I'M NOT SURE if British humor is an acquired or an inherited taste. You couldn't prove it one way or the other by me. My mother was half-British and I may have acquired it from her by either method. All I know is that it is distinctly different from American humor. Thus, my recommendation that you watch Doc Martin must be taken with a grain of salt.
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The Brits do silly so much better than Americans. I have a theory as to why. One doesn't expect a Brit, especially one born to the privileged classes, to be silly. The unexpectedness of silliness from such a person catches you by surprise, whereas an American acting silly is, well, just silly. Thus, most British comedians succeed best when they learn to emulate the manner and speech of one well-bred and well-educated who then does something silly.
Cary Grant was a marvelous example. Yes, he was an exceptionally handsome man, a great romantic lead. But, he was also a great physical comedian. Watch Houseboat with Sophia Loren, as he whacks his head on the passageway every time he descends the stairs. It's a great running gag because he pulls it off naturally, with great aplomb.
In Doc Martin, Martin Clunes, an exceptionally unhandsome man, plays Dr. Martin Ellingham, a prominent London surgeon who abandons his practice when he develops severe hemophobia. He obtains a posting as General Practitioner (GP) in a sleepy Cornish coastal town. Inasmuch as his former patients presented themselves in operating theaters, Doc Martin, as he objects to be known, never developed a warm bedside manner, leading him into numerous humorous confrontations. His aunt, who has lived in the town all her life, tries to guide him around the worst of his social faux pas but Doc Martin is reluctant to change. He believes that he is being proper and professional.
The program is littered with wonderfully quirky characters. A totally incompetent and distracted receptionist. A plumber and his son who immediately put me in mind of O'Reilly's Crew from Fawlty Towers. (Yes, I am no newcomer to British comedy.) An insecure constable of the law. A ranger, a Bosnian war veteran, who lives with an invisible six-foot squirrel. Yes, they're all silly, but they pull it off so well.
The love interest is a primary school teacher who Doc Martin examines on an airplane without her permission while on his way to be interviewed for the posting. She happens to be a member of the panel who examines him. (You'll just have to watch Season 1 – Episode 1 to sort out that mess.)
Doc Martin is great viewing in the lull between regular programming. If nothing else, it will provide some laughs to distract you from the political theater now playing out in the world's capitals. There are already five seasons in the can, all available on Netflix or you can purchase them in boxed sets. Please begin at the beginning or you're bound to be utterly confused.
MY WIFE AND I came late to Masterpiece Theater's Downton Abbey. We rarely watch anything on television as it's aired preferring instead to record programs and watch them sans commercials. Unfortunately, some good information may be lost among advertising messages that we skip.
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In brief, Downton Abbey is the continuing story of a noble family struggling to keep home and hearth together in the early Twentieth Century as such estates fall into ruin. They are no longer economically viable unless, as in the case of Lord Crawley, a rich American can be snagged in matrimony to revive the family coffers. Before you turn away offended at such rampant perfidy, love blooms between the Lord and his Lady, but she only bears him daughters, and the sole male heir, a consanguine cousin, dies during the sinking of the Titanic. Thus, we are introduced to the drama as a more distant, less noble, cousin arrives to assume the mantel of heir to the family title and estate as well as the fortune derived from the marriage.
The program is populated with wonderfully quirky and lovable characters. There are even a few sniveling villains thrown in for balance. We follow their adventures and misadventures from the servants domain in the basement to the family residence on the uppers floors, and the drawing rooms, libraries, and halls in between. The family and their servants evolve into a complex society of interdependent parts. None is more delightful than the dowager Countess played by Maggie Smith. I think that she must have brought her own writers just to compose her lines. She has all the best ones.
For some ungodly reason they air these things on PBS in America. I suppose the British are so inured to their own public broadcasting system that they believe ours is the best vehicle for quality programming. Would one of my British friends please tell me if cable has made it to the UK. Is the BBC your only programming choice?
It took some effort for us to catch up with the first two seasons of Downton Abbey which have already been aired in America. We found the first season in its entirety on Netflix. No problem there. We were already subscribers. The entire second season is available on Hulu Plus. We signed up for a free week and watched every episode. Inasmuch as Hulu Plus doesn't offer any advantage to our viewing habits, we canceled it. Sorry about that.
