The Last Dance

Pretty much inhaled the Michael Jordan docuseries The Last Dance on Netflix. As I was a mere lad during the Chicago Bulls’ extended championship run in the ‘90s, the series really added color and context to the on- and off-court happenings I wouldn’t have understood at the time.

Though a Wisconsinite, I didn’t feel any loyalty to the Milwaukee Bucks back then as they were bad and Jordan’s Bulls were so much more entertaining. (The opposite was true in football—Go Pack Go.) My only personal brush with the Bulls dynasty was briefly seeing Tony Kukoc outside of FAO Schwarz in downtown Chicago when visiting with family friends.

The whole Michael Jordan phenomenon can really be summed up in one GIF, and it doesn’t even include Jordan:

https://i2.wp.com/8points9seconds.com/files/2014/09/larry-bird.gif?w=1100&ssl=1

That’s Larry Bird, another NBA legend and Hall of Famer, as coach of the Indiana Pacers after retiring as a player. The Pacers are playing the Bulls in Game 4 of the 1998 semifinals and Reggie Miller just nailed a shot over Jordan to put the Pacers up by 2 with 0.7 seconds left. But as you can see, while the rest of the stadium erupts with elation, the only thing on Bird’s mind is: That’s too much time for MJ.

That the Bulls lost that game after Jordan barely missed his subsequent 3-point shot is beside the point. Bird’s respect for Jordan as a fellow legendary clutch performer indicates just how dominant he was, even in his later years.

The Last Dance does a great job navigating several stories at once. The through-line is the 1998 season, which was captured in behind-the-scenes video detail thanks to deep access granted to a camera crew. Each episode interweaves that arc with Jordan’s life and career taken chronologically through interviews with him and other players, coaches, and figures that were instrumental along the way.

One of the funny motifs throughout the series is how many times they make note of another player or coach talking trash about the notoriously vindictive and competitive Jordan, either directly or in the press, and then modern-day Jordan is like, “That’s all I needed,” and then we see vintage Jordan annihilate them in the next game.

Despite having many more personal memories watching and admiring LeBron James’s ascent to NBA Mount Rushmore status, this series reaffirms to me that Jordan is still #1. Different stats, different styles, different eras, etc., but that’s where I’m at now.

An ‘Unorthodox’ Harmony

It’s good to know that even in quarantine, my old friend synchronicity can still visit me.

I watched the Netflix miniseries Unorthodox after reading the review from Vox‘s Alissa Wilkinson and am so glad I did. Based on the true story of a young ultra-Orthodox Jewish woman fleeing her community in Williamsburg, it’s just four episodes but packs a powerful punch.

(Spoilers ahead. Just go watch Unorthodox.)

Esty, the young woman, is 19 and married to Yanky, an equally young ultra-orthodox Jew who’s serious and withdrawn. When they don’t immediately conceive a child—as is the expectation in their religious and cultural milieu—their marriage strains to the point where Esty begins secretly orchestrating an escape.

One of the leitmotifs in the series is Esty’s relationship with music. Since in her community it’s considered immodest for women to perform in public, she hasn’t been able to live out her passion for music except through the memory of listening to her grandmother’s favorite choral music, and then only through taking piano lessons in secret with a neighbor.

When she does get the chance to perform later in the series, at an audition for a music academy, she first sings a Schubert piece that was a favorite of her grandmother. When asked to sing another, she digs for something even more personal. In The Thrillist, Esther Zuckerman describes this powerful moment:

In a strong chest voice, she starts to sing in Hebrew. The tune, which is never identified by name, is “Mi Bon Siach,” heard at weddings when the bride and groom are under the chuppah. It’s a melody that played when Esty and Yanky were getting married in the second episode, and Esty’s choice of it resonates with both rebellion and irony. It’s a song that should signify her bond to a man, but she’s turning it into something that can extricate her from that bond, using a voice that she wouldn’t have been able to use in her former world where women’s singing is prohibited.

