Thursday, December 27, 2012

"Sports Night"

1998-2000
-created by aaron sorkin
Sorkin's first television series, it lasted two seasons. Upon cancellation, the voice of upset fans was far-reaching. Fans of his later shows may be rightfully mystified as to why. I suppose the kind of honesty and reality it was attempting felt a bit revolutionary to the puddle-deep sitcom world of 1998...but viewed in comparison with his later work, SPORTS NIGHT often feels amateurish, lacking the nuance of WEST WING, STUDIO 60, and THE NEWSROOM. Wonderful actors are sometimes placed into no-win situations by forced dialogue.
GOODEST EPISODES
-Shoe Money Tonight
The first episode to glimmer with the cohesively brilliant dialogue sorkin would master in THE WEST WING, specifically in an interchange between jeremy (joshua malina) and natalie (sabrina lloyd). She's having unjustifiable trust issues in their romance, and during a staff poker game, he challenges her to get over them and realize what she has. She fails, but he takes her home anyway (well, who wouldn't?).
-The Six Southern Gentlemen of Tennessee
Seven college football players refuse to play under a confederate flag. Is the guest appearance of an unknown who would later act her way into a beloved regular role on THE WEST WING, enough to elevate this average episode onto a "best-of" list? Well, yes. Janel moloney gives a brief but wonderful turn as an under-appreciated wardrober.
-Cliff Gardner
A somewhat blah episode, but william h. macy fans (and if you aren't, WHY NOT?) will be well-rewarded. In his second of six episodes as arrogant ratings expert sam donovan, he gives an absolutely brilliant speech about philo farnsworth's brother-in-law.
-Celebrities
Natalie organizes a late-night game of Celebrity (the only time the coolest party game ever appears on television?). Casey has to tell dan that only one of them made the "most influential people in sports" list. Jeremy, post-breakup, has a scintillating and sweet flirtation with a woman at a bar (paula marshall - CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN, CALIFORNICATION). When he finds out she's a porn actress, he bolts.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

jocasta

WOMEN 70
I met her in the city to read a new play of mine, as an audition. She was very nearly bald, which impressed me greatly (loving a bald woman being a long-unfulfilled fantasy). She was wonderfully talented and uninhibited. We became friends, getting together every month or two to read a play, or just hang out. Often we'd spend the night together, cuddling. Being bohemians, we were comfortable sleeping together naked. She was deep into the martial arts, so was usually in good shape. I very much liked being her friend. She wrote poignant poetry, mostly about sex, love, and howling darknesses in her psyche. She knew of depression and chemical imbalance, and sometimes took powerful mood-stabilizing drugs. In public, she always wore heavy makeup; she'd been through enough therapy to realize that this was a hiding behavior, but she was still unable to break free of it. As time progressed, sexuality crept into our embraces. There was always a holding-back element; we may have kissed on occasion, but no other fluids were ever swapped. And we almost never spoke of it, either. It became my first experience with anything resembling “friends with benefits”. She was into pain - i gave her a number of orgasms through hard biting. Once she took my thumb into her mouth, and i suddenly knew that she was far more talented at fellatio than any woman i'd ever been with, except perhaps my first, Kathy. I became a little obsessed imagining sharing that with her...but i always had a faintly disquieted feeling after we'd been sexual. I just couldn't find my way to being 100% present in those moments. I'm not sure how much of that was just fear of the dark, damaged parts of her (and my aversion to makeup)...but i knew that i didn’t feel enough compatibility to sustain the kind of intense romance she seemed drawn to. We never really talked about it - only once, did i maybe see a glimmer of a part of her that felt disappointed or rejected by me. Our friendship hung in there for a year or two, until she moved out west. She had fallen into a love threesome, with a man and a woman. The occasional notes she sent me in the years that followed told of being happy. Her words were a bit forced and mantra-like...but does anyone actually do better?

Friday, December 14, 2012

technicolor dreams 3

JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT
THEATER 66
-spring 2002
I had thought i'd remain in Lee County until professional acting work stopped coming, then head for the Rockies for some unstructured traveling. But Paul Longua, my old buddy whose Scope Shack had provided a home for the Orpheus-banned DRINKING IN AMERICA, had moved his photo shop\gallery to a location right on the beach's Times Square, on the second floor of the Seafarer's Village Mall. He wanted to focus more on the arts, and asked me to start a theater. I agreed, out of friendship and loyalty, and also because he supported my pushing the taboo boundaries which had held us back at the Orpheus. The space was fifty feet long, and thirty feet wide at the back where we would perform. There was an adjoining backstage room, and comfortable seating for fifty. Paul started filling the place with the work of local artists. He found several chairs that were fashioned after high-heeled shoes. Tom Waits became our patron saint, his album SMALL CHANGE our soundtrack. Wonderful Sheryl Ruppert, from ON TIDY ENDINGS, told me of her lifelong dream to be the narrator of JOSEPH, and i decided we could do the show as a two-actor vehicle. It was the first show i'd ever had a lead in, when i was sixteen. It wasn't hard-hitting, but i didn't want to be a slave to one genre, and for a first show, it might be a perfect crowd-pleaser. I also thought the world of Cheryl, so it gave me special happiness to do this for her. It would be sweet to finally play Pharoah, a role i almost would have taken over Joseph, all those years ago. We cut a couple songs and shortened others, which Sheryl said would excerpt us from royalty obligations. I wasn't positive about that, but went along with it. We rehearsed at a clubhouse near her home. It was a madcap version we created, with wigs, beards, and hats flying fast and furiously. Once we arranged the music and found the proper keys, i went to Sarasota, where Jim Prosser recorded the accompaniment (amazingly as always). I played Joseph and Jacob and Levi (with Sheryl as a harmonizing cowboy brother) and Reuben (with Sheryl as a beret-bound brother). One night, during my first lines, i started singing an octave too high (i hope that wasn’t the night we taped). I played butler and baker, doing quick spins with puffy hat and serving napkin. Jim Conti at the Wood Theater couldn't have been sweeter about loaning us costumes. I spewed a slew of silly accents, from cockney to cowboy to french to brit-twit to Elvis. It was satisfying to be a better singer than my first go around. I gave Paul and Sheryl a percentage of the take. We had good-sized, very happy crowds. Paul put up a multi-colored parachute on the gallery ceiling. I wrote to Valda, my director from JOSEPH seventeen years earlier, and she mailed me our original amazing coat. So wonderful. We even had an opening act - Paul had found ten year-old beach resident Bonita Violette, who did a monologue called "Cosmetology Class". Tweren't bad, not at all. Soon after the run, we did a multi-media evening, with Jim Corsica (Father Mark from TONY AND TINA’S) and i doing the opening bar scene from SEXUAL PERVERSITY. My esteem for Jim was huge, and the scene was wonderful. I played my old role of Danny - at first i was concerned i had unwisely tried to recapture old glory, but when Jim finally got the Mamet dialogue, the scene just soared. He was a veteran's veteran, and i was touched to my core when he said that it was as much fun as he'd ever had on a Florida stage. JOSEPH was wonderful, in part because my more "straight" relatives, plus some of the children's troupe i was acting with on Sanibel, could enjoy it whole-heartedly. Back at the Wood, Shelhammer joked that i needed to stop playing Jews, already. Orpheus vets Amanda and Donna both came, and it was very sweet to give them more entertainment than they expected. Around this time, the county arts magazine “Happenings” did a story on me, the first time i'd ever been the sole subject of an article. The interviewer was sweet Dick Westlake from ECC and TONY AND TINA’S. The article ran several pages, with a picture of me all tattooed and mohawked.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The West Wing, season 5

