Two Good Movies (Four, Actually)

July 26, 2015

I saw two really good movies recently, but they’re both genre pictures and they might have slipped under your radar. Correct that if you care to: they’re both out on DVD.

th-1EX MACHINA is the latest and best in a mini-trend of thoughtful science fiction movies. (Even Tom Cruise’s recent EDGE OF TOMORROW has a tiny little brain under its light GROUNDHOG DAY veneer.) This one is about the essential Philip K. Dick concept, which has fascinated scientists for a century, readers for more than sixty years, and film honchos for maybe 35. It can be expressed in six short words: how do you know for sure?

You don’t have to be a techie to recognize the famous Turing Test. If a mechanical device can fool a human being into believing that it is human, does that not constitute intelligence? Alan Turing imagined a subject typing impromptu questions to a person and a computer and receiving their typed answers from the next room. If the interrogator can’t positively identify the human by session’s end, the contraption thus “passes” the Turing test. Should you find that laughably simple, consider the case of ELIZA, a program written at MIT in the mid-Sixties as (one would hope) a parody of Rogerian psychoanalysis. ELIZA simulates a responsive therapy session: “I’m troubled by bad dreams.” “Why do you think you have bad dreams?” “Because my father hates me.” “Who else in your family hates you?” The illusion of intelligence, which is actually only the ability to parse a few words, fooled many users, even after its amazed and delighted creator, Dr. Joseph Weizenbaum, patiently explained how ELIZA really worked. This blind tendency to map human emotions onto machines is today referred to as “the ELIZA effect.”

In EX MACHINA, we revisit the Turing test many, many, many iterations outward. In that proverbial Near Future, the young lad Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins a contest staged by his employer’s brilliant, rich, eccentric founder, who became a modern Croesus by creating the greatest search engine in the history of the world. This Sergei-Musky figure, Nathan, is played by the mesmerizing Oscar Isaac, who is quickly becoming one of my favorite film actors. You can’t take your eyes off him, as you couldn’t in INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS or A MOST VIOLENT YEAR, in which he will remind you of the young Michael Corleone a dozen times. (Isaac will get to have more colorful fun in Disney’s forthcoming STAR WARS and X-MEN flicks.) Nathan soon reveals that the grand prize wasn’t just to spend a week at his magnificent, sheltered, high-tech research facility and bachelor pad as advertised, but much more: to be the subject in the most awesome Turing test in history, d00d. Nathan has created the next best thing to a human being (he chose the form of the gorgeous Alicia Vikander, a dancer by training whose movements marry mechanics and grace in a pleasant new way), and it will be up to Caleb to get to know her and evaluate Nathan’s achievement. Then, the first time the two are outside the compound’s ubiquitous zone of security cameras, “Ava” whispers: “Don’t trust him. Don’t believe anything he says.”

Wow. We’ve already been led by the nose several times here by writer-director Alex Garland, and we’re not even at the halfway point. Caleb has our empathy as the dewy innocent youngster. Nathan has already proven himself more asshole than could possibly be imagined, and he keeps pouring it on. Ava is far from a blank slate. And there are reversals and revelations galore still to come, which I won’t dwell upon. This is the man who wrote 28 DAYS LATER…, SUNSHINE, the English NEVER LET ME GO, and DREDD, so he knows from screenplays. Knock yourselves out watching the behind-the-scenes stuff that makes Vikander appear to be mostly mechanical. What makes EX MACHINA work hearkens back to the Turing test. It’s all about the effect of technological achievement on human beings.

thIT FOLLOWS is both the title and a comprehensive two-word synopsis of a clever new horror movie that’s been getting a great critical reception since its release earlier this year. (THE BABADOOK is another recent modestly-budgeted terror triumph that I heartily recommend.) The premise of IT FOLLOWS is simple and diabolical: there is such a thing as a sexually transmitted demon. When you have sex with an afflicted person, the demon begins pursuing you instead. Object: brutal murder. It can inhabit the body of anyone, even somebody you know. There’s only one of it, but it can switch hosts at will. It doesn’t move fast, only plods with a rhythmic gait — but it will keep on following you, however long it takes, until it kills you. You can get rid of it by having sex with someone else, thus transmitting the curse, but if that person dies, the demon will work its way back down the carnal trail and come after you again. One more hitch: nobody else can see or hear it. Only you. (And the audience, of course.) It’s the paranoid’s worst nightmare: something actually is out to get you, and there’s no way to prove it to anyone else. INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS time.

When I was a kid, I loved the classic Universal monster movies; I still do, after adjusting a bit for subsequent sophistication. To me, the most disturbing monster wasn’t Frankenstein’s experiment, or Dracula, or the Wolfman, or Mr. Hyde, or the Creature from the Black Lagoon. The one that really got under my skin was the Mummy. Because the Mummy was relentless. Classmates used to sneer: anybody can outrun the Mummy, man. True enough, but if ever you desecrated its tomb, even if you then flew in a plane to the U.S., it would walk across the ocean floor if it had to, step by step, and one day it would catch up with you. IT FOLLOWS brings the same creepy unease without traveling to Egypt.

The Babadook comes from a book book book.

The Babadook comes from a book book book.

No, we’re in suburban Detroit, a bombed-out shell of a city that’s virtually deserted; this is that kind of “chamber piece” that exists in its own little claustrophobic world. The teenagers at the heart of the story encounter very few adults, and most of them are incarnations of the demon. There’s a quick gruesome shot early on to help establish how high the stakes are, but in general IT FOLLOWS depends on sustained dread, not graphic gore or cheap jack-in-the-box “gotcha!” moments. It’s a cousin to THE BABADOOK in this regard, and the polar opposite of such fare as the CHUCKY or FINAL DESTINATION franchises.

