Going Into ‘The Tenth Inning’

During the baseball strike of 1994, PBS aired Ken Burns’s nine-part documentary, Baseball. Viewed by 43 million people, it was the most widely watched series in public television history. Burns (along with co-director Lynn Novick) has just hit another home-run with The Tenth Inning — a four hour, two-part PBS follow-up that covers baseball from the ’90s to the present. Like all of Burns’s films, The Tenth Inning is not only informative and entertaining, but it is engrossing, as it’s built upon compelling human stories — the triumphs, the tragedies — along with some of the greatest bite-your-nails, come-from-behind cliff-hangers you will ever see. Buzzine is proud to have exciting major league rookie Logan Morrison of the Florida Marlins conduct the interview with Ken Burns:

Logan Morrison: I’ve been enjoying the previews with my dad, and he’s been ranting and raving about your earlier documentary, Baseball — I was born in 1987 — still pretty young when that came out…

Ken Burns: That original 1994 series was nine episodes, or nine innings as we call them — 18.5 hours — and it was the attempt to tell the whole history of baseball from its beginnings in the early 19th century to where we left off, which was the World Series in 1992. I think it was interesting that, when our film first came out in 1994, the strike was on so it felt, to many people, like a whole new ball game. But if you watched the previous “Nine Innings,” you would see all the seeds of what happened, not just with free agency, but the fact that the owners and the players were always at each other’s throats, and every time there was a new agreement to be negotiated, there was a work stoppage or a lockout or a strike of some sort. I think it armed people with the sense of what had gone on, as well as celebrated the spectacular players and plays over that century and a half. We just felt compelled to do this again because, besides the strike, there are steroids, and the many great things that have been going on in the game. The changes of inter-league play, the wild card and the Brewers changing leagues, which had never happened in the history of the game, and all sorts of great things, like the Braves and the trio of pitchers that they had, Joe Torre taming the Bronx zoo, the rise of Latin players and the home-run chase of McGwire and Sosa, and then later, in the second half of our two-part, four-hour series, the story of Latin players, 9/11, the Red Sox comeback — all of the spectacular plays before the steroid scandal really hit the front pages. I think we found a way to deal with that so we can all feel comfortably that it’s in the past. It’s so interesting because I’ve traveled around the parks, and everyone seems really invested in the newer, younger players, if that by loving them and caring for them the game goes on, and that’s a wonderful thing. One of the commentators said that forest fires are good for the forest.

LM: I have to agree with that because I think I would be one of the forest fires…

KB: Exactly — someone who reminds us of the beauty of the play and all that goes on. And I think, despite the fact that a lot of fans wring their hands and “What do we do? Should there be an asterisk?” There shouldn’t be an asterisk. If you go back and look at 1919, it says that the Cincinnati Red Stockings won the series. It doesn’t say “*The Chicago White Sox, forever now known as the Black Sox, threw the series after taking money from gamblers.” We just have to tell stories about it. I think the gambling scandal of the late 1800s and early 1900s is much more important than the steroid scandal of today. It’s just hard for people to believe it when you’re in it or it just passed.

LM: That makes a lot of sense. You mention the strike in ’94 when the first series aired. Did that influence you at all in choosing to do a sequel?

KB: Very much so. I think that, at that point, we were moving on to other things. The film was hugely successful, seen by 43 million people, which is still the most-watched program in the history of public television. That’s 16 years ago. So we said no and we had other things to do. But I live in New England, and when the Red Sox won in 2004, I went “Hmm…” but it wasn’t until the steroids scandal hit that I realized we had to go back and do an update and come to terms with it, and also celebrate the game because it’s still ongoing, it’s still the greatest game that’s ever been invented, and I don’t think people realize that. And I don’t think they realize that the strike had unintended positive consequences. That is, people were so upset, the fans felt so betrayed that I think the owners and the Players Association said, “We can’t do this anymore. We can’t play with the faith of tens of millions of people. We have to get our act together.” Since then, there has been labor peace. Every time they’ve had to negotiate stuff, they’ve negotiated it. They’ve been focused on what has been a spectacularly profitable and popular sport, so in a funny kind of way, the strike happened and only good things have come from it.

LM: It’s odd you should mention that, because we have the Players Association come in and speak with us on a fairly regular basis. And now that they’re going into the next round of collective bargaining, they’re talking about this quite a bit, saying there has been labor peace for 16 years now. And as much as that’s a good thing, another sort of negative is that there has always been a passing of the torch, as they call it, where the older players taught the younger players about the importance of the union, collective bargaining, etc. The one thing they’ve increased is the frequency of our meetings. There’s not a single player on our team who played in the major league in 1994-1995. There isn’t that senior… We have veterans, but we don’t have a senior person who can share the war stories from 1995 who can say, “Hey guys, this is why we need to vote and be involved…”

KB: That’s interesting. I hadn’t really thought of it from that angle because, you remember in 1994, Tony Guinn was approaching .400 and didn’t hesitate to strike. He said, “I stand on the shoulders of other great people.” When there’s no crisis, you don’t have the urgency to learn the importance of the player’s stance. Another thing: the owners and the players were so anxious to get along when they were wooing the fans back after the strike that they also didn’t pay attention to the growing scandal of performance-enhancing drugs. No one wanted to call off the good time. All the home-runs were sailing out. Even when a couple of people in the press brought it up, they were vilified, not just by baseball and the players but by their own fellow press members. The fans certainly didn’t want that to end. So I think you’re right. Maybe one of the things for the players to do is to look at the ninth episode of our series, the last one, because it tells about the foundation of the union, it tells about how Marvin Miller had worked his magic early on and how beneficial it has been to baseball. Everybody kept saying how bad it was and players wouldn’t be loyal to their teams, but I think they had forgotten the plantation system under which the players had already operated. For a century and a half, if you didn’t want to play for that owner, you didn’t play. No fan comes out to see the owner — they come out to see the players. I think it gave the players the power, and even then, their total share of revenue is less now than it was a few years ago, and obviously it was significantly less before free agency. What has happened with free agency is it has made the game better and more profitable for everybody.