FOUR-STAR EPISODES: 5
AVERAGE EPISODE RATING: 3.1
-7A WF 83429 ****
It would be hard to overstate the importance of Aaron Sorkin and Tommy Schlamme to THE WEST WING. Of course, that seems half-patently obvious. Sorkin was the visionary and the voice. Once things are clicking, you can go on without the former, but the latter? When STAR TREK lost Roddenberry, they only lost their visionary. And Schlamme was, for lack of a better metaphor, the show's body. He gave the voice its look. Losing these two, due to squabbles with the studio, can only be compared in television history to Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds leaving M*A*S*H. The fact that both shows survived, even thrived, reduces the second-guessing to fodder for fan debates. And John Wells becomes Burt Metcalfe, promoted from in-house to guide the show once the horse (or camel) has left the one-bactrian town. Did the studio bring shame upon its house by allowing this pair to leave? Yeah. But what cannot be doubted is that Wells was the right choice. Welcome to "7A WF 83429", darkly and disquietingly shot, the combustible part three of a four-episode arc. Imagine Stephen King writing half a novel, then asking you to finish. This episode simmers, as Walken (John Goodman) replaces Jed, his finger on the trigger of massive military retaliations against Qumar (never mind that Zoey's kidnappers are still unknown). Is it possible that Goodman single-handedly elevated this one into greatness, assuring a nervous fan base that the show would survive? Yes. Not to diminish the fantastic contributions of the regular cast, but with any other actor in the Walken role, this episode, season, and series could have gone a whole different way.
-The Dogs of War ****
Zoey's kidnapping goes into its second day. Walken orders bombings and ground forces in Qumar. The staff (and Josh particularly) are going crazy with fear that Walken will start legislating a right wing agenda. How is it that we had to wait for season 5 to meet the President's eldest daughter?? Hello, Liz Bartlet (Annabeth Gish - DESERT BLOOM, MYSTIC PIZZA), in the second of six fine appearances. A wonderful Walken/Fiderer scene. The debut of Jesse Bradford (ROMEO + JULIET, HACKERS) as irritating intern Ryan Pierce, who would do nine episodes. He's obvious comic relief here, but will become a little more. This kidnapping arc finale isn't as brilliant as its predecessors, but is pushed into greatness by Goodman and the images of a family reunited.
-Jefferson Lives ***
With Jed back in the Oval, the search for a Veep goes into high gear. The choice candidate is Sec. of State Berryhill (the second of two fine appearances by William Devane - KNOT'S LANDING). A contentious congress will only approve a stiff who threatens no one. Welcome, Bingo Bob! Gary Cole (THE BRADY BUNCH MOVIE, OFFICE SPACE) would go on to log twenty-one fine episodes. Abbey blames Jed and Leo for the kidnapping, and takes Zoey to New Hampshire. Josh and Amy spark some fine sexuality again, dammit.
-Han ****
One of the most exquisitely poignant guest turns in show history elevates this one to a lofty place. The aforementioned sentence is an example of the rhetoric Will and Toby struggle to bestow upon new Vice President Russell in the President's welcome speech. The "honest" version they perversely write for themselves ends up on the prompter by mistake. Pretty hysterical. A north korean pianist (Tony Lee - LOST) plays a recital in the White House, under the glare of military guard. He communicates to Jed his desire to defect, which could destabilize a nuclear treaty. The music of Bach and Chopin is achingly beautiful, and Tony's performance will tear your heart. Russell asks Will to be his Communications Director and senior adviser...a move that feels way too soon given that Will has been Deputy for only half a season. It sets up the series-ending election to come. But did he have more potential in the inner circle?
-Constituency of One ***
The single most unrelentingly bleak episode of WEST WING. Ever. Every character is receiving or dispensing misery. It's all tightly-written and acted, but...if ever we needed Rip Taylor, it's now. We do, however, have a little...Skeritt! Tom (M*A*S*H, ALIEN) drops in for a one-off as a democratic senator who switches partys. Will's defection to Russell is a done deal. This move would have felt less clumsy if they'd had a scene of Leo overruling Toby's protests, allowing Will to go because Russell (the second-most important person in the land) needed much more capable handling.
-Disaster Relief ***
Jed goes to Oklahoma to console tornado survivors, and stays overlong as he deals with his own demons of tragedy and loss. He has a very touching scene with a woman washing dishes. Josh deals with the fallout from some bad judgment. Ryan has a dandy episode, showing unexpected depth and understanding. Bradford is thoroughly capable, playing a well-crafted role, but the magic of chemistry doesn't quite strike, and he'll be soon gone. The debut of Terry O'Quinn (PRIMAL FEAR, TOMBSTONE) as General Alexander, the new Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. He's fine, but never reaches Fitz's level of juice.
-Separation of Powers ***
Ancient, ailing Chief Justice Ashland (Milo O'Shea - BARBARELLA, THE VERDICT) ends up in intensive care, prompting Toby to send Joe, Ashland's former clerk, to ascertain whether he needs to step down. Joe balks, then covers for his former boss. The third of six episodes for Angela Blake (Michael Hyatt), a political operative who takes over Josh's legislative responsibilities. It can be easy to think that no WEST WING character ever derailed as unceremoniously as Mandie, but i guess every new executive producer gets one character that hits the ground splatting. Again through no fault of the acting or writing...but that's just the way these things go. Her character was probably designed to flame out, of course, but that's neither here nor there. Speaker Jeff Haffley (Steven Culp - THIRTEEN DAYS, ENTERPRISE) takes advantage of the President's weak approval ratings to push an ultra-conservative budget agenda. Steven would do nine episodes, and never miss a beat. Threatened with a government shutdown, Jed calls his bluff.
-Shutdown ***
The fatal flaw in this one (and it's such a fun ride you probably won't even care) is that the scene where Jed wins his one-on-one showdown with Haffley, cuts away early. It's easy to imagine this choice was made because the writers had no idea how they would realistically get to where they needed to go. But we'll allow that conceit, as it gets our heroes back on their feet. Much of this, including an unprecedented visit to the Hill by the presidential party, is orchestrated by comeback kid Josh. Russell has some surprisingly good moments. And the star of the show? Debut character Rina (Melissa Marsala), the mysterious sexpot who cleans the place up while all support staff are required by law to be away. She would do six episodes, but the producers would piss away her potential, including (and especially) her tantalizing chemistry with Toby.
-Abu el Banat ***
Another worthy entry in the WEST WING yule-a-thon! The presidential family gathers for Christmas dinner at the White House...sort of. Jed is stuck in a meeting, Ellie arrives even later, and people are coming and going as family drama swirls, most of it over Liz and her husband Doug Westin (Steven Eckholdt - THE L WORD), who comes to Josh seeking the President's endorsement in a run for congress. The DNC has another candidate in mind, and Josh miserably tries to get this message across. Steven would do five episodes, and have some great moments. The most whopping scene in this one is between Jed and Liz, when a family's past and present come thudding together.
-The Stormy Present ***
A former President dies. Bartlet, Walken, and former President Newman (James Cromwell - SIX FEET UNDER, STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT) travel together on Air Force One to the funeral, while a crisis inflames the Middle East. Exhilarating, nuanced acting between this grand triumvirate. C.J. speaks to a nebbishy scientist (Steven Tobolowsky, GROUNDHOG DAY) about government mind control experiments. Mallory (Allison Smith - KATE & ALLIE, HELTER SKELTER) drops in for her first post-Seaborn appearance, and her evening attire may detach your eyes from their sockets. Toby gets a snootful trying to write an impossible eulogy, and sings "Suicide is Painless".
-The Benign Prerogative ***
A fascinating episode which gives us a full ride on the only non-Zoey romance of Charlie's WW life. A journalist graduate (Gabrielle Union, BRING IT ON) turns his head, and he shares White House tales, only to find that she already has a press corps job lined up. Nice chemistry. A little more fleshing out would have been nice. Jed considers presidential pardons and the carnage that mandatory minimums have wreaked on people's lives (and taken discretionary power away from judges). Donna has to research the possible pardonees, becoming emotionally involved. And Joey Lucas is pregnant!
-Slow News Day ***
Toby gets Jed's permission to explore saving social security. He gets two opposition senators together, but it all blows up, endangering his job. Good drama, and like the best of season 1, strongly educative on an important issue. Fine supporting turns from Josef Sommer (WITNESS) and Michael Nouri (FLASHDANCE). C.J. has one of her most enjoyable flirtations ever with an argentinian diplomat (Joaquim de Almeida - CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER).
-The Warfare of Ghengis Khan ***
The space episode. Josh swats down NASA reps appealing for more funds. One of them (Christina Chang, 24) has a gentle flirtation with him, takes him stargazing, and makes him dream of humans on Mars. Elsewhere, an orbital detonation has the nuclear community scrambling to find out who's joined the club, but it turns out to be Israel developing submarine warfare. The israeli prime minister (the debut of the exquisite Armin Mueller-Stahl - THE LAST GOOD TIME, THE LONG RUN) is summoned to the White House, and has a grand scene with Martin. Vice President Russell is great as the clueless fool who figures out what's going on and prevents a military assault on Iran. Jay Mohr (JERRY MAGUIRE) debuts as ultra-conservative talk show hack Taylor Reid, who baits C.J. mercilessly. The story and music of Blind Willie Johnson ("Dark Was the Night") are rendered beautifully.
-An Khe ***
These days, the typical Hollywood political intrigue/action film is conspicuously less well-written than even a second-rate WEST WING episode like this, a bizarre reversal of fortune from the days of the original MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE and THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR (in other words, if the TV/movie incarnations of MI had been reversed, it might have been one of the most intelligent franchises of all time). This episode is a beautiful effort, bouncing back and forth from the corrupt intrigues of a defense contractor friend of Leo's (Jeffrey DeMunn, THE GREEN MILE), back to the time when they were shot down in Vietnam, and Leo's life was saved. Philip Baker Hall (BOOGIE NIGHTS, MAGNOLIA) debuts as a grizzled senator. Brian Kerwin (MURPHY'S ROMANCE, KING KONG LIVES) debuts as a bewitching, bothering park ranger from C.J.'s past. A touching version of "My Country 'tis of Thee", by Crosby & Nash, lends emotional texture to Leo's despair.
-Full Disclosure ***
Vice President Hoynes resurfaces with a tell-all book, trying to resurrect his image to make another run at the White House. He twists the truth to make Jed and Leo look bad - C.J. locks out his behavior by threatening to reveal all she knows...which is a lot, considering they had sex once. It's great to have Mr. Matheson back. The D.C. mayor (James Pickens Jr., THE X-FILES) convinces Bartlet to try a school voucher program. Sam Robards (AMERICAN BEAUTY, A.I.) debuts as journalist Greg Brock. He's fine, and he ain't no Danny.
-Epper Si Muove ***
Ellie is targeted by a republican congressperson, for the HPV research she's a part of. Sesame Street visits the White House, to film a segment with Abbie. It gets pretty hysterical. Will must face Russell's sneaky side.
-The Supremes ****
A conservative justice dies of a heart attack. With the republicans controlling congress, the staff bemoans the litany of wishy washy centrists who are approvable. Josh hatches a hare-brained scheme wherein Chief Justice Ashland (the wonderful Milo O'Shea) steps down, allowing Jed to appoint a liberal lion chief justice. The trade-off? Allowing the republicans to name the other seat. Fantastic, gripping, funny...and the liberal lion is played by Glenn Close (THE BIG CHILL, FATAL ATTRACTION). She has wonderful chemistry with, well, everyone, including her ultra-conservative opposite (William Fichtner - ARMAGEDDON, THE PERFECT STORM). It's a banner episode for STAR TREK fans, with appearances by Riker's dad (Mitch Ryan, DHARMA & GREG) and the brilliant Robert Picardo (the doctor, VOYAGER).
-Access *
A fine idea that sinks quicker than a very small rock. Just appallingly off the mark. The only one-star episode in show history, and the only one that made me grimace at the prospect of watching again. A TV documentary crew is allowed to follow C.J. around for an entire day. Wilson Cruz (MY SO-CALLED LIFE, SUPERNOVA) plays one of C.J.'s assistants. Janel Moloney fans will be rewarded with perhaps the best Donna smile in show history.
-Talking Points ***
C.J. tries to get the press corps upset that the FCC is in monopolistic collusion with the major media outlets. Unfortunately, the press corps works for the major media outlets. Josh has his feet taken out from under him by the computer industry shipping 17,000 white collar jobs to India because of a trade agreement he brokered, which breaks a promise Bartlet made to unions. The return of John Amos, for the first time since he left the show to do ALL ABOUT THE ANDERSONS, which ran for all of about, oh, sixteen episodes. The debut of Mary McCormack (PRIVATE PARTS, IN PLAIN SIGHT), who would do 43 episodes as Deputy National Security Adviser Kate Harper. She would be wonderful...and criminally underused. GALACTICA fans, listen for the voice of Anne Lockhart! The greatest C.J./Ben scene, a painfully realistic rendering of the romantic self-sabotage we all engage in.
-No Exit ****
The White House goes into biohazard lockdown, isolating people in sealed rooms...paging Jean-Paul! Let's take a moment to acknowledge the work of writer Deborah Cahn. Perhaps more than any other single individual, she's the reason why the post-Sorkin era cannot be dismissed. Look up the episodes she penned - it's clear that she captured his voice, and housed that voice in the right settings, far better than the rest (this one followed up "Abu el Banat" and "The Supremes"). This episode is also an object lesson in why the post-Sorkin years partially failed. There wasn't enough advancing of the cast relationships, in the right way, as here. All the concerns about Will being removed from the inner circle are forgotten as he and Toby argue the way to the heart of their conflict. It's so well written that you temporarily forget we never completely buy Will's defection. C.J. and Donna have a scene of unvarnished truth that advances their characters more than the past four seasons combined. Kate's professional standoffishness gets on Josh's nerves. Leo and Abbey are alone in the residence - she pops pills. And the most enjoyable thread of all has Jed, Charlie, and Debbie showering in the basement. The greatest Fiderer episode is just one of the many reasons why this one's brilliant. Plus some Butterfield, Reed Diamond (JUDGING AMY) in the first of three appearances as Dr. Gordon, and a lil' Brent Huff (THE PERILS OF GWENDOLINE IN THE LAND OF THE YIK YAK).
-Gaza ***
Donna, Fitz, and Andy are sent on a fact-finding mission in Gaza. One of their vehicles is detonated by terrorists, leaving Fitz and two congresspersons dead and Donna critically wounded. Insanity erupts, with Leo (and the republicans and most of the democrats) calling for immediate military retaliation, while Jed tries to bring Palestine and Israel to a peace summit. Kate is the only voice in the Sit Room preaching patience. In flashbacks, Donna learns about the horrors of the region, and has a sweet romance with an irish photojournalist (Jason Isaacs - HARRY POTTER, PETER PAN). Josh flies across the Atlantic to be by her side. Farewell, Fitz...we wanted more, not less of you...but this episode hit us right in the stomach, and that's nothing to sneeze at.
-Memorial Day ***
With two men by her bedside, Donna starts to recover...then is back in surgery with a blood clot in her multiply-fractured leg. The rift between Jed and Leo grows, as Israel bombs Gaza and Jed delays a U.S. military retaliation. The President must throw out the first pitch at a major league game...and his athletic prowess is shaky even when he's not wearing a flak jacket. The scene of him practicing pitches in a White House hallway, under the watchful eye of Toby and Charlie, is one of the funnier ones in show history. Jed is halfway to a peace summit...

