Tuesday, December 31, 2019

That Wonderful Year in Music... 2019

I've reviewed nearly six decades of music. From my experience, the last year of any given decade is either a high point or culmination (1969, 1979) or... simply not (1989, 2009). I'm relieved to say this year falls into the former category. Any year ending in 9 offers an opportunity for hindsight, and some of musical trends in the latter half of the decade flourished and persisted into 2019. Eclecticism ruled, but specifically it was a banner year for female-identifying songwriters. 2019 goes to toe-to-toe with 2010 and 2016 as the best years for music in this past decade, and this is just a sampling of why.

1. Titanic Rising, Weyes Blood. Full confession: I'm a sucker for lush orchestration. Fans of Cocteau Twins and Low (and to some degree, 1970s FM radio) will not be out of place listening to Natalie Mering and company's fourth effort. The songcraft is driven and confident, simultaneously meandering and meticulously detailed.
2. Bandana, Freddie Gibbs & Madlib. I feel bad for sleeping on their first collaboration, 2014's Pinata. That album established FG&M as a formidable hip-hop duo, and Bandana, their major label debut, augments their building legend. The beats on here are insane.
3. Magdalene, FKA Twigs. Speaking of 2014, another album worth the wait. Tahilah Barnett (aka Twigs) suffered for her art in the past half-decade: the end of a long-term relationship, followed by a battle with uterine fibroids, inform her "resurrection" as a modern-day Mary Magdalene.
4. All Mirrors, Angel Olsen
5. Shea Butter Baby, Ari Lennox
6. When I Get Home, Solange
7. Reward, Cate Le Bon
8. Norman F***ing Rockwell, Lana Del Rey
9. Ventura, Anderson .Paak
10. Pony, Orville Peck.  Imagine Chris Isaak meeting David Lynch. This is not your father's country album.

11. My Finest Work Yet, Andrew Bird
12. On The Line, Jenny Lewis
13. Igor, Tyler, The Creator
14. I Am Easy to Find, The National
15. Remind Me Tomorrow, Sharon Van Etten. An indie darling and coffee house favorite, Van Etten traded composing on guitar for piano for her most recent work. The result was a more emotionally naked, ferociously beautiful piece of art and maybe her best album yet.
16. Grey Area, Little Simz
17. ANIMA, Thom Yorke
18. Hiding Places, Billy Woods & Kenny Segal
19. Ginger, Brockhampton
20. Father of the Bride, Vampire Weekend. The remaining trio weathered a personnel change, switched coasts, and met some new collaborators in the six years since Modern Vampires of the City. It's not necessarily a new sound for VW, but all these changes made for more mature songwriting and a laid-back, more optimistic aesthetic.

1. Glitter Wolf, Allison Miller's Boom Tic Boom. In some ways, the globe-hopping Miller has become a Ser Brianne of Tarth for modern creative jazz: a tall, imposing warrior that can no longer be underestimated. Miller's ability an edge to the softest music, while darting from klezmer to post-bop to Cuban jazz, is hard to match.
2. Fly or Die II: Bird Dogs of Paradise, Jaimie Branch
3. 12 Little Spells, Esperanza Spaulding
4. Trust in the Lifeforce of the Deep Mystery, The Comet is Coming
5. Immigrance, Snarky Puppy

Best Album of 2019 Some People Recommended But I Haven't Heard Yet: Crush, Floating Points. I'll listen to it on Spotify soon enough. Mea culpa, I ran out of time.

SINGLES (in no order):
"The Best," Self Esteem
"Like Sugar," Shaka Khan
"Doubt," Radical Face
"No Squares," Chika
"No Bullets Spent," Spoon
"Forever Half Mast," Lucy Dacus
"Heaven Help Me," Lizzo
"Truth Hurts," Lizzo
"Peach Fuzz," Caamp
"Some Mutts (Can't Be Muzzled)," Amyl and The Sniffers

"Turn the Light," Karen O. and Danger Mouse
"Bad Guy," Billie Eilish
"Boys in the Better Land," Fontaines D.C.
"Mumbay," Sarathy Korwar
"Fire," Black Pumas
"Last Straw," Nerija
"Supernature," Modern Nature
"Sing Along," Sturgill Simpson
"Stay High," Brittany Howard
"Bad Idea!" girl in red

Best Song of 2019 That I Didn't Realize Was a 51-Year-Old Buffalo Springfield Cover: "Questions," Jakob Dylan feat. Eric Clapton and Stephen Stills

1. "ANIMA," Thom Yorke. This Netflix exclusive, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (who also helmed the HAIM clip, see below) embraces its own Charlie Chaplin-meets-Kurt Weill vibe.
2. "Akindo Fighter," Emiko Shibamura. The type of music video that has to be experienced and digested whole, the story behind this sixty-something Japanese rapper and her "vision" is not something I can encapsulate here.
3. "Kids Turned Out Fine," A$AP Rocky. It's an understatement to say music videos in the YouTube age have grown more experimental and obtuse, and Rocky is just one artist has both enabled and benefited from this new frontier. Known for making dead-serious social commentary *and* goofy, drugged-out clips, "Kids" lands somewhere in between with mesmerizing results.
4. "Holy Water," Galantis. Synchronized swimming in an underappreciated art.
5. "Unemployed," Tierra Whack. A deliciously (pun intended) macabre video about sentient potatoes, as Whack wittily riffs on hating your job.
6. "Land of the Free," The Killers. The Spike Lee/Brandon Flowers collab we didn't know we needed.
7. "Hand Solo," Marika Hackman. It's a double entendre. I'll let you figure it out.
8. "Red Bull and Hennessey," Jenny Lewis. A song of the year candidate beyond a doubt, the video is behind the scenes footage of a music video concept that didn't come together. At least they didn't completely waste Jeff Goldblum and Beck.
9. "Almeda," Solange. As oblique as the album it came from, this clip is a surreal bliss-out, a brown and black moodscape about identity and individuality.
10. "Summer Girl," HAIM. That's a lot of shirts.

Honorable Mention: "Compliance," Preoccupations. All hail the tree creature!

Your thoughts?


Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Random Notes, December 2019

Happy holidays, all 20 of you:

+ Any hope for removing Donald Trump from office will die in the senate. Even though the impeachment has relatively coasted through the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives --on partisan lines, naturally-- its hard to imagine anyone in the historically unilateral GOP to flip on Trump. History will serve the House Democrats well, but the nation and government alike are polarized. If anything, this will potentially shape up the 2020 election as a feast for incumbents; both the left and right have galvanized their bases, like happy warriors for their respective causes. At least now Trump has the stigma of not being able to be pardoned.

+ I still can't quite make heads or tails of the Bears' rollercoaster season. Perhaps the hype was too much, I don't think any one person or party is to blame. I suppose some of the onus lies on Mitch Trubisky, a capable but admittedly inconsistent quarterback. The defense did their job, as long as Khalil Mack was healthy. Matt Nagy was brilliant one second and confounding the next. At the same time, the Packers and Vikings both improved their respective defenses, and if you look at the big picture, all three teams were just wailing on the Lions. Onward to 2020, I suppose.

+ I haven't seen Episode IX yet, and I have no inclination to see "Cats." No spoilers please, and thank you for asking.

In a Few Days: the year in music, 2019.


Sunday, December 1, 2019

Two Random Notes, Late November 2019

I have a lot to catch up on:

+ The impeachment process has been damning so far. No matter how conservative news/talk radio spins it, the Ukraine infraction should be the end of the Trump administration. If President Trump wants to prove his innocence, he can't just tweet his alibi. I would love to see him --or more likely, his inner circle-- testify before Congress.

