Saturday, April 29, 2023

Ted Lasso: A Beacon of Joy and Compassion


Scott D. Parker

Note: This has been a week of Mondays for me and I'm going to have to call an audible and put up a repeat post from October 2022. A highlight of this week (and every week it's been on this spring) is Ted Lasso. It is like a beacon of joy and compassion when those things seem absent. So as we gear up to the end of Ted Lasso, I encourage everyone to jump on board and watch the finale in real time.

One thing that last week's episode contained was this quote: "He was just a humble preacher's son. And yes, he had his demons, but they never stopped him from searching for beauty. Because when you find beauty, you find inspiration. If, that is, you stay as determined as Vincent. Never stop, no matter how many failures. When you know you're doing what you're meant to do, you have to try."

Boy did I need to hear that.

Enjoy the rerun and I'll be back next week.


I expected the laughs. I kind of expected some drama. I did not expect the characters and their relationships.

The wife and I finally watched both seasons of Ted Lasso, the Jason Sudeikis-fronted program on Apple TV. From the outside, it looked like just a sitcom about an American football coach brought over to England to coach a soccer team with the end goal being to drive said team into the ground. This being the plan of team owner Rebecca Welton (Hannah Waddingham) as a get-back to her ex-husband who left her for a younger woman and loved the team.

That might serve as the how-it-started part, but that’s nowhere near where it ended up. By the end of the 22 episodes to date, what we got was a show that could make you crane your ear at the TV to make sure you got the joke a character said in an off-hand manner and then next moment have you mute with emotion, with tears likely rimming your eyes.

Each character has a moment to shine, usually in multiple episodes. With Lasso himself, I expected a overly optimistic, shuck kind of guy where nothing much phases him. That’s certainly Lasso’s exterior, but on more than one occasion, Sudeikis lays bare the coach and reveals him to be a man who hides much behind his veneer of happiness.

That’s not to say his joy isn’t contagious. It was fun to watch his outlook on life wash over all the people in which he comes into contact, ultimately making them better people. Or more real, if you want to get down with the truth of this show.

There are so many things you could say about each character and after I watched the last episode, I got on the internet to read some.

Pro Tip: Never go on the internet when you are catching up on an existing show unless you want spoilers. I learned that lesson long ago and now I watch all my TV shows without my phone in my hand. Well, unless I’m watching the live broadcast of SyFy’s Resident Alien because the cast live tweets and they are hilarious and engaging. (But even then, I put the phone down during the show itself.)

But as much as I enjoyed each character’s moments in the spotlight, what I really appreciated was the depth of their relationships with each other. How great is team owner Rebecca and model/publicist Keeley Jones (Juno Temple). On screen, it’s like their sisters who only discovered each other in adulthood. Unlike other shows where these two might be pitted against each other for, say, to get the same guy, Keeley and Rebecca come to really love each other. They bolster each other when one is feeling down and there’s nary a mean things said between. Super refreshing.

The group of guys surrounding Lasso are also great to see on camera. Dubbed the Diamond Dogs, they consist of Lasso, assistant coach Beard (yup, the character’s real name and not just because actor Brendan Hunt sports facial hair), Director of Football Operations Leslie Higgins (Jeremy Swift), and Nathan Shelley (Nick Mohammed), the guy who went from being a kit manager to an assistant coach. They also keep things together between them and, most importantly, allow themselves to be vulnerable with each other.

By the end of the second season, I found myself thinking about the show over and over while mowing the lawn or commuting to work. The stories, the characters, the depth just stayed with me. Like I wrote about in a review of Resident Alien a few weeks ago, I’m just glad there are shows like Ted Lasso that demonstrate you can have a light and funny show while still delivering the depth and nuance you might only think exists in dramas.

There's a reason so many people respond to this show. 

Tuesday, April 25, 2023

My Favorite Prison

I read an article in the NY Times the other day about a prison that perhaps should be a model for others around the world. It's in Peru, and the title of the article sums up what it's about: "TWO FORMER PERUVIAN LEADERS SHARE THE SAME JAIL.  ANOTHER MAY SOON JOIN THEM".

In Lima, the article tells us, "Two of Peru's former presidents are behind bars, one convicted of human rights violations, the other accused of trying to dissolve Congress. A third ex-president may soon join that ignominious group with all three sharing the same prison."

