****Yesterday’s News

Ace Atkins, motorcycle

(photo: Heinrich Klaffs, creative commons license)

By RG Belsky – Dick Belsky’s long association with New York City news media—newspapers, magazines, and television—stand him in good stead in his Manhattan-based crime novels. He makes the newsroom politics entertaining, and the city’s bustle and bravado leap off the page. They become places you want to be.

In this book, he offers a new protagonist, Clare Carlson, former superstar newspaper reporter whose employer (like so many) went out of business. Now she’s the news director for Channel 10 News, and while she likes some aspects of the job—“telling other people what to do,” she says—she clearly believes television “news” is a lesser form of journalism, well beneath her talents and skills. She’s probably right.

Yesterday’s News is a title with multiple meanings, referring to the newspaper business, Carlson herself, and the one big story from fifteen years earlier that made her reputation and earned her a Pulitzer Prize—the disappearance of eleven-year-old Lucy Devlin, plucked from her Gramercy Park neighborhood and never found.

The anniversary of Lucy’s disappearance is fast approaching when you feel the first twist of Belsky’s knife. When she was working on the story, Carlson befriended Lucy’s mother Anne, and now Anne is dying of cancer, desperate for closure. She has received an anonymous email claiming that, shortly after her disappearance, Lucy was seen at a motorcycle convention in rural New Hampshire, riding with someone named Elliott. She wants to talk to Carlson.

Like almost everyone else, Carlson assumes Lucy was dead long ago. Can she—should she?—rekindle her relationship with Anne? It’s a “good TV gimmick,” she thinks, though she has reasons to be reluctant.

This is a first-person narrative, and Belsky does a good job portraying Carlson’s mixed feelings about reinserting herself into this story. She thinks she knows it all, but he has surprises in store for her, and you may think you know everything she knows, but she can surprise as well. Plus, Carlson can be hilarious. She expertly plays the two female eye-candy news readers off each other, leaving political correctness in the dust.

Carlson does interview Anne and soon launches into full investigatory mode, rummaging around in people’s fifteen-year-old memories. These include the activities of a sketchy motorcycle gang and, specifically, the past of ex-biker and rising political star Elliott Grayson. Some of the dirt she encounters may not leave Carlson with clean hands either. The tension between Carlson and Grayson and the unexpected directions the investigation takes make for an engrossing, fun read—with a visit to Manhattan as a bonus.

See These Inspiring Documentary Biopics: RBG and Mr. Rogers

Ruth Bader GinsburgOverwhelmed by the tsunami of pettiness and downright meanness in the news this summer? These biopics make a refreshing change. RBG and Won’t You Be My Neighbor? properly celebrate two talented individuals who single-mindedly dedicated themselves to making better the lives of others.

RBG

The story of how Ruth Bader Ginsburg became an icon for women’s rights began when, as a newly minted law school graduate (Harvard and Columbia), she had trouble getting a job (trailer). Filmmakers Julie Cohen and Betsy Ward are obvious admirers, but then, there’s lots to admire. The film includes plenty of archival footage of Ginsburg as a quite beautiful young woman, as well as audio of her earliest arguments before the Supreme Court supporting “gender blindness.”

This historical footage is supplemented by present-day interviews with legal scholars, journalists, politicians, Ginsburg’s children, and RBG herself. Although she fought fiercely for women’s rights, as a person, she’s shy and unassuming. Her parents taught her that angry displays were “self-defeating,” and she kept her calm demeanor in her court battles, even though she says she felt like a kindergarten teacher, helping judges and even members of earlier Supreme Courts to an understanding of the systematic discrimination women faced and its costs. Of course, the battle isn’t over yet and has opened on a new front with #metoo.

If she never shows anger, she shows plenty of love for her husband Marty, who died in 2010. His support enabled her to achieve much of what she has, which every woman in America benefits from today, whether she knows it or not.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 93%; audiences: 80%.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Fred Rogers 2When I saw previews of this Morgan Neville documentary about children’s television personality Fred Rogers, I was afraid it might be overly saccharine (trailer). But Rogers himself puts that issue to rest by his absolute sincerity and persuasiveness. Himself a child development expert, convinced by research showing the value of young children knowing they are loved for who they are, he used television to carry that message.

Over the years his slow delivery and habits (putting on his sweater, changing his shoes) have been mocked by numerous comedians—clips of these skits are included. OK, but the relevance of those critiques is completely undermined when the film juxtaposes scenes from his program with the usual pie-in-the-face comedy, the frantic action, the fights and violence more typical of children’s programming. There can be no question which is healthier for small children. Yet his show didn’t duck difficult issues. It took on divorce, death, 9/11, assassination—issues kids hear about, but may not get much help in understanding and processing.

Under Rogers’s gentle exterior beat the heart of a “true radical,” said Odie Henderson for RogerEbert.com. The opening song with which he greeted his audience every day said, “I have always wanted to have a neighbor just like you,” and that “you” included children of all races, abilities, and religions, wherever they lived, recent immigrants or the scions of old Boston families. He loved them, each and every one, just as they were. And they knew it.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 99%; audiences: 98%.

AMC’s “Turn”

George Washington

General George Washington at Trenton by John Trumbull

AMC’s espionage series Turn (review) is based on the exploits of the Culper Ring, a loose network of Revolutionary War spies–including one woman–from whom George Washington learned of the movements and plans of the British in and around New York, then in the redcoats’ hands. It was the era of the martyr Nathan Hale,  the dashing British spy, Major Andre, and the dastardly Benedict Arnold. And this quiet group of brave patriots. Episodes will air  numerous times over the next month, and if the series succeeds, may continue next season. It’s based on the book Washington’s Spies by historian Alexander Rose. A book on the same topic, George Washington’s Secret Six was  recently reviewed here.

