Tuesday, April 25, 2017

American Playboy: The Hugh Hefner Story: Highly Recommended and Not Just for the Pictures

Binge-watched American Playboy: The Hugh Hefner Story on Amazon Prime the past few days. The 10-episode documentary-docudrama was excellent, and not just because of the pictures.

Hefner himself plays a major role, not just in real footage over half a century, but from an extensive interview he did in 1991.   Matt Whelan is convincing as a young through middle-aged Hefner, and provides narration throughout.  The same formula is effectively employed for Hefner's inner circle and brain trust at Playboy - recent interviews with the real people mixed with actual footage of them in their younger days, and lots of docudrama reenactments for the earlier days - as well as for important women in the story, including Barbie Benton (described by Hefner as the "love of my life"), Dorothy Stratten (a gorgeous blonde Playmate murdered by her jealous husband), and Marilyn Cole (British Playmate who helped Playboy in its competition with Penthouse by showing some frontal nudity).

The battle between Playboy and Penthouse, which came on the scene in America (I'm not going to try and avoid double entendres) in 1969, some 16 years after Playboy launched its first issue in 1953 with Marilyn Monroe on the cover and never looked back, is indeed one of the major themes of the documentary (or its second half). This true story of escalating nudity in the competition for readership and its conclusion in the 21st century and the age of the Internet is especially relevant to media theory. Playboy's circulation today of 600,000+ is less than 10-percent of what it had at its height in the 1970s (over 7 million for its November 1972 issue), and Penthouse, which with its raunchier pictures briefly exceeded Playboy's circulation in the 1970s, now has just a little over 100,000.  The reason is the instant access to porn on the Internet, which caters to every taste, and, by the way, is free.

The U. S. government, by the way, did its utmost to stamp out freedom of expression on the Internet (see my analysis in The Soft Edge of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 and the Supreme Court's wise ruling that it was in violation of the First Amendment),  and though it by and large did not succeed regarding the Internet, it hounded Hefner throughout his career, and did some damage. Hefner himself was never convicted of a crime, but his casinos in New Jersey and England (the British government was no better than the American) were denied liquor licenses on pretexts, and Hefner's long-time assistant Bobbie Arnstein took her own life in the  Nixonian 1970s when faced with the choice of going to jail or making up garbage about Hefner.   This tragic example of a U. S. Attorney behaving like Gestapo has special and chilling relevance in our own age of Trump.

But as this documentary makes clear, Hefner and Playboy were often targets not only of the government but the media, which should have been Playboy's staunchest defenders on freedom of expression, but were either too dumb, blind, jealous, or all three to see that.  In this regard, I was surprised to see what what a, well, a-hole the young Mike Wallace was in his smug sneering interview of Hefner in the early days (though a much older Wallace seems to admit the error of his younger ways).

Gloria Steinem and the feminist critique of Playboy is yet another related issue, and I'd say that both sides have merit to their positions here, so to each her/his own.  Hefner to this day insists he's always been a champion of women and their rights - including medical care and control over their bodies but also taking off their clothes for Playboy.  The feminist argument that this last part "objectifies" women is also true.  My own view, for what it's worth, is that everything's ok among consenting adults.

There's almost no such thing as a perfect documentary on a subject you know well, because it's almost sure to leave out some things that you deem significant, inevitable given you didn't make the documentary.  I regretted no mention of the Marshall McLuhan interview in the March 1969 Playboy in the otherwise good segment on the importance of the Playboy interviews,  because McLuhan was not only the most important media theorist in history but that interview was by far his most informative (see my McLuhan in an Age of Social Media for why his ideas are more relevant than ever today).  And, similarly, no mention of Alice Turner and the great science fiction she brought to the magazine in the 1990s (I met Alice when I was President of the Science Fiction Writers of America in 1999, so I guess I'm a little biased).

But these are small quibbles indeed about an outstanding documentary, free on Amazon Prime, which everyone interested in media and the popular culture of the past 60 years should see.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Bosch 3: Best Season So Far

Binge-watched the third season of Bosch on Amazon the past few nights, and found it better than ever.

