Top Five: Things Sun Records Doesn’t Quite Get Right

Sun Records Cast Poster

 Sun Records, the new drama on CMT about the early days of rock and roll in Memphis, is getting good reviews and showing a lot of promise after its premier episode. The producers wisely chose to shoot in some of the original locations, lending a great authenticity to the series. It’s always fun to see one’s hometown portrayed on the screen, big or small, especially when the show is all about how culturally important your hometown is. Sun Records is an entertaining show that does Memphis a lot of credit, and locals can feel justly proud. But at the same time . . .

 Here we go . . .

 It’s just, you know, there’s certain little things–

 It’s a drama, dude, not a documentary.

 Sure, I get that. Hitchcock supposedly said that drama is life with the dull parts removed. Well, it is that, plus a lot of stuff that’s totally made up. Sun Records does have some of that typical dramatic license embellishment, but it’s also got these little nit-picky things that only a local might notice.

 Let the nit-picking begin!

1. That’s Somebody’s Grandma You’re Talking About!

Photo Sam Phillips Elvis Presley Marion Keisker

 That’s Sam Phillips, Elvis, and Marion Keisker in front of Sun Studio in Memphis. For the show’s producers and audience, they might be characters in a reality-based drama, but for a lot of Memphians, they’re actual people we knew and remember. Once Elvis was the most famous person on the planet, he became an aloof figure, but it wasn’t unheard of to see him around town, and if everybody didn’t know him directly, everybody knew somebody who did (I knew his barber). In the old days, you could walk right up and talk to Elvis’s Uncle Vester, who was often stationed at the gate of Graceland. Sam Phillips was such a familiar figure everybody in Memphis probably felt like they knew him personally even if they didn’t, and his son Knox is still well known around town as a producer, promoter, and all-around prominent citizen. Then there’s Marion Keisker, the unsung heroine of Sun, a pioneering radio personality, performer, and Air Force officer–who Elvis actually got in trouble once for being too familiar with an enlisted man (true story). Most people nowadays (myself included) remember her as a sweet old lady with a theatrical flair and a host of old stories on a wide range of Memphis history. So it’s a bit jarring to see Sam and Marilyn treated like a couple of soap opera characters, throwing off their clothes and getting jiggy with each other in the Sun Records office. Sure, we’ve heard the rumors, but please, a little discretion!

2. Tell It Slant.

Dewey Cox Album Cover Wrong Kid Died

 There’s a reason “Bless his heart” is a famous Southern expression–because it means exactly the opposite of what it sounds like it means. Life down South is not exactly a Tennessee Williams play, where everybody is always making long, well-crafted speeches detailing every way their loved ones have ever failed them. Sure, we says things–but we have a way of saying things. So maybe Vernon did have complaints about Elvis making bad grades and mooning around with his guitar, but would he really recite his complaints like exposition in a movie? And we all know Sam Phillips had a vision for the kind of music he wanted to make, and yes, he was known to speak on the topic, but did he really make a speech about it to everyone who happened his way? And when Papa Cash tells JR–twice!–that “the wrong son died,” we couldn’t help but wonder if Dewey Cox was going to show up with his cut-in-half brother.

3. About that “D” in Geography

Memphis map red push pin

 Maybe that scene about Elvis getting Ds in school was setting up a later scene in which he’s sitting with his girl on the river bluff by the old bridge. He’s making a speech (as the characters often do) about what a big, wide, wonderful world this is, and he points up the river and says, if you keep going that way you’ll hit the Atlantic Ocean–and he points the down the river and says, and if you go that way you’ll hit the Pacific. Now, as I remember it, if you’re in America–and Memphis is indeed in America–the Atlantic is east and the Pacific is west. But here’s the thing–the Mississippi River runs north and south. So when Elvis points upriver–north–and says, that way is the Atlantic…well…what can we say but bless his heart!

4. The Black Church Is Not Across the Street from the White Church

brick church Mt. Pisgah

 There is a scene–which our sources tell us is made up–in which Elvis becomes bored sitting in his mother’s up-tighty whitey Baptist Church and leaves to partake of the services at a black church, which appears to be either next door or right across the street. This gets him in trouble when some neighbors spot him fraternizing with the coloreds. Okay, it’s a fictional scene designed to  illustrate two things about Elvis–that he loved black gospel music, and that this affinity for black folks and their music caused many whites to look at him askance. The weird, television geography aside, Hollywood has never been great at depicting church services in a realistic way–especially black church services. Yes, Black church services tend to be livelier than those in white churches, and the music is often louder and more rollicking. But this is what happens every Sunday, so the congregation tends not to act like it’s the first time they’ve ever been in church and it’s the most wonderful thing that’s ever happened to them. We’ve been in black churches where the floor was literally vibrating with preaching and singing–and people were asleep in the pews! It’s church! Every single person isn’t clapping and yelling “amen” every single second. What’s more, in our experience, when a white person visits a black church they are welcomed like any other visitor. Ladies in big hats are not falling over the pews urging them to clap and sing along as if they were at a kiddie concert. It’s church!

