Category Archives: Television

Binge watching “Mozart in the Jungle”

Mozart in the Jungle
If Mozart in The Jungle wins any more awards someone will have to see it. Tweet at? from? The Golden Globes by Albert Brooks.

Over New Years, before THe Golden Globes, Richard Taylor and Tracy Grubbs, jointly,  recommended the Netflix Amazon series,  Mozart in the Jungle, so we put it on our list of TV to try. Then it won A Golden Globe for Best Musical and Gael Garcia Bernal won for best actor in a musical and we moved Mozart in the Jungle to the top of the list. Then we watched it, both seasons over about five days.

That is not as impressive as it sounds because each show is only a half hour (and probably less so it can fit on pay TV, later I guess). Mozart in the Jungle is based on the book Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music by Blair Tindall and it is chock full of sex, drugs, and classical music. First, the music is great. That may be biased because I love everything about Classical Music except the name, but this is a TV show about a young oboist sort of in an orchestra in New York City and the soundtrack is full of greats. Not just Mozart, but Bizet, Rossini, Rimsky-Korsakov, Mahler, Berlioz, Mendelssohn, everybody you could possibly want.

Gael Garcia Bernal is delightful as a young, brilliant but impulsive, orchestra conductor and the female lead, the oboist, played by Lola Kirke, is enchanting. The program is charming in a magical realist sort of way. It would be perfect for a snowy or rainy night.

Goodby Jon Stewart, sob sob

Jon Stewart B (1 of 1)Yesterday, I almost went the whole day without thinking about Jon Stewart’s last couple of weeks. I will miss our – almost – daily ritual of watching The Daily Show (usually, except for last week, one day later). More than just funny and topical, Jon Stewart – the Jon Stewart in my imagination, at least – is easy to like, and even easier to admire.

What I most admire about him, even more than his humor and attention to his craft, is Stewart’s generosity. His generosity with the limelight, his generosity in helping people grow-up and move on, his generosity in having obscure – or almost obscure – guests that don’t thrill the crowd but need the exposure.

The person that first came to mind was Doris Kearns Goodwin who, I read, has been on the Daily Show show eight times – no wonder they hugged when she showed up – and who was saluted with an appearance on one of Stewart’s last shows.  But he also had people like Cass Sunstein – billed as an American legal scholar, particularly in the fields of constitutional law – and Elizabeth Kolbert who I never would have heard of if he hadn’t been on Stewart’s show. He had Malala Yousafzai on, twice!

A person who I have heard of and have been reading for a long time is Ta-Nehisi Coates and I was thrilled when I realized he would be honored by being one of Jon Stewart’s final guests. As an aside, a couple of months ago, a friend asked on facebook, This is powerful! My question for Blacks is, How do I show support/compassion/connectedness for/with you without you thinking I am being condescending, ignorant, or offensive? (I’ve edited that sentence twice. Did I do ok? Did I use the “right” words?) and that question has troubled me, off and on, ever since. For anybody asking that same question – or one of its cousins – one place to start, I would suggest, is to watch Jon Stewart’s interview with Coates and another is read Coates’ columns in the Atlantic and best of all, read his latest book, Between the World and Me. End aside.

On sort of the same subject, another one of the things that I admire about Jon Stewart is, a couple days after somebody at SNL said We don’t have any black women on because there are no funny black women – I’m paraphrasing here – Stewart had Jessica Williams on for the first time. I read somewhere that Williams had been working the comedy club circuit in Los Angeles doing OK but not great when Stewart asked her to come to New York where she became the youngest Daily Show correspondent and the Alpha correspondent shortly thereafter.
The last three guests on the Daily Show were all comedians, Amy Schumer, Denis Leary, and Louis CK. I was left with the impression that Denis Leary is a friend of Jon’s and that Amy and Louis were comics that he wanted to honor. i

Now all that is gone and I will miss it.

