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Reports of the carnage in Las Vegas broke after I had already posted the Monday Morning Diary.  The news was as horrific as it was unconscionable.  Duane Porter tellingly frames this depravity with another call to law makers in a comment he placed at the MMD yesterday.  The site of course is in complete and utter agreement:

Monday morning, appalled by the carnage in Las Vegas. A man is able to fire 1000 rounds out of a hotel window before he can be stopped. All this horror and suffering would not have been possible were it not for the inane free access to high-capacity automatic weapons in this country. Are we never going to wake up?

R.I.P. Tom Petty of Travelling Willburys and Heartbreakers fame.  Another musical icon has left us.  My wife Lucille has always been one of his biggest fans.  I wonder what our resident rock music guru Jamie Uhler thought of his work.  Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney among other icons held him in the highest regard.

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by Sam Juliano

October already?  Hard to believe, but here we are looking at Halloween decoration full front and getting some weather that seems to suggest summer has spent its oppressive resources.  Movie fans can expect the cream of the crop, baseball fans the playoffs, NFL football aficionados the season in full swing.  The opera and classical music seasons have now launched in their famous homes, classes are almost a month old and even Christmas countdowns have started up.

Here at Wonders in the Dark we have just concluded one of the most remarkable ventures in the site’s history, though in reality the other part of this project won’t be commencing again until December 11th or so.  Do to the unprecedented enthusiasm to our Top 80, we have decided to go deeper into the balloting, so deep in fact that in a burst of insanity the site has resolved to countdown from Number 236 to 81.  This means we will be covering or highlighting (in the event full reviews can’t quite be managed on certain days) 155 more shows.  I know.  I know.  This is utter lunacy, and an example of the extent enthusiasm can lead one.  How can this possibly work?  At this point I am really uncertain.  Yes Adam Ferenz, Dennis Polifroni, Brian Wilson, Robert Hornak and myself have volunteered together for an incredible number of essays, but others have also pledged contributions.  All I can say is that we will take it one day at a time.  As if that proposition crosses the line of mental stability, I will still have the latter part of my Caldecott Medal Contender series to complete.  It started this past weekend, and will be continuing through October, November, December and January.  Yes it will for that last section run concurrently with the television countdown, but that kind of thing has never really been a problem.  There will just be more posts, that’s all.

Some of the most spectacular/superlative essays ever published at this site were accomplished for this countdown.  Many thanks to Adam Ferenz, Dennis Polifroni, Brandie Ashe, Brian Wilson, Robert Hornak, John Greco, Jon Warner, Stephen Mullen, Marilyn Ferdinand, Pierre de Plume, Patricia Perry, Lucille Juliano, J.D. Lafrance, Joel Bocko, Maurizio Roca, Samuel Juliano IV, Jillian Juliano and David Schleicher for manning up the writing brigade so brilliantly.  Yes, Yours Truly ended up penning the most essays of all, but I’m much too busy now pondering how I can possibly juggle my even greater workload for Part 2 while doing the Caldecott series at the same time.  I must set up an appointment to visit a psychiatrist soon. (more…)

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by Jon Warner

It’s hard to know where to start on an essay about Seinfeld. Doesn’t everyone already know everything there needs to be known on the show? Google greatest Seinfeld episodes and you’ll unearth a blog post or article from every corner of the globe with everyone offering up their personal take on the show about nothing. It clearly holds a place in our popular culture and remains to this day, unequivocally, the most iconic show of the 1990’s, turning “Yada Yada Yada”, “Shrinkage”, “Double Dipping”, and “No soup for you!” into everyday reference points. It was a legend in its own time, building a sizable following with 30-40 million people tuning into its broadcasts in the final few seasons. By then, it had began to lampoon (maybe not so successfully) its own tendencies and idiosyncrasies turning its simple, everyday observations into gargantuan, cartoon-like (“The Blood”, “The Bookstore”) absurdities. I had a conversation with someone the other day about Seinfeld and they feel like the show hasn’t held up very well. True, not every episode in great, and the 1st, 8th, and 9th seasons are not up to the same par as the best period between seasons 2-7. Yet the simple fact remains that when it was at its best, the exploits of Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer were as funny as any show ever made. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

The Top 80 Greatest Television Countdown is fast approaching the Top 10, and with it a conclusion to Phase One of this long-running project.  The longer section will commence in mid-December.  The annual Caldecott Medal Contender series will also be launching within one week and will continue at the rate of two to three reviews a week until mid January.  Obviously it will run concurrent with Part 2 of the Television Countdown for about four weeks.  But running both at the same time will pose no problem at all.

