They Way They Do the Things They Do

Whether it comes in the form of film, television, graphic novels, short stories, or even epic poetry, I just can’t get enough of stories. Seriously, a well-executed yarn is to me what a bowl of crunchy kibble is to a hungry dog. Feed it to me, and I’ll hang around on your back porch forever.

But what exactly makes a story great? An engaging plot is a must of course—one that is believable, perfectly paced, and airtight. Also, the right scene has to be set through the use of accurate costuming, stage dressing, and dialogue. If I’m going to watch a film about the Civil War, I want to be able to imagine the feel of the canon’s boom rattle in my chest, and a film set in the English countryside better come with the aroma of a garden and some well-placed whithers and wheresoevers if you know what I’m sayin’.

However, I can sometimes forgive a lack of verisimilitude if the characters are engaging enough on their own, and their are actors out there who have compelled me to love whatever entertainment vehicle they’re currently driving despite my lack of overall interest or possible outright disgust. Envision Michael C. Hall on the hit show Dexter. The thought of a serial killer with a penchant for knives, sheet plastic, and screwdrivers makes my skin crawl, but he somehow makes the show’s title character…likeable. Heck, I found myself rooting for him not to get caught once they found his dumping ground in the ocean and wondered what kind of person that made me.

So, I sat down and thought about ten shows I watch and my favorite characters on each, and I discovered that those stand-out thespians all had something in common. They so fully inhabit their roles that they’ve created little tics for their alter egos, Lilliputian idiosyncrasies that might go unnoticed by ninety-five percent of the viewing audience but are as essential to the show as many of the larger moving pieces.

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Boyd Crowder (Walter Goggins)—The hillbilly antihero of Justified has a style all his own. He’s as country as can be, but his dialogue is riddled with esoteric vocabulary, biblical allusions, and luscious sarcasm. A great example of how people from my neck of the woods play “country dumb,” Goggins delivers the lines with a perfect cadence and subtle style that draws me in. Sometimes, I’ll rewind just to hear him deliver a line again. However, the weird quirk he’s developed for Boyd is a penchant for keeping his hands in his pockets. Sitting, standing, walking–it doesn’t matter. Boyd’s hands are always firmly lodged at the waist of his well-fitted jackets. I suppose, on a show where most people come in armed for bear, that keeping one’s hands in one’s pockets is a sign of bravado. Also, not using his hands makes viewers look at his face, which is expressive in its understated style. Whatever the reason, it’s alluring, and I adore him.

Image from smartladieslovestuff.com
Image from smartladieslovestuff.com

Niles Crane (David Hyde Pierce)—This is my nod to the shows of yesteryear. If you missed out on Frasier, do yourself a favor and find it somewhere in syndication or watch it on Netflix, Hulu, or one of the other umpteenth thousand avenues through which cable television is now readily available. Both brothers had his share of quirks, but Niles was Frasier magnified to the forty-seventh power. In fact, at once point in the show when he was in the midst of OCD compulsion–washing his hands, measuring the cinnamon sprinkled on his latte, and wiping his seat with a handkerchief–Frasier looks at his brother and says, “Compared to you, I’m a Teamster.” One of Niles’ greatest tics was his tendency to pass out whenever he saw blood–especially his own. Watch the clip and see the comedic genius of David Hyde Pierce on display.

Abby Sciuto (Pauley Perette) and Leroy Jethro Gibbs (Mark Harmon)—There are some crazy forums on the Internet that bemoan the fact that Gibbs and Abby from NCIS haven’t yet “hooked up,” which is both disgusting and utterly ignorant. Anyone with half a brain would know that Abby fills the role of daughter for Gibbs–the little, trusting girl he never got to raise. He dotes on her more than any other character on the show–bringing her Caff POW!, bragging on her work, and trusting her with his secrets. One of the many rituals they have is the kiss for a job well done. It doesn’t happen every episode, but more often than not, when she discovers some piece of vital information that gives Gibbs the facts he needs to go find and maim a bad guy, she’s rewarded with a quick smack on the cheek. It’s one of those moments of intimacy (and I’m not using that term sexually) for poor, widowed Gibbs that makes him less icy and foreboding. Always a sweet treat for me on Tuesday nights.

