Happy Publication Day to On the Road

Sixty-two years ago today, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road was published. All these years later, it is one of the best loved and most popular American novels ever written, and it remains the seminal piece of literature produced during and about the Beat Generation.

My novella, “Back on the Road,” which can be found in the novella collection Road Stories, was heavily influenced by Kerouac’s work. In the novella, a group of friends, all recent college graduates, set out on a road trip to follow Kerouac’s protagonist’s, Sal’s, route across America. On the way, through adventures and mishaps, they learn about the country, each other, and themselves.

Happy Publication Day to On the Road. If you’ve never read it, do yourself a favor and pick up a copy. And while you’re at it, check out Road Stories to read “Back on the Road.”

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Art for Art’s Sake

I love any type of art that is created for no purpose other than the intrinsic value of the art itself. In other words, art that has no agenda, political, financial or otherwise. That’s not to say that agenda-driven art can’t be beautiful or powerful. It absolutely can. But art created for art’s sake is special, even sacred.

That’s why I was so taken by the re-creation of Van Gogh’s “Olive Trees” that was done by artist Stan Herd. Herd’s rendition of Van Gogh’s painting was done on more than an acre of land in Minnesota using various plantings, mulch, rocks, and lots of manpower. The project took six months to complete, and when it was finished, was quite impressive.

When it was originally completed, the project, which Herd called “The Earthwork,” could be seen by passengers flying into and out of Minneapolis Airport. Sadly, the artwork has since been plowed under. It was commissioned by the Minneapolis Institute of Art and is just one of several similar works of art Herd has created in the Earthworks series.

Take a look at this short video of Herd re-creating Van Gogh’s “Olive Trees.”

Stan Herd, Of Us and Art: The 100 Videos Project, Episode 30 from Minneapolis Institute of Art on Vimeo.

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Don’t Sell Me a Car. Tell Me a Story.

I hate being sold anything. I like buying things, but I hate being sold things. That’s why I like the following two ads from Audi. Rather than telling me (and everyone else) what we should buy, Audi is telling us a story. They’re not beating us over the head with reasons their car is better than others or giving us other reasons to buy an Audi. Instead, they’re speaking to our emotions, telling us a compelling story about people we don’t know, but who we start caring about almost as soon as the story begins.

Stories are powerful. They express truths that can’t be conveyed with more direct language or sales techniques. They speak to our hearts, something that sales talk or logic can’t do. They give us reason to buy, even when our defenses are up making sure we aren’t being sold anything.

This first video ran during the Super Bowl a few years ago. The car Audi would like to sell us is at the center of the video, but not the center of the story. In order to make us care, stories almost always have to be about people (or animals). Audi is selling cars, but they’re telling stories about people.

In this commercial for the Audi RS6 Avant, they go a step further. They’re selling a car, and the story is about a young man growing into an adult. But Audi goes the extra step by making us care about a station wagon. I just read an article indicating that station wagons are a dying breed, but after I watched this extended commercial, I started thinking that maybe I need a station wagon. That’s quite a feat because I do not like station wagons. So, if the commercial affected me this way, it’s having the same effect on others.

Well done, Audi. Keep the stories coming.

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Road Rage and Pet Peeves

I drive a lot, spending a good part of my life on the roads between Wisconsin, Tennessee, Florida and all the states in between. And I can tell you, there are some really bad drivers out on our highways. I’m constantly amazed at the ignorance people have for the rules of the road, as well as a lack of common decency. I don’t advocate road rage, but often, I can understand it.

There are four things in particular that drive me nuts:

1. Driving in the Left Lane – This may be news to some, but the left lane of a divided, limited access highway is meant for passing. If you’re riding along in the left lane and you’re not passing someone to your right, you’re doing it wrong.

Let me put this in terms that might make more sense. Driving on the highway is a communal activity. We have to share the road with others, so it only makes sense to abide by a uniform set of rules to make the experience as safe and efficient as possible. That’s why there are signs on the highway (and laws on the books) that require slower traffic to keep right.

That doesn’t mean that if you’re doing the speed limit you can stay in the left lane since no one should be going faster than you. When the laws were created, legislators understood that not everyone would drive at or below the speed limit. So, they created a law that says that slower traffic, no matter your speed, must stay to the right. They knew that it would be safer, regardless of the speed traffic is going, for slower traffic to stay right, and passing traffic to use the left lane.

One time, I was listening to a radio show and the hosts were talking about the “left lane is for passing” rule. One of the hosts said she was more comfortable driving in the left lane, and she didn’t see why other drivers couldn’t simply pass her on the right. The other host was outraged. He told her that, not only was she being selfish doing what felt was best for her rather than what the law required, but she was also causing an unsafe situation, cruising along in the left lane expecting other drivers to find a way around her.

When they opened up the phone lines, the majority of the callers agreed that driving in the left lane was wrong, but I was surprised when several callers made the most ridiculous, illogical arguments to stay in the left lane. One caller said he paid taxes just like everyone else for the highways and he should be allowed to drive in any lane he chose. Another caller said she doesn’t like having other cars entering the highway into her lane, so she drives only in the left lane. In fact, she said that as soon as she gets on the highway, she gets over into the left lane, regardless of her speed and regardless of other traffic. Several callers voiced some version of the “I always go the speed limit, so no one should be going faster than me” rationale.

As a civilized society, we all have to abide by a certain set of rules in order for all of us to stay safe. Laws that say “passing only in the left lane” or “slower traffic must keep right” are part of those rules. Do yourself and everyone else on the road a favor, only use the left lane for passing.

2. Two Lane Merging Into One — The orange sign on the side of westbound I-24 let drivers know that the right lane was closed three miles ahead. Even so, for as far as I could see in the distance, the right lane was clear, and the left lane was backing up with bumper-to-bumper traffic. I slowed my speed, not wanting to fly by stop-and-go traffic to my left, but I continued passing cars as I cruised along in the right lane. That was, until some knucklehead in a white Ford Explorer pulled out of the left lane and sat at a dead stop in the right lane. There were no cars in front of him, and no reason for him to be stopped.

