Monday, May 18, 2015

#MadMen ends perfectly

There was no way I was going to stay up until 10 at night to watch anything, but that doesn't mean it wasn't the first thing I did when I woke up. The show I have loved and found almost flawless did not disappoint at the very end.

All good things....
The opening episode found Don continuing his Western adventure, Joan at the end of her idyllic, post-"retirement" vacation with her older lover, Peggy practicing her elbowing skills at McCann and Pete bidding farewell to McCann and New York. That might have been everyone's happy ending- Peggy only acts annoyed when she has to struggle; the truth is that she lives for the fight- but something was going to give. In this case, that something was Sally's confession to Don that Betty was dying of lung cancer. Her plea to her father: convince Betty that her brothers should stay with their stepfather Henry, not go to live with their Uncle William. Don is indignant and calls Betty; the boys should live with him. Betty, who with age has developed nobility, tells Don that the boys need the presence of a woman, and her sister-in-law Judy is the only one who can provide that. She also quickly lets him know that he's been a failure as a father, and spending more time with them now will let alarm them. Betty has never been a great mother, but it was touching that she wanted to provide her children with stability, even if keeping them in the dark was a complete failure. The scene where Sally came home to find her brothers struggling to make dinner broke my heart; she wanted to maintain the facade that everything was okay, but her little brothers knew better than she did how sick their mother was. She told Bobby that she wasn't going to Madrid that summer, and started taking care of everyone by making dinner- and teaching him to make it in the process. Not surprisingly, this was one of the most tragic arcs of the entire series; as long-time viewers may remember, the second episode of the series explored the beginnings of Betty's unraveling in response to her mother's recent death.

The news about Betty's health sent Don on another bender- what a surprise- and he asked the race car drivers he was sponsoring to drop them off in LA to visit his niece Stephanie. He hoped to reconnect with the only family he had left that he hadn't disappointed, but Stephanie, who had been compared to a Madonna earlier in the series, wasn't able to give anyone absolution as she was struggling with her own feelings of worthlessness. She convinced Don to come with her to a retreat that featured proto-group therapy in addition to yoga and tai chi. (How awesome was Don's face when he saw people performing forms?) Don was highly skeptical about the whole thing, but when participants were told to express their feelings about the person closest to them without using words and an older woman shoved him, Don's defenses came down.

Meanwhile, Ken reached out to Joan from Dow, in desperate need of a producer who could create some industrial commercials. Joan quickly realizes that she could produce the commercials. She also realizes that she knows the perfect writer and calls Peggy. At lunch, Joan asks Peggy to not only help her write one commercial, but to come into business with her. Harris-Olson, because two names are better than one- and Joan wants Peggy. Peggy is flattered, but frazzled, and later takes out her angst on Stan, her long-suffering colleague/confidante. Fed up, Stan tells her she'd better be really drunk, because she's going to need an excuse.

Meanwhile, after a particularly difficult session in which Stephanie is reduced to tears over her abandon of her young son, Don realizes that Stephanie has left him at the commune and taken his car. It'll be a couple of days before he can get a ride out. When he berates the young woman at the desk because people leave without saying good-bye, the young woman smiles and shrugs. People can go as they please. Don realizes that's exactly what he's done his entire life, and staggers over to the phone to call Peggy. Peggy, the person who has most consistently seen his decent side, reminds him of the good things he's done and tries to remind him of the creative opportunities he still has- "Don't you want to work on Coca-Cola?" but to no effect.

This image made a lot of people predict that the show would end with Don committing suicide; really, this only showed what happened to Don in every episode.
After Don hangs up, Peggy calls Stan in a panic, telling him where Don is and then apologizing for what she said. Stan confesses that he doesn't want her to leave after she tells him she already made up her mind to stay, then rambles out that he loves her. Peggy comes to her own realization that she loves him too, and the scene ends when he comes running to her door and they share a loving, passionate kiss. I must say, I've loved their relationship since Peggy put younger, sexually harassing Stan firmly in his place, and it's been clear for the last several seasons that their friendship was based on mutual respect. When she confessed that she'd given up a baby years before two episodes back and Stan was not only understanding but kind, I was jumping out of my seat, hoping that the two would get together, but I didn't think there was time in the series. So this was a wonderful, romantic surprise; Peggy deserves a happily ever after as much as- if not more than- anyone else on the show, and part of the HEA is a man who treats her like an equal.

Roger, Madison Avenue's would-be Peter Pan, is now engaged to be married to Don's former mother-in-law, Marie. The two have a passionate argument after what looks to have been exhausting sex and Roger ends up on the couch. But this is Roger's version of a happily ever after; just like Peggy needs to fight in order to thrive, Roger needs not a mother to take care of him (his first wife Mona) or a child to pamper (his second wife Jane), but a fierce, independent woman who has enough dignity not to tolerate his shenanigans. He's at peace when he tells Joan that he's getting married, during the same conversation that he tells her that he insists on leaving half of his estate to their son, Kevin. Joan cares a little less about appearances now and gives her blessing. It was a nice final scene between the two of them; Joan would have made a good wife for Roger, but Roger wouldn't have made a good husband for her. To see him graciously accept that they were better as good friends was satisfying.