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Joan Holloway-Harris (Christina Hendricks)—My husband chose to join me in watching Mad Men each week because of “Red,” the luscious femme fatale of the office secretary set. Joan, unlike the other girls who fall victim to their emotions or make stupid decisions and fall apart like cheap tissue paper, makes savvy choices. When chaos erupts around her (in the case of the man who had his foot om nommed by the lawn mower in season three) or in her own personal life (when her doctor-to-be hubby turns out to be a lemon of a lifetime investment), Joan is ready with a quippy line, which is often delivered with her left hip upthrust at a jaunty angle. Whenever she stands still, she shows off her curves by standing at nine or three instead of six o’clock, and it works to her advantage. Points to Ms. Hendricks for knowing how to rock her figure.

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John Bates (Brendan Coyle)Downton Abbey, and the adorable Mr. Bates, are recent obsessions of mine. Points to PBS for actually managing to snag a show that makes me want to donate to their efforts for another reason besides a free tote bag. (Though I am rather partial to the siren call of free tote bags, let me tell you.) It’s an amazing show. If you haven’t heard about it yet, you must be new to this planet because it’s only been the hottest thing around since the second season started this year. It’s left both the Brits and their bumpkin cousins over here in the States panting for more. Mr. Bates has a great many character traits I enjoy, but the best of them all is the half-upturned lip of amusement he uses with certain characters on the show (most notably his love interest, Anna Smith). That and the bowler just make me want to melt into a puddle on the floor.

Image from chrissywelsh.com

Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv)—I know I said I admired Walter Goggins because he could steal a scene without using his hands, but the exact opposite is true of Anna Torv on Fringe. In every scene she’s in (whether as Olivia or Fauxlivia), she’s interviewing suspects or victims or talking to another member of Fringe Division–her hands flying like Tippi Hedren’s in her PTSD flashback in The Birds. More often than not, she spins them in a circle one another, fingers splayed in an intricate display of digits, and ends with them either spread apart in jazz hands formation or gripped together demurely like a penitent nun. I couldn’t find a still or video clip to show exactly what I means, but one episode is enough to see Ms. Torv takes her own tendency and makes it purely her character’s.

Walter White (Bryan Cranston)—Oh, my word. I never thought I’d be as into Breaking Bad as I am now, but with this last season finale and the amazing assassination of Gus, I’m all in! (Seriously, death by wheelchair bomb. It was like the creme brulee of death scenes. So epic). His transformation from sanguine spirited scientist to meth manufacturing maniac has been an interesting (and sometimes heartbreaking) one to watch, and one thing that has marked the moment of change as consistently as a sore knee foretells the coming rain is something I call “the furrowed eyebrow scowl of fury” on the face of one Walter White. Really, Bryan Cranston has taken Walter from sissy to savage more than once, and it’s totally convincing. There’s something so flat in his delivery of his lines and the look on his face that make me more than a little terrified of him. He should have won an Emmy at least twice for his work on this show, and he would have done so, too, if it hadn’t been for that pesky boy in grey, Don Draper.

Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons)—As Templeton the Rat once said, “A fair is a veritable smorgasbord, orgasboard, dorgasboard after the crowds have ceased.” If characters were like special events, Jim Parson’s work as Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory would make him one funnel cake short of the county fair. Seriously, I’ve never seen a character with so many odd and quirky personality traits! I honestly don’t know how he keeps them all straight when he shoots a scene, but somehow, he does. Of them all, the gasping laugh is my favorite by far. Half gasp, half laugh—all sarcasm— it’s as much a part of the show as Howard’s vociferous, disembodied mother. Check out the video below and indulge in a moment of hilarity that only Sheldon’s laugh can provide. Bazinga!!

Rick Castle (Nathan Fillion)—Whether it’s horsing around with the guys, flirting with Beckett, or indulging in some true father/daughter time with Alexis, the central character in Castle always manages to find a way to have a good time. The overall impish attitude of Nathan Fillion is a wonder to behold. Whenever a murder happens in a way that could be something out of a story, he has a geek out moment of epic proportion, often using lines like, “This is SO TOTALLY cool!” Remember, he’s a professional fiction writer on the show, but he doesn’t describe his girlish glee using cleverly constructed sentences or high level diction. Instead, he reverts to the language of an eight-year-old because, in that moment, that’s exactly what he is. It’s like watching a pre-teen take over a man’s body. The puckish side comes out on some episodes more than others, but it’s one thing that makes Castle a fun watch on Monday nights.

