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.

A palate-cleansing sorbet of trivialities

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Having contemplated a blogging hiatus recently, I briefly put the idea of a hiatus on hiatus. Now I am back to considering a break from it. I suppose it’s not like a store or job where you have to formally shut things down or go on sabbatical – I just follow the ‘inspiration’ for pouring out the contents of my sometimes addled mind as it (inspiration, not the mind) comes (or goes).

I am channeling this energy into an offline project that is moving forward very quickly, and it’s eating every bit of creative marrow I’ve got in my bones. Thus I will potentially write blog posts when I need to unload or unwind. It seems that my most prolific blog writing periods happen when I am thinking too much, overanalyzing and in periods of intense emotional confusion or anguish or something. (Anguish may be too strong a word, but I like it, so I will leave it.) Once free of these things, the feverish urge to blog floats away. Blogging is, in some ways, a kind of existential palate cleanser.

I finished Infinite Jest – finally. As I wrote before, I marveled at its massive depth and breadth but cannot say I liked it. It was laborious to read at times, and I could not wait for it to be finished. I am still reading six other books, though – some great and some for fun (all my ‘hone your psychic abilities’ books are in fun; I have, after all,  to fulfill the psychic destiny one of my exes claimed I had when, while hiking along for many silent hours near Háifoss in Iceland, I randomly blurted out, “Sorbet is a vegan dessert!”. He looked at me as though he’d seen a ghost, and said, “I was just right then thinking about how my grandmother used to make sorbet.”)

I watched the second season of Love on Netflix – it’s easy enough viewing but only remarkable in that “I’ll Be Your Mirror” plays at the end of one episode and made me think back to a moment in time – so very long ago – when I was briefly involved with a Polish guy who made me possibly the most eclectic music tapes ever, and I think he was the first to introduce me to the Velvet Underground (starting with this song). I also recall that he had nothing but critical disdain for the United States – but many years after we had lost contact, I discovered that, after returning to Poland for a number of years, he eventually made a permanent home in, of all places, the American South (that’s a familiar trope, though – the “America Haters” who end up living there quite comfortably in the end).

I’ve cut back immensely on the TV viewing, but there are still things I watch – such as the aforementioned Love, binged in an afternoon; Girls – I’ve hate-watched the whole series, so why would I not complete the circle by watching its final season?; The Americans – it’s one of the best shows ever, and somehow more relevant than ever… and other stuff as well, but it is true that once I broke the cycle (ha!) it seemed quite dull to return to the majority of shows I’d mindlessly been sucking in.

Otherwise, life is work, creative projects, a series of last-minute travel or guests and always hoping for sunlight over the dismally, stormy greyness that pervades today. Nice weather, too, is a palate cleanser.

Letters of the Unliving (Mina Loy)
The present implies presence
thus
unauthorized by the present
these letters are left authorless–
have lost all origin
since the inscribing hand
lost life.

The hoarseness of the past
croaks
from creased leaves
covered with unwritten writing
since death’s erasure
of the writer–
erased the lover

Well-chosen and so ill-relinquished
the husband heartsease–
acme of communion–

made euphonious
our esoteric universe.

Ego’s oasis now’s
the sole companion.

My body and my reason
you left to the drought of your dying:
the longing and the lack
of a racked creature
shouting
to an unanswering hiatus
“reunite us!”

till slyly
patience creeps up on passion
and the elation of youth
dwindles out of season.

Agony
ends in an equal grave
with ecstasy.

An uneasy mist
rises from this calligraphy of recollection
documenting a terror of dementia.

This package of ago
creaks with the horror of echo.

The bloom of love
decoyed
to decay by the finger
of Hazard the swindler–
deathly handler who leaves
no post-mortem mask
but a callous earth.

Posing the extreme enigma
in my Bewilderness
can your face excelling Adonis
have ceased to be
or ever have had existence?

With you no longer the addresser
there is no addressee
to dally with defunct reality.

Can one who still has being
be inexistent?

I am become
dumb
in answer
to your dead language of amor.

Diminuendo
of life’s imposture
implies no possible retrial
by my present self–
my cloud-corpse
beshadowing your shroud.

The one I was with you:
inhumed in chasms.
No creator
reconstrues scar-tissue
to shine as birth-star.

