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Thursday, December 23, 2010

Jon Heyman is an Idiot

Normally it’s sound policy not to link to an article you find infuriating, because so often the point of such articles is to infuriate, and thereby drive up their hit counts. However, when it’s the best way to prove that someone is being an idiot, then I think it’s allowable. Here then, is Jon Heyman’s piece for Sports Illustrated on why he did not vote for Bert Blyleven Hall of Fame candidacy.


I think I finally understand the reason they’re generally referred to as “sportswriters” and not, say, “sportsreporters”. Where else but the sports pages would you find someone who presumably considers himself a journalist telling his readers to ignore the facts and just accept his pre-certified “wisdom”? That’s basically what Heyman is asking you do, especially when he uses that noxious phrase “I was there.”

Heyman derides statistics in favor of a nebulous concept he refers to as impact. After reading his piece it seems that impact can be defined as playing on winning teams, especially those located in New York or Los Angeles. Oh, and being liked by sportswriters. Heyman never really refers to Blyleven’s strikeouts, complete games, innings pitched, or any quantifiable statistic. Instead he chooses to harp on the fact that Blyleven rarely finished high in the voting for Cy Young and never did for MVP.

The very reason that statistics are compiled is to compensate for the unreliability of human observation. Sportswriters are often susceptible to heart-warming stories of gritty team-leaders inspiring their team to win, or other such malarkey. Statistics are there for investigation, for support, and quite often, to contradict such claims.

Heyman’s idiocy hits its heights when he admits that Blyleven has better stats than Jack Morris, whom he has voted for plenty of times. The fact that he even resorts to the ridiculous and disproved “he pitched to the score” canard is all the more reason to never again take seriously anything Jon Heyman says about baseball.

I looked at Blyleven’s numbers today and I don’t think he’s a definite Hall of Famer. I don’t think the Hall is tarnished by his absence nor would it be diminished by his presence (Heyman himself admits this, curiously). But he has a case, and it deserves better than the cursory examination Heyman is apparently comfortable with.

The Kids Are All Right

Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right is a movie about a dysfunctional lesbian family that manages to completely sever the adjectives. The family at its center is not dysfunctional because it has a surplus of matriarchs, nor are those matriarchs gay due to some inherent dysfunction. The movie tells a compelling enough story of family conflict, to which the lesbian dynamic becomes almost nothing but an interesting wrinkle. The Kids Are Alright is not an “issue” movie, but a “non-issue” movie.

This is due largely to the strengths of the performances. Annette Bening and Julieanne Moore seem to accurately capture the state of their characters precarious relationship: loving but troubled. At the beginning of the movie they’ve been together a long time, and while Bening’s Nic is a successful doctor, Moore’s Jules is struggling to find an identity outside her role at home. It’s an extremely normal marital conflict, but rendered poignantly.

The drama begins when their 18-year-old daughter Joni (Mia Wasikowska) gives in to pressure by her half-brother Laser (Josh Hutcherson) to contact the sperm donor who “fathered” them both. This turns out to be a scruffy, motorcycle-riding, free-spirited restaurateur named Paul, played by Mark Ruffalo. Ruffalo is amazing in the role, assuming all the mannerisms and speech patterns of his likable but flawed character.

After discovering that their children have reached out to Paul, Nic and Jules try to be reasonable adults, and they themselves try to get to know him. But their differing stances on how much they should have to do with Paul set in motion a set of betrayals and discoveries that provide the story with emotional power.

For a seemingly quiet family drama, The Kids Are All Right is filled with little characters and subplots which, though never rising to the level of the main drama, provide such a nice feeling of realism. This is especially true for Joni and Laser, who must deal with normal teenage problems, while also struggling to handle the threat to their family. It reinforces the film’s central argument that there’s never one easily identifiable cause for all your problems.

The Kids Are All Right is a smart, sweet drama that eschews most of the bells-and-whistles of a “gay” movie in favor of telling a great story as well as it can.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

There’s a Simpsons episode where the kids participate in a focus group set up to find out why Itchy and Scratchy’s ratings are down. The kids advice seems to contradict itself, exasperating the show’s creator, who says, “So, you want a realistic, down-to-earth show…that’s completely off the wall and swarming with magical robots?”

That’s the trick neatly pulled off by Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. The show blends video game accoutrements with heartfelt emotional notes and does it without somehow devolving into absurdity or farce.

The characters in Scott Pilgrim are perhaps the most sympathetic gaggle of hipsters ever put on film. They care (too much) about music, they obsess over their place in the world, they make thoughtless mistakes that really hurt other people, and they wear stupid shirts and dye their hair. Some people will see these characters and immediately be turned off, indeed that may explain the box office receipts. But they are real, and capturing them honestly is a real accomplishment.

The film does itself a great service by accepting with total seriousness its outrageous premise. The boundary-pushing video game graphics are not just used for the fight sequences, but utilized for other purposes, including humor. (Title cards reveal information about the characters and settings, a “pee bar” shows Scott’s progress in urination.) There are other little bits spliced in as well, like the Seinfeld theme playing over a sequence in Scott’s apartment, that somehow heighten the film’s reality rather than undercut its connection to the real world.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is just a fun romp that succeeds on extra levels in order to become a more memorable movie experience.

The Fighter

There’s really nothing wrong with The Fighter. It has a lot of great performances, a fairly compelling story and it looks great. But there is just something missing, some indefinable quality that keeps it from earning the plaudits that it has.

Mark Wahlberg stars as boxer Micky Ward, theoretically the titular character but perhaps the light combative person in the whole movie. Ward’s career is floundering, but he’s reluctant to offend his manager-mother Alice (played by Melissa Leo) and his half-brother trainer Dicky (played by Christian Bale). Wahlberg’s characterizations may be appropriate, but they make the character kind of flat. He’s dominated by all these outsized personalities in his own family (and to a similar extent by his girlfriend Charlene, played by Amy Adams) to the extent that time spent focused on him feels squandered.

The performances by Bale and Leo are both intense and captivating, but occasionally threaten to drag the film into a cartoonish arena. The Fighter is set amid the so-called “working-class” of Lowell, Massachusetts, which means you get a lot of low-educated Irish racists mouthing off. This kind of thing can start to feel exploitative, especially as you recall that for the most part these are pampered Hollywood millionaires playing dress-up. Both Bale and Leo should get credit for inhabiting their characters, however outsized, with aplomb and gusto. Bale has the extra challenge of playing a crack-addict and maintaining a sense of charm, which he proves himself equal to.

Amy Adams also handles her character quite well. It’s a marked departure from her innocent-girl roles in Enchanted and Doubt, but she makes her bartender’s foul-mouth all her own.

The boxing plot isn’t much to write home about. If you’ve seen any boxing movie, you’ve seen it before. Guy gets beaten up, deals with his problems, gets beaten up some more, channels his frustrations into the ring, and has greater success. There is much more of interest in Bale’s character, who beats crack-addiction in prison and must deal with having disappointed his brother.

It took Wahlberg years to get this film made, and though again, it’s a fine film, you have to wonder what in particular struck him so deeply that he had to get it made.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

This debut novel is set during the decline of an unlikely holdout to the technological revolution, an English-language newspaper based in Rome. Founded by an American industrialist for mysterious reasons in the post-war era and staffed in the present day by a horde of dysfunctional expatriates, the paper struggles on despite budget cuts imposed by the uncaring ancestors of its founder, declining readership and as the CFO puts it, a “lack of a web presence.”

On the surface the novel seems hand-crafted for those ardent technophobes, myself included, who still clutch with ink-stained fingers to their newspapers. However, idealists and romanticists will soon find themselves disappointed. Rachman, who has worked for the International Herald Tribune, offers up no paean to journalism. His characters find no deeper meaning in their profession than any other workers might. If anything, their chosen career only exacerbates their neuroticism, trapping them according to their will.

Rachman’s insights into the professional life of journalists, copy editors, and others connected to the paper seem authentic, but his portrayal of human behavior seems less believable to me. At the very least it seems awfully bleak. Most of his characters are pretty weak human beings, the women especially so. I don’t usually take political stances about literary characters, but Rachman’s women did unsettle me. Each of them seemed listless and unable to assert control over any aspect of their lives. Whether they were throwing themselves into obviously doomed relationships or merely allowing their husbands to sleep around, they didn’t paint a very flattering or nuanced or very realistic picture of womanhood.

The novel is mostly plotless, as it takes the form of short stories, each featuring a different character associated with the paper (one chapter even focuses on a loyal reader, who improbably reads every word of every edition, to the point that she is now thirteen years behind in her reading.) Spliced in between the chapters are vignettes depicting the circumstances of the founder, Cyrus Ott, and his less successful heirs. These threads come to an end in the book’s final chapter, but the Ott material is really too skimpy to add anything to the book.

The Imperfectionists features strong prose, but suffers from a lack of detail and a uniform vision of character. It is unlikely to thrill anyone but professional newspaper writers, which perhaps best explains its sparkling reviews.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Community: Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas

Considering the big promotional push engineered for this episode, I think viewers had every right to expect a top-notch, consistently funny, Christmas classic. And while the episode didn’t quite conform to my outsized expectations, I do think that expectation was realized.

The nice thing about Community is that it takes all of its characters seriously, no matter how they themselves behave. It grounds the show so thoroughly that it allows them to do ridiculous things like all-out paintball wars and conspiracy theory spoofs without devolving into meaninglessness. Here, Abed is the central focus of the story, and the conceit is a doozy: he has somehow broken with reality and sees everything in stop-motion animation, a la the Rankin-Bass “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, et al.

It’s an absurdity of course, but notice that none of the other characters make fun of Abed, or really joke about his condition. They’re all genuinely concerned, even if they have different ways of showing it. (Pierce insists he’s just there for the cookies.) What humor there is comes either from Abed himself (“Sad Quick Christmas Song” was the best musical interlude of them all) or at the general absurdity of the situation.

