Ralph Waite and Dick O'Neill: THE Dads of Tough Guys

Ralph Waite plays the grandfather of Booth, tough FBI agent, and the father of ultimate-tough-guy-never-to-be-contested Gibbs of NCIS.

Dick O'Neill was the father of "hotdog" Cagney (of Cagney & Lacey) and father-figure shop teacher to accident-prone Tim Taylor.

They don't really look a like . . . except they totally do. What is it about these guys that screams DADS? Or, rather, DADS TO THE TOUGHEST?

Image result for dick o'neillOkay, Dick O'Neill did play Dad to Cheers' non-tough Cliff Clavin.

Still . . . 

A-Z List, Part 4

Actually, it would be more accurate to call this the 000-999 List.

Yup, it's time for non-fiction, and I'm using the Dewey Decimal System!

I'm passably familiar with the Library of Congress System. By the time I left college (both times) I could more or less find the sections for topics like "Religion" and "Science." Unfortunately, at this point, I only remember that "P" is "Humanities."

But the Dewey Decimal System and I are old pals. I will be reviewing a book from each set of 100. (See list above).

For 000-099, I chose Abominable Science by Daniel Loxton and Donald Prothero (001.944). The book refutes the existence of famous cryptids, such as Big Foot and Loch Ness, while also explaining how myths about these creatures came to be. Loxton and Prothero write separate chapters (Loxton covers Bigfoot and Loch Ness, for example, while Prothero tackles Yeti and the Congo Dinosaur).

The book is quite readable, Loxton's portions slightly more than Prothero's, and beautifully illustrated.

The theme: It isn't science if you can't test it.

Show me a million so-called samples of Bigfoot's fur (which inevitably turn out to be bear or human). If I have nothing to compare it against, so what?

Wishing doesn't make something so. And the human capacity to wish is tremendous.

Loxton, who writes with a sweet-natured glint in the eye, is more tolerant of the desire to find big monsters (despite the fact that a real pleiosaurus like Nessie would have long ago eaten up all the loch's food sources). As a lover of cryptids in childhood, he understands the fascination with the unknown--after all, in the late nineteenth century, Great White Sharks were considered something of a myth! Sometimes, the capacity to wish reveals astonishing truths and inventions.

In comparison, Prothero gets downright testy about the insistence on the existence of certain cryptids. It is possible that he uses a tetchy tone as a deliberate contrast to Loxton's friendlier one. But the difference in tone may also be innate. In the last chapter, the two authors present their differing opinions regarding the pursuit of cryptids, Loxton maintaining that it is harmless and can lead to an interest in the natural world; Prothero arguing that it is harmful to real science.

I mostly agree with Loxton, but I must admit that when I recently saw a non-fiction children's book in the library that presented Bigfoot as a given, I was appalled at the publisher.

Oh, well, part of a free society is learning to distinguish good information from bad.

The most consistent facts that emerge from the creation of these myths is that humans love to hoax! (which is why science requires testing). Any hint of any big thing lurking in the shadows appears to bring out the junior high boy in a truly astonishing number of people (who sometimes recant, then change their minds when they start earning bucks).

As Loxton writes, "There seems little need to conjure a central conspiracy when good humor, expectation, and simple human error could so easily provide ample fuel to spark a monster myth" (141).

(Through there is a very funny Dharma & Greg episode where Greg tries to convince the alien conspiracy theorists that they have been taken in by a conspiracy to defraud them of money. They shake their heads at the poor, deluded fool.)

Ultimately, although I highly recommend the book, I doubt it is read by many "true" believers (excluding the ones who like to hunt for one tiny mistake in a text, then say, "See! I knew they were wrong!").

However, also ultimately, Loxton and Prothero are right: if it can't be tested and it relies on the argument "Everyone else is lying!" then it's a hobby, not a scientific discovery.

* * *
Loxton, Daniel and Donald R. Prothero. Abominable Science! Origins of the Yeti, Nessie, and Other Famous Cryptids. Columbia: 2013.

Hollywood's Obsession with Psychics

Re-post: With the publication of Coin, I decided to repost the below 2013 post.

Anthony Andrews as the devious "psychic" in Columbo.
The main character of Coin, Donna, is an investigator with paranormal abilities. She is not--as she repeatedly attempts to explain--a psychic. Also, unlike so many literary and television psychics, she does not assume people should accept her "evidence" as empirical. The below post explains why.
* * *
I love mystery shows. Unfortunately, this means that I have to endure many many "detective meets psychic" episodes. Nearly every mystery show has one or more of these episodes (I use the word "nearly" to cover myself, but really they all do).

Even Numb3rs--Numb3rs!--caved and had a couple. 

It is very annoying, Red John annoying. Inevitably, the episode will be about how the tough detective/math instructor/profiler should accept that there is something else out there (cue religious or scary music).

Part of Scully's dream: her father
My problem is not believing in a supernatural/outside-our-ken mover & shaker. I've seen a number of detective-meets-Catholic-priest episodes that have this same theme or lesson. Shoot, the entire show X-Files is based on this theme and it doesn't bother me.

The difference is this: usually, in a detective show (and X-Files) when the tough detective meets the priest/guru, the point is, "Okay, we solved the case, but maybe we don't fully understand the workings of the human mind or of the universe, etc."

That's a very intelligent point whether one is talking religion or science: there may be stuff we don't know. In Numb3rs, this is almost always Larry's role--to remind Charles that his equations may not be able to capture the ineffable.

But in episodes where the tough detective meets the psychic, the point is (almost always) that the detective should be open-minded enough to let the psychic help.

Are you kidding me?

I am not debating the possibility of stuff like ESP. I am doubting the use of the equivalent of interpretive dance to guide an investigation.

