Playing House? More like Playing Home Run!

It’s been a while since I swore off reviewing everything that came on TV, which has proven to be wise because there is simply one ridiculous whateverload of new fiction TV coming on. Between the cable networks getting more aggressive and the streaming companies coming into play, there is now on average more than one new scripted TV series being released per day. I’d have to check, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were more new prime-time and prime-timey series released in 2014 than there were in the entire 1960s. There is a lawwwwt of TV.

And I turned away from doing reviews in general for professional reasons; my business has come closer to Hollywood in some ways, and I don’t want a talented person whom I want to work with to stumble across that review of the last thing she did which I didn’t like as much as some of her other work. But that doesn’t mean that I cannot make an occasional recommendation, particularly for something that might be otherwise overlooked.

And thus: Playing House. No, this is not the Hugh Laurie biopic we’ve all been waiting for. Rather, its a USA Network sitcom that somehow reached season 2 before I had any hint that it existed at all. It is created by and stars two women whose other work I don’t know, Lennon Parham and Jessica St. Clair. A high-powered executive type returns to her small hometown to help her pregnant best friend. There’s various other good comedy folk brought in, whether it’s Keegan-Michael Key (whose series Key & Peele I’m only just discovering, yes I am late to some parties!) as a regular (cop/friendly ex-boyfriend), Jane Kaczmarek as a recurring mom, or various one-shot appearances.

This stuff is smart, and because they created it, the leads have a strong hold on the tone of the show, making it flow nicely.

The whole first season and what exists to date of the second can be watched online, if you don’t have this show in your On Demand. Try it, do!

Published in: on August 26, 2015 at 12:19 am  Leave a Comment  

Smokes and Chickens

I recently did some writing for the stage for the first time in a long time (and for the first time ever where I wasn’t involved in the production.) It was for “The Box”, a project being staged at the Sacred Fools theater in L.A., where writers are all provided with a setting and characters and situations, and told to write scenes, while each being unaware of what the others were writing, and then the selected scenes are staged in random order over three nights, with some linking narration added. Seventy writers submitted, and 43 scenes by 35 writers were selected. Mine ran as part of the final night of the run, July 25, 2015. Since this particular set of scripts won’t ever be staged again, I figured I’d share them here. (The script here is as it was written; the producers trimmed it down some for time.

The characters used are Young Will, who has just returned from World War I and carries some secrets, and Molly, a suffragette.

Smokes and chickens”

by Nat Gertler

SETTING: The chicken farm, night.

AT RISE: MOLLY stands toward center, facing stage right, smoking a cigar. (All props can be mimed.) YOUNG WILL enters from stage left, walking backwards, skulking, really, a shovel in hand. He stumbles a bit, noisily, causing Molly to turn.

MOLLY

Hey!

YOUNG WILL

(startled)

Shh!

MOLLY

Don’t want to wake the chickens?

YOUNG WILL

I think they’re closing in on me.

MOLLY

They”?

(no response)

I’ll keep an eye out. If I see a “them,” I’ll let you know.

(takes a puff)

But why run here, of all places?

YOUNG WILL

I buried something here. A week ago. I need it.

(He scans the area, points to a spot.)

There.

(notices her cigar)

Could you put that thing out?

MOLLY

Cigars bother you? Or just a woman smoking them?

YOUNG WILL

No, it’s… in the war, they gave us all cigarettes. The cigarette makers donated them, free, said it was a patriotic thing, a gift to the boys. Couldn’t’ve been worse for us if the Kaiser had planned it. On a moonless night, you could see the tip of a cigarette glowing from a fifth of a mile away. Further, when someone was lighting up, a lot further. Made our boys easy to find, and that wasn’t good. And that was just little sticks. That stogie of yours…

MOLLY

(twisting the end of her cigar against the ground)

Got it. Was about to put it out anyway. Didn’t want to take it into the henhouse. Too much straw there.

YOUNG WILL

Why are you going into a henhouse at night?

MOLLY

To name the hens.

YOUNG WILL

Aren’t these Chicken Dave’s chickens?

