The Sunday Magazine: Hacks

There is a trend in television sitcoms I have never enjoyed. I call it the “celebration of assholes” genre. The greatest example of it is “Seinfeld”. They were even a specific breed of asshole, sphincterus nyc. I always found their actions pathetic instead of funny. I usually watch an episode or two of any of these and realize it is not my thing. Much to my surprise “Hacks” got past my antipathy to this type of comedy.

Hacks is a story of two women in comedy. One is an aging stand-up comedian, Deborah Vance played by Jean Smart. The other is a young comedy writer, Ava Daniels played by Hannah Einbinder. When we meet them. Deborah Vance is planning her 2,500th show in the same Las Vegas casino. Just before, she is told that will be her last as they are replacing her with younger acts. Ava Daniels has become unable to be hired because she made a crude political social media post. Her agent tells her he can’t find her anything.

The creators, Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs, and Jen Statsky all came from the show Broad City. They unflinchingly explore the lives of both women. One part of that is showing they are their own worst enemies. They consistently engage in self-destructive behavior only because it makes them feel good, for a moment. If that were the single note of the show, I likely would have stopped watching it. The part which kept me engaged was both women are alone because of who they are. They both don’t like it. They both can’t help themselves in pushing people away. The beauty of this show is Deborah and Ava might be the only two people who can love the other. Whether that can happen for more than a few hours at a time kept me coming back.

Another thing I liked about Hacks is the peek behind the scenes of stand-up comedy. I have always enjoyed the glimpses shows have given to the work that goes into being a stand-up. Deborah’s story is in broad strokes modeled on Joan Rivers. As one of the first female stand-ups she has survived a lot to be standing for this milestone show. It is all she has, and she doesn’t know anything else. Ava exemplifies the smart joke writers who work with the people who deliver the jokes. She also is a classic millennial and she and Deborah have a generational friction which plays throughout.

As I’ve thought about it the thing which kept me watching is these assholes have the opportunity for redemption. They seem to know what they are while willing to try and change. I found that the writers of Hacks found plenty of laughs in that premise.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Cruella

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I am already on the record as finding most movie prequels dreary affairs. They spend too much time trying to explain clever pieces of the original source material. If you ever want a terribly painful example of this watch the clip of how they explain Han Solo’s boast about making the “Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs” in the prequel “Solo: A Star Wars Story”. It is this kind of writing which pervades most prequels, the need to explain things which don’t really need explaining. It does the opposite, draining the fun out of everything they claim to want to add to. Therefore I was surprised to enjoy “Cruella” as much as I did.

Cruella is the prequel story of how the villain of 101 Dalmations came to be. When I heard this was coming out it was consigned to the “not interested” list. For all the reasons above. It wasn’t until I saw an interview with the two stars Emma Stone who is the young Cruella and Emma Thompson who plays the haughtiest of haute couture designers The Baroness.

The heart of the story is Cruella becoming an apprentice designer to The Baroness. This wasn’t trying to explain things from 101 Dalmations. Instead it was a battle of fashion wits between our heroines. I forgot she was in another movie because the antics of the two hard-nosed designers facing off was so much fun. It all leads to a delightedly manic final act which is where most of the call backs to 101 Dalmations happen.

It is this which all subsequent prequels should pay attention to. Treat your story as its own thing which only at the end will connect to the material you are supposedly deepening.

I also must mention the two actors named Emma. They seemingly have a ball tearing into these larger-than-life caricatures. It is because I enjoy them both that I was willing to take a chance on this. It was well worth it.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Blue by Joni Mitchell

I suspect most every Baby Boomer who listened to rock and roll in the 1960’s and 70’s had the same conversation at some point. You would be listening to an album. A parent would walk by and ask you to turn down the noise. You would respond that it isn’t noise. Which then got the discussion ender, “that type of music isn’t going to last”. I wonder how long our parents would consider “lasting” to be? I am betting 50 years might be a benchmark. Just this past week one of the greatest albums of all-time turned 50, Blue by Joni Mitchell.

