The Juice

I don’t remember exactly where I was on June 12, 1994, when Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman were brutally murdered. Based on the timeline, I’m sure I was in Selleck Hall on UNL campus, attending summer classes. I was probably hanging out in my room watching Star Trek: The Next Generation when the news broke like distant thunder in a dark sky. I don’t remember where I was during the tense Ford Bronco chase either. I was probably taking a nap.

I do remember exactly where I was and what I was doing on October 2, 1995, when the verdict in the trial of the century was read. Like most of America, including children in classrooms across the country, I was tuned in and watching. I was in my room on the second floor of Selleck Hall’s main building, located right next to the elevator and directly above the famous dining hall. I was lying on my bed in front of my small TV with my room door open, as many guys on the floor did during the day hours. I watched in horror as the court clerk read the verdict, finding O.J. Simpson not guilty of murder. I remember hearing crying from the courtroom, as well as someone screaming, “No!”

What happened next is seared into my memory. A guy named Kenji, an African-American student who lived across the hall from me, began screaming and shouting. They weren’t screams of anger, outrage or fear. They were celebratory in nature, as if his football team just won the Super Bowl. I lay on my bed and choked down my anger as several other voices on the floor also joined in the cheers and whooping.

That moment was when I really got it for the first time. I saw the great racial divide that exists in America. Sure, I’d watched the Rodney King drama unfold three years earlier, but the names and voices from L.A. were just concepts coming to me out of the air. And sure, I’d been lectured at by sanctimonious professors in classrooms about racism and such. The Simpson verdict was when I really got the point.

In that moment as I listened to Kenji rejoicing over the liberation of a guy who butchered the mother of his kids, I hated the fucker. I didn’t hate him because he was black. Kenji and I served together in Selleck government and I always liked the guy. But now, I hated him for cheering on a rich asshole who literally got away with murder.

Nine years later, I was attending an NFBNewsline seminar in Baltimore. I was in a room known as the Quadrangle, a large space that held four beds. I had three roommates. Two of them were black. Somehow, the subject of O.J. Simpson came up. I remember feeling outnumbered and attacked as I stated that I was dead certain that O.J. had gotten away with murder. The two of them laughed at me. I remember the laughter to this day. It was scornful, mocking and derisive. They were confident in their assurance that O.J. had been framed for murder. Based on the way Nicole and Ron’s throats had been cut, it had obviously been done by gangsters to whom O.J. owed gambling debts. The murders were a warning to O.J. to either pay up or die. That’s why he ran. He feared for his life.

These two guys are suckers, I thought. They actually think that O.J. was innocent. They are buying into a conspiracy theory that has no basis in fact.

Now, after the death of O.J. Simpson four days ago from cancer at age 76, I have come to doubt my initial impulse. It was born of reflexive vexation for being mocked as if I were a loveable but simple child. Looking back on it, I firmly believe that both men knew full well that O.J. was guilty. They knew the truth for what it was, but they chose to advance a certain narrative in solidarity with their community. In other words, they were gaslighting me. They were gaslighting a dumb hick from Nebraska who didn’t know what it was like to grow up black in Atlanta. They were contemptuous of a white boy who just didn’t get black anger in America. They were chiding a clueless idiot who didn’t understand the healthy, well-earned suspicion that many black people harbored toward the police. That Ryan O. was a nice enough guy, but he was naïve at best, ignorant at worst. Yes, they had very good reasons to lie to me, but they were lying none the less.

How do I know they were gaslighting me? Because, I’ve experienced it time after time after time over the past 10 years. It’s been done again and again for the same reasons. The pattern is sickeningly familiar. The reasons are varied, from supporting a certain political candidate to protecting society from an invisible disease to condemning a foreign country for defending itself. But the motives, benevolent at the beginning and sinister as they mushroom, are always the same. If the stakes are high enough, the lie is a noble one. It has to be told to serve a greater good. If you choose not to believe this lie and engage in a full-throated support of it, you are the problem. You are racist. You are sexist. You are Islamophobic, or transphobic, or whatever the cause du jour might entail. You are bigoted and close-minded. You’re a dupe for the invisible puppet masters pulling the strings. You are the true enemy and you deserve to be canceled, shunned, ridiculed and maybe even to have righteous violence visited upon you.

