Saturday, September 01, 2018


I have let things slip here at the Listening Ear, posting every month and a half or so, at least when I don't have another project to work on. I hope I can get some energy back - the Great War was approaching it's end 100 years ago, and I should take some note of it. Maybe by the end of September, when we can honor the Meuse-Argonne Offensive , the largest operation by Americans in the war. I've also completely ignored the events of Reconsruction, which were heating up inthe 1867-68 period, up tp the impeachment of Andrew Johnson. Another subject I regret letting go of.

But that's not what this post is about (and besides,with some luck, next year we can talk about impeachment in the present tense!) This weekend, Aretha Franklin and John McCain are being laid to rest, with great fanfare. It is a very clear sign of the decline of this blog that I managed to get up a post for John McCain's death, but not Franklin's. McCain mattered - he was a very famous, powerful, and fairly significant politician, he was a representative of a somewhat more palatable form of Republicanism, a vision of the United States government as a place where competing views are put to the vote, and the winners get to govern, and everyone accepts the outcome - good things. But in the end, he was still just a politician, and while very famous, not particularly consequential (for good or ill).

Aretha Franklin, on the other hand, is one of the central figures in American culture in the last 50 years - she matters in ways politicians can't dream of. Even if soul/R&B music is not what I listen to the most, you can't escape it, and it is one of the great, powerful musical styles in the world - why would you try to escape it? It is as absolutely American a thing as exists: what is American culture? Aretha Franklin answers that as well as anyone.

So: I will keep it simple - the songs I have heard the most, the ones that made her what she is, the ones I will stop what I am doing to try to listen to when I hear them.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

John McCain, RIP

I have been away a long long time, but I will drop by once more to mark the passing of John McCain. He was overrated,as a person and a politician, but that is as much a feature of the modern Republican party as it is of himself. He was a conservative, and a war monger, but straightforward about it, and he respected the system, respected his opponents (most of the time - he wasn't above a cheap shot now and then), they usually ended up respecting him. If he was what the Republican party was, in this benighted age, the party, and the country, would be far far better for it. I could live with John McCain as president, even if I didn't like it.

That makes him a bit like George HW Bush. If Bush had won his nomination in 1980, if McCain had won in 2000, they would very likely have been elected president - they would have headed off 2 of the worst presidencies of the modern era; they would have run their policies out and won or lost on what happened next. McCain in the white house in 2001 might have cared more about stopping Bin Laden before he struck inside the United States. Who can say. Then, of course, both Bush and McCain did win the nomination 8 years later - Bush had traded every ounce of integrity by then, and ran a disgusting, racist campaign; McCain - well, he was dead in the water day one, last man standing in his party with the world collapsing all around them - he wasn't going to win, but he picked Sarah Palin as VP and helped legitimize the know nothing Republicans, the racists, fascists and fools. So - whatever respect he might have deserved he gave away.

And so it goes. He served his country bravely, suffered immensely for it, seems to have learned some lessons from his own abuse, being one of the few Republicans to do anything to criticize our own slide into POW torture. (He didn't seem to learn anything from the way he was treated when he was shot down - he was always willing and eager to bomb foreigners indiscriminately.) He was always a prima donna - he knew here the cameras were pointing and made sure he was standing there - he was mildly corrupt (back when corruption mattered, at least a little), he was always a willing to sternly condemn terrible things he'd vote for a week later.... All that, though, just made him a politician. Just a politician, then, but the only Republican in the last 30 years to not act like he was wearing a sheet under his suit, just waiting for a chance to let his true colors (white) fly - and that's worth something. Got him on TV enough, but it also made him seem like a Road Not Taken - a much better road than we have been on.

(You can read Lawyers, Guns and Money for a good run down of his sins; you can read almost everything else for a good run down of his virtues - real as well as imaginary.)

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Stanley Cavell

It has been a couple days, but I want to say something about the death of Stanley Cavell. He was, as I have said before, near and dear to my film loving heart. He was formative for me, along with Sarris and Ray Carney and Audie Bock, one of the critics who formed how I looked at and thought about films. But he was also probably definitive - one of the critics who became a constant touchstone for how I thought about film - Cavell and Bordwell, Burch, Kracauer, Pasolini.... Everything I saw, I filtered through Cavell - every comedy and melodrama at least, and those are, in the end, my favorite types of films. He was an inspiring critic, and he was a superb writer. A philosopher and a film writer, an academic - that can lead into some dark corners in the world of prose - but Cavell was very readable, without sacrificing any of his ideas. He makes sense of films he talked about in a way almost no other critics did.

Also part of one of those fun days you get in places like Cambridge. There was a night, a dozen years or so ago, when the Harvard Film Archive showed three Laura Mulvey shorts, with Mulvey speaking - and the Brattle was showing a Barbara Stanwyck double bill, Baby Face and Night Nurse, and Cavell was in the audience. Ah, the missed opportunities, I thought then.... I am lucky, too, that I did hear Cavell speaks couple times - an essay on O Brother Where Art Thou, for instance, a film he properly believed was a masterpiece. Well.

Cavell was one of the best. I will miss him, and continue to treasure his work.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Baseball (Ken Burns, or maybe all of it)

Cross posted from Wonders in the Dark.

By Stephen Mullen

When I was growing up, in the 1970s in Maine, baseball on television meant NBC's game of the week, ABC's Monday Night Baseball, and maybe a Red Sox game a week. That plus Mel Allen's This Week in Baseball, and whatever info turned up on the news. Baseball was a radio sport - that's where I followed it. The Sox were on every single night, Ned Martin's voice was part of the family. I followed the game on the radio and through magazines and box scores, and I followed it intensely. But all that completely changed by the end of the 1980s. Cable TV changed everything about baseball - changed all sports, probably, except football, which was always a television sport, with its weekly games and predictable schedule. In 1980, cable was a luxury - I don't remember anyone who had it,or very few; by 1990, everyone had cable TV. And by 1990, baseball had moved to cable. All the Red Sox games were on NESN by then, and cable brought all kinds of baseball to my TV - I could get the Braves and the Mets; other towns, other packages around New England could get you the Yankees and Cubs as well. And ESPN showed games every day, and covered baseball intensely - Sports Center; Baseball Tonight - we were soaked in baseball. Back in the 1970s, I could see about 3 games a week; in 1990, I could watch every single game from three different teams, plus a couple other games every single night. This has only grown since. You might have to pay more to get all the games - but you can get all the games, from all the teams,all of it at the same high production level. Even with basic cable, you get 2-3 games a day, and more on the weekends. We are soaked in baseball on TV.

One of the stranger aspects of Ken Burns' Baseball series, from 1994, is that it doesn't talk about this change. The 9th Inning episode covers 20 very eventful years of baseball - free agency and all that brought to the game, drugs (coke, particularly), Pete Rose, as well as all the on field events of the era. The great world series' - Brooks Robinson beating the Reds in1970, the Red Sox and Reds in 1975, Sox and Mets in 86, Twins and Braves in 1991; Clemente's last games; the 1989 earthquake; Kirk Gibson vs. the Eck. But there's very little about television, about cable TV's transformation of what baseball on TV was. (And its transformation of baseball itself.) It is a huge omission - take that 1991 world series, one of the best of all time, with its two last to first teams - how do you do justice to it without acknowledging that one of the teams was essentially a national team? TBS brought the Braves to everyone - they deliberately claimed that they were baseball's version of the Dallas Cowboys - America's team. I admit to being part of it - I picked up on the Braves when they were in last place, because even before they started winning, they were loaded with young players who were going to make something of themselves. I could watch slow, mediocre, white, Boston win 88 games a year and nip or be nipped by the sightly less bland (but Clemens-less) Blue Jays at the wire - or I could watch Ron Gant and Otis Nixon, watch Tom Glavine and John Smoltz develop into stars, watch Steve Avery and Derek Lilliquist come up and maybe become stars, wonder when Justice and Lopez and the rest were going to make it - they were fun to watch. And I could see them, every game if I wanted; I could follow them as closely as I could follow the Red Sox.

I have a confession: when I saw this assignment, I thought it was about baseball on television, not about the Burns series. I thought, this is very cool, really - why shouldn't "baseball" be a topic? or any sport, or even just, "sports" - that is a massive part of what television is. And you might as well take it whole - you can't make a really clean division, to pick one show - "The 1986 World Series" say - it doesn't work like that. But baseball on TV? or football, or sports - things like that should be considered in this countdown. Sports - the 7 o'clock news - even whole channels, like CNN - are integral to what TV is. TV is as much the medium as the content, and the content itself is often spread out like this - types of shows, that fill up the hours. And many of them, filling the hours with as much excitement and drama as any actual shows. The advertisers know it, NESN hypes the Red Sox by comparing them to Game of Thrones and the like - why not? We've had a few entries like this, game shows and the like, but why shouldn't baseball be one of them?