The ex-prez who may be on the way to jail is one Alejandro Toledo. Now 77 years old, he led Peru two decades ago, and this past Friday he surrendered in California to law enforcement people, "having exhausted efforts to resist extradition nearly four years after his arrest in connection with one of the biggest corruption scandals in Latin America".  It seems that once he is returned to Peru, he will be locked up in the same jail as the other two ex-presidents while the case against him moves forward.  

One of the two jailbird ex-presidents is Alberto Fujimori, who those old enough to recall may remember as the Peruvian president who cracked down very hard on the Shining Path militants that wrought untold violence on the country.  Later, he was involved in scandals of his own, abruptly resigned the presidency, and fled to Japan. But then he came back to the country, and after much legal wrangling wound up on trial and got convicted for "crimes against humanity involving extrajudicial killings and kidnappings by a military death squad he had created." There's a superb documentary about him from 2005 called The Fall of Fujimori, in which, I have to say, he comes across as a quite interesting, complicated, and not entirely devoid of charm human being. Anyway, considering that he's 84 years old and was sentenced to 25 years in prison not all that long ago, it's quite possible that his sentence is a life sentence.  

His co ex-president inmate is Pedro Castillo, much younger (born in 1969), who was removed from office by the Peruvian Congress on December 7, 2022.  He is, in the Times' words, "accused of rebellion and conspiracy", though from what I've followed of his problems, he still has a lot of supporters in Peru. In fact, his arrest has "sparked strikes, marches, and general unrest throughout the country as protestors" have called for the immediate resignation of his successor.  So his imprisonment, unlike Fujimori's, sounds like something of an ongoing story that has yet to reach a resolution and that may depend on what happens in Peru politically.  So two ex-presidents in jail, with a third on the way, and it should be mentioned as well that another former Peruvian ex-president, Alan Garcia, who was implicated in the same scandal that Alejandro Toledo was allegedly involved in, avoided arrest by shooting himself fatally in the head in his bedroom as the authorities were trying to arrest him at his house in 2019.

Somehow this article about a prison with ex-presidents doing time in the same place reminded me of the things I've read about serial killers Edmund Kemper and Herbert Mullin, circa 1973, sharing a cell block after their arrests in the California Medical Facility.  Kemper disliked Mullin and accused him of being a cold-blooded killer who "killed everybody he saw for no good reason", and some stories I've read say they would yell at each other on their cell block, each accusing the other of having taken dump sites in the area (Santa Cruz) the other could have used for his own victims.  I wonder if the incarcerated ex-presidents discuss and debate their past actions, weighing who was more effective at repression, corruption, manipulation of the populace, state-sanctioned violence, and whatever else ex-presidents in prison talk about.  Or maybe they are in there insisting to each other they have been wronged, the victims of injustice. Until, of course, the guard on their block says no more talking, lights out, and it's time for these once-powerful guys to hit the hay in their respective cells. 

Regardless of what goes on in there, I have to say that the idea of a prison housing a country's ex-presidents is an amusing one. It's a pleasing thought to ruminate on. Gotta get this idea to catch on in places other than just Peru.

Sunday, April 23, 2023

The Right To Read


By Claire Booth

Tomorrow is Right to Read Day.

It’s the start of National Library Week, which has been a thing for years. But this year the American Library Association decided to turn the first day of this week into a defense of reading freedom. It’s now a national call to action, and it’s desperately needed.

Book banning attempts reached record levels in 2022. According to the ALA, more than half of the states in the U.S. have passed or proposed legislation to remove library books, punish library workers who make certain books accessible, and eliminate access to books by LGBTQ and BIPOC authors.

The ALA’s permanent initiative, Unite Against Book Bans, promotes a very simple position: people should be trusted to make their own decisions about what they read and believe.

“That’s why ALA created Unite Against Book Bans: to be a collective voice in defending the right to read,” ALA president Lessa Kanani’opua Pelayo-Lozada said in a statement.

So how can you make noise in defense of reading? Here are five ALA suggestions:

- Check out and read a challenged book in your area, or a book banned somewhere else. 

- Attend a library board or school board meeting. 

- Write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper in support of reading freedom. 

- Report censorship. You can do that here.

- Stay up to date on censorship news and reading advocacy. 

Libraries are one of our most important societal resources. Let's protect them.


Saturday, April 22, 2023

Sometimes Spoilers Are Fine AKA I Knew How The Last of Us Ended Before I Started


Scott D. Parker

I never thought I’d watch The Last of Us, the popular show by HBO based on a video game of the same name. In fact the closest I’d gotten to the show was the hilarious Saturday Night Live spoof of MarioKart done in the same, post-apocalyptic style. I’m not a huge fan of the genre and I was completely fine with skipping out on all the excitement.

