Fun Character Actor: Patrick Thomas O'Brien

Patrick Thomas O'Brien is a consistent character actor who is somewhat less recognizable than other consistent character actors like Christian Clemenson. O'Brien often plays unnamed characters like "barker" or "lab man."

O'Brien shows up in Lois & Clark's "The Green Green Glow of Home" as the barker. I didn't even notice him, but I recognized his voice!

I adore him for his guest appearance on Monk (an episode which also stars guest star par excellence Enrico Colantoni).

In "Mr. Monk and the Employee of the Month," O'Brien plays the soft-spoken, non-ironic manager who doesn't notice anything beyond Walmart--uh, I mean the department store where Monk is temporarily working. There's a wonderful scene where O'Brien comes into the staff kitchen where Monk is eating and looks at the chart of employee achievement.

He sees that Monk is successfully competing with another employee (the villainess) for the Employee for the Month position. He makes this tiny little gesture of pleasure: Isn't it nice that my employees are trying so hard. It is absolutely hilarious and absolutely perfect to the archetype.

Kudos, Patrick Thomas O'Brien!

When Television Heroes Stopped Smoking

April 28, 1998

Okay, not really. But April 28, 1998 is when the JAG episode  "The Return of Jimmy Blackhorse" aired. At the end of the episode, Harm quits smoking cigars because the addiction rules him, not the other way around.

Keep in mind, JAG was the brainchild of manly man Bellisario, who kept his finger on the pulse on what makes audiences tick. Al wandered around with a cigar. So did Magnum occasionally. But Harm didn't, not after the first two seasons at least (I can't speak for the actor).

Go back far enough in television and movies and everybody smokes. For a few years in the 70s and 80s, not only did everybody smoke but smoking had no negative connotation. Columbo smoked, and it gave him a sweet curmudgeonly edge. It never, ever, ever implied that he was undisciplined or irresponsible.

Hit the late-90s, however, and that is exactly the connotation.

This post is not a public service message. The point is that we always want our heroes to be good, noble, strong-minded individuals. What they are good, noble, and strong-minded about depends on the time frame.

What's extra interesting is that watching early Columbo doesn't change my mind about him. I adjust to the time period automatically. The same is true when I'm watching Cary Grant.

I should point out: I don't smoke and have no wish to. When I was growing up, the kids that smoked in high school huddled together on the edge of school property and got wet. It seemed like an awful lot of money for a habit that entailed  constantly ducking outside and, ya know, killing oneself.

And yet, I don't leap to those "lessons to live by" reactions when I watch old time movies. Or Columbo. Or Quantum Leap. On the other hand, I probably would if Gibbs smoked. So--

Popular culture in many ways proves that humans can (and do) adjust to context. We always want our heroes to be "good"--we recognize that good is both absolute and amorphous all at the same time.


In This Case, Disney Is Right

In response to Dwayne Johnson's Youtube video "You're Welcome," a reviewer complains about what is "really" going on between Maui and Moana: in sum, a teenage girl is being conned by a so-called God.

The reviewer's tone, though partly humorous, is underscored by a common complaint in Western culture: "The values being promoted here are just so anti-parent!"

Here's the weird thing: this comment could come as easily from the left as the right. The left accuses Disney of being sexist. The right accuses Disney of being immoral. Both sides get ever so miffed at the lack of parental control.

In Into the Woods, Disney went too far to satisfy these detractors. That musical is about adolescence, adulthood, and sex, not cute girls getting cute lessons, then going home.

In Moana, Disney moved back to a less ridiculous position. It's not edgy stuff, but at least Moana is being allowed to explore like any young man in the history of literature.

Remember Treasure Island? Nobody questions Jim's need/desire to explore, even if that means he will place himself in danger (okay, probably somebody does, but the trope is allowed as a given in our culture). Narnia fans like myself like to point out that Aravis as an equal partner to Shasta in the adventurous The Horse & His Boy was unusual in 1954 (and still kind of is).

Katie Roiphe and Camille Paglia are right: if feminists want young women to gain the same experiences and opportunities as young men, those young women have to take the same risks and not run home to daddy.

That means, being out-smarted by (and out-smarting) a con-artist deity.

And dealing with coconut pirates.

Great Law & Order Grammar Moment

Back before Michael Moriarty left when Law & Order was fresh and captivating . . .

In "Wages of Love," the Season 2 episode that I believe to be largely based on the Mrs. Harris case, Cerreta pushes his partner to reopen a case. Instead of arresting the female victim's boyfriend, they should be arresting the male victim's wife.

About the son of this totally dysfunctional family, he says to Logan, "Why did he say, 'My mother wouldn't kill my father.' Why didn't he say, 'My mother didn't kill my father'?"

Later, Cerreta and Logan present their conclusions to their boss.

"You want to reopen 'cause the kid used the wrong tense?" exclaims Cragen.

Ah. Yes, the difference between tenses or, rather, the difference between modal verbs (see below) does matter--to English teachers and Hollywood scriptwriters.

This is when I remark, "They don't make television like they used to . . ."

Except, okay, truthfully, Hollywood scriptwriters are constantly working grammar and vocabulary issues into their scripts.

So, more to follow . . .





If You Want to Annoy People on the Left and the Right

1. Forego doomsdaying.

Seems like everybody loves to doomsday: The World Is About to End!

Who gets blamed for the world ending varies on who is speaking, but the insistence that things are worsening, things have never been so bad, dangerdangerdanger is a common thread. Maybe the Trump mentality is going to take over and civil liberties will be crushed. Maybe global warming will destroy the planet. Maybe supposed lack of religion (or supposed too much religion) will cause our society to disintegrate overnight. Maybe another Cuban Missile Crisis is just around the corner.

Warning: If you counter ANY of this arguments with a reference to actual history, objective goodwill, or dislike for overblown rhetoric in general, you will be accused of being a Pollyanna. You are not. You are simply being a realist or, as Hans Rosling says, a possibilist. But countering doomsdaying is as culturally out of bounds as Elizabeth Bennet wearing a bikini in Lady Catherine de Bourgh's sitting room. The world is Chicken Little's paradise and everybody must declare that the sky is falling.