LM: Yeah, and obviously I was called up on July 27th, so you’re probably more versed than I am, which is funny, but it’s very true. I’ve listened very closely in these meetings because I think unionized labor is something that has many benefits that protect our rights, and if you don’t know what they are and you aren’t involved in the process, it’s difficult to go about your life, especially in this game that can be taken from you at a moment’s notice…

KB: It’s interesting that labor has been sort of, particularly among conservatives, in disfavor, but conservative George Will, who appeared not only in this current edition but in the previous edition, said he was a semi-Marxist, which was very surprising to hear from a conservative commentator because he believed in the labor theory of capital, saying that those who do the work ought to reap the best rewards and that runs counter to what goes on in the rest of the country, which is often anti-union. But I think we begin to see — when it’s highlighted in something that is important to the rest of America like baseball — how important it is to have those rights protected, to have collective bargaining, to speak with one voice. Now it hasn’t always been perfect. You could argue that the Players Association was very slow to agree to testing and allowed the steroids issue to get out of hand when major league was trying to instill some testing program that had some teeth. The original one didn’t, and if you wanted to cheat, you could cheat. Now that it has the best, it represents the fact that the union, however slow, got up and got in gear, and everything is in sync and in harmony and is able to at least provide the public with some reassurances that the steroid era is over — that the 50 home-run season is a rarity again.

LM: There’s only one this year…

KB: There’s only one, and I don’t think anyone else is going to be doing it. It’s interesting to see that even Bautista is getting all those comments, and he has to come back and said, “Look, we’re being tested all the time. This is something that does occur in baseball.” It was 1977 with George Foster I think it was and then 1990 it was Cecil Fielder, and then all of a sudden it seemed like everybody, a middle infielder…I could hit 50 home-runs.

LM: Well, that’s my hope. I’m a bigger guy. I’m still growing into my power. I think Bautista went from 13 last year.

KB: I think he had a total of 50 his entire career and now he’s got 50 in one season. That’s always the great promise of baseball. Once you get past the steroids era, nobody has to question or doubt about it and it becomes legitimate the way it used to be when I was growing up as a kid in the late ‘50s and ‘60s and ‘70s. When somebody hit 50 home-runs, you said they did it because they’re talented. They saw the ball better than anybody else.

LM: It’s funny because somebody mentioned it to me the other day — they always focus on how many fewer home-runs the guys are hitting overall. I can’t remember who said it, but he was noticing how many more pitchers’ ERAs are below 3 and then 3-4. I guess, in that era, ERAs overall were elevated. Now you see a lot more pitchers with guys below 3 which was so uncommon, and now really lots of pitchers flood in at 3-4.

KB: I’ve been traveling on the road to most of the ballparks and throwing out the first pitch and going on the local radio and the local TV, and everywhere you go, people want to know what the golden age is. I think it’s now. You’ve got the strong hitting, but you’ve also got strong pitching, you’ve got extraordinary fielding… No one ever tires of watching a highlight film of spectacular catches or plays. It’s as great as I’ve ever seen it, and I’ve seen a lot of games this year.

LM: Well, you made some pretty spectacular catches yourself. I saw one on YouTube.

KB: I’ve been trying to clear the record ever since last Tuesday night. That was at Fenway Park. So I’m sitting there up in a suite and finally got a moment to look at the thing. I’ve just been on with the TV folks and the radio folks, and I’m up there with a glove that I always bring to the park, and I’m holding in my glove that I threw out. I’m not paying attention, talking to some people, and this ball comes screaming right by my head. If it had hit me, I’d be dead. It dented the chair, and nobody got it, so a guy a couple suites down starts yelling, “Hey, why didn’t you use your glove?” And I just instinctively stood up and showed him the ball so, at that moment, the TV cut and said, “Burns made a spectacular catch.” It was really screaming. It really put a dent in this chair.

LM: We do the same thing when we trap a ball — just throw your glove up in the air and pretend you caught it.

KB: Yeah, so I figured I’d go along with it, but it’s not like Derek Jeter faking getting hit where you just wink wink in the clubhouse after. You just have to man up and say I didn’t catch it — that was the ball I’d thrown out a couple hours earlier.

LM: Creative editing.

KB: Yeah, creative editing on the part of the sports network in New England, and then of course they talk about it, so I spent most of the last week politely telling people what really happened. But I have to say, for a filmmaker, I’ve been making films for 40 years, and I love baseball, and you know better than I do that every male in America thinks he can play the game you play that only 1,000 people on the planet play well enough, and the difference between the best of them and the least of them in batting average is so spectacular that I have thrown out a ceremonial first pitch and really zinged it a few times and gotten it in so much so that the catcher has come out, shook his head and said, “That’s the best catch I’ve had in two years.” And at that point, when Joe Torre comes out of the Dodger dugout clapping, or the lead in the Denver Post is: “For the first three innings of yesterday’s game, the best pitch thrown by somebody in a Colorado Rockies uniform was thrown by Ken Burns,” you feel pretty damn good about it all. You could come up and tell me I’m the worst filmmaker ever and I would say, “So what? I just threw out a first pitch that was a strike at Force Field…”

LM: Where did your great passion for baseball come from?

KB: All my life I’ve loved it. You know those earliest memories you have from three or four years old — those little film strips in your head? Mine always have a glove on my left hand. I’ve always loved the game and I’ve always followed it. When I started working on the original Baseball series in 1990 after my Civil War series, I thought, “Oh, this is the first time I’m doing something I know about.” And within the first two days, I realized I knew nothing, and despite all the statistics I knew and the players, to get into the history and understand how it was born and where the stadiums came from and who the great players of the 19th century were and how the game was invented — all of that was a delight to learn, so it just reinforced it.

LM: I’ve traveled around America a bit this season, and all the passionate fans at different ballparks are very cool. Some of these places you go to — Philly, San Francisco — the fans did some really funny stuff, but I couldn’t laugh because it was my first series in the big league. But speaking of passionate fans around the country—how would you describe baseball significance to America and, for that matter, the world?

