Category Archives: Television Shows

Line of Duty

 

If you want to know the difference between American crime series and English crime series watch Line of Duty. It is like comparing a fine red wine and a bottle of cheap moonshine whiskey. You will taste the difference.

This English series revolves around a group of British anti-corruption police officers in a unit called AC-12. They work relentlessly and smartly to seek out corruption among fellow police officers. So they are frequently unpopular with their fellows. The British series is done without all the “pretty people,” as a friend of mine once said. It has real people instead. People with warts. Nasty people; good people and always some people with a lot of good and bad. The cases are never simple. They never follow tired formulas. The series is filled with surprises. Take nothing for granted. Expect a ride. Rather don’t expect anything. Just enjoy. Like a very fine wine.

 

Intelligence Matters: Homeland Season 8

 

A few years ago a friend of mine said this was the golden age of television. He was one of the most well read people I know. He said he spends a lot less time reading and a lot more time watching television. I was stunned to hear that. How could it be? The answer is he was right.

In the last 10 years or more, television has grown up. There is a lot of good television out there. One of the series that is among the best is Homeland. I look forward to each season with great anticipation. Now they have announced the current season, the eighth, will be its last. What a dreadful pity. But all good things come to an end. It is a greater pity when good shows run out of gas. It is pitiful to see shows lose their creative vigour and go through the motions. Well that does not happen in Season 8 of this series.

Along with The Wire, this is one of my all time favourite television series. TV as good as it gets. It has only sporadic physical action, unlike most thrillers. The thrills are cerebral. It shows that thinking is action! Thinking is exciting.

What I really like about this series involving intelligence officers from many different countries is that none of them have all the answers. Though some claim to. The series hinges on intelligence in both senses of that term. Intelligence gathering and intelligent people. Fighting mainly with their wits. That is the action adventure. Not car chases, knock down fights, or shoot-em ups. These are intelligent men and women not super heroes. Much more interesting than that.

The background for Season 8 is very real. It is actually what happened. The Americans and the Taliban try to negotiate a peace agreement to end the war in Afghanistan  after 18 years. This is precisely what happened until Trump pulled the plug on those negotiations because he got mad at the Taliban. So the war continues.

 

In the TV series, Saul Berenson, the current Security Advisor to the American President, is trying to negotiate that messy peace agreement and he   makes comment that rings home. In Episode 1 he says, “This war has lasted 18 years, cost trillions of dollars, and resulted in nearly 2,000 American soldiers dying.” Of course even more Afghans died but no one seems to care about that. Actually Saul does care. He leaves us thinking (and that is the key—thinking) for what end?

In the final season,  the Americans eavesdrop on a conversation between a Taliban leader and his son who can stand up to him. The leader says, “We don’t want to end this war; we’re winning.” Saul, who overhears this, says to his associate, “That’s what we said for 18 years.”

In the series, Saul has been involved in these wars of the Middle East for decades. He knows the cost. He is weary of war. He wants the killing to end. As a result Saul sends a personal letter to a Taliban leader he personally knows and with whom he once fought on the same side. This is what it says:

“It seems like a lifetime since you and I met in the mountains. Then we fought on the same side. Now we fight as enemies using every weapon we have. Drones, suicide bombers. Killing families. Children. We are like two madmen hands around each other’s throats, unable to let go, spilling each other’s blood and treasure for 18 years. No one can win such a war. I’ve come to believe that and I think in your heart you believe that too. So I invite you to come talk to me face to face, because you and I know it is only the men with guns who can make peace. Let’s meet without guns, drones, or guards. It’s time to stop sending our young men and women to die.”

 

Wise words from a war-weary veteran. But of course, they must battle the extremists. They are everywhere.

All sides (there are always more than 2 in these stories) have extremists that must be controlled by intelligence. Again in both senses. It is much easier to start a war than end one. Why do extremists always seem so strong and moderates so namby-pamby? Those thirsting for revenge seem so smart, but are so far from truth. Haqqani an Afghan and Saul have a conversation:

Saul: “You’re innocent (of murdering 2 Presidents)

Haqqani:   After 40 years of war no one is innocent.

 

Carrie Matheson is the disturbed protagonist, an American spy. Constantly fighting her own mental problems trying to balance  her duty to her daughter (she is a single mom with a young daughter) and her duty to her country. One has to give. It is an uncomfortable dilemma. She is an incredibly fierce defender of her country, and her daughter at great personal risk to herself. For those goals she takes insane chances and makes insane choices.

Both Saul and Carrie have impossible choices to make. Can one betray the other to save the country? Or give up a hidden spy?

