Monday, April 27, 2015

Things Aren't Always What They Seem to Be

"Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don't matter and those who matter don't mind."

Dr. Seuss

There were certain things that TV's Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) craved — like fame, fortune, power (later in the series, he disclosed that he preferred to look at it as influence), prestige — and everyone knew them. Well, the audience certainly knew them. He didn't crave regular–guy stuff — but, as TV viewers found out 15 years ago tonight, he craved acceptance from the regular guys.

He didn't really want to be a regular guy. He just wanted to be thought of as one. Frasier went through periods like this during the series' 11–year run. He really liked being an elitist, but sometimes his fussy nature got in the way.

Like when Daphne's (Jane Leeves) fiance Donny (Saul Rubinek) needed someone to throw him a bachelor party, and Frasier volunteered, but Donny insisted that Frasier not do that.

"I don't think we're talking about the same kind of party," he told Frasier.

Or when Frasier bumped into his winsome neighbor Regan (Gigi Rice), with whom all his previous attempts to establish relationships had failed. In fairness to Frasier, it wasn't always his fault. The most recent time, it turned out she had a boyfriend.

But Regan was no longer with her boyfriend, the handsome professional athlete — who, like Niles' first wife, Maris, was never seen — and Frasier felt encouraged to pursue a relationship with her once again.

Speaking of Maris ...

Niles (David Hyde Pierce) was in a new relationship. His divorce from Maris had been official for awhile. Now, he was dating Maris' plastic surgeon (Jane Adams), and the two of them were being mentioned (and photographed) at all sorts of functions around town.

Anyway, one day, Niles rushed into the cafe, where Frasier was having a conversation with his producer Roz (Peri Gilpin), and urged them to come to the window to see something, but he wouldn't tell them what it was.

"You see that rotund woman coming out of Chock Full of Doughnuts?" he asked. Frasier and Roz indicated that they did. "Before she gets to her car, she will finish that bear claw and then go back in. This is her third time."

Frasier and Roz were appalled that, as Frasier put it, Niles had brought them to the window to "gawk at some poor woman's struggle with junk food."

"It's rude," Roz said, getting up to return to her table.

"It's childish," Frasier contributed, following her.

"It's Maris," Niles observed.

That brought them back to the window in a hurry.

"It's hard to believe," Frasier said, "that's the same frail woman who once sprained her wrist from having too much dip on a cracker!"

Niles revealed that Maris had been a chubby child, which had made her obsessive about keeping weight off as an adult.

"Something must have snapped," Roz said.

"Literally," Niles agreed. "When she saw me, she swallowed, and her necklace exploded from the pressure."

The psychiatrist brothers then began to analyze the situation, and they concluded that Maris' eating binge may have been triggered by Niles' blossoming relationship with Maris' plastic surgeon.

Frasier continued to obsess about Donny and his bachelor party so he called Donny and promised to throw a memorable party, complete with at least one stripper — although Frasier confessed to Roz that he didn't have the first clue how to find a stripper.

Somewhere — and probably from someone — he got the idea that a good place to start would be the local SexPress so he tried to acquire a copy but got his tie caught in the display box. It was unfortunate that this happened in front of a florist, out of which came Regan, and Frasier had to try to explain his way out of an incriminating situation. He wasn't very convincing; he freed himself from the newspaper box, apparently causing some damage in the process, and went home.

To rub salt in an open wound, when he got there, Daphne told Frasier how happy she was that he would be throwing Donny's party. "Your party will be over by 9:30," she remarked. "We can all go out for dinner afterwards."

That wasn't what he had promised Donny.

Things turned around quickly, though, when a female police officer (Rachel York) appeared at Frasier's door and said she was investigating an incident of vandalism to a newspaper vending machine.

Turned out, though, that she was a stripper who went by the name Officer Nasty, and she was auditioning for the gig at Donny's party. Martin (John Mahoney) had arranged for her to come over.

"You hire her for Donny's party," Martin said, "he'll put you in his will!"

Then things got busy around Frasier's apartment. First, Niles and Mel the surgeon came by. Mel was upset because Maris apparently was blaming her for her weight gain, saying Mel had nicked her thyroid during a procedure. Then Maris herself showed up (still unseen). Mel was in another room so Niles hurried Maris to a different room, from which Frasier had just emerged with Officer Nasty. Frasier, who always seemed to fancy himself as something of a frustrated showman, had been giving her tips for her act, and they had been locked together by her prop handcuffs. She didn't have a key.

As they were about to leave the apartment in search of a locksmith, Frasier encountered Regan coming out of the elevator. She carried a sack that was loaded with groceries. She dropped the sack, and the contents came spilling out.

Frasier was still handcuffed to Officer Nasty — Regan couldn't see her from the hallway unless Frasier pulled her out there, which he probably would have done if he had reached for the head of lettuce that rolled over near him. So, instead of doing that, he rather ungallantly kicked it soccer–style in Regan's direction.

Ultimately, Frasier had to confess to Regan what he had been doing, and he mused that they probably had to acknowledge that a relationship between them just wasn't in the cards. He mused further that he doubted that anyone would want to go out with him, at which point Officer Nasty said, "I would."

So Frasier and Officer Nasty went out, and Frasier learned a couple of valuable lessons — about being true to yourself and not judging books (and people) by their covers.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Letting Bartlet Be Bartlet

Mrs. Landingham (Kathryn Joosten): You don't get enough roughage.

Bartlet (Martin Sheen): I know I'd like to beat you senseless with a head of cabbage. I know that for damn sure.

Mrs. Landingham: Once again, you display an immaturity about vegetables that I think is not at all presidential.

I cannot honestly say that I know who said, "Let Reagan be Reagan," or what the circumstances were when it was said. I want to say that it was said when he was trying get Robert Bork on the Supreme Court — but I really don't know that for certain.

Perhaps it originated even earlier.

