The Curse of Happiness

Here’s the irony about David Chase, the television producer who created the landmark series, The Sopranos. Much like the characters he created in the HBO mob drama, the man is a pillar of misery. He has everything in his life that should make him happy, but like a flock of ducks, happiness seems to elude him.

I’ve never heard Chase state this explicitly in any interview, but I think he always wanted to be a film maker. But somehow, he ended up as a television producer. He found himself chafing against the constraints of network sensibilities from the 1970’s when he served as a writer on The Rockford Files, to the 1990’s when he worked on Northern Exposure.

At long last, HBO and Chase came together in a match made in heaven. The lack of broadcast network control allowed Chase to write and produce The Sopranos with no creative inhibitions. In an interview with Peter Bogdanovich, he stated that he thought the pilot would fail and he would turn it into an independent film. No such luck. Instead, The Sopranos was a groundbreaking, runaway smash that became the gold standard for everything that came after it on television.

After The Sopranos concluded, Chase made one film called, Not Fade Away. If you’ve never heard about it, there’s a reason. It was entirely forgettable.

Chase was plagued by fans and media figures who all wanted to know if he would ever make a sequel to The Sopranos. It is doubtful that he ever would have done so, even if James Gandolfini had lived. Chase is no more likely to spell out the meaning of the black screen of doom than George Martin is to finish his epic fantasy series. But I think he still wanted to make a film that would be taken seriously by both fans and critics. At 75 years and counting, what better way to go out on his own terms than to make a prequel to his greatest achievement? Yet, in a usual Chase twist, said prequel would hype the origin story of Tony Soprano, but would fake out hopefuls who would crowd into movie theaters everywhere. It would really be the origin story of Tony’s doomed protégé, Christopher Moltisanti by way of his father, Dicky (Alessandro Nivola), with Tony’s role relegated to the background.

So we get The Many Saints of Newark, a period piece set in the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s that tells the story of tensions between the mafia in its glory days and African-American gangsters who were trying to break into the game amidst the Newark riots of 1968.

I won’t try to render a synopsis of the movie. It’s pretty convoluted. The high-lights include James Gandolfini’s real life son Michael playing teenage Tony. And here’s a nitpick from a blind fan. Many critics drool over how much Michael looks like his daddy, but he sure as shit doesn’t sound like him. The adolescent future mafia kingpin we are treated to sounds more like A. J., Tony’s wussbag son from the series.) I seriously doubt this was intentional.

Another irony. There’s a reason why television has come so far since the days of NYPD Blue and Seinfeld. It is the best visual medium for storytelling. If Chase had not caught lightning in a bottle with HBO and turned The Sopranos into a movie, he either would have been accused of doing Goodfellas light, or Analyze This heavy. But the idea of a mafia boss going to a psychiatrist to talk about his inner turmoil allowed the writers to meticulously build this universe of flawed characters. It was a formula, but a winning one that kept audiences coming back week after week, season after season. It was also a formula that could not be duplicated 14 years after the series finale. The complexity of the characters, the quiet moments that illustrated their three dimensional aspects, high-lighted by the occasional brutality of their lifestyle, could not be manufactured in a two-hour movie.

There were other things that worked against Chase. This movie was originally set to premier in September of 2020, but the production schedule was delayed due to an illness in Chase’s family. He wanted to direct it, but said illness forced him to turn the reins over to Alan Taylor. Then, there was the pandemic which hit the movie industry hard, shuttering movie theaters across the country and placing an emphasis on streaming services. Once again, this phenomenon worked for and against Chase. Many people found time to get introduced or reacquainted with The Sopranos as they sat stranded on their couches during lockdown like Uncle Junior. This should have stoked the fires of interest of Many Saints, but reports indicate that Chase was angered when he learned that HBO was going to drop the movie on their streaming platform on the same day when it was released to theaters. He clearly wanted this project to be treated solely as a feature film, but many fans regarded it as little more than a TV movie.

Sidebar: I have a buddy here in Omaha who is a movie buff and I invited him to go watch Many Saints with me in the theater when it premiered last Friday. He said, “It’s not really a big screen event. Let’s do pizza at my place and we can watch it there.” No such luck. His internet was down, so we had to settle for Independence Day and Husker volleyball.

After watching the movie alone in my living room with my cat, I have concluded that I am thoroughly against prequels. Whether it’s Breaking Bad, Star Wars or The Sopranos, writers can’t help but play connect-the-dots. Instead of scenes occurring organically, many of them have an obligatory feel, as if they have been created for fan service, rather than to serve a unique story. Many Saints is no different, with the rise and fall of Dickie Moltisanti, to a cameo by Tony’s future wife Carmela, to an ominous voice-over track from Michael Imperioli that falls like an Annville again and again. It does indeed feel as if Chase is ripping off Martin Scorsese, from the omnipresent source music in every scene to Ray Liotta playing the unlikely dual role of Christopher’s grandpa and grand uncle. It seems a shame that Chase can’t enjoy being shaped by his experiences as a television producer, but would rather exude Scorsese envy as he tries to break out on the big screen.

At the end of it all, the movie was just mediocre. I feel about it the same way I did about the Breaking Bad and Deadwood movies and how I’ll probably feel about the return of Dexter next month. It may have filled some bank accounts, but it was all rather superfluous. It probably would have come off better as a limited series, but that’s clearly not what Chase wanted. And in the typical style of Chase, nobody really got what they wanted. There’s talk of Terence Winter of Boardwalk Empire fame possibly producing a sequel, but I won’t hold my breath.

As for David Chase, I’m reminded of a line from The Crown, rendered by Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth. “That’s the thing about unhappiness. All it takes is for something worse to come along and you realize that it was actually happiness after all.”

Perhaps David Chase can have that one etched on his lonely tombstone in his lonely graveyard when his time comes at last.

“It’s What You Deserve!”

Most TV critics such as David Bianculli seem to agree that, if the Golden Age of Television occurred in the 1950’s in the age of I Love Lucy, than the Platinum Age of Television took place between 1999 and 2010, heralded by the rise of premium cable networks such as HBO. The Platinum Age was kicked off by The Sopranos and came to its natural conclusion with Game of Thrones.

One of the last great series of the Platinum Age was Boardwalk Empire. Most people don’t immediately mention it when they speak of the pantheon of great shows, but I recently rewatched the entire series and am reminded that Boardwalk Empire is a solid, consistently compelling piece of entertainment from start to finish.

The program was created by Sopranos alum Terence Winter and the pilot was directed by the legendary Martin Scorsese, so it is no surprise that it is a gangster epic. Based on a novel by Nelson Johnson, the premise concerns the passing of Prohibition in 1920 and the subsequent rise of bootlegging gangsters across the country. The protagonist is Enoch ‘Nucky’ Thompson (Steve Buscemi), the fictional crime boss of Atlantic City who is loosely based on the real life politician, Enoch Johnson. In the pilot, Thompson’s youthful protégé Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), meets up with a young, inexperienced Al Capone (Stephen Graham) and the two commit a bold but ill-considered robbery of a shipment of whiskey. Naturally, because it’s a gangster story, the robbery goes wrong and a blood bath ensues.

Meanwhile, Nucky Thompson meets Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald), a young Irish immigrant who is a supporter of the temperance movement because of her drunken, abusive husband. Thompson takes pity on her, so naturally, murder ensues. And, of course, we have the dogged law enforcement agent in the character of Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon), who is dead sure that Thompson is a criminal mastermind, but who can’t convince his superiors of this obvious fact.

So begins the saga of Boardwalk Empire as we venture forth through this historical period and meet real life criminals such as Arnold Rothstein, Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky. We also meet real law enforcement figures such as J. Edgar Hoover and Elliott Ness. We even get to meet political figures such as Warren Harding and Joe Kennedy. In true Wouk style, fictional characters mingle with historical figures and small, insignificant events mushroom and have a major impact on history.

Sidebar: Dana, since you’re about the only person who reads this blog, you might not be aware that Arnold Rothstein is best known as the gangster who fixed the World Series in 1919.

On the surface, Boardwalk Empire is a crime drama, but as is often the case with premium shows in the Platinum Age, there is far more beneath its seething façade than guns, booze and blood. Since it is a period piece, we get to see the state of race relations in the country, particularly through the eyes of Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Williams), a local African-American criminal boss who is in league with Thompson. We see shades of the suffragette movement as Margaret fights for women’s right to vote. We see the lives of veterans of World War I as Jimmy returns home and meets his friend Richard Harrow (Jack Huston), a lethal sniper whose face was disfigured in combat. We even get a glimpse into the life of a closeted lesbian artist in the personage of Jimmy’s wife Angela (Aleksa Palladino.)

There are simply too many characters and stories to give their proper due in this entry. Special shout-outs go to Shea Whigham as Nucky’s brother Eli, Anthony Laciura as Nucky’s put-upon German butler Eddie Kessler, Charlie Cox as Irish hitman Owen Sleater, and Dabney Coleman as The Commodore, Nucky’s former mentor and the original architect of the modern Atlantic City. The Commodore’s lust for power is surpassed only by his lust for under-aged girls.

Boardwalk Empire is a masterpiece of storytelling with its intricate plotting, which sometimes weaves three or four stories together in various locations from New Jersey to New York City to Chicago. But at its heart, it is a crime epic, complete with the usual gangster tropes. Throughout the series, Nucky finds himself in various wars over booze and territory with Rothstein and Luciano, psychotic Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Cannavale), and Dr. Valentin Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright), an African-American drug lord who challenges Chalky, and even Jimmy Darmody himself. Since Buscemi is the unquestionable star of the show, you don’t often wonder how he’ll come out, but the enjoyment of the story is seeing how it plays out and which beloved supporting character will be the next to die.

Boardwalk is not perfect. No show can make that claim. Some characters exit the show before their time. The most obvious example of this is Jimmy, who exits the show after the second season. Alas, reliable internet gossip suggests that Michael Pitt was a talented but troubled actor and had to be let go for the good of the show. Other characters such as Agent Van Alden seem to outlast their usefulness. I found Van Alden’s arc to be fascinating when he was a pious prohibition agent who chased after Nucky, but less interesting after he fell from grace and ended up in Chicago in the employ of Al Capone.

Some critics seem to think that Steve Buscemi was miscast as an alpha male type gangster who controls an entire city. I don’t entirely disagree. I can buy Buscemi as the wheeling and dealing politician who is the master of the back room deal, but he doesn’t exude the menace necessary to prevail in physical conflicts with gunmen of New York and Chicago. Still, even if you aren’t entirely persuaded by Buscemi in the role, he is not a bad actor and the writing carries him through.

This is a minor nitpick, but the theme music is completely incompatible with the time period and feel of the series. “Straight Up and Down,” by the Brian Jonestown Massacre, is raw Scorsese with its heavy rock guitar feel and would have been far better suited to a ‘60’s or ‘70’s setting, rather than the Roaring ‘20’s.

The fifth and final season jumps ahead eight years and takes place in 1931, around the time that Prohibition was repealed in America. The truncated season has a Godfather II feel to it as we juxtapose a current day assassination conspiracy plot against Nucky in Cuba with flashbacks to Nucky’s childhood as he rises from poverty to power and makes one moral compromise after another along the way in service to The Commodore.

I mentioned that The Sopranos and Game of Thrones bookended the Platinum Age of Television. Whenever you hear those two landmark series referenced by fans, most will inevitably say something to the affect that, “The series is great, but the ending sucked.” This is not the case with Boardwalk Empire. Fans may or may not be able to predict the ending, but no one denies that it was fitting to the series that came before. The only two shows I have seen that stick the landing as well as Boardwalk Empire are Breaking Bad and The Shield.

It is impossible to reference the series finale without taking a moment to tip my hat to Gretchen Mol, who played the part of Gillian Darmody. Gillian is Jimmy’s mother and as the series progresses, it becomes clear that their relationship is far more dysfunctional and toxic than that of Tony and Livia Soprano. There are times throughout the story when I actively despised Gillian, but as we learn more about her past, I gained more sympathy for her. I cannot think of her ultimate fate now without being haunted by it. The arc of Gillian Darmody suggests writing that is expert at crafting the gray areas that typify the anti-heroes and anti-heroines of the Platinum Age of Television.

