Hyperdrive and Endeavor

Hyperdrive Endeavour

Hyperdrive, series 1 and 2
Endeavour, series 1 and 2

Hyperdrive is a classic British Space sitcom that follows the hapless office drones of the HMS Camden Lock through the Galaxy promoting England’s interests in commerce.  Endeavour is a prequel series developing the early life of British favorite detective Inspector Morse (Endeavour is his first name).   One is goofy and light, with cardboard sets and a silly attitude; the other is gloomy and dark, rampant with corruption and society’s flaws.  Let’s look at them together!

  • Both shows turn on both strong actors, with Nick Frost bringing an earnest embarrassment to his role as Captain Mike Henderson, and Shaun Evans bringing a powerful meditative feel to Morse.  Both men are outsiders for those around them, though Henderson enjoys some admiration from colleagues while Morse is an outsider to everyone but his supervising DI.
  • Set design on both shows plays a huge role in the feel of the respective series.  Endeavor drips with 1960s rain and gloomy clouds, shaping the feel of the police station just barely able to outpace its own corruption to solve crimes.  One can’t help but find Hyperdrive ridiculous, as the on-ship and planetside sets are all bonkers.  These differences lead to wildly different outcomes for the characters.  In Hyperdrive, incompetence has little effect and doesn’t shape the narrative at all; Endeavor roils with the flaws of its police, setting Morse up as a Serpico-type figure.
  • Both shows, in their own way, teem with British-ness. They spring from English television tradition — Hyperdrive drawing on a staid sitcom style blending Fawlty Towers with Red Dwarf, while Endeavor not only draws on the British appetite for long-ish detective tales, but emerges out of them, as a prequel to a long running series which itself spawned a sequel in which a working-man DI recruits a smarty-pants DS.  Indeed, the Morse from Endeavor has more in common with Hathaway from Inspector Lewis than anyone else on TV.

Both shows are enjoyable, though the probably appeal to vastly different crowds.  Endeavor is due for a third season, but Hyperdrive seems to be done.

 

Dispatches from the Age of Electracy: I want to be part of the digital revolution!

Hallie and Jim

This season’s The Newsroom has re-told the story of the Snowden leaks on a smaller scale, exploring the idea of the reporter being jailed for contempt of court on refusing to name their source.  While this has been interesting, I find the plotlines about the intersection of the Internet and the news far more compelling.

Hallie’s work for a gawker-like blog makes Jim upset because her pay depends, to a degree, on traffic.  She begins adopting a more personal writing style (including writing about a fight she had with Jim) which doesn’t seem to be about news so much as about entertainment.  But Hallie makes key points to Jim — first, that audience concerns drives television news too, and that their ability to tell certain stories depends on their audience share.  Second, she asserts that a more personal writing style will connect with the readers.  I couldn’t help but think about the fact that in the digital age, the audience must be much more concerned with the people writing its news.  The automatic credibility obtained by working for ACN, for instance, doesn’t apply to Internet writers, so by building a personal connection with her audience, Hallie is amplifying the connection she makes with them.  Jim’s luxury of being able to only write “real news” is failing, hard. (It’s in her argument with Jim that Hallie shouts “I want to be part of the digital revolution!”)

The most recent episode had two more stories focused on the Internet era.  The new owner of ACN, played with perfect arrogance by B.J. Novak, demands programming and reporting changes that have angered the ‘pure journalists’ of the show but have pulled the network’s ratings up.  At the crux of this episode is their app, ACNywhere, which allows people to post celebrity sightings.  Sloan finds this awful, and invites the arrogant man who created the app on television to eviscerate him.  The episode perfectly captures the tension between the connectedness of the modern age and the dangerous nature of big data and its affordances.

Last, in a highly charged and strongly criticized sub-plot, Don was ordered to do a story on a website where women are invited to share their experiences of sexual assault where the police or other authorities did not pursue charges against the womens’ attackers.  The sub-plot attempted to explore the dangers of unfettered publication on the web, and the possibility for people to be tarnished by that story.  But in failing to adequately address the question of how to cover rape, its real effect was to make a hash of the public debate about rape and our terrible handling of it, both legally and socially.

