Posted in Baseball, Brain Bits, Television

Brain Bits for October’s End

Mets postseason

November looms and here we are, playing the summer game into mid-autumn. There’s something very wrong with this picture.

Don’t get me wrong—I so dearly love my Mets, and I’m thrilled they made it to the World Series. It’s “pinch me” time. Whoever would have believed back in early July that The Team That Couldn’t Score Runs would beat the Dodgers in the Division Series and go on to take four straight from the Cubs for the pennant?

But certain thoughts still nag. By the time the World Series rolled around, I was exhausted. And it wasn’t just because I had tuned into almost every regular season Mets game and was somewhat worn out emotionally by the postseason. Ever since Major League Baseball added the second wild card, thus creating three rounds of postseason playoffs, the World Series has become almost anti-climactic. With inter-league play throughout the regular season, we’ve lost some of that “Wow!” factor in seeing an American League team face off against the National League champ. I suppose you could argue that differences in team composition—traditionally, bat-heavy American League vs. the pitching and speed of the National League teams—always make for interesting match-ups, but by the time the leaves begin to fall, the novelty is gone.

The hype also bothers me. Baseball is a day-in, day-out game over a six-month regular season. It’s not an Event like Sunday (now Monday and Thursday, too) pro football, though Fox Sports dearly want it to be so. Every time I hear what I’ve come to identify as “football music” during World Series telecasts, I want to scream (And for the record, I’m a New York Giants fan as well as a Mets fan—Go Big Blue!). The graphics, the tenor of the coverage (though the extra slo-mo cameras are superb), special guest appearances by two ace cheaters masquerading as commentators—Pete Rose on the pre-game show and Alex Rodriguez, during—and worst of all, Joe Buck, Mr. Vapid, who seems to be paid by the uttered word.

The World Series is now aimed less at the die-hard fan than at newbies hopping on the bandwagon. It’s somewhat like the current state of New York’s Broadway theater district—a pricey haven for tourists. But the true beauty of the game lies in watching a team grind it out during an entire 162-game season, seeing unheralded players become heroes while others end up in the doghouse and in general, witnessing what seems to be a lifetime of successes and failures, all between April and October.

The current postseason set-up undermines the nature of what has made baseball the game it is. It seems to serve one purpose only, and that’s to line the pockets of the select few. Major League Baseball and Fox Sports, certainly, but also the manufacturers and retailers of sports attire and memorabilia. Each stage of the Mets’ trip to the World Series has been marked by the Modell’s sporting goods chain’s promotion of new team t-shirts, hoodies, caps and what-have-you in men’s, women’s and kids’ sizes, all bearing legends such as:

“We Take the East”

“New York Wants It More”

“The Pennant Rises”

“World Series!”

Enough already. As the late George Carlin observed, “Baseball is pastoral. It’s a 19th century game.”

[But I can assure you I’ll be first in line at “Gotta Go To Mo’s!” to buy my 21st century “World Series Champs” sweatshirt when the Mets win!]

Homeland Carrie and Quinn
Brunette Carrie and Quinn on the Run

“Homeland” is back in a big way.

Season 5 may prove to be its best yet. The showrunners have wisely opted for a change of locale, departing the Middle East for intrigue in Berlin, two years post-Season 4. Having left the CIA, Carrie Mathison is surprisingly settled down with her German attorney boyfriend and her daughter Franny and working as head of security for Otto Düring, industrialist, philanthropist and, I suspect, something a bit more sinister. Because it’s Carrie, events go off the rails rather early on. An assassination attempt is made, seemingly on Düring, when he visits a refugee camp in Beirut on a humanitarian mission; in short order the true target is revealed to have been Carrie, who earlier had warned her boss against making the trip. She’s frighteningly on her own; Saul Berenson, her mentor, has disowned her for leaving the CIA.

But there’s so much more going on with “Homeland” this season: hackers inadvertently breaching the CIA database and downloading key documents; one altruistic hacker looking to play Edward Snowden by giving the documents gratis to a journalist, the other wanting to get rich by offering to sell the information to the Russians; Allison Carr, the CIA’s Bureau Chief in Berlin, on the hot seat for the data breach; Saul Berenson, now head of CIA operations in Europe, directing a one-man assassination bureau on behalf of the agency with Peter Quinn as the dedicated hit man; Dar Adal, now in Saul’s old slot at the CIA, pulling strings all the way from Washington to persuade a Syrian general to overthrow President Assad; and—surprise, surprise—Carrie going off her meds once more, this time to try to figure out who’s gunning for her.

