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: Fleabag

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That quiet lull between the summer TV season and the standard, full-throttle autumn season gave me an opportunity to watch some stuff I might not have, such as the ITV production Victoria (don’t bother – it’s kind of crap except for Rufus Sewell, who is always good even when he is given crap material to work with; still, the series was renewed for a second season) and the dark comedy self-humiliation fest that is Fleabag. Let’s not get into the fact that I also dipped my toe (oh, who am I kidding? I jumped in the deep end) into the six seasons of Sex & the City, which I had so carefully avoided during its first incarnation. Despite there being no shortage of original summer programming that began and ended in almost staggered shifts, I still found myself, at times, with an empty queue (have watched most of what interests me so far on HBO Nordic and Amazon; can only access Swedish Netflix now so there are a lot of lovely films I cannot see in my old American queue. Kind of frustrating because I was not even trying to cheat the system: I pay for both an American and a Swedish subscription).

Maybe it’s this “empty queue” idea that also drives the nameless anti-heroine of Fleabag. She’s very funny, very awkward and a total mess – and she knows it. She breaks the fourth wall and talks directly to the viewer quite often, and it works. I keep seeing lazy comparisons to Bridget Jones and Girls’s Hannah Horvath – but as I write, these are just that – lazy. Our nameless mess of a woman is so much more than both and completely confident in her lack of self-confidence. (Must be – even The Economist got in on the action of writing about Fleabag.)

It’s funny, it’s ironic, it’s sarcastic, it’s pretty realistic, and in that way, it’s also heartbreaking. It somehow manages to be both the wound and the salt you pour into it yourself because you think you deserve to suffer, or like Canadian poet PK Page posits, because you believe that “suffering confers identity”. For the show’s lead, her “empty queue” is not a tv-watching list: it’s the emptiness of her life without her best friend, who has accidentally committed suicide; it’s the more distant but still fresh loss of her mother to cancer and the subsequent, if metaphorical, loss of her father to an uptight and horrible stepmother; it’s the tense but close relationship she shares with her sister. It’s mindlessly filling the emptiness with a queue of men and a, shall we say active, graphic and even rugged sex life? Sex queue as coping mechanism, and only through the six episodes do we see exactly how winding, dark and byzantine are the problems she is trying to fuck into oblivion or at least avoid.

Flea photo (c) 2014 Matt Brown.

Lunchtable TV Talk: Sex & the City

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It will sound strange that I am ridiculously embarrassed to admit that I have been binge-watching Sex & the City this week. I readily admit my shamefully frequent hate-watching of shit like Zoo or the relentless and neverending decades-worth of cop and legal procedurals without the kind of shame and self-disappointment I feel at admitting that I’ve succumbed to watching this. I’m watching, and I cannot even call it total drivel – it’s not that bad. But it was so overhyped when it was new that it should/could not have been seriously watched during its heyday. Sure, watching it the way I’ve been watching puts too fine a point on the annoying parts – and they are many. But there are moments, when I set aside the fact that this is a show built around the pathetic idea that successful, independent, sexual, attractive women pretty much let their lives revolve around meeting someone, that elicit some kind of provocation or pique an emotional response. I think SaTC spoke to so many people at the height of its popularity because there are a lot of women in the same situation. Most of us can relate to some part of SaTC, whether it’s the elusive hunt for “the one”, thinking we’ve found “the one” only to be jerked around, or even the sad but seemingly ridiculous storylines like falling in love with the micropenis man, the out-of-control alcoholic, and god knows whatever else. Or a few pearls of Samantha Jones wisdom, i.e. in the new millennium (which was just dawning as this aired), sexual orientation will end up being more fluid and about experience and individuals over gender. We’ll see – but we’ve certainly moved in a more fluid direction in the 16 years since it aired.

As I wrote to a friend: “I am horrified at myself because I ran out of crap tv to have on in the background while I work so I have done something I swore I would never, ever do: I am watching Sex & the City. It is funny though what impressions you get of things while they are happening but you are not really watching. I had very misguided ideas on what happened in the Carrie/Big relationship, for example, based on water-cooler office talk and shit. I had during its original run seen an episode here or there … like one ep from season 1 and one ep from season 4 so it was not like I had any great continuity of plot – even though it is not hard to piece together or guess.” And being who I am (tv addict) I knew a LOT about it without ever watching it, but then actually watching it there are a lot of things I did not know.