The show is a delightful diversion, fully worth the effort of chasing down past episodes, even if you have to sign up for a new Internet service to gain access. Throw a bone to your conscience and pay for a month or two if it helps, but hurry, season three is commencing this coming Sunday.
ONE OF OUR FAVORITE television programs this season is Elementary. It's a modern day version of the Sherlock Holmes stories set in New York City. Oh yes, I approached it with great skepticism. I am a fan of the original stories and have never appreciated them in films. I expected this take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's masterpieces to be an utter failure. My wife and I were pleasantly surprised.
Unlike the other new series that were produced for 2012, this one didn't waste its budget on sets, scenery, costumes, or stunts. They seemed to have invested every cent in writing intelligent scripts. This Sherlock Holmes deduces clues from the evidence the way that only the original could.
His partner, Dr. Watson, played by Lucy Liu, is a defrocked surgeon hired as a companion to monitor Holmes and help prevent him from relapsing into drug addiction. Her keen intelligence and dedication quickly secure her a position as a companion, though not a trusted one. Trust must be earned in time.
So many of the shows this season and last have disappointed. Glitz, glamour stunts, and grandiose sets simply cannot hide poor writing. As we approached the fall premiers, we had a list in hand of the shows that attract our attention. We switched off some after just a few minutes. A laugh track was instant death. We watched others for an episode or two before we made up our minds. In the end, only a very few made the cut. Elementary was one of those.
We have but one complaint. It seems that they even excluded coffee from the budget. I don't think the writers would have minded. They might even be inclined to pitch for a cup or two.
I'm referring to one of our pet peeves: actors drinking from empty cups. This is not a complaint that is unique to Elementary. It seems to transcend all performances. However, the empty cups seem so much more blatant in a production wherein everything else is so excellent.
For example, in the most recent episode, Watson arrives with two cups of coffee in paper cups with lids and insulated bands such as you might get at Starbucks. She's carrying them in a paper tray that is designed for four cups. If they were actually full, she would most likely carry the tray with both cups close to her hand. However, she is holding the tray on the side opposite the cups. Thus, the tray becomes a lever either making it more difficult to hold or running the risk of spillage.
Holmes takes his cup and instantly tips it to his lips, not as though he's about to take the first sip of hot coffee. No, he tips it up as though draining the last dregs of a cold beverage. Watson, sitting nearby, removes the plastic lid and begins stirring an obviously empty cup with a wooden swizzle stick.
Sorry for the lengthy description, but I couldn't find a clip to show you. You'll just have to watch and see for yourself.
And, you should watch it. If you enjoy intelligent entertainment, Elementary is an excellent choice. We can't hold the writers responsible for inept direction and continuity. Besides, actors drinking from empty coffee cups seems endemic on television and in the movies. It's almost as prevalent as actors leaving headlights on when they exit their cars. But, that's another story.
CAN YOU SEPARATE your politics from your humanity? I can. Call the Midwife is a BBC production being aired in America on PBS that touches my soul despite the fact that so many aspects of it conflict with my core beliefs. However, none of that matters when I am presented with good people doing good in an ugly world.
Few can argue that London's East End in the 1950s was any ugly place. Far too many people living on low wages and crammed together in meager shelters. Little of beauty finds its way into this neighborhood. An occasional weed pushing up between the cobblestones provides a rare glimpse of green in a gray world, and it is soon crushed by humanity flooding and ebbing in its narrow streets, drawn by the alternating gravity of work and respite. The people aren't so much miserable as they are bereft of hope that their lives or their children's lives might amount to something more. Still, they produce children as though it is the only creative act permitted them.
Into this morass strides Jennie Lee, a trained nurse and midwife. She seems so out of place. Of possibly lower middle class origins, she has the look and poise that might have been assets to a model or an airline stewardess. She is a splash of color surrounded by dull brutes, their care-worn wives, and their teeming urchins.
Jennie joins a group of midwives sponsored by the Catholic Church. She and three other lay persons work alongside a small cloister of nuns, providing free health care to pregnant women.
