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December 25, 2017

I watched the six episodes of Netflix’s Wormwood, which tells the story of the death of Frank Olson, an Army scientist, in 1953, and the long drawn out investigation of what actually happened to him, fueled by his son Eric’s inexhaustible curiosity.

The series is being called a docudrama because some of the scenes are enacted by current actors while others are made up of interviews with the actual participants, particularly with Eric Olson and the journalist Seymour Hersh.

The original story put out by the government was that Frank Olson killed himself by diving out the window of a tenth story New York hotel room. It was not until twenty years later that the C.I.A. took some slight partial responsibility by saying that Olson had been a subject in an experiment to investigate how LSD affected people’s behavior. It is now fairly clear that Olson did not throw himself out the hotel window, and it is not clear that he was ever given LSD by the agency.

The family had Olson’s body exhumed some forty years after the death, and examined by an expert crime scene investigator. The result was a finding that Olson had probably not been conscious when his body was dropped out the window, and that what happened to him was strictly in accordance with a C.I.A. assassination manual.

There are many murky details in the story, but the basic conclusion is that Olson was executed by the C.I.A. because he was disturbed by weapons he had discovered the United States had used during the Korean War (lethal germs distributed by bombs) and had given the impression that he might talk openly about these acts.

It was deemed to be in the interests of national security that Olson should disappear. One of the curious revelations of the series is that it does not seem to be against the law for the C.I.A. to kill someone for that reason, even though all other facts of the case would indicate it was pure murder.

In one of his final interviews, Eric Olson asks himself if simply finding out that the C.I.A. killed his father, is enough to justify his long devotion and the sacrifices he made to carry it out, given that though he is sure he knows the basic truth, it has not been officially established by government or journalistic agencies, and that all the multiple details of what happened and who was responsible are buried in C.I.A. vaults where they may never be seen.

If I could talk to him, I would try to assure him it was justified. There is probably nothing more needed by the American people than for them to discover what their government actually is, and to see that though this story doesn’t nail down every fact, it helps us grasp that the government’s goals and our own are nowhere close to being identical.

Alias Grace
November 8, 2017

Last night I completed watching the six-episode Netflix series, Alias Grace, which was based on a Margaret Atwood novel, which, in turn, was based on a double murder which occurred in the Toronto area in the 1840s.

The plot rides on two mysteries: what part did Grace Marks, who was a sixteen-year-old maidservant at the time, play in the murders, and what did she remember of them fifteen years later when the principal action of the story takes place?

You probably won’t be surprised to hear that neither of those questions are answered definitively, though there are myriad hints that can allow one to construct a thesis.

Grace is played compellingly by Sarah Gadon, a Canadian actress who is just about the same age Grace was at the time of the primary setting. But here’s a curious thing: the character Grace appeared over wide stretches of her life, from when she was twelve till she was in her forties. Yet, no effort was made through the magic of makeup to show her aging. She looked just about the same when she was twelve as she did at the end. That had to be a conscious decision on the part of the director, but I haven’t seen any explanation of why. To tell the truth, I kind of liked it, but, even I am not sure why.

The series asks the question: what is a mind? And it explores that mystery in a variety of ways. What does one know about herself while events are occurring? The suggestion is, not very much. I like to think we can know ourselves better than what Alias Grace implies. I have to admit, though, I was left wondering whether my preference has the credence I have tended to give it. That alone, is a good enough reason for me to recommend the show to you.

The Travelers
January 13, 2017

Last night I finished watching the first season of a TV series titled The Travelers. I say first season, though no second season has been made, because the program was well received, and the assumption of most critics is that the two companies that brought the production to the public thus far will get together again to carry it forward.

The show was made by a Canadian company, Showcase, and presented weekly in Canada before being released entirely in the U.S., late in 2016, by Netflix.

I’m posting this short notice here because The Travelers is perhaps the most intriguing time-travel melodrama I’ve seen. If the idea of moving backward and forward in time beguiles you, then this series might well hold your interest.

It’s not that it doesn’t present frustrations of plot -- what time-travel story doesn’t? But the emotional difficulties of moving from one era to another is laid out here as grippingly as I’ve ever seen.

The basic plot is fairly simple. The future has devolved into a total mess. Though we’re not told what’s going on then, we’re convinced it’s bad enough that our descendants would be sufficiently desperate to try changing events in their past so there would be correspondent changes later. There’s the sense that no matter what happened because of these time shenanigans, the results would have to be an improvement over what has happened thus far.