Sonia Saraiya at Salon makes a convincing argument that the show’s season-length plot about the role of ‘citizen journalists’ is capped by the leaker story, the ultimate citizen journalism case into which all these concerns flow.  It wonders about publicity being directed at those who don’t deserve it, worries about the unforeseen consequences of releasing information into the world, and makes us think about the nature of truth in the digital age.

The Death Star Contractor problem and Agents of SHIELD

Watching episode 203 of Agents of SHIELD (the one with the ice guy), I couldn’t help but remember this scene from Clerks:

Because this is one of the first episodes where we see very much inside Hydra, it’s the first where we realize just how much Hydra matches SHIELD.  Like SHIELD, Hydra has secret facilities and awesome technology; like SHIELD, Hydra has world-class scientists and files on everything; and like SHIELD, Hydra has amazing brand management.  It’s always struck me just how much care the SHIELD graphics and art design departments take to brand everything SHIELD.  But this makes sense, in some ways.  The FBI has all sorts of FBI-branded stuff, doesn’t it?

But check this out:

Hydra Jacket

Here we see a Hydra agent being scoped out by a SHIELD sniper.  Right there on her back is a Hydra logo.  We also saw the Hydra logo any number of times in the facility we got to see this episode.  The attention to bureaucratic detail is amazing.  Of course, it’s easy to paint a logo on a wall.  But getting an embroidered jacket?  I love the idea that Hydra not only tasked someone with getting standard jackets for their military operations, but also that they had to get those jackets embroidered. Without uniform jackets, it’s hard to tell who’s a henchman and who isn’t.  Additionally, consider that for most of Hydra’s existence, its nature was so secret that these jackets would have been a dangerous liability. That means these were made since the events of Captain America: Winter Soldier, roughly six months ago. It just seems like a funny thing to have to spend their time on.

Of course, this is the reality of any massive human organization — a certain amount of energy will need to be spent on the overhead of keeping it running smoothly.  Which is where Agents of SHIELD makes an interesting link back to real life.  Here’s an piece from NPR:

The Internet is abuzz with the news of a scathing employee performance review given to an associate of al-Qaida’s North African branch. The employee in question, a man by the name of Mokhtar Belmokhtar, is criticized for neglecting his expense reports, blowing off meetings and wasting his employer’s money, among other complaints.

The juxtaposition is both absurd and macabre: murderous terrorist network as Office Space. It just seems so unlikely that individuals who claim responsibility for taking hundreds of lives also engage in the sort of passive-aggressive bureaucratic sniping we associate with innocuous office jobs.

“Who knew that being an international terrorist was less like James Bond and more like Dilbert?” asked a commenter on Reddit. (link)

We see similar reports now about ISIS and its effective propaganda wing, which is run with a net savvy that you know some Fortune 500 companies are studying.  So the idea of a bureaucracy building up around a massive undertaking seems inevitable.  And thus, it’s not only conceivable that Hydra would have embroidered jackets, it’s almost inevitable.  I do wish they’d used the last sequence to show the man who led this mission sitting in front of his computer, filling out a form to explain the agents and equipment lost on the mission, grumbling about his TPS reports.

The Spoils of Babylon

The Spoils of Babylon

What a weird show.  The Spoils of Babylon is a modern version of a 1970s television miniseries, an epic story of family, jealousy, love, and bitterness.  It’s also weird as all getout.  Most of the gags depend on the epic scene chewing and the over-wrought narrative, combined with lots of sight gags and a ridiculous plot.  As a bookend to each episode, we see Will Farrell as Eric Jonrosh, the author of the novel who also directed the Heaven’s Gate-like film set, which resulted in scandal and ignomy, apparently.  It’s enjoyable and crazy, though after the novelty wears off (by the end of the second episode, probably), it loses some of its verve.  A few thoughts:

  • The early hook is the cast of the show — it’s fun to see these actors, many of whom have serious chops, lampooning along with this high octane ridiculousness.  Each episode features a 1970s-era Tobey Maguire speaking into a tape recorder, telling his future audience that his story “is an epic one.”
  • The creators of the show did a good job balancing original silliness with high-concept parody.  Thus, even viewers who haven’t watched any 1970s epic dramas will have something to find here.
  • My favorite moments are the stylistic homages in which the ambiance of a 1970s film gets replicated most strongly.  For example, there’s a scene in episode 5 when Kristen Wiig and Haley Joel Osment argue about the future of their family.  Between each line of dialogue the shots switch so that one of them is close to the camera, in profile, while the other sits on a chair looking toward the camera; then the next shot changes to the other, but perhaps still looking at the camera.  It’s crazy and awesome.