How ironic that the reasons for those noble lies often come back to the doorsteps of those who are rich, powerful and influential in society. Maybe they are politically influential. Maybe they are culturally influential. But, at the end of the day, they have money and success, so morality must take a hit in the name of service to a certain community.

I’m not writing this to relitigate the O.J. trial. If anyone is interested, there are hours and hours of retrospective analysis and raw historical footage that you can view from any lens if you wish to understand what it was like to live through that time. I’ve already said that I believe he was guilty and that he got away with murder. Unless the real killers should magically turn up with smoking gun evidence, my view on this will never change.

My reasons for writing about this now are merely to take note of the fact that our modern age of mass gaslighting didn’t start when Donald Trump first ran for president in 2016. It didn’t start when he won that election. It didn’t start when COVID-19 broke free into the world. It didn’t start when George Floyd was murdered. It didn’t start when a violent mob assaulted the U.S. Capital on January 6, 2021. It didn’t start when Russia invaded Ukraine, or Hamas raped and massacred thousands of Israeli citizens on October 7, 2023.

It didn’t even really start when certain voices began to excuse 9/11, or when Bill Clinton avoided paying a political price for the Monica Lewinsky affair. To my mind, our modern age of mass gaslighting started on October 2, 1995, when an entire segment of the country knew that a rich and powerful man murdered his wife and an inconvenient bystander and got away with it because he had the means to hire the best lawyers that money could buy, and they carried his water anyway, knowing damn well that the story wasn’t true. The modern gaslighting age started when the internet was only in its infancy, cellular phones were a rare luxury and you actually had to go to the library to do research. DNA was a semi-magical concept shrouded in the respectability of science, but still elusive to the masses.

How the acquittal of O.J. Simpson on double murder charges has served the larger interests of the African-American community is beyond me. I certainly know how it served the activist class, including certain journalists, pundits and academics who have a vested interest in the racial grievance game. But how it served the interests of the average, decent mom and pap folks who just want to make it through life with their fair share of dignity, respect and opportunity that goes beyond their skin color…I have no idea.

Supposedly, video has surfaced of one of the jurors from the O.J. murder trial admitting that everyone on the jury knew that he was guilty, but they wanted revenge for the Rodney King beating in 1992. I appreciate the candor. I’d rather hear unpleasant truths than be lied to for the advancement of some self-serving fiction. On the other side of it, the implicit understanding is that O.J.’s subsequent conviction for robbery in 2007 at the hands of an all-white jury was payback in kind for his skating on the murder charges in 1994. He served 10 years in prison, which was merely a fraction of what he actually deserved, but at least it was something. In the meantime, it looks as if O.J. was able to get away with not paying the bulk of the hefty judgement against him leveled by the Goldman family in the wrongful death civil suit.

And so, round and round we go, tit-for-tat. Each side in the grievance game can hold up their chosen avatar when the argument comes. The white folks have O.J. Simpson, who should’ve died of cancer while serving a life sentence in prison. The left has Mark ‘scumbag’ Fuhrman, who still enjoys being a celebrity contributor on Fox News. It appears that this is how we will be playing the grievance game for the next while. There does not appear to be an off-ramp on this doom carousel. Only God will decide when he’s ready to turn off the music.

I have no idea what became of Kenji. We were never close. I do hope he’s well. I do know that one of the two gentlemen I argued with in the Quadrangle became very prominent in NFB leadership. I heard from reliable sources that he ran cover for Fred Schroeder long before the sexual scandal broke in 2020. How appropriate that he had a chance to sharpen his gaslighting skills and that he could be useful to the so-called, “greater good.”

