Posted in Brain Bits, Television

Brain Bits for the Ides of October

It’s a gorgeous October Sunday here in the Garden State—SUV’s loaded with kids have headed straight to haunted houses, hay rides and other Halloween attractions. Smarter folk, like yours truly, took note of the prevailing family friendly agenda and headed straight for the nearest mall. I spent so much time at Famous Footwear trying on boots that I was fortunate not to be charged rent. Mission accomplished: I found the most stylish, comfortable pair around, wearable with skirt or pants. My day is made.


I started a new project in Manhattan last week, and on my very first day tangled with the Beast known as New Jersey Transit. NJT runs several of its lines (including mine) at the sufferance of Amtrak, which owns the rails and maintains the equipment. On this particular night, however, failure went into overdrive. A signal was out near Newark Airport, and the delays mounted. I boarded the 7:22 p.m. which sat….and sat….and sat at the Penn Station platform. No information whatsoever was forthcoming. The conductor got on the loudspeaker every 20 minutes to announce that the Amtrak dispatcher wasn’t saying when we’d leave, and NJT dispatch had no information as to whether the PATH train (the other rail system between New Jersey and New York) was cross-honoring tickets. Ironically, if you had enough bars on your smartphone and could access the NJT website, you would have learned the answer to that question, pronto.

We finally left Penn Station shortly after 9:00, to be halted several times by Amtrak dispatch as it juggled its trains as well as those of NJ Transit. But the capper of the night came at Rahway station, as the conductors, who had just seen passengers off, started yelling to each other: “What the f–k? Did you just see all the signals go out?” Yes, fans, they did. No signals, no go, and we sat at that platform for another 45 minutes. The poor woman across the aisle from me, who had taken the 5:00 a.m. train into Manhattan that morning, had only one more stop to go—she could have walked home in the time it took for us to get going again. And when I finally got to my station, I learned I had to drive an extra 10 miles out of my way because the N.J. Department of Transportation had a night crew out to resurface the nearby highway, and all side streets were blocked off. I finally walked through my front door at midnight, a mere four and a half hours after I boarded the train in Manhattan.

Just another day in the life. Some time I’ll tell you what it was like to be in an office elevator when the East Coast power grid went down. Or starting a project on the day that Manhattan experienced its first earthquake in decades. Stay tuned.


It’s that time of year, when all the new TV shows have arrived, old favorites have returned, and your DVR is your best friend. Last Sunday saw the season premiere of “Upstairs, Downstairs,” opposite “Boardwalk Empire,” and the new season of “Downton Abbey” will follow on December 2nd in the same time slot. And that’s in addition to the baseball post-season and the NFL, which has emerged from its Sunday cage to appear in prime time nearly every night of the week. I’m sure I’ll be commenting on all of these eventually. Fall always brings great TV and a sense that you’re being pulled in six directions simultaneously.

Until “Blue Bell Boy,” the most recent “Boardwalk Empire” episode, it was fairly easy to write about the direction of the show. Now the path seems less clear, which is a compliment, not criticism. We’re still in “gangster of the week” mode, but getting glimmerings of an overriding arc to this season. The Torrio/O’Bannion feud has begun in earnest, Luciano and Lansky are looking to keep Joe Masseria’s piece of their heroin trade to a minimum, and Nucky was even more dyspeptic than usual (that Sal Hepatica Bugsy Siegel was cutting heroin with might have helped). We also saw Owen Sleator learn a lesson, Eli play detective, Margaret schooled in euphemism, and Mickey Doyle fall for the old double cross. The lighter moments were especially welcome—I particularly enjoyed Nucky’s paying off Agent Sawicki with “Go buy yourself a personality,” and even more, Gyp Rosetti’s line to the diner waitress: “One of these days I’ll take you in the back…and teach you how to make sauce” (Bobby Cannavale’s facial expressions alone made for a one-act play). And then we had Rowland Smith, teen-age heister, responding to Owen’s fists to the gut to force his name: “Lon Chaney [whomp]. Norma Talmadge [whomp] Baby Peggy [whomp].” It was sad to see this engaging wiseguy go, but as we learned in the first episode this season, Nucky has no use for anyone he can’t trust. As Eli, and now Owen, have learned.

But most of all this episode reminded us that no matter how much enjoyment we derive from watching gangsters at work, there are still innocents who suffer. The most persistent image of “Blue Boy Bell” remains the face of Al Capone’s little son, baffled by his father’s wanting him to learn how to defend himself. At first the boy is confused by Al’s belligerent attitude, raising his hands over his head when he misunderstands his father’s command to “put ’em up.” When his eyes filled with tears and his face crumpled at the sight of his daddy’s anger and frustration, I cried along with Al as he took his son in his arms to comfort him (the aptly-named triplet brothers, Alex, Ben and Caleb Eckstein, an incredibly talented trifecta indeed, share the role of Sonny). The collateral damage is piling up in BE-land—in Season One, it was Pearl, Jimmy’s favorite Chicago prostitute. Last season it was Angela Darmody. And now there are two little boys—Sonny Capone and Tommy Darmody—with futures to be shaped by their fathers’ warped world, a world that Chalky White so emphatically wants his daughter to leave.

All of this makes “Homeland” a great diversion. I watched the most recent episode on my Droid Razr as I took the train home (during a far smoother trip than the one described above). The other passengers must have thought I was having a seizure—I was only watching the gang attempting to escape from Beirut, with Carrie bailing to search Abu Nazir’s quarters while armed locals stormed the building. Just your standard soothing fare. And when Carrie finally arrived home, plopped herself down on the sofa and smiled that rueful, enigmatic smile, we had a perfect ending to the episode. But it’s really just a pause—if you’re a dedicated “Homeland” viewer, you’ll find yourself nagged by questions that just pop into your head at the strangest times. Yesterday when I was driving home from the supermarket, it occurred to me that maybe the napsack Carrie found was a plant. Maybe the video Brody made was a false confession. But on the other hand……..

This is exactly why I love this show.