Schmigadoon. Though its story is a little loose at the edges throughout the show’s short six-episode run, the central conceit of a couple getting stuck inside the world of an old-timey musical was a fun journey. Watch out for “Corn Puddin’” because it’s an earworm. More TV musicals please!
Ted Lasso, season 2. Will be curious to see how this season fills out as a whole, but nothing can damper my love of the best show on TV. We really enjoyed the stretch of a couple weeks in July and August when we could watch the latest episodes of this and Schmigadoon as an uplifting and wholesome Friday night double feature.
Crimson Tide. So, this ruled. And made me really miss seeing Gene Hackman in movies.
In the Heights(movie and soundtrack). Seeing this was my first time back in the theater since February 2020, and I’ve had the soundtrack pretty much on repeat since. Favorite little moments: “damn, we only jokin’, stay broke then” and the It’s A Wonderful Life reference.
Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic by Steven Johnson. My favorite author strikes again.
A Quiet Place / A Quiet Place Part II. Being horror-averse I put off the first one for a while, basically until I saw the excellent reviews for Part II and realized they’re not actually horror but more of the “momentarily scary well-made thriller” variety, which I’m down with.
Showbiz Kids. Affecting documentary on HBO Max featuring former child actors talking about their past and present struggles.
The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green. I’ve never listened to the podcast this book is based on, but still enjoyed Green’s unique, earnest, and wry literary voice shining through this collection of essays.
We rewatched season 1 of Ted Lasso in advance of season 2 coming out next month. Among the many wonderful scenes in this marvel of a show, two scenes stuck out this time around.
One is from episode 7 (“Make Rebecca Great Again”), when the shy groundskeeper Nate gives a (NSFW) pregame speech/roast with Ted’s support:
The other is from episode 8 (“The Diamond Dogs”), when Ted hustles Rupert in darts:
Both scenes find their leads emerging from low moments into precarious situations that could have ended in disaster, but instead resulted in satisfying catharsis. They work so well because they’re earned, based on the foundation of character development that’s been building throughout the season.
I’m eager to see where season two brings them and the rest of the cast. Believe!
The Good Lord Bird. The limited series really captures the book’s madcap and dramatic spirit. Ethan Hawke is so delightfully committed to the dead-serious absurdity of John Brown.
The Underground Railroad. Two of my main takeaways while watching this 10-episode limited series: 1. I can’t believe I get to watch essentially 10 new Barry Jenkins movies! And 2. That’s a few too many given the heavy subject matter!
Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers, A Night in Tunisia. Recently my wife asked me to “get some jazz” from the library, so right before I left I grabbed a few albums more or less at random. Struck gold with this one.
Benny Goodman, Mozart at Tanglewood. Wanted to find some good concertos and heard good things about this one. Those good things were right.
Fake Love Letters, Forged Telegrams, and Prison Escape Maps: Designing Graphic Props for Filmmakingby Annie Atkins. A cool visual compendium and behind-the-scenes exploration of a film graphic prop designer’s impressive work, including lots from Wes Anderson movies.
After writing my paean to Boomtown, the cry of the masses rang out from sea to shining sea with a resounding message: “More Boomtown content!!!”
I live to serve.
During my latest rewatch, I took note of the moments that have stuck with me in the almost 20 years since the series debuted. I considered including them in that post but figured I’d give them some space of their own.
This list is, of course, inexhaustive. Though I’d derive much pleasure from an episode-by-episode review of the show, I also want people to read this blog.
There will be spoilers. I include quotes from each moment, but they’re best experienced through the original show in the provided YouTube links.
“I don’t have any prayers, but I do have a story.”
(Episode 1, “Pilot”)
In a scene that bookends the episode, a man is dumping the ashes of his grandson into the Los Angeles River with detectives Joel and Bobby “Fearless” by his side. He asks if either of them have a prayer. “I’m fresh out,” says Joel, for reasons we’ll learn later. But Fearless offers a story—the first of many times he’s good for a wise and timely one—and tells what serves as a riverside eulogy:
There was this wave, way out on the ocean. And he was just racing along having a great time—and just sunlight glinting, spray just flying—until one day he looked ahead, and he saw wave after wave in front of him crashing on the beach, and he got scared. And this older wave in front of him said, “I know exactly what your problem is. You’ve been having so much fun being a wave, that you forgot you’re really just part of the ocean.”
It’s a fitting preamble to a show that follows the perspective of several waves, so to speak, and watches how they blend into a narrative ocean.
“Don’t help the police.”