Writer-director David Robert Mitchell and cinematographer Mike Gioulakis get the most out of their digital gear, making a normal day look menacing (most of the setups in this horror movie are exteriors). They repeat a little motif I love, a slow left-to-right pan to set the scene. It’s innocent at first, but as they repeat the move once we’ve gotten used to the demon’s slow, determined rhythm, they’ll show it coming from way off in the background during the pan without visual comment. By now we can make it out a mile away, but where a lesser talent would probably stop the move and push in, we just go, holy moley, girl, look behind you! A similar shot was one of the best moments in THE DESCENT (my fourth recommendation, a little bloodier though), as we pan past the trapped spelunking girls and get our first look at one of the cave-dwelling creepy-crawlies behind them. Did we just see what I think we saw? You don’t need a loud noise and a musical sting to jolt the viewer, or a big visual effects budget to make an impact. All you need is some old-fashioned creativity. The low-budget, high-powered IT FOLLOWS is crammed full of it.

That pan in THE DESCENT that wants to pass by what's in the background, while you're screaming,

That pan in THE DESCENT that wants to pass by what’s in the background, while you’re screaming, “Did I just go crazy?”

P.S.: If you’re interested in ELIZA, she’s actually available as an app. I doubt Dr. Weizenbaum is involved.


Statehouse To White House

July 21, 2015

thWhen Barack Obama was elected President in 2008, it was the first time a sitting Senator had ascended to the White House since JFK in 1960. Some Senators have won their party’s nomination since then, most recently Bob Dole, John Kerry and John McCain. But every successful candidate in that 48-year span has come either from the executive branch (LBJ, Nixon, the elder Bush) or, much more likely, from a state governor’s office.

Is it easier to run for President as a governor or ex-governor? Damn right it is. Look at the Republican field. As of today, July 21, as Gov. John Kasich throws his hat into the ring, governors or former governors represent fully half the sixteen announced candidates: Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Rick Perry, Mike Huckabee, George Pataki, Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, and Kasich. There are five current or former Senators running (Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Lindsey Graham, Rand Paul, and Rick Santorum), and three “other”: Carly Florina, Ben Carson, and Donald Trump. Both mathematically and politically, the odds are one of those governors will be the Pubs’ nominee.

Why would that be? Why would a “stranger” to Washington have a better shot than somebody who works there and has also won statewide elections, again and again? It is said that there are one hundred people in the United States Senate who look in the mirror each morning and behold a potential President. But for the past fifty years, they’ve had the devil of a time making the move. How come? After all, it’s much easier for a Senator to get national attention, even when shrieking into a camera like Cruz or Graham, and most of what a governor does is only a state and local matter unless the National Guard or FEMA are somehow involved. But that natural advantage comes burdened with its own Achilles heel: Senators have to express an official judgment in public by voting, up or down, on divisive national issues. They leave a track record.

In contrast, a governor can say, “The President’s an executive, not a lawmaker, and I have experience in by-god governing. Plus, I performed economic wizardry in my state against all odds, blah blah.” And it will take deep digging at the local level to judge the actual effect of gubernatorial policies. With newsrooms emptying across the country, that’s less likely to happen. For example, it’s true that Rick Perry managed to poach an astounding number of jobs from other states when he was Texas’s chief executive. But what do those jobs pay, and what did Texas have to promise in tax abatements to get them? What has been the net effect of the “Texas miracle”? That’s very hard to answer precisely, and Texas is the second largest state in the country. Imagine having to put together an investigative reporting team in, say, Idaho.

The governors can spout any stray stat they want, and nobody’s the wiser. Nor have they ever been forced to go on the record about Iran or Putin, or any other issue outside their state borders. They have “experience” without the baggage, and unless their personalities are oversized or freakish, they’re relatively anonymous. Bet you couldn’t pick John Kasich out of a lineup, even though he’s a nine-term Congressman and the sitting governor of Ohio. (They say he gets mad easily. We’ll find out.)

That relative anonymity is a boon today, because in the last twenty years Americans have lost a great deal of respect for Congress, particularly the Senate, which was once the world’s greatest deliberative body but is now the place where good bills go to die. We’ve had similar hyperpartisan periods in the Senate before (see Robert Caro’s third LBJ book, MASTER OF THE SENATE, for a definitive history in less than 100 pages), and we’re in the middle of another plodding, depressing age now. It is not as salutary to be a Senator today as it was earlier in my lifetime. The disgust with “Washington” is so pervasive that the age-old “I’m not tied up with those bums” campaign boast really means something. Jimmy Carter was scorned and vilified by the Washington establishment the moment he arrived because he was a rube from out of town (later, Nancy Reagan’s glamour was to the chattering class a breath of fresh air). Nowadays voters are begging for a rube to come and shake things up. Advantage: governors. (And real rubes whose authority derives from sainted Bidness, like Carly, Ben, and Trump.)

One reason there are so many governors in the Pub field is that there are so many Pub governors. They represent 31 of the fifty states, and many have majorities or supermajorities (meaning they can do whatever they want) in their state legislatures. Pubs have been creaming Democrats at the state and local level for twenty years. They’re better organized and more attuned to “cash-register” issues that resonate at home, where nobody cares whether Greece exits the euro. Just fix the potholes and let me gate my community. Despite the clownish outliers (you have to act a little nuts to win a Pub primary because only the zealots are voting, and sometimes a tinfoil hat or two can sneak through), their “bench” is far deeper. Pubs have paid better attention to Tip O’Neill’s famous dictum, “All politics is local.” And they have masterfully marshaled innate populist hatred for the President into huge midterm victories that further improve their edge.