One of the things about the early days of rock and roll was there were no rules to follow. The first artists were creating the landscape the future would build upon. One of the more popular genres of music at the end of the 60’s was folk music. There were a group of artists who worked together and inspired each other. Joni Mitchell was in the center of it all. in subsequent interviews and rock biographies I have read she was described as a muse to many of her contemporaries. She was also in relationships with many of them. She had released three prior albums before 1971. She was the prototype of what we call a singer-songwriter today.

All her songs told stories. She drew you in with her voice and lyrics. As she was developing Blue throughout the year of 1970 music became the way she confronted her life. By the time Blue was released in 1971 it was the first “break-up” album ever released. Ms. Mitchell would write songs about her relationships with Graham Nash and James Taylor. Each song displayed a genuine emotion.

This was another part of this early era. The artists were less guarded about revealing their feelings on record. Ms. Mitchell was perhaps one of the most unflinchingly honest of them all. Which is what makes Blue the great music that it is.

I wouldn’t discover Ms. Mitchell until I was in high school. Mainly because a few of my friends would sing her songs. Even through an untrained voice her lyrics rang true. She was two albums past Blue when I picked up all six of her first LPs. Over the next week I became a fan with Blue being the album I played most. Even today it is my most played Joni Mitchell on my iTunes list.

Whenever I listen to the original artists who made rock and roll, I often think to myself, “has it lasted?” Blue has certainly stood the test of time for the classic piece of musical artistry that it is.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Mare of Easttown

Over the last few months I’ve written about a streaming show releasing in weekly installments or all at once. There is also the problem of making an unlikable protagonist too much of a jerk. I’ve also spoken about the elements that make a good whodunit. Mare of Easttown on HBO provides evidence that proves some of my ideas.

Mare of Easttown is a seven-episode series written by Brad Ingelsby. It stars Kate Winslet as the titular heroine, Mare Sheehan. When we meet her, it is the night of the 25th anniversary of her leading this small Philadelphia suburb to the high school state women’s basketball championship. Right from the first episode we understand that her life is a complicated mosaic. She has been severely criticized for not finding a local girl missing for over a year. The town is beginning to believe she might not be the police detective they have always had. That’s because her personal issues include the suicide of her oldest son which she has not come to terms with. Mare is a person trying to suppress all the bad. Ms. Winslet’s performance lets the viewer in via the way she reacts without a word. By the end of the first episode another young girl’s body is discovered forcing Mare to deal with all that threatens to unearth in her psyche.

Over the seven episodes this show does all the elements of a great whodunit correctly. As viewers we are brought along through all the mistaken evidence as the story slowly reveals the truth. By the time it gets to the last episode the emotionally impactful resolution feels earned from everything that preceded it.

Mare is also one of those unlikable protagonists which seems to be in vogue these days. Mr. Ingelsby writes her as someone who is watching her grief over her son and inability to solve the old case causing her to spiral downward. It leads to a truly horrible action she takes. It caps off all the doubt we as viewers are having about whether she is an honest detective. This time the writing has laid a foundation for the action that while it still shocks, we also know where it is coming from. This is how you make the unlikable, likable. Even though every writer seems to be trying to do it Mr. Ingelsby is one of them who succeeds.

Finally this was a series which was released weekly, and we watched each episode on the night it was premiered. Each episode would end with a new key revelation. If all the episodes were available at once I would’ve just received the answer in a few minutes after seeing the set up. Watching it weekly allowed for seven days of delightful speculation. This is a case where that kind of release schedule greatly added to the enjoyment of it.

