Friday, July 07, 2006

The Closer and the Next Stage for TV Cop Shows

In the comments area of my Monk/Psych post below, a reader mentioned the TNT series The Closer, an unacknowledged Americanization of the long-running British police procedural TV program Prime Suspect. In The Closer, now in its second season, Kyra Sedgwick plays a police detective and homicide team supervisor who solves crimes while stumbling charmingly through a rather bumpy personal life. It's a good show, made appealing by Sedgwick's excellent performance. She's quite likeable as the protagonist, and her various problems are handled by both herself and the program's writers with a fairly light touch. The most recent episode, which premiered last Monday night, was particularly satisfying. Unlike most episodes of the program, it had a solid puzzle with several suspects, and the viewer had enough info to solve the crime by the time Brenda was ready to reveal the killer. Most of the appeal of The Closer lies in the non-mystery elements, but having a good mystery made this episode really sing.

There's no reason a police procedural or hardboiled story can't have a good puzzle, as the works of Cornell Woolrich and Fredric Brown make very clear in the hardboiled realm and which the Midsomer Murders and Dalziel and Pascoe series in both books and TV make abundantly clear. (Both of the latter are produced in Great Britain.) I, too, like to see TV moving away from what I called in my NR roundup of the last TV season shows about Saving the World, One Creepy-Looking Corpse at a Time. It has become a very tired genre, and the cop show will begin to fade away soon if the networks don't bring new life to it with an approach more sanguine and less sanguinary.

Monk Returns, Psych Begins

The USA Network mystery-comedy series Monk returns this evening, at 9 p.m. EDT, an hour earlier than in previous years. In my view, Monk is one of the best programs on television: it's funny, always has strong plots and interesting characters, and upholds values I consider quite laudable. When Monk deals with traditional Judeo-Christian religion, it does so respectfully, another thing I like about it, and it does so subtly, without being the slightest bit preachy, which makes the treament palatable for those who don't share that faith. I own the pilot movie and first three seasons on DVD, and I do watch them during those long, sad months when the show is on hiatus. (There are only about a dozen new episodes per year, running for about six consecutive weeks at the beginning of the year and then in July and August.)

Following Monk tonight (at 10 EDT) is the premiere of a new mystery-comedy series, Psych. This one looks like it could be a real winner. James Roday (an actor who has appeared mostly in independent films and theater productions) plays Shawn Spencer, a brilliantly insightful young man from a long family line of detective police officers. Tragically, he's not a police officer himself, because he is too much of a free spirit to be able to hold a job. (Exactly the opposite of Adrian Monk, you see....) In order to save himself from prison, however, thanks to some clever plotting by the scriptwriters, Shawn is forced to pretend that he is a psychic, and that he gets his information about crimes from the Other World instead of from its real source, his "extraordinary powers of observation and deduction," as the show's website puts it. Think: Sherlock Holmes with a crazy sense of fun. In light of his success as a "psychic," Shawn opens his own detective agency with partner and comedy straight man Gus. As the program's website puts it, "He's putting his skills to good use." True to TV's formula for success, Psych sounds both similar enough and different enough from Monk to be a good concept, and the individuals involved in making the show have very good track records at this sort of thing, especially creator/writer/executive producer Steve Franks.

USA's previous attempt to follow Monk with an eccentric detective—a remake of the English series Touching Evil—failed, and in my view it happened mainly because the program's tone was inconsistent and largely too different from that of Monk. Like its BBC predecessor, Touching Evil dealt with extremely grim subject matter, but the producers tried to spice it up a bit by making the lead character a bit kooky and increasing the prominence of a bizarre subsidiary character whom they made more zany than in the British original. Although Jeffrey Donovan did an excellent job of portraying the lead character, Detective Dave Creegan, and Pruitt Taylor Vince was fascinating as Cyril, the attempt to make an extremely grim show more pleasant didn't work. It's as if they had tried to make Adrian Monk the central character in Criminal Minds. Better to try something else.

