Update: Since writing this little review, I've learned that Elmore Leonard gave the manuscript of Raylan to the writers of Justified a couple of years ago so they could "hang it up and strip it for parts." This answers some questions of mine but doesn't change my opinion of the book.
raylan.jpg Let me say up front that I adore Elmore Leonard. Wait, rever might be a better word. Worship. Idolize. I've been working my way through his immense canon for years. When I bought my iPad, the first thing I did was load it up with his ebooks. His minimalist, dialog-driven prose conveys more than most writers' wordier, clumsy attempts at clarity. He's surely our greatest living writer of crime fiction, and I wish I could write like he does.

That said, Leonard has always had a problem with sequels, which is what his new novel Raylan essentially is. Whether bringing Chili Palmer from Get Shorty back in Be Cool or Jack Foley from Out of Sight back in Road Dogs, he simply seems to have trouble finding a story of equal weight to build around characters who've already had their perfect turn in the spotlight. I appreciate the fact that major characters from some Leonard novels often show up in supporting roles in others, but two major outings always seems to be one too many.

This, I regret to say, is the case with Raylan. U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens was a supporting character in Leonard's 1993 novel Pronto, then a more major character in 1995's Riding the Rap, but he probably enjoyed his finest role in the 2000 novella "Fire in the Hole." In that story Givens, who sees himself as a modern-day gunslinging lawman, is punished for his trigger-happy ways with a reassignment from Florida to Kentucky, where he grew up and mined coal as a teenager. He is drawn reluctantly but inevitably into a showdown with his former friend and colleague Boyd Crowder, who has gone the other way into a life of crime and violence.

"Fire in the Hole" was the direct inspiration for the FX series Justified, which is in its third season and is currently one of my favorite shows on television. Unfortunately Justified seems to have been the direct inspiration for Raylan, which is less a novel than three slightly overlapping Raylan Givens novellas smooshed together into one book. The first plotline, about a gang who steal kidneys and then try to sell them back to the victims, has appeared in slightly different form on Justified already this season. The second, about a mining company's attempts to intimidate land owners into selling, was the story underlying most of Justified's second season. The third features hookers coerced into committing dangerous robberies in exchange for oxycontin, a plotline that appeared in last week's Justified, and I think it's reasonable to assume that the high-stakes poker subplot will show up in a future episode.

I found the book to be an unfocused, disappointing mess. I'm not sure whether Leonard assembled it from scenarios he'd generated himself as an executive producer of Justified or borrowed ideas from the show's writers, but either way it's hard to see how it would appeal to anyone. The narrative is too fractured and too reliant on familiarity with past Givens stories to appeal to new readers, and it recycles too much familiar material from the show to appeal to Justified fans.

In the end, though I'm pained to say it, Raylan simply comes off as a crass attempt to cash in on the popularity of the show, and on that level I guess it worked. It fooled me into parting with my 25 bucks.

Crossposted from Inhuman Swill
Okay, sometimes it's fun to see yourself on TV. In 2004, the Trio network debuted a documentary series called "Parking Lot," which featured snippets of conversations with attendees at events like concerts or conventions. The show didn't last long, but it did last long enough for Scott Edelman and Bob Howe and I to end up in one episode.

Scott (who has written a longer post about our brief appearance) has just discovered that the producers of "Parking Lot" have been uploading segments of the show to YouTube. And voilà!, there we are outside of I-CON 22, a science convention at SUNY Stony Brook.

See if you can spot Scott and Bob and me, nine years younger, trying to sound all erudite and set ourselves apart from the rest of the madness. And, um, failing. Our bits are interspersed throughout the segment.

Crossposted from Inhuman Swill


Dec. 2nd, 2011 01:03 pm
I was complaining about The Walking Dead a couple of weeks ago. I finally saw the mid-season finale (an oxymoron, for sure), after having somehow managed to avoid any spoilers. I have to say, it was great, it was visceral, it was shocking, it recast the entire season so far. What it did not do, though, was atone for how boring the season was up to that point. Here's hoping the remainder of the season can maintain that level of intensity, even if the characters are still more types than people.

In other follow-up news, I've been waiting for the Mormon missionaries to call me after their visit back in October, but they still haven't. I feel rejected. I feel jilted. I feel not worth saving. I feel upset that I haven't been able to invite them in and then tell them that praying out loud is not permitted under my roof.