KB: It’s a huge thing. We open this with these kids playing in bare feet in rocky back alleys in the Dominican Republic. They hear the sounds of baseball and they want to follow it up to the majors. It’s become a globalized sport. When you travel around the country, you see how passionately devoted… I think, in some ways, we’ve got to do a good job of public relations. For the last 30 or 40 years, Pete Rosell at the NFL was able to convince people that now football is the national pastime, and he was basing that on one rating of the Super Bowl. But this is the only game that accompanies nearly every decade of our national narrative. We don’t need to go over all the reasons baseball is distinct and better, but all of the other sports we follow — soccer and hockey and basketball and football — they’re all running up and down a field or a court or a rink, and the idea is to score the puck. Well, in baseball, the person scores. In baseball, the defense always has the ball. In baseball, there is no clock. In baseball, every field is irregular. If I told you we were going to play football on my field that was 95 yards, it wouldn’t be football anymore. But every single outfield is different. And the greatest thing is it happens every single day. It begins in spring and ends in fall, like life. And its lessons are life lessons. You fail seven times out of ten, you’re a .300 hitter. You do that for 15, 20 years in a row, you’re in the Hall of Fame. There’s no other sport in the world that would accept that statistical failure. More important than anything, Joe Montana can always throw the pass to Jerry Rice, every play, and you can always inbound that ball to Michael Jordan to hit that three pointer at the buzzer. But in baseball, Babe Ruth only comes up to bat once every nine times, and that means someday you might have to rely on some young kid who just got called up in July to win the game and maybe the season for you. That’s the beauty of it and why I love it so much.

LM: We’ve noticed it in our clubhouse. There’s a guy every night. If you just relied on him being up every night, you’d win more games than you lose. Every night there is someone — you get a great pitching performance or a great catch or a big hit at a timely situation from a guy you’d never guess.

KB: The ball gets hit in every direction. It’s all on one person at one time. The pitcher has to make the pitch, the batter has to hit the ball, the fielder has to field it. It just goes from one singular experience to the next, not to say that everyone else isn’t in motion and calculating and figuring out how to get the cutoff guy or whatever it is, but it’s just a beautiful singular sport in this way, and no other sport is like that.

LM: Barry Bonds seems to be a central character in your film. Given my age, what he was doing through the late ‘90s and this new century, he was someone I followed closely. Because of what has happened with steroids, do you see his story mirroring the larger picture of what was happening in baseball?

KB: I think you hit the nail on the head. In some ways, that is quite unfortunate. While we were working on this project, when you were talking to baseball folks, they would tell you that Barry Bonds was the greatest player that ever played the game, period, and certainly the best player of the last 25 years, but he will forever have this ball-and-chain cloud of steroids hanging over him and his records for not only the rest of his life but the rest of baseball, because in baseball, those statistics matter and last, and we will all be telling stories about him and others the way we tell stories about the Black Sox scandal. And it will be a terrible thing because, in some ways, it is like a Greek tragedy because he didn’t need to do this. He was already the best when he was so frustrated when his 400 home-runs and 400 stolen bases hadn’t been a thing, and it was buried in the sports pages when McGwire and Sosa were on the front pages. He knew what they were up to, so he decided to join it, so when he did it, his results were so spectacular or lurid that he became the poster boy for that, and that with his personality… Everyone loved to hate Barry Bonds, and it was so unfair, just as it is for the arrogant Roger Clemens, who won’t come clean and say what is going on. Those players, like Jason Giambi, who said, “Hey, we made a mistake…” they have been forgiven and the game has gone on. And while sports writers, when it comes time for the Hall of Fame, won’t forget that, they’ll also be appreciative of the contrition and redemption that is possible through asking for forgiveness. It’s sad. If you look at the Mitchell Report, they are saying that not just hundreds but perhaps thousands were taking during the steroids era. It’s just sad that we now, in our own minds, have two villains. It used to be just Barry Bonds now joined by Roger Clemens, with lesser ones like Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, and the Typhoid Mary of them all, Jose Conseco.

LM: It’s kind of like the best hitter and best pitcher, from what I’ll call my era growing up, were “using steroids”…which is kind of weird because Roger Clemens was arguably the best pitcher in baseball.

KB: No question about it, and he didn’t have to take any either. He had two 20 strikeout games ten years apart. It’s a sad, sad thing, and you’ll never know. It’ll be impossible to point to even the favorite players of the year and know 100% for sure, because it’s impossible to prove a negative, that someone wasn’t taking. That casts a shadow, but as I said, the thrill of all these new players are coming up on your team…think about Buster Posey at the Giants, think about my team, the Red Sox, have been decimated by injury, are even six games out. It’s a tribute to their manager and their talent, but they’ve got a roster that’s mostly of guys who started the year in AAA.

LM: The Tenth Inning features some great cliff-hangers. If you had to choose the absolute best game, from the period of ’94 on, what would it be?

KB: I guess for me it would have to be the 4th game in the American League Series where the Yankees had the Red Sox down 3 to nothing, but I am betraying my bias. It is the beginning of the greatest comeback in history in the sport we love, so in some ways, I can hide behind that, and many experts in the film who were unbiased, and my co-director and co-producer and co-writer on this [Lynn Novick] is a Yankee fan. She’s as proud of the Red Sox scenes as I am of the Yankee scenes. But I think that moment when Milar drew a walk in the bottom of the 9th and Roberts ran for him and stole a base on the first pitch, and Bill Miller knocked him in to tie the game, and then Big Poppy ended it with a walk off.

LM: Do you have it written down in front of you?

KB: No, I have it written down in my hard drive. I live that.

LM:How do you survive all day wearing those tight baseball clothes?

KB:I have been wearing tight clothes for sports since a long time especially since prvioiusly I used to go biking a lot.That required me to wear some of the best cycling shorts I could find as not to feel pain when sitting for so long but that is irrelevant.The baseball clothes are pretty comfortable actually except when I sweat then it sucks.

LM: That is understandable.I get sit here in a suit and tie in the A.C. all the day.Moving on.If you asked what happened in the 9th inning of our game last night, I wouldn’t be able to recite it that clearly.

KB: But this is iconic, and I’ve also edited it. But you’d also have to say the 2001 World Series is just as spectacular, with the 7th game. Because of 9/11, the whole country was rooting for the Yankees, but those pesky Diamondbacks came back in the bottom of the 9th when they had mispositioned Jeter and Rivera was going to saw off a left-handed hitter like Gonzalez and he just gets a little bloop, single over the head, and because Jeter is playing in, they score.