Again and again and again, psychics in real life and on television/film inform us that psychics can't  produce information willy-nilly. They have to be in the mood: their visions come and go; they can't promise definite answers; they can only interpret what they see or feel.

I read a book awhile back in which the author whined that the military gave up on ESP research because those awful rigid bureaucrats didn't understand all this stuff about moods and the haphazard nature of visions and interpretation.

"Roshomama": Grissom's version
Whatever: if I were the military, I'd have dropped them too. I can just see some general standing on a field somewhere, missiles incoming, the enemy on the horizon, the H-Bomb minutes away from exploding, going, "Sorry, soldiers, we gotta give the psychic time to center himself."

As for interpretation, as the waitress says in the non-psychic CSI episode "Rashomama,"

"Weddings are Roscharch tests."

Likewise, psychic interpretations can be interpreted just about any way people want.

There are a few decent mystery episodes that deal with psychics:
  • CSI's "Stalker"--the psychic is used to tell the story, not solve the case. Although he helps Nick in the end, he also complicates matters and even, possibly, pushed the victim to return home when she should have stayed in the hotel. He is a decent, well-meaning character. Confused and burdened by his "gift", he relates information not to change people's minds but because he feels compelled.
  • Monk's "Monk and the Psychic"--the psychic is a fraud! She is also hilariously played by Linda Kash.
  • Columbo's "Columbo Goes to the Guillotine"--the psychic is not only a fraud but a clever murderer played by the ever-clever-and-urbane Anthony Andrews (see above).
  • Psych naturally cause it's just fun:
Burton 'Gus' Guster:You named your fake detective agency "Psych"? Why not just call it "Hey, We're Fooling You and the Police Department, Hope We Don't Make a Mistake and Someone Dies Because of It"?
Shawn Spencer: First of all, Gus, that name is entirely too long. It would never fit on the window. And secondly, the best way to convince people you're not lying to them is to tell them you are.
That's just about it. The psychic episodes on Numb3rs--in which the psychic is played by the disturbing John Glover--are completely annoying and take the show out of reputable-if-occasionally-misapplied-logic territory to total silliness.

The psychic episodes on The Mentalist would have been far more interesting if they hadn't been used to undermine Jane's credibility.

The psychic episode on Criminal Minds was hilariously stupid (despite Cybill Shepherd), being of the "I sense water; the body must be near . . . a rain gutter!" variety.

And there's more--there have been psychics on Murder, She Wrote; Diagnosis Murder . . . you name a mystery show, I can (almost) guarantee that a psychic has shown up at some point.

I know Hollywood runs out of story ideas, but really people, give it a rest!
* * *
Back to 2018: Donna of Coin isn't a psychic; she can't predict the future. And she doesn't rely on feelings or intuition to "prove" a case. That's lazy and as the ministers surrounding the Salem Witch Trials began to point out: in a case built on hearsay, anybody's version could be true.

Instead, Donna uses her abilities to locate clues that can lead to empirical evidence--and if sometimes, there's a gap between knowledge and evidence, that's where an ethical person has to take a good hard look at herself.  

New Publication: A Murder Mystery!

My newest publication, Coin: A Donna Howard Mystery is now available on Kindle and in paperback!

This is my first murder mystery. Writing Coin was a fun exploration of red herrings and of life in the 1990s. Remember the 1990s? Using a 1995 setting took me back before DVD and even gmail!

The paranormal gifts of my main character meant I also ended up exploring decades of Portland, Maine history. I've lived here twenty years and never knew how much I didn't know.

The official blurb:
It's 1995 and Donna Howard is living an ordinary life in Portland, Maine. She works as a hairdresser, has a boring boyfriend plus two opinionated brothers and two exhaustively energetic parents. As far as she's concerned, she's an ordinary person and is proud of it.

Except she can see the past. Walk down any street in the old part of the city and four centuries of its inhabitants walk right along with her. She can observe them, hear them, smell them. And she'd rather not. She'd prefer to leave the past in the past.

Until a customer "accidentally" leaves an ancient Roman coin at the hair salon. A coin worth an awful lot of money. Then the woman appraising the coin for the Portland Museum of Art "accidentally" ends up dead. And now the past won't leave Donna alone.

Not even the man whose visage was molded into the metal 2000 years ago, a man who wreaked mayhem then and may have witnessed murder now. Quite unwittingly, Donna uncovers family secrets, confronts historical controversies, and closes in on a very contemporary crime.
Thanks to Eugene, my editor, who is also responsible for the Art Deco cover!

Murder on the Orient Express (2017): A Review

Branagh's Murder on the Orient Express is worth watching.

It isn't very good. But it's worth watching.

If anything, the movie illustrates the basic visual problem with the plot's structure. Christie herself never attempted to turn the book into a play, and there's a reason for that. The middle part is Poirot talking to various individuals in an enclosed space.

That's it. "Hi, I'm Poirot. Tell me your story while we sit on a non-moving train."(Like Keen Eddie--"Hi, I'm Eddie. How do you like me so far?"--except Eddie gets to run around London and break up bar fights.)

The 1974 Murder on the Orient Express handles this problem through sheer exhaustive and demanding inside-a-small-space camera work--and the tremendous energy of Albert Finney. The pacing demands attention.

Branagh's version, oddly enough, suffers from too much variety. Slow scenes. Fast scenes. Inside shots. Outside shots. Branagh is a skilled director, so customarily this would work.

It doesn't. The change of pace for the interviews--which allow Branagh's considerable talent to shine (he isn't Poirot to me, but he's Branagh, so he's worth watching)--forces the story of interviewing-people to fall apart. What's happening now? The quick pace in the denouement--which ought to work wonders--brushes over the most heartrending parts of the visual story, such as Hardiman and Michel's reaction to the picture of the French maid; Mrs. Hubbard's quiet, drawling revelations.

