Tom Brokaw hosted Meet the Press today. It was a pretty boring show, filmed in Wyoming for reasons I didn't hear.
In the final segment, Brokaw explained that there wouldn't be an MTP next week because of NBC's coverage of the Wimbledon final. "But we'll see you back the following week. If it's Sunday, it's Meet the Press."
If the term controversial can accurately be attached to an event most commonly commemorated by being ignored, adding musical numbers from shows other than those nominated for Best Musical or Best Musical Revival to the Tony ceremony was controversial. When the telecast kicks off with “The Circle of Life” from The Lion King, it seems smart in that the performance is spectacular and gripping and just the kind of thing to send 60 Minutes viewers who haven’t yet changed the channel to the appropriate ticket-selling monopoly, but I do worry that the rest of the numbers will pale by comparison.
The first closed captioning weirdness of the evening comes in “The Circle of Life” when the subtitles indicate “Singing in African dialect.” If they don’t teach it in high school, is it a “dialect” instead of a language?
Whoopi Goldberg’s first moments decidedly shaky—the crab costume schtick brings back painful flashbacks to her turn hosting the Oscars when most of her material seemed to consist of her putting on costumes (I still remember the QEI outfit), and when she returns, she doesn't seem to have had enough time to get her dress on properly. I like Whoopi Goldberg, and I’m already reaching for the Fast Forward button. The line about Thurgood Marshall being “the only African-American Supreme Court justice” seems like a goof rather than a political dig at Clarence Thomas.
Even before Rondi Reed is announced as the night’s first winner, it’s obvious (as if there were any doubt) that August: Osage County is going to need a new trophy case. Featured Actress is probably their weakest category, but the applause for Reed overwhelms the rest. Her dedicating the Tony—part of it anyway—to Tracy Letts’ dad, who played the father of the ferked-up family until he died of cancer earlier this year—was touching. “Happy Father’s Day” is a great thing to say just before you walk off stage with a statue.
Cry-Baby does a smart number. The license-plate song is fun and energetic—far more fun and energetic than the rest of the show.
The second bit of close-captioning subversion comes when Bart Sheer thanks “my designers” and the subtitlers render it as “my design whores.”
For totally irrational reasons, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s acceptance rap, which might well be the coolest acceptance speech ever, kind of bugs.
Laura Benanti goes into a superhigh register when she accepts the Tony for Best Featured Actress in a Musical. Shouldn’t actors—especially actors known for their singing—be able to control their voices?
The musical selection from Grease achieved the impossible and failed to meet even my ankle-high expectations. The reality-show-recruited leads, and the rest of the cast for that matter, seemed incapable of singing on key, and they chose horrific numbers. Whatever else it lacks, Grease has some incredibly catchy songs, none of which they chose to sing. Although I think the show is doing pretty well at the box office, it looked like they chose to play it cheap. Instead of doing songs that required a set (which requires the producers to drop a wad of cash to create another set of scenery and stage props just for the telecast), they stuck with doors and a kick-line. They did themselves no favors, but I suppose the fact that the show’s doing OK financially proves that quality is irrelevant to the success of this production.
Third piece of unintended subversion (or absolute genius subversion) came when the Chicago cast members appeared over a network promo for “Greatest American Dog.”
The selections from The Little Mermaid and A Catered Affair were pretty uninspiring—especially the Little Mermaid excerpt. The song had horrific lyrics, and Sierra Boggess had appalling breath control and a puny little head voice. We didn’t even get to see the cool skatey gliding except from a great distance.
After Anna D. Shapiro’s husband kissed her when she heard she’d won for Best Direction of a Play, he immediately resumed chewing. I wondered if she’d passed her gum to him during the smooch.
Mark Rylance’s speech made me feel uneducated. I’m sure truly erudite viewers immediately recognized its provenance, but I didn’t. (UPDATE: He revealed the source of the text in a post-award interview.)
Sunday in the Park With George was robbed in the Best Scenic Design category. I loved South Pacific, but the SPWG set was far better.
Shocking to see how early in the evening the Best Play winner was announced--and how early the music started playing on Tracy Letts.
Mandy Patinkin's beard was a little scary. Made me wonder if he is going to play the lead in The Harvey Fierstein Story.
Liza Minelli looked amazing, though she sounded like Sean Connery. Paulo Szot was shockingly excited about receiving his Tony from her. Thanking his dresser was the sweetest tribute of the evening.
Patti Lupone looked gorgeous in that beautiful dress. And if the conductor thought a mere orchestra could overpower her, he obviously hasn't seen Gypsy. Her "Thank you. Good night!" really should've been the end of the show.
Most shocking part of the evening? We got through an entire Tony Awards ceremony without a single overt display of homosexuality. What is Broadway coming to?
Street fairs and summer go together like 60 Minutes and the employed aged, but I'd never lived three doors from one until I moved to Park Slope. In D.C., I worked on the block that hosted Adams Morgan Day, and like everyone else who had to deal with the detritus the next day, I thought of it as Adams Morgan Trash-Generation Day and moaned about it. A lot.
It was Brooklyn Pride yesterday, and I had every intention of cheering for my peeps--all I had to do was step outside, walk about 50 yards to the street that it happens on, and yell a bit. Since it's a night parade, I wouldn't even have had to dig out a suitably gay T-shirt. But we had a monster thunderstorm (actually a series of thunderstorms that lasted for four or five hours), and despite having grown up in Manchester and having spent 15 years in Seattle, I really don't care for rain, so I, erm, stayed in and complained when I had to pause an ancient episode of Foyle's War because the brave and no-doubt completely drenched marchers were making a lot of noise as they passed by.
So, there was no way that I could skip "Seventh Heaven," the absurdly named street fare that happens on that same ever-so-close thoroughfare. Still, I figured I'd check out one block, grab some food, and scurry home. Ten minutes and it'd be done. In fact, R and I spent perhaps an hour checking out stalls, finding some bargains, and buying a few things we actually liked. Thanks to those thunderstorms (which returned this morning, much to the chagrin of our upstairs neighbor who was having a stoop sale), the humidity was tolerable.
