Posted in Television

Downton Derailed

downton-abbey-s3-e5-sybil-tom-baby1

It’s jumped the shark.

Not because “Downton Abbey” killed off youngest daughter, Sybil Branson, last night in an eclampsia-induced, postpartum convulsion. And not because the show has been so locked up in drawing rooms this season that when Mary and Matthew were actually outdoors surveying the estate you could almost breathe in the fresh air along with them.

It’s that old soap opera staple that’s done it—character assassination. By the end of last night’s episode there really should have two corpses laid out next to Sybil’s—her father’s and Mary’s.

Lord Grantham’s insistence that Sybil be attended by the prestigious physician, Sir Philip Tapsell, instead of Downton’s old reliable Dr. Clarkson, was the most bizarre turn I’ve seen a TV show take in years. This was beyond weird—it was Guy Woodhouse revisited, refusing to let poor Rosemary, looking like death warmed over, check back with dreamy Dr. Hill (I half expected Robert, in the face of Cora’s outrage, to insist, “But Sir Philip was on Open End!”). What was the point of this? Was Robert attempting to make up for his earlier cold-shouldering of Sybil and Tom by providing this so-called prized expert? Why anoint yourself sole decision maker and be so adamant about it when your other daughters and especially your wife, who actually knows something about labor and childbirth, are screaming at you that you’re wrong?

This ludicrous development was totally at odds with the Robert of Seasons One and Two. Yes, I know he got handy with one of the parlormaids last season, but that was somewhat organic—at least there was foreshadowing. Robert’s idiocy concerning Sybil’s giving birth, though, was totally out of left field. But there’s another problem with this storyline. Sybil’s condition and especially the baby’s small size beg the question of how closely she had been attended by any doctor at all prior to going into labor, especially when she and Tom were still living in Ireland. I suspect there were earlier warning signs that went unheeded while the two of them were on the run, so maybe there will be more finger-pointing to come.

And Mary. Ever since the wedding she’s been acting like she’s got a monumental case of buyer’s remorse. If this is not what’s intended (and you could have fooled me), we need to see some of Season Two Mary and Matthew romance again. Hell, I’d settle for the two of them just enjoying each other’s company without arguing or seeming to be at loggerheads, whether over Robert, the management of the estate or starting a family. I’ve always liked Mary, even with her faults, but Lord, she’s been a pill since the season premiere.

Despite all the illogical twists, this episode was among the best “Downton Abbey” has shown us thus far. The acting was uniformly excellent, even when the plot made no sense. Dame Maggie Smith broke my heart when she arrived at Downton the morning after Sybil’s death, and Michele Dockery and Laura Carmichael made me tear up in their mutual pledge as sisters (though we’ll see how long this lasts). And it was a treat to see Tim Pigott-Smith as Sir Philip—he who played one of the most twisted characters ever to appear in a TV series, namely Ronald Merrick in the superb “The Jewel in the Crown.” 

I think it’s fairly simple to see where we’re headed, post-Sybil (I’m not spoiled, so this is just supposition): Tom, new father or not, will go back to Ireland despite the official ban on his return. He’ll promptly be blown up or shot in some IRA action. The baby, who will probably be named Sybil Cora (and baptized in the Catholic Church), will be raised by her grandparents. Only then will Cora relent and let Robert share her bed once more.

Soap opera to the nth degree, but I’m really hoping for better from “Downton Abbey.”

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Posted in Brain Bits, Television

Brain Bits in Gray Winter

We’ve had a really mild winter so far, but the party’s over. The Deep Freeze arrived last night, with wind chills below zero—the coldest it’s been in two years. Time to cook some stew, bundle up and consider some tube.

Is it just me, or is Downton Abbey the new Southfork? Don’t these kids ever want to move out for good?Matthew-Crawley-downton-abbey-15932584-570-364

I was really looking forward to Matthew and Mary’s buying and settling into an estate of their own—at least that was the game plan in the season opener. Now Matthew’s an investor in Downton Abbey, courtesy of Reggie Swire, and he’s appalled by how slipshod the place is run. At least he’s got something to work on now after being so disappointingly domesticated. I so miss the dashing Matthew in uniform, the romance of his on-again off-again relationship with Mary.