Psych looks like a better fit both in its central concept and as a companion program for Monk. If the values Psych upholds are as good as the show's description suggests, and if the stories are as strong as those of Monk—which is of course very difficult to achieve on a regular basis—this program could be very good indeed. I have . . . a feeling it will.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

College Admissions

Tufts has decided to bring in some additional tools to help it decide which students it ought to admit, using interesting essay questions to get a sense of applicants' "creativity." Unlike some other admissions reforms, Tufts isn't avoiding using SATs and GPAs, but trying to augment those. From the report here, there doesn't seem to be much to dislike. I've long thought that the real barrier to universities doing admissions better is simply one of resources: there aren't enough admissions officers or people involved in admissions to treat each application individually. Tufts, according to the article, has about 25,000 applicants - it's hard to see how you can give those anything more than just a cursory glance and surely it's one of the reasons why standardized tests are so popular.

TVD's Newswalk™: Food For Thought

One in an occasional series of shallow strolls through deep waters:

Norks Murder Whales

Well, Head Nork Kim Jung-Il shot off a big missile and hit the ocean. And what lives in the ocean? Cuddly whales, that's what, even though whales are too big to cuddle with.

Since pro-cuddlycreature activists have sued the US Navy into stopping using sonar in military exercises, it's only a matter of time before they train their righteous indignation and (rare, safe and legal) guns on the Norks.

Y'know, I love "Norks." It's vaguely insulting but not racist. Rhymes with "dorks." Norks. Norks. I love it.

I've been pretty mellow about the Norks, those proud members of the Axis of Evilers, a designation they took as a compliment. They're China's fault in the first place, and they're Japan's worry along with the Sorks'. Let the "international community" straighten 'em out.

(Nah, "Sorks" doesn't work. They're alternately supportive and annoying, but I'm proud of what they've done with the freedom that 54,246 young Americans bought with their lives. These things do not come cheaply. I wish they did.

South Koreans, then. Someday soon I hope, without further bloodshed like with Germany, it'll be simply "Koreans." Y'all owe us one, guys.)

I've mostly been worried about the Norks proliferating their evil goods, WMDs, to other likeevilminded folks. But if this launch is any indication of the quality of Kim Jung-Il's workmanship, what could be better than this enemy of mankind and cetaceans alike ripping off fragheads to buy porno and cognac? Almost worth keeping him in power, almost.

Yearly Kos Astonishes

I was astonished, anyway. Caught the video on C-SPAN of the now-annual confab of all that is good and righteous on the internet, The Daily Kos, the mega-lefty mega-blog that has used its powers of persuasion to defeat a number of heretical Democrats (Joe Lieberman may be next), although so far no Republicans.

They have not yet solved the equation that "unity" movements tend toward cannibalism. When you've got the blood fever, why try to kill and eat someone who might fight back when so many compliant and tasty morsels are so close at hand?

Ann Coulter became an infotainment superstar by supplying an unfilled demand for rhetorical violence on the right: your favorite blog, The Reform Club, for instance, is the model of decorum. But The Daily Kos has to give it away because the vitriol supply on the left far exceeds demand. (They do pick up a few bucks as a clearing house for freebies: Plato's Retreat for Liberals.)

Kosdom claims its average age is 45, and the C-SPAN video confirms it: these folks are genuine Leftover Left, women with long gray hag hair and men looking like they need a good scrub. I mean there was a guy with a magic-markered sign on his T-shirt, something about Plame and Fitzgerald. Cute and maybe even fetching before age 30, not so cute for grownups. Man, I used to be so jealous of the left. They were soooooooo cool.

It's not that the right wing aren't dorks, because we are, present company excepted. But the left's berets and Sartre and cigarettes and Che Guevera and other assorted nonsenses were da bomb in the olden days. You could always use radical chic to get some. The proletariat, exploited masses, the human condition, death to imperialism. Wham, bam, thank you, Karl Marx. But now, all these witchy women and stinky bohemians can get is each other. It ain't pretty, people.

And what's the ridiculous without the sublime?

