reviewing 12 Monkeys, American Crime, Banshee, Black Sails, Bones, Bosch, Deutschland 83, Fargo, Fear TWD, Game of Thrones, Heroes Reborn, House of Cards, Hell on Wheels, Homeland, Humans, Limitless, Masters of Sex, Minority Report, Mr. Robot, Peaky Blinders, Outlander, Ray Donovan, Rectify, The: Affair, Americans, Good Wife, Knick, Walking Dead; Tyrant, Vikings - and movies, music, books, politics
George Santayana had irrational faith in reason - I have irrational faith in TV.
Our anthology, Touching the Face of the Cosmos: On the Intersection of Space Travel and Religion, is being readied for publication as an ebook by Connected Editions in the next few weeks, and by Fordham University Press in paperback and hardcover in March 2016. Contents are here. The paper editions can be pre-ordered here.
In the meantime, here's a 15-minute talk I gave at the General Semantics Symposium in New York this past September in which I outline the raison d'ê·tre for the volume.
Here I am again with another post about The Man in the Hight Castle television series - a masterpiece in many ways, which will likely merit more posts from me in the months ahead. The series is currently streaming in its entirety on Amazon, but this is not about the streaming. It's about the rhythmic motion on the rails of New York City subway cars - or, to be more precise, what is inside some of those cars and is now being removed.
Amazon sought to advertise its series - an adaptation of the 1962 Philip K. Dick alternate history masterwork in which Nazi Germany and Japan beat the U.S. in World War II - by outfitting a few cars with seats adorned with Nazi swastikas and imperial Japanese suns. Some riders objected. Some people in government agreed. Amazon is removing the advertising - the story with pictures is here.
My first response to this was: surely we need to see the difference between real swastikas, and swastikas put in subways to advertise a series which so effectively shows why the Nazis - and, by extension, current politicians who speak like Nazis - need to be opposed. As I pointed out in my reviews - here (the pilot in January) and here (the rest of the series a few days ago) and here (comparison with the novel - this last review has big spoilers) - only someone with ice water in his or her veins could fail to be profoundly moved by the story of a 1962 America so similar to ours - except, for example, that people with disabilities are put to death (including even an SS-officer's son). A series like this needs to be seen - and, therefore, advertising which promotes its viewing is a good thing.
Just to be clear, members of my grandparents' family died in the holocaust, so telling the story of the Nazis and the horrors of their ideology is especially important to me (I assume no one had much problem with the Japanese suns on the subway cars). But thinking it over, I realized that advertising on a subway car is a very special kind of promotion - it's advertising to a literally captive audience, the passengers of a subway car in motion. This, it seems to me, makes the difference on this issue. If someone is offended by the Statue of Liberty doing a sieg heil in an online photo advertising the series, that person can look away. But other then getting out at the very next station - which would be an unfair inconvenience to impose on anyone - there's really no way you can look away from swastikas in a subway car. (If the Nazi insignias were only in one car, then anyone offended could walk to another subway car, but even that would be an unnecessary annoyance.) I therefore think that, in view of this captive audience principle, it's right to remove ads for The Man in the High Castle from NYC subway cars.
But see the television series. I saw it a few days ago, and I still feel like I just finished watching it a few minutes ago.
What if the Soviet Union had survived into the 21st century
I reviewed the pilot of The Man in the High Castlehere, and the rest of the series here, but refrained as much as possible from comparing the extraordinary television series to the extraordinary novel, and from putting any spoilers in the review. But there are two very significant differences between the book and the TV series, which can't be discussed without giving away some important events in the television series, so I'll do that here with a spoiler warning. Read on, if you're interested, and have seen the television series and read the novel, or know neither or just one, and are interested anyway.
Another outstanding episode - 2.8 - of The Affair tonight, which has become the best show on cable television these days. This hour - featuring half-hours by Helen and Noah - was especially author-centric, and, as always, right on the money about what happens inside and outside the author's mind.
