Posted in Opera, Television

Brain Bits for a Busy October

Duty Hurts
Duty Hurts

Halloween is just around the corner, the days are getting shorter—and colder—and much is percolating on the tube and in the opera house. I was going to lead off by chewing over Nico Muhly’s “Two Boys” which premiered at the Met on Monday, but Showtime’s “Homeland” has absolutely pushed itself to the head of the line.

We’ve just been paid back tenfold for the long wait for Season Three to take flight. In the immortal words of Ira Gershwin, “How long has this been going on?” Was the whole “Carrie’s off her meds, Saul rats her out to Congress” progression part of this? Or was it her call to her father, promising to do whatever Saul wanted, that led to setting up the con? In either case, the reveal was like a big tasty meal. I fell for it almost, but not quite, hook, line and sinker—I found it hard to believe Carrie would sell out. During her conversation with the law firm emissary, I had a strong feeling she’d play the other side for all she could get, then use that cultivated relationship to get back in Saul’s good graces. The show runners did a masterful job with their reveal—the sound of gasps across the country last week had to have registered on the Richter scale.

Sunday night’s TV logjam has eased somewhat now that “Last Tango in Halifax” has (regrettably) ended its first season on PBS. I especially enjoyed Gillian’s scenes in the season-ender—she’s been somewhat of “the other daughter” in comparison to the more complicated Caroline—but her love and affection for her father had never been more apparent. And she scored mightily in what was perhaps the funniest scene in the series: her morning-after with John. She’s got her head under the hood of her Land Rover, fixing that “pigging clutch,” when he comes strolling out, all lovey-dovey. She’s all “I had an itch last night. I scratched it. Tea’s on the stove” and John is dumbstruck that she isn’t all a-swoon. Not to mention that Paul’s sitting right there with his nose in an auto repair book, trying not to laugh like hell. A great job by Nicola Walker as Gillian.

“Boardwalk Empire” continues its impressive comeback. I especially enjoyed the surprise meeting between Arnold Rothstein and Margaret (mutual blackmail is a marvelous thing), and I’m looking forward to when Gaston Means sells out young Mr. Knox, which he most assuredly will when the time with Nucky is ripe. I’m delighted to see “Boardwalk Empire” expand its horizons into Wall Street (so important in the 1920’s, both historically and culturally), as well as maintaining its excellent continuity by bringing back some key supporting characters like Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon (James Cromwell) and U.S. Attorney Esther Randolph (Julianne Nicholson), no matter how briefly. It’s been an exceptionally rich and absorbing season.

Speaking of Julianne Nicholson, I honestly didn’t recognize her when she showed up as the stern Dr. Lillian Paul on “Masters of Sex,” a show that finally clicked in its third episode, “Standard Deviation.” This was an hour when the men were front and center, featuring tremendous performances by Beau Bridges and especially Michael Sheen. After we witnessed their early mentor/student relationship develop and grow, we were forced to watch it crumble as Masters, with his professional back to the wall, blackmails the man who did so much for him into funding his study on sexuality. When Masters arrives home, exhausted and full of self-disgust at what he’s just done, even his wife’s announcement that she’s pregnant is not enough to produce a smile. “Masters of Sex” will hopefully continue to impress.

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Alice Coote and Paul Appleby: “Two Boys”

Having attended the Metropolitan Opera premiere of Nico Muhly’s “Two Boys” on Monday night, I can appreciate the mixed reviews the work has received.

Based a true story, the opera, set in 2001, focuses on the how and why 16-year-old Brian stabbed a 13-year-old boy he met on the internet (Plotwise this should be taking place a decade earlier, when the internet was still a new frontier). As you can imagine, the production features every technological bell and whistle around, what with projections of chat room dialogue and a terrific light show representing the ethereal nature of cyberspace. But the wow factor wears off sooner than you’d think. Opera demands character as well as story, and this is where “Two Boys” is somewhat lacking.

Muhly is well-known for his choral writing; his talent in this regard is on ample display here. He produces a textured wall of sound to represent the millions of dialogues on the internet, the faces of the chorus illuminated by their open lap tops. But, as Detective Inspector Strawson (Alice Coote) notes, this universe is almost without soul, lacking the richness of human contact. In fact it isn’t until Strawson returns home, after her first interview with Brian, and muses about this very topic, drink in hand, that “Two Boys” does what opera does best: it illuminates thought and emotion. There are only two other points at which the work came alive for me—Brian’s raw encounter with Peter, the internet figure who challenges him to masturbate in front of a webcam, and the summing-up at the opera’s conclusion, again voiced by Strawson. Unfortunately, “Two Boys” shows a great deal of surface but too little else.

