Saturday, September 29, 2007

Rescuers of Every Stripe

So now the tables are turned. You might remember the time Steed was laid up with an injured knee from falling down the stairs. Turned out there had been a trip wire place across the bottom step by a diabolical mastermind, to prevent him from joining me for weekend of bridge with Sir Cavalier Rusticana—- which turned out to be a ghastly setup by that joker, Prendergast.

I helped him by pouring his scotch, and Steed has returned the favor, duly coming by to fluff my pillows, pour some tea, and make sure my cell phone is charged.

A broken ankle is no joke. Leg injuries make it pretty hard to get around, so the world has shrunk to what I can see and do from the couch. I had tickets tonight for the opening of the Miller Theatre season-—oh, you full-ankled friends who are still going, have a great time.

The last two days have been a bit of a blur, as the adrenaline from the fall and break wore off, and duller reality set in. I watched the season premiere of CSI, where Grissom looks for Sara. Then today I fired up the microwave popcorn and watched Disturbia—-the teenage, modern update of Rear Window. It was enjoyable to watch the Scooby team take on the roles of Jeff and Lisa, and then take a turn into Nightmare on Elm Street.

What these two shows have in common is the rescue of someone in danger. Sara freed herself from being pinned under a car in the desert, only to wander under the merciless sun with no water, inching to a painful, certain death. Luckily, Grissom and team do not give up looking for her, and since Jorja Fox isn't leaving the series until midseason, Sara is found. Jeff/Kale’s mother is abducted by scary Perry Mason/David Morse, and Kale does not give up looking for her, as he goes through levels and levels of the Morse’s house of horrors, persistently calling “Mom, Mom.”

There is something cathartic to these standard “reached in the nick of time” endings; that’s why they dominate pop culture. I had my own unexpected rescue, after my equally unexpected smash/fall in the subway system. I’m happy to report that New Yorkers did stop to see if I was all right, and several asked me if they could do something. Someone said there was a police station in the subway and they could go get an officer. As I was trying to collect my wits and hang on to my pocketbook, I remembered that the sister of my longest, dearest friend is the police captain of that station.

When the officers came I kept babbling that I need to speak with Cherished Sister. They were certainly surprised I was asking for their commanding officer, and in such a familiar way. They were very vague, in a protective way, about whether she was there at all. After much effort I made it into the police station, where there was some serious police-business commotion going on, but I was barely taking it in.

As I was looking for my driver’s license for ID, I heard an incredulous “M.A.?” and there was Cherished Sister. And thus was I rescued from so many things-—fear, getting lost in the system, making bad, on-the-spot decisions. God, I love this city.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

L.B. Jefferies Live Blogs Mad Men Tonight

Last Thursday was the great Mad Men fake out, when AMC unnecessarily reran episode 5. So I'm still in the catbird seat over at newcritics tonight at 10:00 p.m. ET.

My intro essay last week (scroll down under the detective teams) referenced Leave Her to Heaven. I'm afraid tonight it is Rear Window--call me Jefferies. I fractured my ankle last night running, then tripping, flying and falling, enroute to the #1 train. I don't have a wheel chair, although that would make things easier.

My wrists are bruised, but not my fingers, and so far, not my sense of humor. See you tonight over at newcritics.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Bobby, Alex, Tommy, and Barbara

As a longtime fan of the Mystery! series and the Law & Order franchise, I must report I have detected a striking parallel between beloved police duos on both sides of the Atlantic: Barbara Havers of The Inspector Lynley Mysteries is the British Alex Eames, of Law & Order: Criminal Intent. Or another way to look at it, Kathryn Erbe is Sharon Small’s American cousin.

For those who don’t know, Havers is the Detective Sergeant Lewis to DI Thomas Lynley (I assume everyone can navigate from Morse). But more importantly, she has the delicate bone structure, flattish hair, sartorial taste, and strong, quiet delivery of our old friend Eames.

Each woman is the centering partner of the detecting duo (and each has evolved her look over seasons, from short to long hair).