Incidentally, I do recommend the limited series, American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson, aired eight years ago on F-X. There are some unfortunate casting choices to be sure. Cuba Gooding Jr. was a terrible choice to play O.J., and John Travolta was cartoonish as Robert Shapiro. But the story is saved by excellent performances by Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark, Courtney B. Vance as Johnny Cochran, David Schwimmer as Robert Kardashian (Kim’s dad) and especially by Sterling K. Brown as Chris Darden. The writing is thoughtful and deliberate, taking no definite positions about guilt or innocence amidst the growing circus of the trial. If you can find it, it’s well worth your time, unlike the successive ACS series concerning the Bill Clinton impeachment saga. I have not yet watched the five-part documentary, O.J. Simpson: Made in America.

God bless the Brown and Goldman families. God bless O.J.’s kids. They didn’t ask for this. And God help America. You can turn off the music any time now, Big Daddy.

Kiss My Cinnabons

Welp, I’m about a year overdue, but I did promise that I would render my final verdict on Better Call Saul. Last night, Dana and I watched the BSC episode concerning Mike’s backstory, which turned out to be the Mike high point of the series. Today, I engaged in a thread by the one and only Wes Craven, in which he expresses bafflement at the notion that Better Call Saul is perceived by some to be superior to its predecessor, Breaking Bad. Perhaps this is God’s way of telling me that it’s time for me to hold forth, so here goes.

First, anyone who believes that Better Call Saul is better than Breaking Bad should be given an acid bath in Jesse’s tub. I have written elsewhere about my opinion of the two shows, but now that both are complete, I stand by my initial assertion that Bob Odenkirk is simply not leading man material; certainly not in the way that Bryan Cranston was. This becomes more evident as BSC moves along and becomes more serious. As the story calls on Jimmy/Saul to plumb the depths of his complex core, I don’t feel it in the way that I did with Cranston.

It is ironic that I began the show fully invested in Mike’s character, while caring little about Jimmy. At the end, I was largely underwhelmed by the Mike arc. Unlike BB, which revolved around Walter and Jesse, it felt as if BSC ran along parallel tracks. The characters of Jimmy and Mike seldom intersect. When they do, the moments are fleeting. One gets the impression in BB that Saul and Mike are in it together, but the prequel doesn’t bear this out. Also, the drug stuff involving Mike, Nacho, Hector, Tuco, The Cousins, Gus and Lalo all feels anticlimactic. We know Gus is ultimately going to prevail over Lalo. We know that Hector winds up stranded in a nursing home at Gus’s mercy. We know The Cousins live through BSC, only to be killed by Hank in BB. We’re supposed to care about Nacho’s fate, but really, he’s a small cog in a bigger wheel. When he finally kills himself with a ‘fuck you!’ to Lalo, it has a meh feel. The worst part is the cold fact that we know that everything that Mike does in the name of providing for his granddaughter will ultimately come to not. Why is any of this dramatically interesting?

The Jimmy arc is more compelling, particularly in the early seasons when Chuck was alive. We don’t need long, clever musical montages of Saul selling burner phones and representing hookers in court to know why he does what he does. Chuck is the reason. But once Chuck dies, Jimmy’s story becomes less absorbing to me. He eventually transfers his feelings of hostility from his dead brother to Howard Hamlin, but of course, this doesn’t end well. I think the best moments of the series happen between Jimmy and Chuck. Both are right about each other’s flaws and both are powerless to do anything about it while they are locked in their sibling antagonism.

