Posted in Books, Brain Bits, Observations, Television

Brain Bits for a Hot July

The weather is definitely turning steamy and tempers are running short. Patti LuPone has emerged as the Anti-Cell Phone Avenger, to which I say loudly and emphatically “AMEN.” Is there a regular theater-goer or opera or concert attendee who hasn’t been disturbed by some moron who refuses to turn the infernal machine off or worse, texts during the performance? (Incidentally, that was me about to strangle the young idiot sitting next to me who drank beer and texted throughout that performance of “Wozzeck” at the Met).

So thank you, Ms. LuPone, for sticking up for the rest of us, who revel in that quaint concept of live performance uninterrupted by the Electronic Age. By all means, steal as many cell phones as you need to stop the madness.

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Nurse Jackie finale
Even God needs medical help at times

One by one my favorite shows are ending their lives on the tube. First “Mad Men,” now “Nurse Jackie.”

After seven years and several stints at rehab and jail-induced detox, our last image of Jackie Peyton was as an OD’d junkie stretched out on the floor of All Saints’ ER. “Nurse Jackie” ended as it should have—despite her lengthy penance in the Diversion Program, she remained an Incurable addict. She seemed incapable of comprehending how her addiction and the accompanying lying and cheating impacted the lives of people she seemingly cared most about. As Eleanor O’Hara (thank you, Eve Best, for returning for the series finale) told her point-blank “You make it so damned hard to be your friend.” Truthfully the reality of her situation made it so damned hard to watch. The last straw came when, after fighting so hard to get her nursing license back and enduring one humiliation after another in doing so, she pops a mouthful of pills seconds after donning those blue nursing scrubs again.

In a sense the end was foreshadowed from the first episode of this season. I was never on Team Eddie. No matter what she did, he remained King of the Enablers—they consistently brought out the worst in each other, and their being together was one huge amber light. On the other hand, Dr. Bernie Prince, Coop’s replacement, was an intriguing counterbalance. The fact that he was played by Tony Shalhoub made it even better. I so wish the showrunners had introduced his character at least a season ago–he and Jackie would have made a great team, whether in the working or romantic sense, or both.

What made “Nurse Jackie” unique was its unapologetic portrait of a female anti-hero (and kudos to Edie Falco for having the guts to portray her). Jackie could be insensitive and irresponsible, but at some level she was never uncaring. And she excelled at her profession, though her addiction was making it more likely that this would eventually—and conclusively—be lost to her. Another major plus of the show was that none of the characters ever turned into a cartoon. They sometimes exasperated you, and several times you may have wanted to smack Coop upside the head, particularly in his early days, but most of the time they behaved in a realistic manner. Zoe grew, and to her credit outgrew Jackie. And so, in her oddball way, did Dr. Roman. Coop finally matured and moved on. And Dr. Prince, with his massive brain tumor, ended up in Death’s waiting room. Only those with addictions—Jackie to her pills, Eddie to his love for Jackie—remained stuck in their repetitive, destructive behavior.

Such is life.

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A God in RuinsEven after finishing Kate Atkinson’s “A God in Ruins” a month ago, I’m still thinking about it. This is her “companion volume,” not a sequel, to her wonderful “Life After Life,” which featured the many possibilities of the life of Ursula Todd during England’s twentieth century. While the two novels feature many of the same characters, the tone is quite different. And the conclusion is somewhat maddening.

“A God in Ruins” is a biography of Teddy Todd, Ursula’s adored younger brother. In “Life After Life” he’s a golden boy—the model for Augustus, his aunt’s scamp of a literary creation, his mother’s favorite and ultimately the heroic RAF pilot seemingly lost during World War II. “A God in Ruins” presents a more detailed portrait of Teddy. He’s still a caring young man, though it’s clear his father, not his mother, is his favored parent; his affection for sisters Pamela and Ursula remains the same. He’s somewhat at loose ends when the war begins. Teddy’s two attempts at a career have failed—his year in France as a would-be poet ends when he concludes his work is trite, and a stint at a banking job is utterly soul-killing. In actuality this gentle young man’s best talent is killing as he pilots a Halifax bomber in countless runs over Germany.

