Citizen Watcher

Watching "The Wire" and reading "The Corner" (both David Simon productions): Part 1.

Okay, I think I'm ready to talk about watching The Wire.

The Wire, which is an HBO television drama that aired over five seasons, from 2002 to 2008, was created and largely written by David Simon. It is one of those shows you constantly hear about, often in the same breath as The Sopranos and The Simpsons and Breaking Bad as some of the best TV ever made (or at least those are the TV shows you hear about from all the male TV critics, of whom there are more than female TV critics). For that reason, and also because I have a severe British television addiction problem, I never got around to watching it. I knew I would get there eventually, but I wasn't in any hurry.

So what tripped the wire in the fall of 2019 and made me think, hey, it's time to watch The Wire? I don't know, really. Back in 2017 I read David Simon's nonfiction True Crime masterpiece Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, and that knocked me over. It's a classic. And it briefly went through my mind then to watch The Wire, or even Homicide: Life on the Street (which was the TV show based on Simon's Homicide book). But again. Never got that far. What can I say? Freelance jobs needed to be done and CRjrs needed to be fed, taken to various enriching activities, and hosed down once in a while.

But last fall my littlest CRjr. went to school, meaning that I now had marginally more time during the day to work, and had a whole free hour of time (time I would have spent working in previous years) between 9 p.m., when the eldest goes to bed, and 10 p.m., when I go to bed. So Mr. CR and I, crazy kids that we are, decided to fill that hour with episodes of The Wire.

I don't think we're ever going to be quite the same.

Here's the deal. The Wire is about Baltimore. To say it is a show about cops and drug dealers misses so, SO much. Cops and drug dealers may be the majority of the characters, particularly in the show's first season, but The Wire, at its heart, is about Baltimore. It is about everything that is going wrong in Baltimore and has been going wrong in Baltimore for decades. But it's not even that narrow. The Wire explores so many characters and storylines and themes and tenets of basic human behavior that it's actually a show about America. But it's even bigger than that. The Wire is a show about people. The end. Everything is on showcase here: people you like, people you don't like, people being shitheads, people being pragmatic, people being sweethearts, people being weak, people starting out trying to do something good but ending up being shitheads, people being shitheads who in small moments try to do something good, people being hilarious, people being obnoxious, people being racist, people not being racist, people being really really dumb and people being really really smart. In its insistence on strong and complex characterization, The Wire is a lot like the very best of British TV: you never quite know what's going to happen. But then when it does, it makes total sense. And then, the next day when you're out living your life, you see someone doing something great or mean or stupid or hilarious, and you can think of a corresponding scene from The Wire that reminds you of what you're out in the world looking at.

If you can't tell, I loved this show a lot. I loved this show with the whole fiber of my introverted being that loves and needs television just a little bit more than the average well-adjusted extroverted person.

And then I went to Half Price Books and was lucky enough to find a copy of The Corner, also by David Simon. Then I read that while I watched The Wire and dear readers, then my mind was well and truly blown.

More to come.


Getting rather tired of Difficult Men, actually.

After first starting it, I actually didn't think I would end up reading Brett Martin's Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution--From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad.

Difficult menBut I did. I'm helpless when it comes to books about television. I did read the whole thing, although I'll admit to skimming quite a bit as well. The basic idea is this: TV has been evolving to the point where we are seeing a wide variety of characters that are really not that likable. And this is a good, nuanced thing. Here's some of the jacket copy, to give you a better idea of what this book is all about:

"In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the landscape of television began an unprecedented transformation. While the networks continued to chase the lowest common denominator, a wave of new shows, first on premium cable channels like HBO and then basic cable networks like FX and AMC, dramatically stretched television's narrative inventiveness, emotional resonance, and artistic ambition.

A new breed of auteur--given the chance to make art in a famously maligned medium--took full advantage, sometimes proving to be nearly as conflicted, idiosyncratic, and 'difficult' as the complicated protagonists that came to define the genre."

Everything I read about television lately seems to suggest that we are currently in a great age for high-quality storytelling. (And after getting sucked in to re-runs of "MacGyver" on MeTV the last couple of weeks, okay, I can see their point that there was a lot of dross TV in the 80s and 90s. Although I still find Richard Dean Anderson super-cute, even with a mullet.)