The pace of the jokes really slowed down after the gang traveled to Winter Wonderland, and coming on the heels of last week’s downbeat episode at the bar, I can understand some people’s frustration that the show seems to be moving away from comedy. But look at a simple moment like Troy and Annie choosing to help Abed maintain his fantasy because they think it’s best for him. It’s a tender, heartwarming scene, but also hilarious because of the implication that the two are actually restraining Duncan in the study hall.

The show also somehow managed to take Christmas seriously without resorting to maudlin sentimentality. I think they really got to something at the heart of the season with the circularly-reasoned “Christmas has meaning because we attempt to give it meaning”, but it really feels true. Christmas for a variety of reasons has long felt more universal than Christianity, even if people like Shirley would rather we left the celebrating to those sticking to the traditional reasons behind the season.

Although, as Britta, robot or not, would point out, celebrating at the start of winter actually predates Christ’s birth. Maybe we all need something to hang on to when the weather turns cold.

That might too much heavy stuff to heap onto an episode featuring a Christmas Pterodactyl, but that’s the neat trick Community seems to pull off week after week.

The Three Book Club

I discussed in my review of A Wild Sheep Chase that it was my second Murakami and I was reluctantly willing to read a third someday. That got me thinking of the comparatively small number authors that I have read three books by. There are some big names who don't make the cut: Fitzgerald (1), Nabokov (2), Dostoevsky (1), Joyce (2), etc. Obviously there is not much correlation between quantity and quality, but I thought it would be interesting to see how many authors made the cut. Here's the list, in the order in which their names came to me, along with a super objective listing of the best and worst novels I have read by each author, and the biggest omission for each.

To my female audience, I apologize for the appalling fact that there is only one woman on this list. If it's any consolation, she is number one in total books read.

Agatha Christie- 50 novels.
Best: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
Worst: Halloween Party
Biggest Omission: Murder on the Orient Express

Kurt Vonnegut- All novels (14 in total), 1 short story collection, 2 essay collections
Best: Slaughterhouse Five
Worst: Player Piano (It's his first, give the guy a break)
Biggest Omission: Man Without a Country (essays)

John Irving- 9 novels, 2 memoirs
Best: The Hotel New Hampshire
Worst: The Fourth Hand
Biggest Omission: Setting Free the Bears

Mark Twain: 5 novels, 2 short story collections, 3 collections of short pieces
Best: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Worst: Innocents Abroad (technically unfinished)
Biggest Omission: Either The Gilded Age or Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc

Charles Dickens: 6 novels
Best: David Copperfield
Worst: Great Expectations
Biggest Omission: The Pickwick Papers, or Nicholas Nickleby

Raymond Chandler: 4 novels, 1 story collection
Best: The Big Sleep
Worst: All are good
Biggest Omission: The Lady in the Lake

Dashiell Hammett: 3 novels
Best: Red Harvest, The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man (All are great)
Biggest Omission: The Dain Curse

Ross MacDonald: 4 novels
Best: The Blue Hammer
Worst: The Way Some People Die
Biggest Omission: The Doomsters

Rex Stout: 6 novels
Best: And Be a Villain
Worst: Fer-de-lance
Biggest Omission: The Doorbell Rang

Richard Russo: 6 novels and 1 short story collection
Best: The Risk Pool
Worst: The Whore’s Child and Other Stories

Philip Roth: 10 novels
Best: Goodbye Columbus
Worst: I Married a Communist
Biggest Omission: Sabbath’s Theater

Arthur Conan Doyle: 4 novels and 5 short story collections (All Holmes stories)
Best: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Worst: A Study in Scarlet

William Shakespeare: 23 plays
Best: The Merchant of Venice or Hamlet
Worst: Love’s Labours Lost
Biggest Omission: Othello or The Tempest

Ernest Hemingway: 3 novels
Best: The Sun Also Rises
Worst: A Farewell to Arms (need to re-read, I was only 16)
Biggest Omission: For Whom the Bell Tolls

William Faulkner: 3 novels
Best: The Sound and the Fury
Worst: Go Down, Moses
Biggest Omission: Light in August

Michael Chabon: 6 novels
Best: The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
Worst: The Final Solution
Biggest Omission: Werewolves in their Youth

E.L. Doctorow: 3 novels
Best: Ragtime
Worst: Billy Bathgate
Biggest Omission: The Book of Daniel

John Updike: 3 novels
Best: Rabbit, Run or Rabbit is Rich
Worst: Rabbit Redux
Biggest Omission: Rabbit at Rest

Cormac McCarthy: 3 novels
Best: The Road
Worst: All the Pretty Horses
Biggest Omission: Blood Meridian

Jonathan Lethem: 3 novels
Best: Motherless Brooklyn
Worst: Chronic City
Biggest Omission: Gun, With Occasional Music

J.D. Salinger: 1 novel, 3 books of collected works
Best: The Catcher in the Rye
Worst: I liked all of them

Graham Greene: 3 novels
Best: The Power and the Glory or The Quiet American
Worst: The End of the Affair
Biggest Omission: The Heart of the Matter

Roddy Doyle: 4.5 novels
Best: The Commitments
Worst: Oh, Play that Thing!
Biggest Omission: Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha

That's 21 authors in all, although I feel I may be missing a few. You can see my love of mystery novels, not just in the number of Christie titles, but in the presence also of Stout, Chandler, Hammett, MacDonald, and Conan Doyle.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami

For a while, this oddball noir by Japan’s most popular literary novelist manages to pull you through on the strength of its increasing absurdity and readable, if altogether too simplistic, prose. But when the time comes for the novel to reap what it has sown, and Murakami has to pull the various threads of his story into a conclusion, he falters badly. The reader is left with an utterly unsatisfying ending which to be frank, is quite stupid and nonsensical.

The nameless protagonist and narrator of A Wild Sheep Chase is an aloof advertising executive, recently divorced and dating a woman with unusual powers, the source of which are apparently her perfectly beautiful ears. He runs into trouble after using a photograph of sheep grazing on a hillside, sent to him by a reclusive former friend, as an image in a magazine ad. He is contacted by an associate of the nefarious magnate who secretly runs Tokyo and is told to find one of the sheep in the picture, helpfully tagged with a black star on its side, or else.

The narrator’s search, on which his girlfriend tags along, initially offers promise of spectacle and intrigue, but Murakami gets bogged down in endless detail about sheep-raising, and the history of the small town to which the narrator travels. One hike up to a secluded mansion goes on and on, for no discernible reason. Then the reader is subjected to pages and pages of the narrator doing everyday chores.

If all this boredom is meant to somehow make the conclusion seem more dramatic by comparison, it fails even in that respect. The conclusion involves such outright hokum that it made me physically angry. Obviously nothing is out of bounds in fiction, especially not when you build up to it throughout the novel, but the ending here involves needlessly casting aside a central character for the last 50 pages, needlessly introducing an uninteresting character at the last minute, and perhaps the most flagrant dues ex machina since Aristophanes was upright and breathing.

Stay away. This is the second Murakami novel that I’ve found wanting, although I’m not yet ready to dismiss him. It’s possible I may give him another chance, but I will have to receive assurances from multiple trusted sources.

Running Wilde: It's a Trade-Off

If I had to guess, I’d say this episode was conceived and executed after all involved had a pretty good sense that they weren’t going to be doing this much longer. The whole episode, as well as last week’s, which I didn’t get to review, feels rushed, poorly planned, and just thrown out there. Sure there are some laughs, no one is saying that the people involved in this show aren’t funny, but overall it’s just a mess. No one will be mourning this show when it is gone.

I think Running Wilde is trying to achieve the screwball romantic comedy vibe by doing everything at lightning speed, as though the pace alone could make everything funny. It can’t. The underlying jokes, and romance, just aren’t there, and it’s obvious to any viewer with an ounce of discernment.

In most countries it’s considered rude to speak ill of the dead, so let’s not pile on Running Wilde too harshly. It was an ill-begotten attempt to take the style of Arrested Development to the masses, bound to please no one and tick off people who might have been its biggest fans. I would like to Keri Russel in a more traditional television comedy. I thought she showed the potential to be very funny, but the pacing here was unflattering. And Peter Serafinowicz, who played Fa’ad, absolutely deserves a platform in this country going forward.

I’m going to watch the rest of Running Wilde’s episodes, however few there are, because, well, why the hell not? But I may not bother writing reviews. Try not to be too heartbroken.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

How I Met Your Mother- "The Mermaid Theory"

A pretty forgettable episode of How I Met Your Mother, since there was literally nothing new about it. I'm not necessarily against familiarity in comedy, sometimes the same joke gets funnier the more you do it, but that wasn't the case here.

We've already seen Marshall and Robin bond, and they do hang out together, at The Hoser Hut. Sure, there they're probably ensconced in the safe topics of cold weather, sports, and cold weather sports, but still, it seems dangerously close to a continuity error.

Usually, Barney's fake histories fall into the "funny no matter how often they do it" category, but The Mermaid Theory was off just a little bit, as even the character seemed to acknowledge. "It's a thing," he insists, a little too sheepishly.

I'm sure many people were intrigued by the narrator's unreliability. Here Future Ted conflates personalities, timelines and arguments, only to reveal that he's getting ahead of himself, and that his Barney-Lily story takes place much later, and ends with Ted wearing a dress, somehow. That bears a pretty strong resemblance to the whole goat at Ted's 30th, no 31st, birthday trick.

Not even Robin in a manatee costume could save this episode.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Homer & Langley by E.L. Doctorow

E.L. Doctorow's newest novel is a slight, bouncy trip through some highlights of the 20th century, viewed through the lens of two brothers, one of them blind, who barely ever leave their house on Fifth Avenue.

