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September 30, 2013

[SPOILERS] A Breaking Bad plot flaw

Breaking Bad Finale SPOILERS

A number of plot weaknesses, if not exactly flaws, have been noticed by many people: It was too convenient that Walter found the car keys in the first scene, it was unlikely that he could have so casually evaded the police lookouts when visiting his wife, he couldn’t have counted on being allowed to position his car so perfectly for the last scene, it was lucky that all the bad guys (except one) were in just the right range for his bullet-sprinkler system.

But I haven’t seen one particular, and genuine, plot flaw mentioned anywhere. Probably because I’m wrong about it. Here goes:

Gretchen and Elliott Schwartz were next to each other facing forward when the red laser dots appeared on their chests. How did they see the dots? Did they see the laser sources and figure out that they were pointing at them? That’s probably it. Ok, so much for the plot flaw. Carry on.

Finally, yes, I know that picking plot flaws misses the point of the Breaking Bad finale. But I have to say that I was a little disappointed by episode. It wrapped up the plot points, but I didn’t think it advanced the series’ argument. And, no, I don’t claim to know exactly what that argument was; it was too wonderfully complex for that. Still, I didn’t think the finale deepened its themes.

I agree with how others have framed it: “Ozymandias” — the third-to-last episode — was the series’ climax. The rest was denouement.

Great, great series.


Freudian slip of the month. From E-Online’s coverage of the finale: “Walt (Bryan Cranston) got his revenge but succumbed to his wombs.”

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November 27, 2012

At the corner of Hollywood and Web

I greatly enjoyed last weeks’s Berkman Center event about some of the ways the Web is affecting the movie industry, which included a screening of an indie movie that has been released only on the Web.

First here was a panel discussion with Rob Burnett [twitter:robburnett1], Elaine McMillion, and me, moderated by Jonathan Zittrain. Rob is the executive producer of “The Late Show with David Letterman” and the director and co-creator of the new indie movie We Made This Movie. Elaine is a Berkman Fellow and is orchestrating a crowdsourced, interactive documentary called Hollow. Jonathan Zittrain is extremely Jonathan Zittrainy, which is a wonderful thing. We talked about what the Net is doing to movies, and you couldn’t ask for two more insightful commentators than Rob and Elaine, led by the Best Moderator in the Business.

Then we watched Rob’s movie, which I loved. [Disclosure: I did a little free consulting about the Web release.] The movie is hard to describe, which is a good thing, but it’s funny, engaging, touching, and deeply clever. In fact, it transcends its cleverness, but of this I can say no more. It’s also got an incredibly talented ensemble cast that made me think of Diner. Go to the movie’s site to find out how to see it online. (Hint: It’s on iTunes.)

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July 14, 2011

Predicting SYTYCD: Reading the judges

I have a prediction about who is going home tonight on So You Think You Can Dance.

I am more certain about the boy who’s leaving: Jess. I believe the judges are setting us up for this. It seemed to me that he danced fantastically last night. His second dance in particular elicited “mehs” instead of what seemed to me to be the more obvious and more fair course: His movement is so precise. His rhythm is amazing. He stayed in character and exhibited joy. He excelled in a style not his own. But not a word about his “growth,” much less having “taken us on a journey.” Instead the judges praised the slightly less strong performance by Clarice. (Note that I know I am not a dance expert.) And Nigel gave away the game when he said that Jess is unsteady in his lifts. I.e., Jess is short. Very short.

So, I think the judges (= the producers) have decided that Jess can’t make it into the Top Ten because they will not be able to keep him from getting paired with a tall girl. So, he has to go. Thus, they’re setting it up so that tonight when he dances for his life, sending him home won’t be out of the blue. (The fact that a couple of weeks ago the judges told Ryan that her dance for her life wasn’t up to their standards but they kept her anyway pretty much confirmed that the decisions about who to cut are made before and regardless of the “dance for your life” segments.)