Friday, December 7, 2012

"WHY WOMEN SHOULD RULE THE WORLD"

-by Dee Dee Myers
2008
Dee Dee Myers. The first woman ever to hold the post of White House Press Secretary. Dee Dee Myers. Six-year consultant on THE WEST WING, and responsible for giving the show much of its verisimilitude. Dee Dee - the real C.J. And author of a wonderful, wonderful book. The title is more attention-grabber than literal, of course (except insomuch as it's not). Much more than a memoir, she supplies scientific evidence for why humanity's condition will improve dramatically once women share equally in all decision-making. While much of that science is highly conjecture, as we're still probably a century away from understanding what "female human nature" is (assuming such a thing even exists), the theories she presents are fascinating and compelling. The biggest difference between men and women lies in the feminine ability to build group relationships, while being less ego-driven. It's also fascinating to learn that while women are on the whole just as smart as men, they also currently live closer to the center of the bell curve (meaning both fewer blazing genuises and fewer blathering morons). Dee Dee offers commentary from other women who have been leaders or firsts. We live in a world where billions of women are still almost entirely subjugated and disempowered, and have reached real equality in none of even the most progressive societies, but Dee Dee's breakdown of what's already been accomplished, and the inevitability of the rising tide of humanity's reintegration, will leave you energized and ready for the future.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The West Wing, season 4

FOUR-STAR EPISODES: 5
AVERAGE EPISODE RATING: 3.1
-20 Hours in America ****
As a follow-up to one of the most hard-hitting episodes in show history, this double-length season-opener is perhaps the funniest ever. Relaxed and smoooth funny...like the smooth of a fifty year-old whiskey (i'm imagining). Josh, Toby, and Donna get accidentally left behind by the motorcade in Indiana. A comedy of errors (running out of gas, a time zone change, a wrong-way train, mean girls on bikes...) follows. Amy Adams (CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, THE MUPPETS) plays a modern farmer's daughter. Ernestine Jackson and Tommy Lafitte play diner proprietors who possibly offer the most funny-per-second in show history (get the dry rub). Sam has to spend the day staffing the President, making him realize how dumb he is. C.J. struggles with resentment from Simon's "little brother", until Charlie schools him. Debbie finally earns the personal secretary position, and Ms. Tomlin is a delight. Qumar reopens the investigation into Shareef's death, leading to some tense (but still funny) scenes between Jed, Fitz, and Nancy. Just when you thought you'd never see her again, Mallory appears. She takes a tired Sam home...let your imagination go where it will, because we won't see her again for two years. In the midst of all this lightness, domestic terrorists set off pipe bombs at a college swim meet. Jed's remarks in the aftermath put a lump in my throat. Fantastic.
-College Kids ***
Joanna Gleason is back as attorney Jordan Kendall, who is brought in to consult when Qumar's suspicions may force the administration to reveal the assassination. The show has grown in stature enough that pop stars are no longer merely loaning their songs, they're appearing live, as Barenaked Ladies and Aimee Mann appear at a "Rock the Vote" function (she sings a beautiful cover of James Taylor's "Shed a Little Light"). Amy and Josh, post-breakup, still have beautiful chemistry.
-The Red Mass ***
How is this episode not about cancer? The President and staff attend a mass, along with the leaders of congress. George Coe returns as Senator Stackhouse, whose issue-raising and tentative inclusion in the debates may split the democratic vote. The final scene between he and Jed, on the church steps, is a beaut. Blaming Israel for Shareef's death, the qumaris shoot down a plane containing their foreign minister (Malachi Throne, whose 1966 role as STAR TREK's Commodore Mendez makes him the only actor to appear on two of the three greatest television shows of all time). Denied the number of debates they want, Sam and C.J. suggest a go-for-broke tactic, with just one no-holds debate. A tantalizing once-only appearance by Hilary Salvatore as staffer Emily, who sucks the air out of the room in a silly scene with Charlie.
-Debate Camp ***
As the Bartlet team prepares for the debate, the humor is flowing and flashbacks take us to the pre-inauguration four years before, when lots of freshman mistakes were made. Take your sentimental side out for a walk, for Kathryn Joosten's final appearance as Mrs. Landingham. In California, an underdog congressional candidate dies, but his staff keeps campaigning. Sam speaks to the chief of staff, and WW audiences get their first taste of Joshua Malina as the brilliant, principled Will Bailey (Sorkin audiences have had plenty of tastes, as Josh is about to become the first actor to be a lead on two separate Sorkin shows, a distinction he will one day share only with a certain Mr. Whitford). There's something charmingly unique about this episode...it feels familiar, yet ever-so-faintly like a different creative team was responsible.
-Game On ***
Abbey's funniest (tie-cutting) moment in show history, the funniest practical joke in show history (at Toby's expense), and a stirring debate victory over James Brolin's Governor Ritchie. Hal Holbrook's final appearance as Albie Duncan, and this time his crustiness is augmented by a moment that may bring a tear to your eye. Jordan Kendall is called in, after a Qumari ship carrying weapons for terrorists is seized. Leo has a tense standoff with their ambassador, played by the brilliant Tony Amendola (STARGATE: SG1). John Aniston moderates the debate. Will Bailey's quixotic dedication makes a believer out of Sam, who promises to run in the special election if Will's dead candidate wins. And the debut of...Snuffin!!! Elsie (Danica McKellar - THE WONDER YEARS) is wonderful, funny, and knows how to watch Sam walk away better than anyone in the biz. Sigh. If Sam hadn't left the show...
-Election Night ***
As Bartlet wins in a landslide (and romances Abbey to candlelight, Dean Martin, and Commander-in-Chief innuendo), Sam watches the unthinkable happen...a deceased democrat win a heavily-republican district. Debbie's first scenes as Bartlet's new secretary are funny and seamless. Toby's ex-wife finally gets pregnant (using his sperm). He pressures her to re-marry, as she re-wins her congressional seat. Donna accidentally votes for Ritchie, and stands for six hours in the cold trying to get a republican to swap votes. A charming way to meet the charming Jack Reese (Christian Slater - HEATHERS, PUMP UP THE VOLUME), the stranger who finally says yes...just as he's on his way to assume his new military post at the White House. Even though a part of us wants him nowhere near Donna, he's perfect in his role. Bruno couldn't care less when a pollster takes undue credit for the victory...he's trying to get his post-victory mack on.
-Process Stories ***
Never has Rob Lowe been more smooth and precise than in this story arc that will end his run as a WEST WING regular. As he scrambles to get out of his well-intentioned commitment to run for congress, he and others start to reconsider. In a sweetly funny scene, Toby tells Jed and Abbey that Andrea is several months pregnant, and has to explain why he waited so long to tell them. The Andrea pregnancy/courting is the perfect plot line to give our Mr. Schiff. The post-election party continues, and Bruno's celebratory womanizing is a thing of beauty - dialogue doesn't come any sharper. Leo and Jordan continue their beautiful banter. Jack explains to Donna why the military needs a $400 ashtray...and suddenly my protests about military wastefulness seem silly. Don't worry, i'm already over it, but it's a great moment nonetheless.
-Swiss Diplomacy ***
The all-time funniest moments of playful, imperious Bartlet braggadocio? Through back channels, the Ayatollah comes to the U.S. for help, when his son needs a heart operation available only in the U.S. Complicating matters, the Ayatollah condemns the U.S. when word gets out, and the only doctor available (Bernard White - THE MATRIX RELOADED) is a reluctant persian refugee who was persecuted by Iran.
Josh has to corral Hoynes, who is (apparently) trying to lock up the nomination for the next election, only days after the last one. Toby fights to get an appointment for an outgoing congressperson (Lucinda Jenney - G.I. JANE), who lost her seat because she spearheaded a White House fossil fuel package. Plus, some Snuffin!
-Arctic Radar ****
A female pilot faces charges for disobeying an order to cease a romance with an inferior officer - an order that never would have been given to a male. Women's groups (and all the women of the White House) are up in arms, as the senior staff dances around the issue. Some prime Fitz, and some nice Amy. Sam is alarmed to find that Will won't lead his campaign, but he makes lemonade by diverting Will to the White House, where he knows Toby is getting nowhere with the inauguration speech, but averse to having anyone replace Sam. Will and Toby reject the matchmaking, until they stop being polite. It's Josh Malina's finest scene in WW history - before he's even an official regular. The Donna/Jack romance begins in earnest, as she gets Josh to talk her up. The underlying discomfort he feels is so skillfully buried, it feels like only the audience is privy to it. Some prime Bartlet comedy as U.N. diplomats try to get out of paying parking tickets.
-Holy Night ***
On paper, one of the best WEST WING episodes ever. The return of Zoey (Elizabeth Moss), with a snooty french boyfriend who taunts Charlie. The return of Adam Arkin, for a Bartlet/Keyworth scene! The return of Danny Concannon, with a Santa kiss for C.J.!! Plus...Whiffenpoofs! But it never rises above disjointed goodness, mostly because of the A plot, in which Toby is begrudgingly reunited with his estranged father (Jerry Adler - MAD ABOUT YOU, THE SOPRANOS), an ex-con. Flashbacks show the day Toby was born, in Brooklyn.
-Guns Not Butter ***
Danny pursues a lead in the Shareef murder. Josh Malina renders up the greatest goat-take in show history (its place in the pantheon of television's great goat-takes is less certain). The staff struggles (and fails) to get the votes for a foreign aid bill. They take a (symbolic) group photo with said goat.
-The Long Goodbye ***
Exquisitely acted, beautifully written. They aimed for transcendent...and fell short. The sum isn't equal to the parts, and it's hard to say exactly why. The most C.J.-heavy episode of the series, and Allison was of course up to the moment. She returns home for a school reunion and to see her Dad (Donald Moffat - THE THING, CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER), who is spiraling into Alzheimer's dementia. Matthew Modine (FULL METAL JACKET, VISION QUEST) is the third side of this tremendous thespianic triangle, as an ex-punk/jock into whose arms the lonely, miserable Claudia falls. Verna Bloom (ANIMAL HOUSE) plays the step-mom who deserted her husband. C.J. gives an interrupted reunion speech...it's all so very good that you probably won't care it's not excellent. The first (hazy) sex scene in show history.
-Inauguration ***
A fine episode that lacks sharpness. As the staff prepares for the inauguration (and the speechwriting thereof), tensions mount as genocide erupts in Africa. The high point is an hysterical scene between Will and Asst. Sec. of State for Public Affairs Bryce Lilly (Granville Van Dusen - SOAP, JUDGING AMY). Malina's strained respect is the perfect foil for Van Dusen's unctuous snobbery. Will also has a great scene with Jed. In the big picture, Malina will never quite fully leave Sam's shadow, but that's through no fault of his own. Danny returned several episodes ago, but this is the first one in which he REALLY returns, in an office scene wherein C.J. demonstrates what she would to to "have" him.
-Inauguration: Over There ***
At Will's spurring (to Toby's great displeasure), Jed is forced to admit that kundunese lives are less important to him than american. This ultimately leads to a re-write of the inauguration speech at the 11th hour, announcing a global doctrine of oppression intolerance. Will is promoted from temp to Deputy Communications Director. It's all well done, but not without a little gulp at the realization that Sam is really gone (even though he has a couple more episodes). The flirtation between Josh and Donna on the way to the ball is more brazen than any before...so bawdy that it feels like something that can't be backtracked (though they manage to for several more seasons). Plus Jill Sobule!
-The California 47th ***
The President and staff travel to Orange County to campaign for Sam. Toby and Charlie get arrested in a bar, defending Andy's honor from a man who don't like single mothers. Some well-placed Fitz, Fiderer, Snuffin, and Zoey (with aggravating french boyfriend). Will is left to work alone on a budget speech, which gets fast-tracked, requiring him to turn to the interns after the writing staff quits (on account of him). Nice banter with Cassie (Claire Coffee) and the three Laurens. Jed fires Sam's campaign manager (Matthew Glave - THE WEDDING SINGER, ROCK STAR), and installs Toby.
-Red Haven's on Fire ***
And...fare ye well, Sammy Seaborn. Rob Lowe's last appearance before departing to, um...DR. VEGAS (and the ten episodes they produced prior to cancellation). One last sweet scene with Toby, by his side as he prepares to get creamed in the election. Josh dismisses Abbey's attempts at legislative input, so she hires Amy as her chief of staff. Jed sends troops to stop the genocide in Kundu. Three american soldiers are captured; he and Leo have some touching scenes with their relatives (including Carrie Snodgrass - PALE RIDER), as they wait for news.
-Privateers ***
And the post-Seaborn era starts with a lift from...Marion Cotesworth-Hay! A dowdy new englander (Helen Slayton-Hughes) is organizing a boycott of Zoey's induction into the Daughters of the American Revolution, because Abbey's ancestor was a pirate. C.J. can't keep a straight face. Charlie refuses to stop pursuing Zoey. Amy gets liberally hazed her first day. A corporate whistle blower (the thoroughly competent Jeff Perry - WILD THINGS, NASH BRIDGES) uses his friendship with Toby to get immunity, a bit disingenuously. Is it a coincidence that Sorkin left his post as head writer only six episodes after Sam leaves? Probably. Did Sorkin only stay through season 4 to ease that transition? Probably not.
-Angel Maintenance ***
The President, C.J., Will, and Charlie get stranded on Air Force One, when a landing gear light malfunctions. Josh meets with a liberal republican congressman (Matt McCoy - THE HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE) to work on a bipartisan bill, but members of both parties cripple the bill and the congressman's career. Toby has a meeting with congressman Mark Richardson (Thom Barry, in his third and final appearance), who wants to reinstate the draft in order to balance the skin colors among military casualties. George Wyner (HILL STREET BLUES, SPACEBALLS) plays a petty congressperson. James Morrison (24) pilots Air Force One.
-Evidence of Things Unseen ***
The most poker-rich episode in show history (and that's a very good thing). Late at night, shots are fired at the White House, which goes into crash mode. Jed is on the phone with the russian president, talking about a lost spy plane. Josh is interviewing a counsel's office applicant (Matthew Perry - FRIENDS, STUDIO 60) who is mum about his republican affiliation. Keep your sidelong glances and snide sneers, Matt does an impeccable job. The position he's applying for is Ainsley's...the first time we learn that she's gone. At first, one is quite sad upon hearing this...but when you think about it, did you really want to have her live in a Seaborn-less world? Lily is a delight at the poker table. Plus a lil' Butterfield, a little Zoey...just very nice.
-Life on Mars ****
On his first day, counsel Joe Quincy uncovers a White House security leak that leads to the Vice President. A torrid scandal forces Hoynes to resign. Powerful work between Matheson, Sheen, and Spencer. Cassie and the Laurens help Will conceptualize a political ad. C.J. has some snappy repartee with Mr. Perry, and talks to Stu Winkle (the greatest unseen voice in show history...the fact that the actor's name is Sam Pancake is just an unexpected little gift from the gods). Toby buys a house for Andy, and proposes to her once more. In one of his most poignant scenes ever, she rejects him because he's too sad and angry. Like he, we thought she was just playing hard to get. Searing.
-Commencement ****
The run of non-great episodes that marked the second half of season 4, is resolutely over. As Danny prepares to go public with the truth about Shareef's assassination, intelligence loses track of a terrorist sleeper cell. After rejecting Toby's proposal, Andy's water broke. Ayre Gross (SOUL MAN, ELLEN) plays her wonderfully cheeky doctor. Donna explains Josh to Amy...making Amy realize what we all already knew. And in the most powerful payoff to seeds sown seasons ago imaginable, Zoey prepares to go to France with her amoral boyfriend. She gets a new security detail, headed by Agent Wesley (a wonderful two-episode appearance by Taye Diggs - CHICAGO, HOW STELLA GOT HER GROOVE BACK). At a nightclub graduation party, she is given ecstasy. One of her agents gets a bullet in the head, and Zoey is kidnapped. The song "Angel", by Massive Attack, provides the emotional texture for one of the most startling, disturbing sequences in show history.
-Twenty Five ****
Sorkin and Schlamme's swan song. Has there ever been a send-off more...okay, pardon the alliteration, i won't say "sensational". But the wallop of this one is breathtaking. Retaliatory strikes against the bahi are prepared, though Zoey's kidnappers remain unknown. Distracted and obsessed, Jed temporarily abdicates the Presidency. With no Vice President, the republican speaker of the house, Glenallen Walken (the redoubtable John Goodman - THE BIG LEBOWSKI, MONSTERS INC.) steps in. He's perfect. Emilio Estevez plays the young Jed in home movies. Toby meets his twin babies, and has an amazing scene with them. Harry Groener is back for a quickie as Roger Tribby. The pediatric nurse is played by Vernee Watson-Johnson, who was lovely on CARTER COUNTRY (1977-1979), a fact remembered by me and three others, all of whom actually live in Carter country. A million and three thanks, Tommy and Aaron.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

