in a surprising departure: television

This post is long overdue, I guess, but it occurred to me rather late in the game to tell you about television series. During the van trip, strangely, I got into watching TV series that I could get through Amazon Prime.

This blog began, back in 2011, as a way for me to keep track of my reading for my own sake. I’m deeply grateful that other people read it and appreciate it, too. But on some level it remains a record I keep for myself, and so here we are. I wanted to remember what shows I’ve watched, and which ones I’ve especially liked.

Bones

The one that got me completely hooked is Bones, a mystery-per-episode (or often several) crime-solving drama series based in the fictional Jeffersonian Institute and starring a world-famous forensic anthropologist. It’s fairly silly, and relies too heavily on the sexual tension of a certain couple that we wait way too many seasons to see actually hook up. But I was thoroughly, entirely taken in; I watched all 246 episodes with relish and and someday, if laid up for months with nothing to do, I may watch them again. It’s goofy but I love it. (Based on the Temperance Brennan series of novels by Kathy Reichs, which I have not read, so there’s another project.)

Mystery series based on book series: you will note a theme. Also, lots of Brits.

I was quite impressed by Bosch, based on Michael Connelly‘s novels starring LAPD Detective Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch, which I have loved since I was a teenager. They’ve done a good job of capturing the title character, and the soundtrack (based on Harry’s love of jazz) is quite good. I’ll be on the lookout for future seasons; well done, Amazon.

Jackson Brodie of Case Histories

Case Histories is based on the novels of Kate Atkinson which star Jackson Brodie. Set and filmed in Edinburgh, this series features an excellent soundtrack of female country singer-songwriters (seriously, I would follow this show just for the music); Edinburgh itself is compelling and beautiful, but it’s also easy to fall for Jackson himself, who is a runner as well as a detective whose life is filled with ill-conceived sexual liaisons, a delightfully salty assistant, and the cutest, most precocious, wittiest young daughter imaginable, as well as interesting cases. Give me more Case Histories! And these are books I’ll need to read, obviously. (It’s always nice to get a two-for-one like that.)

Unforgotten is a modern London-set series which I appreciate for its two lead detectives, DCI Cassie Stuart and DI Sunny Khan. They are a likeable pair whose lives feel realistically imperfect, something not always true of our stars. Not everyone on this show is supermodel-beautiful, which again, is nice for reality’s sake. The narrative structure of each episode is interesting and a bit unusual: we switch around between the lives of various characters, including Cassie and Sunny but also including a number of others who at first have no apparent connection to the case at hand – although, of course, they will. I’ll keep watching this one.

Seattle PD’s Sarah Linden and Stephen Holder of The Killing

The Killing is based on a Danish series; this one is set in Seattle. It may seem formulaic at this point that there our two lead detectives are a man and a woman with perhaps a hint of sexual tension? but it still feels original here; I like these two and would continue with them, given the chance.

DCI Banks is another British mystery series, set in the more-or-less present, and one that kept me occupied for a time, but my rating would be only so-so. I found the characters I was meant to identify with only mildly appealing; I was often frustrated with them, and (slight spoiler) killing off one of them only served to engage me less. Meh. (Maybe it was just the one guy’s voice as he plaintively cries “Annie!” over and over that got to me.)

The ABC Murders is based on Agatha Christie’s novel of the same name, and stars John Malkovich as Hercule Poirot. I’m sure he did a fine job, but I was raised on David Suchet’s Poirot and it is too late for me to convert to a new version. While I suspect I would still enjoy reading Christie (a theory I should test!), this onscreen version dragged on. It felt dated by unusually slow pacing, but was made in 2018. Another series that was okay but not one I’m wild about.

DC Endeavor Morse and DCI Fred Thursday of Endeavor

Set in 1960s Oxford, Endeavor has my heart. I’m just in the middle of this one now, and I’m devoted to the title character, DC Morse (first name Endeavor. Which is weird, but not as weird as Hieronymus Bosch). This serves as a prequel to the long-running 1980s-90s series Inspector Morse; I have not seen that one. DC Morse is a prodigy within the department, but his odd methods, failure to bow to authority, and general nerdiness don’t play well with his superintendent. He does have a good relationship with DI Fred Thursday, and that relationship’s development seems to be part of the arc of the series overall. I’m having a good time with this one.