I’m pretty sure they’re also setting us up to send Ryan home. I personally think she’s the weakest of the girls, so I’m not as bothered. They even gave her a dance last night that featured what are supposed to be her “Hollywood” good looks and didn’t use that to boost her to us viewers. I believe her goose is finally cooked. The story will be that they gave her a chance when they rescued her a couple of weeks ago and she just hasn’t come through, although they’ll put it in more new agey language about being true to herself and being in the moment.

Overall, I think this season’s Top Twenty has been amazingly strong and even. But I’m not finding the same peaks as in many other years. (For me, Brandon and Will were two mighty peaks.) If I had to pick a favorite, it’d be Sasha Mallory.


June 8, 2011

E.T.: A very old trailer

Here’s the 1982 trailer for ET:

MovieLine posted the trailer to support the wisdom of Super 8’s decision not to give away too much ahead of time. But, wow, does the ET trailer seem dated! It feels like it has about half as many scenes as a typical modern trailer. Contemporary trailers are much more coherent, not in the sense of making sense (which they usually don’t), but in the sense of feeling like a whole experience, usually ending with an ear-ripping blast or, after you’ve thought it ended, a shocking image or wry remark. I hate contemporary trailers because they are assaultive and disrespect the movies they spoil, but the ET trailer seems excepionally poorly made.

Maybe they figured (correctly) that they really just had to tell us that it’s the next Spielberg film, and that ET was unlikely to bite children in half.

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April 17, 2011

Comedy or not?

At the risk of becoming just slightly obsessed with the awfulness of Airport 1975, here’s the honest-to-grid trailer for it, indistinguishable from parodies of it:

Simply for purposes of comparison (SPOILER: better cast, better acting, even funnier):

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February 6, 2011

The Eras of Late Night Memory Test

I’m fairly good at associating the U.S. presidents of my lifetime with the decades in which they were in office. But, I find myself unhinged in time when it comes to the late night talkshow hosts. I am constantly surprised upon hearing, say, how long Leno has been on.

You too? Let’s find out. Here’s a quiz. (All answers authenticated by the experts at Wikipedia.)

Year Steve Allen started The Tonight Show.

Year Jack Paar took over.

Start and end years of Johnny Carson’s hosting of The Tonight Show.

When did Carson move the show from NY to Hollywood?.

What year did the Tomorrow Show (which came on after the Tonight Show) start?

During what years did the Dick Cavett Show run on ABC as a late night show?

What year did Late Night with Letterman start?

Whom did Letterman replace? That is, who had been the host of the Tomorrow Show?

Who was host of The Tonight Show during most of the years that The Arsenio Hall Show was on?

Who was President during the year that Jay Leno first took over The Tonight Show?

When did Conan O’Brien take over Letterman’s Late Night?

What year did Jimmy Kimmel’s late night show begin?

Extra Credit

What road served as a bizarre euphemism for “penis,” expressing a ritualized fear of castration, on Carson’s Tonight Show ?

What object did Ed Ames accidentally turn into a surrogate penis, resulting in the longest laugh in Tonight Show history?

Do we sense a disturbingly Freudian pattern here?

Who played the non-endearing but frequent guest on the Tonight Show who went by the name “Aunt Blabby”?

What game show host had a late night talk show on a major network for a season?

What did Merv Griffin create that is probably known by the most people?

Name the funniest sidekick on any late night talk show?

Have you ever seen a complete episode of Jimmy Kimmel’s late night show?


January 15, 2011

1960’s bands vs. 1960’s bands’ names

The names of the top bands of the 1960s are so much a part of them that it’s almost impossible to think of the names simply as names. But let’s make the effort in order to evaluate how good their names were.

Of course, names can be good in many ways. They can be descriptive, ironic, memorably eccentric. But, it seems to me that some of the best bands had the worst names.