The two cars ahead of me slowed to a stop behind the Explorer, and I followed suit. For the next thirty-plus minutes and two-plus miles, we crept along in the right lane behind the Explorer as he kept pace with the stop-and-go traffic in the left lane. When the right lane finally came to an end, the Explorer ducked into the left lane, and the few other cars in the right lane—including me—did the same.

The entire time I sat behind the self-appointed traffic monitor in the Explorer, I was certain that what he was doing to block traffic was not only illegal, but unwise. It just made sense to me that everyone would be better off if we took advantage of both lanes for as long as possible before merging. I was tempted to pass the idiot in the white Explorer on the shoulder, but I didn’t want to be “that guy.” If this ever happens again, you can be sure that I will be “that guy.” From now on, I will be practicing “the zipper.”

Science confirms that utilizing all open lanes for as long as possible and then using “zipper” merging is not only more efficient, but also, safer. So, what is zipper merging? Just like with the zipper on a hoodie or pair of pants, drivers take turns moving forward. Each driver in the lane that is staying open allows one of the cars from the closing lane to merge over. It’s faster, safer, and reduces congestion.

3. Flashers On When Raining – For some reason, people think they’re being safe by tuning on their emergency flashers when driving in the rain. It isn’t safer. In fact, it’s distracting and dangerous.

Think of it this way: You’re driving down the highway and it’s raining. Visibility is diminished, and all of a sudden, the guy in front of you turns on his flashers. You see red lights come on in front of you, and you assume he’s braking, so you brake too, stacking up traffic behind you. But he’s not braking. His lights go off and you let off your brakes. But then they come back on. You brake again. What a pain.

As you drive along, the flasher guy changes lanes, but his blinkers can’t work while his flashers are on, so no one knows that he’s changing lanes. When he does brake, it takes you a second to realize it because his taillights have been flashing for the last couple of miles. Good luck stopping.

In addition to being a pain to drive behind someone with their flashers on, it’s distracting to have taillights coming on in different lanes. Are people stopping or are they just cruising along with their flashers on? It can be hard to tell.

Oh, and if these reasons aren’t enough, here’s another one: driving with your emergency flashers on in the rain is against the law in most states. Flashers are designed to signal to law enforcement that there is an emergency. Rain is not an emergency, no matter how hard it’s coming down.

4. Truckers Changing Lanes Because of a Vehicle on the Shoulder – My final rant is saved specifically for truck drivers. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen a tractor-trailer driving along in the right lane, suddenly change lanes to the left because of a vehicle pulled off on the right side of the road. The trucker obviously feels it would be safer to be a lane farther to the left from the vehicle on the shoulder, but is it?

All too often, I’ve seen trucks suddenly change lanes, despite the fact that traffic to their left is going significantly faster than them, and at times, despite the fact that there are already vehicles directly to their left. What is safer? Being farther away from the vehicle on the shoulder or changing lanes when another vehicle is already in that lane, either directly next to the truck or coming up quickly to the left of the truck? I think the answer is obvious, yet I see truckers doing this all the time, avoiding a potentially dangerous situation by creating a much more dangerous situation.

By all means, if you’re driving a truck and there is a vehicle off on the right side of the road, move a lane to your left. But don’t do it if there is a vehicle directly to your left or if a vehicle in the lane to your left is closing fast on you. It doesn’t make sense to move over for the vehicle on the shoulder if doing so creates an even more hazardous situation.

Okay, that’s enough ranting for today. Time to go for a drive.

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A Lesson in Making Your Dreams Come True

This is a story about two guys from different sides of the country who shared a single dream.

Tyler Nilson was from the Outer Banks of North Carolina. He knocked around his home state doing odd jobs, but what he really wanted to do was make movies. So, he left North Carolina and headed for California.

In Los Angeles, he worked more odd jobs. He had bit roles in a few movies, made corporate films, acted in a few commercials, and worked as a hand model, even doubling for Brad Pitts’ hands. But he wasn’t living his dream. He wanted to write and direct his own movies, but that wasn’t happening.

Enter Michael Schwartz. Michael grew up in sunny California and was Tyler’s neighbor in Los Angeles. Like Tyler, Michael had a dream of making movies. So, they decided to work together.

When things didn’t work out quickly enough for the duo, Tyler moved back home to the Outer Banks. Michael went with him on a temporary basis, but when he met a young lady and fell in love, he decided to stay. So, as long as they were together in North Carolina, they decided to make a movie. Problem was, they really didn’t know how.

Tyler had a vague idea for a film, so they just started shooting. Tyler did the acting, Michael did the filming. They shot a bunch of scenes around Colington Island and Bodie Island in the Outer Banks, and then strung the scenes together, added voiceover, and created a narrative. There was no script. The resulting short film was “The Moped Diaries,” about a hard luck guy who suffers one loss after another. His mother leaves, his father dies, his brother goes to prison, the love of his life marries someone else. Despite that description, the film has a sense of humor and pulls at the heartstrings. Take a look:

“The Moped Diaries” earned Tyler and Michael some fans, but fame and fortune still alluded them. After shooting the short film, they volunteered at a camp for people with disabilities. They were talking about wanting to make a movie when one of the campers, Zach Gottason, said he wanted to be a movie star. Tyler and Michael believe that you should never talk down to or patronize people with disabilities, so, according to Michael, they told Zach the truth: “Hey, bro, that’s really unlikely. You have Down Syndrome, and nobody makes movies starring people with Down Syndrome.”

Zach was unfazed. “Why don’t you make me a movie. We can do it together.”

The thing about Zach was, he could act. He had attended theater high school and he knew what he was doing. Tyler and Michael figured, why not? They wanted to make a movie, Zach wanted to be in a movie, they should just go for it. They figured Tyler could do the acting and Michael could do the filming, just like in “The Moped Diaries.” And Zach could be Zach.