Many will be surprised and some perplexed to learn that I watch anything on PBS. I not only refuse to contribute to it, but also refuse to endorse any politician who votes to continue supporting it with public funds. PBS served its purpose in the early days of television. It provided an outlet for quality programming that the commercial broadcasters would not air. However, in these days of narrow casting, with many hundreds of cable networks airing quality programming, PBS is no longer needed, nor can we afford it. I wouldn't object if the public treasury still overflowed with the wealth of our nation. Unfortunately, our government has stifled the creativity and enterprise of the people thus lowering tax revenue, and squandered the treasure that was handed to them by their predecessors. I am certain that if PBS were shut down today, programming like Call the Midwife would find another home tomorrow, and Big Bird would be the object of a bidding war by the purveyors of children's programming.
Produced in Britain, it is no surprise that this program extols the virtue of that nation's free public health care system. We saw evidence of that pride recently during the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games. Supporters of Obamacare in this country most likely will be gratified by these references. Unfortunately, for every benefit derived from free public health care in Britain, there are countless devils in its details. For example, I happened to be corresponding electronically with an acquaintance in England as the opening ceremonies were being broadcast. She complained bitterly that she hadn't been able to schedule an appointment with a doctor for months for the sole purpose of obtaining a new prescription for her pain medication. Yes, this is only an anecdote. However, it is representative of the fact that the health system in Britain works far better for the healthy than the unhealthy.
Call the Midwife is narrated by Vanessa Redgrave as the voice of an older Jennie Lee, reflecting on the life and experiences that we see unfolding on the screen. I take great care in avoiding Ms Redgrave inasmuch as I am greatly offended by her politics. I would fight to the death to defend her right to any political ideology that she chooses. However, I will not pay one cent to support her or her causes. I also am offended by those who cast her in the role of Fania Fénelon, a Jewish classical musician interred at Auschwitz during World War II, in Playing For Time. Having Ms Redgrave portray a Jew when she has vehemently attacked every Jew's most basic desire to live in peace in their own homeland is reprehensible. She has used her prominence as a respected actress to foister the lies crafted by the Arabs who want to annihilate those who live in Israel. You may agree with her. I don't. Still, I will not allow her participation in this production to cause me to turn away from it.
Despite all this, I recommend this show highly. There is no “bang-bang” action or torrid love scenes. It is simply a good story, well told. I suspect women will be more inclined to view it. However, they should encourage their men to watch it with them. Drag them kicking and screaming if need be. It will do them good.
ONCE AGAIN WE see a “big” television show spending its production budget on everything but the script. Remember last year's Terra Nova? Competent actors, good premise, great special effects, all brought together by legendary producer Steven Spielberg.
How could this fail after just one season? The answer is simple. Terrible scripting. Hobbled with poorly contrived conflict, mostly arising from stupid decisions by the characters (these people couldn't survive in a terrarium let alone in a world populated by ravenous theropods) each episode was worse than the one that preceded it.
So, here we go again. I have my doubts as to whether or not Revolution will make it past one season.
There are some who argue that big screen producers, directors, and actors don't translate well to the world of television. Live stages and movies required different storytelling and acting techniques. Emoting on stage comes across ham-handed in front of a camera. However, it's hard to see much difference between the techniques needed on the big screen as opposed to the television screen. Well, television is serialized and theatrical presentations are not.
No, I think that poor scripting is again the culprit. We are too hard pressed to suspend disbelief when characters make such bone-headed decisions and expect to survive in a hostile world. You need an example? Okay, one young man with one arrow in one crossbow attempts to face down a squad of militia armed with muskets. Sure, he's young and brash. But, seriously?
I admit that I am at a disadvantage. I was trained as an infantry officer and I have special knowledge that helps me spot the flaws better than most. I cringe as the characters galumph around the countryside, moving always in the daylight, sauntering without concern along open paths without any concern for what might be lurking in the bushes or waiting around the next bend. Sure, you don't have to be explicit, but at least make some effort to make it believable, please. And please give those who survive some survival skills.
Most of all, don't use the same hackneyed plot devices to create conflict week after week. Let's not have the spunky girl insist on having her way every time so that the hand of heroes finds themselves in one tight scrape after another. If I were one of them, I would have broken her neck after the first incident unless she promised to never open her mouth again. I don't care how pretty she is.