2. Forego labels. 

For the sake of communication, we label people, things, and events out of necessity. However, there is a difference between descriptive labels and proscriptive ones. 

Proscriptive labels utilize stereotypes (all one-percenters, all vegans, all atheists, all fundamentalists, etc.). Proscriptive labels provide an enemy to fight. They avoid empathy because they override individuality. They also provide a sense of security (got that group figured out!).

If you want to irritate politically-minded people, argue that behavior not only exists on a continuum but ultimately comes down to individual background and choices: people do not in fact easily fit into compartments.

You may assume--as I often have--that this will cause consternation only on the right: You liberals and your politically correct sensitivity! You're misleading our youth into believing degenerate behaviors are normal!

You will find--as I often have--that those on the left can be as bitterly accusatory: How dare you pretend that those people are not all the same close-minded bigots! How dare you question the sensitive labels we have prepared for that group, so we can hold seminars and start clubs and "help" people!

It's all about control.

3. Argue in favor of free-will.

Seriously.

You will find yourself up against a multitude of conspiracy theories. Corporations are brainwashing us into buying their evil products. Hollywood is brainwashing us into accepting amorality with its evil entertainment. We are at the mercy of prejudiced politicians. We are at the mercy of socialist hippy pundits.

You may think that you are having a level-headed conversation with someone who believes in freedom of choice. Unfortunately, you may find that the other person's idea of choice only goes so far: mostly, it begins and ends with all the the mistakes other people are making: if everyone only had the freedom to think as I think, everyone would then think the way I think.

* * *
 
Here is when you remind yourself: If I am annoying this many people, I must be doing something right. 

The game isn't rebellion, however. The game is to not let other people persuade you that they are the so-called rebels who are pushing the envelope, etc. etc. etc. You may come across as a fuddy-duddy. In fact, you will be remarkably idiosyncratic.

Cohen's Hallelujah and Why It Requires Experience (Not Only a Nice Voice)

Like Rilke's "The Panther," Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" has been endlessly "translated." Which is great! If sometimes confusing. 

I mention in a previous post that I'm a fan of K.D. Lang's rendering of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." As a reviewer to the video remarks, K.D. Lang is one of the few singers who seems to comprehend the sense of the song. If hymns can use secular iconography to communicate spiritual ideas (and they do), why can't secular songs use religious iconography to communicate passionate, painful elements of the human experience?

They can.

Consequently, I find the use of "Hallelujah" in religious settings--or weddings--to be bizarre in the extreme, at least those settings (and presumably weddings) where the song is being used as a cheerful message (no dark side). Do people ever listen to lyrics?

I have high expectations for the song (though in all honesty, I enjoy Rufus Wainwright's version on the Shrek soundtrack as a good introduction since it is sincere and unshowy). So when I saw that Colm Wilkinson had included it on his album Broadway and Beyond, I was skeptical.

Don't get me wrong: Colm Wilkinson has a stunning voice. But, well, the song requires powerhouse PLUS.

I am officially impressed. Colm Wilkinson takes the Meatloaf approached--the song is a duet with a female singer. The female singer is not as strong. BUT. The song is interpreted, not merely sung. What is equally impressive is that Wilkinson captures both the argument of a broken heart and the passion of the artist who pleads to God, the muses, for inspiration.

The song requires experience, a past that has undergone the good and the bad and the weird and the everything else. Age and maturity. Colm Wilkinson brings it to the table.

Female Singers I Enjoy

I'm not going to discuss Frozen. Yes, "Let It Go" is a great song. Okay, moving on . . .

Again, I am most impressed by those singers who are actors as well as singers. However, this list includes more "pure" singers. Still, the singers I chose have range and vocal individuality.

I get a huge kick out of Reba McIntire. The South Pacific Concert is one of my favorites. One of the things I like about it is that the singing style--feisty country for Reba and pure baritone opera for Brian Stokes Mitchell--matches the characters' personalities. The music director did a fantastic job "complementing" them. (And Reba is a powerhouse, despite being a "popular" singer.)


No offense to Emma Thompson (who is one of my favorite actors), but Angela Lansbury knocks any musical number out of the park, even if she can't belt quite as strongly as she used to.

I can't mention Angela Lansbury without mentioning another grand lady of the musicals: Julie Andrews. Julie Andrews's musical accomplishments are so effortless, it's a shock to realize she can no longer perform an Angela Lansbury. It's much to her credit that her effortless elegant and poised persona remained intact despite her loss.

In terms of singers who sound like themselves, I enjoy Judi Dench, and she would definitely fit into the first list since singing is not automatically linked to her career.

In addition, I am a huge fan of K.D. Lang's version of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." In my first draft of this post, I talked more about why. Since hearing Colm Wilkinson's version of "Hallelujah," I've decided the song deserves its own post!

Last but not least, I really love "The Rose" sung by Bette Midler. If a singer can't turn you into a marshmallow inside, what's the point of the singer?

Kate's Battles Against Annoying Companies (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Stamps.com, Audience Studies, Inc. Updated)

Generally speaking, I'm a fan of Amazon. Any company that  makes books available, cheap, and easy to access is a boon to society.

Except when the company ticks me off.

Recently, a print book I was planning to buy in the near future (I still read them!) changed status, becoming available *only* to Amazon Prime members. I don't mean that it was being offered cheaper to Prime members, which I don't mind (hey, it's a choice!). And I don't mean that only the new edition was available to Prime members; customers could still purchase used editions.

I mean that a reader like myself couldn't buy the print version of the book at all unless she joined Prime. And although I realize that this may be as much the author's choice as Amazon's, I was ticked!

It's weird enough to run into Amazon Prime when I go to Wholefoods to buy my expensive pastries (after I've been to Walmart to pick up my cheap Chinese frozen dinners). But I recognize that there's no point in Amazon and Wholefoods joining forces and not trying to capitalize on their love affair. Along the same lines, my buying capacities are limited only by my personal income and what I'm willing to pay for shipping. Let's face it: in the Middle Ages, hardly anybody had books (or could read).

In other words, I don't think Amazon owes me anything. Nor do I think that Amazon is stealing my rights by not offering me everything I want for $2, free shipping.