Once again, the problem was that they really didn’t know how to make a movie. So, Tyler and Michael went to the library and checked out books on how to write a script. They also watched movies they wanted to imitate, like “Stand By Me” and “Mud.” They wrote the script, and figured they could make the film for about $30,000. Of course, they didn’t have $30,000.

They went back to Los Angeles to try to find funding, but they couldn’t get anyone to read their script. After a while, they ran out of money and ended up living in a tent in a park. They were broke, but they knew they’d probably have to create a trailer for the film to get anyone interested in it, so they threw something together and waited.

On New Year’s Day, actor Josh Brolin posted on Instagram, “This year I want to help people.” Tyler and Michael saw the post, and responded “Josh, this is perfect ‘cause we’re looking for some help.” They told him about their script and he replied, “No, this isn’t what I meant. There’s no way I can do your $30,000 movie. But…I’m gonna do it.”

With Josh Brolin on board, people started reading the script. Talent agencies offered other actors, and the script started to take off. No one would give Tyler and Michael the $30,000 they needed, but they were offered $3 million.

With $3 million to make the film, Tyler was no longer cast in the lead role. That went to Shia Labeouf. And Josh Brolin ended up having to drop out of the film due to scheduling conflicts, but was replaced by Thomas Haden Church. Also in the cast are Dakota Johnson, Bruce Dern, John Hawkes, and the guy who started the whole thing, Zach Gottason. Tyler and Michael wrote and directed the film, which, of course, is what they wanted to do all along.

The film has already won enthusiastic praise from film festival audiences. It received the Narrative Spotlight Audience Award at South by Southwest, and received a perfect score of 100 on Tomatometer.

In case you were wondering, the name of the film is “The Peanut Butter Falcon” and it opens in theaters on August 9, with wide release on August 23. Here’s a featurette to tell you a little more:

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Welcome Home, Col. Knight

Roy Knight always knew he’d join the military. After all, it was kind of the family business. All five of his older brothers had joined the military before him and had fought in World War II. Roy was too young for the Second Great War, but that didn’t stop him from joining the Air Force just a few days past his seventeenth birthday in 1948.

Roy served in the Philippines, Japan, and Korea before being accepted into Officer Candidate School in 1953. He received his commission later that year, then married Patricia Henderson, who he’d met while in the Philippines.

Life was good for the Knights. Like many military families, they moved around the world, going from Japan to South Korea, then Texas, then Germany, then France. During their travels they started a family. Roy III was born in South Korea. Gayann was born in Texas. And the youngest, Bryan, was born in France.

During his journeys, Roy became a pilot, flying the F-86D fighter jet. In 1963, he was asked to return to his native Texas to become a flight instructor at Laughlin Air Force Base. But even with three kids and a thriving military career, Roy couldn’t sit still. He enrolled in college courses at the University of Omaha and graduated with a bachelors degree in 1966. Later that year, Major Roy Knight received orders for Southeast Asia.

Roy’s mother, wife, and youngest son loaded into a car and headed for Love Field in Dallas on a chilly January day in 1967 to say goodbye to Roy. He was heading to Thailand and they were staying behind in Texas. He hugged his mom and young son, kissed his wife, then headed toward the plane that would take him overseas. It would be the last time he would see his family, and the final time they would ever see him.

Roy reported to the 602nd Fighter Squadron at Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base, from which he flew combat missions almost daily until May 19, 1967. On that day, Major Knight was shot down over Laos and subsequently reported missing in action. Rescue teams searched for him, but were unsuccessful. Roy lingered on the missing in action list for years, even earning a promotion to colonel while MIA. But in 1974, without finding his remains, Roy was officially listed as killed in action, and was posthumously awarded an Air Force Cross, Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross, Purple Heart, and six Air Medals.

By the time he was declared killed in action, both of Roy’s parents had passed away without ever knowing what had happened to their son. Patricia and the kids knew Roy had probably been killed in Southeast Asia, but they never were a hundred percent certain. They all moved on with their lives, growing older, but never receiving any answers about their husband and father. Sadly, Patricia, the love of Roy’s life, passed away in 2008, never knowing her husband’s fate.

Earlier today (8/8/19), a Southwest Airlines jet touched down at Dallas’ Love Field carrying the remains of Col. Roy Knight. The plane taxied under an arching stream of water, a tribute offered by an airport fire truck, before moving on to the terminal. With airport employees surrounding the plane, a flag-draped casket was unloaded from the cargo bay via conveyor and was accepted by an Air Force Honor Guard, who transferred the casket to a waiting hearse.

It was an emotional scene, made even more so, when, on the plane it was announced that the pilot of the Southwest Airlines flight that brought Col. Roy Knight home, was none other than his son, Bryan, who had said goodbye to his father in 1967, fifty-two years ago.

Rest easy, Col. Knight, and welcome home.

Here’s a video of the plane landing in Dallas and Col. Knight’s coffin being removed by the Honor Guard (Sorry I couldn’t embed it).

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Happy Birthday, James Baldwin!

Had he lived, today would have been author James Baldwin’s 95th birthday. If you’ve never read Baldwin, do yourself a favor and pick up the short story, “Sonny’s Blues. If you’d like to read it online, take a look at this website. The story is annotated, but still well worth reading.

My favorite passage in the story takes place at the end. The narrator is at a club watching his brother, Sonny, play piano in a band. The gig, like the story itself, starts out slow, and then builds little by little, finally reaching it’s crescendo as the story ends.

