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Archive for March, 2018

by Dennis Polifroni

“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that, in the process, he does not become a monster.  And, if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.”

-Friedrich Nietzsche

When considering Joe Penhall’s TV series, MINDHUNTER, and the books, by F.B.I. Behavioral Science groundbreaker John Douglas, that the show is adapted from, one has to wonder if that famed quote doesn’t loom heavily in the minds of both.

For Douglas, fighting against monsters became an everyday occurance.  For Penhall’s work, like Thomas Harris before him (he was the author of THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS), it was the fighting against said monsters that became the basis for obsession that can thrust the inquisitive intellectual into a pit of success that consumes them till it breaks them.

Hannibal Lector, the famed, cannibalistic psychiatrist, criminal mastermind of many of Harris’ books came from a very real place.  Though he is an amalgam of several different psychopathic maniacs that have plagued the United States over the past seven decades, the monsters that inspired his creation come from very real places that Douglas investigated during his tenure with the F. B. I.

In 1977, with the capture of David (“Son of Sam”) Berkowitz, Douglas (at the time, a fledgling investigator who grew tired of teaching the ins-and-outs of effective hostage negotiation) began to see unusual patterns in the modus-operandi of what were called “sequence” killers (Douglas is said to have changed that, and coined the term “serial killer”).  No two killers were alike, none were after the material gain that “traditional” killers (like “Baby-faced” Nelson, Al Capone or Jesse James) of the past were known for, and most were so good at covering their tracks that finding them was a pipe-dream at best.

MINDHUNTER shows us how Douglas (re-named Holden Ford for the show), green with inexperience, yet inspired by the prospects of doing something no one else ever had the gumption to attempt, broke into the thought processes of some of the worst maniacs roaming the cities and suburbs of America.  Through interviews with captured murderers, he was able to deduce how the killers on-the-loose may be planning the work of their “vocation” and, if correct, beat them to their finish lines.

You’re probably saying “we’ve seen this all before”, in the various screen adaptations of Harris’ best known works (Michael Mann’s MANHUNTER and Jonathan Demme’s multiple Oscar winning THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS), and, in a way, we have.  However, one would be remiss in saying that Harris’ fictional accounts, on how the F.B.I. profiler begins to think like the killer he’s chasing, was the finite word on the subject. In reality, they rarely, if ever, think like the killer.  They do, always, look to the past for sameness. What one who has been caught did, might be the inspiration for one that is out there. The events and the procedures that MINDHUNTER depicts, unlike Harris’ works, is based on fact and, the facts are, like that abyss that Nietzsche wrote about, so obsessive that they can be a destroyer.

In the case of John Douglas (aka Holden Ford), the obsession comes when the mormon-like investigator is steered to an interview with infamous “co-ed killer, Edmund Kemper.  Kemper, 6 feet-8 inches tall, weighing in at almost 300 pounds, and in possession of a personality that would normally be likened to a kindly librarian, longs for an ear. He’s a talker.  He loves TV shows about criminal investigations and considers Joseph Wambaugh a hero. He’s forever proud of telling anyone that will listen about his evasion of capture (Kemper was so good at it that, upon having a nightmare in which he was embarrassed by being caught, decided to give himself up), his methods in luring women into his traps and the gruesome ways, and reasons, behind the killings and dismemberment.

From there, it’s Ford, reluctantly assisted by his partner, Bill Tench (played by Holt McCallany-in real life this was Robert K Ressler) and willingly enthused by Dr. Wendy Carr (played by Anna Torv and based on psychiatric forensic researcher, Dr. Ann Wolbert Burgess), moving from one maniac to another, using Kemper’s base outline on what, ultimately, drives an individual to serial murder (it is, 99.9% of the time, matriarchal humiliation), that fuels the investigators hypothesis and makes him a star in the world of homicidal deduction.

The series brilliantly chronicles Douglas’ many trial and tribulations, his head-butting with a conservative system that thinks psychological profiling amounts to nothing but alot of lofty speculation, and many successful encounters with seemingly ordinary people that just so happen to be the monster that hides in the shadows of normalcy before tearing your larynx out with a screwdriver and a pair of ice-tongs and weighing you down in the shallow bed of a lake.

The series has the great advantage of having director David Fincher (SEVEN, ZODIAC,THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO) helm the first and last two episodes of the season.  No virgin to the territory and themes of serial murder in his theatrical films, Fincher immediately informs the shows visual presentation with an assured hand for period recreation and juxtaposes it with the directors famously slick efficiency for montage and MTV style editing.  MINDHUNTER may be set in the past, but it’s look and sonic landscape are that of a modern filmmaker at the heights of his talent.