5. Arkansas Is a Place Where Nothing Ever Happens

Arkansas state flag

 No offense to Arkansas, which is a lovely state, with lots of lovely people, including my mother (Hi, Mom!)–but why do people in this show keep bringing up Arkansas?!! Why would anybody ever say anything like, “They’re gonna hear this clear across Arkansas!”? Who cares about Arkansas? Have you seen that flag? It actually has the word “Arkansas” on it–like, otherwise, you might mistake it for the French Tricolore and ask for vichyssoise at the local barbecue joint. It’s true that a lot of people in Memphis come from Arkansas, but that’s just it–they come here, we don’t go there. And if we do go there, we often don’t even say, “We’re going to Arkansas.” A lot of times we just say, “We’re going over the River,” or “We’re going across the Bridge.” There are only two places in Arkansas people from Memphis ever go. One–if you’re taking the family somewhere close and cheap for vacation–is Hot Springs. The other is West Memphis. And there are only three reasons to ever go to West Memphis. One is to get cheap beer without the high Tennessee liquor tax. Two is to go to the dog track. And three is if you’re on your way to Hot Springs.

 Editor’s Note: Thanks to our friend, music scholar, and raconteur extraordinaire Tom Graves for some of the information in this post.

 And, yes, we DO like Sun Records! Highly recommended!

 

 

Top Five: Alternative Programming for Inauguration Day

<img src=”mike2.jpg” alt=”Mike icon smiling red hair” /> Love him or loathe him, is anyone really looking forward to spending an otherwise perfectly good Friday watching hour after hour of the Orange One and his parade of B-listers and Jerry Lewis telethon escapees?

 If the answer is no (and dollars to dog biscuits it is) we’ve got just the remedy: Our Top Five options for Inauguration Day Alternative Programming!

1. Tantrums, tirades, and talking turds.

<img src=”beefcake-16x9.jpg” alt=”Cartman eating cheesy poofs” />

Starting at 10:30 am, it’s an all-day South Park marathon on Comedy Central . Why torture yourself watching a narcissistic, cartoonish, child-man with no filter and a face the color of a cheese puff, when you can while away the hours with Cartman, a narcissistic, cartoon child with no filter, stuffing his face with Cheesy Poofs?

 

2. Special victims, special people.

<img src=”SVU-cast-poster.jpg” alt=”law & order special victims unit cast” />

 

If animated vulgarity is not your bag, check out the mix of drama and comedy on USA Network. From 8 am to 5 pm it’s a marathon of Law & Order Special Victims Unit. Revisit a gentler time, when Richard Belzer and Ice T could play cops even your grandma could love. And from five until the wee hours, it’s a parade of  Modern Family episodes. Spend one last, nostalgic night with your favorite extended family–before they’re all deported or sent to gay conversion camps.

 

3. Life is like a box of–Dang! Chipped my tooth on the nougat.

<img src=”FOrrest-Gump-movie-poster.jpg” alt=”Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump on park bench” />

 

We suppose you could fritter away your evening hours waiting for Paul Anka to be wheeled out with his oxygen tank for a few choruses of My Way–or you could tune in to AMC from 6 to 9 pm to enjoy the much-beloved Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump. Remember when we thought the idea of a clueless twit bumbling his way into history was cute?

 

4. Pass the Saurian Brandy.

Mister Spock Captain Kirk Doctor McCoy

 

If you really want to escape, BBC America offers up an all-day marathon of Star Trek. From the early morning hours until 3 pm, it’s Captain Picard and his laid-back bunch winning the day against the Ferengi, Q, and even the Borg with the “politic” weapons of reason, patience, and all-round-decency. If you prefer a little more swash in your space-buckle, Kirk, Spock, and Bones are the original “team of rivals,” boldly going into that final frontier. We know what you’re thinking–Beam us up!

 

5. Tell yourself, “It’s only a movie…”

<img src=”thomas8201.jpg” alt=”Andy Griffith as Lonesome Rhoads” />

When we’re looking for escape, Turner Classic Movies is our go-to channel, but something tells us the TCM programmers are having a little fun with us on this historic day. At 12:45, shortly after the swearing in, they’re showing The Fountainhead, alt-right darling Ayn Rand’s vision of (metaphor alert!) an “idealistic” architect who would rather blow up his building than compromise on its design. The speech Gary Cooper gives at his trial to justify his anti-social actions is an unintentional comic gem. If cinematic objectivist philosophy is a little too dry for you, at 2:45 TCM offers up Truman Capote’s frothy confection, Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Audrey Hepburn is the iconic Holly Golightly, George Peppard is her “straightened” boy-friend, and Mickey Rooney is a reminder of just how far we’ve come from a time when offensive racial stereotypes were not only accepted, they were expected. But the fun and games are over at 4:45, when Andy Griffith blows through our screens as the loathsome Lonesome Rhodes in A Face in the Crowd. This biting satire by Elia Kazan and Bud Schulberg skewers politics and television with more prescience than any movie this side of Network. The parallels to our current situation are inescapable, as writers on the left and right of the political spectrum have noted. Viewers weaned on the homespun humor of the sheriff from Mayberry may find Griffith’s portrayal of a soulless conman disturbing, but it’s one of the greatest performances ever committed to film.