Noah gives a reading, nicely coincidentally in the bookstore at Williams College, which Whitney and Helen are visiting as a possible college for Whitney. In a good subplot, she doesn't want to go to college - she wants to model - but in a true author's touch Noah invites Helen to the reading. This is exactly what a self-absorbed author would do. In Helen's version, she rolls her eyes and of course declines, but she of course shows up anyway. He reads a passage about their relationship. My wife correctly called Noah's deliberate choice of that passage because Helen was in the audience. And, in Noah's version, we see him switching to that passage after he begins with another - a hot shower scene with "Alison".
Also in the audience is a student book reviewer, who has savaged Noah's novel in the student paper. Although Noah has otherwise been receiving rave reviews, this pan really nettles him. As my grandmother used to say, if you stub one of your toes, the fact that your other nine toes are fine doesn't make that hurt toe feel any better. This captures exactly the way Noah and all authors feel about reviews of their books. Anything less than adulation hurts like that stubbed toe.
The student reviewer also delivers the bad news that Noah has lost the Pen Faulkner Prize - hey, I haven't read his novel, but from what I've heard of it on The Affair, I certainly would have voted for it. Noah, again unerringly typical of any writer, attributes his loss to reverse discrimination against a white male writer like himself.
Meanwhile, surrounding this gem of an episode about the writerly life, we get an important development in the bombshell that was released last week. Helen has a pacifier from Alison's baby, which she gives to Noah's lawyer. This will provide DNA, and prove whether the baby is Scott's or Noah's (again, as I mentioned last week, I don't know if the DNA will show if the baby is Cole's or Scott's).
Exciting times ahead on The Affair. In the meantime, here's a reading I did of one of my novels, Unburning Alexandria, a few years ago. Alas, it didn't win the Pen Faulkner Prize either.
There couldn't be a better time to see The Man in the High Castle - actually, any time would be great - but recent events make this weekend an especially chilling and resonant time to see the 10-part television series on Amazon, based on the Philip K. Dick justifiably lionized novel of the same name. The United States and the civilized world are involved in a 21st century version of a world war, this time against DAESH aka ISIS, with the latest atrocity committed in France last week; Donald Trump is calling for registration of Muslims in the United States, a move that recalls how Nazis began their persecution of Jews; and DAESH regularly releases videos which show what they expect to be doing to the world in the near future.
The Man in the High Castle debuted its pilot in January of this year, and I thought it was superb. My review is here. I found the rest of the season in some ways better than the pilot, in a few ways not as good, but altogether also superb and deserving of being called a masterpiece.
Since this isn't a comparative media paper, I won't get into the differences and similarities between the novel and the television series,* other than to say there indeed significant differences and similarities, I liked most but not all of the changes, and you can 100% enjoy the television series without having read the novel, if that's what you'd like to do.
Germany and Japan winning World War II and splitting up the United States remains a brilliant alternate history tableau, as is the peek into the alternate reality of that alternate reality in which we won after all - i.e., the reality which you and I inhabit. The attention to alternate reality detail is riveting, ranging from 1962 American hit records sung in Japanese in San Francisco, to the Nazi celebration of "VA Day" as in a nightmarishly twisted 4th of July, firecrackers and all, at the Long Island home of Obergruppenführer John Smith, well played by Rufus Sewell (Alexa Davalos was also especially good as Juliana, as was Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa as Tagomi - and Rupert Evans was strong as Frank, so was Luke Kleintank as Joe - there wasn't an off-key note in any performance, even the minor characters were memorable). The palpable impact of these details is more than enough to make you suspend your disbelief and contemplate how profoundly horrendous it would have been had we lost the war, and those words don't even scratch the surface. Any American who isn't shaken to the core by these details has ice water in his veins.
There are lots of unexpected but motivated twists in the plot, which works well on both the macro and micro levels. The tension between Germany and Japan - worried about the Nazis now dropping the a-bomb on them - provides a plausible backdrop to the narrative. Germany is more advanced than Japan - with not only atomic weapons but rocket passenger planes - and this flows logically out of the technological sophistication in our own reality.
But the ultimate backdrop and mystery is the source and content of the newsreels that everyone - including an aged Hitler (played by Wolf Muser, who looks an aged Peter Graves) - is intent on getting in their hands. The source is not revealed, and the content ...
