at the trough as I do now. I was always impressed with The West Wing – its stories, its cast, its pace – but only now, thanks to Netflix, am I watching it from end to end. And it’s providing sheer contentment. I haven’t reached the point yet where Rob Lowe leaves or where John Spencer dies, depriving the show of one of its greatest assets.

Can you argue with a show that at its worst seems a little like a “very special episode” on some issue – but never overdoes it, really? And at its best, weaves words like “ensorcelled” into the script? Or with a show that during its run had a stellar leading cast and unparalleled caliber of guest stars (Oliver Platt, Edward James Olmos – he’s Admiral Adama now and forever for me, or Jaime Escalante!, Mary Louise Parker, John Larroquette, – great in his recent role in The Brink, Marlee Matlin, Gerald McRaney – who turns up everywhere, usually as a former or current military guy – and an insane, bursting list of others) but many others who were virtually unknown at the time but went on to other, big things (Ty Burrell of Modern Family, Evan Handler of Sex and the City and Californication, Nick Offerman of Parks & Recreation, Clark Gregg of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Danny Pudi of Community, Felicity Huffman of Desperate Housewives and American Crime, Lisa Edelstein of House and the mercilessly shitty Girlfriends Guide to Divorce, Jorja Fox of CSI, Lance Reddick of The Wire and Fringe and Connie Britton, looking teenager-young, of Friday Night Lights, American Horror Story and Nashville…). And more… so many more.

This show encapsulates Aaron Sorkin‘s golden age. America wasn’t ready for him or his style in the too-clever but too-soon Sports Night, and he went too far with the overblown The Newsroom. But The West Wing was the pinnacle.

Lunchtable TV Talk – Community: Magic is gone

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

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

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

Television is the new TV – The great disconnect

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A few years ago when I worked in the tech industry, there was a lot of noise about “cord cutting” and how internet technologies could enable consumers to bypass expensive and inflexible cable companies. The vision at the time was just that – a vision that had not quite caught up to reality. But now we’re living in a slightly-different-than-imagined version of that reality. I know a lot of people who don’t have relationships with a cable company, and all their entertainment comes in some form of streaming and they can pick and choose, smörgåsbord style, what they want to buy into (or not). Of course there are still some constraints in terms of internet connectivity – with many people held hostage by the lack of choice in ISPs. But there has never been quite as much freedom to choose content and content source as there is today.

This got me to thinking, though, that even if we are essentially looking at content that we’d traditionally refer to as “television” – the sudden lack of “programming”, the ability to watch whenever and wherever, the ability to avoid advertising (or succumb to more targeted ads), the shift toward creating truly amazing stories and the elevation of “TV” shows to high art or at least something that surpasses two-hour film format storytelling by adding richness, depth, character building and production value – all of this means that we are witnessing the birth of something quite new. (One writer calls it “complex TV” but I would go so far as to argue that it is not TV at all.)

Can we call what we are watching “TV” just because it vaguely follows the same format? When streaming and binge-watching are becoming de facto – and shows are not necessarily created with traditional advertising streams in mind, tethers to certain templates are broken. Creativity is unleashed in new ways and places. We see small-scale, independent online production and exclusively online productions to complement traditional programming. We see “networks” creating original content, which was novel enough when it was no longer the big three American networks – Fox had been in the game for some time. But when paid cable got into the game, quality and diversity (and risk taking) became important. Ratings and audience share became less important. And when ratings still posed a challenge for some shows in one channel, it has grown likelier for another outlet to pick up the production in one way or another (some examples of this include Netflix running with long-dead Arrested Development to produce new episodes and a collaboration between different, non-traditional partners to continue producing critically lauded but ratings-challenged Friday Night Lights and Damages.) Online outlets got involved to become their own kind of networks – with Netflix leading the way and disrupting the whole model of keeping viewers on the hook for months as a story played out week after week on television. Where home entertainment, like DVD boxsets, unleashed the “binge watching”/marathon phenomenon, Netflix and later Amazon Prime were able to produce and release full seasons of high quality content whenever they wanted to (not beholden to any traditional “TV season”). Kicking that up a notch more recently has been Yahoo!’s step into the ring – reviving former NBC, perpetually on-the-bubble comedy weirdness Community.

This is still called “TV content”. But is it? When Netflix or Yahoo! bring an actual TV show from a network back to life through their own channels, is it still TV just because the show came from there? This week’s episode of Black-ish has the four kids talking in horror about how, in the old days, you had to watch content when it was scheduled or miss it forever. No pause button! No choices!

