Binge-watching The West Wing

The West Wing is not a new show; in fact, it was on the air from September 22, 1999 to May 14, 2006. Everybody’s binge-watching these days: Breaking Bad, Homeland, Prime Suspect, Angels in America. You’re watching some older shows because the DVDs and boxed sets weren’t immediately available. Long after The West Wing ended, Twitter accounts for many of the characters began to appear in 2010.

If you have the boxed set of The West Wing, you’re looking at 47 discs. This is how addictive it is:

  1. You’ll lose sleep.
  2. All your auto-recorded shows will fall off your list.
  3. You’ll want to take a leave of absence from work.

Binge-watching has its benefits. Of course there are no commercials. Another advantage is that you don’t have to wait for the new season after being presented with a cliffhanger.

The West Wing revolves around President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen) and his senior staff. It is somewhat serialized but also includes new plots in each episode. It could really be called a dramedy. You see great stress and drama every week. There’s also a good serving of humor. Creator Aaron Sorkin, who wrote every script for the first four seasons, planned on the President’s appearances once a month. Instead, Sheen was in every episode. Rob Lowe was assumed to be the big draw, but after four seasons he left the show after the emphasis switched to Bradley Whitford’s character. Not the greatest career move.

The cast consisted of 15 major characters in its seven seasons, but there were many cast changes. Eight actors appeared in every season. There were some I didn’t like. OK, I’ll say it: Moira Kelly (who disappeared after the first season); Mary-Louise Parker (sorry, I just can’t stand her nasal and monotone voice); and Mary McCormack (although I liked her in Murder One).

There were people in the background with pretty good resumes. Two pollsters and six former White House staffers (including two former press secretaries) acted as consultants. Former senate aide Lawrence O’Donnell wrote several shows and was also an actor, portraying the president’s father in flashbacks.

The show, the actors, producers, directors and crew won more awards than they had shelves. They included Emmys (26), Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild awards, and the Peabody – twice. In 2013, TV Guide ranked the show #7 in its list of the 60 Greatest Dramas of all time, and its readers voted the cast the Best Drama cast of all time. The Writers Guild of America ranked it #10 in its 101 Best Written TV Series List.

It’s fun to spot the changes in certain issues. There was no medical marijuana (the Surgeon General was almost fired for talking about it), and gay marriage was referred to as a state issue, as it is now, but backing it would be political suicide.

In many ways the political situations stand up to today. Maybe that means there are problems we haven’t solved since 2006.

Read This Book

If you thought The Tonight Show began with Jay Leno as host, and you never saw the show before 1992, you missed The King Of Late Night, the best Tonight Show host ever, often called television’s best host of all time. Johnny Carson.

The Tonight Show actually started in 1954 with Steve Allen as host. He was followed by Jack Paar, Carson, Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien for about 15 minutes, then Leno again, and presently Jimmy Fallon. Johnny Carson was the host for 30 years – the duration of all other hosts combined.

The book is fast-moving, chatty, and a real tell-all – written eight years after Carson’s death. (There are 15 others about him.)

Henry Bushkin was a young lawyer when he met Johnny Carson in 1970. They worked together for 20 years, and when that was over, it was followed by a dismissive ending typical of Carson. (Think of Joan Rivers’ blackball from NBC.) Bushkin describes himself as his lawyer, counselor, partner, employee, business advisor, earpiece, mouthpiece, enforcer, running buddy, tennis pal, drinking and dinner companion and foil. He also cleaned up all Carson’s messes. They saw each other every day. When Johnny occasionally delivered a joke about “Bombastic Bushkin,” Henry was flattered by the name.

Johnny Carson was a brilliant comedian and interviewer. He wasn’t snide to his guests like David Letterman, and he didn’t fawn all over them like Oprah Winfrey. But you’ll read about a personality very different from the man who never forgot a joke in his life and occasionally delivered a Nebraska aw-shucks style. Bushkin shows the two (maybe more) sides of Carson. “… one minute gracious, funny and generous; and curt, aloof and hard-hearted the next.” Beloved by millions, but a man who just overdid it: drinking, smoking (four packs a day), and cheating on his four wives. “… never have I met a man with less aptitude for or interest in maintaining real relationships.”

Carson didn’t want to host The Tonight Show for 30 years. Contract talks, more like fights, were handled by Bushkin, containing byzantine timing and details that kept him on the air. His salary was discussed and guessed in newspapers, but Bushkin refused to come right out with it. Let’s just say it was several million dollars a year, for three days a week.

The Mr. Hyde side of Johnny’s personality came from a horrifically dysfunctional relationship with his mother. Bushkin goes into some detail about her and the effect she had on Johnny. She was never proud of his success and belittled everything about him. Little aptitude for or interest in maintaining real relationships? Guess where that came from.