The past week has been very difficult.  My father’s older 94 year-old sister passed away late Sunday at a hospice location in North Jersey.  She lingered there for eight days without food and water and Lucille and I were there daily.  She is the mother of my beloved cousins, the late Bobby McCartney and Douglas and Jeffrey McCartney, both of course who were there daily holding vigil.  Douglas lived with my Aunt his entire life.   An extremely close aunt through all our lives, and a time of great sorrow. (more…)

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By Stephen Mullen

This is very near and dear to my heart. For my money, Monty Python’s Flying Circus is the best show ever on television.

What was it? A sketch comedy show, made by a group of writers and performers (and a doctor) from Cambridge and Oxford, plus an American animator, aired at the end of the 1960s and the early 70s on BBC; some of it was recorded in front of a studio audience, but this was augmented with material shot outside the studio, as well as animation. It ran 3 1/2 years, 45 episodes in total. After it ended, the troop continued to work, together and separately; they made a compilation film from reshot versions of some of their best sketches, a way to distribute the material in those pre-video tape days (and before the show went into syndication, in the US at least); a couple years later, they made an original film, a spoof of King Arthur tales (and Eisenstein), that became much more of a success. Somewhere in here, the show was picked up by PBS in the United States, and soon became a hit, which encouraged PBS to start picking up other British comedy shows. They also made records, right from the start, and went on to make more films, to perform live and so on, generating a fair amount of product. However these things were received when they were made, by the mid-70s they were part of the culture, and easy to find – on radio, syndication, by word of mouth. By the end of the decade, and into the 80s, Monty Python had sunk very deep roots in youth culture, here in the USA at least. For me and most of my pals, anyway: you walked around high school and college quoting them and stealing their jokes, you watched the reruns on PBS and you scrounged up the VHS of the Holy Grail and watched that, over and over and over, you wore it out, you bought the records and listened to them, you sang the songs (sit on my face and let my lips embrace you!), you learned the names of philosophers and cheeses and many, many synonyms for death, you heard of things like Watney’s Red Barrel and Biggles and Algy that might not otherwise have jumped the pond, you made jokes about your idiom, you learned what litotes was, you picked up many excellent insults (sniveling little rat faced git), and years later, you saw Godard’s Weekend and recognized half a dozen Monty Python bits. Well, I did. (more…)

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By Stephen Mullen

Dekalog is a 10 part television series, made in Poland in 1988, directed by Krzystof Kieslowski, written by Kieslowski and Krzystof Piesiewicz, his frequent writing collaborator. Each episode in the series is dedicated to one of the Ten Commandments, though the links are often quite free. The series is, in practice, more like a film cycle than television series – each episode is self-contained, linked only in their relationships to the commandments, and the setting, a large apartment complex in Warsaw. (And the filmmakers and crew.) Kieslowski conceived of the films as 10 separate films. He did not conform to TV conventions: recurring characters in an ongoing story; the need to pace the stories to match the way TV is watched, in the home, with the phone ringing and tea boiling and so on. Indeed, since 1989, Dekalog has been treated more like a film, or group of films, than as television. This is understandable: the films were distributed theatrically outside Poland, and Kieslowski himself was an established filmmaker when they were made, and his subsequent works made him a major art house figure internationally in the 1990s. He is a filmmaker first, and so Dekalog is treated as part of his film career. This is probably even more the case for Dekalog than for other TV shows made by people established in the film industry. David Lynch and Twin Peaks comes to mind – a series made by an established film figure a year or so after Dekalog, that, however congruent with Lynch’s career, is still seen primarily as a television show. Of course, Twin Peaks did play by the rules of television – a continuing series with characters and a through-plot and so on – which certainly helps explain the difference. But the fact remains, Dekalog’s origins in television is seen as somewhat incidental to what it is.