+ It's Thanksgiving weekend, and I am thankful for having some financial stability (for now), being able to explore the world, a friendly and accommodating roommate, my friends, and my remaining family. I give a hearty "no thanks" to political gridlock, right-wing echo chambers, and gaslighting.


Wednesday, November 27, 2019

An Unintended Hiatus

A lot has happened since my previous dispatch, so much that I've gone nearly a month without writing (a possible record). Rather than go chronologically, I'll sum everything up in order of importance:

On November 5th, I finally moved back to Chicago. I now live in a third-floor walk-up on the northwest side. I hate that it took as long as it did, but it came down to both money and finding the right living situation. At the same time, I am now considerably closer to my social circle and improv shenanigans. My sister will be staying at the parents' house in Downers for the time being, but she intends to get a mortgage and start clearing out by mid-2021.

As some of you know, I'm part of a charitable organization that does short-form improv for sick children in hospitals. We have monthly rehearsals, and at our August session we had an impromptu discussion about gender identity and representation. After rehearsal, a longtime member of the group asked the person (they use they/their pronouns) a follow-up question, partially to clarify. The gender non-conforming person lost their cool, and our new director was forced to intervene.

One thing lead to another, but the guy that asked the question ended up leaving the organization under pressure. Just before he quit, however the GNC person then sent a long-winded email where they called the guy transphobic, implied a boycott of performing of shows, and threatened legal action. It wasn't the organization's intent to let the GNC person go, but that email forced their hand. Emotions are frayed all over, but I hope everyone can get past this ugly incident.

About six weeks ago, I unintentionally mansplained on the status update of a friend's Facebook post. Soon after, a second woman (another Chicago-based comedian) commented to double down. I apologized to both via DM, but the damage was done. I spent that weekend in a shame spiral, augmented by anxiety. Suffice to say,  I fucked up pretty hard.

For now, I suppose I'm hiding in plain sight. My 2019 has been driven by how I connect with people, and how that can be an outward struggle for myself. Being in the Chicago comedy community (improv, stand-up, and otherwise) has become more like a navigation between egos and narcissism. I am perpetually walking on eggshells, especially on social media.

Next Week: my 15th annual Thanks/No Thanks list.


Sunday, October 27, 2019

Take Me Out of the Ballgame

WARNING: yet another sports post

As a regular attendee of minor league baseball games, I am observing with curiosity and trepidation how MLB and MiLB devise a plan for mass contraction. The proposal of folding 42 teams is drastic, but sadly necessary. Baseball is a sport at a crossroads, and shaving a little off the bottom is just one problem it needs to address.

Let's begin with the obvious: Minor League Baseball is massive to the point of unwieldy. All 30 Major League Baseball teams have at least six minor league affiliates. Teams in the four highest levels (Triple-A, Double-A, High-A, Single-A) are practically mandatory are development reasons, but some teams forgo or choose between the lower levels (Low/Short Season A, Rookie League). There's about 200 teams in all, spread all across the United States and Vancouver, BC, with each league mostly confined to a particular region. The higher you go in a team's farm system, the incremental likelihood that you'll make it to the Majors.

One pattern I've noticed is that the higher the MiLB affiliate, the larger the city. Just about major American city you can think of that doesn't have a major league team (Las Vegas, Nashville, Buffalo, etc.) has a Double- or Triple-A team. Going into 2020, New Orleans and Portland, OR will be largest without any affiliated baseball at all --there are teams in nearby cities-- but that might change soon. That also means the low minors are typically in small towns and more rural areas; I doubt people are going out of their way to see the brightest young prospects in, say, Johnson City, TN or Bluefield, VA.

Even though the low minors offer some cost-effective summer entertainment with minimal travel, they work on a flawed business model. The stadiums they play in are often small, decrepit, or both and there's just enough money from local government to make small renovations. For instance, the Beloit Snappers (the Oakland A's Single-A team) play in rusty, outmoded Pohlman Field. The park is in the middle of a subdivision, which prohibits any expansion. Attempts to build a new stadium in downtown Beloit have failed repeatedly. Despite the team's proximity to Madison, WI the ballpark is the second-smallest in the league (allegedly 3,500 capacity) and frequently in the bottom five for attendance. Even when the Snappers fielded a competitive team, late season tickets and concession items were often offered for 50% off. I openly wondered how this whole thing turns a profit.

I have made the 90-minute drive to Pohlman Field on three occasions. On my first trip, I was astonished by how the basic the stadium felt compared to others in the Midwest League. Pohlman looks and feels like a run-down YMCA. Over 80% of the seats are aluminum bleachers, and players and coaches are obligated to cross the concourse to go to the barn-like clubhouse. The upgrades that other minor league ballparks have received, including clubhouses under the stands, in have been glossed over in Beloit largely for financial reasons. Unfortunately, there is reason to speculate that the Snappers and their similarly woebegone rival the Burlington Bees (Angels' Single-A) will be among the 42 contracted.

A saturation of pro baseball is an emerging problem. MLB attendance is both decreasing and getting older. Tickets are too expensive for the average fan --blame all those ridiculous contracts-- and a lot of people prefer minor league games because they're way more cost-effective (myself included). However, the price doesn't increase much as you climb through the system. For instance, box seats for the Single-A Kane County Cougars cost two dollars less than similar seats at a Triple-A Indianapolis Indians game. Both can be purchased for under $20. Considering an average Indians player is a lot closer to Major League ready than that Cougars player, the economics are bit wonky. It doesn't help that the average MiLB player makes a paltry income; only a select few top prospects get plump contract bonuses.

What becomes of independent and non-affiliated professional baseball? That aspect is oddly feast or famine. Like their minor league brethren, pro teams without an MiLB designation are faring better in larger metropolitan areas than in more rural, isolated areas. Indie ball is also more serendipitous, with teams folding, merging, and moving almost annually. Without that MLB parent money, the indie teams pay for their own players, and tend to lose money almost on travel alone. It's possible that some soon-to-be former MiLB teams will go the indie route, but at their own risk.

I support contraction, but with some reservations. The 42 teams that are speculated to be thinned out mostly play in towns and regions where the team is a reasonable, but flawed source of revenue. Creating a more satisfactory stadium experience, regardless of how necessary or extraneous it might be, could be too much for some teams and prove to be the X factor. It will also potentially alienate more fans from what some still consider the national pastime.


Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Random Notes, October 2019

This blog hasn't been political in a hot minute:

+ Yes, I support impeachment. Perhaps its an attempt to take the moral high road by House Democrats. I suppose to compared to other allegations against President Trump, the Ukraine situation ranks somewhere in the middle. Regardless, an inquiry had to happen. My endorsement comes with concern, though. It's unlikely there will be enough Republican senators to "flip" and vote Trump out, and that if impeachment fails Trump's frothing base will double down for him in 2020.

+ With that said, the 2020 race is shaping up to be the Baby Boom generation's last stand. I know I've railed on the Democrats' perceived age problem, but the top three candidates for their party's nomination --Biden, Warren, and Sanders-- are all north of 70, potentially going head to head with a 73-year-old draft dodger. Younger candidates with strong, articulated platforms (read: Kamala Harris), regardless of how progressive they are, are being left in the dust. My parents' generation won't let go of the football.

+ Adam Silver learned the hard way that marketing anything in China comes with some tight strings attached.  The Daryl Morey situation is a reminder that the NBA is far more vocal and conscious of social issues than the other major sports leagues, and that their views are beyond incompatible with a country that bristles at the idea of freedom of speech. As such, NBA expansion outside of North America remains a pipe dream.

