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Monthly Archives: April 2016

nussbaum

Emily Nussbaum with Breaking Bad’s Vince Gilligan

Congratulations to The New Yorker’s television critic Emily Nussbaum, who last week won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism.  Bravo.  Well-deserved.

Nussbaum’s award came one year after Mary McNamara, the TV critic for The Los Angeles Times, took home the same prize, leading some to express pride that TV criticism (especially by women) has finally come into its own as a respected genre.

Actually, a look at the list of Pulitzer-winning critics over the last 45 years suggests that chance, rather than newfound respect, was responsible for two TV critics winning back-to-back awards, given that the committee clearly spreads the wealth around among many types of criticism (music, book, architecture, film – even car design). TV was bound to come up eventually.

And yet I think it’s fair to say that TV criticism has never been better.  Not only are there more critics performing at a higher level, but they’re producing so much good criticism that it’s hard to keep up.  There are excellent TV critics at most major newspaper, in most opinion magazines, and across a broad array of online platforms ranging from Slate to Vulture to the Huffington Post to MediaPost.

Of course there were great TV critics in the past.  I’m thinking particularly about The Washington Post’s Tom Shales, the last TV critics before McNamara to win a Pulitzer. He won back in 1988. when I happened to be living in Washington, D.C. One of the great pleasures of living there in the 1980s was reading the Post’s TV team, which included Shales, Lisa de Moraes and John Carmody.  All were prolific, but Shales was especially great at churning out insightful analyses about Presidential speeches, and late-night entertainment, as well as reviews of traditional prime-time programming.

Where Shales covered the whole waterfront of television viewing, today’s critics focus primarily on scripted shows and, to a lesser extent, some reality TV.  In order words, television criticism now largely mirrors film criticism, in that it exists to explain and tease out the greater themes in fictional works of art.

But the television critic’s job is more difficult than a film critic’s. There’s the sheer volume of the content.  A movie might take a couple of hours to watch but a TV season could take from10 to up to 26 hours, spread out over months.

Then there’s the question of when, exactly, you do the review. Do you write about the pilot, knowing that the series will eventually evolve? Do you write at the end of the season, after your readers have already seen the series themselves? In the third season, after it’s a phenomenon?

Some excellent critics, like Alan Sepinwall of Hitwise and other Internet-based critics, have essentially become high-end recappers, covering the season episode-by-episode as it rolls out, like sports reporters covering each game in the season.

Nussbaum, who works for a weekly magazine, is able to take a broader view, dipping in and out of TV shows whenever she wants – sometimes midseason, sometimes early in the season. Her recent profile on Kenya Barris, the creator and showrunner for “black*ish,” demonstrates why she deserved her Pulitzer, teasing out the remarkably subtle strands of racial meaning in that very funny and thoughtful sitcom.

To the extent there’s a most-influential TV critic, it would be Nussbaum, who seems to be first among equals in that group of buddy-buddy critics who attend the Television Critics Association press tour twice a year and tweet praise at each other in between.  She works for the most respected general interest magazine in the country, so has the broadest platform, and the work itself is top notch.

And yet even Nussbaum seems to lack an overarching philosophy about the medium.  She made at least one important contribution to the way we think about television, which is the “bad fan” (i.e. the loyal viewer who mistakes the antihero with the hero), but there is no “Nussbaum doctrine” of TV.

And it’s not just Nussbaum who lacks a collected oeuvre.  I have an entire shelf of books and essays about film theory but nothing comparable from any of the excellent TV critics writing today.  (The book that comes closest is Sepinwall’s “The Revolution Was Televised,” about 12 shows that launched the current Golden Age of television, but even this book is more narrative than theory.)

Maybe the problem is that television is so much more ephemeral than film.  It wasn’t until the development of the boxed DVD set, or more recently, the online streaming service, that fans could go back and rewatch their favorite shows.

And as I mentioned earlier, there’s also the problem of the huge time commitment it requires to watch an entire TV series.  You can watch “Vertigo” in two hours — but it takes about 50 hours to binge-watch “Mad Men.”

So as grateful as I am for the wide range of daily and weekly television criticism, I’m still waiting for a magnum opus or two that will present grand unifying theories about television and its role in our culture.