This isn’t a show for everyone, but if the first two episodes capture you with their craziness, the rest probably will as well.  Enjoy.

Changing the story: on plot moments that rewrite a series

Spoiler alert

This week’s episode of Castle had the usual formula for the non-serious episodes of the show: murder, something funny or weird is discovered, Castle imagines a bunch of amusing plots, it all works out in the end.  The amusing plot this time around was time travel.  Quick plot summary: Joshua Gomez (Morgan from Chuck) is suspected of murdering someone but claims to be a time-traveler sent back from the future to try and save that someone.

Castle and Beckett interview "Simon"
Castle and Beckett interview “Simon”

Like many such episodes, the plot plays out in ways that are slightly ambiguous, with a killer who turns out to have been off the grid (and thus could also be a time-traveler) and with the time-traveling hero disappearing right after walking around a corner.  But these are all explainable.

Then comes the second-to-last sequence of the show.  A crucial clue in the episode was a photograph of a letter the villain used to find a man he was trying to kill.  The letter had a prominent coffee stain on it.  When Beckett and Castle found the original letter, it was unstained (though the show didn’t draw attention to this fact).  In Beckett’s last scene, she spills her coffee on the note and creates the stain on the paper that was already in the photograph.

In other words, the writers of Castle just confirmed that time-travel exists in the future of that world.  I don’t imagine that the show will suddenly become Fringe or The X-Files, but I am amused by the idea that this world-changing revelation (which I suspect will not come up again) could change the whole direction of the show, as regularly happened on Joshua Morgan’s previous series, Chuck.

This reminds me of other key moments when shows took clear stands on world-defining questions and thus changed their own narratives:

  • The X-Files did this all the time, especially toward the end of the series.  Those conspiracies had to go somewhere, yes?
  • Doctor Who famously added the twelve regenerations rule early in the run, and now must find ways to redefine the world to keep more doctors coming.
  • Twin Peaks goes from being a weird show to being an other-worldly one when we definitively learn that “Bob” is not an hallucination but a real evil spirit.

It makes me sad that Castle won’t suddenly become a Terminator-style battle against the terrors of the future, but I suspect it won’t.  That said, wouldn’t Stana Katic make a great Sarah Connor surrogate?

The Elderly and the Living Dead

Three nodes:

1. On the British sitcom Father Ted a schmaltzy singer who is very popular with the elderly shows up in the town, and the oldsters from town find out.  Very quickly, it turns into a zombie siege.  The name of the episode is “Night of the Nearly Dead.”  In this clip, the zombie excitement starts around 5:50.

Night of the Nearly Dead
Night of the Nearly Dead

2. When Charlie Stross was asked about the zombie apocalypse, here’s what he wrote:

I have an idea. Postulate a near-future setting, for values of “near future” approximating 20-30 years hence. A cure for cellular senescence is found, and it’s cheap. One injection, and your physical condition gradually reverts to where you were at age 20, over a period of years. It’s not a miracle cure: it won’t re-grow lost tissues, it doesn’t cure cancer, it doesn’t cure diabetes, it doesn’t stop heart disease … but if you can beat all of the above, you can in principle live indefinitely and in fairly good physical health. Moreover, it comes along at the same time as much better treatments for cancer and cardiovascular disease, expensive treatments to re-grow damaged organs or limbs, and the ability to clone up a new pancreas from stem cells. (link)

3. The most recent episode of How I Met Your Mother features Barney and Robin trying to avoid their elderly relatives in the resort.  They avoid saying the name “Mandy Patinkin” because it will attract the elderly (like noises attract zombies).  Throughout the episode, the elderly lurch around the resort.  At one point, Barney’s brother James gives himself up and sinking under a crowd of old relatives.