In fact I was so okay with missing out on everything that when one of the recent episodes of the Fatman Beyond podcasts dropped and co-host Marc Bernardin began talking up the ending, I didn’t skip ahead. I just listened. Bernardin is a gamer, he played the original game and watched the series. He enjoyed the show, which can come as a surprise if you know Bernardin.

When my wife suggested we give episode 1 a try, I was reluctant. She knows my aversion to the genre, but it her turn to pick a show—I selected Apple TV’s Shrinking—I opted to give episode 1 a look. I fully expected to have my usual complicated feelings about a world after everything goes to hell and bow out.

But I didn’t. In fact, I rather enjoyed it. And, knowing the ending, the major events of episode 1 were still hard to watch, but I had already been conditioned to understand that these events in the premiere episode had to happen if what we see in all the trailers and online ads is true: Pablo Pascal’s Joel has to get Bella Ramsey’s Ellie across the devastated country to a place where they can use her immune blood to create a cure.

Here is the crucial fact about this show and knowing the ending: the characters, the choices they make, and the ramifications they inflict on others is immensely compelling. I found myself eagerly waiting to watch the next episode (we staggered the show, usually one per night, over the entire 9-episode run.

The two leads are stellar. There was one particular scene in which Joel gave a monologue and, afterwards, I told my wife that’ll be the clip they play at the Emmy ceremony. Because Pascal and Ramsey should both earn nominations for their acting. Unlike a typical show with this kind of content, these two actors ground their characters in real life. Side note: the pandemic-like event takes place in 2003 and the show occurs in 2023 so all the stuff we’ve come to know in the past twenty years never happened.

If I characterize the ending in any way, that might be a spoiler for you, so I’m not even going to try. But evening knowing the ending before I started, I was still deeply invested.

Maybe it’s because The Last of Us isn’t a franchise I know and love well, like Star Wars or Star Trek. I stayed away from most of my usual sites on Thursday so I could go into the series finale of Picard fresh. I often wonder what it’s like for younger folks to, say, watch the original Star Wars trilogy knowing in advance Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father or that Leia is his sister. I may get around to HBO’s other popular TV show, Succession, but I’ll go in knowing what happened in last week’s episode.

Are we too fixated on spoilers?

I mean, all we really have to do is stay away from the internet on the day of a release if you want to view something without knowing anything. That’s not a big deal. It’s not like Lester Holt is going to spoil the ending of The Last of Us on his nightly broadcast.

Back in the 1970s, my parents and I would just go to a theater and walk in, sometimes in the middle of a movie. We’d watch the ending, wait for the show to start again, watch until we got to the spot where we came in, and then leave. As a storyteller, I can’t imagine the thinking, but that was a real thing. I know I’m not alone.

I like a movie or show or book to capture me with its content. I barely ever read movie reviews ahead of time (I read them after I’ve watched the show and made my own conclusions. Ditto for TV, music, and, of course, books.) The trailer has me or it doesn’t. Or an actor and a role has me or it doesn’t, like Nicholas Cage as Dracula. That was all I needed to know I wanted to see Renfield.

Still, even if you are spoiled, the quality of the show can give you a deeper appreciation of the story, like The Last of Us did for me. It’s a quality program and one I’d certainly recommend.

Saturday, April 15, 2023

When You’re Down in the Dumps, Be Open to the World Helping You


Scott D. Parker

Sometimes, creativity is hard, discouraging, and challenging. In every creative project, there is always a moment (or moments) when you question what you’re doing. It’s an inevitable part of the process. What do you do?

Be open to the signs the world is sending you.

By the way, I’m using “creative” here because this applies to any type of creative thing you do, whether it be writing, painting, composing, researching, or building something.

The Challenge of the Tedious Work

I experienced a couple of challenging days earlier this week. They were days in which I began to question why I do the writing stuff and all the surrounding things an author does to sustain a writing career.

I’m updating my author website this spring. For one thing, I think it’s a good idea to refresh all the public-facing stuff from time to time. My site had been static with one design for …well, I can’t remember the last time I updated it. Another reason is as a cost-cutting measure. The theme I was using is one of those subscription-based plans and, now that my taxes are finished, I was able to see that the money going out (for hosting, webpage theme) was not as much as the money coming in. Thus, I revised my website and opted to use a modern, responsive theme for a single purchase price.