Bergman's Third Oscar
Before anyone claims that "movies back then" were "so much better"--the truth is, the 1974 version was something of a fluke (check out other mystery movies of that era and earlier if you doubt me; even The Thin Man sequels drag). The 1974 version really shouldn't have worked and only did for a variety of overlapping reasons, including cameo monologues, audience interest in murder movies (thank Hitchcock for that one), and, as mentioned above, the hectic pace.

Branagh's movie has all the right elements. There are no individual false notes. The cast is excellent if underused. Patrick Doyle's music is, of course, spot on. The scenery is gorgeous. The movie isn't dull, even if weirdly paced. And Branagh, of course, is as good as he is in any movie where Branagh plays someone. The movie is clearly a tribute by Branagh to the 1974 version, so the element of "due tribute" is even there (James Bond doesn't suddenly appear, wielding bombs--like Schwarzenegger at Elsinore in Last Action Hero; yes, I realize some people would prefer that).

Unfortunately, as a million fantasy writers have discovered, you can't simply put a bunch of elements into a bag (elves, swords, wizards, sarcastic people), shake them up, and get a masterpiece.

However, here's an ultimate reason to watch the movie (other than Branagh, Agatha Christie, and hey-it's-only-2-hours!):

Johnny Depp is mind-blowing.


Johnny Depp as a thug was the one "huh" casting choice I questioned. I forgot what a profoundly good actor he can be. As Ratchett, he is phenomenal. Watch it just for him.

Shakespeare, Alun Armstrong, and Accents

Totally fascinating video about how Shakespeare originally sounded.

For your Alun Armstrong fans, this video explains why Brian Lane's Shakespeare monologue in New Tricks' "Final Curtain"--in his broad North East Londoner accent--is so fantastic!

Alun Armstrong is in fact a renowned Shakespearean actor AND he played Thénardier in Les Miserables 10th Anniversary Concert.

Holmes as Voyeur

In "The Crooked Man," Holmes and Watson
solve the mystery for their own benefit--not in
order to apprehend a criminal.
Watching Jeremy Brett's Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, I've been reminded all over again that these are action/adventures tales rather than detective stories. What is astonishing about the series' episodes, which are quite faithful to the original tales, is how often Holmes and Watson don't prevent the crimes. They arrive after people have been hung or kidnapped, attacked in their homes, even murdered.

Again, this is largely due to Doyle wanting to write action/suspense stories (as opposed to forensic examinations). Also, however, detection for the Victorians/Edwardians was not the same as it is for us. Historians of the murder mystery point out that detective stories increased by a tremendous degree in Victorianism's later years, specifically with (1) the advent of the "private" home; (2) the inception of the police.

That is, when society became more private--when the "family" moved indoors outside of the public gaze--obsession with what WAS going on behind closed doors grew. The policeman or detective (female and male) who crept inside was both an abhorrent and coveted figure: how awful that she/he would transgress family privacy; how wonderful that she/he can figure out what is really going on.

The point of the Doyle stories isn't so much that crime has been stopped or the criminal punished (contemporary concerns) but that the privacy of the home has been stripped away, the truth of the family revealed.

It's voyeurism--and maybe, in essence, all detective fiction is.

You think The National Enquirer is bad . . .

Cagney & Lacey: First Time Viewer

Cagney & Lacey is another of "those" shows that I never saw growing up (although I grew up in a home without a permanent TV, that's not a good enough excuse--I am familiar with a surprising number of Brady Bunch episodes).

Like with Columbo, I've been pleasantly surprised. It is naturally dated, not in the painful way of "vintage" shows--such as Simon & Simon--but in a charming nostalgic way--such as  Barney Miller and early Law & Order.

In fact, watching Cagney & Lacey is rather like watching a Barney Miller/early Law & Order reunion. I keep saying, "Wow, there's another early cop-show guest star!"

It resembles both shows in the quick dialog and (usually) not too heavy-handed balance of "tough" subjects and character development. There are, naturally, the "serious" episodes that touch on controversial issues (is porn a victimless crime? should cops go out on strike?). I didn't appreciate until Cagney & Lacey how far Law & Order had been anticipated re: its "pulled from the headlines" approach.

The marriage of Mary Beth Lacey and Harvey Lacey also anticipates Linda and Danny of Blue Bloods

Last but not least, the non-spick & span police station is anticipated by dozens of cop shows in the twentieth century. I have a soft spot for dirty, linoleum police stations. Truth: I've never fully accepted the sleek, clean settings of shows like Law & Order: Criminal Intent. I totally understand why Tom Paris of ST: Voyager started building space shuttles with blinking buzzers and lights--it just seems more authentic.

Cagney & Lacey is helped by decent acting. I had no idea that Tyne Daly (whom I'd only seen in a Columbo episode prior to watching Cagney & Lacey) was that good. Cagney & Lacey actors are the kind that definitely fit the profile of "working actors." Harvey Atkin, for instance, seems to have been everywhere, performing in everything. These are actors who will do voice work, live action, movies, films. It's a job. Of course, it's a job.

Rowan Atkinson's Best Role

I love Rowan Atkinson in just about anything. I adore him in The Thin Blue Line.

In The Thin Blue Line, Rowan Atkinson as Detective Inspector Fowler gets to use his excellent physical skills, as when he acts like an alien (to instruct his constables on tolerance), attempts to fight a tree hugger and dances badly at a disco.