This brings me to Kim. Many critics and fans fell in love with Rhea Seehorn as Kim Wexler, Jimmy’s sometime girlfriend, partner, friend and eventual spouse. In the growing age of strong female characters, Kim is supposed to represent the moon to Jimmy’s sun. Yet, it never feels earned to me. At first, Kim appears to be a strong, confident, intelligent woman who deals with a career setback and eventually goes out on her own. Then, she becomes Jimmy’s enabler, aiding him in his con games. Her code is, “The mark deserves it.” Then, she becomes his wife. It seems she loves taking the dark ride that Jimmy offers…until she doesn’t. She pushes Jimmy to go after Howard, but ultimately, she appears to fall victim to her own sense of guilt and regret when things turn fatal for poor Howard. Her story ends as she is living a self-punishing life of dullness, complete with a monosyllabic sex partner. When she breaks down in a less than convincing crying jag on an airport shuttle, we’re supposed to bleed for her, but it feels like a female trope meant to wring sympathy from a jury.

My problem with the Kim character is that she feels like the result of an identity crisis born in the writers room. Yes, she is a woman of conflicting passions and morality, but none of it feels particularly self-aware. It’s as if the writers are engaged in a game of tug-of-war with Kim. Will she be good or bad this week? Will she be Jimmy’s conscience, or the devil on his shoulder? Unlike Walter White’s descent into pure evil, which felt organic, this feels patched together, as if we are seeing sign posts planted along a highway that is in a state of constant disrepair.

Finally, the ending. I started out lukewarm on the finale of Breaking Bad, but my appreciation for it grew over time. Conversely, I started out really liking the finale of Better Call Saul, but like it less and less as I process it more. Given all we know about Jimmy’s character, I can’t believe that he would throw himself upon the mercy of the court and take 76 years in prison just because he loves Kim. That is simply not in keeping with anything that we’ve learned about the character. Yes, it was cathartic to see Jimmy confess all of his sins in court, particularly his role in the suicide of his brother, but the confession also felt inorganic to me. I did like the flashes we saw of Jimmy’s life as Gene in Omaha. We always knew the criminal life was too much of a temptation for Jimmy to resist. I like the idea of Carol Burnett serving as Jimmy/Saul/Gene’s undoing. I just don’t buy that he’d throw himself on the sword to save Kim. Nothing we saw in the previous 61 episodes indicated that he was capable of that level of self-sacrifice.

A big problem with BSC is what critic Hannah Grace Long calls, “Prequelitis.” You see it all over the place with Star Wars, Star Trek, Batman, Game of Thrones and all other stories of an origin nature. When you’re writing a prequel, you can’t help but do a certain amount of dot-connecting. This is how Jimmy meets Mike. Check. This is how Mike meets Gus. Check. This is how Gus outwits the cartel. Check. Man we even get Gale Boetticher singing the periodic tables. Cool, or superfluous? You be the judge. Unlike Breaking Bad, which had a clear canvas on which to paint, Better Call Saul is bound to be a bit contrived. This leads to storytelling that is choppy, uneven and sometimes, disappointing. You can’t help but compare the prequel to the original. You can’t help but build up your expectations based on previous work. And when those expectations are not met, many fans can’t help but be disappointed. It is as inevitable as a heroin addict choking on her own vomit.

Vince Gilligan once said that Breaking Bad was really about the in-between moments. BSC was even moreso, but too often, it fell down on the job due to the viewing audience already knowing where the story was supposed to go.

The best example is Mike. In the episode, “Five-O,” Mike confesses his sins to his daughter-in-law after he relocates to Albuquerque. He asks her, “Can you live with it?” The next time we see Mike with his granddaughter, they are playing happily together. Given the nature of the crimes Mike admitted to Stacey, one would think she would have a hard time forgiving him, but she appears to do just that without any explanation as to how she made that emotional journey. This is something Breaking Bad would never have done. It couldn’t. In BB, we already know that Mike has a great relationship with his surviving family. Therefore, BSC doesn’t have to go to the trouble of showing us how Mike gets there. This is lazy writing in the service of prequelitis.