Everything’s grim in Broadchurch

Broadchurch
Broadchurch (image credit: Patrick Redmond / BBC America)

Jenny and I finished watching the moving, incredibly dark BBC murder drama Broadchurch last night.  Like AMC’s The Killing, Broadchurch provides an in-depth investigation of a single murder, one that draws together people throughout a small town and cracks open the secrets buried beneath the surface.  With amazing acting from everyone, but particularly good work from David Tennant and Olivia Coleman, the show dives deep into the tragedy that is murder in a small town.  A few thoughts:

  • I thought the mystery was nicely paced, with a good shifting around of suspects and motives.  The changing sands of suspicion and evidence kept the story interesting and made it hard to guess who the killer would be.  Unlike many such shows, the writers did a great job keeping the side suspects “in the frame” throughout the show.
  • One of the overall lessons of the story is how difficult it is to be a good person, and how easily evil can hide among us.  Jenny and I had a long chat afterward about the darkness at the show’s core — it’s hard not to think ill of everyone when the show wraps up.  There’s a particularly good karmic turn-around toward the end that really brings the hammer down.
  • The show also really challenges the way we talk about crime in the modern era.  The press comes off particularly badly throughout, as do the slavering public who want to know everything all the time.

Overall, it’s a great show and well worth watching.  I don’t know how they’re going to do a second series, but I’ll watch it for sure.

 

 

Facebook likes for sad events: the digital condolence five

Condolence Five
Clicking “Like” on a sad Facebook update. It’s a thing.

In “Good Crazy,” a season 7 episode of How I Met Your Mother, Barney comes up with a “Condolence Five,” a way to offer condolences to someone about something sad.  He keeps saying “It’s a thing.”  Of course, in classic #HIMYM fashion, by the end of the episode it IS a thing that Barney uses to console a Japanese business man at the blackjack table.

Every now and again, I’ll see a sad post someone put on Facebook, and inevitably there are “likes” on it.  These are clearly meant to be reassuring or supportive rather than the more direct “I like that you posted this sad news” or worse, “I like this news you’ve posted.”

The parallel is inescapable. The Condolence Like is a thing.

Wait a second, which one of these is the good person? Scandal, sns 1 and 2

Scandal
Scandal

Scandal didn’t strike me as the kind of show I would normally like.  Created by Shonda Rhimes, the show looks like a soap opera with a political background.  And it is.  But it’s also pretty compelling in many ways.

The show focuses on Olivia Pope and Associates, an organization of fixers who work to help political clients deal with news fallout.  They fashion themselves as white-hat gladiators, working to help people who deserve it.  The two things that made me want to watch it were: 1) Jenny thought I would like it (a high value recommendation, for sure); 2) it has Joshua Molina, an actor I have enjoyed since his days on Sports Night.  A few thoughts about the first two seasons of the show:

  • The show puts a lot of stock in the romance between Olivia and the President (who is married to another woman), and regularly reverts to sexy sex scenes between the two.  These are, I’ll admit, pretty sexy.  But overall I find their behavior juvenile and annoying, and as this is the main driver for many plot aspects of the show, it’s a pretty big negative.
  • I like the side characters a lot–particularly Huck, the socially awkward maven who can do anything related to spycraft but also has a mean streak.  Each of the side characters has their own darkness and benefits, and these are far more interesting to me than is Olivia’s doomed love for President Fitz.
  • Like many soap operas, (or like Alias, to which this show owes a strong debt), villains and heroes slip in and and out of favor with shocking frequency.  As we think about each character, the water gets muddied and we must struggle with the question of whom to root for (Everyone has their dirty.  Well, almost everyone).
  • One core idea at the heart of the show that gets very little introspection (though it isn’t completely ignored) is the idea that a secret network of influence and power in Washington controls much of what happens, and that the public-facing aspect has little importance.  Narratively, this is a key idea as it gives the characters something to do.  In the real world, even as it is likely true, it’s a real bummer of an idea.  Especially because any characters in the show who try to peel back that layer of corruption ends up dead.
  • The show establishes a great rhythm, often ending on a cliffhanger.  For a while, I was watching episodes in pieces — I would watch the last 30 minutes of an episode and 15 of the next, so as to minimize the desire to just watch the next episode, and the next, and the next.  Etc.

