Passions on the Half Shell

Raw emotions keep the kettle aboil in Broadchurch (2013), a sixteen-episode series set in the small tourist-friendly seaside town of the title on the southern coast of England. The double case whodunit observes all the formal conventions of the mystery genre: the helpless victim, the shock of the affected parties, the dogged efforts of the detectives, the suspicious behavior of  likely culprits, the enigmatic clues, the red herrings dragged across the trail. What distinguishes Broadchurch among the proliferate, often intricately clever, species of murder mysteries is the emphasis on character over plot, and the searing portrayals of emotional distress in all concerned, the investigators as well as the investigated.

Police procedure, forensic science, and legal conundrums are crucial to the proceedings but take a back seat to the foreground anguish, outrage, grief, indignation, lust, hysteria, rancor, remorse, mistrust, guilt, and see-saw relations among the characters. The web is complex and deep; every strand plucked reverberates the whole.

An eleven year-old boy is found dead, lying face down on the beach. The town constabulary has been assigned Alec Hardy (David Tennant), a new chief inspector with a damaged reputation to repair. His detective sergeant Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman), lifelong resident of the town, had expected promotion but instead must work with the taxing, abrasive new boss. Many of the possible suspects cannot or will not account for their movements. The local press has an eager young reporter willing to compromise journalistic integrity to win his spurs, while a heartless professional from a London daily has been dispatched to steal the story. Commercial interests worry that the paparazzi might scare off the tourist trade.

A past unsolved case haunts Inspector Hardy, the murder of a young girl and disappearance of her baby sitter that was allegedly botched when the detective carelessly allowed critical evidence to be stolen. Both cases devour him and drag in reluctant Detective Sergeant Miller.

Local inhabitants in the simmering town of 15,000 know each other painfully well. Their concourse lends itself to undigested jealousies, long-tended grudges, and half-hidden secrets. Their intimacies and loyalties are threatened and tested by the murder investigation. Coincidences and cross purposes abound.

There is, for example, a personal rivalry between headstrong defense attorney Sharon Bishop (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) and arrogant prosecutor Jocelyn Knight (Charlotte Rampling), her former mentor. Reverend Paul Coates (Arthur Darvill), himself not beyond the reach of the investigation, treads carefully among thorny issues presented by his parishioners while his offers of spiritual solace fall on stony ground.

Chris Chibnall created the series for Kudos Film and Television. The Wessex location, with its restless sea, its towering cliffs, and its claustrophobic village, provides visual tension to the accumulating suspense. Sweeping panoramas of verdant fields and sparkling waters in the bay promise that life endures in spite of human agonies.

Sparks fly, passions flame, and fevers never cool in this gripping, intoxicating series.

(Review posted on Amazon.com, March 29, 2017)

Rick and Morty Forever

Rick Sanchez, a flask swigging, morally relativistic, quantum party animal and super-genius inventor, has returned after a lengthy absence to live with his daughter Beth, an equine surgeon, her insecure, unemployed husband Jerry Smith, their impressionable teenage daughter Summer, and their nervous, fretful son Morty. Rick has enlisted Morty to be his wing man and fellow adventurer in a series of inter-dimensional, trans-temporal, and routinely hair-raising capers.

Belching, stammering, chin perpetually slathered with drool, Rick occupies himself crafting marvels in the family garage for his own amusement from household odds and ends and exotic minerals from other worlds, exposing himself and Morty to a googolplex of dangers, with warning advisories typically issued just after the nick of time.

“I know that new situations can be intimidating,” Rick assures his grandson. “You’re lookin’ around and it’s all scary and different. But, you know, meeting them head on, charging right into them like a bull, that’s how we grow as people. I’m no stranger to scary situations. I deal with them all the time. Now, if you stick with me, Morty, you’re gonna be… Holy crap, Morty! Run! I’ve never seen that thing before in my life. I don’t know what the hell it is. We gotta get out of here, Morty! It’s gonna kill us. We’re gonna die!”