Nor do I believe that Amazon is only supposed to sell me cheap books, not care about my food selections or try to force Prime down my gullet. If Amazon wants to act like a used car salesperson...

But. Still. I was totally annoyed. I didn't want to blame the author because, you know, I like her books.

But I did decide to make my displeasure known. Yes, yes, I realize that I am an infinitesimal flea on the shores of Amazon's domain. But hey! I'm a consumer!!

So I started looking up print-books-to-buy-in-the-future from my Amazon cart on Barnes & Noble plus AbeBooks plus Ebay. And what do you know: I found quite a number, including editions of the book that Amazon will only sell to its la-di-day Prime members (no, I don't want to join; I hate being forced to join shopper clubs).

So far. So good.

Except then I started looking up eBooks.

Oh, my.

My angry attitude at Amazon becalmed itself within an hour. Kindle might be annoying and put up all kinds of barriers, but Amazon's weirdness over eBooks is NOTHING compared to Barnes & Nobles's weirdness.

Apparently, BN did away with its Nook for PC months ago. I couldn't download the book I bought in order to convert it (which I felt I had the right to do--I bought it). Since I have no intention of buying a Nook thingy (I didn't even buy my Kindle; it was a gift), Barnes & Noble just lost a potential customer for its eBooks.

Which strikes me re: business practices as just stupid.

I then went to Kobo, but I got so  irritated with Kobo's failure to recognize my email (while sending welcome announcements to that email), I gave up and shut down the account.

Where did I finally get the eBook I wanted?

Google Play.

I then spent another hour figuring out how to convert it. It was not fun.

But I succeeded! Not only did I succeed, I got Kindle for PC for recognize it, which means that when I transferred it to my Kindle, it came up beautifully--cover, proper format, and all.

I spent $12 on a $3 book to achieve this. Was it worth it?

You bet it was! 

Okay, okay, so Google is also planning to take over the universe. But hey, at least Amazon didn't win. And next time, maybe Google won't win. The point is, I didn't have to join Prime. Nah nah nah. (And I put capitalism to work since, uh, yes, I did buy a number of cheap print books during my "research.")

* * *

Dealing with scammers . . .
This is a repost from 2007, updated to address Stamps.com.

It's embarrassing to admit, "Hey, I was snookered," but I figure doing so may do someone out there some good.

I am fairly savvy when it comes to buying things online (truly!). I don't give my credit card to just anyone; I check for hidden costs before I sign up for anything; and I stick to credible websites.

I hate to admit: I fell for Stamps.com mostly because I associated it directly with USPS. I like the United States Post Office. Over the years, I have found it a reliable handler of my mail.

Two months ago, I received an offer from Stamps.com to get "free" stamps. I went online and printed them. I ended up printing more, which involved entering my debit card information at the same time that I set up a profile.

Unknown to me, I was then also automatically signed up on A Plan.

I must emphasize: this was ENTIRELY unknown to me. (1) I never sign up for "Free 30-day" offers that end with me being charged a monthly fee; nope, not even Amazon Prime. I either sign up for something or I don't.

(2) The plan I was automatically assigned to involved spending $16/month. I don't spend $16 on stamps in an entire year. I would never have agreed to such a silly waste of money.

So a month later, a charge from Stamps.com showed up in my bank account. I was totally surprised and not a little freaked out. What on earth did I check or not check that would let this happen?

I signed in to Stamps.com, and there it was: me on a plan I didn't even know the name of, being charged $16/month.

I set about cancelling my account immediately, but when I tried to delete my card information, the system wouldn't let me "for verification purposes." There were no pending charges (at the time); I had not used the site since my initial show of interest.

Keep in mind, every single billing/commercial online system I use, including Amazon and Central Maine Power, lets me delete my checking account/credit-debit card information whenever I wish. But Stamps.com wouldn't.

I called. Instead of an agent handling my call, or even locating my account, I was told off-hand that I would have to be transferred to "Tech." I'm not kidding. According to the person on the phone, only some computer programmers were able to remove my card information from an account that I was cancelling. Because, you know, it's just so hard to do something that every single credible commercial website allows its consumers to do themselves

So I cancelled the account and then the card.

I have since learned a few things: (1) a number of small businesses use Stamps.com; (2) Stamps.com offers services that other agencies now offer cheaper or for free; (3) I'm not the first person to be dismayed by Stamps.com's reluctance/claimed inability to make cancelling an account easy--in fact, a small business owner on Consumer Affairs.com states that even after he cancelled his account through Stamps.com, he continued to get billed until he stopped things at his end, through his bank (which reminds me of the Friends' episode where Chandler hollers, "We want to quit the bank!").

My theory: Stamps.com decided to move beyond small businesses to individual consumers but made zero effort to adjust its website for people who don't actually spend $16/month on postage.

So it's not a scam; it is sleazy. 

Note the ambiguous wording: "taking the time to try"
Update: Here's the embarrassing part--apparently, I signed up for the plan when I clicked on the Terms & Conditions (that nobody ever reads). So I would lose my case in a court of law.

But not ethically. 

In all of my subsequent correspondence with Stamps.com (basically an email and a package of labels, which I believed were related to an earlier complaint), the company never told me directly, "Hey, you signed up for this plan!" "Hey, welcome to the plan!" "Hey, we're going to start billing you for this plan!"

I can think of no single online company that I do business with--companies that are constantly offering special deals and plans--that behaves in this way.

What doubly astonishes me is that while Stamps.com used small print to charge me for a service I don't use, it is oh-so-innocently shocked when I react as if it has hidden fees and nasty extra billing items lurking in its small-print. So the company snookered me like a good scammer into paying for its plan but doesn't want me to behave as if that is exactly what it did. (Where's a smug grifter when you expect one?)

When Walmart failed to inform me that I couldn't easily return an item bought online to the physical store or through its website, it fell over backwards to reimburse me for postage. That's how a good company behaves. (And I still shop there.)

In the "misery loves company" category, I have discovered that consumer reviewers--the kind of people who read Terms & Conditions--agree with me: it is very, very difficult to figure out the hidden fees and conditions on Stamps.com.