Among my favorite parts of this unconventional season of an unconventional hard-boiled LA noir cop series are: a serial killer who comes in and out of the story, and apparently has no connection to the central story lines, rides by Bosch, untouched, and likely to play a central role in season 4; Bosch discovers that he has not solved his mother's murder, and the new suspect is, well, I don't want to give that much away; and, Frank Herbert's Dune makes a cameo appearance.

Bosch has a gut connection to The Wire, and not just because Jamie Hector and Lance Reddick play major roles.   There's nothing in Bosch like The Wire's drug crime and culture of Baltimore, but the police part of Bosch has the same compelling intra-gritty cop story.

Loyalty is always put to the test, in an environment in which almost no detective is thoroughly ethical or reliable.  Bosch epitomizes this - he's par excellence no angel, but someone you'd want on your side and not on your case.  Titus Welliver delivers the best performance of his career - by far - and is well on his way to portraying a character as iconic as Sgt. Friday.  In fact, I'm feeling more and more that this Bosch series of Dragnet meets The Wire will be as significant in our popular culture as those 1950s network television and early 21st century cable series.

Unlike many other fine police shows - such as Chicago PD, which deals with a different case just about every week, and has a Sergeant who is not quite believable in the violence he dishes out - Bosch sticks with its several cases throughout its 10-episode season, with some of those cases even going a lot further than one season.  And the quality of the detective life portrayed on Bosch feels to me more realistic, though I have no direct knowledge myself of what police life is actually like.   It's testament to the writing, acting, and production of the series that it feels so real.

I've enjoyed Bosch from its first season two years ago. But having just seen the third season, I'm thinking Bosch is not only the best police drama now on screen but on its way to being one of the best police dramas ever on television.

See also  Bosch: First Half: Highly Recommended ... Bosch: Second Half as Fine as the First ...  Bosch Season 2: Dragnet with Uber

                   another kind of police story 

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The American 5.7: Gabriel

A wonderful episode of The Americans - 5.7 - tonight, in which Gabriel presumably says goodbye.

Elizabeth asks him why he's leaving.  He tells her because the burden of the bad as well as the good that he's done adds up, with the bad becoming a little too much to bear.   We probably know what tipped the balance - lying to Philip about his son.

And when Philip comes to see him, at Gabriel's request, Gabriel lies to Philip again - a lie of omission, in still not telling about his son.  But he does impart a surprising nugget of truth to Philip, in his quiet, heartfelt words to Philip that Philip was right in not wanting Paige to go into the business.   Too much possible bad to outweigh the good.

And Paige had a powerful night herself, in effect moving ever closer to her parents' line of work, by breaking up with Matthew.   She doesn't want to keep lying to him.  But, if she has a low tolerance for lying, then maybe she's not cut out to be a spy after all.

Frank Langella has been a world-class actor all of his life, from his brilliant portrayal of Dracula on Broadway (which my wife and I saw in 1977) to every film he's ever been in.  He brought all of that to Gabriel in The Americans.  His conversation with Paige at the beginning of the hour was one of the best in the entire series.

Like Elizabeth and Philip, I don't want to see him go.

Monday, April 17, 2017

24 Legacy Season 1 Finale: All About Relationships

A fine - better than fine - finale to 24 Legacy's first season tonight.  The series still has the punch of the original, and the power to move us with stories that make us care about the complex characters.   The original series as well as Legacy have been dismissed in some places as adrenalin joy rides, but there was always more to the first, and that still holds for the second.

In fact, Eric Carter at this point, after the end of the first season, has far more self-awareness than did Jack Bauer at the end of his first.  Jack developed that later.   But since Eric's wife survived this season, Eric can continue a relationship, rather than struggling to build another one, as Jack never (for one reason or another) completely did.

The truth is that relationships are always what 24 was most about.  Tony Almeida was a much better person when Michelle was alive.  In 24 Legacy, he barely manages to do the right thing - and in fact would have killed the kidnapped girl had he not received the call.  Like Jack, he may never fully recover from the loss of his truest love.

Which brings us to Senator Donovan.  He was about to withdraw from the Presidential race, to be able to devote full attention to his mourning Rebecca.  But his decision not to withdraw makes him a much more interesting character - like Jack and Tony, he will never completely get over this loss.