MOLLY

Yes.

YOUNG WILL

And you’re going to name them because…?

MOLLY

Because Chicken Dave is the worst kind of male animal.

YOUNG WILL

Oh? Seemed like a nice guy when I met him. Bit of a joker, but nice.

MOLLY

That’s the worst kind. A total misanthrope, when he’s bad to you, that’s just part of who he is. But Chicken Dave’s the guy who if he knows that you’re hungry, he’ll bring you a sandwich. You know if you need help putting the fence up, he’s there. He’ll spend an hour on some silly prank to make you laugh. But if you want something that costs him nothing, like respect as a person or the right to vote, he’ll stand in your way. It’s bad enough that the mean folks are bad. When the nice folks are bad, it strips you of all hope.

YOUNG WILL

And naming the chickens will change that?

MOLLY

Just the hens. You see, Chicken Dave is a nice guy to his chickens… he thinks. He feeds them, he sings to them, he acts as if he loves them. Then when they stop producing eggs, he kills them. He eats them or sells them to someone else to eat. And that’s probably easy, because he just sees them as chickens, as just this group. It’s no problem turning chickens into chicken, fried, boiled, maybe chicken salad. But if they have names – if tomorrow I tell him “this one’s Brenda, this one’s Marguerite,” then maybe, next time he’s got the axe out, he’ll suddenly realize that he’s not “making chicken,” but he’s “killing Brenda.”

(YOUNG WILL starts to dig.)

YOUNG WILL

Maybe. Prob’ly not.

MOLLY

Probably not. One-in-five, one-in-six chance, I reckon. And it’s still not going to stop him from killing chickens, because that’s his business. But if I can get him to see hens as individuals, then I’ve set him down a path. Then I can make him see women as people, worthy of full personhood. Maybe.

YOUNG WILL

Prob’ly not.

MOLLY

Probably not. It’s a longshot. But I didn’t have anything better to do tonight. Wasn’t getting any more sleep.

YOUNG WILL

Why not?

MOLLY

Oh, bad dream. Bad, bad dream. And I’ve got a friend I’m worried about, she’s in a bad way. And my brain kept coming up with names for chickens.

(YOUNG WILL is on his knees, scraping something out of the hole he’s dug.)

MOLLY

You’ve found it!

YOUNG WILL

(lifting a locket out of the hole)

No.

MOLLY

No? It wasn’t that…?

YOUNG WILL

Locket? No.

MOLLY

So that means…

YOUNG WILL

Either someone took it, dug it up, and someone else later reused the same spot to bury this, or someone dug it up and swapped it for this.

MOLLY

B sounds more likely.

(YOUNG WILL opens up the locket. He recognizes something in it.)

YOUNG WILL

Oh!

(END)

Published in: on July 27, 2015 at 4:50 pm  Leave a Comment  

Chili shepherd’s pie

Mix a batch of Betty Crocker Garlic&Herb Mashed Potatoes. In a pie plate, mix together one tube of mechanically-separated turkey meat and one can of turkey chili with beans. Layer the potatoes on top, put in a 370 degree oven until the upper tips of the potatoes are dark brown.

Result? Daughter Allison’s response was “I’ll want seconds. LARGE seconds.” So I’ll take that as a success.