This series has the colour of truth. But it is a murky truth. There is ample corruption and chicanery on all sides. No one has a monopoly on morality or fault. There are good people and bad people but never entirely good or bad. They are seeking each other out in a world of desperation. Often truth and heaven are found in the most unlikely of places.

Evgeny the Russian spy is smart. He tells his American counterpart, “every time the Americans bomb a bunch of civilians it’s an opportunity for us. We help them rebuild.”

The American protagonists also must navigate their way through that dark  world where truth is hidden and morality is as camouflaged as the soldiers. As Carries says, “I will never betray my country. I won’t do that. But between the black and white there is a lot of gray.” That is the way it is. It’s complicated. Simple answers wont’ do. Ideology cannot cut it. Intelligence is what is needed, but hard to find.

One of the finest TV series is over. I loved this series. I will miss it a lot.

Religion in the After life

 

After Life is one of the funniest TV series ever. I mean that. This is British comedy at its quiet best. One of the episodes dealt with religion. A dangerous topic in other words.

Tony the prince of curmudgeons and his co-worker Kath have a discussion about religion. You have to pity Kath for agreeing to this, as it cannot end well.

Kath:  You’re an atheist?

Tony: Right.

Kath:  If you don’t believe in heaven and hell and all that, why don’t you go around raping and murdering as much as you want?

Tony: I do. I do go around raping and murdering as much as I want which is not at all.

George buts in:      Because he’s got a conscience.

Kath:  If death is just the end then what is the point?

Tony: What’s the point of what?

Kath:  Why not just kill yourself? (this is exactly what he has been planning to do actually)

Tony: so if you’re watching a movie and you’re really enjoying it and someone points out to you its going to end eventually do you just then say ‘well what’s the point then and turn it off?’

Kath:  No because I can watch it again.

Tony: Well I think life is precious because you can’t watch it again. I mean you can believe in an after life if that makes you feel better, but once you realize you’re not going to be around forever, I think that’s what makes life so magical. One day you’ll eat your last meal. Smell your last flower. Hug your friend for the very last time. So that’s why you should do everything you love with passion. Treasure the few years you’ve got, because that’s all there is.

Kath:  I do. I watch Kevin Hart. I love everything about him and his films.

Tony: That’s good. You’re doing it!

Yup she got it all right. Watch this show and get filled with the spirit.

After Life

 

This is comedy at its most serene and absurd. How is that possible?

The series was created, written, and directed by Ricky Gervais who also stars as the leading character Tony. Tony had a perfect life. As he said, “I won at life.” Nothing else he ever did was worth it. His life was perfect because of his wife Lisa. She had only imperfection and it was a big one—she got cancer and died too young. She is dead before the series starts. But Lisa left Tony instructions on her computer—a video of her talking combined with videos of her and Tony while married before she got sick. Often he is watching the videos alone at night with a glass of wine. This is their after life.

After she died Tony decided the only way he could carry on would be to say and do whatever he wanted. He would give no thought to anyone else. He would not care about anyone else. If all else failed he can always commit suicide. That is what he can always fall back on. He thinks of that as his superpower. In time Tony realizes this is not such a great superpower. “You can’t not  care about something you actually care about. You can’t fool yourself.” His superpower fizzles out. So you care and that ruins everything. But thank goodness it does not ruin the comedy.

The series has a host of off beat characters. Lenny his photographer best buddy who says little but makes Tony realize there is beauty in the ordinary. Roxy the prostitute who prefers to be called a sex worker. His colleague Sandy who just wants him to be happy. The mailman is a lunatic.  Simple not? No! His demented father who usually sits in his room staring and doing nothing but occasionally making a profound statement. At least so it seems. Postman Pat who wants Tony to find a bird (woman) no matter how undesirable he appears. The drug addict who Tony helps to O.D. What kind of help is that? There are others from the sublime to the ridiculous, in particular the people Tony meets, with Lenny, as they prepare vignettes about locals for their newspaper. Each of them in their own way is trying to find a place where they belong.

All in all, it makes you realize that Tony was right when he says “we’re all screwed up in one way or another. It’s what makes us normal.”

Sitting on a bench talking to Anne who has also lost a spouse Tony realizes that even though he is in pain, “it is worth sticking around to maybe make my little corner of the world a slightly better place.” A modest goal, but one with profound consequences for Tony. As another friend  Anne says,

“That’s all there is. Happiness is amazing. It’s so amazing it doesn’t matter if it’s yours or not.” It’s that lovely thing. A society grows great when old men plant trees the shade of which they know they will never sit in. Good people do things for other people. That’s it. The end. And you’re good Tony. You have so much to give. Smart funny. Lovely.”