LM: Was that the year Gonzalez hit a bunch of home-runs?

KB: Yeah, 57 I think. But none more important than that bloop single.

LM: Should we expect an 11th inning?

KB: God willing.

Daniel Boone Remastered

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Before Little House on the Prairie and Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman came a popular western called Daniel Boone. The 1964-1970 series starred Fess Parker as legendary frontier hero Daniel Boone. Set just before and during the Revolutionary War, we follow Daniel as he takes his family on adventures and expeditions as they run into both friendly and hostile Indians.

Based on real-life pioneer, Boone (1734-1820) was a hunter and militia officer whose frontier exploits made him one of the first American folk heroes, most famous for blazing the wilderness trail and his exploration with his top tactical backpacks and settlement of Kentucky. With a commitment to social consciousness, each episode had a theme which frequently was inspired by real-life historical figures and events.

Watching Daniel Boone now is a fascinating journey mixed with nostalgia of a simpler time both the show portrayed as well as aired. This was family programming at its finest, spawning similar ilk in the ’70s like The Waltons and Grizzly Adams. The show wasn’t targeting one specific demographic, rather all of them.

Fess Parker, who made a splash in the classic Old Yeller years earlier, quickly became synonomous with his alter ego, going on to star in the short-lived Fess Parker Show in 1974 before portraying a similar character with Davy Crockett the Disney series. What makes Daniel Boone so special is Parker’s everyman appeal — a poor man’s Gregory Peck for the TV airwaves.

Also starring Patricia Blair as his wife Rebecca; Darby Hinton as their son Israel; Dal McKennon as Cincinnatus, a proprietor of the trading post and tavern; future sausage king Jimmy Dean; as well as former NFL defense lineman “Rosey” Grier as Gabe Cooper, a slave who escaped captivity to live with the Indians — yes, well before a world of political correctness. This was a time that somehow also gave us a sitcom set against Nazi Germany with Hogan’s Heroes.

All 26 episodes of Daniel Boone are perfectly digitally restored and remastered, featuring a guest cast that includes Jodie Foster, Kurt Russell, Cesar Romero, and even Star Trek‘s, “Scotty,” James Doohan. Priced around 40 bucks, this DVD collection makes an excellent addition to any library…

If nothing else, it’ll make you long for the memorable theme songs. You just don’t get ‘em like this any more: “Daniel Boone was a man, yes a big man! WIth an eye like an eagle and tall as a mountain was he!”

Fantasy Miniseries Gives Arthurian Legends Wry Wit & Modern Flair

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(NBC) The cast list at the beginning of Merlin should be reason enough to watch it: Sam Neill, Miranda Richardson, Helena Bonham Carter, Isabella Rossellini, John Gielgud, Rutger Hauer, Martin Short, James Earl Jones. If you need more convincing, there’s the mad visual style, the slyly clever writing, and the fact that this 1998 miniseries is one of the few TV shows to use the word “blatherskite.”

This show tells a version of the Arthurian legends that focus on the wizard Merlin (Sam Neill) and his struggle to find his place between two realms – the human and the Fae. Created by Queen Mab (Miranda Richardson) to draw the newly Christian world back to the Old Ways, Merlin rebels and vows never to use his magic in service to her.

You see in their world their weapons were magic wands and not the weapons of our past like the best tomahawks or the high tech guns that we have available today.

His vow leads him to support Uther Pendragon (Mark Jax) against the tyrant Vortigern (Rutger Hauer). Vortigern is a prideful and cruel, yet Hauer plays him for laughs as much as anything; when a stone tower he has commissioned collapses in a chaos of dust and rubble, Vortigern twitches his lip, turns to the architect, and says, “Tell me roughly what happened.”

This is the lesson the show takes to heart – that drama doesn’t have to be ultra-serious to be effective. A tale of magical beings can be quirky and strange, with a wry wit like the mercurial faeries themselves. The oddness and humor don’t diminish the emotional power of the story. In fact, the dreamlike atmosphere matches the tone of the legends, seeming grand and soap-operatic at the same time.

At their core, the Arthurian legends are about human aspirations and failings – forbidden love and the ways in which lust, greed, and fear destroy our dreams of peace and justice. They are tragedies of doomed men and women who lose track of the noble path when they allow jealousy and deceit to rule them. The true story is in the details; when the characters in Merlin halt their horses to allow a snail the right-of-way, it’s both hilarious and fitting.

In tone and style, Merlin has much in common with Baz Lurhmann’s Moulin Rouge! Its frenetic visuals are like fancy scrollwork framing a portrait of love and loss older than the hills. Neill’s screen presence is – as always – magnetic; he and the rest of the cast give the sparkling dialogue a lovely, surreal life. As Merlin says, “It was like a dream – a dream of a dream. The skies parted, and I saw the dream come alive before my eyes. But, then, one day they’ll describe me, Arthur, Guinevere, and Camelot as a dream.”

Stories like this, told with care and attention to detail are rare in the fantasy genre. Too often, they’re all spectacle and no substance. That’s why Merlin – with all its weirdness – is a breath of fresh air. It tells an ancient tale with modern flair and unexpected levity. If you’re a fan of the recent BBC series Merlin – or of fantasy television in general – check out this smart, exciting predecessor.

Homeland Season Finale Paves Way for a Thrilling Second Season

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(Showtime) From the producers of 24 comes Homeland — TV’s smash new hit that delves into the trauma and politics of a post-9/11 world. With impeccable writing, artfully nuanced characters, and a plot that has audiences at the edge of their seats each week, the show is only picking up steam. Sunday, December 19th marked the 90-minute season finale, leaving viewers wondering, “What’s next?”

Homeland is based on the Israeli series Hatufim (Prisoners of War) and developed by Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa for Showtime. It centers on key characters in the Central Intelligence Agency and the imminent threats they face every day. Sharp and belligerent Agent Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) receives intelligence that an American soldier has been turned against the United States. When missing marine Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) is rescued after eight years in Iraqi custody, Carrie believes she’s found her man. As she investigates Sgt. Brody, she not only develops an unhealthy connection with the enigmatic war hero but also begins to unravel a huge terrorist plot.