Dispatching him on an emergency mission into the internal organs of a dying man, Rick slams a helmet on Morty, positions him on a miniaturization platform, and punches a control button, mentioning at the last moment, “Hold your breath until the process is over or your lungs will collapse.”

Rick is not merely the smartest man on earth. He is the smartest man in the universe. He has fashioned a handheld device to twist open portals to an infinity of parallel universes. In the infinity of timelines every possible Rick or Morty does or does not exist. Regardless where his portals lead him, Rick’s wave function rarely collapses from uncertainty.

He is impatient and unsparing. “There is no God, Summer.” Rick coaches his granddaughter. “You gotta rip that bandaid off now. You’ll thank me later.”

Rick invents a miniature robot with artificial intelligence to pass him the table butter. “What is my purpose?” the robot asks. “You pass butter,” Rick says. “Oh, my God,” the robot slumps in despair.

Arriving at the Blips and Chitz arcade for a holiday of electronic abandon, Rick raises cash by peddling a weapon to an assassin. “You sold a gun to a murderer so you could play video games?” a scandalized Morty cries. “Yeah, sure. I mean, if you spend all day shuffling words around you can make anything sound bad, Morty.”

Rick has built himself a car equally well equipped for road trips or space jaunts. “The first rule of space travel, kids, is always check out distress beacons. Nine out of ten times it’s a ship full of dead aliens and a bunch of free shit! One out of ten times it’s a deadly trap, but I’m willing to roll those dice.”

When alien parasites attempt to populate the earth by assuming affable characters and implanting bogus fond memories of themselves in their human hosts, Rick must lock down the Smith house to stymie the confusing proliferation of invaders.

“Dad, why does our house have blast shields?” his daughter inquires in surprise.

“Trust me, Beth. You don’t want to know how many answers that question has.”

Landing on a planet to refill his wind shield wipers, Rick informs Morty, “It’s a purge planet. They’re peaceful. And then, you know, they just purge.”

Morty: “Tha… that’s horrible!”

Rick: “Yeah. You wanna check it out?”

To power the battery in his car, Rick siphons energy from a micro-verse of intelligent beings he has created, endlessly churning treadmills that they think supply the juice for their own world. They have evolved a genius of their own called Zeep who replaces the treadmills with energy captured from a mini-verse he has invented that in turn has evolved beings who have created a teeny-verse they can sap for power. A battery failure pulls Rick and Morty through levels of micro-travel to solve the energy crisis. Rick and Zeep face off in the teeny-verse, trading jibes.

Zeep objects, “That’s what you use my universe for, to run your car?”

“Don’t flatter yourself,” Rick sneers. “There’s always Triple A… Someone has to bring a little culture. And it certainly can’t be someone whose entire culture powers my brake lights!”

Meanwhile, Summer has been left behind in the car, shivering in fright as the car executes its vague order from Rick to “keep Summer safe” with heartless efficiency and horrific consequences.

Some of Rick’s inventions run off the rails with catastrophic results. A love potion he gives Morty to help him seal a romance triggers a storm of rabid suitors for Morty’s attention and Rick’s concoction to offset the love potion “Cronenberg’s” the entire human species into mantid monsters that decapitate their mates. Rick and Morty escape to a parallel reality where everything is identical except that they are dead and must bury their own bodies in the Smith’s yard in order to effect their seamless substitution  of themselves.

In a subsequent episode, Morty implores his sister not to run away from home. He points to the back yard from Summer’s bedroom. “That out there? That’s my grave. On one of our adventures, Rick and I basically destroyed the whole world. So we bailed on that reality and we came to this one because it wasn’t destroyed. And in this one we were dead. So we came here an… an… and we buried ourselves. And we took their place. And every morning, Summer, I eat breakfast twenty yards away from my own rotting corpse!”

“So you’re not my brother?”

“I’m better than your brother. I’m a version of your brother you can trust when he says ‘don’t run’. Nobody exists on purpose. Nobody belongs anywhere. Everyone is gonna die. Come watch TV.”