What they can’t seem to do is snatch the big one. In the last six Presidential elections, spanning 24 years, the Pub candidate has won the popular vote exactly once: George W. Bush’s second term, when the country was still traumatized over 9/11 and his running mate was basically saying, elect the other guy and we’re gonna get hit hard. In other words, vote for me or die. Demographers tell us that inevitable trends will favor Democrats in forthcoming national elections as old white men — the “pale, male and stale” — gradually surrender their hegemony against their will, thus the frenzied Pub effort to suppress voting all over the country. But if Democrats are counting on grass-roots support for their future, they’re going to have to make a grass-roots effort to earn it. Howard Dean’s “50-state strategy” should be a permanent fixture of their party. Because it sure is on the other side.

th


My Name Is Tom Dupree, Dammit!

July 13, 2015

thUsing the wrong computer language can actually lose you customers. Anybody who read the recent Bloomberg Businessweek issue (not just the cover, the entire ISSUE) on coding will have some inkling, but here we go.

My name is Tom Dupree. (Thank you, no, please take your seats.) It’s not Dupre, or DuPree, or Du Pree or Depree or Duprieux or anything else. It’s Dupree. Like “Dupree’s Diamond Blues.” Like “Cousin Dupree.” Like YOU, ME AND DUPREE (why does that movie title sound familiar?). Those simple nine letters, the perfect number for a theater marquee — my god, it could be a stage name! — placed in exacting order are how you spell my given name, and there is no other goddam way. Not one other single solitary bob jack cat tail way. French, wherefrom my surname springs forth, can sometimes be a confusing, um, milieu, but look here: I’ve just handed you the answer to the test! Go spell my name to a child. Or a computer science professor. Bet you can do it perfectly now. Thanks, and you’re welcome.

Now. I have this rule. I will never respond positively to any direct-mail solicitation that cannot reproduce those precise nine letters using one space break and first caps only. If you misspell my name, I’m no friend of yours and I instantly grow tired of whatever you’re selling. I mean it: I’ve ignored some worthwhile stuff over this, and I will continue until they lower me down. I’m tough but fair: I’ll accept “Thomas,” even all caps, but you gotta nail the last part or you are dead. To. Me.

But get this: one time, long ago, I complained to some financial institution with which I no longer deal (over this same flippin reason; I’m serious) who kept sending everything to Thomas DuPree. They said the computer language used by their database couldn’t bring the rogue capital P down. (I suspect the language to be COBOL, which is all over the banking industry, but I invite comments by people more savvy than I. Anybody know?) In other words, I would have to be Thomas DuPree forever, because this particular language defaults to the misspelling. It must be a popular one, too: I had the last laugh with my now ex-financial institution, but I still get solicitations from well-meaning charities that not only continue the mistake, but sometimes send me a stack of peel-off return address stickers employing the hated fargin error! (The most recent set came today, from the nice but inaccurate folks at Thirteen…) I’m tempted to gather them up and send them back in the postage-paid envelope, but I stop and think, not to a nonprofit: only to the Republican Party. (Save and recycle your postage-paid envelopes from Reince Priebus, chillun. That’s what I do.)

Even longer ago, a newspaper reporter out West decided it would be fun to do a feature on those nutty guys and gals who write “cover copy” for paperbacks. He called me up, along with a few of my counterparts at other New York publishing houses, and he wrote an entertaining story. One prob. This guy’s name was — I think I remember this right — Scott LaFee. So in Scott’s otherwise lovely piece, I became Tom DuPree. The first thing I thought was, GRRRRRR! The second thing was, Scott: don’t you ask your interview subjects how their names are spelled, as doofus high-school reporters are taught to do as the very first question?

I’ve bawled, I’ve complained. Sometimes the Roman letters can be fixed by the secret coders in the beast’s belly. But the Great Database Producers (otherwise known as GDP) of America can now be divided into two parts: those who get it right and those who can’t or won’t. So I repeat for “executive summary” skimmers: spell my name incorrectly, and you could be offering a backstage meet-and-greet VIP package to the frickin Second Coming, but I’m still going to throw your illiterate form letter the motherlovin frick away.


The Dynamic Duo In Gotham City

July 10, 2015

thAs Penn & Teller began their limited New York engagement last Tuesday night (it runs through August 16th at the Marquis Theatre in Times Square), it seemed like a valedictory performance, at least to those of us old enough to remember the mid-Eighties off-Broadway run at the Westside Arts that made them national stars. They are now the official longest-running headliners in the history of Las Vegas, which tells you how long it’s been since they’ve played Broadway. But New York still holds a special place in their hearts; you can tell.

th-1When they introduced themselves to the nation from the home base of that Westside engagement, they’d already been honing their act for a decade. They quickly became the hippest ticket in town (the eccentricity was a big draw; their Obie was inscribed “To Penn & Teller for Whatever It’s Called That They Do”) and favored guests on New York’s own Letterman show, which reached just their kind of crowd, all across the country. Back then, before the Internet took over everything, the technologically savvy P&T hosted MOFO, a computer bulletin board that allowed their fans to chat with the boys and each other. (It was named for “MOFO, the Psychic Gorilla,” the star of one of their few bits in which the normally silent Teller spoke, though surreptitiously.) Penn used to lead midnight jaunts through a grimier Times Square and descend with his small posse on an unsuspecting grindhouse for some kung fu or B-movie horror. They’ve always nurtured a personal attachment in their fans, greeting them outside the theater after each show. (Shake Penn’s hand or tell him you loved it, and he’ll probably say, “Thanks, boss.” See, everybody who pays to see him is his…)

th-1I had a strong feeling that this might be my last chance to see Penn & Teller on stage. Not that I sense anything ominous regarding their partnership or their appeal. It’s just that Vegas is so rippin far away. For years to come, I’m sure I can always buy a plane ticket and book a hotel room and schlep myself across the country to the Penn & Teller Theater at the Rio. But now, in a rare luxury, they were coming to me: all I had to do was hop a bus and take a short stroll. So I decided to make the most of P&T’s brief NYC residence by also attending their “TimesTalk” at the beautiful New York Times Center the Thursday before they began performing at the Marquis.