The highlight, though, was the openness of the high-schoolers who were providing entertainment outside the church opposite T Thai. I heard them perform a pretty good version of "Fantasy" and a very spirited rendition of "The Time Warp," and it looked like they were there for the rest of the afternoon. I can't imagine a group of English high-schoolers standing in front of thousands of passers-by in that spirit--they'd be too afraid of looking uncool or of friends or enemies taking the piss, but I found it quite touching and very American.
I saw 71 shows in 2006—24 on Broadway, 36 other shows in New York, 10 shows in London, and one in Manchester, England. 59 were plays, 11 musicals, and one could probably best be described as a play with music (the wonderful Nights at the Circus, which I saw at the Lyric, Hammersmith). Looking back on the letter grade I assigned to the shows when I got home from seeing them (I’ve made only slight tweaks to the original grades on the list I posted), a lot of them seem off. Partly it’s a comparison thing—I said Bridge & Tunnel was better than Awake and Sing!?—and partly I notice that I’m stingier with ratings when I’m seeing a lot of shows in a short period; but theater being a fleeting medium, perhaps the shows and performances that linger are the “best.”
Rather than a Top 10 list, this is more of a list of the shows that I saw in the 2006 calendar year that stuck with me most. For the moment, I’ll stick to New York shows.
TWELFTH NIGHT (Chekhov International Theatre Festival at BAM, dir. Declan Donnellan). This Russian troupe gave a master class in acting technique.
THE BOGUS WOMAN (by Kay Adshead, seen at 59E59 in the Brits Off-Broadway series). Some critics found this play over-the-top and unbelievable; I found it all too credible. In a year of outstanding one-woman performances, Sarah Niles’ tour-de-force was shiver-inducing.
DRUID/SYNGE (Lincoln Center Festival). The marathon aspect didn’t bother me one bit; in fact, I’m sure I got a lot more out of the plays by seeing them in succession. The outstanding elements were Riders to the Sea and, especially, The Playboy of the Western World. (Yes, of course I'm seeing The Coast of Utopia in a marathon—I'm a Wagenerian!)
IN THE CONTINUUM (Danai Gurira & Nikkole Salter, seen at the Perry Street Theater, RIP). Beautifully subtle acting and writing from two young artists on a subject that tends to repel subtlety.
SATELLITES (by Diana Son at the Public Theater). Yes, this play took on a LOT of topics—gentrification, “mixed” marriages, the difficulty of finding a nanny (recently the subject of a smart story in the NYT), how children affect marriages and work dynamics, just to name a few—many more than it could satisfactorily resolve, but I regularly find myself thinking back to moments in the play. A ton of smart ideas and difficult dilemmas in a short work.
WELL (by Lisa Kron, seen at the Longacre). It depresses me no end that Broadway wasn’t the right spot for this play.
HISTORY BOYS (Alan Bennett, Broadhurst). I’d’ve trimmed a little at the top and the tail, but there were moments of such transcendence that I almost forgot my reservations.
THE DROWSY CHAPERONE (for simplicity's sake, let's say the folks behind Slings and Arrows, at the Marquis)—Obviously, I’m more drawn to plays than to musicals, but I loved this goofy story. Great music, clever script, talented cast … I found it wonderfully entertaining.
CHRISTINE JORGENSON REVEALS (performed by Bradford Louryk, seen at what was then Dodger Stages). Who knew lip-synching could be so entertaining and thought-provoking?
THE LIEUTENANT OF INISHMORE—I don’t think I want to see that much blood on a stage ever again, but shock value can be very refreshing. And, of course, it wasn’t just shock value. Up there with the blood and gore were some serious discussions of the often skimpy motivations for acts of hideous violence.
I can’t quite bring myself to put them on the main list, but I loved both KIKI & HERB ON BROADWAY and JAY JOHNSON: MY TWO AND ONLY. Kiki & Herb’s Broadway show would’ve been on my list, but then I went to their Christmas show at the Bowery Ballroom—one-fifth the price and nearly twice as long (which was kind of annoying, quite honestly; don’t folks who go to downtown clubs have jobs to go to the next mornings?), and suddenly those “This show doesn’t belong on Broadway” complaints took on a new light—it’s not that Broadway’s too good for them, it’s that seeing them there costs way too much. I think My Two and Only was the only Broadway show I saw this year that made me cry!
Outstanding Performances Not Mentioned Above:
Logan Marshall-Green in Dog Sees God and Pig Farm Christine Ebersole in Grey Gardens (No, really, how do you sing so beautifully with tears and snot streaming down your face?) Lee Pace in Guardians Cate Blanchett in Hedda Gabler (she overpowered the other players, but …) Megan Dodds in My Name Is Rachel Corrie Ian McDiarmid in Faith Healer (Cherry Jones got a bum rap, but it’s hard to win plaudits for underplaying a character; McDiarmid chewed the scenery, but entertainingly) Zoe Wanamaker in Awake and Sing! Sandra Oh in Satellites Liev Schreiber in Macbeth The cast of High Fidelity once the closing notice was up—irrepressible high-energy enthusiasm. I liked the show!
FESTEN—Great reviews from the London version, so I don’t know what happened over the Atlantic, but the New York production was dreadful.
CAINE MUTINY COURT-MARTIAL—Inert and utterly lifeless even though the actors were apparently told to EMOTE!! at all times. I’ve seen better high-school shows.
BURLEIGH GRIME$ (more like Burleigh Grimezzzz)—When people talk about cynical shows, this should be the prime example.
LOSING LOUIE—Just after seeing this, I wrote somewhere that this mess “wasn’t as bad as people are saying.” That thought has changed with time. It was awful, and MTC was crazy to put it on their schedule.
THE TIMES THEY ARE A-CHANGIN’—A lot of critics gave Twyla Tharp all kinds of credit for being a “serious artist.” She undoubtedly is, but this show was misconceived and misplayed from start to finish. I rate it worse that the bad-in-almost-exactly-the-same-way Ring of Fire, because it attempted to tart things up with MEANING. Tharp’s biggest mistake was taking Dylan at his word.