But to my sub-cerebral surprise
at last on blase sorrow
dawns an iota of disgust
for life’s intemperance:

“As once you were”

Withhold your ghostly reference
to the sweet once were we.

Leave me
my final illiteracy
of memory’s languor–

my preference
to drift in lenient coma
an older Ophelia
on Lethe.

Photo (c) 2008 Angela Schmeidel Randall used under Creative Commons license.

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: BrainDead

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I was not sure what to make of the show BrainDead. But I am enjoying it immensely as it goes along. But will it be long for this world? If ratings are any indication, no. You can see the fingerprints of Robert and Michelle King (responsible for The Good Wife) all over it. Will that pedigree change anything? The Good Wife suffered from low ratings throughout its entire run. BrainDead shares some casting overlaps, stylistics, and a superb cast overall, just stuffed with talent. I hope it gets a longer chance to prove itself. It’s a timely commentary – and tonic for the times.

Aaron Tveit (from Graceland) is charming and smooth; Mary Elizabeth Winstead – I finally get it. She had been talked about a lot but I could never see the “it” that made people talk about her. Overall I did not care for the English-language remake/version of The Returned, and she was one of the central characters (no one really looked great in that near-train-wreck). Also the formidable Margo Martindale. Brandon J. Dirden, who was one of the FBI agents (Stan’s partner) in the most recent season of The Americans and so much more. And Johnny Ray Gill, the guy who was Sam in the ambitious and rewarding Underground. The great Tony Shalhoub, who needs no further introduction because he is the best. And Danny Pino, the dude who left Law & Order SVU and came to BrainDead from a role in Scandal.

The contentious nature of politics is ratcheted up a few million notches in this dark-comedy drama. A lot of crazed making up facts. Only at least there is an explanation: some bugs – literal insects – are taking over people’s brains. In our ‘real’ world, I guess we don’t have an explanation for the extremes. Politics is rough enough without erasing facts (or losing half your brain to a parasite and suddenly listening to The Cars’ “You Might Think” on repeat).

It’s a hyperbolic mirror of our current situation – Tony Shalhoub’s character wants to name a kiosk after Ronald Reagan (a WWII veteran! Only he’s not – he just feels like one because he made a movie in which he served in WWII) – and Shalhoub’s opponent wants to call the kiosk after Emma Goldman. There is no middle ground and no compromise.

Photo (c) 2009 Neil Conway.

Lunchtable TV Talk: Israeli TV – Beyond Homeland

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Homeland is probably the only well-known reimagining of an original Israeli TV program. Americans (or anyone, really) grabbing onto an existing show – and either bastardizing it (which in television is more like stealing a scene-for-scene replay without adaptation or creativity or even cultural consideration) or redirecting it not for the better but maybe for greater perspective on a similar theme – is nothing new. The UK and US bat their respective shows across the Atlantic to make and remake like so many shuttlecocks, but adaptations from further afield are beginning to inspire. That said, just because you can watch a remake does not mean you should avoid the original. In fact, the original is usually better. The original UK version of The Office lasted only two glorious seasons. When the US made its own version, it started off slowly and tried to make a scene-by-scene copy of the original. Only when the US started to use the concept but not the play-by-play sameness did the US version of The Office find its voice – and become its own show. Both are good shows.

Don’t get me wrong. I am a fan of (most of) Homeland. It is loosely based on Israeli program Hatufim (Prisoners of War), which is considerably more complex than Homeland. I am a bigger fan of Hatufim, even if it suffers from very different production values. It feels like a human story, much more than the edgy thriller Homeland aspires to be.

But Israeli TV has also offered up some adapted gems, such as the little-watched and often frustrating (in a good way) In Treatment. In it, Gabriel Byrne played a therapist and patient. Each night of the week, he would see a patient and on the last night of the week, he would see his own therapist (Dianne Wiest). The Israeli original was called B’tipul and introduced the concept of showing one episode nightly – each one representing one patient’s appointment, i.e. each Monday was the same patient, etc. It only lasted for two seasons, but it was engaging in a way that most shows are not. You would not imagine that a show in which two people sit, talk and engage in what are fairly realistic therapy sessions would draw you in. But somehow they did. Maybe not enough, though, because the show did not last.