At the TimesTalk.

At the TimesTalk.

Before a fraction of the capacity of their Broadway venue, the boys chatted with moderator Erik Piepenburg, did a few tricks, and answered questions from the audience. You’ve heard Penn talk for years now, but Teller in particular is quite well-spoken and astute; he’s spent so much stage and air time in silence — which he views as a more intimate form of communication — that you occasionally find yourself disoriented as the “quiet guy” spews out deftly-considered sentences. They’re both wry and funny (Teller: the difference between the old street-busking days and Broadway is, “Here, you pass the hat first.”), yet dead serious about matters that demand it, including the performance of magic. I’ve probably watched Teller in Houdini’s “East Indian Needles” illusion ten times now, including at this TimesTalk and later at the Broadway show, and even though the method is widely known if you care to dig, it’s still exhilarating to see it nailed perfectly by a master; it’s exactly like watching a beloved song done live by the very singer you wanted to hear. They also presented their legendary take on “Cups & Balls,” an ancient sleight-of-hand routine, using transparent cups. At the end came one I hadn’t seen before: they convinced a blindfolded volunteer that solid rings were passing through her arms using an intricate, delicate series of moves requiring both performers. We, the audience, were watching the method, which was fooling only the blinded subject, and we were still amazed at the clever artistry that spun the illusion. Which was the whole point, after all. For us, it was a great intimate session with two wonderful raconteurs. For them, it was the dinner break from rehearsal.

th-2Five nights later, I was settling in for their first preview at the Marquis. As in Vegas, the Penn & Teller pre-show consists of a jaunty, merry jazz pianist (Mike Jones, “Jonesy,” who’s been with them forever) accompanied by a big guy in a fedora thumping away on an upright bass. They’ve been playing since the house opened. The bassist is Penn, he’s actually a pretty good one-man rhythm section, and he’ll keep picking that tub until about curtain minus :10. On stage, as is also common in their Vegas show, are some props that the arriving audience members are invited to come up and inspect and/or sign.

PENN & TELLER ON BROADWAY had been described by the stars in the TimesTalk as a summation of their career: not “our greatest hits,” but a meaningful selection. For example, “Needles” was the first trick Penn ever saw Teller perform. Historic. It’s in. The boys took command of the theater even before they were announced. Projected onto a big video screen, Penn instructed us to turn our cell phones ON. One lucky audience member was going to be selected for the first trick, and that person would be able to record it from an angle that would reveal the method. Once the mind-blowing bit was over, we all realized: the video inside that guy’s cell phone is the ONLY way you could figure out how that phone possibly got from one place to a jaw-dropping other place. A minicam figured into another hilarious piece as well. Never let it be said that Penn & Teller are old-fashioned.

No. Let it be frickin said. When they first appeared off-Broadway thirty years ago, Teller writes in the program notes, their producers advised them to avoid describing themselves as “magicians.” It, um, conjured the wrong image. So they remained coy about what they did (note the Obie citation). Only while exiting did their audiences realize they’d been persuaded to attend a magic show. Now, on their triumphant return, they’re embracing their inner magicians. Penn promises the audience that they will see nothing less than: (1) a rabbit pulled from a hat! (2) a lady sawed into halves! and (3) the vanishing of an elephant! “What more could you possibly want from a Broadway magic show?” he bellows. But in between, they take humorous but no less effective shots at hated enemies like “mentalists,” unthinking religious fervor (they don’t even like thinking religious fervor), and, science be praised, the imperious rat bastards of the T.S.A.

thMaybe I’m imagining it, but I think I noticed a nod to the duo’s advancing physical age. Don’t get me wrong, they both look great. Penn has lost more than 100 pounds after being diagnosed with high blood pressure and adopting a healthier lifestyle. Teller is as quick and agile as ever, but he’s a couple years older than I, and I have a Medicare card, d00d. What we didn’t see was one of those towering Grand Guignol bits that used to put Teller in jeopardy, whether suspended above spring-loaded bear traps or a row of pointed spikes, “drowned” in a water-escape cell, or madly pulling himself through tubes to appear as impossibly separated body parts. These are all illusions, sure, but they require physical effort too. I suspect that at some point the partners may have decided to pull back a scoche on the stuff that makes you pant. There’s a grisly moment played for laughs — their specialty — and Penn does “risk injury” in a piece with a nail gun, but that aspect of P&T has been refined. They still perform the amazing “Bullet Catch” in Vegas, but that’s as suspenseful as they get nowadays.

th-2No, my two favorite parts of this show were quieter ones. I think Teller has performed the piece they call “Shadows” every time I’ve seen them live, and each time it strikes me with a melancholy I can’t explain. (Same beloved-song analogy as above.) By the end of the illusion I want to cry. I almost did this time, because for me the trick’s innate sadness was stuffed together with, this may be the last time I ever see this. Sniffle. Then the lights went out and Penn began talking softly about carnival acts, the “ten-in-ones,” the freak shows. Then some fire lit him just a tad, and his monologue led us up slowly to a demonstration of fire eating. What he was saying seemed to come from deep inside. He never raised his voice. He said that after thirty years of coming out and greeting the audience after every show, they couldn’t help but eavesdrop on some remarkable comments. “Aw, Teller used candy needles.” (As if anybody would manufacture them.) “It was cold fire.” (WTF?) Everything else we’ve done tonight has been a trick, said Penn. This — meaning the small torch he was about to put into his mouth — is a stunt. They went through a routine that I once saw with a female assistant; tonight, the part was taken by Teller. Finally, in that same calm, earnest tone, Penn uttered the words that have opened and closed every live show I’ve ever seen: “I’m Penn Jillette, this is my partner Teller, we are Penn & Teller.” Now came a tear: the monologue and fire-eating was also how they’d ended their Westside Arts show, all those fun-filled years ago.

