Thomas Sowell Agrees with Me (Or I Agree with Him)

There are those days when I discover that a true wise person agrees with me--or, rather, I wrote something that agrees with ideas that a  truly wise person has been tackling for years--and I feel like a hundred bucks!

In my fourth Daughter of Time post, I wrote the following:
Whenever I'm sitting in a meeting where people start throwing their pet experts at each other to support their pet political positions, I think of Tey. "My expert is really smart," one political advocate yells at the other, "and everybody agrees with my expert--even the press says so--see these selective news reports that I got from my favorite radio or television pundit--and if don't believe me, the world will fall apart tomorrow--I'm the ultimate Chicken Little, and the sky is falling. Listen to me!!"
I am currently reading Thomas Sowell's Intellectuals and Society. In Chapter 2, he addresses this problem of experts, specifically the difference between special knowledge and mundane knowledge. His ultimate point (I am heavily paraphrasing) is that more people have mundane knowledge--on the ground, day-to-day, eyeball-to-eyeball information--than people have special knowledge. People, in general, know more (as a society) than people with special knowledge or experts, which is why democracy and capitalism are still better systems than tyranny and socialism, despite the prior systems' flaws. The business man in the local neighborhood is going to make a better decision about his needs than the intellectual sitting in Washington.

Sowell goes on to criticize so-called experts who stray out of their specialized areas and those who use their special knowledge to justify already determined political decisions (rather than to honestly critique them). These so-called experts often believe that lots of special knowledge (central planning) will give a society a clearer road than finding out what is going on in people's actual lives:
"Many major economic decisions are likewise crucially dependent on the kind of mundane knowledge that intellectuals might disdain to consider to be knowledge in the sense that they habitually use the word" (13). 
("Criticize" is the wrong term, by the way. Thomas Sowell's critique is utterly devastating; it is accomplished entirely by the writing equivalent of hushed tones. This is not an angry guy.)

Here's where I decided that I will love Thomas Sowell forever:
 "The idea that what [intellectuals] don't know isn't knowledge may also be a factor in many references to 'earlier and simpler times' by people who have made no detailed study of those times, and who are unlikely even to suspect that it is their knowledge of the complexities of those times that is lacking, not the complexities themselves." 
In Daughter of Time, Detective Grant rejects More's superficial narrative of evil Richard III, despite More being (1) an intellectual; (2) the considered expert on Richard III. Grant's objection is that More was operating on hearsay (Grant is right--as a policeman with mundane knowledge about his job, he knows what he is talking about).

Sowell's additional reasons to be wary of intellectual "experts" also applies. Thomas More may have been smart. And principled. And big on utopias. And an okay writer. That didn't make him smart about politics. Or history. Or anything outside his narrow purview. Just because he could delineate complexities in one area didn't mean he could even comprehend them in another.

Especially since he was probably using his smarts to satisfy his Tudor masters. Oh, sure, no conflict of interest there!

Spring in Maine

Is Winter in the Northeast finally behind us? Although I love a good snow storm, or "lizard," the season of flowers and green-stuff may have officially arrived!

Though you never know.


Best Definition of Abstract Art

In the sitcom Coach, Coach's girlfriend, Christine (played by Shelley Fabares) wants him to attend an art show with her. When he refuses, she takes his assistant coach Luther (played by the marvelous Jerry Van Dyke) instead.

Wandering around the gallery, Luther says, "So basically what you're saying is that everything here has been done on purpose."

It's a great definition of abstract art! I'm not opposed to abstract art though I prefer some abstract art--and some schools within the movement--to others.

It does help, when trying to understand it, to remember, "Everything here has been done on purpose."

I've always liked Kandinsky--nothing by accident.


Mary Poppins Returns: Review

On the one hand, Mary Poppins Returns appears (initially) to make a set of brilliant decisions.

When I first heard about the film, I feared it would be another of Disney's strict retellings. I deem retold Cinderella a success. Beauty & the Beast: not so much.

The original Mary Poppins, with Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke (whatever his accent), is simply not replaceable.

When my viewing of DVD Mary Poppins Returns began, I was inexpressibly relieved that the movie showcased a new generation. "How smart! A fresh selection of Poppins's adventures!"

The reunion between Mary Poppins & grown-up
Jane and Michael is quite touching.
As for the casting, if anyone can replace Julie Andrews, Emily Blunt would be my choice too. She has the presence, the look, and even a hint more sarcasm.