Unfortunately, Joan's lover Richard was much less sanguine about her new business venture, and walked out when she answered a business call. Joan was heartbroken, but it's one of those things that she would surely be thankful for sooner rather than later. Richard didn't want an equal partner, he wanted a playmate. Joan had surely earned her playtime, but she had a lot more to do before she was ready to take up permanent residence by the beach or in the mountains. Peggy didn't take her up on her offer of a partnership, so Joan's firm was called Holloway-Harris, her maiden name plus her married name. And that's just fine, because Joan has always been the most capable person on the show.

One of the leaders of the retreat found a devastated Don slumped by the phone and convinced him to join her in the next session. Don was moved when a man who looked just as out of place as he did talked about his longing to be seen and loved, and then his realization that maybe he had been getting love all along but didn't realize it because he didn't know what it was. As the man sobbed, Don crossed the circle and knelt down beside him, embracing him and then sobbing himself. It was one of the many epiphanies Don had through the course of the show, but this was the most human response Don had ever had to it.


The end scene featured Don chanting "Om" with his fellow participants in Lotus Pose, and then smiling before the famous "I'd Like To Buy The World A Coke" ad was shown. It looks like Don got to work on Coca-Cola after all. Perfect, because that was as close to enlightenment as Don Draper, the soulless narcissist, was ever going to get.

Thank you, Matthew Weiner, for some of the best, most consistent characters I've ever watched, and thank you for giving your loyal viewers a realistic closure to a compelling story. I do not feel cheated one bit by anything that happened (although I'm always going to wonder what happened to poor Sal), and at the same time I'm done; I don't feel any need to watch this again, and I don't wish anything had been done differently. Like the best of great stories, I feel richer for having heard it.

But...now what am I going to watch?!

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

I Totally Saw That Coming...and sometimes that's not bad

Kerrie did a great job talking about the good side of predictability. Despite the snark implied in the title of this blog hop, I don't always think predictable is a bad thing.

My husband and I watched a great little show broadcast by BBC America last year, The Game. It was set in early 1970s London, and it was about a group of agents from MI-5 who were trying to forestall a Soviet plot. The main character is young but jaded agent Joe Lambe played by Tom Hughes. Even though he's barely in his late twenties, the viewer can tell that he's already starting to lose his conscience and is willing to be more and more ruthless.

Whatever happened to corrupt young Agent Lambe so? He lost the love of his life, of course- or did he? (SPOILER ALERT) From the first time I saw a flashback of Joe remembering the murder of his lover Yulia years before, I knew that she wasn't dead. (And if I hadn't known that, the fact that they showed the flashback in almost every episode would have given it away by the end.) More importantly, because Yulia was an intelligence agent for the Soviets, you knew the bad guys were going to use her as leverage. But what you didn't know: would it work?

You could guess what happens next and then what happens right after...but could you figure out why?
There was another big twist I could guess within two episodes, and that was the identity of the mole. It was a small team: Joe, director "Daddy" (yes, that is kind of creepy), young assistant Wendy, proto-techie Alan, his brilliant wife Sarah, Bobby, a to-the-manor-born agent who needed to hide his homosexuality and Jim, a detective on loan from the London police department. (SPOILER ALERT) It didn't take much to figure out that Sarah was the mole, although they did do a very good job for a few minutes of making it look like her husband Alan was. Why did he confess? Because he figured it out first and he wanted to protect Sarah.

Really, only one of these people could have been the mole. The real question was whether the rest of them could get on in spite of it
So why did this make for really good television viewing anyway? A couple of reasons: first, the viewers knew who the real mole was before the team did; would they figure it out on time? And what were the Soviets planning? Even more importantly, the credibility of everyone on the team was compromised in some way: that which made it plausible for them to be the mole also made it possible that they weren't going to be able to do their jobs even though they weren't.

The look on Joe Lambe's face: that's what The Game was really about
Further, being able to suss out a plot twist isn't the same as being able to figure out why. As predicted, Joe was reunited with Yulia at the end, but he was tormented as to what, if anything, her role in the plot was. Did she willingly go along with a charade to make it appear that she was being killed, or did the Soviets spare her at the last minute so they could use her as leverage against Joe? While the viewers may have had a pretty good idea that it was the latter, it didn't matter: the end frame of the final episode made it clear that Joe was always going to be tormented by his doubts. As Jim pointed out a few episodes back, there was no way Joe could be the mole they were looking for: he didn't believe in anything. That was what the show was really about, and predictability wasn't going to ruin that.

If predictability can be a good thing, the converse is also true; sometimes, there's such a thing as too much surprise. No, I'm not talking about Scandal this time, but rather the 2014 novel The Big Hit. I went into this expecting to find out why Hollywood star Catherine Delure was murdered by a sociopathic hit man. If you look at the cover and read the back cover, you'd most likely think that the murder had something to do with the victim's job. You know what else makes you think that? The fact that more than half of the book is spent following NYPD Detective Jeb Barker into the corrupt warrens of some of Hollywood's producers- that, and the fact that said hit man just happens to hail from LA as well. (SPOILER ALERT) But no. As it turns out, Delure's profession is just one big red herring that gives birth to a slew of others. (An early tip should have been that she wasn't killed anywhere near LA.)