Final Whine: I’ve ranted before about how the appalling British accents in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Abigail’s Party ruined the shows for me. Well, I must add a couple of other horrors to dialect coach Stephen Gabis’ record: I realized that he was also responsible for Stuff Happens (where working-class Jack Straw sounded totally plummy and, for some inexplicable reason Scot Robin Cook sounded like an Ulsterman—and yes it does matter in a show that is trumpeting its verisimilitude) and Butley, where Nathan Lane’s normal accent was fine, but his impersonations of Northern Britons were laughable. (OK, not to harp on this too much, but … I know the role probably called for an imperfect impression, but when a Northern accent is written as “goin’ to’t’ dogs” you don’t pronounce it “going to T dogs.” It’s “goin tuht dogs.” I don’t know why the English actor in the cast didn’t say something about this.)
In my various anorak confessions yesterday, I didn’t mention what is undoubtedly my favorite medium: television. Yes, when I was planning our London vacation for February 2006, I spent quite a bit of time studying theatrical offerings, but the timing of the trip was determined by TV: I wanted to watch the BBC’s coverage of the Winter Olympics. (I also happened to find myself in Britain in August 2004 for the two weeks of the Athens Olympics!)
Once again, in no particular order, some of my favorite shows from 2006:
The Wire. I have a bit of a prejudice against the Sunday night offerings of the premium channels—for some reason, people who don’t normally watch television tune into HBO (and very occasionally Showtime) on the Christian sabbath, deem what they see worthy of their attention, and immediately declare the shows they choose to watch to be superior television—even though they don’t watch any other television, and thus have nothing against which to compare them. Me? I usually watch three hours of telly each weeknight, and probably a little more on weekends, so, believe me, I have something to compare these shows with, and The Wire is definitely superior television.
I don’t understand why The Wire isn’t more popular—its writing is superb, which should win over intellectuals; it’s about gritty situations, which should appeal to fans of “urban” culture (yes, I know, that’s a lazy euphemism, but it’s New Year’s Eve); and the acting is fantastic, which should appeal to, well, everyone. Whatever. I kind of resent the Johnny- and Junie-Come-Latelies who got into the show by watching previous seasons on DVD (we TV hard-core-ists are terrible snobs about folks who watch television on DVD), but that bit of personal nonsense aside, I recommend The Wire to everyone and anyone.
I’ll add just two things: 1) For a show that at least appears to be written entirely by straight white men, it does an amazing job of presenting credible, complicated, and attractive gay, black characters—Omar, Kima, and Snoop (and remember we also once saw Rawls in a gay bar—I wonder if that will be the center of the next series, which will focus on the Baltimore media; you heard it here first, folks). 2) A lot is made of HBO’s ability to use profanity giving its shows an unfair advantage, but Wire writer David Mills made a great point in this Slate dialogue: What’s different about HBO is that writers don’t have to chop their stories into seven pieces. As he put it, “The ability to tell a tale from start to finish without interruption allows for much denser, much more nuanced writing.” He also mentions multiplays—I do appreciate that cable shows rerun new episodes several times over the course of a week—but I was fascinated by HBO’s decision to make episodes of The Wire available on demand six days before the episode went out over the air. I don’t think I ever actually watched a show on Sunday night. I could’ve, but I didn’t want to wait that long for my Wire fix. (By contrast, Showtime’s weird scheduling of the second series of Sleeper Cell, one episode per night over the course of eight days, with all episodes available on demand the day after the premier, just made me think that Showtime didn’t believe that it was compelling enough to bring viewers back week after week.)
The Closer. TNT did something really brave with the first episodes of The Closer—they introduced the character of Brenda Leigh to viewers just as she would’ve appeared to the LA detectives she’d been brought from Atlanta to supervise: like a twitchy, unconvincingly polite, sugar-scoffing weirdo. As she won over the cops during course of the first season, she also won the confidence of viewers—that Southern charm wasn’t entirely fake, but it was a way of disarming people. The second season was even better. Every good long-running TV show follows a pattern, and if it’s well-written and directed, viewers don’t necessarily realize there’s a template. In The Closer, the who/howdunnit of the case she’s working on comes to Brenda when she’s doing something in her messed-up private life. I also loved the two-hour special that aired a month or so ago—well, the plot was a bit silly, and the two hours were out of balance (I guess they were cut up that way so they could be re-run as two separate episodes)—but I loved the beginning when the veterans of Brenda’s squad were so frustrated by Commander Taylor’s lazy, take-the-solution-that’s-available attitude. That had been their attitude before Brenda came along, but she’d changed the way they thought.
Pilot season is my favorite time of the year, but this year I was in a terrible funk about the misogynist, homophobic, and just not funny sitcoms that the networks rolled out. Then came 30 Rock, which has me laughing out loud and nodding in appreciation of the intelligence of the humor (there are often sight gags that you have to freeze the frame to even see). (I did a Slate "Spoiler Special" podcast with TV critic Troy Patterson about the show back in October.) Speaking of superior sitcoms, I’m loving the sophomore season of How I Met Your Mother, which improved by leaps and bounds from the first series. At first, the writers were too stuck on the gimmick of a dad telling his kids about … how he met their mother. They still lean on that crutch from time to time, but it’s now comfortable being a smart series about couples and singles, which is pretty much all of modern life, isn’t it?
When Ugly Betty first started, I was skeptical. Oh, it was fine—likable enough, but inessential somehow. Then I realized that not only was I pretty much always watching it the night it aired (something I do less than half the time), I was also quoting the show to friends who hadn’t seen it. It’s the TV equivalent of an earworm, in other words. Two moments from the show stand out—when camp assistant Marc asked Betty’s fashion- and musical-theater-loving cousin Justin if he got picked on at school, and the outraged tone in which Wilhemina (played by Vanessa Williams) asked Daniel if he'd been looking at her when he suggested a Kwanzaa-themed issue of Mode. Both would’ve been easy to overplay (and, let’s face it, the show might get bigger numbers if they laid things on with a trowel), but they kept things relatively light and subtle.
South of Nowhere. Kids today don’t know they’re born. When I was growing up, there were no homos on television—except that one Sunday when ITV played The Killing of Sister George and the papers were full of outrage. Today’s youth can tune into their own tween channel, the N, and live in a fantasy world where two haut young teens can have a lesbian relationship where the biggest problem is that now Spencer is out to her parents, they never really have time alone together. Their friends all treat their relationship with respect, they get to go to the prom together with nary a raised eyebrow, and when Spencer’s mother freaks out when she finds the girls making out, it’s clear that her response is irrational, ergo homophobia is irrational. (Honorable mention: Noah’s Arc, Logo’s soap opera about a tight-knit group of gay black men in Los Angeles. Also a fantasy, but also a lovely one.)