The rightness of this theory, however, is not what gives the plot its interest. What returns from the future to change things is not a full-scale human being but simply a consciousness, which is obliged to take over an ongoing life. This time-traveling consciousness knows some details about the life being abducted but comparatively little about its full psyche. To maintain its cover, it has to play the role of its host, with all the emotional attachments that role entails. In short, it has to move into another life, and live it, while continuing to carry out the duties it brought with it from the future. As you might imagine, that proves to be more complex than was expected. The two existences get into agonizing conflicts, leaving the viewer to decide which he or she sympathizes with more. The supposed well-being of the future does not always win out. And, gradually, we the viewers begin to perceive that it shouldn’t in every case.

The perplexities of the human mind appear to be even more tangled than they mysteries of time and space, so much so, I suspect, most of us won’t know for sure whose side we’re on.

When a TV show can raise that question with you, it’s probably worth checking out, whether Season Two arrives or not.

House of Cards
February 15, 2014

Last night I watched the first two episodes of the second season of House of Cards.  That Francis Underwood is what might be called “a piece of work.”

A goodly portion of the country seems to be asking itself if this is what life among the power brokers in Washington is actually like. Do aspiring Congressmen really commit murder to climb to the top of the heap? I don’t know. I guess I still doubt it, but the more I read about national politics, the weaker my doubt grows.

Beau Willimon, the lead writer for the show, says it’s all about power. No other motive is in the running. Any other goal will be sacrificed for it. I haven’t yet heard him say he thinks this is the way things work in the national government, but he has hinted as much. He says the United States is, itself, primarily a power-seeking machine. I confess I do find it a little scary that the president of the United States is one of the show’s biggest fans.

The curious thing about this melodrama is that Francis Underwood is so obsessed with power it takes away any ability he might once have had to ask why. Why does he want it so much? What’s the good of it? For Underwood such questions would be meaningless. He couldn’t stop a second to ponder them. I suppose it’s understandable that for a moment a person could get so caught up in a game that nothing else mattered. But living perpetually in that moment, day in and day out, month in and month out, is difficult to imagine. You would think that every now and then a whiff of something else would break through. To think of one thing alone, I’m told, is the essence of pure addiction. And power is the most potent addiction of all. Or, at least, so House of Cards assures us.

Contemplating addiction at such a level can be depressing. That seems to be the reaction of most viewers. And yet the show is also fascinating. Contemplating complete degradation appears to be a core human appetite.

I have seen a number of comments that House of Cards is our Shakespeare. That’s to accord Beau Willimon a bit more verbal agility than he deserves, but I understand how the comparison has arisen. Underwood clearly resembles Macbeth in several respects, and it may be that Claire Underwood is even closer to Lady Macbeth. I don’t know if you can call it progress that Macbeth is capable of arriving at some regret whereas anything of that sort for Underwood seems absurd. At this stage of the series, the thought of Underwood’s ever having any doubt about his basic orientation is beyond belief. Remember his remark to the audience, while strangling a dog: “There are two kinds of pain. The sort of pain that makes you strong, or useless pain. The sort of pain that's only suffering. I have no patience for useless things.”

The prime message of House of Cards -- if you can attach such a thing to it -- is that we have constructed a political system at which only psychopaths can play successfully. This is put forward as portentous and awe-inspiring. It causes us to shiver at the frightfulness of it all. But I wonder if that’s the only way to respond to it. What if we stepped beyond -- and perhaps above -- Francis Underwood and other characters of his ilk and regarded them as pitiful worms?

A mistake people make, and Americans make perhaps even more egregiously, is granting grandeur to evil. We are probably too caught up in the notion of Satan, an immortal being, an actual rival to God. But if we simply said to ourselves that there is no such thing as Satan and, therefore, no such thing as evil grandeur, we could come to view people like Francis Underwood as pathetic jokes.

Maybe House of Cards is a comedy, and nothing else.

Viewing it that way wouldn’t mean that bad, ruthless, addicted people are not dangerous. Obviously they are. They need to be watched and restrained. But might they also need to be laughed at?

When I think of the people I have known, and particularly of those who were inclined to do nasty things, I can’t help seeing them as both small and comic. They were all funny in one way or another.

It’s clear that we have in our actual cast of political characters now a large number of pathological people. And if we dug deeply into the nature of politics as it is practiced at the national level we might well conclude that a much greater percentage of the actors than we have supposed are psychopaths. I realize it’s not common to think of psychopaths as funny people, but stop for a minute to think. Consider the recent photographs you’ve seen of Ted Cruz. Aren’t they funny? In truth, aren’t they hilarious?

I’m going to try an experiment with House of Cards. Instead of letting it horrify and depress me I’m going to see if it can’t be simply an object of amusement. It could be a kind of training for political response in actual life.

