=Borrowed Tides= and =Alpha Centauri= right here

Monday, August 10, 2020

Rebecka Martinsson: Two Very Different, But Excellent, Seasons


My wife and I just binged two seasons of Rebecka Martinsson on Acorn via Prime Video, and loved it.  The narrative takes in the northern-most town of Sweden, Kiruna.  Rebecka comes from there, is working in Stockholm when the series begins, and goes back home, changing from being a high-class corporate lawyer to a country prosecutor.   The transformation is not easy for her - her mother committed suicide and her father died in a car accident.  She does find love there - but not easily - and a great group of police to work with.

But before I tell you anything more, here's a kicker:  Ida Engvoll plays Rebecka in the first season (see's in the picture above).  She brings an incredible combination of sweetness, spunk, evanescence, and melancholy to the role.  And ... she's gone in the second season.  Sascha Zacharias, who played a minor character in the first season, plays Rebecka in the second.  And she does a pretty good job, but ...

I read somewhere that Truffaut or Godard or some legendary French filmmaker once fired an actress in the middle of a movie and hired someone else to play her character.  He said the audience would never notice.  I have no idea if they did.  But I do recall when Dallas the TV series brought in a new actress to play Miss Ellie (Donna Reed replaced Barbara Bel Geddes) and that was a complete travesty.  I have no idea why Rebecka Martinsson took such a risk.   And though I very much enjoyed the second season, I missed Engvoll.

By the way, Rebecka Martinsson, a propos its location, is very much Nordic Noir - with a vengeance.  Major, likeable characters are prone to die, and, jeez, a little baby is frozen to death in a backseat of a car.  But that's leavened with wisecracks and repartee - the best coming from Anna Maria Mella, a chief detective or whatever the Swedish title, very well played by Eva Melander - and the scenery is downright breathtaking.

We'll definitely be watching the third season.  I just hope the producers don't pull another Dallas on us.


We Hunt Together 1.1: Compelling Pairs


A different kind of detective show, just on Showtime: We Hunt Together.

How is it different?  British - well, there are lots of those.  Somewhat unusual format: About equal time to the build-up to a murder, that happens three days before the detectives begin to investigate.  That's interesting, but not enough to make We Hunt Together compelling.

Here's what does: the characters, who come in pairs, a man and a woman, who do the murder, and a man and woman who investigate.  In both cases, the men are black.   In the case of the killers, he's seeking some sort of refugee status in the UK, from Africa.  He has both a gentleness and a violent streak.  His partner in crime is a blonde, who works as a telephone sex operator, in at least one of her jobs.  As for the detectives, the guy is gentle, too.  His partner, the woman, is something of a hard-ass, or at least more seasoned in homicide investigations.  He, by the way, is her boss, That, to me, is an interesting set of characters, who have a shot at being compelling.

The ambience is evocative, too - gritty, smoky, boozy, druggy.  Someone who sounds like Amy Winehouse (and for all I know, is) sings "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow" as the murderers dance, and the song plays under (or is it over?) the closing credits.   One of the best applications I've heard of that Goffin and King masterpiece.

So I'm in - at least to the extent that I'd watch the next episode of We Hunt Together tomorrow, but I'll settle for next week, and tell you sooner or later if I love it.


Sunday, August 9, 2020

Into the Night: The Lethal Sun

In the old days, they used to have something called B-movies. They were intended to accompany the A-movie, the main attraction, in the double features that played in neighborhood movie houses, before television came along and ate their lunch and closed them down. Many of those B-movies were quite enjoyable, but they weren’t exactly Oscar material. I don’t think there were any B-television shows, certainly none on cable and none on Netflix, Amazon video, and other streaming services. But if ever there were a streaming television series that felt like a B-movie – in this case, a six-episode movie serial – it would be Into the Night, which started on Netflix in May 2020.