I avoided the reality-TV trend. Knowing that I’m basically powerless over television, I just didn’t watch them, and when I did catch an episode, hopelessly out of context, the shows always seemed, well, dumb. Then I started to watch Project Runway. I guess the appeal is that even the most hopeless contestants demonstrate vision and practical skills, and the best of them have moments of mind-blowing creativity. I know that the shows are edited for maximum drama, and that they’ll always keep a bitch, a crazy person, and a regular person in the final stages (even if the crazy person’s skillz aren’t that mad), but it’s GOOD! The challenges are usually smart, the catwalk is an awesome climax (much better than the always rather anticlimactic tasting on Top Chef, which I also like), the judges are likable even when they’re bitchy, and Tim Gunn rocks the show.
After the disappointing penultimate season of The Sopranos, I was down on HBO and had low expectations for Big Love, but it won me over. Although the show didn’t ignore the big questions of polygamy (fear of discovery, the rights of the “wives” whose marriages aren’t registered with the state, the abuse of young women bonded to old men, the driving off of the young men of the communities to keep the young women for the old bucks, etc.), its strength was in the psychological portrayal of the characters—especially Bill and the three sister wives—and the representation of faith.
I guess I should also find a place on this list for the shows that I watch every single week, even if I think they’re kind of dumb. Pride of place goes to ESPN’s The Sports Reporters—the guests are often cliché-spouting blowhards, some of whom are so sure that they’re right about everything that you fear for their health (cf John Feinstein’s red-faced rant about the ridiculousness of the World Cup being decided by penalty kicks)—but I stick around for Mitch Albom’s ears, the opportunity to count how many lines from his Sunday Daily News column Mike Lupica can recite on the show, and John Saunders’ Canadianity. Also in this category: On Stage and Theater Talk.
I’ll give the last slot to British detective shows—those short-run series that show up out of the blue on that unfathomable mystery that is the BBC America schedule or on the sickly beast known as PBS. The standout from the last year was, of course, the final Prime Suspect, but the Inspector Lynley Mysteries, Waking the Dead, The Night Detective, and even Rosemary and Thyme get rapt attention in our house. At least a couple of those shows are products of commercial television, but the BBC programs do have that advantage of uninterrupted narrative—that is, no false “now we go to commercial” climaxes to reach every 12 minutes—and rather more robust language than I can imagine hearing on U.S. network shows.
Let’s start this little trek down memory lane with a look at my favorite books of 2006. (And, to state the obvious, not all were published in 2006; that’s just when I read them.)
I start here because I had a wonderful year of reading. When I anally add a title to my list(s), I give it a simple A-C listing (I suppose I could go below C, but the chances of my finishing something that wasn’t even worth a C are slim). At the end of the year, I try to stick with the contemporaneous rating, even though I sometimes feel I’ve been rather harsh—or perhaps it’s that I get more generous as the memory fades. This year, of the 57 titles that I read, I only awarded one C—to Piers Morgan’s The Insider: The Private Diaries of a Scandalous Decade—and really, the failing grade was awarded to the odious Mr. Morgan; the diaries themselves, although clearly bogus in that they were written long after the events occurred, were hideously compelling. I also only gave five B- ratings, along with 29 B’s, 20 B+s, and two well-deserved A’s.
Not necessarily in order of preference, 10 (more or less) favorites from 2006:
Arguments With England: A Memoir, by Michael Blakemore. I have to admit, I didn’t know who Michael Blakemore was when I first came across this book, but the copy that came to the office included the glowing review Simon Callow wrote for the Guardian, which convinced me to give it a whirl. What a fantastic book! Blakemore is a wonderfully evocative writer—about acting (both doing it and witnessing it), family, promiscuity, relationships, leaving home, England in the 1950s and ‘60s. Ach, he’s great about pretty much everything, actually. It’s one of those memoirs that feels honest (how can we ever really know?) because he doesn’t pretend that he didn’t fail at some things or that he wasn’t sometimes a bit silly or pompous, but he also avoids that annoying memoirist’s trick of pretending that everyone got along wonderfully and life was always peachy. The young Blakemore is often broke and feuding (most entertainingly with Peter Hall) and involved in messy love triangles (most entertainingly with Vanessa Redgrave and Peter Hall), but by the end of the book, he’s starting to have some success as a director. I hope he’s working on another volume right now, because after spending nearly 400 pages on his early stumblings, I want to know what happened as he became more sure-footed. (His novel Next Season is also very entertaining. Read it after you’ve read the memoir, so you recognize the real folks behind the fictional characters.)
Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, by Alison Bechdel If there’s a You Say Tomato books of the year list, there’s an Alison Bechdel title onit. After more than 20 years and at least 11 volumes of Dykes to Watch Out For, her intricately detailed (and very funny) social history that sparkled in relative obscurity, the wonderful Fun Home—a graphic memoir—got the plaudits and attention that Alison has always deserved. (Time magazine’s book of the year, Entertainment Weekly’s nonfiction book of the year, and a million Top 10 lists.) Still, I can’t help wondering if a) the word “dykes” hadn’t been in the titles; b) there’d been a man at the center of those earlier books, she might’ve avoided all those years of obscurity.
Obedience, Struggle and Revolt, by David Hare. I know, it sounds like a report from the B&D committee of a Spartacist splinter group, and no one could accuse David Hare of being a comedian, but there’s some wonderful stuff in this collection of lectures. (Yes, lectures.) I could’ve done with a little less John Osborne worship (Sir David, baby, make your case and move on), but Hare is a clear thinker and (sometimes) a devastating case-maker.