The most fun part of the show actually has been realizing how old it is. It started almost 20 goddamn years ago. It featured loads and loads of actors who were nobodies who went on to do other things – people I barely recognized because the first season was from 19-fucking 98! What? The first two seasons included Justin Theroux in two different roles, Timothy Olyphant looking a little creepy (has he maybe had his teeth done since?), fucking Donald Trump, and even Gabriel Macht long, long before his success in Suits. There was even a 30-second scene of a silent Mireille Enos in the episode Valerie Harper was in.

Maybe when the show debuted it felt fresh – it did, after all, help to usher in an era of prestige TV that has led to this flood of vast and quality TV choices. But looking at it today is it provocative, as it clearly was meant to be? No, not so much. In fact, at certain points it feels hateful, full of all kinds of discriminatory BS, privilege and stereotypes. Can I overlook that?

Yeah, because, oh well now that I am watching it it is nowhere near as obnoxious and overblown as it was to me when it was new and everyone was obsessed with watching it. Now that we are awash in a sea of varying quality shows that are still better than network tv, it no longer feels like there is much novelty around something like SaTC.

Lunchtable TV Talk: Better Things

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I stumbled on Better Things rather by accident. I had not read anything in the lead up to its being shown, and then was happily surprised to see that Pamela Adlon stars and is a co-creator with Louis C.K. It’s only two episodes in, so, like most things I feel compelled to talk about prematurely, it’s early days. I don’t know where it will go. But I like the confident-but-vulnerable feel the show projects even from its first moments.

Adlon is Sam, a working actress and single mother of three daughters. It’s clear she struggles (as you would trying to balance all that), but it’s also clear – in almost effortless but not particularly linear – storytelling that she has a complete identity: her professional identity, her parental identity, her daughter identity, her sexual identity. And some of the best moments so far are when some of these collide. In episode two, driving in her car with her troublesome (and unlikeable) teenage daughter, she gets so angry that she pulls the car over hastily and delivers the most frustrated, honest “lecture” I’ve seen on tv. Her irritation is clear (at having to escalate things just to get her daughter’s attention, being wounded by the unfairness of her daughter’s comments while at the same time being furious about the fact that she knows the daughter is smarter than that and is just being manipulative). And she calls her daughter out on it in a real way.

But every mother has also been a daughter, and we see the strange relationship her character has with her own mother. Somehow it reminded me of a scene in the long-lost HBO show, Enlightened, starring Laura Dern. I found it to be frustrating and did not really like Dern’s character, but in her own mother-daughter relationship, Dern’s character comes to the realization that “The mother is just a child, too”. In viewing Better Things, we have a weekly window into that sentiment (along with many others). No parent, or daughter, or whatever else we define ourselves as, is going to be perfect – and as Adlon explains to an audience at the end of episode 2, we’re all just making it up as we go along.

And that – an easy answer that is not really an easy answer at all – is why I think I am going to like this show.

Lunchtable TV Talk: Rizzoli and Isles

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In a transitional week – in many ways – during which I attempted to “decompress”, I decided to binge watch the TV show Rizzoli and Isles. Why this show? Perhaps because I had never seen any of it; perhaps because it would not require much attention (would allow for the thoughtless decompression I desperately needed); perhaps because there are seven near-mind-numbing seasons with which to anesthetize my brain. It could also be other, more random things like remembering with some sadness the mid-show suicide of one of its leads, Lee Thompson Young; the entertainment value of the older detective character, Vince (Bruce McGill), mostly because I have a weird obsession with the movie My Cousin Vinny, and I could play a “Hi Bob!”Bob Newhart Show-esque drinking game, downing a drink every time McGill utters one of the words or statements that were made so distinctive by his rendering of them in Vinny. (Seriously, after McGill got to repeatedly utter the phrase “Sac o’ Suds” in Vinny, I never imagined being able to hear him say “suds” again – but he did, in an R and I episode about a murder in a car wash). Really I could cite a whole list of reasons why I chose this show over anything else. But none of it much matters.