Here’s a bit of “Sonny’s Blues” from the annotated version:

“All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it. And even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal, private, vanishing evocations. But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air. What is evoked in him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumphs, when he triumphs, is ours. I just watched Sonny’s face. His face was troubled, he was working hard, but he wasn’t with it. And I had the feeling that, in a way, everyone on the bandstand was waiting for him, both waiting for him and pushing him along. But as I began to watch Creole, I realized that it was Creole who held them all back. He had them all on a short rein. Up there, keeping the beat with his whole body, wailing on the fiddle, with his eyes half closed, he was listening to everything, but he was listening to Sonny. He was having a dialogue with Sonny. He wanted Sonny to leave the shoreline and strike out for the deep water. He was Sonny’s witness that deep water and drowning were not the same thing–he had been there, and he knew. And he wanted Sonny to know. He was waiting for Sonny to do the things on the keys which would let Creole know that Sonny was in the water.

And, while Creole listened, Sonny moved, deep within, exactly like someone in torment. I had never before thought of how awful the relationship must be between the musician and his instrument. He has to fill it, his instrument, with the breath of life, his own. He has to make it do what he wants it to do. And a piano is just a piano. It’s made out of so much wood and wires and little hammers and big ones, and ivory. While there’s only so much you can do with it, the only way to find this out is to try; to try and make it do everything.

And Sonny hadn’t been near a piano for over a year. And he wasn’t on much better terms with his life, not the life that stretched before him now. He and the piano stammered, started one way, got scared, stopped; started another way, panicked, marked time, started again; then seemed to have found a direction, panicked again, got stuck. And the face I saw on Sonny I’d never seen before. Everything had been burned out of it, and, at the same time, things usually hidden were being burned in, by the fire and fury of the battle which was occurring in him up there.

Yet, watching Creole’s face as they neared the end of the first set, I had the feeling that something had happened, something I hadn’t heard. Then they finished, there was scattered applause, and then, without an instant’s warning, Creole started into something else, it was almost sardonic, it was Am I Blue? And, as though he commanded, Sonny began to play. Something began to happen. And Creole let out the reins. The dry, low black man said something awful on the drums, Creole answered, and the drums talked back. Then the horn insisted, sweet and high, slightly detached perhaps, and Creole listened, commenting now and then, dry, and driving, beautiful and calm and old. Then they all came together again, Sonny was part of the family again. I could tell this from his face. He seemed to have found, right there beneath his fingers, a damn brand-new piano. It seemed that he couldn’t get over it. Then, for a while, just being happy with Sonny, they seemed to be agreeing with him that brand-new pianos certainly were a gas.

Then Creole stepped forward to remind them that what they were playing was the blues. He hit something in all of them, he hit something in me, myself, and the music tightened and deepened, apprehension began to beat the air. Creole began to tell us what the blues were all about. They were not about anything new. He and his boys up there were keeping it new, at the risk of ruin, destruction, madness, and death, in order to find new ways to make us listen. For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.

And this tale, according to that face, that body, those strong hands on those strings, has another aspect in every country, and a new depth in every generation. Listen, Creole seemed to be saying, listen. Now these are Sonny’s blues. He made the little black man on the drums know it, and the bright, brown man on the horn. Creole wasn’t trying any longer to get Sonny in the water. He was wishing him Godspeed. Then he stepped back, very slowly, filling the air with the immense suggestion that Sonny speak for himself.

Then they all gathered around Sonny and Sonny played. Every now and again one of them seemed to say, amen. Sonny’s fingers filled the air with his life, his life. But that life contained so many others. And Sonny went all the way back, he really began with the spare, flat statement of the opening phrase of the song. Then he began to make it his. It was very beautiful because it wasn’t hurried and it was no longer a lament. I seemed to hear with what burning he had made it his, and what burning we had yet to make it ours, how we could cease lamenting. Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he could help us to be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until we did. Yet, there was no battle in his face now, I heard what we had gone through, and would continue to go through until he came to rest in earth. He had made it his; that long line, of which we only knew Mama and Daddy. And he was giving it back, as everything must be given back, so that, passing through death, it can live forever. I saw the moonlit road where my father’s brother died. And it brought something else back to me, and carried me past it, I saw my little girl again and felt Isabel’s tears again, and I felt my own tears begin to rise. And I was yet aware that this was only a moment, that the world waited outside, as hungry as a tiger, and that trouble stretched above us, longer than the sky.

Then it was over, Creole and Sonny let out their breath, both soaking wet, and grinning. There was a lot of applause and some of it was real. In the dark, the girl came by and I asked her to take drinks to the bandstand. There was a long pause, while they talked up there in the indigo light and after awhile I saw the girl put a Scotch and milk on top of the piano for Sonny. He didn’t seem to notice it, but just before they started playing again, he sipped from it and looked toward me, and nodded. Then, he put it back on top of the piano. For me, then, as they began to play again. It glowed and shook above my brother’s head like the very cup of trembling.”

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My 20 All-Time Favorite TV Shows

After writing a recent post about Deadwood, I started thinking about my favorite TV shows of all time. I know this is hard to believe, but there was once a world with no Netflix, no Hulu, and no Amazon Prime. And HBO and Showtime were only in their infancy. That’s the world I grew up in. It was a hard scrabble life. As a result, my list may be skewed toward older, network shows. Even so, these were great shows and deserve some recognition.

The flip side of that is that there are a lot of shows I’ve never seen. I never watched The Wire or The Sopranos or Game of Thrones (all on HBO), The Man in the High Castle (Amazon), Shameless (Showtime), Justified (FX) or The West Wing (NBC), all of which I’ve heard are really good. Also, I never really got into Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, or Mad Men (AMC), The Blacklist (NBC), or The Commish (ABC), which, although highly rated, never really appealed to me.