Whenever it was said, it was almost certainly said by one of Ronald Reagan's advisers at a time when Reagan's supporters were under the impression (whether rightly or wrongly) that he was being stymied by some people, and they wanted him to be free to say what he really believed.

It was a rallying cry that I heard from time to time during Reagan's presidency in the 1980s; in the intervening years, it has become something of a cliche, suggesting that a chief executive — a governor or a president — needs to be more assertive and proactive in his advocacy of (or opposition to) something or someone. Anyway, it was a pretty good inspiration for an episode of the West Wing that first aired 15 years ago tonight.

The overall theme of the story was the White House wasn't accomplishing much, and the West Wing staff was drifting into a malaise, just sort of spinning its wheels. At one point, Josh (Bradley Whitford) observed to Toby (Richard Schiff), "Our second year doesn't seem to be going a whole lot better than our first, does it?"

"No," Toby replied.

That really summed things up.

The episode began disarmingly with the president about to speak before an organization of trout fishermen, and speech writers Toby and Sam (Rob Lowe) discussing whether to change a reference to a "magnificent vista" that the president was supposed to be seeing at an outdoor event — because of what appeared to be an increasing chance of rain that might force the event indoors.

As it turned out, it did rain, and the event was moved indoors — but, after all their talk, neither Toby nor Sam changed the reference, and the president said it, anyway.

That was one side story. There were always side stories in West Wing episodes. Sometimes you really had to be on your toes to figure out their relevance to the overall theme before that relevance was revealed to the audience. In the interim, though, there was always snappy dialogue, like the exchange between Josh and his secretary Donna (Janel Moloney) after Josh had been informed by House Republicans that, if the president nominated the people he was likely to nominate for two openings on the Federal Election Commission, not only would they reject the nominees but they would send all sorts of pet bills to the president's desk, bills that he was sure not to like ... starting with one making English the official language of the United States.

"Are we for it or against it?" Donna asked.

"Donna ..." Josh began.

"I mean, we're not in favor of making another language the official language, are we?" she asked. "Like Dutch or something?"

There was also a side story about gays in military — a topic which may seem a little dated now but was straight from the headlines in the morning paper in April 2000. The White House and the military representatives who were assigned to come to some sort of agreement were at an impasse when Admiral Fitzwallace (John Amos) dropped by.

Fitzwallace asked the military reps what they thought about gays in the military, then proceeded to answer for them — or at least finish their answers for them. One said, "We're not prejudiced toward homosexuals."

"You just don't want to see them serving in the armed forces," Fitz said.

"No, sir, I don't," the military rep said.

"Because they pose a threat to unit discipline and cohesion."

"Yes, sir,"
the other rep said.

"That's what I think, too," the admiral said. "I also think the military wasn't designed to be an instrument of social change."

"Yes, sir,"
the first rep said.

"Problem with that," the admiral observed, "is that's what they were saying about me 50 years ago. Blacks shouldn't serve with whites. It would disrupt the unit. You know what? It did disrupt the unit. The unit got over it. The unit changed. I'm an admiral in the U.S. Navy and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Beat that with a stick."

But the main story had to do with media consultant Mandy (Moira Kelly), who had written a memo concerning the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of the president and the White House staff when she worked for one of the president's party rivals. The memo had been leaked after she went to work for the White House; she had no idea who had it, only that it was out there somewhere.

C.J. (Allison Janney) tried to find out who had the memo — and discovered that White House reporter Danny (Timothy Busfield) had it and was planning to write about it. It was clear early in the series that Danny had feelings for C.J., and I would venture to say that most West Wing viewers knew that C.J. harbored a simmering attraction to Danny beneath the surface.

But I really admired the writers on this episode. Danny and C.J. had a frank conversation about the relationship between the White House and the reporters who cover it, about what news is and is not — and, as a journalist, I appreciated it and found a lot in it that was true. It probably would have been easy for the writers to allow Danny to compromise his principles in order to curry favor with C.J. — and I have no doubt there are journalists who would do that.

Instead, both Danny and C.J. responded the way I would hope people in such a position would respond. Neither backed down, and both left the conversation with some grudging respect for the other.

The whole thing reached critical mass in the last scene, a showdown between the president and his chief of staff, Leo (John Spencer) that re–defined the objectives of the fictional Bartlet administration.

"We're going to change the level of public debate in this country," Leo told the staffers. "And let that be our legacy."

And the stage was set for the first of the West Wing's incomparable season finales.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

A Place Called Hope

Future Ted (Bob Saget): I didn't give up on my dream house because that's the thing about stupid decisions; we all make them, but time is funny and sometimes a little magical. It can take a stupid decision and turn it into something else entirely. Because, kids, as you know, that house ... is this house.

How I Met Your Mother was one of those TV shows that I got in on late — very late.

It premiered in 2005, but I didn't watch it until five years ago tonight, when the episode "Home Wreckers" first aired. Not watching it until the fifth season was a mistake. Anyway, I started watching it, occasionally at first, then more regularly. And, thanks to syndication and Netflix, I have managed to see most of the episodes I missed the first time around — but there are still some episodes I haven't seen yet.

In hindsight, I guess it's amazing that I ever watched another episode after watching the one that was on five years ago tonight. It wasn't a bad episode; I just don't think it was anything really special. Certainly, I have seen better episodes of How I Met Your Mother. But you gotta start somewhere.

The best episodes of any sitcom — at least as far as I am concerned — are the ones that deal with relationships, and the episode of How I Met Your Mother took on several kinds of relationships, a tall order for a half–hour program. Yes, it was an ambitious undertaking, but How I Met Your Mother managed to pull it off — satisfactorily if not spectacularly.

Things began with Ted (Josh Radnor) learning that his mother (Cristine Rose) had accepted a marriage proposal from her slacker boyfriend Clint (Harry Groener), who seemed to have no problem telling Ted what an erotic mother he had.

"Please don't," Ted would say when Clint started to relate such tales to him. I thought it was funny. The eccentric sense of humor of the series appealed to me.