I was struggling with the website mainly because it was not properly formatted. I was beginning to sweat it out, to be honest. What if someone—especially a fellow sax player in my church orchestra who only discovered on Easter that I write books—visited my site at the very same time the site was garbled? Would they ever return?

I was able to slap that thought out of my head rather easily. Is that something I can control? If yes, then worry about it. If no, then soldier on and do the work of updating the website no matter how long it took.

How Long Is a Novel Supposed to Be?

On New Year’s Day, I started my current book. Last year was pretty bad writing-wise so my simple goal was to start and finish this book with the only rule of thumb being write every day. I have met that goal, but, after 104 days (as of yesterday), I have not completed the book.

Which was weird. And it got to overthinking things.

It took me about ten months to write my first one back in 2005-2006. Then I spent seven years not writing the second only to complete my second actual book in about a six-week span in 2013. In those intervening years, I’ve complete more manuscripts, with the fastest being a three-month span in early 2017 in which I completed a novel a month. I was enamored with the pulp writers of the 1930s and fancied myself in their company.

That’s not me.

Thinking my book was too long and too slow, I recently purchased Dean Wesley Smith’s classic Pacing course over at WMG Publishing. In my email conversations with him, he banged my head with the Bat of Obvious: “As for your present book, just write until you find the end of the story and don't worry about length. Then keep learning, as you are doing.”

Yeah, but what about that other book when….? was my first reaction. That’s when another author showed up in my feed.

I subscribe to the Writer Unboxed blog posts and read those posts daily. This week, Kathleen McCleary posted a just-for-me (no, not really) blog post entitled How Long Does It Really Take To Write a Novel? Eager to learn The Secret, I read her post.

And, again, found the Obvious Answer: it depends on the story and the author. In reading the details of how long it took her to write her novels, I found encouragement. She mentioned that writing every day helps (I absolutely concur with that statement) and it doesn’t matter what others have done. Then, like Dean, Kathleen lays it out in a clean, obvious statement: “Let it go.  Meaning, let go of your ideas of how long it should take you to write your book, and just write. You have a story to tell and you are the only one who can tell it, so let it unfold.”

The Work is the Win

The bow on top of the Cake of Encouragement this week came from Billy Oppenheimer. He is Ryan Holiday’s research assistant, Ryan being the guy who is bringing Stoic philosophy to the 21st Century and showing us how it still applies. Billy has a weekly newsletter in which he shares six things he’s learned each week. It’s a great resource.

Billy appeared on The Best Advice podcast and in this episode, he said he followed one of Ryan’s basic habits for sustained creative success:

The Work has to be the Win. “You control the effort," Ryan says, "not the results. You control the work you put in, not how it’s received. So ultimately, you have to love doing it. You have to get to a place where doing the work is the win & everything else is extra.”

The World Can Help You…If You Let It

All of these desperate threads wound themselves in my brain and thoughts this week and cleared away the cobwebs of doubt. Doing something creative is always difficult. There will always be challenges. The key to maintaining the creativity is to keep moving forward. The work is going to take as long as the work takes. When it’s over, you’ll know.

So just keep being creative, because being a creative is a wonderful thing to be.

Photo courtesy of Steve Johnson via Unsplash

Tuesday, April 11, 2023

Familiar Yet Foreign Noir

A few weeks ago, after I was part of a discussion on Facebook about Robert Altman's film version of The Long Goodbye (1973), which remains remarkably divisive among crime fiction people after all these years, I decided to watch, for the fourth or fifth time, the private eye movie Altman produced a few years after his irreverent Chandler adaptation, The Late Show (1977). I wrote a piece about this film several years ago, and I thought it would be no shame after these many years to post it again here. After all, while Robert Benton wrote and directed The Late Show, it does have Altman's creative input. It makes for a good companion piece to the earlier film, the second half of a distinctive 70s PI double bill. The films have similarities but at the same time are quite different. Anyhow, here's the piece.

