In the current Season 3 of the series, Only Murders in the Building, they decide to turn a stage play into a musical. The play is awful, making it a musical is a loony idea, and the snippets of songs we hear are bombastic -- but there’s one song, “Look to the Light” that’s done all the way through, and it’s…well, absolutely wonderful. And terrific as it is, it’s taken up a notch because of how it’s performed by Meryl Streep. (Which is spectacular.)
I figured that, compared to the goofy snippets (meant to be silly), this particular song was too good, too impeccable crafted that it was likely written by serious songwriters, so I checked the end credits to see. And it turned out that, yes, it was, indeed. The song was written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who wrote the score to the movies La La Land and The Greatest Showman, and the stage musical Dear Evan Hansen. I like their work, some songs I enjoy very much, and it’s all highly professional, though I can’t say I find their scores especially memorable overall. But I was surprised and pleased how really wonderful this song was, a bit different from their other work, I thought. And then underneath the credit, it said – “and Sara Bareilles.” Ahhhh, okay, got it. I’m sure this was a joint collaboration, but when you hear it, there’s clearly a lot of her influence in there.
For the scene, the only thing that helps knowing is that (in the musical) she plays a nanny of triplets, and this is during a sort of tryout to convince the producers to accept adapting the play into a musical. And instead of auditioning the big, bombastic, silly showstopper, as was the intent, at the last minute director Martin Short decides to go with this lullaby. Streep is the least-professional of the cast, and awkwardly shy and a bit offbeat. And then she gets up to sing the number –
No, I didn’t even remotely have the one molecule of heart to watch Kristen Welker’s debut on Meet the Press, interviewing Trump. I did see some clips, and read commentary from people whose opinion I respect. So, any thoughts I have on the broadcast can only been seen through that lens. Some of my comments are limited, therefore, and might not be of much value. Though some -- indeed, most (but I'm biased...) may still be spot-on.
First things first. In fairness to Kristen Welker, for all the deep (and I think justified) criticism she’s received for what she let Trump get away with, some praise -- because she did at least one thing impressively well and (more to the point) important, which Supreme Court attorney Neil Katyal, former Acting Solicitor General of the U.S. was raving about. Through flattery, Welker got Trump to admit that he acted on his own instincts, not his lawyers’ advice, to try to overturn the election. This is no small thing. It's a damning acknowledgement and deeply problematic for his defense. And Ms. Welker deserves praise for this important admission.
As for the rest – honestly, much of the initial blame has to go on NBC which approved this. While going for ratings is clearly their motivation, one would have hoped that NBC had learned from Les Moonves’ ill-advised comment in 2016 that CBS’s coverage of Trump might be bad for the country, but good for the network. At the very least, you’d have thought that NBC would learn from CNN’s “town hall” debacle with Trump that helped get its CEO Chris Licht fired. Even more to the point, you’d have thought that NBC would have been paying attention for the past seven years and grasped who Trump was. And to give him this forum was borderline journalistic malpractice. Yes, it’s understandable that you interview the leading candidate for the GOP nomination to be president. But there are other forums to do so, and serious guiderails to put in place, knowing that he will relentlessly lie and try to stir up his fascist base. And knowing that he is under four indictments, has 91 charges against him and was found liable twice for (as the judge wrote) the equivalence of rape. And fomented an Insurrection to try to overthrow the United States government.
Which leads to Ms. Welker.
It was a bad start when, prior to the broadcast, she promoted the show by almost school-girl breathlessly saying that Trump – the man, just as another reminder, under four indictments, found liable for rape, who tried to overthrow democracy – was "fired up about a lot of these issues” (given the violence he promoted on January 6 and continues to push, “fired up” might not have been the best choice of words) and “obviously trying to draw sharp contrast with President Biden,” as if this was a “both sides” situation (Note to Ms. Welker – democracy and fascism is the sharpest contrast worth referencing), as well as calling Trump “defiant” and “president,” and “leaning into his deal-making status,” ignoring that his “deal-making” status is largely self-proclaimed and that he’s had six bankruptcies. And is facing his company being shut-down by the state of New York…which previously shut-down his charity foundation for “a shocking pattern of illegality.” As conservative columnist Tom Nichols wrote, “Good Lord. Trump isn't 'trying to draw contrasts,' he tried to subvert the Constitution to stop Biden from taking office." Her cheery enthusiastic words about the upcoming broadcast were reprehensible and gave shudders for what seemed likely to follow.
And what followed lived down to expectations.
At one point, for just one example – of many lie after lie -- Trump said untruthfully that the Capitol Police testified against Nancy Pelosi, and then added (untruthfully) that they burned all the evidence. And these blatantly obvious lies went unchallenged by Welker.
In clips alone, media critic Dan Froomkin wrote that “Trump utters about 30 different lies, and there's zero pushback from Kristen Welker.”
Indeed, even though NBC seemingly believed they responsibly covered themselves by pre-taping the interview, pre-taping only matters if you don’t let yourselves be used to let Trump repeat his lies and propaganda and even tamper with the jury pool for his upcoming trials. Why, for instance, the broadcast let Trump call Special Prosecutor Jack Smith “deranged” and a “lunatic” is inexplicable.