+ I was set to write another draft of my long-gestating eulogy for TV.com, but it appears that the login works again. It remains unclear what CNet intends to do with the site. I don't know if I've ever been in such a prolonged funeral procession. It is especially frustrating seeing episode guides for new shows 2015 to the present with no information on them, or person pages where their last credit is from mid-2016. Between the old TV Tome and now, a site that I've put toil and energy into for 16 1/2 isn't necessarily dead, but remains in some kind of comatose state.


Sunday, September 29, 2019

Basic Cable Reading Time

About two weeks ago, I received a generic, junk mail subscription offer for ESPN the Magazine. I tend to receive this sort of thing fairly often; I still subscribe to about a half-dozen magazines, but these nondescript envelopes usually offer a deal on something I don't read (People Weekly) or I don't have time for anymore (National Geographic). I was about to put the offer in the trash when I decided to skim the new issue of ESPN Mag. I stumbled upon a letter from the editor, where she declared unanticipated that this would be the last print issue. Gobsmacked by the odd timing, I took a picture of the letter and the junk mail side by side and posted it on Instagram.

I've written about my admittedly archaic reading habits periodically (pun intended). The contraction of the print industry is hardly anything new; newspapers and magazines alike have been gradually shrinking in every way since at least the mid-2000s. The ad revenue has been siphoned off by the internet, and paywalls have only been somewhat effective in keeping the old standbys alive. Yet the demise of ESPN Mag still kind of stings.

I like Sports Illustrated, and I respect its history, yet I've never been compelled to subscribe to SI. If a recent issue is sitting in a waiting room, I will definitely skim through it. At the same time, there was a period in the mid-2000s where I adored ESPN Mag. I'll even argue that for a five-year stretch or so, the overall quality of journalism was superior fo SI. That ESPN Mag was published every other week made it feel even more special. Once time in jest, I referred to ESPN Mag as my sports bible. My college girlfriend did not find that amusing. 

For a time, a good percentage of ESPN Mag's content was generated by the network personalities themselves. Everyone from Dan Patrick to Stuart Scott to Stephen A. Smith had a column or regular feature. The vibe was young and freewheeling, yet exhaustively detailed. When ad revenue began to taper off in the early 2010s --and Scott's health went into dramatic decline-- those departments were phased out, and the Mag became a champion of sabermetrics. The top-notch sports-writing was still there, but you had to sift through articles about Mike Trout's WAR and LeBron James' FTA first. It became a more "woke" magazine too; exposes of discrimination and misogyny were balanced out by the sex-positive, annual Body Issue. 26 issues a year was reduced to 24 (they would sit out the month of January) then the Mag quietly became a monthly in Fall 2018.

ESPN can still lay claim to being the worldwide leader in sports, but they've lost grip on their once massive foothold. There are rival sports channels on cable, plus streaming platforms. In the print world, Sports Illustrated was challenged but never vanquished; unless you count The Sporting News or those myriad annual fantasy sports previews, SI has now stumbled into a monopoly. The Mag is its most notable casualty so far. The game was won, but the series was lost.


Thursday, September 5, 2019

32 Teams, 32 Haiku: My 2019 NFL Preview

If you recall from last year, my 2018 preview nailed it. Don't underestimate the brevity of my pigskin forecast. Regardless, its a new season and a clean slate, and I'm breaking it down 17 soma at a time.

1. Bears (11-5). A slight regression/expected; young, dangerous/D will still stifle.
2. Packers (9-7). More Rodgers drama?/Darnell Savage can't be kind/on so-so defense.
3. Vikings (7-9). Underachievers/abound; stud receivers are/stymied by Cousins.
4. Lions (6-10). "Patty Ball," year two/secondary improvements/and same old Stafford.
1. Cowboys (11-5). Dak, Zeke, Gallup, and/Coop hit their stride; playoff wins/are still elusive. 
2. Eagles* (10-6). A full year of Wentz/is crucial; just enough depth/on O to contend.
3. Redskins (6-10). It won't be Keenum/for long; solid D is not/enough in DC.
4. Giants (5-11). Eli mentors Jones/Big Blue now looks very green/a struggle to score.
1. Saints (12-4). New faces: "Who Dat?"/one more great year from Brees might/be enough to reign.
2. Falcons (8-8). These birds are stable/don't fix what isn't broken/Ryan's pass game thrives.
3. Panthers (8-8). Pass-rush improvement/needed; the offense is too/dependant on Cam.
4. Buccaneers (3-13). Not boring to watch/patience for Jameis wears thin/young, raw team struggles.
1. Rams (12-4). A tough sked, spread out/"go Gurley go, Gurley go"/no doubt on rush game.
2. Seahawks* (10-6). No Clowney around/this front seven is unreal/Jarran? Badly missed.
3. 49ers (7-9). Jimmy G's fine but/MacKinnon can't stay healthy/improved on paper.
4. Cardinals (4-12). Once a baseball stud/Kyler must learn that pro snaps/aren't easy fly outs.

1. Browns (10-6). Relevance? What's that?/Even if these Dawgs fall short/they'll be fun to watch.
2. Ravens* (9-7). A defense in flux/no rush to admit Lamar/Jackson is for real.
3. Steelers (8-8). A strong running game/offsets Big Ben's age; could be/a playoff sleeper.
4. Bengals (5-11). Dalton, red bullseye/no one to protect him as/rebuilding looms near.
1. Patriots (13-3). TB12, ageless/the dominance continues/in cupcake division.
2. Bills (7-9). A discrepancy/a wobbly O, stifling D/low-scoring mayhem!
3. Jets (6-10). Le'veon was an/upgrade, but I'm not convinced/Darnold is legit.
4. Dolphins (4-12). After fire sale/Fins' QB controversy/only thing to watch.
1. Texans (10-6). Best of a weak bunch/healthy receivers will make/Deshaun look supreme.
2. Colts (8-8). These Luckless fellows/loaded offense carried by/...Jacoby Brissett?
3. Jaguars (7-9). Will Foles pony up?/A healthy O-line would help/nix '18 hiccup.
4. Titans (6-10). Make or break, Marcus!/New coach, more physical play/and modest results.
1. Chiefs (13-3). A bolstered defense/Pat, beat Brady and we'll talk/but you came close twice.
2. Chargers* (10-6). Philip Rivers is/underappreciated/can't say it enough.
3. Broncos (7-9). Delaware Joe is/an upgrade ...kinda; the D/will force turnovers.
4. Raiders (5-11). AB's helmet woes/distract; I doubt Oakland will/miss this dumb drama.

NFL MVP: Drew Brees, Saints
Offensive ROY: David Montgomery, Bears
Defensive ROY: Josh Allen, Jaguars
First Head Coach Fired: Jay Gruden, Redskins
Super Bowl LIV: Saints 24, Patriots 17


Thursday, August 22, 2019

The Curious Case of the Amiable Aesthete

Thank you to everyone who wished me a happy 35th birthday. I will admit that it was not my intention to drag out my birthday festivities for nearly a week. It's been a busy few days, so I've been slow to reply to messages. Suffice to say, I haven't quite harnessed the Facebook algorithm, either; any time I gave a post a thumbs up, it landed on a mutual friend's news feed. I may not always demonstrate it, but I am grateful. Emotions may not come across in DMs, but social awkwardness permeates everywhere.

Also, for those of you who haven't read my blog before-- welcome! This is where I get serious, long-winded, and discuss what's going on in my life. Social media is for the succinct and the concise; I am seldom the former and rarely the latter. I started blogging in Summer 2005 and I've been on Blogspot since December '08. Besides my FB page, I'm also on Twitter. Your friendship and support means more than any birthday present.

Next Week: my 2019 NFL preview.