Here’s an unordered and, of course, utterly subjective list, graded on a scale of 1-10, where 10 is best:

  • Jefferson Airplane: Retro + modern + meaningless = psychedelic. 8

  • Supremes : Cocky, but lived up to it. 8

  • Rolling Stones: Great name for itinerant minstrels. Terrible name for a rock band. 4

  • Fairport Convention: Appropriately rustic and archaic. If it didn’t sound like the name of an obscure British peace treaty or forgotten dart rules, it’d be close to perfect. 8

  • Grateful Dead: Good hyperbolic name for a metal group. Totally inappropriate for a group as sunny as this. Points added because they were clearly tripping when they came up with it. 6

  • Mamas and Papas: Terrific name for a kiddy band. Meh name for a pop group of young, non-parental units. 5

  • Gladys Knight and the Pips: Pips? Really? Is this a British vaudeville group that comes out in boaters? All of this band’s points go to the first half of its name: 3

  • The Beach Boys: Beach music sung by boys. Sounds frivolous, but then they sing. Frivolously. And then they record Pet Sounds. 9

  • Four Tops: There are four of them. They are the tops. The naming convention flags their genre. Well done, lads! 9

  • The Doors: An incredibly prosaic name that works ironically for their druggy music. Plus, it’s an appropriate literary reference — which would be better if their worst songs weren’t the ones that opened the doors of perception the widest. They shouldn’t have asked The Lizard King’s opinion. 9

  • The Four Seasons: They have nothing to do with the seasons. They have nothing to do with Vivaldi. It’s a bland, generic, misleading, slightly pretentious, placeholder of a name. Point added for the correct counting of band members. 2

  • Gerry and the Pacemakers: You know immediately what sort of band they are, unless you hear “pacemaker” as a medical device and think that they’re going to show up in walkers and plaid pants buckled beneath their pot bellies. Gotta split the difference on this one: 4

  • Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention: The Mothers were men, plus you have the swear-word implication, plus they were actually inventive. All of which doesn’t even matter. You had me at “Zappa.” 10

  • The Byrds: Did they misspell it because “” was already taken? Oh, wait. They misspelled it to be cool.
    genericName + misspelling = genericName – 2. Final score: 1

  • Creem: Ironically refined food-based name. Sexual connotation. Bold statement that they were a super-group composed of the filtered extract of great other groups. The lack of a definite article makes it even cockier. 10

  • Sly and the Family Stone: You’ve got the slyness of “Sly” and the family-ness of “Family,” but together with a straight-on drug reference. A totally wtf name for a wtf group. 9

  • Steppenwolf: Sounds vaguely and appropriately threatening and aggressive, despite the totally inappropriate literary reference. 7

  • Credence Clearwater Revival: The length of the name has a throwback quality, and the three words each independently says that this is a group about something simple and pure. It would have been a terribly pretentious name for a folk group, but it works better for a rock group. 5

  • Led Zeppelin: The winner in a contentious argument about what to name a psychedelicious band, if the band members were all 14 years old. For an adult band, it’s just embarrassing. 3

  • The Beatles: See Led Zeppelin, but drop the band’s age to 12. “Oooh, and we can spell it B-E-AT instead of B-E-E-T.” Is it an accident that as far as I know, the Beatles never once used a beetle in their iconography? Terrible terrible name. Point added because they were the FREAKING BEATLES OMG OMG. 2


October 17, 2010

Mad Men: From Good to Great

[Note that I’ve removed all the distributed “in my opinion”s from the following, and instead have concentrated them in this introductory paragraph. The following expresses nothing but my opinion:]

Tonight is the season finale of Mad Men, a show that I think has gone from good to great because it has outlived its premise.

Shows that start out with a strong premise often need a couple of seasons to find their way past it. The Sopranos, for example, initially revolved around the cute premise that a mob boss would have mother issues that drove him into analysis. The Sopranos was good from the beginning, but not because of the premise: the acting was amazing, the cast was large, the relationships were complex. It took a season or two for the Sopranos to develop the tragic sense that made its basic comedy so deep. Dexter likewise has gotten better (unevenly) as the starkness of the premise (decent guy except he has to kill people) has been surrounded by less extreme human drama. The same for the Mary Tyler Moore Show (a working girl who is ok with being single) and M*A*S*H (doctors kept sane by humor in an absurd foreign war).