In fact, the entire adult cast is impressively well-cast (and deserved more screentime).

On the other hand . . .

There's sort of a plot--but it's hard to tell when it seems so perfunctory. Travers's books, of which I am not terribly fond, are nevertheless packed with adventures. Disney appears to have used almost none of this available material--choosing instead to recycle the previous adventures in new guises.

As a consequence, one of the weirdest negatives to the film is the CGI. It's oddly less satisfying than the older special effects. Those original special effects--cartoon figures at a racetrack; dancing relatives on the ceiling--were charming. The CGI in Mary Poppins Returns is very, uh, CGI-ish. I think the intent was to remind viewers of the original, only updated and cooler using slightly different scenarios!

The result is that I kept wondering why I wasn't watching the original film.

I do have to praise the opening flag sequence in Mary Poppins Returns. It is impressive and even touching (and one of Travers's ideas).

Unfortunately, after the flag sequence, it rather feels like CGI is being shoved into the viewers' faces--without the satisfaction of it being new and unique. It would have been more impressive if this Mary Poppins had tried a tad more magical realism. (Hey, the balloon sequence isn't bad--I believe this is also one of Travers's.) Instead, the movie reaches "let's see if we can shove more animation into this song" levels of tedium.

Seriously. I got bored--which isn't a good sign.

So what about the main plot? Trying to save the family home?

I also didn't care. Why shouldn't the family go live somewhere else? People adjust. They move on. They learn to adapt. Isn't that a better message for today's youth than whatever this movie is trying to do?

On the other other hand, having Angela Lansbury show up? Perfect. Do she and Dick Van Dyke ever truly age (in their hearts)?

Speaking of Dick Van Dyke--showing up to play a character reminiscent of one of his previous characters but now his actual current age? Wow!

Besides, I don't care what anyone says about Bert, I still consider "A Man Has Dreams" one of the single best exchanges in any movie ever.

Overprotection as a Trope

Back in the 80s, a number of comedy films came out where overprotective fathers ran about trying to protect their teenage girls from kissing boys or wandering behind closed doors, etc. etc. And it was sooooo funny.

No, not really. I never understood those films at all--then or now.

What interests me more is that despite institutionalized concerns about protection in our daily lives, this trope in art has died off to a huge extent.

Why? Probably because obsessive fathers became linked not to good fathering but to child abuse/sexual abuse.

Is that fair? No.

Is that the point of this post?

Nope. Still not!

The question I ask as a popular culture aficionado is, So what do television fathers do now if not behave in disturbingly overprotective ways?

Booth right out says, I am overprotective. It doesn't come off as disturbing because he is Booth and works for the FBI. He protects his family, his teammates, America, and the world. It is as natural and non-creepy of him as breathing.

Mike Baxter is protective. He also believes quite firmly in the dangers of over-protection. I found his reaction to Eve's entry into the Air Force Academy entirely believable--he is proud of her and accepts the possible dangers as a future reality but not something he will worry about in the present.

Ted Danson as Michael is a somewhat protective father towards Eleanor in The Good Place. Despite a shaky beginning, by Season 2 (at least), he has found a friend or soulmate (personality-wise) in Eleanor. Ted Danson's age plus his ability to exude ambiguity when he is being mean OR nice gives him an off-beat fatherly aura. The kind of father who might just possibly maybe feed you to rats but totally on your side otherwise!

Alan Eppes in Numb3rs is the most fatherly of the bunch. He has two sons to whom he gives advice (that they sometimes take). He is more protective towards the women on the show, such as Amita. When Amita's parents are a no-show, Alan steps in to provide her with the emotional support she lacks.

Morland Holmes is the least protective father in the history of fatherhood (although he does help Sherlock with his recovery). My examples here concentrate on fathers and daughters but even if one proposes Joan Watson as a daughter-figure...well, considering that at one point, she warns him to back off, then blackmails one of his subordinates...yeah, this is definitely a family-unit that thrives on only two people (and one of them is not Morland).

In general, fathers have become far more nuanced in the 21st century.

Canny Dope: Dauber

Dauber, or Michael Dybinski, from Coach is a canny dope.

At first, I thought he was merely a dope. But nope! He definitely merits "canny."