He also gets to show his sarcastic side. Fowler is smarter than everyone else in the police station (other than Habib, who is the only one who can keep up with him intellectually) and, perhaps more importantly, more endowed with commonsense. He rolls his eyes at Detective Inspector Grim's obsession with (to name a few) Scotland Yard slang, secret societies, the supposed end of civilization (due to whatever Grim is upset with that week).

Not that Fowler doesn't have his weak spots (like the Mayoress and chocolate hob-nobs), but his weak spots only serve to endear him to his subordinates.

Fowler's supposed weakest spot is his intense middle-class, bourgeois conservatism. He thinks highly of the Queen and actually buys her a present--as befitting a civil servant. He tut-tuts at Habib's "modern" sarcasm. He insists on using terms like "fair play." He is a fan of the dull and boring. When Habib points out that watching sport (European soccer) is wet and boring, he replies, "Yes, it is," going on to argue that this is part of its "British" appeal.

Fowler's self-mocking yet entirely serious conservatism is very British and only matched in America by Tim Allen's Mike Baxter.

The Gasworth team isn't very good. However, "not being very good is what we British are good at," states Fowler with utter goodwill. Showing up and being disappointed is the British way.

Ultimately, it is Fowler's goodwill that makes him so appealing (and far more lovable than the excellent Black Adder). He is sweet, kind, gentle, honest, brave, and easy-tempered.

Fowler is an excellent leader--he has no trouble keeping his
constables in line, yet he encourages creativity, even argument.
The "role playing" skits (see above) are some of my favorites.
My favorite example of Fowler's kindness is when Habib gets into trouble for helping her sister at a rave. Habib takes her sister's marijuana to prevent her getting arrested. When Habib is discovered, Grim and Doyle threatened to charge her. Fowler pleads for mercy--he doesn't debate the basic wrongness of what Habib did or even pretend for a moment that Grim and Doyle don't have the rights of the situation. Rather, he finds a way to force Grim to trade his own vaguely unethical behavior for Habib's far more comprehensible mistake.

While speaking to Habib, Fowler cries, "You fool, constable. What madness possessed you?"

It is almost impossible to convey how Atkinson says that final line. It is gentle, pained. Habib is left in no doubt that he is entirely on her side. As her superior officer, he will do his best to protect her even if he is disappointed in her.

All great comedians are great dramatic actors. Atkinson is no exception. 

An Actor In Search of a Role

Some actors can fall into any role. Other actors need to find their role.

Sabrina Lloyd doesn't quite work as Don's ex-girlfriend in the first season of Numb3rs. She also isn't quite right as Wade in Sliders, a problem I write about here. However, she shines in the comedy Sports Night opposite the endearing Joshua Malina.

On the other hand, Joss Whedon alumnus Amy Acker slides effortlessly into nearly every role.

Granted, Amy Acker is something of a marvel but the issue here isn't acting ability but how various roles seem to suit actors or actresses best.

T.J. Thyne had a healthy and respectable career as a minor-guest-character-with-clever-lines for years before he landed Bones. His prior roles were truthfully all variations on a theme. This doesn't mean T.J. Thyne isn't a good actor; it means he plays a particular role exceptionally well.

Yup, that's TJ Thyne on Friends
Elsewhere, I mention that Joan Fontaine was less than perfect as Jane Eyre. Hitchcock, on the other hand, knew exactly what to do with her. She was nominated for her role in Rebecca and won for her role in Suspicion.

Do casting directors get awards for picking the right person for the right role? Because they should. 

Another interesting point about casting directors is that many of them tend to pick similar-looking actors for guest spots. I'm sure there's a kind of underground rumor mill in Hollywood: "Hey, that show on CBS is looking for a guest star right now, and the casting director always picks rangy blonds of about 5'10"--you should try out!"

In any case, this is one more reminder to me of how much, for these actors, their roles are jobs. Which is why I always feel bad when an actor loses a role, even if that actor wasn't very good. It's a living, people!

Finding the right niche is part of making a good living.

The Emotional Intelligence of Castle

One of my favorite aspects of Castle, of Castle, is his emotional intelligence. Although he comes across initially as an irresponsible playboy (explaining why Beckett would be so cautious about forming a romantic attachment), that reputation is immediately undermined by his behavior towards his daughter and mother. In fact, Alexis and Martha are two of the smartest psychological story choices in Castle. Even before Beckett falls in love with Castle, his homelife offers her relationships that she lost when her mother was killed.

In addition, Castle is surprisingly mature. When Beckett's ex-boyfriend shows up in Season 1 and tries to mock Castle, Castle is unfazed. When, in the same episode, Beckett asks him to go home, he does, returning only when he figures out a clue.

Castle also looks out for Alexis's friends: the young model, the drunk Paige, and the sister of the rock star. He perceives his responsibility as going beyond "not getting upset." Rather, he goes out of his way to provide a safe haven for the model, call the drunk Paige's parents, and track down the sister of the rock star.

Oddly enough, however, my favorite example of Castle's emotional intelligence is not when he is behaving parental but in the episode "The Late Shaft." He sleeps with an actress who turns out to be using him to get the lead in the Nikki Heat movies. When she shows up to apologize, rather than acting hurt and thwarted and "how dare you!" Castle recognizes that she was playing a game that he willingly participated in and even should have foreseen. His pride may have been dented, but that's no reason to take it out on her:
Thanks. I'm headed back to LA, and I just wanted to say sorry.
Thanks. But the truth is, I've never had so much fun being used. You feel free to have at me anytime.
Well, I guess you'll rescind your recommendation of me to your producers, and that is the least I deserve.
No. Tony thinks you are great for it. And so do I. You are a better actress than I thought when I recommended you.
Well, you should know I wasn't acting the whole time.
Me neither.
Thanks, Rick. Take care.
You, too.
Castle's ability to take Ellie in stride reminds me of an Agatha Christie quote from Murder in Mesopotamia. Dr. Reilly states, "Men aren't little boys to be shielded and protected. They've got to meet cat women--and faithful spaniel, yours-till-death adoring women, and henpecking nagging bird women--and all the rest of it!"