The question of a mystery should be something like Who Dun It? and then Why?, not What Is This Story About?
That kind of a "twist" might have felt clever if it had taken up fifty pages, but when it takes up more than 200 out of 400 pages, it feels like a manipulative way of drawing out what would have been better as a compact murder mystery. If you're going to be unpredictable, it should make the story better, not completely derail it.

What have you watched or read that wasn't hurt by predictability or that was greatly harmed by a lack of it?

Thanks for stopping by! Please be sure to visit Karin Cox tomorrow for her take on when predictability works and doesn't.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

#ISawThatComing: Fringe and Grimm

I think there’s some truth to the notion that there are only so many plots. Seven, eight, twenty-one...it doesn’t matter, the number is much smaller than the number of works published every day. In my genre, Romance, there’s a basic plot structure that all are measured against: Girl Meets Boy, Girl and Boy Come Apart (in some way), Girl and Boy Come Back Together and Girl and Boy Get Their HEA, or Happily Ever After.


Perhaps you’ve heard that Romance consistently pulls in a lot of money for its publishers year after year. There are some stories people can’t get enough of and that’s okay (from my perspective, it’s a good thing). But discriminating readers will still gnash their teeth- or just stop reading- if they feel that they are literally reading the same story over and over again.


As irritating as it is to read the same story again and again, it can be even worse to watch the same story on an infinite loop. (Someone needs to explain to me why television is becoming more and more predictable even as our viewing options increase.) I’ve been able to see through plots since I was ten years old (“Of course Alexis is threatening to tell Fallon that Blake isn’t her real father; she’s the only person Blake loves without any conditions!”) but it probably has gotten worse since I started crafting my own stories. I’ve honestly lost count of how many times I’ve rolled my eyes and screamed at my television, but here are two that stand out:


Fringe Okay, maybe it’s not fair to pick on this show because I watched the @(#@^&!*( X-Files for years before that (and under duress for most of it), but every time I had to sit through an episode of Fringe I was unimpressed. The spooky dreams, the haunted victim of childhood experimentation, the mad scientist, the odd-looking humanoids, the shadowy government agency that might be working for good or evil and ultimately answered to themselves...yawn. And now cue the suspense...but did they know where it was going? (After the series finale, I’m not so sure they weren’t making it up as they went along.)


There's devoted parents...and then there was this guy
Points to the show for adding interdimensional travel? That was actually the final nail in the coffin for me. In an early episode, some reference to traveling between dimensions is made. About five minutes later, the Mad Scientist is having a conversation with his adult son about the time he was very sick as a little boy. “Really, Dad? I don’t remember that.” “I know you don’t, son.” At this point I shook my head. “Yeah,” I said drily, “because this guy’s son actually died and then he kidnapped his son’s double from the other dimension.” My husband thought that was crazy...until he saw a gravestone at the end of the episode which confirmed my theory. Or at least I think it was a gravestone; I didn’t even need to look at the screen to figure out what was going on.


Grimm If we’re going with The Seven Basic Plots, then Grimm is Overcoming the Monster- literally- every week. Nick Burkhardt is a detective in Portland, Oregon who discovers that he’s a Grimm, or a guardian who can see the true forms of human-monster hybrids (wesen) and protects others from them as necessary. Throw in some very old history with the powerful Royals and the fact that many wesen have a grudge bordering on a vendetta against the Grimms, then add that Nick is holding down a normal job while also maintaining relationships with human beings and this should be pretty exciting...but it’s falling short. 

Juliette is Nick's true love...
but it's a shame the show didn't have better reasons to put Juliette with Sean and Nick with Adalind
It’s not just that the dialogue is stilted- with one eye on the screen and the other in a book, my husband can predict what the next line is going to be- it’s that the story beats are so easy to guess even when they don’t make sense. If I see two good-looking actors of the opposite sex alone, it’s a pretty good guess that there’s going to be some romantic entanglement (or that they’re just going to have sex); if they do, there’s a good chance that someone’s going to get pregnant. This will hold even if it’s not in keeping with the characters, and the show will invent some convoluted reason why it will be so. Most recently, Nick's girlfriend Juliette was turned into a Hexenbeist (basically, a witch) to justify a partner switcheroo. It's a weird case of a nonsense plot twist to rush characters into something you saw coming a mile away.


Predictability isn’t the ultimate litmus test. And yet...Grimm is arguably more predictable than Fringe, but I will happily spend time watching that whereas Fringe felt like nails on a chalkboard to me. For me, the key is that I feel secure that Grimm has, basically, an idea of where it’s going in the series, while Fringe made me feel nervous about investing time into something that was going to implode under its own weight (did I mention it was a JJ Abrams’ show?). I’m happy to trade a little bit of finger-snapping surprise if I feel like the journey over all is going to be satisfying.