(Episode 2, “Possession”)
The husband of a dancer at a private club is dead and the cops are questioning the business owner, who refuses to reveal his clientele. Enter Neal McDonough as the razor-sharp deputy district attorney David McNorris in a two-minute scene that sets up so much about him: his charisma, his love of boxing, his tortured relationship with his father, his ruthless cunning. He begins on the ropes, lying to his wife on the phone about his whereabouts, but then comes out swinging—literally and figuratively:
*David punches a wall*
So the favor I’m gonna ask is really quite simple. Don’t help the police. Don’t tell them who was at your party last night. Don’t help them stop a guy from killing his wife. Just don’t. ‘Cause let me tell ya, I’m not in a good mood today, and there is nothing I’d rather do than beat that supercilious look off of your face. You get me?
Needless to say, he got him.
“I just don’t understand how you can let someone go.”
(Episode 11, “Monster’s Brawl”)
Sam Anderson (a.k.a. Bernard from LOST) shines in a guest spot as Scott Dawson, the father of a homeless addict named Bradley who’d been mistakenly considered killed. After talking about his wayward son’s struggles with sobriety and having to let him go emotionally, he overhears Joel wonder aloud how a parent could let their child go and confronts him in an exchange that touches on the joys and anguish of parenthood:
BERNARD: Do you have any children?
JOEL: A boy.
– How old?
– Magic age. You can play catch but you can still chase him and tickle him. You ever just watch him? Without him knowing—just watch him, the back of his head, his hair. You look at that and you just can’t believe it because you never thought you could love somebody so much, or be so loved. OK, now jump forward 20 years, and that same little perfect boy is now a hopeless drunk. You have tried everything you can think of to help him and nothing works. And every time the phone rings you think, This is it, he’s dead. And then one day the call does come, and you come down to a police station and you look at a jacket and you think, My boy died in that jacket. Can you imagine how that feels, detective?
– No sir, I can’t.
– Well, try. You go home to your wife and your little boy, and you try to imagine exactly that.
In another great moment at the end of the episode, Joel shares with Fearless that his wife Kelly, suffering from postpartum depression, had tried to kill herself after their baby died mysteriously (more on this later), which is why Scott’s words had struck him so deeply:
For Bradley’s dad, it’s coming home, hearing the phone ring, and thinking it’s going to be news that his son’s dead. But for me it’s coming home, finding a knife out in the kitchen, thinking I’m going to see Kelly in all that blood again.
Dark, for sure, but also a reminder that people’s motivations and inner battles are often unknowable.
“Will Andrea Little be covering this story?”
(Episode 15, “Storm Watch”)
Officer Ray Heckler is often portrayed as just an affable chatterbox, but he’s also sneakily smart and a reservoir of veteran savvy. That comes in handy during this riveting two-episode arc (along with Episode 14, “Execution”) where a dirty cop in the LAPD facilitates the killing of three fellow officers, and suspects abound. Ray is already tainted by a corruption investigation involving his ex-partner, and McNorris tries to use that as leverage against him to spill on his fellow cops. But Ray has some leverage of his own:
RAY: Oh, I’ll talk. I just gotta ask you a question first. Will Andrea Little be covering this story?
DAVID: How would I know that?
– If she is, I suppose she’ll be banging out the first draft over there at Fulham’s on Eighth. She’s got a back booth reserved there. She’s there all the time—it’s where she writes her stories. And sometimes she’s joined by this guy. Between swapping spit with him and knocking back the Jamesons, it’s a wonder she ever gets anything done. So you do what you gotta do.
– Nice try, Ray. FYI, though, in the future, if you’re going to blackmail someone, make sure you have a little leverage. My marriage is over.
– Oh no, I wouldn’t think of bringing up a tawdry little subject like sex. I’m talking politics! I’m talking about a deputy district attorney wrapping up with a crusading reporter who’s supposed to be covering his office. Not exactly going to help your credibility in certain circles, is it?
Not only does his maneuver keep McNorris at bay, he also got information earlier in the scene that he uses to identify the crooked cop. It’s one of many times in the show that Ray cracks a case, pleasantly surprising his colleagues and viewers.
“You knew it wasn’t my brother.”
(Episode 16, “Fearless”)
In a mirror version of the previous Joel/Fearless scene, Fearless is now the one confessing a secret shame to his partner in an episode that follows his personal reckoning with being a sexual abuse survivor. He was able to track down his abuser and get an opportunity to exact the vengeance he’s long sought, but decides against it. Then Joel arrives:
FEARLESS: I didn’t do it.
JOEL: I know.
– But what if I had?
– You wouldn’t do that.