Alice Coote was excellent in what can only be described as the Jane Tennison role; regardless of the opera’s title, she was awarded the last bow and rightly so. Paul Appleby is a very talented Mozart tenor, but his appearance as Brian demonstrates why trouser roles exist. In build and posture there’s no hiding he’s a grown man; matters became creepy when he played scenes with the impressive boy soprano Andrew Pulver, as his victim, Jake, with whom his character has (off-stage) sex. Keith Miller, as the malevolent Peter, was riveting both vocally and dramatically—I would love to hear him sing Claggart.

“Two Boys” is Nico Muhly’s first opera. At the ripe old age of 32, he should go on to produce a significant body of work. I look forward to what he says next.

Posted in Television

Embarassment of Riches

Forget about football and Sunday afternoon TV (as a New York Giants fan I plan to have season-long amnesia). The best stuff on the tube these days starts at 8:00 pm with (drum roll, please): “Last Tango in Halifax,” followed by the “Boardwalk Empire” and “Homeland” collision at 9:00, and rounding out the evening at 10, “Masters of Sex” (I was tempted to say “bringing up the rear,” but more about that later). The last time I watched so much back-to-back TV was in the hey day of “All in the Family,” “The Bob Newhart Show” and Mary Tyler Moore, when staying in on Saturday nights was a must.

be season 4Of the three cable premium shows, “Boardwalk Empire” has surprised me the most this season. It’s come roaring back from the Bobby Cannavale craziness of last year, and each character arc seems more absorbing than the next. I especially like Nucky’s Florida venture, which gets us out of the darkness of liquor warehouses and gambling rooms and into a world of sunlight and straw boaters. Patricia Arquette as Sally is a welcome addition and the palm trees are lovely. Some characters are in flux—Rothstein is starting his downward slide (if “Boardwalk Empire” sticks to its timetable, he should be gunned down the season after next), Richard has lost the stomach to kill and Van Alden has been co-opted by the Capone gang, not entirely to his pleasure. Chalky White and Valentin Narcisse (wonderfully played by Jeffrey Wright) have already butted heads once, and I certainly don’t expect their next encounter to be a pleasant one. And there’s a truly worthy villain in the form of Special Agent Warren Knox of what will soon be known as the FBI. His ostensibly mild-mannered yet sadistic interrogation of Eddie Kessler, ultimately resulting in the latter’s suicide, will hopefully come back to haunt him.

However, two other plot lines are shaping up to be the best “Boardwalk Empire” has featured since Jimmy Darmody’s death. Gillian is now a junkie, and whether she knows it or not, is being played by Roy Phillips. But the who, why and how have yet to be revealed. Is he law enforcement, a private detective or yet another gangster? Is he investigating the disappearance of that Jimmy look-alike Gillian snuffed last season? What is his game? Of equal interest is Nucky’s bailing out his nephew Willie in the wake of his actions at college. I hope Nucky doesn’t look to this kid as a replacement for Jimmy who, while he had his weaknesses, was never weak like Willie (Jimmy would never have acquiesced to throwing a comrade under the bus the way Willie caved to laying the blame for the spiked liquor on his roommate). If, as Nucky says, blood is all, I suspect he’s going to wish for a transfusion before long. And if I were Mickey Doyle, I’d leave town now—Nucky will no doubt reciprocate for Mickey’s gift of booze to the kid to begin with.

It’s great to have the “Boardwalk Empire” pot percolating again. On the other hand, “Homeland” seems to be a bit slow off the blocks.¬† I’m not happy with the return of Crazy Carrie, even if her tipping point was reached when Saul offered her up as a sacrificial lamb. The first two episodes of the season suffered by Brody’s absence, though Peter Quinn’s additional screen time was tremendous. However, I’m so tired of Dana Brody I wish she’d be hit by a bus—why the show runners are so intrigued by her is absolutely beyond me (I like Morena Baccarin, but as far as I’m concerned the entire Brody family is over). I’m looking forward to better in the future.

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It’s All For Science

The jury is still out for me on “Masters of Sex.” When I first saw the previews on Showtime, I thought it would be a two-hour film; instead it’s a multi-episode series. Can a TV show really be built around all that viewing of screwing? There are some good things to be had: the wittiest opening titles I’ve ever seen; “Mad Men”-era decor and clothes; Beau Bridges as the predictably stuffy hospital chair; and Lizzy Caplan as Virginia Johnson, former nightclub singer, college drop-out and swinger. On the other hand, much of what’s aired so far was covered in “Kinsey,” the 2004 bio-pic starring Liam Neeson and Laura Linney (Oddly enough, unless I missed it, the name “Kinsey” has yet to be uttered on “Masters of Sex”). The tone is inconsistent—when naughty things are going on, the show is fun; otherwise, it tends to be leaden. And Michael Sheen, as William Masters, really needs to complain to Michael Sheen, a producer on the show—some of the angles used to film him really make him look like Pinocchio.