He is presented as a bit dim, a huge giant of a sweet-natured guy who takes at least eight years to complete his undergraduate degree (in part because he plans his school schedule around which courses are closest to the dining hall and home).

He is a natural leader--even before Coach moves into special teams. Before he graduates, he manages the house where he lives with other undergraduates (eventually, he moves out on his own). He runs the youth football camp in the future. When he does graduate, he stands up to Coach and demands that his role as an assistant coach be taken seriously.

Like all good canny dopes, he is quicker than so-called sophisticated thinkers at spotting reality. When Kelly and Stuart, Coach's daughter and husband, dress up as foreign exchange students to surprise Coach, Coach is deceived. Dauber is not.

When Dauber loses the play book and tries to quit the team, Coach tells him off for not standing up for himself and the team. Finishing his bark-is-worse-than-his-bite diatribe, he explains why he wants Dauber to stay the course: "Because, son, you are so good at what you do."

He is. Great character!

Packing for Mars with Mary Roach

For the 500's, I picked up The Quantum Universe by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw and Packing for Mars: The Mysterious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach.

Both books have the merit of containing clear-headed, straightforward explanations of complex subjects. There's something to be said for a discussion of quantum mechanics which states, "For those readers who find the maths difficult, our advice is to skip over the equations without worrying too much . . . The maths is included mainly because it allows us to really explain why things are the way they are."

And can I mention how much I like the British "maths"?

I started The Quantum Universe and intend to finish it, but it's rather dense--as in, I have a hard time watching sitcoms AND reading it at the same time.

Besides which, Mary Roach is a bit more my style. Because, yes, people and chimps in space are absolutely enchanting. However, there is no real need to make comparisons. Mary Roach and Brian Cox are two sides of a coin that says, "Science is great! People can understand it! Even you!!"

What Packing for Mars brings home is how much any endeavor, like going into space, involves a plethora of human problems. For one, there's an entire chapter on vomiting.

One of the most touching examples of how human beings are part of the science equation is Roach's reaction to Devon Island, a place scientists and astronauts go to prepare for the moon. She keeps gawking and reports: "Concerned mission planners built gawp time into the minute-by-minute schedules. 'We're allowed two quick looks out the window,' Gene Cernan reminded Harrison Schmitt as they prepared to descend to the moon's surface during Apollo 17."

Roach also makes clear how much early astronauts and their scientists didn't know about what would happen to them once they entered space. Actually, the astronauts were less worried about the weirdness of space (and proved to be correct) than the scientists who worried that a lack of gravity would completely deform the human form--hence the chimps. We are so blithe about our supposed knowledge now, we forget how worried (and dumb) humans can be about the unknown.

And I have to add that Roach's chapter about whether mammals can give birth in space does give credence to the complication that something about space--whether it be radiation or the inability of a female to properly contract--could prove extremely problematic for long space trips.

I enjoy many of Mary Roach's books. Here's a list:
Grunt
My Planet
Gulp
Bonk
Spook
Stiff

Mike Rowe on The Ben Shapiro Show

One of my absolute favorite moments in all of YouTube comes during Mike Rowe's appearance on Ben Shapiro's show. For those of you not in the know, Ben Shapiro does his own advertisements. He will turn to the camera and talk about, well, whatever (many YouTubers use YouTube-supplied advertisements). The first time this happens, it's a tad disconcerting.

During Mike Rowe's guest appearance on the show, right after the first spiel, Rowe becomes possibly the first guest ever to address what Shapiro is doing. And he approves.

And I love him for it!

I get tired of commenters on YouTube who fuss about the commercial nature of the videos blah blah blah. Where do they think all this free stuff comes from? How would it be possible for people like Shapiro and Rubin to even operate as successfully and consistently and publicly as they do if they were making the videos in their free time after performing jobs that pay the rent and feed the family? Do purists even think about that stuff? Or do they imagine the rest of the world is supposed to foot the bill that will give them what they want whenever they want for free?

As Mike Rowe says, "We're going to stop to take care of the brute reality of keeping these lights [on]."

Steven Landesberg Before Arthur P. Dietrich: Great Barney Miller Clip

In a prior post, I congratulate Steve Landesberg as Arthur P. Dietrich as having the driest wit on Barney Miller.

Here he is in Season 2, Episode 1, prior to becoming Arthur P. Dietrich. He plays a priest con-man who ultimately lives up to his collar: "Ya goin' be alright." (The entire video can be found at DailyMotion.)

