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.