The blind brother, Homer, serves as narrator. And lest you think it some artistic flight of fancy that led Doctorow to name his blind character Homer, you should know that Homer and Langley Collyer are based on the real-life Collyer brothers, who were infamous New York eccentrics and hoarders. Homer begins his narration by explaining that despite losing his sight as a teenager he never felt himself to be disabled. He describes his curiousity at the rapid detrioration of his vision, going across to view the ice skaters in the park and watching the trees and then the skaters and then the ice itself faded away, until he could only hear the scratch of the skates.

The narration is conversational and enthusiastic, and reads quickly. Homer's front of optimism is welcome, because he has some sad things to tell. After his sighted brother Langley goes off to the Great War, Homer watches his parents die of the Spanish Flu. When Langley comes back he is in poor health thanks to mustard gas and has become extremely cynical about the world and the way it works.

Doctorow does a great job depicting Langley's eccentricity, convincingly rationalizing the real Langley's hoarding and other peculiarities. Doctorow's Langley collects all the daily newspapers and studies them furiously. He believes that he can develop a newspaper for all times. His Theory of Replacement states that nothing ever changes really, it just gets replaced. So the stories in his paper will always be the same, and you can just fill in the blanks yourself. "War with _ Continues", "Workers Exploited by Corporation" for some examples.

The novel takes an episodic form, with each one defined by the people the Collyer's allow into their home. The brothers are kind of heart and take in quite a few people. There is a poor piano student (Homer gives her lessons); their cook's cornet-playing grandson; a mob boss hiding out after being shot in the ear; and a gaggle of hippies who mistake the grungy Collyers for like-minded souls.

Some of these episodes are a little wearing, especially in the way they so explicitly plug into the zeitgeist. The novel tends to do that Forrest Gump thing where it scans through American history without really touching on anything and making a real statement. (Most of the events of the novel are referred to obliquely, without names or other specifics. And some late potshots at people like Nixon are especially arbitrary and unnecessary.)

The novel is strongest in it depiction of the Collyer brothers' relationship. Langley and Homer love each other dearly, but Langley's love, though, pure, is also quite destructive. His absurd beliefs that sight can be restored through diet and exercise tax Homer unnecessarily, and the constant hoarding (of newspapers, pianos, typewriters, and even a Model T in the kitchen) endangers blind Homer, who once could effortlessly walk around the house from memory.

Doctorow is fairly old, and has covered American history in much further depth, so perhaps he can and should be forgiven for its cursory appearance here. Where he shows his true skill is in the title characters, and he shows that age has not dinted what nature provided, his singular talent.

Modern Family- "Mother Tucker"

All in all a rather slight episode of Modern Family this week. Very low-key, no real interconnection between the three branches of the clan. (The one instance of mix-and-matching provided one of the comedic higlights: Claire demonstrating Mitchell's boundary issues by moving closer and closer to him.) I would not be surprised to hear that this episode was moved into this slot, since viewership was likely down to the heavy travel day/people going out and awkwardly running into their high school classmates.

Still, Modern Family almost can't help being funny, and there were still enough laughs to make "Mother Tucker" an enjoyable exerices. Phil was probably the star player tonight (witness his excellent physical comedy in continuing his phone call while taking off his girlish sweater) but the show gets a lot of mileage out of an angry Hayley. Really enjoyed the parents taking different sides, as Phil has bonded with Dylan and Claire wants her daughter dating her science tutor. Alex only had a couple of lines but killed it with the "So dumb guys go for dumb girls AND smart guys go for dumb girls?" line.

The other two storylines were kinda small in comparison. I had higher expectations for Cameron's mother, but I felt that the show didn't really do anything all that interesting with her character. The Jay and Gloria story worked a lot better. Gloria's skepticism of illness was hilarious and perfectly in character, as was Manny's overreliance on WebMD. Their hysterics when Jay turns out to have appendicitis were well done, especially Manny telling Jay that the surgery usually isn't the problem, but the anesthesia is what usually gets you. ("You're over 60, right?" he asks.)

The sentimental capper that the show seems committed to was more affecting than most. It was nice to see Phil come through for Hayley after he worsened the situation by hanging out with Dylan.

Monday, November 22, 2010

How I Met Your Mother- "Blitzgiving"

Thoroughly enjoyed this episode, which is nice, but makes for less interesting writing, so let's do this quickly.

Even this many years into the show, the writers are still able to rewrite the characters backstory as it suits them, and do it in convincing ways. Of course we've never seen Blitz (Jorge Garcia) before: he was always gone when the good stuff happened! This is a somewhat hackneyed joke, but I think HIMYM put their own spin on it, with the Blitz nickname and the idea that the curse could be transferred.

Only Ted would think to stuff a turkey with a turkey. And only Ted would be presumptuous enough to say "home" to a New York cabbie. (Also loved the gag where Barney's cabbie is the first to realize the Blitz implications of ditching the group for a separate ride.)

Maybe I'm blinded by the fact that I find her supremely attractive, but I think Jennifer Morrison is killing it on this show. Loved the back and forth with Ted and how well she fit in with the group.

Ted's furious with his friends for hanging out with Zoe, but saves his harshest anger for Lilly, for whom he hated Renee Zellwegger for years before Lilly figured out she actually meant to hate Reese Witherspoon.

Nice job by Garcia as the cursed Blitz. He played both the downbeats and up moments very well. His "Aw, man!" was much more convincing than Ted's or Barney's.

Still not sure what this Ted-Zoe arc is going to do mother-wise, but it diverting and fun, so I'm not sure I care all that much. People do realize that this show is over once he meets the mother, right?

The Final Solution by Michael Chabon

What an utterly joyless exercise. Joyless to read and, I’m hoping, joyless to write. Because if Michael Chabon, a novelist I have always respected even if I haven’t always loved his stuff, took any joy in writing this needlessly pretentious, unambitious takedown of one of the most beloved characters in all of fiction, then I don’t know if I can continue to respect his work.

The Final Solution is a novel about Sherlock Holmes, not Adolf Hitler. Except, the character is never called Sherlock Holmes, just “the old man.” This is the kind of literary technique that makes my eyes roll. Get over yourself, you’re writing a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, man up and admit it already. There have been hundreds of Holmes stories published since the death of Conan Doyle, so I’m sure there were no legal complications, and I can’t think of a single valid artistic reason for doing it.

The novel is set in WWII England. The old man is an 89-year-old beekeeper and former detective of renown. He happens to be intrigued one day by a nine-year-old mute and his African gray parrot. The boy can not or will not speak and the bird repeats several series of numbers in German. Later, a man living in the same boarding house as the boy is murdered and the bird goes missing. The local police bring in the legendary detective.

Some that sounds appealing, no? No. Despite its surface oddities, befitting the traditional stories, this iteration of Holmes, perhaps understandably given his age, displays none of the talents and traits of the beloved character. Throughout the entire novel, Holmes hardly figures anything out at all, has major revelations disclosed to him voluntarily, and displays nothing of the keen observational skills so many readers enjoy.

Instead we get page after page describing the creaking of his bones. Or his hearing loss. Or how he used to work with this new cop’s grandfather. So. Freaking. What. He’s old, we get it, now let him solve the mystery. Oh, and to top it all off, the climactic events are told from the point of view of the parrot.

I loved The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, but I have found every other novel of Chabon’s wanting, none more so than this. Chabon’s defense of genre fiction has always seemed admirable, but why champion a form only to debase in such a public manner.

Bottom line: avoid at all costs. Not for Sherlock fans, not for mystery fans, not for anyone.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Modern Family- "Manny Get Your Gun"

The greatest strength of Modern Family is in the depth of its ensemble. Each character is strongly defined and each is capable of carrying a plot of their own. All of them can earn big laughs, but not because the characters themselves are inherently funny people, but because the writers adroitly place their characters into situations which spur humor. Sometimes the show can abuse this strength, overpopulating an episode with too many unconnected stories, making the end result too busy to be greatly enjoyed.

Such, I am glad to say, was not the case with “Manny Get Your Gun.” The episode takes shape as a frame narrative, beginning with Manny’s toast to the family at his birthday party. It was pretty great to see him cheerfully deliver his speech to his glum-looking relatives, all while wearing what I am assuming is a tailored suit. From there we traveled back in time to discover what has put each member of the Pritchett and Dunphy clans in their foul moods.

Modern Family gives us four stories this week, each symbolized by a car. Gloria’s car is stuck in the driveway since she can’t find her keys. Jay hectors her about responsibility, and considers the lesson worthwhile enough that he doesn’t tell her he found the keys in his own coat. She sees through the ruse immediately, and becomes especially scary when expressing her anger through Manny’s new BB gun (Manny incidentally, is in crisis mode as Jay inadvertently causes him to wonder if he’s not enough of a kid.). The Gloria plot, though genuinely funny, is something the show should probably ease up on, in the long run. How many times can we see Jay underestimate Gloria without it feeling a little race-based? Also, much as I love to look at Sofia Vergara, I think the plunging necklines are starting to come off as a little desperate.

Cam and Mitch are at the mall struggling to buy Manny’s present, and are running late. But Cam can’t help but stop an elderly couple with romantic problems, going so far as to carry the old lady down an up escalator. The adultery reveal was a nice touch. I was less enthusiastic about Mitchell’s flash mob, although I guess I can’t complain about it being out of character when the character himself admits it. Cam’s selfish reaction was a welcome surprise, especially since upon reflection it made perfect sense for the character. It’s nice when a show trusts its characters enough to have them do bad things, and trusts its audience enough to still find them sympathetic.

The final two cars belong to Phil and Claire, who decide to take two cars, splitting the kids between them, after an argument over which route to take to the party. I found the Phil and daughters story a little overly contrived, since it featured the “family camp” we’ve never heard of before and likely will never hear of again. But Claire and Luke’s plot, where Claire discovers Luke honestly thought his parents were splitting up and his immediate response was to go with his father, felt real and produced great comedy. Maybe Julie Bowen is just better at crying than Ty Burrell.