dear almeria 3

Dear Almeria,
I never imagined i'd be writing with you again. I mean, i didn't think i WOULDN'T, but...you seemed to want me to go away in no uncertain terms last year, and respecting your wishes is pretty sacred to me (even if i suspect you're not thinking clearly at the time...and who of us ever is?).
I'm not going to send you this letter, at least not now. Perhaps it was too many words that sunk us last year...how i needed to tell you EVERYTHING that was in my mind. I knew that some of those things might not endear me to you, but i wanted you to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that i would not, could not, hide anything from you. I was willing to risk losing you, just so you would understand that.
But i'm not going to send you this letter now, because the one thing i wanted more than anything last year...to be with you again, to perhaps give you a hug one more time...now suddenly seems close at hand. Your company didn't make it to the Chocolate Show this year. Was the show so very much emptier without you? Oh yes. We had never seen each other anywhere else, but those yearly meetings (and hugs) were some of the most beautiful experiences of my life. After last year's show, we engaged in an unprecedented run of letters and phone calls (until you ran away).
So i wrote you a little e-mail this week, just to tell you that you were missed, and to offer a little chocolate mail package. I half-expected you to be annoyed that i wrote, or ignore me entirely. Instead, you gently wrote that you'd like to see me.
So i'm simply saying yes. Of course! I've had enough experience with talking my way out of intimacies, by being WAY more honest and WAY less predatory than most people.
And the funny thing, of course, is that i wasn't even necessarily approaching you with a lover's intent last year. I told you that the simple act of hugging you, of holding you, lit up the spirit centers of my being like perhaps nothing ever had before. I told you that all i wanted was to be a part of your life, to hug you and comfort you in whatever way you needed. When you pressed the question of romantic intent, i told you that my feeling for you was so strong, i couldn't imagine wanting to hold ANYTHING back. But wrapped up in that, of course, was the awareness that you were a devout believer with an old-fashioned view of romance, and i'm an agnostic with a devoutly progressive view of romance.
So here's the one new and perhaps incisive question i can offer. Is part of the reason you ran away last year, because you doubted your ability to resist being romantically drawn to me?
By the way (and not to diminish our spiritual connection in ANY way), with what i've learned about biology in this intervening year, i wouldn't be surprised if i were able to impregnate you by the simple act of non-ejaculatory penetration. The chemistry between us might be that powerful.
To update my own state of mind, i'm a bit more wounded and raw than one year ago (or less able to cover up such feelings, which amounts to the same thing). Last year, i knew i had something wonderful and pure to offer. If you weren't inclined to romance, i would have been thrilled to simply become a true friend and loving constant in your life (who just maybe might be counted on to always give you the most amazing hugs you'll ever know). This year...i'm so much more in tune with my loneliness and touch-deprivation, that i'm not sure i'd be able to resist being more predatory with you...doing or saying whatever it might take, just to hold you, and hold you, and hold you...
But thanks to last year, you're no stranger to the inner workings of my spirit. If you come to me with simple words inviting togetherness, i'll return simple words of affirmation. Though my heart will probably count the beats until that happens, i'll manifest calm and contentment.
your silly and devoted fool,
wrob