As we know, Eames plays Watson to Goren’s quirky brilliance; with the Brit set, it is more a class balance. Lynley is the 8th Earl of Asherton, and Havers is pure working class. But they easily follow each other’s leaps in intuitive thinking, and that’s what drives the procedural.

Eames and Goren are not personally close, and aren’t drawn to each other romantically, fanfic notwithstanding. There is more personal intersection between Havers and Lynley-—he redecorates her mother’s house after she enters a home so that Barbara can sell it, and although he marries Helen, he keeps being drawn back to Havers in various ways.

We enjoy how Eames keeps pace with Goren, although I wish she were given more than little Orbach-like pun pronouncements. Still, she is a very satisfying foil to the idiosyncratic detective. She can reach him in a place where others can’t—and isn’t that what we love about partners? Police partners have the ultimate work marriage, and episodic television—with its reveal over time like RL and in-our-living-room intimacy—can be a stronger medium for presenting the interplay between two people than film.

Havers is a more rounded character than Eames. For instance, we see both she and Lynley, briefly, struggling to date. She has a reputation for being difficult to get along with, but the fact is she doesn’t want to get along with idiots. Her personal struggles are more visible than Eames, as she swaddles herself in large formless, colorless coats.

The Inspector Lynley Mysteries
are based on the novels of American Elizabeth George—the early seasons were adaptations, then scripts were written for the series straight out. The stories are covering all the English bases: country villages, boarding schools, Parliament, the aristocracy, cool British cars cars. Lynley has not been picked up for a new season, although there is a fan effort afoot to bring it back.

I would love to see a crossover episode where a case brings Eames and Goren to Britannia and into DI Lynley’s juridiction. I think the Erbe/Small scenes would be great television all around, fascinating in the doubleness of it all. The Lynley/Goren interplay could go in many creative directions.

We all know about the great L&O/Homicide crossover episodes, but don’t forget that Columbo got to go to London and meet up with Bernard Fox, Honor Blackman, and Richard Baseheart, so there is a television precedent. Maybe I can find an e-mail address for Dick Wolf somewhere.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Live Blogging Mad Men: Madness Directed

Last week’s Mad Men episode began with a sunny shot of Betty in striking sunglasses, and ended with the crazed Bonnie Parker in pink Fredericks of Hollywood out for the 1:00 p.m. kill-the-neighbor’s pigeons session. It felt to many that we had taken a turn into David Lynch territory, because these two scenes had an unreal/hyperreal feel to them with Lynch’s underlying disturbing creepiness.

For me those sunglasses were a visual quote back to the all-time creepiest use of sunglasses in film history, in Leave Her to Heaven (1945). As described in the allmovie guide, “Gene Tierney portrays a beautiful but unstable woman who marries successful novelist Cornel Wilde. “ Swap out novelist to ad man, and we have a match. Tierney becomes so obsessed with her husband that she cannot bear him spending time with anyone but her, including his crippled brother. She lures the boy into the lake to encourage him to swim to get stronger as she spots him from her rowboat. One day she takes him out further and further, then puts on sunglasses and rows away from him as he calls out that he’s getting tired and needs to get back in the boat. The camera focuses on Tierney, expressionless, sitting there in those sunglasses as the boy struggles, and struggles, and drowns.

"It’s deepest noir in the brightest Technicolor"—a description some would apply to suburbia. And it was directed by John M. Stahl, who directed the original Imitation of Life in 1934 with Claudette Colbert and the original Magnificent Obsession in 1935 with Irene Dunne. Thus Stahl begat Sirk who begat Haynes—-with all those permutations of Heaven titles between them.

Matthew Weiner certainly draws upon that body of film work, where the director with his cinematographer is responsible for the creative essence. But in the producer’s medium of television, it's Matt, as creator/producer, who has all the power to get his creative vision on screen. Episodes are parceled out to numerous directors, who work within the established sensibility of the show (and channel David Lynch when necessary).