The sentimental capper was thankfully not a voiceover but instead the continuation of Manny’s toast, in which he realizes, thanks to the behavior of the adults, that he still has plenty of time to be a kid. It was clever, funny, and sentimental, perfect for Modern Family.

Brideshead Revisited

Brideshead Revisited has a lot of strikes against it. Most glaringly, that’s a pretty nondescript title, even once you figure out what the hell Brideshead is (it’s a large English country house.) Not to be sexist but the title makes the book sound kind of feminine, even after you find out Evelyn Waugh is actually a man. (I knew that beforehand, having read and greatly enjoyed his newspaper satire Scoop a few years ago.) Then there is the book’s reputation as a “Great Catholic Novel”, whatever that means. I myself have (not surprisingly) never much enjoyed novels which extol the Church.

Perhaps most damning, the novel is about a family of idle English aristocrats. I have never been one to put up with idle rich characters. Maybe I am envious of their lack of responsibilities.

The narrator and protagonist is one Charles Ryder, who becomes entangled with Sebastian Flyte, a resident of Brideshead, during their time at Oxford. This is one of those close male friendships which literary scholars are always trying to tell you are actually gay relationships, and while I usually object to those suggestions (Huck and Jim are not gay, people) the case for Charles and Sebastian being lovers is a lot stronger than most. Sebastian is a sensitive boy who still carries a teddy bear named Aloysius around campus. Their mutual friend Anthony Blanche is definitely gay, even if Waugh, because of the times, steadfastly refuses to explicitly say so.

Charles spends several vacations with the Flytes at Brideshead, becoming close with the whole family, which ironically threatens his relationship with Sebastian, who mistrusts his relations. The Flytes are all Catholics of varying fervor. Lady Marchmain, matriarch of the family, is devout, as is her oldest son Brideshead and her youngest daughter Cordelia. Sebastian and his sister Julia are lapsed, though they can never quite rid themselves of the Church’s influence.

After Sebastian’s fall into alcoholism causes a rift between Charles and the Brideshead clan he concentrates on his successful art career, only to be drawn back into the family a decade later through a chance encounter. In the last quarter of the novel, relationships intertwine and complicate themselves, and each character is forced to confront their belief or lack thereof. Charles, as a committed non-believer, is drawn into conflicts he is ill-prepared to handle.

As the book draws to a close Waugh displays a marvelous gift for crafting tension, but the resolution left this reader feeling uneasy. Judging not as a Catholic but as a fan of literature, I couldn’t help but feel like Waugh had sold out his character in service of his faith.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

How I Met Your Mother- "Glitter"

All sitcoms utilize multiple types of jokes, requiring different levels of context. Some jokes are just wordplay and wit, funny in any situation. Insults or quips often fall into this category. Other jokes arise from the situation at hand and would be unfunny outside of that context. (I am thinking, as just one example, of exasperated reactions to absurd occurrences, which only become funny due to the delivery of the actor.) There are also jokes that require an incredibly broad understanding of the context and of the personalities of the characters involved, jokes that only people who have been constant viewers of the show will find funny. (Jokes that incredibly annoying people will use to justify their self-worth through their choice of television programs.)

A great episode will balance all these types of jokes, and probably several other types I’m not thinking of. A generally good episode, on the other hand, can get away with just one or two, as long as they make you laugh. “Glitter”, heavily promoted as the return (again) of Robin Sparkles, is a good, not great, episode.

The wordplay and wit is in top form in the scenes concerning Robin’s old Canadian children’s show, “Space Teens.” The gang takes delight in comparing the cheesy show to a pornographic film, especially since each feature “a delusional woman who thinks this is a step to future success.”

This scene features by far my biggest laugh of the night. When Barney assumes “Space Teens” is porn he launches himself toward Marshall in preparation for an epic slap. Barney had lost his bet that Robin was in porn back in “Slap Bet”, perhaps the best episode How I Met Your Mother has ever done.

The jokes in Space Teens are pretty funny, if really immature, and kind of shocking for a show on at 8pm. I know the family hour concept has been brushed aside, but I’m still surprised you can get away with jokes about “beavers” and “eight inches of wood” that shortly after dinner. I also enjoyed Robin’s defense of the show, especially the “Beaver Song” which is a song about friendship that she will not let the group mock.

The problems with “Glitter” lie in the character-based subplots. Lily and Robin “breaking up” isn’t a bad idea, dramatically, but it had no weight here because there was never a doubt that the conflict would last even into the next episode. (If you didn’t see “Robin’s old friend helps get her back with new friend” coming, you don’t watch enough TV.) The real problem with the storyline is a problem the show often has with Lily. They put her in situations by making her act horribly, thus rendering the audience unsympathetic. Here she’s going on and on about babies when she’s not even pregnant. Last week she’s hectoring Marshall about his compromises, even though it was her massive debt that compelled him to take the GNB job.

Oh, and Ted’s high-school friend Punchy shows up, mostly just to announce he’s getting married and trick (probably) viewers into thinking his wedding is the one where Ted will meet the Mother.

I’m not going to complain too much about a sitcom episode featuring character breaking out of their serious conversation to clap during organ-playing (even if said episode did expect us to believe Nicole Scherzinger could act), but if characters took a backseat to beaver jokes every week, I’d start to worry.

NBC's Thursday Night Shake-Up

If it’s not an old TV truism that the less interesting the shows on the network, the more interesting the behind-the-scenes developments at the network, well, it should be. Despite consistent last place finishes throughout the work-week (they do win Sunday nights with football) NBC is by far the most fascinating network in terms of corporate restructuring and personnel decisions. As the last place network they are forced to do things other networks won’t, and as a cash-strapped entity desperate to look profitable to their incoming corporate overlords, they have to keep their low-rated critical darlings on the air when the numbers say cancellation is in order.

The Peacock’s latest gambit is an extensive re-scheduling of nearly its entire prime-time lineup for after the New Year. Some changes are being forced upon them. (They don’t play football year round, so The Marriage Ref and a two-hour Celebrity Apprentice take its place. I’m sure they’ll pull in the same numbers as Cowboys-Packers.) Others are more experimental, such as pulling The Event for a few months, and sliding Parenthood and the two Law & Orders earlier in the week. But the most interesting tactical shift comes on Thursday night, the former home of Must See TV and current domicile of The Office and Three Shows that Narrowly Beat the CW.

Despite being burned, and scarred, by the failure of Jay Leno’s 10pm show, the network is giving comedy another shot in the crucial pre-local news hour. This time, they’re hoping that the presence of actual humor (if only until 10:30) will make the difference. 30 Rock is moving to 10pm, followed by Outsourced at 10:30. For its trouble, 30 Rock has been given an early pick-up for next season, presumably to quell fears that a disastrous dip in ratings would result in cancellation. Outsourced will be tested by the move, as it will no longer have the cushion of The Office’s relatively high (for NBC) ratings.

Moving into 30 Rock’s 8:30pm slot is a new show named Perfect Couples. The show stars Olivia Munn and is about three couples trying to figure out what makes for a successful relationship. It sounds rather ordinary to me, and its slot following Community may mean NBC isn’t terrifically confident in it either.

Saving the best news for last, Parks and Recreation takes over for Outsourced at 9:30pm. This is the slot the show was intended to have when it was first conceived as an Office-lite. The show’s ratings were abysmal at 8:30, leading it to be shelved until midseason, and it seems unlikely that it will do any better at holding The Office’s audience than Outsourced did, but it’s great just to have it back on TV.

The best news for all of these shows is that NBC is so cash-strapped it can’t afford to produce as many new pilots as the rest of the networks, so ratings would have to be especially dire to merit cancellation. That said, there are some clear winners and losers in the new lineup. Community, Perfect Couples, and Outsourced are all going to struggle. Community is a poor 8pm anchor, especially going up against CBS’ Big Bang Theory, and it is difficult to see people changing to NBC in order to give Perfect Couples a chance. Meanwhile, Outsourced and 30 Rock would seem to share very little, audience-wise, and with the 10pm hour continuing to be a cable-network/DVR zone, the new comedy is likely to suffer without the consideration given to 30 Rock in the form of an early pickup.

As for winners, obviously 30 Rock and its fans should be ecstatic that it will be back for 2011-2012 as any show with its ratings is endangered. The Office neither gains or loses anything by the moves, but they do reinforce the idea that the show is one of NBC’s disarmingly few bellwethers and is unlikely to be removed even with the departure of its lead. The biggest winner is of course Parks and Rec, which will get much higher ratings at 9:30 than it did an hour earlier, even if it does lose a lot of its lead-in.

NBC comes off as, to use one of its own titles, The Biggest Loser. Looking at the entirety of its lineup shifts, it’s clear that they have little idea what they are doing, and little faith in their ability to attract larger audiences. They actually seem to be conceding quite a few nights of the week, hamstrung by their need to save money. There is no way The Marriage Ref, Celebrity Apprentice, and The Biggest Loser should eat up so much of their schedule. The last is the most egregious example. Tuesday night is a big night of TV watching, with NCIS, Glee, and The Good Wife commanding large blocks of viewers, but NBC wastes two hours hoping America wants to watch fat people jiggle. But, as long as its failures allow Community and Parks and Rec to stay on the air, that’s all right with me.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Community- "Cooperative Calligraphy"

I know I’m a little late here, but I wanted to watch this episode twice, because when my opinion clashes so strongly with critical consensus, I like to make sure my initial impressions weren’t objectively wrong. As much as I might like to report that I’m now on board with the multitudes declaring “Cooperative Calligraphy” the best Community episode ever, I maintain that the episode, while clever, is not nearly that good.