Activists Announce "Troops Home Fast"

That would be Iraq. A hunger strike, sort of, although I understand you can take turns. Skip a lunch, save a life. Ringleader Mother "I'd Rather Live Under Hugo Chavez than Bush" Sheehan is too easy pickin's, although she should try living under Chavez' pal Castro in Cuba, where every single day's a revolutionary fast. But she's being joined by Dick Gregory, who's obsessed with not eating food and weighs about 68 pounds. I mean, what? It's like Howard Stern, Masturbating For Peace.

Norks, Dorks & Cindys on today's menu. Pass. Think I'll join the fast. Or does anyone know where we can get a good whale sandwich?

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Tribute to a Good Man in Africa

When I arrived at Baylor University to begin my doctoral work, one of the first people I met was a dark-skinned Nigerian man named Abraham Mbachirin. Abraham practically lived in our research center.

Our program proved to be quite challenging for him because many of the core courses deal with American law and religion, something he hadn't understood at the outset. And there was another problem: he couldn't type. That was a significant problem when students crank out thousands upon thousands of typed words each semester.

He was low on money, had English as a second language, and missed his wife and several children back home. Yet, he fought and struggled. His love of knowledge and yes, of the Lord, gave him the strength to press onward.

Though the enterprise looked precarious at times Abraham never faltered. I'm proud to report that Abraham Mbachirin successfully defended his dissertation today. He returns to Nigeria to build that nation's institutions of higher education and to continue his role in the Presbyterian church.

Africa needs good men. Godspeed to Abraham Mbachirin. I pray he comes back to us someday as an official of the Nigerian government, more stable and successful than ever. I don't think Nigeria has ever had a Kuyper, but Dr. Mbachirin might just fill the bill.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

A Slender Read

I have known since I was about ten years old that the highest end of man, the activity in which pleasure and nature and reason and worship of the Creator all combine in one perfect blossom of celebration and wonder at the sheer goodness of life is: to sit in a wicker chair on the porch, in the wavering humidity of a summer day, and read, and read, and read, knowing you can sit there as long as you please because there is nothing you need to do and nowhere you have to go and nothing better than finishing this book and starting on another.

The only thing that has changed since 1968 is my preferred refreshment. Back then it was black cherry Kool-Aid, now I tend more toward white sangria or Harp Lager. Oh, maybe the books have bigger words in them, and most of the authors weren't even born in 1968. But for endless porch summers I still choose the same kind of book I chose then: one that engages your brain more than your heart. Tear-jerkers are for the chair pulled up to the fireplace in the gloomy dusk of a December afternoon. Summer belongs to British timetable mysteries, playful fantasy, and marveling at clever wordplay.

I daresay anyone who's weathered public school, even the safer sorts you find in the rural townships of the Midwest, will understand how I found out so young that you couldn't really read until school was out. The kind of reading you do in school seems designed to cure you of longing for books. I was even disciplined once for taking a library book home. They had unaccountably allowed me to check out a story that was too interesting to stop reading when the school bus arrived. Unthinkable.

So here's what I've been reading on the porch.

Jonathan Lethem

I discovered Jonathan Lethem about six months ago, when my husband returned from a business trip with an airport bookshop copy of Motherless Brooklyn in his suitcase. Motherless Brookyln is itself a summer porch book, a murder mystery told in first person by a Tourettic orphan whose verbal and mental tics expand the English language like a helium balloon. In the pre-Thanksgiving gloom it might have made a less lasting impression on me had I not read it a couple of weeks before making my first visit to Brooklyn. In the company of my friend and life-long Brooklynite Brenda, I succumbed to the borough as one would to some only slightly painful, yet exotic, disease, and Lethem's place in my brain was cemented.