In a fortuitous turn of fate, I was putting the finishing touches on this entry when a news alert flashed across my phone. Michael K. Williams, who played Chalky White to perfection in this series, as well as Omar on another HBO crime epic, The Wire, was found dead. He was 54 years old. Mr. Williams was a master craftsman, every bit as talented as his Emmy magnet contemporaries like Gandolfini, Cranston and Dinklage. God bless MKW and all of his excellent work.

As for Boardwalk Empire, it stands up very well after seven years off the air. I suspect that history will treat it far more justly than it has treated its source material, The Volstead Act.

By Your Command

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, a TV producer named Glen A. Larson decided to rip off George Lucas in an attempt to bring the hype of Star Wars to the small screen.

One year after Star Wars blasted into theaters across America, a science fiction popcorn extravaganza called Battlestar Galactica burst into living rooms everywhere.

The premise concerned the 12 colonies of humanity who were annihilated by the robotic Cylons in a sneak attack. Only a rag tag fleet of spaceships survived, headed by the Battlestar Galactica, commanded by Lorne Green as Captain William Adama. The series was a continuous chase between the surviving humans and the murderous Cylons, who sounded a lot like my first talking Apple 2-E computer in elementary school, as the humans desperately tried to seek out the 13th colony, known as Earth.

This translucent plagiarism did not go unnoticed by 20th Century Fox, who sued Universal Studios for copyright infringement. The results were an out-of-court settlement, while history has rendered its public judgment. Battlestar Galactica lasted for only one season spanning 24 TV episodes, ending in April of 1979. Every kid that I grew up with had Darth Vader or Han Solo on his lunch box. No one knew who Starbuck was.

21 years later, a writer/producer named Ronald D. Moore angrily parted ways with the producers of Star Trek: Voyager. On his way out the door, he penned a pithy manifesto explaining that Star Trek was becoming juvenile, irrelevant and outdated.

After working for four years on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Moore had enjoyed a good deal of creative freedom on the franchise’s sequel series, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Moore got to explore themes as wide-ranging as war, religion, overt politics and paranoia; themes that were frowned upon by Gene Roddenberry in previous Trek incarnations. Moore found Voyager to be a tired rehash of TNG (which it was) and was ready for new challenges.

Moore might have gone down in TV obscurity with Carnivale being his greatest achievement, but then, the god of fate smiled upon Mr. Moore in particular, and Hollywood in general. The kiss of fortune came on September 11, 2001, when 19 Muslim extremists hijacked four American planes and turned them into missiles aimed at various targets on the East Coast. The dye was cast for America to enter into a long period that would come to be known as the war on terror.

This war saturated the socio-political landscape of America and more concretely, was waged with boots on the ground in Afghanistan and later, in Iraq.

Like popcorn pop culture, history has rendered its judgments on the war on terror, but in the meantime, a glut of new creative TV sprung forth from the creative loins of Hollywood from such producers as Joel Surnow, David Simon and, of course, Ronald D. Moore. All of these producers used the war on terror as a springboard for creative ideas ranging from an invincible counter terrorist agent, to analogous metaphors to the war on drugs, to the total annihilation of the human race in another galaxy far, far away.

Moore watched an unaired pilot of a resurrected Battlestar Galactica produced by Richard Hatch of the original BSG cast in the late ‘90’s. That flight into creative fancy became the basis for the new reimagined Battlestar Galactica in 2003. At first, BSG aired as a two-part miniseries on the Sci Fi Channel. The ratings were dismal and the show might have died without resurrection once again, but for the intervention of the BBC, who agreed to help finance the regular series if they could have the privilege of airing each new episode before it aired on Sci Fi. Everyone agreed and the show burst forth, much to the delight of critics and a growing fan base across two continents.

The basic premise of BSG 2003 was the same as its 1978 predecessor. The Cylons, a race of artificially intelligent but sentient life forms, obliterated the 12 colonies in a sneak nuclear attack. The remnants of the fleet fled, staying just one step ahead of the Cylons at every jump.

Several of the characters remained. Commander Bill Adama was played by Edward James Olmos, an actor who seems to only speak in a low, growly half whisper, yet who could project the necessary weighty moral authority to guide the fleet through one tragedy after another. English actor Jamie Bamber played his son, Lee ‘Apollo’ Adama. When it came to Starbuck, the powers that be did a very (ahem ahem) enlightened thing and swapped the gender. Starbuck became Kara ‘Starbuck’ Thrace (Katee Sackhoff), much to the consternation of Dirk Benedict. James Callis played Dr. Gaius Baltar, the narcissistic scientist who betrayed humanity by unwittingly allowing the Cylons access to the defense systems on Caprica by way of his penis. Boomer, an African-American male Viper pilot from the original, became Sharon ‘Boomer’ Valerii (Grace Park), a female pilot who turns out to be a sleeper Cylon agent.

Moore stirred in some original ingredients to his interstellar brew. Included were Mary McDonnell as Laura Roslin. She begins the series as the cancer-stricken Secretary of Education, but is quickly promoted to President of the civilian fleet when she is the sole survivor in the political line of succession after the Cylon attack. Some of the best drama from the early seasons occurs as Roslin and Adama wrestle each other over moral, tactical and political decisions that affect the very survival of humanity. Tricia Helfer plays a Cylon agent known only as Six, and who appears only in the mind of Dr. Baltar; at least, early on in the series, until we learn that there are numerous copies of Six running around space in various get-ups.

And there is one of the great twists of the reboot. The Cylons are no longer cheesy ‘70’s era robots. They are now evolved into fully flesh and blood antagonists who can easily blend into the fleet and work to undermine the efforts of humanity to save itself by acting as spies, saboteurs and propagandists. Once the humans discover this, paranoia runs rampant throughout the fleet as the major question becomes, who is really human and who is really a Cylon? The stakes are further raised when we learn that Cylons cannot die, but merely download into another copy and return if they are killed.

The first two seasons of this epic series range from good to brilliant television. Moore did in deed surpass Star Trek (and even Star Wars) in his wish to tell a thoughtful, compelling story of human survival and desperation in the wake of a genocidal apocalypse. The tone and tenor of the series is best summed up by the premier episode, “33,” in which the fleet is attacked by the Cylons every 33 minutes, thereby depriving them of sleep. The episode climaxes with Starbuck and Apollo being forced to fire on one of their own vessels in fear of its being infiltrated by the enemy.

Other plots involve a continuous tug-of-war between Adama and Roslin over religion, Boomer’s inner conflict as she realizes that she is a Cylon, Baltar’s continual cerebral encounters with Six and the discovery of another military ship (The Pegasus) commanded by Michelle Forbes, which ultimately causes more problems than it solves.

If only Moore and company had not yielded to the lesser angels of their political souls, Battlestar Galactica might have gone down as one of the best science fiction TV epics of all time. Alas, cracks begin to appear in the show’s third season. The humans have settled on a planet they name New Caprica and are trying to rebuild their civilization when the Cylons show up and establish an occupation force. President Baltar immediately surrenders and is taken prisoner, the remaining space fleet jumps away in order to fight another day, and the planet bound military under the command of Colonel Tigh (Michael Hogan) forms a resistance to fight the invaders. Said resisters come complete with suicide bomb vests, which was a deliberate and sympathetic comment on the plight of insurgents battling U.S. forces in Iraq, circa 2006.

You can be skeptical of the wisdom of the Cylon occupation plot and still enjoy it as I did. The arc climaxes with an epic battle as Adama and Apollo return to save the survivors on New Caprica. More powerful than the battle was Colonel Tigh’s murder of his wife, whom he learns has been colluding with the Cylons.

Much of the remainder of the third season concerns the aftermath of New Caprica as the fleet continues to search for Earth. Baltar is held captive by the Cylons and he learns more about their culture. Starbuck and Tigh deal with PTSD. Apollo, Adama and Roslin all question their choices. A bunch of the crew hold boxing matches to work out their feelings. All of the main characters get married while being in love with someone else. Baltar is returned to the humans and is put on trial for the betrayal of his own people.

And this, my friends, is where the show officially descends into Stupidville. Apollo acts as Baltar’s lawyer and manages to get his client acquitted. This is due to an Aaron Sorkinesque speech in which he basically says, “Sure, President Baltar did some questionable things, but we all do questionable things in the fog of war.” Apollo’s assertion that there are always moral equivalents in war was a nonsensical means of letting Baltar (and by extension, the Cylons) off the hook. The anger and desperation that fueled the early episodes slowly gives way to a facile sense of proportionality that humans and Cylons are equally guilty, even though the Cylons committed genocide, which is acknowledged in our own civilization as a war crime. Rationalizations such as these are often made in comfortable circumstances around a conference table in Hollywood, far from the battlefield of reality.

About the same time as Baltar is getting off, several crew members begin humming notes to All Along the Watch Tower. They meet up in a cargo bay, set up a chorus of a humming choir and figure out that they are all sleeper Cylon agents. One of them is Colonel Tigh. Even though the groundwork was laid for this, the twist still falls flat.

Meanwhile, Starbuck, who died in a cosmic maelstrom three episodes before, suddenly reappears with no explanation and claims that she knows the way to Earth. If you were like me, you finished up the third season finale and muttered, “What the frack?” aloud.

The fourth season is a slog to finish. Starbuck keeps screaming, “WE’RE GOING THE WRONG WAY!” which may as well be a metaphor for life in the writers’ room. Baltar becomes a David Koresh-style figure as he becomes the leader of a cult. The Cylons fall into civil war as they begin to question their campaign against humanity. Roslin keeps having weird visions that don’t ultimately amount to anything. Adama softens from a stalwart military figure into a flaccid consort who reverses and re-reverses himself whenever a character cries loudly enough. More characters keep prattling on about God, destiny, fate, etc.

By the time the humans make it to ancient Earth and we learn that we got our Greek mythology from the 12 colonies, I was too weary to care. All I can tell you is that Roslin succumbed to her cancer, Adama built a cabin somewhere in the wilderness and Starbuck disappeared without explanation.

Ahh, Gods. I don’t even have the energy to write about the two TV movies, Razor, and, The Plan.

Why did such a promising series go off the rails? The answer lies in TV critic Alan Sepinwall’s book, The Revolution Was Televised, in which he interviews Ronald D. Moore. Sepinwall dubs Battlestar Galactica as, “Sci-fi for the thinking man.” As Jonah Goldberg points out, only if you don’t think too hard.

BSG is a victim of high-minded pretentions that ultimately amount to nothing more than one big deus ex machina. The writers constantly tease the audience with the promise that the Cylons have some great master plan. As it turns out, their plan is a series of tortured, contorted retcons that make no sense. Moore admits that he merely relied on his instincts in plotting the series, particularly in the final two seasons. He had no grand vision as to where the fleet was going or what they were doing. The resurrection of Starbuck with no explanation is the ultimate proof of Moore’s rudderless, half-baked theologizing under the guise of science fiction. It’s one thing to engage in world-building, but quite another to betray your audience by making them feel cheated by failing to answer questions that you’ve dangled in front of them all along. Many fans compare the underwhelming series finale to that of Lost, another show that was much better at asking questions than it was at delivering satisfying payoffs.

I first tried watching this show during the platinum age of television back in the mid-2000’s. I ultimately gave it up because it was just too visual for me to follow. But I held out hope that one day, I might get it described. The Brits finally accommodated me, but I knew what I was in for. I was spoiled on the ending. Still, I wanted to make up my own mind. If anything, most fans have underplayed the idiocy of the final season and the finale.

Two spin-off series to BSG were attempted, Caprica and Blood and Chrome. Neither got very far, Moore having squandered his credibility with those whom he needed to entice for another investment. . Today, no one aside from diehard fans speaks much of the Battlestar Galactica reboot. Meanwhile, the world waits with baited breath for season three of The Mandalorian.

Put that on your algae cracker and have a good crunch, Mr. Moore. You can digest it and shit it out, along with the hard fact that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is the better series. It is certainly more padded, but it is more consistently entertaining and explores most of the same themes as BSG and does so more effectively.