Despite all that, I’m still enjoying the show, even if Sunday’s episode wasn’t a barn burner. It was great to see Lady Edith pull herself together, buck her father and get her views into print. On the other hand, I’m beyond bored with the Bates-in-prison storyline. It amazes me that this fills up so much airtime, since the downstairs crowd is getting very interesting, especially with the new arrivals (“I’ve always been Jimmy!”). Sybil and Tom don’t do all that much for me, but the New Daisy, who stands up for herself, and Isobel Crawley, who’s so gung-ho to rehabilitate ladies of the evening, more than compensate. We need a fly in the ointment, though, to keep things off-balance—another Sir Richard, perhaps, or an all-out war between Thomas and O’Brien, or a Pamuk-like disaster. Don’t want things to get too complacent.

 

I miss “Homeland.” Not just the acting, which is uniformly superb, or the tension, or Brody’s will-he-or-won’t he. It’s the level of intelligence in the writing that makes so many other shows pale by comparison. The mosaic nature of “Homeland” is what sets it apart—and what makes the show so difficult to blog about until the season is over, when the entirety is known, at least to that stopping point. Storytelling at its finest.

 

Richard and Julia

I haven’t given up on “Boardwalk Empire,” but I am disappointed. It’s turned into exactly what I feared, namely a Jazz Age “Gangster of the Week” bloodbath. As last season went on it became more and more apparent just how big a mistake it was to kill off Jimmy Darmody (not to mention Angela), and attempt to replace him with a psychopath like Gyp Rossetti.

The show runners should have realized that Jimmy and Nucky shared an emotional connection that would endure, no matter how vengeful Jimmy appeared to be. Without him, it’s just a game of Gangster Chess—with guns. The only characters I really care about at this point are Richard Harrow, Julia and young Tommy Darmody. Yes, I’m still interested in Eli Thompson and Chalky White, and I’m curious as to how Gillian survived her own heroin injection (has she been a junkie all along, now possessing the tolerance to survive a shot designed to kill Gyp?). But “Boardwalk Empire” is almost a jukebox—put in a quarter and press the button for the bootlegger of your choice.

I hope the Powers That Be can turn this around and make me care more. Otherwise I may be gone, too.

 

I was a latecomer to “Game of Thrones,” but I finally caught up last spring. Needless to say, I’m really looking forward to the Season Three premiere, which HBO endlessly reminds us will happen on—drumroll—3.31.13. I bought the first three books in the series, but so far I’ve only dipped into the first two volumes a la Cliff’s Notes—just to fill in a few blanks. It’s tough to resist the temptation to skip ahead and read “A Storm of Swords” before Season Three begins, but I’m hanging on. Barely.

Posted in Observations

Anniversary Year

jfkIt wasn’t until last week, when I was browsing in my local Barnes & Noble, that I was reminded this year marks the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. It’s only January, but the current array of Kennedyana on bookstore shelves is growing geometrically, and TV documentaries hashing and rehashing the Zapruder film will appear with increasing frequency in the coming months.

I was a twelve year-old in 7th grade on November 22, 1963, and this was the first national trauma I experienced firsthand. I remember other landmark events of that time—the 1956 political conventions (only because they preempted “The Mickey Mouse Club”), JFK’s inauguration (because a snow storm cancelled school that day) and the flights of the Mercury astronauts—but this, of course, was entirely different.

My not-yet adolescent frame of reference was limited: my first reaction upon hearing the school principal’s announcement that the President had been shot was “Lincoln was shot. They don’t shoot Presidents anymore.” My parents’ generation, of course, remembered other incidents: Giuseppe Zangara’s attempt on Franklin D. Roosevelt ending in the death of Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak and the shoot-out in front of Blair House, then occupied by the Truman family while the White House was undergoing renovation. And they had experienced FDR’s death in office, though as my mother told me during JFK’s televised funeral, the circumstances were very different. FDR was visibly ill during his final months, and it was wartime, when death was a constant event. The murder of a president in the prime of his life in 1963 was on another plane altogether.