I haven't seen the episodes often enough now to put them into context. I'm not sure if Clint was a character in episodes prior to this one. I guess he must have been because the next thing I knew, Clint and Ted's mother were getting married, and Clint was singing some godawful song he had composed for the occasion.

It really was terrible, with some kind of closing refrain about Mahatma Gandhi and pancakes and a dragon — which fueled a subplot in which either Barney (Neil Patrick Harris) or Robin (Cobie Smulders) had been moved to tears by it. I say either because it was increasingly unclear which one had been crying.

Ted, however, was unable to take any more of the wedding so he left without offering a toast to the newlyweds. He didn't resurface for three days, which had everyone worried about his whereabouts. When he did, he told his friends he was "on top of the world" and wanted to show them something. So they all got in his car and drove to see his "dream house," on which he had just closed the deal.

His mother's wedding, you see, had been something of a wakeup call for him. He realized that all the things he had thought he would have — like a wife and children and a home — he didn't have.

Lily (Alyson Hannigan), ever the voice of reason in the group, observed that it would take years "and a small fortune" to restore the house, but Ted was undeterred. The wife and kids part was taking longer than he expected, but he could take care of the house part. That was something he could control.

"I'm an architect," he protested. "I'll find a way. And if I start right now, hopefully it'll be ready by the time me and the wifey are ready to move in."

"Is she in the room with us right now, Ted?" Barney asked.

The general consensus of the group was that Ted had done a stupid thing, but Marshall (Jason Segel) defended him — opening up yet another subplot. We've all done stupid things, Marshall contended, offering himself as an example. There was a time, he said, when he dropped some bottle rockets in the toilet and then tried to dry them out in the microwave.

Robin thought Marshall must have been drunk when he did that, but Barney said he had to have been a kid, which inspired Marshall to create a new game in which he related stupid things he had done throughout his life, and his friends had to guess whether he had been drunk or a kid when he did them. It was the kind of free association that I liked about the series. But there was much more to it than that.

At that point, Ted showed the gang the back porch, where he planned to have cookouts every weekend.

Turned out there were a lot of problems with the house. It had structural issues not to mention a variety of creatures who had found shelter under the house's roof.

And Ted conceded there were problems with the house, but he insisted that "I see this house for what it can be."

Eventually, Ted concluded that "Sometimes our best decisions are the ones that don't make any sense at all." He returned to his new house and found Marshall cooking some hot dogs on the back porch — and Marshall offered a keen observation about Ted. "Your heart is both drunk and a kid," he said.

Ted showed Marshall the ideas he had for the house as the sound of "Our House" by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young played in the background. And the audience learned that the house had, indeed, been the future home for Ted and the mother of his children.

I don't remember now why I decided to watch it, but there were enough things about it that I found intriguing that I felt compelled to watch it again and again. I'm glad I did. I thought it was a rewarding series — excellent writing, great acting, superb entertainment — and the best part, for me, is that, because I didn't see many of the episodes when they first aired, it is a series that continues to be new for me. The stories behind mysterious references to things that the audience already knew are revealed to me whenever I see an episode I have never seen before. And then I want to see other episodes again, armed with the knowledge of what those mysterious references meant.

It's the kind of quality television that one doesn't see very often.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Love Means Never Having to Say It

Niles (David Hyde Pierce): What a peculiar combination of odors. It smells like a fish died, and all the other fish sent flowers.

The relationship between fathers and sons can be a complicated one. I think that was the message that Frasier sought to convey on this night 20 years ago. If so, the writers were right. You can trust me on that one.

The episode started in that sneaky way Frasier had of introducing a subject — by way of a conversation between Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) and Roz (Peri Gilpin). Roz was a little down, and Frasier asked why. Roz's problem was that she had told a guy that she loved him, and he seemed spooked by that. "He got this look on his face," Roz said, "like Indiana Jones running from the big ball."

That gave Frasier a chance to talk about how difficult it is for some people to say the phrase, "I love you," and that led him to musing about his relationship with his father. His father had never said those words to Frasier, and he began obsessing over the idea.

As it turned out, Martin (John Mahoney) didn't have that much trouble saying the phrase. He said it to his buddy Duke, with whom he had planned to go ice fishing but Duke injured his back and had to bow out, and he said it to Eddie the dog.

When Duke had to cancel, Martin began hinting around about having the cabin on the lake already rented but he couldn't go up there alone ...

Frasier refused, although he did have a compromise idea: "They're doing a revival of 'The Iceman Cometh' downtown. Now we could catch a matinee and then go out for sushi and stay well within the same theme." Martin didn't go for that.

Then Niles (David Hyde Pierce) overheard Daphne (Jane Leeves) speaking of how masculine her brothers always seemed after a day of fishing, and he volunteered to go.

As Frasier began to obsess again about hearing his father say "I love you" and wondered why his father could say it to Duke and the dog but not to him, Daphne pointed out that Duke would go fishing with Martin when Martin wanted to go fishing.

"So you're suggesting I should go along and pretend I'm enjoying myself doing something that gives me no pleasure at all just to hear the words 'I love you'?" he asked.

"Why not?" Daphne replied. "Women have been doing it for centuries."

So Frasier went ice fishing — and, as anyone who ever watched "Grumpy Old Men" knows, ice fishing is done in a small structure (frequently called a cabin) on a frozen body of water, usually a lake. A hole is drilled in the ice, and the fishing lines are dropped down the holes. When Frasier first saw the cabin, he thought it was where they would be sleeping. Martin assured him they would be sleeping in a motel.

Frasier wasn't very good company, complaining about just about everything. Finally, it was suggested that he drive back to the motel and return for Martin and Niles later, and he was going to do that — until it seemed that the car keys had been lost.

Fortunately, the keys hadn't been lost. Martin spotted them on the floor of the cabin. Niles picked them up and tossed them to Frasier, but the toss fell short — and into the hole that had been drilled for fishing. That was clearly unfortunate.