So far so good. But I find that I am tiring just a bit of all the glowing reviews and study of television programs that almost exclusively feature (and are created by) "difficult men." Perhaps I am not being fair to these programs, as I am largely uninterested in them. Of the shows listed in the book's subtitle, I know I had NO interest in "The Sopranos" because Mr. CR watched that series long before we had kids and I certainly would have had time to watch with him. I really don't want to watch "Breaking Bad," although I have loved Bryan Cranston since he played the hilarious dad Hal on the sitcom "Malcolm in the Middle" (which was more my speed than a program about a teacher-becoming-a-meth-lord). "The Wire" sounds somewhat interesting but I think it's going to be as depressing as hell. I have seen most of "Mad Men" and it was okay, but I haven't seen the last two seasons and I can't say I'm in any hurry to correct that situation.

So I am not really the target audience for this book. I can't fault its writing; it's interesting and there's a lot of interview material and behind-the-scenes information about how these (and more) shows were created and filmed. It jumps around a bit and I don't really know what the author made his case that these "difficult men" are making TV shows about difficult men that are among the best ever made.

But at the end of the day I think I'm just kind of tired of everything that men touch and watch and create, particularly when such creations focus on such traditionally "male" worlds as crime, advertising, the mob, etc. (I'm also really tired of no one but men rating movies and doing TV writing.) And I really don't need to hear about such men complaining about their mid-life crises. Here's a quote from this book about Matthew Weiner, creator of "Mad Men," on how the show came about:

"As he told Terry Gross on National Public Radio's Fresh Air, he remembered the thought that led him to first hearing Don Draper's voice: 'I was 35 years old; I had a job on a network sitcom; it was rated number nine...there's 300 people in the country that have this job, and I was one. I had three children, and...this incredible life--you know, I was like, 'What is wrong with me? Why am I unhappy? Why is there so much going on in my head that I can't express to other people because it's all awful? And what is enough? And I'm going to die one day.' And I'm looking at it and saying, 'This is it?'" (p. 242.)

And I'm looking at THAT and saying, yeah, Matthew Weiner, why were you so unhappy? If that's the impulse that led to the creation of that show (and may be leading to the creation of a lot of similar shows), well, I guess I can see why I'm not too interested. Let me close by quoting a truly great movie, "Broadcast News." It's the exchange between William Hurt, the hot but stupid news anchor, and Albert Brooks, the smart but decidedly not-hot reporter:

Hurt: "What do you do when your real life exceeds your dreams?"

Brooks hisses: "Keep it to yourself."

I guess that's where I am right now. Are your real lives exceeding your dreams, boys? Keep it to yourselves.


Anglophile Trailer Bonanza!

Looking to kill some time at work today? Are you an Anglophile?

If your answer to both of those questions was yes, consider checking out trailers for a couple of forthcoming movies:

The new Bridget Jones film: Bridget Jones's Baby*

and

Whit Stillman's adaptation of Jane Austen's Lady Susan: Love & Friendship**

Enjoy!

*I loved the first Bridget Jones movie and regularly re-watch it every Christmas season. So I'm excited about this one, even though I will miss Hugh Grant as Daniel Cleaver.

**Oh, how I used to love Whit Stillman, director of Metropolitan and Barcelona. Not sure I would love those movies anymore. May have to re-watch them to find out.


I love this link so much I want to marry it.

Happy Valentine's Day, all, and for the day please do consider looking at this link from Flavorwire, explaining which couples from popular rom-coms would never, ever last past the end credits. I agree with most of these (and particularly enjoyed the sentiment "Among the many, many things to hate about Love, Actually..."):

10 Movie Couples Who Definitely Didn't Make It, Sorry

A couple of notes: do watch the Knocked Up clip, if only to see Paul Rudd being hilarious at the end of it. The only thing that saves me from absolutely loathing Judd Apatow and his too-long, not-funny-enough movies is the fact that he seems to recognize that Paul Rudd is an underappreciated comic genius and casts him a lot. And, I'll admit it: I still kind of hope Lloyd Dobler and Diane Court made it.


British Television: As Time Goes By

Before she was M in the latest reboot of the James Bond franchise, Judi Dench OWNED the role of Jean Pargetter on the long-running British TV series As Time Goes By.