– But what if I had?
– It’s not who you are.
– But what if I had?
– I brought a shovel. You’re my partner, Fearless. Of all the people I’ve met, I’ve never respected anyone as much as I respect you. If you’d have done it, then he’d have deserved it.
– You knew it wasn’t my brother.
– You knew my wife didn’t break our shower door.
This is an amazing exchange for several reasons. Joel shows up for Fearless in a crucial moment, ready to sacrifice everything for the sake of his colleague and brother-in-arms. Then they mutually confess to the fictions they’d perpetuated with each other out of fear (even for “Fearless”): that it was Fearless’s brother who was sexually abused and that Kelly’s arm cuts were from accidentally breaking the shower door.
It was in the store. There was a father walking with his son. And out of the blue he just bent over and kissed the top of his head. I knew it was innocent, but I couldn’t help but have a moment of suspicion. I mean, I’m cursing myself that I should even question this loving gesture. I guess I’m still a prisoner of something that happened a long time ago.
As someone who loves being affectionate with my son all day, every day, I can only grieve for the people whose instinctual response to such a loving gesture would be poisoned by their traumatic history.
“You don’t have to do this alone.”
(Episode 17, “Blackout”)
Andrea and David began the series in an affair, but by now they’ve drifted so far apart that Andrea is grasping at David while he descends toward rock bottom as a philandering, self-destructive, and reckless alcoholic. With experience as the daughter of an alcoholic and as a savvy reporter, Andrea cuts through David’s bullshit:
ANDREA: David, you don’t have to do this alone. There are people that can help.
DAVID: See, now therein lies the problem. The lie.
– What lie?
– That somehow we’re not alone, that we’ll be somehow there for each other.
– And what’s the truth, David?
– The truth is that we’re born alone and we’re gonna die alone. And sometimes there are these sweet little moments that we have this illusion that we’re connected.
– You just don’t get it, do you? It’s all right there in front of you and you can’t even reach for it. All we have is each other, David. That connection. All the rest—the careers, the homes, the cars, the money—that’s the illusion.
– Can you really see me unfolding chairs in a church basement singing “Kumbaya” with a bunch of drunks?
– No, you’re right. You’re so much better off going on like this…
Season 1 does find David in a better place, heading off to rehab with a newfound humility and gratefulness. (Again, haven’t seen season 2, so don’t know if that stuck…)
“You haven’t read this? You should have.”
(Episode 18, “Lost Child”)
This is the payoff the entire season was building toward, at least in Joel’s arc. He and Kelly are at their psychiatrist’s office after Joel gets tangled in an investigation on the mysterious death of their infant child Emma. They requested a second coroner’s report but haven’t read it, not wanting to confront the awful possibility that Kelly might have inadvertently caused the death while having a bad reaction to sleeping pills.
Joel and Kelly finally lay it out to each other: she thinks she somehow killed the baby; he knows she didn’t because he was watching her that night instead of the baby. Meanwhile, the psychiatrist has been reading the report and delivers the news:
You haven’t read this? You should have. According to this, Emma had a brain aneurysm. It was bound to go off—then, or in grade school, or as a young mother with three children herself. There was nothing you could have done, even if she was in your arms. Your little girl got dealt a bad card, and so did you.
This moment is so cathartic—for Joel and Kelly, but also the viewer, who’s been piecing together this story arc throughout the season. The fact that they’d avoided reading the report out of a fear for what it could reveal illustrates the power of guilt to forestall any attempts at healing and finding closure.
At least once a week something makes me think of Boomtown, one of my favorite TV shows of all time.
Not to be confused with the excellent book Boom Town (my favorite of 2018), Boomtown was a one-season wonder that aired on NBC from 2002-2003 when I was a freshman in high school.
(To be clear, there technically was a second season of six episodes before it was axed, but I’ve never seen it because of everything I heard about how bad it is, and I’d like to preserve the memory of its one beautiful, special season in my heart, thank you very much.)
The show was a Rashomon-esque crime drama set in Los Angeles that told the story of a crime each episode from multiple points of view—primarily the beat cops, detectives, the assistant district attorney, a reporter, and a paramedic. They all interact with the crime and with each other, and through each of their perspectives we learn more and more about the case.
If the Paul Thomas Anderson of Magnolia, the David O. Russell of Three Kings, and the Doug Liman of Go had gotten together to produce a weekly cop show, it would have looked something like this. Out-of-sequence storylines, vertiginous plot twists, imaginative camera effects, clever dialogue—Boomtown had it all, and sometimes too much of it. The best episodes were brilliant television; even the worst usually failed in interesting ways. Its audacity was refreshing, the kind of envelope-pushing we’ve come to expect from cable but is still rare on network TV.