It’s quite a stew.

All of this makes for a very tasty dish indeed. It’s wonderful to have Peter Quinn (Rupert Friend) back. Oh, Quinn—how do I love thee? Having been blackmailed pressed back into service by Dar Adal only to endure two years in Syria, he’s a hollow shell of himself during the first few episodes of this season, as he robotically goes about his business eliminating enemies designated by the CIA. It’s not until he draws Carrie’s name as his next target that he returns to being the Peter Quinn we knew. Severely damaged? Yes, but still devastating—in a good way.

“Homeland” has a major genius for casting, and this season is no different. Miranda Otto, a stellar Elizabeth Bishop in “Reaching for the Moon,” expertly plays Allison Carr as one part ambitious CIA lifer, one part seductress (Oh, Saul, you dog!) and one part very shady lady. Each supporting actor is better than the next: Igal Naor as General Youssef, Allan Corduner as the Israeli ambassador, Atheer Adel as Numan, the idealistic hacker, Sarah Sokolovic as the reporter, Laura Sutton (it’s a measure of how effective her performance is that you want to throttle her) and Nina Hoss as Astrid, the sarcastic German security agent, whom I hope returns.

The storytelling is as taut as it can get. The wheels never stop turning. How “Homeland” was it to reveal two major plot twists in the last 30 seconds of the most recent episode? If you didn’t fall over when Allison Carr answered Quinn’s call on the dead assassin’s cell phone (and in Russian yet), the explosion of the plane carrying the CIA’s candidate to replace Assad should have made you do so.

I can’t wait to see where we go from here.

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.

____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

appleby_coote
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.

masters-of-sex-4
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 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 Television

Resetting “Homeland”

homeland_recap_rect

It arrived when it was most needed.

“The Choice,” last night’s season-ender of “Homeland,” was a long-overdue reset of the show. We saw Brody hike off into the woods toward Canada, and never was this series more in need of a time-out. I love “Homeland” and want it to stick around, but the show has been in need of adjustment for a while.

The powers-that-be have been painting themselves into a corner with Brody for two seasons.  Where were they going to go with the character after he murders Tom Walker, kidnaps and kills the tailor from Gettysburg and ultimately furnishes Abu Nazir with the means to kill the Vice President, topped off by his refusal to summon help in time to save him? He’s a U.S. Congressman who disappears for hours and days at a clip and nobody says anything? I’m all for suspension of disbelief, but this verged on the ridiculous some time ago.

There’s been a lot of critical chatter that this season saw a perceptibly weakened Carrie—that the Carrie of Season One who was strong in spite of her bipolar disorder was lost along the way. To my way of thinking, yes and no. Was she a fool for love? In the latter half of the season, yes, but only after she had Brody arrested for treason and proceeded to break him in interrogation. What’s more worrisome to me is that her radar’s been de-calibrated. She’s at her best when she trusts her gut, and you knew her gut told her to shoot Brody after the explosion in last night’s episode. She was straining to do it, every fiber of her being told her to do it, but Brody and her heart overrode her instincts (nicely done, Claire Danes).

Too bad she’s backing the wrong horse. I think he’s guilty as sin and has been playing her all along. But that’s the beauty of “Homeland”—you just never know.

I really enjoyed the twist of Brody’s confession resurfacing, taken out of context from the aborted suicide bombing and applied to the mega-explosion at the CIA. While I disliked the character at first, it was great to see Quinn ask the right questions and finally sing Carrie’s praises. His confrontation with Estes was so quiet, yet so epic: “I’m the guy who kills bad guys.” Eeep.

What does the future hold? In no particular order, hopefully less Dana. Her involvement with the VP’s son, the subsequent hit and run, and her interminable meltdowns created an absolute sinkhole. On the other hand, I expect more Quinn, and I’d love to see F. Murray Abraham back as Mr. Black Ops with the ever-changing addresses.

Before “Homeland” I was never a Mandy Patinkin fan. Now I’m a card-carrying member of the club, because his Saul Berenson is indispensable. He knows Carrie like no one else, and he’s nobody’s fool. And now he’s Acting Director of the CIA? And Carrie will become a section chief? Bring it on, please.