The set-up is quite simple: our sun has turned lethal, literally. A band of hapless, but fortunately talented, people end up on a plane hijacked in Brussels. It has a pilot, wounded in the hijacking, who is fortunately still able to fly his plane, before the deadly morning sun arrives. The challenge: fly west, or further into the night, and avoid the sun – as well as their own dangerous impulses – until they can find a safe place to shelter, if there is one left on the planet. To add more interest, the passengers all come with serious psychological baggage of one kind or another. And to add insult to injury, the murderous sunlight also ruins the food, making oranges taste like “chalk,” and other fruit like “toilet paper”.

The premise, that the sun’s out-of-whack polarity has made its rays into killers, has zero scientific plausibility, so far as I know. So how, then, did I come to very much enjoy this series? I’m reminded of what my late and great editor at Tor Books, David Hartwell, once told me about readers of science fiction: they will accept a total of one big preposterous element in your story, and if you’re rigorous in adhering to your premise and its implications for the rest of your narrative, they can still love your work. Into the Night is often riveting proof that the same pertains to binging a science fiction television series.

My favorite part of the series was its intrinsically, blatantly European flavor. The language is French (with English subtitles) – one of the two languages officially spoken in Belgium – and the major characters are Belgian, Italian, Turkish, and Russian; even some Scottish accents play a supportive role. There are bad guys and good guys of both genders, spurts of heroism, altruism, cleverness, as well as sheer selfishness and stupidity. In addition to the life-and-death context that propels the entire narrative, there are ample micro life-and-death situations that the individual characters find themselves in, and this makes Into the Night tough to stop watching. I watched all six episodes in one sitting.

And as I was watching, I was thinking that, given that this series takes place on the very edge of the end of the world, our time of the harrowing pandemic off-screen makes this an ideal time to watch Into the Night. Is there any research in psychology to the effect that during the time of a global crisis, watching a story about an even worse kind of global crisis is a good way to kind of get your mind off the real one? I don’t know, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that was a contributing factor in why I enjoyed the series.

I hadn’t laid eyes on any of the actors before, and had never heard of either the book on which the series is based, The Old Axolotl, the 2015 novel by Polish author Jacek Dukaj (translated into English in 2017), or of the “creator” of the series, Jason George, who also gets the writing credit. That writing, by the way, is actually pretty sharp, and sometimes serves up a winning hipness and humor; as when one character, trying to buck up another character’s desperate attempt to bring a plane safely down on a runway with no prior piloting experience, while using a YouTube tutorial, tells her, “If we land, I’ll leave a good review.” The first-time pilot, Sylvie, has the most compelling backstory, and is well played by Pauline Etienne. All right, I guess I’ll admit that most of the other characters have interesting backstories, too, though in aggregate this band brought together against the apocalypse, cut off from the world they have no chance of saving, seem a tad too familiar, maybe because they remind me of Lost.

But the ending leaves plenty of room for a sequel, and I’ll be happy to see it.

First published in my new column, The Other Reel, in Future SF, July 2020.


Why I Think America Is Not Permanently Unraveling

Welcome to Light On Light Through, Episode 135, in which I rebut Wade Davis's claim in a recent essay in Rolling Stone that America's decline is irreversible.

Further reading


Check out this episode!

Why I Disagree about "The Unraveling of America"

Canadian anthropologist Wade Davis posted a savvy article in Rolling Stone, entitled The Unraveling of America.*  Its thesis that America's generally atrocious handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, under our "buffoon of a president," laid bare a decay and decline that already was well underway, in racism and income inequality, is well-evidenced and well-argued, and undeniable.   But I disagree with Davis on two important points, one historical, the other up and coming.

1.  Davis says Americans elected Trump.  That's not quite the case.  Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by three million votes over Trump, which means Americans elected her not Trump president.  It was the antiquated, anti-democratic Electoral College - our inane way of electing a President - that put Trump in office.

2.  Davis concludes by observing that "even should Trump be resoundingly defeated [in November], it’s not at all clear that such a profoundly polarized nation will be able to find a way forward. For better or for worse, America has had its time."  I agree that the future is always opaque, or not at all clear. But it follows that I don't see it as a certainty that "America has had its time".  If the Democrats take back the White House and the Senate, the United States could have a progressive government akin to what FDR had in the 1930s.