It was written and produced by Graham Yost (Band of Brothers, Speed), who talked about his inspiration for Boomtown coming from researching a battle for Band of Brothers:
Each veteran I talked to described a different battle because that’s all they knew. One of them told me, ‘All you know is the 12 feet around you in battle.’ That’s where the divergent narratives thing came from.
That inspiration also relates to one of the show’s key themes, which is the fungibility of memory. Very often we watch a scene play out the first time, then see it again through another character’s point of view but slightly different than the first time—whether with a modified line reading or a change to sepia or black-and-white. Each iteration cleverly reveals new information for the viewer, in the way that viewpoint’s character learns of it.
The result is that Boomtown is more like a prism than a puzzle. There’s only one way to put together a puzzle, but a prism refracts light into many different colors and directions, changing its appearance as you move it.
To illustrate how a show like this got on network TV at all and why it didn’t last, it helps to understand the television landscape at the time, which Yost talked about:
NBC was the only place that would put that on the air. They were coming from a position of great strength, so they were willing to take a chance. They had kind of put out to the community, “If you’re thinking of taking something to HBO, bring it here first.” Boomtown was perhaps, in retrospect, better suited for HBO or FX. But at that time, HBO had The Wire, and FX had The Shield. So NBC was really the only place for it, and they embraced the Rashomon structure and were excited by that.
But then when the ratings weren’t spectacular, what happens is everyone questions everything. “Maybe that’s the problem. Maybe it’s the music. Maybe it’s this. Maybe it’s that.” And the doubt becomes corrosive.
I’m not a Law & Order junkie or crime show connoisseur, so I can’t tell you how Boomtown compares to its counterparts. But I was blown away by the richness of the characters and smart plot development, both within each episode and stretched across the entire season. And unlike the many shows that take a few episodes (or even a full season) to really hit their stride, Boomtown metaphorically busts down the door right away and keeps up the quality throughout.
This is a credit to Yost and the creative team, for sure, but also to the ensemble. The seven main actors (on the poster at top) were perfectly cast and really hit the sweet spot of being seasoned pros while not being too famous and thus too distracting in their roles. Many shows have a character arc that drags or feels skippable, but the Boomtown gang (mostly) doesn’t let that happen.
Finding the show at the age I did surely made a difference in my admiration for it. As a budding cinephile I strongly responded to its combination of intelligent storytelling and humanist affection for its characters. The occasional action and frequent humor were appealing too, but it’s the small yet profound moments that have stuck with me. The father of an addict lamenting the joys and anguish of parenthood. A riverside eulogy. The reading of an coroner’s report. Even the theme song gives me a warm feeling.
Me and Little Man gathering snowballs, here at the end of all things 2020:
A lot of bad things happened in the world this year, but in my own little world there was mostly just good. Chiefly because I’m blessed to have a COVID-proof job that has let me work from home since mid-March.
This has also meant doing lockdown and social distancing with a toddler, which was simultaneously easy (he doesn’t know what COVID-19 is nor what he’s missing because of it) and challenging (*random shrieking and tantrums*).
Still, life continued to happen in spite of everything, as it is wont to do. Here’s what that looked like for me:
Made several home improvements, including adding can lights, getting a new front door, remodeling our house’s original 1956 kitchen (shout-out to soft-close cabinets and drawers!), and opening up a wall between the kitchen and living room
Watchmen (TV show). This whole limited series is something special, but the three-episode stretch of “This Extraordinary Being”, “An Almost Religious Awe”, and “A God Walks Into Abar” is spectacular. I went into this basically as a Watchmen neophyte and came out a believer.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: A Reader’s Guide to a More Tranquil Mind by Alan Jacobs. “If it is foolish to think that we can carry with us all the good things from the past—from our personal past or that of our culture—while leaving behind all the unwanted baggage, it is a counsel of despair and, I think, another kind of foolishness to think that if we leave behind the errors and miseries of the past, we must also leave behind everything that gave the world its savor.”
The Vast of Night. A fairly astounding debut feature. The Twilight Zone meets Pleasantville meets Super 8. Available on Amazon Prime, and I’d recommend learning as little as possible about it before watching.
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.)
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.
This sign is posted in the parking lot outside my work. Why “NO TV’s”? A while ago someone left an old TV next to what they thought was a dumpster for trash but is actually a dumpster for paper recycling. But only people who had seen the TV there before it got picked up will understand the odd specificity of the sign.