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Archive for the ‘TV’ Category

Just finished watching the BBC series Sherlock Holmes which is set in modern-day London. These British dramas have only three episodes each year and we zipped through three seasons worth in a week’s time. The first season was good,  the second so-so and the third excellent. Benedict Cumberbatch is terrific as Sherlock Holmes and the supporting cast is a match for him. The series is available on Netflix streaming . Do watch it if you can.

However, that is not  what I want to write about. What struck me about this series is that there were no car chases, no crashes and no explosions. ( There was one scene that showed the Houses of Parliament come tumbling down as a result of a terrorist bomb but it was just Holmes imagining what would happen if he didn’t stop the terrorists in time.) Despite this, these were all first class mysteries with their fair share of tension.

I have no doubt they would have been much more explosive had they been made for American TV.  Why ? Do really need to see cars ramming into each other and buildings being blown up to get our jollies ? I remember the car chase in The French Connection and how thrilling it was but we seem to have gone overboard with such scenes. With the advent of computers and CGI, such scenes have proliferated. For instance, the climax of an American made movie had Robert Downey Jr. as Sherlock Holmes  fighting the villain on  London’s  iconic Tower Bridge  as it collapsed about them. Computer generated effects are fine but when they are used to show events that are patently false, the drama enters the realm of fantasy.

At least, when buildings and bridges are depicted tumbling down, no actual destruction takes place. This is not true of on-screen car crashes which really happen. Whenever I watch one of these, I can’t help thinking ” What a waste!” and I wonder why these are necessary and how the British and the Europeans manage without them. Is it because we Americans like them so much ? Is it because overseas productions do not have the lavish budgets that Hollywood and the American studios enjoy? Or is it an example of our wastefulness ? Or perhaps it is because of all of these? I don’t know.

Unfortunately, Indian movies seem to be modeling themselves on Hollywood. Recently, I saw two Bollywood movies and they were replete with car crashes ( and explosions) and the thought crossed my mind ” Are these really necessary?”

 

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“Bosch” : In Print and on TV

The Washington Post calls Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch books ” the finest crime series written by an American”, a statement I fully endorse. I have read almost all the Harry Bosch books, over twenty of them, and no other series even comes close. My problem is that when I get hold of one of them, I am so hooked to them that I finish them in two or three days and then have to wait impatiently for the next one.

I just finished reading ” The Burning Room”, Connelly’s latest, and it is one of his best. Bosch, retired but still working in the Open- Unsolved Unit under the DROP program, is in the last year of his long career but is still as driven as he was in his prime. When the book begins, he is mentoring his inexperienced partner Detective Lucia Soto as they investigate a most unusual case. A mariachi musician who was shot during a performance ten years earlier has finally succumbed to his injuries. The body may be fresh but there are almost no other clues except for the bullet which was embedded in his body and has now been extracted. LA’s former mayor who had used the shooting in his election campaign is now running from governor and is taking a keen interest in the investigation. Examination of the bullet shows that it came from a rifle, not a handgun; Bosch and Soto realize that this was no drive-by shooting but a premeditated murder. This takes their investigation into new territory. Complicating matters is Soto’s backstory. As a child she had survived a fire in her daycare center, a fire which killed several other children and a beloved caregiver. The fire was belatedly ruled a case of arson and Soto wants to find the perpetrators. Harry agrees to help her and , soon, there appears to be a connection between the arson and the murder.

Connelly used to be a crime reporter for the L.A. Times before he became a full-time writer and it shows in his mastery of police procedures and local and police politics in the City of the Angels. As Soto and he pursue their investigation, and the clues emerge one by one, the reader almost feels he is in the squad car with them. Because of the political ramifications, Bosch has to tread carefully even as he has to work around budget restrictions and overtime constraints. Bosch, however, is his usual driven self, trying to be there for his teenage daughter Maddy, while trying to unravel the puzzle. Before the case is solved, it will take Bosch and Soto to Tulsa and Mexico but solve it they do , though the ending has a surprise twist that seems to hint this may be the last case of Harry’s career. I hope not because, as a loyal reader of the Bosch novels, that would be a sad loss.