What about you?

Please be sure to visit my friend Caroline Fardig tomorrow as she shares her thoughts on predictability.

Monday, April 13, 2015

The "I Totally Saw That Coming!" blog hop

Whether you write your own stories or whether you read/watch a lot of other people's, you start to pick up on certain themes. You may have become...how can I put this nicely...a difficult viewing partner on more than one occasion. "Hello! That woman is totally going to be the murderer because she just dropped a reference to something completely out of left field that's obviously going to mean something at the end," you sigh. Or "he's totally going to be the murder victim because he's just screwed over everyone in the first twenty minutes." (Okay, that one's really easy.) Or "That's totally someone's long-lost child."

The person next to you may scoff...until you're proven right at the end. Or they'll mutter "Yeah, thanks, I didn't want to enjoy this anyway." Or there may not be a person next to you at this point, because everyone is so used to you seeing through the plots that they don't want to watch anything with you anymore.

Is it your fault that everything's so predictable?

For this blog hop, some other writers and I are going to be exploring predictability: those times when something was so predictable it took you out of the story, and maybe those times it didn't matter because something else about the story (the acting, the direction, the motivation, whatever) was so good. And then some of us (well, maybe just me) are going to be writing about the times when something *wasn't* predictable at all; a lot of times that's a big help, but sometimes it's not enough- and sometimes it's too much (anything that's predicated on too many "gotchas" is missing other essential elements).

It was a dark and stormy night...oh just kill me now.
Here's the schedule for the blog hop. Please visit all of their posts and let them know what you think was the most- and least- predictable of things you've seen or read.


Monday, April 6, 2015

So You're Writing A Self-Help Book...

As you know, in addition to writing fiction and blogging, I’m also a reviewer. I have less time to review now than I used to, but I still pick up the occasional offers. I’ve read my fair share of Self-Help books for review...and I think we need to talk.

Here’s one of my dirty little secrets: I’ve read Self-Help books for years and have some sense of what works. I really, really have no interest in things like Women Who Love Too Much or Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus (blech and double blech), but I have enjoyed everything that Zac Bissonnette has written so far (which is a sign of what a great writer he is because I am sooo not his target audience). I’ve also read more guides on fitness than most people know exist, and I not only used to read books on fashion and beauty (or, more accurately, wardrobe advice, cosmetics application and hair styling tips), I used to seek out old, out-of-print guides when I was younger. I mean, I remember sitting in the back room stacks of the Cambridge Public Library in the Eighties reading things that were published in the mid Sixties, and one of my favorite guides on skin care for adolescents was published in the Seventies. And I’ve perused plenty of titles on personal finance, education, programming, time management and organization, among others.

One of my favorite books, and not an exaggeration to say it changed my life
In general, Self-Help text is going to be easy to read because the authors want to throw out as wide a net as possible. This isn’t a criticism; if anything, I’d say this is a requirement, and it should be. There is also not going to be a lot of text, at least relative to titles that are providing analysis and/or history of an issue.

Brevity doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but let’s not get carried away: some of the titles I’ve seen in the last few months would be better as a monetized blog post and not an ebook. If you can’t write more than ten thousand words on a subject, please step back and reconsider whether it’s something you should be putting on Amazon or Smashwords, even if it’s free. And if it’s not free...do you really want to charge ten bucks for sixty pages? Really?

The basic problems these books are trying to help us solve haven’t changed- we’ve been trying to make limited resources do more for centuries, and we’ve all wanted to look taller, thinner and wealthier with high cheekbones, full lips and almond shaped eyes for at least fifty years- so it has to be presented in a way that speaks to your contemporaries enough that you’ll keep them through the end of your short book. One way to do this is through real-life examples, be they testimonials or anecdotes; provide some kind of proof that someone else has taken your advice and been better for it before you clicked Publish on Kindle Direct Publishing’s dashboard. If you are going to talk only about your own experiences, then tell a compelling story about yourself. In other words, be engaging and take me on your journey. Even more importantly, use your skills as a writer to convince me that I can and should follow you on that same path.

...whereas this was one of the worst things I ever read, and I only finished it because it was required for a retreat
It also can’t be overstated how important it is that these things be visually appealing. For certain things, like fitness and grooming, photos and/or illustrations are essential, and I would argue that most other categories are going to benefit from them as well. (No matter what your budget, spend some money on an original cover. A good designer does not have to cost you a lot of money but will be worth their weight in gold.) But if you’re not going to include illustrations, you can still do a lot with your text. Change the font of your section headings, move away from Times New Roman, block of portions of the text (quick tips, lessons, anecdotes, etc.) into boxed sections (maybe with a grey background), create lists and use boldface, italics and underlining when appropriate. Obviously stay professional (emoticons and colored text should always be avoided), but professional doesn’t have to be boring.