Having said all of this, here is the list of my favorite twenty TV shows  of all time (with a couple of ties):

  1. Bob Newhart Show #2 (CBS) – People under the age of 40 or so probably don’t even know who Bob Newhart is. But for those of us who do, we remember him as one of the funniest men in the world. So funny, in fact, that he has two shows in my all-time favorite top twenty. The second Bob Newhart Show wasn’t quite as funny as the first, but it was still hilariously funny. And if you ever want to see a finale show done right, check out the final episode of the second Bob Newhart Show.
  1. Bewitched (ABC) – Bewitched ran from 1964 to 1972, and was so good that the show switched out Samantha’s (Elizabeth Montgomery) husband, Darrin Stephens (Dick York, then Dick Sargent) in 1969 and everyone just accepted the change. To be honest, I was most acquainted with Bewitched through reruns. I was pretty young when the show first aired, and I have to admit, I may feel a little nostalgia when it comes to Bewitched. It might not really be as good as I remember. Regardless, Bewitched is in my top twenty. And I still have the same question today I had when I used to watch the show: Why would anyone with the type of powers Samantha had want to be a normal human being? I still don’t have a good answer.
  1. Frasier (NBC) – Frasier was smart and funny, and at times, completely over the top. It was a spin-off of Cheers, starring Kelsey Grammar as Doctor Frasier Crane, a psychiatrist who gives up his practice in Boston (where Cheers took place) to move back to Seattle where he hosts a radio self-help show. All of the actors on Frasier did a terrific job, including my fellow WIU-alum John Mahoney, who played Frasier’s father.
  1. Taxi (NBC) – In a way, Taxi was Friends before Friends was created. Taxi was a true assemble show featuring Judd Hirsch, Tony Danza, Christopher Lloyd, Marilu Henner, Danny DeVito, Carol Kane, Jeff Conaway, and the great Andy Kauffman. The shows were well written, well executed, and at a time before so many cable channels (1978-1982), Taxi was a tiny bit risqué. Even when it was airing, I always felt Taxi was a little ahead of its time. The scripts were smarter and more complicated than many of the other shows running at the time.
  1. Get Smart (NBC 1965-69, CBS 1969-70) – Get Smart is another show that I experienced mostly through reruns. It starred a very funny Don Adams as secret agent Max Smart, and a beautiful Barbara Feldon as Agent 99. Like many shows on this list, the writing was smart and funny. Of course, considering that Get Smart was created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry, that shouldn’t be surprising.
  1. Arrested Development (Fox 2003-2006, Netflix 2013-Present) – Hands down, Arrested Development is one of the funniest TV shows I’ve ever seen. The first few seasons on Fox were absolutely hilarious, and they contained some of Jason Bateman’s best work, which is really saying something. Arrested Development would be much higher on this list if the show hadn’t fallen off a cliff once Netflix took it over in 2013. I wanted to like the Netflix episodes. I still do. But they pale in comparison to the Fox years.
  1. Green Acres (CBS) – As with a few other shows on the list, I know Green Acres best through reruns. It originally ran from 1965-1971, and was a spin-off of Petticoat Junction. I enjoyed Petticoat Junction, but Green Acres was much funnier. Eddie Albert and Eva Gabor were the stars of the show, but for my money, the funniest actor was Tom Lester, who played Eb Dawson. He was an innocent, wide-eyed farm hand who delivered some of the shows funniest and most striking lines.
  1. Cheers (NBC) – I think I was just the right age when Cheers premiered in 1982. I was a junior in college and my friends and I used to get together on Thursday nights to watch NBC’s “Must See” lineup. Cheers was one of our favorites. I’m not sure any other sitcom has ever had so many beloved characters. Sam Malone (Ted Danson), the former baseball player and alcoholic led the way, with Diane Chambers (Shelly Long) and Rebecca Howe (Kirstie Alley) right behind. But there were so many more, like Norm Peterson (George Wendt), Cliff Clavin (John Ratzenberger), Coach (Nicholas Colasanto), Woody Boyd (Woody Harrelson), Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammar), Carla Tortelli (Rhea Perlman), and so many others.
  1. ER (NBC) – ER was created by Michael Crichton and was set in a hospital in Chicago, two reasons I was bound to love this show. The show also introduced such stars as George Clooney, Anthony Edwards, Noah Wylie, Julianna Margulies, Maura Tierney, and many others to the world. ER was another very strong ensemble show that made stars out of several of the actors. It ran an incredible 15 seasons (1994-2009) and garnered 124 Emmy nominations, including 116 wins. Although ER was very popular, I always felt that it was underrated. It garnered a lot of attention, but it probably deserved even more.
  1. Carol Burnett Show (CBS) – The Carol Burnett Show ran from 1967-1978. If you’re not familiar with Carol Burnett, do yourself a favor and surf through Youtube videos of the show. They are hilarious. Carol Burnett is a comedic genius, and she was backed up by two other geniuses, Harvey Korman and Tim Conway. One of my joys was watching the show to see each of the main characters try (and often succeed) to crack the other ones up. But the biggest joy I got out of the Carol Burnett Show was watching my dad laugh at it. My dad was not always the happiest guy in the world, but when Carol Burnett came on, his worries disappeared and he allowed himself to laugh. What a joy that was.
  1. Westworld (HBO) – Here’s the idea behind Westworld: A giant corporation develops a Western-themed resort where guests can go to live out their grandest fantasies. Westworld is populated by robots who are programmed to cater to the guests’ needs, but there’s a problem. When the robots get tired of being killed and screwed, they realize that they can act out in any way they choose. Soon, robots are killing humans and angling to leave the resort to take over the outside world. What a great and interesting premise. I binge-watched Westworld long after it originally aired and just loved it.
  1. Bob Newhart Show #1 (CBS) – This is the original Bob Newhart Show that ran from 1972-1978, and starred Bob Newhart, Suzanne Pleshette, Bill Daley, Marcia Wallace, and Peter Bonerz. The show was hilarious, and the characters were quirky and complicated. Even now as I write this, I think I may be ranking the Bob Newhart Show #1 too low. It was innovative, and like many great shows, ahead of its time.
  1. M*A*S*H (CBS) – For a lot of people, M*A*S*H was the greatest television show of all time. It’s hard not to agree that it was a really great show. There were a lot of great actors that were part of the show at one time or another. Alan Alda was the one constant, gracing the show from start to finish. There was also Wayne Rogers, McLean Stevenson, Loretta Swit, Mike Farrell, Jamie Farr, Henry Morgan, and a bunch of others. Although my vote for the best finale in history goes to the Bob Newhart Show #2 (Mary Tyler Moore Show is right there too), a lot of people feel the M*A*S*H finale was the best ever. The show ran from 1972 until 1983, and can still be found in heavy rotation in reruns.