A few outliers are not mysteries.

Catastrophe is a comedy about a several-night stand between a visiting American businessman and an Irish primary school teacher living in London which results in a pregnancy and, surprisingly, marriage. A second child follows the first as the couple turns out to quite like each other, but (yes) catastrophes follow one upon another. Silly but good fun.

My Mother and Other Strangers caught me with its name, and this Masterpiece Theatre production has a charming, evocative, specific setting in a small Irish village during World War II. American soldiers are stationed in a village that does not appreciate their presence. The series is narrated (minimally) by an old man, years after the fact; he is the small son of the mother in question, and this is the story of his family (mom, dad, two kids) firstly, and of the village. I love the details of time and place, the sense of a small specific setting and its place in much larger historic events. The backward-looking perspective has elements of elegy and of nostalgia, and that mystery of the mother–she is present, but enigmatic–is compelling.

The Durrells in Corfu

And then The Durrells in Corfu, an absolutely addictive series based on three memoirs by Gerald Durrell: My Family and Other Animals, Birds, Beasts, and Relatives, and The Garden of the Gods. (More books to read! If they’re half as loveable as this series, I’m in.) British widow Louisa Durrell decides all of a sudden to move her four children from Bournemouth to the Greek island of Corfu, where the financially strained family will have a better chance of scraping by. Antics ensue. Corfu has no electricity, there are animals everywhere, and the Greeks vary in their willingness to accept strangers. But delightful characters abound. The four Durrell kids (ranging from teens to early twenties) are a hoot; the youngest (Gerald himself) adopts every creature he can put his hands on. I would follow this series anywhere.

Old news, but in the interest of completeness: I am up to date on The Walking Dead which I have long loved, although yes, they frustrate me more every season. I think I’m in to the end, but the producers seem determined to test the bounds of my love. And I’ve seen all of Breaking Bad, but had mixed feelings. I found Walter White a little less ambiguous than I think he was intended to be – I didn’t like him enough (even within the bounds of ambivalence, and I do love ambivalence) to be entirely patient with the extended length of his torture of the more-loveable Jesse.

What excellent series am I missing that would fit into this list?

Good News by Edward Abbey

It has been too long since I got into some Ed Abbey. Good News follows The Brave Cowboy, in that it spends a little more time with old Jack Burns. This novel takes place in and around Phoenix, in a near future when political, economic, and other social systems have collapsed, leaving bands of people and individuals to fend for themselves. In “the city,” that takes the form of an army run by a nasty fascist leader known as The Chief. Guess how Jack Burns and his friends feel about this.

In the opening pages, Burns is accompanied by a Harvard-educated Hopi shaman named Sam. They will join up with a young man named Art, angry over the murder of his family and theft of their land (a la Fire on the Mountain), and eventually a beautiful barmaid. In the city, a small band of guerrilla resistance fighters, apparently largely made up of liberals from the university in town, harasses The Chief’s forces. It’s a very good-versus-evil story, without much interest in nuance. In classic Abbey style, the good guys indulge in a little fun sex and lots of good-natured shit-talking.

Some have called this a science-fiction novel, but I don’t agree. It’s set in the future (call it a not-too-distant future when this book was published in 1980; it feels quite like near future now, to some of us), but that does not sci-fi make. There’s no made-up technology to speak of. No, I’d call this a wacky Abbey satirical Western, maybe a bit picaresque. It speaks in absolutes. I was especially captivated by a four-and-a-half-page monologue by a Captain in The Chief’s army, rhapsodizing the past world she calls “the golden age.” Electricity, cars, neon signs, travel, sports, traffic, food, wine, a pill for everything, gadgets and televisions everywhere you looked… “You could drive your car anywhere. Anywhere! We had drive-in movies, drive-in banks, drive-in liquor stores, drive-in eateries, yes, my dear, eateries, charming term, we had eateries galore, people were always eating, eating, eating, oh it was gorgeous… the quickie marriage and the quickie divorce… there was always another partner waiting, by the pool, back at the condominium.” I can just imagine what fun Abbey had writing these pages.