Martin said he and Duke had spent the night in a cabin about 10 years earlier when their car battery died, and the three of them could do so, too. He produced a bottle of Jim Beam, and the three proceeded to warm themselves internally.

Martin said they needed a drinking song, and Frasier, desperately seeking a sign of his father's approval, suggested a drinking song from an opera. Niles disagreed on which opera it came from, but before long the three were singing it ... in Italian.

When Martin went outside to relieve himself, the brothers began to tell each other why they had come fishing when it was something they both loathed. Niles explained that he had become envious of the bond he saw developing between Frasier and Martin, and he wanted that kind of relationship as well.

And Frasier confessed that he had come on the trip hoping to hear Martin say, "I love you."

And then, Martin actually did say the words in the kind of honest, direct conversation that, frankly, may not be possible for many fathers and sons. In that respect, I thought it was unrealistic.

But not entirely.

Martin confessed that "Your mother used to get on me about not saying stuff." That rang true, especially for men of Martin's generation, who were raised to be unemotional. Younger men have been encouraged more by society to open up about their feelings.

It was a chance for each to look at the other.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Wishful Thinking

Gilligan's Island took on the subject of superstition 50 years ago tonight.

The Skipper (Alan Hale Jr.) was an old salt who knew all the legends and myths of the islands — and seemed to believe most of them, too.

From time to time, the superstition angle would rear its head and form the basis for a plotline. Usually, it worked pretty well, and I must say I found this episode entertaining. But the more I thought about it, the more I had to conclude that it had a fatal flaw in its logic.

When the episode began, Gilligan (Bob Denver) was digging a hole. It's been awhile since I have seen the episode, and I don't really remember the reason for the hole, whether it was to be a new well or a pit for some purpose. I just remember that the Skipper had Gilligan digging a hole.

As he was digging, Gilligan discovered a gem, and the Professor (Russell Johnson) told him it was "$11 worth of quartz." (I can't remember why the Professor was there, either.) The Skipper, however, was convinced that it was the long–lost Eye of the Idol, of which it was said that the finder would be granted three wishes before sundown on the day he found it.

The Professor, of course, was skeptical, but the rest of the castaways began making plans to leave the island when Gilligan's first wish, a gallon of ice cream, came floating up to the island. The Skipper, you see, had told Gilligan to save one wish to get everyone off the island.

The Professor was certain that the ice cream had fallen from a plane or a boat, an explanation that became less plausible when Gilligan accidentally wished for another gallon of ice cream — and it, too, washed ashore minutes later.

The Skipper told everyone to gather their belongings and assemble at the lagoon. They all made it there shortly before sunset, but the Professor refused to participate in the ritual of huddling together while Gilligan wished them home. That was like striking a row of dominoes. As I recall, it was Mary Ann (Dawn Wells) who broke first, saying she couldn't leave the Professor behind. Then Mrs. Howell (Natalie Schafer) volunteered Mr. Howell (Jim Backus) to remain as their chaperone because it "wasn't proper" for them to stay alone.

Then Mrs. Howell didn't want to leave her husband behind, and Ginger (Tina Louise) gave in, too, leaving just Gilligan and the Skipper. The rest of the castaways prevailed on the Professor to come with them, and he agreed on the condition that, when it failed to work, as he was sure it would, they would stop talking about it and resume their previous activities on the island.

That was when Gilligan realized the gem had slipped through a hole in his pocket, and they all fanned out in teams of two to look for it, focusing on three places where Gilligan had been earlier to gather souvenirs from the island.

This led to one of the funnier scenes in the episode — Ginger and the Professor searching a cave where Gilligan had been earlier. Ginger, ever the actress, told the Professor that he had to put himself in the right frame of mind for searching a cave and suggested that he "think bat."

When that didn't work in the low–ceilinged cave, Ginger instructed him to "think mole."

The castaways finally found the gem and reassembled at the lagoon minutes before sundown.

Gilligan wished that they were off the island ... and the portion of the island on which they were standing broke off and floated into the middle of the lagoon.

Technically speaking, they were off the island.

Believe it or not, that is not that fatal flaw I mentioned earlier. In the context of the rest of the episode, that was actually a plausible conclusion — and, once again, it was Gilligan's fault that the castaways weren't delivered from the island.

The fatal flaw, in my opinion, is that, once the gem had been identified by the Skipper as the Eye of the Idol, there was no reason for the dawdling other than to further establish the gem's validity with that second wish. But then it took what must have been hours for the castaways to gather their belongings and meet at the lagoon. I would have thought they would be so eager to leave that they would be willing to leave everything behind. They could always come back to the island for whatever they wanted. After all, the Howells were rich and would surely be willing to use their personal yacht for such a purpose.

There were other flaws in the story as well.

As I remember, the Skipper told the Professor and Gilligan that the Eye of the Idol had been lost for thousands of years — so, presumably, there were no pictures of it — yet he was able to identify it immediately. I figure it would have been more effective if that second wish coming true had been what reminded him of the legend of the lost Eye of the Idol, and he put two and two together.

It also seemed odd to me that none of the castaways really disputed the Professor's explanation for the ice cream. After all, if those gallons really had fallen into the sea from a plane or a boat, the contents would have melted before reaching land.

But that may have been part of Gilligan's Island's charm. Like so many of the sitcoms of the '60s, it was more interested in entertainment than logic.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Be Careful What You Wish For

Rocky (Larry Blyden): If I gotta stay here another day, I'm gonna go nuts! Look, look. I don't belong in heaven — see? I wanna go to the other place.

Mr. Pip (Sebastian Cabot): Heaven? Whatever gave you the idea you were in heaven, Mr. Valentine? This *is* the other place!

In the episode of the Twilight Zone that first aired 55 years ago tonight, a bad guy (Larry Blyden) died in a shootout with police, then awoke in the afterlife, in a place where his every wish was granted. Sebastian Cabot was there, and he introduced himself as the bad guy's "guide" whose primary mission was to make the bad guy comfortable.