That government, back then, got us out of the Great Depression, and then went on to crush the Nazis.  It did that, even though America still suffered from racism, sexism, and extreme income inequality, in just all about ways worse than ours.  It did that with a far less effective community-building media system than we have now -- i.e., no television and no Internet.  I think there's every reason to think that the election of Joe Biden to the Presidency, and a Democratic majority to the Senate, could indeed reverse most of the damage that Trump has done, and result in America being a better leader of the world than it ever was. 

But all of that depends on Americans getting out and voting or mailing out their ballots in November.

*Thanks John Fraim for bringing this essay to my attention.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Three Absentias

Welcome to Light On Light Through, Episode 134, in which I review the three seasons so far of Absentia.

Read the reviews in this blog:

  1. Absentia 1: In Your Face and Worth Watching
  2. Absentia 2: Even More There than the First Season
  3. Absentia 3: Adrenalin and Relevance

Check out this episode!

Absentia 3: Adrenalin and Relevance

The third season of Absentia was up on Amazon Prime Video last month.  I liked it the best of the three seasons so far because, well, I like James Bond type stories more than a vanished member of the family comes home after six years of missing, even if she is a high-powered FBI agent.

The new season picks up right after the second season ended, and quickly pitches us into international espionage and subterfuge, with a searingly all-too-currently relevant theme: the bad guys want to unleash a virus upon the world, with a view towards getting rich distributing an antidote which they also have in their possession.   It turns out that Emily was missing for six years because she was kidnapped by this group, which also has other (maybe) related bio "research" at work, including (I think) developing some kind of super-warrior army they can use.

I'm putting in those provisos - "maybe," "I think" - because these connections are still not brought into completely clear focus.  But that's ok, because the action is so quick and powerful you barely have time to think about the ultimate underpinnings.   There's also an excellent development of characters, in Emily's family and beyond.  In the first two seasons, her brother played an important role.  He plays a somewhat significant role again, but not as much as Emily's father Warren and her son Flynn, very well played by Paul Freeman and Patrick McAuley.  Let's hear it for multi-generation de facto commandos!

Nick also plays a very different role in this third season, becoming the one who's kidnapped, in absentia, pursued relentlessly by Emily.  She's helped by Cal, a not completely trustworthy partner, at least not by Emily, but very effective fighting for her and alongside her.  One of my favorite scenes is how the two get the drop on a group of brutal bad guys and throw them off a hurtling train in the middle of Europe.  Stana Katic is just great as Emily, as is Patrick Heusinger as Nick and Matthew Le Nevez as Cal.

Speaking of Europe, most of the action takes place in Austria and Germany, and the combination of that and the labs filled with experimented-upon bodies adds a definite Nazi flavor to this.   I found that both appropriate and a welcome departure from ISIS or Russia being the root of the villainy.  Indeed, immigrants from the Middle East are preyed upon by the nefarious bio-tech operation, and they emerge as heroes in this story, with Rafiq (well played by Adam Hussain) working with Nick and Emily to free his mother and the other prisoners from the sinister labs.

I give Absentia 3 my highest recommendation, for its non-stop action, social relevance, human relationships, and espionage puzzles.  And back to that Bondian quality that I like: it even has a memorable villain enforcer, Dawkins, played just right by Geoff Bell.


Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Fearless: Yes, and Boundless

Shows about lawyers defending clients wrongly accused of murder are a dime a dozen, on both sides of the Atlantic.  So are espionage shows in the U. K., in which the Americans are the bad guys.  Fearless had both of these characteristics.  The opening credits feature Margaret Thatcher, who was best friends with Reagan; Tony Blair, who supported Bush's ill-conceived attack on Iraq; and even Donald Trump, who is a dangerous lunatic in just about any book.  But the British lawyer, Emma Banfield, was played by Helen McCrory, who was great on Peaky Blinders, so how could I resist watching this 2017 mini-series?

And I'm glad I did.  As Banfield defends her client, Kevin, stewing in jail for a murder he didn't commit because he confessed to it, she and we unravel a complex plot with twists and turns and complexities that will keep you guessing until near the very end.   And, yes, although the Americans are mostly behind it, at least the lead American, Heather, is played by an American actress, Robin Weigert (all too often in these British shows you have an American character played by a British actor doing his best Robert Mitchum impersonation).   And you also have characters undergoing refreshing and justified transformations, such as an opponent turning into an essential and reliable ally.