Dammit. Maybe they found out more about me and are afraid. Maybe they just didn't like me. Oh, well, life is short.
For a while there, AMC was a network that could do no wrong when it came to original scripted series. First there was Mad Men. (I don't watch it, but people I respect love it.) Then came Breaking Bad (which just closed out a stellar fourth season and is still my favorite show on television). And then there was Rubicon, a slow-building but hypnotic show about the lives of intelligence analysts that crescendoed into one of the most gripping shows of 2010. I was devastated when it wasn't renewed for a second season.

But AMC is losing me with its new crop of programs. The Walking Dead started out okay, but this second season is testing my patience. For a show that has the word "Walking" in its title, there sure doesn't seem to be any sense of forward momentum. I don't think it's much of a spoiler to say that I'm sick to death of everybody being stuck at the damn farmhouse. It's more like The Walking-in-Circles Dead. Yes, I'm sure we're building to something, but is it too much to ask that the characters exhibit some personality in the meantime, or that the pacing doesn't flag like a sailing ship in the doldrums? The show only comes alive anymore when there are dead people on the screen, and that doesn't happen nearly enough. Frank Darabont's episodes last year had their problems, but he is nonetheless sorely missed. The zombie apocalypse should be more exciting than this.

And AMC's newest show, Hell on Wheels, isn't exactly bowling me over yet. The characters on this please-call-us-gritty western at least have the advantage of being far more colorful than any on The Walking Dead, but I haven't yet gotten the sense of much humanity beneath the surface of any of them. There's something a bit remote about the acting. I feel a great distance between myself and most of the characters. Colm Meaney is the exception, but his railroad baron is so over-the-top that I really can't buy him, especially in the way that he cheerfully explains his evil plans to anyone who will listen. If you're going to have such a loquacious villain, it helps to fill his mouth with great dialog, like Ian McShane's on Deadwood. But no one on Hell on Wheels, cast or crew, is operating at that level. Not that that would matter if they didn't seem to be cribbing everything down to the seams and themes from David Milch. This show literally looks like a low-rent traveling production of Deadwood. But maybe they'll find their way. (I really hope they give Common something more interesting to do than just look angry.)

Anyway, AMC used to get the automatic benefit of the doubt from me, but those are days gone bye.
Dan Sinker, a/k/a @MayorEmanuel, appeared on The Colbert Report Tuesday night, and I have to say he hit it out of the park. Occasionally a guest will say something so funny or bizarre that Colbert has nothing to say in response. Sinker did it twice.

The first clip here sets up the interview in the second clip:

Dan Sinker on The Colbert Report )
Dear FX Networks:

I've never before been moved to write a television network to express my love for a program that has struggled in its ratings, but that's exactly what I'm doing now. There are few shows I've ever come to love so quickly and fiercely as I love Terriers. I hope you'll renew it and give this compelling, idiosyncratic show a chance to find a wider audience.

You know, of course, that the writing and directing on Terriers is top-notch. The show is brisk and involving, witty and suspenseful. (In what was probably my favorite single episode, "Agua Caliente," the suspense was excruciating.) At the outset of the series, I assumed I was watching nothing more than an unusually good PI drama with snappy dialogue. It wasn't long, though, before I realized how attached I had become to the characters, and what an emotional stake I had in their problems, both personal and professional.

This points out that no matter how good the talent behind the cameras, the show would be nothing without great acting, which is exactly what Donal Logue and Michael Raymond-James deliver in every episode. They're tough when they have to be, they desperately try to be as smart as they need to be, but they never fail to exude warmth and charm and vulnerability. Their friendship is one of the most natural-seeming I've seen on television, which only makes the ordeals they endure all the more devastating. Donal Logue, in particular, has never been better.

Maybe the reason I and many other passionate viewers love Hank and Britt so much is because we, like them, are not as smart or tough as we'd like to be, but, like them, we have to muddle through somehow. Whatever the reason, you have a show on your hands that, despite superficial similarities to other drama series, is unlike anything else on television right now.

I'm sad now that I don't have a new episode of Terriers to look forward to next week. If you renew it—and I implore you to—I will keep watching faithfully, and I will keep telling all my friends to watch.

William Shunn

And to my friends: The first season of Terriers is over, but that doesn't mean you still can't hop on the train if you missed it earlier. Several episodes are still available for free on Hulu—including, for the next five days, Episode 8, "Agua Caliente." That's the first episode I saw, and as good a place as any to start if you're not willing to pay for the iTunes downloads.