Since then we’ve learned more than enough about JFK’s reckless behavior, his reliance on amphetamine injections from a shadowy Dr. Feelgood and other excesses, both personal and political, of his administration. The conspiracy theorists have run amok, fingering anyone and everyone from Lyndon Johnson to the Mafia to the CIA. I’ve come full circle myself, going from Oswald as the sole shooter to the existence of a grassy knoll gunman and back to Oswald alone. Occam’s Razor, people.

However, this year I think we need to put all this aside and remember the depth and commonality of loss the country suffered when its president was murdered. Not to wallow in grief, but to give full acknowledgment to the enormity of a nation’s elected head of state being removed from office through violence. Yet we also need to be reminded that in times of national tragedy, the country can and will endure. For all its being abused and misused by politicians and interest groups of all stripes, our Constitution is a marvelous thing, a document that provides structure and assures continuity when it feels like the world is falling apart.

So when November 22nd arrives let’s remember not just the man and the deed, but our ability to move forward, beyond tragedy.

Posted in Opera

Mezzo Magic

Susan Graham
Susan Graham as Dido

I had the pleasure this past week of seeing the Metropolitan Opera on its best behavior. And not once, but twice. This doesn’t always happen—as yesterday’s broadcast of “Il Trovatore” can attest—but when it does, the results are amazing.

First up was the live HD telecast of Berlioz’s “Les Troyens,” that five-and-a-half hour marathon of war and peace. I was supposed to see this ten years ago at the Met, but a blizzard stopped me from even getting to the train station (Had I made it into New York, I would have seen the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson as Dido. Talk about a missed opportunity). So after a very long intermission I finally got to see this epic, the length of which rivals “Götterdammerung.”

Susan Graham’s performance as Dido was astonishing. It’s not often that a singer’s voice, intelligence and characterization all come together at such a high level of artistry. I had seen her in “La Damnation de Faust,” I’ve got her recording of “Béatrice et Benedict,” two other Berlioz operas, but what she brought to “Les Troyens” was in another realm altogether. Her voice has lost virtually nothing over the years; she was the Queen of Carthage.

Fortunately her Aeneas was worthy of her. Bryan Hymel, a 33-year old native of Lousiana, stepped in to replace Marcello Giordani, and the result couldn’t have been better. He’s a powerful tenor who should have a great career ahead of him—he can act and he’s got presence. When he and Susan Graham sang their love duet in Act Four, you believed it. Joyce DiDonato was the host of the HD telecast, and I particularly enjoyed the intermission interview with Graham and Hymel. It seemed to be refreshingly unscripted—the two mezzos, alluding to their many trouser roles, traded joking compliments (“You look good in a dress.” “So do you.”) and the discussion that followed regarding Hymel’s Met debut in such a killer role was a great deal of fun.

Three days after the telecast I saw Joyce DiDonato as Donizetti’s “Maria Stuarda” at the Met. If ever there was a performer who held an audience in the palm of her hand, she did. No coughing or program rustling from the audience when DiDonato sang an aria—the entire auditorium went dead quiet just to hear what embellishments she would bring to the vocal line. The intense attention has been well-earned: she’s one of the best musicians I’ve ever heard on the opera stage. When she sings a line I can almost see the notes on the music staff. DiDonato certainly delivers.

"Maria Stuarda"--the Confrontation
“Maria Stuarda”–the Confrontation

However, I found the opera itself to be a bit of a letdown. While the first half, ending with Maria’s hurling “vil bastarda!” at Queen Elizabeth (soprano Elza van den Heever with shaved head in her Met debut), is excellent, the second half, after the Elizabeth/Leicester duet, does drag. And I wasn’t all that crazy about the production, especially the last two scenes. When did properly lighting a scene become a lost art? Yes, I know Maria is imprisoned and I don’t expect the set to look like high noon, but the audience should be able to see who’s on stage with her. I thought Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena” was a lot more fun. Anna gets a historically inaccurate mad scene before she marches off to the headsman, which I prefer to Maria’s saintly exit, no matter how lovely the music.