Thursday, August 15, 2019

All My Friends Were... Somewhere

I'm turning 35 on August 18th. I would probably be more excited, but it has been an oddly lonely summer. I typically have a flexible schedule during the warmer months, and I usually make some effort to meet up with old friends. This year, however it really hasn't panned out. A fair number of DMs on social media have been left unanswered, as have texts and the occasional email.

My fear is probably irrational, but I suppose that when people started whittling down their circle of close friends, I was among the first or second group to be phased out. I almost unilaterally get along with people, but in the vast majority of cases I've been an acquaintance or on the peripheral. While it is natural for friendships to phase out, and this sort of attrition is normal in your 30s, it is the close friendships of years past that I do mourn.

What am I attempting to express, however is hardly a cry for help. If anything, I'm in a wistful mood; my optimism about this sort of thing simply tends to waver. I mention my birthday because I genuinely enjoy when people leave wall posts on and around the 18th. For one day out of the year, I feel unequivocally embraced and appreciated. At some point on the 19th or 20th, that somewhat irrational feeling of isolation resets.

To everyone reading this, I've said it before and I'll say it again: thanks for riding along. I hope you stick around for awhile.


Thursday, July 25, 2019

Random Notes, July 2019

As I mentioned a few posts ago, I'm visiting Scotland this week. I'm all over the place in every way, shape, and form:

+ Robert Mueller's testimony crystallized why less than half of all Americans want President Trump impeached. Even though Mueller was somewhat limited in his responses, he refused to be complicit or give any independent corroboration. Trump's most ardent critics have been trying to fill the holes before he was even elected, and they failed. It's not totally hopeless, though; Mueller's testimony (and report) did not rule out indicting Trump after he leaves office.

+ Europe seems to be a far-right populist kick. The latest in this trend is Boris Johnson, Great Britain's fourth Prime Minister since 2008. Unlike Trump, a man who he compares to in an unflattering manner, "Bojo" didn't have much competition on his ascension to PM. Then again, Parliament elects who leads the country, not the people. In any case, Brexit has its most hard-line supporter yet in front, and he'll have to navigate certain key issues (like the Irish border) that still haven't been answered.

+ I'm still active on eBay. Check out what I'm selling here.


Tuesday, July 16, 2019

My 14th Annual Fantasy Emmy Ballot

The announcement of the 2019 Primetime Emmys nominations is just hours away. I haven't had enough time to do my research for my self-imposed deadline, and I apologize in advance for presenting an abbreviated version of my annual fantasy ballot. Writing for TV remains a pipe dream, and being a member of the academy even more so. Without further ado:

Outstanding Animated Program: "Adventure Time: Come Along With Me," Cartoon Network; "Big Mouth," Netflix; "Bob's Burgers," Fox; "Bojack Horseman," Netflix; "Tuca and Bertie," Netflix.
Outstanding Variety Talk Series: “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah,” Comedy Central; “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee,” TBS; “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” ABC; “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” HBO; “The Late, Late Show with James Corden,” CBS; “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” CBS.
Outstanding Variety Sketch Series: “At Home with Amy Sedaris,” Netflix; “Documentary Now!” IFC; “Drunk History,” Comedy Central; "I Think You Should Leave, with Tim Robinson," Netflix; “Saturday Night Live,” NBC; “Tracey Ullman’s Show,” HBO/BBC.
Outstanding Comedy Series: “Barry,” HBO; “GLOW,” Netflix; “The Good Place,” NBC; “The Kominsky Method,” Netflix; “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” Amazon Prime; “Russian Doll,” Netflix; “Veep,” HBO.
Outstanding Drama Series: “Better Call Saul,” AMC; “Game of Thrones,” HBO; "The Good Fight," CBS All Access; “Killing Eve,” BBC America; “Ozark,” Netflix; “Pose,” FX; “This Is Us,” NBC.

Six Random Performances That I Hope Get Nominated (But It's Not a Sure Shot): Aidy Bryant, Shrill; Anthony Carrigan, Barry; Natasha Lyonne, Russian Doll; Richard Madden, Bodyguard; Billy Porter, Pose; Rhea Seehorn, Better Call Saul.

I apologize that I posted this just under the wire.


Saturday, June 29, 2019

Random Notes, June 2019

What's new?

+ Writing about Donald Trump on this blog has grown rather difficult, insofar that I struggle to offer a fresh and unique vantage point. This is especially because we all have a pretty clear idea of who President Trump is. The decision to back out of bombing Iran, and the postponement of ICE raids on undocumented immigrants --both 11th hour, both in complete haste-- has shown us the cowardice underneath the bluster. Nearly 2 1/2 years into office, we're all well aware that his tactics are loggerheads and threats, not discipline and critical thinking.

+ Theresa May bit more than she could chew. Her three-year stint at British Prime Minister will be undoubtedly defined by her support of Brexit and her abject inability to set any feasible plan into motion to leave the European Union. The majority of Britons know Brexit was both a mistake and a right-wing pipe dream. Here's hoping her successor changes course.

+ My latest summer of travel is in full swing! Since late May, I've already been to Omaha, South Bend, and Des Moines, and tomorrow I'm taking a day trip to the Beloit/Janesville area. With the exception of Des Moines this is all familiar terrain, but I'm making a conscious effort to see and do new things in each city. Besides my week in Scotland in late July (see WU #620) and my third trip to Baltimore in 15 months, I have tentative plans to visit more mid-western cities, while catching minor league baseball games.

Next Week: at long last, my 14th annual Fantasy Emmy Ballot.


Monday, June 10, 2019

Where is Stuart? There is Stuart!

I'm overextending myself. I don't think I came to terms with that until I realized I still had to write my three posts a month in May ...and it was already the 19th. I ended up only finishing two posts, which marked the first time since 2005 that I didn't write at least three dispatches in a 30-day span. To both of my remaining readers, I apologize.

The end of May marked the second anniversary of my mother's passing. My sister and I are still holding down the fort in the west Chicago suburbs, but we don't know for how much longer. We're paying for property taxes through the teeth, and upkeep around the house has been daunting. My sister has contemplated moving out of state, and my wanderlust has never gone away. In April, we set a tentative timetable to move out and sell the property by mid-2021; its an attainable goal, but there's a lot of work to be done.

Besides subbing, I have two part-time jobs. I drive for Lyft, but one or two nights a week I do box office and tech for a small improv venue in Wicker Park. I set a financial goal for the year, and I'm just barely hitting it. I've also been battling writer's block on and off for much of the past year, though that could be due to everything else going on; my energies are often elsewhere. As for leisure and pleasure, I have a couple of mini-road trips planned, besides going to Scotland in late July.

I haven't elaborated on what *I've* been up to recently, so I just thought I'd post this to let everyone know where I am at the moment.


Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Through a Freshman's Eyes: Post-Millennium Edition

Another graduation season is upon us. Its another reminder that time is a gradually moving circle, and that inch by inch we're all getting a little older. I remind you of this because this year's high school class was the first born entirely in the 21st century. Their entire lives have been, technically, "the future." Without further navel-gazing, I present my annual mindset list.

If you are a graduating senior...