In fact, it's a
great place to start, chock-full of everything that makes Terriers great, and just to get you started, I'm going to embed it for you here:

TERRIERS Season 1 Episode 8: Agua Caliente )

But don't just take my word for it. Here are a couple of other defenses of Terriers that you should read:

  • Don't Put This Dog Down: TV Needs FX's 'Terriers'

  • 'Terriers' offers viewers most compelling look at 'real life' on the airways

    And a little clip, too!

    Terriers Clip: Target Practice )

  • I love the AMC series Rubicon so much that I tracked down a copy of one of the out-of-print collections of producer/writer Henry Bromell's New Yorker short stories from the '70s. I've started I Know Your Heart, Marco Polo, and so far I'm very taken with the hallucinatory prose style. Can't wait to finish it.

    I think it's the first time that someone's television work has prompted me to seek out his or her fiction. Racing through The Wire is what finally prompted me to read David Simon's non-fiction Homicide, a book that had been mocking me from the shelf for twenty years. (Interestingly, Bromell also worked on the Homicide television series.) I started watching Justified precisely because I was a fan of the Elmore Leonard novels featuring Raylan Givens. (Of course, it also didn't hurt that Timothy Olyphant from Deadwood was playing the character.)

    But I'm pretty sure the Bromell conversion is a first. If I keep enjoying the stories, his novel Little America, a semi-autobiographical (I gather) tale of a son trying to understand his father's C.I.A. career, sounds pretty interesting.

    Any of you other Rubicon fans recognize the name Joseph Purcell?
    It was Laura who discovered the show in late 2006 and convinced me to start watching it with her. A sitcom about a female sportswriter in Chicago and her circle of male poker buddies. We were both hooked, not just because the group of friends were so damn nice and charming and funny, but because the lead character, P.J., seemed so much more like a real woman than most women on television. I guess the show reminded us of our circle of friends.

    The second season of "My Boys" (later canonically folded into season one) started the same month we moved to Chicago from New York City. It was like a group of old friends welcoming us to the city, right down to the shot of Wrigley Field in the opening credits (which is where we saw The Police in concert the very week we moved here). If it wasn't already our favorite show, it took that slot then.

    That summer season of "My Boys" ran a scant nine episodes, as has every season since. Like a butterfly migration, it arrives unexpectedly in the spring or summer and is gone again too soon. The gang's hangout, Crowley's Tavern, became for us the adult analog of Sesame Street—the mythical happy place we wanted to find and inhabit.

    No more. It turns out that the season just ended is the "My Boys" swan song. TBS has canceled the series. We watched the two final episodes back-to-back last night, eating ice cream, happy for the characters' happy endings but mourning their exit from our lives.

    After three years in Chicago, can you tell us how to get, how to get to Crowley's?
    Hold onto your head scarves. There are 103 full episodes of "21 Jump Street" available on Hulu. Johnny Depp must be so pleased. You needed to know.
    I think most people know me as a fairly laid-back guy in person, never getting too exercised or losing my cool, even when someone's being a jerk to me. If that's your opinion, then you've never worked in an office with me. Seriously. Ask the good, long-suffering people at BenefitsCheckUp or Sesame Workshop. (Actually, don't ask the people at Sesame Workshop. Most of the folks I used to work with there got the ax even before I did.)

    If you talked to them, you'd find out that I could be a real bastard in the workplace. Some people at my last job were apparently afraid to talk to me when I thought they'd messed up, or at all. I made at least one producer at the Sesame Street website cry. Mind you, I'm not proud of this. No, wait, actually I am.

    Over the past week or so, I've watched the recent film In the Loop three times on DVD. Besides its scathing, cynical view of the political process that lubricated our way into Iraq, I can't get enough of Malcolm Tucker, the angry, profane press secretary who never encountered a functionary he couldn't intimidate or a problem he couldn't spin his way out of. I want to be Malcolm Tucker, or at least be that articulate when I'm enraged.

    Tucker, as played by Peter Capaldi, is also a character on the BBC comedy series The Thick of It. That's the source of the short video clip below (decidedly NSFW in its language), which pretty well sums up the Tucker philosophy.

    I think you'll agree, there's a little bit of Malcolm Tucker in all of us.

    The sweary bits )
    All that's going on in the world today and in my life lately has apparently not been enough to drag my short attention span away from Twitter*, but there's a television series that just managed it.