In the end, this is how bad the broadcast was for Kristen Welker and NBC. During the Meet the Press broadcast, Welker told viewers that NBC would have a website where they could go and see Trump fact-checked there.
This alone is just utterly egregious. The starting point for fact-checking an interview subject is… the interviewer. Especially when you know the person being interviewed is a serial liar and you’re giving him a major platform – and you know so clearly he will lie that you’ve prepared a fact-check website for him!! Instead, you come prepared – most-especially prepared for his known, repeated lies that he’s likely to repeat. Putting the burden on viewers to, after-the-fact, go online and remember the web address and check out the lies is an empty substitute for doing your job. To not push back on known lies when people are watching is just admitting you’re going to give a fascist propagandist a microphone to lie.
In fact, since this was pre-taped…NBC and Meet the Press knew what all Trump’s lies were before they aired the interview!!! They could have prepared a scroll to run underneath as the interview aired. They could have cut away from the tape to have Welker had comment on the lies before returning back. Instead, they chose to let the lies go out into the world…generally unchallenged. And instead, provided a link to a website.
Democracy is so appreciative…
Yesterday, in a different context, I mentioned a very fun British series that is streaming on Hulu, called The Wrong Mans. It was created by and stars James Corden and Matthew Baynton (who is one of the stars and creators of Ghosts.)
The premise is that two total, clueless innocents get thrown in a dangerous adventure and are far out of their depth trying to get out of it. Baynton is a low-level bureaucrat who accidentally gets drawn into a situation completely by mistaken identity accident. Corden is basically a regular temp at the office who sort of, kind of knows Baynton and thinks this is the coolest chance of a lifetime to do something exciting, and drags them in deeper – without having the slightest idea what he’s doing.
The series is very funny – and exciting, at the same time, filled with great twists and turns, with each episode ending on a wonderful cliff-hanger.
It’s very easy to watch. Episodes are just 30 minutes. And only two seasons were made, because (my guess is…) that’s when Cordern got hired to come to the U.S. and host his talk show. Six episodes were done for the first year, and just four in the second. The adventure gets wrapped in in Season 1, though Season 2 overlaps with the story, so there's a connection, though separate tales. The first season is great fun because of how convoluted the adventure gets. But the second season is a joy because, having only four episodes, it just crashes forward with the story and carries you on like a runaway train.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a good trailer for the series that does the show justice -- they largely focus on the action exclusively, and at heart this is a comedy...with lots of action -- but here are three clips that together give you a fair idea of the show. The first one is an introduction that Corden and Baynton made for Hulu, which then goes into a sequence that explains the premise. Though it gives the premise away (and it’s a great premise!), just know that this is from pretty much the first three minutes of the series, so it’s what you’d find out immediately.
The second clip is an early scene between Corden trying to convince Baynton why this is just a wonderful thing up to them to do, and Baynton trying to explain why Corden is out-of-his mind nuts. And the third is a short trailer that gives a sense of the action. If you don’t want to see the “premise” clip, just skip it and watch the latter two. But again, know that the premise is explained in the show’s very beginning, and therefore no later-surprise is given away.
Here’s the opening introduction --
And here's the scene with Corden and Baynton that develops the story --
Finally, this is a more action-oriented, short trailer --
As readers of these pages may recall, I’m a big fan of the series Ghosts. But that’s not because of the CBS version – I first became aware of the show well before the American adaptation appears on U.S. television, from its original British production that runs on the Max streaming service. That admiration for Ghosts continued with the American incarnation which has done a wonderful job adapting the show, being deeply respectful to its roots, while taking its own directions. In fact, for a while, I watched both versions simultaneously, with each one augmenting the other, giving me a sort of expanded platform – something that was much appreciated because they British production had only had three seasons available, with about seven episodes each year. (There since is a fourth British season, though it isn’t available yet on Max. And it’s been announced as the final year for the British version.)
There’s a point to all this, separate from just reiterating my great appreciation of Ghosts, so bear with me.
I wrote about both versions here. I dearly like them both, as they complement each other, having strengths that the other doesn’t, and I’d be hard pressed to say which one is “best.” The British original with Charlotte Ritchie and Kiell Smith-Bynoe as the homeowners – and the ghosts -- is a total joy. The American incarnation with Rose McIver and Utkarsh Ambudkar as the couple -- and the ghosts -- is a total joy. If I absolutely had to take a stance on which I prefer, it would be British original. That’s for two reasons. One, it’s done a bit more straightforward with subtle humor, rather than as a funny sitcom. And the other is that British antiquity lends itself a bit better to a) a mansion being haunted by ghosts, and b) being on land that goes back 1,000 years which lends itself to a more historic collection of ghosts.
A friend of mine and her husband love, love, lover the American Ghosts, and after a bit of polite pushing, I got them to try to British version. After the first episode, they said that it was very good but, no, they still much preferred the American show. (Side note: the U.S. premiere is incredibly close to the British original, including many of the same jokes. And they used some of the same British premises for the first two or three U.S. episodes.) However, they liked it enough to keep watching, and a month later I got an email that basically said, “You’re right, we LOVE the British version, and prefer it.” This from someone who – rightly – love, love, loves the American show.