Primo Time, by Antony Sher. Obviously, a lot of this year’s reading was focused, in one way or another, on the theater. Of the “actorly” books that I took in, I particularly enjoyed Sher’s account of developing his one-man show Primo—fashioned from Primo Levi’s writings about his time in Auschwitz. It seems silly to complain about the author being self-absorbed—that’s kind of the point of the book—but if any of my friends were contemplating becoming involved with an actor, I’d get a copy of this book into their hands, stat! Years ago, I read Sher’s wonderful novel Middlepost. I’m not sure if it was in Primo Time or Year of the King that Sher talks openly about his frustration at the low effort-to-response ratio of fiction-writing and his hopes that his diaries might be a profitable side line (I’m being much more crass about it than he was). I hope they do—like Simon Callow (with whom he has a ton in common and with whom, I understand, he has quite a rivalry)—it’s astonishing that such a talented actor would be such an excellent writer.
Prince of the Marshes: And Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq, by Rory Stewart. It was a bit of a year for memoirs for me. I also enjoyed Stewart’s The Places in Between, but this account of his time as vice-governor of the Iraqi province of Maysan is astonishing. The conflict in Iraq has brought us some great books (The Assassin’s Gate, Imperial Life in the Emerald City, to name but a couple), but Stewart wasn’t a journalist or an academic (like Larry Diamond, whose Squandered Victory is also about how bureaucracy and meddling politicians made a tough challenge impossible); he’s a traveler who wants to make a difference by listening to people and taking account of history and trying to do the right thing. He doesn’t have a career to make or points to score, and he has to admit defeat pretty early. (Read excerpts from the book at Slate.)
The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, by Lawrence Wright. The chapters about the philosophical origins of al-Qaida and Osama Bin Laden’s path to infamy are fabulous. As interesting as the latter sections on flawed FBI agent John O’Neill are, that part of the book felt overpowered by the brilliance of the al-Qaida section. Still, as everyone says, it’s a total page-turner.
The Q Guide to Broadway, by Seth Rudetsky. I bought this book to give to a musical-theater-loving British friend who’s coming to New York in the spring. In the end, I had to buy a new copy to give away, because I couldn’t bear to part with it. It’s a small, unpretentious book, and Rudetsky wears his expertise lightly. Not only does he have musical-theater trivia down flat, he really knows music and does a great job of explaining why some songs or musicals work while others don’t. It’s also laugh-out-loud-on-the-subway funny.
What Was She Thinking?: Notes on a Scandal, by Zoe Heller. I picked up the novel, which I’d been wanting to read for a while, in anticipation of the movie. I inhaled the book—it’s smart, it’s beautifully observed, and it’s deliciously creepy—but having finally seen a trailer for the movie and read some reviews, I won’t be seeing it, as much as I love Dame Judi and Dame-to-be Cate. The book is a classic example of an unreliable narrator, which I guess you have to clarify when making a movie, but making a predatory friend into a predatory lesbian is not cool.
The Shadow of the Sun, by Ryszard Kapuscinski. If the beginning of the year was all about theatrical tomes, the last month or two has been dominated by Africa. In January, I’m off to Nigeria, so I’ve been boning up by reading books with such cheery titles as The Open Sore of a Continent, This House Has Fallen, and Where Vultures Feast. Someone recommended Kapuscinski, and all I can say is, “Why haven’t I read him before?” I immediately ordered four other collections—and have loved Shah of Shahs, about Iran. Wonderful writing, and a great translation by Klara Glowczewska.
The Emperor’s Children, by Claire Messud. It’s been a while since I read the big novel of the moment and truly enjoyed it. Hideous and yet irresistible characters, a relentless narrative, and lovely observation. I haven’t had a chance to listen to the Slate Audio Book Club discussion of the book yet, but I will, very soon.
The final rundown on my 2006 reading was: 57 books, of which 22 were works of fiction (including four young-adult novels), 28 were nonfiction (including two works of graphic nonfiction), and seven were plays.
As I said about this time last year, I’m more than a little embarrassed by my habit of making compulsive lists of the movies and plays that I see and the books that I read. (Actually, I’ve only been keeping a list of the plays that I see for a couple of years now—I wish I had a better record of what I’d seen in London, Madrid, Seattle, and on my quick jaunts to New York when I still lived on the West Coast.)
Anyhoo, what’s the point of feeling self-conscious about my anorak tendencies, may as well just revel in them and reveal them. (And it’s not like I’m providing a pivot table or offering any complicated correlations.)
In 2006, I saw 71 plays (confession: this does count five constituent plays of Druid/Synge separately; second confession, yes, five, I left before the last one!); I saw 22 movies; and I read 57 books.
Movie-going has taken a huge hit since we moved to New York. I saw 106 movies in 2004, my last full year in Seattle; then 42 in 2005; then 22 in this first full year here. New York is a great movie city—but so is Seattle. There’s nothing like the magnificent SIFF on my New York cultural agenda, nor is there anything like the Warren Report —at least that I’m aware of. (The one time I went to a New York ObserverCinema Club screening, the line was ridiculous. We didn’t make it into the movie, despite arriving early—I decided right then that it wasn’t worth saving the price of admission.) But the biggest reason for the low movie count, of course, was that I spent more than 65 afternoons and evenings in the theater.
I don’t think I’ll do a series of Top 10 lists or anything quite so formal, but check back over the next couple of days for my thoughts on the most memorable—and sometimes disappointing—plays, books, movies, TV shows, and music of 2006.
Who knows why A&E—once a channel I tuned into regularly, now a repository for fifth-raterealityshows—“burned off” Season 4 of MI-5 (known as Spooks in its native land). The network showed the first couple of episodes at 11 p.m. on Friday night—a time slot that reeks of “we’re legally obliged to run this on a weekday, but we don’t need to make it easy for would-be viewers to see it.” After the first two eps, it disappeared altogether, without any word of explanation. Then it returned in an eight-hour marathon this Saturday —between the hours of 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. ET—so, yes, I guess there is a worse time slot than 11 p.m. Fridays. Having spent a good part of this weekend catching up with Harry and Adam and Fiona and Zaf and Ruth and the gang, I don’t mind the marathon format one bit, I just wish I knew what A&E was playing at.
Of course, the show isn’t what it was before the original leads—Tom, Zoe, and Danny—were disappeared or killed off; and U.S. viewers see an unsatisfactory filleted version after A&E trims 10 minutes or so for commercial breaks (and such fine ads on Saturday afternoon—lots and lots of Bowflex).