Carrie has only her doggedly supportive mentor, Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin), on her side. Thwarted at every corner by her boss, CIA Counterintelligence director David Estes (David Harewood), Carrie blackmails diplomats, sets up illegal surveillance operations, and even gets herself in the midst of a suicide bomber in her single-minded search to uncover the truth.She has access to all the latest tactical gear to setup all her schemes,including access to the best best military watch in the business.

Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t seen the first season, catch up ALL on those episodes before further reading. Please!

So far this season, the team has uncovered the revelation that Abu Nazir turned both Sgt. Brody and his partner Tom Walker against the U.S. government while in prolonged captivity. Walker stalked the streets of D.C. with a sniper rifle, while Brody had a hefty bomb vest hidden on a shelf in his closet. Carrie had finally put the pattern together, convinced that a gap in Abu Nazir’s terrorist activities was directly related to and the key behind a pending attack. Though Homeland Security was on the hunt for Walker, Brody had been welcomed into the inner circles of political power with open arms (and dreams of electorial glory). He alone had access to the Vice President and half of the top members of the cabinet, but in the season finale, detonating the bomb strapped to his chest proved easier said than done for Sgt Brody thanks to a timely intervention from his teenage daughter.

The finale didn’t go for the cheap shot and blow up a bunch of characters we love. In fact, the tension built so steadily that I found myself yelling at the TV as the episode drew to a close. Brody’s sheer panic was a nightmare to sit through, and Carrie’s defeatist attitude was the most heart-wrenching of all. Thankfully, the showrunners gave us enough answers to keep us happy, while leaving plenty of room for a similarly compelling Season 2: Brody remains alive and nestled deep in the bosom of American politics. Though most of his family and peers are oblivious to the change in him, Brody’s daughter Dana posses knowledge which poses a very interesting threat for that next season. Saul has only begun to realize the scope of his government’s involvement with Al-Quada, but his revealation of classified information to Carrie at her bedside opens another delicious dynamic for the next set of episodes.

Claire Danes’s emotional range as the unpredictable Carrie Mathison has been astounding to watch. Even after an extensive resume of phenomenal roles, Danes has yet to try something so gritty, though her recent award-winning turn as Temple Grandin on HBO certainly pointed the way to these new depths of nuance. Her raw vulnerability is palpable as Carrie jumps from heightened mania to staggering depression. Bipolar Disorder is often misunderstood, but on Homeland, the writers have handled it honestly: Though her mood swings are debilitating, Carrie’s unique mental processes have meant that she is truly the only one close to the truth. Homeland’s season finale was painful to watch mostly because she begins to believe that she is, in fact, crazy.

Watching Brody navigate through elections is a brilliant route to take the next season. Having Carrie recovering from brain-altering treatment is no less compelling. The hanging questions will cost me some sleep between now and then:
Will Carrie remember that she has a clue to catch Brody (and will “Issa!” become the new “Rosebud”)? How can she get her job back at the CIA? (I found myself yelling, again, at the TV that Saul should have just blackmailed Estes to get her reinstated at Langley, but that’s another story). Will Brody actually be able to rechannel a terrorist’s desire for violent revenge into genuine political action for good?

Thank you Showtime: It’s been both an unmitigated pleasure to watch a brand new show this well acted and delivered, and a massive relief to find a new show that is so well writen and worthy of the attention. And now, with Golden Globe noms for Danes, Lewis and the show itself already in the bag, Homeland is well on its way to being a sure hit and a fixture on my DVR for years to come.

HBO’s New Fantasy Series with Beards, Swords, Wolves, and Boobies

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(HBO) Holy gravitas, Batman. Ya know crap’s real when everyone around’s got beards. Or beards and swords. Or beards, swords, and wolves.Or beards, swords,wolves, and only the best tactical knives. Such is the way of HBO’s new series, Game of Thrones, based on George R.R. Martin’s series of fantasy novels that join a proud lineage of fantasy storytelling by authors with abbreviated names. J.R. Tolkien. C.S. Lewis. R.L. Stine.

 Have I read these thick beasts of books? You’re kidding, right? But honestly, why trouble oneself with a novel (they’re so big!) when you know HBO’s gonna drop a series on you? I used to close my eyes and cover my ears in History class because I didn’t want Band of Brothers to be spoiled. That’s not true. But HBO has done a dang good job of branding themselves so that almost any show they choose to produce will garner viewership, critical praise, and one thing important above all else that is rarely afforded the broadcast networks. Bare boobies?! No, but we’ll get to that. I’m talking about patience.

 After three episodes, I’m still relatively challenged to write a cogent article about Game of Thrones because I can’t, in full detail, relay what’s going on, but I can tell you I’m going to keep watching. The show delivers itself with such utter confidence and importance (without crossing over into the kryptonite of entertainment: pretension) that I’ve become convinced that something’s actually at stake if I don’t keep rolling in this world. This is important illusion, unlike when things are actually at stake, like say when Lost used to be on. (Sorry, had to remain faithful.)

 But HBO has created a brand that’s like Pixar for adults if Pixar wasn’t also for adults. It says quality. Depth. Something different. Tits. There was some hubbub after the Thrones premier that it was sexist as H. Agree and disagree. The world of the show is one that marginalizes women in the sense that men hold the seats and positions of power but the women are all behind them, and their roles are powerful, layered, and of import to the plot. But what is also true is that HBO was keen to the fact that they weren’t launching The SopranosBoardwalk Empire, or even Treme with this one. It’s an otherworldly old-school show that doesn’t present something instantly relatable or present to the audience. How to keep them around? The simple answer — and I say this in a blase, jokey tone because I mean to poke fun at it — was boobs.

 The first episode even went full frontal. But I’m going to be sexist if I just dwell on that. The thing about waiting until three episodes in to do my scribble of thoughts on the Thrones topic was not just for lack of time or laziness, but to give the show time to see if it was all bluster or if it could back up its presentation. So far it is. The show is about a bunch of kingdoms spread out across a world that’s a little Middle Earth with less magic. Political intrigue and sordid histories rule the day. There are obvious bad guys and obvious good guys, but they’re all layered, with chinks in the armor or secrets in the past to keep them compelling. The feel and layout is like watching Risk live, although the entire seven-year run of the series might end up being shorter than a game of that.