24 Legacy needs another season, especially given what's been going on in our real world on an intensely daily basis.   24 was never completely escapist, given that it began its run after September 11.  And now 24 Legacy is especially relevant in a very different way.

Donovan running full out for President, Eric on the job, supported by his wife Nicole.  Bring it on!

Friday, April 14, 2017

SFWA Science Fiction Bundle!

Hey, SFWA (Science Fiction Writers of America, an organization with international members of which I was President way back in 1998-2001) has teamed up with StoryBundle (offering curated assortments of ebooks at incredibly low prices for the bundle since 2012, helmed by Jason Chen) to offer the first ever SFWA Science Fiction Bundle.

Here's how it works:  You pay as much or as little as you want (but no less than $5) for these six science fiction novels:

  • Saiensu Fikushon 2016 by TOBI Hirotaka, Toh Enjoe and Taiyo Fujii
  • Borrowed Tides by Paul Levinson
  • The Weave by Nancy Jane Moore
  • Truck Stop Earth by Michael A. Armstrong
  • Children of Arkadia by M. Darusha Wehm
  • Beyond the Gates by Catherine Wells
And, if you'd like the following six additional bonus books, just kick in a minimum of $15, and they'll be yours in addition to the original six:

  • Unidentified Funny Objects by Alex Shvartsman
  • Factoring Humanity by Robert J. Sawyer
  • Strangers Among Us by Susan Forest and Lucas K. Law
  • Tech Heaven by Linda Nagata
  • The Burning Eye by John F. Carr
  • The Leaves of October by Don Sakers

These books were all selected - curated, in the modern digital parlance - by current SFWA President Cat Rambo.  Hey, I know she has discerning tastes, because she included Borrowed Tides (about the first starship to Alpha Centauri).  But I can also tell you I read and much enjoyed some of the other books, as well, including my friend Rob Sawyer's Factoring Humanity (also about Alpha Centauri, a very different kind of story), and (also unlike Borrowed Tides) a 1999 Hugo Award nominee.

Here's why this story bundle makes lots of sense (and saves you lots of dollars and cents) financially. Borrowed Tides is priced at $6.99.   I may lower the price once in a blue moon for a special sale, but I don't believe in giving my books away for free, and never will.  So, for less than the price of Borrowed Tides, if the novel has ever struck your interest, you can get it through the StoryBundle along with five other novels.  And, for just an additional $10, you get six more books.

The books will be let out of the bundle - i.e., the sale ends - in just 20 days.  More about this, including a handy link to buy the bundle, over here.  Enjoy!

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Oasis: Possibilities

I caught the pilot for Oasis last night on Amazon Prime.   It definitely has possibilities.

The set-up is something we've seen and read many times before - an Earth in bad shape just a few decades into the future has apparently discovered faster-than-light travel, and is setting up a colony on some habitable world out there in the galaxy.   Also familiar is the discovery that this new world isn't such a nice place, either, and in fact has something very strange and likely deadly about it.

What's different and appealing about Oasis, though, is the point of view character is a Scottish chaplain, which puts Oasis, based on Michel Faber's The Book Of Strange New Things, in James Blish (A Case of Conscience) and Mary Doria Russell (The Sparrow) territory. Now this is more unusual terrain indeed, and one which I explored in my Touching the Face of the Cosmos: On the Intersection of Space Travel and Religion anthology, so I'm especially glad to see it on an Amazon series.

At this point, though - at the end of just one hour - it's unclear (as I guess it should be) what's happening to our colonists on this new planet, and what role our chaplain will be play in understanding and combatting it.  Since the problem has already resulted in the death of four human colonists, apparently because they're seeing visions of people and animals (a horse, in one case) they knew and loved and left behind on Earth, there's no doubt that Chaplain Peter will have a lot to fathom. And since we do also know that Peter lost his young wife to illness on Earth, and that the head of the colony, now missing, specifically requested Peter's presence before disappearing, we can expect Peter to be put to the test personally as well as professionally in applying his faith and smarts to the problem of survival of the colonists and in turn the survival of humanity.