We still don’t know who the mole at the CIA is—oops, maybe was. I had my money on Estes, but I’m sure there will be confederates surfacing next year. And what happened with Roya Hammad, who managed to turn the tables on Carrie? And who was the Al Qaeda spokesman who appeared on the broadcast of Brody’s confession?

All the more to look forward to.

Posted in Brain Bits, Movie Reviews, Observations, Television

Post-Storm Brain Bits

What’s left of the Keansburg Carousel

It’s been quite a week for those of us in New Jersey, especially people like myself who live anywhere near a body of water. As of today, seven days after the effects of Hurricane Sandy could be felt at the Jersey Shore, thousands are still without electricity, many are left homeless, gas is being rationed and transportation (therefore the ability to work), will be hampered for weeks to come.

I’m a native New Jerseyan, and with the exception of time spent out-of-state at college and law school, I’ve lived here all my life. I have no doubt the Jersey Shore towns will rebuild. Tourism is one of our biggest industries, but more than that, for people who grew up here the Shore is in our DNA. When you were a kid, your parents took you to Asbury Park or Seaside to go on the rides. When you were a teenager, you headed to the beach after the prom. If you fish or sail, that is the place to be. And if you just want to escape the summer heat for a swim, a walk on the boardwalk or a lobster dinner, you always go, as we locals say, “down the Shore.” You don’t give that up easily.

__________________________________________

Despite all the havoc wrought by Sandy, it’s comforting to know that some things just don’t change. Although I was without electricity for four days, I did have a portable radio which enabled me to hear the audio from our local ABC-TV station. At some point I realized this was actually being carried on ESPN radio; as a public service they were streaming news coverage for 48 hours. Nevertheless, ESPN definitely stayed on the beat. In the midst of reams of stories of flooding in the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, the loss of every boardwalk from Long Branch to Cape May, the crippling of the entire New York metropolitan area, it was somehow comforting to hear an ESPN reporter scream on the air: “JETS!!! You STINK!!!!!” Proof positive that life does indeed go on.

_____________________________________________

Absorbing something as big as the destruction left by Hurricane Sandy tends to leave the brain in a muddle. I have a slew of random thoughts circling around in my head, so in no particular order:

–Maybe the rush to e-books isn’t such a hot idea. I was about 100 pages into Stephen King’s “11/22/63” on my Kindle app when the power went out. With the ability to recharge my Droid Razr limited to plugging into the car battery, continuing on was dicey. So there’s something to be said for good old-fashioned bound paper, even if you can really tone your upper arms by schlepping King’s novels around.

–Hot showers are lovely, but nothing refreshes like clean hair.

–A gas-powered burner is worth its weight in gold. God bless my neighbor for having one, because nothing warms you up like hot tea or soup.

–I had no idea I cook so many meals with garlic. After I emptied the now-defrosted food containers into the garbage can, my entire house smelled like a pizzeria.

–Two cats on the bed is better than a space heater. And purring is the best tranquilizer ever invented.

_________________________________________________

Making up for lost TV time after the power returned, I saw two extraordinary performances in one day. It had been a long time since I had seen “Judgment at Nuremberg,” but I was absolutely riveted by Judy Garland. In the midst of so much “acting”—with a capital “A”—by everyone else (especially Maximilian Schell), her portrayal of a victim of the Nazi Nuremberg Laws was one for the ages. And later that night, at long last, I finally saw “The Help.” All I can say is Viola Davis was robbed.

Oh, Gillian!

Before the lights went out, I was impressed by both the good and the bad of “Sunday Best,” the latest episode of “Boardwalk Empire.” The cross-cutting between Easter dinners chez Eli and Julia was illuminating: the differences in the Nucky/Margaret and Eli/June marriages, the growing relationship between Richard and Julia, the rapprochement (however tentative) between Nucky and Eli. The gulf between Nucky and Margaret, despite their charm for each other, was beautifully drawn. On the other hand, there was more than a bit of shark-jumping in what went on at Gillian’s ( I know she needs a dead Jimmy lookalike, but how is she going to get this corpse past Richard?) And Joe Masseria has become a knock-off of Fanucci in “The Godfather, Part II”—all he needs is the white fedora. His scenes are eating up the landscape, and Gyp Rossetti has likewise become a cartoon. It’s amazing that so much nuance and so much hot air could coexist in the same episode.

And then there’s “Homeland,” which continues to amaze week after week. By my count, Claire Danes has already copped enough Emmys to keep her in statuary for the next five years. Definitely television at its best.

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.