Even with all of this, in the end, it all comes down to three key people.

Joe Penhall’s superb writing informs us as it entertains and it’s a perfect balancing act between the history of a genre we don’t know all the facts about and the foundations of what the genre of horror films does so well.  Like Hitchcock, Penhall presents us with the monsters immediately, and then draws back to let us sit on pins and needles as we guess what those monsters will do next.

As Holden Ford, the milky innocence of Jonathan Groff (HBO’s gay drama: LOOKING) perfectly offsets the growing fascination and life altering obsession that Douglas endured before the facts of his investigative quest nearly left him psychologically devastated and physically paralyzed.

Yet, it’s the giant Cameron Britton (all 350 pounds and 7 feet of him), a serial killer Edmund Kemper, that defines the context of the series.  Not only a dead ringer for famed mass murderer, Britton’s performance suggests the deep cunning and humiliated feelings that are, usually, at war in a deeply disturbed murderers mind.  You see him, you listen to him and you LIKE him. He’s a poor guy turned ugly by systematic, parental abuse. We feel his pain. But, then you look past the enormous, thick-rimmed Woody-Allen style glasses, into Britton-as-Kemper’s eyes and we see a darkness.  It’s a chilling hole of psychopathy and a perfect performance of sly manipulation and honest admission. I’ll go on record now and say Britton will be the big winner in the Best Supporting Actor category come TV awards time. He is the abyss that Nietzsche spoke of and, I fear, the hole that Holden Ford may never climb out of.


MINDHUNTER

(USA 2017-?) Netflix Streaming

P. Beth Kono, Charlize Theron, Joe Penhall, Cean Chaffin, Joshua Donen, David Fincher  d. David Fincher, Asif Kapadia, Tobias Lindholm, Andrew Douglas w. Joe Penhall, Erin levy, Jennifer Haley, Tobias Lindholm, Dominic Orlando, Ruby Rae Spiegel  developed. Joe Penhall based on. MINDHUNTER: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit by John Douglas, Mark Olshaker photo. Christopher Probst, Eric Messerschmidt  e. Kirk Baxter, Tyler Nelson, Byron Smith, David Fincher m. Jason Hill


THE GOOD GUYS

Jonathan Groff (Holden Ford), Holt McCallany (Bill Tench), Anna Torv (Wendy Carr), Hannah Gross (Debbie Milford), Cotter Smith (Shepard), Stacey Roca (Nancy Tench), Joe Tuttle (Gregg Smith), Alex Morf (Mark Ocasek), Lena Olin (Annaliese Stillman)


THE KILLERS

Cameron Britton (Edmund Kemper), Sam Strike (Monty Rissel), Happy Anderson (Jerry Brudos), Jack Erdie (Richard Speck), Sonny Valicenti (Dennis Rader), Joseph Cross (Benjamin Barnwright), Marc Kudisch (Roger Wade), Micheal Park (Peter Dean)

 

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by Adam Ferenz

As a series that is still ongoing, soon to air the fourth season and possibly to go as long as six or seven seasons, this will not be a “complete” review but will attempt something a little bit different in approach.

Upon being announced, this prequel to Breaking Bad caused fans and critics alike to scratch their heads and wonder why, not only because who needed or really wanted, another Breaking Bad, but why focus the series on Saul Goodman? Saul was a fun character, but slight and a bit lightweight. Besides, he had been sent to live in parts unknown, as a result of Walter White’s flight from the law. Soon, word came that this was a prequel, with hints of what happened after, and still, people thought “no, no, we will just be getting a lot of cute cameos and nods to the future, in Breaking Bad” and then we got word that Jonathan Banks was joining the cast as Mike Erhmantraut, and that Michael McKean had been cast as Charles McGill, the brother of Jimmy “Saul Goodman” McGill. Saul-or should we call him Jimmy-had a brother?