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

literary airs

There are towering literary classics among us.
And rightful heirs.
Those who picked up a torch, and cast its light upon corners that were as yet undiscovered by those titans who came before (or even discovered how to use that torch more efficiently).
I offer three such pairings - books that changed the world, plus the books those authors might have written had they lived in a later decade or century. Perhaps you know the classic, but not the descendant. Perhaps you gravitate toward newer publications, and don't know the wellspring that birthed a beloved literary friend. Either way, these are six books every thinking citizen of the world should know.
THE SECOND SEX, by Simone de Beauvoir, 1949
&
THE WAR AGAINST WOMEN, by Marilyn French, 1992
Simone's deconstruction of the history of women in a patriarchal world is enormous, in every way imaginable. Breathtakingly incisive...and humblingly so, coming from a member of a gender that had been systematically dehumanized for millenia. There are other worthy successors (Susan Faludi's "Backlash", Carol Tavris' "The Mismeasure of Woman"), but French's analysis of how the patriarchy has reacted to the initial steps of women's liberation in the second half of the twentieth century, and the ways seen and unseen in which life is still a bloody ticket to hell for womankind, is spot-on. More analytical than Simone's sweeping prose, but no less important.
THE JUNGLE, by Upton Sinclair, 1906
&
FAST FOOD NATION, by Eric Schlosser, 2001
The first book, an expose on horrific conditions in the U.S. meatpacking industry, was a literary lightning strike - a novel that literally changed a nation almost overnight. Congress enacted food safety legislation, and the lot of packinghouse workers slowly improved...until all american meatpackers were gobbled up by a handful of price-fixing monopolies in the second half of the century, and conditions in the slaughterhouses descended into a level of hellishness that even outdid the old days (and largely remains so today). Schlosser's book has a wider scope than Sinclair's, as he reveals how the assembly line paradigm and profit-at-all-cost mentality have affected what a nation eats. If your compromised stomach isn't weak now, it will be when you're done reading.
WHY I AM NOT A CHRISTIAN, by Betrand Russell, 1929
&
GOD IS NOT GREAT, by Christopher Hitchens, 2007
The former (named as one of the most influential books of the twentieth century by the New York Public Library) is the product of one of the keenest analytical minds of his time. Russell takes the religious impulse apart on the conceptual/psychological level, with withering precision. In a new century, contrarian/anti-totalitarian firebrand Hitchens penned a book that focuses on the societal effects of ignoring Russell's clear thinking.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The West Wing, season 3

FOUR-STAR EPISODES: 5
AVERAGE EPISODE RATING: 3.0
-Isaac and Ishmael ***
Airing three weeks after 9/11, and a specific response to that event. The regular storylines are dropped, as Josh and Donna (with drop-ins from the rest of the cast) try to explain islamic terrorism to a group of high school contest winners, while they're all in White House lockdown because of a security alert. Leo interrogates a suspect (Ajay Naidu - OFFICE SPACE). His racist judgments, and Ajay's relative tolerance, are striking. Compelling narratives from Toby, Sam, Charlie, and Abbey, with humor provided by Jed. Josh almost "networks" one particularly bright student (Josh Zuckerman - SEX DRIVE), but instead tells him to just keep on doing what he's doing. Maybe it's just a dumb TV show...but it feels like much more. In this world, that may be as close to "truth" as anyone gets.
-Manchester **
What, we couldn't have had another terrorist attack, to put off this clunker for another couple weeks? Sorry if that was in bad taste, but you know what they say the difference between tragedy and comedy is. Anyway, nothing gels in this one. Nothing snaps. Sorkin wasn't proud of his writing...and for good reason. As the campaign for re-election gets going, three political strategists join the inner circle, led by Bruno Gianelli (the inestimable Ron Silver - REVERSAL OF FORTUNE, RHODA), who would do eighteen episodes over the rest of the run. Silver had some brilliant moments, but overall he never quite popped. His lieutenants are played by Evan Handler (STUDIO 60, CALIFORNICATION) and Connie Britton (SPIN CITY). Fine performers, but probably due to their guilt-by-association with this two-parter, they were dropped after a few episodes. Connie had some potential chemistry with Sam, but again the producers avoid that road for Mr. Seaborn. C.J. makes a huge press room gaffe, and offers her resignation. Joey Lucas and Oliver Babish and the regulars have some decent moments, but this episode never rises out of the muck it calls home.
-Ways and Means ***
C.J. convinces everyone that the prosecutor investigating the M.S. revelation (Nicholas Pryor - RISKY BUSINESS, AIRPLANE!) is too reasonable an enemy. Miguel Sandoval (JURASSIC PARK, CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER) plays a mercenary latino activist. The debut of Mark Feuerstein as the smooth, earnest republican counsel Cliff Calley, who would brighten seven episodes over four seasons. Some prime Ainsley, Oliver, Bruno...
-On the Day Before ***
The staff manages the President's first veto, trying to assure it won't be overridden. Democratic congressmen hold them hostage, until they realize they can get the votes they need from republicans for much less. Josh has a meeting with an Indiana governor (Kevin Tighe - ROAD HOUSE, MUMFORD) who might challenge Bartlet in the primary. A fantastic scene. C.J. slaps down a snarky entertainment reporter. The debut of Thomas Kopache (NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN) as Asst. Sec. of State Bob Slattery, who would do fourteen episodes over the duration of the show (and is also one of only four actors to play seven different characters on STAR TREK).
-War Crimes ***
How much o'keefe is in this episode?? Well, not miles, but Michael. The delightful Mr. O'Keefe (CADDYSHACK, THE GREAT SANTINI) has developed into a fine performer in his maturity, as he plays a reporter temporarily and begrudgingly assigned to the White House. He chooses integrity over sensationalism, and his scenes with C.J. sparkle. Leo and an old military friend (Gerald McRaney - SIMON AND SIMON, MAJOR DAD) debate a new war crimes bill, and Leo learns he himself participated in a civilian massacre. After a shooting in Texas, Jed asks Hoynes to publicly reverse his position on gun control. Donna, Josh, and Cliff meet at the fountain used in the opening credits of FRIENDS. Yes, i realize some of you would rather i'd have kept that information to myself.
-Gone Quiet ***
When contact with a nuclear sub is lost, Asst. Secretary of State (Hunh? What about Bob?) Albie Duncan (national treasure Hal Holbrook - ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN, WALL STREET), a crusty dinosaur whose scolding and pontificating make Jed hide, is called in. C.J.'s too sexy for her podium. Toby defends the N.E.A. from the philistines. He's asked what he thinks about an artist who strips, covers herself in chocolate, and and sings. He replies, "By and large, I'm not wild about musicals". The sparring between Abbey and Babish is priceless. The high point belongs to Bruno, when he talks with disgust over how the word "liberal" has been demonized...and the liberals allowed it to happen. Silver's finest WEST WING moment.
-The Indians in the Lobby ***
Finally, an episode with native americans as a theme (yes, there actually are one or two of them left). Two tribal representatives (Gary Farmer and Georgina Lightning) who have been waiting fifteen years for a judicial determination stage a lobby stand-in. A nervous C.J. has to convince them to stop. Powerful and moving. More strong work from Mr. Gianelli. Why does WW always loose its best comedic barrages on Thanksgiving? As Toby listens, Jed makes an hysterical, anonymous call to the Butterball hotline, for cooking tips. Bethersonton, Baharnd, and brilliant.
-The Women of Qumar ***
The U.S. sells weapons to Qumar, a country that brutally abuses women. The White House men hide from the women. A C.J. top-five entry. The debut of Mary-Louise Parker (FRIED GREEN TOMATOES, WEEDS) as Amy Gardner, women's issues lobbyist. In 23 episodes from now until the end of the run, she never misses a beat. A mercenary Earth goddess with a razor tongue. She and Josh have a high-powered debate on prostitution. They go on to share some of the most hysterical, resonant romantic moments in the history of the show...all while a part of you silently screams for him to get back to Donna. It's a fine line producers have to walk, when introducing a new romantic interest for a character the audience is aching to see with someone else. They have to be compelling...but only to a point. If the chemistry is too good, the larger arc is derailed. If it's too flaccid, the romance is just an obvious stalling tactic. No matter how good the performers and writing are, it's ultimately a crapshoot...and Amy couldn't have been more perfect.
-Bartlet for America ***
A flashback episode shows us how the Bartlet campaign began and how Leo fell off the wagon during the primaries, all while he's being questioned by congress. The chemistry between him and his lawyer (Joanna Gleason - CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS, HELLO LARRY) is droll and darling. Cliff Calley's finest moment, as he convinces senate majority leader Bruno (James Handy) to take a principled moral stand. Perhaps unrealistically pie-in-the-sky, but we sentimental progressives lap that stuff up.
-H. Con-172 ***
Cliff offers to end the hearings, in exchange for the President accepting congressional censure. Leo refuses to let Jed be smeared on account of his drug failings. Josh and Amy sparkle. In a wonderfully-acted scene, Bartlet wipes away all the objections, and stands up to take the blame and the censure.
-100,000 Airplanes ***
A beautiful Seaborn episode, as he's interviewed by Vanity Fair reporter (and ex-fiance) Lisa Sherbourn (Traylor Howard - MONK, TWO GUYS A GIRL AND A PIZZA PLACE). After hearing Abbey's doctor friends making dinner small talk, Jed ponders declaring that the U.S. will cure cancer within a decade. Sam's the only one who supports him. This episode crystallizes the questionable treatment of Sam's character that ultimately played a part in his departure. Despite having tantalizing initial chemistry with a number of women over the first three seasons, no Seaborn romance was ever really pursued. Perhaps too much of that would have been just as wrong...but in this episode, there are three well-explored Josh romance partners: Amy, Joey, and Donna. It just pathetically points up what they never gave Sam. Can anyone tell me why? Throwing salt in the wound, Rob and Traylor have no chemistry whatsoever. Anyway, there's beautiful Seaborn poetry in this'n.
-The Two Bartlets ***
Jed, Toby, and Leo come to grips with Bartlet's two public faces. Josh redeems a failed vacation with Amy. The wonderful Sam Lloyd (SCRUBS) returns as conspiracy theorist Bob Engler, to set Sam spinning again, this time about a gold-less Fort Knox. One of the most gut-punching scenes (of the entire series) has Toby asking the President whether his father beat him. It's ever-so-slightly contrived, as both the process Toby went through to figure this out, and the likelihood that he would be so blunt with the President, both rest on ground that's a bit shaky. But that's a quibble you only make well after the fact. The scene is transfixing.
-Night Five ****
The transcendent Adam Arkin returns as trauma specialist Stanley Keyworth, thinking he's been called to counsel Josh again. A series of subterfuges plop him into the presidential library, where he's left alone with...a president! One who hasn't slept in five nights, since Toby questioned him about his father. Could we have an entire season of episodes devoted solely to sessions between Stanley and Bartlet? As the two of them get into father issues, and the size of the ever-growing image Jed's been trying to live up to...it's just brilliant. You get the feeling that Sorkin probably had as much fun writing it as the most appreciative fan did watching. As if all that weren't enough, there's a subplot that almost upstages the Emmy-worthy main plot, in which Sam compliments Ainsley on her sexiness, only to be accused of impropriety by an indignant temp (Alanna Ubach - HUNG, POUND PUPPIES). Also, Toby makes a compelling, even scorching, argument for global american interventionism.
-Hartsfield's Landing ***
Josh has Donna on the phone for hours in the cold, trying to influence two voters in a crucial primary. While China and Taiwan are in a tense standoff, Jed alternates between chess games with Sam and Toby, while preserving the safety of the planet. He and Toby talk about their two-Bartlets argument, while he and Sam talk about what it takes to broker world peace. Wonderful stuff on both sides. Jed tells Sam not to be afraid that he's going to run for President one day. Playing the Chinese ambassador is James Hong (BLADE RUNNER), whose 372-credit IMDB page is a gobsmacker.
-Dead Irish Writers ****
Hear ye, hear ye, his boozy, randy lordship is back in town! Marbury (Roger Rees) returns, to ogle Abbey's breasts and protest the White House's meeting with an IRA leader. He and Toby have a brilliant conversation in a smoke-filled bar. Sam has an equally blow-out plot line as Hector Elizondo (AMERICAN GIGOLO, CHICAGO HOPE) drops in as his old physics professor, to counsel him on why funding for a supercollider shouldn't be cut off. Depressed during her birthday celebration, Abbey takes C.J., Amy, and Donna upstairs to get boozy. The talk gets lubricated and loose, and Donna tells Abbey to just admit that she lied and broke laws. Abbey mispronounces the name of King Baudouin, which only super-geek fans of QUIZ SHOW (or, um, Belgium) would know.
-The U.S. Poet Laureate ***
Poet Tabitha Fortis (Laura Dern - BLUE VELVET, JURASSIC PARK) threatens to boycott a dinner in her honor, unless the U.S. signs an international anti-landmine treaty. Toby appropriates the task of handling her. Sweet and poignant. Beth Littleford (who did the funniest movie reviews ever, on THE DAILY SHOW with Frank DeCaro) plays a news anchor. Josh arrogantly engages in a conversation on a website (lemonlyman.com) devoted to his foibles. Bartlet makes an on-air gaffe (or was it?), calling the presumptive republican candidate dumb.
-Stirred ***
The writers display deftness by not having two working class African-Americans who unexpectedly provide Charlie a moment of consolation, tell him they "know who he is", though they must have. Donna asks Josh for a presidential proclamation honoring her favorite teacher. In a Seaborn meeting with Hoynes, it's revealed that the President doesn't know John is an alcoholic, something that astounds the V.P. John tells Jed and his staff. All the while, the staff has been pondering the electoral math, and replacing Hoynes on the ticket. Wonderful work by Mr. Matheson. Look for Randy Oglesby, another of the only four actors to play seven different characters on STAR TREK.
-Enemies Foreign and Domestic ***
The unassuming start of the most awesome four-episode run in the history of the show. A new russian President, caught between ideals and conservative hardliners, communicates a major initiative through a protocol meeting between his aides and Sam. One of the negotiators is played by irresistible heavy Ian McShane (DEADWOOD, SEXY BEAST). Leo and Jed fret over a recall disaster that befalls a major computer company. They give its CEO (the uber-wonderful Peter Scolari - BOSOM BUDDIES, NEWHART) an unorthodox bailout. Then, in the final minutes, the quiet jolt of adrenaline arrives, in the form of secret service agent Simon Donovan (Mark Harmon - SUMMER SCHOOL, CHICAGO HOPE, NCIS), who is assigned to protect C.J. after she receives death threats. They have an instant, electric Lucy/Desi chemistry.
-The Black Vera Wang ****
C.J. and Simon continue to spark. They go on a shopping trip with C.J.'s niece (Evan Rachel Wood - ACROSS THE UNIVERSE, THE UPSIDE OF ANGER), to get a (junior) prom dress. In a distinguished career, Harmon has never been at the center of more celluloid magic than this moment. A disturbing anti-Bartlet attack ad is anonymously delivered to the White House. Against Bruno's urging, Sam delivers it into the hands of the opposition, a plan which blows up in his face. Fitz and the chiefs inform Jed that a failed attack on the Golden Gate Bridge was carried out by a Mideast ally, Qumari defense minister Abdul Shareef.
-We Killed Yamamoto ****
Shareef is visiting the U.S., but cannot be arrested because of diplomatic immunity. The heart of this episode is a Sit Room scene between Leo and Fitz, in which Fitz argues that the U.S. cannot let Shareef get away. The argument ranges far and wide, about geopolitical issues, the definition of war, and the meaning of modern terrorism. John Amos' most incendiary moment in show history (and perhaps his career, excepting of course BEASTMASTER). Plans are made to assassinate Shareef on an airstrip in Bermuda. In the middle of intoxicating bliss, the Josh/Amy romance begins to disintegrate as their job agendas collide. The simmer between Simon and C.J. continues off the meter, as she exercises in the Secret Service gym and makes a marksmanship wager with him.
-Posse Comitatus ****
This one punches you in the gut, makes you cry, lifts you up, and steals your lunch money. The presidential motorcade heads to Broadway to see a five-hour play about all the Henrys and Richards (with music). The show coincides with Shareef's planned assassination. Probably the most ambitious episode of television ever filmed, but it's so seamless you won't even realize it. Almost lost in the shuffle (along with a drop-in by Adam Arkin!) is the debut of Lily Tomlin (LAUGH-IN, NINE TO FIVE) as Jed's new personal secretary, Debbie Fiderer. Over 34 episodes, she never quite reached the Landingham level of juice, but went her own hysterical four-star way nonetheless. The republican presidential challenger (James Brolin - WESTWORLD, TRAFFIC) meets Jed during intermission. They have a fantastic bathroom scene. C.J.'s stalker is caught. She and Simon kiss. With the epic pageantry of Shakespeare in the background, Shareef is killed...and a few moments later, Simon as well, as he accidentally interrupts a bodega robbery to buy a rose. C.J.'s reaction is stunningly underscored by Jeff Buckley's "Hallelujah". It's at this point that we can start talking about WEST WING as the greatest show ever.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