The feminist film critic Molly Haskell wrote “From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies.” Nussbaum’s a feminist critic.  Maybe she can write “From Lucy Ricardo to Liz Lemon.”  I’d definitely buy that.

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Our ship in Passau, where we started the cruise

Almost everyone I know who watches “Downton Abbey” is fascinated by the idea of a Viking River Cruise.   Those ads are irresistible come-ons to a certain demographic of the population: those white, upper-middle-class Americans who would like to display a continental flair but haven’t had the time or opportunity to acquire one.  My wife and I are empty-nesters who had never been on any cruise, never mind a river cruise, but found the ads so compelling we decided to take the plunge:

The Value Proposition

The ads always implied a degree of luxuriousness that I always thought was out of our price range.  So I was surprised when I received a mailing last January that promoted a “two-for-one” sale and actually looked at the cost.  We had been planning to go to Prague, Vienna and Budapest anyway, and the brochure advertised a Danube cruise that included Vienna and Budapest (but not Prague, alas) for a lot less than I had expected.  And when I called to book the cruise I was further informed that the price included the cost of the airfare.

This seemed too good to be true.  But I’m happy to report that it wasn’t.  My wife and I are just back from the cruise and we agreed that we never could have flown to Europe, rented a hotel room and fed ourselves for the price of the cruise — certainly not for that level of comfort.  I hardly think that Viking would want to present itself as a budget option for a European vacation, but the bottom line is that if you plan this right, it’s actually cheaper to take a cruise then to try to arrange everything yourself.

I say this because here’s what’s included in the price of the cruise: airfare from many major US cities; transportation to and from the airport to the ship; overnight accommodations; daily tours; all meals (including wine at meals, and yes, there were people who drank champagne at breakfast); and some post-dinner entertainment or briefings.  To veteran cruisers, this is not news but to me it was a surprise at how easy everything was, in addition to being affordable.

To achieve a rock bottom rate we booked the cheapest cabin, which was on the lowest deck of the ship.  The cabin itself was two-thirds underwater and our view was out a portal that you could peer through only when you were standing up.  The room itself was very nice — modern but smallish. There was a TV, a closet and a bureau, just like a hotel room. The bed was extremely comfortable and the feather pillow was the best I’ve ever rested my head on in any hotel anywhere.  The only weird aspect of the cabin is that the bathroom and shower are encased in glass walls.  The glass was clear when we checked in and no one explained that you could make them opaque by hitting a certain switch; so the first day was a bit awkward.  But even with the clouded glass walls you want to make sure that you and your companion have already achieved a degree of personal intimacy because there’s no sound-proofing.

Our cabin — note the glassed bathroom and shower and don’t forget to switch from clear to opaque glass

The rooms on the second and third decks were somewhat larger, although with much nicer views.  These cabins either had French balconies (basically floor to ceiling picture windows) and actual verandas with two chairs and a small table. There are also a handful of suites with separate living rooms and bedrooms (which cost twice as much as our semi-submerged stateroom).  Under the right circumstances, I’d think about upgrading to a French balcony to get the extra light. I don’t think the verandas are worth the extra expense, though, because it’s not clear when you’d be sitting there; you don’t really want to be planted on one side of the ship when the boat is cruising (given that there are sights on both sides of the river bank); worse, when the boat is docked, it’s likely as not to be tied up to another Viking ship so there is no view at all except for the cabin of another ship.

Given the wide variety of prices, it’s interesting that everyone is treated the same regardless of what deck they’re on.  I suppose this is an American conceit — that everyone is equal.  This is not like the airlines with their first class and economy section.  Regardless of how much we paid, we all ate the same food, had access to the entire ship and went on the same tours. So, yay democracy!

The Ship Itself

If a big ocean cruise is like a floating resort, a Viking River Cruise is like a floating boutique hotel.  The ship only has space for 190 passengers and offers none of the features that attract folks to a rowdier ocean cruise (i.e., no casinos, climbing walls, pools, or daiquiri bars).

As nice as it was, this is not a high-end luxury cruise.  Their target market seems to be the upper 5% not the upper 1%. Nevertheless, the common spaces were casually elegant and great places to hang out.  The ship has three decks of common areas.  The top deck is an outdoor space with deck chairs and tables that extends the full length of the vessel.  When you’re up there you understand why Viking calls them “longboats.” It takes a long time to get from aft to stern.  This is where you want to be when there’s daytime cruising and you want to see both shores of the river.

