Lunchtable TV Talk: The Knick

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Surgery has changed, and not changed, a lot through the years. But it’s hard to watch a riveting and harrowing show like The Knick and not think about how surgeons, despite how refined their art has seemingly become, are basically glorified butchers. The Knick makes this visually evident at every turn. They feel like they are the right hand of god – I think “innovative butcher”, looking for creative but ultimately untested ways to fix things. Not that there are not randomized controlled trials and other forms of evaluation to test the efficacy of procedures and their outcomes. But every procedure had to have a first time, right?

Yes, surgery, the O.R. – things have changed, but things are not that different. Look at the antiseptic issue – it evolved, even if we still have debates about single-use versus reusable textiles and microorganisms that can live on in multi-use drapes or gowns.

Or I think of the idea of cutting people open. It seems like a good idea – cut whatever ails someone out entirely. But when we look historically, some of the most radical cutting, which was until recently seen as the only course of action, has been unnecessary or at least did not lead to better outcomes. (Don’t miss the PBS documentary, Cancer: Emperor of All Maladies to get more insight on the changing face and understanding of cancer.) How much of medical science is not even understood?

When I think of, for example, the Star Trek film, Star Trek IV, much maligned for its “fluffy” environmental storyline and time travel premise, I am struck by the scene when the team goes to a hospital to rescue Chekhov. Dr McCoy goes nuts, railing against the idea that you could cut people open and think it would produce a good outcome. It could alternately be interpreted as new-agey mumbo jumbo, or a different look at “standard” medical practice.

This also makes me think of a recent article series (“Medicine without Blood”)  on bloodless medicine. It argues that, while Americans embraced the almighty, “life-giving” blood transfusion in WWII, followed by a wholesale, post-war adoption of transfusions as an accepted, mainstream tenet of modern medicine. But had the blood transfusion ever been subjected to the same level of scrutiny and testing that other procedures and treatments are?

“Yet, in the thrall of wartime transfusion, blood had never been treated like an experimental drug and subjected to rigorous, randomized clinical trials assessing risk and benefit. Its power was intuitive. Doctors observed that patients with anemia seemed to feel better following transfusion. “The patients looked rosy and felt full of energy,” one older doctor told me. No one was thinking yet about adverse effects.”

Or…

“Some bloodless medicine experts have also helped lead a national movement calling for more sparing use of transfusion. Donor blood comes with risks for all patients, including the potential for immune reactions and infections. And clinical trials have shown that, for a broad range of conditions, restrictive transfusion practices do not lead to worse outcomes than liberal ones. In recent years, the American Medical Association has listed transfusion as among the most overused therapies in medicine.”

The point of these diversions is only to highlight that what was accepted as life-saving, mainstream practice at one point becomes passe, restricted or even recognized as dangerous later. And some procedures come back into favor as more and more evidence is collected, as different diseases and bacteria are understood better, and so on. It’s not an exact science and always evolves.

And The Knick, set at the dawn of the 20th century and in the frenzied, competitive dawn of surgical practice, shines a light on these questions and contradictions. Clive Owen is outstanding (he usually is when he plays an arrogant, brilliant but self-destructive asshole). The supporting cast is also superb. I was particularly surprised by Eve Hewson (daughter of U2’s Bono) and her role as young but increasingly independent and fierce nurse, Lucy, a West Virginia native who cares for but enables Owen’s Dr Thackeray during his drug abuse.

As the show explores the expanding world of surgery, it also expands the worldview, in some ways defying the norms of the time. In the most obvious way – the hospital employs a new assistant chief surgeon – who happens to be black. In less obvious ways, The Knick gives us characters who and stories that defy their time. Women characters come to mind here, particularly in the form of the aforementioned nurse and also in the character of Cornelia Robertson, who is the head of the hospital’s social welfare office. She serves as a part of the hospital board of directors, and as such, is a working woman and an executive-level participant in decisionmaking. Of course this is all because of her family, not because of her qualifications. But she is expected to step away from these roles when she marries. And while I enjoyed the storylines involving this character, in particular her interracial relationship with the previously mentioned assistant chief and the abortion she has when she becomes pregnant with their child, I think maybe this story strains credibility.

The Knick isn’t perfect, and not everything comes together beautifully, but I don’t expect perfection from good TV. I expect ambition and striving for something. And this show isn’t lazy.