Mad Men
has an enviable “A” list of directors: Alan Taylor (who just won for The Sopranos “Heidi and Kennedy” episode); Ed Bianchi and Tim Hunter (Homicide, Deadwood); Lesli Glatter (The Closer, West Wing) and the multitalented Paul Feig, who directed “Shoot.” It’s the reason the show is so compelling to watch—-you can virtually feel that talent in the direction.

Update: AMC faked us out and ran a repeat. That's not supposed to happen in a first run series like this.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

QQF: Fresh Mint

A nosegay of fresh mint in the fridge is a magical mood lightener. I cannot smell its deeply aromatic leaves without smiling, no matter what has befallen me throughout the day enroute to the evening’s escapade in the kitchen. I find the scent of mint wildly heady—-it is a burst of freshness and hope and LIVING, all within a simple waft of its greenness.

Mint is so beautifully flexible and unfussy to work with. A pair of scissors is all it takes to snip, snip, snip it into salads—-float it in ginger ale for a superb beverage experience—-use it in tacos instead of lettuce, as it positively sings to the accompanying margarita--add it to store-bought tabbouleh for extra snap—-make an elegant omelette with it--all in addition to the de rigueur Mojitos and herbal tea.

What remarkable leaves they are.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Emmys: Our Annual Fear and Loathing in the Living Room

It's not that the Emmy had any actual meaning before yesterday. But there are lines that get crossed, in terms of the world not making sense to me, that frighten me. And James Gandolfini not earning an Emmy for seven years of inspired, thrilling, serious achievement in the art of acting, frightens me.

Overreaction? No. Because it means that the judgment of a group of sentient adults, who supposedly have knowledge about the art of acting, particularly as it relates to television, is seriously impaired, and yet these people vote in national elections, drive on our highways, and raise children. The world is not a safer place with the likes of these Academy members.

That 30 Rock won Best Comedy and The Sopranos won Best Drama restored a little peace of mind to my worldview. And I thought the tribute to The Sopranos was an authentic moment. The images on the screens were well chosen, and the Jersey Boys's songs added a quick, ironic context to the clips. When the whole cast came out and stood in that huge circle in the round, you could sense the enormous, collective talent who now share a very special collective history. They took a bow, under that bold show logo, and it was a very classy piece of television.

Those bright spots notwithstanding, it is beyond embarrassing that the award show honoring excellence in television is such bad television. The show in the round didn’t work for presenters or accepters, the first 45 minutes were a complete jumble, with no coherence—a tribute to Tom Synder popped up out of nowhere—and there were two times what seemed to be a technical difficulty sent the camera off of the main stage, though it might have been the censor, who then must have gone home when Brad Garrett got onstage.

But beyond the sloppiness of this high school production, we had to witness a subsection of the culture wars.

The Family Guy cartoons started off with a song, a cute nod to the Oscars—-but one of the first lines was something about “trash” on tv, with a punchline of sorts that there’s such a broad range of trash. Why does TV have such low self-esteem? This quickly became a self-fulling prophesy by the most narcissistic, unfunny monologue from Ray Romano, well, until Brad Garrett got up. (How much power must Romano still have to be given that spot ?)

Jump cut to the fine actors from Roots, with Lou Gossett, Jr., saying, “I’m moved at what television can do to enrich our lives and educate, and I’m proud to be part of this medium.”

Television is a battlefield of sorts between the crassness of the Romanos and Garretts, and the actual contributions to the viewing lives of audiences from the Robert Duvalls, Helen Mirrens, Stewart/Colbert/Carrells of the world. The two collide each year on the Emmys (with the middle ground fighting to hold its own), and it isn't a pretty sight. I think Hugh Laurie as host would have helped.

Of course, you can always change the channel. But that's not the point. Television's own award show should be a true celebration of the extraordinary work we invite into our living rooms on a daily basis.

I'll be an optimist and say, maybe next year.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

TV Notes

Chuck and Triple Chuck.

The O.C. creator Josh Schwartz likes the name Chuck. He has an NBC pilot called Chuck, and a new series on the CW called The Gossip Girl that has a character named Chuck.