My opinion of Calligraphy was improved slightly by a second viewing, and even more so by a re-watch of last season’s “Contemporary American Poultry”, which is referenced throughout the episode, most directly in the revelation of the culprit. I enjoyed being able to spot the moment Annie’s pen was stolen on the re-watch, thanks to the internet pointing it out to me. I didn’t mind Abed constantly referring to the “bottle episode” concept, even though it seemed a little too inside baseball for me. More irksome was the reference (in the form of the name of Jeff’s cancelled date “Gwynnifer”) to creator Dan Harmon’s ongoing Twitter-feuds. (Gwynnifer is a troll who constantly berates Community’s “all-white” audience, and Harmon is a surprisingly confrontational tweeter. Just this past weekend he severely criticized Modern Family for “spoon-feeding plot points to the camera.”)

There were some laughs, definitely, and I appreciated the focus on character after so much time spent doing bigger-budget reference-heavy episodes theoretically designed to capture a bigger audience, presumably those who had encountered the show through hearing about last season’s brilliant paintball episode, “Modern Warfare”.

Well, last night I ripped through the last six episodes of Community: Season One and since that includes both “Contemporary American Poultry” and “Modern Warfare” I feel comfortable arguing that those two episodes work much better than “Cooperative Calligraphy.” I think the reason for this is that they were surrounded by better episodes. Last season Community was stronger week-to-week than it has been so far this season, and every episode developed characters and enriched their relationships. The mob-movie references in “Poultry” actually served as an avenue for insights into Abed’s character. Even “Modern Warfare” was really a contrivance to get the Britta-Jeff sexual tension out into the open and resolved.

Compare that to this season’s “Basic Rocket Science” and “Epidemiology”. In the former the only character note we got was Annie’s supposed sabotage in order to transfer, which was an inherently unbelievable plot and was so half-assed it was impossible to take it seriously. The show got a lot of buzz for its zombie themed Halloween episode, but only Troy and Abed were really given anything to do.

It’s still relatively early in the season, and it’s certainly possible that “Cooperative Calligraphy” is just a signal to regular viewers that the show is done casting a wide net looking to evade cancellation and is ready to get back to what it does well. I hope so, because right now I’m missing so much of what I really like about the show. I miss the classroom, the community-college specific problems, and I miss Britta, who hasn’t had a hell of a lot to do so far.

Friday, November 12, 2010

I May Have a Problem

A day after writing a blog post detailing how extensive my to-be-read pile is, I go to The Strand and buy three more books. So to update:

22. The Final Solution by Michael Chabon (It's about Sherlock Holmes, not Hitler.)

23. Homer and Langley by E.L. Doctorow (I enjoyed Ragtime very much and mostly liked Billy Bathgate.)

24. The Best American Short Stories, 2010 (Edited by Richard Russo, one of my favorite authors. I always tell myself I should read more short stories, so I buy these anthologies and read about half of them.)

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Someday Pile

I'm making my way through Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, which was the surprise winner last week when I asked Facebook and Twitter for book recommendations. One person recommended it and then all of a sudden other people were seconding the motion. In a way it was very convenient, considering that I already owned a copy of the novel and just hadn't got around to reading it yet. This is a fairly common occurrence for me. I love going to bookstores and browsing around, even when I'm in the middle of reading something else. Often I'll buy a book, intending to read it after the one I'm working on at the time, but something will come up, and I'll put the book on the Someday Pile.

Other times I'll buy a whole bunch of books at once, intending to read them in a row, but this never works out. This is especially true when I try to read a bunch of works by the same author consecutively. I just can't do it, and I've mostly learned that lesson.

Anyway, because this is my blog and I get to decide what to put on here, here's a list of some of the books sitting on my shelves just waiting for me to feel like it's finally the right time to get around to them.

1. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (One of several "important" novels I felt like I should read. Actually read the first ten pages once before moving on to something more pressing. Also, knowing the ending really kills my desire to pick this one up.)

2. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky (My Someday Pile is not all Russian, rest assured. My Freshman Seminar professor, the great A.James McAdams, recommended that I read this novel the summer after my first year of college. I dutifully bought a copy but somehow never got to it. Incredibly small type is no help.)

3. Going After Cacciato by Tom O'Brien (Loved The Things They Carried, but haven't got to this yet.)

4. Rabbit at Rest by John Updike (Tried to read the four Rabbit novels consecutively, but ran out of gas after the third.)

5 and 6. The Anatomy Lesson and Exit Ghost by Philip Roth (Similarly tried to finish out Roth's Zuckerman novels.)

7. Until I Find You by John Irving (I thought Irving had lost his touch sometime in the '90s after I read the disastrous Son of the Circus and The Fourth Hand, but last years Last Night in Twisted River was excellent, inspiring me to pick this up. But it's 800 pages make it a hard choice to take with me on the bus to work.)

8. Crime by Irvine Welsh (Received this as a gift when I went on a job interview at W.W. Norton. Never picked it up when I didn't get the job. Did like the same author's Trainspotting.)

9. A Death in the Family by James Agee (Church book sale. American classic. Someday.)

10. Sophie's Choice by William Styron (Loved the movie, with Meryl Streep.)

11. Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe (Got really into New Journalism at one point, didn't last long enough to crack this open.)

12. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig (This one's kind of funny. I had mentioned Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test to my parents as a book I was thinking about picking up. This was fairly close to my birthday, although I was not dropping a hint my mom thought she would buy me the book, but she forgot the title. So she tried to get someone at Barnes and Noble find her the famous book with the long, weird title. This is what they came up with. I have no real interest in the book, but perhaps as a loyal son I may read it Someday.)

13. Light in August by William Faulkner (Actually read 80 or so pages before I lost this book. It turned up months later and when I tried to pick it back up realized I'd need to start over and wasn't up to it.)

14 and 15. The Winds of War and War and Remembrance by Herman Wouk (Church Book Sale. Really liked The Caine Mutiny so I thought I'd get around to these someday.)

16. The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West (Church Book Sale. Really old copy that's falling apart, so I'm almost afraid to try and read it.)

17. Suttree by Cormac McCarthy (Loved The Road and No Country for Old Men, but this it too patently Faulkner-esque for my taste. Tried the first three pages and put it down due to headache.)

18. The Promise by Chaim Potok (Loved The Chosen, but have yet to get to its sequel.)

19 and 20. Babbitt and It Can't Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis (Bought these while I was enjoying Arrowsmith, but when that novel started to wear on me I lost my enthusiasm for Lewis.

21+. I've got a host of "classics" that I feel like I should read, but don't really want to. These include: Jane Eyre (quit 160 pages into it), Tom Jones, Tess of the D'Urbervilles, and Madame Bovary.

What's on your Someday Pile, and why did it end up there?

Monday, November 8, 2010

How I Met Your Mother- "Natural History"

How I Met Your Mother can be a hard show to defend sometimes, especially so after the last few seasons, when its cornball sentimentality was rarely counterbalanced with an adequate number of memorable jokes and its once strong characters acted inexplicably unlike themselves. But last night’s “Natural History” was the first episode in a long time I would feel absolutely confident watching with a neophyte. A newcomer to the series would, I feel, be impressed with the episode’s writing and humor. I’m hopeful that the show can carry this momentum forward, justifying my investment in it further.

The museum setting worked in the show’s favor in multiple ways. First, the ladies looked great in their fancy attire. (Especially Jennifer Morrison, who provided ample ammunition for my continuing argument that she is just as attractive as her recent House co-star Olivia Wilde.) Second, it was great silly fun seeing Barney and Robin violate the “No Touching” rule, capped by Robin’s pun that her penguin companion couldn’t have an hors d’oeurvre because he was “stuffed.” And it was nice seeing Ted cut loose thanks to the architectural marvel that is the museum’s whisper spot.

This was a great Ted episode overall, with his reveling in the news that his activist foe is really a bored trophy wife and poking fun at the oblivious fat cats at the GNB ball. (Loved Ted’s lines to the monocle-wearer: “Good luck killing James Bond!” and “Tell me, do they cost half as much as glasses?”) And he also nailed the emotional stuff that makes HIMYM what it is, defending Zoe to her husband even after she’s caught him mocking GNB on tape, and then awkwardly assuming Zoe was inviting him to dance. It’s pretty certain Jennifer Morrison isn’t the mother, so in some sense it’s exasperating to think they might have Ted embark on another long-term non-mother relationship, but on the other hand it would be fairly bold for a show to have it’s romantic hero involved in the dissolution of someone else’s marriage. On balance, I’ll allow Jennifer Morrison to stick around, as long as they keep putting her in dresses like last night’s.

As for the other sentimental notes in “Natural History”, I enjoyed how the writers connected the museum into Marshall and Lily’s argument over his career. I also liked that the writers know the characters well enough that neither character is totally wrong or totally right. And Neil Patrick Harris showed some fine dramatic chops after the out-of-left-field resolution to his past as a museum-exhibit-toucher.

If you’d given up on How I Met Your Mother I think you should strongly consider giving last night’s episode a view on Hulu. You might recognize why you bothered with the show in the first place.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

My Personal Top 25 Beatles Songs

Every workday I try to make sure I'm sitting at my desk at exactly 12:00noon. Because that's when WAXQ 104.3 does their annual Beatles Block, in tribute to the late, legendary New York DJ Scott Muni, who would play four songs by the Fab Four at the start of his one-hour daily show. It's a nice little way to break up my morning. It's also amazing how long they can go without playing the samse song twice. The Beatles really are best appreciated in depth. They have inarguably the deepest bench of all rock bands. If you asked music fans to name their favorite song by a particular artist or group, most of the time there are really only so many realistic answers you're going to get, unless you bump into a bunch of Pitchfork Media writers. Not so with the Beatles. There are probably over a hundred songs by The Beatles that could easily be someone's favorite.

That thought lead me to compile this list of my 25 favorite Beatles songs. This was not an easy task. My initial jotting down of songs that might make the cut ran to 60 tracks before I started culling. For the sake of my sanity I decided to wholly exclude any solo projects or side releases, otherwise there would be a lot more George Harrison on the list as well as McCartney's "Maybe I'm Amazed" and Lennon's "Just Like Starting Over". I thought about making a no-covers rule, but it's my list and there are only two covers on the list below (Anna (Go to Him) and Act Naturally).