As I write this, I am heading into watching the final season, which just ended its cable run after seven series. I can’t really write a “comprehensive review” (do I ever?) but here are some of the things that struck me:

  • Lead Angie Harmon: I like her character, Detective Jane Rizzoli, and want to like her, as an actress, but it’s hard to reconcile with the Bush-supporting, religious nut conservative she seems to be in her real life. The interplay she has with her socially awkward best friend, Dr Maura Isles (Sasha Alexander), helps with the objectivity.
  • I like that most of the time, when the characters are not okay and are struggling with something, they say so. When someone says, “Hey, are you okay?” most of the characters feel comfortable enough to say, “No, I’m not.” I notice this because in most shows, every character is either unhinged and obviously not at all okay or is portrayed as being tightly wound and bearing a stiff upper lip (never being able to admit to some vulnerability). Particularly in these kinds of procedurals. This made Rizzoli and Isles feel more human and real.
  • I felt that Lorraine Bracco’s presence as Rizzoli’s mother, particularly in the first season or two, was completely wasted, annoying and out of place. The character’s development has helped.
  • I felt genuinely sad when, in season 4/5, the real-life suicide of actor Lee Thompson Young, was handled on the show (as an accidental death). I remembered seeing him play a role in the ill-fated and stupid show FlashForward, in which his character kills himself.
  • The fun part of watching the seven seasons of this procedural retrospectively is seeing all the guest stars who went on to other things – Cameron Monaghan from Shameless, Taylor Kinney from Chicago Fire (and former Mr Gaga), the red-haired dude who has been Jiminy Cricket in Once Upon a Time and is now a detective on Murder in the First – and a whole bunch of others. Even Jerry from Parks & Recreation.
  • There is nothing particularly important or special about this show, but its near-blase approach to women in powerful or not traditionally female positions is a positive shift. When you consider the near radical feminism of putting Cagney & Lacey on tv in the early 80s as real women with real problems who also happen to be detectives, and the novelty of that (and much scholarly research and writing, believe it or not, has been written on the subject), it’s remarkable to see Rizzoli as an experienced detective who has not had to endure quite as much sexism as her predecessors. She undoubtedly experienced plenty – it’s just that she probably does not face it from everyone she meets, including her colleagues in the department.

Lunchtable TV Talk: Tyrant

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I thought that Tyrant had a lot of promise after its first, and even second, seasons. Even if it did not seem entirely plausible – or even particularly good – there were a lot of paths and themes that could have led the show to greener pastures in its efforts. But I have not really seen the potential come to fruition. There were hints of nuance at times, but now, well into the third season, it feels like revenge has led the mild-mannered pediatrician/heir to the tyrannical first family of the fictional Abuddin, Barry/Bassam, to become just like the rest of his tyrannical predecessors. And that progression just does not feel real.

Something else that does not feel real at all – or ever – is the character played by Jennifer Finnigan (Bassam’s wife, Molly). I’ve always had a problem with Finnigan, who overacts in a way that brings high school drama to mind, and has done so in all her roles. (That is, she always feels like she is doing an acting exercise – here, in Monday Mornings, in The Dead Zone… matters not, she just is not embodying her roles in any kind of believable way). The only thing that felt slightly authentic happened when she and Bassam suffered a huge loss in the most recent season, but her behavior and reactions since then, while probably logical in abject grief, don’t feel genuine coming from Finnigan. I keep trying to see past this or look at her with fresh eyes, but it is just not happening.

I could recount the previous season and the characters and their machinations, but that isn’t really useful here. The gravitas the show could have as a kind of pseudo-commentary on current events (in the middle east or in politics in general) is squandered on a bunch of affairs and sleeping around (really soapy shit, frankly, which does not have a place in this show). You know, it does not really interest me that Bassam and Molly are no longer in love or that Leila (former first lady, Bassam’s sister-in-law and former lover) never loved her husband and now loves some US military officer (Chris Noth, following up his turn on The Good Wife with this, which does not feel particularly different… in fact, none of his roles ever feel different). I don’t care I don’t care I don’t care. These personal tales add nothing to the story and no depth to the characters, so it’s a bit like watching something that IS a soap opera. I doubt that was the original intent/vision for this show.