Then the series began, and at the end of the first episode, we saw Tuco, the first “big bad” of Breaking Bad, but instead of feeling like we were going to get a greatest-hits, what we saw in the opening hour felt unique and superbly well crafted. This was certainly in the Breaking Bad universe, but it may well be its own thing. For one, Mike was not yet the sinister cleaner/fixer for Gus Fring, who was nowhere to be seen, and Jimmy was working out of the back room of a nail salon and caring for his brother, one of the partners at a large law firm, who obviously suffered some sort of disability. There was also Kim Wexler, a fellow attorney, who worked at Charles-Chuck’s-firm, and was on intimate terms with Jimmy. (more…)

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by Pierre de Plume

After its network premiere in 1984, the stylized crime drama Murder, She Wrote soon became a ratings hit, landing in the top 10 for 10 of its 12 seasons. The program showcased Broadway leading lady and veteran Hollywood actor Angela Lansbury as a retired New England school teacher who embarks on a career as a writer of mystery novels — only to find herself immersed in a steady spate of homicides occurring in curious proximity to her coastal New England home. The title of the series is a reference to Murder, She Said, a 1961 film adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple novel titled 4:50 from Paddington. 

After its network premiere in 1984, the stylized crime drama Murder, She Wrote soon became a ratings hit, landing in the top 10 for 10 of its 12 seasons. The program showcased Broadway leading lady and veteran Hollywood actor Angela Lansbury as a retired New England school teacher who embarks on a career as a writer of mystery novels — only to find herself immersed in a steady spate of homicides occurring in curious proximity to her coastal New England home. The title of the series is a reference to Murder, She Said, a 1961 film adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple novel titled 4:50 from Paddington.

 . FletDr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Mystery Writer J. Bucher.  At age 66 and currently living in a Midwestern city, I like to think I’m still sort of cool as long as we’re grading on the curve. In 1984, though — the year <i>Murder, She Wrote</i> premiered on network TV, my coolness factor was running fairly solid: I’d been living in San Francisco (a cool place) for a decade. I had a cool job (budding actor). I supported the cool social causes. To fortify my status I’d even cast my ballot for cool mayoral candidate Jello Biafra, lead vocalist for the punk band Dead Kennedys.

All this coolness came into question, however, when I found myself glued to the TV set Sundays at 8:00 pm to discover what kind of murderous soup was in store for a widowed English teacher-turned-mystery writer known by the pen name J. B. Fletcher. With an unfailing tendency to stumble upon — and singlehandedly solve — one real-life murder after another in her New England coastal town, this Miss Marple–like character soon made a name for herself well beyond the boundaries of quaint and scenic Cabot Cove, Maine.

Soon after Murder, She Wrote entered the public consciousness, the show and its star performer became the subject of lighthearted humor involving the unusually high murder rate within the show’s setting, Cabot Cove, Maine. Some theorists advanced the facetious notion that Jessica Fletcher herself was always the murderer and, therefore, a serial killer. Such attention helped spur the success of the show as well as several spin-off novels, a short-lived spin-off TV series (The Law & Harry MacGraw starring frequent guest star Jerry Orbach as a private investigator), a board game, a jigsaw puzzle and, after the series was cancelled, 4 TV movies.

<i>Soon after </i>Murder, She Wrote <i>entered the public consciousness, the show and its star performer became the subject of lighthearted humor involving the unusually high murder rate within the show’s setting, Cabot Cove, Maine. Some theorists advanced the facetious notion that Jessica Fletcher herself was always the murderer and, therefore, a serial killer. Such attention helped spur the success of the show as well as several spin-off novels, a short-lived spin-off TV series</i> (The Law & Harry MacGraw <i>starring frequent guest star Jerry Orbach as a private investigator), a board game, a jigsaw puzzle and, after the series was cancelled, 4 TV movies.</i>

From the outset, the appeal of this series rested largely with viewers over the age of 50, the majority of them female, as well as with single women a decade or two younger plus a devoted following of gay men. Somewhat surprisingly — because the program generally received only fair-to-middling critical regard — its fan base maintained viewer ratings in the top 15 for nearly all of its 12-year run. (more…)

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by John Greco

 Burns and Allen were never as popular as the I Love Lucy gang, then again, who was? However, in many ways, they were ahead of their time, much more than Lucy and all the other sitcoms of the day. Like so many early TV performers, Burns and Allen’s came to the home screen after a successful run on radio. They met in 1922 during their vaudeville days and began performing together with George writing most of the act. In 1926, the couple married. At first, they were just another act on the circuit. According to Burns, they were generally the fourth billed act in an eight-act show. Middle of the road.

It all began to change in the 1930’s when they entered the world of movies. Their first films were shorts (Pulling a Bone, Fit to be Tied) eventually moving on to feature films, mostly in supporting roles (The Big Broadcast, College Humor, We’re Not Dressing). The comedy team also began doing radio. Their first regular show was called The Adventures of Gracie which in 1937 would evolve into The Burns and Allen Show.  The radio show was broadcast until 1950 when George and Gracie transitioned to television.