Published in: on April 5, 2015 at 10:51 pm  Leave a Comment  

Amazon Echo – I review my new toy

EchoAmazon’s new Echo device, heading out to early adopters at this point, is basically a landline version of Siri, letting you talk into the cloud to get answers, information, and other services. This black tube about as tall as a Pringles can and slightly wider only plugs in for power. Internet access must be gotten through wifi, which you must configure using an app on your smart phone or tablet. The app ends up being a necessary partner in making full use of your Echo. If your Echo can’t answer your question directly, it tosses a search engine link over to the app (a Bing link, of course, because Google is not chummy friends with Amazon.) You can add things to a maintained shopping list by talking to your Echo, but can only remove things using the app. And if you want to configure your Echo, such as giving it a name that it will respond to, you do that through the app.
(Oh, giving it a name. Now there’s a disappointment. The Echo sits there quietly, until you say its name, then it lights up, perks up, ready to answer a question or obey your command. And some of the promotional material made it sound like you could pick a name. Which is actually true in the most trivial sense possible – you get your choice of two names. You can call your Echo “Alexa”, or you can call it “Amazon”. This is not only inconvenient if you happen to have named your two kids “Amazon” and “Alexa”, but it’s a disappointment because I wanted to name mine “Mata Hari”. I really, really, really wanted to name it Mata Hari. Why? Because it’s an honest-to-goodness always-on live microphone sending out things I say over the Internet, to one of the biggest data-gathering operations there is. What kind of sufficiently paranoid person volunteers for that? Me apparently.)
(Note to youngsters and the under-read: Mata Hari was a spy.)
So basically, the devices does things that you could do with a tablet or a smartphone and you need a tablet or smartphone to fully use it. So what’s the advantage to having it? Well, the biggest reason is that it makes your life feel real science fictiony – you’re walking through your living room, you just shout out a question, and a ring of cool lights spring up at the top of this tube, with one light pointing toward you, and level, female voice answers your question. It seems so Minority Report.
(Youngsters: Minority Report is a film from 2002. Science fiction.)
Second thing is that it really can be convenient for the basic things it does. Telling it to set a timer is simply a shout, no matter what you’re in the middle of, what your hands are full of.
The third is that it’s a music-playing device, streaming your tunes to the room… at least, those tunes you have stored by Amazon. As with most Amazon devices, the primary goal is not to serve you but to encourage you to use Amazon services. Buy your tunes through Amazon, and you can request them through this. Subscribe to Amazon Prime, and you have voice command access to the Amazon Prime Music library. It will support whatever things that Amazon chooses to let you access through it, like IHeartRadio. But you aren’t getting your iTunes on this.
I’m no stereophile, I won’t claim to judge sound quality. It sounds good enough to be my ambient music. It plays streaming music without me having to turn on my TV. For me, it’s an improvement. Volume can be controlled by voice command, by remote control, or by turning a ring around the top of the tube.

Once I’d gotten it set up, I put the Echo through some very basic steps.

  • “Alexa, what time is it?”
  • “It’s 1:10.”
  • “Alexa:Set an alarm for 1:50.”
  • “Alarm set for 1:50 this afternoon.” (I would later find that one of its weaknesses is that it wasn’t an alarm, it was the alarm. Try to set a second alarm, and it will indeed be set, but the first alarm setting disappears. Learned that one the hard way.)
  • I decided to try its look-up-in-Wikipedia function. “Alexa: Wikipedia Nat Gertler.” (yes, I have a Wikipedia page.)
  • It starts to read me the Wikipedia for a town whose name is similar to my last name.
  • I try again. “Alexa: Wikipedia Nat Gertler.”
  • It reads me the introduction to the Wikipedia page for Republic Steel.
  • “Alexa: Wikipedia Nat Gertler.”
  • While it is admitting that it didn’t understand what I am looking for, my phone rings. I grab it, and say “Good afternoon.” The Echo starts reading me the Wikipedia page for “Greeting”.
I tried to destroy the Echo by asking it “What is love?”, but it just quoted the Dalai Lama at me.
Another thing it’s good for is keeping the kids distracted for a little while, as they work out what it will do. Yes, they can ask it math questions. No, it can’t tell them how far it is between two cities, but yes, it can tell them how far each city is from here. No, it won’t sing you songs, but yes, it will tell you a joke if asked. The kids added a lot of silly things to the shopping list, and were surprised when it read them back a list with even more silly things (I was in another room, augmenting their shopping list via the app.)
The thing that delighted them most was when my daughter sang  “Alexa: Do you wanna build a snowman?” and gotten the spoken response “Come on, let’s go and play!” (And it even has multiple responses to that question.)
Overall, at this point, it feels more like a novelty than a necessity. Some of what it does, it does impressively well, like hearing a command over other noise in the room. Some it does so-so; it’s generally good at understanding my requests, less so my five year old, but luckily it tends to repeat back what it’s asked, so at least we know it’s answering the wrong question. There are odd quirks in the data set it’s using for some things; ask it to define “sister”, and the one about a female sibling isn’t the first definition, it’s the fourth. Similarly, the definition of “knocker” went through the more lurid slangy sense and a yiddish term before getting to the item that hands on a door.
But those concerns are software, not hardware, and software upgrades, so there is hope for something more full. As the Echo will tell you when you ask it (her? The voice is most definitely a her.) “Where are you?”, she is here, but her head is in the cloud. Additional services could be added without even a download. So this could be more and better; whether it will probably depends on whether enough people adopt it to give Amazon a belief that there should be a future for this. If they don’t, this will be another Apple Newton.
(Youngsters: if you haven’t heard of the Newton… that’s kind of the point.)
The Echo is orderable here. It currently has a steep discount for Amazon Prime users.
Published in: on February 20, 2015 at 3:20 am  Leave a Comment  