Looking at the list I notice a few trends. More Ringo than you would think, a bias toward catchiness instead of lyrical complexity, and a bit of a downer perspective on love (with the notable exceptions of "Something" and "I've Just Seen a Face").

Here it is, although I'm sure I've left out some songs that should really be on here, just another testament to the greatness of The Beatles.

1. Something (Harrison is definitely my favorite Beatle.)
2. Let it Be (This has to be one of the most frequently listed "favorites")
3. While My Guitar Gently Weeps (Only GH could get away with "I look at the floor and I see it needs sweeping.")
4. And Your Bird Can Sing ("When you're prize possessions/Start to weigh you down/Look in my direction/I'll be round, I'll be round."
5. Here, There, and Everywhere (Just beautiful from beginning to end. "To lead a better life.../I need my love to be here.")
6. I Will ("Will I wait a lonely lifetime?/If you want me to, I will.")
7. I’m Looking Through You ("You don't look different/But you have changed/I'm looking through you/You're not the same.")
8. I’ve Just Seen a Face (Probably the most upbeat song on the list)
9. Baby You’re a Rich Man (Used to great effect at the end of The Social Network)
10. If You’ve Got Trouble (The Beatles recorded this in 1968 and threw it out! It was only released in 1996!)
11. Norwegian Wood (Then I looked around and I noticed there wasn't a chair.)
12. Paperback Writer (For obvious reasons.)
13. Act Naturally (Originally by Buck Owens.)
14. Rocky Raccoon (Her name was McGill/And she called herself Lil/But everyone knew her as Nancy)
15. Mean Mr. Mustard/Polythene Pam/She Came in Through the Bathroom Window (Mostly for the last third. "She could steal, but she could not rob.")
16. Here Comes the Sun (Little Darlin' it's been a long cold lonely winter.)
17. You Never Give Me Your Money (Mostly for this refrain: Out of college money spent/See no future pay no rent/All the money's gone nowhere to go.)
18. Hey Bulldog (Delightfully strange little song.)
19. The Long and Winding Road (Great, sad song)
20. We Can Work It Out (My favorite earlier-Beatles song.)
21. Don’t Pass Me By (What can I say, I like Ringo's vocals.)
22. Two of Us (You and I have memories/Longer than the road that stretches out ahead.)
23. You've Got to Hide Your Love Away (Gather round all you clowns, let me hear you say...)
24. Anna (Go to Him)(Mostly for the third verse: "All of my life.../I've been searching, for a girl/To love me, like I love you. But every girl I've ever had/Breaks my heart and leaves me sad/What am I, what am I supposed to do?")
25. Happiness is a Warm Gun (She's well acquainted with the touch of a velvet hand/Like a lizard on a windowpane.)

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

I’m never one to admit that feminists have a point, but it’s almost unquestionably true that Jonathan Franzen is lucky he’s a guy. Had he two x-chromosomes instead of an x and a y, it is easy to imagine his novels, especially The Corrections, being taken far less seriously. One can even picture the re-designed cover for this novel, by the prospective “Johanna” Franzen. Pink and teal in place of austere black and vivid red; curly script in place of bold block letters. They’d probably change the title, too. Something like One Last Christmas, maybe.

All of which would be a dreadful shame, since The Corrections deserves the huge, gender-gap-spanning readership it has attracted in the near-decade since its publication. Franzen writes about universal themes which have somehow been shoe-horned into the dreaded chick-lit ghetto of contemporary literature. The Corrections is fairly exclusively about family, and one of the best things that can be said about it is that it doesn’t apologize for this narrower focus. Instead it digs deeper into the complicated relationships inherent in any family. Many times this is unpleasant, even painful. But Franzen is fearless. He doesn’t mind if you dislike or disapprove of his characters. He just wants you to recognize, even if you do it begrudgingly, that they are as nearly real as fictional people can be. The Corrections is a provocative novel in the true sense of the term: the power of its story is felt in the strength of your reactions.

The family in question is the Lamberts, originally from the made-up Midwestern hub St. Jude. Patriarch Alfred, a former railroad executive and amateur scientist, is suffering from Parkinson’s and seems to be refusing to do anything to delay the disease’s deleterious effects. His stubborn adherence to self-derived principles is self-defeating in the extreme. His wife Enid is trying to pretend that there isn’t a problem with her husband that wouldn’t be cured by a more positive outlook on life. However, her constant nagging and pushing make a sunny disposition unimaginable.

Their three children have all fled St. Jude, and just to make they were free of its influence, the Midwest as a whole. Gary is a Philadelphia investment banker fighting off depression and fighting with his calculating wife. She’s clearly got their three kids on her side, which doesn’t help. Denise is a chef in the most posh restaurant in Philly, recovering from her own disastrous marriage (and uncertain sexuality) by becoming thoroughly implicated in her boss’s marriage. And Chip is a disgraced cultural studies professor who runs away from his familial and professional obligations by taking a risky and illegal job in Lithuania.

The novel moves fluidly between all five characters’ perspectives. Alfred’s scenes are the hardest to read, and not just because of their concern with his failing body. Gary’s family life is also a challenge, because as well-imagined as the scenes are it is still searing to witness the cruelty involved. Chip’s Lithuanian odyssey is the most oddball element of the narrative, and given, bizarrely, comparatively few pages.

The driving plot is Enid Lambert’s desire to have all her three children home to St. Jude for Christmas, something that hasn’t happened for a long time. Alfred’s rapid debilitation and close-calls with death provide all the suspense. Along the way, the Lambert children and their mother discuss what’s going to happen to them next. None of them are sure they see any good options.

The title could be taken in several different ways. It could refer simply to the revisions Chip makes to his autobiographical screenplay or to Enid’s many nagging attempts to get Alfred to see things her way. More obliquely, I think The Corrections is referring to the Lambert children’s efforts to avoid repeating their parents’ mistakes, and to their subsequent realization at how far these efforts have taken them from the people they are supposed to be. At the end of the novel we can glimpse some indications that all three Lambert children are re-inventing themselves, correcting over their previous mistakes. Whether or not they can do so successfully is an open question.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Sherlock: "A Study in Pink"

There’s something absolutely ridiculous about the idea of placing Sherlock Holmes in the 21st century. First and foremost, setting was such an integral part of the Conan Doyle stories, and a big part of that had to do with the time period. Holmes, despite being a fictional character, is perhaps the single person most associated with Victorian England outside Queen Victoria herself.

Sherlock Holmes can’t have the same impact in our times because we live in a world where so much of our fictional characters have been influenced by him. A 21st century Holmes has to get in line behind (to keep this to television) House, Bones, Monk, Castle, Psych, The Mentalist, and countless others. The novelty of Sherlock Holmes was that he used groundbreaking science and rational deduction to solve crimes, which of course everyone knows about today.

That “Sherlock” works at all is a testament to the talents of all involved. That it is, in fact, a supremely entertaining production is nothing short of astonishing. The producers of “Sherlock” incorporated modern life in a way that, while not seamless, didn’t detract from the strength of the characters.

Some of this is due to an interesting coincidence. In the Conan Doyle stories, the first thing Sherlock deduces about Dr. Watson is that he had served in Afghanistan. That’s transposed to the present easily enough, although Holmes admittedly can’t decide whether he was in Afghanistan or Iraq.

The deductions, the way Sherlock can tell so much about a person by observation, which were always my favorite part of any Holmes story, and here they are cleverly written and brilliantly acted by Benedict Cumberbatch. Cumberbatch delivers a fine Holmes, staying true to the character both as written by Conan Doyle and conceived of for this series. He nails the inconsiderate, arrogant, tortured by boredom nature of the great detective. Cumberbatch also injects some welcome enthusiasm into the part, he is overjoyed to have a problem to solve.

I’ve gone far too long in this review without mentioning the case! A bizarre string of inexplicable suicides appear to be connected despite all being incontrovertibly self-administered. Sherlock is called in by a desperate Inspector Lestrade, despite the loud protests of the rest of his police force, who see Holmes as a perennial potential suspect, mistaking him for a psychopath when, as Holmes himself points out, he’s really more of a sociopath.

I’ve also neglected the performance of Martin Freeman as Dr. Watson. It’s a great blend of frustration at his new flatmate’s eccentricities and admiration for his talents. There is also a subtle, playful humor about the character, as witnessed in his increasing objections to the assumption that he and Sherlock are lovers. That bit was a tad off, for the 21st-century, I felt. Clumsy gay jokes just aren’t my thing, though.

The conclusion to the mystery was not some fascinating twist, but it was compelling drama. This is actually more in line with the stories than many people may think. Conan Doyle’s stories were less about puzzling out a mystery than about the adventure inherent in detecting. A Study in Pink is thrilling, inventive and captivating. It’s everything you think of when you think of the character, minus the pipe and cap.

Friday, October 15, 2010

30 Rock: “Live Show”

The burning question I’m left with after last night’s live episode of 30 Rock is: just whose idea was this? I don’t mean that sarcastically, as though I were seeking the proper person to blame. Despite some obvious concessions to the limitations of the format last night’s episode was anything but a fiasco. It was a thoroughly professional performance and a genuinely exciting television event. (The live audience was certainly excited: their howls of laughter were a distraction, as they forced the actors to pause unnaturally, enforcing a scale-back of the usual frenzied pace the show delights in.) What “Live Show” wasn’t was a real episode of 30 Rock. It was a gimmick, and while it’s a credit to all involved that it worked at all, it wasn’t exactly an episode I would use to convince a neophyte of the show’s general excellence.