Now I know that the New York Times and the MacArthur Foundation discovered Lethem years ago, and I am very late to the Certified Genius bandwagon. I did not realize until Men and Cartoons that Lethem had, before becoming the poet of dysfunctional Brooklyn, written multiple volumes of weirdo West Coast cross-genre experimentalist fiction, most of which would probably sail right over my head. Never mind. The Fortress of Solitude is a perfect summer book: an evocation of three decades in which a white kid grows up in, leaves, and returns to the neighborhood that eventually becomes gentrified Boerum Hill but continues to haunt him as the rough and dangerous Gowanus of his boyhood. Its residual weirdness, including an unlikely superhero subplot, stands as a barrier to too-close personal engagement with the main characters, which qualifies it as a porch book. This is more than compensated for by Lethem's uncanny and unique use of language, memory hooks, and visual imagery.

Jasper Fforde

What is it about the simultaneous appearance of fictional ideas? I can't tell you how many times I've picked up books from different authors, apparently unknown to each other, that introduce the same bizarre plot device. In the space of a week my sister sent me the first Fforde novel in the Thursday Next series, The Eyre Affair, and my youngest daughter acquired a copy of Cornelia Funke's Inkheart. Both novels, one written in English for adults and the other in German for children, describe a world where people can enter and leave books. I don't know if the problem is the writer or the translation into English, but Funke's leaden characters and inability to move a plot, despite an interesting hook, make Jasper Fforde look like Leo bleedin' Tolstoy. Considered without comparison to second-rate kid lit, Thursday Next is certainly no Anna Karenina, but she inhabits a world full of imaginative and amusing details, from a cloned pet dodo to riotous gangs of John Milton fanciers. So far the best of the series is the third, The Well of Lost Plots. But it won't make a lick of sense if you haven't read the first two, and they're like popsicles anyway, quickly consumed and leaving you hungry for more.

Paul Johnson

Most of Johnson's historical work I would not consider classic porch fare; it requires too much sustained attention. But I make an exception for Art: A New History. Mainly because it has many (although not enough) pretty pictures. But also because Johnson's art criticism is refreshingly straightforward, free of the usual incomprehensible pomo BS, and informed with enough knowledge of the historical and political context in which this art was created to make it real, if unconventional, art history.

Happy reading, all. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of paperbacks.

Monday, July 03, 2006

A New Mexico?

It could happen. According to the Reuters report, Felipe Calderon, the right of center candidate in Sunday's elections for president of Mexico, appears to have won. Mexico had long been in the grip of a left-wing party, the PRI, which used dubious methods to retain power and kept market reforms at bay. Vicente Fox was a great improvement but not one to make fundamental changes. The rise to power of Calderon, of the National Action Party, would make possible reforms that were beyond contemplation when the PRI and its successors remained in power. Reuters writes:

Mexico's conservative presidential candidate Felipe Calderon declared victory on Monday in a bitterly contested election result as official returns showed him ahead of his left-wing rival.

Calderon said his lead was now "irreversible" because he had an advantage of more than 400,000 votes over Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the leftist former mayor of Mexico City, with almost 95 percent of votes counted.

There are still a lof of ifs in the scenario. If Calderon's opponent, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrado of the Democratic Revolution Party, doesn't encourage his supporters to riot in the streets and hold the government by force (as is the current worry, according to the Reuters story and other reports), Calderon can take office. Then, if Calderon can mobilize legislative action on economic reforms, if the government can enforce the rule of law in local areas—something current President Vicente Fox had a good deal of trouble doing—and if Calderon's party can stick to their guns, then there is truly a chance finally for a long-needed liberalization of the Mexican economy and society.

Liberalizing reform in Mexico is a development all should welcome, excepting only those who wish to exploit people through the powers of a corrupt and oppressive government. NAFTA may well have laid the groundwork for this tidal change, but real reform cannot come until Mexicans decide to take that frightful step from being wards of the state toward being independent actors who can make their own way in the world. This election could be the first step toward Mexico becoming a truly prosperous nation of self-reliant people.

I believe that it will happen, though in fits and starts and against furious opposition.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Watt's Up?

In our battle against the nether regions of Islam, some light at the end of the tunnel.

Years ago, when comic books showed us a light bulb appearing at an idea's point of origin, we scoffed. Now we know it to be true.