So say we all, except certain fan boys masquerading as critics. Such as Alan Cylonwall.

Final tidbit. One quote you hear repeated again and again is, “All of this has happened before, and all of it will happen again.” Think that’s deep? Wrong. That quote was lifted from Peter Pan. Maybe the ending would have been more satisfying if the crew of the Galactica had wound up in Never Neverland.

Q is for Quitter

The social isolation due to the spread of COVID-19 has afforded me one advantage. It has given me a chance to catch up on books and television. One of the things I’ve gotten around to is Star Trek: Picard. In the past few days, I have managed to finish the series.

… Sort of.

I started it over a bowl of lamb stew with Ross. The first two episodes held promise. I had some initial reservations, but I thought it did a good job of setting up the chess pieces.

Earlier this week, I caught up on episodes three through five. I then skipped ahead to episode seven because I knew Riker and Troi would return. Then, I skipped to the final episode and skimmed it. So I think it is accurate to say that I have watched and digested about six-and-a-half episodes of Star Trek: Picard.

RED ALERT!!! SPOILERS AHEAD!!!

Like many fans, I was left unimpressed. Part of the reason was the poorly paced, overly-convoluted narrative. I don’t think I’m an unintelligent viewer, but I can’t really give you the gist of the plot of Star Trek: Picard. It had to do with ex Borg, Romulans, a rag-tag crew patched together by a frail, embittered old man played by Patrick Stewart, and a quest to rescue the descendants of Star Trek TNG’s most beloved character, Data, in the wake of the banning of all synthetic life forms by Starfleet.

Beyond those basic, overly simplified plot points, I can’t really give you a lot more. I can tell you that, in addition to a couple of cameos from a dream/simulation vision of Data, the return of Seven of Nine from Voyager and the return of Hugh, the renegade Borg from TNG, there are no appearances from any other major characters from past Trek other than Riker and Troi.

None of this would have mattered. If Picard had been a well told, compelling series, I might have stuck with it, despite the overt foibles of the supporting characters and the use of profanity that often seemed more gratuitous than edgie.

I have two major problems with Star Trek: Picard. Both are fatal flaws baked into the structural premise of the series. One is the wanton destruction of Gene Roddenberry’s original vision. The other is the unfortunate assassination of the character of Jean-Luc Picard.

First, about Roddenberry. If we’ve learned anything from history, it is that a person can excel at world-building without necessarily being a good writer. Gene Roddenberry and George Lucas are the two best examples. There is a reason why Roddenberry’s first Star Trek pilot, “The Cage,” was a flop. Roddenberry was the sole author and the story contains all of his trademarks. The concepts are interesting, but the execution is stiff and preachy; much like the first season of TNG. By comparison, the second original Trek pilot, “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” was written by Samuel A. Peeples. Nearly all of the original series was written by authors other than Trek’s chief architect; D. C. Fontana, Richard Matheson, Gene L. Coon, etc. They were edited and often revised by Roddenberry, but the core of each story was not conceived in his imagination.

Yet, Roddenberry’s hopeful, optimistic vision of the future of humanity reverberated throughout every scene of Star Trek. His conception of the United Federation of Planets, Starfleet Command, the U.S.S. Enterprise and the dozens of alien races humans encountered within the framework of the original series echoed throughout the next two generations.

One of the criticisms of Star Trek: Picard was that the writers were not fans of Star Trek and had no true appreciation for the canon of the Trek universe. I would agree, but that didn’t mean that Picard couldn’t be a good series. As evidence, I offer you the best movie in the Trek franchise, The Wrath of Khan.

Khan was written by Nicholas Meyer, who made it clear that he was not a fan of Star Trek. Yet, he authored Khan, which turned out to be a massive hit. Meyer also wrote The Undiscovered Country, which was also a resounding commercial and critical success. All of the early movies in the franchise were marinated in Roddenberry’s ideology, regardless of the level of his creative involvement.

IN fact, given the legacy of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, one might argue that the success of the subsequent three sequels was achieved in spite of Roddenberry. If William Shatner’s biographies of Star Trek are to be believed, Roddenberry screamed his objections to the rafters, but to no avail. The producers of the films and executives at Paramount brushed them (and him) aside.

After Roddenberry’s death in 1991, the second franchise spin-off, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was commissioned. As the series progressed, the writers became more comfortable in the occasional thumbing of their noses at Roddenberry’s conceptions. Commander Sisko refers to Earth as a paradise and, in more than one Picard-style speech, he chides the Federation for sticking to its black-and-white moral code within the safe boundaries of its territory while grey areas abound in the far corners of the galaxy. Yet, despite a few shots across the bow of the Good Ship Roddenberry, his vision of an evolved human condition remains intact throughout DS9, as well as Star Trek: Voyager, which takes place far from the home of the Federation.

Showrunners and writers could ignore Roddenberry or take mild umbrage with his ideals without inflicting damage upon his legacy. But Michael Chabon and Akiva Goldsman, the producers and writers for Picard, took their game to an entirely new level. They willfully set a torch to Roddenberry’s mythology, turning it from a bright star of hope to a black hole of despair. In this Trek universe, set 20 years after the final film featuring the TNG crew, Starfleet has become a paranoid, hostile organization that has banned the existence of all synthetic life forms in the wake of a massive android attack on Mars, as well as the destruction of the planet Romulus. In Roddenberry’s utopia-tinged future, humans have finally evolved after thousands of years of adversity. In Chabon’s world, it takes 20 years for them to devolve. Only one man stayed sane during this period.

That leads us to my second major objection, the assassination of the character of Jean-Luc Picard.

In the seven seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation, we learn a good deal about Captain Picard. He likes earl grey tea, hot. He is uncomfortable around children. He was in love with Beverly Crusher, even though she was married to his best friend. Her son, Wesley, thinks of Picard as a surrogate father figure; a reality that Picard is never entirely comfortable with. He lost command of his first vessel, the Stargazer, during a battle with a Ferengi ship. Beverly’s husband Jack Crusher was killed in that engagement. Picard’s only remaining family are a brother, a sister-in-law and a nephew on Earth. They live in France and tend the vineyards that Picard couldn’t wait to get away from when he was a child. Long before he was a captain, he was given an artificial heart after he lost a bar fight with a couple of Nausicaans. He loves to read, listen to classical music, study archeology and he doesn’t get laid as much as his first officer.

Oh, and one other thing we learn about Picard. He’s not a quitter. He has an indomitable spirit that helped him to forge his path as captain of the Enterprise D. This is the man who faced down Q, the Romulans, the Klingons and countless other hostile and misguided species with a combination of strength and reason. He survived assimilation by humanity’s most lethal enemy, The Borg. He survived intense torture by the Cardassians and never broke. He served as the arbiter of succession for the Klingon Empire, met Mark Twain, learned how to talk in metaphor, fought for the rights of androids as sentient beings, learned how to play the flute after being zapped by an alien probe, and so on.

Yet, we are expected to believe that, after the Federation faces its most daunting challenge, Picard would resign from Starfleet in protest, take his marbles and go home? Poppycock! The Picard that we all came to love back in the ‘90’s would have stayed the course, using both public channels and private means until he either turned the tide or died. I don’t buy the notion that his enmity would grow to such a degree that he would retreat to his family vineyard to fade in obscurity. He certainly never would have turned his back on Raffi and left her in the lurch.

In other words, the Admiral Picard that we all came to know would have done exactly what Admiral Kirk did; move heaven and earth to save his friend and preserve the Federation that he spent years defending. Kirk and Picard were very different in temperament and style, but at their core, they were the same. Kudos to Nick Meyer, who had the sense to tweak Roddenberry’s world without altering the fundamental makeup of its core characters.

Star Trek is an escapist fantasy. I knew it when I was 16 and I know it now. I don’t believe that Roddenberry’s vision will ever come to fruition. The crooked timber of humanity will always be too nebulous to evolve to such perfection. Yet, Star Trek was a beautiful realm of fiction to visit, populated with a rich, vast cast of characters who endeared themselves to my heart for decades. Jean-Luc Picard was one of the chief jewels who made that world glimmer with possibilities. Yes, he was a fantastical figure steeped in idealism and pseudo perfection, but that’s how the protagonists of most fantasies stand. To see him degraded from a strong, noble hero to an angry, feckless old man is dispiriting to behold. Commander Riker was the only character who seemed to retain his old spark within the new paradigm. I would be delighted to watch another series centered around his adventures.

There are other nitpicks that range from accurate to spurious. Is the series overly violent? We are living in a time when shows like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead seem to wallow in bloodshed. Yet, The Wrath of Khan was pretty violent. Think about those ear worms and try not to shudder. And how about the flying blood in The Undiscovered Country? The latter half of DS9 concerned a great galactic war. Yet, in the face of darkness, humanity didn’t lose its light.

The new series did seem to rely more heavily on action. The value of life did seem to be cheapened in this new postmodern Star Trek reincarnation. The extraneous deaths of Hugh and Bruce Maddox exemplify this point. In Trek of old, violence was always contextualized and usually bore emotional consequences.

The best of TNG always had a philosophical core to it. Top-notch stories (usually from seasons three through six), always contained some thought provoking message about the state of humanity. Many of those stories weren’t action centric. Even DS9, a show that contained more action than its predecessor, took a lot of time to breathe in between battles. In Picard, any philosophical messages are lost in the muddled plot. Sure, you have ideas about fear and xenophobia woven into the narrative here and there, but they are never explored in a thoroughly Trek fashion.

Did Picard serve as a doormat or punching bag for other characters, particularly females? Often, yes. The thoughtful, self-assured inner tranquility that informed the former space explorer of TNG was replaced by equal portions of anger, despair, doubt and guilt. This made it difficult for him to act as an authority figure to a crew who were plagued by their own demons. During his reunion with Riker, Picard says, “They seem to be carrying more baggage than all of you ever did.” In this post Roddenberry future, brokenness and failure are not a starting point for positive change, but a comfortable station for edgie character development.

Even Deanna Troi gets her licks in, scolding Picard for not understanding the depths of Soji’s trauma. It’s as if Chabon and Goldsman are attempting to rectify a female character who was, admittedly, poorly served on TNG.

I didn’t care about any of the new characters; not even Data’s daughter. Each time I watched, I wondered how Worf, Geordi, O’Brian and Ensign Ro might react if they were with Picard. The most glaring absence was Dr. Crusher. She was closest to the captain during the run of TNG and, although his visit to the Rikers was the high-light of the series for me, I found the omission of any mention of Beverly to be flawed.

As for Data, his brief story arc was too abstract for my taste. It seems that they brought his character back…just to kill him again? Hmmm. His final conversation with Picard is emotionally poignant and heralds a brief return to the spirit of classic Trek, but the resolution of the scene is strange and random. Picard ultimately dies as well, succumbing to an incurable brain ailment, but is resurrected in the body of an android. Double hmmm. Neither death was a fitting end for such a grand character.

Sidebar: Some fans speculate that Picard was, “Gay for Data,” because they speak of their love for each other in their final conversation. Nonsense! Picard might very well have spoken the same way to Riker, Worf or any of the rest of his comrades from years ago. I interpreted his sentiment as a deep, platonic love that a friend might have for another. Picard was never emotionally expressive with others and this was his way of voicing his regret for that particular character trait while bringing closure to his grief for Data.

Seven of Nine, on the other hand, appears to be in a relationship with Raffi.

How will the legacy of Star Trek: Picard endure? I have no idea. We’re going to get a season two of the further adventures of cyber Picard and his not-so-marry band of followers. I can’t imagine that any of these newer Trek incarnations will endure in the hearts of the young as Trek did back in its peak years. The show’s bleak tone and cynical sensibilities do not distinguish it from most other science fiction and it fits right in with our modern culture of political turbulence.

I have often been tempted to say that Star Trek has finally outlived its time. But why? Look at the tumultuous events of the mid-1960’s that ushered in the age of the original Star Trek series. Look at the wayward culture of the 1970’s when that previously canceled series mushroomed in popularity through syndication. I can’t believe that there is no place for such wide-eyed optimism today, but I do not believe that Star Trek: Picard is the appropriate vehicle for it.