But the heart of the series is McCory's performance as Banfield, who manages to be tough as nails but always vulnerable, and at the same time.  Or, to shift the metaphor, Banfield wears her heart on her sleeve all the time, even when she steps into the ring, which is also all of the time.  That takes a lot of skill to pull off - in acting as well as reality - and McCrory does a fine job of it.

So is there a second season, with another exploit for Banfield, and further development of her difficult life?   Well, there should be, but I can't find it.  So I'll end this by making my customary plea to Netflix, Prime Video, and Hulu: pick this is up, if the original bankrollers are not up to it.   Emma Banfield is a memorable character, and we'd like to see more of her.


Tuesday, August 4, 2020

The Nest: Scottish Noir and Bio-Ethics

The Nest concluded its 5-part mini-series Acorn run on Prime Video last night.  Top-notch Scottish noir, if there is such a thing, and there should be.

The story involves a wealthy couple who live in a gorgeous home in the Glasgow area on Loch Long, desperate to have a baby.  So desperate, they're down to their last egg, and are seeking someone, anyone, to carry their baby to term.   So desperate, they choose a young woman, barely of age, who (we learn in the course of the mini-series), when she was just a "wee lass” of eleven,  killed a pregnant woman and her baby.

The story veers from the couple deciding if they want to go ahead with this, to worrying when the surrogate mother gets drunk, to finding out just what happened when she was eleven, to ultimately dealing with the profound ethical issue of who should have the right to be the parent of this child, the producers of the embryo or the woman who brought the baby to term.

As such, The Nest is more than a noir drama, it is a narrative that portrays and grapples with one of the emerging bio-ethical issues of our age.  Martin Compston, who has been so good in Line of Duty, is equally good as the husband/father in The Nest.  Similarly Sophie Rundle from Peaky Blinders as wife/mother.  And Mirren Mack, whom I haven't seen before, was just perfect as the young woman carrying the baby.

The Scottish scenery, always a pleasure to see in person, was a sight for sore eyes in this time of COVID. But see The Nest for its winning mix of action and ethics.


Sunday, August 2, 2020

SpaceX Splashdown

Welcome to Light On Light Through, Episode 133, in which I give context to why the SpaceX splashdown today is such a momentous event in lifting our species off this planet.

Further reading: Touching the Face of the Cosmos: On the Interaction of Space and Religion

Check out this episode!

The Safdies

Welcome to Light On Light Through, Episode 132, in which I review two movies by The Safdie Brothers -- Good Time and Uncut Gems.

Read these reviews:

Check out this episode!

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Good Time: Great Time, Until...

So, there's a new app called Swell, which I was invited to join a few days ago, which I did.  You can discuss any topic you like, via up to five-minute audio recordings.   Today I came across a topic "Reviews," and noticed a review of Uncut Gems, which I reviewed here at the end of May.  I heard a comment there by CaliGooner aka Taylor J, recommending an earlier movie by Uncut creators Benny and Josh Safdie, Good Time.  Which is how I just came to watch this 2017 tonight movie.

Which was flat-out brilliant, worthy of Quentin Tarantino, until the end.  The dialog, the ambience, the situations, the acting - with Robert Pattinson in the lead as bank robber Connie Nikas and Benny Safdie himself as Connie's mentally challenged brother - was a combo of burst-out laughing and roller coaster action.   Connie's resourcefulness, able to think at lightning speed on his feet, and get out of and even improve upon nearly impossible situations, was true pleasure to behold.

Until the end.  When ...

[Big spoiler ahead ... ]

He gets caught.  Just like that.  And it's no consolation to see that his brother makes out pretty ok in the end.   I'm not a fan of unhappy endings, especially when they happen to characters who deserve much better.  The only remedy I can think of is a sequel, in which we get to see Connie in action and maybe this time succeeding.

In the meantime, I hope you haven't read this spoiler, and you can get to see the highly enjoyable 9/10s of the movie which is a testament to how sheer intelligence triumphs.  On the other hand, if you haven't read the spoiler, you wouldn't get to read that thought.