Johnny Carson died in 2005 of respiratory failure due to emphysema. He left an estate in excess of $450 million. Among his bequests were more than $156 million to the Carson Foundation for the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Free Clinic, Planned Parenthood, and several other charities.

One of the most famous and beloved people on the planet died alone. We lost one of a kind. Where would the laughs come from now?

Gone Girl — Book 4, Movie 6

Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl was published in 2012 and sold 8.5 million copies (and counting) and spent 92 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Flynn had previously published Sharp Objects and Dark Places.

When the 2014 movie arrived, it had a $38 million opening weekend.

I’m going to surprise you. I wasn’t crazy about either.

I excitedly bought the book as soon as it came out and heard later it would be a movie. However, it turned out to be one of those books. I put it down and read another book, then returned to it briefly, then put it down and read another book, then returned to finish it, almost as an obligation. It was covered with dust.

Unlike the movie, the book travels back and forth between Amy Dunne’s diary entries and Nick Dunne’s reporting of the bizarre events that are happening.

On their fifth anniversary, Amy disappears. Nick gets a call from a neighbor about trouble at the house and walks into a crime scene. No body, just a messed up living room. The police arrive, and he starts his lies. He’s nonetheless seen as the good guy. Amy’s pretty psycho. However, you can go back and forth looking for a hero. Or a villain.

Nick and Amy (Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike) had lost their New York magazine jobs and moved to Carthage, Missouri, Nick’s hometown. Nick bought The Bar with his twin sister, Margo (possibly the only sane person in the story), from Amy’s trust fund. Amy sat around hating Carthage, Missouri.

We continue with Amy’s escape travels and Nick’s increasing trouble with the police, quickly assuming he’s murdered his wife.

I found the book slow-moving and talky. It did have ups and downs – who’s right and who’s wrong? Additionally, there is a whodunit factor, but the excitement happens in the middle (See? You have to want to get there). And we know who dun it.

The movie didn’t travel back and forth but gave a confusing look at Nick, with all his lying, and Amy, who doesn’t know what she wants or where she wants it. There were some changes to the book, which I’m not going to spoil, and there has been a real dustup about a new ending – a whole new “third act,” which Gillian Flynn has defended.

You’ll see some glowing reviews. You might have read glowing reviews of the book two years ago. I’m not glowing.

Here’s your chance – comment and yell at me. Or agree. I want to know what the other 8.5 million readers and $38 million ticket holders thought.

The Roosevelts: An Intimate History — Chapters Two to Seven

Chapter Two of Ken Burns’s documentary continues with Teddy Roosevelt, rough-rider, protector of national parks,and  builder of the Panama Canal, among other accomplishments, but one line by the narrator was strange: Theodore Roosevelt liked war. He was quoted: “No triumph of peace is as great as the supreme triumph of war.”

We continue to more detail on Franklin Roosevelt. He had a privileged childhood with a doting mother, and all his life he admired his fifth cousin, the president. He followed exactly in his career footsteps as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Governor of New York, and President of the United States.

We meet Eleanor, favorite niece of Teddy, to whom FDR proposed marriage in 1903. She was 19, and he was 22. They married two years later, with TR giving the bride away. They complemented each other with their individual strengths, but they didn’t have the warmest of marriages. A major struggle occurred in 1921 when Franklin contracted polio at age 39. He refused to show weakness, and the press cooperated (as they never would today) with his demand never to be photographed in a wheelchair.

His strength was also tested by a worldwide depression with an astounding 24 percent of Americans out of work. The New Deal created the “alphabet programs:” the CWA, AAA, CCC, NRA (National Recovery Administration), FDIC, HOLCP, PWA AND TVA, among others.

FDR was in office for over 12 years, the only president to be elected to four terms. Starting in 1941, the U.S. abandoned its policy of isolationism from World War II with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, leading the U.S. into World War II. Those 12 years represented arguably the most awful period in the 20th century.

After FDR’s death in 1945, Eleanor came into her own. She went down into coal mines, fought for women’s rights, and traveled incessantly. She was instrumental in the creation of the United Nations and the fight for civil rights.

Although the documentary creator Ken Burns has been called predictable, The Roosevelts really represented seven small documentaries. They’re being repeated on PBS, but to watch the complete series, go to http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/the-roosevelts/watch-videos/

The Roosevelts: An Intimate History

This seven-part documentary follows the lives and careers of Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt. It is the twenty-fifth documentary by Ken Burns and is narrated by Peter Coyote (who always seems to be the narrator for Burns’s features). Each episode is two hours long.