...you have only a vague memory of a Clinton in the White House.
...you have only a vague memory of the World Trade Center.
...it's commonplace to complain that the President of the United States spends too much time on vacation.
...it has always been possible for the results of a presidential election to be disputed.
...you've always assumed that politicians in Washington sleep with interns on the regular.
...there has always been Wikipedia.
...Google has always been the dominant search engine.
...you were born *just* before Nuvaring was patented.
...Robert Hanssen has always been in prison.
...it has always been possible for a non-astronaut to "visit" space.
...your first memory of watching Weekend Update on SNL was with Tina Fey and Jimmy Fallon.
...no MLB team has ever won the World Series in consecutive years.
...there have always been at least 30 teams in the NHL.
...Albert Pujols has always played in the majors.
...Jamal Crawford has always played in the NBA.
...Tom Brady has always been the Patriots' starting quarterback.
...Pierre Trudeau, Richard Mulligan, Steve Allen, Richard Farnsworth, Ben Orr of The Cars, Gwen Verdon, Hosea Williams, Gwendolyn Brooks, Werner Klemperer, Kirsty MacColl, Pops Staples, Jason Robards, Victor Borge, Ray Walston, Dale Earnhardt Sr., Morton Downey Jr., Robert Ludlum, Joey Ramone, Douglas Adams, Perry Como, Imogene Coca, Anthony Quinn, Carroll O'Connor, Timothy McVeigh, John Lee Hooker, Jack Lemmon, Korey Stringer, Lorenzo "Garfield" Music, Aaliyah, and Chandra Levy have always been dead.


Friday, May 24, 2019

"Like a Bar Mitzvah That Sucks"

Twenty years ago this week, I was confirmed. Its a Catholic rite of passage, but it was the beginning of the end of my relationship with the church.  I normally avoid delving into religion and spirituality on this blog. (Politics is one thing, a higher being is another.) Additionally, while I have discussed my mother in a mostly flattering light, our relationship was slightly more contentious than I've let on.

My mother, like almost everyone on her side of the family, was devoutly Catholic. It was par for the course for descendants of Polish immigrants, living in the Chicago suburbs. My grandparents' house had a cross on the wall in almost every room. I remember a clay bust of Pope John Paul II (again, Polish) sitting in their dining room, giving me a vaguely creepy glare was I walked past the doorway. My grandmother was the 13th of fourteen kids. My Uncle Jim was an usher at Saturday mass for 20-plus years, and he even went to church on vacation.

My father was nothing like that. His parents were Methodist, but he was an agnostic who only begrudgingly got married in a Catholic church. His contempt for organized religion was reasonable, but I never implicitly said that to either of my parents. Any discussion of spirituality in the household was highly discouraged. It was a mixed blessing that my father was undergoing training in Arizona during my first communion, but he was at work the day my sister had hers four years later.

The whole process was laborious. I had been in CCD since first grade, and eighth grade was all confirmation prep. I was goaded into asking Uncle Jim to be my sponsor, and sitting through the classes and lectures were a chore. There was one all-day session at church, one that was allegedly mandatory, that I got out of because my father objected. Then when the big day came, I was sitting in the middle of a packed church with 200 other uncomfortable eighth graders. It was early May and 80 degrees out, and the AC didn't kick in until 30 minutes into the two-hour mass.

After that, my feigned interest in Catholicism and spirituality further waned. I was confirmed in 1999, and I think my family stopped going to church on the regular around 2002 or '03. The fact that the Catholic child abuse scandal broke out at the same time was a mere coincidence. My mother was skeptical of the allegations, but she felt more and more inclined to sleep in on Sundays (as was I). In the last decade, I've only been to St. Mary's for funerals (including Ma's) and the occasional Easter mass. I tell people I'm a lapsed Catholic. At least I know I'm not the only one.


Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Tamper, Tamper

Though they are mostly associated with the far right, the concept of conspiracy theories transcends any political affiliation. Any complex idea outside the norm or mainstream could qualify as a conspiracy theory, as long as there is some viable evidence to back up this notion. Missing or misconstrued information are often what leads to such wild speculation.

Case in point, Bill Barr. Whether the once and current attorney general is another Trump lapdog or just half-assing his job, arguments can be made for both. His presence in the completion and revealing of the Mueller report has left that perception ambiguous. His handling of said report was fishy, to say the least.

The Russia election meddling was a legitimate scandal, but even that was susceptible to far-flung speculation. Like so many conspiracy theories before, it was more sizzle than steak. Its a foregone conclusion that Russians meddled, and even though the Trump administration attempted to seek their help, they totally muffed it. No collusion, but no vindication either.

And what happens now? My assumption from two years ago has proved sadly prescient. A bunch of Trump loyalists were thrown under the bus, but the president still stands, mostly unscathed. Reelection is not a sure shot, and whatever energy that progressives were putting into impeachment should be redirected into preventing a second term.


Sunday, April 21, 2019

Look at the Flowers

This Saturday is the 20th anniversary of the massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, CO.  Even though there were a handful of school shootings prior to Columbine, but this was arguably the shooting incident that turned heads. This became a cultural event that pointed fingers at everything from Marilyn Manson to violent video games to overprotective parents. And yet, no one scolded the two mentally ill teenagers that shot over a dozen of their peers before turning the guns on themselves. Our anger and astonishment was misdirected. It still is.

I was in eighth grade when the shooting occurred. The students that were slain weren't much older than I was; at least one was just a few months older than me. I had a sarcastic, facetious streak then, and my parents warned me repeatedly to not joke about Columbine. I had no intention of doing so; even I was speechless, too appalled to comment in any way.

A few weeks before, the Columbine flower was discussed in science class. For the unfamiliar, the Columbine a boldly colored perennial in the buttercup family. It is also the state flower of Colorado, which has a dense population of the Columbine genus. Like the poppies in Flanders Field 80 years before, this unassuming plant is now forever associated with unspeakable bloodshed.

What really disgusts me two decades on is that Columbine was a beginning, not an end; a root rather than a stem. Mass shootings are almost an everyday occurrence, to the extent that American society is nearly and totally desensitized. There has been multiple school shootings even deadlier than Columbine. Politicians on both sides of the aisle keep wringing their hands. Common sense gun control has proven oddly elusive. The vicious cycle keeps spinning.


Friday, April 5, 2019

Random Notes, April 2019

Spring has sprung, I guess:

+ After nearly three years of rumors and speculation, the Mueller Report was laid out like loose ends. Even though it didn't conclude that Trump colluded, it wasn't the complete exoneration that he (obviously) bragged about. Now there's speculation from Robert Mueller's staff that the original, 300-plus page report still had some damning evidence against the president. Unless something else comes up, or the Michael Cohen/Stormy Daniels thing takes a sudden and dramatic turn, impeachment is pretty much off the table.

+ If the Democratic primary becomes a litmus test of true progressive politics, then they're handing Trump reelection. I'll vote Beto or Bernie if I absolutely, positively have to. We cannot let what happened in 2016 repeat itself.

+ My 2019 travels have commenced! I just spent a week in Austin, Texas partially for vacation but also the first screening of "The Bob Zula." The movie was my friend Brandon's baby, a passion project that I'm glad came to fruition. Later in the year, I'm hitting up Omaha (improv festival), LA (visit some friends, maybe do some networking), and Scotland (long story, more later) with more to come.


Wednesday, March 27, 2019

30 Teams, 30 Haiku: My 2019 Baseball Preview

Happy Opening Day, everyone! Even though the 2019 season officially kicked off with two M's-A's games (and a disappointingly anti-climatic end to Ichiro's career) in Japan, it really starts today. The sesquicentennial of professional baseball begins with a number of interesting stories, least of all the battle of "haves" and "have-nots" in the American League. Maybe one team finishes at .500? The chasm between second and third place in the AL Central is already giving me vertigo.

Speaking of the AL Central... I spent last year watching Kansas City and thinking, "yeah, these are the Royals I grew up with." Expectations were modest before the Salvador Perez injury; we (allegedly) have the fastest team in the league, but our rotation has only three MLB-caliber pitchers and our lights-out bullpen from just five years ago is long, long gone. Ah well, at least we're not the Tigers or White Sox.

As for the predictions... you know the drill.