dear sidney

(note: only devotees of M*A*S*H will understand the title of this post)

Dear Sidney,
An interesting week here in the land-of-barbarians-who-think-they're-not. The most interesting psychological occurrence was the re-appearance of my last lover, in my inbox. We haven't seen each other for the better part of a year. We parted on rocky terms, and it took me a fair while to get over the pain and heaviness that knowing her brought. In moments of harsh loneliness over the past months, i'll sometimes dream of being her lover again. There was always the sense that her issues exploded us before they should have...that we never got the chance to really explore being lovers, or at least give her the chance to accrue some of the psychological benefits that loving me would have opened to her.
And now, she's opened the door to having a "booty call" relationship with me. She says she realizes we (she?) let way too many words get in our way the first time. She says she's gone through changes which have made her less emotionally turbulent.
Am i tempted? Sure. Especially in the moments when i'm alone in the dark with my turgid penis. But the closer i get to making this a reality (our one phone call this week, or discussing plans to meet), i can feel all the fear and painful memories rise up. I remember the emotional tear i felt with her almost from the start, the feeling of not being entirely present when we were most intimate. The further i get in life, the more terrible it is to feel that...or maybe it's just that i feel things more than i used to. Anyway, it's a long time since i felt 100% present with a lover. That might be the thing i'm most afraid of, with this.
The first time she and i were together, i knew i had something good to offer her. Something real. Truthful. Now...i know that purity is gone, and i have my doubts that it could return. It feels like i only have carnality and darkness to offer her. On the eve of the first night we talked about getting together this past week, i had positively dark impulses. Reckless, uncaring. Remembering how my investigation into the sex trade had bothered her, i actually pondered doing one of my non-sexual, physically-intimate investigations with a prostitute that SAME night, right before meeting her. Not that i would tell her where i'd been...but not being one to hide any part of myself, i suppose i knew that if she pursued certain lines of inquiry, she might one day find out i'd been in the arms of a prostitute just hours (or less) before having sex with her.
Not surprisingly to anyone who knows me, i ended up being intimate with neither her nor a prostitute that night. But still...
Has loneliness and sex/touch-deprivation driven me so far that i would risk exposing another human to destructiveness, or exposing myself to the ulcerous state that came of knowing her the first time...just to indulge in humanity's most primal need?
Not that i'm averse to resurrecting the friendship we shared, but...a part of me feels like i wouldn't be able to offer her much more than carnality, at least now.
Strangely, she seems to almost understand that, even though we haven't spoken about it in any depth.
I know you don't like talking about yourself in our little discussions, Sidney. So i'll accept what you can give me, and cherish it.
devotedly,
wrob
P.S. I've been trying to start a house poker game here, and we always end up one player short. Just in case you, y'know, know anyone...
P.P.S. The moment of truth came and went Sidney, and no booty call came with it. Perhaps my greatest fear wasn't that hollow feeling, but the thought of being destructive with someone. If everything else in my world falls apart, that might be the thing i hold on to with my dying breath.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The West Wing, season 2