Familiar Yet Foreign Noir: The Late Show

The opening of Robert Benton's private eye film The Late Show is chock-full of deception. We first see the Warner Brothers logo, but it’s not the Warner logo of 1977, the year the film was released. It’s a sepia colored 1940’s era Warner logo, and right away we hear soft 40’s style piano music playing and a woman’s voice that starts a song. It’s a melancholic, romantic song that a singer in the background of a 40’s film noir lounge scene might have crooned. The logo fades to give us a shot of an old manual typewriter, an Underwood, with a sheet of paper in the carriage. “Naked Girls and Machine Guns,” the title on that page says. “Memoirs of a real private investigator, by Ira Wells.” As the camera pans, it passes a small framed photo of Martha Vickers, who played Carmen Sternwood in Howard Hawks’ adaptation of Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep. It shows us a somewhat shabby room that has an unmade bed and a little bit of mess and a black and white wall picture of two younger men in natty suits and fedora hats. The movie’s coloring is subdued – everything from the wallpaper to the furniture seems to be done in some shade of brown – and by the time we get to a beefy, older man, Art Carney, seated in a recliner chair as he studies a racing form, his back to an old-fashioned black and white television set, we’d be forgiven for thinking we’re going to see a film that is either a film noir parody, an exercise in noir style nostalgia, or perhaps a straight-on pastiche, imitative in the extreme. But surprise, surprise. The Late Show is none of these. Benton’s film adheres to the classic structure of private eye film and literature, but within that structure, it mixes its components in a way not quite like anything else. The film is a reflective character study with a first-rate plot, continual tension, and comedy-worthy laughs. Its dialogue crackles, at times fast and furious, but underneath the banter there's a melancholy mood. The pace seems unhurried, but at 93 minutes long, the movie is airtight. In a decade that saw a revival of private eye films, some more revisionist in intent than others – Chinatown, Night Moves, The Long Goodbye, Farewell My Lovely, to name a few – The Late Show remains one of the very best.

Art Carney as the aged gumshoe Ira Wells.

The plot kicks off fast. A moment after we first see Ira Wells (Carney) sitting in his recliner, his land-lady Mrs. Schmidt says that he has a guest. So late at night? The man there to see him opens his mouth to say Ira’s name and blood comes out. He’s been shot point blank in the stomach. It’s clear the man, about Ira’s age, is a former partner of Ira’s, and Robert Benton has some cultural reference fun here also: this man, named Harry, is the veteran actor Howard Duff, radio’s Sam Spade from 1946 to 1950. I first saw The Late Show when it opened, at age 15, and even though I had no idea who Duff was, my parents instantly recognized him and chuckled, getting the joke. In any event, the former tough guy dies in Ira’s room, but not before giving Ira information that will be of great importance later. At Harry’s funeral, an old friend of them both named Charlie (Bill Macy) introduces Ira to Margot, an oddball, 70’s style New Age woman played by Lily Tomlin. A male acquaintance of Margot’s has taken her cat because Margot owes him money, and Charlie has touted Ira as just the guy, a total pro, who can track down her acquaintance and get her cat back. Ira scoffs at the “two bit job” offered, but when he finds out more about the case, and how it ties in to Harry’s death, he says he’ll take it. Not that Margot is impressed. Besides his gut, Ira has a slight limp, a hearing aid, and a crotchety personality that shows no respect for the young. Margot voices her doubts about Ira, but Charlie, who oozes two-bit chiseler through his every pore, reassures her. Ira may not look like much, but he’s been around and you’re not going to find a better gumshoe. Still, taking him on will cost her. He’s no amateur. As Ira tells her, “I’m the best and I get paid like the best.” Oddly, it’s this assertion of his prowess that sways Margo, and she hires him.

From here, of course, the story expands. The dangers increase. Unsavory characters appear, and so do dead bodies. Ira takes a beating and dishes one out, gets shot at and fires back. He and Margot become a team, sort of, and she is the one who does the driving during the exciting car chase they have. They encounter a long-legged sultry woman (Joanna Cassidy) who seems to fit the femme fatale bill, and the case they investigate becomes increasingly complicated before they can resolve it. Complicated, but not incoherent: The Late Show’s solution makes perfect sense, and Benton even manages, in golden-age mystery fashion, to get all the participants in one room when Ira gives them (and the audience) the lowdown.

The Late Show was Robert Benton’s second directorial effort, following up on his 1972 revisionist western Bad Company. He had been writing in Hollywood for years, contributing to Peter Bogdanovich’s What’s Up Doc script, and, most famously, co-writing with David Newman the script for Bonnie and Clyde. Like many filmmakers of his era, Benton was influenced by the French New Wave of Jean Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut. He admired how their films often mucked around with genres, how they blended familiar styles and tropes to fashion something new. He had a big part in creating the mix of violence and jokiness that made Bonnie and Clyde so unusual, and disturbing when it premiered, and he carried this aesthetic through to The Late Show. Giving the audience an indication (or warning?) of what they were in for, the movie’s advertising tagline perhaps summed up best the script’s tonal variety: “The nicest, warmest, funniest, and most touching movie you'll ever see about blackmail, mystery, and murder.” It’s an accurate tagline. And perhaps it was this unpredictable quality that appealed to filmmaker Robert Altman, ever the maverick. Benton brought his completed script to Altman, and Altman, who had Hollywood clout at the time, liked what he saw and decided to produce the movie.