And this is where synchronicity arrives. The day before starting Unorthodox I read the article “Contrapuntal Order: Music Illuminates Social Harmony” by John Ahern in First Things. A doctoral candidate in musicology at Princeton, Ahern writes about how the musical concepts of counterpoint and harmony relate to marriage and relationships. Counterpoint, he writes,

is the accumulation of multiple melodies. It is like Louis Armstrong playing an improvised tune on his trumpet at the same time as Ella ­Fitzgerald sings “La Vie en Rose”—two different melodies simultaneously. Neither is subordinate to the other, or, if there is subordination (perhaps we listen a little more to Ella’s voice than the trumpet), they are both melodies, a status that the piano, plunking out chords in the background, does not share. In true counterpoint, all the sound created is produced by people singing or playing melodies. If we lived several hundred years ago, we would say that “harmony” is what joins and holds together those melodies, their counterpoint, in a pleasing fashion.

I’ve always loved counterpoints in music. They’re a great way to juice up a final chorus, like in the climax of “Non-Stop” from Hamilton. And they are the perfect metaphor for the relationship between Esty and Yanky, and between the competing “melodies” within Esty during her time of personal and spiritual upheaval.

As Ahern writes, “when two melodies coexist, the glory is their coexistence. But there is no harmony among things that are too dissimilar. The melodies must have an awareness of and reliance on each other in order to live in concord.” However, “if the two melodies resemble each other too closely, they lose their identity. The glory of harmony, of concord, is that the elements are different.”

Having grown up in the same cloistered culture with a shared worldview, Esty and Yanky were arguably too similar to inhabit true harmony. Especially since as a woman in a severely conservative milieu, Esty had no true autonomy and no identity outside of being a baby-maker (which she says explicit in the show).

Unorthodox is the story of how that changes. Esty’s journey from passivity to power—paralleled by Yanky’s own existential awakening—mirrors the counterpoint view of marriage, which creates harmony in its original sense by allowing and even demanding coexistent voices. This contrasts with the more conservative “complementarian” model of marriage, with one spouse (usually the wife) filling in around whatever space the other (husband) inhabits. In the older sense of harmony, writes Ahern:

one person singing is no threat at all to another person singing. Sounds are not quantities or physical objects; for one to exist in the same space as one another is not only possible but desirable. The challenge is to get them to sound good together. This requires some chronological hierarchy—one party needs to lead and the other follow—but this, as we discovered above, does not mean that one party will sacrifice more autonomy than another. Both must sacrifice independence for the sake of symmetry.

Perhaps you can see now why this article spoke (or sang) to me while watching Unorthodox. Competing melodies in music and marriage can work only if they are composed with intention and care within a shared song. How Esty’s melodies do or do not harmonize within herself and with Yanky are what make Unorthodox so compelling, and I encourage you to seek it out.

(I also recommend reading Ahern’s article in full for a much richer explication of the counterpoint theory.)

Obi-What Can I Be

I took the Statistical “Which Character” Personality Quiz from the Open-Source Psychometrics Project, which they describe as a “slightly more scientific but still silly” version of those Buzzfeed “Which Character Are You?” tests I mostly avoid.

Here are my top five results, with the percentage of overlap in perceived personality traits:

  1. Obi-Wan Kenobi, Star Wars (87%)
  2. Daniel Jackson, Stargate SG-1 (86%)
  3. Lester Freamon, The Wire (85%)
  4. Bruce Banner, Marvel Cinematic Universe (84%)
  5. Derrial Book, Firefly and Serenity (84%)

And I don’t even like Star Wars. Haven’t seen Serenity/Firefly or Stargate SG-1, but I’ll take Lester Freamon and Bruce Banner any day. (Maybe not The Hulk though.)

I looked up some Obi-Wan quotes to get a better sense of him (here’s his personality profile from the test) and yeah, this is about right for me:

You’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.

The truth is often what we make of it. You heard what you wanted to hear, believed what you wanted to believe.

Be mindful of your thoughts, Anakin, they betray you.

Only a Sith deals in absolutes.

If you define yourself by the power to take life, the desire to dominate, to possess…then you have nothing.

(Gotta say I’m very proud of this post’s title.)

On the magical realism of Mister Rogers

My now one-year-old and I have slowly been going through the episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood available on Amazon Prime. He’s generally not interested in extended screen time at this point, but Mister Rogers is one of the few figures he recognizes and enjoys. (Along with Alex Trebek. #proudpapa)

There’s not much I can say about Fred Rogers that hasn’t already been said. The man was a genius. And the show, which I hadn’t seen since I was a kid, remains both ahead of its time and outside of it. Its deliberately unhurried pace, humanist ethos, and intellectual respect for its young audience make it almost anti-TV, something I couldn’t have realized as a kid.