Things got a little too comfortable for Rocky, though, and he started shooting at Mr. Pip, but even though he was firing from point–blank range, none of his bullets struck Mr. Pip.

That was the point where he realized that he was in the afterlife, and he began asking for all the things that he had dreamed of when he was living, all the things he had believed would make his life perfect — money, fancy clothes, a luxurious apartment, beautiful women. Even though he was dead, he was going to live the high life.

Mr. Pip also arranged for him to win at all the games of chance he had played on earth and lost — only this time, he won. Every time.

All that should have made him happy, but it didn't. Knowing things were set up — with games of chance, with women — robbed them of something. A mistake had been made somewhere, he thought. He didn't belong in heaven.

Then he rationalized it: There must have been something really good that he did that made up for everything else. Otherwise, he simply didn't belong in heaven. That was for Sunday School teachers and the like. (Well, Mr. Pip acknowledged that there were some schoolteachers there ...)

It really began to mess with his mind. What could he have done? And when had he done something good? How could he find out?

Mr. Pip suggested the Hall of Records, so they went there to find the answer. But the answers they found only raised more questions in Rocky's mind. Rocky realized that, from a young age to the time he died, he had been a bad guy — killing small animals when he was a child, stealing from local merchants, organizing a street gang, then graduating to more serious crimes as he got older.

It was truly mystifying to him, and he found himself being bored with winning all the time and having beautiful women around, knowing it had all been arranged.

He told Mr. Pip that he didn't believe he belonged there. He said he didn't belong in heaven. "I wanna go to the other place."

And Mr. Pip, in the episode's punchline, replied, "This is the other place!" And he began to laugh in a way you never heard Mr. French laugh.

Moral of the story? Be careful what you wish for.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

In Short, There's Simply Not A More Congenial Spot

"And the Lord spake, saying, 'First shalt thou take out the Holy Pin. Then, shalt thou count to three. No more. No less. Three shalt be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be three. Four shalt thou not count, neither count thou two excepting that thou then proceed to three. Five is right out. Once at the number three, being the third number to be reached, then lobbest thou thy Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch towards thy foe, who, being not in my sight, shall snuff it.'"


I like comedies — all kinds of comedies, really, but especially zany ones. When I say zany, I mean off the wall in some way. I don't necessarily mean frantic from start to finish — like a Marx Brothers movie, for instance.

Still frantic isn't a bad word to describe "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," which premiered 40 years ago today. Its jokes came at such a breakneck pace that I was out of breath at times.

"Monty Python and the Holy Grail" reminds me of a special time in my life. I knew of Monty Python because of family trips to Dallas to visit my grandmother; my recollection is that Dallas' public TV station aired the Monty Python show, Flying Circus, but back home, the Little Rock public TV station did not — at least, at that time.

So, in a way, I suppose Monty Python was kind of like a forbidden pleasure for me, and I watched it whenever I was in Dallas.

Up to the time of "Holy Grail," though, I had never seen a Monty Python movie. Of course the only Monty Python movie prior to "Holy Grail" was a compilation of skits from the TV show — most are regarded as classic routines now.

"Holy Grail" was the first Monty Python movie that had a unifying story — while retaining the somewhat twisted humor of the TV show. In hindsight, I suppose they were a bit hesitant to try what was clearly a new thing for them, but I guess they discovered that it worked.

That unifying story was a clever parody of King Arthur and his knights of Camelot.

This was at a time when movies frequently would run for months at a theater. There was really no compelling reason for a promoter to rush a movie out of theatrical circulation, I suppose, as long as people were paying to see it. There was no home video in those days, and not many people had access to cable TV, which really was in its infancy, or VCRs. Unless a movie was picked up for broadcast TV, taking it out of circulation probably meant the movie's promoters believed it had about run its course.

Anyway, I remember when I first went to see it at the theater. It was late in the year, after I got my driver's license, and a friend of mine and I drove to Little Rock to see it. I remember feeling very grown up, driving to Little Rock. I remember it was a cold night, but it was warm in the theater, and my friend and I laughed throughout the showing. Then we laughed on the drive home. It was a fun evening.

I didn't realize at the time that the movie premiered on his birthday so, while I'm thinking about it, I hope he's reading this. Happy birthday, Doug! Watch "Holy Grail" to mark the occasion.

For me, anyway, the humor never gets old. It's silly — like the humor in "Airplane" — but I still laugh ...
At the knights pretending to be riding horses while their servants follow behind clacking two halves of coconut shells together to make the sounds of hooves.

At the dialogue, which is also silly, but it is still funny.

At the strange circumstances that only Monty Python could have dreamed up.
For example, the scene with the Black Knight. The Black Knight appeared to be a fearsome adversary, blocking King Arthur's way, and he refused to let the king pass, and that meant a duel.

It was a duel that the king won, systematically cutting off the Black Knight's limbs, prompting the Black Knight to proclaim it a draw.

Then all sorts of scenes come flooding to mind ...

The scene where the gang determines that a woman is a witch, for example.
Bedevere (Terry Jones): How do you know she is a witch?

Peasant: She looks like one.

Bedevere: Bring her forward!

Girl: I'm not a witch.

Bedevere: But you are dressed as one ...

Girl: They dressed me up like this. And this isn't my nose. This is a false one.

Bedevere: Well?

Peasant: Well, we did do the nose.

Bedevere: The nose?

Peasant: And the hat. She's a witch!

Peasant Crowd: Burn her!

Bedevere: Did you dress her up like this?

Peasant: No, no, no! Yes, yes. A bit. But she's got a wart.

Bedevere: What makes you think she is a witch?

Peasant: Oh, she turned me into a newt!

Bedevere: A newt?

Peasant: Well, I got better.

There was the scene where a man was collecting corpses, and a man brought one to him that wasn't quite dead.

There were the Knights Who Say Ni ... who demanded a tribute from those who wished to pass through their woods.

