The Sunday Magazine: Please Change Your Hurricane Coverage

I was watching the news on Friday night. The lead story was on Hurricane Barry bearing down on Louisiana. Part of the package is a story which always irritates me. When they interview someone who chooses to ignore an evacuation order.

I grew up in South Florida and weathered two hurricanes as a child. Our closest family friends had a house right on the water. I always knew the storm had arrived when their son, and my best friend, Buddy and their dog Rex crashed my bedroom. Our friends knew what was important and acted to get it out of the way of the storm. Everything else was stuff. There was always a stark reminder of what would have happened if they remained. On a post inside the house there was a line for every hurricane which had hit marking the level of the water that made it inside the house. Both hurricanes we lived through the water level was above the adults’ heads. I always respected their choices even though there were tough times recovering after each storm.

It is one of the reasons the stories which come every hurricane about the idiot who won’t evacuate bother me. These people are not folk heroes they are fools caring more about their stuff. Why every news organization feels the need to cover them without pointing that out is my problem. On Friday night there was a woman standing in a foot or so of water already. 24 hours before the storm hits. What illumination of the coming disaster does this provide?

The other part of this is I have first responders in my close circle. I know that if the idiot calls that they are in danger they will respond. Putting their lives in danger because of someone so stupid they can’t walk away. It infuriates me. During one of the hurricanes last year this exact story was covered.

This plea to stop covering idiocy also applies to post-storm coverage. Don’t go cover the moron who managed to make it through. It just gives bad ideas to others in the future.

Hurricanes are dangerous and important enough that the coverage of simpletons who literally want to spit into the wind do not need to be part of it.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: The Walking Dead #193

I’ve spent a lot of time in this column talking about the ending of pop culture things. How does a creative person finish without sputtering out? This week saw an amazing example of how to finish on a high note with integrity as author Robert Kirkman brought to an end his comic series “The Walking Dead” with issue #193.

The ending was a surprise to everyone. Mr. Kirkman and his longtime artist collaborator Charlie Adlard even submitted covers for issues past 193. Like everything in The Walking Dead universe when it ended it came with a shocking finality. I’m not going to go into the plot because as fascinating as the story was the column Mr. Kirkman wrote explaining his decision to end here was just as interesting.

In that column he felt like ending the story like this was an authentic piece of the zombie apocalypse universe he had created. As readers we knew something big was going to happen because in the previous issue there was a major plot twist. This was the kind of thing Mr. Kirkman had used as the springboard to a different story place in the past. Except this time he decided that plot twist was the last one. The reason he gave in the column is he really had no place to go. He admitted he had ideas, but they all felt like filler. Another reason to go on selling comic books. A lesser person would have done that. Mr. Kirkman didn’t choose that path.

My next favorite part of this column was how he related he had been in a similar place a few years ago. A natural stopping place. He even described what was going to be the end of the series if it had ended there. It was bleak. I wouldn’t have been happy with it. The difference is he got there and realized he had story ideas that weren’t just filler. The issues between then and now vindicate that decision. Some of my favorite parts of the saga came after that earlier point. When Mr. Kirkman says he was done I believe him.

You could read the reluctance to do this between the lines. To his credit he knew it was the right decision and carried it out. I don’t know many with the integrity to do that. If you’ve never read a single issue of the comic I urge you to read this final column (link here). It is how every creative person should treat their audience and their series.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: FIFA Women’s World Cup

I’ve written in the past how much I enjoy the summer soccer tournaments. Of course the big one is the Men’s World Cup every four years. I am finding that I am really enjoying this year’s version of the Women’s World Cup as much as I did last year’s men’s version. There is probably one big reason for that the competition has become more competitive.

When the Women’s World Cup took place in the United States in 1999 & 2003, I attended many of the games which took place close to my home at the time. What stood out is with only 16 teams playing there was only four or five on the upper tier. Women’s sports were growing back then with participation more prized than competitiveness. As I’ve been watching this year that has turned around. The tournament has expanded to 24 teams for this edition. Once it was reduced to the top 16, for the knockout phase leading to the final, I was surprised at how competitive all of those matches were.

This time around there were major upsets as traditional power team China was beaten by Italy. According to the commentators this Italian team has ignited a following of the women’s game in the country for the first time. It was easy to see why. This was a classic gritty national team playing hard defense looking for a counter attacking opportunity. This tournament more than any other has the chance to transform opinion. When the Italians played in the quarterfinals it was reported that the interest was sky high. Now that interest can hopefully be translated into something more lasting.