Theodore Roosevelt was a sickly child, dangerously afflicted with asthma, and there was a time in his infancy when doctors told his parents he may not survive. By his teens, he followed his adored father’s advice and engaged in weightlifting and boxing. He continued to fight health problems and become the “tough guy” among other sportsmen. But he had a considerate side. During a bear-hunting trip, the group captured a cub whom Roosevelt refused to kill, calling the other hunters’ behavior “unsportsmanlike.” That’s why we call the stuffed toy a teddy bear.

Graduating magna cum laude from Harvard, he entered Columbia Law School. However, the law was not his goal. He later became the youngest representative of the New York State Assembly. Tragically, his mother and his wife died on the same day, and in his crippling grief he traveled to the Dakota Territory as a cowboy and rancher for two years.

Roosevelt returned to politics in 1886 and remarried. His lifelong fascination with the Navy led to the position of U.S. Navy assistant secretary under President William McKinley. He later left the post to join the Spanish-American War, organizing the Rough Riders, famously taking San Juan Hill. Seen as a war hero, he was elected governor of New York in 1898.

Roosevelt was more progressive than many Republicans, and to put him aside, they nominated him for the Vice Presidency on McKinley’s ticket for re-election. (The Vice Presidency was considered “where politicians go to die.”) In 1901 McKinley was assassinated, making Roosevelt, 42, the youngest President in history. (The episode goes into much more detail about Roosevelt’s presidency. PBS is repeating it several times. You can also see it on PBS.com.)

In 1905 he walked his favorite niece and goddaughter, Eleanor, down the aisle as she married Franklin D. Roosevelt (her fifth cousin once removed). This first episode simply touches on Franklin and Eleanor. There are six more to come.

 

 

Herbie Hancock’s Memoir

If you’re too young or never heard of Herbie Hancock (shown here with Morgan Freeman at the UN International Jazz Day), you should get to know this giant in jazz. He has written a memoir, Herbie Hancock: Possibilities with author Lisa Dickey, to be released on October 28. The title evokes his 2005 album of the same name — his forty-fifth. In addition to winning 14 Grammy Awards since 1984, he won an Academy Award in 1986 for the soundtrack to Round Midnight. His 2007 tribute album River: The Joni Letters won the 2008 Grammy Award for Album of the Year, only the second jazz album ever to win the award. In 2013 he received the Kennedy Center Honors Award.

According to Jazz Times, currently Hancock serves as Creative Chair for Jazz for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association and as Institute Chairman of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. He is also a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador. He was named the 2014 Norton Professor Of Poetry at Harvard University, and conducted a lecture series, “The Ethics Of Jazz,” as part of the Charles Eliot Norton Lecture Series in February for a period of six weeks.

Hancock never studied jazz. His early education was in classical music, starting at the age of seven. At eleven he played Mozart with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. When he fell in love with jazz, he made an extraordinary name for himself, part of the Miles Davis Quintet, and worked with Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, The Headhunters, V.S.O.P., Jaco Pastorius and Joni Mitchell.

In 2010 Hancock released The Imagine Project. He appears on the fifth Flying Lotus album, You’re Dead, to be released in October.

Upcoming Fall Movies

Yes, we’re sad that summer’s over, but some of the new films opening in September, October and November might make you want to go to the movies.

THE EQUALIZER, September 26

It used to be a 1980’s TV show. Now it’s on the screen starring Denzel Washington as a former soldier going after Russian mobsters. Directed by Antoine Fuqua. They worked together on Training Day. Another Oscar for Denzel?

GONE GIRL, October 3

It’s based on Gillian Flynn’s bestseller. (I read it. It was good but not great. Still, I’m eager to see the story on screen.) The film is adapted and directed by David Fincher. Ben Affleck stars as the devastated husband whose wife (Rosamund Pike) is missing. Or did he have something to do with it?

THE JUDGE, October 10

When was the last time we saw Robert Duvall and Robert Downey, Jr.? Duvall is a retired judge. Downey is his lawyer son who’s called on to defend him on a murder charge. It’s directed by David Dobkin, who did Wedding Crashers. Quite a departure.

BIRDMAN, October 17

You remember Michael Keaton, right? Do you? He stars as an actor who’s made a big change from superhero to Broadway. It comes from a Raymond Carver short story and is directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, who brought us 21 Grams and Babel. It’s his first comedy.

DUMB AND DUMBER TO, November 14

Please. I have no words.

THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY, PART 1, November 21

Jennifer Lawrence returns as Katniss, and Philip Seymour Hoffman reprises his role as Plutarch. Based on the popularity of the Hunger Games franchise and one of Hoffman’s last four 2014 films, get there early for a good seat.

 

Like us on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/kit.gillson

Follow us on  Twitter: twitter.com/kitgillson