I’m high-lighting the weaknesses of Better Call Saul, but it really is a solid series by prequel standards. The writing is very good, especially compared to most other dramatic fare today. If you like Breaking Bad, BSC is worth a look just to see how all of the pieces fit together. But when people try to tell you that BSc is superior, give them a verbal box cutter.

Last Friday marked the 10-year anniversary of the Breaking Bad series finale. I will be watching it this fall as a commemoration. I never tire of the show and still feel it is the best television series of all time. Better Call Saul is worthy, but Heisenberg’s shoes are impossible to fill. Anyone who tells you otherwise is engaging in wishcasting.

And Bethany, if you’re reading this and want to argue with me, come do it in person in Omaha. We’ll debate it over a pint at a place called Brazen Head pub. They don’t serve fried chicken with meth batter, but their fish and chips are excellent.

Resistance Is Futile

Thanks to Picard Season 3, I’m back in a Star Trek phase; surprise, surprise, surprise!

That’s right. After I excoriated the first season on this very blog, I gave up on Picard and his angsty group of space misfits. Reports on the heinous second season (Q not withstanding) seemed to validate my position.

Then came the third season. The show got new writers, the band got back together and everyone who has hated new Trek started telling me how good the third season of Picard is.

They weren’t wrong. More on that in a few weeks after the show ends.

But this reemergence into Trek has got me to thinking. One of the purposes of Star Trek has always been to serve as subtle commentary on contemporary society. To that end, I will spend these remaining paragraphs illustrating why the progressive left and the so-called “new right,” strongly resemble the two greatest adversaries that the United Federation of Planets have ever faced in the whole of the Trek universe.

First, imagine this, if you will.

An alien species that is driven by a hive mind. It is one giant collective that feeds on the uniqueness of other cultures and worlds to grow itself. Individuality is strictly prohibited. All members are born into the collective and are immediately raised to service the larger community. There are no parents. There are no genders. There are no individual characteristics of any kind.

“Why do you resist? We only wish to raise quality of life.” That was the quote from Locutus, formerly Jean-Luc Picard, when his crewmates rescued him from the collective and restored him to his human self.

Such is the creed of our current progressive left. Resistance is futile. We only wish to raise quality of life. But instead of words like, “assimilate,” and “irrelevant,” they use other universal language such as, “diversity, equity and inclusion.” Always in that order, always with an eye toward intersectionality, always with the goal of inclusion, which is merely code for assimilation into the community (collective.) If anyone should express any tendency toward individualism, they are immediately castigated. “You will either be assimilated, or you will be annihilated. Resistance is futile.”

Think I’m exaggerating? Try attending any seminar or conference at which the language of the progressive left is used. Try dealing with governmental bureaucracy, the red tape of the university system or the growing number of corporations who subscribe to the hive mind and you’ll discover how Borg-like they really are. Today, it’s cultural. Tomorrow, it’s business. Next year, it’s the government. It ends with totalitarian regimes such as you find in China, North Korea and Cuba.

Sidebar: Eventually, we learn that The Borg have a queen. I guess the future is feminine.

On the other side of the table, we have a group of people who can change their shape at will. Yesterday, they described themselves as limited government conservatives who believed in fiscal responsibility, personal responsibility, the positive power of character and freedom for all. Then, a great changeling came among them and they all proved to be changelings themselves. This changeling took many forms over the years; successful businessman, Democrat, architect, stalwart husband, Independent, television star, Republican, and eventually, president. In truth, he was none of those things. He merely changed his shape to fit whatever circumstance suited him.

Like the Founders of the Dominion, this changeling insisted on absolute, unquestioning loyalty and obedience. This authoritarianism took the form of a spiritual slavishness in his followers. Any question should not only be ridiculed, but should be punished. Like the Jem’Hadar, these slavish soldiers will even attack institutions based on the mere whims of their leader.