When season two of this show drops, I won’t waste my time. Instead, I’ll be kicking back with all of the reruns from the first three series from the Star Trek universe. As I watch, I’ll be paying quiet homage to Gene Roddenberry. IN many ways, those who came after him cast him aside, viewing his ideals as obsolete. Yet, now more than ever, perhaps we need him more than we realize.

The Clock and the Cougar

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, Monday nights were special. At least, they were special in the lives of yours truly and his merry band of cronies in Lincoln, NE. Every Monday evening in the winter and spring months of 2006 and 2007, we would all gather at the home of our friends, Shane and Amy. We would order a delightfully unhealthy dinner (usually pizza), and sit around and shoot the bull for an hour or so. Then we would all retire to their basement. Shane would fire up his Bose home theater system and we would sit, barely speaking, as another perilous hour in the danger-saturated life of Jack Bauer, Counter Terrorist Agent, unfolded; ostensibly in real time. For over a year, during the show’s 5th and 6th seasons, we would repeat this ritual with few if any exceptions. All of my “friends” were there; Jamie, Audra, Wes and later on, even Mike.

I had strived mightily to get them all hooked on the show, 24. Anyone who knows me will tell you that, when I get hooked on a TV show, I try very hard to get others addicted as well. It’s always more fun to enjoy a story when you have others with whom to digest and discuss it. It took a while, but I caught them all! I even captured the interest of Strunky, the Curious Monkey. He would routinely nitpick each episode (not a monumental task), but he kept coming back for more. One night over penny pitchers at The Watering Hole, he tried to repay me by encouraging me to read George R. R. Martin’s epic fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire. I told him, “I don’t really do fantasy.”

Two years later, my buddies Joe, Steve and I lay on the floor of apartment #10 at the Chateau Lynnewood complex in Littleton, CO, and watched as the delayed seventh season in the adventures of Jack Bauer unfolded. We had all been diehard fans since the early days, but now, our reactions to the latest shocking plot twists were muted at best. We all seemed to agree that, while the show was still fun to watch, it was wearing thin. By the time the eighth and final full-length season of 24 commenced in winter of 2010, Joe and I were watching more out of obligation than compulsion. We took in the series finale sitting on the couch in the infamous Chateau social room. We would have rather watched it at Joe’s place, but his girlfriend at the time made even mild enjoyment of the show impossible. When it ended, Joe and I just said, “Hmmm. Ok.”

Sidebar: Too bad Marwan, Saunders or Christopher Henderson didn’t know Joe’s girlfriend. She would have made an excellent weapon of mass destruction.

Last night, over a steaming hot bowl of lamb stew with my pal Ross, 24 came up again. “I used to watch the first season of that show religiously,” he said. Then he said, “Bring me some more bread, wench!”

Sidebar: Any of you who know Bridgit will understand when I say that, when Ross called her a wench, I expected his severed head to bounce into my partially empty bowl of stew in a scene that would have made Jack Bauer proud. But, she just laughed and retorted, “Fuck off.” . God love married people.

Ross mentioning 24 got me to thinking about television and what makes it endure. What makes a particular series rewatchable, even after it concludes? Many series that have been off the air for decades still capture my interest every now and then. Since I moved back to Omaha, I’ve reabsorbed The Sopranos, Deadwood, Breaking Bad, Justified, The Shield and high-lights from The Rockford Files, Columbo and several of the Star Trek incarnations. I enjoy all of them; some more than I did upon my initial watch. Yet, I can never seem to muster up the interest in taking 24 out of the mothballs for a comprehensive view. I like the first two seasons, but then I get bored.

To understand why, we have to examine the genesis and ultimate trajectory of 24.

The premise was quite simple. Kiefer Sutherland played Federal Agent Jack Bauer, a counter terrorist operative who would stumble upon a plot to destroy America. The reaction of Bauer and his elite counter terrorist squad would be mirrored by a parallel plot involving the President of the United States and his/her staff. Both plots would be driven by an ominous digital clock, ever present in the background, often appearing in the foreground at the center of split screens, constantly counting down the seconds to the next disaster.

The concept of American agents saving the country and the world was far from new; it was the gimmick of the ticking clock that made the show so compelling for 21st century audiences. The idea was that each episode represented one hour in a day, the real time element a device designed to heighten suspense.

It was preposterous, of course, and we all knew it, but we didn’t care. Even hardcore fans would grudgingly admit that, “All of that stuff just couldn’t happen in one day.” Kiefer and company were just too good to ignore.

24 was conceived and partially filmed before the shattering events of 9/11, but it premiered after the tragedy. Even so, the entire series was informed by the larger, real world events of the terrorist attacks and the resulting conflicts in the Middle East. IN looking back, Jack Bauer owes his continuous (if not unlikely) survival on television to three real world counterparts; Osama bin Laden, George W. Bush and Simon Cowell.

The first two figures are obvious, but the third takes a bit of explanation. 24 was always on the bubble during its first season, meaning that it was one click away from cancelation. After the shocking finale of the first season, fans and network executives alike did not know whether Jack would be back for another harrowing day. Critical buzz was positive, but the all-important ratings were tepid. DVD sales of the first season helped seal the deal for a new day for Jack.

Despite the costly production budget and ad campaign surrounding the show, ratings continued to flounder… Until they used American Idol as the lead-in for the latter half of the show’s second season. That, plus the U.S. invasion of Iraq, helped spike the ratings. By the show’s fourth season, 24 was being widely praised, not only by most TV critics, but by many conservative pundits like Rush Limbaugh and Laura Ingraham. This, plus the public outing of series creator/producer Joel Surnow as an unashamed conservative (a rarity in Hollywood), did nothing to harm the show’s already mushrooming viewership.

In reading this, one might think that the series was merely a right-winger’s wet dream, especially given the fact that Muslim extremists were often featured as the villains in the show. But one would be wrong. No race or ethnic group was immune from villainy in the universe of 24. The first villains we meet are white Americans working for a paramilitary unit. The second group of baddies are Serbian warlords. In the show’s second season, the chief villains are Muslim terrorists, but they are backed by a bunch of white executive oil types trying to start a war for financial gain. The villains in the third season are Mexican drug lords, followed by a couple of British renegades. Other villains in the series include Russians, Chinese, South Africans and even Jon Voight.

The most popular villain on the show was President Charles Logan, a pasty white dude who emerged as the antagonist during the show’s 5th and arguably best season. The critics lapped it up, seeing evident parallels between evil President Logan and doubly evil President Bush. It was no coincidence that the fifth season scored a double Emmy win for ‘Best Dramatic Series’ and ‘Best Actor’ for Kiefer Sutherland.

The biggest reason that 24 doesn’t particularly date well is not because of its themes. The show really had one theme, which was that Jack Bauer would always triumph over terrorism, no matter the personal cost. It wasn’t pro-Republican or pro-Democrat, but it was certainly pro-U.S. This was a welcome change for many fans who found plenty of anti-U.S. commentary from other critical darlings such as The Sopranos, The Wire and the reimagined Battlestar Galactica.

The impact of 24 is weakened because its central premise is built upon the simple question of, what happens next? The show’s serialized nature and real time structure meant that each episode would end on a cliffhanger. Every popular drama poses this same question, but 24 was a plot-driven show that relied on a continual raising of the stakes to keep up its momentum. Often, cliffhangers would reveal an even bigger threat, wielded by an even bigger baddy just around the corner. When Jack thwarts a presidential assassin in season one, he then must contend with a nuclear bomb on U.S. soil in season two. In season three, he tries to stop a flesh-eating virus from being released in L.A. In the fourth season, it’s a group of hackers who want to cause every nuclear power plant in the country to melt down simultaneously. Season five brings us a deadly nerve gas, then we move on to suitcase nukes, child soldiers in South Africa, an attack on the White House, nuclear missiles over New York City, and finally, deadly drones in London. It’s exhausting just writing about all of these WMD’s, let alone defeating them.

In the midst of dealing with the next looming threat, the viewer comes to understand that no character, save Jack himself, is safe. Any character could die at any time. Thus, we learn that it is not emotionally healthy to become attached to David Palmer, Tony Almeda, Michelle Dessler or Curtis Manning, because they might be killed off in the very next episode. Even Sherry Palmer, the first First Lady of 24 and one of the better villains, wasn’t immune from being whacked. The only other character who seemed safe was Jack’s able sidekick, the acid-tongued computer nerd, Chloe O’Brian.

But sometimes, death is rendered meaningless. Tony Almeda is killed during the events of the fifth longest day of Jack’s life, but on the seventh day, he returns from the dead as a villain, who’s really a hero, who’s really a villain. I know… It’s confusing, but 24 was never known for its logical consistency. In fact, you could build a wall in front of many of those plot holes and make Ramon Salazar pay for it.

In the show’s inaugural season, Jack’s main challenge is two-fold. He must save his family from danger, whilst simultaneously protecting presidential candidate David Palmer from harm. Inevitably, these two missions come into conflict and ultimately, Jack is forced to choose. He chooses David Palmer and pays the price when he loses his wife to a bullet fired by his one-time lover, revealed to be an evil mole, Nina Myers. The betrayal doesn’t make a lot of sense, but the image of Jack holding his dead, pregnant wife in his arms as he sobs is pure Kiefer gold.

But wait! The heartbreak of Jack’s sacrifice is nullified three seasons later, when former President David Palmer is struck down by another assassin’s bullet. When you rewatch the first season, you catch yourself asking, what the hell was the point? Unlike Han Solo, Jack Bauer has the right to ask that question, but the show never seems to carry the self-awareness to allow him to engage in any sort of philosophical introspection. The forward momentum of relentless action and multiplying threats , propelled ever forward by the “beep-thud” of the clock of doom, never permits any time for self-reflection, even during the commercial breaks.

And then, there’s the cougar effect. Any fan of 24 will recognize this well-known jibe.

In the show’s second season, Jack’s daughter Kim serves no useful dramatic purpose. She is adrift in the wake of her mother’s death. Yet, the writers wanted to keep her around so as to give Jack’s mission to locate and stop the nuclear bomb more urgency. She wasn’t directly involved in the main story, but they kept her in-focus by giving her a series of farcical adventures while she was trying to escape from L.A. ahead of the impending mushroom cloud. Said adventures involved an abusive husband, an injured girl, a one-legged boyfriend, a crazy survivalist and… A cougar. I’m not kidding! YouTube it! At one point, Kim gets stuck in an animal trap and is stalked by a cougar. Many of us watching at the time collectively groaned, for the cougar proved to be nothing more than an innocuous distraction. It was far less dangerous than Joe’s girlfriend proved to be

Other filler plots designed to stretch the show out to its mandatory 24-hour seasonal limit included Terri’s amnesia in season one, Chloe’s mysterious baby in season three, David Palmer’s love life in season three, the presidential family plot in season seven and Dana’s parole officer in season eight.

Despite these obvious fillers, the true jump-the-shark moment on 24 came early. It happened in the second season, after the bomb went off, around the time that Kimberly Caldwell was being sent home on American Idol. Throughout the first 40 episodes of the show, Jack Bauer was depicted as a tragic hero with human flaws. Then, in hour number 19 of the second season, Jack is captured and tortured by thugs who are seeking a valuable data chip. I mean, they brutally torture him by network TV standards; nothing compared to The Sopranos or Game of Thrones, but enough to send the Parents’ Television Council into a shit-fit. The thugs cut him, burn him and shock him to the point where his heart stops and he flat lines.

20 minutes later, he jumps up, grabs a gun and takes out his tormentors before going on his merry way. No one can bounce back quite like Jack Bauer.

… Except Patrick Mahomes, of course.

In subsequent seasons, Jack kicks a heroin addiction within a matter of hours, returns from the dead and survives exposure to a deadly chemical nerve agent. But his greatest display of human endurance occurs when he returns from China after two years in captivity, then gets stabbed in the back with a medical scalpel, then rips out a guy’s throat with his bear teeth and chops off another terrorist’s fingers, all in two hours real time.