Well, it starts off showing the Allies winning the war (what the book does in the novel - I'm making just this one comparison), with the implication that ours is the more prime reality, a very cool Philip K. Dick ingredient. But the newsreels morph into a selection of alternate realities - also interesting in its own way (and disturbingly reminiscent of what Donald Trump has been saying about seeing videos of Muslims in Jersey City cheering as the Twin Towers fell on 9/11, which didn't happen in our reality).
And, in the end of The Man in the High Castle-- well, that's the part - the very end - which I thought was not too good, and not really explained, and even could be interpreted as everything we've seen in the narrative being a given character's bad dream. But see it yourself. Whatever you think of the ending, you'll be treated to what has set a standard for alternate reality brought to television, in the same way the novel did that for alternate reality in writing.
Hats off not only to Philip K. Dick, but Frank Spotnitz, who created the series - and presented a visual tableau in many ways evocative of Hitchcock - and Ridley Scott, one of the executive producers, who even put in an origami-making character, a nice shout-out to his other masterwork, Bladerunner.
*Ok, here's a very significant difference between the novel and the television series - which is actually the second comparison I'm making, if you've read this far in the review and are keeping track. In the book, the alternate history which is our reality is told in a book - a secret book, like Goldstein's in 1984 (and this device in the Philip K. Dick novel was likely inspired by Orwell's). In the television series, however, the alternate histories which start as ours are in movie reels - news reels - and this gives them a chilling verisimilitude, especially when the characters themselves begin appearing in them near the end. Seeing yourself in a newsreel, doing things you didn't do, or didn't do yet, is the ultimately effective way of telling an alternate history narrative. (Read here for further analysis, with spoilers.)
What if the Soviet Union had survived into the 21st century
I just want to say how outstanding this second season of Fargo has been so far - indeed, heretical though it may be to say so, better than the first season, which was excellent indeed. But this second season is moving much faster, is more dynamic, and has less of the quirks that slowed down the first season a little.
Don't get me wrong. I love the quirks, they're essential to the Fargo story. But somehow, in the first season, they got a little in the way of the narrative, until its last few shows.
In contrast, season 2 is just blasting along. Last week's episode, which I didn't get a chance to review, had a priceless conversation between Ronald Reagan - beginning to run for President in 1979 - and Lou, in the bathroom. The best part of that, in classic Fargo fashion, is what Reagan didn't say and couldn't say, when he makes some Reaganesque noise in his throat and leaves the men's room in response to Lou's questions.
Last night, Lou had a fabulous episode, defending Ed from Bear Gerhardt and navigating his escape from the sheriff's office. The only thing we know for sure is that Lou won't die - because he's alive and well in season 1 in the future - but, otherwise, anyone can go in this story, and that's what's been happening in the past few episodes. So the lawyer's role in saving Ed was heart-in-mouth, because he could have been blown away at any minute.
Peggy had a good night, too, and it's not clear whether she killed Dodd with the electric cattle prod - a taser for before its time - or just knocked him out cold. Similarly, we don't know what happened in the Gerhardt house when all the shooting began, though I think there was a glimpse of Mamma in the coming attractions. The best candidate for death in Gerhardt house would be the father, because, let's face it, he's well on his way there already.
There's nothing else like Fargo on television - nothing as wryly, darkly literate and exciting at the same time - and I can only hope this series continues for a long long time.
Homeland 2.7 was tough to watch tonight, given what happened in Paris, and how our characters on the show are struggling the stop much the same from happening, except in Germany rather than France. Showtime wisely put up a note offering solidarity with Paris at the beginning of the episode.
But the episode was tough to watch for other reasons, or, at least, one big reason: How can Saul be so stupid?
I thought last week he was finally showing a little savvy, but he was back in his clueless mode again tonight, confiding everything, including his new alliance with Carrie, to Allison. Based on the intellect displayed by his character in previous seasons, it's unbelievable that he would open up like that to Allison.
And she herself is not a very convincing character. Homeland has suddenly stolen a page from The Americans, with the revelation that Allison has been a Russian sleeper agent. But while Elizabeth's character is very well developed on The Americans, with a riveting history that gives her work in America a sharp plausibility, Allison is a character pulled out of a hat. We've been given no reason, as yet, to understand how she got into this CIA position as a Russian agent.
I keep hoping there''ll be some revelation on Homeland this season, to make what Saul is doing and not doing make some sense. But tonight's episode just puts him deeper in an inexplicable hole.