What’s up on TV

One of the reasons that I stopped doing the regular reviewing thing is that there is just too much TV today to really stay on top of it. Saw a figure quoted earlier that more than 350 original scripted series had new episodes in 2014, when you count all the cable channels, the major streaming sources, and so forth.

But I have been watching things. And just having come off a batch of watching new things, I thought I’d do some running down, for the two people who still have this one their watch list.

  • The Nightly Show fills the old Colbert Report slot with news commentary humor and discussion, focusing on minority issues. On the first episode, the news humor is quite good. Host Larry Wilmore is a smart and talented man… but his voice grates on me a bit. We’ll see if I get used to it. The discussion panel was a mixed bag at best; you could tell when each of the night’s panel members were Saying The Thing They Had Prepared To Say, hanging it however loosely on the question or conversation of the moment. Overall total, on the good side. And here’s a weird confession: I was kind of hoping to not like this show, as liking it means two hours a week of watching it.
  • I’ve watched several of the non-kiddy Amazon Original pilots of this batch, and as everyone’s telling you, The Man in the High Castle is the one worth watching. It’s an alternate history take set about a decade after the Allies lost World War II. It’s well put together… but my main thought is that whoever the production designer is has just found a dream job. “Here, combine Nazi design and Japanese design with 1960s US.” What more could you ask for as a design assignment?
  • The other originals I watched: despite having some good people in the cast, Salem Rogers doesn’t work. If you saw Bad Teacher and Bad Judge, well, they would’ve called this one Bad Model, but they forgot to cast Ryan Hansen. A supermodel returns from extended rehab and proceeds to terrorize her former assistant and act entitled. It feels compressed and just not funny. Down Dog, about a vapid yoga instructor, deals actually in some of the same realms of that wacky Hollywood, but is mellower, less abrasive, more smoothly done, and still not funny. Cocked uses a standard formula of the offspring who left the family business but must come back to save it and deal with wacky relatives (example: Arrested Development.) It’s got Brian Dennehy in it, which is a good thing, and Jason Lee, which is inconsistently a good thing. It tries for a mix of humor and drama, but alas the humor is not that funny and the drama is contrived. Some nudity for those that like it (although it’s of Symbolically Sexy women for a scene’s needs, rather than being actually sexy), some small LGBT content for a key but unconvincing plot point.  It’s not a show that I would be surprised at getting a few seasons for a while, but I doubt I’ll be watching.
Published in: on January 22, 2015 at 3:44 am  Leave a Comment  