Are the methods by which we watch influencing how these shows are made, when they are released? And if this is not TV any longer, what is it? It’s not programming in the traditional television sense. And when a content provider releases entire seasons at one time, they have changed the entire production process. The content is not consumed, perceived or even built in the same way.

I recently read about how “television writers” are forced to evolve and create an end-to-end story when dealing with a full-season streaming show that is released all at once, while traditional network shows can alter the trajectory of a storyline that does not perform well or is unpopular with viewers (e.g. the storyline in which Kalinda’s husband shows up on The Good Wife. It was not well-received, so the writers scrapped it at their first opportunity). But there are no U-turns or detours when Amazon gives us an entire season of Transparent. In that way, full-season, binge-bait “content dumping” is like the release of a film, only a film is maybe two hours, and a show is 12 or 13 hours (or half that, in the case of half-hour shows) – assuming that any of these content creators decide in the long run to stick with the semi-traditional “duration” lengths. This could change, too. It already has changed to some degree.

As we disconnect from traditional methods of content consumption, we are consuming new things in new ways – we are not watching television any longer, even if we are watching our content ON an actual television.

Baking Builds Community

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If I ever needed evidence of how cool and community-building Twitter can be, the last couple of days are a case in point. I exchanged a couple of not terribly meaningful Tweets with thinkspace (a company in the Seattle area that is a kind of office space/tech accelerator). I had heard of them but had no real reason to interact. But yesterday having crossed paths on Twitter thanks to the Mink 3D printer story making headlines in the tech world, I checked out thinkspace (awfully cool the work they’re doing in my old stomping grounds – western Washington).

But one of the coolest finds was an article in the thinkspace blog about how “baking builds community” – and this is something I can attest to – having started this blog back in 2009 or so because of my own baking obsessions and inclinations. Earlier parts of the blog are all about baking, recipes and pictures of cookies – 2014 has been almost bake-less, but somehow seeing the mention of baking mania on the thinkspace site makes me think it might be time to come out of hibernation.

Bear with me a minute – I am going to reach a point but before that will discuss a bit about the operational side of my weekly commuting life, a very impersonal and faceless grind. Each week, I spend one night and two days in Gothenburg, Sweden (where I work). Almost every week now, I stay in the same spare, no-frills hotel on the edge of the city. I don’t mind it; it is one of the least expensive options and the staff is pretty friendly. I would never go so far as to say that most Swedish companies, even those squarely in competitive consumer markets, are particularly friendly or service-oriented, but this low-end place has actually been friendlier and offered better service than I got at a lot of the city’s more upscale places.

Generally, in the year+ that I have been doing this “commute”, I have stayed in at least half of Gothenburg’s 90-ish hotels and in all parts of the city. In many cases, I have stayed in the handful of places that are actually whole apartments, which is always more comfortable for slightly longer-than-overnight stays – but they are generally expensive and impersonal, if you can actually book a flat (they are often sold out, as is almost always the case with one specific place in the city center).

This week I got an apartment that is a tiny bit off the beaten path but is nevertheless quite central – a really beautiful flat with the most personal and attentive service possible. The people running the flats (there are, I think, four or five flats there for rent) are personable and really strive to make the stay at their place fantastic. And it was. I fell in love with the apartment I stayed in (it is not one of the more spa-oriented flats that they have fashioned on the lower floor) – it was compact enough that it was not a huge amount of space but had high ceilings and skylight windows and a small loft just for sitting in natural light. It made me feel almost sad that I never found a flat just like it when I was looking to buy a flat in Gothenburg (not that I would have managed to win a bid in the cutthroat real estate market here).

The whole reason I digress and go off into this story was because I had a long conversation with the proprietress of the place – a gregarious Australian woman, and we got onto the subject of baking – my industrial-level baking habit/hobby and how I give all of it away. How it builds bridges, opens doors and of course (as she noted) probably gave me away as an American like nothing else does. Haha. I commented that Australia Day had just passed and I felt bad that I had not made any Anzac biscuits for the first time in years – and she lamented that she had not even had an Anzac biccie in 20+ years.This exchange – discussing baking – yes, just discussing, opened the door to further conversation and personalization. That really made a big difference – a human connection. And it makes me want to fire up the oven and make some cookies right now. Peanut-butter-cup-stuffed chocolate chip cookies anyone?

Baking really does build community – whether you are offering up 20 different kinds of cookies and cupcakes to the office or whether you are just discussing what you like to bake with the people you happen to meet in your daily life. Suddenly I feel inspired to get back in the kitchen.

Here’s another little piece of advice…

TV overdoses, past and present – Random stream of consciousness

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According to HuffPost the best line uttered on tv in 2013 was, “Not great, Bob!”