This was one of the best series I have seen this year. I am hoping for lots of nominations when the upcoming Emmys are announced. This was a perfect bit of storytelling given life through memorable performances.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: A Troll Walks into a Bar by Douglas Lumsden

Urban fantasy is one of my favorite genres of books. I really like it all but if I had to choose, I like the ones which feature a detective as a protagonist. Part of that is just seeing the classic tropes of hard-boiled crime fiction imposed on a fantasy background. When it is done well, I get two genres from one book. The new series from author Douglas Lumsden kicks off in style with “A Troll Walks into a Bar”.

From the moment I saw the title I felt like this was going to be fun. Mr. Lumsden introduces us to Yerba City PI Alex Southerland in this first novel. It begins just as the title promises. The troll in this case is a member of the police force. He has a talk with Alex telling him not to take the case of a client who will be coming to see him, or else. Like all literary PIs he doesn’t like to be pushed around.

Douglas Lumsden

When the woman in question arrives the next day, she is this fantasy world’s version of a nymph who lives in the ocean. She is a classic femme fatale intent on using her looks and skill at lying to get what she wants. Alex knows he is being manipulated by both the troll and the nymph. That he will take the case is a given. It leads to a well plotted mystery which gives Alex all the trouble he is trying to avoid.

Mr. Lumsden melds all the influences deftly and this was a book I blew through. It is a great summer weekend read. He also released the second, “A Witch Steps into My Office” and third, “A Hag Rises from the Abyss” on the same day. I’ve read all of them and he is not a one-book wonder. The other novels have the same amount of fun weaving the genres together. This is exactly the what I look for in urban fantasy.

Disclosure: I purchased my copy of the books.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: How to Make a Whodunit

When we are watching the form of entertainment known as a whodunit the audience wants to play along. Some of the biggest television phenomena have revolved around the identity of a killer amongst us. When every poster before the release of “Twin Peaks” in 1990 had the tag line “Who Killed Laura Palmer?” we went along for the ride. It continues until today. I was thinking about how satisfying the resolution of the series “Mare of Easttown” was. Which got me thinking about what makes a good ending versus a bad ending.

I think the cardinal rule to this kind of storytelling is not to cheat. Which means the resolution can’t come from out of nowhere. The killer can’t show up in the final episode without having been mentioned. It also can’t be a plot twist for the sake of shock value. Another recent series ‘The Undoing” learned this lesson the hard way. The reason for the enduring popularity is we want to feel like we are discovering our own clues as each episode unfolds.

The second rule is the resolution can’t be too simple. The corollary is it can’t be so complicated either. The best fun is considering and discarding suspects from our sofa. As an audience we often get more information than the protagonists. The best writers use that extra information to send us down our own blind alleys. I’ll write more about this when I review the series but as the penultimate episode of Mare of Easttown ended there were at least four viable suspects. Each of them had done things which made it possible to think they had done the crime. The final episode made it clear the eventual killer came from what came before. The writers of “Sharp Objects” also did that extremely well. Even including a few clips during the credits showing how the killer had committed the crimes.

The third rule is the detective must be cut from the cloth of Sherlock Holmes. We don’t want to follow around Inspector Clouseau in a dramatic show. They can be flawed human beings, but they must be outstanding investigators. The competence of the lead character is what gives us belief in the clues we find. It also allows us to feel their emotions when the cases become personal to them. The first season of Broadchurch did that magnificently. The second season was all about the fallout of the events of the first season.

If I’m going to spend some time trying to figure out whodunit these three rules better be followed.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Shadow and Bone

One of the great things about the current streaming platforms is the opportunity for adaptations of my favorite novels. I can finally get the depth and length I want to see in an adaptation over more than the typical length of a theatrical film. It is rare that I don’t look forward to seeing it come out. The recent series “Shadow and Bone” has taken an interesting path to its screen version.