Personally, I love baseball on TV. It allows you to engage at whatever level you want. You can leave it in the background, dip into it when something happens, let it drift when nothing's going on; or you can hang on every pitch, on all the stuff between the pitches (the decisions about pitches, the psychological battles between pitcher/catcher and hitters, and so on). You can go back and forth between these approaches; you can supplement what's on TV - fire up baseball reference and look up just how good Mike Trout is this year. Compared to other sports, baseball suits me more - hockey has more consistent excitement and action; basketball has spurts of spectacular action, but a lot of standing around, that doesn't quite have the drama of a baseball game; I am no fan of football, though it is probably the quintessential television sport - with everyone in the country (who cares about it) watching the same thing at the same time every week), with well defined self-contained plays, everything happening in an orderly manner. (Violence and committee meetings, as George Will described it.) I understand its appeal, though I don't share it. I like the fact that baseball is diffuse - that all those games going on every day means that all the people around the country watching baseball are watching something different; I like that you can engage with it on so many different levels; I like that the pace of it leaves so much time for consideration - looking up stats; telling stories; speculating about strategy; comparing players to one another, to all the long history of the past - it's like that. It is intellectually stimulating because it lets you bring whatever you want to it - it stimulates your imagination, your curiosity, it leads you down a dozen pathways. I like that.

That, I suppose, is one of the things Ken Burns does best: he gets at the endless digressiveness of baseball. He likes to meander in his documentaries, takes his time, dwells on stories and images, sometimes on analysis, sometimes just on contemplation or reflection - all of his shows have some of the ordered digressiveness of baseball. And Baseball is a fine series: beautiful, informative, deep and broad, with well chosen and organized imagery, itself lovely and fascinating. His talking heads? well - I think the world could do without another chance for George Will and Bob Costas to bloviate on camera - but then you get someone like John Sayle, Curt Flood (who's magnificent, really), or the inimitable Bill Lee - well, I can forgive... Still - for all their good qualities, I sometimes find Burns' documentaries a bit frustrating - there sometimes seems to be less than meets the eye. Or I should say - the more I know about the subject of the show, the less satisfying they can be. Both The Civil War and Baseball have this quality. Those are subjects I know about - longstanding enthusiasms. I've been obsessed with the Civil War for most of my life; and I have always been absorbed in baseball. I spent many hours in my youth poring over old baseball magazines, reading and rereading baseball histories, talking about it to anyone who cared, all my life; I have spent many more hours in my dotage rooting through any piece of information I can find about the sport - online, books, and so on. And always living on stats, as baseball fans do, from the Baseball Digests and annual guides (what a surprise it was to learn that Bill Mazerowski was a ball player and not just a guy who put out a yearly baseball preview!) that came out in the 70s, to Baseball Weekly and USA Today's stat pages in the 90s, to Baseball Reference and ESPN and MLB online now. So I have heard the big stories he tells - I know most of the historical developments of baseball - I know some developments in the game better than he covers them. I sometimes feel as though his shows are a kind of preaching to the choir - he repeats the stories baseball fans know, Snodgrass' muff, and Babe's called shot; what a prick Ty Cobb was and what a gentleman Christy Mathewson was; Jackie Robinson's arrival, the Miracle Mets, the '75 series and Fisk's home run, and so on - repeating them as much to spark a kind of sentimental recognition as to teach you anything. They have a self-congratulation to them, which, admittedly, is what we baseball fans do all the time anyway! Sit around and remember the touchstones of watching baseball - but I don't need Ken Burns to do that. The truth is, my favorite Burns series is probably the Vietnam series from last year - that's a subject I know in the outline, but not in the particulars - I could follow along, but I didn't know more than he was telling me, and it felt like I was learning something. I learned plenty from Baseball, or the Civil War - but not the same. And not as much as I already knew.

But saying that, it points to the best things about Baseball - when it talks about things I don't know. The Shadow Ball episode, mainly about the Negro Leagues, is the strongest example. It's a subject I know something about, but nowhere near enough. Burns covers it in some depth - and it is fascinating. I learned something - I didn't know most of it; I knew some names (Satchel Paige and Cool Papa Bell and Josh Gibson and so on), some team information (I even have a Cuban X Giants hat), but nothing about the history of the leagues, their development, their progression. I do now. That is a great episode, for this reason, as well as just because of the fine collection of footage and photographs he has.

Burns is very good on covering the social aspects of the game. The roots of its racism, the sociology of the players, the various shifts in the demographics of its fans. He's good on the labor issues, giving them attention, tracing their evolution (though it's a miserable story to tell, almost as miserable as the game's racism, given the corruption of the owners through the first half of the 20th century and beyond). These pieces are good, though often short - his treatment of the media's role in baseball is often very good as well, though even briefer, frustratingly so. There are bits about radio and Red Barber; lots of quotes from sportswriters, and allusions to them; some discussion of television - but shouldn't there be more? And that last episode missed the ball badly - cable television is a huge change, for all the reasons I've said. It's a change that was more noticeable in baseball than in other sports - daily games saturates you with games; and that saturation was on radio in the 70s; it is on TV now. He touches on this in earlier periods - on the ways technology spread the games in the old days - newspapers printing partial scores in multiple editions; the scoreboards at newspaper offices, updated from the telegraph wires - you could follow games in lose to real time in the 1920s, just like now - though you might have had to leave the house. That happened on television in the 80s - he ignored it.

It's interesting to think about baseball as television. I've posted about this before, way back when, on the 20th anniversary of Roger Clemens' first 20 strikeout game. That's 12 years back now - how much has coverage changed since 2006? less than it had changed since 1986, I think. Most of the trends in 2006 are still going strong - lots of crowd shots, dugout shots, sideline reporters, closer shots of players. High definition has changed how baseball looks on TV as well. I think has reined in some of the more annoying features of the game on TV - the camera work is less frenetic and annoying now; the images are so good, with contemporary technology, that you don't need gimmicks to try to catch something interesting. You don't miss much with a plain shot of the field, so why keep moving the camera and zooming around? These days, of course, the screens are full of stuff - K-zones, stats and numbers and info everywhere on the screen, constant crawls under the picture, graphics to show movement of players (red and blue circles to show shifts, or a players' route to a fly ball, or what have you). Stats are ubiquitous, all kinds of stats. As are advertisements - no chance to sell something is neglected. The game on the field has changed a bit - there are some new rules, mostly about who you can tackle, that mostly just try to keep catchers and second basemen out of the hospital; the big on field difference is replay, which, of course, relies integrally on television. (It is also one of the best innovations in the game: replay has almost ended the classic argument with the umpire - and good riddance! Earl Weaver or Billy Martin made for great theater,buut you see one argument, and you don't need to see any more. If you can resolve questions honestly, why shouldn't you? I like replay!) But as Burns might say - for all the changes, the game is recognizably the same. There are even more stats in the game now than ever - different stats - both the measures of the players results (emphasis on on base and slugging over batting averages; emphasis on WHIP - walks and hits per inning pitched, for pitchers), and things like exit velocity, launch angles, barreling percentages. But for all that, all those new stats - you can still compare them to the old time stats and get a pretty good idea of what was happening then and now. Sure, it's good to know how often Mookie Betts gets the barrel of the bat on the ball - but you don't really have to see that stat to guess what that stat is going to be. For players I see a lot - the Red Sox, the Yankees - I don't need someone to tel me what their exit velocities are, r their barreling percentages are. You don't need to hear the exit velocity Aaron Judge or Gary Sanchez get when you can see what happens when they get a good swing on a ball. And honestly, for players I don't see as much - Mike Trout say - I can guess what kind of bat speed and how often he gets the barrel on the ball just by looking at those 23 homers, .328 average, .688 slugging percentage. I can hazard a guess what kind of exit velocities Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron got, from the stats they put up - and definitely from watching them swing.

In the end, though, that is what is best about living in today's TV environment - with all those games on TV, you can see anyone fairly regularly. Back in the 70s, when there were tow or three games a week on - you got to see lots of the Yankees and Dodger and Reds, Red Sox and Orioles, Phillies maybe - but good luck seeing Andre Dawson or young Jack Clark. The only way you could see them was if they turned up on This Week in Baseball.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

World Cup 2018


The world cup starts tomorrow, a tournament wrapped in a fair amount of controversy, though not as much as the next one will be. Russia may have bought the thing, and may be a pariah in the world, but they are - usually - a fairly legitimate soccer country (though the current team is awful.) The US, along with Canada and Mexico, got the 2026 tournament today, so some sanity might return, but that's 8 years away. But for all that - when the games start - the odds are good you will see something thrilling.

I don't know how much I am in a position to opine on this tourney - but that can't stop me. (Plain laziness has stopped me up to this point but maybe I can overcome it.) So? What the hell - let's predict the groups. Not that I feel all that confident about it - but I'm going to do it anyway.

Group A: it wouldn't be FIFA or Russia without the hint of cheating, and Russia getting Saudi Arabia in the first game, and Egypt as the third team makes you wonder if someone was pulling strings on that draw... It would take a fairly monumental upset for Uruguay not to win the group (let alone not advance) - after that? Truth is, if Mo Salah is on his game, they might be a better bet than the Russians - but I suspect that the combination of home fields and Putin's wrath will inspire the Russians into the second round.

Group B: Spain and Portugal start it off, and have only Morocco and Iran to challenge them - the prescription for 0-0 if I ever saw it. I would have picked Spain to win, Portugal second, but Spain's coach just got fired (for taking the Real Madrid job right before the tournament), so who know what is going to happen there. I think, though, of the two Iberian teams, Portugal is the more likely to go deep into the tournament - they have a good team and they have Ronaldo. But I would have said that 4 years ago, so what do I know?