In the space of nine seasons and one TV movie, Jack quickly transformed from damaged, flawed hero to invincible action hero. It was a transformation that often swerved into the lane of self-parody.

Along with his physical transformation comes an emotional carapace. In the first two seasons, it is clear that Jack has many regrets about his life. His attempt to put his family back together fails, his wife is killed and his daughter is estranged from him for many years. In the premier episode of season two, Jack even sits alone in his condo and contemplates suicide before a call from President David Palmer pulls him back from the brink. By season seven, Jack sits defiantly in front of a Congressional subcommittee in Washington D.C. and growls, “Please do not sit there with that smug look on your face and expect me to regret the decisions I have made. Because Senator, the truth is, I don’t.”

This defiance represented a very polarized attitude in the country at the time surrounding the issue of the torture of terrorist suspects. It was an issue sparked by the exposure of the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq after the U.S. invasion in 2003. While the politics of 24 were non-partisan, it did take an unambiguous stance on the issue of enhanced interrogation. Simply put, in Jack Bauer’s universe, torture works and therefore is always justified. Of course, the constant ticking clock scenario on 24 meant that torture was always necessary. This position did not go over well with everyone in the writers’ room. Behind-the-scenes interviews reflected a divisive atmosphere, with Joel Surnow on one side of the issue and future Homeland show-runner Howard Gordon on the other.

Setting aside the moral and legal implications, the plot device of torture quickly wore out its welcome on 24. In the fourth season alone when the issue took center stage, Jack seemed to torture a suspect nearly every other episode in order to gain information on the next attack. In every case, he broke his victim within seconds and gained the information he needed. Even Secretary of Defense Heller allowed his own son to be tortured with nary a word.

I don’t condemn this tactic so much as a matter of principle as I do as a matter of lazy writing. Like the numerous WMD devices, the device of torture was over-used and predictable. Predictability is the hobgoblin of any thriller.

Other repetitious 24 tropes include the mean boss who’s only purpose was to get in Jack’s way, but who ultimately proved to be a good person only when he sacrificed himself for the greater good. Such examples included George Mason, Ryan Chappelle, Lem McGill and Bill Buchanan. Also, the mole who seems to be a good guy, but who proves to be evil. Nina Myers was the most effective use of this common espionage trope.

And Let us not forget the obligatory terrorist attack on CTU headquarters trope, the presidential coup trope, First Family drama interfering with the main crisis of the day trope, Jack on the run trope, Jack captured by a foreign power trope, and the innocent family member who isn’t so innocent trope. By the time James Cromwell appears as Jack’s cold-blooded father in season six, you know that his motives are nefarious even before he utters a word.

In hindsight, 24 was a good show for its first 39 episodes. After that, it quickly de-evolved into a solid action show, but one in which its primary star was working with material beneath his capabilities. As evidence, I present a scene from the finale of season one. Jack gets a call from Nina, who we know is a traitor. She tells him that his daughter Kim was found dead, floating in the bay. Jack collapses and weeps uncontrollably. It is a heartbreaking scene that shows Jack’s humanity on full display. After that, he adopts his cold, vengeful exterior as he wages a murderous assault on Dennis Hopper and his Serbian henchmen. This was 24 at its best.

I also want to point out another devastating scene from the first season; a scene that did not involve Jack. One of the major plots of the season involves the kidnapping of Jack’s wife Terri, as well as his daughter. The terrorists want to use Jack’s family as leverage over him in their assassination plot. At one point, one of their captors threatens to rape Kim. In a display of maternal protectiveness, Terri offers herself to the rapist instead of Kim. He accepts. You don’t actually see the assault occur, but you hear evidence of it. The scene makes me mist over every time I watch it, especially given Terri’s fate in the season finale. You would never see a scene like this in later seasons.

The first two seasons hold up very well, with less emphasis on hyperbolic action and more grounded nuance. Season five also holds up very well. Despite the high body count of main characters, the performance of Kiefer Sutherland is bolstered by those of Gregory Itzin as President Charles Logan, with Jean Smart as his emotionally troubled wife, Martha. The villains of the day also include RoboCop and Dr. Romano from E.R.

Four years after Jack Bauer ran out of time, he was resurrected in a truncated 12-hour season called, 24: Live Another Day. Joe, Steve and I gathered in Steve’s cracker box apartment to watch the first few episodes. We did it more out of tradition than anything. The two things I remember most about that evening were that Steve stopped at Burger King and poured a jigger of whisky in his large coke, and Jack Bauer somehow wound up in London. After that, life got in the way and we never finished the season together. I can’t even remember how it ended. I think Audrey Raines died. That would total four of Jack’s love interests who got dead. Another trope.

Three years after that, 24: Legacy premiered after Super Bowl 51. Corey Hawkins replaced Kiefer Sutherland in the lead. Tony Almeda returned yet again. I didn’t even bother to watch. 24 without Jack Bauer would be like Breaking Bad without Walter White (hello, El Camino.) I think Joe watched it, but you can’t blame the guy. He was lonely in Phoenix. We all do desperate things when we’re lonely. That’s why I pay a woman once a week to come over and imitate Sarah Clarke’s voice as she gets naked. I get more turned on when she does evil Nina, rather than good Nina.

As for the merry band of 24 cronies in Lincoln… Well… All I can say is, we’re all victims of time. We might escape the cougar, but the clock always gets us in the end.

Lightning in a Bottle

Almost 19 years ago, I read and fell in love with a little novel called, Lonesome Dove. In my view, it was nothing less than a masterpiece. To this day, I consider it to be my favorite book of all time. The miniseries is a rare gem as well. Subsequently, I learned that Larry McMurtry penned a sequel titled, Streets of Laredo. I eagerly devoured it and felt a profound sense of disappointment. No Gus. No Jake. No Deets. Faugh! I then discovered that McMurtry had written, not one, but two prequels to Lonesome Dove; Dead Man’s Walk and Comanche Moon. I devoured them… And felt even more dispirited. The magic of the original novel just wasn’t there. I then learned that Hollywood had created a sequel miniseries to the original called, Return to Lonesome Dove. I watched it, and bemoaned the four hours of my life that were utterly wasted. McMurtry described the project as, “Spurious.” I heartily concur.

All two of you who read this blog may remember that, some months ago, I expressed fretful trepidation at the prospect of a Breaking Bad sequel movie. Casual readers of these hallowed pages don’t have to read far to know that I view Breaking Bad as the best TV series ever made. It was expertly acted, masterfully written and apparently, beautifully shot.

This included the finale. I agree with critic Alan Sepinwall that the emotionally brutal episode, “Ozymandias,” represented the true climax of the story of Walter White, while the final two episodes served as a kind of epilogue. Walt’s final bloody siege of Uncle Jack’s compound, resulting in Jesse’s rescue and his own death, was a fitting way to go out.

The final image we get of Jesse Pinkman is that of him tearing out of Uncle Jack’s compound in Todd’s pilfered El Camino, shrieking and laughing hysterically as he drives. It is a parallel to the episode, “Crawl Space,” in which Walter White lies prone in the crawl space under his home, screaming and cackling maniacally after learning that Skyler gave away a large chunk of his ill-gotten lute to Ted, her one-time lover. Walt arises from the crawl space as Heisenberg fully born. Jesse’s eruption from the place of his imprisonment symbolizes, not only his liberation, but a rebirth of sorts.

Jesse made quite a journey over the course of Breaking Bad. He went from hapless drug-dealer, to the capable right hand of the most powerful and ruthless drug lord in modern crime fiction, to an imprisoned and broken animal, all within 62 amazing episodes of television. When he burst forth from captivity, he was headed toward… What? El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, seeks to answer that question.

Did we really need a movie to wrap up Jesse’s story? My initial answer was, hell no! Then, I got sucked in by the trailers, the pre-release interviews, the social media hype, etc. Skinny Pete telling the cops, “I ain’t gonna tell you where Jesse is!” was music to my ears. I thought, if anyone can pull this off, Vince Gilligan certainly can.

After the fact, I have to say that my original view was correct. El Camino is an enjoyable romp down memory lane. We get to see Aaron Paul flex his acting chops once again. We get to hear Dave Porter’s unique musical score. We get to visit a lot of familiar faces, including dead characters such as Mike, Jane and yes, Walt. But ultimately, I feel that Jesse would’ve been better served if the final memory we had of him were that of a half-crazed escaped prisoner fleeing for his life.

One of the many things that made Breaking Bad so compelling were the emotional gut-punches that it could deliver when appropriate. Vince Gilligan often said that the show was really about the quiet, in-between moments of Walt and Jesse’s lives. I agree. The quiet subtlety of Walt’s family life, or Jesse’s PTSD after Gale’s murder, is what made the show special. But this is a crime series and it requires violence to drive home the point. Everything from the murder of Krazy-8 to the plane crash to Gus’s murder to Walt kidnapping little Holly was a ‘holy shit!’ moment that fans would be buzzing about on Facebook and at the office for days hence. El Camino held no such moments for me.

The primary question posed by El Camino is, will Jesse get away? I don’t want to seem like a know-it-all, but all you had to do was study interviews from the cast and crew during the final season of Breaking Bad to know where El Camino was headed.

One of the refrains echoing over and over again by Gilligan and company was, “I feel sorry for Jesse. He’s really being manipulated and abused by Walt.” Given this mindset, it wasn’t hard to guess where Gilligan (the sole author of El Camino) was headed. He probably thought, Jesse has been punished enough for any misdeeds he may have caused. He was jerked around by Walt, then used by Hank as a means to an end, then imprisoned and tortured by Uncle Jack and Todd. His penance has been paid.

When looking at El Camino through the lens of sympathy, it’s no surprise that Jesse is treated, not as an anti-hero as Walt was at his best in Breaking Bad, but as a fully-formed hero. Jesse, the boy-turned-man, ground down by his enemies, now deserves redemption. To that end, the movie glosses over the sins of Jesse Pinkman in an effort to help the viewer feel more sympathy for him.

And what are the sins of Jesse Bruce Pinkman? As a diehard fan, it’s not hard to catalog them. Among other things, Jesse is guilty of:

• Selling addictive poison to people, first tainted by chili powder, later tainted by a harmless blue coloring.
• Breaking the hearts of his parents by refusing to engage in serious addiction recovery.
• Knowingly re-entering the drug trade with Walt after disposing of the bodies of Krazy-8 and Emilio.
• Sparking a drug war between Walt and Gus Fring by killing two of Gus’s henchmen, knowing that it was a fatal move.
• Shooting Gale Boetticher in the face as he tearfully begged for his life.

• Targeting people in an addiction recovery program in the hopes of getting them hooked on Blue Sky meth. One of these targets was Andrea Cantillo, who had a young son named Brock.
• Participating in a train robbery that lead to the death of an innocent boy, Drew Sharpe.
• Wearing a Kenny Rogers T-shirt.

These are just some of the transgressions that Gilligan seems to want us to forget as he converts Jesse from anti-hero to hard-bitten hero, desperately trying to seek escape and redemption after Walt rescues him from the neo-Nazis in the finale of the show.

My sister-in-law is living proof that a person with a PHD does not always make smart judgments. One of her questionable judgment calls is her assertion that the show Sons of Anarchy is superior to Breaking Bad. This is just silly. Yet, as I watched El Camino, I occasionally felt that some of the plot elements would’ve been more at home with Jax and his merry band of loser bikers than on the greatest TV drama in history. I won’t rehash all of it here, except to say that the villains whom Jesse confronts as he struggles to find enough cash to leave Albuquerque forever ring a bit hollow next to the complexities of Gus, Todd, Lydia and even Tuco.

We do get to see long dead characters in flashback, but the scenes smack of contrivance more than necessity. It’s as if Mike, Jane and Walt are all holding up signs that say, “Forgive yourself, Jesse, and move on!” These are a far cry from the nuanced flashbacks often presented in the course of the series that usually high-lighted a character aspect that was going to be flushed out in the subsequent plot.