To me it seems more likely than not that the idea for a live episode was inorganic; that it originated not in the mind of Tina Fey or the writers’ room but in some buzz-seeking network executive. Obviously I have no evidence for this conclusion, but why else would Fey et al, who have for years done a fast-paced elaborately-structured single-camera sitcom feel the need to do a dumbed-down live-audience multi-camera show?

The proof is in the execution. The forces behind 30 Rock knew they couldn’t just do a regular episode live, so they came up with the brilliant sober-Jack strategy. The show loves doing cutaway gags and refused to give them up, enlisting Julia Louis-Dreyfus to be “flashback Liz” in the funniest bit of the night. They poked fun at live television by winking at the home-audience with gags like Tracy’s poster falling down on cue and, really, the whole Tracy plot, where he decides it would be hilarious to break character on the always-live TGS. (Really, this was a brilliantly conceived story, since any mistake Tracy Morgan might have made would have looked to be in keeping with the script.) And of course, the final bit, where the familiar filmed look descends on the show as soon as Jack takes a drink.

Precious little of this episode would have worked on a traditional 30 Rock. Matt Damon’s hilarious mid-crash phone call (imploring Liz to TiVo “Bones” in case he survives) certainly would have, as well as Rachel Dratch’s cleaning lady and Jack sniffing paint. Overall, “Live Show” was a fun and frivolous exercise that left me wanting more, like, you know, a filmed episode of 30 Rock.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Modern Family: "Strangers on a Treadmill"

Busy, busy, busy. Busy. Four because that’s the number of storylines we got this week from Modern Family. Usually the show breaks into three plots, most often one each for Jay and Gloria, Mitchell and Cameron, and the Dunphys. “Strangers on a Treadmill” throws in a separate plot for Haley and Alex, and the result is an episode that undermines its excellence through overindulgence.

The real “extra” plot last night was Jay, Gloria, and Manny’s ill-fated trip to what they thought was a quinceanera. All three characters are great, and I too would have been disappointed not to see them, but this felt underdeveloped. There were a few good lines, like Jay’s “Hey, Carlos” but there wasn’t enough Manny. I think the show should recognize that it doesn’t have to keep everyone involved every week. If you think about it, it would be a little more realistic. Even the zaniest families can’t have hilarious misunderstandings every week. A good compromise, which also might have been pretty funny, would have been to use the scene with Jay trying to clear his DVR (Manny promises he’ll get to Antiques Roadshow) to let everyone know that it wasn’t going to be a busy week for the Pritchetts. It gets them a little screen time while also clearing more room for the three genuinely interesting plots.

As for the other plots, all of them were fairly typical sitcom fodder, but I don’t feel that necessarily has to be a criticism. The exchange of favors between Claire and Mitchell could have been cliché, but they amped it up by equating it to Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train.” Claire’s “You owe me a MURDER!” was tremendous. This was a good episode for Julie Bowen, between the opening bit about not laughing with her eyes, to the emotional resonance of her confession to Phil. It was also great to see Phil get a win, seeing his jokes succeed at the conference was predictable (they were exactly the right type of jokes for a professional gathering like that) but still enjoyable.

The Mitchell and Cameron half of the “Strangers” plot wasn’t as funny, depending on how hilarious you found Cameron’s pixilated bike-shorts, but it ended sweetly and sincerely. Cameron’s oversensitivity to comments about his weight was played well, especially the scene where he thought Mitchell was giving him an encouraging look for eating fruit.

As for Alex and Haley, their plot may only have existed to provide an emotional capper for Claire and Phil, but it was a very good one. And the writers of this show can’t do anything with making me laugh. The pained dual-scream after Alex blew it on the phone with McKenzie, the popular girl, was perfect. It was nice to see the sisters working together. Modern Family seems to really get the sibling relationship, Mitchell and Claire also work really well as siblings. They annoy each other and may fight, but tend to present a united front to the outside world. Haley’s claim that she only helps Alex because an unpopular sister “is bad for the family” encapsulates this idea.

It seems like Modern Family is avoiding the dreaded sophomore slump.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Running Wilde: The Junior Affair

The Junior Affair felt like a step back to me. There were less laughs and the Steve and Emmy plots veered into distractingly unbelievable stupidity. (At least with Steve this was somewhat mitigated by his being, you know, stupid, all the time.) This was also the first episode in which I was really bothered by Puddle’s narration. At times it seems like the show uses it as a big red pen, drawing circles around the jokes and then underlining them for emphasis. I get that the show is aiming, under duress, for a broader audience, but I doubt that the way to do that is to basically shout “Here, America, this is what you should be laughing at, this right here!”
When this show gets cancelled (don’t get me wrong, I still like it, but it will almost certainly get the axe before a second season) someone, somewhere has to find a way to get Peter Serafinowicz back on television. His Fa’ad is a seemingly limitless source of laughs. I loved the scenes from his self-financed all-Arabian “New York tough guy” movie. And the pay off at then end with Alan Alda’s voice reading the tough-talk was great.
One last thought: this was a pretty big waste of Andy Richter, no?

The Social Network: Kane in Flip-Flops

William Randolph Hearst was 78 years old when Citizen Kane was released. At the time Hearst had steadily built a media empire on the back of his father’s mining fortune, and had used his influence to more or less successfully influence American history (despite his failed efforts to become Mayor, Governor, Senator, or even President Hearst.) His empire was also clearly in decline by 1941, and thus Orson Welles was able to tell a nearly full story of ambition, wealth, power and corruption to an American audience that was already well-acquainted with the facts.

Mark Zuckerberg is 26, and already the subject of a film about his rise to power, David Fincher’s thrilling The Social Network. That film deals with Zuckerberg from a very Kane-like perspective, going so far as to give him his own personified “Rosebud” in the form of an ex-girlfriend on whom the Harvard sophomore takes revenge. The comparisons between the two films are intriguing and informative, since part of The Social Network’s mission is to explore the differences and similarities between what it took to be successful in Hearst’s time and what it takes now.

The Hearst-method of turning family wealth into influence is introduced into the film via the Winklevoss twins (both played brilliantly by Armie Hammer), whose funny name, belying immense wealth from their father’s hedge fund, and inhuman perfection (they’re both 6’5’’ Olympic-level athletes) seem to preordain them for success. The Winklevi (as Zuckerberg’s character refers to them) are idea men, and they think they have a big one: a website featuring online profiles, but strictly for people with harvard.edu e-mail addresses. They want to hire Zuckerberg for the dirty work of actually creating the pages, much as the Hearst’s might have made their money on the toil of miners and assorted other laborers.

Zuckerberg (played with uncanny aloofness by Jesse Eisenberg) comes to their attention through his near-ruinous facemash.com, an elaborate revenge on the female population at Harvard, which puts two student ID photos side-by-side and simply asks voters to pick the hotter of the two. After his site, created by hacking into several databases, crashes the school’s servers, Zuckerberg is narrowly spared expulsion.

Director David Fincher deserves tremendous credit for this film’s success. Much praise has been rightly heaped on Aaron Sorkin’s script (which, apart from the opening break-up scene, generally avoids the typical Sorkin pitfalls of zinginess and obscure sophistication) but the way in which Fincher frames the action turns the rather mundane creating of a website into a car-chase level thrill. At the time of facemash.com’s creation Zuckerberg is surrounded by his fellow Computer Science roommates and by his only real friend, Eduardo Saverin (played with alternating restraint and frustration, both appropriate, by Andrew Garfield) a prospective businessman and a whiz-kid investor.

The story is by now pretty well-known. Both Saverin and the Winklevoss twins are suing Zuckerberg, the latter for stealing their idea, the former for bilking him out of the profits. These lawsuits serve as the structure for the film, although this is cleverly introduced after a bit of misdirection at the start. Eisenberg shines in the deposition scenes. His impatience and contempt with the process are conveyed expertly through his tone and his sneer. He seems bemused that there is so much time being wasted on the suits, telling the Winklevoss twins and their partner Divya Narendra, “If you were the inventors of Facebook, you would have invented Facebook.”

The other major presence in the film is that of Justin Timberlake, playing Napster founder and entrepreneur extraordinaire Sean Parker, here first glimpsed after a one-night stand with a Stanford co-ed. Parker is the ultimate 21st-century self-made man, brimming with equal parts innovation and bravado. He is the one who convinces Zuckerburg to move Facebook (he is even the one to suggest dropping the “the”) to California, and he is the one who brings in the big-money investors like PayPal’s Peter Thiel, undermining Garfield’s Saverin at every opportunity. Timberlake nails the part and its underlying notes of paranoid delusion. He’s such a confident star in real life that it would seem impossible for him to play scared on screen, but he does it expertly in a key scene near the film’s conclusion.

On technical aspects of moviemaking I feel under-qualified to comment but I will say that the lighting seemed thematically relevant in a slightly-obvious way. The conference rooms are brightest when the truth is coming out. The dorm rooms are darkest when deceit is ascendant. I enjoyed the songs picked for the soundtrack: “In the Hall of the Mountain King” is an inspired choice, as is the film’s closing song, which I won’t spoil. The original music, composed by Trent Reznor, is a little distracting; much of it is overly somber tones played repetitively.

Sorkin and Fincher must certainly have been aware of the Kane similarities, and I think The Social Network invites us to marvel at the differences between Kane and Zuckerberg. The film itself raises the question of what in the world Zuckerberg is going to do with the rest of his life, which could be fifty years or longer? If the film is to be believed, and the Kane comparisons are apt, the answer is a disquieting one. Maybe no one should be this successful so soon.

How I Met Your Mother- “Subway Wars”

How I Met Your Mother has always seemed more about young adults in a city that happens to be named New York than a show actually set in New York. I’m not coming at this from some point of local pride, it’s just a fact that the show doesn’t often go out of its way to establish its setting as a key element of the show. Any large city with bars and law firms would do just as nicely.