It’s fascinating to compare The Late Show with Altman’s The Long Goodbye.  There’s an odd continuity between the two, and one wonders what Benton and Altman discussed regarding this. Both films have a grainy, washed-out look that hearkens back to an earlier era. In each, the detective regularly wears a dark suit, white shirt, and tie, while nearly everyone else dresses in the slick or colorful or billowy clothes of the time. The two films share an editor, Lou Lombardo, who worked several times with Altman, (Peter Appleton co-edited The Late Show), and both clearly function as ironic homages to private eye tales, California ones especially. And yet, despite their points of connection, the two are utterly different films. Elliot Gould’s Rip van Marlowe (as Altman called him) is a deliberately anachronistic stranger in a strange 1970s Los Angeles. He’s not an old man compared to the characters he moves among, but his entire world and moral view stamp him as out of touch, disconnected from his time. Little upsets him much; his position as a character out of time serves as an emotional armor. Ira Wells, by contrast, is an old man, so he’s a person who’s seen the world change around him. He has none of the Gould as Marlowe detachment, and part of what makes his character compelling is his emotional richness. He’s got the requisite toughness to be a PI, but we also see a person who is by turns aloof, protective, caustic, vulnerable. In his profession, his age and physical state are a liability, but then again, the experience he’s acquired down through the years is a plus. He seems at once a bit lost in modern Los Angeles – his investigation to find Margo’s cat starts terribly and he has no idea that an old police contact of his has died – and at home everywhere in the city. He may get tired and cranky easily, but he’s seen everything in his time and nothing that happens on the case, no type of human behavior, rattles him. By the end, he’s even gained Margot’s respect.

Lily Tomlin as Margot.

It is the relationship between Wells and Margot that makes up the heart of the film. As people, they differ in every conceivable way. They represent different generations, and while his lingo stems from the 1940s, she talks of “going with the flow”, her own “conflicted personality”, and people being “de-evolved.” When under stress, he smokes cigarettes or takes Alka-Seltzer tablets; she curls into a meditative pose and says “Om.” If Margot smokes anything, it’s marijuana, a substance she happens to sell sometimes. Margot is no airhead, though, and it’s telling that she, not Ira, has the first substantial insight into the case that provides them with a crucial lead. Ira, surprised, admits that she may have something. And Margo, in her way, is as nonsense-free as Wells. When he says he has to find the guy who nailed Harry Regan, sounding like Sam Spade talking about the need for a man to avenge the killing of his partner, Margo tells him that is bullshit. “It’s disgusting,” she says. He doesn’t care about Harry Regan but wants one last chance to go around shooting guns at people playing cops and robbers. “You’re getting off behind all this blood and guts,” she says. “It’s very immature.  You need help.” But what begins as a testy relationship between an old-school guy and a macho code-critiquing 70’s woman develops into something else, and the audience enjoys this aspect of the story as much as the mystery plot. Restrained but real affection grows between the two but without the clichés of movie romance. We don’t get the familiar Hollywood nonsense of a younger woman falling for an older guy. They are just two people struggling to make do, who somehow, through unlikely circumstances, find themselves simpatico.

As the two leads, Art Carney and Lily Tomlin shine. In the wake of his long run on The Honeymooners, Carney was enjoying a strong film career during the 70’s. In 1974, he had won a Best Actor Oscar for his role as an old man driving across country with his cat in Harry and TontoThe Late Show followed on the heels of that performance, and if you ask me, he’s better in Benton’s film than in his award-winning one. Lily Tomlin’s unique talent has never been better utilized on film, and the word is that Benton and Altman (Tomlin was an Altman favorite for his entire career) encouraged her to improvise. At first, this bothered Carney, who liked to work by following the lines exactly as written in the script. But eventually, with the Benton’s urging, he began to improvise with her, and the two meshed. You’d be hard put to find another film where two actors of different generations, different sensibilities and acting styles, have such good chemistry.