One of the Most Percipient Sitcom Episodes of All Time

WKRP in Cincinnati, Episode 2, "Clean Up Radio Everywhere" 

A league of decency comes to see Mr. Carlson. They object to indecent language--swear words and such--used in the lyrics of the rock-n-roll songs played on the station. They want WKRP to pull those songs.

Mr. Carlson is a decent, fundamentally conservative man. This is the same guy who pulled the funeral ad account from Season 1 for being "tasteless." He understands the league's objections and initially agrees, over the protests of his DJs.

The league begins to make more and more demands. When Carlson protests, the group begins to boycott his advertisers. Travis, his program director, is incensed, but Carlson quietly and evenly points out that in a capitalistic democracy, the league has the right to bring commercial power to bear. It has the right to be heard, just like any other group.

And Carlson has the right to back his principles. He changes his mind about the league when the leader objects to the song "Imagine" by John Lennon. Now, I am myself not a huge fan of "Imagine" (I actually wouldn't want to live in the world that Lennon imagines--it sounds rather dull). But I will protect its right to be aired. This is Carlson's position.

In one of the most level-headed, commonsense speeches about free speech ever given, Carlson states the following:
Aside from stirring a whole lot of people up and making an old man [advertiser] feel like a coward, I'll be darned if I can figure out anything else that has been accomplished by all this . . . I'm not sure that giving up my freedom of decision is God's side . . .  Watch out for those broadcasters who caved in to your pressure because principles won't mean a darn thing to them . . . oh, they'll come and sit at your table. But I think the good ones will be the ones who are willing to take a loss and put up a fight . . . I hope [you'll be able to love your enemies] because I don't think you'll be able to trust your friends.
The point where Carlson balks is the point these days where the true libertarians (the old-fashioned liberals) also balk: protests which began by focusing on language (expletives) move to censoring the exchange of ideas ("Imagine"). In today's world, the protests and censorship come as much, if not more, from the left than from the right. WKRP saw it coming.

Latest Novel: Silver Spoon

Nearly ten years after her first case, Donna Howard from Coin is now an established investigator of antiques. With the help of deceased historical people only she can see, she tracks down the stories of family heirlooms. This time around, her investigation takes her to Salem, Massachusetts, where she delves into the town's haunted history and the modern world of antique hunting.

Her research into the provenance of a silver spoon leads Donna to a stash of antiques in an old man's basement, an old man whose death Donna begins to suspect was less than "accidental." Along with a possible murder, she must also contend with a possible possession and a possible boyfriend. Because nothing can make the dead past and the living present more precarious than the unpredictable complexities of human relationships.

* * *

Thanks to Eugene, editor, administrator, and cover designer! Silver Spoon can be obtained through various sites used by Peaks Island Press

Kate's Battles Against Annoying Companies: TaxAct

The original post was getting a bit long. If you want to read about Amazon (I despise Barnes & Nobles more), Stamps.com, and Audience Studies, go here.

Today, I'm complaining about TaxAct.com plus recommending an alternative for people like me.

I used TaxAct.com for years. Two years ago, I began to get miffed at all the extra offers and demands, so I filed using paper. It took forever and a day for my refunds to come through, so last year, I swallowed my miffness and used TaxAct despite my reservations.

This year, I gave up!

Why?

1. I make a small amount of money as a freelance writer. As in past years, TaxAct allowed me to declare it but insisted that I had to attach a Schedule. Except I couldn't attach Schedule C (not easily anyway) without paying for TaxAct's extra special package for freelancers ($77). (Everything on TaxAct is like this--you want to do that? here's the extra fee, signupsignupsignupsignup.)

2. I didn't. I knew that my expenses outweighed the amount of money I made (since my expenses are made throughout the year and the money comes in later, I still feel like I "made" money, but I also know that I don't need to worry about paying taxes on a "profit"). I wasn't cheating the government to not declare the money at all. It still made me grit my teeth with vexation that I couldn't easily attach and use Schedule C.

3. I got ready to file. I did the alerts, reviewed all my documents and was skipping forward through the extra offerings, blah blah blah. I got to the filing screen--and TaxAct wouldn't let me file unless I upgraded to the Deluxe Package ($50 more).