Image from http://xfinity.comcast.net

Dwight Hendricks (Jason Lee)—When I first saw Jason Lee on Memphis Beat, I had trouble believing it was the same guy who starred in My Name Is Earl. Rather than his hair sitting atop his head like Heatmiser’s in The Year Without a Santa Claus, the stylists chose to slick it back and give him a set of wicked sideburns that would make the King proud. Loose flannel shirts and floppy work shoes have been replaced by well-cut jeans, shirts that are tucked in, and a suit jacket. With those and a few other changes, a man I saw as a goofy, goodhearted hero suddenly becomes a blues singing hunk. Seriously! He’s also amazingly good at lip syncing  because I didn’t know until I did a little research that he wasn’t actually performing the closing song of each episode. However, it’s the fact that he croons with his eyes closed that makes me like him. He throws himself into the faux performance, one hand raised like Elvis and the other cradling the old school microphone in front of him, and belts out gospels, blues, and rock and roll hits in one smoky Memphis bar or another. Whether it’s a ballad or a cause to boogie, Jason Lee’s performing with his eyes squeezed shut, lost in his own little world (which is where I’m guessing he came up with the name Pilot Inspektor Riesgraf-Lee for his poor son).

Image from 2.bp.blogspot.com

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So there you have it, ten characters on television whose weirdness makes me go wild. I’d love to hear about the characters you all like and why. Share your thoughts in the comments section below!!!

Standards, People! Standards!!!

I saw this image making the rounds on Facebook this week, and while I chuckled about it upon first viewing, it got me to thinking about something that is more than a little disturbing. Our standards for entertainment have certainly gone downhill over the last century. To use a food metaphor, it’s like we’ve gone from dining at 21 and sipping a ’47 Cheval Blanc to grazing at Golden Corral and chugging box wine. Yeah, I think it’s that bad.

Don’t get me wrong—every decade has horrible music, wretched movies, and positively terrible books. Whether it’s Ishtar, Twilight, “Achy Breaky Heart,” BJ and the Bear, or Sam the Sham, every decade has a veritable cornucopia of artistic endeavors that it wishes had never seen the light of day. Also, each generation also has a few genuine stars whose talent is obvious, even to the least discerning connoisseur of popular culture. I’m not saying that there were no bad actors in the early decades of the twentieth century or that a talented singer can’t be found today, but when you look at the facts, it’s hard to argue that our standards have descended from top shelf to well status. (I know it’s another food metaphor. I can’t help it.)

Since the picture compared Old Blue Eyes and The Bieb (even the former entertainer’s nickname is better!), I thought I’d start with music to see what I could learn from record sales and data. I decided to go with four decades (the 1940s, 1960s, 1980s, and the 2000s) for purposes of comparison. I chose an arbitrary year (the third) from each decade, and took at look at the songs that were number one on the week of my birthday. Here’s what I found.

Number one song on April 21:

1943–“I’ve Heard That Song Before” by Harry James & Helen Forrest

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1963–“I Will Follow Him” by Little Peggy March

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1983–“Come on Eileen” by Dexy’s Midnight Runners

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2003–“In Da Club” by 50 Cent

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Listen to the first and the fourth and tell me there isn’t a marked difference between them, both in subject matter and style. Actual instruments and the skill it took to play them were required for the former, and the lyrics are delightful.

It seems to me I’ve heard that song before.
It’s from an old familiar score.
I know it well, that melody.

It’s funny how a theme
recalls a favorite dream,
a dream that brought you so close to me.

I know each word because I’ve heard that song before.
The lyrics said, “Forevermore.”
Forevermore’s a memory.

Please have them play it again,
and then I’ll remember just when
I heard that lovely song before.

It’s slightly melancholy, reminiscent of “As Time Goes By” from Casablanca (which also happens to be the film that won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1943.) It’s nothing fancy, but there is a message to the song, a bit of symbolism and lovely language. Compare that to the first few verses of “In Da Club.”

Go, go, go, go, go, go.

Go shawty, it’s your birthday.
We gonna party like it’s your birthday.
We gonna sip Bacardi like it’s your birthday.
And you know we don’t give a f*** it’s not your birthday.