Scandal trades on the X-Files model, which depends on a good balance between single episode stories and long arcs with consequences for the characters.  Like X-Files, it also has been building layer upon layer of conspiracy which could very well undermine the big payoff we always hope for in a story like this.  We’ll see what happens in season 3.

 

 

A three-part cliffhanger? Are you kidding me? (Dr. Who series 3)

Jenny and I have approached the summer with a mind toward finishing and moving on from our saved and play-listed television media.  We caught up on Once Upon a Time and Scandal and were stymied in our plan by Bates Motel, which is good but too creepy/depressing to watch more than one per night.  So we started up Dr. Who again, which we have watched on and off for quite a while.  Last night we finished series three, which brought to the end the Martha Jones timeline and ended with “The Last of the Time Lords.”

Dr. Who Series 3
Dr. Who Series 3

I’m assuming you’ve seen these episodes, but if you haven’t you should be aware that there are spoilers ahead.

  • The last episode before the big finale was great — the weeping angels from “Blink” go into my top three scariest television monsters (right after the silent ones from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the face mask babies from an earlier Dr. Who episode). It also finally revealed to me the origin of the phrase “timey-wimey,” which I have seen floating around the Dr. Who fanosphere for years.
  • Family of Blood was an excellent episode as well, with a strong narrative about war and its place in British culture.  Delightful.  It would be a good episode to pair with “7:52” in Scandal, season 2.
  • I thought the subtext about Martha’s unrequited love for the Doctor was pretty great, especially the moment toward the end when she made it clear that it was hurting her to spend time with him, and she needed to go for her own sanity.
  • But I also thought the end of “Last of the Time Lords” was particularly stupid, with some weird “everyone thinks of the Doctor at the same time so he becomes a superhero” science going outside the usual silliness for a Dr.Who hand-waving science bit.
  • Jenny and I found ourselves looking up more stuff than usual — I felt there was more canon and old references in this series than in the last couple.

One last thought.  Our encounter with The Master at the end of this series suggests that Time Lords took titles for themselves based on their proclivities — the Doctor called himself that because he fixes things or people, The Master because, well, he reads Ayn Rand or something.  It made me imagine a few other Time Lords and their titles:

  • The Butler – manages the household staff of Gallifery.  Answers the door when Daleks come calling.
  • The Plumber – investigates the inner workings of races and cultures, figures out how they handle the everyday unpleasantries that are part of life.
  • The Haberdasher – someone has to supply all those badass Time Lord duds.
  • Tim – that’s just what everyone calls him.

Bit parts on / Favorite episodes of … the West Wing

Bit Parts: Following up on my post earlier this week… Oh my goodness, I hadn’t realized how many people whom you would later see in more prominent acting roles had bit parts on The West Wing.  I’m not speaking about prominent roles, but rather the occasional one-off role.  Here are a few:

  • Clark Gregg, now known as Agent Coulson in The Avengers, played a Secret Service agent in several episodes.
  • Jane Lynch played a reporter in the press room and asked a single episode
  • Nick Offerman played an environmental advocate trying to save wolves on one of the Giant Block of Cheese episodes.
  • Jason Isaacs, as the photojournalist with whom Donna has a fling
  • Christopher Lloyd as Lawrence Lessig.  How strange that is.
  • Steven Root as one of Alan Alda’s campaign managers.
  • Patricia Richardson as Alan Alda’s other campaign manager.

There are also quite a few notables who took multi-episode arcs.  Among my favorites are:

  • Edward James Olmos, as a nominee to the Supreme Court
  • John Larroquette, as the lead White House Counsel
  • Oliver Platt, the lead White House Counsel who replaces John Larroquette
  • Christian Slater, the dreamy Navy Attache who has a flirtatious moment with Donna
  • Matthew Perry, the replacement for Ainsley Hayes

Favorite Moments / Episodes:

  • Toby gets sent to sit with a progressive protest group and opens up a can of whoop-ass on them for their disorganized rabble politics.
  • C.J.’s first day as Chief of Staff and the way she takes control of the job.
  • The episode where Jed decides whether to run for re-election and we learn the backstory of his relationship with Mrs. Lanningham.
  • The two-part episode when Toby and Josh and Donna get stuck in rural Iowa.
  • Any episode that focuses on Charlie.
  • The Ainsley Hayes episode arc.
  • The slow burn Danny Kincaid sub-plot.