Well, episode 2.7 of The Affair, on earlier this evening, was excellent in many ways. But the very ending was a shocker that almost changes everything.
Alison's baby, along with Noah's book, has been one of the two prime radiants of this second season. At first, we thought the baby was Noah's. Then, when Alison spent the night in bed in Montauk with a loving Cole, this put Cole in position to be the possible father. And now, in the last minute of Cole's episode, we find-
The baby is Scotty's? Well, that's what he apparently says in the video, and Oscar says he overheard. But when was the baby conceived? Did Alison go out to Montauk a second time, or somehow find the time to sleep with him as well on the night she was Cole? Or perhaps before she connected with Cole, or maybe after?
And ... how would Scotty know the baby is his? Could DNA show conclusively that the baby was his not Cole's? I'm not sure how this would work for brothers - but, even so, how could Scotty have gotten the baby's DNA? Did Alison give it to him?
This revelation, if true, blows the story wide open. But, interestingly, Noah, who already had a motive to kill Scotty for impregnating his daughter, now has a better motive. And Cole, who had reasons to hate Scotty, now has a better reason. (That's why I said "almost changes everything".) The only major character who previously didn't have a major reason to kill Scotty, but now does, is Alison. Could she be the killer?
Meanwhile, back in present time, kudos to the writers for once again capturing perfectly what authors go through with their publishers - this time, grabbing the bio for Noah from his first book, and sticking it on his red hot novel, saying that Noah is married with kids and living in Brooklyn, much to Alison's embarrassment. These kinds of mistakes happen with publishers all the time - and are one of the appeals of controlling the publishing yourself on Amazon Kindle.
But I digress. Alison's baby is Scotty's? If that holds, we've been delivered one amazing twist. One thing I'm still not clear about, though, is whose perspective we see in the flashforwards? Noah's book clearly is his perspective - what we've seen in his narration - in contrast to what we see in Alison's narration, as their conversation about the novel beautifully portrays in tonight's episode. But Scotty's death, and indeed Alison's baby and most of what we've seen this season, maybe everything, happen after the novel. Which means all bets are off about whose perspective this is - and this makes the twist even harder to fathom, a bolt indeed from the wild blue.
Well, first of all, I have to say that it was good to have a dose of sanity in the second Democratic debate just on CBS - sanity in comparison to much of what we've been seeing in the GOP debates.
As to who on stage did best and worst, and when -
Hillary came out strong on what happened in Paris yesterday. Bernie, in contrast, quickly segued to economics, which seemed beside the point in the shadow of the ISIS attack. Again, later, Bernie stood by the claim he made in the last debate, that the biggest threat to our national security is climate change. That's a little too clever, especially on the day after people were gunned down in Paris. Climate change, uncontrolled, may kill us eventually. ISIS is out to kill us now, and needs an immediate response.
Also on this issue, O'Malley's correction of Hillary that the fight against ISIS is not "solely" American was unnecessary and supercilious - that's obviously what Hillary meant when she said this is an American fight. (His critique of Hillary for using the "boots on the ground" phrase was similarly much ado about little.)
But if was good to hear O'Malley call out Trump again as a "carnival barker".
In the best exchange of the debate, Bernie attacked Hillary about being too close to Wall Street. Hillary's response, which in effect pointed out that Wall Street is part of America - and indeed was attacked on September 11 - was unexpected, powerful, and to the point.
On gun control, whatever Bernie now says, he shouldn't have voted against even one gun control bill - and Hillary was 100% right to call him out on this.
Hillary and Bernie were both strong on black lives matter - but Hillary was better in citing some of the many African Americans who have lost their lives to guns, and Bernie was especially strong in calling out cops who murder innocent people.
So, all in all, it was an excellent debate for Democrats, especially for Hillary Clinton.
It seems a little odd to be reviewing Heroes Reborn and its fictional tale of people trying to destroy the world, and other people trying to save it, just a day after what happened in Paris. But comic books have always been about providing a little escape from real life, so here goes.
The star of Heroes Reborn 1.9, for me, was Casper, the literally penny-for-your-thoughts man. He first showed commendable judgement in deciding not to relieve Emily of her wonderful first-love thoughts of Tommy. That act was surely Casper's finest moment.