“Subway Wars”, then, was a definite outlier in that it tried to be super-specific to New York. That this stemmed from the gang making Robin feel like she wasn’t a “true New Yorker” probably rang true to a lot of people sick of hearing from Manhattanites about how awesome everything is there. True to form, Ted and Lily’s arbitrary rules about when you’re a real New Yorker were just as stupid and annoying as the real thing. (Incidentally, Lily says she was raised in New York, but has Robin been in the city for significantly less time than Ohioan Ted and Minnesotan Marshall?)

The only other New York bit that I liked was the Woody Allen-style title cards before each character’s story (though that might be construed as one of those references designed purely to make people who get it feel smart.) The Maury Povich gag was amusingly odd, and I hope it was part of the joke that Ted’s kids will have no idea who Povich is. But the subway and taxi stuff mostly left me flat. And because I’m no fun, I can’t really find Barney’s wasting the time of emergency medical personnel very humorous.

As for the character stuff, I loved Marshall’s John Henry-style folk song, and the fact that twenty years later he’s still being vexed by cable boxes while trying to get free porn. He and Lily’s fears of infertility/sterility were handled well. I think from what we’ve seen of Ted it is surprising that there was only one bad review on the ratemyprofessor knockoff site, but I did like the shot of him sitting by himself on one side of the bus. The writers gave Barney one of his occasional redeeming acts of kindness, but this was done nicely in a flashback.

As for Robin, I just think they’re really losing hold of her character, and I think the problem is being exacerbated by Cobie Smulders’ limitations as a dramatic actress. Her crying in the subway immediately pulled me out of the episode. It was inauthentic to say the least. Robin used to be awesome, but now they’re trying to make her vulnerable and it doesn’t work.

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Office- “Andy’s Play”

If you had “he gets cast in a touring production and quits his job” in your How Will Michael Leave the Office Office Pool, you should probably reconsider, based on the excellent capper to tonight’s episode, in which Michael performs a Law & Order episode (including the voiceover) as a one-man show. I don’t think it was a real script, but I could definitely see one of L&Os wise-guy cops standing over the corpse of a victim of auto-erotic asphyxiation and declaring “everyone’s tightening their belts in this economy.”

Unlike Michael, Andy Bernard has demonstrated some real talents, only no one at Dunder-Mifflin ever seemed to notice or care. I didn’t really buy the idea that he’d be able to guilt trip the entire branch into attending the play, but these sorts of contrivances are the price you pay in the sitcom game.

Overall this was a rather low-key episode, with no big guffaws, unless you laughed while I cringed at Andy’s cell-phone going off during his scene in the play. I confess I may have turned back to the baseball playoffs for a brief moment during that scene. Maybe my biggest laugh came from Creed excitedly calling in his review like some old-time newshound breaking a story. Also enjoyed Dwight’s assessment of Sweeny Todd: “All that music got in the way of some fine murders” and Darryl’s injunction to Michael before the play started: “If we don’t listen to the overture we won’t recognize the musical themes when they recur.”

What do you think of the Andy-Erin flirtation? I wonder if the show has the guts to go to much darker places than it did with the more suitable pair of Pam and Jim. Erin’s lack of intelligence is really getting outrageous (I laughed like hell when she threw out her disposable camera last week, but it is pretty far-fetched that someone that dumb could survive), and no amount of sentimentality on Andy’s part can gloss over that forever. Would they try to wring humor out of him pursuing such an obviously unsuitable partner?

There was a nice Michael moment when he consoles Andy after the play, by insisting that he’s not a nice person and wouldn’t compliment Andy’s performance if he didn’t mean it. The point about not being nice is proven by his booing the lead actor, who happens to be Darryl’s plumber. Jim and Pam got one decent joke tonight: Jim’s comparison of moving the sleeping baby without waking her to “The Hurt Locker”. Modern Family gets a lot of humor out of parenting, why can’t The Office?

The Office has a definite lived-in quality to it these days. It’s probably past it’s prime, and if continues long past Michael Scott’s departure it will descend into sitcom-senescence pretty quickly, but for now it’s perfectly enjoyable comfort food.

30 Rock- “Let’s Stay Together”

I’m really enjoying this season of 30 Rock, and I hope it continues to serve as a rebuke to television critics who assume that a few bad episodes are a death knell for a series. While I admittedly thought last season was a down year, the carping over the supposed awfulness of 30 Rock was supremely annoying. This is a comedy created by, written by and starring some very talented comedians. It might not always warm your heart but it will make you laugh if you let it. Sometimes, especially with comedy, whether or not you like something is at some level a decision on your part. If you decide that a show is “past its prime” or “on the downslide” or whatever terminology you want to use, it can easily become a decision which reinforces itself.
This habit of exaggerating a show’s demise would be less annoying if it were clear that quality was recognized and rewarded by the networks themselves. Unfortunately, this is far from the case. And when “(Bleep) My Dad Says”, which is so awful critics won’t even write about it, outdraws 30 Rock, the over-parsing of a truly funny show can become problematic and result in more shows like “(Bleep)”.
Anyway, what worked and what didn’t in “Let’s Stay Together”? I enjoyed Jack in professional-bull-shitter mode, especially his explanations, one to Liz about the dangers of vertical integration, and the other to Congress about how being against it would kill the American farmer. I liked Rob Reiner playing “himself” as a Congressman, especially his “rhubarb rhubarb” bit (it’s what extras in crowd scenes are supposed to say.) Having Reiner play himself made it sort of odd that Queen Latifah was playing a character, and her one-note joke was funny the first time, but less so during her visit to NBC. A lot of that NBC visit was problematic, especially the obvious set up with the different recycling bins for colored and white paper, although Tracy reading the stage directions from his prepared script was a good gag, if an old one.
I like that the jokes on Liz are becoming more about her as a boss than as a sad-sack single woman. The signs on her door were just the right kind of office hi-jinks. The show’s decision to have Liz in an off-screen stable relationship is paying huge dividends by refocusing the show’s humor. I love whenever the show lambastes NBC, and tonight was full of that kind of humor. The page-candidate’s parody of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” had a great capper with “Outsourced is the new Friends!” * And it’s about time someone in a public forum gave the peacock crap for cancelling Law and Order. Loved Tracy’s plaintive: “It was a tentpole!”
In case you didn’t recognize him, the black actor in Dot Com’s re-imagined sitcom was none other than John Amos, who played the father on Good Times (and Admiral Fitzwallace on The West Wing.) Made the capper that much funnier.
*A side note here on Outsourced, since it’s not worth its own post. Did anyone else notice that the new promos awkwardly edited out the quotes about the show being so great? Yeah, it turned out that those were actually quotes from NBC’s PR department, they couldn’t really find much in the press to use. Also, it really, really sucks that Outsourced is higher-rated than Community, because it’s just based on timeslot. If you switched the start-times you would almost certainly switch the ratings. Outsourced still loses a lot of the audience of The Office, NBC’s highest-rated comedy. If all this leads to Parks and Recreation coming back as a replacement for Community instead of Outsourced, you may not be hearing from me for awhile, until I earn computer privileges in the state prison I will be sent to.

Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem

Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City is a frenetic tale of eccentric oddballs set adrift in a cracked version of the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The title character, Chase Insteadman, a former teenage television star, deals with a forced separation from his astronaut fiancée by taking up with a self-denying culture-critic stoner named Perkus Tooth, a city official named Richard Abneg whose job is to handle rumors of a massive tiger lurking beneath the Second Avenue subway, and a ghostwriter named Oona Laszlo, who refuses to let Chase love her as much as he loves the astronaut.
Sorry for that lengthy sentence, but that really only scratches the surface of the oddities present in Chronic City. Take the weather (please), it starts snowing right around the time of the mayor’s Christmas party and is still going, although sporadically, into August. Other aspects of Lethem’s Manhattan are just slightly off, for instance, his mayor is a short Jewish media-mogul billionaire, but it’s not Bloomberg. His Lower Manhattan is enveloped by a “gray fog” but no explanation is given for its existence, though the Twin Towers are mentioned obliquely at one point. Oh, and Perkus Tooth is obsessed with a popular band of puppet-characters known as the Gnuppets.
It’s hard to decide whether this mixture of real names and slight changes is intended to artistically blend reality with unreality, or if the changes are merely the result of some highly litigious rights-holders. Nevertheless, Lethem’s kooky Manhattan is the book’s principal thrill, and the driving force keeping the reader going through some interminable meandering of the plot.
That plot really only kicks into gear when Perkus Tooth discovers a mystical item known as a chaldron. Perkus, Chase, and Richard (as well as Richard’s girlfriend, The Hawkman) are all astounded by the chaldron, which, even though they are merely viewing a picture of it on eBay, seems to hold them under a spell. They are still further astounded to see that the things are selling for thousands and thousands of dollars.
Outside of the quest for chaldrons, which turn out to have a not-so-mystical origin, the novel mainly concerns itself with the relationship between Chase and Oona. The two are forced to remain underground by the public outpouring of support for Chase’s fiancée. Janice Trumbull is the only American on the International Space Station, which has been stranded in orbit by a ring of Chinese space-mines. All of Manhattan is following her travails through her letters, published in the new war-free edition of the New York Times. Chase has become a sort of mascot for the city, a nice distraction from the rampages of the tiger and whatever other secrets the mayor’s office is keeping. Oona is comfortable with keeping the two of them out of the spotlight, but Chase is tired of keeping the flame for a woman he is finding it harder and harder to remember, and starts to push Oona out into the open.
Along the way we also meet a sculptor/architect who builds elaborate underground structures, an apartment complex built by the wealthy to house homeless dogs, and a sprawling epic novel named Obstinate Dust.
This is kitchen-sink writing. Lethem just keeps throwing more and more oddities into the mix, in the vain hope that they will pave over the glaring fact that his novel doesn’t have much of a story, with no satisfactory ending in sight. The ending he does choose is more implausible than any of the little details I’ve sprinkled throughout this review, and is ultimately the oddity that undoes the whole effect.