So beware!

Below is the previous time I was snookered by a less than an upfront business.

* * *

In writing this post, I am joining several bloggers who have posted about Audience Studies, Inc. Thanks to said bloggers for helping me track down the information posted here!

I recently joined the odd 400 people or so who agreed to watch a sitcom and then report back to Audience Studies, Inc. I was wary when I took the initial call but agreed, mostly because, as I told the young man on the phone, "You can always get my address out of the phone book."

(That poor young man: I don't think his heart was in the call; when I questioned him as to Audience Studies, Inc.'s resume, he said, in a very embarrassed voice, "I can give you a 1-800 number to call." The young man knew, as I discovered, that Audience Studies, Inc. only communicates what agrees with its "story." )

So, Audience Studies, Inc. sent me a DVD as well as two booklets with pictures of products. And I immediately figured out that Audience Studies, Inc. wasn't interested in learning about my reaction to the sitcom; it was doing product research.

Now, I have no trouble with product research! If Audience Studies, Inc. had called me up and said, "We're going to send you a failed CBS pilot from 2005 that we purchased for a nominal fee as well as a bunch of ads and commercials and frankly, what we really want to know about is your reactions to the ads and commercials," I would have said, "Oh, sure, that's sounds interesting. Go ahead." I like commercials.

What is bizarre about this whole thing is how completely Audience Studies, Inc. created a fake story in order to try to get (supposedly) unprejudiced reactions to products. First of all, the company went to the trouble to obtain the sitcom (why it didn't simply create its own is beyond me--the episode was so bad, at first I thought it was a basement production, which kind of impressed me. But the episode I was sent, which I turned off five minutes in [because that's what I really do with bad sitcoms] was from "The Rocky LaPorte Show." Don't blame Rocky. It was the dialog and plot that stank.)

Second, the booklets of products were printed as "Prize Booklets" complete with "Prize Entry Forms" that I was supposed to fill out (multiple choice fashion) and just coincidentally keep by the phone for when Audience Studies, Inc. called.

Third, the "Program Evaluation" was not in any way designed to solicit survey responses. It contained questions like "Which character did you like best?" "What parts of the show or the idea should be changed or updated?" No survey company of this type asks such open-ended questions!

I can't figure out whether Audience Studies, Inc. honestly believes that people won't see through this charade or whether people honestly don't see through it. All the bloggers I read had seen through it, but then bloggers already show a degree of media awareness and savvy. (Which is why they are susceptible to viewing the sitcom in the first place.)

Again, the irony is that I'm a big fan of market research, and I would have helped a request in that area. But I draw the line at so much icky snake-oil salesman patter. Either cough up the dough for a non-failed pilot, people, or come up with a better shtick.

Note: A year or so after I did Audience Studies, Inc., I warily agreed to track my viewing--or non-viewing--habits for a week for Nielsen. The difference in professionalism was startling! I reference this experience in the comments.

One Good Computer Mastermind on Television

Lately, television has been filled with computer masterminds, and they are mostly entirely unbelievable.

I give Person of Interest a pass here since it is partly sci-fi; the existence of the machine by its very nature overrides certain assumptions. But other shows, like Bones, which are supposed to reside within the realm of reality, yet allow so-called masterminds to do things that reside entirely outside the realm of probability. 

Yes, we live in a world surrounded by technology, but despite A.I. fears, that technology has limits.

The one mystery/police procedural show with a computer mastermind that did it right? Major Crimes' finale.

What Major Crimes does right:

*Spoilers*

1. The computer mastermind is not the main bad guy. 

The bad guy, Stroh, hires a computer whiz-kid, who doesn't trust Stroh or even like him. In other words, the Big Bad can't do EVERYTHING.

2. The computer whiz-kid can't do everything either. He has a specific skill-set.

This is a point that comes up in Numb3rs. Charlie recognizes that the computer whiz-kid working for DARPA was lying to DARPA since his two lines of experimentation--A.I. for DARPA and robotic research at home--don't line up. Yes, people specialize, and the more genius or overly educated they are, the more likely they are to specialize.

3. What Stroh and the computer whiz-kid can do/see is limited by the actual technology. 

They have access to many of Major Crimes' cellphones (through Bluetooth) but NOT the cellphone belonging to Captain Adama-like Provenza. The villains have access to the Smartscreen but not to all of the LAPD because, intelligently, the Major Crimes' Smartscreen is not (like the computers on Star Trek) linked into every single computer in the known vicinity. It is isolated for research and safety purposes.

4. Stroh has a pragmatic mission. 

Don't get me wrong: Stroh is crazy and evil. But ultimately, he's just looking for "his" money. That's it. He wouldn't have come back into the country if the money hadn't been shut off.

And he can't simply hire some super-duper computer-whiz to hack into secure financial accounts. He is limited by other people's firewalls.

6. The hacker gets bored.

I think this is the most important point. Dylan, the hacker, has to keep watching the footage (live and taped), and he gets bored, sometimes mocking the Major Crimes squad (in a very juvenile way), often getting distracted by other stuff. Yes, technology is everywhere, but everywhere pulls in a lot of information. It's easy to sort through all that information on television because everybody knows what everybody is looking for. In real life, it is overwhelming and exhausting and entirely misleading.

The villains of Major Crimes are as susceptible to being overwhelmed by too much info as the rest of the world.

Great Sit-Com Moment: Coach

"We call him Yoda."
In "Puppy Love" (Season 3), Hayden and Luther go to the pound to find a dog that fits Hayden's description of a heroic dog. Luther ends up with Quincy.

The manager of the pound delivers several hilarious lines in a crisp, dry British accent. Played by Jim Piddock, the actor is in fact British and appeared in another Coach episode "Kelly Girl."
Jim Piddock as Attendant: The only other one we have [other than Yoda] is over here. Let's see if he's awake. Ah, yes, full of beans. Come on. This is Quincy.

Quincy
Hayden: What's the matter with him?

Jim Piddock as Attendant: Nothing.

Hayden: He's not doing anything.

Jim Piddock as Attendant: You ever had a Basset?

Hayden: No.