 

Rewatching The West Wing

The West Wing
The West Wing

I never watched The West Wing when it was airing live.  The first time I watched the show, it was running in syndication and I watched an episode every day with lunch.  I watched through the end of season four which is, I recall, when Aaron Sorkin left the show.  I never returned to see how it all turned out.

If you haven’t seen it, The West Wing is a political melodrama about a progressive Democratic President and his hard-working staff.  The show blends personal drama with political dramatics, often using narratives in one line to augment the other.

When the show became available via streaming I decided to check it out again, and have recently finished re-watching the whole series.  Some thoughts:

  • There’s a distinctive decline in the writing quality after season four.  The last three seasons of the show become less reliant on complex characterization and more reliant on big plot moments to push the narrative forward.  If the first seasons represented Sorkin holding together a group on a centrifuge, the last three show the center failing to hold. That said, the characters are beloved enough to me/us that the last three seasons are enjoyable anyhow, once the new showrunner figures out how to make things work in a new way.  The low point, as my friend Brian Doan pointed out at the time, is when Josh makes a major misstep and stops to shout at the Capital building in the middle of the night.  “You want a piece of me?”
  • My favorite episodes are the ones where the narratives blend nicely.  The best is the one just after Donna has found out a major secret, but most people don’t know yet.  She learns that a Chinese satellite is dropping out of orbit and will fall out of space soon, and spends the whole episode fretting about the shoe about to drop.  The metaphorical parallel between the two works very well.
  • The West Wing was certainly an ensemble show with many strong characters, but toward the end of the series, it became clear that Josh and C.J. were the twin poles of the series.  Each had the strongest development arc and some amazing episodes for character building.
  • I like the way the show complicated things by making people with depth on both sides of the aisle.  There were certainly cartoonish villains, but also many moderates who, with the power of script-writers behind them, made great speeches and argued their case well.
  • I spent much of the show trying to puzzle out when Sorkin’s alternative universe split from our own.  Past Presidents from our own world where mentioned, including Nixon and (I’m pretty sure) Johnson, but we also see James Cromwell, the presumably two-term President Bartlett followed.  (Wikipedia informs me that “Fictional Presidents who served between Nixon and Bartlet include one-term Democrat D. Wire Newman (James Cromwell) and two-term Republican Owen Lassiter.”)  As far as I can tell, the series never mentions LBJ, Carter, or Reagan.  The series holds elections in 2002 and 2006, so there’s a mis-match with reality anyhow, but the twelve years accounted for by the Newman and Lassiter Presidencies leave blank the time between 1980 and 1986.  Perhaps that’s when some time-traveler caused our two timelines to diverge.  The biggest difference in the two timelines is 9/11, which didn’t happen in the West Wing universe.

It was fun to watch this show again.  If you have Netflix and haven’t ever watched before, I encourage you to do so.

 

Name Dropping and the First Helpful Witness

I will be the first to admit that mystery stories tend to be a bit formulaic.  The weekly television mystery only has so many ways for the detectives to uncover the criminals at the heart of the story.  And if the show turns on the mystery more than the pursuit, it becomes even harder for writers to be innovative — the “obvious” culprit can never be the killer.  And when the show really focuses on the characters rather than the mysteries, as is the case with Bones, Castle, Psych and many more (Law & Order is the big exception here), the writers have to give screen time to these characters instead of the investigation, which leaves even less time for complex mysteries to develop.

The result of all this is that writers rely heavily on two tropes: The First Helpful Witness and Name Dropping.  Having just seen the new CBS show Elementary already resort to one of these in only its second episode, I thought it was a good time to write about two of them.

Why did we find dead body bits under your truck?
Why did we find dead body bits under your truck?

The First Helpful Witness
Worst offenders: Bones and Castle

Many police procedurals allow the mystery to develop over time as they uncover new bits of evidence.  These bits swing the finger of suspicion around wildly, keeping us on our toes until some final piece of evidence draws our attention to a minor character, someone who seemed beyond suspicion because they were helpful.  I call this the “First Helpful Witness” scenario because often it’s someone who comes up in the beginning of the investigation, a person called in to identify the body or a “character witness” whom the detectives had no reason to suspect when they first interviewed them.

