Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Keep Black Mirror to Yourself

The three unspoken rules of dinner party etiquette have always been Don’t Talk Politics, Don’t Mention Religion, and Don’t Laugh at the Vegans Eating Parsnips.  It’s time to add a fourth - Don’t Talk TV.  In this era of streaming and binge watching, everyone’s always asking, “What are you watching?” Responses can dictate future friendships or fallings out - your love of Two Broke Girls means you’d hate me for never missing a moment of Master Chef Toddler.  I also now know it’s never a good idea to discuss Black Mirror with dinner guests.  

If you’re familiar with this British TV import, you understand.  Created by Charlie Brooker, Black Mirror is mesmerizing, each episode a self-contained film, with accomplished actors, taut writing and riveting storylines.  The plots occur in the near future, the common thread a complicated view of technology set against the backdrop of human nature’s best and worst instincts.  The series is a modern-day version of The Twilight Zone, but instead of pig noses, broken eye glasses and aliens hoping to serve humans, Black Mirror shows us how technology has so permeated our lives that we’re only steps away from a rapid disintegration into losing our freedoms, our memories and our dignity because of what our technical advances have wrought.

What’s most chilling are the plots’ plausibility.  An implant that lets you record your entire life and rewind at your own peril; mechanical drone bees to help save the real ones from extinction; artificial intelligence so advanced you’d buy it a beer and a sandwich.  Watch this season’s premier, a world where social media rating means everything.  In “Nosedive,” the main character, Bryce Dallas Howard, tries improving her social standing to experience the finer things in life until things go awry.   Every interaction earns her a rating - friends, co-workers and strangers swipe away on their phones after exchanging greetings in the coffee shop, the elevator or the airline ticket counter.  Fast forward to real life in China, 2016.  The Chinese government recently announced plans to assign ratings to its citizens that will impact their ability to apply for loans and jobs and to gain access to higher-end hotels and faster government service.  The plan, already in place in a few cities, uses credit histories, tax records and criminal records and will expand nationwide in 2020, incorporating social media and online shopping patterns into what is known as a “social credit system.”  In a few years, Howard’s nosedive may seem quaint by comparison in downtown Shenzhen.

Or consider the “The Waldo Moment”  - the scariest forty three minutes of television I’ve seen in a long time.  Waldo’s a snarky cartoon bear, a regular guest on a late night TV talk show, voiced by a young man who’s desperately trying to find happiness and companionship in his life.  Things change quickly for Waldo as he becomes a national political phenomenon.  Viewing this episode is like watching the recent campaign with Trump playing the role of Waldo, substituting his papery orange skin for Waldo’s blue cartoon flesh.  Waldo’s disdain for the normal order of things, his impatience, his desire to foment fisticuffs and his ability to give a voice to those who’ve been unheard for too long are very familiar.  Waldo is our future – and our present.

And then there’s Black Mirror’s first-ever episode, “The National Anthem.”  This taught me the Don’t Talk TV rule while enjoying a lovely meal with friends.  After fun chats about holiday plans and gardening tips, I felt the sudden urge to ask the question, “So what are you guys watching?”  I listened and then began to recount the story of my experience with Black Mirror.  I explained how I’d never heard of the show until my boss mentioned it to me months ago.  “I won’t even describe it – just see the first episode and you’ll know what I’m talking about,” he said to me.  So I watched and was so enthralled I begged my wife to catch it with me.  

We’re always exhausting shows we can watch together – Big LoveSix Feet UnderLast Man on Earth – the list we’ve enjoyed together is small.  For every Real Housewives of Mordor for her, there’s a Better Call Saul I can’t miss, and rarely do we agree on the same show.  When she let me make her breakfast on Mother’s Day and watch “The National Anthem,” together, I was giddy, forgetting, apparently, what the next sixty minutes held for her viewing pleasure. 

We sat on the couch as “The National Anthem” began.  A few moments into it, between mouthfuls of eggs and sips of coffee, I spied my wife engrossed, and I figured I’d nailed it – good food, better TV and quality time together.  But as the plot revealed itself, she recoiled in horror.  “You watched this already?  Are you sick?  Your boss told you to watch this?  What kind of freak is he?  My God, this is terrible!”  She watched for another twenty minutes, and as her coffee went cold, so did her interest in my Black Mirrorexperiment.  As she stood to leave, she said, “You’re sick.  Who would make a show like this?  Nice Mother’s Day,” leaving her unfinished breakfast on the table.

