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The tragedy of Leroy Jethro Gibbs: Thinking about "NCIS"

By Rich Heldenfels Published: February 21, 2017

(Updated with tonight's episode; some spoilers.)

“NCIS” is one of those shows that is merely popular – the people who watch it love it, but critics don’t for the most part share that feeling, if they are watching the show at all. In Uproxx’s poll of 59 critics about the best shows of 2016 (a list topped by the excellent “The People V. O.J. Simpson: American Horror Story"), "NCIS" was not among the 103 shows getting votes.

I get how it can be overlooked. There’s a deliberately mainstream quality to “NCIS”: clear narrative that does not ask the viewer to figure out a timeline, stories usually wrapped up in a commercial hour (though with room for multi-episode arcs), a sense of who is good and who is bad, characters who are likable but don’t at a glance to seem tortured or flawed. You don’t go to “NCIS” for a Don Draper or Tony Soprano.

The spin-offs have seemed even milder and more formulaic than the original. And in the aftermath of some high-profile departures most recently including Michael Weatherly (and the ongoing resentment over Cote de Pablo’s absence), the show has struggled to fit in new characters; while Jennifer Esposito gets it, I am not sure Wilmer Valderrama will ever feel settled, and Duane Henry’s character is still sketchy. The death last year of longtime showrunner Gary Glasberg may be one reason for the challenges of the new characters; in any case, Glasberg was a steady hand on the show for years, and losing him had to have hurt.

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Watching movies: "Logan"

By Rich Heldenfels Published: February 21, 2017

When I was young and trying to be an author -- and, like now, fascinated by superheroes -- I wrote a short story called "Parker in Retirement," in which Peter Parker aka Spider-Man was dying of radiation poisoning stemming from that long-ago spider bite. It wasn't a very good story, and I've only sporadically tried fiction since, but it did have me thinking about superheroes and their eventual mortality -- an idea that also drives "Logan," the latest movie featuring Hugh Jackman as the title character, best known as the Wolverine.

We last saw Wolverine on his own onscreen in 2013's "The Wolverine," a fine piece of pulp fiction until it lapsed into these movies' conventions. (We also glimpsed him last year in "X-Men: Apocalypse," a movie better  not discussed.) Here we are encountering him, and Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), in the not too distant future, and it's a time laden with melancholy. Charles is deep in some sort of mutant dementia, unable to control his powers, taking medication Logan acquires in order to keep his powers from dangerously manifesting. Logan, meanwhile, has given up the superhero game to work as a chauffeur -- but is also unwell. As for the other X-Men and -Women, as far as we know, they are all gone. It's just a matter of time, it seems, before Charles and Logan are gone, too.

But they are not forgotten. We soon meet a little girl entrusted to Logan's care, and bad guys wanting her, and a faraway sanctuary. There are scenes of violence far beyond what you usually expect in an X-Men movie -- this one has an R rating, as well as the implicit blessing of the bloody, R-rated "Deadpool's success." And you have to expect some kind of conclusion to the Wolverine saga, since Jackman has indicated this will be his last Wolverine film.

Writer-director James Mangold, who worked with Jackman on "The Wolverine" as well as "Logan," told Vanity Fair that "Hugh wanted to go out with a bang—'bang' not being bigger, but more interesting. He’d bring up movies like 'The Wrestler' and 'Unforgiven,' and I’d bring up movies like 'Paper Moon' and 'Little Miss Sunshine' and 'The Gauntlet.' A lot of 70s movies were discussed, a lot of westerns were talked about; 'Shane.'We just really focused on trying to skew the movie toward character."

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Pop culture in the age of Trump

By Rich Heldenfels Published: February 21, 2017

I can't get away from the guy. Channel hopping last week, I came across an episode of "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" from 2009, with this line via Jeff Goldblum: "What about real estate developers? Did we canvas the scene for Donald Trump's hair?" 