The animated Rick and Morty series (2013), created by Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon, was introduced on the Adult Swim network (a prodigious cradle of invention for humorists working in video media). Roiland provides the voices of the title characters. The featured voice actors are Sarah Chalke, Chris Parnell, Kari Wahlgren, and Spencer Grammer, supported by a multiverse of regular voices and an impressive roster of guest appearances, including David Cross, Stephen Colbert, Tom Kenny, Alfred Molina, Keith David, Alan Tudyk, Ice-T, Dana Carvey, and others. Ryan Elder composed all the music, kicking off with a pulsating Rick and Morty theme reminiscent of Doctor Who that throbs like an accelerating heartbeat.

Writers and story board artists drive the concepts and dialogue: Ryan Ridley, Tom Kauffman, Wade Randolph, Eric Acosta, and others too numerous to list.

Rick and Morty is a teeming comic thicket that bristles with sharp stabs at family values, formal education, sexual mores, species chauvinism, conventional science fiction tropes, and Panglossian optimism. Is this the best of all possible worlds? Let’s hope not. Let’s party. Wubba-lubba-dub-dub!

The pilot episode concludes with Rick’s fervid lubricated rant: “It’s just Rick and Morty. Rick and Morty and their adventures, Morty. Rick and Morty forever and forever a hundred years Rick and Morty. Some… things… Me and Rick and Morty runnin’ around and… Rick and Morty time… a- all day long forever… All a- a hundred days Rick and Morty! Forever a hundred times… over and over Rick and Morty… adventures dot.com. W W W dot at Rick and Morty dot com W W W… Rick and Morty adventures… Ah- hundred years… every minute Rick and Morty dot com… W W W a hundred times… Rick and Morty dot com…”

Bringing Home The Burkean

    James Burke is a fellow you would love to have at your dinner party. Affable, articulate, avuncular, with his friendly nimbus of windblown hair crowning a broad forehead with dark, thick eyebrows behind heavy framed glasses, his impeccable Oxford diction coddling every phrase with dry wit and charming colloquialisms, he is the perfect paragon of the beloved college professor. You and your guests would never be bored because he can talk agreeably about, well… everything.

    Art, architecture,astronomy, biology, chemistry, physics, math, medicine, languages, philosophy, social movements, political history – you name it. Other than in your living room, or in a classroom, there is no better place for James Burke than on television.

    From its earliest days, psychologists have been skeptical of television’s suitability for education because the medium plays to a passive audience and is not designed for the mind’s active participation. This view is valid as far as it goes, but it may slight the power of drama to edify, of well-executed productions to transport, and the appeal of charismatic individuals to engage the imagination.

    Burke enjoyed a long association with the British Broadcasting Corporation, commencing in 1966, both behind and in front of the camera. In July 1969 he covered the Apollo 11 moon landing for the BBC. From 1996 to 2001, he wrote a regular final page column for Scientific American. His discourses maintained a chatty air, constructed with a satisfying circularity, beginning with a fascinating scientific observation, retreating to a salient historical moment, retracing steps and knitting up stitches until returning to his original point. He followed this general outline in four popular science and technology programs for the BBC and PBS networks.

    In 1978, Connections, Burke’s series about discovery and inventions, aired in 10 half hour episodes. The 20 segments of Connections 2 appeared in 1994, with 10 more parts arriving as Connections 3 in 1997.

    In 1985, The Day the Universe Changed followed a more leisurely pace, highlighting the social and philosophical ideas that influenced science history in 10 one-hour episodes. Its central premise is that we humans are “what we know” and that our definition of knowledge and our means of ascertaining it arise from cultural frameworks that change over time. The series features:

    1. The Way We Are  The birth of rationalism. Thales of Miletus and the Ionian Greeks begin to see nature as impersonal and explainable on its own terms rather than as a product of supernatural agencies.

    2. In the Light of the Above  The fall of Toledo to 11th century Spanish crusaders yields vast accumulations of ancient learning previously lost to European culture that had been preserved by the Islamic civilization. After a century and a half of translation efforts, medieval scholars gain enough knowledge to found universities and launch the Renaissance.