And just like that, poof! it was done.

th


Fabula Interruptus And Other Problems

July 5, 2015
This adorable little moppet has a secret friend named Drill.

This adorable little moppet has a secret friend named Drill.

When I read that ABC was planning to turn Ray Bradbury’s short story “Zero Hour” into a tv series, I rolled my eyes, as I’m sure would most others familiar with the piece. It had been one of those pin-pricking yarns that really got to me as a kid, probably because of the parent issues involved. I was creeped out by “The Veldt” and Ray’s mushroom-growing boy in the same way. That ol’ Bradbury could really get under your skin, as in “Fever Dream,” another super-squirmish tale. The disquieting thing they all share is that the parents aren’t really, really listening, and it is they who putatively control reality for their kids. As a youngster in THE WHISPERS, the resulting series, tells her mother, grownups don’t know what’s really happening. They only think they do.

But wow, a whole tv series? This story can’t be more than 5,000 words long. Look it up and go read it right now. “Zero Hour.” It’ll take you fifteen minutes, tops. Then we’ll continue. If you have to order a Bradbury story collection to read “Zero Hour,” then I’ll see you after it arrives, at which point I will accept your gratitude for steering you to a really good book. You’re welcome.

Now. After watching as many episodes as tv critics usually get in advance to evaluate a new series (three or four), I have to concede that I’m rather pleased with how the WHISPERS writers have been able to “open up” the story. Having just read it (or watched or heard it; the previous two links guide you to tv and radio adaptations for printophobes), you already know, sort of, who or what the children’s invisible friend “Drill” is, and that is still the undercurrent that informs the entire shebang. But non-Bradburian plot points are opening up like flower petals as the little teeny story inspires a big multipart saga. And THE WHISPERS is hardly alone. We’re living in a Golden Age of scripted television. Not some fabled long ago. Right this dadburn second. But this age has brought with it some huge problems.

The LOST cast asks,

The LOST cast asks, “WTF?”

Everybody thought scripted tv had gone to hell after SURVIVOR ushered in a new wave of “reality” shows (they have their own writers, but let’s set that aside for now) as the century turned, and for a depressing little while it really looked that way. But creativity, like water, will always try to find a way into your home, and in my opinion the important hinge for scripted tv was fall 2004, when this same ABC premiered both LOST and DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES. It’s true that THE SOPRANOS had started carving its path through the jungle as early as 1999. But subscription cable like HBO has a built-in ceiling. Even today, the recent record-breaking Season Five finale of GAME OF THRONES could only attract 8 million and change, meaning non-thief viewers coming from the subscriber pool. Those earlier two ABC series, in contrast, were beamed out on a Big Four broadcast network, and they flipped out the folks en masse.

(N.B.: Every time the Writers Guild calls a strike, it puts more writers out of work in the long run. “Reality” began as a palsied defensive salvo from the networks, but damn if it didn’t catch on!)

Soap operas and their prime-time cousins (e.g., DALLAS) aside, most dramas in the history of television had been episodic, meaning you could watch them in any order and they’d still make sense. LOST and DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES broke that mold on network tv. They were each one long serial tale, a series of weekly cliffhangers that not only required ordered viewing, but also felt compelled to feed the audience enough backstory at the top each week to create a new catchphrase: “Previously on LOST.” Now damn near everybody else works that way too.

The good news: a come-hither format that, when artfully executed, can deliver a sprawling story that resembles an epic novel but also makes you pant for next week’s continuation (this format took hold long before the instant gratification of streaming and bingeing became possible; see below). The bad news: these days it’s almost impossible to earn anything from domestic syndication, even with the jumbled-up episodic sitcoms that are perfect time-fillers and once celebrated their 100th episodes (they’d made enough of them to deal to local stations) more than their original green-lights: now we’re gonna get rich!

Even without the syndication market, LOST and HOUSEWIVES were such monster hits, bolstering ABC’s other shows on their air nights, that the law of diminishing returns was invoked and we began to see dozens of crappy imitators. Their fates helped change viewing patterns and, I submit, the very willingness of audiences to try out new programs.

THE EVENT cast asks,

THE EVENT cast asks, “WTF?”

An important personal touchstone was THE EVENT, a series that NBC launched in fall 2010, after LOST had just finally ended its six-year tale. Like LOST, THE EVENT was a vaguely foreboding story whose secrets and surprises began just out of camera range and were filled in gradually. The production looked like a million bucks, the cast were all seasoned pros, NBC promoted it as hard as humanly possible, and I started watching the 22-episode first season, having found a new hour per week with the finale of my beloved LOST. Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough colleagues in dens and media rooms across the country, and NBC cancelled the program after a single season — even though the drumrolled “event” of the title had not yet taken place!

I felt cheated, foolish, taken advantage of. NBC had utterly wasted my time, pulled a rug out from under me. (Of course ratings are ratings and tv is a business, I get it, but I was still one disappointed customer.) However, THE EVENT did teach me a lesson. Now I’m wary enough to really pick and choose with healthy skepticism among the time-sinks competing for my attention. And I’m not alone. Nor is THE EVENT. While I was writing this piece, NBC pulled the plug on AMERICAN ODYSSEY, whatever that is, after one lone season. If you were interested in its story, better get disinterested right away.