Of course Dame Judi did many acting gigs before this show, both in theater and on television. But I'll always like her best for her role on this show. The premise was a bit meet-cute: Mature adults Jean and Lionel, who met and fell in love during the Korean War, were separated when Lionel went to Korea and a letter from Lionel to Jean went astray. Not hearing from Lionel, Jean assumed the affair was over, and went on to marry and have a daughter. When they meet again years later in London, Jean is a widow with a successful business of her own, and Lionel is a divorced man just returned from a coffee plantation he ran in Kenya (and who has just written a book on the subject).

This program ran for ten seasons, between 1992 and 2002. Episodes were half an hour, and were a nice mix of a bit of drama mixed with mostly comedy. I totally, totally enjoyed Judi Dench* and Geoffrey Palmer (wonderfully dry as Lionel), but I also enjoyed the supporting cast in this show. Lionel's publisher, Alistair Deacon, also has a long-running romantic subplot with Jean's daughter Judith. SPOILER ALERT: all the romances end satisfactorily, which I enjoy in my lighthearted romantic comedies.

The first few episodes are a bit ridiculous, with the younger set, Judith and Alistair, romantically pursuing the older set of Lionel and Jean, but once you get past that, the series settles into a very comforting slice of British life. I don't know where they filmed this one, and perhaps to British people the setting doesn't ring true, but to me the houses, sidewalks, and other locations look just like London should look.

I have seen this series so many times that I can practically say the dialogue along with any episode, which is very sad, I know. My local PBS station still airs it on Saturday nights (and have done for many years--which is where I watched it for the very first time) and if I happen to be flipping through stations at that time, I'll always leave it on, which makes Mr. CR cry, as he can't understand how I can possibly stand to BE WATCHING IT AGAIN.

He just doesn't get a good old-fashioned Anglophile BBC TV addiction. Give it a try. You'll get addicted too.

*I also think Judi Dench is the most gorgeous older woman ever. I love her short sassy hair.


Before I forget.

Have you seen this interview with Edward Snowden, by John Oliver? I embedded the video for the entire episode of "Last Week Tonight"; the interview proper starts around the 16-minute mark. Really. Watch it and come back and talk with me about privacy.

Also: can anyone recommend a good book on whistleblowers in general? Specific whistleblowers?


Jonathan Crombie

Yes, I know you're not supposed to feel about celebrity deaths like you've lost someone you actually know. But can we have a moment of silence for my childhood crush*, Gilbert Blythe?

Jonathan Crombie, star of 'Anne of Green Gables,' dies at 48

This just seems wrong, and I must admit has added to my generally cranky month. If I told you how many times I rewound my VCR tape of "Anne of Green Gables: The Sequel" (taped off of PBS, natch) to re-watch the romantic ending, you would be appalled. That may, in fact, also have been the beginning of my love affair with all things Canadian.

*Okay, my absolute first crush was John Cusack in The Journey of Natty Gann, but let's not split hairs.


Double blow for nonfiction.

So you've heard that Jon Stewart is leaving The Daily Show, and Stephen Colbert has already concluded his Colbert Report?

The entire time that Jon Stewart has been on The Daily Show, I have not had cable and have never actually seen him on TV.

And yet, I have seen many episodes of both The Daily Show and The Colbert Report.* And many of them have been very, very funny, as well as a better source of news stories than network news or any other online sources. So yes, I will miss Jon Stewart for myself. But I will also miss Jon Stewart for this reason:

Why book publishers will miss Jon Stewart

And the subtitle of that article is "Jon Stewart was known for bringing attention to lower-profile, more obscure books."

You can see why I love Jon Stewart, right? So yes, I think it will be a sad day for nonfiction when Stewart finishes his run--I've gotten a lot of books based on their authors' appearances on his show. So--what do you think? Where can nonfiction readers look for "lower-profile, more obscure" (and often very good) books, and great interviews with nonfiction authors?**

*My brother swears by Colbert and the Report, and I agree with him that Colbert is a genius. But for my lazy brain--I am almost always listening to these programs on my laptop, while doing other work--I find it easier just to enjoy Stewart.

**Well, for a while at least, you can make your way through the backlist by visiting these lists of books and authors featured on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report.


Holiday viewing.

Throughout the year, I find that re-read certain books according to season. It's somewhat odd to me, then, that I don't really have any holiday books that I revisit. I think it may be because during the Christmas holiday season, I have a few TV shows that I absolutely must see every year (or it just doesn't feel like the holidays). They are, in no particular order:

The Vicar of Dibley: The Christmas Lunch Incident.