1. Phillies. Bryce? That's pretty nice/Kapler's micromanaging/might be a hindrance.
2. Braves*. Before you ask me/Kolby is not my cousin/...though I surely wish.
3. Nationals. "Rolling with Robles"/Scherzer and young bats ensure/.500 record.
4. Mets. Some curious moves/older, still injury-prone/Diaz? He's legit.
5. Marlins. New colors, same crap/unwatchable hodgepodge of/old, mediocre.

1. Brewers. So underrated/winning with brains and Braun, and/if Nelson breaks out.
2. Cubs*. Windows are closing/meager farm system behind/mostly intact squad.
3. Cardinals. What glitters isn't/Goldy; ace bullpen carries/load off meh SP's.
4. Reds. Sonny days ahead/overhaul has flash, though lack/of depth curbs progress.
5. Pirates. Frugal ownership/stifles; just a weird roster/...or a motley crew?

1. Dodgers. Surplus of pitching/a fading Kershaw is still/rather dangerous.
2. Rockies. Good pitching at Coors?/Only up front; weak bullpen/will curb pennant dreams.
3. Padres. A deep farm system/paired with Machado makes for/2020 hype.
4. D-Backs. All pitching, no bats/losing Souza was brutal/they'll start from scratch soon.
5. Giants. Good grief, this outfield/Bochy stayed one year too long/they'll unload vets soon.

1. Red Sox. Kimbrel's departure/hurts, the rest remains intact/too much depth to lose.
2. Yankees*. Well-rounded as it/is, then they bolster the 'pen?/Easy to Judge that.
3. Rays*. Openers? COME ON/yet the die-hard fans will say/"Wham bam, thank you Pham!"
4. Blue Jays. Not contending, but/make way for little Vlady/and other raw youths.
5. Orioles. Bad, but not boring/new bosses experiment/as youth learns to fly.

1. Indians. Win now, mad scramble/all that Bauer power must/carry the Tribe load.
2. Twins. Underachieving/prospects finally clean up/sleeper playoff team?
3. Royals. No Salvy splashes/the youngsters barely keep their/heads above water.
4. Tigers. A waste of Miggy/but I'll take Gardy over/Ausmus any day.
5. White Sox. Rebuilding hiccups/Eloy and Giolito/need to mature, fast.

1. Astros. Dangerous youth and/a full year of Correa/builds a dynasty.
2. A's. Sketchy rotation/fails to compliment power/bats; home run derby?
3. Angels. Keep swimming, Mike Trout/solid long-term deal, but this/year? They need prayers.
4. Rangers. Gallo, free swinger/symbolizes team gap year/Andrus trade looms near.
5. Mariners. So much turnover/Hunter Strickland, angry fool/throws heat everywhere.

AL MVP: Mike Trout, Angels
NL MVP: Nolan Arenado, Rockies
AL Cy Young: Trevor Bauer, Indians
NL Cy Young: Jacob deGrom, Mets
AL ROY: Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Blue Jays
NL ROY: Nick Senzel, Reds
First Manager Fired: Mickey Callaway, Mets
2019 World Series: Astros over Dodgers


Sunday, March 24, 2019

That Wonderful Year in Music... 1989 (Redux)

Last month, I hit the reset button on my best of 1988 list. Now I'm looking down the barrel of 1989, which I honestly think was a slightly better year for music. Ten (or thirty) years on, I don't have too many regrets about what I put toward the top of the list, though in hindsight the rest of my top ten looks a tad shallow.


1. Paul's Boutique, Beastie Boys. (1) Three decades on, this album still snaps. Besides, how can you hate on anyone that rhymes "tomfoolery" with "Chuck Woolery?"
2. Doolittle, The Pixies (2)
3. Disintegration, The Cure (3)
4. Three Feet High and Rising, De La Soul (4)
5. The Stone Roses, The Stone Roses (5)
6. On Fire, Galaxie 500 (NR)
7. 13 Songs, Fugazi (7)
8. Full Moon Fever, Tom Petty (6)
9. Energy, Operation Ivy (8)
10. Pretty Hate Machine, Nine Inch Nails (NR). The seeds of '90s alternative were planted heavily in '88 and '89, least of all the shape of industrial metal. Machine was a remarkable opening salvo for Trent Reznor, seemlessly blending bleak electronics with catchy riffs. A quickly ignored curio upon its first release, Machine built a strong word-of-mouth reputation in the next half-decade and transformed Reznor from an outsider to an unlikely place-setter.

Honorable Mentions: Cosmic Thing, The B-52s. (10); Bleach, Nirvana (NR); Oranges and Lemons, XTC (NR).

Best Jazz Album: Letter From Home, The Pat Metheny Group (9). The PMG's sound evolved with each of their '80s albums --give or take the wild detour Song X-- but this album turned Metheny et al. into smooth jazz radio staples. Home is a very accessible, borderline pop album, but by no means superficial fluff. The most delicate moments on the album never devolve into maudlin.


"Like a Prayer," Madonna
"She Drives Me Crazy," Fine Young Cannibals
"Veronica," Elvis Costello
"Living in the Free World," Neil Young
"The Downeaster Alexa," Billy Joel
"The Living Years," Mike + The Mechanics
"The End of the Innocence," Don Henley
"Bust a Move," Young MC
"Knock Me Down," Red Hot Chili Peppers
"So Alive," Love & Rockets


Next Week: my 2019 baseball preview.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Random Notes, March 2019

On the fly and always sly:

+ The impeachment process has began. At least, the beginning of the beginning. Or maybe, imagine the impeachment process as baseball season, and what commenced on March 4th was Spring Training. Say what you will about Michael Cohen's disingenousness and the weight of his testimony last week, it was enough to get the ball rolling.

+ The Democratic Party has never had a concensus on Israel. All this posturing about pledging support to Israel is an absolutely shortsighted way to resolve a thoroughly complicated topic.

+ I grew up watching "Jeopardy," so hearing about Alex Trebek's cancer diagnosis was disheartening. On a personal level, I know pancreatic cancer is pretty much a death sentence. Here's wishing Alex the best.

+ I'm on my way to Austin (again)! More details soon.


Tuesday, February 26, 2019

That Wonderful Year in Music... 1988

Longtime readers will recall the monthly music blog (or listicle) that I wrote from 2008 to 2012. I've been sporadically going back to reevaluate the lists I assembled, and after a decade's hindsight I've been revisiting some of my lists.

Let's start with 1988, which NPR recently argued was one of the strongest ever. *cough* There was a lot of great late '80s college rock that I wasn't aware of until the last couple of years, and my previous list also ignored some key moments in rap. As you'll see here, I also kind of half-assed my '88 and '89 lists by lumping them together. In any case, there was enough to be enamored with to merit 15 key albums as well as 15 great songs.

(NOTE: parentheses note previous ranking)


1. Daydream Nation, Sonic Youth. (1) What I said ten years ago still stands. Thurston Moore, guitar god?
2. Straight Outta Compton, N.W.A. (NR) The grossest oversight on my previous list. Gangsta and west coast rap took a big leap into mainstream acceptance with Compton, a visceral statement that doesn't care about consequences.
3. It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back, Public Enemy. (7) Maybe I repelled by Flavor Flav's ubiquitous presence on reality shows in the mid-2000s. In any case, his hopeless search for love for vH1 shouldn't deter from his status as one of the all-time great hypemen.
4. Nothing's Shocking, Jane's Addiction. (2)
5. Surfer Rosa, The Pixies (4)

6. Isn't Anything, My Bloody Valentine (5)
7. ...And Justice For All, Metallica (6)
8. Green, R.E.M. (3)
9. Operation: Mindcrime, Queensryche (9)
10. I'm Your Man, Leonard Cohen. (10) I said something in 2009 about "sparse and samey arrangements" that does not hold up. Its just an exquisite collection of songs.