This LOST/EVENT template, a weekly serial which may or may not actually reach its payoff, is being replicated all over the dial. Ten or twenty scripted mega-stories launch every year now. The latest innovation is the “summer series,” like UNDER THE DOME or THE STRAIN, which brings the tv calendar full circle and makes “the new season” year-round. But also spiking is the threat of cancellation.

An entire little town asks,

An entire little town asks, “WTF?”

This attrition-in-disgust resentment is not news to those who fashion our programs, the suits and showrunners. So some clever people decided to cut losses and introduce something new: the non-serial series. AMERICAN HORROR STORY proved so creepy and visceral that its producers said, renew us and we’ll reboot for another unrelated ten-episode story; all we’ll promise is the same sensibility. FARGO made the identical move: we’re going to set our ten episodes within the world of the Coen brothers’ movie, then we’ll reset and try another story within the same milieu. (That’s how you can get, say, Billy Bob Thornton to star: the gig has an end date.) I read that WAYWARD PINES was always planned as ten episodes with a beginning and an end, but it’s been doing pretty well, so we’ll see if Fox can resist the temptation to plod on serially.

A single member of the WAYWARD PINES cast asks,

A single member of the WAYWARD PINES cast asks, “WTF?”

THE WHISPERS, the Bradbury-inspired series, begins with the story’s unsettling premise — single-digit children in an idyllic Bradburian suburban setting begin playing “a game” with their friend, whom older siblings and adults cannot perceive — and then opens into a dark conspiracy involving defense secrets, an unexplainable something found on the other side of the world, an amnesiac who seems to be oddly connected to it all, and two troubled marriages that help keep the proceedings at human level. Like Stephen King’s best novels, like LOST itself, THE WHISPERS is most effective when the audience is still digging through the initial mysteries. As the writers inevitably begin to explain themselves, the piece visibly loses power, like many second halves of King novels. That’s also happening with Fox’s isolated-town tale WAYWARD PINES, whose “reveal” (if indeed true; I haven’t read the source books so can’t be sure) is so preposterous that it induces a bit of recoil in the viewer. Its isolated-town cousin, UNDER THE DOME, which just began its third season on CBS, is suffering from the same problem: the story is getting away from itself through weirder and weirder complications (LOST devotees may empathize). I have read DOME’s source novel — by our pal Stephen King — and if the book’s ultimate reveal is preserved for tv, there are going to be some angry viewers, because it just doesn’t support the ever more elaborate buildup.

Everybody in THE WHISPERS except the adorable children ask,

Everybody in THE WHISPERS except the adorable children ask, “WTF?”

The fly in the ointment, of course, is streaming. HOUSE OF CARDS fans on Netflix are watching a serialized story too, but they can consume a whole season’s worth over a weekend, because the entire batch is released at once. Network tv uses a different business model, so they’re obliged to beg you to take a chance. In opposition, Netflix is teaching viewers that they can put off weekly gratification in favor of having the whole enchilada. (Back in the heyday of DVD, many people would buy whole seasons on disk and tear through them all at once. Binge-watching is nothing new.) If the networks worked that way, they’d have to “drop” a season for streaming and wait for the reaction before green-lighting the next one. Meanwhile more and more viewers will still call their bluff and fail to commit until they’re sure there will be a satisfying major-chord ending. The relationship between creator and consumer may be turning into a Leone/Tarantino Mexican standoff.

And that’s gonna make a great open-ended series.

7/27/15: WAYWARD PINES ended with a startling turnabout (evidently departing from the source books) that will encourage some to want a theoretical second season. They did explode the initial premise, but they are not leaving it alone.


A Senior Moment

June 27, 2015

walkerI’m a senior. A senior!

I’ve reached that age where you can’t pussyfoot around it any more. My good friend Jack Dann, who has me beat by a year or two, recently called putz on me because I could have been taking senior discounts at certain movie-theater chains for years now. I left the money on the table (luckily for me, I don’t care to witness most of the full-fare crap while it’s still projected on the screen) because I was a little shy at first. Didn’t want to blurt it out. But now that I’ve hit that magic number, somehow these days it just rolls off the tongue.

Senior, cashier at the Perot science museum in Dallas! Senior, IMAX box official! Long ago, I tried to act older in order to buy a sixpack; this morning at CVS, the pharmacist asked me for my birthdate and I wanted to kiss her for that six-bottle pack. I’m a for-real senior citizen. Dude, I have a Medicare card. What torques me now is that the young things running such cash registers don’t even bother to look up before giving me my crusty-assed discount. You can only pretend you’re 18 on the way up, homes. As Charlie Brown used to moan, AAAAUGH! (A true Senior is a guy who doesn’t wish he was 18 again; he wants a little more sophistication.)

Seniority is no longer an honorific. It’s now a demographic, because the term is everywhere. Years ago I was a Senior Editor, which is what they called me when I started editing books for Bantam in order to to make authors and agents feel like I knew more than I actually did. THE DAILY SHOW makes fun of the same syndrome by giving each and every correspondent a “Senior” designation: “Senior Black Correspondent,” etc. Anything “senior” in an academic environment gets a berth wide enough to drive trux thru.

THE DAILY SHOW's Senior Black Correspondent.

THE DAILY SHOW’s Senior Black Correspondent.

I could have been a senior Senator 35 years ago. All you have to do is be at least thirty, win a statewide election, and wait for the lovable old hilarious coot who is your colleague to drop dead or get primaried by zealots in hisser party (as Mississippi’s Thad Cochran almost did last year). You may still be a whippersnapper, but you have now become a senior Senator. What could be easier? Elizabeth Warren — my age plus a few months — is the senior Senator from Massachusetts, but she’s only been on the job for 2 1/2 years!