A great BBC comedy series, featuring Dawn French as a vicar in a small English village. In this Christmas episode she finds herself invited to no fewer than three Christmas lunches. Features one of my favorite bits of all times, when the farmer explains to her how his cows don't talk, and how that's a shame, but perhaps not really, because all they could say to each other is "So, what are you doing?" "Oh, standing in a field. You?" "Oh, standing in a field."

Father Ted: A Christmassy Ted.

Oh, Father Ted. A wonderfully surreal BBC comedy series about three misfit priests (one a complete dolt, one an aging drunk who likes to scream "feck!" and "arse!," and one, Ted, who embezzled parish funds for gambling) exiled to a small Irish island. In this episode Father Ted wins a religious award for helping seven other priests find their way out of a department store's lingerie department. See? Surreal. You may just have to watch the whole series to appreciate this one, but it'll be so worth it.

Northern Exposure: Seoul Mates.

The Jewish doctor exiled in Alaska to pay back his med school tuition gets a Christmas tree, and the former astronaut who's the biggest businessman in town discovers he has more family than he thought he had. I just can't do this one any justice in a short description, but it's wonderful (much like the whole series was). And I still have a crush on Dr. Joel.

Honorable Mention: This year I discovered there's also a Christmas episode of the BBC classic program All Creatures Great and Small (based on the books by James Herriot). And yes, I realize this list is BBC-heavy; I think they just do Christmas better in Great Britain. But the most important show on my list is American:

The Peanuts Christmas special.

"That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown." --Linus

For a more comprehensive list, check out Stacy Horn's list of favorite Christmas episodes.

Happy holidays, my fellow readers. I hope 2014 is filled with all good things--books and otherwise--for all of you.

 


Books to movies, 2013.

Have you seen this list of movies based on books that are opening in 2013?* The entire list pretty much makes me snore,** although I adore Baz Luhrmann (director of Strictly Ballroom and Moulin Rouge) and wouldn't mind seeing his take on The Great Gatsby.

Anything on this list that piques your interest? I must admit I'm not the most highbrow of movie fans; I think the only movie I got to see in the theater last year was the James Bond pic Skyfall, and the only movie I'd really like to see this year is the new Star Trek (particularly because I want to see Benedict Cumberbatch as the villain).

*Thanks to the Reader's Advisor Online for the link.

**Except for the movie Admission, which bugs me. I liked the novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz and I am in love with Paul Rudd. But Tina Fey? TINA FEY? My beautiful Paul Rudd has to act attracted to Tina Fey? I guess we'll see if he's got real acting chops or not.


How am I supposed to kick my Daily Show habit this way?

The lovely author Jon Ronson of such (funky and completely enjoyably weird, or weirdly enjoyable, whatever) titles The Men Who Stare at Goats and The Psychopath Test: A Journey through the Madness Industry was on The Daily Show last week.* He's adorable, and love that accent:

I have decided I have to stop watching The Daily Show online, I just don't have the time to spend. But it's going to hurt, especially when Stewart hosts authors like Ronson. And also this Lewis Black segment, which is emphatically not suitable for work, but is HILARIOUS.

*I should add Ronson has a new book out, titled Lost at Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries. Can't wait to read it!

Update: Here's another interview with the lovely and talented Jon Ronson, at The Millions.


For your viewing pleasure.*

Author Chrystia Freeland** (of the new book Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else) and my one true love Matt Taibbi (described beautifully by Moyers as "perceptive and merciless," although I rather think Taibbi might have more mercy in his little finger than do the wealthy and political jerks he covers, in their entire bodies) were on Bill Moyers and Company this past weekend. Enjoy!

http://billmoyers.com/segment/matt-taibbi-and-chrystia-freeland-on-the-one-percents-power-and-privileges/

*And I do mean pleasure--my heroes and crushes Bill Moyers and Matt Taibbi in one place. Yummy. Fifty Shades of Grey, eat your heart out!

**I am not, however, sure I how feel about Ms. Freeland in this interview. She seems a bit too forgiving of the plutocrats for my tastes.


Summer entertainment: music and movie edition.

A couple of weekends ago Mr. CR, CRjr, and I went to visit Mr. CR's parents in a small city about 90 minutes away from where we live. Mr. CR's parents are lovely people, and the weekend went just fine, except for one thing: I actually experienced withdrawal symptoms from Mumford and Sons.