Nathan Fillion sells the role of a guy who comes across (partly on purpose) as a fly-by-night, shallow narcissist but is in fact, as his mother points out, a truly good and mature man. Great character!

Barney Miller: Still Great Television

I now own the 6th Season of Barney Miller. I went through all the seasons a few years ago. Rewatching Season 6 reminded me all over again what great television it is--how impressively well-written Barney Miller was in the years before television really had a ton of money (proving that sometimes love outweighs cash).  

There are so many reasons Barney Miller is excellent, including the impressive cast: Hal Linden, Ron Glass (1945-2016, may he rest in peace), Abe Vigoda, Max Gail, Steven Landesberg, Jack Soo, Ron Carey, James Gregory . . . and a set of back benchers (as detectives, criminals, locals) with serious credentials (Roscoe Lee Browne and James Cromwell to name a few).

Hal Linden and the excessively dry
Steve Landesberg
Without the impressive acting, the show wouldn't be quite so good; in the long-run though, all the acting in the world can't make up for poor writing. And the writing on Barney Miller is as impressive as the comedic specialists who deliver the lines.

Barney Miller, in truth, skirts the line of moralistic television. This is different from episodes with a moral--moralistic television involves what I call "after-school special" writing. The moral in the former is an underlying thread or even joke. The moral in the latter is Something the Audience Should Learn.

Generally speaking, I don't like the latter in my fiction. Give me a moral perspective. Give me moral problems that the characters debate. Don't try to make me a better person (see the moralistic and cloying Rent as compared to the hilarious, ribald, and far superior Rocky Horror Picture Show).

Like other shows of the time period (see Star Trek), Barney Miller is grappling with heavy ideas: the definition of rape, cults, reminders of Vietnam, corrupt police, religious doubts, race issues, broken marriages, treatment of the elderly, treatment of gays . . .

It just avoids becoming moralistic and preachy, partly, again, because of the actors, but mostly, in this case, because the writers never forget the other side. The diatribes and excuses of the "bad" characters are often played for laughs, but they are never played easily. When Harris and Dietrich debate the Vietnam War with Wojo, Wojo is allowed to speak his piece. When various government officials show up in the precinct, their personal failings and desires, their little idiosyncratic dreams, are allowed expression. When Harris is shot at by fellow police officers, the fallout affects all the members of the 12th, who express a variety of hurt feelings and confusion at Harris's anger.

This is George Murdock NOT as Scanlon--but yes, he was
on Star Trek.
Scanlon is an excellent example of a thoroughly nasty character--he is the Internal Affairs officer who is always trying to find dirt in Barney's precinct--who manages to come across as more complex than a two-dimensional strawman, despite only twelve episodes.

He isn't merely a "Big Bad"--he has reasons for his behavior. At one point, he argues that Barney and his officers couldn't possibly be as clean and upstanding as they are because it isn't "natural." On several occasions, his efforts to expose other people's "criminal" attitudes highlight his own foibles. He comes across as more desirous of applause and affection, despite his slimy nature, than even he realizes.

It is clever writing and clever acting. And never fails to raise a laugh.

Barney Miller earned its Primetime Emmys.

Sad but Not Tragic: Two Television Deaths

I usually consider literary deaths as the result of lazy writing. I discuss this many times on Votaries.

Every now and again, I am impressed or not bothered by a death. The following examples from the following two shows are about not being bothered (and include spoilers--you've been warned!):
Person of Interest
I was surprised that Dr. Sweets' death didn't bother me more. It is possible that I was bothered less than I would have been if I hadn't known the death was coming (studies have found that spoilers actually enhance people's enjoyment of shows). However, I believe there is another reason.

In the Bones' Season 4 episode "Mayhem on the Cross," Gordon Gordon Wyatt and Sweets have a wonderful exchange. Wyatt pegs that Sweets was adopted relatively late (age six) from a horrific situation. He was taken in by elderly parents who loved him dearly. Wyatt continues:
Dr. Gordon Wyatt: [to Sweets] So now you're mostly alone in the world. But they had time to save you. They gave you a good life, and that's why you believe that people can be saved by other people with good hearts. That's the gift your parents left you. That, and a truly good heart. That gives you a deeper calling that I do not share.
This sense of calling follows Sweets throughout the seasons. Although he occasionally worries that he is not accomplishing enough or leaving a strong enough mark on those around him, the viewer knows that Sweets is living each day to the fullest; he treats every day, every interaction, as a gift, the fulfillment of a life he never thought to have.

Person of Interest
I haven't watched Season 5 yet, but I read the spoilers, and yes, John dies.

In the first season of Person of Interest, John and Harold have the following exchange:
John Reese: He said we don't need to worry. He might even help us someday.
Harold Finch: I was listening in, Mr. Reese.
John Reese: I was reading between the lines
Harold Finch: I suppose only time will tell which one of us is right.
John Reese: Thank you.
Harold Finch: I beg your pardon?
John Reese: For giving me a job.
Harold Finch: Try the eggs Benedict, Mr. Reese. I've had them many times.
Throughout the series, John tells others many times that he is grateful for his patron, benefactor, friend who saved his life and gave him a purpose. John perceives himself as a fallen soul (Harold perceives him as a knight, inherently good and noble). For John, every day is something he didn't look for, an extra gift. Like Sweets, he may have ended up quite differently; consequently, the life he currently lives has become a series of second chances, to live as the person he thought he wouldn't get a chance to be.