The best Self Help is common sense, but that’s not a bad thing. As we’re inundated with garbage science, get rich quick schemes and politicians, entertainers and media figures who profit from making readers and viewers afraid, reminders of common sense can be good things. So if that’s something you want to publish, be proud. Now figure out a way to do it well.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

House of Cards, or Let Things Go Out With Dignity

In 1994, I was watching PBS when a commercial for a rerun of House of Cards came up. Ian Richardson threw Susannah Harker off of the roof of the building while she screamed "Daddy!". I thought it was pretty dark as PBS went, and didn't really want to watch, but the image stayed with me. I learned later Ian Richardson's character went on to become Prime Minister. Not my cup of tea at the time.

Fast forward 19 years later: no one can stop talking about Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in Netflix's version of House of Cards for the American political scene. I'd grown decidedly more cynical in the ensuing years, and the description sounded good enough that I finally gave Netflix a chance (I'm an extremely late adopter). Before my husband and I committed, though, we finally watched the original on YouTube. There were in fact three seasons: House of Cards, To Play The King and The Final Cut. Each of them had four episodes, and I seem to remember that my husband and I got all of that watched in two days. (Shh, don't tell the kids.) We were blown away.

We were equally impressed by the first two seasons of the American show, which tracked pretty closely to the British version (more below). This year, we eagerly anticipated what we assumed would be the final season of the American show...and we were very disappointed. Here's why:

In the original House of Cards, Francis Urquhart is the patrician (not just Conservative) Chief Whip who was a party loyalist and expected to be rewarded by the new Prime Minister with a Cabinet Post. He's insulted when he's told instead that he needs to stay in his current position. He then embarks on a scheme that would make Iago jealous: he manipulates weaker journalists, lobbyists and politicians to not only unseat the Prime Minister but to get himself elected in his place. He is willing to resort to murder, not once but twice, including the young journalist Mattie Storin who became his smitten mistress- at the suggestion of his wife Elizabeth! (Oh, and why was she calling him Daddy as he threw her to her death? Because that turned her on.) His aide Tim Stamper helps him manipulate his other victims, but it's Urquhart who pulls the proverbial triggers. And it works. The viewer is left with a horrible taste of what goes on behind the scenes and the sociopaths who are willing to do it.

Ian Richardson as the calculating, deadly MP- and then PM- Francis Urquhart
In To Play The King, Urquhart finds himself at odds with the liberal and idealistic new king, played by Michael Kitchen. While the monarchy doesn't hold any real power, it is perfectly capable of moving public opinion against the Prime Minister and his party, and Urquhart won't have that. By the end of the series, Michael Kitchen is forced to abdicate in favor of his young son (and regented by his mother, the divorced wife of the king). Was this a play to take on the monarchy itself? Not at all. As Urquhart points out, his family marched down from Scotland in the 17th century to protect the crown when no one had ever heard of the present royal family. This, he assured the soon-to-be-abdicated king, was entirely personal. But some chinks in Urquhart's armor are beginning to show: he has to kill both his newest mistress (also picked out by his wife!) when she gets too close to the truth about what happened to Mattie and then Stamper when he decides he's tired of living in Urquhart's shadow. Urquhart is secure for now, but has he bitten off more than he can chew?

Diane Fletcher as Elizabeth Urquhart, ruthless to the end
In The Final Cut, the answer to that question is clearly "yes". Urquhart may be able to manipulate his own country, but foreign policy is not so easily controlled. Even worse, he has some significant skeletons in his closet from his time in the military: he killed two unarmed men while serving in Cyprus. Against all of this is his desire to secure his legacy and exceed Thatcher's term in office. As he feels younger politicians nipping at his heels, his wife Elizabeth assures him that she's got a plan in place to secure his legacy. Urquhart doesn't realize what her plan is until too late: she has him assassinated during the dedication of his monument. That, she tearfully tells him as he takes his last breath, was the only way that his memory could go untarnished. A satisfying ending to a series that made your jaw drop in every other scene.

Susannah Harker as Mattie Storin, one of the first bodies Urquhart needed to bury
The American House of Cards replaced the To The Manor Born Urquhart with a more Clintonesque Frank Underwood (only his wife Claire calls him Francis): he was born poor, but he was always intelligent and scheming. In the first season all he wanted was to be Secretary of State, but losing that appointment brought out a ruthlessness that ended up causing the death of a weak Representative and the ruin of his young mistress, Zoe. But when the dust had settled, Frank was the Vice President- this much closer to being able to oust the president.

Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood. Whereas Urquhart was a master of subtlety, Underwood hides behind the confusion he creates
During the second season, he does just that, ably assisted by his wife, who lies about being impregnated by a man who's now a high ranking general (but she didn't lie about being raped) and then worms her way into the First Lady's inner circle and exploits the weaknesses in the First Marriage. The President, no fool, begins to understand just as Underwood has isolated him that he is the author of all of his problems, but ends up turning back to him just as everything falls apart and he decides to resign. Thus, Underwood, who has never won a national election, is now the President of the United States. Oh, and Zoe? She made it a little further than Mattie, but by the end of the first episode Frank's killed her; by the middle of the season he's made it impossible for her friends in the press corps to dig up anything on him. So what could possibly take him down? His chief of staff's obsession with a young prostitute who helped bring down the Representative in Season One, and, just maybe, the cracks in Claire's resolve.