Among the supporting actors, Bill Macy was then starring as Bea Arthur’s long suffering husband in the sitcom Maude, so it was striking for audiences to see him as a slimy conniver. Eugene Roche and John Considine are both funny and menacing as the fence Birdwell and his muscleman Lamar, and Ruth Nelson brings the requisite steely sweetness to her role as Ira Wells’ land-lady Mrs. Schmidt. An interesting note about Nelson: she had been working in Hollywood since the 1940s but before that, in New York, she was a founding member of the legendary Group Theater. The Late Show is a film with a small cast, but every performer in it brings life, wit, and texture to their part.

When released, The Late Show got positive reviews everywhere. It wound up getting film critic awards and an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Benton won an Edgar for his script. But for whatever reason, Warner Brothers didn’t promote the film much, and the movie came and went in theaters without making a splash. A sequel Benton had in mind, in which Wells and Margot form the detective team she has discussed, never came to fruition. That’s a pity. So is the relative underappreciation the film has suffered. But it exists now on streaming services and home video, easily accessible, a private eye film all fans of the genre should check out.

Saturday, April 8, 2023

Do You Ever Defy Expectations Like Harrison Ford?

Scott D. Parker

Let’s be honest: if you watched Apple TV’s “Shrinking” series, a good number of us did so because we had one overriding thought: Harrison Ford doing a comedy?

Granted, it’s not a typical comedy sitcom with a laugh track on a stage with a studio audience. But it’s still a comedy. A trio of folks—Jason Segel, Bill Lawrence, and Brett Goldstein—created the show, and they know comedy.

The great thing about this 10-episode series: it is a comedy, but it is also something else: it’s an honest look a grief, how people get through it, and the pitfalls and victories along the way.

And it has Harrison Ford doing comedy. I’ll admit I was a little skeptical. Ford just doesn’t do comedies. Even now, without looking up his IMDB page, can you name any comedy he’s done? There are funny moments in various movies, but no comedies come to mind.

Why did he do it?

Maybe to see if he could.

It’s a Comedy and a Drama (i.e., Real Life)

The show centers on Segel’s Jimmy, a widower with a teenaged daughter, Alice (Lukita Maxwell). Both are trying to deal with the death of his wife/her mother and they are growing farther and farther apart. Jimmy is a therapist. Ford plays Paul, the senior therapist and one who serves as Jimmy’s mentor. The third therapist is Gaby (Jessica Williams) and they have a charming and fun relationship. The three actors are so good together that you might wonder if they’d worked together before.

Rounding out the cast is Liz (Christa Miller) as Jimmy’s next-door neighbor who basically took over helping to raise Alice after Jimmy checked out for a year and Brian (Michael Urie), a lawyer and good friend of Jimmy.

The events and relationships come across as genuine, albeit in a TV version. My wife doesn’t always laugh out loud at TV shows, but there was more than one time when we both were laughing so hard we had to pause and rewind the show because we missed next lines of dialogue. Two scenes later, our eyes welled up with tears and we’d give each other quick glances to confirm that yes, we were both crying.

That’s the kind of show this is. I don’t binge TV, and we watched the first episode way back on 4 March. We picked episode 2 up on 29 March and were done by month’s end. Even I couldn’t get enough of this show. My wife and I both expressed interest in going back and rewatching some Jason Segel movies.

Doing the Unexpected

Oh, and Brett Goldstein? You know him as the gruff Roy on “Ted Lasso.” He wrote two of the episodes, one of which just ripped out the emotions and the tears out of our bodies. He also wrote one of the recent episodes of “Ted Lasso,” one of the more emotional ones. For a guy that I came to know as an actor first, he can really write well.

Back to Ford. After a career of not doing TV, he’s now doing two shows (“1923” is the other one). “1923” is a western so that’s at least in Ford’s wheelhouse, but “Shrinking?” That’s something new. He’s said in interviews that the script was one of the best he’d ever read…and that’s saying quite a bit.

Being the professional actor that he is, I get the sense that “Shrinking” came to him at the right time. He liked what he read and said yes. At first, I suspect he might have been a little hesitant to agree to do a project that was so unlike what he was used to and is known for.

Then, I thought about it differently. What if he took this role exactly because no one expected it of him? How daring is that? Or, rather, how exciting.

When was the last time you thought about creating something—a book, a song, a work of art—that no one expected of you? Did it make you scared? Did that fear make you pause and not move forward?

Or did you accept the fear, defy expectations, and go for it?