And that really is it. You don’t need grand designs. We don’t need huge ambition. We can do a lot with a little. A little kindness goes a long way.

This is my kind of afterlife.

 

*

Unbelievable

Chris and I watched an interesting television series on Netflix. Not bad; not great. In odd way I liked the low production values. It made the story real.  Or should I say believable? It was called Unbelievable. It is the story of a number of women–some young, some old–all raped in their own bed by a brutal intruder. It tells the story of the investigations by 2 outstanding police officers and 2 less than outstanding. It concentrates in particular on one of the victims a very young girl Marie who is not believed and raises the very interesting question of why it is that sexual assault victims are often not believed, unlike most other victims of crime. Why is that? As well, why does the victim have to relive the experience over and over again? Do other victims of other crimes face the same problems? As a result is it surprising that most victims of sexual assault choose not to report the crimes? What does this tell us about our society? Interesting questions. Worth seeing.

 

Our Boys: Judgement

 

One of the most interesting parts of the television series Our Boys, created by a Palestinian and Israeli team,   was the judgement of the court. It was read by an elderly Justice with stern cadences of belief in its truth. Yet, “the truth” was not endorsed by either side.

The judge noted that the days in Jerusalem after the kidnapping of the 3 Israeli boys had been tense. People gathered in frenzied crowds yelling “Death to Arabs.” 3 Jewish boys took this literally.  They were good boys from fine families. They were deeply religious.  The judge did not say it, but I will, they were “Our boys.” Though so was the young Palestinian victim and the 3 Jewish boys that had been kidnapped.

As the judge did say, “This was the shaft through which the 3 plunged into the dark tunnel of hatred and racism from which they emerged that night, yet the troubling thought persists from what well did the 3 drink such quantities of hatred and racism that blinded them so terribly that bashing and suffocating the head, and burning a human being created in God’s image, seemed to make sense? What did the defendants learn and internalize  at the various stages of their education and upbringing that enabled the unbearable lightness with which they took the life of a young Arab boy?” These are profound thoughts. But there is little evidence anyone paid attention. They were too consumed by hatred. Not long afterwards the country was plunged  into war—again.

At the end of the film we do not see justice. We do not see revenge? We don’t see the majesty of the law. Guilt is not important. The sentence is not significant. The mathematics of crime and punishment is false. All we see is a mother’s pain. Her son is dead and he was killed horribly. Nothing else matters. The mother’s pain is real and it endures. Nothing else endures. Nothing at all.

Our Boys: the Quest

 

 

I saw an amazing television series this year. It is powerful, disturbing, difficult to watch, and profoundly important. It is called Our Boys and is the fruit of an astonishing collaboration between Israeli writers, and Israeli and Palestinian co-directors. That brings a unique perspective that enriches this film. It is a perspective that is very difficult to find in the Middle East, where typically vicious certainties destroy  each other. That perspective is different from any other I have ever seen. I urge you to watch.

First I will give a caveat. Most of the film contains English Subtitles.  I don’t usually enjoy watching films with subtitles as I find them very distracting, but in this 10 series of shows the effort is well worth it. The series is based on a  true series of events in Israel and Palestine  in 2014 that led to a war in Gaza.

The series is based on 2 horrible real events. The first was the kidnapping of 3 Jewish boys whose plight ignited Israel, first in hopes and prayers for their survival, then when those hopes were dashed,  and the bodies of the boys were found, and then came the thirst for the nectar of the Middle East—revenge . after that revenge followed as inevitably as pee rolls down porcelain.

That of course called for more revenge. That’s how things work in the Middle East. Soon a 16-year old Palestinian boy was beat up and then gasoline was poured down his throat and he was burned alive.  It was a horrifying murder that mercifully was not depicted  in the series. Could good Jews have retaliated so gruesomely? The Israelis did not want to believe it. As one Jew tells the Simon the Jewish detective, “That’s part of the problem; that you think a Jew is incapable of cruelty to an enemy.”

The series included an actual recording of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu making a speech at the funeral for the 3 boys.  He  boldly declared at the funeral, “A deep moral abyss separates us from our enemies. They sanctify death, while we sanctify compassion.” Is that true? Or a comfortable illusion? As Emily Nussbaum in her New Yorker review of the series aptly put it: “At its heart, this is a show about the brutal economics of empathy in a time of war: who gets it, who deserves it, who is denied it.”