Jimmy Kimmel is the senior (if that means longest-serving) late-night tv host, and he’s only 47. That fifty-year-old fossil Stephen Colbert will become the senior (if that means eldest) talk-show host when he assumes his post in September. This is not about white hair any more, dammit, although I’ve got a head full of it (meaning I don’t have to shave myself bald to compensate). Donald Trump is a senior, and look at that thing on his head! I prefer sticking with Mother Nature’s all-natural good hair genes.

thThe old kind of senior is the kind depicted in the movie GOING IN STYLE, a Marty Brest beauty from 1979, the year I couldn’t trust myself any more pace Abbie Hoffman. The new kind of senior is the guy in the Dos Equis ads. I still want you kids to keep offa my lawn, but now I bellow it with much more authority, because Ich bin ein geezer!

dos_equis.png


Dave

May 18, 2015

thYou probably have to be a certain age to really appreciate the effect David Letterman has had on late-night comedy — no, on comedy period. And you have to be lots younger, intense and distractable now, to understand without much pondering why it is that he has to go.

You gotta know the rules to break ‘em, they say, and the rules were set by the former king of late-night, Letterman’s idol, Johnny Carson. A shy, guarded man off camera, Carson was most comfortable in two places: standing on his star-marker to deliver the nightly TONIGHT SHOW monologue, and behind the protective barrier of his desk, from which he would inquire and admire. The list of guests who sat on the couch to Johnny’s right for his thirty years on the air is matched only by those of Dave’s thirty-three. At first glance, the format remains: monologue, band, desk, guest. But the difference between the two men is what was in the background, behind them, out in the country at large.

Carson’s thirty-year reign began in 1962, when New York was still the center of the television industry; he didn’t move to California until ten years later. He came from that era of show business in which the audience still gave a damn about whatever Buddy Hackett and George Burns had for lunch at the Friars Club, and guys, women take so doggone long to get ready, am I right? Because there was so little “candid” repartee on the air, Johnny Carson’s brand of chitchat was trailblazing. He managed to maintain his stance as a wide-eyed Nebraska boy (the surrogate for his audience) even when he’d already become a bigger star than most of his guests. And think about that ten-year period in America, beginning with a healthy JFK and ending with Nixon’s creepy henchmen: almost alone among showbizzers, Johnny remained vital and relevant through it all.

thHollywood seemed to suit Carson. Everything was in color now, and he continued to dress in the height of fashion, even as it changed around him. Those ties with knots as big as your fist don’t look all that silly on old video of Johnny, like the Nehru jackets do on Sammy Davis Jr. (Can you imagine a David Letterman men’s apparel line? Carson had one.) In the early Seventies I managed a small group of writers at my graduate-school job, and one of them was a rabid fan of THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JOHNNY CARSON (that was the official name of the program in NBC press materials; I knew that from my college-era stint on the local Sunday newspaper). This was the first time I’d encountered somebody younger than I whose day was not complete until he’d watched Johnny, who missed the show when it went on hiatus, who could quote every Art Fern or Aunt Blabby sketch by heart. In his adulation for the Rat-Pack school of show business, this man seemed caught out of his time, like, say, Leon Redbone. But to him, the coolest guy on tv, far and away, was Johnny Carson.

The studio system had imploded and the kids were taking over film sets and recording studios. They were reacting — if not quite rebelling — against however the powers that be used to do things, no matter what that was. During Johnny’s second decade a group of young comedians caught up in that same artistic wave began to question the nature of comedy itself. While National Lampoon magazine extended sophomoric humor to the mainstream by allowing college weisenheimers to continue placing whoopee cushions well after graduation, standups openly wondered why they were still using the Borscht Belt as a template. The most obvious was George Carlin, who decided to ditch the suit and tie, grow his hair long, and employ his genius for wordplay as candidly as he could. He became a funny, raunchy hippie, embodying the “Al Sleet, the Hippy-Dippy Weatherman” character he had once jeered on the Ed Sullivan show. This same ironic distance was emerging in every aspect of the performing arts, and in television it manifested itself in SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, SCTV and wee-hour rock-concert shows. All these outliers were programmed late, late, for that was presumably when bleary-eyed hipsters were stumbling back to the apartment or the dorm.

250px-LatenightdllogoJohnny’s third decade began in 1982, the same year NBC opened up a new comedy slot immediately following his broadcast, to be mounted by his own Carson Productions. They didn’t have to look far for a host. One of those young pranksters was a TONIGHT SHOW favorite and Johnny’s personal choice for heir apparent. This was LATE NIGHT WITH DAVID LETTERMAN, and its guiding principle was, we’re on after most of Johnny’s fans have already turned in, so we’ll have some fun with the format and deconstruct it for those night owls who are still up.

Although there was still a monologue, desk and band (the brilliant Paul Shaffer has kept Letterman musically vital all this time but still favors the classic rock that Dave’s original fans grew up on), the best parts of LATE NIGHT ventured out from Johnny’s safety zone, way farther than the few steps of the “Mighty Carson Art Players.” Letterman’s “field pieces” from that era (for example, taking over a Taco Bell drive-through station and messing with the unwitting customers) are still funny today: in fact, they’re being revived one by one on the last few shows. They’ve always played a remote piece or two to rev the live studio audience as part of the warmup routine. There’s only one man who can do a field piece as well as Letterman, and that’s Conan O’Brien — but, of course, Conan went to school watching Dave, as did today’s DAILY SHOW correspondents, who march down the same well-whacked jungle lanes.