I’ll definitely watch the NBC one, hoping to maybe learn what the hell the "Anvil Chorus" is doing in the promo.

Not to be outdone, the go-to Mozart Requiem "Lacrymosa" is in the Cane promo. Is classical music making a surreptitious comeback on prime-time tv? Can a resurrection of The Bell Telephone Hour be far behind?

Update: its seems that Schwartz was just keying in to something in the zeitgeist--there is a Dane Cook/Jessica Alba flick coming out called Good Luck Chuck. This is a lot of attention on one name in a compressed amount of time. Hmm.


The Emmys are this Sunday. The Sopranos will be together for the very last time. It may be the only reason to tune in.

James Gandolfini had better walk off with that Best Actor statue. As Dennis Leary said at the recent nominee swag party, 'I just think he's the greatest character in the history of television.'' I agree. No other character has been so richly, deeply given life by any other actor, and sustained over time in numerous subtle and larger-than-life ways. What is the Emmy, if not to recognize truly extraordinary work.

Alan Sepinwall has his very funny "I watch the Emmys so you don't have to" line, but hopefully Sunday will be worth watching to see the fitting final closure to the life of Tony Soprano.

The snub to Deadwood, and to Ian McShane's Swearengen in particular (the only character who comes close to Tony Soprano), is one of those things that reinforces how miserable the award process really is. But in a post-lapsarian world, it's not surprising.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

And Now for Something Completely Denkkerent

I like to think that I have a good sense of humor, but it rarely manifests as a laugh. I'm trying to lighten up and not be encumbered with phrases like "manifests as a laugh."

But for now, it is rare for me to laugh aloud, particularly when reading something.

And yet, there is this classical pianist named Jeremy Denk, whose writing is so imaginative and strangely witty that I have found myself actually laughing aloud at his blog. It's quite amazing.

It was after being steeped in 9/11 memories and sadness that I read his take on our poor Miss Teen South Carolina, and like at the end of Sullivan's Travels, was reminded that comedy is a great gift to the world:

By now, we are all familiar with the recent performance of Miss Teen South Carolina. (I know what you’re already thinking: “why, Jeremy, why from the shelter of your Upper West Side comfort, hemmed in by prolific ATMs, would you feel the perverse need to pile any more scorn upon this poor girl? Just get a puppy if you need something to do!”)

I think it helps to divorce oneself from the visual component of this event, and focus on the pitiless words themselves:

Q: Recent Polls indicate a 5th of Americans can’t locate the US on a world map. Why do you think this is?

A: I personally believe that US Americans are unable to do so because some people out there in our nation don’t have maps and I believe that our education like such as in South Africa and the Iraq everywhere like such as and I believe that they should our education over here in the US should help the US or should help South Africa it should help the Iraq and the Asian countries so we will be able to build up our future for us.

… and they say poetry is dead! Grammar itself cowers in terror before this free-ranging masterpiece. [snip]

The proper vehicle for addressing this text is musical, not semantic or grammatical (though it refers to the semantic and grammatical in order to create its pseudo-musical paradigms). It begins innocently enough, with seeming Mozartean grace:

Antecedent phrase: I personally believe the US Americans are unable to do so…
(moving from tonic to dominant)

Consequent phrase: because some people out there in our nation don’t have maps.
(dominant back to tonic)

And on Jeremy goes, with such pearls of wisdom as "She has absorbed the lessons of Verlaine, but has transported them to Applebee’s."

His post on airline online checkin issues is equally entertaining.