““Not great, Bob!” It was only three words, spoken by an angry Pete Campbell as he joined the ever-sunny Bob Benson in an elevator on Mad Men.””

As someone who loves any line that involves “Bob” (e.g. “I used to have a pretty good pen, Bob.” Or “Scarves, Bob? His life will be filled with scarves?”), I agree. Especially because I am, like most, a Mad Men fan – and possibly an even bigger fan of the work James Wolk has done on Mad Men, the entertaining and mostly underrated Political Animals and The Crazy Ones – he and Hamish Linklater are the best parts of that show.

I get roped into a lot of television shows – not just because television is improving and offers a depth and breadth that seemed unimaginable a decade ago. I live in the middle of the Swedish woods and am a workaholic multitasker. I need some noise going on in the background all the time, and when it’s not music, it’s television shows. Mostly I carefully select the shows to which I become devoted – but in the interim, I watch a lot of stuff halfheartedly (like the aforementioned The Crazy Ones, which is not very good and only offers a funny line now and then or –puke, puke – guest appearances from – PUKE – Josh Groban. I watch, I judge, I keep watching sometimes even when a show sucks or even after it loses the plot (example, Revenge) or becomes passé (case in point – Grey’s Anatomy). Some stuff is middling all the time – entertaining but nothing extraordinary (Elementary, Grimm, Revolution – stuff that does not require careful attention, enabling my half-watching notice, mostly things I will refer to as “network stuff”. As much as the major networks are trying to be edgy, they are still just middle-ground followers. Half-baked ideas relying on shock value, soapy dramatics, riding the coattails of the deserved success of edgier, deeper, different storytelling from free and premium cable channels. (Not that all non-network tries are successful. The US version of The Killing started off with promise, dragged its feet with sloppy storytelling and carried its first-season mystery into season two without resolution – never a good idea, right David Lynch/Twin Peaks/Who killed Laura Palmer? People extended the show goodwill enough to give it a third season, which was arguably much better than the second season, but it was really too late.)

Speaking of killing, I also caught a brief article on TV characters who should be killed off. I found that I agreed with the majority. The article also brought up some other random thoughts – because that is what a multitasker does – lots of different things at once, with disconnected thoughts shooting through the brain at lightning speed. Sometimes I capture them – sometimes not (but they were not likely worth capturing).

I only recently started watching Scandal – rapidly caught up on the previous seasons over holiday break. I dislike Quinn – never had a liking for her, but it has gotten worse. I agree that she can go anytime. I have trouble with Tony Goldwyn in general – he is a good actor but for me, he is Carl the bad guy from Ghost (a film I hated). I cannot do anything except make fun of Ghost. Everything about it was so cheesy, and the villains (Willie Lopez!? Carl!). I also remember ghosts of TV’s past when Tony Goldwyn was a guest star on Designing Women, asking the women to design his funeral. He played a gay man who was going to die from AIDS, and the episode ended with his funeral. Designing Women was a preachy show and brought up a lot of issues of the day (mid/late 80s issues). Not that AIDS is not an issue today – but the issue and the illness – or approach to the illness – have changed, maybe in part because of mainstream treatment of the disease?

Which then led me to think about the show Life Goes On (not least because one of its principal actors, Patti LuPone, is now in the ensemble cast of American Horror Story: Coven. Not a favorite in the US although it went on for seasons and seasons. It was probably the first show that put a family front and center that included a member with Down Syndrome and prominently featured that character in the storylines. While that was probably groundbreaking at the time, the show also gave one of its main characters an HIV-positive teenage boyfriend (played by Chad Lowe – probably one of the only things I remember him doing since his career has been overshadowed by his brother Rob and his ex-wife, Hilary Swank – who would have imagined that when she was in one of the many Karate Kid sequels?). I thought about how this character introduction was also its own kind of groundbreaking. While Life Goes On was never actually what I could call “entertaining”, it somehow tackled big issues without being over the top or preachy. It’s no wonder it was not popular (I am told that it was popular in Iceland for some reason – so everyone remembers “Corky” – I suspect if I were to ask a representative sample of Americans if they remember Corky or Becca Thatcher, they would not).