Which adds up to a good reason to want to see more of this narrative, and encourage Amazon to go for a series.  See it, and if you like it, check off the boxes on Amazon.

another new planet for humanity?

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

24 Legacy Season 1 Penultimate: Eric vs. Tony!

The best episode so far on 24 Legacy - the next-to-last of what I hope will be the first of many seasons - which had all the power and unexpected alignments of the classic 24.

Tony Almeida, who came on board as a good guy, is now a bad guy, because he's working for CIA honcho Sims, who's a pretty bad guy himself.  The only thing that stands in the way of Tony killing Naseri's young daughter is Eric, who is determined to save her, both as the only way to save Rebecca, and because it's the decent thing to do.

Sims could call Tony off, but he won't do that, so it's up to Andy to unlock Sim's phone, so Senator Donovan can make the call,   And just for good measure, Keith has taken out (either unconscious or dead) Pang, sent over by Sims - which I had a little pang about, because I liked the actor C. S. Lee as Masuka on Dexter, but what can you do?

But that's what I mean about great and surprising alignments - Tony working with the bad side of American espionage, Eric and Senator Donovan on the same side, along with Keith and Stiles' niece - not too shabby an alliance, all devoted to saving Rebecca--

Who, it turns out, was responsible for kidnapping Naseri's daughter in the first place!

The show has found its rhythm and niche, in terms of sheer action and twists, and I'm looking forward to next week and days to come in the future.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Homeland Season 6 Finale: Chilling - and True to Life

A chilling conclusion tonight to Homeland Season 6 - not just chilling on its own terms, but deeply disturbing because of how close it comes to what we see in this country, and in Washington, off the television drama screen right now.  So close, in fact, that it raises the question, again, of how much of this was written after Trump was elected.

Because the twist here is that the President-elect, almost assassinated, saved only by Carrie's and Peter's heroism, and Peter's sacrifice of his life, has turned into a Trump-like paranoid in the White House, arresting not only Dar, but Saul.   President Keane, of course, has reason to be paranoid - she was almost assassinated - whereas Trump has none.  But, even so, her transformation is profoundly unsettling, to say the least.

Dar, in prison, admits that he did a lot of wrong things - things that set in motion the assassination attempt, which he didn't want to happen.  We know that because he was telling Carrie the truth in those frantic moments on the phone - that getting her out of the hotel was a ruse, which would cost her her life. And Carrie listened to him, believed him, and the President-elect survived.

Dat also says he saw something off in Keane, something not right, which is why he was conspiring to what - somehow get her not to get into the Oval Office, without killing her.  We don't know exactly what he intended, but apparently he was right about Keane.

Peter getting killed was grievous.   And, now, his heroism seems undilutedly justified only for saving Carrie. He has been a great character, even this season, especially this season, and he'll be missed.

And so the curtain comes down on Season 6, broadcast against the stranger reality we inhabit.  Carrie will have her work cut out for her in Season 7, with Saul arrested, Dar (who turned out not to be 100% bad) in jail, Peter gone ... and Keane turning into Trump on steroids.

See ya next year.

And see also  Homeland on Showtime ... Homeland 1.8: Surprises ... Homeland Concludes First Season: Exceptional

Friday, April 7, 2017

Colony Season 2 Finale: Out and About

Colony ended its second season tonight - yes, second season, not the series, with the good news announced a few days ago that there will be a third season in 2018 - with an episode pulsing with ambiguity, darkness, evil in the air, and a dollop of hope for humanity.  In other words, the way Colony has been telling its story all along.

About that dollop of hope: the collaborating sergeant letting Will and family get out of LA was an inspiring moment.  On some deep level, human blood is still a lot thicker than working with aliens water.

Snyder, who already showed himself to have some glimmers of humanity and decency, also put in a good show, choosing to go with the Bowmans rather than the safer job in collaborator headquarters in Europe.  But he activates some sort of device at the end, which no one other than he and entities we likely  haven't yet met know about - so, he likely has more up his sleeve than just decency.

Meanwhile, Broussard and Madeline, for very different reasons, aren't leaving LA, which leaves us not knowing what becomes of them - at least, not until next season.  Broussard certainly won't go down without a fight, and as for Madeline - well, it looks as if she's just moments from being destroyed, but if that's all that's going to happen to her next season, why not just show us that right now?

