2014 TV at the Half

Wow… what a terrible year it’s been for TV so far. I’ve looked at Wikipedia and several TV websites just to make sure I didn’t miss anything.. and it would appear that I haven’t: there just hasn’t been a lot of quality new stuff on TV so far.

Here’s my mid-year list of the best new scripted shows on TV. After that, there’s a brief essay about new shows that tried and failed and some awards. So let’s do this thing:

The Best New Shows of 2014

#12 Turn (AMC) – Spies in Revolutionary War America? HELL YES! What’s not to love about a show like that? It’s like AMC made a show just for me. Except… “interestingly-interpreted” history aside, this show is slow, like many AMC shows are, and the premise of the show – spying – seems to be forgotten from time to time in favor of character development. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: character development is a crucial part of any good show. But, at times Turn seemed too much like AMC’s other spy show, Rubicon: you wonder what happened to the premise. However, I put this on the “best-of” list because of an interview I read with the show’s creators: it seems like they have heard our concerns, and season 2 should be a much improved show.

AMC's "Turn"

#11 True Detective (HBO) – Beautifully shot. Expertly acted. Carefully written. And then it all falls apart at the end. What is it with modern anthology series? ‘Cos this show TOTALLY reminds me of American Horror Story, and how AHS always starts off pretty well, but limps towards a lame finale every single time. True Detective could have been the hands-down favorite for best new show of the year… possibly even best new show of the decade. But the conventional, formulaic ending left me cold. It’s like the first 7 episodes were almost unbelievably good, but the last one… was like something out of a direct-to-DVD movie, Or like the writers quit with 10 pages left to write in the script. Or something.

HBO's "True Detective"

#10 Silicon Valley (HBO) – This new series from Mike Judge – creator of Beavis and Butthead, King of the Hill and Office Space – is pretty damn amusing. It’s almost like The Big Bang Theory for computer nerds like myself. While a knowledge of the IT industry and programming is helpful in understanding the laffs, it’s not required. Sadly, this is because the show, awesome though it is, seems to rely on standard stereotypes, especially the “IT nerd afraid of his own shadow”. One nerd is terrified of his possible success, Another is afraid of girls. Another – the more down to earth one – is apparently afraid of being sober. Still, this show delivers the funny more than any sitcom I’ve seen in a while. It’s definitely worth a watch!

HBO's "Silicon Valley"

#9 Mr. Sloane (Sky Atlantic) – I’ll admit it: I am a sucker for anything with Nick Frost of Spaced, Shawn of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. In this series, Frost plays accountant Jeremy Sloane (“with an ‘e’, like Sloane Square”). Jeremy is having a terrible 1969: his wife has left him, he was fired from his accounting job, and his nosy elderly neighbor lets herself in whenever she wants, which always seems to be the wrong time. Jeremy has just about had it with life all around. But then he meets Robin (Ophelia Lovibond), a free-spirited American hippie who changes his life… but just as things start to take off with Robin, Sloane’s estranged wife Janet (Olivia Colman) returns, throwing everything up in the air. Will Jeremy move on with his new American love? Will he go back to his wife? And will he finally ditch his terrible high school friends? This show didn’t get a lot of love from British TV sites, but I really liked it. It was heartfelt and bittersweet, while being funny at the same time. Sure, Sloane’s a loser… but he’s a loser anyone can identify with.

Sky Atlantic's "Mr Sloane"

#8 Happy Valley (BBC) – Sarah Lancashire stars as Catherine Cawood, a police sergeant in an idyllic town in Yorkshire. But life isn’t as pretty as the setting would seem. Drugs are flooding the town, and Cawood has her own personal tragedy: the suicide of her daughter after being “raped” by a man named Tommy Lee Royce (played by James Norton; while Cawood’s daughter and Royce did have sex, it’s not entirely clear whether he actually raped her or not). Cawood finds that Royce has been released from prison, and she makes it her duty to track his every move. Little does she know that Royce is a pawn in a much bigger game. It takes the police a while to figure it all out, but in the end, many smaller crimes are part of a much larger conspiracy. Will they be able to solve the case in time? This series got rave reviews from most critics, but for one thing: it has a couple of pretty brutal scenes of violence against women. Here’s my take: while it’s true that British TV seems to have a newfound fetish for hurting women… so what? Was it OK for cop shows to show men suffering for decades, but somehow it’s a problem NOW because it’s women? Can we have female police officers in real life, but not show actual violence they might encounter on our TVs? Also, and this is just me nitpicking, but why did they use “cannabis” as the “evil drug” in this series? They could have used crack or meth to be the “evil drug turning our fair citizens into zombies”, but no… they blamed skunk instead? Ooookkkkaaayyy.