Now, this makes no sense since I clearly opted for the "free" package when I started. I'm sure that if I spent hours scouring TaxAct, I could get to the point where I could file without having to pay extra money for anything. But doing taxes already frustrates me. The fact that TaxAct didn't make it easy for me to skip forward or to turn down the package . . . well . . .

That was it! The straw that broke the taxpayer's back. I got out of TaxAct, googled tax programs and voila! I came across TaxSlayer.

Taxslayer is a HUGE improvement. Friendly, easy to use. I got everything entered, including my 1099 and Schedule C with zero complications. No extra fees--except for the state (and I was given several opportunities to decline). I took the state option, just to give TaxAct the, ah, proverbial bitten thumb (to go all medieval and Shakespearean).

According to several online rating systems, only TurboTax and H&R Block get a better rating. TaxAct is still in there--but take it from me. If you're like me and you can get away with free filing, TaxAct is on a mission to get you to do anything but

Great Grammar Closer Moment

"Dumb Luck," a third season episode of The Closer, includes the stereotypical dumb blond (who is caught by far-from-dumb blond Brenda Leigh Johnson). She is a malaprop, a person who mangles language.  This is appropriate since she gave the wrong date to her hit-man.

As she is being led away at the end, she explodes at how unfair it is that she is being arrested for arranging a death that led to the wrong person being killed (hey, she even asked for her money back):

"This is a tapestry of justice!" she cries. "A tapestry!"


Barney Miller & Frank Reagan: Great NYC Cops

Barney Miller is reputedly something of a liberal (in the classical sense of that word) while Frank Reagan is something of a conservative (in the classical sense of that word). And they are more like each other than not:

Both place their people's needs above administrative requirements.

When they can, at least. Barney dislikes Internal Affairs snoop Scanlon for placing Barney's people, especially Wojo, under unfair scrutiny. Barney protects Wojo, even when it places Barney himself at risk.

Frank is so concerned with staying connected to his men that he brings on Danny's boss, Sid, to give him the views of the men in the ranks.

Both support the rule of law.

Neither man is a Sherlock Holmes/House who skirts the line of legal and ethical behavior. There is something to say for that approach--but Barney and Frank are believers in the system. They are realists--the system isn't perfect--but they ultimately believe it is better to support it than not: to leave one's apartment and engage ("The Recluse"); to support laws about Stop, Question, and Frisk despite personal disagreement.

Both support the exercise of private rights.

Both men want their people to show up to work on-time. Otherwise, their personal lives are their own business. In face of Wojo's persistent questions, Barney defends the right of every American to have a private vote. Frank protests when he is asked to take a stance on his people's activities behind closed door, a perspective I expand on here.

Both men have similar personalities.

Barney is possibly more extroverted. Frank is possibly more gruff. They are both somewhat reserved, dryly humorous, excitable under the right circumstances, capable of argument yet quick to tire of pointless criticism and objections.

Both have a mustache!

And very handsome mustaches.

Weird Grammar Moment on Blue Bloods

Just to make things confusing, this is a totally
different definition than the one being discussed.
In the "Fathers and Sons" episode of Blue Bloods, Danny challenges his partner on the proper pronunciation of "forte." Like everyone else in the universe, his partner states that the word is pronounced "for-tey" as in
"Interrogating criminals is my forte."
Danny maintains that the word is pronounced "fort" as in
"I like to lock up criminals in a fort."
In other words, one can say
"Interrogating criminals is my forte (fort)."
According to dictionary.com, Danny is right(ish)--although saying "for-tey" is also okay. I think saying, "fort" rather than "for-tey" sounds just wrong, so I am going to continue to say "for-tey."

It's a weird grammar moment but not, in fact, out of keeping with Danny's personality. He is a self-described grunt who does in fact have a high vocabulary reflective of his core personality--in other words, Danny is more adaptable to situations that he pretends; he can behave like an intellectual when he needs to.

Books Where I Like the Visual Better: Jeeves & Wooster

I'm almost afraid to admit this since P.G. Wodehouse fans can put Harry Potter fans to shame. But I can never get into his books. I feel like I'm watching The Drew Carey Show. I really like Drew Carey. When I watch his sitcom, however, I feel like a kid whose nose is pressed against the window, watching fun from the outside. I mean, I just don't get it.