Pop on over at your own risk. A doctorate in comparative lit and a degree in music will be useful, but isn't necessary. That airline stuff--it's like having Alan King back in his prime.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

For Moments of Silence

8:46 first plane hit North Tower

9:03 second plane hit South Tower

9:37 Pentagon hit

9:59 South Tower falls

10:03 Shanksville

10:29 North Tower Falls

God help all who struggled in that inferno and died, and all who are left to mourn. This was an unprovoked attack on civilians of monstrous proportions, and if we ever feel fatigue from respecting this day, our humanity will be sadly diminished.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

September 11, 2007

In July I was walking along the stunning waterfront of Lake Maggiore in Stresa, Italy, with some Californians, when a piece of sculpture caught my eye because it was an American flag running vertically. We went over to look at it, and the plaque said that it was a 9/11 memorial, dedicated to the victims of the terrorist attack from the townspeople of Stresa. When we looked again, we could see that the stripes were actually the twin towers. It was a simple, brilliant design. As we took pictures, I found myself weeping from the emotional generosity of what the piece stood for: that these Northern Italians had taken the time and money and energy to express their heartfelt commiseration with a city far from their own home because of the enormity of that obscene day.

The NY Times recently had an unnecessary article “reporting” 9/11 memorial fatigue. But I don’t think the heaviness surrounding this anniversary is about the day or the events. I think it’s the relentless disarray of our foreign policy, and the almost daily deaths of our young soldiers over a war we can’t define and therefore can’t win. That’s the fatigue. And some days, it feels overwhelming.

The deepest tribute to our neighbors’ violent deaths is in our aching hearts, as corny as that sounds, because it’s the only place we can comprehend the magnitude of loss, and all the death on foreign soil since then.

But there is a need for community and memory. In my own hometown, Massapequa Park, someone thought of a very appropriate combination of the two: the Boy Scouts put a small flag for every victim, by name, on the lawn of the Village Hall. The sea of stars and stripes is striking, but more than that, kids who were infants six years ago are learning what happened on 9/11 in a tangible way.

For adults, there are alternatives to the main ceremony at Ground Zero. One is It’s similar to a movement to add dimension to Martin Luther King Day. You could decide any day of the year to volunteer or donate blood or help someone, but if you haven’t actually done any of those things, let 9/11 kick you into gear.

Another is the September Concert Foundation. They are taking the very long view, that 100 years from now September 11 will be seen as a day of live music performance for peace. For New Yorkers there are some great concerts planned all over the city, especially in midtown. But it’s a global effort. See what’s happening by you.

On the Sunday following 9/11, the NY Times printed a flag on its back page. I put that flag on my door. I do wonder when I will take it down, but I’m sure it shouldn't be now.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Live Blogging Mad Men: When Don Met Sal and Dean

“. . . .and I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles.”

Yesterday was the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Kerouac’s On the Road---what fortuitous timing for those of us caught up in Don Draper’s mad world.

Several weeks ago we met Don in 1960, three years after he would have read Gilbert Millstein’s now-famous, glowing book review in the New York Times:

“The ‘Beat Generation’ was born disillusioned; it takes for granted the imminence of war, the barrenness of politics and the hostility of the rest of society. It is not even impressed by material well-being (as distinguished from materialism). It does not know what refuge it is seeking, but it is seeking.”

This is such a clearly articulated understanding of the new postWar consciousness. What would Don have thought of such a pronouncement when it stared him in the face in black and white?

Fans of Mad Men, among whom I don’t count myself, would say that the series is in fact the answer to that question—-and that at the root of the answer is fear. Don and his ilk are afraid that there is a new energy afoot that threatens their worldview, seen in the older ad guys' disgust that Kennedy doesn't wear a hat and Betty's "I HATE Kennedy" line. (They may also be afraid that they are missing out on something.) It’s a good thought—-I just don’t feel that the narrative is strong enough to play that idea out.

Tonight’s episode is “The Hobo’s Code.” Hobo is not a word of our time, but I just saw it in John Leland’s new appreciation called Why Kerouac Matters in reference to Neal Cassady: “Raised on Denver’s ski row, the son of a hobo, able to quote Schopenhauer and steal cars, Cassady was a fantasy they couldn’t act out themselves.”

So tonight the Beats are going to further rub up against Don’s life through his mistress Midge. Maybe Draper will get to shed the straightjacket of his perfect life to be with “the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live . . . .and burn, burn, burn.”

Isn’t it pretty to think so?

Pop over to newcritics tonight at 10:00 pm ET to join in the happening.