The best part about watching El Camino was that I got to spend time talking to Katy. Aside from that, I honestly could have done without it. I wish that my last glimpse of Jesse was as he was bolting from the compound with Walt’s bloody carnage in his wake. I wish Vince Gilligan had left the rest to my imagination. I hope showrunners like Shawn Ryan, Graham Yost and others take heed. I don’t need to know what Vic Mackey did after he walked out of his cubical at the FBI office. I don’t need another reunion between Raylan, Boyd and Ava. I don’t need to see the further adventures of Arya Stark and Jon Snow. And I sure as hell don’t ever want to see Lumberjack Dexter again!!! Leave the masturbatory fan service to the fanfic authors. Because, as we’ve now discovered with Deadwood and Breaking Bad (and we’ll probably discover again with the pending Captain Picard series), having is not nearly so pleasing a thing as wanting. It is illogical, but it is often true.

Sidebar: Better Call Saul will commence with its fifth season in four months. It’s solid, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the mother ship. I also want to again voice my disgust at the fact that BSC and El Camino have audio description, but we still can’t get Breaking Bad with an AD track. NO JUSTICE!!!

Lightning may strike twice, but you can only catch it in a bottle once. If Walt were here, I’m sure he would give me the scientific explanation for this concept… But he’s dead, isn’t he?

Is That Your Littlefinger, or are You Just Happy to See Me?

The theme to Game of Thrones was composed by Ramin Djawadi. According to Apple Music, the title is called, “Main Title.” This isn’t very original. Then again, no one asked me. If they had, I wouldn’t have given a peasant’s shit, because I wasn’t a fan of Game of Thrones up until about three months ago.

That said, another perfectly acceptable theme song for this epic series could have been lifted from the Mel Brooks musical, The 12 Chairs:

“Hope for the best,
Expect the worst.
Some drink champagne,
Some die of thirst.
No way of knowing
Which way it’s going.
Hope for the best,
Expect the worst.”

Those lyrics perfectly encapsulate the central themes of this epic series about war, sex, dragons, more sex, more war, family, more sex, political nihilism, more sex and a little magic thrown in there.

Now, I won’t try to recap Game of Thrones, because even those who aren’t fans of the show have a basic understanding of what it’s about. Like its predecessor, Harry Potter, Thrones was a cultural black hole that swallowed everything else in its orbit. Sufficed to say, it’s about a mythical world where several large and powerful houses compete to sit on the Iron Throne. It’s kind of like a grand reality television show, but with dragons, swords, graphic sex, medieval sensibilities and no Donald Trump.

My purpose in writing this is to address the conclusion of the show. When it aired on May 19 of this year, I was probably about half way through the fourth season. Yet, I couldn’t help being spoiled. My choices were either to be spoiled on the ending, or to avoid Facebook and Twitter for a solid month. Since I am a pathetic, shameless social media whore, I chose to be spoiled.

What sparked my desire to write this was a petition on the internet that actually *demands* that the powers that be rewrite and reshoot the final season of Game of Thrones. This is due to overwhelmingly negative feedback from fans over the trajectory of the final story of Jon Snow, Arya Stark, Cersei Lannister and especially, Daenerys Targaryen.

The ire of the fans is mostly righteous. The entirety of the season was not true to the original spirit of the series as envisioned by the author of the source novels, George R. R. Martin. The plotting was rushed and sloppy, the character notes rang false and the sex wasn’t nearly as gratuitous as it was in previous seasons. In short, it blew great big dragon balls! That said, the fans have about as much chance of getting a do-over of the final season as Tyrion would have trying to successfully peg The Mountain.

Look, you little wussbags just need to relax and get the fuck over yourselves. I loved The Sopranos and invested five years of my life in it. The black screen pissed me off too. But I celebrated the series by inviting my ex-girlfriend over to my apartment and nailing her on the kitchen floor. I got up, wiped off and moved on with my life. I know some of you reading this who are of the feminist persuasion, and who are pickled in your own bitter bile of rage of the ultimate fate of Dany, Mother of Dragons, Breaker of Chains and Fucker of Nephews, may not be able to relate to my decidedly masculine perspective on the virtues of impulsive kitchen sex as a soul-cleanser, but give it a try sometime.

You know who really needs to get laid? Some guy on YouTube named, Think Story. He actually took the trouble to rewrite the final season of the show in his head. Then, he posted it on YouTube, where it currently has 4,871,306 views. So that’s nearly five million nerds, geeks, angry feminists and a few amateur film critics who could be spending their energy burning calories with some Shae equivalent, rather than signing some internet petition that has less value than a spent condom.

So this guy rewrites the season. I won’t recap the whole thing because you can look it up for yourselves if you’re that desperate. In short, in Think Story’s version, the White Walkers win the battle of Winterfell and lay siege to King’s Landing. Dany doesn’t go mad, but kills the Night King and becomes queen, Jon Snow dies heroically in the final battle, Jaime kills Cersei, who was faking her pregnancy all along, Arya gets wounded, and Brienne never gets laid by anybody. Oh yeah…and Eleeria Sand (anyone remember her?) plays some part in it all, but…ahh, screw it!

No offense, Mr. Think Story, but I would’ve had about as much fun watching your version of the finale as Tywin Lannister would’ve had at an Occupy Braavos protest.

There are two main problems with Mr. Story’s Kelvin timeline version. One is that, no matter what they do, The White Walkers will always be the most boring characters on Thrones; with the possible exception of Bran the Broken. Yes yes yes, I know they were in the books and are therefore part of the GRRM source material, but there was absolutely nothing compelling about them. The Night King was a dull, uninspired villain who felt like a knockoff of The Walking Dead. Whether they were vanquished at Winterfell or King’s Landing, The White Walkers had not built up enough emotional capital to serve as a satisfying final antagonist for the ultimate conflict of the series.

This leads me to the second reason why Mr. (or is it Mrs?), Story’s scenario. It was even less true to the original spirit of the series than was the hot mess cooked up in a cauldron by Benioff and Weiss.

Look, if I were David and D. B., I’d be embarrassed. I mean, really humiliated. We’re talking Reek territory here. The GOT crowd wants their heads on a spike, and they did themselves no favors with the Star Wars crowd. They seemed to forget the basic idea that the central appeal of Game of Thrones is not the magic, or monsters, or even the sex. It was the machinations, manipulations and perfidy that occurred between the human characters in an effort to rest power from one house to another. My earlier commentary about reality television wasn’t based entirely in jest. Thrones really was a competition to see who the ultimate winner would be. The White Walkers, The Dornish, The Brotherhood, The House of Black and White and all of the other B-plots were instrumental in world-building, but they were mere trappings that served as obstacles along the path toward the final goal. And that goal was The Iron Throne.

That’s what makes the arc of Daenerys Targaryen so tragic. She probably would’ve been a better ruler than Robert Baratheon, or Cersei Lannister, or maybe even Jon Snow, but the seeds of her own destruction were planted centuries before her birth. The only way for fans who want to impose their politics on their pop culture would come to realize that is to watch innocent men, women and children burn under an onslaught of dragon fire. The way David and D. B. handled it was inexcusable, but the end goal was legitimate. Dany ultimately learned the same harsh lesson that many real world tyrants, and many male fictional characters such as Darth Vader and Michael Corleone have learned to their detriment. In the words of Lord Acton, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Like it or not, the universe carefully constructed by Mr. Martin is based on a deep cynicism. That doesn’t mean that individuals can’t find happiness within his giant wheel of misery, but most folks are destined to be crushed under it. If a benevolent ruler like Jon Snow, or even Tyrion Lannister, were to seize power for a while, it would serve only as a rest bit until Gendry decides that his papa had the right idea. The whole notion of a democracy with Bran the Broken as a king in partial absentia and Tyrion as his hand is just fake butter on stale movie theater popcorn. Arya the Explorer, Jon Snow the Wildling King and Sansa the drop-out queen may feel good, but they are about as realistic as The Hound in a corset.

Sidebar: Have you guys ever watched behind-the-scenes videos where Benioff and Weiss give commentary? It’s very telling. I mean it. Go watch interviews with David Chase, Vince Gilligan or David Simon. If you have two weeks to spare, go watch David Milch. Those guys are really smart guys who understand the universes they created. This doesn’t mean that the creator of an alternate world can’t fuck up his own recipe. Ronald D. Moore is Exhibit A in the bed-wetting department. But Benioff and Weiss are clearly as mentally capable as Hodor on an abacus. Without George Martin’s source material, their grayscale of the brain becomes obvious through clunky dialogue, contrived situations and climaxes steeped in Stevia.

Look, I’m not a hypocrite. As a wannabe author, I sometimes rewrite stories in my head. I too have ideas of what would’ve made the Thrones finale better. In my version, George R. R. Martin gets off the podium at whatever comic nerdfest he’s lecturing at in between glasses of wine and lobster tail drenched in real butter, and he writes the rest of the Goddamn story!

As for Thrones, we’re stuck with it. We’ve got six seasons of excellent television and two subpar seasons to wrap it up. As far as the final story itself, I would’ve done two things differently. I would’ve flip-flopped the killings done by Jon Snow and Arya Stark. Let Jon take out The Night King, and let Arya kill Dany. Had I watched the show in real time, that would’ve been my prediction based on Arya’s exit from the smoldering ruins of King’s Landing on her horse. Arya’s assassination of Dany would’ve been a fitting end to Dany’s character, all while paying tribute to the show’s ability to subvert expectations during the Martin years. Besides, who doesn’t like a little girl-on-girl action? I’m sure Littlefinger would have smiled from one of the seven hells.

Finally, I want to pay tribute to my favorite character on Thrones, Jaime Lannister. I really do feel that he had the most satisfying arc of any of them. He was a callow, incestuous, child-murdering, entitled twat when we first met him, but even before he lost his hand, we began to see the man of honor underneath. Once he became disabled and began to be rejected by his family, his true character shown through. His journey parallels that of Hank Schrader on Breaking Bad. Both men were pompous jerks at the beginning, but after they faced a life-altering disability, we learn that they were men of honor at their core. Yet, once again I have to disagree with Think Story. Jaime’s actions in season eight were the only ones I found true to character. Despite his honor, and despite the fact that she had shunned him, he loved his sister. In the world of GOT, emotion trumps all. His choice to try to rescue Cersei, and ultimately to die with her, was perfectly in character.

In closing, I should say that Think Story has millions of viewers. This blog entry will probably get two hits; Mags and maybe…maybe Dana, if she’s bored enough.

Hi, Danamonster. And hi to my other GOT buddy, whom I don’t want to embarrass by naming on this conservative-based website.

I’m off to bed. The night is dark, and full of terrors, like the next three Star Wars movies.

“No One Gets Out Alive”

Last October, I took the time to write a blog entry about Deadwood the series, followed up by an entry in which I expressed eager anticipation for its return in Deadwood, The Movie. Well, it aired last night and, thanks to my friend Dana, I was able to watch it in real time through her HBO app, sans a television in my house. Here are my initial impressions:

First, it behooves us to ponder the usefulness of sequels. In my mind, a sequel, prequel, spin-off, reboot, or in Deadwood’s case, a revival, only has two creatively valid purposes. One is to break new ground by telling a new story, or by effectively building upon the mythology that the initial story created. Think of successful sequels such as The Empire Strikes Back, or The Godfather Part II.

The other reason to make a sequel is purely for fan service. If the fans love it and want it to continue, go for it. We all love a good story. In my view, reason number two pales in the shadow of number one. People are always going to want more of something they like, even if it isn’t good for them.

Of course, Hollywood’s main reason for making sequels, prequels, spin-offs and the like has nothing to do with either of the above. It wants to make money. That’s why our culture is engorged with 10,000 Marvel movies, 2,000 Star Trek movies and TV episodes, and we’ll soon have 50,000 Star Wars movies. Story potential for these franchises was exhausted years ago, but like the villain of Deadwood, George Hearst, Hollywood can’t help itself, so it keeps going on and on in perpetuity. This means that they have to keep recycling the same story over and over again with new polish on an old car. Think Rocky, Home Alone, Die Hard, etc.