I don’t want to let laughter cause me to lower my guard. If there are people like Francis Dashwood in political life -- and I’m afraid there are -- I shouldn’t forget that they’re dangerous and capable of doing a great deal of harm. But warding off the harm is not inconsistent with finding them absurd and ridiculous. And viewing them that way, and laughing at them, is likely to be a more efficient way of disarming them than awarding them a perverse grandeur they don’t deserve.

Homeland, Season III
December 16, 2013

Homeland completed its third season on Showtime last night, a season that has not been kindly received by the critics. I can’t say I disagree with them sharply about the quality of the program. But the contrast with the first two seasons for me was not as great as it was for them because I never found the underlying concept for the series very enthralling.

My problem, I suppose, is that I have a hard time finding anything serious in the behavior of the C.I.A., either in its fictional or its so-called real versions. People playing spies strike me as existing on about the same level as people playing at spying.

Maureen Ryan, the television critic for the Huffington Post, is happy that Nicholas Brody is dead (she evidently takes his execution by the Iranians as a fact and not as a ruse). She says he should have been killed off last season and then things this year could have gone better. And why is that? Because the show had descended into an “unreasonable shipper.” Now, if you’re like me before I read the piece, you don’t know what a “shipper” is. So, I’m obliged to tell you that it’s a drama in which the action is built on the question of whether the main characters will get together romantically. And if you’re very much in favor of that happening, you’re said to be “shipping” the pair. I have no idea whether Ms. Ryan made this up as a spoof or whether people actually talk that way. But, in any case, it’s true that TV series often play with the issue of whether the main characters can find a way to live happily, together ever after. It seems to be a truism in TV Land that when characters finally do get together, the show is ruined. So the thing is to string it out as long a possible.

I have read so many people who said it would be absurd if Carrie and Brodie did get together in something resembling a stable connection I can’t remember them all. That conclusion has become a factoid in popular culture. Consequently, Brody had to be killed. Why it had to be Brody rather than Carrie I can’t be sure. Maybe it’s just because Claire Danes has a bigger financial investment in Homeland than Damion Lewis does (I don’t, by the way, know if that’s true). Anyway, the issue became not whether Brody should be killed but when and how.

Ryan says the series should be about adventure in the C.I.A. and not about romance. But without some caring about the characters who get involved in these nonsensical shenanigans, I don’t how anyone could stay interested. The C.I.A. and its foolishness is ultimately boring, and even when it’s spiced up by fictional doings, it’s still pretty flat.

Quite a few viewers, by the way, don’t think Brody is really dead. The Iranians presumably faked the execution and have taken him away to be used as something other than a corpse. I don’t know what I think about that theory. I doubt the producers would be daring enough to try it. But, who knows? If it were up to me I might bring him back actually to blow up the C.I.A. this time and then go off to live happily, without an ounce of guilt, in a gorgeous villa on the Caspian Sea. But, then, that might not be such a good idea because I’d have to be ready to sprint down the street dodging rotten grapefruit thrown by patriots. Truth is, I’ve never had a desire to work on a TV show, and writing for one would be as close to drudgery as I can imagine.

Many critics are wondering if Homeland can have a genuine rebirth -- assuming Brody really is dead. Carrie will have to deliver the baby and then decide what to do about it. There have been hints she will leave it with her father in the U.S., while she sports off to Istanbul to thwart the foes of the American empire. I don’t think that would work very well, but, on the other hand, agonies in Turkey about whether to stay home and nurse the baby or go off and kill somebody don’t entice me either.

There were also suggestions that Saul will find a way to worm himself back into the agency. Why any sane person would want to do that, I can’t imagine. But we have to remember that Saul is not sane. This, of course, has been a fairly silly commentary up to now, but for a few seconds I’d like to try to take a different tack and say a few sober things about the character Saul Berenson. It seems to me he has been presented as the moral anchor of the story. But if the American audience is holding him in esteem, that’s a disquieting feature of the national character. Is it not clear that he’s a complete fanatic, and that his worship is directed not towards the nation but, rather, towards some crazed perception of what an intelligence agency can, and should be? After all, he wants it to run the country, without the country’s knowing it’s being run that way. His plan for rapprochement with Iran is to murder the legitimate leader and put a vile criminal in his place, because he’s got something on the criminal that can make him dance to an American tune. Is that what we call a real ally? Is that what we call genuine diplomacy? I understand this is melodrama and therefore not like real life. But melodramas do present real ideals; that’s their principal value. So when they attempt to make a hero of a character who is actually a psychopath, and when the public accepts that character as a hero, I get worried.

I don’t really care whether there will be fourth season of Homeland, or what kind of rebirth there might be. But if there is a season and a rebirth, I hope neither will feature Saul.

The State Within
September 19, 2013

Yesterday I finished watching the BBC political adventure series from 2006, The State Within.