Where is this line in television between entertainment and education? At times Designing Women just felt like a mouthpiece for the creator’s political views and feminist diatribes. Life Goes On, without being too heavy handed or dramatic, still felt a bit too real, making it too depressing to be a gripping drama. Meanwhile, something like The Wire can do both – “edutainment”. But, it is also true that The Wire was not exactly popular during its first run. It has more of the slow-burn quality that comes from being able to buy whole seasons of tv on DVD or online for streaming/download. Some things just don’t catch on until well after the fact. Some fall into obscurity (Homefront, anyone?) while others live on and gather a loyal, vocal following (Arrested Development, Friday Night Lights – note that I cite TWO Kyle Chandler classics!). Thanks to the push for original programming from unorthodox sources (Netflix), we got another season of Arrested Development after years of waiting. Was it worth it? Hard to say – need to watch it more than once to assess. That was the beauty of Arrested Development all along – you almost had to watch it more than once to catch everything. The show was laced with multilayered jokes and references, and without a pretty well-stocked brain bar, getting the perfectly hilarious mixed cocktail it intended could be challenging. It was funny on its surface in many cases but even funnier if you could unpack all the layers. (The Simpsons is a lot like that, too – albeit more so in its earlier years.)

But then so much of pop culture – any culture or discipline – relies on shared references.

For example, everyone needs to see the 1980s classic film, Fast Times at Ridgemont High – I do not know how many times I have referenced it lately and heard it referenced. There was a con mentioned in the show White Collar called “The Phoebe Cates” (referring to the most memorable scene in the film). There was a reference in The Crazy Ones to the scene-stealing Jeff Spicoli (played by then-unknown Sean Penn). Most good pop culture – even the not so good – plays on these references and adds a richness

For the sake of posterity and trying to remember how, when, where and on what I flushed so much time down the toilet, I’m listing as much as I can remember of television I recently ingested and random thoughts on some of them. There are way too many other shows I have not listed (like Mad Men, actually – because they are not on now or soon).

Nashville – Not great, not terrible. I like Connie Britton (thanks to her work in Friday Night Lights, American Horror Story and early Spin City) – not sure I buy this show but I actually like a lot of the music in the show.

The Crazy Ones – This show is all right but I don’t go out of my way to see it. James Wolk and Hamish Linklater make the show for me (really enjoyed both of their work in other things as well). Robin Williams is too over the top as usual and Sarah Michelle Gellar, whom I keep trying to like, is just not for me. I do love Brad Garrett in his role, though. The episodes seemed to get better when he arrived.

The Good Wife – New life breathed into this (not that it needed it) when main character goes off to form her own law firm.

Justified – can’t wait for the new season, coming up soon. I love everything about this show and all its characters. Agree with the writer of article cited above – do not want ANY of these characters to die.

Once Upon a Time – I admit that I have skipped the whole current season of this show. I gave up.

Californication – Thank god we are heading into the final season of this show that should have died ages ago. Sick of this story being rehashed of some loser middle-aged dude who manages to pull his head out of his ass long enough to do something artistically rewarding only to fuck up his personal life and screw over all the people in his fucked life again and again. It’s only funny or forgivable for so long…

House of Lies – Pretty entertaining because it plays on all the stereotypical business clichés and management consultant language. Don Cheadle plays a great asshole.

House of Cards – Entertaining remake of the UK version, proof that creativity can be launched from all kinds of wombs (Netflix original programming)

Episodes – Looking forward to new season. Have been surprised by how crass but simultaneously funny this show is.

Lilyhammer – Funny but also like being hit over the head with stereotypes. But then no one outside of Norway knows anything about Norway – but this might be the sort of thing they imagine. UDI (immigration directorate) might take offense to its treatment, but I’ve never heard a happy story coming out of there.

Shameless – Looking forward to the new season

Grey’s Anatomy – End already. It’s getting petty (or pettier) and duller by the minute

Revenge – It was always soapy but now it’s just ridiculous and has lost any edge it had. Best part is the ease with which character Nolan Ross switches between male and female love interests and it’s just no big deal to anyone. Perfect.

Parks and Recreation – Losing its comedic edge unfortunately.

Community – interested in seeing how this is rebooted now that its controversial creator is back at the helm. Fingers crossed after dismal previous season.

Scandal – Outlandish but a guilty pleasure.

Hawaii Five-0 – another guilty pleasure. I like the chemistry among the cast. Alex O’Loughlin and Scott Caan together are pretty funny. I like some of the cheeky jokes, for example about Magnum PI – long ago and faraway Hawaii-based TV

Elementary – Big Jonny Lee Miller fan, like how Aidan Quinn is pretty much always a New York police captain in every show now, and Lucy Liu has grown on me in almost all the roles she has done since annoying Ally McBeal BS.

Downton Abbey – I could fully see where the popularity came from in the beginning but it is grating my nerves now

How I Met Your Mother – So glad this is coming to an end. It used to be quite funny at times but this last season feels like a stretch.

White Collar – Time filler. Sometimes quite entertaining. I like the characters but it’s a fairly straightforward show.