That's how I feel when I read P.G. Wodehouse's books. And yet, I adore Jeeves & Wooster, the BBC series (and boy, is it an exercise in cognitive dissonance to watch Hugh Laurie as Wooster and then Hugh Laurie as House!).

The show is hilarious. And perfectly cast. And hilarious. And did I mention hilarious? Hugh Laurie captures dope, occasionally canny dope, perfectly. And Stephen Fry is one of those "I lift my eyebrow and you start laughing" actors (he's wonderful in Bones too). I especially enjoy their musical performances. But everything, from the banter to the physical antics, makes the episodes practically flawless.

Yasmine Mohammed and Religious Dress

In several different lectures, Yasmine Mohammed--a remarkably clear-headed and even-toned lecturer--compares the conservative dress of Muslim women--hijab, niqab, and burka--to Mormon garments.

Her legitimate point is not that the two things are the same but that Western criticism of conservative (Christian) religious practices is hypocritical when the same Westerners turn around and openly embrace conservative dress for Muslim women--especially when the people criticizing Western practices are so-called liberals who wink at the authoritarian practices of other countries.

I agree with Yasmine Mohammed. However, I want to make a point about the problem of comparisons, a problem that possibly also explains Western attitudes toward religion. Yes, many of these so-called liberals are being hypocritical. They are also acting within a Western mindset that is difficult to shake (if it should be, entirely).

The one major difference between Muslim dress for women and Mormon garments (there are several differences) is the privacy of Mormon garments.

Wearing garments is hidden, private, personal. Unless one runs about talking about what one is wearing--or asking questions that in Western culture are (still, despite Facebook) considered rather inappropriate--nobody is going to have a clue what anyone is wearing "under there." Active Mormons can leave them off. Less active Mormons can leave them on. Nobody is going to know. There's an entire world of care that rather resembles Peter Parker washing his Spiderman outfits. Sure, there are general expectations/instructions about care but absent a secret police and intrusive surveillance, nobody is going to know.

This hidden, private, personal act is an element in all religions. The cilice (modern hair shirt) falls into the same category. Medallions, lockets, even dog-tags and tattoos are often used by people in the same way: a private memento, a personal reminder. In religion, private dress crosses over into private, personal rituals and acts. Many Native American tribes refuse to publicize Sun Dance ceremonies, which sometimes involve body piercings. In 1895, Canada outlawed this aspect of the dance (the law was revoked in 1951). As Wikipedia reports, "It is unclear how often this law was actually enforced."

Edwards didn't just write about sinners dangling over fires.
Understandable. Even the Puritans, despite communal living and public censorship, believed that the individual achieved an understanding of grace through private, personal reflection, a non-definable occurrence. Westerners continue to see religion as something involving choice, personal desire, private decisions and belief.

It is difficult, therefore, for Westerners to understand a situation where legal coercion--and the legal contrivance of even free states--take away choice and the personal, private right to exercise that choice as one wishes. They know it intellectually but they don't know it as a lifestyle reality.

Consequently, comparisons can backfire--absent the type of Western thinking which gets all angsty at living in a culture that assumes people should wait in line at the post office ("The industrial-religious-political complex is forcing me to shop at Walmart!"), a comparison between a legally coercive act and a private act of choice is going to cancel out the force of the first. The Westerner thinks, "Why can't the women just leave [as they do all the time in Western religions]?" which misses the point.

I consider the above picture (also used by Yasmine Mohammed) far more evocative. As both de Tocqueville and Rodney Stark attest, when legal coercion is removed, human beings will naturally (and promptly) take up varying responses within and towards their cultures and religions.

Great Character Actor: Tom Wilkinson

Ignorance is bliss, my friend. Don't burden yourself
with the secrets of scary people.
Another great character actor is Tom Wilkinson.

Repost from 2006:

So I'm watching Batman Begins, and Tom Wilkinson's name pops up on the screen. "Good heavens," say I, "Tom Wilkinson? He's a British actor who does Joan Hickson Miss Marple films!" (Actually, he's done one: Pocketful of Rye).

So, I look him up and realize this guy has been all over the place. I saw him in The Importance of Being Earnest, I saw him in Shakespeare in Love, I saw him in an Alleyn mystery. He was in Sense & Sensibility, Prime Suspect 1 and of course Batman Begins (as Falcone).

Wilkinson is one of those extremely talented British actors, like Bamber, who can morph into any role and so effortlessly, you don't notice.