As entertainment, it was fairly enticing. It’s the story of a British ambassador to the United States who finds himself in the midst of a secret plot to generate a war in the fictional Central Asian country of Tyrgyztan. The villains turn out to be the typical bad actors, corrupt security contractors, who are trying to set up conditions that will lead to lucrative deals for themselves and their companies. But these guys are seemingly even more over the top than Blackwater and Erik Prince. I say “seemingly” because I don’t think all the business Prince carried out has yet come to light. As far as I know, though, he never blew up an airliner flying from Washington to London in order to induce a war mania in the United States, which is the initial incident in The State Within.

Television series like this interest me modestly as melodrama, but they interest me more sharply for the influence they have on the public’s belief about politics and international affairs. I am always being reminded that my friend Dan Noel used to tell me that The X-Files was seen by most viewers as a quasi-documentary, which presented stories based on facts. Now we seem to have an endless number of tales which imply that every government agency is littered with moles who are trying to carry out nefarious operations which are not only hidden from the public but also from the major government leaders. That, of course, is the implication in the title of this series: there is a state within the state, conducted by people who care nothing for the principles on which the government is supposedly based, who will do anything to enrich themselves and bolster their power.

These presentations raise two questions:

  • To what degree do average citizens think that’s indeed the case?

  • To what degree is it true?

Numerous commentators have argued recently that when the people lose confidence in the basic integrity of their government, then society is in a bad way. And then they point out that trust in government is at an all-time low, and that many people are willing to believe that no skullduggery is too low, or too vicious, for their government to engage in it. It’s clear that the debate about guns in America is driven by people who see themselves at some time in the near future being forced to take up arms against the government in order to maintain even basic freedoms. You can say that’s nuts. And it is nuts. But there can be little doubt that millions believe it.

It’s possible to lack confidence in the sanity of most Tea Party members, because they’re ignorant and because their fears about what the government is doing have been ginned up by sleazy politicians, without dismissing the concern that the government has passed out of the control of the democratic process and is now in the hands of inside operators whose interest in the well-being of most citizens is virtually non-existent.

It may be, given the nasty stuff actually going on in government and the undue influence exerted by financial interests -- who really do seem to be completely out of control -- that shows like The State Within should be viewed not as pessimistic views of evil but more as optimistic views of decency. There are, after all, quite a few people in this drama who do the right thing. The British ambassador is the primary good guy, but he is ultimately aided by numbers of people who see what kind of mischief is underway and risk themselves in order to oppose it. There’s an FBI agent who plays it straight all the way through, and is willing to run athwart of superiors in order to bring out the truth. There’s a journalist who, though he wants to get a big story, is obviously devoted to seeing viciousness revealed. Even the figure who through most of the series is seen as the principal plotter against good, a hard-driving, tough-talking Secretary of Defense, played by Sharon Gless, turns out in the end to have been duped and used by the actual malefactors. Though her judgment is not good, and though she pursues fairly stupid political goals, her motives are sincere, and there are things she will not do in pursuit of them.

The forces of good do win out, in the end -- sort of. The main evil-doers are either killed or exposed. There remains hope for the future, not only for the country and the political process, but for the people who risked something in the interests of good -- not all of them, of course; a disturbing number of them die.

When we come to judge the influence of stories like The State Within, there may be no reason for dismay. They tell us that there is evil in the world, much of it in places where we have been assured it doesn’t exist. And that’s clearly true. But they tell us that sprinkled throughout our systems there are persons of integrity, with both courage and at least partial good judgment. That, I’m afraid, is not as clearly true. But I don’t suppose we have definitive evidence that it’s false either.

On the whole, I think we are better off with melodramas that depict deception, manipulation and rampant rationalization of behavior that any sane person would recognize as dishonesty than we would be if we were being fed tales of the obviously good guys against the obvious villains that was the standard fare of fifty years ago. Both types are less than perfect representations of reality, but the later style is closer to the truth than what we used to get.

South Riding
May 16, 2011
[Comment or Respond]

The short Masterpiece Theatre series, South Riding, concluded on PBS last night. Based on a novel by Winifred Holtby, the story is set on a remote section of the Yorkshire coast in the early 1930s. Sarah Burton, played with fascinating quirkiness by Anna Maxwell Martin, arrives to take up the duties of head teacher at the local girls' school. Energetic and possessed by modern ideas, Sarah wants to open possibilities for her pupils in ways that don't always fit with the notions of the local people. So conflict is in the offing from the start.

This is, to say the least, a bleak story, with some successes but more heartbreak. Rural Yorkshire is suffering from depressed economic conditions perhaps more than the rest of the country, and people feel driven to desperate measures simply to get by.