Deadwood was not a money-maker, though at the time, it was the most expensive TV series being produced. It did not generate ratings that would translate into revenue for HBO. Nor did it generate the kind of commercial or mainstream buzz that enveloped office coffee machines around The Sopranos, Sex and the City and especially, Game of Thrones. It was sadly telling that I found many reviews on the Deadwood movie from the usual suspects such as the New York Times, Rolling Stone and Slate in the days leading up to the movie, but there was nary a word about it from the common folk on Twitter and Facebook, who had been in an angry buzz over the Game of Thrones series finale nearly two weeks hence. We can certainly blame the passage of time for this, but I think you’ll see much more excitement from the hoopalhead crowd when the Breaking Bad movie comes out. The reasons are stark and obvious. Deadwood was a niche show, adored by stuck-up cosmopolitan critics and a small-but-vocal band of devoted fans like me. It’s meandering narrative style and dense, complex language made it inaccessible to mainstream fans who found The Sopranos and Game of Thrones far more digestible.

Why then make a movie after 13 years of silence? The answer seems to be, unfinished business.

Clearly, there was more story to be told within the universe of David Milch’s historically revisionist drama. Like Wild Bill Hickok, The series was killed before its time and history provided a road map that Milch could adopt or discard at his whims. In its original series form, it was good for at least three more seasons, though it likely would have only run for one more before Milch, “Got off the bus,” as he put it.

But history rendered its judgment, fingers got leveled, tempers flared, every cocksucker abandoned the table with nothing but their pride, and the expensive sets came down. So the only reason to resurrect it was, because that small band of adoring fans and critics wanted it.

HBO certainly wants to make money, but they also have a habit of sometimes lending their might to projects that transcend mere monetary value. It wasn’t out of character for them to give Deadwood one more breath of life so that it could offer a proper farewell to its fans.

So, did Deadwood, The Movie, accomplish the goal of telling a new story with the same old characters? Did we get Daddy Vader, or Mr. T? My answer is…a little of both. Did it adequately service the fans who wanted more? My answer is an enthusiastic, hell yeah!!!

I started leaking at the first sound of Calamity Jane’s voice. It was not the last time I lost it. On Facebook afterward, I wondered if my reaction to the conclusion was because the movie was just that great, or because I suffer from a touch more emotional incontinence as I age. As I reflect upon the final sojourn of Al Swearengen, Seth Bullock, Calamity Jane, Charlie Utter, Trixie and the rest of the cast of this fine series, I do tend to think the answer is due to the latter.

Don’t get me wrong… It was a wonderful feeling spending time once again with characters whom I’d come to know and love 13 years ago, and whom I occasionally revisit. I was glad they got a send-off. We fans spent years patiently waiting and eventually, not believing that we’d ever get that movie we’d been promised. Anything surpassing Seth reading bedtime stories to his kids, or Al and Calamity Jane playing poker, would have been welcome.

That said, the movie did have its flaws; some of them quite glaring.

If you will consult my earlier entry, I wondered how the movie would treat Doc Cochran, who had been stricken as a “lunger” in the third and final season of the show. Tuberculosis was a death sentence to most anyone who contracted it in 19th century America. In the movie, not only did Doc survive, but he seemed completely healthy and normal. Not only was this not addressed in the movie, but no reviewer (of whom I read plenty), seemed to catch this obvious discrepancy. “Nobody gets out alive, Doc,” Al tells him during a coughing fit in the show’s third season. Apparently, Doc did get out alive. Others were not so lucky. What else would we expect when George Hearst comes to town?

The main thrust of the plot did seem to be a rehash of the third season. Hearst, now a senator from California, comes back to Deadwood and wants to appropriate Charlie Utter’s land so that he can string telephone wires across it. As was the case in season three, Hearst proves to be a predatory capitalist, who only knows how to grab everything he wants like a child. If he can’t get it by coercive bargaining, he tries to obtain it through violent means. In the third season, his primary conflict was with Alma Garret-Ellsworth, who refused to sell him her gold mine until the final episode. Alma’s second husband Ellsworth proved to be a casualty of their war of wills.

In the movie, Charlie Utter, former friend of the deceased legend, Wild Bill Hickok, wound up dead from bullets from two assassins dispatched by Hearst. Ultimately, Seth Bullock challenges Hearst and prevails, even though more bodies fall in their ensuing conflict, including Samuel ‘The Nigger General’ Fields. Hearst goes to jail, but we are left with the sense that he will likely walk yet again.

Aside from the obvious recycled conflict, I find its genesis problematic.

In the series finale, Trixie, Al’s former favorite prostitute, shoots Hearst in the shoulder in retribution for his murder of Ellsworth. Hearst survives and agrees to leave town, but demands that Trixie be murdered as a consequence. Since Al favors Trixie, he kills a different prostitute in Trixie’s stead. Hearst did not get a good look at Trixie when she shot him, so Al’s gamble works and Hearst leaves Deadwood amidst vocal rebukes from the town citizenry.

10 years later, Trixie is pregnant with Sol Star’s child. When Hearst comes to town to celebrate South Dakota’s official entrance into the Union, Trixie gives into an angry fit and berates him in her customary acid-tongued fashion from her balcony as he passes by. This, of course, raises Hearst’s suspicions, thereby causing him to demand that Charlie Utter surrender his land in exchange for Hearst’s forgiveness of Trixie. When Charlie refuses to sell, he gets dead, and things escalate from there.

I don’t buy for a second that Trixie would dishonor the dead whore’s sacrifice (her name was Jenn, by the way), and put her future baby and marriage in jeopardy by calling out Hearst as she did. Trixie was my second favorite character because of her sharp tongue and irascible manner, but she wasn’t a fool. I believe that impending motherhood and the welfare of the community of Deadwood, which Al killed Jenn to protect, would have suppressed her fiery temper. A moving scene between Trixie and Al late in the movie illustrates extreme survivor’s guilt on Trixie’s part over Jenn’s death, which lead to her serious lapse in judgment. I just don’t buy it. I believe she felt guilty, but I think she would recognize that the burden she carried was not hers alone.

There is a subplot involving the romance between Jane and Joanie Stubbs, but it feels hollow. Apparently, Cy Tolliver left Joanie his saloon when he died, but the circumstances are barely mentioned. I’m not sure I buy that Joanie would take anything Cy gave her, as she was trying to break free of him at the end of the series. Even so, what was to prevent Al from waltzing across the street and bargaining with Joanie once Cy had been declared dead? He may have grown soft in his old age, but he was still a pragmatic businessman.

Some fans criticize the fact that Al had relatively little to do in the movie. With respect, that was the fuckin’ point. Al tries to keep his finger on the pulse as he did in his prime, but his diminished capacity causes him to be shunted to the side, allowing Seth to take center stage.

Years of drinking and whoring had worn away Al, finally taking a toll on his liver. Remember also that he was afflicted by a stroke after suffering from a kidney stone that almost cost him his life in the second season. It is perfectly credible that, 10 years later, he would be on death’s doorstep. Some fans wanted him to go out in a blaze of glory, killing Hearst (and himself in the process) in order to save Trixie and the town. Again, with respect, that is not what Deadwood was all about. I found Al’s final scene, passing away quietly in his bed, being tended to by his close friends, far more true and fitting for the end of Al’s story arc than I did the shoot-out between Bullock and Hearst’s mercenaries.

Like it or not, Al Swearengen served as the heart and soul of the budding community of Deadwood. More than any other character, he symbolized its journey from a lawless, violent camp to a thriving town. He began as a cut-throat crime boss who abused his women, killed his disobedient underlings and hurled racial insults at any non-white person within his vicinity. By the end of the movie, he was gently urging Sol Star to run for political office and offering to leave Trixie his saloon.

Like Breaking Bad, Deadwood is the story of change. Unlike Breaking Bad, which showed the decay of one man’s soul, Deadwood shows that healthy change can be wrought through redemption and forgiveness. Seth Bullock begins the series as a man filled with rage at injustices he sees all around him. By the end, he is a husband, a father and an upstanding member of his community. The brief scene he shares with Alma demonstrates that their feelings for each other still smolder, but Seth remains a good man who stays loyal to his wife and honors his commitment to his family. Trixie becomes a mother and a wife. Charlie Utter dies defending the land that he worked so hard to cultivate. Others in the community, such as Tom Nuttall, continue to lead quiet, normal lives.

Not everyone changes. Jane is still an alcoholic vagabond, adrift on a sea of her own insecurities. Joanie appears to struggle with substance abuse and E. B. Farnum…well, he’ll always be E. B. Farnum. Hearst is also the same purple villain that drives the plot, showing less nuance than many of Milch’s other creations.

Yet, it is heartening to watch Al pass quietly, knowing that, whatever storms may pass over Deadwood, those whom he cared for in his own curmudgeonly way, are safe. That alone made the movie worth the watch.

I did have to chuckle at certain points. Many characters got very little to do. I knew that would be the case going in. Alma Garret-Ellsworth had little more than a cameo in the movie, though this was due to conflicts in Molly Parker’s own work schedule. Anna Gunn only had one or two scenes as Martha Bullock. Each time I heard her speak, I was struck at how much more like Skyler White she sounded. Tim Olyphant too had much more Raylan Givens in his delivery than he did pre-Justified. On the other hand, Calamity Jane seemed as if she’d never left the role.

At the end of the day, I liked the movie a lot. I didn’t love it. I’m beginning to wonder if it’s possible to ever wrap up a series in a satisfactory manner. Fans of Game of Thrones don’t seem to think so. Maybe finales such as that of The Shield and Breaking Bad are more of an anomaly than a real possibility. Yet, I will re-watch Deadwood, The Movie. Every two years or so, when I break out the series for a re-run, I will now happily include this final chapter in my viewing, not choosing to skip it as I do other wrap-ups such as Homicide.

Will Deadwood be back for yet another chapter. I say emphatically, hell no! David Milch’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, embodied in the story by the passing of it’s central character, assures that this series has been appropriately laid to rest. In short, there ain’t no more fuckin’ Deadwood without Al Swearengen. I believe that this is only as it should be. Let Seth, Sol, Trixie, Jane and all the others pass into the sunset knowing that a small few of us will speak of them fondly in TV heaven.

Huzzah, Deadwood! Huzzah!

Pass the Popcorn

I’m gonna write about something positive because…well…I need something positive in my life right now.

On Facebook the other night, I opined that I missed the era of appointment television. This was back in the glory days when 24, The Sopranos, Deadwood and Breaking Bad all reigned supreme. I miss the anticipation of a new episode, new plot developments and new water cooler buzz the next day after Tony would whack someone, or Jack Bauer would torture another Muslim terrorist.

That said, 2019 is an exciting year for those of us who have the recent TV nostalgia bug. Three movies are due out this year that serve as codas to previous TV giants.

The first one is a series that I already touched upon last October. Deadwood was a show that was canceled before its time. On Friday, May 31, HBO will correct that grave injustice by running Deadwood: The Movie. We’ll get to see Al Swearengen and all of the gang of Deadwood one last time before they ride off into the sunset. I’ve already shared my thoughts and hopes for the upcoming movie, but of the three, this is the one for which I’m most excited. It’s probably because fans have been waiting years for this thing to drop.

The second one excites me, though not to the degree of the Deadwood epic. David Chase is filming a prequel to The Sopranos called, The Many Saints of Newark. No, guys, it won’t explain the great black screen of doom that still frustrates many Sopranos fans. Rather, it will focus on a young Tony Soprano in the late ‘60’s when the Italians were embroiled in racial hostility with African-Americans. The interesting thing about this movie is that James Gandolfini’s son Michael is set to play young Tony. We’ll see how that goes. The thing that gives me pause is that I think David Chase is going to fuck up the timeline. I just re-watched the entire series of The Sopranos and it was stated more than once that Tony Soprano was born in 1960. At one point, Carmela tells a reporter that Tony was three when JFK was assassinated. So by the time Tony was 15, Nixon would already have been impeached. I don’t know how chase is going to reconcile this obvious continuity error. Still, I’ll go see the movie and hopefully will enjoy it.