<img src=”mike2.jpg” alt=”Mike icon smiling red hair” /> So there you have it, five perfectly acceptable ways to veg out on the sofa and binge-watch your way into video-induced oblivion.

 Or, if by 10 pm you’re still not ready to pack it in, you could just tune in to the SyFy Channel and embrace your…

<img src=”Doom_movie_poster.jpg” alt=”shooter POV doom monster” />

 

 

 Editor’s note: All times listed are Central Standard Time.

Top 5: Reasons The Paranormal Idiot Is the Greatest Animated Series You’ve Never Seen

Paranormal-Title From The Simpsons to South Park to Aqua Teen Hunger Force, there have been a lot of innovative animated television series over the years that have reinvented the genre, challenging and changing our concept of what a show can be. These cartoons for grownups have brought us many strange and wonderful things, but we haven’t seen anything quite like The Paranormal Idiot. Why, you ask?

1. It’s Not on TV! 

Paranormal-DeanTVBuddy (1)

The brainchild of filmmaker Tom Barndt and cult movie maven Buddy Barnett (and the product of the support and hard work of many others*), the pilot episode of The Paranormal Idiot had a successful debut at the 2015 CineVegas film festival.  The pilot can be seen on Youtube and Vimeo, and more episodes are in the works, but this amazing show is still in search of its broadcast home. So that’s the reason you probably haven’t seen it. Here are the reasons why you’ll want to.

(*Producers Kathe Duba-Barnett, Stephen Barndt, Brad Linaweaver, Mike Plante, Samara St. Croix, and Javier Andy Zavala, Jr., and actors Frank Mengwasser and Bill Chase.)

2. It’s Absolutely Unique.

Paranormal-Scotty

The Paranormal Idiot is an animated pop culture mash-up (yes, that is Mr. Scott being eaten by the Loch Ness Monster) that is both a satire of Ghost Hunters-style reality shows and a reality show itself. So it’s a show. It’s a show about a show. It’s a show about other shows. And it’s a show about the very concept of shows. But if that’s too complicated for you, just relax and enjoy the thing that makes any good reality program special–it’s unique, never-to-be-duplicated personalities. Host Buddy Barnett is a real person (I’ve known the non-cartoon version since high school) who is well known in the cinema collectibles and cult movie circuits, and correspondent Dean Rossi is the actual son of Steve Rossi of the 1960s era comedy duo Allen and Rossi. Throw in Mr. Lobo, of Cinema Insomnia fame, and you’ve got quite a cast. The adventures the characters get involved in may be fictitious, but the actors are playing cartoon versions of themselves, and their dialogue includes snippets of Rossi’s accounts of his colorful real-life adventures. Sometimes his stories are on point, sometimes they are complete non-sequitirs, but they are always funny and weird.

3. It’s Epic.

Paranormal-Collage

This show packs more narrative threads into one 11-minute episode than a whole season of Scandal. The pilot alone contains segments on such paranormal phenomena as Nessie, UFOs, ghosts, possessed dummies, Bigfoot, spontaneous combustion, voodoo, and the Bermuda Triangle. Add to that “behind-the-scenes” clips, commercials, a Twilight Zone-style “featurette,” a musical segment, and a hilariously poetic public service announcement, and you’ve got one jam-packed program. Its show-about-a-show qualities remind me of the great SCTV comedy series of the 1970s, but with the post-modern blender set to “obliterate.” One thing I am curious to see in future episodes is whether some of the narrative threads will be picked up and played out in serial form, or if each episode will be its own unique combination of one-off bits. Either way, I’m hooked.

4. It’s Beautiful to Look at.

Paranormal-Kathe

Like most Adult Swim style shows, The Paranormal Idiot is minimalist in its animation, but it is definitely not minimalist in the thought and care put into its design. The graphic renderings of the actors are elegant (and if you know some of the actors in real life, as I do, downright startling), the backgrounds are realistic and evocative, and the shot compositions are so multi-layered and eye-catching, and make such brilliant use of light and shadow, that they put me more in mind of the best of classic cinema than modern anime. Too many animated shows today are just vehicles for jokes; they don’t do anything for the eye. Art and animation can be expensive and time consuming, but director Tom Barndt shows that high aesthetics are a matter of imagination and skill, not big budgets and studio-level resources.

5. It’s Funny!

Paranormal-Itch

The show’s number one goal is to make the audience laugh, and it does that throughout. Whether it’s the slapstick of Dean’s many beat-downs and strange encounters, the satire of Buddy’s befuddled pitchman routine during commercials for questionable products, or the blackout-style gags with elaborate setups and wildly unforeseen payoffs, The Paranormal Idiot has a joke for every taste. It even has quotable lines like, “That’s too many elbows,” or “I’m pretty sure I’ve seen him at the buffet,” that only make sense in context, but which are fun to repeat in all sorts of situations to annoy friends and loved ones. Yes, it’s a show that keeps on giving.

So check out the video! Be sure to “like” it and share it with friends!

 

Top 5: Reasons not to flip out over a black James Bond

bob_simmons Everyone has been in a tizzy lately over the prospect of a black actor taking on the role of James Bond– “tizzy” being the sound made by the spinning heads of Bond “purists.” Such a switch would indeed be historic, but here are five reasons why the news should leave Bond-o-philes everywhere neither shaken nor stirred.