It proves that in medicine, and in gender roles, as in the rest of life, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Lunchtable TV Talk – Reign: Historical fiction

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Most women my age – and probably a fair number of men, too – watched and maybe even loved the CBC/PBS miniseries, Anne of Green Gables. Megan Follows, while she has had a rich and long career since, will never quite shake her identity as Anne Shirley. And Gilbert Blythe, Anne’s academic rival, friend and eventual husband in the Anne of Green Gables series (a series of Canadian books set in Prince Edward Island, Canada that adolescent readers have devoured for the many decades since they debuted), had life breathed into him by Canadian actor Jonathan Crombie. He has appeared here and there in other things, perhaps most recently and notably in The Good Wife, but he has been tied all his life to his reputation-making role as “Gil”. Sadly, Jonathan Crombie passed away this past week at the age of 48, which plunges the hearts of “kindred spirits” of my age into “the depths of despair” – to use some of Anne Shirley’s over-the-top, verbose, well-loved language.

Ultimately, though, this was not meant to be about Crombie or his passing. (Or to question the “dying young” passing of Canadian actors who graced Canadian tv institutions. Referring here to the 2007 death of Neil Hope, who was “Wheels” on the original Degrassi Junior High.) Instead, I had just been watching this week’s episode of Reign, which sucked me in despite not being my style at all. In large part, I tune in week after week to watch Megan Follows’s regal, scheming performance as Catherine de Medici. Follows finally outshines her past, defining role as Anne Shirley and is the one reason I keep coming back to Reign.

This is not to say that Reign isn’t a decent show. I like these kinds of historical fiction programs in that they may not paint a full or accurate picture of historical events, but they breathe life into long-past history that may ignite curiosity in those non-historians among us. We might then make moves toward reading real history and finding out what in these programs (like Reign, The Tudors and Wolf Hall, to name a few recent entries) is true and not true. History brought to life, regardless of creative license employed for television audiences, can only pique interest and perhaps make history a more interesting subject for otherwise disinterested generations (each generation, at the risk of sounding like a cranky old person, seems less and less interested in history).

I am driven by my viewing of Reign to go back and read the history – and often enjoy the modern music pairings that make up the soundtrack. Occasionally an interesting person will turn up as a guest star – Amy Brenneman as Marie de Guise (a great piece of casting!), Yael Grobglas as Olivia (best known now as Petra on Jane the Virgin) and even Battlestar Galactica’s Helo (Tahmoh Penikett).

Considering all these factors, especially Megan Follows’s presence, now that I know the show has been renewed for another season, I will continue to watch (even if my mind is very much stuck now on Anne of Green Gables, Anne and Gil and Jonathan Crombie, resting in peace.)

Double down on doubling down

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It’s everywhere. Our language is polluted.

On this week’s The Daily Show and The Colbert Report I heard more mentions of the term “double down“. Not only did Jon Stewart refer to the KFC pseudo-sandwich, The Double Down, he included a clip from another news program in which someone’s political idea was “doubled down” on.

And then on The Colbert Report, his guest, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, on the show to discuss his new doc, The Address (about Abraham Lincoln‘s famous Gettysburg Address), said Lincoln was “doubling down on the Declaration of Independence“. Learn the Address! (The next night, in discussing green energy, Colbert also used the term “double down”! I swear, it’s everywhere, and I wish it would stop.)

Colbert also discussed the new USPS Harvey Milk postage stamp, exclaiming, “A gay man on a stamp!” I love mainstream coverage of stamps! “Make no mistake folks – if it’s mail, I’m licking something.

USPS Harvey Milk postage stamp

USPS Harvey Milk postage stamp

Why I Changed My Mind: Cheesy TV Action Shows

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We can’t be highbrow all the time, can we? My personal tastes – those that really speak to me and mean something to me – seem to align with the PBS and arthouse/foreign film crowd. But, as a multitasker, I like mindless entertainment to play in the background while I focus on other things. This realization dawned on me after quite some time, when I finally succumbed to the fairly harmless and unrealistic lure of TV action shows.

At some point I fell under the charming and sometimes hilarious spell of Burn Notice. Stretching believability in every episode, I could set aside all concerns about reality, what could actually happen and suspend all highbrow notions and get lost in the Miami world of burned CIA covert officer, Michael Westen, and his merry band of vigilante co-conspirators. The show had a number of one-time and running jokes (notably, when Tyne Daly guest starred to play opposite series regular Sharon Gless, reuniting the TV cop duo Cagney & Lacey; the character Sam Axe – played by the inimitable Bruce Campbell – always gave his cover identities the name “Chuck Finley”, which is not funny and means nothing to non-baseball fans). Burn Notice went on for a number of seasons, and though it ended in a satisfactory way, and I thought I was ready for it to end – I miss my mindless action show!

I have shifted my allegiances and started watching the remake of Hawaii Five-0, which is actually full of fun and interesting characters. Not deep characters, not deep stories, not great acting. But it’s enough to fill the need for mindless laughs and action. Scott Caan uses humor to escape the shadow of his actor father, James Caan and plays well off his counterpart and Five-0 partner, Steve McGarrett, played by Alex O’Loughlin (I’d only seen him in the late, great The Shield before this). I am thrilled to see Grace Park in this after her killer role in one of my all-time favorites, Battlestar Galactica. With all the cast chemistry, casual fun, Hawaiian views (me being an island-born Honolulu girl), the updated version of the original theme song (who doesn’t love that?) and Magnum PI references, this should satisfy my need.