Now being on the other side of parenthood, I find watching it a delightful and enriching experience for me and for my son. Rogers’ short bits of wisdom sprinkled throughout the episodes in word and song are deceptively simple, poetic, and actionable. He had such a unique way of communicating that it has its own name: Freddish.

At first I skipped the parts in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe because they’re kinda cheesy. I much prefer Fred hanging around his house doing crafts, singing, and breakdancing. But I’ve come to appreciate how those make-believe times blend the show’s “real” people and plots with the imaginary King Friday XIII and crew.

That kind of magical realism was at the forefront of Marielle Heller’s film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, which is based on the making of Tom Junod’s 1998 Esquire article about Rogers called “Can You Say…Hero?” The movie plays out as one long episode of the show, the main difference being that Lloyd, the Junod stand-in played by Matthew Rhys, finds himself becoming involved in the show. Picture Picture turns into a flashback from Lloyd’s life, and Tom Hanks’ Rogers displays a photo board of characters from the show (which happened on a real episode I watched not long before seeing the movie), one of which ends up being Lloyd.

This blurring of fact and fiction works on two different levels. First, it honors the show’s commitment to showcase real-world experiences alongside its pretend adventures—a dynamic that mirrors the way young children actually experience the world.

Second, it abides by Rogers’ expressed intention to act on the show as if he were speaking to one specific child rather than an audience of millions. He really, truly believed that one person—Lloyd in the movie’s case—was special and deserved his full attention and love. (Aren’t they the same thing?)

That’s the genius of Fred Rogers: he was real, but he seemed magical. He wasn’t a saint, as his wife Joanne explains in the movie. He had to work at being good and getting better just like anyone else. But that’s the kind of neighbor we all should want and aspire to be.

Favorite TV Shows of the 2010s

See also: my favorite books, albums, and films of the 2010s.

I spent a lot more time reading and watching movies over the last 10 years than watching TV, but here are the 10 series I enjoyed the most.

10. Catastrophe. For keeping it (brutally) real.

9. House of Cards. For the pulpy thrills of the first three seasons (the only ones I’ve seen).

8. Archer. For the many deep-cut references and H. Jon Benjamin’s voice.

7. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. For the breezy wit.

6. Big Mouth. For really going there (and crossing over with honorable mention Big Little Lies.)

5. The People vs. OJ Simpson. For making someone too young at the time to understand to understand.

4. Rick & Morty. For making me laugh more than anything else.

3. The Crown. For finding ordinary truths in extraordinary circumstances.

2. Parks & Recreation. For being the Breaking Bad of network sitcoms. (And very rewatchable.)

1. Breaking Bad. For being a perfect television show.

They went back! On a ‘Lost’ retrospective podcast

Really enjoyed the SYFY limited podcast series Through the Looking Glass: A LOST Retrospective, which celebrates 15 years since the premiere of Lost in 2004.

Hosted by Tara Bennett and Maureen Ryan—two television writers who covered the show’s original run—the podcast consists of six episodes that examine Lost from different perspectives, including how it revolutionized fan engagement, viral marketing, the phenomenon of showrunners, and television in general.

The final episode features Lost showrunners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, who were game as always. Their own podcast that they ran while making the show was the first one I ever followed. Before social media was a thing, they made interaction with fans a vital part of the show’s development and marketing.

As an avowed fan of the series finale (fight me), I couldn’t help but relish Damon’s harsh but true words for George R. R. Martin, who was critical of the finale at the time but has now very publicly run into his own issues ending Game of Thrones. Even if his ending matches or exceeds the now crazy high expectations, he will have done it with far more time and creative control than the Lost guys were afforded for theirs.

And yet, despite my appreciation for the series, I haven’t felt compelled to rewatch it since the original airing. Perhaps because of the time commitment, or the foreknowledge of having to wade through some of the weaker episodes.

But this podcast makes me want to revisit it. You all everybody want to join me?

What is utter sadness, Alex

Since coming home from the hospital with our baby boy, we’ve been alternating between several streaming shows to pass the hours that need passing. Current go-tos include The Office, The Great British Baking Show, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and The Wire.

As much as I like all of them, none give me as much joy as watching Jeopardy! on Netflix. I literally gasped when I discovered it was on there. Finally I could finally skip the awkward contestant small talk and Medicare commercials and just engage in pure, uncut, nonstop trivia.