Group C: France gets a very easy road in. I think Denmark can take second, though the Aussies are one of those teams that can surprise people. I know nothing about Peru, but wouldn't rule them out. It gives it the potential for an interesting battle for second place, though this if France continues its on/off pattern in the world cup, maybe they flame out again.

Group D: Argentina looks to have a very easy road to the second round; the rest of this group is very interesting. Croatia is usually a solid side; Nigeria has a reasonable good world cup track record; Iceland were the darlings of the last Euros, and why not? It could be a very hard fought group. I would have to pick Croatia if I had to pick, but neither of the other two would surprise me.

Group E: Brazil also has a fairly easy time of it. Behind them, Serbia and Switzerland have good players - they can get through. Costa Rica was the surprise of 2014, but I don't think they are likely to be better this time - but you can't just dismiss them. In the end - I pick Switzerland.

Group F: Germany marches on. Mexico is the likely second place team,but Sweden is certainly capable of n upset. I don't know about South Korea - they seem more marginal than they have been - but they sometimes surprise.

Group G: Belgium has been marching to glory, except in the finals of these tournaments - they've been all right, but have not been the dominating force they are in qualifying. But they have a ton of talent - De Bruyne and Hazard and Lukaku and Courtois - they should be one of the teams capable of winning it. Behind them, Panama snuck in thanks to a US choke; Tunisia I know nothing about, probably for good reasons. England? You could get anything, I suppose. They have turned over the roster from the last couple world cups - Kane and Deli Alli and company show promise - Raheem Sterling has come into his own - we shall see.I expect them to take second here.

Group H: Um - Poland has Lewandowski; I don't know much about the rest of th team, though it's usually supposed to do all right. Columbia was a joy to watch last time, but I don't know if they have progressed all that much. Japan seems to be an afterthought these days. Senegal? Sadio Mane is the kind of individual talent that might push a decent team into the second round - I don't know. I think, personally, they will advance - I think either Poland or Columbia will disappear, the other will win the group. But I have no idea which.

There - see? That was fun. Now? When push comes to shove, these teams hve a chance to win it all:


... more or less in that order, I think. I could imagine a scenario for Uruguay, and I might be underrating Columbia and a couple other teams. That's about it though. Of that bunch? I lean toward Argentina and Portugal, to be honest, even if they aren't necessarily the best teams in the tournament. And not just because of Messi and Ronaldo - maybe because Messi and Ronaldo have come to the point where they seem to inspire their teammates as much as carry the teams. Less chance fo the rest of the side standing around waiting for them to win it. Maybe.

As for rooting? No US and no Holland (my usual second pick), so what am I to do? Belgium, as the token low country? Argentina, since I actually like Leo Messi? Truth is, there aren't even teams to root against - no Italy! There is France, I can root against them in a pinch. I've almost stopped hating Christiano Ronaldo, and anyway, I lived long enough in Cambridge/Somerville that I can never not feel a soft spot for Portugal (and Brazil.) Lots of smaller sides, I suppose - Egypt, Senegal, Iceland and Nigeria (a bit of a problem there.) Mostly, though, this is one to just watch and enjoy on it merits.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Get Smart

And here is the first of my three essays posted at Wonders in the Dark - Get Smart! And a bit about The Sitcom, in the 60s at least...

I love 60s sitcoms. Even now, along with a few British shows, and cartoons (Simpsons or Futurama or Bevis and Butthead) they are the sit coms I am most likely to watch when they come on TV, even ahead of great shows like Seinfeld, or All in the Family or Taxi or MASH. Get Smart, Batman, Hogan’s Heroes - even the Beverly Hillbillies - I can always watch those shows.

It’s personal preference, shows I grew up on (though already in syndication; watching them at 4 in the afternoon, between Gunsmoke and Mr. Rogers), but it’s also the style. Sitcoms changed in the 60s - especially in the mid-60s. The culture changed; the technology changed (color TV!) - sitcoms shifted along with these things. The early classics - I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners, Leave it to Beaver - were all domestic shows, centered in the home; this was still the case in the early 60s, with shows like My Three Sons, The Andy Griffith Show, though the latter is as much about the town as his home. But around the middle of the 60s, shows started to appear that were more and more set outside the home - Get Smart, Hogan’s Heroes, Batman, Gilligan’s Island. And shows still built around home and family started to get a bit stranger - Bewitched and its magic, The Munsters and Addams Family, with their monsters, even the Beverly Hillbillies, with it’s over the top farce (it’s Li’l Abner vibe.) The technology changed - most of these shows were in color; most of them used single camera setups rather than multi-camera live shooting. And the tone changed - they were parodic, satiric, they embraced absurdity, camp, surrealism. They stopped trying to be realistic, they stopped pretending to be about people like you and me in naturalistic (if comic and extreme) situations - they embraced genre stories, and made fun of them, usually by combining commonplace situations (going to work, hanging with your friends, or even the old domesticity of sitcoms) with absurd situations - spies, POWs, witches, superheroes. In many ways, they adopted the style and tone of cartoons, comic strips, comic books - directly, when it comes to the Addams Family or Batman, but a lot of these shows share the style.

It didn’t last. Sitcoms in the 70s developed in a different direction - even political and socially aware shows became naturalistic again, treated their characters and situations as real people. All in the Family and Normal Lear’s other shows; Happy Days; and all the (wonderful) workplace comedies of the 70s - The Mary Tyler Moore Show, MASH, Taxi, Barney Miller - did this. Showed real work places, not comic spy headquarters or German POW camps; dropped the genre parodies, the absurdity, the magic and science fiction. The 70s was a great era for sitcoms - but I miss the weirdness of the 60s.

And none of them did it better than Get Smart. It was developed and written by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry (with Henry staying on as story editor for two years), conceived as a combination of James Bond and Inspector Clouseau. It starred Don Adams, Barbara Feldon and Ed Platt, plus a mob of character actors, with single or recurring roles. It ran 5 seasons, 4 on NBC and one on CBS, fading a bit through the years, and engaging in more than a few cheap ratings boosts in latter years, though we don’t need to dwell on that. And it was exemplary of the kind of show I am talking about here. It was made right when shows switched to color - the pilot is black and white, but the rest of the show is color; it was a single camera show for it’s whole run; it was a genre parody, and one that let in a lot of genre nonsense - spies and adventure, and funny gadgets, and straight up science fiction; it was never shy about parodying other culture - movies, other TV shows, and so on; it was packed with in-jokes, puns, references outside the show (names and titles and such); and it was a work place comedy, combining the goofy spy stuff with the banalities of an office job, using both to send up the other.

And it was brilliant. The talent was top flight - Brooks and Henry are as good a pair of originators as you could ask, and the rest of the team measured up as well. Leonard Stern and Jay Sandrich, Irving Szathmary’s glorious theme song and scores, a host of fine writers to create the show. It featured a host of outstanding supporting players, but the cast - the three leads were perfect.

Don Adams carried it, of course - he’s ideal, a perfect buffoon, with his weird voice and beady little eyes, his physical flair, the way he walks, the way he could move, the way he wore a suit. It helps that he’s a little guy, looking up to everyone around him (including 99, when he didn’t pull her down to his eye level), vain and silly, his size making him a bit more ridiculous, but also a bit more sympathetic than he could have been. He is great at everything - the broad physical comedy, the little stuff (the way he can smoke or put out a cigarette), the voices, the serious detectiving, the oblivion, the prudishness and occasional bout of lust - he was always great. He had a mile long list of catch phrases, but always seemed to deliver them as though he were thinking of them for the first time ever - except when it was funnier to think he’d used the same line 4 times this month already. He was great.

His two main foils more than hold their own. Barbara Feldon was gorgeous, with a husky, sexy voice - and she was a fine actress, and marvelous comedian. The writers didn’t give her the gags they gave Max and the Chief, but she got all the reactions, and she played them with the precision and timing that Adams played the jokes. She had an infinite supply of eye rolls and head tilts, side eyes and body language, that convey a kind of infinite patience, as though she were managing this idiot until he needed to do something heroic. And Ed Platt embodies sober authority, but with a slow burn, driven to distraction by Max, but never quite breaking, and recovering when he did - he didn’t have 99’s infinite patience, or her understanding that idiot or not, Max was blessed by the gods (or the writers) and would always come out right, so he blew up now and then, but he always recovered - and could sell the idea that he was in control all along, no matter how bad things got, how ridiculous Max's solution was, Platt could make it seem as though that was what the Chief had in mind from the start. With that voice - he could sell anything.