But it does not quite fill the hole left by Burn Notice – and none of the other mindless shows out there (action or no) quite fill the void.

Why I Changed My Mind: Jamie Oliver

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In the overwhelming tidal wave of television chefs who show up everywhere, there are very few who interest me. I like to look back to the old days of TV cookery to the seemingly awkward Julia Child or the stark raving drunk Galloping Gourmet, Graham Kerr, filled the screen. Cooking on TV has always been a thing, often relegated to the domain of public television alongside quite tame “educational programming” (which was, fair enough, not always tame – most foreign films shown on American TV in the old days appeared on PBS – and those films are very rarely what anyone would call “tame”. After all, it was on PBS that I first saw the original version – not the inane Guy Ritchie/Madonna remake – of Lina Wertmüller’s Swept Away).

But things change, and everything is fair game as entertainment – even cooking. Enter the era of the celebrity chef, which arguably has made people a lot more interested in cooking stuff for themselves but has unfortunately launched some, let’s say, unqualified characters into stardom. Undeserved? Who knows? If someone wants to watch Rachael Ray, for example, who is a businessperson and entertainer – not a chef – and supremely annoying to boot – that’s up to them. These celebrity “food handlers” (since they are not chefs in many cases) entertain, bring in viewers and that’s the bottom line now that there are entire TV channels devoted to all manner of food, cooking, taking shortcuts in cooking and so on.

Most of these people – I can take them or leave them. Jamie Oliver is one that I could – or thought I could – easily leave. His accent alone bugs me (just for Esteban: “the shit just got reaw” – not even sure how to linguistically render in writing the dropped-off “L” at the end of words so characteristic of Oliver’s speaking), but then the messiness of his approach to food – always getting his hands deeply dug into all kinds of greasy, slimy foods – even to the point that he advocates wearing gloves to do it sometimes – makes me a bit queasy. I can’t pinpoint what exactly it is that annoys me. Even going to the grocery store and seeing his line of pastas and spices and whatnot – that is just too much. The overcommercialization does very little for me. Why would I buy a Jamie Oliver skillet when I can get a much cheaper and superior cast iron skillet and be happier with it? Personally when I buy kitchen goods, I don’t want any pseudo-celeb’s face on it. I will stick with the basics (even if there are times when tools that go beyond the basics and are extremely useful, even if singular in their use – like garlic presses or a “cupcake holer”. I am usually a firm believer in the “for every task, there is a proper tool” school of thought).

For those frequent cupcake-filling emergencies

For those frequent cupcake-filling emergencies

But I will be damned if I don’t get pulled in every time I accidentally end up on a Jamie Oliver program on TV. I don’t even own a TV at home, so these accidents rarely occur. But because I spend most weekday evenings in hotels, I’ve got a wide range of channels – and twice in the last year, I’ve landed on Jamie Oliver shows and found myself glued to the TV. After he finished each recipe, I prompted myself, “Change the channel, damn you!”

But I was paralyzed. And why? Truth is – he was making stuff that sounded really amazing. Believe me, I don’t use the word “amazing” lightly because I believe it is one of the most overused and misused words in the English language. When someone tells me it would be “amazing” if I could make a tight deadline or deliver a box of cookies for their party, I think “amazing” is definitely overstating the case. But when you can create something that really wows the taste buds without overexerting yourself or spending all day doing it – that IS amazing. I am positively gobsmacked every time I can manage to cook actual food that really amazes someone.

The first Jamie Oliver program I saw (Jamie’s Great Britain, which was a fascinating look at food in Great Britain, in case anyone imagined that food there completely sucks!) featured roasted chicken and potatoes – I have now made both several times to great success, albeit with my own little alterations.

Yesterday, I turned on the telly and it was a program (Jamie at Home) dedicated to pumpkin and squash – be still my heart. He really highlighted the versatility of these kinds of vegetables – making an absolutely fantastic butternut squash soup, a duck and pumpkin salad and some butternut squash spice walnut cupcakes. Naturally I am going to try this stuff out next time I have a guest to feed. I don’t get around to cooking for myself but for others, I will go all out.

Considered, reconsidered – the important thing here is maybe that I can find Jamie Oliver annoying until the end of time, but what he does turns on my culinary curiosities and experimental bent – so he is definitely doing something right. The fact that the recipes are easy to follow and he makes them look easy if you follow a few steps does not hurt – and the results have always exceeded expectations.