    3. Point of View  The recovery of the principles of perspective drawing initiates new approaches in art and architecture. Grid lines applied to cartography enable maritime exploration of the African coastline and the discovery of the New World.

    4. A Matter of Fact  Gutenberg’s invention of the moveable type printing press banishes human memory as the repository of wisdom, engenders the spread of literacy, empowers free communication of ideas, transforms the meaning of factual information, and undermines the authority of the Church.

    5. Infinitely Reasonable  Copernicus overturns Aristotle’s celestial notions that had dominated scholastic thought for nearly 1900 years by locating the sun at the center of the universe. Kepler and Galileo confirm the Copernican worldview through observation and experiment. Newton’s Principia Mathematica demonstrates in precise mathematical language the laws of motion and gravitation that explain the mechanics of the observable universe.

    6. Credit Where It’s Due  Great Britain adopts the Dutch banking and credit system that provides the capital to build canals, harness steam power, spur technological invention, expand factory production, distribute goods to broader markets, transfer labor from farms to cities, and create the Industrial Revolution.

    7. What the Doctor Ordered  The work of surgeons and the survival rate of their patients is improved by the invention of anesthesia and the discovery that deadly sepsis is caused by microorganisms that can be destroyed during medical procedures and controlled during recuperation. Chronic outbreaks of cholera, typhoid, and plague are traced to their sources in contaminated water, and city planners learn to separate sewage from water intended for consumption.

    8. Fit To Rule  Advances in zoology and comparative anatomy applied to collections of fossils lead to recognition that past species have become extinct. The new science of geology proves that the earth is far older than anyone knew. Wallace and Darwin propose theories of evolution to explain the diversity and inter-relationships of species. Darwin’s ideas are appropriated by social theorists to rationalize utopian ideals.

    9. Making Waves  Electromagnetic phenomena, the wave theory of light, and the discovery of sub-atomic particles force a reevaluation of Newtonian classical physics. Einsteins ideas on gravity and relativity, along with the application of probability theory to quantum mechanics, lead present day physicists to increasingly complex models of the fabric of reality.

    10. Worlds Without End  What is reality? Different societies coexisting in the modern world apprehend different structures of reality. Is there anything objective and ultimate that human beings can universally accept?

    With impressive geographic scope, The Day the Universe Changed was filmed in the locations where the events occurred that precipitated conceptual departures, often depicted in realistic mini-dramas with period costumes and authentic props. It is James Burke himself, however, who stands front and center, narrator, guide, exhibitor, storyteller, and wit. We are “what we know.” The Day the Universe Changed is James Burke.

(Review posted on Amazon.com, October 2010)

Larger Than Life

    Rex Stout died in 1975, 25 years before the pilot episode The Golden Spiders aired for A&E Network’s incarnation of his larger-than-life creation. Had he lived to see it, it is easy to imagine that he would have been delighted with Nero Wolfe.

    Stout’s whodunits sailed under stiff comic breezes, freighted with corpses but sparing of grisly details. His sleuth is a ratiocinating detective in the manner of Sherlock Holmes who never leaves his home on business, never discusses his cases at meals, dresses fastidiously, and adheres to a strict daily routine he is loathe to interrupt regardless what is at issue, money or murder. He is a 280-pound gourmand with a passion for orchids, beer, books, and leisure. His vocabulary is vast and he employs it as detectives of the hard-boiled variety use their fists. He solves all his cases by confronting suspects conveniently congregated in his office for the denouement. He is arrogant, irascible, petulant, bombastic, and indifferent to the charms of the fairer sex. He is a genius. He is Nero Wolfe.

    Our narrator is Archie Goodwin, Wolfe’s live-in legman, detective, secretary, bookkeeper, consultant, and scourge. Fearless, impudent, and jaunty, Archie is an even better dresser than Wolfe, possesses a steel trap memory, loves poker, corned beef sandwiches, and milk, dances gracefully, and has an eye for the ladies although he keeps his hands to himself. Wolfe hates to work and it is Archie’s job to prod him into accepting the cases that finance their lives, the four-story brownstone on Manhattan’s West 35th Street, Wolfe’s resident chef and housekeeper Fritz, and the 10,000 orchids on the top floor.