In the twenty years since I saw my first Women’s World Cup game today that formula has been proven over and over; especially in Europe. This year three of the four semi-finalists are European teams with the Netherlands showing their defending European Championship means something. England has been on a steady path upward finding itself in the semifinals for the second tournament in a row.

As we approach the final week of the tournament It is hard not to be happy to see this amount of improvement in just 20 years.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: DC’s The Green Lantern

When it comes to superheroes in the comic books we are in an era where all their psychological underpinnings are put on display. That wasn’t the way it was when I started reading comics as a child in the 1960’s. The characters were stalwart do-gooders who were defined by that innate need to do the right thing. By the 1970’s the comic books began to “grow up” as the heroes faced more mature problems. This has continued to the present day.

When it came to the transition DC had the most trouble moving their characters. Think of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. Only Bruce Wayne was a place where you could build some darker shades without seeming like you were breaking the character. DC found their way and over time have managed to create interesting emotional places for their stable of heroes. Which is why It is funny that I am reminded of those early days with the current run of The Green Lantern by Grant Morrison and Liam Sharp.

The Green Lantern has always been a character with an interesting mythology. A member of an intergalactic police agency. Instead of Men in Black it was Men in Green. Hal Jordan is the only human member of the Green Lantern Corps. What Mr. Morrison has chosen to do with this series of stories is to focus on The Green Lantern as that cop who has a section of the galaxy to patrol.

As is so often the case with these limited issue runs the author creates a multi-issue arc. Mr. Morrison is throwing that out; creating an episodic series. Each issue covers a single story wrapped up by the final page. Hal Jordan even comes off a bit stiff like the classic beat cops. The fun of this series is how Mr. Morrison comes up with these crazy off the wall plots to put the taciturn Green Lantern in the middle of. If Green Lantern is by the book the book is warped as heck. There are so many crazy twists it could also have been subtitled “Law and Order: Intergalactic Unit”.

I’m not sure but it seems like Mr. Morrison is having a ton of fun being unconstrained by an overarching plot to just let fly with single issue mayhem. Beyond that Mr. Sharp’s visuals have a throwback quality too. They are reminiscent of the art seen in Heavy Metal or on a Frazetta poster. It is wonderful accompaniment to Mr. Morrison’s words.

If you are in the mood for some old-fashioned superheroics I highly recommend this newest iteration of The Green Lantern.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Farewell to iTunes

I remember when the iPod was announced in 2001. A digital music player which held hundreds of songs which fit in a shirt pocket. The dream of being able to carry every bit of music I owned with me had begun to come true. I was not an Apple computer person so I couldn’t join in until the second edition of iPod was released which was compatible with Windows. Right away I found about the big draw back to being a Windows user of an iPod. The horribly clunky music management program called “MusicMatch”. I watched my Apple compatible friends using this thing called “iTunes” which was so much easier. So much easier I almost became an Apple computer person. Thankfully after about a year there was an iTunes for Windows. Ever since that day all the music I have ever owned has been in an iTunes library. Which made the news of last week that Apple was phasing out iTunes unexpectedly sad to me. It wasn’t that my music still wouldn’t have a home. It made me think what an impact iTunes had on music in such a short time.

As iTunes was released there was a lot of music pirating going on using new file sharing services. The record companies had no idea how to fight the internet buccaneers allowing for their content to be downloaded for free. You didn’t have to pay for a compact disc anymore you just joined a file sharing site and downloaded it for free. The hitch was you had to burn your own copy on a blank CD. The iPod was about to change that. Now those files could just go right into the player. There was a legitimate worry nobody would buy music again.

Then Steve Jobs took advantage of this climate and opened the “iTunes store” as an adjunct to the main program. He would convince the record companies that if it was sold for a reasonable price people would legally choose to download music. Then Mr. Jobs used the timing to make a bold move. All songs, every single song, would cost 99 cents. No exceptions. Unsurprisingly many, but not all, signed on the dotted line. This would be the move which would beat the free file sharing services because 99 cents were exactly the right price. Even for me. I chose to buy new music on iTunes often because that worked for me.

iTunes has been my own personal top 40 countdown as I am able to look back and see what my most played songs are ever. I can see my own trendlines when I search by dates. None of this is going away it will just be called Apple Music from now on and the video and podcasts now have their own home. All things change but I will miss my giant iTunes library and the history it represents.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: The Beginning of Peak Television

It is easy to take for granted that the phrase, “there’s nothing to watch” no longer applies to television. We live in an era of what is called “peak television” where audacious original visions have platforms on which to display themselves. Exactly twenty years ago that was not the case. The premiere of “The Sopranos” in January of 1999 on HBO is when this new era of television began.