11. Tracy Chapman, Tracy Chapman (NR)
12. If I Shall Fall From Grace With God, The Pogues (NR)
13. Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart, Camper Van Beethoven (8)
14. Starfish, The Church (NR)
15. Today, Galaxie 500 (NR). A gauzy dream of a debut album. You'd be hard-pressed to find a love song that addresses an '80s misfit weirdo like "Tugboat."

BEST SINGLES (in no particular order)

"Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam," The Vaselines
"Touch Me I'm Sick," Mudhoney
"What's On Your Mind (Pure Energy)," Information Society
"Chains of Love," Erasure
"Handle With Care," The Traveling Wilburys

"Desire," U2
"Stigmata," Ministry
"Straight Out The Jungle," Jungle Brothers
"Apron Strings," Everything But the Girl
"Anchorage," Michelle Shocked

"(Nothing But) Flowers," Talking Heads
"The Promise," When In Rome
"Only a Memory," The Smithereens
"Suedehead," Morrissey
"Birthday," The Sugarcubes

Sometime in March, I'll post my 1989 list.


Thursday, February 21, 2019

Random Notes, February 2019

Warm opinions, never reheated:

+ The crisis in Venezuela is not only under-reported, but also quite misunderstood. Authoritarianism knows no political stripe, and the blithe narcissism of Chavez gave way to the deadly fumbling of Maduro. The structure of a government, whether its democratic or monarchic, is irrelevant when its leader is beyond incompetent.

+ Bernie Sanders, you had your chance in 2016. Let someone else vie for the Democratic nomination. We've overdue for a woman as president anyway.

+ I've more or less given up trying to find temp work, or any sort of office work. This school year is the first where I'm totally committed to substitute teaching. I'm not taking a two- or three-month breather for a seasonal gig, let alone a position that offers being promoted to full-time but never quite pans out. Its been almost nine years since I was replaced at Salem Communications, and as time has worn on I feel far less motivated to find work elsewhere. (I still maintain a spreadsheet of jobs that I've applied for, mostly for posterity.) Some of you will recall that I considered teaching full-time, but reconsidered. Its not perfect, but I've found a distinct groove between subbing and ride-sharing.


Next week and the week after: a redux of my 1988 and 1989 music blogs.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Seasons of Love: Mystery Science Theater 3000

I am kind of embarrassed to admit that I have been sleeping on "Mystery Science Theater 3000" for a substantial part of my life. I didn't have cable in the 1990s, when the series was in first run (seven years on Comedy Central, then three on Sci-Fi Channel) I saw a handful of episodes and clips in college, but for some reason it didn't register enough to explore further. In the last five or six years, however I've become good friends with several MST3K fans (or "MS-Tees") and even dated a woman who was a diehard fan of the show. I initally watched a few episodes with her to be polite and gradually got hooked.

During winter break and the recent polar vortex, and I had some unexpected down time. This allowed me to catch up on the select number of "classic" episodes available on Netflix, as well as some full episode uploads from YouTube. (Why fan uploads? That's a long story.) That's on top of the 2017 revival of MST3K, and I had the opportunity to see the live show with the new cast on the two occasions they visited Chicago.

For the unfamiliar: sometime in the near-future, a laboratory janitor and part-time inventor named Joel Robinson (played by series creator Joel Hodgson) is unwillingly sent to space by two mad scientists. (The scientists were called "The Mads" for short, and often more antagonistic than villainous.) While trapped on a bone-shaped space station called the Satellite of Love, Joel is forced to watch terrible movies as part of their elaborate experiment. Joel had two defenses against this bizarre yet unwarranted punishment: he would poke fun of said movies, and doing so with several robots that he built, primarily the pompous Tom Servo and the immature Crow. All of these characters would appear in short sketches, also called host segments, before and during the movie.

MST3K ran for just over a decade, and like most long-running TV shows, it was susceptible to cast turnover. Hodgson/Robinson left midway through the fifth season of the series, he was succeeded by the series' head writer/frequent bit player Michael J. Nelson, who played an amicable temp worker named... Mike Nelson. The entire original cast was gone by the end of the final Comedy Central season, and gradually the other writers on the show stepped in to either play new Mads or recast the robots.

The debate over whether Joel or Mike was better is an never-ending online debate on the scale of Diane versus Rebecca on "Cheers" or the two actors that played Darren Stephens (greetings from Team York). Jonah Ray, who plays the affable but unwilling subject in the 2017 MST3K revival, has also been thrown into the remonstration. The MST3K fan base is just as vocal and ardent as it was in the pre-internet days. But I digress.

"Seasons of Love" is supposed to be about one particular season of a TV series, and this latest entry offers a toss-up. The MST3K DVD box sets were assembled when and if the producers could get the rights to release the films, and even though the episodes/films were boxed chronologically, a season set has never been released. (God bless the person who assembles 24 episodes of a two-hour TV show into one collection.) In addition, there has never been a wall-to-wall great season, so I chose what I think are the two strongest seasons, three (1991-92) and eight (1997) in spite of some minor flaws.

For the uninitiated, choosing three and eight might seem random, but this wasn't a show that hit the ground running. Prior to basic cable, MST3K aired on local TV in Minneapolis; "season zero" (1988-89) is a rough draft of things to come, and even Hodgson himself admits most of those episodes are unwatchable. Upon leaping to the Comedy Channel (now Comedy Central) season one is more professional and palatable, but bewildering to anyone who caught on later in the show's run. The riffing was still mostly improvised, there are long gaps between jokes, and at times the SOL crew are talking over each other. After co-creator Josh Weinstein left, season two took another leap forward: recasting Servo with writer Kevin Murphy, and subbing out Weinstein's Mad with Frank Conniff, aka "TV's Frank." An average episode of MST3K got a lot tighter, in part because nearly the entire show was now scripted. Fans were told to "keep circulating the tapes." Positive word of mouth spread.

Season three was the concept fully formed. The core five of Hodgson, Conniff, Murphy, Trace Beaulieu (as chief Mad, Dr. Clayton Forrester) and executive producer Jim Mallon (as robot Gypsy) had built an impressive chemistry as season two went on. The episode order had been raised from 13 to 24, partially because of criticial buzz but also because the merger of Comedy Channel and Ha! resulted in a mass purge of lower-rated shows. The first episode of season three, a takedown of the 1984 fantasy epic "Cave Dwellers," is arguably the series' first true classic. The third episode, an ordinary horror film turned "E.T" ripoff called "The Pod People," also frequently appears on fans' top ten lists.

With one glaring exception, season three plays like a list of fan favorites: "Santa Claus Conquers the Martians," "Time of the Apes," "Daddy-O," not one but five riffs on the Gamera kaiju movies, and both "Master Ninja" movies. The aforementioned exception, an attempted takedown of 1969's "The Castle of Fu Manchu," is an intriguing anomaly. The original film is so unbearably boring and difficult to riff that Joel, Servo, and Crow break down in frustration. Indeed, a fair number of fans find "Castle" hard to get through in one sitting.

Season eight finds MST3K in a very different place. Of the core five, only Murphy still remained; Mallon would step away from playing Gypsy early on in the year. The move from Comedy Central to Sci-Fi came with two caveats: fewer films outside of the science fiction and fantasy genres, and an overarching story arc for the host segments. The movies selected were goofier and generally more colorful, and the characters evolved as well. Beaulieu gave way to Tom Corbett as the voice of Crow, and his take on the character was more acerbic if not slightly more mature.  Dr. F's mother Pearl, played by writer Mary Jo Pehl, was the new Mad in charge.