When she and I recounted the story of the Mother’s Day Miscue to the table of dinner guests, there were initial chuckles, but when I described episode’s plot, in some detail, one guest, a local physician, dropped his jaw down below his knees.  Another stood up, thanked the host and walked out, breaking into a slight jog as she reached the door, appalled I lacked the good sense to resist telling my story.  The words of William Shatner came to mind as she sped away – “It’s just a TV show!”  But I swallowed my words with my final bites of dessert.  Lesson learned.  

As for the actual plot of “The National Anthem,” it involves the British Prime Minister, a kidnapped member of the royal family and themes of immoral newscasters, swelled political egos and an obsession with public humiliation.  And a rather large pig.  Come to think of it, we were eating pork tenderloin at the dinner party – maybe that’s what did it.  Either way, I encourage you to watch Black Mirror and judge on your own.  Just keep it to yourself.

(Black Mirror is available on Netflix in all its twisted, prescient glory.)

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Give Thanks for Great TV

It’s Thanksgiving, a day to pause, breathe deeply and reflect on the good things in your life.  The usual stuff makes my list – comfortable shoes, dental insurance, lite mayonnaise.  But this year, I find myself thinking about the visual cornucopia of glorious TV at my fingertips.  I’m thankful for that more than anything.  The amount of high-quality television programming a remote control or touch screen away is stupefying, in a good way – like that third long sip of fortified wine.  At some point you just give in and let the images and sounds dance around your head as you lie on the couch, staring at the screen in the basement, hoping there’s more Mad Dog in the screw-top bottle and extra batteries for the remote.
As you look to celebrate all you’re thankful for, I suggest thanking television.  TV won’t talk politics over giblet stew, TV doesn’t judge one’s decision to wear Crocs, and TV would never make snide comments about one’s thinning hair, expanding waistline and a semi-rational fear of monkeys and dolphins (just wait until they start communicating – no one will be safe).
To help cultivate your own appreciation of how good television programming can change your life – and a few programs to actively avoid like a creepy neighbor with turnip stains on his Jets sweatshirt – here’s a short list of some of the best – and worst -  that makes me thankful I have TV.

Atlanta – I’m thankful for this 10-episode new series on the FXX network.  The show follows two cousins trying to get ahead in Atlanta. Earn and Paper Boi live their lives at what one might call a “casual” pace, and their decisions may be rooted in what Red Staters may describe as “clouded” judgement.  This makes for 30-minute episodes that careen from angst and emotion to guffaws and snickers.  These guys are funny – even when participating in the less savory aspects of life in and around Atlanta.  Keep an eye out for the 10-year old pizza boy and look for Darius, one of the best characters to arrive in a long time. (On demand on FXNow app and SlingTV)

Stan Against Evil – Something is very wrong in Willard’s Mill, New Hampshire.  John C. McGinley plays a crank former sheriff dealing with a nasty curse that ends up in dead law enforcement officers and lots and lots of blood.  This 8-episode series premiered a few weeks ago on IFC and is worth every second.  Where else can you hear the line, “I’m supposed to kill my wife because Hitler told me to do it on TV?”?  From demonic pigs to satanic priests to lazy coworkers and Bobby Orr’s hockey stick, “Stan Against Evil” is so much better than any creamed pearl onions served at your sister’s. (On demand on IFC)

Westworld – Cowboys?  Check.  Corporate greed?  Check.   Suppressed memories and violent fantasies?  Check and Check.  Robots – oh hell yes!  This new HBO series builds upon the 1973 Michael Chrichton film starring Yul Brenner where wealthy customers come to a western theme park populated with life-like robots who provide all means of escape.  But instead of riding the tea cups and eating churros, the park’s patrons murder, defile, steal, maim and terrorize the programmable inhabitants.  Watching the androids, one by one, remember their past encounters will send chills down your stuffing-laden bellies. (Sunday nights at 9 PM on HBO and online at HBO Go)

But just as too much turkey, candied yams and Uncle Coot’s prison yarns will surely dampen your Thanksgiving spirit, so too will a few TV shows that are nothing to give thanks for.  Avoid indigestion, put down the gravy boat and skip these:

Kevin Can Wait – In the distant future, the monkey-dolphin-human hybrid inhabitants of planet earth will uncover troves of Kevin James films and TV programs, and in their high-pitched squealing and repetitive clicks, they’ll wonder what type of god this Kevin James was.  Top-rated TV shows, hit films, photos with Adam Sandler – they’ll be convinced Kevin James was the greatest TV and film star of our sad, laugh track-inebriated culture.  Do not contribute to this charade.  Avoid CBS Mondays at 8:30 PM. I beg you.  Our survival as the dominant species may depend on it.