Robin Wright as Claire Underwood. Can't you just hear her muttering "Out, out, damned spot!"?
So what happens in Season Three? As in the original, Frank finds that foreign affairs are much harder to manipulate than domestic ones, and the fact that his inexperienced wife is helming negotiations at the UN isn't a plus. On top of that, there's a general election to gear up for, and Underwood is informed that the party leadership doesn't want him to run. His solution: an end run around Congressional authority to begin an ambitious jobs program that will be piloted in D.C. by siphoning money off from...FEMA. When the inevitable storm is due to hit, Frank blinks (he may be a sociopath, but he can make political calculations better than anyone else)...and then realizes he shouldn't have: the storm turns before it can do any damage to the US. But now Frank has the goods to run on, and he's more than ready to take on the well-placed former Solicitor General, Heather Dunbar, with the covert aid of the Assistant Whip whom he's promised the Vice Presidency to, Jackie Sharp. But Jackie, a veteran whom we know has had a major crisis of conscience before, can stomach only so much, and she throws her support to Dunbar. It's a close race in Iowa, but ultimately Underwood pulls out a victory just as marriage to Claire is coming apart. As he leaves for New Hampshire, Claire walks out on him...and so ends Season Three.

Michael Kelly as Doug Stamper. Whereas Tim Stamper's relationship with Urquhart was undone by his ambitions, Doug almost lost everything over his human frailties. Don't worry- he got past that.
Oh, okay.

To say I was disappointed doesn't fully cover it. House of Cards is REALLY good, and it's rightfully credited with having revived Netflix after their PR fiascoes. But after 39 episodes of watching increasingly unlikeable people (however complex) do bizarre things, I'm sort of done.

I'm also sad to say that the writing didn't hold up as well this last season as it did in the other two (maybe the writers are done too). Really, the Russian President would get to terms SO QUICKLY about both troops in the Jordan Valley AND the release of an American prisoner? And they would be negotiating themselves- without aides? REALLY? Obviously, then, we need to throw Putin and Obama into a bunker for a few weeks and see what they come up with. But wait! What about Michelle? Because after those two hammered out everything, an overwrought Claire- the one who is usually calm and controlled- ruined everything...at a press conference.

The character of Claire was my biggest problem with the season. Everyone always says "Lady Macbeth" when they see an ambitious wife, but they meant it with Claire. And that irritates me. Lady Macbeth is easy to write, in part because it's been done so much: Woman gets a taste of the possibility of power she can get through her husband, then pushes her husband to get it, regardless of what literal or figurative bloodiness she'll need to indulge to help him. She does unspeakable things but blindly pushes on until her conscience finally destroys her. And her husband, who's been using her as a psychic crutch, crumbles now that she isn't there anymore.

Some hope...Elizabeth Marvel as Solicitor General Heather Dunbar...
Other than laziness, the reason this gets me in this story is that Elizabeth Urquhart as played by Diane Fletcher is, if anything, the anti-Lady Macbeth. She blithely makes suggestions to further his interests and even helps him commit murder at one point. However, she never shows any signs of remorse; while that may make her more of a sociopath, she's frankly more interesting than the woman who walks around with a fist in her stomach. She is like any other advisor, only she happens to be a woman. And in the end she doesn't have her husband murdered to appease her conscience but to save him, at least in the way that ultimately matters to him.

...Molly Parker as veteran and Assistant Whip Jackie Sharp...
As disappointing as the main female character was, I did enjoy watching both Heather Dunbar (Elizabeth Marvel) and Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker), and the Do Not Screw With Me bureau chief Kate Baldwin (Kim Dickens) made me smile every time she was onscreen. These were all competent, complicated, ambitious women, some more conflicted than others, but overall dedicated to catching their brass rings. Maybe Netflix can do spin off series on these three if it's going to be extra special greedy?

...and Kim Dickens as Bureau Chief Kate Baldwin
The original House of Cards had an undercurrent of humor in it's otherwise very dark tale of politics and ambition; I'm afraid the same can't be said for it's American counterpart, and that's a shame when it's so much longer. If it looks like this thing is going to be resolved in Season 4, let me know, but even then...well, I'm done anyway.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Aloha, Hawaii Five-O

My parents watched the original Hawaii Five-O when I was very young. I remember my father staring intently at the screen when it was on. This, I think, had something to do with the fact that there were so many Asian-American actors and characters, and in the 1970s that was a novelty on a major network.


When I was on the cusp of eighteen I saw Dr. No for the first time, and while young Sean Connery was as magnificent as you’ve heard, I couldn’t keep my eyes off of Jack Lord every time he was onscreen as Felix Leiter. Suddenly Hawaii Five-O seemed a lot cooler to me.

Before Jack Lord was a badass super cop, he was a badass CIA agent who could outsmart James Bond himself 
I’ve written elsewhere about the revival, but the shorter version: it isn’t nearly as well written, conceived or acted, but nostalgia is a powerful thing. (Also, Hawaii is just as beautiful.) When I realized that Netflix had every episode (well, almost) of the original series, my mission was clear: I was going to watch each one.