Jim Piddock as Attendant: You ever had a ficus tree?

Hayden: Yeah.

Jim Piddock as Attendant: Well, they're pretty much the same thing.

Hayden: I can't believe this--these are our choices. This one doesn't even look like a dog and this one looks like a bag a dog used to be in.
Luther is of course smitten with this doggy personification of himself. In several sequences, he tries to get Quincy to do, well, anything:

"Staying," Luther informs Hayden, "is the hardest thing for a dog to learn--and he picked it up just like that."

Great Opening Title Sequence

Television shows are all over the map when it comes to the opening titles/musical themes. Some are classics, such as Monk (mostly Season 2+ but even Season 1). Some are incredibly lengthy, such as the initial opening sequences for Jag (do we really need background on Harm every time?) and Quantum Leap (I guess Bellasario liked to get ALL prior information out of the way upfront). And some, such as Castle, are bizarrely short.

Opening titles and musical themes from the 1980s and 1990s tend to be lengthy and often hokey. So I have to give extra kudos to Matlock (1986-1995). For the time-period, it truly is in a class of its own. (And only a minute!)

Robert Gossett: Murder Mystery Actor Par Excellence

I have a soft spot for Robert Gossett. Before I encountered him on The Closer and Major Crimes, I ran across him on Diagnosis Murder. He definitely falls into the category of hardworking character actor.

He excels in The Closer and Major Crimes as being one of my favorite ambiguous good guys.

Yup, an ambiguous good guy.

Usually, I attach "ambiguous" to bad guys, like Spike or Alan Rickman. What makes Gossett so marvelous as Russell Taylor is that Taylor is actually a good guy but has all the ambiguity of the workplace politician with whom we've all had to work at some point.

Political. Given to ladder climbing. Incompetent in some ways but quite skilled in others. "One of the guys"--most of the time. Purveyor of office gossip. Dismissive of the "losing" party but quick to curry favor when that party is back in favor. Ready to grovel . . . but only to a point. Capable of astute assessments. A bit too "us" versus "them" (though not necessarily wrong in his assessment of unfair treatment). Authoritative when necessary. Willing to set aside grievances for the sake of personal investment and sometimes, even, for the greater good.

Real. Human. Relatable--even when he's driving us and the other characters crazy.

Some of my favorite Taylor moments include the following:
  • In "Fatal Retraction" when he gets ready to throw Andy Flynn under the political bus, and Flynn--who starts The Closer with many of Taylor's characteristics--requests permanent transfer to Brenda's squad. Taylor is entirely suave as he turns against Flynn.
  • In "Standards and Practices" when Pope offers Taylor a promotion to quiet his political maneuvering against Brenda. Taylor's surprised pleasure followed by his expression of smug satisfaction is perfect. 
  • In (I believe) "Aftertaste" when Taylor blithely eats the meal Pope brought for Brenda. 
  • In "Strike Three," when the police catch the men who murdered two cops, and Taylor and Brenda exchange expressions of victory.
  • In "Off the Hook," Taylor and Brenda work together (in the face of Pope's near-hysteria) to figure out the death of a woman who worked on the parole board. I especially like Taylor's handling of Detective Verico, calming him and taking his side. 
In Major Crimes, Taylor becomes a much more sympathetic character in part because Raydor can out-patience anyone, even Winnie Davis. Taylor is also in a more secure position--his ladder-climbing days are done. He occasionally plays a political card, but Raydor is entirely respectful and manages to get Taylor to always get her what she needs. Unlike Brenda--another great, flawed character!--Raydor is quite adept at politics.

Gossett deserves kudos for Taylor's ambiguity. It is easy to imagine another actor making Taylor too melodramatically "evil" or too melodramatically cloying and repentant. Gossett makes him human.

Male Singers I Enjoy

I am not an immensely musical person. I took piano lessons when I was younger (parental requirement) and a musical instrument (trumpet; also a parental requirement), so I can read music (which is surprisingly helpful) and I understand meter (also surprisingly helpful when teaching poetry). But my skills are less than amateurish, and I can't sing in tune unless I'm sitting next to someone who can.

I do enjoy music very much, especially musicals. And yes, I sing along, and yes, it makes listeners beg me to stop.

However, when I'm singing, I don't hear myself. I hear the singers. And the singers I love the most are singers whose voices have personality. That is, my favorite singers are singers who don't sing full-time. Or rather, they do, but they are primarily known as actors before singers (the major exception here is Colm Wilkinson).

So, for instance, I hugely enjoy Alun Armstrong's singing voice which has a nice burr to it (you can hear the accent). (Alun Armstrong is one of those actors whose genre largely depends on how you "met" him--through New Tricks or through Les Mis.)

I greatly admire Tim Curry's singing voice and "I'm Going Home" from The Rocky Horror Picture Show is one of my favorites. He sounds like Tim Curry (which isn't always true; sometimes a person's singing voice is quite different from his or her speaking voice).

I admire Ewan McGregor's melodious, unaffected voice. Here he is in Moulin Rouge. He sings quite often in movies even if  just a few minutes. He does not, as far I as know, sing in the Star Wars movies. Well, maybe.


Truth is, I never really got into American Idol because the singers (with a few exceptions) always sounded like what they thought singers are supposed to sound like: digitized.

I think singers should not only be powerhouses (like in musicals); they should also sound, well, like people.

Colm Wilkinson as Valjean has that "real" sound--that lilt at the edges of the lyrics is fantastically gorgeous.

I know that almost everyone posts "Bring Him Home" as an example of Colm Wilkinson's amazing ability.

However, in "One Day More," one can really hear Wilkinson's range--plus I like ensemble numbers. And there's Philip Quast as Javert! Because one powerhouse deserves another.

The Murderer is Behind You! Serving You Tea!

I mention in a prior post the underlying assumptions of a culture--the questions that don't get asked. I close with a reference to making assumptions about servants.

Agatha Christie made a living out of the failure of people to notice servants. Of course, that was rather the point of servants, at least in the late 1800s to early 1900s. Darcy (from the early 1800s) could know all his servants' names and still feel an inherent superiority to them. But later English aristocrats and gentry-folk were more self-conscious. Servants were supposed to be seen and not heard, all to preserve the superiority of class.