Whenever I worked online this summer, I spent most of my time* mainlining any Mumford and Sons videos I could find on YouTube. Have you heard this band? They're most famous for their songs The Cave and Little Lion Man but this is the song that gives me shivers:

There's a song called "I Will Wait" on the band's new CD, Babel, that I literally didn't know if I could live 48 hours without (there's no high-speed internet at the in-laws'). How sad is that? In other entertainment news, I read that the lead singer in the group, Marcus Mumford, recently married British actress Carey Mulligan (who I like because she often sports a short haircut--always a daring move for a woman, particularly so for an actress). So then I felt compelled to watch the movie An Education, which I'd always wanted to see anyway. So you can see how the summer started to get away from me!

*I also listened to this song by The Lumineers quite a bit.


I got sucked in anyway.

For the most part I managed to sidestep "Downton Abbey Fever," which has seemed widespread this past year.

I watched the first episode, and bits of subsequent episodes, but I could never really find the energy to dedicate subsequent Sunday nights to it.* (I prefer my Masterpiece Theatre viewing in one- and two-episode chunks, I find.) I also got a bit bored with it because its popularity has been a big and continuing story, and one that I linked to frequently whenever I blogged for the (aimed at librarians and readers' advisors) Reader's Advisor Online Blog.

DowntonBut of course I couldn't help myself when I saw that a companion guide, The World of Downton Abbey, had been written by Jessica Fellowes. It truly is a companion guide, hewing closely to the storylines of the program and referring to the characters as though they were real people. It does include beautiful photographs, and the chapters cover the topics of family life, society, change, life in service, style, house and estate, romance, war, and behind the scenes.

Although I'd hoped to find more historical information and context, the little there was was quite interesting. Consider this tidbit:

"While bells are now seen as a symbol of servitude, at the time the bell-boards came in, around the 1820s, they were hailed as an absolute liberation. Up until that point, the footmen had to sit on hard wooden chairs within earshot of the family--usually in the hall. They would get a message...find the maid, and then go back to their chair." (p. 20.)

Of course I read the whole thing. It was like candy; I just couldn't stop. It also gave me more of an urge to watch the series, but I'll have to find a whole lot more time to devote to it than I have now.

*Plus I found the main heroine, Mary, to be the most obnoxious leading lady ever, and her romantic interest, played by Dan Stevens, doesn't do anything for me character- or looks-wise. As Mr. CR would say, he's no Mr. Darcy. (The joke on Mr. CR is that Mr. Wentworth and Mr. Tilney both beat out Darcy as my favorite Austen men. Don't tell him--he thinks his "Oh Mr. Darcy..." shtick is very clever.)


Bill Moyers is back.

Last night I was flipping through channels and remembered, when I saw PBS, that Bill Moyers is back on TV with a program called Moyers and Company.

I called my mother to let her know he was on, and she was tickled that he was back, but annoyed that he was on at the same time as 60 Minutes and Dateline. Then she called back later to let me know she'd left Moyers on, and it was a super-interesting program. So there's a tagline the new Moyers program can use--"Moyers and Company: Sufficiently interesting to tear the old folks away from Dateline!"


Hot dog!

I'm a creature of routine.

So much so that one of my favorite things to do is watch my favorite movies or programs over and over and over AGAIN--so many times that I can basically recite all the words along.

Two of my favorite programs to re-watch are actually documentaries that are shown sometimes on PBS: A Hot Dog Program and Sandwiches You Will Like. Have you seen these shows? They're awesome. The filmmaker takes you to a bunch of hot dog and sandwich joints, talks to the owners and the customers, and throws in a lot of shots of great looking food. Just a couple of weeks ago, I sat down in front of the TV and thought, huh, I could really go for watching that sandwiches program. And then I turned the TV on and the hot dog program was running on PBS (or its extra digital channel, however that works). Close enough! Maybe this can be my super power: my sheer desire causing the TV to show whatever programs I feel like watching right then.

These shows are written and produced by Rick Sebak, who I really enjoy, so the other day I thought I'd be clever and see if my local library owned any other of his programs. They did: something titled Breakfast Special. I was excited to get it, but I must admit I was underwhelmed. As compared to his hot dog and sandwiches program, he profiled many fewer breakfast places, so the pace seemed much slower. And, although I love breakfast, this program just didn't make as hungry as his other shows do. Sigh. Back to hoping I still have the power to will the hot dog and sandwich programs onto PBS whenever I want to see them.