There’s been some carping about “Maria”‘s casting switcheroo. Although mezzos have portrayed the title role in the past, it’s usually a soprano Maria paired with a mezzo Elizabeth, a role Joyce DiDonato has in fact sung. Yes, she’s transposed some of the music down, but then Joan Sutherland used to transpose arias up to put the line in her soprano range. And is total adherence to historical tradition always a plus or even feasible? The countertenors singing today are not castrati, who were able to produce a sound the likes of which we’ll never hear. Luckily no one gives up that much for their art these days.

And speaking of tradition and departures therefrom, the Met’s new production of “Rigoletto,” set in Rat Pack-era Las Vegas, will soon make its debut. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

Posted in Baseball, Observations

Casting the First Stone

baseballhall_1352926734_600Ordinarily I’d be blogging today about two great opera performances I recently had the pleasure of seeing, but I’m really ticked off about the news from Cooperstown.

It seems the Baseball Writers Association of America, the organization that elects newly eligible players to the Baseball Hall of Fame, passed on this year’s probables, resulting in no selection at all. As I understand it, this hasn’t happened in 40 years.

Why? The five-year waiting period between a player’s retirement and eligibility for Cooperstown ensured that 2013 would be the first chance for the BBWAA to sit in judgment on the most notorious names of the Steroid Era, including Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa, among others. Some of these men have faced various trials and investigations, or tested positive or admitted using steroids. Others, though, like Jeff Bagwell and Mike Piazza, were gossiped about but never proven to be PED users. Nevertheless, all were apparently tarred with the same brush, thus the vote of “no confidence.”

What bothers me most is the weasly way the talking heads justify their no votes. “Only players of character and integrity should be in the Hall of Fame, and steroid usage was cheating.” When confronted with the less than sterling personae of some Hall members like Ty Cobb, they bleat “It’s character and integrity between the first and third base lines that count, not what they do off the field.”

Oh, please.

What about the racists and anti-Semites who yelled epithets at Jackie Robinson and Hank Greenberg, or slid into them, spikes high, or headhunted them without let-up? Some of those players are in the Hall of Fame. What about the players who popped greenies? What about the masters of the corked bat, the virtuosos of the spitter and the scuffed ball, the aces of sign stealing? They’re in the Hall of Fame, too, and they brag about what they did. Don’t give me your pious tut-tut-ing about “the integrity of the game” when all of this went on (and then some).

Let’s remember that at the time juicing was at its peak, it was not a violation of any MLB rule or the players’ collective bargaining agreement. Now there’s a great hue and cry about the unfair advantage the so-called cheaters had, and how so many non-steroid users were left behind in the minors because they couldn’t compete, and how long-standing records were broken by artificial means. From the MLB hierarchy to owners to unions to players, everyone knew for years about (a) the existence of PEDs and (b) what effect they had on athletes. Exhibit A: the 1972 Olympic East German women’s swim team. Exhibit B: Pro football’s Lyle Alzado, who went public about his steroid use before dying of a brain tumor in 1992. Let’s face it: the MLB looked the other way because they wanted to recoup some of the market they lost to professional football, and home run sluggers, no matter how they beefed up, were its meal ticket. And at the time, the press celebrated and was as seduced as the public by the exploits of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa.

Now the baseball writers are acting like avenging angels by denying Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds their place in the Hall of Fame. To me this is totally misguided. Both deserve membership on their pre-steroid stats alone. And to deny election on the basis of suspicion and rumor, as in the case of Jeff Bagwell and Mike Piazza, is even worse. I won’t even get into the non-election of  Jack Morris and Curt Schilling, who pitched the two gutsiest games I ever saw.

I suppose being holier than thou gives the baseball writers some comfort. But to me they’re just enablers now trying for redemption.