Monday, July 27, 2020

Motherless Brooklyn: Go Down Moses and Black Lives Matter

The wife and I just saw Motherless Brooklyn on HBO.  It's billed as an Edward Norton movie - he also starred in it - based on the Jonathan Lethem novel.  I didn't read the novel (I was busy writing the sequel to The Silk Code when Lethem's novel was first published in 1999).  But it's just as well.  As readers of my reviews in this blog may know, I like reviewing movies and TV series on their own terms, not on how they compare with the novels or short stories on which they may have been based.  I will say that my wife mentioned that she saw that the Norton movie departed from the Lethem novel in many major ways.

The story in the movie is about Robert Moses, the controversial, legendary builder, responsible for any number of highways in and around New York City (including the Long Island Expressway), bridges, and even Jones Beach. Moses was controversial because it was claimed he ran roughshod over and failed to provide for the poor communities near or over which he erected his great structures.  This accords with the focus and expansion of Black Lives Matter now, at long last happening, though Lethem's novel and even Norton's movie were created long before this happened.

In the movie, Robert Moses is renamed Moses Randolph, and unsurprisingly very well played by Alec Baldwin.  His antagonist is Lionel (nicknamed Brooklyn and long without a mother, hence the title).  Lionel is a detective whose boss is killed, likely because he crossed Randolph in some big way.  Also, Lionel has Tourettes, which makes for an especially memorable character, and gives Norton the opportunity to deliver an Oscar-worthy performance, which he does.  Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays Laura Rose, a pivotal character to Lionel and the movie, and she puts in a winning performance, too.

I also liked the less leading characters.  My favorite was The Wire's Michael Kenneth Williams, who plays a Mile Davis-type character (identified only as "The Trumpet Man") who uses his trumpet in more ways than one. Also, The Trumpet Man and Brooklyn have a conversation about the shared basis of extreme musical talent and Tourettes that is itself worth price of admission.

I should mention that The Wire is in my view sometimes the best series ever on television, and always in contention for that position, and one of the reasons is that its cast was so stellar.   But back to Motherless Brooklyn, it's a satisfying and altogether excellent movie, and I highly recommend it.


Into the Dark: The Body: The Hitman and the Supernatural

I said in my review last week of Into the Dark's current episode, "The Current Occupant," that I'd be going back and coming back to review all the earlier episodes, so here's my review of "The Body," the very first episode in this Hulu series.

The story is about a hitman, on Halloween, so it has a supernatural element, which doesn't become fully apparent until the end.   The ending thus becomes something of a twist, and it's a pretty good one.  Our hitman is apparently invincible, but it turns out this invincibility applies only to human antagonists.

[spoilers follow]

He, our hitman, named Wilkes, is also impervious to women and romance.  Beautiful, resourceful Maggie would love to be in bed Wilkes, but he says no to that, even as he begins to increasingly rely on her in his increasingly complicated and difficult attempt to deliver a dead body he was contracted to kill.  Indeed, he's so determined that there be no "we" - he and Maggie - that he kills her as soon as he realizes he's become too dependent upon her, and may be finding her erotic appeal too hard to resist.

Here, a question arises about Maggie.  Why does she continue to work with and do her best to help Wilkes, after she realizes he's a killer?   The non-supernatural answer is she's just so stimulated, mentally and physically, by Wilkes and what he does.  But the twist at the end offers a much better answer: she's some kind of supernatural being who feeds on the energy of death.

That's completely appropriate for Halloween, and I sort of half-expected a twist along those lines, because ... when Wilkes kills her, he doesn't chop off her head or blow her to bits.   The Levinson principle when it comes to whether a character is really dead on television is that the head has to be separated from the body, or the body completely destroyed.   Maggie suffered neither.

But the 90-minutes was still well worth viewing, lifted by the excellent acting of Rebecca Rittenhouse as Maggie, and Tom Bateman (whom I also just started watching in Beecham House) as Wilkes.  And I'll be back soon with a review of another episode from Into the Dark.