On those of us who try to be funny

In the wake of a recent suicide, there are discussions and articles going around that anyone who tries to be funny is so desperate, sad, and lonely that they are at all times one small step away from taking the Big End To It All option.
People also frequently note that I am often trying to be funny.
So let me start by assuring everyone out there that I am not on the edge, I am nowhere near that edge, I don’t foresee myself ever being at that edge absent real physical suffering or impending complete collapse of intellect.
This is not to say that I am without depressions – really, more frustrations, I’m a very frustrated man in some ways, having squandered both abilities and opportunities (all of which is on me). I feel I have achieved most of what I’m likely to, and there are some genuine achievements in there, but the pile could have been bigger. As a writer, I am both more successful than most people who see themselves as writers and less successful than most of the people folks are apt to think of when they think about writers. And I’ve managed to get myself in a position in life where I’m spending a lot of time doing things that I’m not that good at.
And I don’t always put these things forward because I’d rather be judged on my strengths and successes than on failures and weaknesses. And I make my jokes because they are a success; I am good at finding some combination of things about a given situation that meet in a surprising way. And it feels good not just to amuse other folks (although that is certainly a measure of success) but to simply put it together; it has some of the same satisfaction as solving a math puzzle does for me.
And I am proud of things that I have done, including things that you don’t know about. And while I might not have that many successes to look forward to, there are other forms of pleasure that still await. I have my up side as well.
So if you had any concern regarding me, I appreciate your caring, and can always use support… but I’m not suicidal, merely human, and we all to some degree clothe our wrinkled natural selves.

Published in: on August 12, 2014 at 6:13 pm  Leave a Comment  

Arkansas!

It will be interesting to see where we are at the end of the year.

Published in: on May 10, 2014 at 3:52 pm  Leave a Comment  

Michigan!

Indeed, Michigan.

At this point, 54% of Americans live in a jurisdiction where same-sex marriage is either available or are awaiting the end of a stay of court ruling to be legal.

Zoom.

Published in: on March 22, 2014 at 6:35 pm  Leave a Comment  

It’s Amazon Pilot season again

Amazon has their new pilots available for free viewing. So far, I’ve watched two of them.

Mrs. Nat’s TV was correct when she pegged Mozart in the Jungle as having a taste of the beloved Slings & Arrows behind it. This time, it’s an symphony rather than a theater group that is facing changes, but it’s got that very insider-y, real-except-we’re-exagerating-ourselves-to-be-kinda-epic feel to it. Clearly not a cheap piece to produce (lots of sets, known actors like Malcolm McDowell, Bernadette Peters, and in the lead, Saffron Burrows), it didn’t catch me up the way Slings & Arrows did, but if it goes to series, I’ll definitely try a second episode to see if it grows on me.

Gortimer Gibbon’s Life on Normal Street felt like it specifically wanted to be The Adventures of Pete & Pete; it’s a narrated story of a group of children in a setting that was basically our suburbs with these fantasy elements worked in (and by the way, that’s a genre I’ve done a couple short stories of in prose, so it’s one I have a taste for.) Alas, where, Pete & Pete managed to have a gentle sense of whimsy and winging it, of not taking itself too seriously (perhaps encouraged by some of its cheap production values. This all feels much more calculated and thus much less fun. Calculated and slick can work in these regards (see: Pushing Daisies), but you gotta have some real magic that this pilot doesn’t show.

Published in: on February 7, 2014 at 5:38 pm  Leave a Comment  

Smart things have larger effects

I always like stories of smart things having good repercussions beyond what was expected. There was a story a year or so back about the earliest known sound recordings, which were never meant to be played back. The creator of the “phonautograph” was merely playing with how voice could shake a pen that was making a line; it wasn’t until a century and a half later that someone figured out “hey, we can turn this line back into sound!”

I just ran across another of those stories, and it’s about an acknowledged creative genius, Méliès, the early filmmaker (if you saw the movie Hugo, you know the guy I mean.) Due to some problems with distribution, Méliès found that he needed two negatives of each movie. Rather than having two cameras that needed separate operation, he simplified the shooting: he built a special camera that was really two cameras in one, two reels of film, two lenses. Sure, they’d each get a slightly different image, but they were close enough that it shouldn’t make much difference.

You’re seeing what’s coming, aren’t you?

That’s right. a century later, someone paired the two prints back together, and got these early masterpieces in totally legitimate 3-D.

Published in: on January 26, 2014 at 3:14 am  Leave a Comment  
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