Consequently, Christie was able to get her detectives to (correctly) argue in several short stories and novels that a murderer in servant dress can slip in and out of places easily without being noticed, precisely because the surrounding witnesses don't register "murderer" or "visitor" or even "person." They don't register the individual as someone specific at all.

I would love to now be able to argue that this is a product of class prejudice but according to current research, human beings are impressively horrible at recognizing their surroundings. It goes back to the gorilla costume video, which I never really believed in until I showed it to my students.

Another study had participants stop to talk to a tourist in need of directions; the participants were temporary distracted; when they turned back, a large percentage never realized that the tourist had changed to a different person.

Some people noticed, of course, but a substantial portion didn't (the percentage of recognition increased if the tourist changed sex or race--but still not to 100%).

This gets some social psychologists all bent out of shape ("Why didn't New Yorkers notice the world-class violinist playing in the subway?!!!!") I think all this angst is silly. The brain has to winnow out information to survive. We can't notice everything about everyone and everything all the time. That would make us crazy.

Of course, on the other hand, all that winnowing makes us rather susceptible to grifters and murderers--at least Agatha Christie murderers.

Non-Fiction Review: Simply Good News

My decision for what to read in the 200s is a great window into the difficulties of categorizing books.

I considered reviewing N.T. Wright's Paul: A Biography which I'm currently reading. In Worldcat, some libraries list this book under the 200s (religion) while others list it under the 900s (history) while still others list it under "Biographies" (which makes sense, considering the title).

Since my local library places it in "Biographies," I decided that using it as my 200 book would be cheating. So I got out another N.T. Wright book (230 Wright).

All in all, the experience reminded me of Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, a book that ended up being categorized as both adult and teen--such are the vagaries of determining audience!

N.T. Wright is a Anglican bishop/writer about Christianity. He is a cross between Rodney Stark (history in context) and C.S. Lewis (ecumenical gospel explanations). I quite liked Simply Good News which points out that Jesus and the apostles perceived the events of the New Testament precisely in those terms: "news" rather than "advice." The news? The Messiah Jesus Christ fulfilled ancient covenants in order to be present to the entire world. His object is not (necessarily) to take us to heaven, but to bring heaven to earth. Isn't that amazing?!

This summarizes much of Wright's view.
Sounds fairly simple (hence the title). N.T. Wright argues that most Christian churches spend too much time translating "gospel" into "advice" and also fail to teach the historical context for "Messiah" and "covenant." Therefore, most Christians don't know what the "good news" actually is.

I didn't entirely disagree with him regarding this last claim, but since I knew the context (I was raised by amateur--in the best sense of that word--Bible scholars), I bridled a little at the beginning of the book when he kept telling me that I didn't.

In other words, Wright uses a fairly standard teaching approach of "most people don't know!" to prepare the ground for his presentation. I'm always skeptical of this approach. In grad school, I had a professor who used in and when I protested that I did, in fact, know the information, he snapped at me, "That's just you!"

Eh . . . no. But then, too, most people's understanding of anything is piecemeal. If the grad school professor had used the "most people don't know" approach about Antarctica (rather than American history), I wouldn't have protested! (I know nothing about Antarctica. Yet.)

Charlie (voice over): Entropy. Parameter of disorder...energy
broken down in irretrievable heat. What might appear to be
chaos, even decay, is really a system's way of smoothing out
differences--its search for equilibrium. Uncorrelated parts
interact...find their connections in an evolving system...
so, from one perspective, entropy is a clock...charting
the irreversible.
I also disagreed with Wright's insistence that Christianity holds different principles from those of the Enlightenment. Granted, proponents of the Enlightenment tend to also see themselves as distinct from proponents of Christianity, but I've never been a fan of the either-or version of history. As people like Rodney Stark and Karen Armstrong point out, the beginning of the Common Era saw a change in perspective within religion, which sent ripples throughout the human experience. Claiming that this change had no impact on later human developments, good and bad, is foolish, both for secular humanists and for religious apologists. And wrong. History doesn't work in compartments.

However, Wright does do a decent job pinpointing the flaw in much secular humanism, basically the self-centered Victorian belief that humans have reached some pinnacle of perfection or degradation ("it was the best of times; it was the worst of times") and the unfortunately still prevalent belief that "theory" can be plastered onto human behavior.

Well, that's like just so much hokum, isn't it? I mean,
Maxwell's Demon is a thought experiment, right? Granted, there
 are theoretical applications, but, um, when the window breaks,
the cold air still rushes in. Gears fail, oil leaks.
Sooner or later, that engine is gonna break down.
Wright wraps up by discussing the human tendency to not think outside the box, to insist that God is one way, namely an angry, absent, vengeful landlord rather than a loving creator. Instead, Wright argues (echoing Paul), God loves us so much He sent us Jesus Christ and when we love God we'll be happier because we'll be closer to God as He truly is--and our happiness will affect others.

Or to put all this in C.S. Lewis's terms, God is not a tamed lion.

The Good News isn't something we can categorize; it simply is.

Overall, I recommend N.T. Wright as a sincere believer who is neither too cloying nor too erudite. Overall, I find his works quite refreshing despite continuing to disagree with some of his more dogmatic statements.

Great Action Sequence: The Closer

Great action sequences are usually described as huge events: big explosions, leveled buildings, massive body counts, endless minutes in which viewers like me check their watches.

Elsewhere I commend Die Hard for being remarkably brief in its action sequences. Although I love The Lord of the Rings movies, I tuned out a sizable portion of The Return of the King. One reaches a point where one just doesn't care about one person shooting or punching or stabbing another person.

I'm a big fan not only of short action sequences but of plausible, even slowly paced ones. One of my absolute favorites takes place in The Closer, "Waivers of Expedition," directed by Kevin Bacon.

Major Crimes chases down a serial killer driving a car trailer. He is not driving slowly but is also not driving tremendously fast, which makes the maneuvering of the chasers possible. There's never any question that the killer will be caught--even if Sanchez didn't succeed (which he does)--yet the sequence is still riveting.