And there was the dialogue at the bottom of the screen while the credits were rolling. I won't say anything more about that. If you haven't seen it, though, you should.

Tonight wouldn't be a bad time for it, either.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Playing With the Toys in the Attic

When Aerosmith came along, it gave young listeners something they had never heard before even though it was a blend of familiar styles. Aerosmith essentially fused Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones to create a new sound that, at the time, sounded very cutting edge.

As I say, it was a new sound at the time. Other groups have taken it as their own since, but Aerosmith defined the style.

I have always felt that Aerosmith's "Toys in the Attic" album, which was released on this day in 1975, was an eclectic mix of music — some appealing new compositions and some mostly unknown old ones, a few hits and some other tunes that came along mostly for the ride.

And my favorite was (still is, actually) one of those mostly unknown old ones, Bull Moose Jackson's "Big Ten–Inch Record," from the early '50s. It's the only song on the album that Steven Tyler didn't write or co–write, and I don't recall ever hearing it on the radio. The lyrics weren't exactly explicit, but there were lots of double entendres, and there was a, shall we say, pregnant pause between the words inch and record, which may have been the reasons for its absence from the airwaves.

There were plenty of hits, though. Probably the most recognizable are "Walk This Way" and "Sweet Emotion." I liked them both, but, if asked to choose my favorite from the two, it would have to be "Walk This Way."

Now, whenever I mention that to someone, particularly someone who is younger than I — bear in mind, I have taught many college–level journalism students, and, while some of them have been called non–traditional students, most of them have been younger — I am always asked what I think of the 1980s version of that song that essentially fused Aerosmith with Run–DMC.

There is a two–part answer to that.

Initially, I didn't think much of it. I guess I just have never been much for cover versions of old songs even though there really isn't any reason for that. I always liked Willie Nelson's covers of pop standards on "Stardust," and there are other exceptions as well, but generally speaking I just haven't been much for covers.

Having said that, though, I would have to add that I did like Aerosmith's cover of the Beatles' "Come Together" — and that is quite a concession on my part. I can be hard to please when it comes to Beatles covers.

Anyway, that's about the only reason I can come up with — other than, perhaps, I don't like how I feel when the cover is of a song from my generation. Makes me feel older than I want to feel. Know what I mean?

Run–DMC's version kind of grew on me, though. I sort of like it now and will tolerate it for a couple of playings.

But after that, I just want to hear Aerosmith's version, the original and (as far as I am concerned) the best.

That brings me to "Sweet Emotion." I thought it was kind of spooky the first time I heard it — some folks might be tempted to use the word eerie or creepy, but I would be more inclined to say that it sounded mysterious. Its intro was probably a little long, and my guess would be that it caused promoters considerable heartburn until they saw how successful it was.

"Sweet Emotion" was the first single released from the album and made it to #36 on Billboard's Hot 100. "Walk This Way" was released that summer and made it to #10 on Billboard's Hot 100.

And those were the singles from "Toys in the Attic," even though it would be a grievous error to dismiss the album as being only about those two singles.

I mentioned double entendres earlier, and "Toys in the Attic" was loaded with 'em. You couldn't just find them on "Big Ten–Inch Record," either, although you could find a lot on side 1.

"Uncle Salty" and "Adam's Apple" followed the title cut; unless listeners lifted the needle and advanced it to the fourth song on the first side ("Walk This Way") or fast forwarded the cassette, they got a double dose of double entrendre before they ever got to "Big Ten–Inch Record," which was the last song on that side.

Having "Toys in the Attic" in what was then a meager record collection kind of made me feel like a socially legitimate member of my generation. I was, anyway, I suppose, but at that stage in one's life, fitting in with the kids one perceives as cool is what matters most, and everyone, it seemed, was listening to "Toys in the Attic."

It seems to me that I usually got burned on the records I bought because everyone else was listening to them or the books I bought because everyone was reading them. But not "Toys in the Attic." Once I heard it, I would have bought it all over again — even if no one else was listening to it.

Rolling Stone ranked it #229 on its list of the top 500 albums of all time.

Monday, April 06, 2015

In Pursuit of 2162 Votes

Ten years ago tonight, the season–ending episode of the West Wing gave viewers something of a glimpse of what would take place in just a few short years.

If viewers could have climbed aboard Marty McFly's DeLorean and traveled ahead a few years, they would have witnessed a scene that had a lot in common with that episode — when Barack Obama would become the first black nominee of a major party for president. But my guess is that, at the time, most viewers wouldn't have believed it if they had been told that it was a prophetic episode.

There were some differences, though, between fiction and the eventual fact.

In the episode that aired on this night in 2005, the Democrats nominated their first Latino candidate for president, played by Jimmy Smits. The title of the episode referred to the number of delegates that were required for nomination, but, unlike it has been in most postwar conventions, no candidate came into the convention with the nomination secured.

Smits' character was locked in a tight race for the nomination with the vice president (played by Gary Cole); the other candidate, the ex–vice president (Tim Matheson) who resigned in disgrace and then launched his quixotic campaign for the Oval Office, was a distant third, but he held enough delegates to prevent either of the others from claiming the nomination.

That is more dramatic than what really took place three years later. Obama cruised to his nomination, clinching it two or three months before the convention. In reality, it made for pretty dramatic television. But it wouldn't have been dramatic enough for a TV show.

The result was that viewers got a lot of inside–baseball kind of stuff — maneuverings and negotiations, behind the scenes things that a political junkie like myself can get into but can quickly become boring for viewers at home.

I could appreciate the subtleties of the writers' flights of fancy over what might happen in such a scenario. After all, a brokered convention is a relic from the past. Few, if any, living Americans have witnessed a genuine brokered convention so the episode might be considered more theory than fiction.

There was nothing fictional about Leo's (John Spencer) instructions to the leaders of the now–growing list of contenders for the nomination — the governor of Pennsylvania (Ed O'Neill) had rejected an overture from the vice president to be the running mate and was, instead, the subject of a supposedly spontaneous draft movement. I thought Leo probably spoke for the majority of viewers when he told them to unite behind a candidate before the president arrived to make his customary farewell speech to his party's convention. "One night of this is entertaining," Leo said. "Two nights, we look like idiots."