 The primary focus, of this season at least, seems as if it will be between the Stark family and the Lannister families. The Lanisters come from a prettier, fairer, weather kingdom; the Starks rule up North. But when the king keels over in Lanister land, they beckon Ned Stark (a compelling Sean Bean) to come and consult…at his own peril. For, see, the Lanisters are blonde, incestual, and evil. Except for their dwarf brother (Peter Dinklage, absolutely killing it as a charming but cunning whore monger — maybe doing the best work of his career). But since he’s short, he doesn’t get much respect. He’s naturally drawn to Ned’s “bastard” son — a boy he had with a woman not his queen while off in the field of battle some 20 years ago. The “bastard” now is on his own quest for respect and is guarding a giant wall at the North of the world, beyond which lies uncivilized people and maybe something else — something that moves and kills like the undead. It’s cold there, and seasons are tres importante in the show. In this world, they can last for decades, and as the Starks keep saying, “winter is coming.”

 So I have keep watching at least until that happens, right? Another developing piece of the puzzle concerns Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen, a beautiful young princess forced to wed the king of a kingdom of brutish warriors, who’s learning the power of her womanhood. Again, boobs — but what makes Thrones interesting and not sexist (I think) is how it dramatizes it. I dare any man in the audience not to admit that they haven’t let their guard down to beauty, and then not to admit that beauty is nothing without cunning. So much love for the ladies out there.

 So basically, Daenerys is a character we really like and sympathize with (her brother’s a prick who kind of forced this whole thing), but it turns out Ned’s very good friend and King of all the kingdoms (so far as I can tell), and a good bloke we like too, wants her dead because, a long time ago, the Targaryens murdered his wife, who also happened to be Ned’s sister. The show pulls a lot of interest from the viewer and heft in the drama department, but not so much pitting the good guys vs. the bad guys but the good guys vs. themselves, as the bad guys continue their maneuvering.  So as a viewer, you end up pulled into a lot of different directions. The show does make you watch – there’s a lot to follow — and as a writer, I must confess that it’s doubly hard to talk about as it’s even harder to spell the stuff you’re watching…but it is involving, the characters are well-drawn, and their motivations, unlike their names or locations, are never confusing.

 One of my roommates was astute in noting that oftentimes in almost any entertainment, you’re left wondering: Why would they do that? Why does the girl run up the stairs instead of out the door in the horror movie? Why isn’t the guy in the romantic comedy admit he’s taking calls from his young children to the woman he’s trying to swoon so she doesn’t think he’s just having an affair? But we always forgive, due to the basic conceit of “well, it’s a movie.” So far, no one’s done anything in Thrones that isn’t exactly what you’d figure they’d do. My roommate who noted this also happens to be a girl, so out with the sexism again. Unless she tricked me with her beauty! Oh wait, no, I was just distracted by the brothel scene on screen and forgot what was happening. Nevermind, it’s me; I’m dumb.

 So the show does have a lot going on. It’s not an “easy” watch in the sense that Two and a Half Men is, but it also is an easy watch in the sense that Two and a Half Menisn’t because it doesn’t suck. In fact, three episodes in, I’m darn close to leaning to say this show rules. I’m not exactly the Dungeons and Dragons kind of dude — I geek out on other nerd brands like Star Wars, but the gravity, reality, depth, and mystery of Thrones is going to have me remaining a faithful viewer, surely into season two, which has already been inked to happen.

 HBO is truly bringing it with this and Boardwalk – two series it’ll comfortably have in its wheelhouse for years to come. And maybe the biggest victory of Thrones so far is that only three episodes in, I found myself watching a scene with the Stark’s youngest girl learning how to swordfight and thinking, “Man, I wonder how she’s going to grow up and save the day in six years.” Apparently I’m already committed. And fancy that it was because a female lead was in a scene learning how to have power and hold her own, and not because a chick extra was running around with her shirt off.

 Classy. And even with those other scenes, that’s nothing if not what HBO is going for with Thrones. In a couple of years, there’s probably going to be two kinds of people: people that watch Game of Thrones and people that watch The Tonight Show with Jay Leno while picking their noses. Ah yes, but who will rule the Earth? And can I still watch Thrones if I pick my nose? Time will tell as the seasons change…

Vince Gilligan’s Character-Driven AMC Drama Is a Must-Devour

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(AMC) Breaking Bad started in 2008 with a still-belted pair of pants falling from the sky, perfectly inflated at times as if being worn by an invisible man plummeting headfirst to his death.

 The pants belonged to unassuming high school chemistry teacher Walter White (Bryan Cranston) who, under normal circumstances, lives a rather mundane existence that only makes him feel invisible.  Walter’s days of normal circumstances, it turns out, were over.  He’d been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and wanted to make sure he left behind a lifetime worth of money for his wife and son and unborn daughter, so in addition to teaching his current students, he had started cooking crystal meth with former student-turned-drug-dealer Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) with a plan to sell large quantities of it as quickly as possible.

 It was a story about a good person making a bad choice for a good reason, but we didn’t know any of that yet.  All we knew were those pants, floating comically until they hit the ground, and we were introduced to our hero; Walter White was behind the wheel of an RV speeding frantically through the New Mexico desert, wearing nothing but his tightie-whities and a gas mask, with Jesse slumped down unconscious in the passenger seat and two meth dealers sliding around lifelessly on their faces in the back.

 If you’ve been known to enjoy a good television crime drama, chances are one episode of Breaking Bad is enough to get you hooked.  Another forty-five episodes later, it’s safe to call it one of the best shows of all time. Sure, there are other shows that have a supremely talented cast and other shows that are expertly written. There are other shows that are shot with such style and care, it looks like a movie.  Breaking Bad seems to be one of the only shows to have all three of those things going all at once and in perfect harmony.

 The most rewarding side effect is the show’s ability to manufacture genuine suspense.  It takes their characters and paints them into corners — dark, dangerous, scary corners — and what happens next is what you become addicted to. Breaking Bad goes so big so often, you really have no way of knowing what’s going to happen next, and anything you can think of is possible.