The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show debuted on October 12th, 1950. The show was originally broadcast live every other week. It was not until the fall of 1952 they switched to a filmed format and weekly. The show moved from its Thursday slot to Mondays joining I Love Lucy making it the first must-see TV night.

Watching I Love Lucy, and The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show after each other reveal some interesting differences. Both Gracie and Lucy could be called wacky and scheming. However, I think it would be more accurate to call Gracie eccentric. Gracie’s thinking had a logic, an odd, in her own world logic, but she always managed to explain her rationale and in some inexplicable, bizarre way it made sense when coming out of her mouth…sort of.  The frightening part is when you sometimes found yourself agreeing with her thinking. Other times you just have to accept her. After all, Gracie is Gracie. Here are a couple of examples:

There’s one episode where Gracie and Blanche, portrayed by Bea Benaderet,[1] are at a luncheonette. Blanche tells Gracie she just bought a couple of books and made some homemade grape juice as a birthday gift for her husband’s 85-year-old uncle. He’s 85, and he still doesn’t use glasses, she adds. Gracie ponders this, and responds that Harry’s uncle must be a lot like her Uncle Harvey; he doesn’t use glasses either, he doesn’t even use a corkscrew. He opens bottles with his teeth! Blanche stares at her in complete puzzlement. Harry Von Zell soon shows up and makes the mistake of asking the ladies what they are up too. Gracie informs him Blanche is sending her uncle a homemade bottle of grape juice.  “Well, I am really sending some books. Carl Sandberg’s Lincoln and the collected works of George Bernard Shaw,” Blanche adds.

“Well, that’s something he can sink his teeth into,” Harry says.

[1] Bea Benaderet had an amazingly long career. She appeared as a semi-regular or regular in the following shows:

Mr. Magoo (Mother Magoo), Peter Loves Mary, Top Cat, The Flintstones (Betty Rubble among others), Green Acres (Kate Bradley), The Beverly Hillbillies (Cousin Pearl Bodine), Petticoat Junction (Kate Bradley). She died in 1968 at the young age of 62.

Gracie response, “it will be easy for him because he’s has been opening bottles with them for 85 years.”

Bewildered, Harry looks at Blanche with a look that says “help!”

Blanche surrenders. She jumps up and tells Harry to sit down, and Gracie will explain it all as she exits the luncheonette laughing.

In an episode called Gracie Goes to a Psychiatrist for Blanche’s Dream, Blanche informs Gracie she has been having the same dream for five nights now, and she is going to go to a psychiatrist to see what it means. Later, she tells Gracie she is going to cancel the appointment, but Gracie decides to keep it.

At the office, after confirming the appointment, the reception tells Gracie to take a magazine and sit down. “No thanks,” she responds, “I rather sit in a chair.” The perplexed receptionist hurries to get the doctor. At first, the doctor sees nothing wrong with Gracie, that is until she explains how she had to return some pencils because the eraser and the led were on the wrong ends. He tells her she better lie down on the couch. Gracie’s responds, “I’d rather sit because when I sit, I can see what I’m saying.” The perplexed doctor tells his receptionist to cancel his next two appointments!

He begins to ask Gracie a series of questions.

“About your parents. Did they enjoy good health?”

“Oh, they loved it.”

“I guess it would be useless to ask if there was any schizophrenia or paranoia in your family?”

“No, just boys and girls.”

“So, you had brothers and sisters?”

“No, I was too young. My mother had them.”

The doctor, still under the impression Gracie is Blanche tells his receptionist to call Harry Morgan informing him “his wife” is in a very delicate condition. This, of course, leads a series of other incidents and misunderstandings including Blanche and Harry thinking the other is the sick one.

George, of course, is always trying to make sense of Gracie’s thinking as well as her scheming, Lucy like plans. His big advantage was his ability to break the fourth wall. George spent a lot of time in his study, above the garage, where he would talk straight to the audience. In later seasons, George watched via his      unique television set that at least in the 1950’s mysteriously could view everything that went on. Today, of course, with all the technology we have in our lives, George could plant cameras secretly all over the house to watch and listen to Gracie’s shenanigans. But back in the 1950’s, it was just plain surreal. It was that surrealistic quality and the sharp writing as well as the charms eluded by the actors that made the show stand aside from all the rest.

The show ended in 1958 after Gracie Allen retired, but that was not quite the end. George attempted to continue the show with a revised format. The George Burns Show premiered in the fall of 1958. Most of the same cast and characters, except for Gracie, were in the new show. George worked for a producer with Blanche as his secretary and Harry Morton as his accountant. Without Gracie, who is only mentioned, the show failed and was canceled after one season.