The next deck down houses the lounge.  This is a fairly swanky bar with floor to ceiling windows from which you can also watch the passing scene.  It’s a mellow space during the day and the gathering place for all passenger briefings and the late-night entertainment.  Off and on throughout the day, we were treated to a pianist; he was a perfectly decent guy but for my taste, his repertoire was a little too heavy on show tunes and other American standards that you’d get in any dive piano bar.   Off the glassed-in lounge was an outdoor lounge where you could have casual meals or get patio bar service.  Also on this level was the “library,” which consisted of a bookcase of books and a few comfy chairs, and the Internet center, which comprised two wired PCs.

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The Lounge

Beneath the lounge was the main reception area and concierge desk attached to a large formal dining room (again, with floor-to-ceiling windows).

And that’s it in terms of amenities. When you weren’t touring on land, you basically had to entertain yourself by reading, looking out the window, taking a nap or drinking.  The ship does have Internet service but it was spotty (this was the most vocal complaint from the passengers).  I was never prevented — for long — from getting email or social media and I was able to access NYTimes.com (but not the WSJ.com), so I wasn’t as unhappy as some other passengers.

In terms of actual cruising, the ship spent a lot more time tied up at the dock then it did moving from place to place.  We cruised for one extended period during one afternoon, complete with narration of sights on the shore; we also cruised one day from 7:00 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. so we could experience a dramatic entrance into Budapest.  More often the cruises were at night.

A highlight of cruising was going through the locks.  I never knew the Danube had locks but there they are. We had to navigate nine of them on this voyage.  This was fascinating to watch for a couple of times.  After that, not so much.  We went through most of the locks at night anyway (which was actually a problem for me because the banging of the ship in the lock woke me up.)

How About the Food?

This is the question that everyone asks.  The food was fine, considering that we all ate at the same time.  My wife and I had all our meals on the ship (except for one lunch) and you could either eat off a menu in the dining room or have a buffet in the outdoor lounge.  Breakfast was the same every day: a big spread of egg-, yogurt- or bread-based choices, plus meat, cheese, muffins, smoked salmon, etc.

We never ate lunch in the dining room, preferring the casualness of the outside lounge, but the menu had three choices each day plus buffet options too.  Upstairs in the lounge we ate buffet-style with sandwiches, salads, soups, etc.

Dinner was at 7:00 p.m. each night in the dining room.  The daily menu had three first course options, three main course options (meat, fish and vegetarian) and multiple deserts.   And of course all the wine you could drink.

The food was uniformly good.  My main complaint was that — like the piano music — it was too Americanized.  A lot of steak and a lot of fish that people would recognize from home.  The one night we went completely exotic was the best night — an Austrian feast, with all local delicacies.

The advantage of this approach is that you almost certainly will not get a bad meal.  The downside is that you never get the thrill of finding a really great local restaurant and experiencing something out of your comfort level.  Another downside is that there was just too much food around all the time.  With so many options it was hard not to overeat at breakfast and lunch; and it was hard not to overindulge between meals, with a frequent afternoon tea, and cookies and coffee available 24-hours a day.

Your 150 New Best Friends

For me the most daunting aspect of the cruise was the prospect of interacting with a ship full of strangers for seven days.  I mean, what if someone wanted to talk to me!!  In the end I shouldn’t have worried because there was an unspoken etiquette that everyone would attempt to be friendly to everyone else.

Viking markets to Americans and the clientele was overwhelmingly USA.  I was not the only passenger who had been seduced by the Viking ads on Downton Abbey — this was a frequent refrain.  At least half the other passengers fell into one large demographic group: white, married, upper-middle-class, heterosexual, Americans aged 55-70 — the kind of people who would be interchangeable at a suburban country club.  Usually one spouse was retired, frequently both.

Outside this basic norm there was one single guy traveling alone, two Japanese-American couples, one large group of unattached women, one couple with a sulky teenage daughter, a British couple, a German couple, an interracial couple, a gay couple, a couple of dozen passengers over 70 or under 55 and then a handful of oddballs to add color.