What is it about England between the two great wars? It certainly was not an easy time, or place. Yet there's something about it that draws one in. When I play the game of where I would visit should I be allowed to go to just one place of the past, England of the 1920s and early 30s is always near the top of the list. It strikes me as an intensely human environment, even more so than the Victorian era. I think I would enjoy a cup of tea then, and there, more than I could in any other situation -- though I must admit, I like a cup of tea even now.

It may be, also, that sexual experience was near a peak then, poised between the stuffy reticence of the Victorians and the flaccid liberation of later, when sex became just another thing.

The romance in this tale occurs between Sarah and Robert Carne, a local landowner, with whom she disagrees about education and many other things. It's a poignant statement that sexual attraction can easily brush away differences of opinion, and perhaps even be heightened by them.

There are just three episodes in the series, and each of them lasts only about fifty-five minutes, so the whole thing is no longer than some movies. There is not time to tie up all the loose ends but that doesn't matter because a tight plot isn't the point of this film. It's more than anything else a matter of mood and what happens in people's hearts when they are struck by inexplicable events.

The weather plays a big role, as you would expect in a tale about Yorkshire, and the ocean too. There may be a few too many scenes of the waves rolling in but it's clear they are there to tell us something.

How close are we to the 1930s? In some ways they seem quite contemporary. The people of that time don't appear to be emerging out of the mists of time. But the differences actually are dramatic. They had motor cars, and electricity, and radio, but in many ways life then was more similar to a century previously than it is to our experience now. Everything -- except perhaps for the very rich -- was extremely basic. That may be its principal appeal. It almost tells us this is how we ought to live most of the time. People then at least opened their cans with implements they held in their hands rather than with electronic devices. There is something far more appealing about a woman opening a can with a traditional can opener than seeing a women stick a can into an automatic device. Maybe I just hate automatic can openers more than most people do but I don't think my point is completely personal.

Sarah Burton is the center of this story and how you respond to her will probably determine how you respond to it. She struck me as a thoroughly interesting combination of traits. Prim at times, forward at others, surprisingly daring sexually, she's a revealing portrait of a woman in transition, actually anchored in the past but desiring new things for herself and for the girls she teaches. When you think about it that's a good place to be. It offers more productive tension than destruction. Though the things that happen to Sarah are not generally happy, you don't end up feeling sorry for her -- or at least I didn't. She is her own reward and a richer outcome than most people achieve.

The TV production got me interested enough in Winifred Holtby to order the novel. Though I haven't yet checked, it's doubtless sitting ready on my Kindle right now. I don't usually do anything like that after watching a TV show. I'm pretty sure the novel will tell me more about the small habits of the time than the film did. And lately I've become fixated on small habits. They tell me more of what I want to know than sensational events do.  I am pretty well off of "high concepts" as they have been defined by modern literature.

I like to watch the way someone pours a cup of tea. There's a world in that.

April 16, 2010

I'm out of sorts with the producers of the terrorist melodrama 24. I understand the series is not supposed to be pie-in-the-sky or greeting card sweet, but there comes a point when endless, contrived killing becomes sick and nihilistic. That point was passed in the most recent episode with the murder of the character Renee Walker.

I suppose we have to expect shows of this sort to be fantastic, but 24's take on the unrestrained activities of foreign intelligence services inside the United States is bizarre. These sneaky outsiders can kill anyone they wish at any minute and no American law enforcement agency can do the slightest thing to prevent it. True, American agents can sometimes track down ruthless foreigners and kill them in turn, but only after they've carried out every nefarious act they want to commit.

Why, within the plot, was Renee murdered? Because a Russian spy, posing as a New York City policeman, -- the New York police can, of course, be infiltrated effortlessly -- thought that Renee might have recognized him a crowded hallway. So, he followed her and Jack Bauer back to the latter's apartment, went across the street to an apartment that overlooked Jack's, killed the guy who lived in it, and set up his assassin's gear to wait for Renee to come out of Jack's bedroom, which she eventually did. Then, he slaughtered her with a spray of bullets through the window.

One of the heartening sub-themes of the series during its first seventeen episodes had been the promise that Jack and Renee, once they had thwarted the current set of villains, would get together and find happiness in their union. I'm sure many viewers have been hoping that would happen. But not the producers. They seem to want to kill just about everyone. I wouldn't be surprised if Jack were dead by the end of this season. What, exactly, is supposed to be accomplished by this nonstop, rampant, senseless, extremely unlikely killing? Are viewers supposed to enjoy killing for the sale of killing alone?

Even melodrama, silly as it often is, needs some sort of theme or message. What message is 24 in its last season sending us? That everybody gets killed, no matter what? As I watched Renee Walker die, I kept asking myself, why? It's inexplicable, I thought.