Tuesday, April 4, 2023


I just finished watching Swarm, the new series on Prime co-created by Janine Nabors and Donald Glover. It's an alternately unsettling and funny take on toxic fandom, with Dominique Fishback playing a murderous superfan of a singer obviously a lot like Beyonce. And it has much of the dreamy yet lucid quality, the sudden shifts of tone, of Glover's Atlanta. I don't want to say too much more because it is the kind of show best appreciated knowing as little as possible going into it, with small and large surprises throughout each episode. It's seven episodes, each less than an hour, so you can zip through it fast, though I enjoyed watching it over 3 or 4 nights to let an episode or two sit a bit in my mind before going on to new ones.

It's strictly a coincidence of timing, but having recently wrapped up watching Poker Face, I found myself thinking, as I watched Swarm, of the Rian Johnson series. Do they have similarities? Yes, but at an odd angle.  Let's say they play like complete inverses of each other, with their approaches to the world stemming from the respective positions their main characters inhabit in it.

Poker Face, which I thoroughly enjoyed, is in large part an exercise in nostalgia, hearkening back of course to Columbo and other '70s TV detective shows, and Natasha Lyonne’s Charlie clearly has an affinity for certain aspects of the past, or at least to '70s movies, which she references frequently. Dominique Fishback's Dre, by contrast, lives entirely in the present and has nothing to be nostalgic about. I'd have to watch the series again, but I don't remember her making one pop culture reference to anything past, around, 5 years ago.  If she does, they are few.  Both characters, after a death, wind up hitting the road, going on odysseys, and each wind up in the course of their travels entering odd pockets of US life, little subworlds. Charlie solves a mystery at each spot she hits, a crime solver, righting a wrong, establishing balance to a milieu before moving on. Dre commits crime after crime, killing after killing, leaving disorder and even carnage in her wake.  With Charlie, charm is a key, her personality wins her friends and even allies wherever she goes. She catches the eye and grabs people's affections in every social setting she enters. Dre, as fearlessly played by Fishback, is that most easily disregarded of people, a Black woman, and she has a personality that does not win her friends or influence people.  She's out of place everywhere, a misfit, awkward, uncomfortable at times in her own skin and definitely a person who grates on others. The way Swarm as a whole has an abrasive quality, and doesn't shy away from this, is refreshing, as well as a reflection of its main character.  

It's amusing to compare how Charlie, on the run, does everything she can to stay off the grid, avoid cell phones and ways of being traced. Dre is a social media junkie, living and breathing through it, finding pleasure and pain and feelings of love and hatred through it, and to say that she values her phone highly is an understatement.  The phone she is using actually becomes a central driving plot force in a couple of later episodes, and what she will do to make sure she has it in working condition in order to accomplish something she considers important is hair-raising yet not all that exaggerated in this day and age. Who doesn't get antsy nowadays when separated from the phone umbilicus?

With Charlie, you get the sense that wherever she goes, she has a nod-up mentally (and not just because of her lie-detector ability).  People around her, whatever environment she is in, seem to feel that. Nobody need pity or rescue her. In Swarm, there's a recurring motif, not one that beats you over the head either, of white women apparently trying to help Dre because, in some way, they see her as needing assistance. But just how benign and truly well-meaning are these women who with their privilege can move through the world so easily? This is especially true in an episode where Dre winds up with a group of self-empowerment women, led by a calmly chilling Billie Eilish no less.  A great episode. Dre is the one Black woman in this semi-cult of well-to-do white women, and if only she goes along with them, they say with their smiles, her life could be so much better. It could be like their wonderful lives.  But that's presuming, naturally, that she's remotely interested in the same things they are...

As I mentioned, it's mainly a matter of timing that I thought a few times of Poker Face as I watched Swarm. But Swarm really does play like the anti-Poker Face, and I mean that, if I'm making any sense, in a good way.  Not that, I should add, Dominique Fishback's Dre is all that readable to outsiders. Early in the women's group episode, she gets pulled over by a cop in a small southern town.  The menace and suspense in this scene are palpable.  A traffic stop, a Black woman, a white cop, the South, but the scene goes in a direction you don't expect. There's also the irony that this cop is talking to a person on a cross-country killing spree, and he's concerned about where in town she'll sleep for the night. Can't have any migrants in his town, especially Black ones. Does he suspect that she might indeed be a serial killer?  Why would he?  Who would ever expect a short unassuming Black woman to be that?  Maybe Dre has the most effective poker face of all.