In real life, death is always sad. Also in real life, we tend to see an adult's death as less saddening than a child's since childhood is a gateway to the next stage, adulthood. In truth, in real life, adulthood has many stages of its own.

In literary terms, Sweets and John have tackled and overcome the final stage. Their deaths aren't mistakes. They are ends to lives already fully valued and enjoyed.

Remarkable writing. 

Successful TV Relationships That Didn't Work Out

Generally speaking, I'm a fan of an iconic couple getting together, especially since current shows are far better than shows in the 1980s and 1990s at maintaining a high standard of writing even after the  fatal kiss. Bones continued to do remarkably well once Bones and Booth formed a permanent alliance. And the final seasons of Stargate with Jack would have been better served putting Jack and Captain (Major) Carter together (it is heavily implied that they are together off-screen).

Every now and again, however, the lack of a permanent arrangement is a good call:

Diane Chambers-Sam Malone

Shelley Long is a talented comedienne, so much so that she falls into the so-awful-she's-hilarious category. As Diane Chambers, she is more quixotic than irritating (if she was too irritating, Cheers would be unbearable to watch). Still, I can think of no point during Cheers' original run (or now) where I believed she and Sam Malone would work as a couple.

Apparently, at the end of Season 4, when Sam Malone proposes to someone on the phone, viewers voted on whom he had proposed to (I vaguely remember this but never saw the results). I was flummoxed that anyone thought he proposed to Diane--or that if he did, the writers wouldn't immediately undermine the relationship. Did anyone ever think that Sam and Diane could possibly work? Ever?

To be fair, the 1980s and 1990s were filled with these types of oil & water relationships. I never believed in the Maddie Hayes (Cybill Shepherd)-David Addision (Bruce Willis) romantic relationship either. Writers have not only gotten better at writing relationships after the couple get together, they've gotten better at preparing viewers for relationships that actually work: Bones and Booth are in fact more like each other than initially supposed.

This is not to say that Ted Danson and Shelley Long didn't have sexual chemistry. The characters are quite effective as fighting exes. Still, the writers were wise to keep them apart--though that decision may have been due to Shelley Long's decision to leave the show in Season 5.

"Put your brother on the phone!"
Frasier et al. 
I was a fan of Frasier getting together either with Laura (the married cellist that Frasier meets at the airport, sweetly well-played by  Linda Hamilton) or Lana (hilariously well-played by Jean Smart).

However, to a large extent, Frasier not ending up with anyone is the point of the show. The last episode sees him heading off to Chicago to hopefully continue his latest relationship with Charlotte (played by Laura Linney). It is an act of hope.

Frasier is the ultimate example of the guy who climbs back on the horse.

Although I criticize the writers' disingenuous claims that Holmes and Watson on CBS's Elementary were not written with sexual tension in mind (oh, puh-leaze), I am thoroughly impressed by their skill in making Holmes-Watson a non-romantic couple. They are great friends with strong chemistry, but there is no hint that they will ever end up in bed.

And absolutely no need. The friendship--especially the implication that this particular friendship will last a lifetime--is solid and reliable, exactly as the Holmes-Watson friendship is supposed to be. It is also a friendship of equals which Holmes-Watson friendships are not always portrayed as being. The viewer can be grateful that such disparate, unique, and somewhat aloof personalities have each other to rely on.

Wendie Malick: Comedienne Par Excellence

Wendie Malick is a gifted comedienne. She has starred in several sitcoms, such as Nina Van Horn in Just Shoot Me! (a well-received sitcom with a plethora of gifted actors, including the gifted Enrico Colantoni).

After Just Shoot Me! she guest-appeared as Martin's girlfriend/wife on Frasier, where her ability to deliver good-humored and confident lines made her the perfect foil to Frasier and an excellent second wife to the down-to-earth Martin (although the first wife, Frasier and Niles's mother, was more sophisticated and academic, both wives share commonsense as well as a similar build and look: Martin has a type). 

Malick is sassy without being shrill. She is also naturally pretty. She reminds me of Zoe Morgan (Paige Turco) on Person of Interest who is bone-deep beautiful. Any make-up is simply an accessory, not the purpose. Wendie Malick can play aging fashion model with no extra effort.

She also has a factor that I consider vital to all good (American) comic actors: she is unself-conscious. Like David Hyde Pierce, she doesn't mind playing "the fool." Nor is the audience left with the uncomfortable sensation that the actress was embarrassed in order to make the scene work. Rather, the actress (or actor) is in on the joke!

We laugh alongside, which is the best way to laugh. 

Emma Lathen: Early versus Later Mysteries

My version of John Thatcher (at home) sans the
laptop--because of course, the novels start
in the 1960s.
I recently read through all Emma Lathen's John Thatcher novels, most for the third or fourth time, a few for the second time.

There are 24 in total, starting with Banking on Death and ending with Shark Out of Water. I consider Banking on Death (1) to Going for the Gold (18) to be canon; the remaining novels are good but "less-canon."

I have always been hard-pressed to explain why. What exactly changes between Going for the Gold (#18, one of my favorites) and Green Grow the Dollars (#19)? It isn't the cast of characters. Thatcher, Trinkam, Miss Corsa, Gabler, Nicolls, and Bowman all make appearances. It isn't the emphasis on business and banking. Emma Lathen (two authors acting as a duo) have always been "Wall Street's Agatha Christie." As in all the novels, the resolution/denouement rests on a clever and insightful understanding of human nature.

The most classic Lathen murder
mystery: estranged husband & wife,
mistress, and deer antlers.
The later six novels seem to be less about a stock group of murder mystery characters (which I prefer) and more a listing of people who could possibly be involved in a deal (which I find tiring). It's the difference between the-wife-who-might-murder-her-husband and the research-partner-who-has-stock-options-and-is-also-related-to-the-vice-president-of-operations.