Critics and readers generally agree that this is one of Abbey’s lesser novels. Kirkus panned it, cutely calling it “very small beer.” And I do find it to be a little less thrilling than some of the other very fine work he’s done, but that’s not the same as saying this is not a good book. I was at every point entertained; the pages kept turning; and for those of us who love and laugh along with Abbey, this is classic stuff, easily appreciated. Maybe that reviewer’s feeling that “[Abbey]’s farcical skills show considerable signs of wear and tear” and “the 1960s-ish attitudes have become shufflingly automatic” were sentiments of the moment; and, more likely, that reviewer was not among Abbey’s audience, not a sympathizer. Fair enough. Everything is not for everyone. I did find one reviewer who calls this book his favorite of Abbey’s. To each her own.

For those of us grinning at Abbey’s strange and curmudgeonly values and sense of humor, Good News is a worthwhile piece of the corpus. I was reminded of The Stand, The Walking Dead, and the Dark Tower series (especially as The Chief operates from a Tower that dominates the landscape and serves as symbolic). There’s also a little Escape From New York in the fantastical zaniness. Again, if you’ve bought into Abbey’s world, I absolutely recommend this one – for one thing, don’t you want to know what becomes of Jack Burns?? If you haven’t, give this a try; just don’t take it too seriously. Or maybe take it deathly seriously as a glimpse at our future. Eye of the beholder…


Rating: 7 piano tunes.

movie: Wonder Boys (2000)

Quick review here… as I got ready to start my new teaching job, a friend said I should watch this movie I’d never heard of. There were a few moments that were silly enough that I rolled my eyes briefly, but overall I have to say, this was hilarious and moving and yes, recognizable. I’m pleased I spent an evening this way.

Great cast with Michael Douglas as the maybe-slightly-washed-up writing professor, Tobey Maguire as weirdo student, Katie Holmes as higher-achieving student who wants to sleep with her professor, Frances McDormand as chancellor who really is sleeping with the professor, Robert Downey Jr. as his editor, and more. (I had to double-check my memory but yes, Tobey Maguire was Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby movie. The two roles echo each other a bit.) The plot has it all: an admired novelist struggling to complete his second novel; jealousy of a talented student; academic office politics; sex and betrayal; industry and professional bullshit; a louche Robert Downey Jr. Like I said, there was a bit of silliness, but there were a lot of laughs. Several times I scared my little dog with sudden loud belly laughs. I was as surprised as he was.

Oh, and it’s marketed as a rom-com… I was less taken with the love story than that, but there was so much to hear to admire.

And no, to answer Barrett’s question, I do not intend to be this close with my students. More boundaries, please.


Rating: 7 dogs.

Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? Big Questions from Tiny Mortals About Death by Caitlin Doughty

The heavy questions about death and dead bodies are answered with honesty and hilarity by the creator of the webseries “Ask a Mortician,” for children and adults.

Caitlin Doughty wrote Smoke Gets in Your Eyes to share what she’s learned about the mortuary business and, more importantly, about death, with adult readers. Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?: Big Questions from Tiny Mortals About Death is a delightful follow-up and expansion on that project, aimed at younger readers but absolutely for adults as well. Doughty’s continuing experience in the business (from crematory operator to mortuary owner, with a degree in mortuary science) means her expertise has grown. Her sense of humor and fun when approaching topics often considered morbid, however, is her most valuable contribution.

“Every question in this book is 100 percent ethically sourced (free range organic) from a real live child.” And children do ask “the most distinctive, delightful questions”: We eat dead chickens, why not dead people? Can we give Grandma a Viking funeral? What would happen if you died on a plane?

Doughty’s answers are as delightful and distinctive as the questions. She blends humor with respect for the dead, joking around but repeatedly reminding her readers that it’s never okay to do something with a person’s remains that they wouldn’t have liked. (“Did Grandma want a Viking funeral?”) Her investigations of ritual, custom, law and science are thorough, and she doesn’t shy from naming the parts of Grandma’s body that might leak after she is gone. She uses big words sometimes, but explains what they mean; she keeps her explanations simple enough for younger readers, but there are asides for grown-ups, too, including references to Justin Timberlake and vinyl records that she winkingly tells the kids to ignore.