Taking inspiration from an Israeli source does not always work – most likely when major American networks get their claws into the idea. The recent attempt to adapt Israeli program, The Gordin Cell, into a spy thriller, Allegiance, did not work at all. In this case, it seems it was less about trying to create a quality show and more about trying to capitalize on the critical praise heaped on The Americans. I assume NBC thought they could jump on the “Russian spy story” bandwagon, but it’s not as simple as that. Just as Mad Men’s popularity and critical acclaim did not transfer automatically to other 1960s period dramas with thin plots, like Pan Am and The Playboy Club, among others. Further evidence that major networks are usually followers, not leaders. Sometimes that works; usually it doesn’t.

Lunchtable TV Talk – Salem: Burn the witch, the witch is dead

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I don’t always love the show Salem but somehow its cast makes a lot of decisions for me. This is probably the case for a lot of TV. I watch things solely because a specific actor or actress is in it. I have written before about how I will watch anything with Kyle Chandler in it (although I admit that there was no way in hell I could watch the ill-fated and ridiculous What About Joan?, a show that is so bland I can barely remember it – thankfully Joan Cusack has gone on to do fantastic comedic drama work in Shameless). And while I don’t, as a rule, go out of my way to watch everything that stars Lucy Lawless (I have never seen Xena Warrior Princess – the role that made her famous), her smaller roles in favorites like Battlestar Galactica, Top of the Lake and Parks and Recreation do make me want to see more of her), seeing that she has turned up in Salem make me more inclined to keep watching.

I am not sure why, but I also like Seth Gabel and Shane West well enough that they draw me back, too.

When you watch as much TV as I do, it’s hard to remember the details season to season and pinpoint why I should continue watching anything. When Salem started up again a couple of weeks ago, I almost felt like I was watching something I had not already seen, although I had already watched a complete season. Which does not say a lot for the show, even if its more horror-inspired, witchcraft-related scenes are vivid. It has an inexplicable draw, which pulled me back in. But at the same time, it does not incite hatred or love, so Salem stands somewhere in the middle ground, in territory about which I have no opinion. The show provides moderate entertainment, but I would not care if it were canceled. I don’t tune in waiting to see what stupid things will happen – it’s not The Following – or to see overwrought pretension play out – it’s not The Slap. It’s also not Mad Men or Shameless or The Americans or some other show I don’t want to live without.

Non-English on English-language TV: No subtitles

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I wrote a bit earlier about the increase in number of subtitled TV shows. Not foreign TV on predominantly English-language screens but the jump in number of shows featuring a mix of languages. Knowing that many Americans don’t have the patience and tolerance for languages or subtitles, this has been an interesting development. It has always existed in shows to some degree but its centrality to certain shows, such as The Americans, has made the concept more prominent.

I thought back, as the latest season of Louie premiered this week, to last season’s arc in which Louie has a brief affair with a Hungarian woman who speaks no English. I wrote about it at the time, and about how no subtitles accompany her speech. I assume this was an intentional device, inviting the viewer to share in Louie’s feelings of being charmed by and having real feelings for someone he cannot understand (as well as the frustration of not being able to understand or communicate complex feelings).

As much as I thought about compiling a list of shows in which more than one language (and subtitling) is used regularly, I also thought about the number of shows that have used the intentional lack of understanding brought about by another language’s use as a device. Any thoughts?

Subtitled entertainment – Language realism on TV

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As a person who often multitasks while “watching” television, I don’t always pay close attention to every moment of action. (That is, I hear all the dialogue but don’t always catch the visuals going with it.) Particularly with some of the dumber shows I watch, such as The Following or The Slap, this does not bother me much. I pay closer attention to shows I enjoy. But then there is a growing middle category: subtitled entertainment.

When I watch a foreign (non-English-language) film, I already know there will be subtitles, and I don’t watch something like that until I am ready to focus. But television is starting to introduce more and more subtitled content. In a sense it’s an era of language realism. In most films and TV of the past, we’d be treated to unrealistic and frankly stupid dialogue in which the actors (English speakers) adopted some kind of vaguely similar regional accent representing the place they were supposed to be from… and very little of the actual local language would appear.