And, yes, that's Xander Berkeley (hooray). 

This is the way action should be! Scarecrow & Mrs King has an equally awesome sequence in the episode "Burn Out". It isn't a big deal, just a truck smashing through a shack.

It's enough!


Historical Principle: The Power of Cultural Assumptions

In a prior Daughter of Time post, I address the issue of age in the Middle Ages:
Warriors in the Middle Ages started quite young. Edward, who became Edward IV, was leading wars at the age of 18...Since the average life expectancy was about 40, 18 obviously meant something different than it does now although this is complicated by math. So many children died in childbirth, 40 is low almost by default. However, the fact remains that nobody took for granted the expectations of our modern age regarding life and death. On the other hand, sources have pointed out that members of the merchant and peasant class did not treat 18 as adulthood in the sense that reaching 18 automatically meant ALL the accoutrements of adult life. Outside the upper classes, people in the Middle Ages actually did wait to get married until their mid-20s, mostly for financial reasons. As far as Shakespeare is concerned, Romeo and Juliet truly are as young as we think they are.
In other words, the operative difference between how age was treated in the Middle Ages and how it is treated now is not that people in the Middle Ages weren't aware of prepubescence, pubescence, and full adulthood. One reason Henry VIII was able to annul Catherine of Aragorn's marriage to his brother and marry her himself was that most people believed Catherine's assertion that  Arthur had not reach the point where he had matured enough to consummate anything.

The differences lie not in supposed medieval stupidity (oh, they thought child were little adults!) but in the underlying assumptions of how children and adults should be treated. As I state in the original post:
What strikes me in any overview of the Middle Ages is the sheer expediency of the ruling classes: the kid looks old enough to be married even though he hasn't hit puberty? Hey, let's marry him to a princess. The young man can lift a sword, so give him an army.
In sum, a major part of understanding history is understanding the questions and issues that don't get asked, don't get raised. Why didn't medieval people send their kids off to craft camp? Or give them Montessori-type educations?

I currently completed a response to Charlotte Perkins Gilman's utopia novella Herland (1915). I was struck by two of her assumptions (one modern; one medieval):

(1) Gilman promotes childhood as a time of growth that contains specific characteristics, characteristics that should be nurtured and allowed to thrive.
(2) Gilman believes that children can be formed by education.

Gilman also believed in "breeding." But that belief never extended beyond producing "blank" material from which to nurture citizens. It is an incredibly medieval idea and highlights the problem of progressive thinking in the early 1900s.

Of course, the fundamental problem of any utopia is the belief that the system can override normal human tendencies and idiosyncrasies--as His in Herland addresses.

Another fundamental problem with utopias is the lack of awareness regarding actual work--see Fruitlands. But then Gilman was a woman of the upper classes and appears to have made all the usual assumptions of her class when it came to servants.

Assumptions of a class/time period are incredibly powerful, so powerful we might not see them until aliens show up and are shocked--shocked, I say!--by our weird tendencies to assume that children should interact with other children or that babies should be carried or...whatever. It isn't so much how society raises our children that tokens the time period but all the things it never occurs to that society to do--

Like give the kid a sword and put him in charge of an army.

The Reason I Don't Buy Apple Products

It isn't the products. The truth is, some day, I probably will buy an Apple product. In fact, I probably already have! (It's not the kind of thing I keep track of.)

But I don't actively buy Apple products--and it's nothing against Steve Jobs. I'm not sure I would have invited the guy over for dinner when he was alive, but I admire his achievements, and I'm sorry he's dead.

The reason: whenever I encounter Apple product users, they encourage me to buy Apple products, which is nice, except that within a very short period of time (i.e. about three minutes), their encouragement begins to remind me of missionaries trying to get me to join their religion.

I'm a religious person, but I figure I already have a church; I really don't want another one.

I felt the same way about Volvo commercials (excluding Jean-Claude Van Damme), back when I watched more TV (i.e., the 90s). I have nothing against Volvos, but it always seemed like I couldn't simply buy the car; I had to sign up for the lifestyle.

Any commercial that tries to persuade me to buy a product because it will make me a good person, give the finger to "the man," or save the world---?

Eh.


Tell me the product works. Tell me it's cheap (or worth the price). Tell me it fits my needs. Make me laugh.

Don't try to save my soul.

It isn't that I won't make decisions about where to shop or what to buy based on ethical considerations. It is that confusing sensible buying habits (compromise based on ethics and personal needs) with political goodness/utopia has never struck me as particularly moral. "Virtuous people buy these products" is a little too close to "Virtuous people vote this way" which is a little too close to "Let's kill the non-virtuous people."

In Leverage's "The Low Low Price Job," Hardison is allowed to defend the mega-store (Walmart):
And thanks to their low prices, my Nana was able to feed all us kids when money was tight, and money was always tight. So what are you saying about the people who shop there?
The team still takes the store down because, well, it's fun. But Hardison's point remains a touchstone of reality.

Because Hardison is all good.

Great Dialog in Kojak

I'm not a huge Kojak fan, but the following dialog is perfect. It appears in "Web of Death" starring the amazing Hector Elizondo (looking very, very young).

*Spoilers* (sort of--this is a Columbo-type episode; we know who the murderer is upfront)

Kojak has realized that Detective Nick Ferro, played by Elizondo, is the murderer (he killed his wife's lover):
Kojak: It was the silencer. I should have picked up then.
Captain Frank McNeil: What?
Kojak: Well, there was no way he could have known. He hadn't seen the ballistics report. But I figured when he mentioned it, after 16 years on the force, a man's entitled to an educated guess. There were other signals too. I was just slow in tuning in.
Captain Frank McNeil: A day? You call that slow?
Kojak: Oh, Frank, it hurts. I pinned the gold on him myself.
Captain Frank McNeil: Theo, don't gouge yourself. He kept it polished.
The brilliance of the dialog is that it is completely comprehensible, yet uses the kind of short-hand that detective shows often sacrifice for the sake of audience comprehension. The opposite of heavy handed, the dialog assumes smart viewers will pick up on context/in-between-the-lines meaning without it being spelled out.