Tonight sees the season-ender of “Last Tango in Halifax” on PBS. I’m going to miss it terribly until its return. Last week was a pleasure from start to finish—among his other talents, Derek Jacobi is one terrific dancer. And for the first time in five episodes, Gillian actually laughed when she caught Alan and Celia jitterbugging. Among other things, Judith when sober, surprisingly has her head on straight, though when drunk remains a disaster; William is one great kid; Caroline and Kate have turned up the burners; and if you look up “loose cannon” in the dictionary, you’re sure to find John’s picture (By the way, was I the only viewer who yelled “Gillian, for the love of God, don’t!” when she drunkenly inched her hand up John’s thigh? Robbie, newly human, is by far the better bet). I’m already looking forward to next year.

Posted in Books, Observations

Morality Tales

five daysSeveral years ago, before I went digital with the New York Times, I was transfixed by a Sunday magazine cover story about the fate of a New Orleans hospital, its staff and its patients during the hell wrought by Hurricane Katrina. The lengthy article, “The Deadly Choices at Memorial,” and the accompanying images were so compelling that I dropped whatever plans I had for the next couple of hours to finish it.

The author of that piece, Sheri Fink, won a Pulitzer Prize. She’s now expanded her reporting to book length, and the result, “Five Days at Memorial,” is a story of failure after failure. It ends in the deaths of 34 patients, accusations of euthanasia and a grand jury’s refusal to indict a physician for purportedly overdosing certain patients with morphine and other drugs to hasten their deaths in the face of their perceived inability to survive evacuation from the hospital. That responders were actually arriving en masse as these patients were administered their final medication is the stuff of nightmares.

Fink, a physician herself, has written a harrowing account of conditions at Memorial Medical Center which resulted not from the hurricane itself, which caused relatively minor damage to the hospital, but from a power failure induced by flooding when the levees broke. The lack of real planning, the bureaucratic snafus, the careless mindset of the suits staffing the hospital’s corporate owner, the leadership failures and most of all, the lack of communication, were overwhelming. But as Fink rightly points out, dealing with the physical problems of power outages and rescue techniques pale in comparison with the real issue of how to allocate limited medical resources in the face of such a large-scale disaster. What are the triage criteria? Do you evacuate the sickest and/or DNR (do not resuscitate) patients last, as Memorial did, a decision which evidently flew in the face of common practice? And who should make these decisions? How and when should they be made? It’s heartening to learn at the end of “Five Days at Memorial” that Memorial is the exception, not the rule: Bellevue Hospital, which in the face of Hurricane Sandy endured the same conditions as Memorial, saw all of its patients rescued, including those in even worse shape than the New Orleans patients whose lives were ended. Why? Better organization, better cooperation and most of all, better communication among staff.

“Five Days at Memorial,” despite some repetition and an occasionally bumpy narrative (not surprising, given that some of the author’s sources understandably refused to go on record), is worth your time. Food for thought, indeed.

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Another type of morality tale was reported¬†today in the New York Times: the business of posting mug shots online and the even scurvier business of removing them for a fee.¬† Aside from making me crave a shower after reading it, this article reminds me of the game “How many things are wrong with this picture?” Answer? Far too many for comfort.

Yes, mug shots are public records in many jurisdictions. But the sites which post them and may subsequently remove them upon request if the subject can prove exoneration, acquittal, or—get this—that they’ve “turned their life around” make me ill. Who appointed these site runners God? What makes them any different from Aware, Inc. or the other “commie” clearinghouses during the 1950’s who passed judgment on every actor proposed for a TV show, and for a fee yet?

While the mug shot clean-up businesses are easy to deal with (license them and cite them for violation of consumer protection laws if they fail to perform the promised service), it’s the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and its ilk that really got to me. Do they ever acknowledge that the vast majority of people whose mug shots appear online have only been arrested? That in the vast majority of cases the charges are dropped or negotiated down to mere violations? It’s telling indeed that there’s no discussion whatsoever by the spokesmen of these special interests of the impact on the lives of those whose mug shots show up online, the real extent of which is only hinted at in the article.

I once represented a woman facing domestic violence charges stemming from an overly liquid anniversary dinner she shared with her husband. Too much wine turned a trip down memory lane into a needling contest which continued after they left the restaurant and arrived home. Pushing and shoving ensued, at which point she picked up the phone and dialed 911. It happened too long ago for me to remember the details, but she was the one arrested, and while the husband was remorseful when he sobered up, she was strip searched and booked (In my state it’s the arresting police officer who’s the complainant, therefore once filed, DV charges have a life of their own). The cop, who was a 20-something macho Nazi-type, finally deigned to drop the charges at my client’s court appearance. Yet her record will live on and as the article states, so will her mug shot.

Potential employers hunt for reasons not to hire people. The mug shot posting business gives them even more fodder to exclude deserving people who may have had just one drunken night, ridden in a car with a careless friend or looked at a cop the wrong way. In this case freedom of the press can not be absolute. It will be interesting to follow this issue in the days ahead as one more instance of modern technology impacting individual rights in ways the Founding Fathers could never have dreamed.