  1. (tie) The Simpsons (FOX) – There was a time, not that long ago, that I wanted to write for The Simpsons. Actually, to put a little finer point on it, I wanted to be witty and smart enough to write for The Simpsons. Alas, I am not witty and smart enough, and The Simpsons never came calling. Even without me, The Simpsons (somehow) became one of the smartest, funniest shows on TV. The biting humor on the show is spoken through characters who are often lovable despite themselves. I would also argue that The Simpsons did a better job than any other show of addressing the political issues of the day. They did so subtly, often with self-deprecating humor, attacking their opponent as hard as they attacked their own position.
  1. (tie) Moonlighting (ABC) – It’s hard to believe now, but there was a time when Bruce Willis wasn’t a big movie star. In fact, before Moonlighting, he was bartending in LA. And paired with the luscious (there, I said it) Cybil Shepard, Moonlighting was the hottest show going. I haven’t seen it in years (it ran from 1985-1989), but during it’s time, Moonlighting was great TV. It was smart and funny and romantic, with surprisingly deep characters, interesting storylines, and great music, including the show’s theme by Al Jarreau. It was also one of the pioneers in the dramedy (comedy + drama) genre, which is a staple of TV today.
  1. (tie) Ally McBeal (Fox) – In my memory, I think of shows like Beverly Hills 90210 and Melrose Place as shows aimed at women. As a result, I never watched either show much. Ally McBeal kind of falls in that same genre (at least in my mind), but I watched it and thought it was great. The show ran from 1997 to 2002 and starred Calista Flockhart, an actress I had never heard of previously, and haven’t heard much about since. Ally McBeal was a great ensemble show that paired several little-known actors to create something really special. The plots and the characters were quirky and well-developed, and the music was outstanding, earning the show two Emmys for music.
  1. (tie) LA Law (NBC) – LA Law was created by Steven Bochco (remember that name) and Terry Louise Fisher, and ran from 1986 to 1994. It was another ensemble show about a fictitious law firm in Los Angeles. The thing that always struck me about LA Law was the way the show, a drama, was infused with just enough comedy. The show also was unflinching in tackling controversial issues such as racism, gay rights, AIDS, and domestic violence. Stars like Harry Hamlin, Corbin Bernsen, and Jimmy Smits got their start on the show, but as it turned out, the show kind of became the farewell project for Susan Dey, formerly of The Partridge Family. She was great on the show, but wasn’t heard from much after it.
  1. Sherlock (BBC/Netflix) – In recent years, I’ve watched a lot of great TV from the BBC. Two of my favorites are The Bodyguard and Luther. But my number one favorite BBC show is Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. The show ran on the BBC from 2010 to 2017 and puts a modern spin on the traditional Sherlock Holmes stories. I watched the show more recently on Netflix, and I have to admit, I liked the earlier episodes more than the later ones, mostly because it seemed to me that the producers were relying on slick technical wizardry in the later episodes rather than concentrating on the excellent writing that was the hallmark of the early years. Even so, the show remains one of my all-time favorites.
  1. Seinfeld (NBC) – The great show about nothing, but, of course, it wasn’t about nothing. In the very least, it was about the wacky lives of four friends living in New York. The characters—including the ancillary characters—were offbeat, but lovable, and the story lines were always unusual, if not absurd. NBC’s Thursday night “Must Watch” lineup just wouldn’t have been the same without Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer. In the years since Seinfeld ran (1989-1998), I’ve been surprised by the number of people who didn’t like the show. I guess it just didn’t speak to their since of humor (assuming they had a sense of humor). And, although I can’t say it was one of the best, the Seinfeld finale was memorable.
  1. Mary Tyler Moore Show (CBS) – For me, the Mary Tyler Moore Show was the funniest sitcom of all time. My guess is that I’m in the minority on this question, but you can’t deny that Mary Tyler Moore, along with Ed Asner (Lou Grant), Valerie Harper (Rhoda Morganstern), Gavin MacLeod (Murray Slaughter), Betty White (Sue Ann Givens), Georgie Engel (Georgette Franklin Baxter), and Ted Knight (Ted Baxter) were absolutely hilarious together. One of the things I always appreciated about the show was the way the writers pointed out gender inequalities in the workplace and in society. They did it in very smart, subtle ways, which to me, was much more effective than hitting the audience over the head with the issue (ala Murphy Brown). Mary was an unmarried, independent, career-oriented woman living in Minneapolis. The show likely would have been different, and the gender equality issues likely would have been handled differently, if the show had taken place in New York. But in Minneapolis, the heartland, where such issues are handled with more tact and humor, they could be served up to an audience looking for laughs first and lessons on social justice second. For my money, the Mary Tyler Moore Show provided both the humor and the civics lesson more effectively than any show before or since.
  1. Deadwood (HBO) – I’ve written previously about my love for Deadwood (you can read my thoughts here). The show was gritty and filthy and violent and hopeful and inspiring. The writing was some of the best I have ever experienced on TV. The show was created by David Milch, an innovative writer and thinker who also co-created NYPD Blue (a groundbreaking network cop drama) and wrote on another cutting-edge cop drama, Hill Street Blues. Sadly, Deadwood only ran for three years (2004-2006). Despite its popularity, HBO and the production company had a falling out over money, and the show was taken off the air following the third season. Earlier this year, Milch got the band back together and made a Deadwood movie. It doesn’t wrap up the show so much as it continues the story ten years after the series ended. I really liked and appreciate the movie (I almost loved it), but it left me wanting even more Deadwood.
  1. Hill Street Blues (NBC) – When Hill Street Blues premiered in 1981, it was the most realistic cop show ever. It was gritty, and focused not only on case work, but also on the interpersonal relationships inside the squad room and after hours. As a result, unlike other cop shows, viewers were every bit as interested in the characters as they were in the cases that came about each week. I haven’t watched the show in thirty or more years, but I still remember the characters vividly, and I remember feeling at the time that the writing and the acting I was witnessing on Hill Street Blues was better than anything I had seen up until then. That’s thanks in part to the show’s creator, Steven Bochco (along with Michael Kozoll), the same man who came up with LA Law and NYPD Blue. For whatever reason, when the show ended in 1987, it kind of disappeared. I assume it was available in reruns at some point, but it was not as available as shows like Barney Miller, Law & Order, CSI, or other popular cop shows. That’s too bad. If it came back on reruns now, I’d be watching it.