BBC's "Happy Valley"

Continue reading “2014 TV at the Half”

The Atlanta Pen

I used to drive past the United States Penitentiary, Atlanta – known as “USP, Atlanta”, ‘the Federal Pen” or just “the Pen” – on a fairly regular basis. But I never gave it much thought. Oh sure… I’d sometimes wonder what the prisoners were doing at that exact moment and sometimes I’d think about how nasty the 1987 riots were.

USP, Atlanta
(photo via Atlanta Time Machine)

I was surfing around a few nights ago and found some interesting stuff about USP, Atlanta.

The prison was authorized by the “Three Prisons Act” of 1891, which also created prisons in McNeil Island, Washington and a rather famous one in Leavenworth, Kansas. Construction was approved by President William McKinley in 1899, and the facility was completed in 1902. At the time, it was the largest federal prison in the United States, with a capacity for 3,000 prisoners.

And what prisoners they were!

*     *     *

Ignazio Lupo was an organized crime figure who ran Manhattan’s Little Italy in the early 1900s. In 1903, Lupo married Giuseppe Morello’s half-sister (Morello ran similar gangs in East Harlem and the South Bronx). The gangs merged to form the “Morello family”, which became the basis of the Genovese family, considered by many to be the “gold standard of American crime families”. Although suspected of killing no less than 60 people, Lupo was actually convicted of running a counterfeiting ring, and spent a decade in USP, Atlanta from 1910 to 1920. Once freed, he petitioned the US government to travel to Italy, something prohibited by the terms of his parole. President Warren G. Harding approved Lupo’s request, with one amazing clause: Harding, and Harding alone, would judge whether Lupo was “law-abiding” and “not connected with any unlawful undertaking during the period of the sentence”.

Ignazio Lupo
Ignazio Lupo. Photo from lacndb.com

By the 1930s, the National Crime Syndicate (a loose coalition of organized crime families created by Johnny “The Fox” Torrio) decided that Lupo was too wild and attracting too much law-enforcement attention. So Lupo was stripped of all of his criminal enterprises. Lupo then started a protection racket amongst Italian bakers in NYC, and by 1936 he’d grown so violent and over the top that the governor of New York asked FDR to put Lupo back in prison for the remainder of his original term. So Lupo served an additional 10 years in Atlanta, from 1936 to 1946. He died, almost forgotten, in Brooklyn in 1947.

*     *     *

USP, Atlanta’s most famous resident was Al Capone.

As a young man, Johnny Torrio – the same Johnny Torrio who later created the National Crime Syndicate – worked legitimate jobs as a bouncer and porter in Manhattan. He joined a street gang, became their leader, and managed their money so well that he was soon able to buy them a pool hall as a hang out. It didn’t take long for the hall to become a hotbed of gambling and loan sharking, all of which Torrio managed well. This attracted the attention of Paolo Vaccarelli (a.k.a. Paul Kelly), founder of the Five Points Gang. Kelly invited Torrio to join. Torrio quickly drew the attention (and admiration) of several younger members, including Capone. In time, Torrio would hire Capone to tend bar at The Harvard Inn, a Coney Island dive owned by Francesco Ioele (a.k.a. Frankie Yale).

Continue reading “The Atlanta Pen”

Advice for Bloggers

For some reason, I enjoy reading food blogs. It’s kind of inexplicable, because food blogs are the most likely to drive me insane. If you’re thinking about starting a blog – especially a food blog – please read this before you start:

HIRE A PROOFREADER – If you want to get payed for riting on you’re blog, yoo shuld hire to proofreeder, or at least have sumone reed you’re stuff before yoo post it up their. I mean, come on, folks… I’m the King of the Rambling Sentence, but I *do* have a firm grasp of grammar basics like “there\their\they’re” and “your\you’re”. It’s amazing to me that some people want to write, but can’t even get past minor stuff like this. There’s a snack blog out there where the author constantly uses the word “yea” (as in, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death”) instead of “yeah” (as in, “yeah, these are good.”). I want to stab that guy in the eyeballs… repeatedly. To cope, I have to read all his posts in a mock English bishop voice: “Yea, though Frito Lay hath given unto man these Cheesy Garlic Bread chips, I enjoy them not, for thy flavors offend every living thing that creepeth.”