    A few minutes ago, I finished watching the season 2 finale of AMC's original series Breaking Bad. I should be working on my novel right now, but I've been awake since 3:30 this morning when thunderstorms woke up the dog and consequently woke us up. As long as I was up anyway, I took the dog to the couch and started watching TV shows from the DVR. I watched an episode of Reaper, then an episode of Lie to Me, and then, because I just couldn't resist putting the reward off any longer, last night's episode of Breaking Bad.

    If you're not familiar with the series, it's the story of a high school chemistry teacher named Walter White (Malcolm in the Middle's Bryan Cranston) who is diagnosed with lung cancer and starts a meth lab to provide money for his family for after he's gone. I love the series not just for the impeccable acting and directing, but for the pitilessness of the writing. Even when Walt makes his best and smartest decisions, the remorseless logic of his situation (and in fact of his own pride and anger) twists him deeper and deeper into a trap of his own making. His bid to save his family—and, it must be said, his desire to demonstrate to himself how smart he is—only ends up driving them all apart, and the consequences for the lesser players who enter his orbit are even worse.

    Why does this relentless arc make me so happy to watch, even when watching sometimes feels like taking a knife in the gut? Maybe it's something of the same impulse that makes Eminem's rapping so compelling, even when (as in "3 A.M.") the content is repulsive. It's the thrill of watching artists in utter control of their tools.

    Take Breaking Bad's second-season arc (which I will attempt to discuss without major spoilers). The season opened with a half-burned teddy bear floating in a swimming pool. That image (and the episode's title, "Seven-Thirty-Seven") would not be explained for thirteen more episodes, but gave the viewer confidence that the minds behind the show were not merely flying by the seats of their pants but knew exactly where they were going from the beginning. The season finale opened with the same image, and went further to show workers in hazmat suits laying two shrouded bodies in the driveway of Walt's house.

    Video: Season Two, Episode One )

    From there, the season finale (like the season itself, in miniature) took absolutely none of the expected turns, and even offered a cryptic glimpse of the teddy bear in a wall mural. In its third act, the episode jumped suddenly seven weeks ahead to detonate the emotional bombs that had been planted all throughout the season. If Walt thought he was finally out of the woods with his family, he was wrong, and the revelation of what Jane's father Donald (John de Lancie—yes, Q.) does for a living sets off a countdown of dread when it dawns just where that damn charred bear is going to come from.

    Is it presposterous? On one level, yes. But on a more important level, it's absolutely perfect because it illustrates for us, if not for Walt, just how far-reaching the expanding ripples of his first unwise decision have grown. It's a superb example of unity of theme. All kudos to series creator Vince Gilligan, a veteran writer/producer of The X-Files.

    But to climb down from my ivory tower, I simply find Breaking Bad a thrilling viewing experience. If you appreciate crime drama with nuance and consequence, you should watch it. Season 1 is available on DVD, and I can only assume season 2 will be also before the third season comes along.

    * Okay, a much larger part of it is that I'm about halfway through writing a novel called Technomancers, and my larger chunks of time go to reading manuscripts for an upcoming workshop and re-editing old audio files for my new podcast.
    Hey, that was Gordon from Sesame Street on S5E4 of The Wire!
    Friday night we headed over to the Landmark Theater at the Century Centre for a late-night showing of the Bruce Campbell–directed Bruce Campbell flick My Name Is Bruce. My review is over at SciFi.com.

    If you have any scintilla of interest in the Campbell oeuvre, you should see this flick. Campbell is currently on a promotional tour, and you can check here to see if he's coming to your town (or, um, if he's already been and you missed it). His live, faux-hostile Q&A sessions after the movie are possibly more entertaining than the movie itself, and should not be missed.

    We were lucky enough that Campbell's Burn Notice costar Jeffrey Donovan, who is in town appearing in Don't Dress for Dinner at the Royal George Theater, joined the Q&A here as a surprise guest. Laura, who is a big fan, just about lost her mind. Campbell and Donovan together were as funny and profane as fuck. My 13-year-old son, in town with us for Thanksgiving, was beside himself, and actually held his own with Campbell in an exchange about the movie Congo.
    Thanks to Netflix, I've been enjoying a steady diet of The Wire, an episode a day on average—um, sometimes two. I'm nearly to the end of the third season. I watched Episode 10 last Thursday. The fifth disc of Season Three, with the last two episodes, was supposed to arrive Friday.

    Friday's mail came and went. No DVD.