His most telling quality, however, is a capacity for delivering dry lines. In Pocketful of Rye, as Inspector Neele, he makes several caustic remarks about rich people and crazy suspects.

From mafia boss to British barrister . . . remarkable actor.

Mobsters and Spies: Not as Interesting as Writers Pretend

Murder, She Wrote and The Father Dowling Mysteries supposedly fall into the category of "cozy" mysteries. They involve private detectives--in fact, private detectives who don't think of themselves as detectives--who use their commonsense to investigate crimes among a limited number of suspects.

Yet both shows include a large number of episodes where the narrative conflict revolves around organized crime or spies.

I find both of these subjects dull. When watching Murder, She Wrote, I always prefer  Keith Michell episodes to Len Cariou episodes, not because I don't like Len Cariou, but because I prefer crimes about insurance fraud to crimes about international secrets.

I've been trying to figure out why there is so much reliance on mafia dons and spies in these extremely cozy shows. Murder Diagnosis relies on them far less--as did the early seasons of NCIS (bizarrely enough) and even The Closer.

I've decided that it comes down to the writing. If you're a writer and you have to produce fifty to sixty minutes of alibis and red herrings and suspects and you have to keep characters active/moving around--it is so much easier to do this with mobs and spies than with locked room mysteries involving a house of exactly six suspects, all related to the victim.

Murder, Diagnosis, like NCIS and The Closer, has built-in movement. The doctor can save a life. Or send his subordinates out of the hospital to interview a witness. NCIS has Gibbs throwing away cell phones and Ziva driving the van really fast. And The Closer has an entire LAPD to keep the characters moving around. And an excuse to wear hazmat suits.

But a priest has no reason to move around other than in his parish--and only so many people can die in his church before he becomes an Angel of Death and nobody comes to church. Angela Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher has more reason to leave Cabot Cove--she has book deals to sign and publishers to meet--but being the practical woman she is, little reason to go chasing after a murderer unless circumstances compel her.

Yup, there's a reason so many shows use the FBI as the detectives--it supplies built-in reasons to get people to not sit at home on their computers and do all their research from there. As Bones proves, the FBI as detective doesn't preclude domestic murders. In fact, domestic murders are so much easier to investigate with the FBI--writing-wise.

Great Sit-Com Moment: Barney Miller

Speaking of Barney Miller, Season 3's "Abduction" is a great episode. Throughout the episode, characters demonstrate a gap between appearance and reality, meaning and delivery. When Captain Miller informs the parents that he cannot remove their twenty-two-year-old daughter from an entirely voluntary job (however hippy-ish), the father scowls and says sarcastically, "I just want to say how thankful we are for all your help."

"Oh, yes," his sweet wife proclaims sincerely. "Thank you for trying."

"Don't contradict me!" the husband snaps.

Then the daughter's boss shows up. Sure, he looks like the ultimate money-don't-matter-to-me hippie. But he knows exactly how much money his organic restaurant takes in a year (profit).

Awesome Character Actor: David Bamber

David Bamber is a fantastic actor. Full stop.

He is best known for his portrayal of Mr. Collins in Pride & Prejudice (1995). He manages to imbue Mr. Collins with conceit, low self-esteem, wounded pride, black & white thinking, condescension and even a kind of forlorn sweetness, all at the same time.

He shows up all over British television. In accordance with an earlier claim of mine, yes, he has appeared in a costume drama (see above), a mystery show (New Tricks), a Dr. Who episode, and an American show. Bamber has done it all, except that instead of American television, he has appeared in several Hollywood movies.

As Antonio, Merchant of Venice
I have an especially soft spot for him because he does so many mysteries: not only New Tricks but Father Brown, Death in Paradise, Poirot.

He is impressively versatile, having Gary Oldman's ability to disappear into a role. His voice is quite distinctive, but I don't always immediately recognize him. He can play cloying, good-natured, waspish, kindly. Everything. Yup, even Shakespeare.

Another Great Nero Wolfe

The Italian Nero Wolfe (2012) is fantastic. Before I go any further, I want to commend the Portland Public Library Inter-library Loan system for being able to get it for me.

I'm a big fan of Timothy Hutton's Nero Wolfe (A&E) starring Maury Chaykin in the titular role. The Italian Series (2012; there is an earlier one) stars Francesco Pannofino as Nero Wolfe and Pietro Sermonti as Archie Goodwin.