You could sum up LATE NIGHT with one simple fact. It was self-aware: it knew it was a tv talk show. Writer/performer Chris Elliott might pop up from a trap door as “The Guy Under The Seats,” later plop into the guest chair as an unctuous celebrity, skewering the very type of shameless promotion that had just aired on Carson. They might strap a minicam onto a monkey’s back and let the beast run loose, for no good reason at all. Then there were irresistible stunts, like Dave testing suits made of Alka-Seltzer or Velcro, or dropping stuff off a five-story tower to watch it burst. Don’t forget the legendary Stupid Pet Tricks and their offshoot, Stupid Human Tricks. It was as if the hell-raisingest class clown somehow glommed the keys to a tv studio and figured out how to turn everything on. The churlish NBC insisted all this was their “intellectual property” when Letterman was passed over as TONIGHT SHOW host on Johnny’s retirement, so the show had to start over when it decamped to CBS.

220px-The_Late_ShowThe NBC show kind of had the writers trapped in their offices at 30 Rock; they had to leave midtown for most of the field pieces, though they did find themselves playing around with a Simon & Schuster publicist whose office at 1230 Avenue of the Americas happened to be right across from theirs. (Because of this informal relationship, S&S wound up publishing books of the writers’ Top Ten Lists.) Once CBS served them up an entire building, the old Ed Sullivan Theater on Broadway, the rechristened LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN was able to stretch out. Now they dropped stuff from their own place onto 53rd Street, where they also rode horses, shot guys out of a cannon, held batting practice, etc. And they made friends with their new neighbors in what in 1993 was a rather run-down neighborhood (it’s not any more). Soon souvenir salesmen Mujibur and Sirajul and deli owner Rupert Gee were semi-regulars on the show, and charmingly bizarre field pieces could happen right next door (such as cramming dozens of people all wearing Spider-Man costumes into the local Jamba Juice).

Letterman himself had always been viewed as aloof and cranky when off camera, self-critical to a fault (journalist Bill Carter reported that Letterman scribbled the note “I hate myself” and showed it to Teri Garr during a commercial break). Opinions differ among those who know him well. But then two earthshaking events changed everything. In January 2000, he underwent emergency quintuple bypass heart surgery, which saved his life. And in November 2003, he and longtime partner Regina Lasko welcomed a son, Harry. Even casual fans can tell that Letterman has mellowed, softened, grown into a new kind of responsibility that has nothing to do with comedy. Parenthood may be a prime reason Dave decided to step down when he did.

We’ve been in the Letterman audience several times over the years, starting with the old NBC show in 1990. The guests that night at 30 Rock were Rush Limbaugh — a conservative curiosity stepping into the lions’ den six years before Fox News went on the air — and a young starlet named Sharon Stone, who was in a new movie, TOTAL RECALL. “Tell us a little about yourself.” “Well, I was born in Meadville, Pennsylvania…” etc., then a few moments later Letterman fished out a copy of the current issue of PLAYBOY with a, um, healthy pictorial. “What do they think of this back in Meadville?” A CBS taping years later featured Howard Stern, who came on already livid because Dave had been giving too much airtime to his then-rival, Don Imus. Stern was blowing a gasket, actually turning red, not letting Letterman get a word in edgewise. Cut to commercial. Stern immediately deflated, the two guys talked and grinned. It was an act, all of it. As the countdown back to air happened, Stern puffed himself up and made it look like he’d been yelling all the way through the break. You know the talk-show world is artifice in your brain, but now you get to see it with your eyes. Of course, the overpreparation makes it even juicier when the host does lose control unexpectedly, such as Drew Barrymore’s spontaneous upstage flashing, or the infamous interview with Joaquin Phoenix who was “in character” as a sullen rapper without Letterman’s knowledge. (Phoenix came on later to apologize.)

th-1I’ve always been amazed at the attention to detail in Shaffer’s musical direction: each piece of walk-in music has something to do with the guest. For example, George Clooney was on last Thursday night, and his newest project is a movie called TOMORROWLAND. So Shaffer and the “CBS Orchestra” struck up Jimi Hendrix’s “Wait Till Tomorrow.” This same thing happens every night, every time. (A couple nights ago, Shaffer buttoned a Top Ten list having to do with Thomas A. Edison with a familiar guitar solo. After the break, Dave said from the desk, “Todd Rundgren.” Paul replied, “I Saw The Light.” Dave said, “Perfect!” It’s gone that way for 33 years.) Then one night when I was in the audience Chuck Leavell, that keyboard master, happened to be in town with the Rolling Stones. So Shaffer asked him to come sit in with the “CBS Orchestra.” They did pick a couple Stones tunes, and I think an Allmans piece, but what impressed me was that Chuck held his own with these grizzled sight-readers — probably the most versatile house band on television — on anything they wanted to play.

A self-aware, self-deprecating, anything-goes tv show. (The host once described LATE NIGHT as “a comedy show disguised as a talk show,” but lately there have been a helluva lot of things for guests to plug; it can be wearying.) The ultra-ironic is not so unusual any more, because David Letterman’s DNA has been absorbed into the culture. A pure talk show like Carson’s is anachronistic these days; now you shoot for YouTube clips, something which Letterman admits he has trouble wrapping his mind around. The game has changed once again, as a new generational shift takes hold. The day after tomorrow, when Dave finishes his final show, the senior late-night host in time on the air will be Jimmy Kimmel — at 47 he’ll be the oldest too, but Stephen Colbert, 50, will edge him out when his show replaces Dave’s in September.

Nobody better deserves a happy retirement than David Letterman. I’d say it’ll be fun seeing him in interesting places, but Johnny virtually vanished after he left THE TONIGHT SHOW and enjoyed the rest of his life largely in private. There are many similarities between the two men, and holding their lives close to the vest is one of them. Frankly, I just wish one thing for Dave above all else. I want him to get to a place where he never feels like scribbling such an anguished note, ever again.


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