Veep – Caught up on this a few months ago and loved it. Laughed a lot at the awkwardness.

The Walking Dead – When it comes back, I wonder where the gang will go. I have always been happy that the show was not afraid to kill people off as they went – that’s realistic.

American Horror Story – Enjoying. I love the big ensemble cast and like that each season brings back the same people in different roles. I never used to like Jessica Lange but this has put a few points in her column. Angela Bassett is, for lack of a better word, amazing. She always is.

Treme – An abbreviated final season. Interested in seeing how it all turns out, even though things never quite “turn out” – I don’t expect finality.

Girls – Clever at first. Eventually just annoying as all fuck. The article above wants Marnie to die. I would not mind if they all did.

Top of the LakeJane Campion is a complicated filmmaker, and she is no different when introducing her storytelling to the small screen. Visually arresting backdrop to a complicated and ugly story, Elisabeth Moss takes center stage as a New Zealander/detective who goes home for the first time in years, dredging up some of the horrors of her own past. Excellent viewing.

Luther – The story is often really outlandish and unbelievable but we can’t help loving Idris Elba, can we? Or the troubled John Luther that he portrays.

Game of Thrones – I resisted. I tried to watch once but did not get far. I tried again and got sucked in this time. Much better. I am a Peter Dinklage fan anyway but came to appreciate the whole thing (even if I still acknowledge that he’s the best thing about the show)

Bron – Swedish/Danish original of the police show – great characters.

The Bridge – US version of Swedish/Danish police show. It took a while to accept Diane Kruger and her character, but I loved Demian Bichir’s character immediately. Also appreciated Ted Levine as the lieutenant – as I loved him in Monk – and Thomas M. Wright as Steven Linder – he also figured prominently into Top of the Lake.

Orange is the New Black – Binge watched. Mostly really enjoyed this – of course it’s not perfect but it was different from most of what else is out there. More accolades for Netflix taking a chance on its own programming.

Longmire – Just renewed for a third season. Can you argue with a show that has Lou Diamond Phillips in it? No.

Ray Donovan – Not sure about this show still. I like most of the characters, but all I can think of when I watch this is that the whole plot development is advanced almost entirely by people making phone calls on their mobiles – way too much time on the phone for everyone involved. Character development suffers a bit…

Homeland – Ok, this show went off the rails many times. I still enjoy it, largely because I have enjoyed the performances of Mandy Patinkin and F Murray Abraham (he will always be Salieri to me). But let’s hope that the next season takes a new direction in light of some of what transpired in the end of the latest season.

Masters of Sex – One of the best things to come along in the last round of shows. Excellent and likeable cast, a sensitive subject handled with sensitivity and a deft hand. Beautifully done. A lot of accolades have gone to star Lizzy Caplan (well-deserved), but other cast members, including virtually unrecognizable Julianne Nicholson and, as the repressed housewife discovering sexual secrets about her husband, the always great Allison Janney.

The Newsroom – My opinion is tipping toward dislike. The background music playing in many scenes tells too much of the story – soaring music that somehow betrays that Jeff Daniels’s character is going to do something liberal and benevolent that no one expects. Too much of the annoying Maggie (played by Alison Pill) and a whole stupid storyline there. I know this is Aaron Sorkin and his famous fast-talking, wordy spiels for all the characters, but I don’t buy the characters here. Mac (Emily Mortimer) is especially out there – someone is unlikely to ascend to her position if this insecure and flighty. Best characters – Sam Waterston, Jane Fonda, Hamish Linklater (a few episodes in the most recent season). They kept the thing grounded.

True Blood – End already? The recent season was a bit more entertaining than the previous two but I could do without this one.

Boardwalk Empire – One of my all-time favorites. I don’t actually know many people who like it, but I love it. I think it becomes more engrossing each season and love the actors they bring in. Somehow the vast ensemble does not get muddled – each character is distinct, even if it does mean that one needs to pay close attention to every moment of the show. Definitely a show not afraid to kill off important characters and fan favorites, which is sad but perhaps necessary to keep it going at the same level. (Actresses I have never liked, such as Patricia Arquette and Julianne Nicholson, turn in fabulous performances here.)

Sons of Anarchy – Also look forward to this ending. It has just become ridiculous. More ridiculous than it already was.

Revolution – Time filler-killer

Grimm – Time filler – like that it is set in Portland, though, so we get references to Portland’s weirdness and Voodoo Doughnut.

Hell on Wheels – I watch this almost entirely to see the performance of Christopher Heyerdahl as “The Swede”. That alone is worth the time.

the baking plan

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