Pro Football – Pro football is boring.  Neutral Zone Infraction.  Holding.  Twelve Men on the Field.  More Holding.  Offsides.  Personal Foul.  Extra Holding.  Punt after punt after punt.  When you can record a three-hour football game and distill the entirety of excitement into seven minutes, you know that’s bad TV.  Of the three games on today, I’ll bet you a fistful of Jell-O mold that none warrants more than an, “Oh, he should have fielded that kick” level of excitement.  But then again, Tom Brady isn’t playing today so he’s exempt from this entire conversation.  Tom Brady is better than the whole bunch of those losers.  Tom Brady just gets it.

Local TV News Promos – “Have vultures taken control of a local school?”  “Are your house plants trying to kill you?”  “Do monkeys plan on ruling the world?”  Watching the local news is an exercise in panic, suspense and dashed imaginations.  The deep, gravelly voice suggests the world itself may indeed be ending, but as the 7 News Night Team begins its broadcast, you learn that no, local carrion-starved birds haven’t seized control of PS 218 and that Ficus plants make a terrible pork loin garnish.  As for monkeys’ plan for world domination, that’s no joking matter.  In fact, burn this newspaper after reading, just in case.

Enjoy Thanksgiving and be grateful we have so many entertainment options to choose from.  It’s important to give thanks for the nice things we have – who knows when or our monkey-dolphin overlords make us read books instead.  Can you imagine?

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Fab Four Fantastic

It’s been 50 years and one month since The Beatles played their last concert in public – a blustery night in Candlestick Park on the western shore of San Francisco Bay.  After five plus years of constant touring, the four musicians were hurried away from 50,000 screaming fans in the back of a van, their bodies heaving to and fro as the steel truck sped across the grass and through outfield gates towards the exit.  It was at that point, according to Paul McCartney, the four bandmates realized playing for crowds wasn’t worth it – the steady grind from city to city, the terrible sound systems and the constant din of teenagers shouting louder than the music they played convinced them to cease touring for good.  The world’s greatest band - the group that was and remains a cultural phenomenon like no other – called it quits, opting instead to pursue loftier goals inside the recording studio.

Ron Howard’s new documentary, The Beatles: Eight Days a Week, was released this month, both in theaters and online via Hulu.  The film focuses on the Fab Four’s touring years, beginning in their days in Liverpool clubs, through Hamburg, across England and Europe and as they arrived in New York City in February, 1964 to throngs of fans at the newly named Kennedy Airport.  Using still photos, news clips, handheld movies and newly found footage discovered by fans after Howard’s public plea for anything Beatles-related, Eight Days a Week captures the frenzied crowds, the crying girls, the bewildered police and the staccato voices of old fashioned radio reporters saying things like, “This Beatlemania has swept the nation,” and, “Why do your fans scream so much?”  To which the four Beatles replied, “We don’t know!” as they laughed and mugged for the cameras.

Much of the sound from those concerts was remastered for the film, and listening to performances of “She Loves You” from 1963 in London and “You Can’t Do That” from a show in Melbourne, Australia in 1964 are fascinating.  Ringo Starr, his suit coat still buttoned, slams away at a drum kit that looks like you’d find it near a dumpster after a yard sale in Penacook, and you can see the sweat running down John’s, Paul’s and George’s make-up caked faces as they wail away on “I Saw Her Standing There.”  I learned The Beatles’ refusal to play at a segregated concert at the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Florida had a lot to do with forcing large southern stadiums to rethink their segregationist approach, and hearing Whoopi Goldberg describe her surprise trip to see the band at Shea Stadium as a young girl obsessed with The Beatles is touching.

Howard does a skillful job of sharing something new about The Beatles, not an easy task for the most documented, filmed and dissected group in modern musical history.  I consider myself a true Beatles fan –perhaps not a Fab Four musicologist, but I know all the music, all the words and details about George’s love life that teeter on unnecessary.  My friend Sean and I would listen to hour after hour of the White Album, Revolver, Live at the Hollywood Bowl, Beatles for Sale and all the others from grade school up through high school and college.  I still listen to them at least once a day, and every song I hear – from “I Feel Fine” to “I’ve Got a Feeling” to “Tomorrow Never Knows” still makes me grin.  Watching this film showed me scenes I’d not caught before and outtakes of songs I’d never heard.  Watch when George holds a transistor radio to his ear in the Plaza Hotel or learn about how John felt about his career and the band’s trajectory while making the film Help – all of it compelling to any Beatles fan or fans of popular music and culture.