Can I preserve my dead body in amber like a prehistoric insect? First of all, Doughty is on to us: she knows this is really a question about being brought back to life, √† la Jurassic Park, and she informs the reader that a second species will be required to graft that DNA onto. “Hybrid panther humans of the future! (This is made up, it’s not going to happen–don’t listen to me, I’m just a mortician.)” As for the title question, Doughty begins: “No, your cat won’t eat your eyeballs. Not right away, at least.” (Spoiler alert: “Snickers is more likely to go for the tongue,” but only out of necessity, or maybe because he’s trying to wake you up.) Will I poop when I die? “You might poop when you die. Fun, right?” This irreverent voice is winning, and pitch-perfect for her younger audience, but, honestly, adults need a little humor as well when considering “postmortem poo.”

Diann√© Ruz’s accompanying images keep the same tone of playful but plainspoken discussion. “Don’t let anyone tell you your curiosity about death is ‘morbid’ or ‘weird,’ ” Doughty reminds readers. If they try to say so, “it’s likely they’re scared of the topic themselves.” This informative, forthright, comical guide to bodies after death is just the antidote–and surprisingly great fun as well.


This review originally ran in the August 12, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 gallons of unpopped popcorn.

Sylvia Center for the Arts presents Marian, or the True Tale of Robin Hood

While visiting my parents in Bellingham, we picked up this sweet, raucous outdoor play: Marian retells the Robin Hood story from a differently-gendered perspective. It was great fun. The evening was perfect, quickly cooling as the sun went down (not quite in our eyes) until we were all wearing our fleece jackets. We sat on concrete stadium-style benches in Marine Heritage Park, a downtown park with a sizable homeless/loitering population that, I think, events like this hope to reclaim in some way, or, they hope to help renovate the park’s reputation. (It was fine.) The set was simple – the troupe lugged it there, up and down a hill, by hand – but perfect. As I’ve written before, the set shouldn’t carry a play’s weight; elaborate sets and costumes can be great, but the acting and the play itself should do the heavy lifting.

The story opens in the usual spot, at an archery contest with grumpy Prince John presiding and Robin Hood in disguise. Except that Robin Hood is Maid Marian, already in disguise: that’s right, Marian is Robin Hood, yielding lots of costume/disguise changes and two-people-never-seen-in-the-same-place stuff. Marian/Robin should be our protagonist, but that role is shared by a character named Alanna, a lady-in-waiting, who does a certain amount of audience-facing narration, and (slight spoiler) ends up joining the Merry Men early in the play. Few of the Merry Men, in fact, are men at all.

Gender-bending is a theme, and while gender-bending is as old as gender conceptions (and absolutely Shakespearean), there were some modern twists here, including one of the Merry Men requesting they/them pronouns and a change to the group’s title to ‘Merry Men and Much.’ (All well-received.) Also, the script was an interesting mix of an older, more formal diction and a modern slangy one, which I think is always a good tool: once you’ve primed your audience to expect that period-style talk, the modern usages become totally hilarious in context. There was lots of physical humor as well, and no small amount of romance. We the audience were in stitches.

This production was more amateur than some: a few actors stumbled over a few lines, and the sound system (or the microphones? during costume changes?) cut in and out a bit. No problem. As I’ve written more than once, I love to see passionately produced and talented amateur theatre, even if there are a few glitches as here; and there is no question that this play was produced with passion and talent. I had a fabulous time; I was super disappointed when the play ended and wanted it to go on for hours.

Thanks, Sylvia Center folks, for romance and hilarity and poignancy. Hooray for Marian and her Merry People.


Rating: 9 arrows for joy.

Houston Shakespeare Festival presents Comedy of Errors

I went home a few weeks ago to see a favorite Shakespeare play as part of a favorite annual event. I’ve been attending the Houston Shakespeare Festival and other events at Miller Outdoor Theatre since I was a small child, and I’ve always loved seeing productions of Shakespeare, as I’ve written about before.