You can find me in the club, bottle full of bub.
Look mami, I got the ex if you into takin’ drugs.
I’m into havin’ sex; I ain’t into makin’ love.
So come gimme a hug if you’re into gettin’ rubbed.

When I pull up out front, you see the Benz on dubs.
When I roll 20 deep, it’s 20 knives in the club.
N****** heard I f*** with Dre, now they wanna show me love.
When you sell like Eminem, the hos they wanna f***.

So, in sixty years we went from love songs to ones filled with references to sex and drugs as well as foul language. I can say, without hesitation, that 50 Cent’s masterpiece has no redeeming qualities whatsoever, yet he sold 872,000 albums in five days when the album it was on was released.

I have to wonder if music like this sells because we’ve actually fallen so far or because people simply don’t know that something better is out there. Perhaps I’m the anomaly–the freak of nature nowadays–because I was raised by parents who introduced me to classical music, television shows that were funny without relying on anything raunchy, and movies that actually had plots and clever dialogue. Who knows.

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Since both Sinatra and Bieber have both tried their hands at acting, I thought about comparing the ranks of thespians from the same four eras to see if the same slow decay was working its way through Hollywood. Based on the number of films each made as well as the awards and paychecks they garnered, According to a website called Top Ten Reviews, the following ten actors rank as the top tier in each decade. Their ranking was determined by fan feedback as well as the number of films each made and the awards and paychecks they garnered as a result. They are listed in rank from first to tenth:

1940s–Ingrid Bergman, Lauren Bacall, Jean Arthur, Irene Dunn, Cary Grant, Teresa Wright, Myrna Loy, Judy Garland, Humphrey Bogart, and James Stewart

1960s–Julie Andrews, Audrey Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Peter O’Toole, Shani Wallace, Natalie Wood, Vincent Price, Sean Connery, Burt Lancaster, and John Wayne

1980s–Harrison Ford, Barbara Hershey, Eddie Murphy, Mia Farrow, Shelly Duvall, Robert De Niro, Kathleen Turner, Woody Allen, Geena Davis, and Kim Griest.

2000s–Kate Blanchette, Emma Watson, George Clooney, Katherine Zeta-Jones, Matt Damon, Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Scarlett Johanson, Daniel Radcliff, and Renee Zellwegger

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There are some oddballs on there. I know Michael Caine made the list this decade for the Batman movies alone (notice he’s right under Christian Bale). And I cannot even begin to explain how Vincent Price ranked above Sean Connery and John Wayne in the 60s. However, by and large, I’ll say that these lists are fairly accurate cross sections of who was hot in a given ten-year period.

People always want to compare George Clooney to Cary Grant, and while I admit that they do look rather similar, I can’t imagine living in a world where I would choose the former over the latter.

Grant was the more versatile leading man. Compare the role of reporter each man played in His Girl Friday and Good Night and Good Luck if you don’t believe me. Grant was also the one with better comedic timing and style, which a quick comparison of Father Goose and O Brother, Where Art Thou? will reveal.

The same is true for leading ladies. Katherine Zeta-Jones (one of the more well-rounded actors in the list) can’t hold a candle to Ingrid Bergman for beauty and style, and if you want sultry, look no further than Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not with Humphrey Bogart (her future hubby) instead of Scarlett Johanson in The Black Dahlia.

Just fast forward to about five minutes in and watch the “whistle” section if you don’t believe me. Then compare it to this brief clip. To me, Johanson is like a little girl playing dress up, and her sex appeal feels so forced compared to Bacall’s.

Name me one actor working today who is a legitimate triple threat. (Don’t count Broadway stars. I’ve always felt that theater audiences, for the most part, have more exacting standards.) Honestly, can anyone in Hollywood today hold a candle to Gene Kelly?

How about Julie Andrews?

I don’t go to the movies as much as I used to for a couple of reasons. The cost of an average ticket is $11.00, and I’m not willing to pay that much for sub-par entertainment. Sure, while I do prefer more cerebral fare, I’ll admit that I’m as excited about the upcoming Avengers movie as your average fan girl and truly enjoyed the silliness of The Muppet Movie. However, anyone who tells me One for the Money or Underworld: Awakening are actually worth the cost of admission, I’d have to say, “Baby, baby, baby noooooooo.”

Am I way off base with this? I’d love to hear your thoughts on music, movies, and anything else pop culture!