Now, in a further change to content development – language is adding to the realism of many TV shows. The Americans probably leads the way, with a liberal mix of English and Russian. An article has even been written on how the writers decide when to use Russian. Hint: The choice comes down to authenticity. In The Americans, it makes perfect sense. Russians working within a Soviet institution in the United States are not going to speak to each other in English.

Another show where the blend makes perfect sense is the US version of The Bridge. It takes place on the US-Mexico border, and US police and working closely with Mexican police.

It has appeared more and more in various shows recently, such as Allegiance and The Blacklist. Interesting, it appears in shows in which the plot involves a lot of international intrigue. No big surprise. Language realism also appears in shows like Jane the Virgin, in which the grandmother speaks exclusively in Spanish, but understands English perfectly. She always speaks Spanish with her daughter, Xiomara, and granddaughter, Jane, but they almost always answer her in English.

The same kind of mix has appeared in Netflix’s Lilyhammer. An American organized criminal, exiled in witness protection in Lillehammer, Norway, navigates Norwegian language and society – the longer the show goes on, the more it’s conducted in Norwegian, mirroring the main character’s “integration” (which never quite happens fully).

These are all one-hour dramas, and somehow the language realism feels more expected in that setting. But it’s also happening more and more in the half-hour sitcom format, which feels strange in that I can’t imagine people having the attention span required to read the screen. But strangely – they do. The best example of this I can come up with is Welcome to Sweden, in which a fairly typical American guy moves to Stockholm with his Swedish girlfriend. His comical trials feature prominently – often in Swedish (particularly interactions with his in-laws). I did not even think about it when I recommended it to someone who only speaks English. He was going to watch it using my Swedish Netflix account, which did not offer subtitles in English.

It seems remarkable that as foreign language is receiving less emphasis than ever in US schools, language and culture diversity is appearing in a bigger way than ever on America’s TV shows. And it has jumped from just the occasional bit of Spanish, which has arguably been the most common second language on US TV, to reflect a slightly wider range of language diversity.

Lunchtable TV talk – Allegiance

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One of the latest in network TV’s scrambling to copycat critical hits, Allegiance, exactly as one article says, is a dumbed-down version of The Americans – which is, conversely, one of the smartest shows on TV.

Luckily Allegiance has been cancelled:

“NBC said “nyet” to Allegiance late last week, pulling the dumbed-down version of The Americans from its lineup and effectively canceling the Thursday-night drama. It was a tough blow for the show’s producers and its roughly 6 million viewers, but at least their suffering is over.”

I cannot really even explain how unappealing this show has been. Hope Davis is a better actress than this show can allow. The eldest daughter in the family, Margarita Levieva, is likewise better. She keeps turning up in roles and on shows that seem beneath her. She needs to land somewhere that will let her be more than a supporting player to see if she can hack it. Giancarlo Esposito has appeared in the last couple of episodes as the ultimate villain – and he’s always fun to see, but even he can’t save this urgent mess.

The only other point I wanted to make about this show is that it is nice to see an Asian man in a semi-leading role that is not in any way a stereotype. Kenneth Choi, who has also been seen recently in Sons of Anarchy as a more stereotypical Asian-man character, the leader of a Chinese gang – plays Sam Luttrell, the New York CIA station chief. He’s no-nonsense and like any other character. Race does not really come into question – and maybe in a show like this it doesn’t. It’s more in shows like The Walking Dead or Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt that stereotypes come up and people begin questioning the roles. Glenn, one of the long-time survivors in The Walking Dead, ends up not only as a badass fighter but also is in love with Maggie, a fairly religious southern (white) woman. Plenty of discussion has swirled around his role, especially early on. But these days, a lot more talk focuses on Dong, the GED student with whom Kimmy Schmidt gets involved on the Netflix series, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. It pokes fun at some of the awkward racial issues – sometimes in juvenile ways. But it also features an Asian immigrant male as a romantic lead rather than as the butt of every tired joke or at the heart of every stereotypical role. For this reason, I can appreciate Allegiance’s use of Choi.

Otherwise, glad to see that Allegiance is not coming back.