Due to the smaller cast, the earlier books also focus more on the detective, Thatcher, rather than on the multiple possible murderers. Many of the later books feel rather like later Columbo episodes where the script spends so much time introducing and explaining the soap opera relationships between the various characters, one begins to wonder when Columbo will show up (this may have been done to spare the aging Peter Falk physical exhaustion).

There is also a difference in tone. In Green Grows the Dollars, Thatcher and Trinkam end up at a seed & plant conference. When a CEO assumes Thatcher is there for the sake of his company, Thatcher responds:
"No. I'm in Chicago on other business. I recall your talk about the convention, of course. But I don't see that the Sloan [Bank] has anything to gain by attending."
This is, in fact, something that Thatcher would think. But it's not something he would say in the canon books. In the canon books, the narrator would write something like the following:
Thatcher  reflected how quickly people assume that the world is entirely concerned with their concerns. He had never attended a convention of plant specialists and although he was always willing to broaden his horizons, he saw no reason to do so now. He explained as tactfully as he could that a worldwide bank like the Sloan did have other reasons to visit Chicago. 
The books explore many business
ventures from hockey to the
automobile industry.
Funny. Wry. This tone is apparent in Green Grows the Dollars, which still delivers quintessential passages, but it is less prevalent than usual--precisely because Thatcher is less prevalent than usual. The attitude of wryness continues but not always the direct experience.

Thatcher is a great outside-the-box detective: he is a conservative, middle-class man, who appreciates the life he has chosen but doesn't take it quite as seriously as his fellow bankers. He works hard but at the back of all the work lurks a sense of bemusement: Why would anyone ever get so invested in this world he or she would resort to murder?

In the later books, by necessity (amid all the other deal-making characters), he becomes more The Earnest Man of Business.

All the books are worth reading. My favorites include the following:
  • Ashes to Ashes, Book 12, which involves the Catholic Church and parent protests as well as bomb threats (and comes down to a classic business murder suspect)
  • Sweet and Low, Book 15, possibly my overall favorite, which involves the cocoa exchange and has hilarious satiric exchanges between an avant-garde artiste and a couple of Italian businessmen who refuse to play the part of European highbrows
  • Going for the Gold, Book 18, which includes evocative scenes of a snow-bound Lake Placid during the 1980 Olympics (which was not actually struck by a blizzard but could have been)

How Patterns Influence Our Lives

In Beyond Human Nature, Jesse J. Prinz argues that culture is the ultimate determiner of behavior. In the chapter "Gladness and Madness," he addresses depression, which is statistically on the rise.
"Perhaps," Prinz argues, "we are learning how to be depressed . . . Each symptom of major depression can occur naturally, and each can be viewed as a coping response to the challenges of life . . . The difference now might have something to do with the fact that we all know about depression . . . Everyone has learned how to be depressed. We have learned the depression script. We have learned that a certain set of symptoms co-occur with an intensity that makes life painful and difficult . . . [Culture] can make a cluster of symptoms . . . define the relevant curve balls . . . train us to construe things in a way that increases the likelihood of getting depressed."
Prinz has a point. The idea that we "learn" (through culture) what certain experiences mean as well as how to react to them explains defunct behavior like swooning and the half-deliberate/half-non-deliberate hysterics of the teenagers in the Salem Witch trials.  Later in the chapter, Prinz relates how different cultures deal with or interpret depression, noting that the conditions and explanations can differ substantially.

Prinz does allow (repeating several times) that there may be a genetic predisposition or hormonal imbalance involved in depression (and he goes on to argue that strong cultural expectations make the experience largely involuntary--though not how someone deals with it).

In truth, I don't completely buy into Prinz's argument, precisely because I think he ignores the impact of biology and hormones to a stunning degree. I half-expected him to start arguing that women are the ones to give birth because, hey, that's what our culture expects. (The animal nature of the human experience is a force that many cerebral interpretations prefer to by-pass.)

However, I think Prinz has a minor point, especially when it comes to families (although he does not address families exclusively). I dislike environmental and genetic determinism and have no intention of replacing those "theories" with THE BLUEPRINT THEORY. The following is a possibility, not an explanation of all human behavior since time began.

The Possibility

Families, culture writ small, create blueprints in their members' heads. Some of those blueprints reside in the unconscious; we accept them because to not do so would make life impossible. This blueprint can involve traditions as basic as the fact that we call people by names (not numbers or emotions-see Inside Out).

Other blueprints reside in the semi-conscious: how people think about work, how people argue, how people react to holidays. These blueprints can be questioned. The questioning by itself is not inherently meritorious or unique. After all, there is no such thing as a life without patterns or a blueprint. As Hayden Fox explains on Coach, even the absence of a parent can be a blueprint.
It's impossible to imagine--humans ARE their patterns.

In fact, human beings couldn't exist at all without these blueprints--whatever John Lennon tried to

For instance, take a blueprint that exists in many families and churches: reverence. In Western, middle-class, American culture, this largely philosophical concept has a blueprint of people sitting quietly and politely in dresses and suits while listening to quiet music and/or quiet speakers in an often pastel environment. Or, being alone in a large quiet field with a beautiful (non-urban) view.

It is very Protestant.

When I teach my little kids at church, I teach them to behave in the above way (or try to) because I know they will benefit in Western, middle-class, American culture if they know how. I would be remiss if I didn't. This largely Protestant behavioral ideal is necessary if my American little kids want to grow up to get good grades in school, wait in line at post offices, learn to drive, get jobs after surviving reasonably civil interviews, attend weddings, attend movies in movie theaters, go to restaurants, not get killed by mobs at soccer games or music concerts, and so on.