In 1999 HBO was the only cable network relying on original programming. The executives were willing to try things because as a subscription service they had more latitude. When they listened to the story creator-writer David Chase wanted to tell with “The Sopranos” they hardly knew what it would mean to the future of storytelling on television. They would turn upside down what people thought of when thinking about television drama.

I spent some time since the beginning of the year watching the first season again. I just finished a couple weeks ago. From a story perspective it was fun because I knew where they all ended up. There was a lot of foreshadowing in that first season. I’m not sure if Mr. Chase had that much faith or it was a giant wager to make sure HBO wanted more. There are a couple of things which really stood out to me which have become cornerstones of much of the current peak television.

The most obvious is that of the flawed hero, or anti-hero. Tony Soprano, as played by James Gandolfini, was a brutal mob boss with feet of clay. Tormented by panic attacks that would get him killed if his Mafia brethren found out about it. As an audience we are sympathetic to that plight. Mr. Chase draws us in to becoming complicit with Tony as he manages his crime family with that secret hanging over him. It is the artful ability to make an audience root for a monster. That all comes home in episode 5, “College”. Tony takes his daughter Meadow on a college visit to Maine. On the trip he discusses the family business with her in a way which feels like a father bonding with a child. When they get to the college, he drops Meadow off and returns to a gas station where they filled up. He recognized a snitch who was in witness protection at the station. He returns to kill him. As Tony strangles him the camera stay focused only on his emotionless dead-eyed face as you hear his victim choking off screen. It was a brilliant reminder halfway through the season that no matter what you like about Tony he is a heartless killer.

This kind of arc has been played many times over the past twenty years with perhaps the best being Bryan Cranston’s portrayal of Walter White on “Breaking Bad”. There is no way that series gets made without The Sopranos.

The second thing I noticed was the death of main characters contained within brilliant plot twists. The second half of the first season raised the stakes as characters you thought were main characters were killed. The scheming coming from multiple unexpected directions. When I watched the final episode of season 1, twenty years later, I was still drawn to the edge of my seat even though I knew how it turned out.

That is really the best thing about “The Sopranos” is twenty years later it holds up. It doesn’t feel dated. It just feels like the place where Peak Television began.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Jimmy Buffett

I have come to acknowledge my music playlist mirrors my perfume rotation. There are songs, and fragrances, which are better in a specific season. The other thing music has in common with perfume is it can conjure up time and place. One musician who is a summertime staple and a reminder of my life in South Florida is Jimmy Buffett.

Jimmy Buffett has become known over the last thirty years as one of the great concert performers with group of adoring fans called “parrotheads”. It reflects an artist at ease with the style of music he makes who openly embraces his fans joining in the fun. I’ve never considered myself a “parrothead” because my fandom came about before all of that.

Jimmy Buffet in 1975

Mr. Buffett was a staple on South Florida FM radio and at dockside bars where even in the early 1970’s his songs could turn the party up a notch. The song I heard on the radio which caught my attention was “Why Don’t We Get Drunk” the reason it made an impression is the next two words, “and screw”. In 1973 these kind of parody songs had a place on the FM radio playlists. I would pick up the album it was on “A White Sport Coat and a Pink Crustacean” to find a set of songs that spoke of living a casual life in the tropics.

Over the next few years each subsequent release would become part of any mix tape I made. On his next album “Living and Dying in ¾ Time” it is another comedy song “God’s Own Drunk” which has always been one of my go-to choices when I need a smile.

For a long time Mr. Buffett was a musician who felt like he was going to be a regional attraction. Then in 1977 with the release of the album “Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes” and the monster hit “Margaritaville” that thought was blown out of the water. Suddenly everyone was looking for their “lost shaker of salt” and wanting in on the party.

That party has gone on ever since. For me when I listen to his music from 1973- 1985 it reminds me of where I grew up. The people I spent time with. A casual summer lassitude where life is on hold. I can sit on my porch in Poodlesville put in the headphones and be in the Florida Keys. There is magic to that.

I may not identify as a “parrothead”, but I will be spending a lot of time this summer with Mr. Buffett at the top of my playlist.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: The Final Season of HBO’s Game of Thrones

The final episode of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” aired a week ago. Like all final episodes of beloved series its reception was mixed. That is to be expected. Characters you’ve spent the last eight years with you hope they get happy, or heroic, endings. If those characters don’t, you’re probably in the unhappy camp. If they did, you’re in the pleased camp. We had been warned by the author of the books the series this is based on, George R.R. Martin, that the ending would be bittersweet. Knowing that going into last week’s episode I wasn’t surprised that it lived up to that foreshadowing. I’ve enjoyed it more the more times I watch it. There are many full circle moments and callbacks to the past. I thought this final season was well done with enormous set pieces like nothing we’ve ever seen on television. There were twists and tension which glued me to the screen the past six Sunday nights. From here on I will talk about some of the key moments from the season so if you haven’t watched now is the time to stop reading.