Sunday, July 26, 2020

Sanditon: Wonderful but Cries Out for a Sequel

A belated but much appreciative review of Sanditon, folks - the Jane Austen unfinished novel, completed by Andrew Davies. Well, not completely appreciative, because I didn't find the narrative satisfyingly complete, meaning, I didn't like the ending.

But before that, Sanditon on the screen offers a Jane Austen story updated with more sexuality and a social relevance that goes beyond romance and class.   As one of the actors mentioned in the commentary after the episodes, the setting by the Regency-era sea in the south of England almost feels like a Western.  Except there's no gunslinging.  Just a lot of building a town out of mud, or turning a town built in the mud into a colorful resort.

There's plenty of romance, unrequited and otherwise.  What's the opposite of unrequited, requited?  Yeah, I guess so, as in returned. But there's nothing quiet about Sanditon and its inhabitants, who bubble with passion, dreams of a better tomorrow, and firmly believe that a good regata or ball can always make things better.  The costumes are fabulous, as is the acting of everyone.  Rose Williams is especially wonderful as Charlotte and Theo James as Sidney.

[spoilers follow]

Which brings me to the ending.  I don't care for unhappy endings.  Davies expanded on Austen in lots of good ways, but I always loved the ending to Pride and Prejudice.  Sidney's sacrifice may have seemed to be necessary to save his brother's dream, but there had to be another way.  My wife actually suggested a good one: Georgiana's money.  And for that matter, why was Lady Denham unwilling to help after the fire?  Surely, she saw that it wasn't Tom's fault.  Was she punishing him for not getting insurance?

All of this can be answered in a sequel.  I know, there's no sequel planned.  But, hey, if you've gone to the trouble of brilliantly fleshing out and extending a Jane Austen story, if you have the inspiration and talent to bring it into the 21st century while leaving it two centuries earlier, why not go the extra mile of giving it a brilliant Jane Austen ending?  That's what sequels are for.


Code 8: Superhero Action with an Ethical Conundrum

Just caught Code 8 on Netflix.  It's at once a story of people with superpowers, robot cops, human cops, and criminals.  The people with superpowers are feared by normal humans, with the result that most of the superpowered have become criminals.   None of this is particularly original, but Code 8 is lifted by a real humanity that infuses the narrative.

The humanity in the people with superpowers - different superpowers - is propelled by Mary Reed, whose superpower is freezing, and her adult son Connor, whose superpower is electrical.  Again, we've seen all of that before, in Heroes on television, and in countless movies.  But what starts to separate Code 8 from the pack is Mary is also suffering from a brain tumor, which is killing her by scrambling her control of her freezing power to the extent that she's freezing herself to death.  Connor of course is determined to save her, first by making enough money through crime to pay for Mary's operation, and then by getting Nia, whose superpower is healing, to cure his mother.  The problem, though, is that Mia heals by taking unto herself the ill that she's curing.  And that's where Code 8 shows its mettle, in the form of real heart.

Most of the movie are sequences of good shoot-em ups, displays of superpowers, and members of the superpower gang double-crossing each other as members of gangs with no superpowers are prone to do.  All of that is fun to see, but nothing close to memorable,  In contrast, the ending, where we find out just how far Connor is willing to go to save his mother, is an excellent treatment of the classic philosophic conundrum of if you see two people drowning, and can only save one, which one do you save?   Is the answer, save the one you love, by sacrificing someone you may care about, and is certainly innocent?

See Code 8 and decide what you think.   And if you enjoy this action movie charged by a fundamental ethical question, thank Jeff Chan, who wrote and directed the 2019 feature-length film, based on the 2016 short version of the movie, which Chan also directed and wrote (Chris Pare shared in the writing in both versions), which I didn't see.

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Friday, July 24, 2020

The New Unsolved Mysteries: A Proper Review

Having complained about the lack of a host in the new Unsolved Mysteries now on Netflix, I figured the least I could is review the first six of twelve(?) episodes now streaming.  In a phrase, they by and large were excellent.