They were a great trio. They could carry all the modes of the show - the spy stuff, but also the workplace stuff and the social stuff. The workplace comedy was obvious from the beginning: in the pilot, Max clocks in when he enters the chief’s office, mentions overtime later - the show always had that element. Office politics, boss/employee dynamics, money - wages, benefits - unions, perks, the competition, part time work, interdepartmental rivalries, regulations, paperwork, anything you could imagine in a workplace comedy. Some of it more than you’d see in actual workplace comedies later - unions and wages and benefits and hours and such, especially. The show plays the workplace jokes against the spy jokes, a pattern that extends across everything in the show. The adventure stuff is constantly deflated with banality: the Job, or things like dialing wrong numbers, the indifference the population seems to have to all their gunplay and brawling, or just the way everyone in Washington seems to know who Control is, where they are located, what their phone number is, sometimes before the spies do. And it goes the other way - the everyday concerns of an office job or apartment life travestied by throwing spies and science fiction machines and gunplay into it. Those marvelous machines - show phones, and all the other places they hid phones; the protective devices in Max's apartment; the Cone of Silence; all the inflato-coats and lipstick guns and radio controlled pool balls and giant arrows and everything else - which parody James Bond, but also mean that the spy stuff is buried deep into their everyday lives. Kind of like the way phones and computers and technology is buried into our lives, now....

There’s more of course. Get Smart was political - a cold war comedy that mocked the cold war from start to finish. A war time comedy that mocked the military, as well as spies, as well as cops - it was a product of its time, maybe, however much it also mocked the counterculture. It was a product of its time in less admirable ways too - ethnic jokes and sexism - but these things weren’t straightforward. It had plenty of ethnic jokes - but they were as often about the people who held stereotypes as they were stereotypes themselves. And sexist jokes - Max got the lines, the action, the story, at 99’s expense; this got really bad in the last year or so, when poor 99 married him, and was confined to the house for most of the last two seasons - but it also made fun of sexism. One of their running gags is 99 coming up with a good idea, an important question, a way out of their predicament, and Max either ignoring her or saying he’d rather do it his way. 99 always defers - and Max always does what she suggested. Shoot - I saw someone making fun of that on Twitter the other day! Max the mansplainer, in 1965. There is a lot of that - with 99 and Max, with the racial and ethnic jokes they make. They play the jokes both ways - it can be complicated.

Of course, a lot of it depends on the fact that nothing, in this show, is taken seriously. I mean - nothing is treated as though it were real. There is no sense that Max or 99 or the Chief, or any of the villains and supporting characters, are real, in the way Mary Richards or Hawkeye or Archie Bunker are treated as though they are real. There is always distance - always a sense of unreality. Characters don’t have to be consistent, in this world: Max can be an idiot for 20 minutes then turn into James Bond himself for the last act. Max can be a prude in one show and a skirt chaser in the next, without missing a beat. He respects 99, he ignores 99, he flirts with 99, he’s oblivious to 99. Situations are ridiculous - machines that vaporize buildings and people without a trace; magnets that can sink a whole fleet; masters of disguise who can turn into anyone (and do - they loved that plot device!); the chief and Larrabee - or even Siegfried, complete with a mustache - dressed up as old ladies, and no one noticing. And all of it completely pliable - half the world might be destroyed, but there they all are at the end back in the office arguing about time off and whether KAOS gets better benefits. It’s not inconsistent - it’s as though the whole world was being made up again in every scene. It’s a cartoon aesthetic - not as explicit as Bugs Bunny or Krazy Kat, but it’s got the same sense that it’s not subject to any of the rules of god or man, except that it should be funny. It’s an aesthetic shared with a lot of sitcoms in the 60s, that then passed out of sitcoms - except for the animated ones. The Simpsons and Futurama, Family Guy and South Park can feel a lot like that era of TV. Though probably not as much as some of those 60s shows felt like Bugs Bunny or Pogo.

In short - it was a good one. Always funny - usually with decent story lines (though they clearly struggled sometimes to find 30 little spy stories every year for the show - a lot of them feel very thin.) Max is an icon, and 99 and the Chief (and Siegfried, especially) are not far behind. They created a host of running gags, that worked almost all the way through the show - I can't list them all  can I? Missed it by that much! I asked you not to tell me that! The old X trick - second time I fell for it this month! I hope you don't mind that crack about the dummy. Sorry about that, Chief. Would you believe.... They created a host of cool and backing parts - Siegfried and Larrabee and a string of scientists to make up the gadgets, The Claw and Harry Hoo and Rupert of Rattskeller and a million lookalikes. (They leaned hard on doubles in this show - Alexi Sebastion, the Chameleon, the league of imposters, as well as Charles, King of Coronia, Connie and Floyd. They might have overdone it - but it's part of the style I think - nothing is real, nothing is permanent, no one is who they necessarily seem to be, and everything works out in the end.) I can watch this show all day and all night - it is as good as they come.


Here's another piece I posted last week on Wonders in the Dark, as part of their TV countdown.

Gunsmoke was the first and last - the first (or almost the first) western for grownups on TV; and very nearly the last western of any kind of TV. Lasting 20 years will do that - you're first, you outlast your peers, and sometimes your entire genre. When it came on TV, it led to a flood of similar shows - The Rifleman, Have Gun Will Travel, many others - that shared its grown up approach the western, and its artistic values, and serving, as it did, as a launching ground for many significant actors and directors. It stayed on TV all those years because it was a very fine show - begun as a serious show, and taken seriously, with quality writing, a fantastic cast, solid production values, and consistently fine craft. They brought in first rate guest stars, they brought in first rate directors, they gave them first rate scripts - 635 episodes worth (though I suppose not all 635 were first rate; I can point you to some stinkers) - it changed through the years, but it was always watchable.

I watched it, of course, when I was a kid, both the reruns and the new ones. I didn't care if it had been on forever; I didn't really know it had been on that long until people started talking about it. I never saw any of the black and white shows until a long time after - they weren't the ones in reruns. It didn't matter. It was probably my favorite show when I was a kid, maybe right up to the time it went off the air, maybe beyond. (And not just the show: I read the books too - over and over, in fact; I liked Gunsmoke.) I liked all westerns - Gunsmoke and Bonanza and Big Valley, especially - but even then, I could tell Gunsmoke had an edge on them. I could tell it was more serious - it had action and excitement, good guys and bad guys, but it had characters too, who had depth, and breadth. More than that, maybe (since Bonanza and Big Valley were also strong on character), it had stories that were deeper and smarter than those other shows. I couldn't have described the difference then, and barely can now, but it's there - maybe it had something to do with the stakes - on Gunsmoke things seemed to matter a bit more.

It was designed that way. It was created for radio, and conceived as a hard-boiled western, explicitly reminiscent of Raymond Chandler (inspired by the Philip Marlowe radio show, in fact) - you can hear it in the early shows. Robbery, murder, lynch mobs, venal newspapermen gloating about circulation and Doc Adams angling for more autopsies, Matt accused of having an affair, and an innocent little boy who turns out to be the killer, and William Conrad as Dillon narrating and ruminating (in the best Raymond Chandler style) about how awful human beings really are. And that's just the first episode! (Here it is, on YouTube: "Billy the Kid"). The darkness didn't entirely carry over to the TV version, a couple years later - but there's plenty of it there. The first show has Matt soliloquizing on Boot Hill about the "Gomorrah of the Plains", keeps a good dose of his bitterness and sarcasm, and his strong sense of isolation (walking away alone as he does), in a story with a cold blooded killer, who just wants to be left alone. (You can see it here: "Matt Gets It", complete with John Wayne telling the audience that this show was going to last a while.) Chandler's influence is still there - Matt loses a gun fight in that first show, and when he recovers, has to go back to try again - that's pretty much standard procedure for a Hammett or Chandler character. And Matt has to outsmart the gunslinger - another bit you see in those classic detective stories. Marlowe would be proud.

As the show evolved, some of that fell away. Even on the radio, the characters had softened - Doc Adams, say, is a pretty nasty piece of work in those early shows. The ensemble, the relationships among the characters became more important, and anchored the show through those 20 years - but it still maintained the grown up approach. The material is dark, full of violence and cruelty, but its maturity is also in the complexity of the characters, both good guys and bad guys. Heroes fail - they can be selfish and unpleasant like the doctor sometimes, physically damaged like Chester, morally compromised like Miss Kitty might be. And the villains are seldom simplistic - they have reasons for what they do; they can be charming, some can be plaintive. If someone starts threatening bar girls, you can bet he lost a daughter or granddaughter somewhere along the line. Many episodes work in multiple foils for Matt Dillon, putting him between a couple hard bitten killers, or a couple aggrieved families - everyone with their reasons. And in those early shows, he fails as often as not - at least, fails to stop other people from massacring each other, or ends up killing people he tried very hard not to have to kill. He's there to keep the peace, but there isn't a lot of peace to keep.

This aspect is more pronounced in the early years - by the end, Matt and his friends were pretty well ascended to godhood, the villains tended to be a bit more simplistic, and the guest stars were usually a bit more obviously on the good or evil side. But it never went away completely. It evolved out of the noirish style of the early shows, into something else, though something still rooted in adult problems and complex behavior. The evolotution is reflected in Matt himself - the angry, brooding, tarnished hero of the radio show and early TV gave way to a stoic, strong hero, one who passes through the mire without being soiled. That's not criticism - it's just different, more Gary Cooper, less Bogie, if that makes sense. That element took over pretty quickly, I suppose - looking at James Arness, you couldn't quite picture him as anything other than a strong silent type - if he had stayed bitter and cracked, he would have been terrifying - John Wayne in The Searchers, maybe, something more disturbing than any villain could be. This change didn't hurt the show - it made Matt into a central hub for the rest of the show to revolve around. It made the dynamics of the cast, the strengths of the guest stars, and the stories themselves shine, with Dillon as anchor, and often as a kind of light that illuminates the nature of others.

Gunsmoke lasted a long time, surviving many changes to the technology and form of television. It moved from radio to TV, first as a half hour show, later as an hour. In the mid-60s, it switched to color. It changed through the years, but generally maintained its quality - though it's hard to miss how much better it was earlier. That's something I learned late - the color shows were the ones in syndication, in the early 70s, and onward - that's what I saw when I was 10, what I watched now and then through the 80s and 90s - it's what I knew. They were fine shows - they made me think I had good taste when I was 10... But then I saw the black and white episodes. They were a revelation. The half hour shows are superb - tight, efficient little morality plays that never really preach, great looking, with sharp, memorable characters, and even then, a cool mix of action, drama, comedy. They were great shows - but I think the show really blossomed with the hour long format.

They had room. Even now, watching the half hour shows, they can go by a bit too quickly - they don't get the chance to linger and develop - and it's the lingering and development that made Gunsmoke so good. The hour long episodes have everything: well developed stories, with characters who have time to evolve in the course of the show, to work out multiple relationships. It feels as though every black and white hour long show I remember was some kind of trip - maybe those shows were aired more often; maybe they're the ones I remember best. But there are good reasons why journeys are a staple of story telling (and most definitely of westerns) - a chance to put a number of characters in a situation and let it stew. Those shows end up being some of the best hour long shows ever made for TV.

The black and white episodes have another advantage - they look fantastic. The sets, costumes, props are all very well chosen - and in the black and white episodes,they look right. They look beat up, shabbier, dirtier; cabins and houses and street and fields look like hard places to live - they look real. The color shows lost some of this. Color, I suspect, shows up how clean the sets and clothes are; even artfully mistreated props, like Festus' costumes, look a bit too artfully messed up. Did they get more conventional later? does black and white indicate grime and wear better? Maybe. But part of it, I think, is that the later shows fell out of step with western movies. The early Gunsmokes were contemporary with films like Anthony Mann's westerns, Budd Boetticher's, mature films by Hawks and Ford, classics like Shane and High Noon. TV couldn't match the production values of top of the line films - but they could match their look. (And low budget westerns thrived in those days as well - filmmakers knew how to make westerns look good no matter what the budget.) But western films evolved between 1955 and 1970, evolved as much as any genre did. Content restrictions disappeared - you could show far more, and what seemed dark on TV in 1955 looked old fashioned next to The Wild Bunch or The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Films brought in outside influences - Japanese films; European films. The style became more extreme; the look became grittier, grimier. Gunsmoke in the 70s didn't look at all like contemporary westerns (at least not the best of them.) It's a jarring effect: it makes everything, in the later shows, look clean, antiseptic, in ways the older ones never dd. By 1975, it was the last western on TV, maybe not that bad a show, but somehow it felt old, rote, even compared to what you expected to see in a western. And so it went, and that was that.

But it had a magnificent run. It set off a run of serious western shows; it has had an influence beyond. Matt Dillon is an icon - but so are others, particularly Doc. (I offer Star Trek's Bones as evidence; heck - I could offer Brad Dourif, on Deadwood, riffing on Doc, maybe more the early radio Doc, but still.) The cast and characters of the show were, in fact, fantastic. Arness, Stone, Blake and both Dennis Weaver and Ken Curtis - great actors playing fascinating characters, that the writers seemed to understand. Coming off writing about Get Smart, a show that gave in to ratings desperation at the end, do you know how refreshing it is to see a male and female lead not ever get together? At least not marry (though Matt seemed to know where her room was located in the early shows...) - how many long running shows were able to keep that discipline? The main cast is matched by the guests, often as not - what a pleasure it is to watch someone like Warren Oates or Bruce Dern come in and chew up the scenery. Now - this was common enough practice in those days - a good many of those serious westerns did the same thing - brought on special guests; gave up and coming directors the chance to work. But they did it well on Gunsmoke.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018


(Despite the lack of posts here, I have been busy lately - this is the third of three posts in about a week for the epic TV countdown at Wonders in the Dark - this one for Columbo.

Somewhere in Los Angeles are two people who hate each other - or at least one of them hates the other one. Maybe we will see them together; maybe we will see them separately; maybe we will just see one of them, going about some strange ritual. Maybe they'll talk - maybe they will be, or act, friendly, but more likely they will quarrel. Either way, one of this is going to kill the other. Maybe we see the killer covering up the crime; maybe we now recognize that their rituals were aimed at hiding the crime. By the time the first commercial comes, it looks like they will get away with it. When we come back, the police are on hand. Among them is a dumpy looking guy in a raincoat, who putters around, and notices things; he sticks his nose into conversations; he looks at the bodies; he talks to the relatives. He probably talks to the killer, and he'll probably notice something when he does. By the end of the first scene we know there's more to this guy than meets the eye. Over the next hour, he'll keep running into the killer, and it's going to take the killer longer to catch on that there's more to him than meets the eye, but he will - but by then it will be too late.

That is Columbo, and for my money, it's the best show ever made on network television in the USA. Columbo ran 7 years in the 1970s, came back for a couple more seasons and string of TV movies in the 80s and 90s, and every episode (except one or two here and there) fit that description above. The shows were a series of little movies, 90-100 minutes long, airing in rotation with a number of other shows (McCloud and McMillan & Wife, later Hec Ramsey too) in its first run - the longer production schedules (a show a month, instead of a show a week) meant episodes were made with a lot more care than the average TV show of the time. They looked it. It starred Peter Falk, and brought in high profile guest stars, writers and directors, as prestige television has always done. Columbo's early years boast Steven Bochco and Steven Spielberg at the start of their careers; later years featured people like Jonathan Demme, and along the way, any number of Hollywood veterans and actors got a shot behind the camera - Richard Quine and Leo Penn; Ben Gazzara and Patrick McGoohan. And of course a parade of guest stars, to kill and be killed, or sometimes to offer dubious advice in the role of lawyers or uncles or ex-hubands and wives.

It originated as a television episode, became a play, then a TV movie, written by Richard Levinson and William Link. They built a detective out of Crime and Punishment and Father Brown, and used the Crime and Punishment plot as their template: we see the crime, know who did it, why, how - the police come in later, most of them all wrong about the killing, but one of them figures it out, and spends the rest of the story trying to make an arrest that will stick by talking to the suspect. Columbo was openly and unapologetically formulaic, but that is where it got its strength. It has the rigid form of a sonnet or blues song, and the almost infinite variability of those forms. The fact that the stories all follow the same structure - killing, investigation/confrontation, solution/arrest - means that all the show's attention goes to the details. The restrictions force the writers to be brilliant - every killing has to be imaginative, every killer has to be interesting, their motives have to be believable, their victims and the survivors - have to be interesting. The process of solving the crime has to be clever, and - most of all - the interactions of the characters have to be completely compelling. It worked - it held up through 9 or 10 sets of shows over 25 plus years, staying watchable right to the end. The mysteries are compelling (far more often than on other long running crime shows); Columbo's work to solve them fascinating, clever, full of quiet demonstrations of his abilities. The killers and those around them make good television - they all seem to think they can talk their way out of anything, because they are Super Geniuses, and it keeps them engaged with Columbo, as he circles them, tracking down the crime, figuring them out.

The shows are not really mysteries (except a few designed for a twist) - the suspense is all in how Columbo figures out the crime, and pins it on the killer. And the substance of the show is in the interactions between Columbo and those killers, and the people around them. (A flock of husbands and wives and children and parents and uncles and aunts and lawyers and secretaries and hangers on who are usually as loathsome and pathetic and sometimes wonderful as the killers and victims.) Columbo lurks, and talks - he tells stories about his wife and nephews and brothers in law and cousins and childhood and he gets to know the killers, he goads or soothes them, and he gets them in the end. For all the show's debt to Dostoevsky, Columbo usually doesn't break the killers down psychologically. He figures them out, alongside the plot of the crime, and usually gets them through some detail, some clue everyone's overlooked that he can get them to plant somewhere. He shows them what looks like a sure fire way out of trouble, but he's always waiting by the door. No, where the show really lives is in the characterizations themselves - Columbo revealing the people he interacts with; and revealing himself, in a way. The plots and such make for a fascinating puzzle show - but those conversations, and the situations around them, are what raise the show to something more.

It's a show with a quiet, but firm social conscience. It was always very class conscious - Columbo is often described as a blue-collar detective, and the contrast between him and the rich, arrogant, privileged set of murderers he runs to ground gives it it's tone. But it uses class and money as more than just a contrast between rich killers and middle class cop. Money is always present in the show, almost always the reason for the crime - but the exact reason for this varies. The killers may all be rich, but don't miss how often the plot depends less on straight greed than on the threat of losing ones position. Over and over: someone who has gotten rich somehow, who was not, in fact, born rich, finds themselves facing a divorce, losing their job or business, being disinherited, being exposed as having stolen it or riding someone else's talents. Columbo was as much about anxiety about money as about the corruption of money - anxiety about money, and status - of being exposed. Though don't miss either how that money corrupts - the killers and their initial victims tend to all be rich; but there are many shows where the killers get someone else, as well. Maybe a witness - sometimes, just a lower class accomplice, who has to die to protect the killer's alibi. These tend to be the killings that bring out Columbo's claws - when he gets really tough with killer (like Leonard Nimoy's doctor, who kills a nurse and a drifter, or Robert Conrad's fitness guru who poisons a woman who might have heard something), it's because they've started killing people below their station.