Baseball, Family, F1, and Lewis Hamilton

Lewis Hamilton

Watching the Giants beating the Kansas City Royals Sunday evening – listening to the Giants beating the Kansas City Royals on TV while doing stuff in the other room would be more accurate – I was struck by the differences in the sports coverage in F1 and Baseball, especially in coverage of the driver’s/player’s family and girlfriends. I know that alot of players wives and girlfriends – here in after referred to as WAGS – travel with the team in baseball, because I have sat near them at games. But the WAGs are almost never shown on television and I don’t think that I have ever seen coverage of, say, a first baseman’s parents during a game.

In F1, the WAGs and parents – and in Hamilton’s case, even his brother – are often shown (one father, driver Jenson Button’s, always wore a trademark pink shirt that was frequently remarked upon; after his father passed away, Jenson even changed his helmet color to pink in honor of his father). One of the reasons is the size, in Formula 1, there are only twenty-two drivers – eleven teams of two drivers each – so the drivers, especially the drivers on the most competitive teams, are covered in more detail than baseball. It is not unusual to see a driver hugging his WAG or family after a race, often when they still have their helmet on. I am not saying that one is better than the other, but the difference is striking.

This may be just be an excuse to post something on Lewis Hamilton who has won four races straight as of last weekend, but I will try to make it as un-Formula One-ish as possible.  In Singapore, Hamilton’s car worked flawlessly while his teammate, Nico Rosberg, had a problem with his steering wheel wiring harness that knocked him out of the race.1 Since then, he has won two more races and is now leading in the Championship by 17 points. With three races still to go out of a total of nineteen, this has been an extraordinary season with more racing than any season I can remember. The primary  characteristic of the season has been the unreliability of  the fastest cars which has often forced drivers into high-risk racing. Both Daniel Ricciardo and Lewis Hamilton  have come from being impossibly far behind to win races. Hamilton, in particular, has driven more than several unforgettable races. After wandering through the wilderness, he is at the top of his career. As the season has gone on, I have become increasingly invested in Hamilton winning and, I think, it is for several reasons that are only slightly related.

Auto racing is expensive on almost every level and that is a major selection factor towards drivers with rich parents. Hamilton is an exception. He came from a family that was far from wealthy and, as racing became a bigger part of his life, it put big strains on the Hamilton family. Hamilton’s parents divorced and his mother didn’t or wouldn’t go to his races. When Hamilton first started racing, his dad was his racing engineer and manager.

lewis2_1017899iOf course, as Hamilton started racing at higher levels he used professional racing engineers, but even when Hamilton started driving in Formula One at McLaren, his dad stayed on as his manager, Lewis Hamilton 2008 A couple of years ago, maybe four, Hamilton fired his dad and hired an outside agency. It tore the family apart and his dad eventually sued for back pay.

Shortly thereafter, Hamilton left McLaren, the racing team that had given him his first Formula One job and a Championship. He moved to Mercedes Benz. Now Hamilton is leading the Driver’s World Championship and I think a good part of that is because he has become his own person. As painful as it was, Hamilton had to leave home to grow up.As an adult, he has reconciled with his family, not only his dad but also his mom. Hamilton put it best and I’ll end with a quote from him:

I just feel relaxed, all my family are a real positive beam of light for me at the weekend. 

I spoke years ago, when my Dad was my manager, and said I couldn’t wait for the day when he was here just as my Dad. And that’s what you’re seeing. And that’s one of the greatest feelings, having him here. Since the first day I ever got in a kart – I remember the day of my first race – I created a handshake with him. I was eight years old and he was there. That’s one of the most special things. He said today it felt like I was eight years old again attending kart race, when he was watching me.

I don’t know what Dad thought when we started. I was good but I don’t know if he thought that in 20 years time we’d be winning the Singapore GP. I try to imagine his mentality, getting four jobs to get the money to get a crap kart together, to respray it or try to bend it back to shape because it was the oldest kart in world, trying to get some fuel because we had spent all the money on tyres. Going through all that to now be at the pinnacle of the sport, I’m hugely proud of my family, so it’s really cool for dad to be here. I’ve gotta stop there – I’m getting emotional!