A Rabbi was convinced that to fight the Palestinians they must retaliate in kin. After all they will do anything: blow up children, babies, and buses filled with innocent people, .The Rabbi said,  if one side is crazy the other side  must be irrational too. “It’s like mathematics. If one side is irrational and the other side not, strength does not matter. If the Jew operates irrationally and the Arab doe not, the Jew has power. If it’s the other way around the Jew loses. That is why 1 burned Arab boy is mathematically very good for the Jews.”  The Middle East is transfused with exactly such mathematical fanaticism.

An Israelis detective, Simon, was charged with responsibility to solve these crimes as soon as possible. The detective was relentless and brilliant, but his tenacity was not always appreciated by his fellow Israelis. Some of them did not want him to carry his torch to the back of the cave, particularly where religious and political zealots reside. The light is not always flattering.

The film focused on various groups from both sides in Palestinian and Israeli territory where citizens turn to fury soaked in religion that led to ugly and violent protest. In both cities, religious and political hatreds were fuelled by dehumanizing rhetoric that has horrible effects on young minds sadly open to toxic influence.  As Simon said, “You start arresting people for spewing hate and pretty soon half the country is in jail.”

The killers prayed to their god to send them a victim and praised God when he did. The young boy was a “gift from God.” After all if the young boy is not killed he will turn into a terrorist. Better to kill him first. In the mathematical logic of tit for tat it does not matter that the victim is innocent.

Unlike most American films which employ the simplicity of good versus evil, this series embraces complexity and eschews simple answers. Everyone should see this series available now on HBO. It is worth the effort.

E pluribus unum

 

 

Ken Burns has produced some magnificent television documentaries for Public Broadcasting in the US. Burns likes the traditional Latin motto of the United States E pluribus unumwhich means  “Out of many, one.” I like it too.  It appears on the Great Seal of the United Sates. Arthur Schlesinger complained that the United States suffered from too much pluralism and not enough one. It was adopted in 1782 but since then another motto has been more popular: “In God we Trust.”  I don’t like that one quite as much. In 1956 Congress adopted it as the official motto of the country. What ever happened to separation of church and state?

Ken Burns said that too often we think we connected and we are actually disconnected from each other. There are no more town greens. PBS is part of the commons. It is part of the public square. Burns says it is one place where we can have rational discourse in difficult times when the tapestry of the commons is frayed. Times like these. I think that is a pretty good motto.

The Golden Age of Television

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A few years ago a good friend of mine shocked me.  I asked him what books he had read recently. He said, “none.”  I was astonished.  How could that be? He was about the most well read guy I knew, yet he said he did not read much anymore. Instead he was watching television. I was thunderstruck. What a pitiful waste of time I thought.

He explained that this was the golden age of television and he was spending a lot of time watching television. I thought this was absurd. After all I was brought up on the value of books and the idea that most television was crap–dreck. There was very little good about anything on television, I thought.

At the time, when I did watch TV  I mainly watched the network shows or sports. ‘What shows should I watch,’ asked. He pointed me in the direction of some television shows I had hardly heard of before. Shows like, The Wire, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad. They were on weird channels I rarely watched. I resolved to give them a try.

I started with The Wire. This is a television show about black youth in Baltimore and their foes, the police and district attorneys. The series spanned 5 seasons. I found it very difficult to watch. I had trouble understanding what the youth were saying. Their slang was nearly impenetrable. After less than half a season I gave up on the show. I thought my friend who recommended it was nuts.  Some time later, maybe a year later, I came back to that show and tried harder “to get it.”  What was this show about? At first I could not grasp it.

After  awhile I thought I started getting an understanding of  what was going on. At least I thought I did. Then I realized that this was an extremely interesting series with some amazing writing and gritty acting. This was a police show unlike any other. Ultimately, I concluded this was the best television I had ever seen.

I also liked Mad Men, though not as much. The creators I thought were geniuses. I fell in love with Breaking Bad. The development of characters in the series and quirky stories and unlikely cinematography was outstanding. I was hooked. I started to love television. I found it hard to believe that this had happened.

I did not give up on books. Thank goodness.  I don’t really think my friend had given up either. Yet I realized some of the best writing, and most creative minds were at work in television. Since then I have come to appreciate many other fantastic television shows. Most of these were not shown on the standard networks with their formulaic approaches, but I could find them. I could find them and be amazed. This is the golden age of television.