Overall, it feels (and has always felt) like this show should have aimed for a shorter-term view of its run, preserving limited-run storytelling to ensure quality and focus. But I’m not getting that kind of feeling from this. And any goodwill or excitement the show seems to build ends up getting killed off quickly. (And while I was excited to see The Americans’ brilliant Annet Mahendru end up here, she has been underutilized.)

At this stage I am not sure whether to recommend this or not.

Lunchtable TV Talk: Baskets

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I’ve never been much of a Zach Galifianakis fan; I’ve never been much of a Louie Anderson fan. Somehow, though, when these two are put together in a mildly insane show, Baskets, about a man, Chip Baskets, hell-bent on making a living as a classically trained (in the French tradition) clown and the humiliations he endures, his crazy family and the cast of characters accompanying him on his life’s rather sad journey, it feels like a meta story within a story (that is, a sad man, desperate to be a clown, living the life of a sad clown). Quite telling about how Chip seems to approach life is that he moves to Paris to fulfill this great dream but never once seems to consider the fact that they speak French in France.

But rarely does Chip realize the absurdity of his own life and the oblivious way he wanders through it. He is self-aware enough to be completely selfish (i.e., he knows what he wants, but never considers the consequences for other people; he is pining for and romanticizing his love with a French woman who uses him while failing to see that he is perpetrating the same kind of blind – and sometimes not so blind – using and abusing of a downtrodden doormat of a Costco employee/insurance agent who gloms onto him, Martha). He actually seems to serve as a mirror for the average thoughtless person. He does things for his mother (brilliantly portrayed by Louie Anderson), not out of duty or kindness but guilt (like most of us do). He does things for himself that he cannot afford and that make no sense just because he wants to and has no self-discipline (like most of us do).

I don’t know quite how, but by the end of the first season, during which I was at a loss most of the time as to what I thought but also could not stop watching – I felt a real emotional connection to the show and its deeply imperfect characters.

Now that it has been over for ages, I don’t remember the finer details I wanted to elaborate on. But the show will be back for a second season. Perhaps then it will become clearer whether this is a masterpiece or just a weird anomaly – or better yet, maybe we will never get a clear picture, and that might be okay.

Photo (c) 2008 Hot Gossip Productions.

Lunchtable TV Talk: Animal Kingdom

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I keep wanting to call this “Animal Experimentation” for some unknown reason. I just cannot keep “Animal Kingdom” as a title in my brain for more than one second. I suppose it’s that I associate the word “animal” with the dismally bad Zoo, and it stars James Wolk (there was a time that I would watch anything just because of him; even he is not enough of a draw to maintain Zoo). Wolk starred in a good but short-lived show called Political Animals, and somehow all these animals-in-titles and animals run amok (in Zoo) has my “animals” confused.

Animal Kingdom was something I started watching almost by accident and find that it is like a combination of the gone-but-not-forgotten Sons of Anarchy or The Shield (i.e., gangs of pseudo or actual criminals pulling off nefarious “jobs” but always digging a bigger and bigger hole for themselves the more they try to fix the first botch job) and the short-lived Gang Related (in which a detective must play both sides – his loyalty to his gang family and to the law).

I watched the first season and enjoyed it – I find that Ellen Barkin, like a lot of women, is a heck of a lot more interesting now than she ever was when she was young. Barkin plays the family matriarch who is nothing if not a master manipulator. Everything else essentially revolves around her and the things she sets into motion. I’d say watch it or read about it to find out about the plot, but Barkin is the real reason to watch.

Lunchtable TV Talk: American Gothic & The Family

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Watching Rupert Graves seem to struggle a bit with an American accent and even seem to fit into an American ensemble felt strange. He never really embodied this role, and maybe it’s just my brain used to his Englishness. Or maybe, The Family suffered from a complete lack of cohesion that devolved into decentralized and sloppy storytelling over the course of its one and only season.