The upshot: as our world, off screen, seems to be going to hell in a hand basket, whatever exactly that means, Colony in its dark, brooding totalitarian vs. human freedom story is not only uncannily relevant but even comforting to see on some level.   And that with still barely a whiff of what and who the alien hosts really are.

See you back here next year, if not sooner.

See also Colony 2.1: Prelude ... Colony 2.2: 1969 ... Colony 2.3: The Wall ... Colony 2.7: Countdowns and Intentions ... Colony 2.8: What Passes for a Happy Ending ... Colony 2.9: Together Again ... Colony 2.10: The Fight Continues ... Colony 2.11: Twist ... Colony 2.12: The List

And see also Colony 1.1: Aliens with Potential ... 1.2: Compelling ... 1.5: Questions ... 1.6: The Provost ... Colony 1.7: Broussard ... Colony 1.8: Moon Base and Transit Zones ... Colony 1.9: Robot Arm ... Colony Season 1 Finale: Not Quite Enough

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

The Americans 5.5: Wrong about the Bugs

Well, the robins are finally beginning to come home to roost on The Americans 5.5 - or, more precisely, the bugs or pests that the Soviets think the Americans are nefariously breeding to attack Soviet crops and starve the Soviet people.

Elizabeth discovers that the scientist she's bedding is actually trying to create a super-grain, resistant to pests. which can feed the world.  The Center, in other words, has been dead wrong about these American scientists are trying to do.

Understandably, Philip is upset, to say the least, when Elizabeth lets him know about this.  In a moving scene at the end, Philips says he's been upset about this - killing people - for a long time. Killing an innocent person is even worse.  When Elizabeth offers to do this on her own, from now on, to relieve Philip of the burden, he says no, it's us - the two of us, the couple who are Soviet agents, have to stop doing this.

But how will that happen?  Though Gabriel is always sympathetic to their plight, he can't even bring himself to let Philip's son see him.  Or maybe Gabriel did that precisely because he is indeed sensitive to what Philip is going through, and wants to protect one of his best agents.

Whatever the exact reason, relationships are clearly coming to a boil on The Americans.  And that's not even including Stan's new love - who, if she is a Soviet agent, would throw another serious monkey wrench into all of this.

I keep thinking that Philip shouldn't get so close to Stan, shouldn't be tailing him, even when he's in disguise.  And that's because I'm convinced that, sooner or later, Stan will discover the truth about his neighbors.

Just a matter of time ...

Monday, April 3, 2017

Homeland 6.11: Quinn and Dar

A Quinn-centric excellent episode 6.11 of Homeland last night, in which we learn at least two important things about Quinn -

1. He tells Carrie that he always been this way.  He of course was not talking about the deficits from the stroke.  He was talking about the rage inside him, ever ready to boil over against enemies, or even in pursuit of his work.   And even when rage isn't part of it, he's been all too quick to injure and kill when necessary.  He shot Carrie, and killed a boy in South America, all on behalf of missions.   Peter's self-awareness of this dark part of his psyche is an important piece of what's going on, and what' going to happen.

2. Why is someone posting dangerous missives online under Quinn's name?  My guess is the poster is likely Dar or his agent, and the goal is to set Peter up as someone who needs to be terminated, which Dar now will only be too happy to do,

Which brings us to the teaser for next week's episode - it will change "everything".  Peter's death would certainly do that.  It would, in effect, free Carrie in all kinds of ways.  Much as I would hate to see that happen, I'm guessing that's what we'll see next week.

But there's an outside chance it will be someone else who's shot or otherwise blown off the the show. Wouldn't it be nice if that was Dar?   That would also bring in a breath of fresh air, and certainly just about everything Dar has been doing this season makes him an appropriate candidate for justice in the extreme.

But justice has never been what Homeland is necessarily about, so we'll just have to stay tuned and see what happens in next week's finale to this provocatively pertinent season, including crowds shouting the familiar "not my President" to the President-elect last night.

And see also  Homeland on Showtime ... Homeland 1.8: Surprises ... Homeland Concludes First Season: Exceptional