1. As an aside, Formula One car steering wheels are complex and everything is controlled from by them,  as the accompanying picture shows. When the wheel has a problem, it is a major problem.

F1 Steering wheel

1 BOOST: F1 cars have an electric-hybrid system known as KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery System) that regenerates braking energy, then boosts acceleration—at the push of a button—via an 80-hp electric motor. Another feature that increases speed is the movable rear wing that flattens to reduce drag. The wing is controlled by a foot pedal. 2 LAP TIME  3 HARVEST : Regulates the amount of energy “harvested” during braking. The regen system can alter the feel of the brakes, and because these guys drive with exacting precision, they’re picky about tactile feedback. This knob lets them customize.  4 DOWNSHIFT PADDLE   5 MIX: Adjusts the engine’s air—fuel mixture to balance power and fuel economy. F1 cars don’t refuel during a race, but economy is still vital—fuel adds weight.  6 BITE POINT: The race start is critical because the cars begin from a stop and the initial sprint is a prime overtaking opportunity. The bite point adjusts how the clutch engages as the drivers release the paddle, so they can execute a perfect launch. 7 BPF During practice starts, the driver uses the “bite point find” to record the clutch behavior. Engineers use the data to instruct the driver where to set the bite point dial. 8 CLUTCH PADDLE. 9 BBAL Displays the front—rear brake balance, a critical adjustment that drivers make to fine-tune the braking performance. Most passes are done in the braking zones. 10 REVERSE GEAR. 11 SHIFT LIGHTS. 12 LIMITER Restricts the car’s speed to the pit-lane limit, 62 mph. 13 ENGINE PARAMETERS. 14 UPSHIFT PADDLE. 15 TORQUE The 2.4-liter V8 revs to 18,000 rpm and delivers north of 700 hp. That’s a handful in a 1400-pound car, so the drivers use this knob to adjust the engine’s torque curve, depending on track conditions. 16 TYRE Teams use roughly half a dozen different tires that vary in construction and diameter. This dial tells the computer which tires are fitted so it can calculate wheel speed. 17 CLUTCH PADDLE. 8 DIFFERENTIAL Thanks to electronic controls, the characteristics of the rear differential can be tailored for corner entry, midpoint and exit—each with 12 settings. Frankly, we’re amazed that the drivers can detect such minute rear-end differences during cornering events that last for maybe a few seconds. But that’s why they’re paid millions.

Breaking Bad and living in the moment

Breaking Bad-4878

Michele and I are binge watching – more or less – Breaking Bad. There are 62 episodes, so, at two or three episodes three or four times a week, it takes a while. After watching about thirty hours over three or four weeks, I am in sort of a fugue state in that I also notice that I am – sometimes – projecting  Breaking Bad on my everyday world much like I did when I binge read The Trilogy of the Rings (three times, over five years).  I am starting to dream about the characters, especially Jesse, and think about them at random times.

I want to write about how good Breaking Bad  is, but I think, Michele and I are the last ones to see it so everybody already knows how good it is. Still, it is good in ways I hadn’t expected. Every show starts with a bit before the credits – and having some of the letters in the credits framed like elements on a periodic chart is a nice touch – and that opening bit is almost always a surprise. Sometimes the opening bit is surreal, sometimes it is part of the plot, in order, and sometimes it is part of the plot but an out of order flashback or out of order jump forward.

With a name like Breaking Bad, I should have expected a morality play, still I am surprised at how much of a morality play it is. Actions have consequences and, like a Shakespearean tragedy, so does Walter White’s character.  Emily Nussbaum over at the New yorker sums it up best when she says Walt is a monster…everyone from Jesse to Skyler to Mike articulate the problems with Walt’s arrogance and his stunning dishonesty, self-pity, and control-freak arrogance and, yet, he is right, he truly is the smartest guy in the room. When he does something particularly brilliant it is hard not to marvel at how smart Walt is and cringe at the same time.