I recently finished Ron Chernow's biography of Alexander Hamilton and, in the process, kept seeing echoes of our president in Aaron Burr, the vice president who shot Hamilton in a duel. There was, for example, this passage of Hamilton describing Burr: " ... there is nothing in his favour. His private character is not defended by his most partial friends. He is bankrupt beyond redemption, except by the plunder of his country. His public principles have no other spring or aim than his own aggrandizement. ... If he can, he will certainly disturb our institutions to secure to himself permanent power and with it wealth." 

That then had me musing about "Sleepy Hollow," which has been in Washington, D.C., this season and imagining an arc where Burr has become a demon -- and taken over Trump, body and soul. Would that be any worse than all the other explanations for his behavior.

When Trump said he had "watched and read a lot over the last two days" on the way to picking a national security adviser, I wondered what exactly he had watched. (We have been told again and again that he does not like to read, which inspired this regretful essay.) Did he draw wisdom from the Jack Ryan movies? From "24" (or even "24: Legacy")? 

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Yvette Nicole Brown to host new Syfy series

By Rich Heldenfels Published: February 16, 2017

The official word:  The world’s most innovative cosplayers go head to head each week in Syfy’s new transformation competition series COSPLAY MELEE – an epic showdown of creativity, eye popping costumes and one of a kind characters. Premiering on Tuesday, March 21 at 10/9c, the hour-long battle is hosted by actress and self-described “super fan girl” Yvette Nicole Brown (“The New Edition Story,” “Community”) and executive produced by Jay Peterson and Todd Lubin of Matador Content (“Lip Sync Battle”).

Each week, four world class cosplayers compete to create not only intricate full-body costumes – but fully-formed characters that they must bring to life through their own realistic performance. Guiding and critiquing them are a panel of judges including world class cosplayer LeeAnna Vamp, and A-list costume creator, Christian Beckman (“The Hunger Games,” “TRON: Legacy”). At the end of every episode, the winner will walk away with $10,000 … and the right to claim cosplay supremacy.

“Cosplay is passion, artistry, engineering and theater all rolled into one,” said Heather Olander, Senior Vice President, Alternative Development and Production at USA/Syfy. “At the intersection of the maker world and fandom, the incredible artists of COSPLAY MELEE will blow your minds with their transformational creations.”

“As a huge fan of the creativity cosplayers bring to their craft, nothing makes me happier than having a front row seat for the amazing creations set to hit the COSPLAY MELEE runway,” said host Brown. “These talented artists are going to shine!”

Best known for her roles on NBC’s “Community” and having recently starred in “The New Edition Story,” Brown began her television career on “Girlfriends” and currently stars as Dani on the reboot of “The Odd Couple.” Previous film credits include “Little Black Book,” “Tropic Thunder,” “Meet Dave,” “Dreamgirls” and more. Brown can also be seen peeking through prosthetic makeup as one of the Three Fates in the Percy Jackson sequel “Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters” and has lent her voice for several characters on the big and small screens, including roles on “Family Guy,” “Pound Puppies” and, most recently, “Yellowbird.”

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ICYMI: Rhea Butcher's show among GLAAD Media Awards nominees

By Rich Heldenfels Published: February 1, 2017

Butcher co-stars with her wife, Cameron Esposito, in the online comedy "Take My Wife," inspired by their relationship. It's one of the 10 nominees for best comedy series.You may have seen my interview with her in 2014 or our 2016 chat about the show and her new comedy album.

You can find all the GLAAD nominees here.

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New gig for Carol Costello

By Rich Heldenfels Published: January 30, 2017

You may know Costello from her broadcast years in Akron and return appearances here such as this one. Her career change, from CNN boss Jeff Zucker:

As many of you may have just heard, Carol Costello announced that her last day on Newsroom will be this Friday. While we'll miss her unmistakable reporting, calming presence on the air, big smile and even bigger laugh on CNN, I’m happy to say she isn’t going far -- she’ll be staying in the family and joining HLN in Los Angeles.