Being a science fiction fan and author, my favorite unsurprisingly was "Berkshires UFO" about, well, a UFO in Great Barrington, MA and its surrounds in the Berkshires.  You already know how much I liked the Dutres episode in the original series (especially the way Robert Stack pronounced it), and the first thing I realized is that the Berkshires are not that far from Truro and Dutres.  Hey, what is it about Massachusetts, maybe it was the same UFO?   In any case, the Berkshires episode was so convincing, especially the disparate unrelated people who either saw and/or were picked up by the UFO, I could almost believe the extra-terrestrial visit really happened.  As I've said many times, I'll completely believe it when a flying saucer hovers over Time Square, where everyone can clearly see it, or wherever CNN is currently headquartered.

My next favorite episode in the returned series was "House of Terror," which takes place entirely in France, with people appropriately speaking French, a great language.   Unlike some of the other unsolved mysteries, we know pretty quickly who the killer is, so the mystery resides in how and will the killer get away.  In "Missing Witness," we not only know who the killer is, but she's pretty much living in plain sight at the end of the episode, leaving it a mystery as to why she hasn't been arrested.

The other three episodes were also quite good, which is why I said this first part of the first season is by and large excellent.  I still miss Robert Stack, but at least we get his picture at the end of the intro, and I'll be back here with a review of the remaining episodes as soon as they're up and streaming.

See also Unsolved Mysteries Is Back: With No Host?


Thursday, July 23, 2020

Survival of the Media Fit

Welcome to Light On Light Through, Episode 130, in which I talk about one of the bedrocks of my "anthropotropic" theory of media evolution -- why some media, such as sight-only silent movies, are obliterated by the advent of newer media like "talkies" (sight and sound), in contrast to other media, such as sound-only radio, amply survive and even thrive in the advent of newer media like television (sight and sound).
Further reading:

Check out this episode!

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Unsolved Mysteries is Back: With No Host?

My wife and I caught the first episode of the revived Unsolved Mysteries on Netflix. It was good enough, and we're going to watch the other episodes, but ... the show had no host!

Now, I know that Robert Stack, the original host, died in 2003.  (His niece was a student of mine when I taught at Fairleigh Dickinson University in late 1970s, but I of course knew of Stack and admired his work from well before that, when he played Eliot Ness in The Untouchables.)  My wife reminded me that Dennis Farina was host when Unsolved Mysteries returned, the first time, in 2008, for a five-year run.  Farina was no Stack, but he was ok, and the show worked well with him.

So what's going on with the Netflix reboot?  According to Bianca Rodriguez's July 1 article in Marie Claire, Unsolved Mystery producer Shawn Levy deliberately chose not to have a host, or at very least, is defending that absence, commenting that "In Robert's absence, we are letting the spirit and the strength of the stories carry the narrative. Above all, our aspiration was to make a new chapter worthy of his memory and of iconic contribution to this iconic series." I don't believe that for a second!  A more plausible explanation is that (a) the show couldn't find a suitable host, (b) the show didn't want to shell out the money for a new host, or (c) both of the above.

Which is unfortunate, even if Levy's explanation is bona-fide.   Because, as good as the mysteries are, they deserve a host, if not with the perfectly sonorous of voice of Stack, at least with a voice.  The host's commentary set up every scene, and tied the loose ends together - or explained when those ends couldn't be tied.

Well, at least the Unsolved Mysteries theme song is still there. I'd sing it to you if you were here.  It makes me want to drive back up to Dutre's, like we once did.   Don't know what that is?  That's part of the mystery.

See also The New Unsolved Mysteries: A Proper Review


Sunday, July 19, 2020

Into the Dark: The Current Occupant: Proof of Sanity Hard to Come By

I saw "The Current Occupant" late last night, the current 90-minute offering on Hulu's Into the Dark monthly anthology series.  In a word: outstanding!  A narrative that I'd say is up there with the best of The Twilight Zone, Black Mirror, Amazing Stories, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and the other science fiction and mystery anthology series in whose steps Into the Dark follows so vividly in this episode.