Anyway, after all the maneuverings, Smits' character emerged as the nominee, but before that, Leo stopped to speak to Josh (Bradley Whitford).

Leo had long felt that Santos should step aside for the good of the party, but Josh had resisted. In the end, Josh's man prevailed, and Leo accepted that. Then Josh dropped a bombshell on him — Leo was Santos' choice for running mate. Viewers had to wait until the start of the seventh and final season to find out if he would accept. I doubt if anyone thought he wouldn't.

Yes, it made for dramatic television, but it wasn't really true.

It was like in "Absence of Malice" when Sally Field's character was asked to describe her relationship with Paul Newman. "Just say we were involved," she replied.

"That's true, isn't it?" the reporter asked.

"No," Field responded, "but it's accurate."

The political developments in the West Wing weren't true, but they were accurate — at least within the context of what was known to be true.

And they did make for dramatic television.

Loving Someone to Death

"When somebody shoot you in the head, it make you think."

Joey (Kevin Kline)

The basic plot of "I Love You to Death" — which premiered 25 years ago today — was that Joey (Kevin Kline), a successful pizzeria operator, was cheating on his wife Rosalie (Tracey Ullman), and Rosalie decided that Joey didn't deserve to live. Her mother (Joan Plowright) already felt that way.

Film critic Roger Ebert wrote that the story was like "an acting class in which the students are presented with impossible situations and asked how they would handle them." But this one wasn't hypothetical. The movie was inspired by the true story of a woman from Allentown, Pennsylvania, who tried to kill her husband for cheating on her. "After the murder attempt failed," Ebert recalled, "the husband refused to press charges against his wife because he felt she had done the right thing."

That was pretty much what happened in the movie, demonstrating that truth really is stranger than fiction. Well, except for where it happened. The movie took place in the state of Washington. (I guess it could have been set in Fate, Texas.)

Rosalie, who had been convinced that Joey was faithful to her, was crushed when she learned that he was really a womanizer who had been cheating on her for years, but she didn't want to divorce him and give him the freedom to run around with anyone at any time. She recruited the help of her mother, who, as I say, had concluded that Joey didn't deserve to live, and a young co–worker who was infatuated with her (River Phoenix). And they began to discuss the ways and means of doing Joey in.

"In the movie version," wrote Ebert, "this story is developed into a domestic black comedy of droll and macabre dimensions. And it is told in a series of scenes in which most of the characters are either lying to each other, lying to themselves or incapable of coherent thought. The few moments of honesty and lucidity have a fascination all their own since under those conditions the characters tend to become tongue–tied with embarrassment."

I guess my favorite such scene came near the end, when the investigating police officers, who had been told that Joey was sick with a virus, discovered he was bleeding in bed from a head wound. Rosalie, her mother and her co–worker stumbled all over each other to explain that they had "found" Joey in the yard, bleeding from an apparent gunshot wound. Rather than call for an ambulance, as innocent people in such a situation would be expected to do, they said they carried Joey inside and put him in his bed.

They also recruited a couple of constantly stoned hit men (William Hurt and Keanu Reeves), whose efforts to kill Joey were clumsy and ham–handed — at best.

But then it appeared that they had, indeed, killed Joey, and Rosalie experienced a case of buyer's remorse, I guess you could say.

Joey, though, turned out to be extraordinarily difficult to kill and came walking up behind his wife, who was weeping and praying before the religious artifacts in her home.

At that point, the movie became an outrageous dark comedy. It had its moments up to that point, but it really took off in the last 30 minutes or so.

Describing the guilty trio, Ebert said their confrontation with the police was "the movie's most difficult and intriguing scene." Ebert wrote. "It takes place almost entirely in the eyes of the actors, and in their pauses and silences and is an exquisite exercise in guilty embarrassment. It is an almost impossible scene to pull off, but somehow they accomplish it."

The whole story was almost impossible to pull it off, but, in Ebert's own words, "somehow they accomplish[ed] it."

Sunday, April 05, 2015

It's Been A Busy Day

Even by the West Wing's own often frenetic standards, the episode that first aired 15 years ago tonight was very busy. I guess you could sort of get that idea from the title of the episode, "Six Meetings Before Lunch."

It is a good thing when the title of an episode gives you an idea of what to expect — but really only becomes clear in hindsight. It shows that the writers are big–picture guys. And the West Wing's writers definitely were big–picture guys.

Anyway, after an unproductive first year for the administration, speech writer Toby (Richard Schiff) refused to let anyone celebrate the nearly certain confirmation of a Supreme Court nominee until it was in the bag; that wasn't one of the meetings, just the way the episode began, but he was also the target of some rather intense lobbying from media consultant Mandy (Moira Kelly) who wanted two new pandas from China for the Washington zoo. Josh (Bradley Whitford) was interviewing a black candidate for assistant attorney general for civil rights who had been quoted about reparations for the descendants of slaves on a bookjacket, and the White House expected some problems with the conservatives on the House committee. Sam (Rob Lowe) was meeting with his sometime girlfriend (as well as full–time teacher and daughter of Leo [John Spencer]) about a position paper he wrote on school vouchers.

The other three meetings involved press secretary C.J. (Allison Janney), who had to meet with first daughter Zooey (Elisabeth Moss) who had attended a frat party where a drug dealer had been arrested; then Zooey had a run–in with a reporter. Then C.J. had to meet with Zooey's Secret Service bodyguard Gina (Jorja Fox), who had gotten between Zooey and the reporter, to get her side of the story — and, finally, she had to meet with the president (Martin Sheen). Gina couldn't tell her much; agents aren't allowed to discuss the behavior of their clients. "I can't do my job if she thinks she has to go behind my back," Gina explained.