As of four nights ago, I am done. In many ways I’m better for it, but in some ways I’m ruined.


The show began in 1968, and it was gritty and nuts. Steve McGarrett is already the head of an elite state police force (there was never an origin story on the series) and he has a doozy of a case: a federal agent that he was in the Navy with has been found dead on a beach. The official story is that he drowned during a swim, but the audience knows that hours before he was killed he was in a sensory deprivation chamber (and that scene was genuinely frightening). McGarrett knows something’s wrong: the victim never went to the beach because he was too fair and burned too easily. He died some other way. His investigation leads him to Chinese Super Spy Wo Fat, as ruthless as he is intelligent. McGarrett intentionally puts himself in harm’s way, then goes on to spite Wo-Fat by remaining in full control of his senses long after his other victims broke; McGarrett is a determined son of a bitch. He’s playing a game of cat and mouse with Wo Fat while his team (Dan “Danno” Williams, Chin Ho Kelly and Kono Kalakaua) rush the Chinese agents guarding the facility where he’s being held. Wo Fat gets away, but Five-O captures the American double agent who was helping him. Suspense, international intrigue, investigation of minute details, gut instinct: welcome to Hawaii Five-O.


Jack Lord as Steve McGarrett. Is it just me, or does his hair look even better here than it did several years before?
McGarrett was supported for the first four seasons by Danno, Chin Ho and Kono. All of them were dedicated and skilled, but Williams and Kono were younger and in some episodes needed more of McGarrett’s guidance. In a very early episode, Williams accidentally killed a young addict (or junkie, as they frequently said on the show) in the line of duty. The audience saw exactly what happened, so this wasn’t a mystery. The story was the investigation into what the victim had been doing before, and that ended up clearing Danno. But this was not a happy ending, and McGarrett had to sternly remind Danny that no one said “this was anything but a lousy job”. That episode, out of all of the early seasons, set the tone: this was not a glamorous profession filled with beautiful people, but one that was filled with tragedy and not for the faint of heart.


James MacArthur as Dan Williams, the guy immortalized in the line "Book 'em, Danno" 
Of all of them, Kono had the smallest part. A native Hawaiian, he had deep connections to others in that community and had a lot of street sources. He was also the one most likely to fly off the handle and rush in before thinking. Sometimes that was useful- see his opening credits- but more often he needed to be pulled back. But as far as his personal life, viewers never had a clue.


Zulu as Kono Kalakaua, the young, impetuous cop who worked the native Hawaiian connections
The person on the team we got the longest glimpse at was Chin Ho. A very early episode found him being framed for corruption and accepting bribes. When he came home to his family, we saw for the first time that he was married with five (or was it seven?) children ranging from older teenager to kindergartener. As a fellow Asian-American, I was shocked to see his family presented so...normally in the late 1960s. For Chin, the most painful part of the attack on his reputation was the effect that it would have on them. He begged McGarrett not to talk to his teenage son even though he could have alibied him; like many parents and teens, they were going through a rough patch. In an episode that aired several years later, we saw his oldest daughter as a college student, dating the scion of a crime family (a young Erik Estrada!). Family was huge to Chin Ho, and he had uncles and cousins that provided him with information about both sides of the street.


Kam Fong Chun as Chin Ho Kelly, the one supporting player who actually got a send off when he left.
As for the personal life of Steve McGarrett, other than two episodes at the very beginning and very end of the series, we got very little insight into his early family life. (For the record, he had a sister named Mary and their father was shot by a criminal when Steve was young.) He was a Navy man and then he was a cop, and his jobs were his life. (He also never drank- not once- and he was frequently seen working overnight in his office.) He was “involved” with someone a only handful of times throughout the show, and in the middle of the series it was clear why: what kind of a woman was going to accept for a husband a man who was already married to his job?


For most of the twelve years, the show did a good job of marrying pop culture to crime solving. And when the case was a mystery, they tended to be very good. One of the episodes featured a serial killer who would break into the homes of young women, strangle them and then put blonde wigs on them- after he applied makeup to their corpses. Incredibly creepy to watch. While working the latest development on the case, a crime reporter whose wife was one of the victims insists on tagging along. McGarrett tells him to stay away because he can’t be objective, but the man persists. While investigating the man’s dead wife, they’re tipped off by a cabbie that she was having an affair. Meanwhile, the reporter picks up a tip that the murderer might be making the dead women up in the image of a prostitute he used to patronize. When he tracks down the woman, who’s since gone straight and is pregnant and married, he uses her “black book” to lure the killer to her, then kills the man as he is strangling the woman. McGarrett arrives in time to cart away the dead body, then has the reporter arrested too: he and Danny had figured out that the killer was able to access the women’s apartment’s because he got their keys when he was working for a car wash. As soon as McGarrett picked up on that detail, he knew the reporter had killed his wife: she never learned how to drive, which is why she always took cabs, and that was the real reason he needed to silence the serial killer. Nicely done.