The series are remarkably similar in tone and look. They both capture 1950s aura with big band music and clever violin comedy music. 2012 Archie is slightly more sardonic and a tad more serious in comparison to Hutton's more glib and slightly more high-energy interpretation. 2012 Nero yells less than Maury Chaykin's Nero. But they are brothers under the skin.

In fact, if one watches the two shows side by side, one comes away knowing all the important traditions about Wolfe and Archie: Wolfe's grouchy personality, his office, his orchids, his schedule, his iconoclastic attitudes towards authority, his attitudes towards women, his love of gourmet food. Plus Archie's chivalrous attitudes towards women (despite or maybe because of his confirmed bachelorhood), his interpretation of his role in Nero's life, his detective abilities (some mystery critics maintain that Archie is as much a detective in his own right as Nero Wolfe), his love of milk.

In fact, the Italian Series does something so clever, I wish all "retold" versions of popular characters would do the same. Instead of creating an Italian Nero Wolfe who just happens to share the same name, characteristics, etc. etc. as his American cousin, the Italian Nero Wolfe IS the American Nero Wolfe. He and Archie have come to Rome, Italy to escape badgering from the FBI (these episodes would take place after The Doorbell Rang). They quickly gather around them a private investigator, gourmet chef, and police inspector as well as an intrepid female reporter, who plays Lon Cohen plus all of Kari Matchett's roles.

And it works. It is entirely plausible that Nero Wolfe would speak flawless Italian. It's a little less plausible that Archie would pick up flawless Italian so quickly, but I have no doubt that eventually, Archie would.

And I love the fact that this Archie and Nero develop some of the same quirks and ways of relating that appear in the A&E production: Archie's sweet and protective instincts towards the household chef, Nanni. Nero's tendency to ask Archie questions that assume that Archie has also guessed the answer to the mystery (and often, he has). Archie's propensity for manhandling rude guests. Nero's ability to be gentle with a frightened individual.

Another great addition to the Nero Wolfe television collection! 

Dry as Dust--In a Good Way: The Comic Actors of Barney Miller

Often, a sitcom will have a straight man (or woman) who throws out dry quips in the face of the other characters' craziness. Lisa Simpson from The Simpsons comes to mind.

Barney Miller has an abundance of dryly witty characters. Too many dry characters, of course, can backfire. But considering good-as-gold Wojo, pushy Levitt, talkative and aggrieved Frank Luger plus the stunning number of nutcases who weave in and out of the second floor of the 12th Precinct, "dry" is the best coping tendency.

Many of the regular characters deliver dry witty lines. Barney is usually more composed, calm, and assertive than sarcastic. However, he often mutters soft lines of rebuke accompanied by raised brows. The "look" leads to confessions, often from his own men!

Fish is more grumpy old guy (and very, very good at it). But he has moments of dry reflection:
Fish: You won't believe this, but according to their records I'm deceased.
Barney: It's probably a mistake.
Fish: I wonder.
Driscoll: You know, you look exactly like Boris Karloff.
Fish: That's because we're both dead.
Ron Glass as Ron Harris is more endlessly amused than dry. He has an astonishing supply of insouciance, however. When the entire squad gets high(ish) on hash, he responds to Barney's request to get the hash-laden brownies examined by digging into the brownies, provoking Barney to snap, "Not that way!" He has the ability to stand back, hand in pocket, and ponder the weirdness of his fellow cops.

The award for "regular cast member who delivers dry lines" goes to Steve Landesberg as Arthur P. Dietrich. The character--as well as the actor--is so dry that he outwits the lie-detector test, much to Scanlon's chagrin. In fact, in the end, nobody in the precinct isn't entirely sure that Dietrich may not BE an alien (the lie he told during the test).

In the Season 3 episode "Moonlighting," Barney asks Dietrich what he would do if he died and found himself facing a theological reality for which he was not prepared.

Dietrich thinks, then says, "Whoops."

Landesberg has some competition for dry wit, often from regular guests. John Dullaghan is one of my favorites. Dullaghan plays a few suspects/criminals in the early seasons, settling into Ray Brewer, the recovered alcoholic in later ones. One of his funniest roles is as Harold in Season 4 "Copy Cat," especially when he informs his pontificating you-too-can-be-just-like-amazing-me AA sponsor, "You're borrring."