 That brings me right to where the true genius of the show lies: you kind of break bad a little bit just by watching it. I found myself thinking about it regularly between episodes, developing theories on how recent events could play out (I never do this), and…some of the scenarios I cooked up were more twisted than anything I was capable of prior to watching the show. It has left a mark.

 Forty-six episodes in, and most Breaking Bad fans will say there’s only been one clunker (and even “that one” was entertaining in its own way).  All will agree that somehow, impossibly, it keeps getting better and better.

Seth McFarlane’s Sunday Night Double-Shots on DVD

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Seth MacFarlane is one twisted character. Funny too.  His two creations, Family Guy andAmerican Dad, have been airing back-to-back for several years now, with rabid followings that range from teens to older adults.

 Both animated programs are the kind of shows where you see sexual or body function quips and visual gags that make you say, “Oh, that’s so wrong.” Yet still, you keep watching. And watching some more.

 In Family Guy, that functioning dysfunctional family the Griffins and their friends seem to never run out of the unexpected, from father Peter (what does he do for a job again?) to evil, conspiring, talking baby Stewie.Father Pete and his big belly needs to workout if he wants to become anything like Stan.Why then shouldn’t he try some pull ups on the best pull up bar . The more politically themed American Dad is still centered around CIA agent father Stan, but between his grappling-with-puberty son and left-wing-to-annoy-her-right-wing-dad daughter, plus the family’s alien in the attic and talking Goldfish with the brain of a German scientist, the plots thicken, reach, stretch, then implode with all kinds of comedic results. Both shows make The Simpsons look likeFather Knows Best and Ozzie and Harriet in comparison, really.

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 The latest DVD collection of Family Guy Vol. 8 combines the end of the 7th season with the beginning of the 8th.  Why they can’t release straight seasons is a question for Fox home video marketing.   This set includes: wife Lois working Fox news; Stewie kidnapping the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation from a fan convention; Stewie on steroids after being bullied by a girl; the show’s interpretations of Stephen King books; and Peter’s past life in 17th century England.  And that’s just for starters.  There’s also talking dog Brian and Stewie’s adventures in alternate universes (shades of DC and Marvel comics), spies next door from Russia, and interviews for a new black character, with Cleveland moving on to his own spin-off show.

 In American Dad, Vol. 5, episodes from that show’s 4th season are featured.  The run starts with a telethon to help the budget-strapped CIA; Stan hyped up on pills not realizing he’s an addict, of course; fried foods are banned and Stan rebels, of course; a reunion with Stan’s convict dad; Awkward-as-ever son Steve gets in trouble at a bar mitzvah; and true secrets of whiny alien Roger are finally revealed. The season wraps up with the gay neighbors worrying about one of the pair’s football hero and straight dad coming to town, while a night out with the boys is loaded with disaster for Stan.

 Each set includes deleted scenes, extended episodes, plenty of commentary options, and it’s all uncensored, making it all even more wrong at times. And yeah, funny.

The Oldest, Quirkiest Sci-Fi Show of All Time Gets a Fresh New Face

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(BBC) We are heading into the seventh season of Doctor Who — or is it the thirty-third? It’s actually both, which makes sense for a show about time-travel. Doctor Who is the longest-running sci-fi TV show in human history…unless the Ancients had a longer one, which the Doctor would probably confirm they did. Doctor Who first aired in 1963 and continued until 1989. It was re-started (not exactly re-booted) in 2005. Those who grew up watching it need no convincing, although there may still be some uncertain souls who haven’t made the leap to the new series yet. Whatever the case, if you’ve been debating whether or not to watch the new Doctor Who, hesitate no longer; it’s every bit as good as the original, which was and is one of the best sci-fi shows of all time.

What makes Doctor Who better than classic shows likeStar TrekBlake’s 7, and Battlestar Galactica? Well, it’s not the special effects, which for decades were little more than slightly modified flashlights and creatively glued bits of cardboard. It’s not the acting, which has had its ups and downs — how could it not, over a fifty-year span? It’s not that the writing has been consistently brilliant — there were a lot of years where the plot-lines were little more than monster-of-the-week. What makes the show special is the sheer crazed energy and scope of imagination that has informed it since the beginning.

Doctor Who began as a children’s program but mutated into something more. A generation of kids watched the weekly adventures of the alien known only as “the Doctor” — who could spawn a new body when gravely injured — and his rotating cast of companions. The story began on a note of mystery, with two school teachers discovering that their student, who appeared to live in a junkyard with her elderly grandfather, was in fact from the planet Gallifrey. The old-fashioned police box (a uniquely British icon), sitting among the odds and ends, was, in fact, a disguised time-and-space-ship called the TARDIS — a living miracle of temporal engineering that looks no bigger than a phone booth on the outside, but houses near-infinite dimensions of space within.

Through the years, as its viewers grew up, Doctor Whogrew up too. It dealt with adult themes of mortality (“Earthshock”), drug addiction (“The Nightmare of Eden”), ecology (“The Green Death”), politics (“The Enemy of the World”), industrialization (any episode featuring the Cybermen), war (any episode featuring the Daleks), and genocide (“The Silurians,” “Warriors of the Deep,” “Terror of the Vervoids”). Despite the aforementioned low production values, some of the early black-and-white episodes, such as “The Keys of Marinus,” are rather beautiful to watch from a filmmaking standpoint. Through ingenuity of set design and photography, the show was able to approach the epic visual fantasy of silent-film classics like Metropolis.

However, it was the characters which kept viewers coming back. The Doctor was and is an inspiring, charismatic rogue — a natural leader who fights for justice, peace, and sanity in a chaotic universe, despite being essentially an outcast from his own race. His nemesis, the Master, is the archetype of selfishness, greed, and cruelty. The two have battled across the stars for centuries like warring gods.

At some point — probably during Season 18 — the show took a sharp turn into surrealism and has kept one foot there ever since. The way to read a Doctor Who episode is not to expect logic or consistency. The Doctor’s championing of the cause of rationality notwithstanding, his adventures are often dreamlike and occasionally absurd. The show makes minimal effort to keep its mythology credible or internally consistent, being more concerned with exploring grand vistas of imagination and abstract emotional states. Why doesn’t the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver (read: “magic wand”,“tactical pen“,whatever you want to call it) work on that particular door? It just doesn’t; accept it and move on. The beauty of the show isn’t in a realistic vision of the future; it’s that the characters can literally go anywhere and do anything.