Actually, though, nothing is inexplicable. We tend to say things are because we don't want to face up to the explanations.

Here's what I suspect. Our media culture, from news to spy shows, is awash in cheap ideas. The meretricious notion driving the producers of 24 may well have something to do with the virtue and supposed realism of toughness. This current and juvenile version of toughness not only requires killing, it demands that the killing be near-spontaneous, virtually gratuitous, and representative of complete indifference to life. To depict killing of that sort, dismissive of any desire an audience might feel, is presumed to show that the producers themselves are just as tough as the fictional characters they create. The producers are tough guys -- in their own perspective -- and what they're saying is, "Look at us. We're tough enough to kill anyone."

Is that entertainment? I guess it is if you are, yourself, a tough guy. But for someone like myself, who's not tough, the whole business begins to reek of disease. I guess I'll watch the next seven hours because, though not tough, I do like to see how any story I start turns out. But I no longer expect to be satisfied, dramatically, emotionally or in any other way. Caring about satisfaction is probably the most untough thing one can do.

Literary Clout in TV Land
October 16, 2009

I know that some might think this is a stretch, but I'm becoming ever more convinced that the crime, comedy melodrama Bones, is modeling itself on Jane Austen's Emma.

You'll recall that Emma is in many ways a bright young woman, and unfailingly charming, but who nonetheless can be perfectly unaware of what's going on around her. This is a near perfect description of the heroine of Bones, Temperance Brennan, the brilliant forensic anthropologist.

You'll also remember that Emma toys with the thought of linking with or admiring young men in her neighborhood, yet always turns away from them because she is, unknown to herself, always subconsciously comparing them to an old family friend, Mr. Knightley.

Temperance, having a more modern consciousness than Emma, actually does link up with some of her male acquaintances and speaks highly of their attributes. Yet, somehow, things never quite work out and the audience knows, though Temperance doesn't, that the relationships fade away because the liaisons are pale shadows compared to Temperance's relationship with her FBI partner, Agent Seeley Booth.

In the episode last night on Fox, the underlying but unacknowledged attraction between Bones and Booth almost burst through the psychological screen that's holding them apart. This, of course, is a common device in TV series. The two main characters are always on the verge, but they can't leap into one another's arms because, then, where would the plot be?

Emma, in a way, is the story of a marriage, in all but name, that precedes romance. And that's what Bones is too. When Temperance and Booth are driving together to some crime scene, they chatter away like the most securely married people in the world. But neither of them is aware that's what's happening.

I don't know if others besides myself have noticed the Jane Austen association. I haven't read about it anywhere. But if Emma is the model then Temperance and Booth have to get together. It's just a matter of how, and when.

Criminal Minds
October 15, 2009

Last night on the CBS series about the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit -- a euphemism for a team of profilers -- one of the major characters used a phrase I think I'm hearing more frequently on TV: "suicide by cop."

The premise behind the term is that some people, having decided they wish to depart this mode of existence, prefer to accomplish their purpose by employing -- so to speak -- lethal policemen. And the further premise is that practically everyone who chooses to use this process will be successful. In other words, the police are more than ready to be accommodating.

Often, the resulting drama is portrayed by tension between local police, who see themselves as society's revenge squad, and more scientific law enforcement officials, who try to maintain a dispassionate view of their work.

I don't know if that distinction actually exists in life, but it does seem to be the case that policemen will kill anybody who gives them a modest reason for doing it. Is this because they're nervous, or scared, or because there is a value system among police which confers prestige on anyone who kills in the line of duty? I can't say.

Yet, I wonder if the melodramatic depiction of conflict between lower-ranking, eager killers and highly trained, and moderately restrained officials has a place in reality. I hope it does or, at least, I hope there is somebody in the chain of command who takes a dubious view of suicide by cop. After all, why should society pay policemen to work for deranged criminals?

National sociology may have something to do with all this. A curious truth about American statistics is that we keep very careful account of law enforcement officers who are killed while they're doing their jobs, but there is no official counting of the number of people policemen kill while plying their trade. I'm not sure what that says about us, but whatever it is, it's fairly significant.

Montpelier policemen have killed no one in all the years I've lived here, and I take that as a reason to hope, plausibly, that we won't be visited by the Behavioral Analysis Unit anytime soon.

The Mentalist
January 7, 2009

A common device of detective series on TV is to have an overarching crime that is always lurking in the background while the heroes solve the individual cases week by week. It's not a technique I particularly like, and I'm not sure it adds much to the new CBS offering, The Mentalist, which has just aired the eleventh episode of its first season.