Lunchtable TV talk: The Good Wife and The Americans – When belief is the greatest rebellion

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In two of television’s best shows, The Good Wife and The Americans, the main characters’ children – teenagers – do not rebel against their parents or authority by partying, drinking, having sex, choosing inappropriate partners or dating at all, skipping school or typical teenage rebellion tropes. Instead, these teens rebel by seeking faith.

In many American families, this would not be unusual or considered as rebellion at all. But for the families at the heart of these two particular shows, faith is not central to the main characters’ lives and never has been. Many critics condemn the shows when they focus too squarely on the main characters’ children, and usually I would agree. In these shows, however, the children’s search for meaning and faith informs and deepens the viewers’ understanding of the characters we care most about.

In The Good Wife, arguably one of the most sophisticated and nuanced shows in recent years, the focal point is Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies). The show has always been a critical success but has always struggled in the ratings; at this point, given the way the latter half of its most recent, the sixth, season has gone, I think the show has seen better days. I highly recommend at least the first five seasons.

Alicia faces many challenges in her personal and professional life, but one story that has not been particularly well-developed but which does shine a light on Alicia’s relationship with faith (as well as challenges with mothering – you never know what to expect from your kids!) is when her daughter, Grace, becomes curious about and explores Christianity. Alicia is not religious, and Grace’s exploration creates tension. It is not always the most well-designed plotline, but we can see clearly that Grace’s curiosity, though genuine, is a form of rebellion. Not argument-filled, contentious rebellion – but given Alicia’s ambivalence toward religion (I can’t recall if she ever explicitly stated that she is an atheist, but it is clear that religion is not a part of her life and that she did not introduce religion as a part of her children’s lives), it is a form of rebellion. After all, rebellion is often a form of finding and forging one’s own identity apart from what is expected.

In the better of the two shows (both of which are exceptional), The Americans, which, if possible, is even more highly acclaimed than The Good Wife, but less watched (!), the two main characters, Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell), find themselves at odds when their teenage daughter, Paige, decides to pursue faith. Philip and Elizabeth, both undercover Soviet spies, are atheists – but each “welcomes” Paige’s exploration differently. Both main characters have a complex relationship with how to parent (and with America and their cause). Both love their child, but Elizabeth – less seduced by America and more deeply, ideologically committed to the Soviet cause than her husband – is first against letting Paige look into her religious curiosities but eventually joins her, as a kind of way to get closer and more easily manipulate Paige when the time comes to enlist her into the “family business”. Philip is perhaps the more emotional of the two, and feels that their children deserve independence and the right to determine their future for themselves. Regardless of whether he feels that religion is the right choice for his daughter, he does not easily conclude that he and Elizabeth should interfere – and is vehemently against recruiting her to the cause. (Interestingly, Paige is a bit of a manipulator herself – asking her parents for a simple birthday dinner rather than a party, and her only request is to ask that her pastor and his wife be invited. By having the pastor present at the dinner party, she ambushes her parents into letting her get baptized.)

Although these storylines are meant to guide and illustrate our thinking about the parents/main characters, they also underline the general tendency of people – particularly when young – not just to look toward ideas that are different from what they have always been exposed to but also to question and search for meaning, whether that comes in the form of religious faith or something else. We can see how wrapped up in and brainwashed people can become (see the recent HBO documentary Going Clear, about the cult that is Scientology for a testament about that) in their search for authenticity, identity and belonging. Some people find that in their church, some find it in a social setting or scene, some people find it in politics. We can see that Alicia Florrick, while strong herself, has a community in the legal profession, her law firm and now in politics (though she is struggling with that). We know that the Jennings couple in The Americans has a guiding belief in Communism. It is easy to forget as adults, particularly ones with that depth of community and level of ideological commitment, that young people, even one’s own children, do not necessarily share those things and values. (Obviously the case if you are secretly spies!)

Where both shows have an opportunity with the stories about their children is that they can show how their parenting and relationships with their children can encourage healthy questioning and exploration and be supportive without smothering or undermining reason (i.e., opposing the children’s curiosity to the degree that they become even more determined to pursue a path just to spite the parents). In both shows, eventually, regardless of whether the end aims had impure motives (as in Elizabeth’s case with her daughter – even if it is considerably more complicated than that), the “rebellion” is nurtured with discussion and showing increasing trust in the children, even if the belief/faith is not ultimately shared.