(spoiler) A perfect example of this plot device appeared in “The Bump in the Road,” a Season 7 episode ofBones involving an “extreme couponer.”  Despite her rivalries with other couponers, her impending divorce, and many other good motives, it turns out that the killer was the manager of a grocery store where she did most of her shopping.  Because she used a lot of coupons.

 

Name Dropping
Worst offenders: Murder, She Wrote and The Mentalist

When the detective has a good idea who did it but can’t decide between several individuals with good motive and opportunity, she will often employ a “Name Drop” in which she reveals some clue the killer has missed, and then creates a window of opportunity in which the criminal can fix the problem, usually by breaking in to the place where the murder occurred in order to remove a clue.  Nearly every detective serial is guilty of this ruse at some point.  It is also often employed to catch someone the police know did it, but on whom they have no evidence.  (Even my beloved Columbo employed this ruse a couple times, most thrillingly to catch a Police Commissioner in “A Friend in Deed”.)

Name Dropping works best in cozies like Murder, She Wrote or many of the Poirot stories.  If an equally-likely body of suspects is available, baiting a trap is sometimes the best way to catch the killer within the 42-minute limit of the show.

(spoiler) My favorite example of this one was the Murder, She Wrote episode “The Dead File,” in which Jessica becomes a character in a comic strip created by Harvey Fierstein.  Alas, someone is using her character to accuse people of dastardly deeds, and someone quickly ends up dead.  Character actor (and perennial villain on MSW) George Furth is lured into a trap when Jessica mentions that a cleaner will be clearing out the apartment where the murder happened.  When Furth shows up to collect some tidbit he’d left behind, the cops are waiting for him.

The Killer was wearing a bow tie and huge glas... Oh, Hi Seth.
The Killer was wearing a bow tie and huge glas… Oh, Hi Seth.

The True Mysteries of Inspector Blood Murdoch’s Newsroom

That sounds like a show I’d watch.  I was trying to figure out the best way to write about our summer television viewing, which included three separate shows, when I decided to do a “double review,” but in augmented form.  Here we go, a triple review!

True Blood Season 5 The Newsroom Inspector Murdoch season 3

True Blood: Season 5 develops its main thread around the impending war between humans and vampires as a rebellious faction of the vampire leadership takes control and begins preaching a fundamentalist view that humans just exist as food for vampires (as usual, there are about fifty side plots to follow too).  The Newsroom: Season 1 follows Will McAvoy, a popular news anchor who has a Broadcast News / Jerry Maguire moment as he admits what he really thinks, then leads his news show to be more hard hitting and honest in their broadcasting (The Newsroom allows roughly five side plots).  Inspector Murdoch Mysteries, Season 3 continues along as a charming turn of the century police procedural, with its very slow burning subplot of romance between Murdoch and Ogden.

A few thoughts:

  • Religion becomes a central issue in each show.  In True Blood, the fundamentalist “sanguinistas” believe themselves to have access to the one true faith, and they’re willing to bathe the world in blood to follow that plot.  We also see racist killers who want to get rid of all non-humans.  Inspector Murdoch always has a minor undercurrent of religious tension, as Murdoch is Catholic in the predominantly Anglican country (some people call him a “Papist”).  Coupled with a revelation about Julia’s past this season, religion shapes the plot in key ways.  The Newsroom spends the least amount of time on religion, though it does become an issue in the way they deal with Tea Party candidates.  Will wants to ask Michelle Bachmann what God’s voice sounds like, for example.
  • Science runs in the opposite direction.  The premise of the Murdoch mysteries is often the use of science to further law and order, with Murdoch’s interest in science leading to all sorts of plot devices.  This season, he encountered Tesla, again, and had a run in with some eugenicists.  The Newsroom sits in the middle, relying on science more than other sources of fact, but not making it an essential part of the story.  True Blood continues to blend science with the other supernatural aspects of the TB world, though if anything, the nature of the supernatural creatures gets more supernatural with each season.
  • Two series focus on a man at war with himself.  McAvoy struggles between his desire for ratings and popularity and his desire to be true to his spirit as a newsman.  Murdoch struggles with his desire for Julia and his buttoned up puritanical attitude.  I suppose True Blood‘s Terry or Alcide are men at war with themselves as well.  Alcide, especially, wants to be a joiner but doesn’t like to submit to the will of others.
  • We all love enjoyable side characters, don’t we?  They’re cute and rather harmless and they give us fun breaks from the more dramatic parts of the main plot.  Constable Crabtree stands out here as Murdoch’s dependable assistant, a man both clever and a little bit silly.  Andy Bellefleur plays a similar role in True Blood, often capturing our heart with his earnest attempts at getting along (at least after the clusterfsck of season 2).  The Newsroom gives this role to Neal Sampat, the newsroom staffer who maintains Will’s blog and believes Bigfoot is a real possibility.  (It occurs to me that there are potentials for Bigfoot stories in all three tales.  Show runners: call me.