1. We’ve been here before.

barry_nelson The first actor to portray the quintessentially British MI6 super spy 007 was American B-lister Barry Nelson, in a 1954 dramatization of Casino Royal on CBS’s anthology series Climax! Mystery Theatre. Since that little noted debut, seven different actors have portrayed James Bond on the big screen, and though some seemed to try very hard, none of them quite managed to kill the franchise. There was Bond after Connery, Bond after Lazenby, even Bond after Woody Allen. No one actor has ever made, or broken, the franchise.

2. Change is good.

sean_connery_intro Some may argue that the Bond franchise could have carried on with Sean Connery as long as he was able to lift martini glass, and some may be right, but although diamonds may be forever, mortal actors not. Connery’s ultimate replacement, Roger Moore, may have been loathed by the old-schoolers, but his wry take on 007 was beloved by many. Moore’s record-breaking reign left an indelible stamp on the series, but it too ended, and Timothy Dalton came along to pull the series back from the campy cliff it had teetered on since Moonraker. But Dalton lacked staying power, and Pierce Brosnan, who had been promoted as the perfect Bond since Remington Steele, gave the series a run that would have been a satisfying swan song. But Bond continued with Daniel Craig, a totally new take on the character that took the series higher even than the days of Connery. The death knell has been rung for the Bond series more than once, but each time a new actor has emerged to give it new life.

3. It’s an English thing.

niven What can Idris Elba and Daniel Oyelowo–the two names recently floated as “black Bonds”–claim that most of the other Bonds cannot, and would not, claim? That they are English, of course. Elba was born in London and Oyelowo in Oxford. For many people–or many Americans, anyway–James Bond is the ideal Englishman. But of all the Bonds, only Roger Moore, David Niven, and Daniel Craig are actually English. Connery is a Scot, Lazenby Australian, Dalton Welsh, and Brosnan Irish. In any case, author Ian Fleming gave his hero a decidedly international pedigree, with a Scottish father, a Swiss mother, and a childhood spent largely abroad. Those who think an immigrant Bond is somehow illegitimate should remember that the U.K.–land of Anlges, Saxons, Picts, Norse, Celts, Normans, and a host of colonial peoples–was the original melting pot.

4. Nothing’s sacred.

kiel It’s James Bond, folks, not the Bible. If Charlton Heston can play Moses; if Max Von Sydow can play Jesus; if Anthony Hopkins can play Othello; can’t Idris Elba play James Bond? And let’s not pretend that the Bond saga has ever taken itself too seriously. It was always jokey, borderline camp, even in the Connery days. From George Lazenby complaining to the camera that “This never happened to the other fella,” in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, to the gondola chase (complete with pigeon double take) in Moonraker, the Bond series has never guarded its own dignity too closely. If the series could survive Richard Kiel as “Jaws,” surely it could survive classically trained David Oyelowo as Bond.

5. What’s it all about, anyway?

elba If Bondites really want to have nightmares, they should check out Wikipedia’s list of actors who were actually considered for the role but never hired. Dick van Dyke anyone? Clint Eastwood? Burt Reynolds? How about Adam West? In contrast to that rogues gallery, picture Idris Elba. The man is James Bond! He’s suave, he’s athletic, he looks great in a tux, and he can say “Bond, James Bond” in genuine Queen’s English. So if Idris Elba did take over the role–or David Oyelowo, or Chiwetel Ejiofor–what exactly would change? Would their be no more elaborate, over-the-top action sequences? No more cool-bordering-on-stupid gadgets? No more super-villains? No more Bond Girls? No M? No Q? It would be the EXACT SAME THING! Only one, tiny, little detail would be different, and last time I checked, it’s 2015. That’s not supposed to matter anymore.

Ike2 Quibbles, Quips, and Queries Welcome! Let us hear from you! 

Top 5: Forgotten Thriller Writers Worth Remembering

 

1. Fredric Brown (1906-72)

Night of the Jabberwock_f If you read only one book on this list, it should be this hard-to-find title. Night of the Jabberwock (1950) is a boozy, woozy romp through the looking glass that will keep you guessing almost as much as it will keep you entertained. Brown was a specialist of the short-short–witty one-to-three page stories, usually with a humorous twist–but it is in his novels that his wit and invention get room to breathe and kick up their heels. He wrote science fiction as well as crime fiction, and his comic invasion novel Martians Go Home is unique in the genre in that it really makes you laugh. Other thriller titles of note: The Screaming Mimi and Madball.

2. Kenneth Fearing (1902-61)

BigClock Kenneth Fearing, when he is read at all these days, is probably most often found in poetry anthologies. (One of his collections has the intriguingly noirish title of Dead Reckoning.) He was a writer with high literary aspirations, and as a novelist specialized in politically charged narratives told from multiple points of view. But he also wrote thrillers, and with The Big Clock (1946), he knocked it about as far out of the park as a writer could ever hope. Best known in the form of the great 1948 movie starring Ray Milland and Charles Laughton (which was re-made in 1987 as the very worthy No Way Out with Kevin Costner and Gene Hackman) this story of an ethically challenged, too-smart-for-his-own-good publishing executive and his megalomaniacal boss is still worth reading, even if you already know the plot by heart. Other titles of note: Dagger of the Mind and Clark Gifford’s Body.