That’s been my hurdle, getting people to watching the British original of Ghosts. Not to like it more – that’s personal taste, they’re both wonderful – but just to expand one’s appreciation of the show’s universe, especially if one likes it so much.
Which brings us to the point here. It’s something I both love and dislike. But mainly the former.
A while back, I wrote about the Fall season TV schedule that ABC announced to deal with the writers strike (and now the writers-actors strike). It was laughably dismal, thinking people would watch the ridiculous material they were trying to put on, rather than just check out all the brand new – or new to them – material that is streaming.
CBS recently announced their own Fall schedule, and it too is almost totally empty. With one caveat. A brilliantly smart idea by the network I’m sorry – and very happy – to say. CBS has said that in the Fall, they will begin airing episodes from the original British series of Ghosts.
As someone on strike with the Writers Guild, I hate that this is such a great, smart idea and I’m sure will draw pretty good numbers of viewers. On the other hand, I am so glad that people will now get the chance to watch the British original so much more easily.
By the way, there’s a small thing viewers of the American series will likely enjoy. One of the creators and stars of the British original, Matthew Baynton, actually appeared in an episode of the American adaptation. (He didn’t play a ghost over here, but rather was an actor who played the role of ‘Pete’ – one of the ghosts on the estate – in a TV documentary episode about ‘Pete’s’ death.) He said it was a very strange experience, since – when playing a ghost in England he never has to worry about ignoring what the “living characters” are saying, but as a living character, you have to block out the ghosts around you. And so it gave him great appreciation for what those actors have to do. Anyway, in the British series, he plays the flouncy, romantic poet Thomas Thorne from the early 1800s, who is madly in love with the living homeowner Allison.
Worth noting: Baynton co-created with James Corden and co-stars with him in a very fun series that streams on Hulu, called The Wrong Mans. It was only on for two seasons, before Corden left to come to the U.S. for his talk show. But it’s well-worth checking out. It’s sort of a very comic Hitchock-type story about two clueless guys who get caught up in a dangerous spy adventure, full of wonderful twists and turns.
Back to Ghosts, though, I wish there was a good trailer for the British series, but there really isn’t. However, earlier this year I posted a “reunion” sketch of sorts that the cast did in England for the “Red Nose Day” Comic Relief telethon that’s on every year to raise money for children poverty. While the sketch isn’t the show at its height, it's still a lot of fun. (And features a guest appearance by singer Kylie Minogue.) And you’ll get to see how close the American adaptation comes to the original.
Every once in a while, those on-screen TV guides make really big mistakes -- often it's when they display an actor's photo that's actually someone else in public life who has the same name. Usually, I assume, this is because the systems are computerized. My favorite may have been when an actor in some old movie was named George Mitchell, and the on-screen guide showed a photo of former U.S. Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell.
But the service that Spectrum uses in Los Angeles may have topped itself. Because this was a weird, glaring error totally different from that. It was for a 1965 romantic comedy that was showing on Saturday afternoon called Do Not Disturb, which starred Rod Taylor and Doris Day. Part of the plot summary described the couple moving to London, and Day thinking that Taylor was having an affair with "his attractive secretary, Claire." And as these summaries do, they often include a parenthetical for the name of the actor playing the role. So, in this case, it read, "...thinks her husband is having an affair with his attractive secretary, Claire (Leon Askin)."
Now, okay, needless-to-say, that caught my eye as being a bit off, most especially for a mid-60s Doris Day romantic comedy. And I'm sure that people who stopped reading their TV screen right there might have been bewildered. But I figured, well, it's possible that "Leon" was a nickname for "Leona." Or a typo for "Leora." Or some women have a man's name, perhaps for a family reason. For example, there was an actress on the TV series Trapper John, MD, named Christopher Norris. And there is an actress/model James King.
Except in this case, I know well who the actor Leon Askin is. And as wonderful an actor as he is, no one would ever confuse him with playing an attractive secretary, whatever his gender. So, I was sure that that Leon Askin was in the movie, just not in the role of "attractive secretary, Claire." (This was confirmed by his photo being included at the bottom of the screen with other cast members, identified with his name and proper character. So, they just screwed up the summary, with some really odd glitch.)
In fact, I suspect that most people here might even recognize him because Askin was a very popular character actor, and is probably especially recognized by many for having played the recurring role of 'Gen. Burkhalter' on Hogan's Heroes.
This is Leon Askin, who we are informed plays "his attractive secretary, Claire."
And sometimes, beauty is in the eye of the Burkhalter...
Writers may be on strike from writing, but they still can talk. On this week’s episode of 3rd and Fairfax, the official podcast of the Writers Guild of America, the guest is Vanessa Ramos, who created the new streaming series Blockbuster, for which she is also the showrunner. She’s also was executive story editor for Superstore, and wrote on such sitcoms as Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Kenan, Mr. Mayor and Borderown. She talks about all that and more.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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