This year’s comedy was Comedy of Errors, a classic. This is Shakespeare’s first comedy, or among his first, and one that establishes several Shakespearean tropes: mistaken identities, twins separated at birth, love triangles (squares, hexagons…). Two sets of twins have been separated, forming two sets of master-and-servant in two rival cities. One set has a father; one set lives near their mother, but doesn’t know it. When the four younger men come into the same setting, hilarity ensues: wives mistake the wrong twins for husbands; goods are delivered to one twin, payment denied by the other. Classically, though, it all comes out right in the end.

my feet before the show

It was lovely being back on the hill at Miller in Hermann Park, with a blanket and a date and a bottle of wine. The setting was so much of it: with people all around me of all ages, skin tones, and configurations; families and couples and groups of friends and solos; picnics ranging from boxes of fast-food fried chicken through elaborate cheese-and-charcuterie spreads. I have to say, though, that this was not the best production I’ve seen the Festival put on. The Houston Press‘s review saw a show in which sound issues had been resolved, but the show I saw had some difficulties; the sound effects to match the slapstick comedic blows were often off, and there were some issues with the actors’ microphones. This was a shame, because the acting was overall very good. A few actors fumbled a few lines, giving a more amateur impression than I remember from years past. But I’m patient with artists doing their best. I was both puzzled and amused by the “exit, pursued by a bear” joke, which comes from The Winter’s Tale and not Comedy of Errors at all, but okay. There were some modernizations, including references to sports and the use of a group of (I’m guessing) elementary school-aged kids. I’m not sure what this contributed, other than to give young actors a chance at the stage, which is a thing I generally support and so I’m amiable about it, but again, puzzling as an inclusion here.

The thing that troubled me most was use of a stereotyped AAVE by the characters played by black actors. A prologue-style opening involved a rap performed by two actors, one black and one white, offering two rather different effects; this made me uncomfortable from the first moments, and every time a black actor stepped onstage, it continued. I don’t see how this contributed to any positive feature of the play. It seems to me that Shakespeare can be produced in two ways. First, it can be done “straight,” that is, played as Shakespeare wrote it, by actors of all races and appearances, without their race making any difference to the characters they play. Or, it can be modernized, and race (along with other constructs, social issues, identity politics) can be brought into the play. But this was neither. This was like straight Shakespeare but with black bodies played for laughs. Ouch. I’m quite surprised that other reviewers didn’t mention this aspect, because it bothered me considerably.

When I can look past this problem with the play–which is on the one hand a huge problem, but on the other hand present for rather few minutes of the evening overall, because the black actors were few–I’m glad to see Shakespeare in the park, for free and produced for the love of it. My date found this, his first Shakespeare play, funny and accessible and fun, for which I’m grateful. I’m glad to see the crowds gather to take in a classic comedy, and I’m looking forward to seeing further endeavors. But this one, not the finest effort of a long-lived institution. I hope they do better next year.


Rating: 5 chains.

Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare

In preparation for Devon McNamara’s seminar at the recent residency, I reread Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, in the copy I bought for an undergraduate class some 15 years ago. Some things don’t change. I still love Shakespeare’s comedy, and he remains relevant.

So many Shakespearean tropes here. The shipwreck, the twins, the gender-bending, the misplaced affections. Stranded in Illyria, separated from her brother who she presumes dead, Viola dresses up as a young man to serve the duke Orsino. He assigns her to court, on his behalf, the grieving countess Olivia. Orsino loves Olivia; as a boy “Cesario” Viola courts Olivia for Orsino’s sake; Viola loves Orsino; Olivia promptly falls for Cesario. Meanwhile, Viola’s brother Sebastian presumes her dead, even as Olivia mistakes him for Viola/Cesario. Confused yet? That’s natural. So are the characters of this lively play, but it all ends well* with a double-wedding, of course. Extra comedy is provided by Sir Toby Belch (great name) and his friend Sir Andrew, and Olivia’s Fool, and their fun at the expense of her self-important servant Malvolio (another great name). And wouldn’t you know it, this play is being produced at this summer’s Shakespeare Festival in my hometown, which I hate to miss.

*Not all ends well, though. Even as the heroes dance away to wed, Malvolio is embarrassed and offended, and even though we’ve enjoyed seeing him made fun of we feel badly to see this ill treatment. And Sebastian marries to the disappointment of one Antonio who has loved him throughout. Shakespeare’s tragedies tend to include some comedy; and his comedies do generally allow that all do not live happily ever after.

No major insights here, but Shakespeare is always worth your time, and this one is a good representative choice.


Rating: 8 banks of violets.

For the insight: Devon McNamara’s statement (paraphrased from my notes) that Shakespeare’s major concern was always the relationship between parents and children, upon which all other relationships depend. That is something to ponder, for those of us writing about our parents.

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