Rather than saying, "Come on, Kojak. You figured out the identity of the murderer faster than anyone could expect. And even though you are the one who promoted him, you shouldn't blame yourself; he was a good cop up until recently. It isn't like any of us could have guessed how bad he would go..."

Instead Captain McNeil and Kojak employ terms that carry more weight with each other than they would with outsiders: You call that slow? Pinned the gold on him myself. He kept it polished.

Because the dialog carries weight with the characters, it carries weight with the audience. Meaning is determined as much by context, reaction, intonation, and individual word choice (entitled, slow, gold, gouge, polished) as by any insider knowledge.

Of course, this kind of thing can go too far. The audience has to comprehend something; dialog can't be all connotation and jargon. It's impressive when it can find the line between letting the audience in and retaining the characters' world.

Gomer and Goober: Let's Hear it For Goober!

I've put off writing this particular post because I didn't want to make value judgments between the two characters. Although I don't personally understand why Gomer was so hugely popular (enough to earn him his own show), Jim Nabors is a decent character actor, and Gomer was a fresh addition to The Andy Griffith Show.

The later non-Don-Knotts (and non-Gomer) seasons are not as good as the earlier seasons, as many critics and fans of the show (including me) will attest. Actors like Andy Griffith require someone to act against. Without Don Knotts, Andy Griffith as Andy Taylor continued as credible straight-man to the town's idiosyncratic citizens (Howard, Floyd). But Don Knotts was the perfect foil--plus a sheer comedic genius in his own right--so his absence is noticeable, and Andy Griffith as Andy Taylor is a little off his game.

The latter seasons did produce decent episodes, however, and this is where I must put in a word for Goober. Although Goober is often seen as part of the decline, replacing the "better" Gomer as the town jester, he has always had a charm of his own for me. He reminds me of Dauber from Coach, being sweet, physically down-to-earth, and quite good at his job. Unlike Gomer, who is perceived as a clumsy innocent (more intuitive than Barney and less likely to shoot off his foot but actually far less efficient), Goober can do all the things he is supposed to do, like take apart a car inside the court house.

Actually, Goober is rather like Dauber plus all of Coach's players rolled into one.

My favorite Goober episode occurs in the last season when he ends up dating a woman with a Ph.D. that he met through a service. The "computer" match is entirely believable. Goober is a warm personality, a sweet-heart whose lack of "smarts" is the result of lack of education, not lack of interest or capacity. While Gomer seems to stumble over the truth, Goober, his cousin, seems to have instinctive commonsense, not to mention a sense that the world is in fact more complicated than so-called "smarter" people realize.

When Goober explains to Opie how he filled out the dating service's questionnaire, it is clear to the teen-Opie that Goober refused to accept the socially-acceptable interpretation of the questions. But Goober, like many male Ph.D. holders I know, argues against multiple-choice questions: Why can't all the answers be right? Why shouldn't there be more options?

Interestingly enough, the episode also points out--and marriage experts now agree--that superficial resemblances (we both like art, we both like opera) are not entirely helpful in determining what actually brings people together. How Goober and the Ph.D.-wielding woman interact actually matters more.

Both Gomer and Goober blunder when faced with more worldly characters, including Andy, who supposedly know what's what. They doesn't mean Gomer and Goober are wrong in their assessments. The two cousins fall into the trope of canny dopes, yet they are quite different in interpretation, proving that a trope is a useful starting place, never an end point.

Reviews That Make My Eyes Roll: Getting Mad at Imperfect Characters

How the whale SHOULD have behaved.
Reviews can be helpful. In fact, I have found that the "better" books (i.e. books that I personally think are well-written) inspire better reviews. (Yeah, yeah.) By that, I don't (automatically) mean reviews that agree with me. I mean reviews that are thoughtful and intelligent, well-written and free of multiple grammar errors. Such reviews I trust. To inspire such thought-out, considerate responses, the book must be okay!

In comparison, I pause over a book when it is followed by a review like this:
"The character feels guilt about his spouse's death--I wish people understood that they don't need to blame themselves for things that aren't their fault!"
Ah--but they do . . .

Such a review is not necessarily the writer's fault. There are cases where writers unfairly expect readers to understand a character without establishing the background that would justify that understanding.

In this case, however, I'm talking about reviewers who are offended that a character in a book behaves and thinks in ways that they, the reviewers, personally think people shouldn't behave or think--which makes me wonder what those reviewers read. Okay, yes, I dislike dystopia novels and never read them. However, if I only read books where characters did and said things that I think people should do or say . . . I'd never read anything.

Seriously.

When Frodo accuses Sam of betraying him, am I seriously supposed to stop reading or watching because That's SO wrong! Doesn't he know how great Sam is? How could he be so MEAN?!
Is Frodo wrong in his accusation? Absolutely! Is he currently under the sway of the ring? Yes. Is his attack on Sam an example of the ring's terrible power? Yes. Is Frodo's accusation a way for the reader/viewer to see the terrible toll the ring is having on an otherwise good and sweet man? Yes.
For non-fantasy lovers, let's examine Elizabeth from Pride & Prejudice. She angrily accuses Darcy of hurting her sister.
Did Darcy hurt her sister? Yes. Did Darcy do it intentionally? Eh, kinda sortof but not really. Is Elizabeth overreacting? Maybe. Does Elizabeth use Darcy's actions in this one case to create an over-arcing narrative about him and refuse to see his side? Yes. Is she being unfair? In a way. Did Darcy bring this on himself? Yes.
If Darcy's behavior was too egregious, I would have a tough time with him and Elizabeth getting together at all. But it's not. What I find weird--puzzling, bemusing, STRANGE--is when reviewers aren't upset because Elizabeth had the wrong idea and then got over it but are upset that someone would behave like Elizabeth in the first place. (Doesn't she know how great Darcy is? Why can't she understand?!)

Um, character arc, anyone? Growth? Change? Improvement?

In a way, these reactions are a testament to a good writer (I suppose). The characters are so real, the readers react to them as they would to real people: Oooh, it so bugs me when people act like that!

Still, such reviews give me pause, as in, Um, are crazy people reading this book? 

I take a deep breath and read a different review.