There's another important piece of working class consciousness: the value of work itself. Columbo himself does this - Levinson and Link say it plain in the pilot: Columbo tells the killer, you do this once, you have one chance to get it right; I do this 100 times a year - I practice what I do, I learn it. Columbo does what he does by putting in the work - you can't deny his genius, but you can't miss his thoroughness, or the way he's willing to teach himself something new to solve a case. Even his patter is usually just cover for doing the grunt work of collecting clues and evidence. But this goes beyond Columbo himself - the show always values talent. The killers who are most sympathetic tend to be the ones who are good at something valuable - Johnny Cash's singer; Donald Pleasance as a vinter; Janet Leigh's actress; Ruth Gordon's mystery writer - are all craftsmen. They are rich, some of them are pretty much evil (Cash plays someone being blackmailed for statutory rape, who murders the both blackmailer and the girl), but they got rich by working for it. Even some of the more unpleasant figures - Patrick McGoohan's parade of psychotic spies and soldiers; John Cassavetes' conductor - are partly redeemed by the fact that they are good at what they do.

That respect for craftmanship - for artistry, through effort - suffuses the show. It features artists often enough - writers, musicians, painters, chess masters, photographers, chefs, scientists - it tends to respect them, even when they are villains. And it is built on the same respect - the quality of the scripts, the filmmaking effort, the parade of character actors, in leads, and tucked into the corners. Among its many delights are the chance to spot Bruce Kirby and Timothy Carey and Val Avery in the cast a couple times a season. It's guests tend to be TV stars (Dick Van Dyke, Robert Culp and McGoohan, Wlliam Shatner), old time movie stars (Ray Milland, Ida Lupino, Myrna Loy, Ruth Gordon), and those more independent film types - people from Cassavetes' films (including Falk and Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands and Ben Gazzara, behind the camera.) It's not flashy casting, it's casting built on craftsmanship. It's also not above playing it for laughs - William Shatner comes on, and is pilloried, playing a comic version of both himself and Columbo - he's bald, wears lifts, and turns out to be a complete con man, as well as a helpless ham. For every real artist, there is a smug asshole who thinks he matters because he has a TV show; and there are innumerable "business consultant" types who think they are rich because they are brilliant when they are, in fact, glorified con men, preying on real businessmen, who usually act like glorified gangsters. Columbo's creators do not hold a high opinion of American business, I think.

There are other elements of social conscience in the show - it's very sympathetic to women. Lots of women get murdered; more than a few of them are murderers; they are not necessarily any more sympathetic than the men around them. But the show manages to convey their sense of having to fight harder to get anything - men in the show don't take them seriously; they fight off bullies; they are manipulated and ignored. The writers - and Columbo, often enough - notice, and let the women have their say. They aren't condemned when they cheat on their husbands; they are not treated like usurpers for holding jobs men have (though Columbo, in some episodes, seems surprised at their positions). And shows where women kill men who cheat them - well, feel a bit different than shows where men kill. Though the show can still create a female monster - Johnny Cash's wife, in his episode - blackmailing him for statutory rape, though it is strongly hinted that she was providing him with underage girls in the first place - well... villainy knows no gender.

And so: I'll end with a quick little list - 5 of my favorite episodes, since this should let me look a bit at how the theme and variation structure worked...
  1. Negative Reaction: this is the one with Dick Van Dyke as a photographer. It's interesting because while he is an artist, and artists usually get a break on the show, he is one of the most irredeemably evil characters they ever created. He kills his wife, strictly for money; he kills a harmless ex-con who almost worships him for giving him a job, purely to make his own alibi work (framing him for good measure); he takes the usual contempt for Columbo farther most, becoming abusive - only to have it all swept away at the last minute, when he sees how Columbo has set him up. A great show - using Van Dyke's affability to mask his viciousness; and the fact that it is, maybe, a show about failure and self-loathing. He used to be an artist, but he has become a hack: his fall leads him to this. Great show.
  2. Murder by the Book: This is the first regular episode, and features the Stevens, Bochco and Spielberg, and from the first shot is obviously up to something fantastic.  Long shot of the street and a slow zoom back into the room where a man is typing - Spielberg was already capable of virtuosity. The show as a whole is well made, and often rather flashy - usually not this effectively though. The rest of the episode - Jack Cassidy as the untalented half of a writing team that's about to break up, who kills his partner, and then a lonely widow who sees something she couldn't - is first rate as well. It sets up those class tensions, the anxiety about losing status: Cassidy knows he can't continue as he is without his partner to write the books; he kills the witness almost without thinking about it - arrogance of the rich. It's a fine episode, already varying the motivations from the pilots.
  3. Swan Song: This is the Johnny Cash episode. He plays an ex-con country singer, forced to give all his money to his wife (Ida Lupino), who's blackmailing him for sleeping with an underage choir girl - though it's hinted that the wife set them up in the first place. So he kills both of them. The plot doesn't hold up so well in this one - but the interplay between Cash and Falk is superb. Cash's character is a nasty piece of work, other than the singing; he starts out angry and abusive of Columbo - but he changes. This comes as close as any episode to having Columbo literally talk someone into confessing - it's also fascinating to watch Cash's guilt catch up with him. He softens, he fades on screen, and is grateful when he's caught. Worth noting too that in the mid-70s, Johnny Cash was not the hero he was in the 50s and 60s, or would be in the 90s and on - this is a down period for him, but this show could still see him for what he was.
  4. A stitch in Crime: this is the Leonard Nimoy episode - Nimoy can vie with anyone (Van Dyke and Robert Conrad's Milo Janus might be the other finalists) for the most loathsome character in the series. He plans a clever way of killing his mentor, with dissolving sutures in the heart, then kills a nurse who starts to suspect, then kills a drifter to make the cops think the nurse was selling him drugs. This, and Nimoy's mocking contempt, gets Columbo's goat, provoking near violence. All this, by the way, is provoked by resentment over someone else getting his name on a scientific project. He's a piece of work.
  5. The Conspirators: this is a bit of a wild card - this is the last episode from the 7th season, the last one in the 70s, the last one for 10 years or so. It stars Clive Revill as an Irish poet who uses his book tours as cover to raise money to buy guns for the IRA. It's different - the structure of the show is like all the others, but the plot, and Revill, are not. He is almost unique in the series for being a professional criminal, a practiced gun-runner. (As is his victim.) The story is different - professional criminals; political motives; this character. It brings up the show's respect for professionalism - he is something of a mirror of Columbo. A poor kid, ex-con, who became a writer, a poet - though also a terrorist. He's an artist, and a professional. He's Columbo's peer - he's done this before. He poses a different kind of challenge. Their interactions are increasingly cordial in the show - some of it is due to Revill's charm, but there's more than a hint of mutual respect here as well - two men doing their jobs. It's a fascinating episode, a good way for the show to go off the air...

Thursday, March 29, 2018

The Real Beginning of Spring

Sure it's been a snowy March, but spring comes early this year - today! March 29! Opening Day! All is well.

Let's just get to it, shall we?

American League East

1. Boston Red Sox - yeah, yeah, I know everyone is anointing the Yankees already - that is a very strange. It's true they have rather awesome power in that lineup, and good players throughout, and a decent starting rotation - but they are going against a team that beat them last year, sometime, it seems, with one hand tied behind their back. The Sox have been half dismissed, but for what? for winning 93 games with a third of a year from David Price? Porcello reverting to Bad Porcello? And most of their offense regressing significantly from the year before? Betts, Bogaerts, Ramirez, Bradley, Pedroia - all dropped significantly (or missed a bunch of time) - you have to expect some reversion to the mean, and now you have JD Martinez and Devers for a whole year and the continued progress of Andrew Benintendi? Compare the down years for the Sox to the number of Yankees coming off career years, and it starts to look good in the Fens... And almost all of the players on the field for the Sox will be defensive contributors (maybe not Devers or Hanley when he's out there, but the rest, including one of the best defensive outfields int he game), not something I'd say for the Yanks. With Sale and Price both looking healthy and happy? adding Stanton got the Yankees to the Sox level last year: how are they not still playing catchup?

2. New York Yankees - yeah yeah; if the shaky parts of the pitching stay healthy and effective, the good parts of the pitching get better - yeah, they're going to be good. On the other hand - can Stanton stay healthy? is Judge the real thing (I suspect so, but still...)? who gets displaced when they have to move Gary Sanchez? (He is one hell of a hitter, but his work behind the plate is not what I would recommend.) None of that is likely to hurt them that much, though - even the pitching, it's what Severino, Gray and Montgomery do that will decide it the most, and they are as likely to be good as not. If both teams show up and stay healthy, it promises a good race.

3. Toronto Blue Jays - I don't have any reason to think they will be even respectable, but why not? I like the Blue Jays. They have some pitchers who could come back - Sanchez, Estrada, Stroman - still have Donaldson - they could be respectable. Probably not playoff respectable, which might be the worst possible result in this day and age - everyone wants to contend for the post-season or bottom out and rebuild, and they are hanging in the middle.