The third movie is the one you would think I would be most excited about, but I am the least excited. Earlier this year, Vince Gilligan announced that we are going to get a Breaking Bad movie. Publicists are still playing it coy, but everyone knows that the movie will star Aaron Paul reprising his role as doomed Jesse Pinkman. When we last saw Jesse, Walt had freed him from captivity from Todd and Uncle Jack and Jesse drove off laughing crazily as Walt died in his meth lab over the strains of, “Baby Blue.”

My problem is that this served as the perfect ending to Breaking Bad. Walt died, Jesse was free but scarred for life and Walt’s family may or may not have been able to live in comfort thanks to his efforts on their behalf. Those unanswered questions are part of what makes the finale so good. Not everything had to be wrapped up with a pretty bow on top.

Whereas Deadwood feels completely necessary and welcome and the Sopranos prequel may or may not work, but can’t hurt anything, the Breaking Bad movie feels superfluous. Sure, Jesse was a compelling character, but without the presence of Bryan Cranston as Walt off whom Jesse used to play so wonderfully, the story will feel hollow. Yes, I may be selling Vince Gilligan short, but he gave us Better Call Saul and, for me, the results are mixed. Maybe Breaking Bad is that lightning that only strikes once. Yet, if possible, I will be in the theater on opening night, popcorn and Peanut Butter M & M’s in hand as the credits roll.

Even if all three wrap-up movies suck, it will be a pleasure to have something to look forward to that doesn’t involve a super hero, a transforming car or a talking CGI animal. I’ll take it, and pass the fuckin’ popcorn. If you don’t have any hot butter, I’ll settle for canned peaches. What about baked xiti?

Cocksucka!!!

There are television shows that do not age well. As much as I was addicted at the time, 24 sadly falls into this category. The program, while a compelling thriller in its early years, adopted a plot-driven formula that hinged on the Hitchcockian ploy of, what happens next. Once you learn what happens next, it greatly reduces the rewatchability factor after you experience your first go-round. There is little emotional reward in watching Jack Bauer save David Palmer’s life when you have the foreknowledge that, three seasons later, David Palmer will be felled by an assassin’s bullet in the name of, just another plot twist. I will always hold a place of affection for the first season of 24, but seldom rewatch anything past it.

Then, there’s Deadwood, a contemporary of 24, as well as other HBO stable favorites such as The Sopranos, Sex and the City, The Wire and Six Feet Under. I rewatch it every couple of years and, contrary to the adventures of Jack Bauer and Chloe, Deadwood grows ever sweeter and more profound with the passage of time.

One year after my move to Omaha, I unwound the first episode of Deadwood on a lonely Friday night and was amazed to discover that I lost track of time as I viewed it. The profanity-drenched Shakespearian dialogue, the complex plot, the wonderfully-woven characters and the minimalistic music all blend together to form nothing less than a masterpiece.

On its face, Deadwood is a western. The first few episodes carry all of the trappings of classic westerns, including a hanging that is little more than a lynching under color of authority, gunfights, gold miners, and even real life western heroes in the form of Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane.

Yet, as you scratch beneath the top soil of this series, you discover that Deadwood is no more a western in the traditional sense than The Wire is a traditional cop show. This truth is brought home with a bang when Wild Bill Hickok (Keith Carradine) is murdered at the end of the fourth episode. Hickok belies the heroic image and is depicted here as a burned-out man who carries his celebrity status like a cross. Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert), long viewed through a historical lens as a tough-talking, quick-shooting female icon of the old west, is painted here as little more than a loud-mouth drunk with a streak of yellow; a loser who just happened to scout for General Custer.

So these two come to Deadwood, not first built as a town, but as merely a thriving, lawless camp in the Dakota Territory. With them come Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), along with his partner, Sol Star (John Hawkes.) All they want to do is build a hardware store and make a modest living, but Bullock’s temper and his strong sense of morality propel him down a certain path until he becomes the local sheriff by the end of the first season. There’s the town medic, Doc Cochran (Brad Dourif), who’s irascible manner is matched only by the demons he collected on various battlefields of the Civil War. There’s Alma Garret (Molly Parker), a rich New York society woman who finds herself in Deadwood against her will at the behest of her doe-eyed, tenderfoot husband. There’s the slimy E. B. Farnum (William Sanderson), hotelier, grifter and spy for whomever has his price. There’s Ellsworth (Jim Beaver), a prospector down on his luck, but who’s affable nature makes him a universally beloved man throughout the camp. And there’s the Reverend Smith (Ray McKinnon), a preacher who brings religion to Deadwood, but who is doomed by a brain tumor.

At the center of it all sits Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), local crime boss, cut-throat and architect of everything shady that goes on in the region. Swearengen is a brutal but efficient criminal who operates out of the Gem Saloon, where he is quick to put a boot on the neck of any of his prostitutes if they get out of line, or cut the throat of any of his underlings should they cross him. His henchmen, Dan Dority (W. Earl Brown), Johnny Burns (Sean Bridgers), and later, Silas Adams (Titus Welliver), are bound to Swearengen by a mixture of fear, respect and loyalty. Even Trixie (Paula Malcomson), his preferred prostitute and sometime confidant is torn by her bondage to him as the series progresses.

The nature of Swearengen’s business makes him many enemies throughout the course of the series. Bullock is the most obvious. The two clash, both ethically and physically as their dealings continue. Al also has competition in the person of Cy Tolliver (Powers Boothe), a ruthless riverboat gambler who opens a larger, more expensive saloon right across the street from Al’s joint. Al also finds his power threatened after Hickok’s murder captures the attention of the territorial government in Yankton, embodied in a commissioner (Stephen Tobolowsky), who is the only man who surpasses Farnum in the unctuous department. And there are the non-human threats such as a plague of smallpox, which forces Al to realize that the camp can best defend itself against external threats if it comes together and forms a local government of its own.

The plague ushers in, not only a body count, but the reality that Deadwood is more than a collection of people brought together by their lust for gold. It is a budding community. If The Wire represents the death of a great city, Deadwood represents its antithesis in the formation of a small town. And here is why Deadwood differs from it’s postmodern contemporaries such as The Sopranos and Mad Men. While those shows are dark, gritty affairs tinged with existentialism, the main theme of Deadwood is growth. Many of the characters who come to Deadwood down on their luck find new strength in themselves as they see the town begin to take shape around them. The outward trappings of civilization begin to appear as evidenced by the formation of a town bank, a livery stable, a newspaper, a telegraph, a school for the children and even a local theater in the third season. Swearengen is the most blatant symbol of growth as he as he undergoes a gradual metamorphosis from a ruthless crime boss to the town’s unofficial mayor by series end.

This doesn’t mean that all characters transform themselves from bad to good people. Series creator David Milch is excellent at painting with shades of gray. Seth Bullock wears a sheriff’s badge and cloaks himself in rigid morality, yet he carries on a passionate affair with Alma Garret, even while his wife Martha (Anna Gunn) and young stepson are traveling to join him in Deadwood. Calamity Jane struggles with alcoholism in the wake of Wild Bill’s death. Doc Cochran, Alma Garret and Steve the town racist also struggle with addiction. Tolliver’s madam, Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens), tries to break free of her pimp, only to be driven into the arms of a serial killer (Garret Dillahunt) akin to Jack the Ripper, who has a taste for kinky sex and dead whores.

Deadwood was one of the flashpoints of the Gold Rush that typified life in the latter half of the West of the 19th Century. Naturally, it would draw a ragged assortment of criminals, drifters, drop-outs and honest people as its profile rose in America. And it was inevitable that it would also draw the attention of predatory capitalists. Such a figure arrives in the third season of the show in the form of George Hearst (Gerald McRaney), a greedy multi-millionaire who cares far more for gold than he does for human life. Yet, while he plods through the camp like a juggernaut, attempting to possess everything and everyone within his assumed domain, the town fights back, thereby strengthening their sense of community. Swearengen and Bullock are unlikely allies as they face a common enemy; a story that has played out time and again throughout the course of human history. Hearst is ultimately vanquished, but not in a manner that traditionalists who enjoy stories of the conflict between good and evil will find completely satisfying. The departure of Hearst from Deadwood proved to serve as the unexpected finale of the series as well, much to the consternation of the small but vocal group of fans.

The final episode of Deadwood aired in 2006. For years, HBO and David Milch pointed the long finger of blame at each other as to the reasons why Deadwood was suddenly fed to the pigs. To this day, no one can give a clear answer. The low ratings, even by HBO standards, certainly played a part. Small wonder. Deadwood is certainly not for everyone. The violence is often brutal. The plots are dense and sweeping. The language was often given as the reason why many people were put off by it. It is an irony that the dialogue is simultaneously guttural and elegant. Most of the characters spat out words like “fuck,” and “cunt” as casually as Kim Kardashian uses words such as “like,” and “umm.” “Cocksucker,” was often the centerpiece of many a deadwood drinking game on chat forums of which I was a participant. In short, Deadwood ain’t your grandpa’s western. Other reasons for the abrupt cancelation may have been a growing weariness of David Milch’s sometimes erratic shooting schedule on the part of HBO executives, or a lack of returns in the Emmy Awards department given the expensive nature of the show. At the time, Deadwood was the most expensive show being produced in American broadcast television.

Sidebar: Milch’s erratic production schedule was one of the reasons why he was removed as head writer of NYPD Blue. This was largely due to his fondness for heroin and gambling. In interviews, he claimed to have kicked the former habit by the time of the production of Deadwood, though he was more ambiguous about the latter.

Almost immediately after the announcement of Deadwood’s cancelation, there was talk of the cast and crew coming together once more to do a series of wrap-up movies, or a truncated fourth season… Or something. That was 12 years ago. Rumors have swirled on the internet, but after a series of false starts and empty hopes, nothing came of it. I gave up on the idea not long after I went to Denver, resigning myself to the notion of watching three seasons of epic television every one or two years.

Last July, I was sitting in the control room at work playing on Twitter when I came across a tweet from Deadwood sycophant, Alan Sepinwall. It said something like, “Can’t wait for W. Earl Brown to give us the inside scoop from the new Deadwood movie.” Google told me the rest. HBO had officially confirmed that, yes, Deadwood would indeed be filming a final movie to tie up loose ends. If things proceeded according to plan (and that’s always a big if where Milch is concerned), shooting was to commence two weeks ago. What a herculean effort it must’ve taken to bring all the surviving cast back together for one last hurrah! Or is that, huzzah!?

The only thing I know about the movie is that, of course, it will take place 12 years after the final episode of the regular series. There is no way they could’ve done otherwise. All of the cast members have aged, many of them with other trophies dangling from their belts. Timothy Olyphant starred in another western-style series, Justified; a show that is good, but not great. Titus Welliver has gone on to play Harry Bosch, Michael Connelly’s literary cop in an Amazon series. Ian McShane currently stars in American Gods. Molly Parker has a recurring role on House of Cards. Powers Boothe recurred on Nashville before his death in 2017. About half the cast had guest stints on Sons of Anarchy. Dayton Callie had a regular role on the show. And Anna Gunn (God bless her) played Skyler White on Breaking Bad.

Sidebar: The character I’m most curious about is Doc Cochran, who was suffering from tuberculosis in the third season. There is no way he could have survived another 12 years. Milch assures us that all of the regular cast will appear, except for Titus Welliver. The only way they can possibly incorporate Doc is through a flashback; a technique never previously employed on the series. We are also promised that Cy Tolliver’s absence will not go unnoticed. My fervent hope is that Joanie Stubbs is finally able to rise above her circumstances should Cy be dead.

However the movie turns out, I will be glad of a more fitting conclusion than that which we received in 2006. Whether or not the movie lives up to expectations, at least the wondering and waiting will soon be at an end.

Adendum: 10/23/18

I managed to locate W. Earl Brown’s Twitter feed. He confirms that, yes, the cast and crew are back together and in production. Deadwood the Movie is scheduled for a tentative Spring release. Of course, they are now on a two-week hiatus so that hoopalhead Milch can catch up, but it wouldn’t be Deadwood if things went off like clockwork.

Huzzah!