The four Beatles as well as their producer George Martin, their manager Brian Epstein and their road managers and roadies help paint a picture of the sheer speed at which the band went from a local favorite to a worldwide force in a handful of years.  Howard keeps the lens on touring and performances, showing their growing disenchanted with life on the road and how, only three months removed from their last concert in San Francisco, they started working on what many consider the greatest album of all time – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, a concept Paul created as a way to distance himself and the others from the idea of The Beatles as a thing bigger than themselves.

At one point in the film, a reporter interviews Paul, asking, “So what kind of impact do you think you’ll leave on Western culture?”  Paul stops, thinks for a second and responds, “It’s not culture – it’s a good laugh.”  I’d suggest it’s a lot of both – popular culture in its highest form and more than a good laugh – more like a smile ear to ear as we get to listen to what they left behind forever.


The Beatles: Eight Days a Week is available on Hulu and is showing for a limited time at Red River Theatre in lovely downtown Concord.  The film is rated PG but should be shown to toddlers and infants so that they might develop an appreciation for the best music ever written, despite Ringo’s incessant cheekiness.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Do not go gentle into that Fall TV season . . .

As summer dissipates into fall, our televisions will soon fill up with crime scene romance, wise-cracking nerds, vapid hunks in need of a hug and Season 54 of The Voice.  We’ll be saturated with football from Thursday to Monday, suffer through another Kevin James laugh-track hideosity and witness so many election ads that we’ll beg for bleach and rat poison smoothies to end the misery.  But do not go gentle into that dark fall TV season – there is still time to enjoy what the summer has to offer.  Skip the sunshine and embrace two new shows that are sure to help your summer end on a high note.
Stranger Things is an eight-episode masterpiece of ‘80’s outfits and haircuts, a thoroughly entertaining series about a missing boy, a little girl with special powers, alternate dimensions and Winona Ryder in various states of panic, agony and terror.  Matthew Modine, he of such ‘80s classics as Vision Quest, Full Metal Jacket and Married to the Mob, plays a government scientist trying to keep his secrets intact before a group of meddling kids ruins everything.
Created, written and directed by the Duffer Brothers, watching Stranger Things is like slipping back into your parents’ basement in 1987 and getting that bag of new Cool Ranch Doritos scared right out of you.  From the theme music and opening graphics to the spot-on banter between the Dungeons and Dragons-playing kids to the ominous phone calls (from inside the house!), Stranger Things mixes a little Stephen King horror with ET-like wonder, then adds a dollop of afterschool special where the cool kids always ruin everything.  The end result is memorable television.
Winona Ryder is riveting as a distraught mom searching for her missing son, and the little girl at the heart of the story, Eleven, played by Millie Bobby Brown, evokes so much emotion by saying very little that you can’t help root for her escape.  By the time the last episode ended, I wanted another season to start immediately.  So as you reach for the remote to tune into that first episode of CSI Schenectady, pause and redirect yourself towards Netflix.  Stranger Things is there, waiting for you.
While Stranger Things should be watched with the whole family, the latest HBO hit series – Vice Principals – should not be viewed with spouses, partners, children, dogs, lizards, parrots, cats, siblings or other familial relations.  It should be watched alone with a cold beer in the dark with the door closed.  It’s that good.  Rarely has a show used vulgarities in such a creative, rapid-fire manner – listening to the two vice principals jaw at each other is like grabbing a front row seat at the Gutter Poetry Slam Olympics – never have adjectives been delivered with such debased grace.
Vice Principals follows two scheming colleagues at a high school in South Carolina, both devastated by losing out on the principal’s job, who team up to destroy their new boss.  Danny McBride, from HBO’s Eastbound and Down, created Vice Principals and plays Neil Gamby – divorced, lonely, angry and clinging to his role as school disciplinarian in the face of his crumbling life.  His counterpart, played by Walton Goggins, is Lee Russell, equally as awful and tortured as his co-worker Gamby.  From a nefarious friend in the TV series Justified to his turn as a plantation owner’s henchman in the Tarantino film, Django Unchained to this role, Goggins is remarkable.  He inhabits his character so completely- from his gait to his smarmy smile to the way the vitriol rolls off his tongue - Goggins makes us love Lee Russell.  Watch him handle a noisy neighbor or make a very special cup of coffee or try sabotaging the big game.   Goggins’ performance alone is worth watching Vice Principals again and again.  Never has such a terrible person been so fun to watch.
While the rest of your neighborhood says goodbye to summer with barbeques, lawn dart tournaments and yard work, you should instead hole up at home and watch Stranger Things and Vice Principals from start to finish.  You’ll feel better about the change of seasons and will learn a few new noun-adjective combinations in the process.