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The Bletchley Circle

Bletchley Park, Bletchley CircleFans of the PBS program The Bletchley Circle—I’m one!—who have been waiting for the return of the series, mark your calendars! The second season (which will consist of two, two-episode stories) begins Sunday night, April 13, after Masterpiece Theater. This smart series, harnesses the brain power of a group of women who worked as codebreakers at fabled Bletchley Park during World War II.

In Season 1, the patronizing attitude of the males (husbands, police, etc.) toward these women who were thinking rings around them was delightful. Their skills in pattern recognition, especially, to analyze massive amounts of seemingly random data stood them in good stead. And, the show apparently, despite minor quibbles, reaches standards of factual correctness about Bletchley Park itself. (One can only imagine how Hollywood’s funhouse mirrors would have distorted reality.) Can’t wait.

 

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Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey

cosmos, science
Star formation in the cosmos (photo: NASA)

I really want to like this program, though I thought the opening episode of the 13-part series was too conceptual. Perhaps the producers believed that a generation of kids raised on Star Wars and CGI special effects wouldn’t warm to it otherwise, and perhaps that was just the result of getting some basics out of the way, but I’ll be looking for future episodes to have less sweep and more deep. Reviewers liked it.

In a tribute to counter-programming acumen, the Sunday night Fox broadcast is smack up against Masterpiece Theatre, probably cutting the audience for both. Thankfully, Cosmos reruns on Mondays on the National Geographic channel. Anything that would help Americans take science more seriously has to be appreciated. Said Cosmos host Neil deGrasse Tyson in a Wired interview, “The idea that science is just some luxury that you’ll get around to if you can afford it is regressive to any future a country might dream for itself.” Dream on, my fellow Americans.

End-Game for Downton?

Downton Abbey, Julian Fellowes

Highclere Castle, filmic home of Downton Abbey (photo: farm9.staticflicker)

In an interview with the New York Times, Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes allowed as how the show isn’t like a soap opera that can go on for decades. Seems it’s like a soap opera that can go on for no more than 10 years, he thinks. Next season will be season five, so he’s thinking about an end-game. Last night’s season finale—if not the whole season—left some critics cold.  “What happened to the formerly addictive, splendid, elegant costume drama?” asks Daily Beast reviewer Kevin Fallon. Not enough, in his opinion. Not enough change. Especially last night, when Charles Blake was revealed as an aristocrat himself, which relives Mary of one terrible choice. The mention of Brown Shirts as the possible attackers of Edith’s lover was a dark bit of foreshadowing that change may finally come to Downton.

 

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So you think you know Washington, DC?

U.S. Capitol, Washington

(photo: farm4.staticflickr)

Take the House of Cards opening credits quiz and find out just how well you know our capital city.  I got 46 points out of 100.  House of Cards (the Netflix-produced show starring political shenanigans and Kevin Spacey) returned recently with 12 new episodes released on the Netflix website.

And enabling the binge-viewing popular among friends who’d watch a season of 24 over a weekend.

The most important way in which Congressman-now-Veep Underwood’s fictional Washington differs from the real thing? Spacey said it: “Our Congress gets s— done.”

 

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Big Data & the Small Screen

TV watching is getting better! It’s not just because TiVo lets you skip the ads, it’s not just the high-quality original programming from the premium cable channels, it’s big data doing something actually useful.

The lead feature in the April issue of Wired covers what it calls “the Platinum Age of Television,” and it says “networks and advertisers are using all-new metrics to design hit shows.” The Nielsen rating system’s hegemony has developed some pretty serious cracks in today’s multimedia environment. It was best at projecting how many people were sitting in front of their television sets watching a given show at a given time. Once the DVR arrived, Nielsen adjusted its system to count viewers who watched an episode up to a week later. And, this fall it says it will start counting views streamed over the Internet.

But it still isn’t counting Hulu, Netflix, Apple TV, Amazon Prime, Roku, iTunes, smartphone, or tablet viewings, says Wired.

Since the key younger demographic is disappearing from the ratings system and the networks and advertisers are left with grandpa in his La-Z-Boy, they’re looking to new information sources: Twitter followers, show-related trending topics, and the like. In February, Twitter bought Bluefin Labs to help it start providing some of these data. Bluefin and its competitors mine social media messages relevant to 120 different TV networks and link them to data on the people who post and the devices they use. Watching while tweeting and posting to Facebook are a new norm.

“Some day in the near future, a show’s tweetability may be just as crucial as the sheer size of its audience,” says Wired. This means that shows people actually care about will rise in the network firmament based on much more than timeslot viewers.

Networks know some shows attract a small audience that really, really cares about them. Think of the firestorm of letters they receive when they cancel one, or how NBC had to get creative with Direct TV to save Friday Night Lights. Comparing “most watched” to “most loved” shows, a lot people are watching stuff they don’t care about all that much. Viewers rate a number of shows—Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Sherlock (OMG, PBS!), for example—higher than the much more popular NCIS, Vegas and others. Which only proves what we’ve always known, just because a show is watched doesn’t mean it’s very good.

With better metrics, the shows people feel passionate about may stand a better chance of survival.

Exploring Further

WiredHow Data Powers the Platinum Age of Television

The Nielsen Company – “New Study Confirms Correlation between Twitter and TV Ratings” -3/20/13

TV.Com’s annotated list of most popular TV shows.