Nevertheless, it’s the last good spy show. I like 24, but it's almost ironic, and MI-5 is far more willing to show the inevitable underside of an agency that spends billions on deception.
I wonder if A&E dumped the show because of its increasing anti-Americanism. There has always been tension between 5 and the CIA (sexual tension in the case of Tom and the CIA officer played by Rachel Corrie’s Megan Dodds), but in Episode 9 of Series 4 it reaches a new level—as the official BBC synopsis puts it, “Harry finally gets fed-up of turning a blind-eye to the CIA acting as though they run the country.” He interrupts the Yanks while they’re in the process of rendering a British subject off to Guantanamo—and as it turns out, his actions prevent the CIA from enacting a dastardly plot to draw the West into a war with Iran.
Who knows if we’ll get to see Season 5, which is currently showing in Britain, over here. If not, I’ll miss seeing the Gherkin (the cinematographers seemed to find a way to get it into every episode), hearing those dire American accents, and finding out if Ruth and Harry ever get together. And as much as I hated losing Tom, Zoe, and Danny, I did like—if not enjoy—the tension that came from knowing the show was willing to kill off any character, no matter how essential they seemed to be. Sure, characters dropped like flies in the last season of 24, but I never suspect that Jack Bauer is going to die a resurrection-free death. In MI-5 anyone is fair game—and that adds a visceral thrill to the show.
Who should I trust: trophy cabinets or my own lying eyes and ears? Since I moved to New York 18 months ago, I’ve seen two shows directed by Jerry Zaks—a man with a good reputation and four Tonys—and both were dreadful. The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial and Losing Louie were inert, old-fashioned, and badly cast. So, it’s hard for me to have a terribly high opinion of Mr. Zaks.
Similarly, Scott Elliott seems to be a downtown hero, the artistic director of the New Group and Mike Leigh’s anointed American interpreter (though their relationship was stealthily undermined in a New York Observerprofile). And yet, the two plays of his that I’ve seen—Abigail’s Party and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie—have been extremely disappointing.
John Doyle isn’t the only director who has a “thing.” In his negative review of Brodie, the Times’ Ben Brantley called Elliott “a director known for eliciting (or forcing) the perversity in chestnuts as conventional as Present Laughter and The Women.”
His productions of Abigail and Brodie have even more in common—both are period pieces with a well-regarded indie actress cast in a huge part around which the entire play constellates. And in both cases, there’s an easily available, much-loved video version of the work—the magnificent original 1977 TV version of Abigail’s Party with Leigh’s ex-partner Alison Steadman as Beverly, and Maggie Smith’s Oscar-winning turn in the movie version of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (though my own favorite version is the late-‘70s TV series with Geraldine McEwan as MJB). They’re also both full of lines that devotees love to quote—“Like Feliciano, Ange? Yeah, he’s good, isn’t he? Sexy!” or “My gerrils are the crème de la crème,” etc.
Elliott seems to be good at physical direction—Jennifer Jason Leigh, who played Beverly in his Abigail’s Party, had the look and the movements down just right—the pantherian swagger, the lust for cigarettes and drinks, her utter exasperation with her stupid yet snobbish, uptight, estate-agent husband, Laurence. If Jennifer Jason Leigh had kept her trap shut and just smoked and danced and tortured the guests, the show would’ve been wonderful—but instead she opened her mouth and out came that unbearable braying. The braying gave no indication that Leigh understood Beverly. Why Beverly took such pleasure in taunting her husband and her neighbors. Why she wanted to humiliate Susan, the upper-middle-class remnant of the sort of people who used to live in the neighborhood before oiks like Laurence and Beverly moved in. Leigh gave no clue why Beverly was so desperate to act like Lady Bountiful in front of Angie and her inarticulate but sexy former-footballer husband. Why was she hee-hawing like a donkey? Alison Steadman brayed to express the pain and rage and shattering disappointment inside the character. Jennifer Jason Leigh brayed because Alison Steadman had brayed. And that’s Scott Elliott’s fault.
When it comes to The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Cynthia Nixon looks right for the part—graceful and glamorous enough to shine like a spot of brilliant color in a gray Northern world. Her passion for the south, for beauty and adventure is alluring. But then she opens her mouth.
The play itself is a bit of a clunker—the flashback structure (essentially the action of the play is the recollection of an aging nun who was once part of the Brodie set) is heavy-handed and clumsy, and it has the most discomfiting nude scene I’ve ever seen. But Miss Jean Brodie, a woman in her prime, an educator, a leader of young women—and a crazy, romantic (in the worst sense), manipulative bitch—is a great character that even the most cack-handed director and the most uncomfortable actress can’t totally fuck up. They came pretty close, though.
Stephen Gabis is credited as the dialect coach (for both shows), and if I were Mr. Gabis, I’d leave the business, because the accents were absolutely, totally, and utterly preposterous. Bourgeois Edinburgh is probably the easiest Scottish accent to assume, and yet the female cast members (the one male actor who had to adopt a brogue did so quite convincingly) were all New Zealand vowels, pinched faces, and strangled sounds. At the intermission, the older couple behind me complained that they couldn’t hear the dialogue. I could barely restrain myself from turning around and yelling, “You lucky bastards!”
So, instead of embodying the characters, the actresses seemed to expend all their efforts on delivering their lines in “the accent.” Consequently, not a single one of them was remotely convincing. Consequently, Miss Brodie was neither charismatic nor demonic; the headmistress of Marcia Blane School for Girls was neither sincere nor scheming, and the girls were likable but very far from the crème de la crème. And, for my money, that’s Scott Elliott’s fault.
Update, Oct. 22: I must quote a lovely line from Maud Newton's take on this Brodie: "Nixon is slight rather than imposing, flirtatious rather than steely, and, were it not for the cast of Brigadoon, she might very well take the award for most ridiculous Scottish accent ever to be affected in the theater district."
Update, Jan. 1, 2007: Thanks to Mark for pointing out an error (now removed) in the original version of this post. Scott Elliott didn't direct Avenue Q, he was a co-producer of the show.
New Podcast—The Second Annual TV Theme Tune Scramble
This time last year, I offered a podcast that was also a contest, The Great 2005 Name That TV Theme Tune Contest. I'm happy to report that five of the 10 shows are still on the air (if you count Rome, which isn't currently on the air but will be returning to HBO).