FOUR-STAR EPISODES: 7
AVERAGE EPISODE RATING: 3.2
-In the Shadow of Two Gunmen ***
Your table is waiting with the series regulars, Ms. Moloney. You mark the occasion by giving the most beautiful, touching performance of your seven seasons, in the hospital as you find out the President's bullet wound is minor, but Josh's is critical. Charlie learns the shooting was racially motivated, and that he was the target. A fantastic limo scene with Ron Butterfield and Jed, before the President's wound is discovered. The debut of Anna Deveare Smith (THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT) as acerbic civilian defense consultant Nancy McNally. A little Jane Lynch (BEST IN SHOW, GLEE) in the briefing room. Josh's life hangs by a thread. Who was in charge while Bartlet was anesthetized? Flashbacks show how the Bartlet campaign came together (an airport scene between Jed and Josh on the night his father died, is the most poignant...C.J.'s last day as a Hollywood publicist, the most comedic).
-The Midterms ****
The White House staff deals with the psychological effects of the assassination attempt. Toby goes on a First-amendment bashing crusade against the racial hate groups who triggered the attack. Bartlet goes ballistic when an old foe becomes front-runner in a school board election...then mercilessly skewers a fundamentalist talk show host (Claire Yarlett). Charlie gets the most poignant scene, in an after-hours moment with a wayward child and his computer technician father (Alfonso Freeman), who tells him that if people are shooting at you, you're doing something right.
-In This White House ***
Ainsley! The debut of one of the show's most beloved characters. Emily Proctor would do twelve episodes as the spunky, conservative White House lawyer. How can a character this great be born of an episode this ham-handed?? Caricaturish republicans spouting amateurish dialogue...a plot line with Ainsley and C.J. that is embarrassingly contrived...here but for the grace of a story thread featuring Zakes Mokae (A DRY WHITE SEASON) as the leader of an AIDS-ravaged African country, would be the first sub-good episode in show history. After Josh and Toby figure out a way to get HIV medications to Africa more cheaply, President Nimbala learns that he has been ousted in a coup. He returns home, and is shot getting off the plane. Ted McGinley (HAPPY DAYS, MARRIED WITH CHILDREN, REVENGE OF THE NERDS) plays the suave, genial host of "Capitol Beat", on which Ainsley skewers Sam.
-And It's Surely to Their Credit ****
The Gilbert & Sullivan episode. Ainsley's second episode is startlingly sharp, compared to her debut. Two junior staffers greet her enthusiastic efficiency with disdain and outright harassment. Irrepressible White House Counsel Lionel Tribby (John Laroquette, in the first of two wonderfully outsized episodes) goes ballistic when told of her hiring, but is firing her tormentors by the end. Bartlet gets medical clearance to have sex again...but carelessly dismisses the life of Nellie Bly in the presence of the First Lady, putting the kaibosh on his hopes. Brandishing a cricket bat, Tribby interrupts an Oval radio address. At the end, the senior staff throw a Pinafore party for Ainsley, in her steam pipe trunk distribution office.
-The Lame Duck Congress ***
The staff mulls calling a lame duck session, to get a nuclear test ban treaty passed. The plan is scuttled when an ousted democratic senator (Mike Starr - GOODFELLAS, RADIO DAYS) decides to follow the wishes of his constituency, and not his conscience. A drunken ukrainian politician arrives at the White House, demanding to meet with the President. The C.J./Danny romance (what little we got to see of it) fades with a whimper.
-The Portland Trip ****
Jed makes C.J. wear a Notre Dame cap and lead the press in their fight song, on a cross-country Air Force One trip. Sam tries to make an education speech more uplifting, prompting debate on how to make the reality worthy of the rhetoric. Josh has a meeting with a gay congressman who supports an anti-gay marriage bill. It's a fantastic interchange, and the big payoff for actor Charley Lang, after two minor appearances. Josh makes Donna abbreviate a date. She wears a red dress, in her most stunningly beautiful costuming of the series. He delivers a line to her that i wish i could carry with me on a mini-soundboard to play for many women: "Actually, you have no sense about these things. You have no vibe, you have terrible taste in men, and your desire to be coupled up will always and forever drown out any small sense of self or self-worth that you may have." Throw in some prime Ainsley and Danny...
-Shibboleth ***
The most embarrassingly-written moment in show history...a moment so masturbatory, a barf bag should come with the season 2 dvd extras. Religious refugees from China are given a test of faith by Bartlet, and the way they pass is so contrived...well, to make an in-reference, even high school girls don't write this badly. A damn shame too, because the episode also features a run of dialogue that is perhaps the most multi-scene, non-stop funny in the history of the show, as C.J. tries to get the president to pardon a turkey (hm, make your own parallels...). Sorkin's worst beside his best. Jed has Charlie running around in the search for the "perfect" carving knife...then, in one of the show's most poignant scenes, reveals the reason: he's giving his family knife (a present from Paul Revere) to Charlie.
-Galileo ***
Another drop-in from Mallory, with the interplay between she and Sam as irresistible as ever. An ominous fire rages in a russian missile silo, but their government maintains that it's an oil refinery. Charlie gets in trouble for saying the President doesn't like string beans. Jed is set up for a live interview as the unmanned Galileo V prepares to land on Mars...then telemetry is lost. Jed and Sam and C.J. wax idealistically poetic, and have some sweetly beautiful moments. At the Kennedy Center, they hear a modern classical performance by the Reykjavik Symphony Orchestra. Bartlet presumptively pooh-poohs it, but is immensely moved.
-Noel ****
The most perfect instance of episodic television ever? A few entries from M*A*S*H and STAR TREK would be in that discussion, and of course LUCY's chocolate episode...but this one is beyond exquisite, and certainly no episode of any show equaled its all-around dramatic/comedic brilliance. If you think back on WEST WING's funniest moments and most breathtakingly dramatic moments, you may not even realize that two of them occurred side by side: Josh's face-off with trauma therapist Stanley Keyworth (Adam Arkin - CHICAGO HOPE), and C.J.'s jousting with White House protocol officer Bernard Thatch (Paxton Whitehead). Paxton's snobbery is off-the-charts delicious, and the interplay between Arkin and Whitford is everything drama aspires to be, as Josh is forced to face the post-traumatic stress disorder that followed his being shot. Rarely do episodes devote so much time to one storyline, yet never has one been more deserving. Throw in some equally exquisite Yo-Yo Ma, and a perfectly-played dose of distraction from Stanley's assistant (Purva Bedi). A Holocaust survivor (Etyl Leder) reunited with a painting that was stolen from her family, and Leo's friendship epilogue with Josh, are also pitch-perfect.
-The Leadership Breakfast ***
The first and only guest appearance on WEST WING by a star of Sorkin's previous show, SPORTS NIGHT (Josh Malina would be a regular, while Timothy Davis-Reed and Jeff Mooring played recurring support characters). In what can be no surprise to anyone, Felicity Huffman (MAGNOLIA, TRANSAMERICA) nails it, as a republican chief of staff who gets the best of Toby. Sam misidentifies Kyrgyzstan, and Donna loses her underwear. Throw in a little Corbin Bernsen (MAJOR LEAGUE, L.A. LAW) for good measure.
-The Drop In ***
Marbury!! Roger Rees drops in, to become Britain's ambassador to the U.S. His dialogue is as snappy (and snappily-delivered) as always, as the Sorkin comedic touch is in fine fettle. Leo tries to get Jed to support an expensive missile shield that doesn't work. C.J. has to ask a favor of a comedian (Rocky Carroll - CHICAGO HOPE, ROC, NCIS) the administration shafted. The second and final appearance of David Graf (POLICE ACADEMY 1-7) as Colonel Chase.
-Bartlet's Third State of the Union ***
Post-address, C.J. deals with a last-minute, hero-cop guest (Richard Riehle, THE FUGITIVE) who has an undiscovered charge of racism on his record. Ainsley goes into a tizzy at the prospect of meeting the President. Is she blaming it on the Bossa Nova? Tony Plana (AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN, UGLY BETTY), in the first of two appearances as consultant Micky Troop, advises Leo and Jed on a hostage situation. Jed and Abbey build to a beautifully-constructed argument about his decision to seek a second term, reneging on an agreement they'd made.
-The War at Home ***
Leo gives one of the most compelling, concise breakdowns of the lunacy of the war on drugs you'll ever hear. The Abbey/Jed argument comes to a powerful head. Is Ainsley peeing in the closet?
-Ellie ***
Mary Kay! The talented and delightful Ms. Place (THE BIG CHILL, CAPTAIN RON, BIG LOVE) drops in as Surgeon General Millicent Griffith, who has the audacity to answer a radio question about marijuana honestly, causing a political uproar which get compounded when Bartlet's middle daughter, Ellie (Nina Siezmasko - WILD ORCHID II) tells a reporter her dad would never fire Milly. She is summoned to the White House, and we learn that she feels her father never loved her as much as her sisters.
-Somebody's Going to Emergency, Somebody's Going to Jail ****
On "Big Block of Cheese" Day, Sam gets convinced to pursue a pardon for an accused, deceased spy from the 50s, whose granddaughter (Jolie Jenkins) is a friend of Donna's. He gets emotionally involved, and in his only Situation Room appearance, Nancy coldly sets him straight. Toby shares some lovely spark with an officer (Roma Maffia - NIP/TUCK) assigned to protect him as he talks to ineffectual, misguided protestors. The debut of the understatedly spot-on Clark Gregg (THE NEW ADVENTURES OF OLD CHRISTINE, THE AVENGERS) as Special Agent Michael Casper. The show has the season-2 success money for Don Henley's "New York Minute", and the song's atmospheric darkness lends great poignancy. And ringing the bells most loudly, is C.J.'s meeting with the Association of Cartographers Against Social Inequality. She learns that current maps have been teaching a false, racist view of the world for centuries. The lead cartographer is wonderfully played by John Billingsley (ENTERPRISE). Somebody get me a Peters projection, please.
-The Stackhouse Filibuster ***
A plucky, can-do barrel of smart fun. George Coe (KRAMER VS. KRAMER, MAX HEADROOM, and a founding cast member of SNL...for three episodes) gives a crusty, seamless performance as an aging, non-influential senator who unexpectedly filibusters a can't-miss health care bill. Donna finally figures out why. A young intern (Cara DeLizia) takes Sam to task for sweepingly cutting costly government reports. Hoynes starts making moves that only a man with his eye on the Presidency would make, triggering Toby's suspicion. C.J. breaks an ancient cat statue.
-17 People ***
Richard Schiff's finest episode? Toby obsesses over Hoynes' behavior, and he realizes that John believes Jed won't run for a second term. Leo and Jed are forced to tell him about the M.S., and he reacts with no small outrage. Josh and Donna bicker over how long she's worked for him, finally having a nakedly unveiled moment where they almost reveal how much they care for each other. The only episode in show history with just one guest star...how perfect is it that it's Ainsley? She and Sam get into a hissy kerfuffle over the E.R.A. In a nod to how even-handed the writing is, you might be convinced by her anti-E.R.A. stance.
-Bad Moon Rising ****
It's hard to overstate how much Snuffy Walden's music enhanced and defined this show. In this dark episode, the music subtly invokes the "New York Minute" motif from three shows prior. Jed and Leo begin the process of going public with the M.S., by meeting with White House Counsel Oliver Babish (the unrelentingly stellar Oliver Platt - THE IMPOSTERS, THE ICE HARVEST). Platt replaces John Laroquette. On the one hand, this feels wrong, as John was delightful. But there's no denying that Oliver rises to the decidedly-darker nuances in his eight-episode arc, nailing them more perfectly than anyone you could imagine. Jacqueline Kim (STAR TREK: GENERATIONS) shares some lovely, too-brief chemistry with Sam. In one of the most touching scenes between two wonderful performers, Jed admonishes Charlie to never, ever lie about what he knows.
-The Fall's Gonna Kill Ya ***
Oliver interviews C.J. and Abbey, as they both try to come to grips with what's happening. He's never in his life found anything charming. Joey Lucas drops in, plus a 'lil Rosalind Chao (THE JOY LUCK CLUB, STAR TREK TNG & DS9).
-18th and Potomac ***
Staff tensions flare, as the press conference announcing Bartlet's M.S. approaches, with no word on whether he'll seek re-election. Then a car crash brings the death of the wonderful Mrs. Landingham (Kathryn Joosten), Jed's personal secretary of the past few decades. I'm sure that in the history of television, no minor character death ever felt so major. Kathryn only had a few lines per episode, if that, but she was always...perfect. On the one hand, you're mad at the creators, for killing her needlessly, and yet...it's hard to argue with how the impact of this brilliantly-unforeshadowed death on the overall arc of the series was probably perfect. The end of the episode, when Charlie reveals the news, is searing. The final image, showing Jed reacting through figured glass panes, is throat-lumpingly rendered.
-Two Cathedrals ****
When you've spent a lot of money for a well-known song, it makes sense to use it liberally throughout an episode, like they did with "New York Minute". In this brilliant, searing season finale, they hold off using Dire Straits' "Brothers in Arms" until close to the end...and the episode is all the more brilliant for it. Will Jed end his career at one term? How deeply has Dolores' death affected him? The stresses of the present send him back in time in his mind, to when they met while he was a student. The pressures from his father are revealed, and his brilliance and naivete are perfectly rendered by actor Jason Widener. When i first saw the episode, i thought they missed the boat by not casting Emilio Estevez, but that probably would have felt too obvious. Kirsten Nelson (PSYCH) is also perfect as the young Dolores, and series producer Lawrence O'Donnell's acting debut as the abusive senior Bartlet is seamless. In a dark and stormy episode, Kathryn returns to have a conversation with Jed, inside his mind. All of that is brilliant, yet pales in comparison to the scene inside the National Cathedral after the funeral, when Jed has the building sealed off, to talk to god. He denounces the Almighty (in untranslated Latin, naturally). Sheen's most searing moment in show history.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