4. Baltimore Orioles - another team in the middle. Bland to ineffective pitching, lots of power, but most of it in decline - they could cause trouble, they could wash out. They could win 83 games and be forgotten, unless they beat the sox or Yankees 3 out of 4 in some September series.

5. Tampa Bay Rays - they've had the weird ability to hang around through years of decay, but that can't last forever. Whither Chris Archer? I keep expecting them to disappear - this is probably when it happens.

AL Central:

1. Cleveland Indians - they have taken over the old role of the Rays, the cheapskates who thrive by developing and acquiring the best players, surrounding them with solid support, and having a management team that runs it all at peak efficiency. They have the luxury of doing it in the central, with no Big Teams around to buy their way into contention - so they should be able to keep inhabiting the post-season for a while to come.

2. Minnesota Twins - they've been on a yo yo the last three years, contending, putrifying, getting to the post-season, but they have a nice young squad, that ought to hang around contention. The AL is wildly stratified, and very thin in the middle - the Twins are in there and should be in a position to contend for the wild card again. If the Indians have some injuries, they might chase the division, as well.

3. Kansas City Royals - they aren't very good, but they have some hitters and if they get any pitching, they might make it to .500 or so. Or not. Probably not.

4. Detroit Tigers - they were awful last year. Time has caught up to Victor Martinez and Miguel Cabrera, and no one else is better than a good squad player. I cant see them getting past the 70s in wins - more likely to lose 90 than win 80 I think.

5. Chicago White Sox - got some ball players, and young guys coming through, and maybe sometime they might get good again. Now, they have James Shields as their top starter.

AL West:

1. Houston Astros - one of those mortal locks who are all set up for an epic fall. Though it's hard to see happening. t's true - Keuchel and McCullers could be hurt again; Verlander might find a calendar; Gerritt Cole might go the way of many NL hurlers coming to the AL before him - they'll still score tons of runs and - would need to lose about 4 guys to not be in contention. Altuve, Correa, Bregman, Springer are studs; Reddick and Gonzalez and the catchers and Gurriel are all solid pros - they are too good. A bad year in 91 wins and the wild card. That kind of stuff happens - look at the Cubs last year - but that's usually the result: 91 wins instead of 108.

2. Los Angeles Angels - (is that what they call themselves these days?). Pitching is thin on the ground out there,but they have some offense - on paper anyway. They were horrible last year... But Trout, Upton, Simmons,Kinsler, etc - there's hope. The west is odd this year - I don't know what to make of any of them, except the Astros - they all look like they could get into the wild card race if things went well; there could be three 90 loss teams if things don't go well. Who knows.

3. Seattle Mariners - I should just keep picking Seattle to win every year until they do. How could they win this year? King Felix does what Verlander did the last couple years? gets healthy, rethinks his approach, and finds his old form - why not? he's 31 - he wouldn't be the first pitcher to have a sag in the middle of his career, and come back. That and good offensive years from their real talent - Cruz and Cano and Seager and Segura and Gordon - why not? It would take many acts of god to get them past the Astros, but they could get the second wild card spot easy enough.

4. Texas Rangers - if they could occasionally hit a ball fair in inside the park, they might do all right. Power abounds; baserunners are in short supply. The pitching is shaky, but not impossible - Hamels and Fister and so on - they are another team that, a couple things go right, they're fighting for the second wild card spot. (The first one is going to be up to Boston/New York to lose, I think.)

5. Oakland A's - they were shockingly not horrible last year. They could be shockingly not horrible this year. Better than that might be s stretch, but it's something.

National League East:

1. Washington Nationals - they are gifted with a very weak division. They have a very good team. It's hard to see them not taking the division, if they stay healthy. Maybe they'll win a playoff series one of these years! It's been a good millennium for breaking droughts - California, Boston, Chicago and Chicago, Houston all won their first, or their first in a Hell of a Long Time - why not the Expos?

2. New York Mets - they have some ballplayers out there; they have real pitching, if it stays on the field. They have been very snake bit lately - will that continue? Probably. They make their own bad luck.

3.Philadelphia Phillies - are they in fact good enough to get in the race for something? Who knows, but points for ambition! They have been working some starting pitchers toward effectiveness; they have some interesting young position players - now they add Arrieta and Santana - an interesting strategy, to bolster a young roster with a couple veterans, who don't have to carry the team, but can guide it to competence - why not? Root for them anyway.

4. Atlanta Braves - I have to keep writing something about all these teams? I want to know what's the big deal with Ronald Acuna - the rest? At least they aren't the Marlins.

5. Miami Marlins - It's easy to mock and abuse,and trash Derek Jeter for continuing to work for the Yankees, but - I don't know. How many times has this team been sold off? I'll give Jeter and company a few years to see if they keep up the old patterns or if they're willing to work to build a team and keep it when they do - right now, enjoy those 100 losses, boys.

NL Central:

1. Chicago Cubs - this might be the tightest, most open division in baseball. Cubs are loaded, to be sure, but the pitching staff, though superb on paper, shows signs of being made of paper... Maybe. They should get all they can out of what they have, and they have plenty, so they are not going to be out of contention for anything. But they have competition in this division, and it could be interesting again.

2. St. Louis Cardinals - this is not a bad looking team, not with Marcel Ozuna in the outfield, not if the pitching stays healthy. They probably need some breaks to beat the Cubs, but they should be in the hunt for the post season.

3. Milwaukee Brewers - an interesting team, with more outfielders and first basemen than they have places to play them. They could be very good - pitching, of course, is the question. It usually is, for everyone. They should score runs, but they probably don't have the margin of error that the Cubs and Cards have.

4. Cincinatti Reds - they were bad last year, worse than the bad Pirates, but they haven't gutted their roster in the offseason, so I'd guess they switch places with the Buccos. There are some nice young players hanging around here - they might get somewhere in the vicinity of respectability one of these years, though it might be a stretch this year.

5. Pittsburgh Pirates - goodbye to Gerritt Cole and Andrew McCutcheon and probably more to come. They do have some talent hanging around - it will be interesting to see if people like Taillon can pick up their games. They may linger in the 70s, though I think it's more likely they sell off the remaining talent - Bell and Harrison and Marte could be laboring for contenders come August...

NL West:

1. Los Angeles Dodgers - any reason to pick against them? Kershaw has been physically vulnerable; Rich Hill is a young Jamie Moyer - they might end up having pitching problems, of all things. The team on the field looks good and deep, though probably not Houston/Cubs quality. But they should win well into the 90s, and be in the post-season.

2. Arizona Diamondbacks - they lost JD Martinez, but they were decent without him; a full year of AJ Pollack might cover most of that - otherwise - there's a lot to like. Pitching, hitting - it's a good team. If the Dodgers have health problems, the snakes could take a run at the division. Even without it, I'd guess they will be in the wild card hunt.

3. Colorado Rockies - a playoff team, mostly because they found a bunch of effective starters somehow. They've piled up the relievers - they still have some prime offensive players - they should be good. I don't think they're likely to challenge for the division, but they are a strong playoff contender.

4. San Francisco Giants - the best team of the 2010s has started ot come apart - can they come back together? Bringing in again stars like Longoria and McCutcheon might not be the most promising means to that end but they're better than anything they had before. They were looking like an interesting dark horse for a while, but them Bumgarner broke his finger and Samardzija hurt himself as well - that's 2 months plus without the one, and a month without the other - that's plenty of time to get 10+ games down on the Dodgers and 6-7 on the other two teams and maybe even a couple down on the Pads....

5. San Diego Padres - there's some talent out there, much of it young, plus a couple nice veterans to stabilize the team - if only they had some ready starters. They seem like a team likely to be getting better through the next few years, but not a team likely to play past September for a while yet. Or even get out of the basement (though Giants' injuries could help there, like they did last year.)

So to add it all up?

AL Post season? Sox - Indians - Astros + Yankees and Twins (same as last year.) Any of the big four could get through,but theAstros are the one team with a clear edge - they look like the best team in baseball by a clear distance. Like the Cubs last year! ha ha ha. Right. Best dark horse? Seattle.

NL Postseason: Nats - Cubs - Dodgers (boring, huh?) + Arizona and St Louis. The rest is a better fight - any of those teams could get through, and none of them seem like strong favorites now. Dodgers have Kershaw, who can swing things; but dominant starters aren't the world beaters they used to be. I'd guess, now? Cubbies get back. Lost to the Astros, or whoever else comes from the AL. Best dark horse? Philly - that's a huge stretch, but hey,it would be fun!