    Wolfe’s antagonist, though never his adversary, is perpetually apoplectic Inspector Cramer of Homicide West, who resent Wolfe’s civilian intrusion into police business, his high-handed tactics, and his unimpeachable success rate.

    Rex Stout wrote 73 Nero Wolfe stories from 1934 to 1975, a span of American history that began during Franklin Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats and extended through Richard Nixon’s Watergate denials, a compass that embraced the Great Depression, swing music, World War II, bebop, the atomic bomb, Korea, McCarthyism, rock ‘n roll, civil rights, the Space Age, Vietnam, and feminism, to name but a few of its salient cultural influences. Nevertheless, from beginning to end, the characters of Wolfe, Archie, Fritz, and Cramer are as ageless and impervious to social weathering as the figures on Mount Rushmore.

    The A&E Network aired 20 episodes of Nero Wolfe in 2001 and 2002. The series producers made two significant artistic decisions. First, they elected to retain a reverential regard for Rex Stout’s text, incorporating narrative and dialog lifted directly from the author’s pages. The interior of the brownstone, described in explicit detail in the original stories, is observed as exactly as an architect’s elevations, including the colors of the chairs in Wolfe’s office and the waterfall wall art that masks the peep hole in the adjoining front room. Second, they crystallized the series into one representative time period, circa 1953, a post-war moment epitomized by a certain exuberance in fashion and automobile design that informs both the smart look of the series and Archie’s attitude and attire.

    Timothy Hutton plays Archie Goodwin with superior panache. As an executive producer and the director of four of the episodes, Hutton had a strong hand in establishing the atmosphere and tone of the series.

    Maury Chaykin is Nero Wolfe. Though he does not possess the “seventh of a ton” physique of the character, he more than carries his weight in the role. He growls, roars, huffs, snaps, states assuredly and remonstrates implacably. His voice modulates from unction to umbrage with forceful inflection and flawless pronunciation.

    All the regulars from the novels and short stories are on hand. Colin Fox is dapper and correct as Fritz; Bill Smitrovich is a nest of angry hornets as Cramer; R.D. Reid is Cramer’s phlegmatic assistant Sergeant Purley Stebbins. The A-team detectives Saul Panzer (Conrad Dunn), Fred Durkin (Fulvio Cecere), and Orrie Cather are on call for backup. Omniscient newsman Lou Cohen (Saul Rubinek) of the Gazette is ever ready to trade insider gossip for scoops. Handy Doctor Vollmer, useful attorney Nathaniel Parker, and full-time orchid expert Theodore Horstmann make their appearances.

    A versatile repertory cast handles the various clients, suspects, and supporting characters. Kari Matchett, Boyd Banks, James Tolkan, Debra Monk, Mimi Kuzyk, Gary Reineke, Beau Starr, Robert Bockstael, Nicki Guadagni, Francie Swift, David Schurmann, Richard Waugh, Marian Seldes, Kathryn Zenna, Christine Brubaker, and M.J. Kang deliver considerable vim and solid thespian chops.

    Michael Small provides the swinging Nero Wolfe theme and incidental music.

    Rex Stout wrote most of his Nero Wolfe whodunits for pulp magazines. When he began, he was an older contemporary of luminous mystery writers Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. The stories of all three were designed to be diversions, literary transports for an audience accustomed to reading as a primary form of entertainment. In their construction, subject matter, and import, the work of these writers could scarcely be more different. What they shared was an exalted joy in the use of language. Hammett was a relentless original. Chandler had a muscular gift for description and characterization. Rex Stout specialized in wordplay. His setting and characters were necessarily formulaic and his plots just clever enough to keep the pages turning. It is Stout’s infusion of humor into Wolfe’s sonorous prosody and Archie’s sarcastic asides that endear the characters to us and rightfully canonize Nero Wolfe among detectives that dominate the fictional landscape. The A&E series does Wolfe justice and invigorates the monument.

(Review posted on Amazon.com, May 2010)