Now, it may well be that what’s really happening is that it takes a couple of seasons for the relationships to develop that deepen a show. If the best of television has gotten more complex over time (as Steven Johnson argues in Everything Bad is Good for You), then the same is true within a series as well as across all series. TV series let us tell (in Steve’s words) 100-hour stories, and the first set of hours are necessarily not as developed as the later sets. During those early sets, the show relies more on its premise.

For me, Mad Men started out as a totally enjoyable series that focused on reminding us through mores and decor what life in the 1950s was really like. That first season was all about the wall art and the martini lunches. You could almost hear the writers’ meetings in which they’d say things like, “Oooh, you know what would be really cool? Let’s have an embarrassingly pretentious ‘bohemian’ ad guy who dates a black woman to make a statement,” or “Let’s make sure that all the offices have bars in them.” Now in its fourth season, there are plenty of period references, but the show is less about them. It’s about an amazing ensemble grappling with timeless issues within the constraints of their era. It’s blown way past its original inspiration. And that is awesome

[SPOILER ALERT for those who have not seen Season One:] My once concern is the series’ continued fascination with Don’s double identity. In the original idea for the show, that might have been the kicker that sold it to the TV executives: “So you have a show set in the 1950s as they really were. But what’s it about? What happens?” The fact that Don stole his identity long ago and is at risk of being discovered might have sounded like a good answer. But by now for me it’s a melodramatic contrivance that’s out of place in the series’ genuine drama.

The identity theft has shown up in this season. I’m afraid that the finale will come back to that as the cliffhanger. If so, it’s too bad. We don’t need it. There are enough cliffs already; this season has been about the humiliation and cleansing of Don Draper, a long night that is not yet over. Don Draper is fascinating enough without the silly dual identity backstory.

BTW, have I mentioned how much I love the acting? Even January Jones (Betty) is having a good year, perhaps because she’s out of the dramatic center and thus doesn’t have to try to round her character out to a full three dimensions. Every one of the rest of the women are phenomenal, expressing so much nuance and life within and through the limited social roles they are allowed to play — which is itself a heartbreakingly true reflection on the times. And I have to say that Don and Betty’s daughter Sally (Kiernan Shipka) is amazing. I don’t know how tonight’s episode will wrap up the season, but I do know that we will be watching this phenomenally gifted 12 year old for the rest of our lives.


January 18, 2010

Laughtracks are funnier when they’re not there

HuffingtonPost has a scene from Big Bang Theory with the laughtrack removed:

The stated point is that a show with the laughtrack removed is funnier, but in a different and unintended way. But, the experiment is more provocative than that. (Big Bang is filmed in front of a live audience.)

BTW, Big Bang is on our TiVo list. I sort of like it because it’s good within its genre, as opposed to, say, Two and a Half Men, which is bad within its genre, but also as opposed to, say, Frasier, which was superb within its genre, and as also opposed to, say, Seinfeld which was hilarious as a self-conscious awkward inhabitant of its genre. (Please note that these are what I find funny, not what I think you ought to find funny. Except for Two and a Half Men. Gotta draw a line somewhere :)


November 14, 2009

Rest In Laughter, David Lloyd

David Lloyd, who not only wrote some of the greatest single episodes in TV sitcom history [Chuckles the Clown youtube], but consistently wrote hilariously, has died at 75. I especially loved a lot of his work on Frasier. With the death of Larry Gelbart (best known for M*A*S*H, but also a writer for the original Sid Caesar show, and of the movie Tootsie), a generation is passing.

It’ll be time soon for someone to do a retrospective on The Funniest Generation that assesses the effect of its sitcoms on our culture. And you can remind us all you want of how awful most sitcoms were and are, but there has almost always been at least one really funny sitcom running throughout American TV’s history. Usually on a Thursday night on NBC, by the way.


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