To learn more about Hill Street Blues, check out this admittedly low-budget retrospective, Life on the Hill.

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The Latest on “The Ones That Got Away”

Just a quick post to give you an update on my next book. It’s tentative title is The Ones That Got Away and it’s about a guy who’s stuck in an unhappy marriage. He thinks he married the wrong woman and, through a little bit of time travel, he gets the chance to build a life with each of his previous three serious girlfriends (i.e., the ones that got away).

The novel was supposed to be done by the end of March 2019, but I had a computer snafu and ended up losing the entire book. At that point, I had written about 40% of the first draft. So, when I lost it, I had to start again from scratch. It wasn’t fun to lose all that hard work, but honestly, I think it was for the best. It gave me a chance to rethink parts of the plot, and as a result, I think it’s going to be a much better book.

At this point, I’m thirty days or less away from completing the first draft. Once that’s done, it will take me a month or two to revise the manuscript, then it will go to my editor, who will give me even more work to do. My goal at this point is to have The Ones That Got Away ready for publication by the end of October.

Thanks for following along. I appreciate your support.

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In Praise of Deadwood

 

“I come to praise Deadwood, not to bury it.” – with apologies to William Shakespeare

 

 

 

Deadwood, the HBO show about the early days of Deadwood, SD, may have been the best television show I’ve ever watched. It was gritty and filthy and dark and violent, but it was also humorous and hopeful and endlessly entertaining. The characters were serious people who never took themselves too seriously, except, perhaps, Timothy Olyphant’s character, Seth Bullock. But even then, the other characters were sure to knock him down a peg or two when he became too serious.

The show ran on HBO from 2004-2006. A full-length Deadwood movie brought the series to a close in May 2019. Deadwood was created by David Milch, who also wrote several of the episodes. As I understand it, Deadwood was supposed to run a fourth season, but due to a dispute between HBO and the production company, the fourth season was never produced and the series became history.

Over the years, Deadwood’s popularity has grown. Fans clamored for another season. Producers were interested in doing another season, but the cast had gone their separate ways. Finally, Milch had the idea to produce a movie rather than another season of the show. His reasoning was, if he could bring the original cast back together (no small feat), it would be easier and less time consuming to produce a movie rather than a ten- or twelve-episode season. He also felt that if he couldn’t reunite the original cast, he wasn’t interested in re-visiting the show at all.

Let me digress here for a second to talk about David Milch. He started his career as a writer on Hill Street Blues, one of my all-time favorite shows. He co-created NYPD Blue with Steven Bochco, then went on to create two short-lived network cop dramas before creating Deadwood. I’m pre-disposed to like Milch because he has an MFA (University of Iowa) and he has published both fiction and poetry, but I’m blown away by the fact that he’s been involved in so many excellent, ground-breaking television shows.

In a moment, I’m going to be critical of Deadwood—both the series and the movie. But first, let me reiterate the fact that I loved the show, couldn’t wait to see either the next episode or (once it was announced) the movie, and I list it at or near the top of my list of favorite TV shows of all time. Deadwood is fantastic! But, I do have a couple quibbles with the show that I’d like to talk about.

During the third season, the writers introduced Jack Langrishe (played by Brian Cox), an actor and theater company owner. His troupe consisted of himself, two actresses, and one other actor who played a rather small role in the show. In addition, the troupe included an older, sickly gentleman who, when he was introduced to us, was on the verge of death, and who, in fact, died a short time later in a touching scene.

Jack was an old pal of Al Swearengen’s (played brilliantly by Ian McShane), and the writers had the two men spend some time together, reminiscing, but also planning to undermine George Hearst (Gerald McRainey). Another storyline involved the troupe buying Joanie Stubb’s (Kim Dickens) former brothel/schoolhouse, but truthfully, neither Jack’s friendship with Al nor his purchase of Joanie’s building was very important to the series.

The point I’m making is, I don’t understand why Jack and the theater troupe were ever brought into the show. They took up a considerable amount of screen time, but brought very little to the series. In fact, had they never been introduced, the show would have barely skipped a beat.

In hindsight, bringing this unimportant storyline into the show was a misstep by the writers. I get the sense that the characters were introduced, then the writers didn’t know what to do with them. They were moved around and given things to do, but almost without exception, their actions were inconsequential.

At one point, Jack meets George Hearst, who is suffering from a bad back. Jack tells George he knows a method that can ease George’s pain. George is interested, and Jack ends up working his magic on George. Jack is a bit of a charlatan, but George believes that his pain has been lessened. He’s interested in more treatments, but then that storyline goes by the wayside, never to be revisited. It’s not clear why Jack meets George or why Jack works on George’s back. My guess is that the writers had an idea, started to follow that idea, and then forgot that idea in the next episode.

To be fair, it is possible that this exchange between Jack and George was going to lead to something significant in the fourth season, but the fourth season never happened. I say “it’s possible,” but I don’t find it very likely. At the end of the third season, George leaves camp, so I’m not sure how he would interact with Jack during the fourth season. Despite my doubts, it is still possible.