ONE OF THE KEYS to a happy marriage is that you and your spouse share similar senses of humor. There is, after all, nothing more annoying than people laughing at jokes that you don't get. (I feel that way every time I've attempted to watch Saturday Night Live.) Now, my spouse and I share a very weird sense of humor and both of us were greatly entertained by the new ABC Sitcom, The Neighbors.
obviously isn't for everyone. For example, the reviewers hated it. Fortunately, I don't pay attention to them. They often like shows with laugh tracks. I can't stand them. Nothing will induce me to switch the channel faster than a laugh track. So, if you like laugh tracks, The Neighbors
probably isn't for you.The Neighbors
is about a family who moves into a community populated entirely of space aliens who are on a mission to observe earth. They forgot to bring the charger for their interstellar cell phone and have been out of communication with their home planet for ten years. The offspring of one of the alien families accidentally reveals himself in his true form to the humans. After the initial trauma wears off, the humans decide to help the aliens on their quest to learn more about earth. We must presume that future episodes will be built around their excursions into the popular culture surrounding their community. The aliens, for example, have never visited a shopping mall.
The premier episode was laugh out loud funny, at least for my wife and I. We recommend it for anyone who shares our tastes in comedy.
You can see the premiere episode in its full length on ABC.com
INVARIABLY, I AM drawn into a discussion of television from time to time. Some of my more snobbish friends refuse to have one in the house. Others can't seem to get enough of it. I've watched a fair share of it. We got our first black and white RCA console television with an eight inch screen in the late 1940s. That being said, I believe it has a place in my musings on history inasmuch as I have witnessed much of it as it revealed itself in its glowing lens in my lifetime.
Although television was invented a few years before my birth, it didn't become popularly available until the mid-1940s. I remember my father bringing home that first television. I didn't understand anything about it, not even that it was going to display pictures somehow magically. It just looked like another piece of furniture when he first dragged it into our living room. I had to wait to find out.
My father proceeded to completely disassemble it before it reached room temperature. My father was an inveterate tinkerer. He was working as the maintenance machinist at the Lever Brothers plant in Baltimore at the time. He had a native talent for repairing almost any kind of machine, frequently fabricating replacement parts from raw stock. Over the years he worked there he taught himself to become a journeyman welder, pipe fitter, and machinist. However, electronics were not in his wheelhouse.
Although a very intelligent man, my father was not a scientist. He could not be dissuaded from an explanation once he had crafted it no matter how badly he missed the truth. He once explained radio to me as follows: Imagine, he said, a infinite string of “A's” in the air. When the radio station broadcasts a man saying “A” they are adding an “A” to the string and one at the other end “drops” off into our receiver. Yes, he actually said that.
Thus, although he was able to completely disassemble that television and reassemble it to work, he derived no real understanding of its operation. Still, he was able to remove tubes regularly and replace one that had burnt out using the tube tester at the neighborhood pharmacy (any day of the week except Sunday – but that's another story).
I can't remember much of what we watched in those days. I was five or six when we got the television. I'm pretty certain that my father bought it to watch boxing on the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports
. He had escaped the coal mines of Pennsylvania as a professional prize fighter and never lost his love of the sport. He would sit on the front edge of his chair with his fists between him and the fighters on the screen, ducking and weaving, stopping only between rounds to refresh himself with beer and potato chips.
I believe that I was among the first fans of puppeteer Burr Tillstrom's Kuklapolitan Opera
and Foodini the Great
, a marionette magician.
My first memorable brush with history on television came when I watched the 1953 coronation of Queen Elizabeth of England. I was just ten years old and yet remember it well. I remember the wonder of the technology used – a restored World War II P-50 Mustang fighter was used to fly the film from London to New York by way of Ireland and Greenland – so that we could watch the event just 12 hours after it occurred! No tape then. They flew raw film footage to the studios in New York and put it on the air as fast as they could develop and dry it. They were able to do a little crude editing as the show progressed.
Interestingly, we were still watching tape delayed programming in Hawaii in the late 1960s. News broadcasts were flown in and aired daily, but regular programming, including sporting events, were aired a week later. We spent the week during football season avoiding sports pages in the newspapers so that we could enjoy the game without foreknowledge of the results. Of course, some wise guy would walk by just as we sat down with our beer and pretzels and comment on the outcome.
To say that television has brought about a revolution in communications and entertainment would be a weak excuse for including it as a topic in this blog. However, it is valid to discuss its impact on American politics, especially its role in shaping public opinion during the Vietnam War as well as the War on Terror.