During her more than 15 years with us, Carol has been at the forefront of some of the world’s most significant news stories, including the Boston bombing, Pope Francis’ historic visit and our coverage of the Iraq war. She is all heart and grace, and the epitome of a seasoned journalist, making her the perfect fit to join HLN’s powerful bench of anchors.
Carol’s decision to leave CNN was a personal one. After many years balancing a long-distance marriage with her demanding career, she is cashing in her miles and permanently relocating to the west coast. Ken Jautz will be sharing more details about her new LA-based show in the coming weeks.
It’s with infinite gratitude that I thank Carol for being a friend to me, and an influential voice that has helped grow CNN and contribute to our success.
Please join Ken and me in congratulating Carol on this great new role.

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RIP, Mary Tyler Moore

By Rich Heldenfels Published: January 25, 2017

In his autobiography, Grant Tinker said this of his first meeting with Mary Tyler Moore at the making of "The Dick Van Dyke Show": "Part of the immediate attraction I felt for Mary was her natural quality that made the role come alive, to say nothing of comedic skills I 'm sure Carl (Reiner) and Sheldon (Leonard) never counted on. The other part was that she simply knocked my socks off." 

Now, there was much more to Moore -- including a knack for drama made clear in "Ordinary People," and a sense of quality which was evident in MTM, the production company she and Tinker (who would become her husband and ex-) founded. But there was about her a naturalness that made it possible for her to be a single, working woman who did not need to engage in the slapstick of a Lucille Ball (although she could do that), or to have a show that repeatedly failed the Bechdel test -- who could just be, with flaws and brightness and an awareness that if she called Lou "Mr. Grant" it did not demean her; it was simply what she felt was appropriate.

And, of course, while doing that she could still knock our collective socks off.

That's a tough thing to pull off, and Moore did it twice. Granted she also had flops (I remember wincing through "Thoroughly Modern Millie," a movie misfire, and the less wonderful series attempts, including a variety show and drama "New York News"). In recent times, particularly in a guest appearance on "Hot in Cleveland," she did not look well. But time catches up to everyone, and that was a forceful reminder that she'd been on TV for more than half a century.

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Watching movies: "Moonlight"

By Rich Heldenfels Published: January 22, 2017

Politics not only seeps into pop culture, it seeps into how we view it. With the inauguration Friday and the marches Saturday, I was seeing a lot through a different filter than usual. I’ve mentioned “Deepwater Horizon” in a previous post. Then there was “Blue Bloods” on CBS on Friday, with a man dropping his police-officer girlfriend because he could not handle how tough she was on the job: the sort of sexism that may only get worse when we have a president who views wives mainly as ornaments. And there was “One Day at a Time” on Netflix, with a Latina as its main character, dealing with how people around her view immigrants, and what it’s like to be a veteran with shaky institutional support, and whose daughter is wondering in the seventh episode if she is gay. (The seventh, BTW, is as far as I have watched at this point.) What will become of people and families like this in the new national order?

And then there is “Moonlight,” the aching, grimly beautiful film from writer-director Barry Jenkins. It shows a world where being gay is, for too many, something to be ashamed of; where bullying is part of daily life from childhood on; where a single act of love can lead to years of disaster simply because the act is between two young men. This, too, may be a world that will become more common as the current American leadership goes forward (not only the president but the haters in Congress and statehouses), and we should weep even more over what the personal devastation “Moonlight” shows.

The film shows us three stages in the life of an African-American man, each stage including a pivotal point in his development, with resulting change. His name even changes in each stage: from Little (played by Alex Hibbert) as a child to Chiron (Ashton Sanders) as a teen to Black (Trevante Rhodes) as an adult. From an early age he is bullied and mocked by others who see his physical weakness and question his sexuality; he has only one friend, and he fits more comfortably in society. There’s not much help to be had. His stern mother has her own struggles, and the one man who tries to guide Little is also a drug dealer (Mahershala Ali) who has overlooked the guilt and shame in his task until, in one of the more wrenching scenes in the movie, Little makes him see what he has wrought.