I recommend all three shows.  The Newsroom is my favorite of the three, if I have to put them in order, but all are excellent.

The Titanic Documentary Avalanche

What really sank the Titanic?
What really sank the Titanic?*

Since the week of the 100th anniversary, I’ve watched several Titanic documentaries I recorded off History and Discovery in the week preceding 14 April..  Some thoughts:

Titanic’s Sister Ship: The Sinking of the Britannic

  • Good: decent footage of deep wreck diving by experienced divers Chatterton and Kohler (from the excellent book Shadow Divers).
  • Bad: About 30 minutes of fluff and 10 minutes of actual wreck diving.
  • Other observations: this really had nothing to do with Titanic at all, and to use the more famous ship in the title was just cheesy.  Also, the events here were documented in Titanic’s Last Secrets.

The Titanic’s Last Secrets

  • Good: interesting documentation of discovery of a couple key bottom portions of the ship.
  • Bad: A lot of cheesy music intended to make the dive seem more exciting than the footage allowed.
  • Other observations: You’ll get tired of the phrase ribbons of steel.  Really, you will.

Titanic’s Achilles Heel
Expands on the information from the previous two docs — follows Chatterton and Kohler on a boring dive of Britannic.  Should have been blended into the episode about Britannic — there was plenty of fluff they could have trimmed to make the two into one episode.

  • Good: The historical portion of the show focused on the hearings in both the U.S. and Britain.  Interesting recap of the British whitewash and American scouring.  The brief discussion of how the changed expansion joint would have been stronger works nicely.
  • Bad: Underwater footage is terrible — the viewer sees none of the interesting new evidence they find.  The bulb at the end of the expansion joint–the key discovery–is invisible to the viewer.  Making a lot of hay out of nothing (as in: Will the inexperienced Greek boat captain be able to find the wreck? Yes, he did it! Ugh.)
  • Other observations: The documentary leaves out poor Stanley Lord of the Californian.  He took quite a whipping in both investigations, but has been exonerated so these docs ignore him completely.
  • Writing of scapegoats, the poor naval architect Roger Long gets full credit for being wrong in this episode.  Every chance they get, the narrator says “Roger Long believes… .”  Then we see him admit that they’ve “shot holes in his theory.”  It’s like a little schadenfreude in lieu of something interesting to see on the dive.

Titanic at 100: Mystery Solved!

  • Good: cool robots being used to map 15 square miles of ocean floor around the wreck site, accident investigators hired to piece together what happened, cool digital effects, cool footage of the wreck site.
  • Bad: if you strung together the content of the 120-minute show without commercials, re-caps, or pre-commercial promos, it’s probably no more than 70 minutes of show.  Lame.
  • Other observations: the show doesn’t mention the stop/start detailed in Last Log of the Titanic, has flawed explanations of the rivet tests (or else flawed tests), offers same old excuses for deaths.  Only Andrews comes out looking better because they decided there was not a technical flaw in the ship’s design.

*I spent a couple minutes trying to track down the original fabricator of this image, to no avail.  Such things circulate on the Internet much like jokes in daily life — yes, someone told it originally, but its author gets lost in circulation.  The difference, of course, is that re-posting an image someone else made takes no creative spark or ability whatsoever.  Telling jokes takes at least a memory and a performative spirit.