American Gothic and The Family are remarkably similar in many ways – they have a similar tone. American Gothic does not so much rely on the use of flashback, but the story draws from past events to build suspense in the present (unlike The Family’s more frequent and ham-handed attempts to use flashbacks). We have a member of the main family running for public office with a lot at stake if the family’s secrets are unveiled (in AG, one of the adult siblings is running for mayor of Boston; in The Family, the mother runs for governor of Maine). We have a law enforcement tie-in (one of the siblings in the main family in AG is married to a detective; in The Family, detectives investigate the disappearance of the main family’s young son, and one detective has an affair with the aforementioned misplaced Graves). We have the screw-up drug addict sibling in both stories; the Justin Chatwin character in AG better embodies the realities of addiction, much more convincingly than the brother (whom I can never see as anyone other than Matt Saracen in Friday Night Lights) in The Family. We get cops in AG who feel more like real cops/detectives rather than some kind of half-sketched out idea of cops (as we got in The Family). We get with AG a sense that the story knows its plot points and knows where it plans to go (unlike The Family, where the only compelling thing was Andrew McCarthy playing well against type). We get in AG a mystery that we care about finding a solution to (unlike The Family, which started strong with its first episode or two but fizzled out quickly. I am caught up to the most current American Gothic, and I am still hooked).

We have a mystery at the core of both stories and a thread of ruthlessness that runs through both in the protective siblings and family members who safeguard their secrets at all costs.

Although both were stacked with what should have been really all-star casts, The Family’s cast never really felt much like a family (the cast really did not gel for me. On paper, it looks great – acclaimed, good actors; chemistry though is a strange and rare thing that cannot be created just by having a great cast list). Despite – or perhaps because of – the dysfunction in American Gothic, you do get the idea that these people could be family. I don’t have feelings one way or the other about Virginia Madsen (for the most part), but I am thrilled to see Juliet Rylance, Justin Chatwin and Antony Starr (all of whom were co-stars in some of my favorites: The Knick, Shameless and Banshee, respectively; if you have Banshee withdrawals, Starr’s character here is a lot like Lucas Hood – mysterious, shady, reticent, volatile and with lots of secrets).

American Gothic could easily stray into the terrible territory of the now-departed soap/drama Revenge, which shared some of the same themes (but often handled them so clumsily and squandered all the suspense and goodwill built in season one, letting it trickle away in several misdirected, increasingly boring seasons). But American Gothic retains all the things that excited people about Revenge when it first began. (Virginia Madsen somehow pulls off the “trailer trash-turned-wealthy family matriarch” more effectively and believably than Madeleine Stowe ever did.)

I could be prematurely declaring success for American Gothic – but for now, I’ll cautiously say that it is definitely a better contender than The Family in terms of holding interest but… can it outlast something like Revenge and not degenerate into heightening levels nonsensical soapy dramatics. I realize that all shows of this nature rely on some soapy dramatics, and that’s not what I mean. Some shows manage to pull this off without appearing to be completely stupid and desperate. It remains to be seen whether American Gothic will be one of these.

Lunchtable TV Talk: Hap and Leonard

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There is not much that Michael K. Williams does that I don’t want to see. The Wire, Boardwalk Empire, The Night Of and so many more things, he makes things watchable. Where they go beyond him can vary. I am not sure I like Hap and Leonard that much, but the strangely compelling friendship between Williams as Leonard, a black, gay Vietnam vet with temper problems, and James Purefoy as Hap, a man who has spent time in prison for dodging the draft, drives the story forward.

On paper the pairing between these actors seems unusual and not at all like it would work. But it does. In episode two, when Hap tries to hug Leonard, and it’s ridiculously awkward, Leonard exclaims, “Come on, man. This is why dudes don’t hug each other.” There is something so genuine about the way Hap and Leonard try to take care of each other and care about each other that is, well, why the show is called “Hap and Leonard”. (Incidentally I also really like Purefoy with the exception of the monumental joke that was The Following, one of my all-time most hateful of hate-watch shows.)

This isn’t really a long or extensive description and certainly isn’t an analysis of any kind. It’s just to say that, thanks to Williams and Purefoy, the show is actually worth watching.