Unlike “Life After Life” with its magical changes in Ursula’s path, “A God in Ruins” shows us a protagonist who, after flying so high, becomes utterly grounded. His post-war life seems to be one grind after another, both in career and in his personal life. He no longer shines except perhaps later in life when as a grandfather he provides love and shelter to his grandchildren when their own mother is unwilling to do so.

At times you may feel Kate Atkinson deliberately set out to contradict what she created in “Life After Life.” In the earlier novel the romance of Teddy and Nancy Shawcross seems to be deep and eternal; in “A God in Ruins,” we learn that while Teddy’s love is present, there’s little passion. Although the revision may be closer to reality since they grew up as neighbors with little left to reveal, you don’t want that version. You want the magic. And while the nature of Teddy’s end is easy to foresee, Ursula’s final word at the conclusion of “A God in Ruins” may make you want to demand a refund.

But what makes “A God in Ruins” so engrossing is Atkinson’s account of Teddy’s war: the close calls, the camaraderie with his crew, his miraculous surviveability, his being the “old man” of his squadron at the age of 23. I don’t think I’ve seen a novel drive home what was actually at stake during that time so completely, epitomized by the Morse coded dit-dit-dit-dah (V for Victory) transmitted to Teddy’s plane from a Dutch civilian (“It was a message of both faith and comfort that they saw frequently”), capped by “You could sometimes forget that there were entire nations for whom you were the last hope.” Atkinson does well by these young men who undertook what was in essence a last stand.

“A God in Ruins” is a novel well worth reading due to Atkinson’s artistry. If you haven’t read “Life After Life” yet, I suggest you read the later novel first just so you can move from reality to fantasy rather than the other way around. It’s so much more fun that way.

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Posted in Television

Champion Manipulators

One Toxic “Mother-Daughter” Combo

“Orange is the New Black” has come roaring back for its second season on Netflix. It’s always difficult for a smash hit series to maintain that level of excellence, but on balance I think this one has.

We’ve now gotten some pre-prison background on Suzanne (Crazy Eyes), Poussey, Black Cindy, Miss Rosa, Sister Jane and Morello, though we’re still in the dark as to why some of these inmates ended up in Litchfield. But Morello’s story remains a stand-out. We learn she conflated an entire romance with her “fiancé” out of one coffee date, during which he evidently spotted the crazy and dropped her. Whereupon she began to stalk him and his girlfriend, going so far to plant a bomb under the latter’s car. Inasmuch as the luckless object of Morello’s affection is a postal worker, she ended up in a federal pen, creepily smiling her way through her trial. And it even goes downhill from there.

But it’s through Taystee that we meet the sociopath who drives OITNB’s Season Two: Vee, a drug dealer, who ensnares children and teens mired in the foster system into her network of runners and street dealers. She offers them something they’ve never had before—attention, support and family life, of a sort (Dickens’ Fagin comes to mind). She makes it all seem real because she always has her eyes on the prize, as a true sociopath does. In Litchfield she continues to prey upon anyone whom she can use, most pathetically the needy Suzanne, whom she turns into a sadistic henchman always eager for Momma Vee’s love.

The ever-skeptical Red, who knew Vee well during the latter’s earlier period of incarceration, is instantly wary upon their initial encounter in Round Two.  Paybacks abound in terms of territory taken and who runs which racket, until Red, incensed that Vee is dealing drugs inside the prison, tries but fails to strangle her. Vee’s heartfelt call for a truce results in Red’s letting her guard down, to her extreme detriment. But the way the story ultimately plays out is satisfying indeed.

The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences better start inscribing that Emmy now, because it belongs to Lorraine Toussaint for her portrayal of Vee. Whether warm, shrewd or coldly manipulative, there’s not one wrong note in her performance. She strikes exactly the right pitch between realism and larger than life; when she’s on-screen you want even more Vee though you’re totally appalled at what she does. Until this point Lorraine Toussaint has been best known for her appearances on multiple TV shows, including her recurring role as a defense attorney on “Law & Order” and more recently as Sheri Saum’s mother on “The Fosters” (great “Fosters” tweet the other night about grandma being in the pen). But what a break-out role Vee is turning out to be.