This final season was split into two three-episode arcs. The first three episodes focused on the battle between the living and the White Walkers. My favorite episode of the season was the second one as we spent the night before battle with many of the characters interacting as they expected the next day would be their death. In a season which moved at speed this was the episode which slowed things down for us to have final lengthy moments with many of the characters we’ve spent so much time with. When the episode ends with the arrival of the White Walkers outside the walls of Winterfell so did the interlude.

That third episode which depicts the Battle of Winterfell is another amazing piece of filmmaking from this crew. It took 55 days of night shoots to put together the episode. Director Miguel Sapochnik made a battle of three distinct phases each growing more desperate. Until a final last gasp victory is achieved.

This leads to the final three episodes which focus on the battle for the Throne between the survivors and Cersei Lannister’s forces. It was the second episode of this group which also was my favorite. The two forces of nature which were Cersei and Daenerys come to a place where the entire episode is poised on a knife-edge until one of them lets her anger lead to a horrible decision. One of the brilliant pieces of this episode, again directed by Mr. Sapochnik, was the street level view of the collateral damage of the battle. For a third of the episode the audience is kept on the ground while above them dragons spew flame. It was the one episode this season that rattled my emotions the most. It leads to an ending I’ve already given my impressions on above.

In the week since the final episode was aired there have been a couple of arguments from people who were disappointed. The first was they opened a petition for “competent writers” to re-do the final season. One thing I remind anyone who mentions they didn’t like the ending; that the producers were told by Mr. Martin what the ending was. I believe every big moment we’ve seen since Season 5 has come straight out of the books. Mr. Martin will undoubtedly lay more foundation for the plot twists, but the same ones are coming for those who read the books. I keep asking if there will be a petition to ask for a “competent writer” to re-write the final book. As a viewer you have every right to be unhappy with the ending for not living up to what you wanted. What you don’t have is the “right” to ask artists to re-make the world in your vision. What we saw is Mr. Martin’s ending.

Which leads to the one disappointment I share somewhat; that the season was too fast and particularly the last two seasons seem too streamlined. There is a good reason for this. The first four and a half seasons they were working from over 4,000 pages of written books. The last two and a half were from a list of big bullet points supplied by Mr. Martin to the producers. I remind everyone in the books Jon Snow still lies stabbed on the floor of Castle Black. In the series he is resurrected, takes back Winterfell, romances the Queen, finds out he is the nephew of the Queen, fights the White Walkers, becomes a Queenslayer, and is exiled to the Night’s Watch. None of that has been depicted in the books yet that was what the producers had to work with. It left them with a dilemma, flesh things out or stay true to what is essentially a Wikipedia synopsis of the last two books from the author. I think their choice was the right one to keep it simple and connect the bullet points. Sometime in the future we will get the blanks filled in by the books.

At the end of it all I am happy with how it ended. I am also looking forward to the books to get that background which was missing. Which is maybe is exactly the way it was supposed to end.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Robert M. Parker Jr.

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Two of my best friends shared a love of wine with me. When we were in college together, we learned through experiencing what we could. I would say that is when we began to develop out ability to distinguish the different varieties of wine.  Our shared knowledge would soar when we found ourselves living in the New York City area after graduation. I don’t remember which one of us found the book first but when we opened “Bordeaux: The Definitive Guide for the Wines Produced since 1961” by Robert M. Parker Jr. we were captured by the matter-of-fact talk about wine. Mr. Parker would become the most influential wine critic in the world because of it.

Robert M. Parker Jr.

Mr. Parker’s fascination with wine happened because of a girl he fancied. He followed her to Alsace France and besides finding his wife he also found French wine. When he returned to the US, he finished his law degree, but his inspiration was in a bottle of French wine. Over time he would realize the current wine publications were mainly shilling for the brands who advertised on their pages. He wanted to run a publication which survived only on subscriptions while producing unbiased wine reviews and commentary. “The Wine Advocate” was born in 1979. Mr. Parker would begin a career of visiting the wineries. In the early 1980’s he would correctly predict some of the great French Bordeaux vintages from barrel tastings. He would become especially known for being the first to laud the 1982 vintage using this method. Many others felt differently. My friends and I knew nothing of this. Our introduction was through his book.