obramney

I avoided writing this article before the election...though i might have given in to temptation yesterday, had my internet not gone out (lingering hurricane aftereffects). I didn't want to write this before, because i felt like i had drunk the Obama kool-aid, and didn't want to base an article simply on my own desires or agenda...particularly with something as nebulous as national politics.
But i gotta say, that Romney fella genuinely scared me. I found myself torn over my country's response to him. On the one hand, i was proud that we had advanced so far on the path of pluralism, that a whole lot of middle America actually embraced a mormon candidate. On the other hand, there was a part of me that desperately wanted a much larger part of the conversation to be along the lines of "A mormon? In our highest office, a MORMON???" This had little to do with my feelings on religion, but rather that it felt like progressives were being hoisted by our own petard. That people like me who had so long preached acceptance and tolerance, had succeeded perhaps too well.
Ironically, there is a touch of intolerance in my own sentiments here...but a touch that might be justified. All religious texts have embarrassing, regressive tenets, but mormonism might outdo 'em all. And i'm not even talking about the magic underwear - i don't know of any other religion so fundamentally based on racism and sexism. The fact that mormon scriptures aren't ancient makes them perhaps even more dangerous, as devotees might take a more literal view of words written by a founder whose very existence isn't a bit lost in the shrouds of time. Governor Romney was once a high-ranking official of a church with a modern history of violent, bloody intolerance...and a lot of people chose to not be bothered by that, either through ignorance or misplaced idealism.
All that aside...is there anyone who thought we'd see a mormon major-party presidential candidate before a jew or a non-believer? I am at once proud of, and horrified by, my fellow americans.
If i tell you that i was puzzled by those who thought Obama hadn't earned a second term...is that just my hippie, progressive, one-world idealism? Facts can be slippery in this kind of debate, but is it not basically true that his first term brought the following:
-The end of an ill-advised war (like there's any other kind)
-The saving of the american automotive industry
-The death of the world's #1 terrorist
-The implementation of socialized medicine, an idea so "radical" that every other industrial nation in the world embraced it long ago
-The first President in history to support gay marriage (this is one of those things that seems progressive, but isn't - specifically, it's progressive in the little picture, but not the big one)
The only major black mark against him is debt and deficit levels that are usually only seen at the end of republican administrations. But how fair is it to lay that at his feet? When he came into office, the american economy was in its second-worst crisis EVER. Pundits and prognosticators saw only worsening gloom. Four years later...whatever else has happened, do you hear people making allusions to the Great Depression anymore?
As an alternative to all that, we were offered a predatory Wall Street plutocrat? You remember them, the ones who led us INTO this economic disaster?
For most progressives, nothing may ever match the elation of Obama's first election (except of course for that day in 2024 when we inaugurate our first agnostic, bisexual, asian-american, female President). Yet in many ways, this second term was the real prize all along. A progressive person of conscience and integrity with his last election behind him. Four years during which he doesn't have to play it safe. Four years in which he doesn't have to court anyone.
Apropos of nothing, what is it with me and swing states? I spent my childhood in Ohio, my youth in Pennsylvania, and my early adulthood in Florida.
Anyway...the dust has settled, and i cast my vote for the first winning President of my life (given my record, i was almost tempted to go the other way). I missed the last election when i was called out of state to help my mom. Before that, there was a little Nader, and a whole lot of Perot.
For a jaded cynic, it feels kind of nice.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

"It's Garry Shandling's Show."

1986-1990
A singular slice of TV history. A cable show before cable shows hit the big time. Eye-poppingly irreverent and revolutionary - against the backdrop of a regular sitcom, Garry would break the fourth wall to talk right to the audience. They turned conventions on their ears, and milked the silly for all it was worth. In hindsight, it plays like a junior varsity warm-up for the volcano of brilliance that was THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW...but it's more than worth a spin.
GREATEST EPISODES (season)
-Live Election Show (3)
It wasn't until the third season that they finally mastered the light, loose energy that makes the show fly. Garry covers the Dukakis/Bush election returns. He brings in Don Cornelius of SOUL TRAIN as his in-studio (er, in-home) correspondent. Who wouldn't?
-Save Mr. Peck's (3)
A cornucopia of all-time comedy greats would probably elevate this onto any "SHANDLING'S Best" list all by themselves...but they're woven into a ferociously fun frolic. Mr. Peck's, the "legendary" club where Garry and every other comedy luminary of the past four decades got their start, is about to be turned into a strip mall. Garry launches a benefit to save the day. He has to chloroform the headlining act, Red Buttons, to get him to come, and the cheeky wonderfulness in this three-parter never lets up. Danny Dayton, who made a career out of unforgettable guest spots (plus a recurring role on ALL IN THE FAMILY) is Mr. Peck. Rob Reiner, Steve Allen, Chevy Chase, Martin Mull, Carl Reiner, Father Guido Sarducci, Dabney Coleman, Paula Poundstone, Tony Orlando and Dawn, and Charlie Callas are all on hand to spoof (or just be) themselves. The most memorable turn of all is given by Michael Davis(?), who does a juggling routine with ping pong and bowling balls that is not to be believed. And ah, those lost days when date rape jokes were funny.
-Garry Goes Golfing (3)
Not the sharpest effort, but not far off, with perhaps the most iconic moment of the show, when Garry hits the charity orphan poster boy in the head with a golf shot. Guest Martin Mull hits all the right notes, too.
-The Wedding Show (4)
When the hall burns down, Garry and Pheobe's wedding gets moved to on-air (whether they like it or not). Too many guest stars (Charles Nelson Reilly, Bert Convy, Connie Stevens, Ned Beatty) hit the right notes for this'n to be denied.
-The Talent Show (4)
Garry is off doing the hot tub comedy circuit, so the cast puts on a talent show...which gets sabotaged by the Phantom of the Studio (Mark Blankfield - ROBIN HOOD: MEN IN TIGHTS, JEKYLL AND HYDE...TOGETHER AGAIN), who kidnaps Phoebe (Jessica Harper) and forces her to do an hysterical ballad version of "Y.M.C.A". Nancy (Molly Cheek) does a torch number that will make you rue the fact that she remained ever the "platonic friend". It falls just shy of transcendence by not having an end-of-show hot tub appearance by one of the Golden Girls.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

"The Body Project"

(An Intimate History of American Girls)
-by Joan Jacobs Brumberg
1997
This is the kind of book that reviewers (this one, anyway) loathe...because it's so seamless and on-point, anything i might add seems superfluous (we reviewers like to feel that we're needed, not just for our message, but for our literary panache). Brumberg examines the history of women's relationship to themselves as human beings and sexual beings, specifically focusing on the change that has taken place over the past 100 years. Her well-made point is that much has been gained, and much lost. A century ago, women's bodies were ruthlessly protected and controlled by society and family. A young woman's sexuality was an asset which did not belong to her. The medical profession (and the grand hymen obsession) abetted all this. On the plus side, her character was perceived as her greatest asset. A century later, young women have been given virtually complete ownership of their bodies. The stigma once associated with promiscuity has been largely transferred to virginity. Several still-existing repressive elements of our society make these dangerous times, however - we don't yet provide an atmosphere where a young woman (or man) can explore their sexuality with full encouragement and safety. Furtive, ill-informed sex needlessly exposes young women to pregnancy, STDs, and exploitation. And the control of women's bodies has shifted from exterior to interior - young women are taught that their worth is inextricably tied to their physical beauty. Generations of women are exploring unimagined freedoms, but are prisoners to the images of feminine beauty (many of which are unnatural) constantly thrust in their faces. Anorexia Nervosa is just the visible face of all these changes. Brumberg compellingly examines the social forces that have spurred all these changes. Slide this book quickly onto your "Ten Books Every Thinking Person Must Read" list.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

stormswept in yonkers

I've been absent from this site the past week, because Hurricane Sandy knocked out my internet connection for most of that time.
I live in Yonkers, NY, just north of the Big Apple. Our area was hit much less severely than many. The only building damage was due to falling trees. In my own house, we lost power. For about fifteen seconds. We never lost water, and as for internet/cable...well, since just this month i wrote an article about how occasionally disconnecting from modern media would be incredibly healthy for the average human, i can't very well complain when that very thing happens accidentally.
I was actually looking forward to the storm. Of course i didn't want anyone to suffer, but...one of the most beautiful experiences of my life occurred inside a small hurricane that did no appreciable damage to anyone's life, limb, or lodging. But when it finally came, Sandy for me was a bit of a letdown. There was talk of a thirty-six hour deluge. It was my intent to go out in the worst of it, if i could. I've only ever experienced 60mph winds once before, on top of Mt. Washington...an experience that was also one of the most beautiful of my life. When the storm finally hit, i figured i'd give it a few hours to build to its pitch. But the winds i was waiting for never came, at least to my ear. Seeing the damage in the following days, i may have underestimated the sounds. Not that it wasn't a bit frightening - i live in a 140 year-old wooden building, and it was disconcerting to feel it sway. I fantasized about its collapsing...what i would do to save my most important stuff, and the heroics that might be required of me to help others...
But after just a few hours, i realized the moment had passed, and that the storm was dying. I thought i still had a chance, as i assumed from all the media alerts that we were in the eye now, and more of the worst was on the way. But no. A new day dawned, and the storm was no more.
I hadn't bought into all the media crisis anticipation, because i know their responsibility is to deal with worst-case scenarios, and it's not often that a weather event lives up to the alarmist hype. I bought an extra little box of granola bars, that's about it. Of course, i knew i had the protection of living in an enormous house with people who were not nearly so unconcerned. My landlady bought ten-gallon bins for every bathroom, so we would have water for flushing. And the food/water supplies...let's not even talk about grocery stores' profit margins in times like these.
In the days following the storm though, the evidence of the storm's ferocity was undeniable. Our neighbor's house (the same one that had the knifing i wrote about) had a falling tree enter their kitchen. I saw one exposed root system that had to be fifteen feet across. Another tree collapsed onto a three-story house, bending the edge of the roof...yet through some fluke of physics, didn't crush the room underneath. One imagines a person having been in that room, missing death by the slimmest vagary of chance. One imagines them as they suddenly hear one of the loudest, closest noises of their life, then looking dumbfounded out an unbroken window at the ten-ton tree that's leaning against the house.
Out on Broadway, several cars were CRUSHED. Just completely crushed. Something to think about the next time you pick a parking spot.
I finally drove into Manhattan a few days ago, and it's a little awesome...police directing traffic at every unlit light...a hospital working on emergency power...
I have at least one friend on the Jersey shore who lost his home entirely.
It's a shame that only in times of disaster, do modern humans become a little more...human. A little less self-important. A little less cruel.
That's all i gots to say.