McGarrett reported directly to the governor of Hawaii, and for the most part they worked well together. However, around Season Ten there was definite tension in the air, kicked off by speculation that McGarrett would make a great governor himself. It did not improve when the governor started complaining about Steve’s “Irish temper”. I was shocked when that line was first uttered, in part because viewers knew McGarrett was a very measured character, and in part because it was a shockingly prejudiced thing to say on television, even for the late Seventies.


Richard Denning as the long-serving governor of Hawaii
Five-O was supported by other people outside the force, most especially Che Fong, their forensics expert. The analyses he performed was cutting edge for the time, although I’m told that much of the ballistics information they used has since been discredited. In addition to forensics and the medical examiner, they also called in psychiatrists, and those episodes were guaranteed to be either a spooky or very silly.


Over time, all of the supporting characters cycled out (with the exception of the governor). Kono was replaced by Ben (the story is that the actor used a racial slur and Jack Lord had him fired) and officer Duke Lukela was added as a regularly recurring player. When Ben left, Duke stepped in to join the force. Chin Ho left at the end of the tenth season, and we actually did see him sent off (he was executed while undercover by a Hawaiian mobster who resented him for working for a white boss) and Williams was gone by the beginning of the twelfth. (Given that the show’s most famous line may very well be “Book ‘em, Danno,” it was pretty jarring that his departure wasn’t acknowledged at all.) He was replaced by tough Boston cop (of course…) Jim “Kimo” Carew, Hawaiian native Truck and, for the very first time, a female officer named Lori Wilson. When the writing was good, all of the supporting players were able performers, but when the writing wasn’t there...well, at least they didn’t flub their lines.


Al Harrington as Ben
Herman Wedemeyer as Duke Lukela
The final cast of Hawaii Five-O, including new additions Sharon Farrell as Lori, William Smith as Kimo and Moe Keale asTruck. If the final season wasn't that great, it wasn't their fault.
While the show kept up with the trends (Vietnam, spies, parade bombings, psychics, dreams, handwriting, grifters, gambling cons, Agatha Christie- really, music, past life regression…), there was an undercurrent of racial awareness through the run of the series. While there were plenty of white villains, victims and cons, many of them were Hawaiian. It was impossible not to watch the show and sense the production team’s discomfort over how the Hawaiian people were getting screwed over. To the extent he could, McGarrett stuck up for them. As much as he was a tough, clever cop who believed in the rule of law, he also wanted to make sure the little guy didn’t get the short end of it along the way. As someone who has watched almost every episode of the Law & Order franchise (at least as of last year), it was pretty amazing to see a cop so concerned about making sure everyone got due process. Notably, the show also had two separate episodes about how dangerous guns were; not, in any way, an episode you would see on today’s CBS.


While there were many aspects of the show that spoke to my liberal Democrat leanings, it was in many ways a reflection of its times, and the early shows had plenty of derogatory references to ethnic minorities. (Yes, the N-word was uttered once when Williams was undercover, as was the word “gook” in a very early episode.) Let’s not even talk about the episode that seemed to want to capitalized on the popularity of Blaxploitation films. The references to women were more pervasive and worse; I think it’s fair to see that the writers and producers weren’t early feminists. Oh, and let's not forget the earlier episodes that featured white actors playing Hawaiian roles in what I'll call Brown Face. Uncool.


The last season of the show was pretty weak and ended after only nineteen episodes, as opposed to the usual 22 to 24 the other seasons played. McGarrett finally got to arrest his arch nemesis Wo Fat, but it was among the worst written finales I’ve ever seen. None of the regular supporting cast was featured, and McGarrett ran around in a disguise for most of it. He did get to do a signature clever McGarrett move (he arranged a shadow to make it look like he’d hung himself) but it was, at best, a comic episode in a show that was never known for its comedic flair.


Egyptian-born Khigh Dheigh as Chinese super spy Wo Fat, McGarrett's archnemesis
All of which makes me re-examine the new Hawaii Five-0.


Having watched the old show, I finally understand where Duke and Lori (second season) came from. I also get why they brought in McGarrett’s sister Mary (and later had her adopt a baby). The constant cloud of supposed corruption around Chin Ho and his large extended family is a tribute to the old show, and Charlie Fong is an homage to Che Fong (but it would be nice if he came across as a little more competent). Perhaps most importantly, I’m completely okay now with the break in tradition that got rid of Wo-Fat; sending him out while he was strong was much better than dragging him back periodically to twist his moustache. And in this era of television, it’s a good thing that the supporting cast has more personality and backstory than they did in the original.

But...Alex O’Loughlin is no Jack Lord, and on its best day the writing is much weaker than the writing of the old show on its worst. Perhaps most importantly, the new Hawaii Five-0 isn't saying anything that isn't already being said on television in a lot of places (even if it's saying it in a much more attractive locale). And if there's one thing we've learned from the old show, no one's going to thank you for sticking around long after you should have left. Well, thanks for the memories, Jack Lord and company. When you were good, you bordered on great, and you're a tough act to follow.