The tale here is that Patrick Jane (played by Simon Baker), a former "psychic" entertainer, had his family murdered by a figure known mysteriously as "Red John." Jane has now given up his show business career, admitted that his psychic powers were nothing of the sort but based simply on sharp observation, and joined the California Bureau of Investigation as an advisor to an investigative team. Though he is a very effective assistant in solving the crimes the team takes up, his primary goal remains to discover the identity of Red John and to bring him to justice.

On the surface, Jane is a breezy, cheery vivant, always furnished with a dazzling smile. But, underneath the persona, he remains a tortured soul because of what happened to him.

The creators of the show clearly wanted to do something to add depth to their character. After all, steadily brilliant happiness could turn stale after a while. But the stock device of a murdered family is a bit too much of a bromide to fit well with Jane's personality. If the writers had thought harder, they should have been able to devise something more distinctive to drive him, something surprisingly concealed in his psyche.

The difficulty with a figure like Red John is that he has to be preternaturally brilliant to outwit continually a team of intelligent investigators. And that, in turn, sets the viewers up for a letdown. When he finally is found, as he must be, he won't be as fascinating as people have led to believe. Furthermore, after Red John is out of the way, what's going to give Jane his depth?

Even so, Simon Baker is giving the role a better than average TV sheen, and he is ably boosted by his supporting cast, especially by the head of the team, Teresa Lisbon, a taskmaster played by Robin Tunney.

Given what else is available on TV this season, The Mentalist is worth an hour now and then.

January 6, 2009

It seems to me that the attitudes of Temperance Brennan on the TV series Bones  are worth a moment's comment.

Those of you who watch the show know that Ms. Brennan, played by Emily Deschanel, is a forensic anthropologist who works for the fictional Jeffersonian Institute in Washington. It's a strange organization, to say the least, because although it's supposed to be devoted to scientific research, it has allowed Brennan to join with FBI agent Seeley Booth (played by David Boreanaz) in solving crimes that require analysis of the remains of victims. Brennan and Booth have, become, in effect, partners, and though they work for separate organizations see themselves as a tight unit.

Brennan is a curious character and an even more curious heroine. She is intensely intelligent about scientific matters and almost completely ignorant about everything else. In particular, she has little grasp of the workings of the human heart (in its symbolic manifestations), though her interactions with Booth are gradually teaching her that there's more to life than pure logic.

Her attitudes towards sex fit with her basic orientation. She sees nothing moralistic about it whatsoever. She recognizes that humans are sexual animals, that they derive pleasure from sexual activity, and that they will engage in it whenever the opportunity presents itself.  As far as she's concerned, there's nothing wrong with that, and she's happy to apply those insights to herself.

If she meets a young man who wishes to have sex with her (and most young men do because she's a quite lovely young woman), and if she reciprocates the feeling, then her basic position is, why not? She doesn't see why psychological tangles should flow from such a stance, nor why people around her should be disturbed by it.

Ever so gradually, she is coming to perceive that her partner Booth has very different feelings about the matter -- although not particularly different behavior. And she realizes that she has to take his emotions into account in order to preserve their working relationship.

The truth of the series, of course, is that Brennan and Booth are deeply in love with one another, though each, for fairly complex reasons, is unwilling to admit it, not even to himself or herself.

In a fairly important episode, broadcast a little over a year ago, Booth and Brennan went to London to help Scotland Yard with a difficult case, and there met a  young male forensic anthropologist from Oxford, with whom Brennan would have been in bed almost immediately, had she not realized it would have, somehow, troubled Booth. So, a sub-theme of the series is the question, who is more right about sex, Brennan or Booth? The overt answer is the latter, because the show has to pretend to uphold conventional morality. But that's not really what it does.

In truth, it leaves the question open, and hints that Brennan's attitudes are both more intelligent than Booth's, and, also, the wave of the future. But are they?

Each viewer will have, of course, to answer those questions for himself. But, it's fairly unusual for popular culture to be asking them in even as intelligent a way as Bones presents them.

It's certainly not a perfect program. The crimes are sometimes fairly drab. But, it may be worth watching just to see how love and sex will play out between Booth and Brennan.

Small Town Psychosis
February 22, 2007

The television series Friday Night Lights attempts to convince us that there's greater angst in one small Texas town than we used to think there was in the whole world. The plot radiates out from the new high school football coach, Eric Taylor, to everyone he comes in contact with. And in Dillon, Texas the football coach is in touch with just about everybody. He is the central figure in the town and everything he does has an intensely emotional impact on somebody.

The coach is played winningly by Kyle Chandler. We almost always sympathize with his situation, even when we are forced to recognize that his manner sometimes creates problems for him. But, then, it wouldn't be realistic to expect that a football coach had a sublimely sensitive approach to everything. His job is to win football games for the glory of Dillon, and that's what he would like to spend his time doing. Trouble is, the neurotic doings of his players and the townspeople draw him into confrontations he would just as soon not know about.