One, perhaps two, of Connelly’s novels have been made into films but they did not feature Harry Bosch. I was delighted to chance upon the just released Amazon Prime series ” Bosch”. It is a ten part series starring Titus Welliver in the title role. I remember him best as the crooked DA in ” The Good Wife” though his face is also familiar from many other roles that I cannot now recollect. Welliver is an inspired choice to play Bosch; he is just as I imagined Bosch would be. The hooded world-weary eyes, the worn features, the walk with a hint of swagger, his obsessive nature, his uncompromising attitude and resistance to authority and his essential loneliness… they are all there. The supporting cast is also excellent. The storyline for the series has been taken from a mix of several of the Bosch novels. The film begins with the accidental discovery of a child’s bone on an L.A hillside. The entire skeleton is soon discovered and forensic analysis reveals that the poor child had been subjected to horrific abuse. Simultaneously, Bosch has to deal with a serial killer who escapes from custody and taunts Bosch to capture him.

I must warn you that the series is very ” dark”. Watching it , I was a reminded of a friend of mine, a forensic criminologist, who never would tell his wife about the work he did and the cases he had to investigate. He told her that if he did she would lose all faith in humanity. Reading about these cases in the novels was not as horrifying as when they were depicted on TV. It is not that there is any graphic violence; it is the sheer depravity of the perpetrators.

One disadvantage of having read the novels already is that I remember who the killer was, why he did it and other details of the case. Still, I found the series enthralling because of Welliver’s portrayal of Bosch and because it brought to life the milieu that he works in. The detectives squad room, their camaraderie and the office politics, the glimpses of L.A, Bosch’s hillside house with its stunning nighttime view of L.A, his relationship with his ex-wife and their growing daughter … all are shown in rich detail. The series is true to the novels though some things have been modernized to make the setting more up-to-date. For instance, there are references to Bosch serving in Afghanistan, and to the race riots in Ferguson, Missouri both of which are not in the books.

All in all, this is a series well worth watching though it is disturbing at times. If you haven’t read the books, you have the advantage of not knowing in advance how it all shakes out. If you have read the books, you have the pleasure of watching on-screen what you had only read about and of seeing how closely the two match.

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As one who does not often watch regular TV, I had forgotten how intrusive ads can be. I was reminded of this all over again when I watched the Super Bowl and was taken aback by the sheer volume of the ” commercial interruptions”, a euphemism that does not make ads any more palatable. There were times when the ads seemed like the main event and the game itself a sideshow. Particularly egregious where the times when either team scored. Immediately, we were bombarded with three or four ads. Then a brief interruption lasting less than thirty seconds for the kickoff and the return ( less than 10 seconds actual playing time) and then another three or four ads before the next play. In all 6-8 ads sandwiched around a single play lasting a few seconds. I’m conscious of the huge amounts the networks pay to the NFL to air the game and I know they have to recoup them through ad revenue but … Isn’t there some point when it becomes too much? When the ads destroy our enjoyment of the game? I think there is and the line has long since been crossed.

Perhaps I am less inured to ads than regular viewers because most of my viewing is done through streaming services ( Netflix, Amazon Prime). I have gotten used to watching TV without commercial interruption and the difference between it and regular commercial TV is like night and day. This was brought home to me recently when I watched the USA network’s series ” Suits”. The first three seasons were available free to Amazon Prime members and we thoroughly enjoyed them. Entertaining characters, superlative scripts and interesting subplots. Enthralled by the series, we blazed through forty-four four episodes in less than two weeks. The later seasons were pay per view and we decided to postpone watching them, meanwhile joining season 4 in progress on the USA network. What a disappointment. The ads disrupted the narrative flow and it was difficult to sustain interest. It didn’t help that last week’s episode included a number of unnecessary flashbacks which added to our woes. We decided, then and there, not to watch the new episodes. Either we are going to wait for them to become available free to Amazon Prime members or pay $1.99 per episode and watch them immediately.

It’s not as if the commercials are interesting, funny or otherwise compelling. Even the Super Bowl ads were eminently forgettable.( The only one I remember is the Doritos ad). Even when I like the ad it’s not as if it is going to sway me to rush out and buy the product being advertised. For instance, my wife and I like the AT& T ads because of the pert spokesgirl featured in them but that doesn’t mean we are going to switch our telephone provider. I know advertisers must be getting value for their money but I find it difficult to understand how. Most viewers either tune out the ads or fail to remember the product being advertised. Could it be that , on some subliminal level, the ads are in fact getting through to us?