Indeed, shame is the force that drives almost all the characters, although it is expressed in different ways, with actions that at times have horrible consequences. Attempts to bury that shame further push the action, especially for Little/Chiron/Black, but there is no hiding who people are, or ignoring what they do. As a man, Black is as emotionally imprisoned as Little, as unable to find real love because he cannot see how someone like him is ever going to have it.

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Watching movies: "Patriots Day"

By Rich Heldenfels Published: January 21, 2017

This weekend I watched “Deepwater Horizon” again. With its tale of greed and carelessness leading to the loss of life and environmental disaster, it seemed a good choice considering what is going on in this country – and what’s coming. It was also a chance to see a collaboration between director Peter Berg and actor-producer Mark Wahlberg which I had liked a great deal, to try to understand more why I did not love their more recent film, “Patriots Day.”

I expected “Patriots Day,” about the Boston Marathon bombing and the capture of the bombers, to be more painful, more powerful, since the events themselves had been so wrenching. And Berg has proven adept at making potent drama from real life (see not only “Deepwater” but “Lone Survivor,” also with Wahlberg, and “Friday Night Lights,” the movie and the TV pilot). There are even what have come to be Bergian touches in such films, such as showing the real versions of people being portrayed at film’s end, and potent scenes of prayer (“Friday Night Lights,” “Deepwater Horizon”).

"Patriots Day” has echoes of “Deepwater”; with both films, because we know what is to come, the domestic moments with which they begin especially ominous. Both films are not merely accounts of disasters but ones grappling with ideas – “Deepwater” with what happens when corners are cut, “Patriots” about the way terrorism may be inescapable even if our surveillance technology is now so massive that wrongdoers can be hunted down – after the fact. And both films are about regular folks confronted by chaos and destruction, and finding a way through.

But “Patriots Day” reaches wide in trying to tell its story, and in doing so loses dramatic focus. “Deepwater” was a contained tale, tightly bound by its location and its crisis, so the tension and characters operated within a controlled frame. (It also, I should add, had some excellent performances, especially from Kurt Russell.) The newer film “wants to cover a huge amount of geography and narrative, following victims of the bombing, the various elements of law enforcement trying to catch the bombers – and the bombers themselves. 

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ICYMI: "Girls" begins final season on HBO on Feb. 12

By Rich Heldenfels Published: January 18, 2017

The official word:  Enjoying new success as a writer after participating in “The Moth,” Hannah gets an assignment that could change her life. Divorced from Desi, Marnie seeks to remain independent, but her self-absorption could undermine a budding relationship with Ray. New couple Jessa and Adam embark on a creative project that could become a source of contention. Shoshanna flourishes at a marketing agency, but realizes her friendships may be holding her back.
            In the final season of the Emmy®-winning HBO comedy series GIRLS, created by and starring Lena Dunham, these four familiar friends attempt to get closer to becoming the women they always envisioned – even as life sometimes gets in the way. Judd Apatow, Jenni Konner, Lena Dunham, Ilene S. Landress, Murray Miller and Bruce Eric Kaplan executive produce the show, which kicks off its ten-episode sixth season SUNDAY, FEB. 12 (10:00-10:45 p.m. ET/PT), followed by other half-hour episodes subsequent Sundays at the same time.
            In addition to Dunham, who stars as Hannah, the cast includes Allison Williams as Marnie; Jemima Kirke as Jessa; Zosia Mamet as Shoshanna; Alex Karpovsky as Ray; Adam Driver as Adam; Andrew Rannells as Elijah; and Ebon Moss-Bachrach as Desi.
            Returning guest stars on the sixth season of GIRLS include: Emmy® winner Peter Scolari and Becky Ann Baker as Hannah’s parents; Rita Wilson as Marnie’s mother; Jon Glaser as Laird; Colin Quinn as Hermie; and Corey Stoll as Dill. New guest stars this season include: Riz Ahmed (HBO’s “The Night Of”) as Paul-Louis; Matthew Rhys (“The Americans”) as Chuck Palmer; and Tracey Ullman (HBO’s “Tracey Ullman’s Show”) as Ode.


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