If you come to the series expecting mostly sports drama you're going to be disappointed. There is some football excitement. But most of the action takes place away from the athletic fields. And that leaves us with the question: why can't we have a football show that's about football? I guess for the same reason we can't have lawyer shows that are about court cases, and police shows that are about solving crimes.

We are addicted to the proposition that everybody has problems. That's undoubtedly true. But television turns personal problems into a boiling cauldron of worry, anxiety, and fear where there is almost never an occasion for a quiet meal, a restful nap, or a good laugh. Is this really the way life is for most people in small town America. If it is, I want to stay away from there.

Bad People
February 13, 2007

I realize there have been many mean people in the history of the world, men and women indifferent to the welfare or the suffering of others. But I wonder if there actually have been people as wicked as the characters depicted on the Fox melodrama 24. These people are so mean it boggles the mind.

We have learned lately that the hero's father is about as bad as any person can be. He murdered his other son, Jack Bauer's brother, who was himself so vicious he sold Jack into torture and imprisonment in China and said later to one of his henchmen that they should simply have killed him. The father has now kidnapped his own grandson and threatened to do him in him if his daughter-in-law doesn't follow orders. And he set up a booby trapped house designed to kill Jack and probably his daughter-in-law also.  There's little doubt he is just as cruel and ruthless as the nominal chief villain, Fayed, a Middle Eastern terrorist who is trying to set off five atomic bombs in the United States and thinks nothing of taking an electric drill and driving the bit all the way through a man's shoulder.

We can say this is all just silliness, and in a way it is. But it projects into the public mind the thought not only that such people exist -- which, perhaps, they do -- but also that they constitute a norm. We are left with the impression that the things that happen on 24 are the ordinary business of humanity, just men and women going about being who they are.

If this is the case, the professed ideals of Western Democracy and the efforts of men like Jefferson and Lincoln are simply ridiculous. That, in fact, is the argument of another set of villains on the show, a cabal within the government that is trying to assassinate the president so they can institute fascist controls throughout society. And they view themselves as patriots -- which given the definition that "patriot" has come to have lately may also be true.

I confess I don't know for sure what humanity is or whether there is any such thing as human nature. But I suspect that if people get it in their heads that they have to be cruel, vicious, and deceitful in order to protect themselves against those who are even more cruel, vicious and deceitful, we're likely to find ourselves in a spiral that can go nowhere else but into the netherworld.

January 29, 2007

Maybe I'm just getting squeamish in my old age but it seems to me that the violence depicted on television is not only ubiquitous but increasingly creepy. I understand that there are fashions in popular culture which TV producers will exploit. Even so I wonder if a majority of the people has as much taste for serial murderers, the rape of little children, forcible incest, cannibalism, thrill killing, and sexual torture as current programming seems to indicate.

Maybe. Who knows? I don't support censorship. If somebody can make money by portraying the torture, murder and subsequent cooking and ingestion of little boys, I don't want him to be thrown in jail. But I would just as soon see people find other themes for their melodrama. Quite often after an evening of TV watching, I go to bed in a doleful mood. Is this what the human race is really about? I ask myself as I drift into troubled dreams.

I suspect that we're caught in a cycle of one-ups-manship. If 24 has twelve thousand killed in an episode then some other producer will want to wipe out a hundred thousand employing a device that will cause the flesh to melt off their bodies and run down into little puddles. There's much work for special effects guys in that kind of show.

Think how things change. Jane Austen was able to write six novels that have entranced generations and, as far as I can remember, there's not a single murder in any of them. Catherine Morland does imagine a murder, but it's just the workings of an overheated teenage sensibility.

Quentin Tarantino has tried to make campy humor out of excessive violence in films like Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill, volumes one and two, and I suppose he has succeeded to some extent. But the stories in series like Criminal Minds, Numb3rs, the three versions of Law and Order, and the trinity of CSIs don't have much humor in them. They're just creepy -- and, of course, highly moralistic. The moralism, though, functions mainly as an excuse.

People with upright liberal standards -- and religious fundamentalists -- say you just shouldn't watch TV.  But since I don't fall into either camp that's not a solution for me.

I suppose I'll keep on going to bed with a sick feeling in my stomach. Perhaps there's a mysterious discipline in that I haven't yet discerned. To tell the truth, the political talk shows don't make me feel more wholesome. After a couple hours of the talking heads, I can turn, with a kind of relief, to an anguished and pure hero -- generally a functionary of some quasi-fascist organization -- chasing psychopaths and terrorists across the grand American landscape.

It's a great world, after all.

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©John R. Turner

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