However, I confess, I don't take the next step in the blueprint; I don't tell them that this particular behavior is inherently "righteous" or "Godly."

If they were older, I could explain that "this blueprint is the way that people demonstrate Godliness in our culture," but they aren't that old. They need to be socialized--and I'm perfectly willing to socialize them to the current norms since those norms are fairly effective (and I'm not the type of radical to "revolutionize" the norms until I know the new norms have been tested). 

But I can never forget--and I don't especially want them to forget--that it's a cultural and temporal blueprint. In the past, Bible men and women showed reverence by dancing, shouting, wrestling with angels, spitting on people (no kidding), and running away.

God is bigger than Protestant America.

Truth: the blueprint my students get at home and with their peers (see Judith Rich Harris) is more powerful than anything I tell them anyway. And those blueprints--how people are supposed to parent, how people are supposed to act in large or small groups, how people are supposed to handle sadness or confusion, how people are supposed to deal with defeat or success--are powerful.

I'm not sure how much the blueprints can be changed. I do know that many of them can be questioned and tweaked and that small tweaks can lead to decidedly different outlooks and choices in life (if this wasn't true, then human nature would never change at all: lower-classes in Europe wouldn't have upped and moved to America; medicine would never improve--see miasma theory; and people would never have gone into space).

Choice matters. As Judith Rich Harris states, quoted in Steven Pinker's Blank Slate, "We may not hold [children's] tomorrows in our hands but we surely hold their todays, and we have the power to make their todays very miserable," and as Stephen Pinker himself states earlier in the same book, explanation is not the same as exculpation (his emphasis). We may not be singly responsible for the rise and fall of cultures, but whatever happens in the present is well within our purview.

Forster and Travel

Forster fascinates me as much as a man as a writer. Furbank's excellent biography reveals a man who was diffident, opinionated, well-read, a product of his class yet surprisingly lacking in the prejudices of that class.

He had the remarkable ability (echoed in Fielding's character) to accept what a country or place had to offer. Consequently, he is probably one of the few intellectual travel writers who recognized the "boring" side of a place. Forster rarely fell victim to the "I am having a NEW experience--it MUST be grand because I am ABROAD!"

Forster's refusal to produce knee-jerk intellectual glorifications of his travels reminds me of a comment by P.J. O'Rourke when visiting the South American rain-forest:
"[The male witch or shaman] seemed to be a nice man, very dignified with sad and common-sensical eyes. I'm sure he was, in his way, as pious and devout as ever was Reverend Lackland, the incredibly boring pastor of Monroe Street Methodist Church, which I attended as a child in Toledo, Ohio . . . In fact, the [shaman's] spiritual cleansing ceremony was at least as tedious and lengthy as Methodist Sunday school."
Barbara Thorndyke: I was in Morocco when
I had writer's block...the man gave me [this]
brooch; since then, I've never had a problem.
This is my muse, my artistic inspiration.
Blanche/Rose: And it goes with anything!
Barbara: You missed the point of the story.
Blanche/Rose: Oh, really? Run it by us again.
It also reminds me of a scene in Golden Girls where Dorothy's new friend, Barbara, tells her
pretentious story of being "spiritually" inspired by a foreign place. Rose and Blanche keep interrupting with mundane comments. Barbara gets irritated: Rose and Blanche aren't responding properly; they're supposed to be awed by her soul-changing experiences. It's an astute encapsulation of adopting a pose about travel rather than being a honest tourist. Because of course, Barbara stayed at the nicest Americanized hotels. She only experienced "the other" as a touchstone to her own life.

Rather than producing knee-jerk intellectual pseudo-spiritual reactions, Forster observed. He was also willing to go along with the events of the moment (there was a playful side to Forster). When visiting the Maharaja (before he went to work for him), Forster and his British companions were given Indian court dress. One of Forster's friends "later recalled that, of all the guests, Forster wore his with the most dignity." Forster's friend guessed that princely grandeur appealed to Forster. My guess is that unlike the other guests, Forster wasn't self-conscious. His attitude was "oh, okay, why not."

  Forster was, in other words, the kind of tourist who, while visiting a country, stays not in the fancy "American" hotels but in a local hostelry. Eats the food. Wears the dress. Watches the entertainment. Talks to the natives. Yet at the same time, he is perfectly willing to say, "Hey, that makes me uncomfortable" or "Boy, that entertainment was tacky" without such comments becoming an indictment of the entire culture. Since he knows that every place has its complement of normal everyday people, he more or less expects to encounter the same variations of interesting, monotonous, enthralling, unusual, silly, puzzling, and self-interested behavior everywhere.

Forster measured a thing for its own sake or by his immediate subjective response, not because it did or didn't match up to what he was used to or what he was supposed to be experiencing.

So, for example, at the Maharaja's banquet, he disliked the apple-like sauce; heartily disliked the "dreadful little dishes that tasted of nothing until they were well into your mouth, when your whole tongue burst into flame"; become quite attached to a sweet rice; and so on.

Forster is NOT the kind of tourist who would visit Japan, stay in a monastery, then complain because it wasn't central heated. On the other hand, he might say something like, "I can never get used to waking so early." That is, he wouldn't immediately decide that the experience was "special" because it was supposed to be. Nor would he decide that it was dreadful because it wasn't what he imagined. He would simply decide to experience it. And if he got a little cold, that was part of the experience. He may or may not experience it again. That decision certainly wouldn't be based on what he was supposed to feel or think.

None of this is to say that Forster didn't have his prejudices. But he had the remarkable ability to objectify his own imagination.