It's that happy time of year once again, so here's the 2006 version. An added bonus for those YST readers who take the long view: Guess how many of these 12 shows will still be on the air in 2007. Closest wins a prize. (My guess? Seven, though only a couple will be considered hits.)
Now, listen to the podcast and tell me which show goes with which theme tune. So, if you think No. 1 is Ugly Betty, your answer would be 1-a). You can send your answers to yousaytomato[at]gmail.com OR if you're a trusting sort, just put them in the comments below.
2006 Pilot Season: Comedies, Part 2, 'Til Death and Happy Hour
TV networks schedule their hottest shows for Thursday nights because that’s when movie studios want to advertise the weekend’s new movies and when stores want to advertise the weekend’s special offers. In the 8-9 p.m. slot this fall, Fox has lined up two new comedies—‘Til Death, a vehicle for Brad Garrett, late of the most inexplicably popular show in TV history, Everybody Loves Raymond, and Happy Hour. This means that the time slot that once featured the women’s-empowerment classic Living Single is now misogyny central.
Happy Hour won’t last long—it’s the latest in a weird sequence of short-term Fox sitcoms featuring young men new to Chicago, dealing with work and apartment quandaries (I liked last year’s The Loop much better). It begins when Henry, who recently left his sweet job managing John Deere inventory in Missouri to live with his girlfriend in Chicago and work in her family’s business, finds himself dumped and therefore homeless, jobless, and loveless. He goes to another apartment in the building where Larry needs a new roommate to replace Brad, who has just moved in with his fiancee, Tina, who has totally—and absolutely humorlessly—castrated and infantilized her man. Larry takes pity on Henry—and even sends him off to a job interview with his old, old friend Amanda, a likable slut with no control over her mouth (the words that come out of it or the deep-dish pizza that goes into it).
Once again, there were zero jokes in the entire show, and although Amanda is somewhat sympathetic (with the emphasis on pathetic), the basic thrust—make that the overt story line—is that women are out to destroy men: Henry’s ex-girlfriend ruins his life, Tina ruins Brad. The only laugh lines—and you have to use an extraordinarily broad definition to find anything that qualifies—are, when Larry sees Tina in the apartment building, “The lesbian lip-waxing meeting is down the hall” (man, homophobic woman-hating is funny!), and, when Amanda is interviewing the shorts-wearing Henry for a job (his ex won’t let him into the apartment to get his clothes): “I can see your balls. … There’s nothing about them I can’t see.” Start engraving the Emmy!
The title of the show refers to Larry’s daily 4 p.m. martini appointment. Happy hour, he believes, is the time between “something bad (work) and something good (dinner). Enjoy it!” Fox’s conceptual problem with these shows about young men in between something easy (living with your parents) and something hard (paying your own way) is that, in real life, happy hour is only fun about one time in five. Usually, you end up feeling worried about something you said, in trouble about something you did, or in really deep trouble about something you didn’t do because you had a wicked hangover the next day.
Happy Hour’s lead-in is even more cynical and misogynistic, if that’s possible, though we do at least see that the women aren’t the ball-busting, fun-killing dragons men say they are. But, boy, do they say it a lot. Brad Garrett and Joely Fisher are Eddie and Joy Stark—a high-school history teacher and a travel agent married for more than 20 years—Eddie Kaye Thomas and Kat Foster are their next-door neighbors, newlyweds Jeff and Steph. Since Jeff is the new vice principal at Eddie’s school, they carpool together, providing Eddie with much time to lecture Jeff on wives and their soul-crushing ways.
When you see the title ‘Til Death, you can’t help thinking of Til Death Us Do Part, the British show that spawned All in the Family. Yes, Alf Garnett was a wife-berating bigot—but as a million high-school essays have concluded, his intolerance was in the service of counseling tolerance. I couldn’t possibly tell you what ‘Til Death is in the service of—other than paying Brad Garrett’s utilities bill.
Take the time when Jeff believes that he’s going to get a pool table for his new home. No chance, says Eddie, “A pool table is for fun. Men want to have fun. Wives want to walk that fun deep into the woods and shoot it dead. Marriage isn’t about fun. Marriage is more about having someone to drive you to the hospital for your operations.” Or here’s Eddie on what women want: “Even if women don’t actually host dinner parties, they want to believe that they host dinner parties. That’s why you just registered for thousands of dollars’ worth of china. … There’s a reason china rhymes with vagina.” (So why does prick rhyme with dick?)
The vagina monologue is typical of the show’s down-there fixation—Eddie can’t stop pointing out that the kids will have no end of fun with Jeff’s last name—Woodcock—and way too much time is wasted riffing on that, especially when Jeff starts a Web site called mywoodcock.com—oh, hold on, can’t type, stitch! In fact, a lot of the content seems very racy for an 8 p.m. time slot—especially the scene where Jeff, describing how, in a moment of post-coital weakness, Steph agreed to agree to let him get a pool table, does a wife-rogering pelvic-thrust dance around the teachers lounge, while he yells to Eddie, “How about this weekend you can just listen to the sound of me making love to my wife on my brand new pool table.” It’s just gross, and not even vaguely funny. Like the rest of the show.
In TV pilot season, I do something I don’t do during the rest of the year: watch sitcoms. (That’s an exaggeration, but only slightly. I watch How I Met Your Mother, Reno 911!, and Weeds—but it’s debatable if the last two shows really qualify as sitcoms.)
The crop of new comedies I’ve seen so far will certainly not affect my long-term viewing habits—they’re all misogynist, derivative, and utterly unfunny.
The worst of the lot was The Class—whose Platonic ideal is Friends. Instead of six pals (including one set of siblings), we have eight pals (including one set of siblings)—young and single and weird in their own special, theoretically endearing ways.
The premise is that Ethan—played by John Ritter’s son Jason—is engaged to a woman he met in third grade. To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the day they met, he invites their third-grade classmates to a party. Naturally—because in these shows women are always bitches (unless they’re idiots)—she breaks up with him because he’s way too nice to her, all in the hearing of the reunited class. Cut to a very awkward party. (Awkward is the new funny—except when it’s not.)