C.J. still found time to entertain the staff during their watch party for the Supreme Court vote with her lip synching to Ronny Jordan's "The Jackal." I later learned that Janney lip synched to songs to entertain her fellow cast members during production lulls. The writers decided to incorporate it into this episode. If you haven't seen it, watch it. Here.

In the West Wing universe, C.J. had a reputation among the staffers. Her renditions of "The Jackal" were the stuff of legend, and I gather they frequently took precedence over everything else. In fact, while she was doing it, Josh tried to approach Toby about being given the task of working with the assistant attorney general nominee. "You're talking to me during 'The Jackal?'" he asked incredulously.

The episode that aired 15 years ago tonight was a great example of one of the things I really liked about the West Wing. Even with as many story lines going on at once as the show had in this episode, even though there were moments when it seemed chaotic (as it must seem at times to the real staff of the West Wing), everything came together nicely at the end.

C.J., having gathered all the information she could about Zooey, kept the president from storming down to the press room and turning a non–story into a big story. Only four people knew what had happened, she told the president. There was no reason it couldn't stay that way.

Sam and Mallory wound up going to lunch together when Mallory learned that Sam really wasn't a supporter of school vouchers. She didn't believe it until her father told her — he also told her the paper she had seen was "opposition prep," in which the smartest guys were tapped to make the argument the opposition would make in a debate. Those guys make the president grow and improve.

And Josh learned some things about America.

The nominee for assistant attorney general essentially told him that America was meant to be a work in progress, a country always striving for but never quite reaching perfection. It seems to me that the last five or six years have shown those words to be prophetic. I can think of no comparable five–year period in my lifetime — or at any time in American history — when as many changes have been occurring in America as we have witnessed in these last five or six years.

Such a situation can bring pain and polarization, as it surely has, but it can also bear witness to good things, fragile things that need to be nurtured and encouraged to grow. It depends upon whether the people involved can rise above the pain and polarization.

The nominee for assistant attorney general showed Josh the back of the $1 bill, which shows an unfinished pyramid and the watchful eye of God hovering over it.

"We're meant to be unfinished," he said, explaining that we're meant to continue striving for — but never reaching — perfection. Then he told Josh that he would be an excellent assistant attorney general for civil rights, and he would work hard for all Americans. "Do you have any trouble with me saying that to the committee?" he asked.

"No," Josh replied.

I admired the West Wing's idealism. Like so many other works of fiction, though, it doesn't seem to translate well to the real world.

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Telling the Story of General Patton

"I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor, dumb bastard die for his country."

Gen. George Patton (George C. Scott)

There are some movies I will watch whenever they are shown on TV.

"Patton," which premiered on this day in 1970, is such a movie.

The first six minutes are iconic — George Patton addressing an audience of American soldiers. They are not seen, but I have heard that the scene was based on a real–life speech that Patton gave to an audience of soldiers during World War II. The first time I saw the movie, I assumed he was addressing cadets at West Point. Either explanation is plausible, I suppose.

As I say, it is an iconic scene. It established the movie as a classic right from the start. It also established the fact that George Patton always did things his way — and sometimes his way was, well, bizarre.

He wouldn't tolerate "yellow bellies." They were cowards, in his eyes, looking for a "free ride" in the guise of battle fatigue, and he wouldn't permit them to share the same hospital space with soldiers who had been wounded in battle.

A Christian, he believed in reincarnation. Early in the movie, he took his staff to the scene of an ancient battle — and insisted, in a conversation with Omar Bradley (Karl Malden), that he had been there.

He wrote poetry and designed uniforms for tank crews.

When enemy planes attacked the place where he was engaged in a meeting with his staff, he ran outside and tried to shoot them down with his ivory–handled revolver. Folks in the press of the day wanted to call it a pearl–handled revolver, but he corrected them on that. "Only a pimp from a cheap New Orleans whorehouse would carry a pearl–handled revolver."

"'Patton' is not a war film so much as the story of a personality who has found the right role to play," wrote film critic Roger Ebert. "Scott's theatricality is electrifying."

I would agree with that. Scott was electrifying, and it was the story of a personality who "found the right role to play." But it is a role that is no longer available.

The last time I watched "Patton," I found myself musing about whether it would be possible for another Patton to come along — and I concluded that it probably would not be. He's like the old–style football coaches — Bear Bryant, Woody Hayes, Vince Lombardi — who were said to be molders of men. The times left them behind, and if a football coach rode any of his players today the way those coaches were known to ride theirs back in the day, that football coach would be out of a job and probably blacklisted.

There is something to be said for hard work and how it shapes character, and perhaps that is why drill sergeants did continue to get away with that kind of thing long after football coaches had to change their ways. But they can't get away with it to a great extent anymore without being accused of abusing their positions of power as well as the boys over whom they have that authority.

And generals, of course, probably can't get away with it at all. Certainly, Patton couldn't get away with slapping a victim of battle fatigue. He couldn't even get away with it then.

There is a point in the movie where the empathetic, human side of Patton could be clearly seen — when one of the American soldiers was killed in battle, and the audience saw Patton standing next to the caisson that would carry the body to a field for burial, and Patton's voice could be heard reading the letter he had written about the soldier's death. It reminded me of the grave marker that Tommy Lee Jones carved for Danny Glover in "Lonesome Dove."

"Splendid behavior," he wrote.

In "Patton," the general wrote in the letter that the soldier "was a fine man and a fine officer, and he had no vices."

"Scott's performance is not one level but portrays a many–layered man who desires to appear one level," Ebert wrote. "Instead of adding tiresome behavioral touches, he allows us small glimpses of what may be going on inside."

Or perhaps German Capt. Steiger summed it up better when, by way of explaining Patton's battlefield strategy, he told Gen. Jodl, "Patton is a 16th–century man. ... Patton is a romantic warrior lost in contemporary times."

Such thinking may have been why the Germans tended to underestimate Patton. Perhaps he was right for the time — and Scott was right for the role — but I wonder if either would be possible today.