3. C.W. Grafton (1909-82)

RatBegan Cornelius Warren Grafton was the father of another Grafton who is no slouch as a thriller writer herself. Sue may have bested the old man in quantity and popularity–not to mention launching the female detective genre almost single-handedly–but C.W. has his daughter beat in wit and style. He specialized in scrappy, small-town lawyers who get themselves caught up in tight spots of almost comical complexity, the fateful chains of circumstance reflected perfectly in titles like The Rat Began to Gnaw the Rope and The Rope Began to Hang the Butcher. You may catch on early that Gil Henry, the hero of these two novels, is ultimately too sharp to get his neck caught in the noose, but you will enjoy the ride. The titles come from the lines of a nursery rhyme, but unlike his daughter, Papa Grafton was not fated to produce a full alphabet of novels, and his third installment, The Butcher Began to Kill the Ox, was never completed. Also of note: Beyond a Reasonable Doubt.

4. Brett Halliday (1904-77)

DividendOnDeath When people think of classic American private eyes, names like Sam Spade, Phillip Marlowe, Mike Hammer, maybe even Lew Archer and Travis McGee, come to mind, but few remember Mike Shayne. Yet in his heyday, he was arguably bigger than all of them. Davis Dresser, writing under the pen name Brett Halliday, introduced the tall, red-headed detective in Dividend on Death, a well-plotted little mystery that features a Miami locale and a cast of characters–including a future wife–that would come and go in fifty novels, over three hundred short stories, and dozens of movies and radio and television shows. Played in the movies first by Lloyd Nolan and then by future Beaver dad Hugh Beaumont, Mike Shayne never made it to the A-list status of the Maltese Falcon or The Thin Man, but then again, Nick Charles never had his own magazine. With that kind of quantity–boosted by an additional twenty-seven ghost-written novels produced after Halliday’s retirement–it goes without saying that the Shayne novels never aspired to the artistic heights of the novels of Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett, but Shayne is an engaging character who goes through some major life-changes in the series (including the death of a wife and child) and the best of his mysteries are well worth a read. Also of note: The Private Practice of Michael Shayne and Murder Is My Business.

5. Chester Himes (1909-84)

Cotton Considering that Himes’ books are back in print, and that he had a movie–the fine A Rage in Harlem, starring Forrest Whitaker–made of one of his novels as recently as 1991, it might be a stretch to include him among the “forgotten.” His first novel, If He Hollers, Let Him Go, is a landmark of 20th century African American literature, and Himes enjoys a great reputation in academic circles, but I’m thinking he is not as well known among the general–and yes, whiter–reading public. In addition to his novels and polemics that focused explicitly on race, he wrote a series of detective novels featuring Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson, the most entertaining–if considerably more mordant–sleuthing duo since Nick and Nora Charles. Their most famous exploit, Cotton Comes to Harlem, is best known by the 1970 film, starring Redd Foxx, Godfrey Cambridge, and Raymond St. Jacques. Frequently remembered as just another blaxpoitation picture in the vein of Shaft or Cleopatra Jones, it only takes a few minutes of viewing to know that this film is something different. Likewise, Himes’ novels are “something different”: highly entertaining crime thrillers filled with acid humor and trenchant commentary on racial politics that still resonate fifty years after they were written. Other titles of note: The Real Cool Killers and Blind Man with a Pistol.

Ike2 Wait–what about William McGivern? What about W.R. Burnett? What about the granddaddy of American private eye chroniclers, S.S. Van Dine? If you’ve got your own nominations for best forgotten thriller writers, let us know!

Top 5: Reasons you should be binge-watching Fargo Season 1 right now!

Fargo

If you haven’t heard, the first season of the FX series Fargo is now available on Hulu. Here are five reasons you should start binge-watching now:

1. It’s bloody good fun.

FargoBloody For Fargo lovers, the Coen Brothers’ original movie was sacred, and the announcement in 2014 that FX was basing a television show on it was not welcome news. But then we learned it was not a remake. Then we saw the previews. And then we saw the show. After languishing for months in our Breaking Bad withdrawal, despairing of ever again seeing another show with such a heady mix of wit, violence, and humor, Fargo came and rescued us like some sweet, dark angel.

2. The Villain.

Lorne There have been a lot of great television villains through the years, but no one like Billy Bob Thornton’s Lorne Malvo. Lorne may look like a guy you could take in a fight, but with only a word and a look he could give even the Terminator pause. He loves to play with people, but even when they see him coming, they still don’t see him coming. His mixture of intelligence, ruthlessness, and creepy calm is truly unnerving.

3. The Anti-Hero.

Lester Channeling, to some extent, the performance of William Macy in the original movie, Martin Freeman pulls out all the stops as the hapless Lester Nygaard. Only the epic transformation of Bryan Cranston’s Walter White stands taller than Lester’s journey from lamb to would-be-lion.

4. The Hero.

Molly At the center of Fargo is a humanity that is often missing from shows that delight in depicting over-the-top criminality, and the heart of that humanity is Allison Tolman, as Deputy Sheriff Molly Solverson. Tolman is a revelation in this beautifully conceived and written role, exerting a quiet strength and beauty that will make you realize that the one thing you almost never see on television is a real person. When real people do extraordinary things and then insist, “I’m no hero,” this is who they are.

5. Season 2 is coming!

FargoNick The Seventies! Mob wars! Bruce Campbell as Ronald Reagan! Nick Offerman with an ax! Although Season 2 has an all-new cast and storyline, it is going to be a prequel, set in 1979, to Season 1. One could theoretically enjoy it on its own, just as one could enjoy the first season without the benefit of having seen the movie. But just as Fargo the series was sprinkled with sly references to Fargo the movie, Season 2 will certainly resonate with viewers of Season 1–so don’t get left in the cold!

KeyPeele We didn’t even get to Bob Odenkirk! Or Oliver Platt! Or Keith Caradine! Or Key! Or Peele! We didn’t even mention the snow! There’s so much to talk about—so get in on the conversation. Let us know what you think!

Top Five: Reasons ‘Breaking Bad’ Is the Greatest Show Ever

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Ike2Happy Red Haired Freckled Boy With Missing Front Teeth, Laughing Retro Clipart Illustration

How do we love thee, Breaking Bad? Let us count the ways…

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1. THE AUDACITY

Happy Red Haired Freckled Boy With Missing Front Teeth, Laughing Retro Clipart IllustrationDallas dared to make the villain the hero, The Sopranos  dared to make the mafia lovable, Game of Thrones dared to kill off a major chunk of its cast, and Lost dared to make no sense, but from concept to character, from design to execution, no show has been as consistently audacious and inventive as Breaking Bad. This is the show whose signature image is of a middle-aged nerd in green button-down and tighty whities holding a pistol. This is the show that dropped a liquified body in a bathtub through a ceiling. This is the show that makes meth-making look like finding the cure for ebola. This is the show in which the “hero” poisoned a child to  win an argument. This is not your ordinary show. No show is more inventive in its narrative and visual shocks, yet it is almost never gratuitous, and even the most random moments ultimately serve the story. The concept of the show is audacious, certainly, but so is the storytelling. The flashback narrative of the pilot episode was brilliant, but Breaking Bad did flash forwards better than Lost, and without any mystic justification. Most episodes  of season three began with images of a burned plush toy in a pool that made absolutely no sense until the finale. Why? Why not–it was cool, unsettling, and when the payoff came, totally satisfying. This is also the show that dared to allow four seasons of cat-and-mouse between a drug lord and his DEA pursuers to turn on a poem by Walt Whitman. But Breaking Bad is a show that never shied away from wearing its brains on its sleeve (yes, sometimes literally). It is as deeply literary as Mad Men and even more exacting in its detail. But more than anything, Breaking Bad is audacious because it took the underdog that everyone was rooting for and turned him to the villain everyone wants to see go down. No other show has even attempted such a thing.

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2. THE CHARACTERS

Ike2Bryan Cranston’s Walter White, with his transformation from meek cancer victim to power-mad uber-villain, is as complex and subtle as James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano or Jon Hamm’s Don Draper. That character, alone, puts Breaking Bad in the upper echelon of TV dramas. Throw in Aaron Paul’s Jesse Pinkman, the junkie with a heart who is corrupted by the worst father-figure ever; Anna Gunn’s Skyler White, the skeptical wife whose practical, problem-solving nature and desire to protect her children are the tools of her moral destruction; and Dean Norris’s Hank Schrader, the swaggering, borderline racist DEA agent whose reluctant, PTSD-inducing heroics take him from a sort of macho Inspector Clouseau to a high-desert Sherlock Holmes, and–well, it just starts to seem like piling on. Then you add the likes of Bob Odenkirk’s Saul Goodman, Giancarlo Esposito’s Gus Fring, Jonathan Banks’ Mike Ehrmantraut–not to mention Badger, Sneaky Pete, Tio, Tuco, etc–and it just gets ridiculous. Even characters that seemed to begin as merely “necessary”–like Betsy Brant’s Marie, R.J. Mitte’s Walt Jr., and Steven Michael Quezada’s Agent Gomez–evolved into essential, complex portrayals.  Make no mistake, Breaking Bad is much closer to Homeland than to The Sopranos or Mad Men in its emphasis on plot, and yet somehow it manages to compete with those two great shows in the number of spin-off worthy characters it has created. 

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3. THE MORAL CERTITUDE

Happy Red Haired Freckled Boy With Missing Front Teeth, Laughing Retro Clipart IllustrationIsn’t Breaking Bad about moral ambiguity? No, it is not. It is about knowing the difference between right and wrong and the ways we choose to convince ourselves to do wrong anyway. Walter White is the brain who will sacrifice almost any normal, moral feeling for some imagined principle. Jesse Pinkman is the bleeding heart who will jettison any principle for what he feels in his gut he must do. Skyler is the pragmatist, the “normal” person who weighs thought and emotion in the balance of what’s “best,” never quite recognizing that her thumb is on the scale. Hank, Marie, Saul, Mike, even Gus, all represent some shading of a moral principle. Only Agent Gomez and the various children seem to be allowed any moral purity, but we never got to know Gomez deeply, and we saw how Gus could corrupt even children to become his assassins. But the real beauty of Breaking Bad is that it forces the audience to confront its own choices. We may have rooted for Tony Soprano to the last onion ring; we may want Don Draper to always be smooth; we may even convince ourselves that Dexter is a force for good. Shows about bad people always make us accomplices, but they tend to let us off the moral hook. With Walter White, Vince Gilligan has forced us to face up to that fact, even if he does allow us all a little redemption in the end. We all rooted for the poor schmuck with cancer in the beginning, and we blithely looked the other way when he made that first choice that could lead to only one end. If he had stepped back immediately he could have saved himself, but when he pushed on, it all became inevitable. Breaking Bad has conducted a great social experiment in measuring how far an audience will go to forgive the crimes of a favored protagonist. Most of us followed Walt way too far.

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4. THE (AUDIO)VISUALS

Ike2This isn’t just about Breaking Bad having the bluest skies, the reddest deserts, and the most cotton-candiest of clouds of any show ever. It’s Walt in his Heisenberg hat. Walt and Jesse in their hazmat gear. Gus adjusting his tie with half his face blown off. Saul with his Willy Wonka-colored suits and  “We the People” office decor. Marie’s purple fetish. El Tortugo’s head taking a ride on a turtle. A single episode of Breaking Bad contains more visual iconography than most shows manage in their entire runs. One episode even began with a stunning three-minute Spanish-language music video called Negro Y Azul*. And speaking of stunning videos, who can forget Gale’s performance of Major Tom? On top of that, every show is full of crazy camera angles and visual grace notes that would be mere gimmicks on a lesser show. The time-elapse cam. The meth-vat cam. The fridge cam. The gas can cam. The dirt-bike cam. The carousel cam. The whole shaky-cam thing usually gives me a headache, but the only headache I ever got watching this show was thinking about all the time they must have put into getting one ten-second shot, just because it was cool. Somehow, it all added up to a coherent, and brilliant, visual style.

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5. THE CONCEPT (AND ITS EXECUTION)

Happy Red Haired Freckled Boy With Missing Front Teeth, Laughing Retro Clipart Illustration“From Mr. Chips to Scarface.” That was Vince Gilligan’s famous premise from day one. And although it wasn’t always obvious, from the moment Walt saw Jesse Pinkman’s naked butt come spilling out of that upstairs window, the end (so to speak) was in sight. These two characters would get together, they would make “mad stacks,” and they would eventually find themselves in a very bad place. Novels for television go back to Roots and Rich Man, Poor Man, but most novelistic shows these days are not adaptations of such close-ended source material, and they tend to show it, eventually, in a lack of structure and resolution. Lost, with its fantastic pilot, was doomed from the start to leave its fans disappointed. The Sopranos, the first two seasons of which were at a level no show is ever likely to surpass, never slumped in quality, but it did fall into a “which person close to Tony will have to be whacked this season?” rut. And the characters on The Sopranos, for all their complexity, were essentially static. The infamous blackout finale, in which Tony and the family are blithely scarfing onion rings as the world around them hints at disaster, was perfect in its “and the beat goes on” message, but it ripped the scab off of the show’s one major flaw. It think what happened with those shows served as cautionary tales for Vince Gilligan and his crew, but perhaps even more on Gilligan’s mind was the way a show he was deeply involved in–The X-Files–fizzled from fan fave to self-parody. He would not let that happen with this show, and Breaking Bad is perfectly book-ended with perhaps the best pilot ever and a finale that, if it doesn’t break new ground, at least serves up everything a fan could hope for. Well done, Vince Gilligan. Well done, everyone.

Ben1*Editor’s note: Our apologies for the Italian subtitles on the Negro y Azul video. There appear to be copyright issues.

Top Five: Movie Dogs

 

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1. RIN-TIN-TIN

Happy Red Haired Freckled Boy With Missing Front Teeth, Laughing Retro Clipart IllustrationThe Granddaddy of them all, the original Rin-Tin-Tin was rescued from a World War I battlefield in Lorraine, France, by American soldier Lee Duncan, who trained “Rinty,” as he called him, and took him home after the war to Los Angeles. While performing at a dog show, Rin-Tin-Tin was spotted by Darryl F. Zanuck, who recognized the canine’s talent but was unable to capitalize on it. Rinty got his start in 1922, when he and Duncan stumbled upon a Warner Bros. shoot that was having trouble with an uncooperative wolf.  Duncan told the director his dog could do the scene, and Rinty was so good they shot the rest of the movie with him. The Man From Hell’s River was a hit, and Rin-Tin-Tin went on to star in 26 more films for Warners. At the peak of his popularity he rivaled Hollywood’s biggest stars and even had his own radio show. His descendants and namesakes starred in films through the 1940s and carried on the legacy to radio and TV.