I don’t really mean to dispute that – Kieslowski’s own remarks and ideas about the show push criticism in that direction; I have certainly always thought of these films that way myself. But it is interesting to consider how they do relate to television, as an art form, as a social force, as technology. The strongest link to television, I think, is the way Dekalog is structured around the home, the family, the domestic space. Television is a domestic form of entertainment and art – it exists in the home, to be watched in the home; Dekalog is centered around the idea of home. Far more than other Kieslowski films, which are often about individuals making their way in the world, or at least about how people live in public, outside the home, Dekalog is almost entirely rooted in domestic spaces. When it leaves the domestic sphere, it either brings it in through other means (as the ways the domestic ethical problems of Episodes 2 and 8 are discussed in a class in Episode 8), or makes the loss of the home a felt absence in the story (Episode 5 can be seen this way.) The apartment complex where the series is set may seem to be just the device linking these stories – but in fact, those homes become central to the stories being told. The importance of children in the series, and the importance of relationships between parents and children, is an obvious theme – but these themes are themselves part of the series’ emphasis on the home. Home as family, as social space; home as physical space, actual buildings and rooms; home as symbolic space – a place of safety, rest, protection. Almost everything in the series hits one of those themes. (more…)

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Observations and ramblings with some autobiographical content, presented by Brian E. Wilson

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Autobiographical introduction (to read in the voice of Don Pardo): I know exactly where I was at 11:35pm (EST) on Saturday, October 11, 1975. I was ten years old, already a veteran MAD magazine subscriber, a lover of goofy silly comedy shows created by such geniuses as Carol Burnett and the members of Monty Python. My parents subscribed to TV Guide and I became curious about the description of this show called NBC’s Saturday Night. My parents let me stay up late on Saturdays and didn’t monitor what I watched, not worried that some reckless comedians would come along and warp me, ha. After Monty Python on PBS, I flipped over to NBC. A sketch with two men (the late Michael O’ Donoghue and the late John Belushi) talking about “wolverines” came on, and it was weird, potentially dangerous, and it blew my mind. And I was hooked.  I will not pretend I understood everything that happened on NBC’s Saturday Night but I connected with its subversive youthfulness right away. I instantly loved its world of killer bees, land sharks, and I found a kindred spirit in Gilda Radner who radiated such child-like joy and wonder when performing comedy.  I of course would also fall for the lovably deadpan excellence of the underrated Jane Curtin, the goofiness of Chevy Chase, Dan Aykroyd’s fast-talking pitchmen, Laraine Newman’s expert Valley Girl style line deliveries, Garrett Morris’ ability to add a compelling energy to a skit, and Belushi’s wild rebel spirit. SNL made me want to write comedy. In my school, the 6th grade classes all put on a play, and I somehow convinced our teacher to let us put on an SNL-style comedy show with sketches we students wrote. My contribution: a commercial spoof in which people use foul-smelling mouthwash to make annoying people faint. In 7th grade I did a (weak) Weekend Update homage for a talent show. In the late ’80s I wrote a one-act satirical comedy about a perpetually happy but wildly destructive little girl as a tribute  to my beloved Gilda. The show left it’s mark on me. And here I am in September 2017 writing about this show…which is still on the air and receiving much acclaim for its most current season…

This past year Saturday Night Live celebrated its 42nd season (!) in style. Before the season even started, the chameleon-like Kate McKinnon won the show’s 50th Emmy (for her work in the 41st season).  For season 42, the veteran comedy/variety series earned 22 Emmy nominations (the highest number the show has ever received) and the ratings soared. This year 3 of its actresses (Vanessa Bayer, Leslie Jones, and McKinnon) received Supporting Actress in a Comedy nominations. Honorary cast member and Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series nominee Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump, McKinnon’s Hillary Clinton, frequent guest star Melissa McCarthy’s Sean Spicer, and other spot-on impressions of political figures helped give the show a new feeling of energy and life. The fact that SNL feels like a phoenix rising from the ashes is nothing new. The show’s run has been like a roller coaster ride. Over the years, just when SNL looked down for the count (the notoriously chaotic 6th season, almost getting canceled in the mid-80s, being called “Saturday Night Dead” in the mid-90s), someone (Eddie Murphy, the sparkling late ’80s cast, Molly Shannon, Will Ferrell, Ana Gasteyer, Cheri Oteri, Kristen Wiig, Tina Fey, Bill Hader, McKinnon, Jones, others) would come along and breathe new life into the show. Right now it seems as if the show will run forever, which is quite amazing since its first few episodes were so modest. (more…)

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