The show is violent and dark, but it is never perverse. We are – or were – watching the Bridge but the violence, to me, is off putting. Not off putting because it is violent, but off putting because the violence is so perverse. Breaking Bad is not that way, the violence has consequences, it is not gratuitous.

Maybe it is just because we are bingeing, but Breaking Bad seems more thought out, as a complete story, than any other TV program I can think of. Often a show will start great and end great but the middle just seems like filler. It is as if the authors had a story arc but, when the show got renewed and required additional chapters, they added additional chapters in the middle that don’t add to that overall arc. For example, the Russian mafia guy in the forest in The Sopranos was intense and dazzling but never moved the overall story. If that happens in Breaking Bad, I haven’t seen it yet.

Lastly, I didn’t expect the show to be an ensemble piece. I thought Breaking Bad would be about Walt but it is deeper and richer than that. In many ways, TV is more creative than movies  right now and I guess that makes sense when you consider that the story in is about 45 hours long. It means that nothing has to be left out.

If by any chance you haven’t seen it, check it out.

True Detective and The Good Wife

Sugar Cane Refinery

Sugar Cane Refinery by Richard Misrach

 Last Sunday was the finale of True Detective and the first Good Wife in several weeks. Good Wife showing times being so erratic, made watching True Detective on HBO much easier. Not that it wasn’t easy to start with, True Detective was on HBO – the adult channel – and that screams Serious television. It turned out, though, that the easy decision was the wrong decision. The last episode of True Detective has left me dissatisfied. The total was less than the sum of True Detective’s parts. I should probably say Spoiler Alert here although I don’t particularly want to talk about any plot points.

True Detective has lots to like: the photography was great, giving me a genuine sense of place; the music was superb and haunting; and the acting, by two actors I like alot, was outstanding. However, it was all to almost no avail. Michele said that True Detective was a story about telling stories, but the stories were like somebody who keeps telling us that this story is going to be great and then it turns out to be about a crushed ping pong ball à la Auntie Mame. I loved the way the scenes took place at three different, distinct times, mid nineties, early oughts, and now, but – in the end – the different times did not really add anything. In Pulp Fiction, Tarantino’s mixing up of the times was a big factor. If the time were linear, one of the last scenes, would be when Vincent Vega got killed by Butch Coolidge. But True Detective seems to be, in the end, a buddy movie, and if the scenes were presented in a chronological order, I don’t think much would have changed.

I am not a big fan of conspiracy movies – you know, the kind where the little paperboy is killed because he saw the President kill his mistress – but I found myself hoping for it in True Detective. Nevertheless, in the end, True Detective was just about some crazy loon. Not that that couldn’t have made a good story, but everything about True Detective hinted at something bigger.

On the other hand, The Good Wife, is almost always about something bigger idea. As an aside, the producer of The Good Wife, is Ridley Scott who is one of Hollywood’d most ardent feminists – think Thelma and Louise, Ripley in Alien, or Elizabeth Shaw in Prometheus – and the main character, Alicia Florrick, is the wife of the guy who is cheating (unlike True Detective in which the cheated-upon wife, played by the underused Michelle Monaghan, is just a plot device).  End aside. In Perry Mason style, every week is centered around a different court case and the cases are usually fascinating in their own right.

Often the case will turn on some cutting-edge legal or technological question. Last week, it was illegal wiretaps which turned out to be collateral damage from NSA wiretaps. There have been cases on  online currency  and the Treasury Department, a software manufacturer accused of helping the Syrian government spy on protesters, a test case to overturning the Defense of Marriage Act, and an athletic doping case. All this against the backdrop of Alicia’s relationship with her husband and with her two kids and their relationship with their father. It is all fascinating stuff.

The next day, The Good Wife is still fascinating and True Detective has disappeared, like a phantasma.