There was one more shot during the 1964-65 season with a show called, Wendy and Me. During the 1950’s and early 1960’s Gracie experienced a series of heart problems. She suffered a massive heart attack in 1964, just one month before the show premiered. Connie Stevens was Wendy, a pseudo-Gracie, with George playing “Me.” The show lasted one season. Without Gracie, it wasn’t the same.

____________

[1] Bea Benaderet had an amazingly long career. She appeared as a semi-regular or regular in the following shows:

Mr. Magoo (Mother Magoo), Peter Loves Mary, Top Cat, The Flintstones (Betty Rubble among others), Green Acres (Kate Bradley), The Beverly Hillbillies (Cousin Pearl Bodine), Petticoat Junction (Kate Bradley). She died in 1968 at the young age of 62.

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by Sam Juliano

Spring has finally taken a toehold in the Metropolitan region after yet another unexpected snowstorm closed school on Wednesday.  Here at Wonders in the Dark the Greatest Television Series countdown moves forward impressively, with several of the essays surely top rank.  Thanks to all the writers and site readers for the sustained high quality and continued interest.  There will be a twelve day break in late April for the Tribeca Film Festival, which I will announce as that date looms closer.

My daughter Melanie and Jillian as well as my son Danny attended the gun control rally in Manhattan on Saturday afternoon, a venue that also included Paul McCartney and other luminaries.

Lucille and I saw three films in theaters this past week and surprisingly all three were first-rate:

Love Simon  **** 1/2      (Thursday)      Secaucus multiplex

The Death of Stalin  **** 1/2 (Friday)  Montclair Bow-Tie Cinemas

Isle of Dogs    **** 1/2  (Saturday night)   Regal Cinemas, 14th Street. (more…)

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by Brandie Ashe

It started out as a typical concept for an animated series: a man, his wife, and their children run a restaurant in a dingy seaside town somewhere vaguely in the Northeastern United States, and have many odd and entertaining adventures along the way. A slice of life portrait, really, of a typical American family, struggling to get by but keeping afloat with the help of good humor and good friends along the way.

Oh, and they’re all cannibals.

Perhaps not surprisingly, creator Loren Bouchard’s original concept for Bob’s Burgers was scrapped in favor of a straightforward family sitcom, with no human flesh burgers to be found. Still, that initial conceit forms the basis of the pilot episode of the series, in which the family’s youngest daughter, Louise, tells her class about the man-burgers crafted at her father’s restaurant, inviting an unwanted visit from the health inspector.

It wasn’t exactly an auspicious start. To be honest, those early episodes of the show struggle to find their footing, and it takes a while for the characters to really start to develop and grow on the viewer. But as the show moved into its third season, it finally hit its stride, and this weird, wonderful, wacky, and wholly witty series became, in my eyes, a modern-day classic that has cultivated a fervently loyal fanbase.

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wkrp

An essay by Brian E. Wilson

“Just maybe think of me every once in a while.”—Steve Carlisle, WKRP opening credits

For this blog essay about the terrific WKRP in Cincinnati, I have to rely on memory. I became an instant fan of this series the moment it premiered on CBS on September 18, 1978. I made sure to catch every single one of its 90 episodes until its rather abrupt cancellation (the final one aired on April 12, 1982 with an unresolved cliffhanger). CBS of course made this difficult thanks to many time slot moves and shifts. More on that later.

Although the show became a hit in syndication, allowing me to enjoy several of the episodes numerous times, I haven’t watched it in 30 years. When the series came out finally on DVD a few years ago, I learned that the song-heavy show about a radio station that changes its format from sleepy-eyed unhip programming to wide awake rock pop and soul couldn’t obtain the now expired rights to some of the music played on the show. Some scenes and episodes apparently have been altered. Reading about this, I suddenly became a purist. I want the real thing. The original.

Still, what’s telling about how much I enjoyed this show is how well I still remember it, how certain episodes and situations and lines have stayed with me over the years. I know most people reading this series of blog entries must be TV fans who have spent a significant amount of time in front of the ole telly. And as a teen from 1978 to 1982, I certainly did. I must be honest though. I barely remember some of the shows I watched during this time. And yet WKRP in Cincinnati…it struck a nerve with me, a kid fascinated with DJs, top 40 radio, well, all things radio, and TV shows that could be goofy one moment and then thoughtful and serious the next. (more…)

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