Stranger Things is available via streaming through Netflix.  Rated TV-14 for scenes of mild terror, telekinetic temper tantrums, lying to parents and government overreach.  Vice Principals is available on HBO and is rated TV-MA and should be viewed in a solitary manner so as to avoid embarrassment in front of church-going folk and your more decent relatives.

Do not go gentle into that dark fall TV season . . .

As summer dissipates into fall, our televisions will soon fill up with crime scene romance, wise-cracking nerds, vapid hunks in need of a hug and Season 54 of The Voice.  We’ll be saturated with football from Thursday to Monday, suffer through another Kevin James laugh-track hideosity and witness so many election ads that we’ll beg for bleach and rat poison smoothies to end the misery.  But do not go gentle into that dark fall TV season – there is still time to enjoy what the summer has to offer.  Skip the sunshine and embrace two new shows that are sure to help your summer end on a high note.
Stranger Things is an eight-episode masterpiece of ‘80’s outfits and haircuts, a thoroughly entertaining series about a missing boy, a little girl with special powers, alternate dimensions and Winona Ryder in various states of panic, agony and terror.  Matthew Modine, he of such ‘80s classics as Vision Quest, Full Metal Jacket and Married to the Mob, plays a government scientist trying to keep his secrets intact before a group of meddling kids ruins everything.
Created, written and directed by the Duffer Brothers, watching Stranger Things is like slipping back into your parents’ basement in 1987 and getting that bag of new Cool Ranch Doritos scared right out of you.  From the theme music and opening graphics to the spot-on banter between the Dungeons and Dragons-playing kids to the ominous phone calls (from inside the house!), Stranger Things mixes a little Stephen King horror with ET-like wonder, then adds a dollop of afterschool special where the cool kids always ruin everything.  The end result is memorable television.
Winona Ryder is riveting as a distraught mom searching for her missing son, and the little girl at the heart of the story, Eleven, played by Millie Bobby Brown, evokes so much emotion by saying very little that you can’t help root for her escape.  By the time the last episode ended, I wanted another season to start immediately.  So as you reach for the remote to tune into that first episode of CSI Schenectady, pause and redirect yourself towards Netflix.  Stranger Things is there, waiting for you.
While Stranger Things should be watched with the whole family, the latest HBO hit series – Vice Principals – should not be viewed with spouses, partners, children, dogs, lizards, parrots, cats, siblings or other familial relations.  It should be watched alone with a cold beer in the dark with the door closed.  It’s that good.  Rarely has a show used vulgarities in such a creative, rapid-fire manner – listening to the two vice principals jaw at each other is like grabbing a front row seat at the Gutter Poetry Slam Olympics – never have adjectives been delivered with such debased grace.
Vice Principals follows two scheming colleagues at a high school in South Carolina, both devastated by losing out on the principal’s job, who team up to destroy their new boss.  Danny McBride, from HBO’s Eastbound and Down, created Vice Principals and plays Neil Gamby – divorced, lonely, angry and clinging to his role as school disciplinarian in the face of his crumbling life.  His counterpart, played by Walton Goggins, is Lee Russell, equally as awful and tortured as his co-worker Gamby.  From a nefarious friend in the TV series Justified to his turn as a plantation owner’s henchman in the Tarantino film, Django Unchained to this role, Goggins is remarkable.  He inhabits his character so completely- from his gait to his smarmy smile to the way the vitriol rolls off his tongue - Goggins makes us love Lee Russell.  Watch him handle a noisy neighbor or make a very special cup of coffee or try sabotaging the big game.   Goggins’ performance alone is worth watching Vice Principals again and again.  Never has such a terrible person been so fun to watch.
While the rest of your neighborhood says goodbye to summer with barbeques, lawn dart tournaments and yard work, you should instead hole up at home and watch Stranger Things and Vice Principals from start to finish.  You’ll feel better about the change of seasons and will learn a few new noun-adjective combinations in the process.


Stranger Things is available via streaming through Netflix.  Rated TV-14 for scenes of mild terror, telekinetic temper tantrums, lying to parents and government overreach.  Vice Principals is available on HBO and is rated TV-MA and should be viewed in a solitary manner so as to avoid embarrassment in front of church-going folk and your more decent relatives.