Another Week: Number 21
But thank you, dear hero evangelist, for so thoughtfully positioning your little pamphlet about getting to heaven on the bathroom sink of a McDonald’s where I was buying my wife a McFlurry in hopes of getting any kind of calories into her system without her vomiting them right out.
Given the pathetic time and place, I couldn’t help but smile.
Below are some other notable items from the past seven days.
Lewis Black: Tragically, I Need You
We have loved Lewis Black since his “Back in Black” segments began on The Daily Show in 1996 when Craig Kilborn was hosting. His histrionic rage serves as a vicarious outlet for our own dissatisfaction with modern life and requires no militant insignia or dedicated transceivers.
In fact, his latest comedy special, Lewis Black: Tragically, I Need You, is available to anyone with access to YouTube — for free! (The show was recorded a year ago and took a long time to get released.)
The hour is centered around the isolation, fear, chaos, and insanity of the recent COVID pandemic that made headlines for a couple of years. Black went through it with the rest of us, and here he ticks through some of its most surreal moments and skewers them with maniacal pique and his trademark finger jabs.
We laughed hard.
Still: A Michael J Fox Movie
I saw that there was a new documentary about Michael J. Fox arriving on May 12 on Apple TV+, but I hesitated to watch it for a few days because it might be depressing. We don’t like to be reminded that we are all headed toward inevitable disaster and oblivion.
But the publicity made the film sound like a Big Deal, so Sunday night we watched Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie and were pleased by how good it was.
It includes Fox looking into the camera and frankly telling the story of his gritty climb to stratospheric superstardom, only to be diagnosed with incurable, degenerative Parkinson’s disease upon reaching that peak.
It also includes footage of Fox struggling determinedly through physical therapy and walking down the street.
It is profoundly depressing.
At the same time, this movie by Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth) is breathtaking for the way it uses reenactments, illustrations, movie clips, media coverage, behind-the-scenes footage, and whatever other content snippets could be found in rapid-fire association to circle and underscore the points being conveyed in the fairly chronological storyline. That so much information can be packed so cleverly into 95 minutes is an achievement by itself — and yet the barrage is enlightening rather than overwhelming because it’s so well organized.
Still gives us a good summary of Fox’s childhood in Canada and his impoverished survival on the edge after moving to Los Angeles to follow his acting dream.
We also see his grueling life as a superstar, shuttled back and forth from TV to movie sets with barely any time to sleep between tapings and shoots.
And we see the slow progress of Parkinson’s, beginning one morning as a fluttering finger and gradually forcing Fox to wrestle for control of his own arm, and then his gait, and then …
As Fox acknowledges, “I’m a tough son of a bitch.”
One element I felt was lacking was much input from Fox’s wife, actor Tracy Pollan, who played his girlfriend on Family Ties. We see her with him frequently and get a little of his side of their romance, but not many of her own words.
That quibble aside, Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie is outstanding.
The Great, Season 3
The third season of Hulu’s excellent series The Great began on May 12 and so far we have seen two of the new episodes after enjoying both previous seasons.
The series is based on the rise and reign of Catherine the Great, Empress of All Russia from 1762 to 1796 — but in this rendition, real historical figures and facts are as incidental as Arthurian legend in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. You don’t need to be a history scholar to enjoy this show.
As in many serious historical depictions, most of The Great‘s characters speak with British — not Russian — accents. The sets and the costumes are beautifully ornate.
But that’s where the PBS-ness ends.
The Great is a witty, rapid-fire comedy from sharp minds — sort of like the old 30 Rock show on NBC. But The Great is far filthier than any network TV. Sex provides copious punchlines as well as plotlines. There are also some shocks of violence now and then.
Unlike 30 Rock, The Great is not just a joke delivery machine. There is an actual story arc that follows Catherine’s gradual ascension to power — supplanting her husband, Peter III — and then her struggles to exercise power, pitted against several scheming characters. In some ways, The Great resembles a very light Shakespeare comedy.
Elle Fanning stars as Catherine, and her acting is as award-worthy as any serious Oscar contender — even when she’s being accused of fucking horses. This is a woman who sincerely wants to do great things despite all the petty chaos swirling around her.
Nicholas Hoult, as Peter, is a fatuous tyrant who experiences fleeting moments of self-awareness from time to time. Adam Godley is multi-layered as the calculating archbishop “Archie.”
Twenty-some episodes in, The Great remains one of the best shows on television, moving its brilliant ensemble into new situations without losing its way.
FRONTLINE: Clarence & Ginny Thomas — Politics, Power, and the Supreme Court
I clearly remember the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, but during his tenure on the Supreme Court, he has mostly kept out of the spotlight — as it turns out, by enjoying plenty of luxury vacations.
But apart from those hearings, I couldn’t tell you much about Thomas’s background and personal history. While we’re waiting for his childhood home to become a public museum, the masterful PBS documentary series FRONTLINE has put together a couple of hours examining the formative years of both the problematic justice and his radical, right-wing wife: Clarence and Ginni Thomas: Politics, Power and the Supreme Court
As the story unfolds, you begin to get the sickening feeling that we have a deeply disturbed man serving on the highest court in the land.
Tears for Fears: KCRW Live from The Village Studios
I certainly heard a lot of Tears for Fears on the radio during their peak in the mid-to-late-1980s, but I never bought their music, never attended a show, and never knew much about them.
That hasn’t changed, but on Tuesday evening — serving as Amy’s YouTube deejay and choosing a queue of clips to play on our TV — this KCRW performance from last September popped up, so we watched it.
It’s 24 minutes of solid musical fun. Great stuff.
A World of Calm
Sometimes when you’re sitting in a darkened living room on a sunny Saturday morning and your wife is enduring waves of agonizing migraine headaches, you both need some distraction to break the silence — but a very calm and quiet distraction.
So I Googled in search of a calming show.
I found A World of Calm, a series on Max from the folks behind the meditation app Calm that we do not use. Each of the 10 episodes is 22 minutes long and features slow-paced HD scenery with ambient music and a famous person soothingly reciting facts about the subject matter — an Indonesian coral reef, or the art of glassblowing, in the first two episodes that we watched.
It was astounding how perfectly this fit my specific request. It was calming, we could pay attention or not, and we ingested a few factoids.
Will we watch more episodes in less stressful circumstances? I doubt it — but it’s nice to know they’re there.