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Sushi Fallacies

As long as I have been eating sushi, I have been under the impression that the quality of the sushi depends on the freshness of the fish and that the best sushi is necessarily more expensive because it utilizes the most expensive cuts of fish. It turns out that I was under a misapprehension. According to Master sushi chef Naomichi Yasuda,

1. Fresh fish has no taste . It is just hard and chewy

2. You don’t need expensive cuts of fish to make exquisite sushi.

3. Rice, not fish, is the most important ingredient in making sushi. 

Rice is more important than fish in sushi ?!!This will sound almost heretical to a sushi lover but Chef Yasuda speaks from a wealth of experience. For twenty-seven years he lived in New York City and was the chef and part owner of Sushi Yasuda, one of the best ( if not the best ) sushi restaurants in NYC. Then, in 2011, he suddenly pulled up stakes and relocated to Tokyo where he runs a small 14-seat sushi restaurant with his wife as his sole helper. His friend , Anthony Bourdain, tracked him down in Tokyo and interviewed him for one of the episodes on his TV show, Parts Unknown.  Why did Chef Yasuda relocate to Tokyo so suddenly and after such a long successful stint in NYC? According to him,  it was simply a desire to work in the city which is the home of sushi.

Like other top chefs, Chef Yasuda also gets his fish at Tokyo’s world famous Tsukiji market but , unlike them, he does not get up in the middle of the night to get there at 4 AM. Unlike them he doesn’t pay top prices for pieces of toro, the fatty belly meat of the tuna.He gets there later in the morning and selects from among the lesser pieces of tuna, often pieces from the head. He then transforms them by dint of his masterful knife skills and by ” curing” the tuna meat, often by freezing it in a blast freezer for a week or more. Chef Bourdain who ate at Chef Yasuda’s Tokyo restaurant says that his sushi is as good as it ever was.

What a difference between Chef Yasuda and Chef Jiro whose highly acclaimed sushi restaurant received three Michelin stars. Jiro is no doubt dedicated to his craft but he comes across as a sourpuss and an elitist. Not so chef Yasuda who laughs readily and seems a much friendlier type. If I were to go to Tokyo again I know  whose sushi I would want to sample.

P.S Bourdain’s show Parts Unknown is worth watching but the quality of the episodes is uneven. The show is more about the culture of a place and only incidentally about food. The episode on Tokyo riffs on night life, bondage, the sexual nature of mangas and other topics and” Viewer discretion is advised”.

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On a recent edition of The Chew, the studio audience was asked ” What do you feel  is the perfect age… The age that you look back at fondly if you are older, and the one that you look forward to if you are younger ?”

What would YOUR answer be ?

Knowing how much youth is valued in America, I thought they would pick ” Twenty-five” or perhaps ” Twenty-nine”. At either of those ages, one is setting out on one’s own, independent and still young with the endless future stretching out ahead. Either of those answers would not have surprised me. The audience’s actual response was unexpected. Are you ready for this ?

Their perfect age was ” Fifty”. Their reasons were varied. Being comfortable with who they were. Enjoying the company of the generations on either side of them, both their parents and their children. Stable family life. Etc., etc.

I was very impressed with the maturity of the response. This is a subject I had touched upon in an earlier post four years ago after reading an article in The Economist that described how happiness changes with one’s journey through life. According to it, happiness rises slowly throughout our early years, peaks at age forty-six and then decreases only slightly all the way till the end of life . Kudos to the studio audience for knowing that youth is not all it’s cracked up to be.

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I like The Chew

Though The Chew is its third season, I only saw it for the first time last week . I don’t usually watch daytime TV and I caught the show on Hulu. I liked it. I regularly watch shows on the Food Network and The Chew with its mix of “food, life, and fun conversations about everything” was different and enjoyable. Some of the co-hosts were new to me but others like Michael Symon and Mario Batalli were familiar from their appearances on Food Network shows. I also remember Carla Hall as a contestant and finalist on Top Chef.