There are other things to savor in OITNB: that weird friendship between Pennsatuckey and Healey; Sophia instructing the other inmates re: the design and function of their ladyparts; more Piper and Alex, past and present. But watching Nicky struggle with Vee’s bribe of drugs (was I the only one yelling “Don’t do it!” at the screen?), only to turn the stuff over to Red was perhaps the most heartfelt moment of the season. The funniest by far? Pornstache’s perp walk as he shouts pregnancy advice to Daya (“Don’t eat tuna fish!”). When I read that Mary Steenburgen would be playing his Mom next season, all I could think was “Pornstache has a mother?!?” Good times are definitely ahead.

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She’s Finally Got Your Number, Jackie

I’ve been a fan of “Nurse Jackie” since the beginning, and I’m amazed that after six seasons this show still has the ability to surprise, though not necessarily in a good way. Edie Falco continues to play that most anti- of anti-heroines who seems to sink lower with each episode. Yes, she’s a pill gobbling addict and the hallmark of addiction is that the junk comes before everything—husband/boyfriend, children, friends and conscience—but in the long run can this really be entertainment?

The end of last season saw Jackie relapse on the one-year anniversary of her sobriety, and this year she’s so overboard with the meds she’s managed to (a) steal a doctor’s DEA number to facilitate her trips to the pharmacy (b) entice a dying nun to take the rap for it (c) dump her terrific, supportive cop boyfriend at least twice in super-nasty fashion (d) lure her sponsor into relapse and then trick her into signing herself into rehab on the false promise that she (Jackie) would enter the program with her (e) destroy her rebuilt relationship with her ex-husband by bringing her dealer to the ex’s wedding, and worst of all (f) alienate her supervisor and co-workers by refusing to enter a diversionary program after nearly killing a patient while being high as a kite at work. There’s even more, and it’s all told in twelve increasingly depressing episodes.

It’s tough to watch. Jackie seemed to exhibit no remorse whatsoever, except in the last episode when it finally dawned on her that even her younger daughter has had enough. And yet she still has good old Eddie (Paul Schulze), her pharmacist sidekick, as her enabler. Now there’s a dysfunctional relationship for you—no matter how badly she behaves, she can always cast that line to reel him back in, and he seemingly has no other significant person in his life. At various points I thought he might be breaking away, first when he gave O’Hara a ride on his motorcycle (Eve Best, please come back!), and this season, when he hung out with Antoinette, Jackie’s sponsor (Julie White, who’s been a breath of fresh air). But once again he paved the way for Jackie’s escape from responsibility, soon thwarted by a car accident and her subsequent DUI arrest.

Despite my misgivings about the direction the show has taken, there’s some very fine acting on display here. In addition to Ms. Falco, Anna Deavere Smith is tremendous as Gloria Akalitus, Jackie’s supervisor, and Merritt Wever rightly deserved that Emmy she won as Zoe Barkow, no longer Jackie’s protegé but a true peer who finally sees through all her lies. Dr. Fitch Cooper has even become fun to watch, thanks to Peter Facinelli’s charm; I only wish the show runners had brought back his two moms, but I suppose Blythe Danner/Judith Light and/or Swoosie Kurtz was/were unavailable.

“Nurse Jackie” will be back for a seventh season, and at this point it’s hard to see how she’ll be able to put her life back together. It will literally be kill or cure time.

Posted in Brain Bits, Observations, Television

Brain Bits for a Boston Week

B StrongI love New England. I was proud to spend my college and law school years there, and being able to return to visit family and friends is always a pleasure. So when the bombs went off on Boylston Street on Monday—on Patriot’s Day, no less—it was like a knife to the heart.

The site of this week’s carnage was midway between my law school apartment and my alma mater, which at that time was located on Newbury Street. So I didn’t need to watch the videos of the attack to visualize where this happened. But I did. And I didn’t have to see the photos of the horror that ensued. But I did. And I didn’t need to be glued to NPR while I was at work on Friday, listening to the feed from Boston, in order to picture the lockdown in Boston and what was going on in Watertown. But I was. And on Saturday afternoon I cried when Fox Sports cut away from the Mets/Nationals game to the crowd at Fenway Park, led by Neil Diamond, singing “Sweet Caroline.”