As it turns out, all of the changelings, including the great founder, are nothing more than buckets of shapeless, formless goo. Whatever shape they take in the moment is not their true form. That has only the substance of soft, organic slime that will retreat, regroup and reconstitute itself when conditions warrant. As it turns out, many of the Trump loyalists such as McCarthy, Cruz, Giuliani and even Haley are little more than masses of undulating goo at their center. And if anyone should not proclaim an instant, dogmatic loyalty to the head changeling, he/she will be severely punished.

There was a time when no changeling was allowed to harm another. See Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment. But with the emergence of Trump the changeling, that rule was abandoned with gusto. It’s not a coincidence that in the current iteration of Picard, changelings can and do kill one another.

Sidebar: Eventually, The Cardassians (the space Nazis of Star Trek) allied themselves with The Dominion during the war. Art imitates life.

Think I’m exaggerating? Take a look at what’s happening to state and local GOP parties at the grass roots level across the country. Today, Arizona, Nebraska, Michigan, etc. Tomorrow, America. There are no countries currently ruled by right-wing fascist ideologies, but the movements are growing.

The Borg. The Dominion. The two chief antagonists of the Star Trek universe. Very different, yet similar at their core. Despotic, totalitarian, autocratic and absolutely convinced of the moral certainty of their cause to the exclusion of all others.
Perhaps all two of you who read this may find my analogy to be trite and simplistic. Many find Star Trek itself to be trite and simplistic. Yet, I urge you to examine the chief avatar of both the extreme right and left; Donald Trump and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. If they aren’t generators of trite simplicity, I don’t know who is. And their quixotic proclamations only hold purchase because of their amplification by their legions of slavish followers, especially within the media.

Of course, neither side sees itself in the way I describe. The right views themselves as Klingons; a proud, warrior race. But the Klingons have honor. The new right have none. The left views itself as a group with infinite empathy, compassion and intellectual superiority, much like the Betazoid race. Yet, the Betazoid people also welcomed free expression and debate from all viewpoints. This notion is impossible for the left to grasp.

I’m sure anyone who is a Trek fan and who also cares about politics will read this and say something like, “Ryan, your analogy about the right is spot on, but your depiction of the left is crap.” People from the other side will echo this sentiment in reverse. It’s very easy to diagnose the opposition without running a concurrent self-evaluation. That is why we find ourselves where we are now.

In the escapism of Star Trek, both The Borg and The Dominion were fought and defeated by the Federation and their allies. That is fiction. We have no idea how things will play out in the real world of today. All I can tell you with certainty is that the threat is real and it is growing on both sides.

Happy Easter.

Don’t Stop Believing

In their comprehensive tome, The Sopranos Sessions, Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz write the following:

“We all know David Chase’s view of human nature is bleak. The Sopranos is set in a universe where good and evil have renamed themselves, principle and instinct. Animals are not known for their inclination to act on principle. Nearly every significant scene enacts the same basic struggle, pitting the self-preservation instinct against the influence of what Abraham Lincoln called, the better angels of our nature. These angels have glass jaws.”

Dumbing it down to Little Carmine’s intellect, the recurring theme in every episode of The Sopranos is the same. Given a choice, Tony and all humans in his orbit will never, ever do the right thing. They will always yield to their darker impulses.

This theme, hammered home with the blunt force of a baseball bat, alternately whispered in soft, sub textual tones of the demon on your other shoulder, is impossible to miss. Over seven seasons, 86 episodes and eight years, Humanity sucks! Capitalism sucks! America sucks! Depression sucks! No one on The Sopranos escapes without either being killed, emotionally broken or otherwise crushed in the giant maw of the great big nothing. The only survivors are able to do so by becoming willfully blind to their toxic reality.

I’ve written about The Sopranos before and I’ve said that I believe that David Chase is a miserable prick of a human being. If the old adage, misery loves company, is true, then Mr. Chase has a legion of companions. Like the garbage dumps along Tony’s routes, Chase loves to spread his noxious refuse far and wide, polluting the perfect landscape of what he views as willful human denial with his version of the truth. If that truth causes further emotional rot, so be it. That’s the price we all deserve to pay for our steadfast refusal to see the big picture.