7 Seconds: Truth is Murky

 

There has been an interesting phenomenon that has occurred in the last 10 years or so—the golden age of television. This happened while we never expected it. We were looking elsewhere and a miracle occurred. John Lennon was right about that. Often television is now better than the movies. Wonders don’t quit coming.

There have been a series of outstanding television shows, particularly series.  Series give film makers the time to do it right.  Haste makes waste. That is part of the problem with the cinema. Television sets that right.

Some of the dramatic series that I believe were outstanding include the following: Breaking Bad, Mad Men, True Detective(Season 1 only), The Killing, and above all The Wire. There were no doubt others that I missed.  I only saw some of them. Now there is one I can add to that short list—Seven Seconds. Like The Killing, 7 Seconds was produced by Veena Cabreros-Sud.She was born in Canada, if that matters.

The series follows what happens after an accident. It was not a murder of a young black man by a cop. It was an accident. A young police officer got a call that his wife was going to the hospital to give birth to a son. Earlier his wife had delivered a still born child. The police officer was getting the message as he drove his car. He was rushing to the hospital. He was distracted and he drove into something. He did not even see what he hit. It turned out to be a young black boy on a bike. The bike was the type used by a black gang. The boy had a criminal record for taking drugs.  The boy might have been a gang member. The truth as always was murky. Isn’t it always murky?

4 white police officers in a prestige drug crime squad quickly decide to do nothing.  They assist the young police officer in avoiding responsibility. They also do nothing to help the poor boy lying in the ditch. They leave the scene of the accident. They don’t want to be caught. The young boy is lying on the ground in winter in a park. The real story is what happens following that.

It is often said that the police don’t tolerate a charge against one of them. Any prosecutor who launches such a charge will find that the police won’t in the future cooperate with any investigations led by that prosecutor.

One dogged police officer starts investigating the case with a surly lack of enthusiasm. As another cynical police officer told her, “Remember the dead don’t need any answers.”  True, but the family of the dead want answers. The public wants answers. And they are entitled to them. Against his own better judgement the cynical police officer comes to pursue the case with vigor, particularly after a young junkie witness is killed by the police.

Yet, the lawyer who represents the police officer says to the press, “What we are witnessing is nothing less than a witch hunt against the Jersey City Police Department. One we are accustomed to seeing in Baltimore, Chicago, and New York. The list goes on. Every police officer in America is at risk of the becoming the next scapegoat for the racial ills of our society, and political correctness run amok. It’s a sham. It’s a sham. Thank you. ” The police association hired her as hired gun to say exactly that. This is their party line.

The question of course is whether or not she is right. Many believe exactly that. Police are important. We need them. They play a vital role in keeping life safe. At the same time while some of them are scapegoats, some of them are perpetrators. Yes, the truth is murky.

When the police association lawyer meets the 4 police officers, for whom she clearly has nothing but contempt, notwithstanding her grand statements, she tells them they must stick together. She tells them, “Alone you’re just an idiot with his hands caught down his pants. Together, you’re cops. Together they have to put the entire police department on trial. And no one ever convicts the entire police force.”  Good legal advice; bad moral advice. Lawyers only get paid for legal advice.  Then she adds, “Welcome to the criminal justice system gentlemen.  No one gives a fuck about the truth.”

Since Aristotle we have known that every tragedy has a hero with a flaw.  Here everyonehas a flaw. Each character has a flaw. Each character also has some good. No one is entirely good or entirely bad. Each character is complex. Each character resists stereotypes.  This is what makes the series interesting. Each character is worth looking at. Each earns some empathy from us.

The most interesting character in the series is the young black female prosecutor. She is a drunk. She lacks confidence. She is not a shining star. She gets into an ugly bar room encounter with some police officers and shows a very ugly side of her own character. She presumes she is better than them, entirely without justification. Someone calls her “a fucking idiot with a badge.” Yet she is the tragic hero. She is all that the family of the young deceased boy have to bring justice for their dead boy.

The prosecutor appears to be a pretty weak instrument for justice. Yet somehow she at least brings the victim to life so the jury she him. She also asks us to see the officer for what he was in his 7 seconds after he realized he had killed a young boy. Maybe the officer knew he was black. Maybe not. Truth is murky. She also brought the victim to life. At least the mother and father saw that she made a real person of an impersonal victim—carelessly labelled a black boy with a criminal record, obviously having received what he deserved. She brought him to life for one shining moment.

I don’t want to give the ending away. I want you to watch the series to get that. Let me just say that it is far from clear that justice is served. We also learn that revenge is never sweet. We do learn that justice is blind. Is that a good thing? Justice is complicated. Justice is murky. So is injustice.