We made it a point to eat with different people every night and in the end I feel like I learned more about America than I did about Europe.  Some of the people we met included:

  • A Japanese-American from Hiroshima who survived the atomic bomb because his father had moved the family outside the city limits several weeks before the attack.
  • A couple who’d raised their family in Fairbanks Alaska and have been on seven Viking river cruises.
  • A guy from New York who’d trained as a priest but became a lawyer for the New York State prison system, and a hard-partying couple from Texas whose son actually did become a priest.
  • Beekeepers from Maryland who use localized bee stings to treat arthritis.
  • A couple who’d lived in Santa Monica all their lives and whose daughter-in-law is in charge of costuming for several TV shows.
  • A perfectly happy couple from Charlottesville who were each on their third marriage and whose son was also on his third marriage. The husband was a HUGE Sound of Music fan who admitted to being videotaped several times dressed as Maria and singing and twirling, “the hills are alive…..”

Our strategy was to walk into dinner about five minutes late, identify a table with interesting-looking people and ask if we could join them.  They’d almost always be relieved they didn’t have to eat alone like the sad sacks in a junior high school cafeteria.  Twice we sat with two sets of couples who had gone on the cruise together, but instead of being fifth wheels, we found ourselves acting as new blood for four people who might have gotten a little tired talking to each other.

There was also a group of five couples who’d met last year on the Rhine River tour and enjoyed each other so much that they’d planned to go as a group this year. They always sat together and boisterously enjoyed themselves, becoming the de facto popular kids table.  My wife and I never got to be chummy enough with anyone to exchange email addresses or Facebook accounts but we still felt a pang of regret when the tour ended and we realized we’d never see these folks again, given that we all had these shared memories.

In Between Eating and Sleeping

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Budapest was beautiful, especially at night

Since the ship doesn’t spend a lot of time cruising and the passengers are very get-up-and-go types, the land tours are crucial to the success of the cruise.  I’d never appreciated the importance of a program director before, but on our ship, The Freya, our host was great.  The rarest of species — a funny German — Oliver was the glue that held the tour together.

The passengers met every night at 6:45 for Oliver’s 15 minute briefing on the coming day’s activities.  As part of the cruise package there were six daily tours and numerous additional ad-ons for special outings — concerts,  a winery tour, a chance to see palaces or the Lipizzaner stallions in Vienna, a visit to the Jewish quarter in Budapest.   We went on all the regular “included” tours, which usually left at 8:30 a.m. and lasted for two-and-a-half to three-and-a-half hours.  These tours usually involved a combination of bus and walking, with narration from local guides throughout.  The guides ranged from very good to excellent — the best ones were in the former Eastern Bloc countries of The Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary, who had grown up under communism, despised it, and were hilariously sardonic and cynical about their former regimes.  All of this made me grateful to have grown up in the U.S.  Being caught between the Nazis and Soviets, never mind their losses in World War I and the wars with the Ottomans, these countries have experienced a lot of tragedy.

Our stops were at a number of smallish cities I’d never heard of — Passau Germany, Lintz Austria, Durnstein Austria, Meltz Austria and Bratislava (the Capital of Slovakia) —  and two world capitals: Vienna and Budapest.  The half-day tours were fine for the smaller towns but not really adequate for the big cities.  Between the half-day tour and the half-day of free time, we only scratched the surface in Vienna and Budapest and of course, we never explored any of the local restaurants.

Still, everywhere we went was remarkable.  We had a full-day visit to Cesky Krumlov — an amazing little restored city of The Czech Republic that is like stepping back into a Disney fairy tale. Elsewhere we saw three gorgeous St. Stephan’s cathedrals, each more fabulous than the rest.  We visited a local winery. where we had an EXTREMELY convivial wine tasting. We saw an Monastery that was so sumptuous that it looked like a Tsar’s weekend palace.  Great stuff everywhere from a civilization that peaked 200 years ago.

Each night there was some kind of activity planned on the ship.  A lecture on Mozart, another lecture on Austrian history, a night of games, a dance party another night.  We skipped a lot of that, being too tired at 9:00 p.m. for those kind of activities (although somehow we managed to stay up past midnight watching The Sound of Music on our cabin TV. But that’s another story.)

Will We Do It Again?

Sure, I’d take another Viking River Cruise, although probably not right away.  I still want to see Prague and Berlin and not just for one day.  But the idea of floating down the Rhone or Rhine rivers through wine country sounds very enticing.  In the meantime, Poldark is returning to Masterpiece Theatre and we can reminisce about our cruise at the beginning of each episode.