And then he dies on the verge of disarming Joanne - a totally unsympathetic villain, even though she lost her child - because Tommy materializes with a superior power. But this leads to Casper dead on the floor, and I'll miss him. He by and large used his ability to wipe memories wisely, and in the case of not doing that to Emily, with great sensitivity and care. He was - well, perhaps the best word is ... memorable.
Interestingly, in this new reality engendered by Hiro and Noah's time travel, the Haitian is still alive. So a hero with this power - I still prefer this name to "evo" - is still on the board.
Another butterfly, not brought back from the dead but changed, is Matt Parkman. Unless he's at work for the good in some way we don't know, he's clearly on the dark side in this episode.
Tommy's stopping time was also cool to see, and his moving of Luke's hand so that his bullet doesn't kill Joanne shows that Tommy is definitely on the side of the angels in this reality, as he was in previous. That act certainly was something his grandfather Noah would likely not have done.
Seeing the damage Joanne has done - the innocent lives she's taken - I can't say I would have done what Tommy did at that moment. On the other hand, I don't believe in capital punishment.
But on yet another hand - well, like I said, it's the day after Paris, and it's hard for me to feel any charity for killers, even in a comic book on television.
Herewith my assessment of the just-concluded fourth GOP 2016 Presidential debate, as always with the proviso that I've only voted Republican once in my life - for John Lindsay, for Mayor of New York City, in 1969 (because he was against the Vietnam War) - but I do try to call these debates as objectively as possible.
I think Rand Paul made by far the most lucid and logically sound points tonight, on a variety of topics, and contra what some of the other Republicans were saying. His single best moment was countering Marco Rubio's and just about every other Republican's assertion that we need huge military expenditures - Rand correctly explained that such expenditures are not only contrary to conservative fiscal policy, but unlikely to keep us safe, especially if they undermine our economy at home. Rand also punctured Donald Trump's posturing about China and the trade bill, observing that trade with the Chinese was not part of the territory covered in the massive bill. And he made better sense than anyone else about the U.S. carefully considering its military policy in the Middle East and towards Putin, rather than just rushing in.
I'd rate Jeb as second best tonight. He spoke truth to Donald Trump and his inhumane and unworkable deportation policy. John Kasich spoke well on this point, too.
The rest, I thought, were unremarkable. Obviously, a lot of people currently support Donald Trump or Ben Carson, but it's hard - at least for a progressive like me - to see how either of them will go on to win the nomination. Trump continues to have a good sense of humor - though little of it came through in the debate tonight. And Carson is a complete enigma to me - or, at least, why anyone would support him.
The best point I saw about Carson tonight came from my Fordham public relations colleague Gina Vergel, who observed on Twitter -
Saul has been unaccountably slow on the uptake all season so far in Homeland. He finally catches up and on in episode 5.6. This means that, at long last, Saul and Carrie will be pulling together in this story.
Quinn looks like he'll be back in action next week, too. This means that the threesome, responsible for game-changing events in seasons past, will once again be back in business, too.
The ultimate villains are still not clear, which is good for the story. Saul keeps saying the Russians, which is true enough, but there's something more. The CIA woman - who slept with Saul, put the hit on Carrie, brought down the plane with the would-be new Syrian leader, and who knows what else - is clearly not working for Dar, however inimical he may be to Saul. So who is she working for? Just the Russians?
Meanwhile, I'm glad to see what I hope is Carrie finally moving on from that medical guy. He's nice enough, and genuinely cares for Carrie, but his earnestness is not what she needs. He saw, on some level, the deep connection between Carrie and Quinn, and that it's more than just the professional devotion of colleagues.
In general, Homeland this year has not come up with the level of tension and power we had with Brody in the story. The set-up of a traitor in our midst, programmed like the Manchurian Candidate, primed to seek high office and do untold damage, is hard to be beat or even equal. ISIS, however, may provide an avenue (it's especially relevant now in our reality with the Russian plane likely being brought down by a bomb). It will be interesting to see what role it plays in the rest of this season of Homeland, as Carrie, Quinn, and Saul do what they can not only to keep alive but get the bad guys.