Rather than “science-fiction,” Doctor Who should more properly be called “science-fantasy,” and frequently “science-horror”: check out recent episodes “Blink,” “The Satan Pit,” and “Midnight” for stories as unsettling as any horror film. When Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat re-started the show, they turned everything up to eleven. Geniuses that they are, they took the strangeness that had run underneath the drama for years and brought it all to the surface. Their key insight was to recognize the darkness that lurked within the Doctor himself. Why does everyone around him always die? Why does he eventually abandon his companions? Does he really have as sure a grip on things as he claims? Doesn’t he often play god to some extent? Previous writers had played with the idea of the Doctor as a somewhat mad creature — a bit unstable, a bit manic, but generally all right; the new series gives him a reason for his madness: intense loneliness due to the death of his entire species. As the Last of the Time Lords, he wanders the cosmos, desperately trying to do good, but frequently losing control of events.

The new series also takes the mythical stature that has grown around the Doctor in the last fifty years and builds it to almost Christ-like proportions within the show itself. Having become a revered cultural icon in the real world, he is now the Savior of Humanity in the fictional one. The new series regularly satirizes human failings — in particular the tendency toward totalitarianism in current global politics — so it follows that we must need saving in a bad way. Can the Doctor heal us all, as his name would imply, or is he just a little too lost and a little too jaded to pull it off? Really, what the show is asking is this: are we too lost and jaded now to believe in the Doctor and his philosophy the way we did when we were kids?

Essentially, the new Doctor Who is a beautiful and exciting deconstruction of the original series. That’s not to say that it’s all high-minded contextual games; the new series may have elevated the show to a kind of surrealist art-form, but it’s still first and foremost an adventure story about the thrill of discovery and the struggle for a better tomorrow. In the last fifty years, our situation has grown only more dire, but the Doctor still believes in us. We should believe in him.

Benedict Cumberbatch & Martin Freeman Give Holmes & Watson A Modern Twist

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(BBC) Sherlock has returned with a second series of three hour-and-a-half episodes. If you watched the first series, then you know why you should be watching this one. It’s one suspenseful game after another as the Great Detective negotiates the modern age of texting, blogging, and international terrorism. The show brims with visual style, snappy dialogue, and mind-bending sequences of deduction.

Many of us were first introduced to Benedict Cumberbatch — the name that launched a thousand Google searches — through his brilliant portrayal of Sherlock Holmes as a self-proclaimed “high-functioning sociopath.” Since the first series aired, we’ve sought him out in other shows and films as diverse as The Last Enemy; War Horse; and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. What’s remarkable then, upon returning to Sherlock, is just how unrecognizable he is. The man truly has great range, and here seems like a completely different person than in his other more reserved roles. He commands the screen with unparalleled intensity and charisma, making you like and dislike him in equal measure.

As the Guiness World Records’ “most portrayed movie character” — with 75 actors playing him in over 200 films — Cumberbatch has his work cut out for him if he’s going to create a memorable version of Holmes, but he makes it look easy. His secret may be the air of awkward vulnerability that comes naturally to him; it lends Holmes’ overblown egotism a certain humanity, as though he’s using his genius to compensate for past traumas and a frightening loneliness.

This is where Martin Freeman’s long-suffering Dr. John Watson enters the picture as Holmes’ constant companion and grudging admirer. There’s a running joke throughout the series in which people constantly assume the two are a gay couple and Watson tries to deny it. It seems like a throwaway gag until the later episodes explore the pair’s relationship and lead you to wonder if there mightn’t be some truth to the idea. Watson certainly seems to get very little other than condescension and abuse out of the time he spends with the exasperatingly self-centered Holmes, so he must have a deeper reason for staying. Even if it’s just a Platonic love between the two men, it’s still powerful enough to overshadow either of their halfhearted attempts at heterosexual relationships.

“A Scandal in Belgravia” does explore Holmes’ attraction to a ruthless woman named Irene Adler (Lara Pulver), but it’s an attraction based mostly on his respect for her intellectual skill. There’s the suggestion that Holmes may in fact still be a virgin, and that his interest in sex is precluded by his sociopathic tendencies and his dedication to the life of the mind. Sgt. Donovan’s (Vinette Robinson) early assertion that Holmes will one day get bored and turn to crime himself is developed further in “The Reichenbach Fall” when his nemesis tries to frame him as a fraud. Andrew Scott’s Jim Moriarty is a gleefully over-the-top madman who’s fascinating to watch.

Speaking of being fascinating to watch, the series features some of the most striking photography in recent memory. Each shot is beautifully composed, like a Renaissance painting or an obsessively detailed diorama. The show is shot and edited in a style that might be called frenetic or even hallucinogenic. It seems designed to put you inside the whirling, racing mind of Holmes himself – never still, never content.

“The Hounds of Baskerville” is a clever take on one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most popular Holmes novels. In it, Baskerville is updated from a fog-shrouded ancestral hall to a military base possibly conducting genetic experiments to create monsters. Russell Tovey plays the tormented heir to the Baskerville legacy, and that’s a smart bit of casting, as he’s known to fans of the BBC’s Being Human for playing George the werewolf. That reference isn’t lost on Holmes and company as they investigate tales of a gigantic hound stalking the moors around Baskerville.

Special mention should be made of Mark Gatiss, known to comedy nerds as a member of The League of Gentlemen and to sci-fi nerds as a writer and performer in the new Doctor Who. His portrayal of Holmes’ uptight brother Mycroft is a joy to watch, and the interplay between the bickering brothers is frequently laugh-out-loud funny. Gatiss and Steven Moffat – head writer and executive producer for Doctor Who, and screenwriter for The Adventures of Tintin – have created a contemporary version of Holmes that’s nearly as brilliant as the man himself. It nails the ways in which Doyle’s iconic character would respond to modern technology designed to bring us all together without losing the essential misanthropy that keeps Holmes forever separated from his fellow human beings. Sherlock has already won multiple awards and been renewed for a third series, so there’s much more tension-filled fun in store for us. And when the shouting’s over and the last mystery is solved, we’ll still have a Holmes that will stand the test of time for years to come.