There is no question that The Sopranos was groundbreaking for its time. It took a character who would have been treated as an antagonist in any former TV show and made him a protagonist. Furthermore, all crime shows that came after Tony Soprano carried the essence of his genes. Some offspring were worthy, such as The Shield and Breaking Bad, while others like Sons of Anarchy and Ozark were little more than sad, bastard children. Even other shows outside the crime genre such as Lost, 24 and Mad Men owed their success to The Sopranos. All of this may be my opinion, but it should be factual.

Last year, I was excited when I learned that The Sopranos had finally been offered with audio description. I waited for it to come out and have spent the past two months watching the show. I have finally come to the end and I can tell you two things.

The first is that the series still holds up after 15 years being off the air. The writing, acting and production values are supreme.

The second is that the show is an exhausting, dispiriting, ultimately redundant slog to get through. Even the complexity of the show is still predictably formulaic. Every season, Tony confronts new challenges in both his personal and professional lives. Every season, he prevails, but he doesn’t, all while dragging everyone around him down on his sinking pleasure barge of hedonistic misery. Tony Soprano never changes. No one in his world ever changes. Human nature is static.

This is a starkly conservative concept, so it should be comforting to me. Somehow, it’s not. That leads me to an inescapable question. Have I changed? I don’t hold the deep and abiding love of The Sopranos that I used to. I like the show. I respect the show. But I don’t love the show.

So what is different about me? Is it my age? Is it my emotional state? My physical state? The world around me? Jesus! If there’s anything to validate David Chase’s shitty view of humanity, it should be the current state of things. So why do I come to the great black screen of ambiguity at the end of the series and not rub my hands together in glee and say, ahhh, brilliant! Kylie, lets run it again! What’s more, why do I find myself contemptuous of Mr. Chase, rather than figuratively sitting at his feet in pure reverence?

Why haven’t I written in this blog in a while? Maybe, like Tony and his motley crew, I worry that my writing is reflective of a man in stasis. Why pass that misery on to others? If this world is steeped in bitter bile, why add to it? Why pass it off as artistic brilliance when it’s really just tepid mediocrity? Have I run out of source material? Are all of my themes exhausted? Am I dying a slow death of the soul that James Gandolfini might have undergone while inhabiting the vacuum that was Tony Soprano?

David Chase seems to be trapped in a paradox. On the one hand, he seems to be saying that humans can’t change. On the other, he displays repeated contempt for the whole of humanity for being unable to change. Am I incapable of change? Have I slowly, gradually changed and have just been unaware of it? Obviously, I’m older. I’m heavier. My ankles hurt more than they used to. I’m now a pet owner and I love Kylie dearly. I have a job that brings me immense pleasure on a daily basis. I love the surface pleasures like food, cigars, beer, music, a rainy thunderstorm, a good book or TV show, old-time radio, clocks, a stimulating conversation and swimming. My greatest pleasure in life is sex, which of course has proven to be elusive over the past few years.

But what else is there? As Tony Soprano muttered when he was trapped in his Kevin Finnerty coma dream, “Who am I? Where am I goin’?” I am now 47 years old, which coincidently was the same age Tony was when the show ended. What will I leave behind when the black screen finally comes up for me? Will I be Tony, trapped in an endless wheel of doom, or will I be someone else? If I had my druthers, I’d be more like Hank Schrader, able to do the right thing in spite of my flaws. But who knows. There’s the role we write for ourselves, and then there’s the role that we actually play.

I’m still trying to answer that elusive question. But I’ll tell you this… I’d rather be surrounded by a group of people who traffic in vapid inanities, but who are content with themselves, rather than to be accompanied by one deep thinker who wallows in syndical existentialism, all the while going about in pity for himself.

Or, maybe I’m just cloaking writers block in philosophical argle-bargle?

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.


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?