The story is based on the trilogy from author Leigh Bardugo. The story is of a land rent by a physical darkness called The Rift. To cross through it is full of risk. The original trio of books tells the story of orphans Alina and Mal as they get caught up in the political machinations when one of them is revealed to have unique powers. The first three books are all about that. Here is the thing those are not Ms. Bardugo’s best writing. They set up the characters but it kind of moves predictably through the typical fantasy motions. I really became a fan of the author when she published her second set of two books based around a group of thieves called The Crows. These are far more interesting than Alina and Mal. On the way to the small screen the television adapter Eric Heisserer must have also thought the same thing. With the help of Ms. Bardugo they retconned The Crows into the original story retaining some of the plot from the printed version which takes place after the original trilogy. It makes all the difference.

In the beginning we learn that one of our protagonists is a Sun Summoner who can broadcast light allowing travel through The Rift. There is a belief that kind of being might even be able to banish The Rift altogether. They are the target of many who have plans to use that power for their own ends.

This is where The Crows come in. Their leader Kaz takes on a contract to kidnap the Sun Summoner and bring them back across The Rift to be used by the crime lord there. There are three members of The Crows, Kaz, Inej, and Jesper. Inej’s religion believes in the Sun Summoner as an omen of new times. Her loyalties are tested between faith and friendship.

The inclusion of The Crows makes this first season much better than the books, either of them. There are moments it is heist then Game of Thrones-like politics then a love story of orphans who keep finding each other.

This is what a smart adaptation can achieve when all involved don’t just blindly follow the printed page. By making the effort to combine the two books the series “Shadow and Bone” summons its own bright light of intelligence.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: The Falcon and The Winter Soldier

As Marvel expands to the streaming universe on Disney+ it allows for exploration of thoughtful themes. In WandaVision it was about what grief can cause in someone who can change her reality. After seeing her arc in the movies we knew what she had lost. Now this longer form of storytelling allowed it to be elaborated upon. The same happens in the second streaming series The Falcon and The Winter Soldier.

Each hero in the title has something to face. Even though Steve Rogers/Captain America gave him the shield on the movie screen. Sam Wilson/The Falcon must face whether he is worthy to bear it. Bucky Barnes/The Winter Soldier is now living a life where he can no longer be turned into a mindless assassin. It leaves him in a world which he wonders if it can forgive him his past. The entire first episode deals with understanding where these characters are in a world where Thanos has been defeated and half the world has reappeared after five years.

Along the way the question for Sam evolves into the possibility that the world isn’t ready for a Black Captain America. Writer Malcolm Spellman explores that completely. It arrives in the place you expect it to by the end. It makes the decision for Sam to take up the shield the end of a process instead of being bequeathed to him by the previous owner.

For Bucky he needs Sam to believe in himself because it allows him to believe in redemption. The bookends on the series are Bucky’s connection to a relative of one of the people he killed on a mission. We know he will have to face this person by the end.

The villains are also given shades of gray. If half the world disappeared. What happens when they come back and displace those who spread out into the open spaces? The organization that feels the need to violently protest is called The Flag Smashers. They want the world to realize they need to be seen, too.

What also makes this series so much fun is the action sequences. This is a return to those set pieces with heroes and villains fighting in interesting places. The beginning of the series is a high-flying fight as The Falcon swoops through helicopters chasing someone he needs to save. Throughout the series director Kari Skogland shoots these with a great sense of focus.

There are lots of connections to other parts of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) with surprising people showing up. I enjoyed everything about this series. Both first series are adding so much to what we know of this next generation of Marvel heroes. When they move back to the silver screen it will be with better feeling about all of them.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: AP Bio

This week is the time of the year when the major US broadcast networks reveal their fall line-up of shows. It is also when beloved shows with decent audiences have campaigns to try and get that show another season. One thing which has made that part of the process go a little easier is all the networks have relationships with a streaming service. As an example two shows which draw an audience of about 6 million viewers weekly on CBS, “SEAL Team” and “Clarice” are not canceled but are going to show new episodes on the streaming service Paramount+. On broadcast 6 million makes you a straggler. On a streaming service that’s a big audience. The other advantage this has is to allow an audience who maybe heard good things the chance to catch up on their own schedule. AP Bio is one of those success stories.