“Bordeaux” was just what we needed as a reference text to refine our knowledge. Our experience had given us a foundation Mr. Parker would show us how to build our own chateau upon it. We could try the wines he wrote about and compare what we experienced with what he said he felt. We all came to love the style of wines from certain Chateaus he seemed less enthused about and vice versa. What we were gaining was our own personal critical perspective. It has provided a lifetime of pleasure for all three of us I believe.

Mr. Parker’s influence rose rapidly along with the subscribers to The Wine Advocate. He would become a champion of non-European wines. I know one of my favorite moments was tasting a Shiraz wine from Australia while thinking this is amazing for $6/bottle. Only to find in the next issue that Mr. Parker was writing about them, too. It is one of those times where I felt I had learned some of what he had to teach me. Whenever I try wines from a new region in the world I approach with an open mind because I have been rewarded most of the time.

There was a backlash to Mr. Parker by some who felt he had too large an influence on the wine-buying public with his ratings. That always felt like a false narrative to me. I followed his writing because he pointed me to wine I enjoyed. That was always the most important piece of Mr. Parker to me that wine was here to enjoy.

Which leads to my favorite story of my personal interaction with him. A local restaurant was having a wine tasting event with Mr. Parker in attendance. I couldn’t buy a ticket fast enough. It was a small affair and he spent time with each table taking questions and talking about what we were drinking. Someone who was less starstruck than I asked him if he ever visited any of his reader’s wine collections. He then told a story about being invited by a reader who he knew had an extensive collection to dinner. He was surprised when the hosts served younger wines. After the meal was done, he asked when they drank some of the wines in the cases around them. The host replied, “Never! We’re saving them!” Mr. Parker looked around our table and said to us “don’t do that, the joy of wine is in drinking it.” It is those words which have stuck with me.

This week Mr. Parker announced he was retiring from The Wine Advocate and from active reviewing. Because of his trailblazing The Wine Advocate has a staff that will continue the good work.

For me part of the way I write about perfume was directly affected by the way Mr. Parker approached wine. I try to approach every new fragrance with the same open mind he encouraged me to have about wine. I am always pleased when I find a new brand that I like because of it.

Tonight I’ll raise a toast to Robert M. Parker Jr. he made wine fun.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Avengers: Endgame

Endings are tough. They are doubly problematic when you are trying to do justice to a nearly eleven-year storyline. Avengers: Endgame manages to do a great job at fashioning an ending to volume 1 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Two weeks after the movie has been released, I’m not going to reveal any of the major plot points but there are some things I want to discuss which require a little more revelation. Which means if you haven’t seen the movie stop reading now.

The first quarter of the movie is what the world looks like after Thanos snapped his fingers killing half of all life at the end of Infinity War. Our heroes are scarred by the loss. If we needed a reminder the first scene is Hawkeye losing his entire family. Captain Marvel arrives from the summons of Nick Fury at the end of Infinity War. Angry and sad they know where Thanos is and go after him. With two hours of movie left you can figure out they don’t succeed.

Then the movie leaps ahead five years. Things have dramatically changed. The remining heroes are all dealing with loss in their own ways. One goes to group therapy. One takes charge of coordinating the response to threats on Earth and the galaxy. One becomes a vigilante. One drowns himself in video games and beer. One finds a way to reconcile his inner and outer demons into a new whole. This is a short passage within the overall film, but it is one of my favorites. Directors Joe and Anthony Russo want to take a moment to show the cost of losing to heroes who have always saved the day. Five years later they each are still coming to terms with it.

Then a path to redemption appears. It requires the team to come together to try a long shot to fix things. They split up into teams each sent on a specific mission. As it was in Infinity War my favorite was the combination of Rocket Raccoon and Thor. I have enjoyed these two together so much over the last two movies I dearly want them to have a movie-length adventure all their own. Each mission finds an emotional resonance with the characters involved. This is where much of the groundwork laid over previous films is paid off. When characters run into other characters from their own movies it reinforces the interconnectedness of everything.

The missions succeed but the final battle remains. This is probably my least favorite part of it all. In trying to have everyone on the field for the final throwdown it got overly chaotic. There are some nice moments like when the female Avengers stand together in one passage. That our heroes win is a given.

What was nice was the epilogue where everyone takes stock of the price paid to win. There are deaths and poignant endings for many of our beloved heroes. As volume 1 comes to a close I like where this leaves the MCU as volume 2 begins.

I am ready to let Wakanda, and Black Panther, become the new center of things. Captain Marvel, Doctor Strange, and Ant-Man look like the cornerstones of this next iteration. Volume 2 starts with a wide-open universe to explore. I can’t wait.

Mark Behnke