The problem with the show—like lots of similar shows these days—is that it’s just not funny. OK, I know it’s not stand-up, so we can’t expect jokes, but shouldn’t there be at least one vaguely comedic situation?
Instead, all the laughs were based on pain. Let’s do a roll-call, or perhaps that should be role-call: Lina hangs up on Ethan’s party invitation call so she can return to reacting to finding her boyfriend in bed with another woman. She’s the kind of person who always wears the wrong thing and says the wrong thing. Lina’s twin sister Kat is a selfish, rude, and apparently pathologically incapable of basic empathy. Duncan is a sweet but immature doofus who lives with—and struggles not to be controlled by—his interfering mother. Nicole, Duncan’s high-school sweetheart is married to a former football star who is much older than she is; they don’t have much in common, and he’s sometimes mean to her. Kyle is gay and apparently in a semi-loving if shallow relationship, but his role is totally undeveloped. Holly is a TV newswoman who’s still mad at Kyle for ditching her for a guy on prom night—the hilarious payoff her is that her husband is very effeminate. (Laugh? I thought my pants would never dry.) Finally, there’s Richie, who was about to swallow a bottle of pills when Ethan called; he and Lina discover an intense connection and see the glimmer of a bright future in their dark, depressing lives. Then, in the final scene of the pilot, he drives his car into her and knocks her down. Hey, even if he just winged her, car accidents are wicked funny, eh?
Other than a life-improving re-connection between Duncan and Nicole, it’s hard to see anything other than misery, depression, and darkness in store for any of the other characters. Toward the end of the pilot, Ethan says something along the lines of: “There were 28 in our class. How many are already stuck in lousy jobs and bad marriages? How many of us have already made that one big, dumb choice we’ll never recover from?” Yay, that’s the attitude! I don’t think watching a comedy is supposed to make you feel even more suicidal than the actors.
PS: The actress playing Lina has a very distinctive, oddly pitched, husky voice. I couldn’t place it, but I knew I’d seen her before. Turns out she’s Heather Goldenhersh, who played Sister James in Doubt. I’m guessing she’ll be free for further theatrical engagements very soon.
There’s a line I never tire of trying to pass off as something I just came up with: “The three best words in the English language? All new episode.” And there’s another phrase that’s even more tingle-inducing: “pilot season.” And I’m not talking plane drivers.
At this time of year, I always open up TiVo with antici—pation!
Everything I read about ABC’s new Anne Heche vehicle Men in Trees (crappy title—for one thing it serves up a too-tempting lob for TV Guide’s Matt Roush, who declares the network is “up a tree” and predicts it’ll “get the chop”) made me think that I liked the show better when it was called Northern Exposure. Like that show, which had a surprisingly short life in syndication, it’s a fish-out-of-water tale of a caustic, know-it-all New Yorker who finds herself in the beautiful wilds of Alaska and sets out on a laughter-and-tear-filled journey through the five stages of adjustment. If I had to make a rash prediction after 44 minutes of viewing, I’d say those stages were going to be: arrogance, anger, awe at the rough-hewn beauty of nature, appropriate shoe buying, and acceptance that even guys with bad haircuts can be haut and that, therefore, she can live in a place where you have to stand in the street to get cell-phone reception.
The thing is, since they didn’t even bother to disguise the debt to Northern Exposure, I almost believed it was an hommage rather than a rip-off. Instead of a goofy young man with a movie fetish and a sexy philosophical guy with a radio show, there’s a goofy young man with a radio show and a sexy, resistant-to-the-lead’s-charms fish and wildlife guy. Instead of a March-December couple running the local bar, there’s a chunky guy and his spunky lady running the local bar. Instead of a white female bush pilot there’s a black male bush pilot. Instead of a crusty old lady running the grocery store, there’s an attractive ho with a heart of gold (actually, that character is pretty original—an undeluded woman who’d like to get out of the “hospitality industry” but hasn’t found an alternative way of supporting her family—yet). But this show is fresh, see, because it features a lame crutch that’s only come into fashion in the last couple of years: the knowing, philosophical voice-over. (Actually, there’s also an echo of an even better show—Canada’s North of 60—in the form of the slide-guitar soundtrack and the presence of North of 60 regular Tim Webber. So, the show is filmed in Vancouver, eh?)
Well, there are a couple of original elements: In the pilot episode, Anne Heche was naked once, “dressed” only in a towel once, and down to skivvies what felt like a couple of times. An Alaska-based drama with more skin than an Australian soap! Now that’s an achievement. (Heche’s arms are like matchsticks, by the way, I sure hope she gets some good organic meat on those too-prominent bones in the coming episodes.) Oh, and there’s a recurring raccoon—I haven’t seen an animal character that lame since the talking cat in Sabrina the Teenage Witch.
The writing is pretty good—speaking of the local men, who outnumber women 10-to-1, the female bartender tells Heche, “The odds are good, but the goods are odd”—and the hook-up potential gives it a sexy edge. (Heche is a relationship coach who realizes that she knows nothing about men, but thinks she can figure them out in this testosterone territory.) I wonder, though, if there are enough women characters for the show to succeed on Friday night, where it’s up against Ghost Whisperer and Nanny 911. Men in Trees is better—smarter, funnier, and less treacly—than either of those shows, but that, unfortunately, often counts for little when it comes to the ratings.
Glad to see at least one of the dumb rules in the foreign-language Oscar category has been addressed. The Academy has dropped its requirement that foreign-language nominees must be in an official language of the submitting country—now they can feature any language, as long as it’s not English. Although this story underplays the significance of the change (it affects at least one—often more—nominations each year), the rule change is a step in the right direction. Now if only we could get rid of the one-movie-per-nation rule and take the national academies out of the picture (Pedro Almódovar resigned from the Spanish academy over, among other reasons, its refusal to nominate his movies for the foreign-film award). I wrote about the silly rules in this Oscar category years ago in Slate.
Celebrity Sightings, Shakepeare in the Park Edition
At Sunday night's almost-rained-out-but-saved-by-the-wind performance of Maccers, Famke Janssen, who gets extra points for lending the hippy couple in the row ahead her Lulu Guinness umbrella (she and her companion wore Public Theater rain ponchos), and Mr. Big/Logan himself, Chris Noth. (They were not together, I hasten to add.)