AP Bio began airing on NBC in March of 2018 and was renewed for a second season in NBC the next year. It averaged around 3 million viewers over the two seasons. As NBC began putting together their own streaming service, Peacock they decided to add some new exclusive content. A third season of AP Bio was there on day one of the new service.

I had a good friend who really liked the show. Mrs. C and I are fond of Patton Oswalt who is one of the main characters. We decided to give it a try. Three days later we were new fans. Others also joined us as season 4 will be coming in a few months.

The show revolves around Jack Griffin who lost his job as a Harvard philosophy professor in a way that made him unable to be hired by another university. It forces him to return to his hometown of Toledo, Ohio to take a job teaching AP Bio to his old high school’s current honor students. The humor of the show revolves around Jack’s far-fetched plans to get back his fame and leave town. The fun is those plans never work out with Jack being a human Wile E. Coyote.

Jack played by Glenn Howerton is a prototypical unlikable protagonist. He is a jerk and happy to be one. The people around him seem to allow him his misanthropic attitude while merrily living their own odd lives. It is satisfying when his plans go awry leaving him as the one who gets had.

The best episode of the series is one which revolves around the annual celebration of “Katie Holmes Day”. It happens yearly on the day that local actress got her first break when she was cast on the TV series “Dawson’s Creek”. The town re-enacts the casting call as the centerpiece of the day. It involves the entire AP Bio cast doing their part to make the day happen. Except Jack who wants to find a way to mock it. It all works because at this point the characters have also become defined.

In the new economy of television there are going to be more shows like AP Bio which find new life on the streaming services. Which seems like a good thing.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Joss Whedon

There is an adage about meeting your heroes which inevitably leads to disappointment. I think that applies because we can sometimes hold them to unaccountably lofty standards. I have been lucky enough to have met many of my heroes. I have enjoyed those meetings and walked away thinking how much I like the person. This was the case in December of 2007 when I met Joss Whedon.

For those unfamiliar with the name you probably know his TV shows and movies. He created the television version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer along with its spinoffs. He made the jump to movies and was the director of the first Marvel’s The Avengers and its sequel. He has been known for creating roles which feature strong female characters. From 1997 until 2015 Mr. Whedon was a geek mainstay while being considered one of the most creative members of it all.

Joss Whedon

I met him when he came to Boston in the early days of Hollywood Writers Strike. Writers were fanning out to different cities to lead protests. On this cold day in Boston he would lead a march around Harvard Square. As we walked, he would fall in step with different groups and chat with us. He has as quick a wit in person as his characters do on a page. As it was with every fan panel, I ever saw the discussion turned to why he chose to write stories about women who exhibited a pronounced sense of who and what they were. I don’t remember his exact answer, but it is a riff on this I heard him say many times, “I do it because I’ve only ever had those types of women around me.” On that day I walked away thinking this particular hero had lived up to his impression in my head.

Which is why the recent news about Mr. Whedon has been so distressing. Starting with actor Ray Fisher who Mr. Whedon worked with on the “Justice League” movie. It would become more than one angry actor as others who had worked with Mr. Whedon would begin to tell their stories. All of them were of him unmercifully berating the people he was working with. It has come to light he enjoyed tearing down the people who worked for him, especially it seems the women.

What bothered me personally was the way he touted his belief in women being more than equals in public. Only it turns out to be something far different in private. Now I felt like I had been had by a con man. Which to some degree remains my primary emotion.

To help give me some context I went back and watched some of my favorite pieces of tv and movies he has been responsible for. The stories being told are still of empowered heroines doing heroic things. That part doesn’t change. That I know there was emotionally manipulative efforts by Mr. Whedon bothers me. Yet I believe the work stands on its own.

Despite being created by a con man closet misogynist the stories are worth being seen. Hopefully to inspire future generations to be able to stand up to bullies like Mr. Whedon.

Mark Behnke