I found it just in time. The other day the Boy was getting fussy as I was starting an episode. As soon as Alex Trebek’s legendary voice started in on the clues, he calmed down. I’m gonna go ahead and assert that in this instance correlation did equal causation, because Jeopardy! fixes all.

Which makes the news about Trebek’s pancreatic cancer diagnosis that much sadder. The straight-laced optimism and sly humor in his video announcing the news is inspiring and very on-brand. It’s like he’s a Clue Crew member delivering a Video Daily Double:

(See also his interview on The Nerdist.)

Barry Petchesky from Deadspin gets it right:

This is exactly what you’d want and expect from the man who, for 35 years, has hosted the best and smartest game show in existence. Businesslike. Competence exuded through every pore. Cool, professional, authoritative. (It’s what makes his occasional jokes work so well. They’re gems because they’re so rare. They’re earned.) You are not there, in Trebek’s house, for chit-chat. You are there to answer some damn questions. And there is no one on earth better suited to oversee the merciless, no-frills format of Jeopardy! than him.

I got to see Trebek and the show in person. Long may he reign. And may we have mercy on whoever has to eventually replace him.

Perfect Bid

Remember Terry Kniess, the guy who made the perfect bid on the Showcase Showdown of The Price is Right? Someone made a documentary about the guy behind that bid, and it’s surprisingly thrilling.

Ted Slauson is a math whiz and The Price is Right superfan who’s attended dozens of tapings of the show and even wrote his own computer program to help him memorize the show’s thousands of different products and games. Using archival footage and Ted’s deadpan talking head interviews, the documentary pieces together how Ted’s savant-level mastery and willingness to feed other contestants exact prices led to some amazing television.

Though amateurish in its choppy editing and overuse of background music, the doc is an effective love letter to one of the most popular game shows ever and a compelling investigation into its unlikely cult hero.

Queer Eye and Straight Guys

Karamo Brown of Queer Eye recently gave a free talk nearby, so I availed myself of the opportunity to see him in the flesh. He was the same as you see on the show, except this time he made himself cry. He got emotional as soon as the talk began because an old college friend of his was in the audience, someone who reminded him of how far he’d come in life. He then briefly told stories from the show and about being a dad.

Unsurprisingly, he was very open with feelings and implored us not to make fear-based decisions. His sons probably do not appreciate when they bring girls home and Karamo pulls them aside and asks “Have you done anything out of fear lately?” But that’s something youths can only appreciate in hindsight (and something only a therapist/motivational speaker like Karamo could get away with).

I never watched the original Queer Eye, though vaguely remember its cultural impact. But while I was in Denver for a wedding last fall, my straight-dude friends were effusive in their praise for the new version. It’s so much more than fashion, they said. They were right. It’s fun to see the Fab Five work their magic: Bobby remodeling homes and Jonathan transforming hair and Antoni inspiring cooking and Tan remaking wardrobes and Karamo shepherding the show’s “heroes” to a new self-awareness.

But, like Karamo, I think I’m most interested in seeing what makes the subjects cry, or at least be vulnerable. Those moments are water wells, openings to the deep reserves of emotional underground that’s usually in darkness. Drawing from that space, for me anyway, involves work and risk but almost always reward. It happened for me that weekend in Denver, which is why I’ll always associate that time with the show. The ability to be vulnerable among friends—straight male friends, no less—and to do it so easily when it’s otherwise so daunting, meant it was good in the richest sense of the word.

That inspiring of goodness is one of my takeaways from the show. The Fab Five dedicate themselves to new and challenging experiences around Georgia for the first two seasons, and in doing so demonstrate their goodness to everyone. Being willing to share their expertise for the betterment of strangers, prodding when necessary but remaining open to being changed themselves—that’s good. That takes guts, and vulnerability. And that’s what I look forward to seeing even more of in season 3.

Cookie Monster, typist

I’m just gonna say it: Cookie Monster is the best Muppet in the Jim Henson Muppetverse. And not just because of his typewriter scene in Christmas Eve on Sesame Street, which I watched last night. Though I cannot endorse his flagrant destruction of a perfectly good fake typewriter, his GIF-worthy reaction at the end of his scene with Gordon is golden.

Also, I just now discovered his parody of “Call Me Maybe”, maybe the best pop song of the last 10 years: