Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Woody Allen’s and Lasse Hallström’s Latest

One’s mild, the other’s middlebrow

     After singing along with the ‘20s songs, ‘resting her eyes’ for quite a while, and actually watching the end, my Mother declared Woody Allen’s Magic in the Moonlight as “mild.”  I have to agree.  Allen generally casts actors that have proven themselves for other directors.   He lately has focused on younger actresses such as Scarlett Johansson or Emma Stone here, though more experienced performers such as Cate Blanchett and Penélope Cruz have delivered greater results.  Rebecca Hall has also been excellent, but she’s always good and doesn’t possess the ‘wow’ factor that generates the publicity machine.

Colin Firth and Emma Stone
     Emma Stone deserves better than her role in Magic in the Moonlight, but she plays with an understated sincerity and even convinces that she could love the arrogant grump played by Colin Firth.  Again, the fascism of movie star looks rules.  If Simon McBurney, who appears as Firth’s best friend, had switched roles, Stone’s character would not have been intimately interested in him.  Of course, if Woody Allen had played the character, she probably would have gone for him as Janet Margolin, Diane Keaton, Mia Farrow, and Dianne Wiest did back in the day.  Instead, the major romantic relationship is between a 20-something woman and a 50-something man.  As my Aunt said, “there were greater age differences back then.”  I agree, but thirty years is a lot even though Firth can pass for about 40.  The point is that it’s difficult not to see this as a reference to Allen’s much younger wife, who is Farrow’s adopted daughter.  

     This queasy fiction that might be based on reality conundrum is more compelling than the gentle, quasi-romantic comedy Allen has written and directed.  Jacki Weaver and Marcia Gay Harden should have switched roles since Weaver’s eyes match up with Stone as Harden’s coloring and mannerisms do with Hamish Linklater, the goofily smitten scion infatuated with Stone.

     I wish Emma Stone would purchase the rights to Rachel Kushner’s exciting and sexy romance The Flame Throwers (2013), set in the art world of New York City and the extremist politics of Italy in the 1970s.  She’s perfect to embody Reno; all she needs to do is learn to ride a motorcycle.

     My Mother and Aunt thoroughly enjoyed The Hundred-Foot Journey.  Neil and I liked it as well, though there’s nothing surprising about the narrative. (Helen Mirren’s mouth
Helen Mirren
surprises since it seems frozen in place.  I also didn’t like her obvious wig).  It’s a charming movie that combines food porn, cross-cultural romance, pretty cinematography, older acting pros (Mirren and Om Puri), and gorgeous younger potential stars (Manish Dayal and Charlotte Le Bon).  It has positive messages about the importance of family and pursuing your dreams no matter the challenges.  

Manish Dayal and Charlotte Le Bon
     No one under forty attended the matinee we saw, but the middle-class, mature, urban-suburban Caucasians seemed to really like it.  As Neil also noted, “it has a great musical score.”  

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Old Winery Restaurant

An Italian restaurant that’s a favorite of NOTL locals

The Main Dining Room
     While visiting Niagara-on-the-Lake (NOTL) a couple of months ago, we dined at a favorite of ours – the Old Winery Restaurant.  Originally recommended to us by Linda, the mother of Jolene our favorite bed and breakfast innkeeper, we liked it from the start.  This was during a period, right after the downturn in the economy, when we were looking for good food at a moderate price.  A few times we went for dinner and a couple of times we went for a later dessert in the cool, dark bar area where singers perform generally after 9 p.m.

     Lisa was up for it after checking out the menu, though it turned out to be slightly different from what she’d originally seen.  There’s a nice terrace, but we decided to stay inside.  It’s a darker interior with a lot of oak, cherry, and brick.  The service has always been professional and quick.  Basically, it has the energy and contrasts of a successful urban bistro.  

Arugula Salad

     Lisa and Neil both ordered the Arugula Salad tossed with beets, asiago cheese, and walnuts.  It was served with a vinaigrette and the size was enough
Soup of the Day

that Neil thought he could have shared it.  I had the Soup of the day, which was a tomato based bean soup with a squirt of basil oil to finish.  It had a kick to it.

Veal Parmiggiana
      Lisa chose the Veal “parmiggiana” with spaghetti tossed in pomodoro sauce as her entrée.  The veal was very lightly battered and flash sautéed; it was almost a piccata because the focus was on the meat.  It was tender and the tanginess of the sauce punched up the meat’s blandness.  I really liked what I tried of it.

     The Orechiette with seared beef tips, roast shallots, sweet pea and pistachio in a mushroom ragout was a very generous portion.  Yes, I had to help Neil finish it and I was able to avoid the mushrooms and really enjoy this dish.  It was like beef stroganoff with pasta instead of egg noodles.     

Black and White Linguine
     I had the Black and White Linguine with mussels, baby clams, and shrimp in a smoked tomato sauce (diavolo) with tarragon.  It reminded me of bouillabasse on pasta.  I probably should have foregone the soup since it was also spicy, but the sweet bitterness of the tarragon offset it well.  

     There were some lovely dessert choices and we considered returning after seeing the fireworks down by Niagara Falls.  We’ve eaten some excellent tartuffo in the past, but as things worked out we returned to our B & B for some treats with which Kristin and Eric had given us.  Thanks to Katy and Denny for providing dinner.

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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Lucy Desi Center for Comedy

A working museum honoring the couple
and poised for the future of comedy in Jamestown, NY

Desilu Studios
     I grew up watching I Love Lucy, as has every generation since mine. They were somewhat my pseudo parents and Little Ricky the brother I never had. When we picked Chautauqua Lake to be our "wedding destination", Lucy's hometown of Jamestown, NY came into the picture as the city where we would purchase our marriage license. After that momentous ocassion, my excitement turned to visiting The Lucy Desi Museum and The Desilu Studios.

"Lucy in the Candy Factory" as a mural
      Walking down 3rd Street, we found the city filled with Lucy sightings from banners to oversized murals on buildings. The museum is now in its third home and is adjacent to the building housing the studio collection.  That is where we began our visit, but either building can be a first stop.  The Desilu Studios starts with the radio days and how I Love Lucy was birthed.  The iconic show caught on immediately because it dealt with real life situations interspersed with the background stories of a bandleader in a New York City nightclub and his wife that wanted to be discovered for her many undiscovered talents.
Lucy and Desi's New York Apartment
Highlights on display are recreations of the sets from their New York apartment and the hotel suite they inhabited
The Beverly Hills Hotel Suite
during their trip to Hollywood.  Both are impeccable in their detail.

Lucy's Memorable Outfits
Some of Lucy's most recognizable outfits are within arm's length, but still behind glass.  My favorite was the Paris couture gown and hat made from feed sacks, a tongue-in-cheek repartee to the sack dress then in vogue.  There's also
Filming a
a chance to show off your talents performing the Vitameatavegamin commercial shown on a 50s TV set.

     There's no photography allowed in the museum portion.  There's more fun as a timeline takes visitors through the duo's lives from beginning to end.  With an insight into their families, how they met, and how they built an empire, there is definitely more of a focus on Lucy's later television career. There are costumes and personal memorabilia including Lucy's monogrammed gold Mercedes.

Lucy's 8 Emmy Awards
     Visiting the museum, Lucy's awards and accomplishments seemed endless.  There are few women, or men, that can stand up to them.  But without Desi as a business partner, she would have paled even with her tremendous talent.  They remained friends to the end of their lives even though they divorced in 1960.  The Studio and Museum are glimpses into their lives and creative processes that will live on forever.

The Hunt Family Plot at Lakeview Cemetery
     After leaving the museum, there's a driving tour of Jamestown that includes Lucy's birthplace, girlhood home, and burial site.  Both homes are private residences.  Lakeview Cemetery is beautifully landscaped.  The headstone is simple,
Lucy's Headstone
but easily discovered with hearts painted on the drive and embedded in the flagstone walkway leading to her burial site. I found it prophetic that her middle name was Desirée.  It's a perfect resting spot for her laughter to spread across the rolling lawn and out into the world.

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Emmys

Yeah, TV may be experiencing 
a “Golden Age,” but so what?

     Seth Meyers told a joke about the 1976 Emmys, which was that four of the drama series that year were cop shows so the choice depended upon what hat the lead character wore.  It was cute, but I’d bet (and win) that a greater share of the TV audience had seen those nominees (Police Story, Baretta, Columbo, The Streets of San Francisco) than the ones this 

year (Breaking Bad, Downton Abbey, Game of Thrones, House of Cards, Mad Men, True Detective).  Meyers also didn’t point out the incredible collection of comedies, drama specials (only Lifetime and HBO seem to show original stand alone movies) and variety specials (gone the way of the Dodo bird and replaced by an endless number of tacky, self-aggrandizing reality competition and reality performance shows) that were offered in the mid-1970s.

     Even with all the great shows on TV that pretty much only a couple of million people watch, you can depend on a couple of things.  Julia Louis Dreyfus, Allison Janney, and The Amazing Race will usually win, Maggie Smith won’t show up, the show that had a great season two years ago is more likely to win yet again than the newer show that actually electrified its audience.  The Golden Globes are much more au courant than the Emmys, even with all the liquor consumption.  It a show is on cable, it’s more likely to win than on a major network since the jury’s out on streaming services.

Louis C.K. with Sarah Baker
     It was great to see Louis C.K. win an Emmy since he’s been nominated for a gazillion in the last four years.  Louie’s latest season was amazing, especially the “And the Fat Lady Said” and “Elevator 1 – 6” episodes.  Without being able to turn to the freedom of animation, Louie was surreal, self-referential, somewhat unreliable about its entire back-story, and dangerously, painfully funny this year.  Shout outs this year to the incredible female guest stars this year (only American Horror Story:  Coven had such depth and that was because they had larger recurring roles):  Ellen Burstyn, Eszter Balint – I haven’t seen her since 1984’s Stranger Than Fiction, Yvonne Strahovski, the lovely and poignant Sarah Baker – she looks like more people watching TV than those on TV, and Pamela Adlon as Louie’s one and only.  

Pamela Adlon
     Adlon played his wife in HBO’s Lucky Louie, a show that Neil and I loved, but which was cancelled after one season.  Where Louie unsettles, Lucky Louie shocked.  It ended abruptly when Adlon’s character walked out, though she hadn’t seemed to hate him until that episode.  On Louie, Adlon was passive-aggressive, adoring, and a ball-breaker.  Here’s hoping she sticks around for a while on season five (unlike all the boyfriends on Hot in Cleveland that are dropped every couple of weeks).

     Let’s also remember shows that friends of ours love even though they may not be award worthy:  The Middle, Suits, The Mindy Project, Property Virgins, House Hunters (in all its incarnations), Burn Notice, Orphan Black, Major Crimes, Call the Midwife, Ray Donovan, Conan, among many.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Mariner’s Pier Express

A lunch spot that’s a hot spot in Jamestown, NY

What to Order?
     While on the way to picking up a marriage license in Jamestown, New York, we ran into a local who graciously
Mariner's Pier Express
recommended a couple of restaurants for lunch.  Around the corner from the city building, we stopped at Mariner’s Pier Express at 122 East 3rd Street.  I use the address because it’s the sort of place that people might walk by and not think twice about.  This would be a shame because the food’s great and the back-story fascinates.

Chicken Strawberry Salad
Black and Bleu Burger

     Lisa ordered the Chicken Strawberry Salad, a special that day, which was generous and beautifully presented.  The chicken was sautéed to order as was Neil’s Black and Bleu Burger, which he thought was really good.  I chose the Eggplant Sandwich,
An Impromptu Vegetable Panini
but they didn’t have that vegetable.  However, they had asparagus and the chef asked if he might mix it with a number of other vegetables.  He did and it’s one of the best grilled sandwiches I’ve eaten.  Chef/owner Christopher Merchant came around asking people how they were doing and if everything was okay with the food.  Later, we shared a chocolate dipped cannoli, which was a treat.

The Eclectic Ledge at Mariner's
     Neil noted the artwork and gold and platinum records on the ledge around the room and asked Christopher about them.  The records are his sister’s, who had to cancel part of her tour because of illness.  We didn’t actually know his name at that point, but it turned out that his sister is Natalie Merchant.  (Later, we saw pictures of 10,000 Maniacs at the Cultural Arts Center and around downtown, but I’m not certain I would have made the connection).  The gallery quality art is by his late mother and it was very touching to hear about her.  

Downtown Jamestown, NY
     Fine public artwork adorns a number of buildings in downtown.  Jamestown is most well known as the birthplace of Lucille Ball.  She and other famous hometown people are honored with street banners throughout the downtown area.   Jay Leno headlines the Annual Comedy Fest 2014, which begins August 6th each year (Lucy's birthday) and has become a significant event with famous performers as well as up and comers.


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Wednesday, August 6, 2014

"Lucy" and "Begin Again"

Two female stars, one hit, one honorable miss

     Scarlett Johansson plays the smartest person in the world in Lucy, but this movie is neither a comedy nor a work of horror.  Instead, it’s an action movie with science fiction elements directed by Luc Besson.  It’s one of those plots where you don’t have much time to really think what might happen next and once that has happened, you shouldn’t ask too many questions about whether it made any sense or if it was plausible.  However, it’s a cool mind game that somehow merges neuroscience and theoretical brain possibilities with intelligent design or the human as a god or the biblical prophecy.

     Besson’s hyperkinetic style takes the dawn and death of human evolution and civilization that Kubrick posited in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and a wild, Pop texture.  Lucy, the primate that was the progenitor for the human species, appears and later in the movie I thought that Johansson’s Lucy would ask her “Are you my mother?”
Fortunately, Morgan Freeman leavens the proceedings as the John the Baptist-type Professor who gives us a quick fill in on the scientific details.  Amr Waked as a cool French cop and Choi Min-sik as a sinister Korean crime boss offer great support without speaking much English. 

     The movie works and Johansson acquits herself well, especially in how she flattens out her voice as the movie progresses, but I just don’t see what it is that turns on middle-aged and older straight male directors.  Her best performance remains Lost in Translation (2003), directed by Sofia Coppola, a young, female director.  For movie performers to have long careers, they either need to be liked (male) or wanted (female) by specific directors (usually male).  Johansson has little to worry about since so many major directors want to cast her.

     Some gay male actors can make it under the aegis of a gay male director, but that’s usually in Europe.  Hollywood may trumpet open-ness in terms of sexuality, but the power structure doesn’t want to fund it.  So, we’re back to the question of what is it about Johansson that gets her roles?  For one thing, she never stops working whether it’s film, television, theatre, or singing.  That’s a chicken or an egg conundrum because she finds/is provided opportunities.  She also has been very careful to maintain a cool, respectable image even through a highly publicized marriage and divorce.  

     However, there are other performers of her generation with talent, intelligence, looks who haven’t had the same breaks.  I’d like to give a shout out to Rachel McAdams, Lindsay Lohan, Amanda Seyfried, Meagan Good, Amanda Bynes, Hilary Duff, Zoe Saldana, Mandy Moore, Tara Reid, Julia Stiles, Jena Malone, Alison Lohman, Anna Faris, Evan Rachel Wood, Jessica Alba, Kirsten Dunst, Jessica Biel, Ginnifer Goodwin, Ludivine Sagnier, all of whom were on the cusp between being a working actor or starlet and possible star around 2001 to 2005.  Some found some good roles, some supported in blockbusters, some moved into obscure independent films, some stayed in Europe, some turned to television, and a couple went back to recording.  The point of this is that none of them have moved forward like Johansson.

     Bend It Like Beckham was one of the most intriguing and entertaining sleeper movies of 2003 because it focused on athletes, but the sport was soccer and the characters were female.  What happened to the performers underlines the choices for starlets and the underlying body image/ethnic identity issues that plague American culture even as we ‘celebrate diversity and openness.’  Parminder Nagra played the main role, but in reality she was a decade older than the character.  She has made some movies, but in supporting roles and has instead had a very successful and stable career in television.  Archie Punjabi was a couple of years older playing a character that was actually around her age.  She played supporting roles in a number of movies, but became a television star playing the mercurial Kalinda on The Good Wife.  And then there was Keira Knightley, who was perky and pretty and blonde, working since she was a child, and nominated for many awards after starring in many movies.
     Keira Knightley actually took over the lead from Johansson in Begin Again, a low-key musical with integrity written and directed by John Carney.  It feels like the cusp of stardom American version of Carney’s earlier Once (2006).   Knightley plays a songwriter whose writing partner boyfriend chooses stardom, neither of them quite realizing the price they’ll pay.  That he’s played by Adam Levine may seem like stunt casting, but he convinces as someone more sincere than he initially appears.

James Corden and Keira Knightley
     Actually, the whole cast charms.  James Corden, hot off of Broadway and British TV, pretty much steals every scene he’s in and I wondered if they’d consider a follow-up with him and Adele as singer performers in a comic romance.  He’s lost weight (everyone seems to be doing so such as Chris Pratt because why?  It’s healthy?  It’ll put more butts in seats?  Fashion magazine editors demand it?), but I hope Adele doesn’t because we need brilliant beautiful performers that actually represent a specific audience sector.  Catherine Keener’s warmth comes through especially in the tougher roles she’s played recently and she has a lovely moment with Mark Ruffalo as her estranged husband where he’s smoking a cigarillo and she steals a puff from it and they both exhale out the front door.  Hailee Steinfeld, a female Tom Sawyer in True Grit (2010) matches up well as their daughter and will be a beauty so she just needs to make certain she gets the right roles.  

Ruffalo and Knightley
     Knightley gives an understated, committed performance as a woman who finds herself in relation to strangers who become friends.  It’s a classic romance – the search for the Grail, for understanding oneself – without turning gushy.  Ruffalo, quietly terrific as always and more deserving of a box office hit than any major actor I can think of, avoids every cliché built into the role.  He’s helped considerably by the narrative outline, though maybe not the dialogue.  The scene where he visualizes how he could produce Knightley’s song is a highlight.

     Lucy was a hoot, but I’d rather sit through Begin Again again.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Shaw Festival 2014

Ten show choices in the 
beautiful setting of Canada’s wine country

Queen Street in Niagara-on-the-Lake
     We used to visit Niagara-on-the-Lake (NOTL), Ontario, annually until a few years ago.  It’s in the middle of Canada’s wine country and features The Shaw Festival, one of North America’s finest professional theatre companies.  Imagine Napa Valley with the Guthrie or The Goodman smack up in the middle of it and that gives an idea of how this is.  NOTL has been named Canada’s prettiest town – it’s only twenty minutes north of Niagara Falls – and it looks like an upscale English town (Bath or Bristol, perhaps) circa 1900.  Oh yes, and there are fifty wineries within a ten-mile radius.  Ice wine (too sweet for serious wine connoisseurs, though we love it) was its invention in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but some internationally award winning whites and reds have been developed in the past two decades.  Tourism has increased steadily and become more diverse.

The Court House Theatre Entrance to Shaw Festival
     Those aren’t the reasons we’ve gone.  Instead, we preferred the prospectus for Shaw to that of Stratford’s Shakespeare Festival (NOTL is also a more beautiful setting with more to do).  The real draw is that the Shaw produces scripts rarely presented by other theatres.  The first year we saw a spellbinding The Children’s Hour (1934) by Lillian Hellman, in which I still remember the buzzing bees while the girls changed over the set and the ghostly figures of the characters leaving Karen’s life (an image not specified in the script).  The next day we attended a lunchtime production of Lucille Fletcher’s Sorry, Wrong Number (1943), which emphasized the ensemble philosophy of the company because the leads from the day before played cameos and supporting roles.  It was also scarier than the movie.

Jackie Maxwell,
Artistic Director
     Once Jackie Maxwell became Artistic Director, the choice of plays became more diverse and challenging.  Yes, they perform Shaw’s plays and those of his contemporaries, but they added works about that era (1856 – 1950) and newer playwrights that share philosophical and aesthetic concerns with Shaw.  Over the years, we saw a very inventive production of Caryl Churchill’s Serious Money (1987) and John Osborne’s The Entertainer (1957), which is one of the best productions I’ve seen anywhere ever.  It really is Britain’s answer to Death of a Salesman, except that it is meta-theatrical in thematically linking the decay of the British Empire to the decline of the English Music Hall tradition.  

The Ensemble from A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur*
     This year, we chanced upon Tennessee Williams’ A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur (1978) because we had a free morning and thought we could fit in this one hour one-act.  Lisa was glad we did since it was her favorite of the three shows we saw.  Set in St. Louis in the 1930s, like The Glass Menagerie, Lovely Sunday is the lighter comic version of what might have happened to Blanche DuBois if she hadn’t allowed her illusions to overtake her everyday existence, hadn’t cracked up, and hadn’t had to depend on the kindness of strangers.  Instead, Dorothea re-envisions her future and has the courage to follow the advice of her stouthearted roommate Bodey.  

     The Shaw production, directed by veteran actor Blair Williams, focuses on a perfect ensemble (Deborah Hay, Kate Hennig, Kaylee Harwood, Julain Molnar) and fully mines the script’s humor and potential despair.  The set by Cameron Porteous and Louise Guinand’s lighting really did recall Ben Shahn’s 1930s paintings or works by other WPA artists.  The designers were able to take the small Courthouse thrust stage and use it in a way that made it seem spiky and charming.

The Grand Indoor Set Design for The Philadelphia Story*
     Philip Barry’s The Philadelphia Story (1939) played in spectacular sets by William Schmuck, head of design at the Shaw and one of its most valuable secret weapons.  Using a revolving stage – shared in repertory with Cabaret – it moves effortlessly from inside the Lord mansion to its exterior terrace/poolhouse and back again.  The props and scenic changes were choreographed precisely, almost as if they were musical comedy numbers, using the actors playing the Lord family’s servants.  

Moya O'Connell as Tracy Lord**
     I wasn’t certain about Moya O’Connell in the first act because she seemed to be very close to Katharine Hepburn’s interpretation, but she made the role her own in the second act.  She certainly looks the patrician goddess in the gorgeous costumes.  Gray Powell, Patrick McManus, and Fiona Byrne gave strong performances.  I’ve always admired Sharry Flett (she was quietly elegant in The Autumn Garden in 2005 and crazily manipulative in the 2007 Summer and Smoke, where Nicole Underhay gave a definitive performance as Alma and probably would’ve been nominated for a Tony if it had played in New York), but Neil thought she was pushing in the first act.  Dennis Garnhum paced the show so that the laughs really built and the romantic possibilities felt like strong choices.

Gallagan, Reid, and Jamieson in The Sea*
     I really wanted to see Edward Bond’s The Sea (1973), set in an English coastal village in 1907.  It’s an adventurous choice because it’s a tonally dark comedy with shifts between drama, high comedy, farce, and elegy.  Fiona Reid energetically performed in the grand manner, while Patrick Galligan and Peter Millard were both excellent.  One of the high points was Patty Jamieson utilizing her extraordinary pipes to wild effect during what became a hymn sing-off with Reid in the second act.  

Fabric is Used in
Every Scene of The Sea*
     Camellia Koo’s scene design was inspired in its use of cloth to suggest sea, storms, and cliffs. I think this productiion got off to a rough start because the play begins during a storm and establishes the three principal male characters.  We couldn’t see them very well because it was so dark and couldn’t quite understand who was drowning, who needed help, who wouldn’t help, and what the drunken guy was doing.  Though difficult, it was a rewarding production of a nearly great play.

*Photos by David Cooper
**Photos by Emily Cooper

Sunday, July 20, 2014

AMC Sunday: Halt and Catch Fire

What’s a network to do when the great shows go?

     AMC (formerly American Movie Classics, though they mainly showed the second-rate) took off in 2007 with Mad Men.  It was their highly successful attempt to become a buzzed about cable network in the manner of FX and follow the premium cable networks HBO and Showtime, which had pioneered the magic formula a decade earlier.  The “open sesame” is an original series that few actually watch, but critics, bloggers, and loyal fans can’t stop talking about such as Oz, The Sopranos, Rescue Me, Six Feet Under, The Shield, Queer as Folk, etc.

Megan and Don at Howard Johnson
     Unlike those programs, Mad Men was a period piece and it seemed literary.  I always thought it was as if a John Cheever novel had been turned into television and, as it’s progressed chronologically, it feels like a John Updike novel.  From the first episode, I was arrested by the attention to period detail and how professional culture was tied so closely to the history of the 1960s.  The writing, acting, directing and, most tellingly, the art direction pretty much outclassed any other drama since The Sopranos had gone off the air.  

Cranston and Paul of Breaking Bad
     AMC followed up within four months with Breaking Bad, which became a contemporary cultural milestone.  I appreciate its artistic excellence and admire its acting, but I gave up after three episodes because I have blinders on about anything to do with drugs.  Others hate sex, violence, profanity in popular culture; I hate drugs.  Two and a half years later saw the premiere of The Walking Dead, a huge hit for AMC, though its viewing numbers wouldn’t have kept it on the air for more than six weeks when there were only the major networks.  Part of its initial popularity was because it was based on a great graphic novel series.  Viewing numbers have increased because it’s horror, which has grown in cultural significance since Stephen King pushed it centrally into the mainstream in the late 1970s.

     Breaking Bad ended and Mad Men ends next year, though I think it might have been stronger to end it a year ago.  AMC hopes for a replacement on Sunday nights, first with Turn, a Revolutionary War spy drama that didn’t grab me, and now with Halt and Catch Fire, which premiered the beginning of June.  It’s not based on an earlier work and it’s a period drama about the work/family spheres of its characters.  At this point, it’s a mixed bag, which makes it very different from those other three earlier shows, which electrified audiences and caught fire immediately.

McNairy and Pace of Halt and Catch Fire
     Set in Dallas in 1983 at the dawn of the personal computer revolution, it stars Lee Pace, who has proven his broad range in Soldier’s Girl (2003) and Pushing Daisies (2007 – 2009) as Joe MacMillan.  He worked at IBM, but disappeared for a year before hitting an armadillo with his early ‘80s Porsche while on his way to bulldoze his way into Cardiff Electric.  He proposes a more powerful and lighter carry-able computer.  Unlike Don Draper, Joe MacMillan isn’t so much mysterious as alternately obstreperous and then obstinate.  It’s not Pace’s fault; he does everything he can with the character.  

Mackenzie Davis
     The primary supporting actors – Scoot McNairy as the decent, dull Sancho to Pace’s Quixote, Kerry Bishé as McNairy’s onscreen wife who works at Texas Instruments and has to mask her brilliance behind household duties, Mackenzie Davis as the wild child programmer, and Toby Huss as the pragmatic head of Cardiff, who might be that proverbial armadillo – are uniformly excellent, but the characters are two-dimensional.  Davis seems like a computer geek’s or middle-aged straight man’s fantasy and I don’t remember any college female sporting that hairstyle in 1983.  Jean Smart, one of the wittiest performers to ever grace the medium (I still remember the first time I saw her, which was a guest shot on The Facts of Life where she injected more real emotion into ten minutes than anyone ever did the rest of the eight seasons), showed up as a guest star and lent an edge and aura that heightened the writing, but I doubt her character will return and that’s a major shame.

     The two major problems are the era and the profession.  Yes, it looks like the early 1980s, but the clothing, hairstyles, interior design, automobiles, and lighting of that time were pretty unattractive and certainly not anything anyone would seriously revive in the fashion world.  Planning ad campaigns and organizing an illegal drug business are inherently more intriguing dramatically than building a computer and writing lots of code.  It’s not as if many – if any – could understand the code anyway since it usually gets wiped out at least once an episode.  The animal imagery (armadillo in the first five minutes, a struggling to survive bird in the third episode) engaged with greater thematic relevance than almost anything else so far.

     Postscript:  The later episode further developed the characters played by McNairy, Bishé, and Davis, especially the relationship between the women.  This direction will only strengthen the relevance of this show.  Jamie Pachino, a Chicago playwright and colleague of mine from college, who serves as the Executive Story Editor is already building greater interest into the plot.  Her work is cut out for her, but this show has potential.