What I like about The Chew is that it is fast paced, good natured and fun, and everybody on it seems to be having a good time. Michael Symon is my favorite Iron Chef ( along with Bobby Flay) and I love hearing him laugh. It’s more a cackle than a laugh and we get to hear it often on The Chew ; its infectious! Carla Hall is someone I admire. She is rather odd-looking, but she is completely unselfconscious, is a lot of fun and unafraid to voice her opinions. No wonder she was voted a Fan Favorite on Top Chef All Stars. I’d never heard of Clinton Kelly, the main man on The Chew , but he is easygoing and keeps the show ticking along at a fast pace. The recipes on the show are the type casual home cooks might want to try out and Symon et al make them look easy. The audience participation quizzes and other games are enjoyable too and a good change from Food Network fare which of late has been too much about contests.

I was surprised to see that viewers gave The Chew only a 4.9 rating on a 10 point scale, but I dug a little deeper and found out why the rating is so low. Some viewers were mad at The Chew because it displaced a favorite TV soap. Others were put off by Carla Hall, judging her solely on her looks. Still others criticized the show because the participants were not better known. All of these reasons, in my opinion, are unfair. The Chew may not be great TV but it is eminently watchable. I wouldn’t watch it every day but it is a good way to pass time on a slow afternoon. On a 10 point scale, I would rate it a 7.

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Can’t Beat Bobby Flay

There was a time when I didn’t care for Bobby Flay. He struck me as brash, cocky, too sure of himself. Over the years though, he has grown on me. Now, I find him easygoing, confident and self-assured, not arrogant, and I like his sense of humor. I was happy to hear of his new Food Network gig, Beat Bobby Flay. Having seen the first few episodes, I find it fresh and interesting, better than tired old standbys like Iron Chef America.

Beat Bobby Flay ( Food Network, Thursdays two thirty minute episodes back-to-back,9-10 PM) is an updated, zippier take on Bobby Flay’s old Throwdown series with some elements of Iron Chef America (hereinafter ICA) thrown in. In the first part of each episode, two up and coming chefs compete against each other for the right to challenge Bobby Flay. They cook one dish that features an ingredient chosen by Bobby Flay ( does this remind you of the ” secret ingredient” on ICA?). The dishes are judged by two celebrity judges and the winner gets to choose the dish for the cook-off between Bobby Flay and himself (shades of Throwdown!). The winner is selected by a panel of experts in a blind taste test.

There are many reasons why I like Beat Bobby Flay. For one thing, the contestants are cooking only one dish at a time ( not five as in ICA) and it is a head to head competition. This makes it easier to follow and , since each half hour episode contains two separate contests, it is fast paced. In the first part, where the two challengers are going up against each other, Bobby Flay is watching and schmoozing with the two judges. They are usually his ICA colleagues, people like Michael Symon or Alex Guarnaschelli, or other celebrities from the world of food,like Jonathan Waxman or Simon Mujumdar. They know each other well and it is fun to listen to them banter. It is also interesting to listen to them air their opinions about the challengers and the dishes being cooked. Another plus is that these dishes are things that viewers might want cook ourselves; watching the show gives us useful ideas that we can incorporate in our cooking. The dishes and some of the techniques used in ICA are beyond the abilities of most home cooks even had we the facilities of the ICA kitchen.

I don’t know how other viewers feel but, for me, many of the things I liked about Iron Chef America have now become the features I dislike most. I am tired of the Chairman’s campiness, his absurd theatrics and the stilted unvarying phrases that pass his lips( Allez cuisine…. Tell us what was your inspiration for the meal. .. Open mind and empty stomach..). I am tired of Kevin Brosh , even though I still like Alton Brown. I am even tired of new gimmicks like the Culinary Curveball which I think detracts from the culinary competition. And finally, I don’t like many of these newer Iron Chefs , who I feel are not in the same league as the originals.

There is one criticism I have of Beat Bobby Flay. When the blind tasting takes place, the contestants are standing in front of the judges , just as in the case of ” Chopped”. It is very easy for the judges to read their facial expressions and know who cooked what. Perhaps it doesn’t matter, because the judges know Bobby Flay’s cooking style so well. He is hardly likely to use wonton wrappers as taco shells or use kimchi in a salad. Still, if it is to be styled as a ” blind” tasting, it would be better for the contestants to be out of sight of the judges as they pick the winner. This, however, is a minor criticism. Bobby Flay may occasionally lose a cooking contest but, as cooking shows go , you can’t beat Bobby Flay.

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