Awards: AL MVP - as always, Trout's to lose. A good collection of runner up candidates, if something weird happens - Altuve and Correa, Betts, Judge, Stanton, Lindor and Ramirez, Machado - but Trout has to miss two months to give them a shot.
Cy Young: Kluber is always a good bet. Sale, Verlander, etc. are real contenders. Maybe David Price bounces back.
Rookie: Willie Calhoun, in Texas, looks like he has a major league job now (of the big prospects) - could be. I'm not as up on these as I could be (or as I am on the NL rookies, for some reason.)
MVP = I'd have to say Harper is the favorite; he's less consistent than Trout (though usually very good), and there's less separation between him and the other stars- so Bryant or Rizzo, Bellinger, Seager, Goldschmidt, Votto, Blackmun, Arenado, Ozuna, maybe even some out of nowhere types like AJ Pollack or the ghost of some forgotten giant (Posey or McCutcheon or Longoria) might win. Bryant and Seager probably have the inside track,along with Harper, though.
Cy Young: Kershaw if he is healthy, Scherzer if Kershaw misses some time, Strasburg or someone weird if both of them slip. Various Mets, say. But there's a gap there.
Rookie: from the sound of it, once he's done enough time in the minors to stretch out arbitration for a year, Ronald Acuna is ready and raring to go. Sounds good to me.

That's it then. Play Ball!

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

1918 Spring Offensive

Hello! I know I have become a very lazy blogger, and a big casualty of that has been my complete neglect of history blogging. It's a bad time to get so lazy, especially with anniversaries - 100 years ago was the climax of the Great War, the Revolution in Russia - 150 years ago, Reconstruction was in full swing.... I should be doing this. What can I say.

What I can do is come in quickly to get a post up today - 100 years ago, March 21, 1918, the German army launched a huge offensive on the western front, designed to end the war. I am not going to wrte too much about that - I will point instead fo Robert Farley's post at Lawyers, Guns and Money, complete with links about the strategic and tactical elements of the offensive.

So just a quick summary. By the spring of 1918, the Russians were out of the war - the Bolsheviks had sued for peace, and by March, signed the treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Germany, ending Russian participation in the war. Even before that, the Germans had been moving men from the Eastern Front to the Western Front - it gave them a numerical advantage in 1918 in France. However, the Americans were coming - eventually - so the Germans felt they had to move fast. They hoped to defeat the British, particularly, in France, causing them to break with the French. Not sure how like that would have been even if they had been more successful, but that's a topic for another day.

The Germans attacked. They used new tactics, developed through the war - powerful, concentrated, surprise artillery barrages; infiltration tactics by the infantry - moving in squad sized units as deep into the enemy lines as they could go, to avoid presenting the kinds of targets machine guns and artillery could decimate, and to consolidate their gains before the enemy could counterattack or build a new line of defenses. It worked. They broke through the British lines, and drove deep into allied territory - 40 miles in some cases, on a front that hadn't moved more than 4 or 5 miles in 4 years. But it failed. The Germans used up to many resources; the British and French did not break; Americans started to trickle in and take a part in the fighting, and the lines held. And when it was done, the Germans were too spent to resist - in late summer and fall the Allies counterattacked, using their own new tactics and technology (tanks, for instance) to drive the Germans back, and eventually end the war.

Why did the Germans fail? Farley links to a number of articles about WWI tactics - it's important to remember that the war was not as static as it is sometimes portrayed. Everyone tried new methods for breaking trenches, tactical or technological, and they were more successful, sometimes, then we tend to give them credit. New artillery tactics usually did work, the first time they were used; gas worked, the first time it was used, and was terrifying and effective afterwards; infantry tactics worked. Armies found ways to break enemy trenches - they never found ways to do anything about it. Operation Michael was the most successful - but it bogged down as completely as any other battle. My pet theory holds up - that the problem was always that while the technology of killing (guns and bullets and explosives and gas and flamethrowers and all the rest) had advanced unthinkably before the war, and continued to advance throughout the war; and the sheer industrial power of the main forces had advanced to the point that it could sustain this murder for years - transportation technology had not kept pace. It wasn't until tanks started to appear that anyone had any means of moving across the battlefield fast enough to prevent the other side from creating a new impenetrable fortress on the other side. Tanks let you move firepower fast enough to stop the other side from reforming. Tracks let you move across torn up battlefields. As armies became more motorized generally - as air support became decisive - it was possible to move men around on the field, and take advantage of the holes you could make.

That and, in the end, the Germans ran out of men and material before the allies did.

Friday, February 23, 2018

The Death Lobby

Well - almost a month since my last post. Looks like every post I make this year is going to have a disclaimer at the top lamenting how lazy I have become. I wish I could do better than post every time someone important dies, but that seems to be a pattern as well.

Two people I know died this week - a woman I knew almost entirely online, though we both lived in Boston, and would see each other around once in a while; and a man who was one of my family's closest friends when I was a kid - both are hard to deal with. And Billy Graham died - almost a hundred years old. (The other two both died too young - that's not a fair distribution of years on this earth; they would have made better use of the extra 30-40 years he got.) I can't get too nasty about Rev. Graham - he was a huge part of the cultural landscape where I grew up, the greatest evangelist, the model for all us white protestant evangelicals.... He was presented as a hero, a completely benign figure - and by the time I got old enough not to care about his religion anymore, the next generation of white protestant evangelicals were running rampant, and by god did they make him look good. He never quite embraced the overt fascism of Swaggart and Falwell and Bakker and Robertson, Ralph Reed, James Dobson, the whole disgusting crowd, including his own vile son Franklin, as bad as any of them. But he never quite did anything against them - and he probably went along with most of their political beliefs.He had no guilt about cozying up to the likes of Tricky Dick. Still - treating religion as primarily a matter between you and your god is not going to destroy the republic - he did that, or did it more effectively than the others; there is nothing in Graham's approach that obliges you to take one side or the other politically. You could get converted and actually go do some good in the world, if you were inclined: publicly at least, for most of his career, maybe when he was actually in charge of his career, he made religion a personal decision (if not a private one, exactly.) Behind it all might have been the same neo-confederate viciousness that animated the next bunch of TV preachers (and of course, the love of money), but you could take the meat and throw the bones away, with old Billy.

That's harder to pull off now. The big news in the world these last two weeks has been the latest mass shooting at a school - another horror show, with the usual reactions in the wake... But a twist - this time the survivors of the attack immediately took to the streets and TV camera and their social media accounts to demand gun control. They've been driving the conversation - they are putting the NRA defenders on their heels a bit. Publicly, I guess you could say: Marco Rubio might look like he's about to cry when he's on stage, but we all know he can comfort himself by counting the 0's on his NRA campaign contributions. The subject is a hard one to say anything new about - there's no real mystery about how to address the problem: gun control. The usual sensible, limited responses - ban assault rifles and military gear; longer waiting periods, stronger background checks, closing loopholes for buying guns, imposing more national laws, so you can't buy a gun off the shelf in one state and drive to the next state to gun down some teenagers. And most of this is very popular, and would pass easily, if it were put to a referendum (and everyone voted.) But that isn't the problem - the problem is that the Republicans control the legislature (and presidency, though that's not where this can be solved), and they are on board all the way with the NRA. And well compensated for it.

It's another instance of the failure of democracy in this country - the public supports gun control, like they support public health insurance - but that will never pass. Or - it will not pass until Democrats control the legislatures again. People skirt around the fact, talk bout "politicians" or "congress" as though the reason nothing gets done is that no legislators support gun control - but that is not true. This is a partisan problem. This problem is caused by the Republican party. Democrats would pass something - by the time they were done, it would be watered down and ineffective, but it would be something, it would save couple thousand lives a year, and Republicans would run against it because it didn't go far enough (pure shamelessness is part of their MO) - but it would pass. But nothing will pass with Republican votes.

So vote. Voting is the key. Voting, voting, voting. Voting and money - the other thing that might move the GOP is if you can get at the source of their cash. The NRA is starting to see sponsors withdrawing - if their money starts to dry up, their contributions might - cut off the cash cows and you can see change. we'll see.

Meanwhile - the NRA and their patsies (including the dumfounded dipshit in the white house) run through a bewildering array of bullshit to steer the conversation into a ditch. Arming teachers? I was flipping through channels on TV last night, and on PBS, some lady was explaining how it might work - I didn't stay long enough to see what side she was on, but it doesn't matter. People are discussing arming teachers as a response to classroom shootings - am I hallucinating? Part of it is clearly just meant to muddy the waters - get people arguing about arming teachers, or compare gun control to deporting illegal immigrants or something and the debate disintegrates into nonsense and trivia and nothing happens.... But you also see price tags: 14 million dollars per school district to buy guns? You don't think the gun lobby sees that and starts drooling?

Argument is pointless. There is no reason to argue with people who would suggest something like arming teachers. There is no point arguing with people who whines about kids eating tide pods, so how can they understand gun control? or who equate voting with mass murder (they support background checks for guns, if you'll support stronger ID laws for voting!) Or who think the answer to gun violence in schools is more prayer or banning baggy pants. Or just arguing ith people who claim that gun control is a terrible attack inindividual freedom, so propose turning the country into a police state to protect us from all those unregulated guns. It's madness. Fuck them all.

Right now, I say just ban them. No more guns. If you have to repeal the second amendment to do it, fine with me, it was a bad idea in 1790, and it's completely pointless now - though it also clearly allows for all the gun regulation you need. That's my argument. It's probably not my position - but I'm not making laws, so it's not on me to find something fair and reasonable. I'll do that when there are actual laws being discussed. The NRA works very hard to frame the debate in cultural terms - guns as fetish objects, as a sign of a kind of toxic masculinity mixed with white resentment - fight that.