Posted in Television

The Return of Downton Abbey

Mary-and-Matthew-Crawley-Wedding-downton-abbey-32428302-3000-2000Last night was definitely worth waiting for.

“Downton Abbey” returned to PBS in all its aristocratic splendor, with Mary and Matthew tying the knot at long last. It took them 2+ seasons to get to the altar, but the trip was an intriguing one, made enjoyable by watching the performances of Michelle Dockery and Dan Stevens. It’s to their credit that these actors made every twist of this relationship plausible, because at times they had to jump through some incredible hoops (miraculous recovery from paralysis, anyone?).

On the plus side of the ledger, we had the Dowager Countess in rare form, littering her path with bon mots, but stepping up when it was most needed by sending Sybil and Tom the fare to attend the wedding. I liked her collaboration with Isabel Crawley to get Tom into a cutaway, and Maggie Smith played the “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” sing along to perfection. It’s too bad the show’s creator, Julian Fellows, didn’t write an equally realized character for Shirley MacLaine to play. I would have expected more for Cora’s mother—instead we got Fellows’ wildly off-key conception of a dotty American. If memory serves, Mrs. Levinson (under her first husband’s name) made the match between Cora and Robert, which shows title shopping at its best. If she were that ambitious, there’s no way she’d be putting down the British aristocracy for being fuddy-duddy, no matter what changes the war brought.

It seems upstairs will be preoccupied with money in the weeks to come, and I’m already tired of it. Though I must say it was a great coup for show continuity by having Lord Grantham lose his fortune by investing in the Canadian Grand Trunk Railway, formerly run by Charles Hays. Mr. Hays died in the sinking of the Titanic, so that makes Downton Abbey a three-time loser with this disaster, the body count consisting of two heirs and one investment property. But Matthew’s reluctance to accept that sizable inheritance left by Lavinia’s father is somewhat ridiculous. Yes, she was a sweet girl and he’s apparently still guilt-ridden over kissing Mary while his erstwhile fiancée lay dying of Spanish influenza, but let’s get real. Don’t you wish Mary would scream at him “She was only a plot device! Get over it”?

As far as downstairs goes, we’re now in double overtime as far as Bates’ murder conviction is concerned. This is a plot that desperately needs resolution, because Anna is being wasted in its service. On the other hand, it was great to see O’Brien turn on Thomas in order to advance her nephew in the household, though I still think she’s a snake (She’ll never live down that strategically placed cake of soap that caused Cora’s miscarriage).  Mrs. Hughes unfortunately ended up with the obligatory illness storyline, which I hope sorts itself out sooner rather than later, otherwise O’Brien will have the opportunity she’s been waiting for (and doesn’t deserve).

I’m looking forward to seeing where the Lady Edith/Lord Anthony story goes, because that girl needs a break. She’s got her bitchy side, but let’s face it—it must have been tough growing up in Lady Mary’s shadow. What’s going to be even tougher in the weeks to come is avoiding more spoilers. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve got to know Dan Stevens is leaving the show (sob!) and that Matthew’s fate was revealed in the UK on Christmas Day (cue screaming).

Definitely looking forward to more of the Crawleys in the post-war world in the weeks to come.

Posted in Television

The Twilight Zone

rod_serling
Rod Serling

For a TV show that initially lasted only five seasons, it’s sure had an outsized impact on our entertainment and culture. To this day, if someone is referred to as “living in the Twilight Zone,” we know he’s really out there. In fact, the words aren’t even necessary—just hum four bars of the show’s theme, composed by Marius Constant, and your listeners will know exactly what you mean.

I was a regular viewer of “The Twilight Zone” when it originally aired from 1959 to 1964. Even though I was in grade school, my parents let me stay up late on Friday nights to watch it. Sometimes this wasn’t such a great idea for an 8 year-old—I can still remember how scared I was watching Kevin McCarthy molder away on his living room rug in “Long Live Walter Jameson,” after one of his ancient ex-wives shot him. And on a few occasions I just didn’t get the final twist, always the highlight of every TZ episode. I had no idea what the aerial shot of that globe and funny-looking tower meant at the end of “The Odyssey of Flight 33,” but I remember my mother exclaiming “They’re in 1939!” as she recognized the New York World’s Fair. But I loved the show. It was Adult TV, and it was fun to watch with the grown-ups (Now the pandered-to viewers are 18 and under, while the rest of us have to find our sanity on HBO or Showtime).