Another storyline I felt was unnecessary was the introduction of Aunt Lou’s (Cleo King) son, Odell (Omar Gooding). The storyline surrounding Odell was that he had been sent away years earlier to live in Liberia, a country in Africa originally created for former slaves and free blacks. He comes back to the U.S (there seems to be some doubt that he ever left) and tracks down his mother in Deadwood. But it appears that he’s there less to see his mother than he is to interest her boss, George Hearst, in gold mining claims in Liberia. George appears interested and the two agree to meet up in New York to discuss it further. But on his way to New York, Odell is killed. It’s never clear if Hearst has him killed or not, but either way, he’s dead. Thus ends another seemingly unimportant storyline that has very little—if any—impact on the series.

A storyline I thought was a mistake was the love affair between Joanie Stubbs and “Calamity” Jane Canary (Robin Weigert). I don’t think a lesbian love affair was a mistake, but the way the affair was handled felt completely wrong. Deadwood takes place in the 1870s, a time when, to put it mildly, attitudes toward same-sex love affairs were not as advanced as they are today. Even so, everyone in the show seems to be completely accepting of the same-sex couple. The only rebuke I remember ever being made toward Joanie and Jane is made by Cy Tolliver (Powers Boothe), Joanie’s former boss, and presumably, former lover. His rebuke is mild and is the result of his own feelings for Joanie, not any ill feelings toward same-sex couples. Other than Cy, no one ever says anything to Joanie or Jane, despite the fact that they are at least semi-open about the affair.

Almost every facet of the series felt real, from the scenery to the characters to the language to the violence. But Joanie and Jane’s relationship—or rather, the other character’s reaction to their relationship—never felt real. It was one of the small black marks on an otherwise wonderfully written series.

That brings us to Deadwood: The Movie. I was slightly disappointed in the movie, but to be fair, my expectations were sky high, so, no matter how good the movie turned out, there was a good chance it wouldn’t live up to my unrealistically lofty expectations.

The movie takes place in 1889, ten years after the original series, and South Dakota is on the verge of statehood. Deadwood is going to be part of the new state (there were rumblings early on that Montana might annex Deadwood). George Hearst, now a US Senator from California, comes to town to welcome the area into statehood. While in Deadwood, he also wants to increase his land holdings. Hearst has invested in the installation of telephone lines, and he needs to get his hands on a piece of property owned by Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie), Wild Bill Hickok’s old friend, to complete the installation.

Meanwhile, Sol Starr (John Hawkes) and Trixie (Paula Malcomson) have a baby; old feelings return to Seth Bullock when Alma Garrett (Molly Parker) returns to town for the statehood festivities; Cy Tolliver dies (it’s never revealed how he dies) and leaves the Bella Union to Joanie, who re-kindles her affair with Jane; and Al Swearengen, who is still running The Gem, is in poor health and apparently dying.

I won’t ruin the movie for you, but there is one (okay, maybe three or four) things I’d like to discuss. In the opening scenes of the movie, Alma Garret and her daughter, Sofia (Lily Keene) get off the train in Deadwood along with a mysterious young woman. They are not together, but when two ruffians, who turn out to be guns hired by Hearst, proposition the young woman, Sofia comes to the girl’s rescue and whisks her away.

The young girl, Caroline Woolgarden (Jade Pettyjohn), turns out to be a prostitute who goes to work at The Gem. Johnny Burns (Sean Bridgers) takes a shine to her, and Trixie has a short interaction with her. Otherwise, her character adds very little to the film. I’m not sure why she is introduced or what function she’s supposed to play. Maybe the writers had an idea for her and it never panned out, but if that’s the case, why keep her character in the film? She turned out to be more of a distraction than an integral character.

Let me also say that as an avid viewer, I wanted to see Al Swearengen one last time at the height of his powers. I admit, it was a selfish wish on my part, but after waiting thirteen years for the film, I wanted to experience the crude, ruthless, funny, and in-control Al. I think a lot of fans of the series wanted to see that. What we got was a diminished Al, sick with an unknown ailment and barely able to get up and down the stairs at The Gem. Sure, he’s ten years older and, after living a hard life killing rivals and swilling whiskey day and night, it’s bound to take its toll. Hurray for realism! Forgive me for calling BS on the reaction to the Joanie-Jane relationship as unrealistic, and then doing the exact opposite with how Al’s character was handled, but when it comes to Al, Swearengen a character that was always larger than life, to hell with realism. I wanted the old, not the elderly, Al.

On a related note, why did Dan Dougherty (W. Earl Brown) play such a small role in the movie? As Al’s number one henchman, Dan played a big part in the first three seasons of the show. In the movie, did he ever move out from behind the bar? I don’t remember for sure, but I do know that he played a very small role in the movie. That’s disappointing. Dan was a colorful character who could have added a lot to the movie. As an example, since the writers decided for Al to play a reduced role due to his illness, Dan could have stepped forward to fill his boss’ shoes. Instead, he retreated into the background.

Finally, in season three, Doc Cochran (Brad Dourif) is deathly ill. He presumably has tuberculosis, as evidenced by uncontrollable coughing spells and spitting up blood. But ten years later, when the movie takes place, Doc Cochran is alive and well. What happened? How did he go from being on death’s doorstep to ten years later being healthier than ever?

I admit, it’s unrealistic for all of these questions and complaints to be addressed in a ninety minute movie, but I wanted so much more from the film. I wanted to relive the glory days of Deadwood, to see Al and Seth fight, then work together for the good of the town. I wanted some sort of closure to the various storylines. But the movie didn’t provide any closure. It was just another chapter in a great show, leaving open many questions and answering very few.

The movie may not have been quite satisfying, but it was still great to spend some time with these foul-mouthed characters in this dirty old town. I wanted more. But, regardless of my niggling complaints, what I got was still great.

God, I miss Deadwood.

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