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Every four years, political junkies hope that the primaries will fail to select a consensus presidential candidate, thereby producing a dramatic showdown at the national convention.  The fact that this hasn’t happened since 1952 doesn’t usually discourage them until early March, when it’s obvious that the party is coalescing around a single candidate.

But this may be the year! Probably not at the Democratic convention — unless Hillary Clinton is indicted for her email scandal and the party apparatus decides to fight Bernie Sanders in favor of a more mainstream candidate.

No, it’s on the Republican side, where we might see a contested convention. With three candidates still in the hunt and Donald Trump needing 60% of the remaining delegates to guarantee the nomination, it’s possible that no one will arrive at the Cleveland convention with a majority of the delegates. This is especially true after Trump’s loss in Wisconsin.

If political junkies are excited at the prospect, the networks must be thrilled. The Republican debates have generated huge ratings and the conventions would probably do the same. Best of all, this would be extra viewing in the summer, when ratings are low.  And viewing would be live – not time-shifted – so there would be no pesky fast-forwarding during the commercials.

There was a time when the networks turned over their entire prime-time slot (and more) to the convention proceedings. Sometimes it was boring, and sometime it was dramatic. One of the most indelible TV memories of my childhood was watching the police beat up protesters at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, while the party itself imploded inside the convention hall. The 1976 Republican convention in Chicago was also pretty exciting, with Ronald Reagan just barely falling short of unseating then-President Gerald Ford.

By the 1980s, the networks had started to cut back on their coverage, seeing little news value in the event, given that the nominees were pre-selected and the platform pre-written.  In recent years, broadcast networks have allocated one hour a night to the convention proceedings, which meant that a well-oiled convention would be sure to schedule the most-important speeches between 10 and 11 p.m. ET.

The truly memorable convention events of the last 20 years have been few and far between: maybe then-State Senator Barack Obama’s 2004 keynote address at the Democratic convention, or Clint Eastwood’s bizarre interview with the empty chair at the 2012 GOP gathering.

But at a contested convention, all bets are off. Trump has already threatened riots if he’s thwarted — and even if his supporters don’t riot, there is a distinct possibility of unrest from groups who oppose him.

If there’s a contested convention, the American people will become much more acquainted with the arcana of convention procedures. First stop will be wall-to-wall coverage of the Rules Committee, which will decide, among other things, whose name can be placed in nomination. This includes the rule that a candidate needs to have a majority of delegates from eight delegations to be nominated.  Only Trump meets this standard so far, and it’s not clear that Cruz or Kasich will get there. The Rules Committee could change that rule, and probably will if Cruz doesn’t get his eight delegations, since he’s making sure his supporters get on the committee.

Then there will be wrestling over who gets to speak during the plenary sessions.  In 1964, liberal Republican Nelson Rockefeller took to the podium and denounced the likely nominee, the paleo-conservative Barry Goldwater, which resulted in pandemonium on the floor. What if some “Never Trump” speaker does the same thing this year?  Or what if a speaker gives a speech so electrifying that the convention becomes swept up in the moment and nominates him or her?  That’s what happened with William Jennings Bryan in 1896.

The climactic vote on the presidential nomination itself will be the highlight of the event.  There has never been more than one convention vote for a president in the television era.  Under state rules, most delegates go to the convention pledged to a particular candidate — but by the third round of voting, all delegates will be free to vote for whomever they like.

We can only imagine what these extra rounds will be like. By tradition, there’s an alphabetical roll call by state, and each delegation leader uses the occasion to deliver a mini-commercial for the state (“Mister Chairman, the great state of Vermont – the Green Mountain State and the land of maple syrup, cheddar cheese and Lake Champlain – proudly casts its 27 votes for the next President of the United States, Ted Cruz.”)  This has a certain charm for about 10 states, but it is not a TV-friendly way to conduct a vote.  It’s hard to believe that those mini-commercials will continue after the first vote, but even a straightforward roll call of the states and territories will be time-consuming.

We probably won’t know whether there will be a contested convention until June 7, when the final five states, including California, have their primaries. Until then, network executives will have their fingers crossed, hoping for a real bonfire in Cleveland.