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2. LASSIE

Ike2Well, according to her very own website, Lassie is “The World’s Most Famous Dog,” and I guess there’s no arguing with that. Probably best known for the  TV series that ran from 1954-1973, Lassie appears to have gotten her start in Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1859 short story “The Half-brothers.”  In it, when two boys are lost and half-frozen in the snow, one of them ties his red kerchief around the neck of the collie with the “intelligent, apprehensive eyes,” and sends her for help. In a scenario that would be repeated in countless variations over the years, Lassie finds help, does that patented, mournful whine that all humans seem to understand means “follow me” (and not “I want a dog biscuit”) and the day is saved. Fifty years later, the fictional Lassie may have lent her name to a real-life collie, who apparently saved the life of a sailor who washed ashore after the British battleship Formidable was torpedoed by German U-boats during WWI. Together, these dogs probably inspired Eric Knight’s best-selling novel Lassie Come Home, which in 1943 was made into a film by the same name, starring the two most insufferably photogenic children ever to grace the silver screen, Elizabeth Taylor and Roddy McDowell. It was a huge hit that inspired six sequels, all starring–no doubt in a nod to classical theater–a MALE collie named Pal. Over the years, Lassie’s media empire extended to radio, more movies, countless books and stories, several TV incarnations, and now the internet.

 

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3. SKIPPY (A.K.A. “ASTA”)

Happy Red Haired Freckled Boy With Missing Front Teeth, Laughing Retro Clipart IllustrationNo wartime exploits for this little wire-haired bundle of star power–Skippy was definitely a lover and not a fighter. Although he starred in such hits as The Big Broadcast of 1936, The Awful Truth, and Bringing Up Baby, Skippy was best known as Asta, the scene-stealing pooch of the Thin Man movies. And when you’re working with two great comic talents like William Powell and Myrna Loy, stealing a scene is no walk in the park. He began, in the original film, with the usual–barking, sitting,  scratching on cue–but with each film in the series his role, and his repertoire of tricks, expanded. He wrapped up Myrna Low with his leash in one scene, dragging her into a bar like White Fang with a sled. He dived under furniture during fights, covering his eyes with his paws. He wooed women, he chased rivals, he even turned back-flips. “Asta” may have originated in the pages of Dashiell Hammett’s 1933 detective novel, but it was in the 1934 MGM film that a star was born. Skippy was as much a part of bringing Hammett’s bland characters to breezy, boozy celluloid life as Powell and Loy.

 

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4. BENJI

Ike2The Benji movies aren’t really my cup of tea, but there is no denying the impact they had on audiences in 1970s, or the talent of their star, a little rescue mutt by the name of Higgins. The original Benji, made in 1974 for a mere $500,000, went on to gross more than $36 million, finishing just behind The Godfather Part II at the box office. For a while, Benji was bigger than smiley faces and pet rocks put together, and every little girl in America had a poster of the adorable canine with the soulful eyes on her bedroom wall. The movie’s plot is questionable, but it runs the gamut, letting Higgins display his full range, from comedy, to drama, to action, to romance.  Benji’s exploits include helping an old man run a restaurant; saving two children from kidnappers; even getting the “girl” in a love scene played to the tune of Charlie Rich’s “I Feel Love,” an Oscar nominee for best song. Benji actually represented a reunion for its star with actor Edgar Buchanan, with whom Higgins appeared for seven years on the CBS series Petticoat Junction. Buchanan’s last film, Benji inspired several popular sequels, and it’s still a perennial rental for families. It was also, according to IMDb, a “guilty” favorite of Alfred Hitchcock’s.

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5. UGGIE

Happy Red Haired Freckled Boy With Missing Front Teeth, Laughing Retro Clipart IllustrationFor me, no list of great movie dogs would be complete without Uggie, a little-known Hollywood working dog who blew up about as big as a dog can blow in The Artist. If you haven’t seen The Artist, get thee immediately to Netflix, and you will realize why, based on this one movie, Uggie belongs in the pantheon of all-time canine greats. As a pup, Uggie was apparently so wild and unruly, not only did he almost not make it into Hollywood, he came just that close to being sent to the pound. Fortunately, animal trainer Omar Van Muller saw something in the brash kid from the mean streets of North Hollywood and took him under his wing. After minor appearances in film and commercials, Uggie got his big break in 2011’s  Water for Elephants, but it was starring along side Jean Dujardin in The Artist that Uggie hit the stratosphere. Dujardin is no slouch, sort of a French cross between Sean Connery and Jerry Lewis (in a good way), but Uggie is the star, not so much stealing the movie as taking it to another level. Working with his costar like Laurel with Hardy–or Tracy with Hepburn–Uggie was so good that Movieline launched a “Consider Uggie” campaign for the Oscars, arguing that he was more deserving than many of the human actors being promoted as Best Actor nominees. The Academy turned a deaf ear, of course, and maybe for good reason. According to legend, at the very first Academy Awards in 1929, Rin Tin Tin outpolled every other performer in the Best Actor category, but the Academy–wishing to establish a reputation as a “serious” artistic institution–gave the statue instead to Emil Jannings. Had Uggie been eligible in 2011, history no doubt would have repeated itself.

Ike2What–no Beethoven, no Petey, no Hooch? Quibblers and nitpickers welcome–we’d love to hear your comments and suggestions!

 

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