The series is billed as "horror".   Other than "The Current Occupant," I've seen only one other episode, "The Body," the debut episode that aired for Halloween in 2018.  (Each episode is keyed to a holiday - "The Current Occupant" to July 4).  I thought "The Body" was excellent, too, and I may review it, and some or all of the other episodes, if I get a chance to watch them.  No, I'll definitely watch them, and post reviews here.   But I saw "The Body" right before "The Current Occupant" last night, because I wanted to get a sense of the series.  And my sense is, although it's indeed horror, it's a little closer to Alfred Hitchcock Presents than The Twilight Zone, meaning its horror is closer to mystery than science fiction, but it has a Black Mirror-ish science fictional flavor nonetheless.

Now the story of "The Current Occupant" couldn't be more current.  It revolves around the question, repeatedly put to the lead character, a patient in a mental institution who believes he is President of the United States, and is being kept in the institution for political reasons:  if you find yourself in a mental institution, and believe you are President of the United States, being held in the institution against your will, is it more likely that (a) you are indeed the President or (b) you're not and you're a person suffering from the encompassing delusion that you are the President.   Most of us, observing from the outside, of course would choose "b" - the lead character is suffering from a delusion - but this after all is a horror story, not quite our reality on our side of the screen, and the story is so tightly drawn (kudos to writer Alston Ramsay, and director Julius Ramsay) with sequences that support both answers, and so well acted (by Barry Watson as "President" or President, and by everyone else in the cast), that it's very tough to say how this story will end.  Which is the hallmark of a great story, and one of the reasons I said this episode is outstanding.

I won't tell you how it ends, because I don't want to spoil the tension and the fun, except to say that there's a final shot on the screen that's so exquisitely ambiguous it will make you feel like you and we are all current occupants in a mental institution.  Which, come to think of it, maybe we are.   

And somehow, Marshall McLuhan's quip that the only people who have proof of their sanity are those who have been discharged from mental institutions seems relevant here, too.

See also Into the Dark: The Body


Saturday, July 18, 2020

Dirty John Season 2: Betty: Truth Stranger than Fiction but Not Quite as Compelling

My wife and I just finished binging Dirty John Season 2: Betty on the USA Network.  It was a powerful season, brilliantly acted by Amanda Peet in the title role, but not as good as the first season.

The first season told the story of John Meehan (hence Dirty John), who actually was a character far more familiar to television drama than Betty Broderick.  John is a sweet-talking con-man killer, who ensnares Debra, superbly played by Connie Britton, who has delivered masterful performances in at least two other television series, Friday Night Lights and Nashville.  Britton on the screen, as well as Eric Bana as John, as well as the mounting, almost excruciating tension of whether Debra will realize what John is, and escape with her life, was an irresistible combination.

The acting was equally strong in the second season.  I already mentioned Peet as Betty, and Christian Slater was equally effective as her husband Dan.  But the story of Betty, a woman so devoted to Dan that, when he leaves her to be with and eventually marry Linda, Betty eventually kills them, is bizarre more than frightening, a study of a woman scorned becoming a woman insane, to the point of acting against her own self-interests, since by killing Dan and Linda, she loses any chance to be with her four kids whom she very much loves. 

I know that this a true story, with the typical docudrama  proviso that a few characters and scenes have been changed.  And they say the truth can be stranger than fiction, which is true enough.  But that doesn't mean such stranger truth can make for as gripping a story as an outright fiction, or, in this case of the second season of Dirty John, as gripping a story as the stranger truth of the first season.

But the second season was enjoyable and nonetheless worth viewing, if only for the sterling performances of the leads, especially Amanda Peet.

See also: Dirty John 1.1: Hunter and Hunted ... Dirty John 1.2: Motives and Plans ... Dirty John 1.4: The Forgiveness Gene ... Dirty John 1.5: John's Family ... Dirty John 1.6: Getting Wise ... Dirty John Season One Finale: Truth Stranger than Fiction


Friday, July 17, 2020

Media Determinism

Welcome to Light On Light Through, Episode 129, in which I give you a little primer about "media determinism," the bedrock of just about all media studies.

Further listening:  Politics and Media in History and Voice Mail from Marshall McLuhan, 1978

Further reading: The Soft Edge: A Natural History and Future of the Information Revolution and McLuhan in an Age of Social Media

Check out this episode!