The premise was tweaked, too: Mike and the bots were on the run from Pearl, inadvertently destroying planets in the process. In the process, Pearl gains two alien henchmen, the dim Professor Bobo (Murphy) and the milquetoast Observer (Corbett). Where season three starts hot, season eight is okay from the get-go but saves its best for last: "Space Mutiny," "Time Chasers," and "Overdrawn in the Memory Bank" might be strongest winning streak of the series. "The Mole People," "Jack Frost," "Agent for H.A.R.M.," and "Horror of Party Beach" are also series high points.

Season one notwithstanding, there really isn't a mediocre season of the series. Season seven, where Beaulieu and Pehl overlapped, is only six episodes long but they're all first division. The two revival seasons have been fine; "Cry Wilderness," the second episode of season 11, is the closest to being an instant classic. As for a gateway episode, I guess "Manos: The Hands of Fate" from season four is fine; its the most popular episode of the series, though slightly overrated for that reason. If you're looking to jump in... hikeeba!


Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Random Notes, January 2019

Beating the cold with some hot takes:

+ Trump caved. Everyone except maybe his most ardent supporters could see it coming. His petty little hostage situation ended in, at best, a short-term failure. That it happened the same day Trump cheerleader (and former Nixon crony) Roger Stone was ensnared by the Mueller investigation is hardly a coincidence. Two years into the most mercurial presidency in recent memory, Trump is either learning to pick his fights or admitting he isn't perfect. Could we see a glimmer of self-awareness anytime soon?

+ Climate change is happening. Extremes in temperatures are gradually destroying habitats worldwide, and water levels are rising. Anyone who dismisses the concept of global warming (or uses it like an epithet) doesn't comprehend standard deviation. Also, yes, I am writing this as the wind chill is hitting record lows in the Chicago metro area.

+ I've set a personal goal of 750 followers on Twitter by mid-February. Will you help me out?

+ Before I forget: this month marks 10 years on Blogspot. Some of you may remember when I started this blog on TV.com/Gamespot, then "synced" my blog between the two hosts, then shifted over here. Even if you haven't read all 613 of my dispatches (the most recent 400 or so posted here) I thank you again for following along.


Friday, January 25, 2019

25 More Facts About Myself

Earlier this month, the big fad on Facebook was posting pictures of yourself from at least 10 years and now. I'm not totally sure why its trending; for me, its a stark reminder that I'm aging out of a key commercial demographic.

The big trend in January 2009, however was writing 25 random things, facts, habits or goals about yourself. If you were on FB ten years ago, admit it: you almost certainly wrote a list. Like the "2008 to 2018" thing, I took a facetious approach. Unlike that fad, I cut and pasted the rules, then encouraged who I considered my top friends at the time to share theirs. I'm in a much different place than I was a decade ago, and I'm sharing this almost like an open self-evaluation. (TL:DR, because that's how I roll.) Also, forgive me if I'm repeating myself or sharing you were well aware of.

1. I still blog.
2. My high school graduating class had a disproportionate number of twins.
3. I have never eaten a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and even though I feasibly could with a epipen handy, I have no aspiration to do so. The mere smell of peanuts make me queasy.
4. When I substitute teach, I go out of my way to make sure students neither know nor figure out my first name, mostly for privacy. A group of eighth graders at one school where I sub "exposed" me in October 2016; they Googled my name and found some short films I made with Brandon Reich in 2012-13. Even though its an open secret, I still white out Stuart on the name tag I have to print out every morning.
5. I've been using the same email accounts since 2002-03. Its not that I don't want a personal Gmail so much as its a privacy thing. Also, having an active AOL account in the late 2010s is a fun conversation piece.
6. I once went over a decade without setting foot on an airplane. I'm not proud to admit that; I love to travel, but I went through a prolonged period where I did not have the time or money to do so.
7. I put a commodity on communication. For all my social awkwardness, I appreciate directness, transparency, and honesty.
8. My parents died 16 months apart.
9. When my father died, I was 31 years old. My grandfather died when my dad was 31. My grandfather was also 31 when *his* father died.
10. I have next to no immediate family left. I have my sister, my aunt, and some cousins and that's pretty much it.
11. It took me seven tries to get into Level 1 of the Second City Conservatory program, another seven tries to get into Level 3 (and finish the program). Most of the people I auditioned with that first time graduated more than two years before I did.
12. Partially because of me, Second City now caps the number of times you can audition for the Conservatory program. To anyone reading this that was told not to come back after their third Level 1 audition, I apologize.
13. I have a love-hate relationship with stand-up comedy, and I feel far more comfortable writing comedy and doing improv.
14. Prior to launching Stu News, I used to sporadically post topical jokes as status updates. Since the launch, I've written over 1,600 different jokes, or roughly six a week for 5 1/2 years.
15. Speaking of stand-up, in June 2008 I did an open mic at a venue in the west Chicago suburbs. My five-minute set went okay, but the owner/open mic host and his staff were very rude. I attempted to book a slot about a month later, and again a month after that, but my voice mails was never returned. This turned me off from doing stand-up for about 3 1/2 years.
16. The first woman I was ever in a relationship with was an unabashed bigot, who was prone to bullying and gaslighting. I tolerated it for far longer than I ever should have. It was a relationship that I regret being in, as well as a brutal learning experience.
17. My two years at WZND (the college radio station at Illinois State University) were the first time I ever felt like I was part of a team. Even though its perfectly natural for people to grow apart, I still mourn some of the friendships that disintegrated since I graduated.
18. After my career in the radio industry came to a sudden halt in April 2010, I have spent the better part of a decade alternating between substitute teaching and temp jobs.
19. I quit my longest-lasting temp job (about three years) under exaggerated pretenses. I informed the company and my temp agency that I had landed a long-term substitute teaching gig. While it was my intention to sub, my real reason for quitting was that I could no longer tolerate my obnoxious, borderline incompetent manager, and my complaints fell on deaf ears.
20. My *shortest* temp job lasted about an hour. I was assigned by the same agency to do some clerical work for a hotel manager. He had broken off from a national chain, was trying to create his own independent hotel "experience," and had absolutely no idea what he was doing. When I first walked into his office, he was not prepared for me, so he asked me to shuffle some papers around "so the piles look neat." After 15 minutes, I mostly sat there waiting for further instructions. I was told I could go home, but after I told the agency how my morning went, I was pulled from the assignment.
21. I don't give much credence to most conspiracy theories, especially if there's very little hard evidence, but...
22. ...I am just about convinced that John Travolta killed his son.
23. My father's side of the family is from the Kansas City metro area, mostly around Overland Park and Lee's Summit. I more or less became a Royals fan by osmosis.
24. I collect sports autographs, with an emphasis on signed cards. I received my first autographed card in the mail in December 1997 (future Hockey HOFer Ron Francis) and I still do autograph requests by mail from time to time.
25. Adding onto #17, I struggled to make friends and connect with people growing up. If you're reading this, I appreciate having you in my life, and that you tolerate my eccentricities. Additionally, thank you for reading.


Sunday, January 13, 2019

My Nonessential Two Cents

Welcome to the Neverending Shutdown. If only it were a whimsical, underappreciated '80s fantasy movie...

I doubt anyone expected this partial government shutdown to last more than a few days. Sadly, you have to expect the unexpected with President Trump. His desperate, all-or-nothing bid for border wall funding has taken the nation hostage, and rather compromise in any way he wants to declare a national emergency. Trump has put himself in a Catch-22: if he caves on his beloved wall, he alienates his (presumably dwindling) core supporters and effectively loses reelection. If he gets his wall, Democrats that were on the fence about impeachment will surely flip. Beyond the usual backpedaling and finger-pointing, its hard to deny that the elongated shutdown is largely Trump's fault.