GET TO THE POINT – I’ll admit that I like writing stories where the first couple of paragraphs seem to have nothing to do with the title. I haven’t actually checked, but I’m certain that every History Blog article starts that way. But the other day I was at a site that reviews Trader Joe’s products. The average review seemed to be around 1,000 words, and 100 to 500 of those words often had nothing to do with the product. If the review was about a frozen food item, then half the review might be about being stuck in traffic, and how traffic has gotten much worse since Barry Schoch took over as state DOT secretary, and why can’t our state have FastPass lanes on toll roads like other states, how SiriusXM has gone to hell since the merger, and why Subaru can’t build a reliable transmission, and.. oh yeah, getting home late was why they were reviewing the frozen item… which was “just OK”, by the way.

Continue reading “Advice for Bloggers”

20 Things I Love About Charlotte

A Facebook friend recently posted a list of his top 5 favorite things about living in Charlotte, North Carolina. I decided to do my own list… but 5 became 10, 10 became 15, and 15 became 20. You know how it goes.

And so, without further ado… my 20 favorite things about Charlotte!

20) RICHARDS’ BP – OK, so a “good mechanic” isn’t just a Charlotte thing. But here in Belmont we’ve got this independent little garage that’s AWESOME. If there’s a problem with your car, and one fix costs $20 and the other $200, they’ll ALWAYS go the $20 route, unless there’s a good reason not to. They also trust us: “just drive it for a few days and see if the fix we tried works. If not, come back and we’ll try something else. If it does, stop by and pay us whenever”. I’ve been to dozens of repair shops in my life, and this truly is the only one I’ve ever trusted.

19) PRICE’S CHICKEN COOP (link) – No joke: it’s the best fried chicken in the whole world. There are a couple of downsides though. The main one is that it’s take-out only. If you want the hottest, freshest chicken goodness, you have to eat it in your car… especially if you like the potato rounds they give you as a side; they’re not very good after they cool off. Also, they’re cash-only, which is weird in 2014, especially since this place seems to be so big on feeding entire offices.

18) BRING BACK THE BUZZ (link) – The people of Charlotte loved the Hornets… but they really didn’t like the owner, George Shinn. So there were mixed emotions when Shinn moved the Hornets to New Orleans. But then Charlotte got a new NBA team, the Bobcats. But their owner, Bob Johnson, was kind of a jerk, too. Fans wanted the old team back… they wanted the Hornets. So a small but passionate group of fans began a campaign to bring back the name (and if you wonder why Charlotte loves the “Hornets” name so much, read this story on my History Blog). They Facebooked and Tweeted. They hassled the local media about it and made themselves hoarse by going to Bobcats games and chanting “CHAR-LOTTE HOR-NETS!” as loud as they could for as long as they could. And, in the end, they won.

17) MIDWOOD SMOKEHOUSE (link) – There’s this “thing” about barbecue places: fans are always looking for “authentic”, and in the case of barbecue that often means an 80 year-old lean-to located well away from a city, preferably run by an old black man named Gus who’s ornery as hell and only open two days a week. But if you want a normal barbecue restaurant, this is the place. The pork’s pretty good, but the brisket’s divine. The bacon wrapped smoked jalapenos might be the best appetizer I’ve ever eaten, and this is the one place where I always get dessert: warm pecan cobbler! They also have lots of local beers and not a lot of attitude: you don’t have to be “this cool” to eat there.

16) ACCENTS – Heel or Hill? Still or Steel? Pen or Pin? I lived here for two years before I found out that a city in the western part of the state is “Blowing Rock”, not “Boiling Rock”.

15) LOCAL BREWERIES – Truth be told, I’m growing weary of bars with beer menus the size of phone books, or beers that take longer for the waitress to describe than for me to actually drink. But a healthy local brewing scene is good for everybody. I really like NoDa Brewing and Birdsong… but in a lot of cases, I Just need a Guinness or a Natty Greene to be happy.

14) NODA (link) – Not the NoDa neighborhood itself. I mean, NoDa is cool and all, and it reminds me of a slightly rough around the edges Virginia Highland circa 1984. But what I really mean is “Sunday Funday in NoDa”: hanging out with my friends… eating tots at Solstice… playing games at The Blind Pig before all the douchebags show up. It’s a great day!

13) THE GERMAN BURGER AT SOLSTICE TAVERN – Truly the most underrated burger in the city. It’s Solstice’s standard beef patty, topped with bacon, sauerkraut and a homemade beer cheese sauce, and served on a pretzel bun. Now if you don’t like that sort of thing, you’re not going to like this. But if what I just described sounds delicious… yes, yes it is! Add some tots on the side and you’ve got a hell of a meal!

Continue reading “20 Things I Love About Charlotte”