Some of the more famous “Twilight Zone” episodes are now overly familiar, like “Eye of the Beholder,” “Time Enough at Last,” “Nothing in the Dark” (with a gorgeous-beyond-belief Robert Redford) or “The Invaders”, but the majority hold up very well, at least as viewed on DVD (unfortunately the SyFy Channel marathons cut them to ribbons). One reservation: the hour-long episodes that aired during the show’s fourth season are not quite as good, in my opinion. TZ’s stock in trade was terse storytelling, ending with that final punch. “It’s a cookbook!” probably takes the prize in this category. “The Twilight Zone” was born for the half-hour slot it enjoyed for most of its run.

There are so many memorable TZ episodes that it’s difficult to come up with a list of favorites. I’m not particularly fond of Rod Serling’s moralistic stories, though I think “The Shelter” is still an interesting take on how ugly people can be in a life-threatening crisis. As a result my Top Twenty weighs more heavily on the side of fantasy, whether escapist or scary. In no particular order, they are:

“Walking Distance”—Gig Young in the performance of a lifetime, aided by Bernard Herrmann’s haunting score. You can’t go home again.

“A World of His Own”—Keenan Wynn makes Rod Serling disappear! “Why not leave well enough alone?” indeed.

“A Stop at Willoughby”—If I had to name my single favorite TZ episode, this would probably be it. A superb performance by James Daly, and not one word or scene wasted in telling the tale. Beautifully done.

“Long Live Walter Jameson”—If you live long enough, your past will do you in.

“It’s a Good Life”—That jack-in-the-box scared the bejesus out of me as a kid. Wish it into the cornfield, Anthony! With Cloris Leachman as his long-suffering mom.

“What You Need”—“Ah, but it’s what I need.” Just a terrific story.

“The Hunt”—Before he created “The Waltons,” Earl Hamner wrote a number of “Twilight Zone” episodes. This one, demonstrating that dogs are wiser than humans, is one of his best.

“The Odyssey of Flight 33”—I wonder if they ever made it all the way back?

“Nick of Time”—The dangers of trying to learn your future. That devil-head is pretty freaky.

“The Last Rites of Jeff Myrtlebank”—A very young and handsome James Best returns to life, somewhat changed.

“The Midnight Sun”—One of the few TZ episodes with a female protagonist. Lois Nettleton does a great job trying to stay cool.

“The Trouble With Templeton”—Brian Ahearne romanticizes the past. And it’s fun to see Sydney Pollack as a nasty director.

“Five Characters in Search of an Exit”—William Windom and Murray Matheson are among those trying to figure out the why and how.

“Stopover in a Quiet Town”—Barry Nelson and Nancy Malone make a great bickering couple who think it was only too much to drink the night before.

“Miniature”—A timid soul seeks escape from his awful family and the people around him. Robert Duvall is Boo Radley-otherworldly, and you cheer when he succeeds.

“Mr. Garrity and the Graves”—One of the few humorous TZ episodes that really nails it, due to a very dry John Dehner.

“Spur of the Moment”—Can you warn your younger self about the dangers to come? More importantly, will she even listen?

“The Long Morrow”—The most poignant twist ending of the series, thanks to Mariette Hartley.

“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”—I’m cheating a bit here, because this was actually an Oscar-winning independent short film that TZ aired during its last season. With the 1961 Civil War centenary, a number of TZ episodes were set during that conflict, as was “Owl Creek Bridge,” based on a short story by Ambrose Bierce.

and last but not least,

“Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?”—Jack Elam (“It’s a regular Ray Bradbury!”), Barney Phillips and John Hoyt in a story of that extra passenger on the bus. The ending is classic:

What are your favorite episodes?