I’ve written before about being a native New Jerseyan. But today, while the Jersey Shore may be in my DNA, my heart beats for Boston.

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What with season finales, series returns and shows dangling over the precipice awaiting word on renewal, there’s a lot going on in TV land. Sunday night is a virtual head-on collision of stalwarts, with “Game of Thrones” airing opposite “Nurse Jackie,” followed by “Mad Men.”

My scorecard so far reads like this:

“Game of Thrones”: Despite (or maybe because of) all the grue and gore, probably the most entertaining show now on the air. Yes, it’s getting complicated with all the different houses vying for the Iron Throne, but some time spent on the HBO web site or reviewing the family trees which appear as an appendix to each of George R.R. Martin’s novels should keep your head straight. And how can you resist Diana Rigg as Olenna Tyrell, pulling the strings as Margery’s grandmother? Or Danerys Targaryan and her dragons of renown? Not to mention Tyrion Lannister, the unlikely hero of this saga? Sunday can never come soon enough.

“Nurse Jackie”: Getting a bit tired here. When did Kevin get to be such a bastard? I hope the show runners aren’t going down the Alzheimer’s path with Akalaitis. And why oh why did O’Hara move to London? Eve Best has got to return, otherwise this show will be a prime candidate for the trash can.

“Mad Men”: Flaccid. Limp. Sorry for the imagery, but what a disappointment the first two episodes of this season were. The two hour premiere was an exercise in tedium—Don Draper doing his “man of mystery” number again while screwing his neighbor’s wife, and what else is new? (By the way, I never would have recognized Linda Cardellini if her name hadn’t appeared in the closing credits). We already know what a rotten childhood Don had, but Matthew Weiner insists on belaboring the issue. At this point I want no more Draper flashbacks whatsoever unless they feature Anna Draper.

Based on the background news casts in last week’s episode, it appears we’re at the beginning of 1968, but where’s the creative snap of this era? Advertising was exploding at that time, what with the “let it all hang out” attitude, yet you’d never know it from what we’ve seen so far. And what’s Joan up to, besides putting down Mr. New Jersey Jaguar Dealership? She’s a partner in SCDP, and should have taken Lane Pryce’s job (though you can bet the boys won’t make her a VP). I enjoyed the Peggy scenes, especially those with her gossiping with Stan, but the show as a whole seems stuck in a rut. Relief is desperately needed.

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southland-cast-regina-king-michael-cudlitz-shawn-hatosy-ben-mckenzieThis season of “Southland” (and perhaps the entire series) ended on a fitting if unhappy note last Wednesday. As a big fan of the show I’d like to see it renewed, but if it isn’t, I have to say the producers left things in a logical place. Former Detective Sammy figured out that Ben was behind the robbery at his house, and their confrontation may have been the best scene of the episode. If “Southland” does return I suspect one of these men will be stuck with Dewey as a partner, which would be great comic relief.

John Cooper was left with nothing, perhaps not even his life. His ex-wife decides not to have a child with him, his ordeal at the hands of two meth heads keeps him off the streets and his sergeant refuses to override the brass’s decision on that score (Cooper’s pistol whipping the noisy neighbor demonstrates exactly why). While it looks like he’s gone, a return of “Southland” would no doubt bring word that the neighbors were indeed engaging in cannabis horticulture, thus exonerating Coop. We’ll see.

Only Lydia seemingly got a happy ending (though Sammy talking to his 18 month-old son like an adult is a joy). I say “seemingly” because while Tom Everett Scott is always easy on the eyes, I’m not sure I’d be trusting an ex-partner who threw me under the bus to save his own skin. But hey—if Lydia is happy, I’m happy.

In the meantime, we can only sit, wait, bite our nails and besiege TNT with emails begging them to renew “Southland.” Let your voice be heard by way of this link on TNT’s website. It can’t hurt.

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I love a good pun, and this one is especially welcome, given the events of the last week. It’s a great play on words, and I’ll give you a hint—it’s from a modern dress production of a certain Wagner opera. Sing out if you get it:

Bayerische Staatsoper