    I didn't start to panic until Saturday's mail had also come and gone with no sign of my re-up. Trembling a little, I logged into Netflix to report the disc lost. Netflix told me that occasional delays are to be expected, and that I would not be able to report the disc missing and request a replacement until Monday.

    I began to sweat.

    The first thing I did Monday morning, even though the day's mail was still hours away, was to at last report Season Three Disc Five of The Wire missing and to request a replacement. Not an hour later I received email from Netflix telling me that they had just processed the return of the disc I had reported missing.

    By now, spots were swimming before my eyes. They had received the missing disc?! The only scenario I could construct that could explain this is that the post office had somehow delivered the DVD on Friday to the wrong house, where that good citizen had recognized the error and straightaway put the disc back in the mail.

    I started to feel nauseous. How close had my re-up come? Had it ended up miles away, or had it come to rest as close as next door?

    I had to stop thinking about it. That way lay madness.

    But hope still remained. Tuesday. There is a Netflix processing center right here in Chicago, which meant that at least I would have my replacement disc Tuesday. I only had to wait one more day. I wet my cracked lips as best I could with my blistered tongue. One more day.

    I soon received email confirmation that my re-up had indeed shipped. It would arrive ... what? What the fuck? Wednesday? Why are you busting my fucking balls with this Wednesday shit, Netflix? That's no way to fucking do business! Wednesday?

    Sorry, pal. Wednesday's the best we can do. Veteran's Day, you know. No mail.

    Aw, shit fucccin mutherfuafhuoahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh_&^$+@~%@%^%&^@!_#(&^%------------

    The re-up

    Oct. 27th, 2008 07:34 am
    I guess I've watched way too many episodes of The Wire lately, and read too much Richard Price. Now, every time I go to the kitchen to refill my coffee mug I think of it as the "re-up."

    On an almost separate note, I'm delighted to report that besides my cubby at Writers WorkSpace, there are a couple of coffee shops right by our apartment that are laptop-friendly. It's less than a block to this one, where (taking a page from the [livejournal.com profile] gregvaneekhout playbook) I spent a little time on Thursday afternoon:

    Let Them Eat Chocolate!

    This is why you live in a city, kids.
    A long but worthwhile exhortation from Craig Ferguson to study the issues and listen to yourself when you vote. Long but very worthwhile.

    (Via [livejournal.com profile] parttimedriver.)
    Since we were discussing Coupling here recently, I wanted to mention a rather jarring piece of advertising Laura and I saw last night. We DVR reruns of Coupling on BBC America to try to catch episodes we've missed in the past. Laura had never seen the very first episode, so that's what we were watching. As I fast-forwarded through the commercials, though, I realizes we were seeing an ad for The Lamb of God, a free Easter video from the LDS Church. (Sample bits here and here.) Seriously, the Mormons were advertising on one of the most frank, sexually themed sitcoms of all time. I have to wonder if that was deliberate or if it was a case of block ad-buying like the one that put Mitt Romney's campaign ads on Gay.com. What's next? Christian Scientists advertising on House? Scientologists advertising on Mythbusters?

    In other amusing news, someone is selling The Lamb of God on eBay. Which is funny because the Mormon Church will send you a copy for free.

    In other bittersweet news, How I Met Your Mother seems to have hit its stride again after a bit of a creative slump early in the season. The last few episodes have been sharp and as tightly written as Coupling, and Laura and I could barely breathe for laughing through this week's episode. This, just in time for the writers strike.
    We thought we could beat the thunderstorms. That is why last Monday evening I walked thirty minutes to a showing of Live Free or Die Hard, while Laura biked to Pipers Alley to meet up with the running group she was attending for the first time.

    I thoroughly enjoyed my movie, even the patently preposterous parts toward the end, and I emerged to discover that it had rained while I was inside. A lot. Laura, on the other hand, ran with the group and biked home in it.

    So it was that when I arrived home I found her recuperating on the couch in front of the television. She had the Travel Channel on, and had paused the live feed. "You need to watch this," she said. "Before you do anything else. I guarantee it will make you happy."

    This is what she showed me:

    It did make me happy. It also gave me the worst case by far of missing New York that I've had since moving here.

    It also made me hungry.
    You've probably seen this already, but I finally got a chance to watch it...

    Tidy up

    Mar. 30th, 2007 12:18 pm
    Here are a couple of Ikea commercials you probably won't see on American television:


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