Monday, December 14, 2015

Random thoughts about fall 2015 TV shows

Most of my current TV shows are entering hiatus, having aired their winter finales. I've got questions about them. [SPOILERS AHEAD for "Grimm," "Supergirl," "Marvel's Agents of SHIELD," and "Once Upon a Time."]

- On "Grimm," there is a mayoral candidate who's been on the City Council for the past 8 years, and claims his district is #1 in terms of job growth. Considering that "Grimm" is not just set in Portland but also filmed here, you would think the writers would've been able to figure out that Portland elects its city councilmembers at-large, not by district.

- I get that Supergirl is largely invulnerable because of her Kryptonian background and something about the sun's yellow radiation, but her costume is made from Terran materials. When she steps in front of an out-of-control train and uses herself to slow it down, how do her boots not get eroded to nothing by friction?

- One of the results of watching as much TV as I do is that I start recognizing potential twists because, at a meta-level, it's what would be surprising. In "Agents of SHIELD," the Hydra sleeper Grant Ward takes nerd Fitz and some Hydra redshirts to the alien planet via the black monolith portal, in an effort to grab the alien god or something. Fitz's unrequited love Simmons spent several years on the alien planet, surviving only because of the presence of stranded human astronaut Will, with whom she fell in love. Fitz finds the astronaut's underground home, tries to escape from Ward, but ends up getting himself and Will captured. Hmm, I thought, I wonder if that's really the astronaut ... or if he's the alien god? Sure enough, "Will" turned out to be just a shell, with the real human having been killed covering Simmons' previous escape. And when Fitz "killed" the body with a flaregun, we later saw a silvery substance slither out of the charred remains - all of which reminded me of the black oil from "The X-Files" and the body-stealing alien from the underrated sci-fi horror flick The Hidden.

- In the resolution to "Once Upon a Time's" "Dark Swan" arc, Emma gets freed of the darkness when Captain Hook sacrifices himself to stop the revived Dark Ones, by sucking them into the sword Excalibur, which he then begs Emma to use to kill him. She does, but only later does she learn that Rumplestiltskin charmed the sword to become a conduit, rather than a vacuum, so that all of the darkness flowed into him, reinvigorating him as an uber-Dark One. Emma forces him to help her open a portal to the Underworld so she can rescue Hook; he agrees to do so because she threatened to reveal his treachery to his love Belle. All fine and well, but in the next scene, it's not just Emma and Rumple at the river Styx. Snow White, Charming, Regina, Robin Hood, and Henry are all there! Now, first of all, why oh why would you bring Henry on a journey to the freaking underworld?!? But more importantly, how does Emma explain to the others that Rumple can open a portal to the underworld? Doesn't this mean the others also know that he's back to being the Dark One?

UPDATE (12/15): Is Kara Danvers' (aka Supergirl) catty boss Cat Grant the smartest human ever in comic book TV history? I realize that Kara puts on glasses and ties her hair back in the ponytail to "disguise" herself, so it's a good thing she doesn't give in to vanity to get contact lenses. But Cat notices some interesting coincidences, corners Kara, and asks her to take her glasses off.... Wow, someone in a comic book show actually figured out a superhero's identity by, you know, observing things!

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Discretion, valor, patience, and running

I first experienced Achilles tendonitis at the very beginning of 2014, after running a double race on a Saturday morning consisting of a 1 mile run followed by a 5K about half an hour later. I spent the weekend limping because both ankles felt very sore. On Sunday evening, I discovered that massaging the Achilles tendon area increased the short-term pain but provided some relief after I stopped.

Thanks to Dr. Google, I was able to get a sense of what had happened. I stopped running for several days, relying on the stationary rower and stationary cycle. On the first run I tried when I felt like I could handle it, I was heel striking for the first 1/2 mile or so. In retrospect, I got back to running too soon, because I failed the pinch test. However, I was able to run without pain, or at most, a few moments of soreness that would fade during the run. It wasn't until May or June that I could pass the pinch test, so I guess I'd say that my running didn't aggravate the injury, but it did retard the healing process.

From the summer of 2014 to May 2015, I had a largely injury-free block. And then in May, I ran a race that I refer to as "the world's longest 10K." Due to a miscommunication caused by race staff, we were misdirected about a quarter of a mile after the start of the race, and some of us had run 1 1/2 miles or more before being told we were off-course. I ended up running 9.5 miles that day. Although I stopped running at my 10K pace early on, I felt a recurrence of the dreaded Achilles pain afterward.

The tendonitis waxed and waned over the next several months. It was never debilitating enough that I couldn't run, but there were also few mornings that were entirely free from initial stiffness and aches. During the typical run, there might be anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes of low-level achiness, and sometimes after running, the response to the pinch test would be more pain than before; other times, not.

It wasn't really getting worse, but improvement was marginal and slow. I decreased my weekly mileage slightly (well that was also in part because of some recurring family travel I had to do over the summer), going from my target of 150 miles/month to just under 130 miles/month for June-October. On October 31, I ran a double 5K race - first time as a regular 5K for speed, and then a second time through going through the optional obstacle stations. That aggravated my Achilles tendon, so November's total was just 88 miles.

As of now, my last run was a 10K race on Thanksgiving morning. Since then, I've rowed a ton on my Concept2, and my Achilles has been feeling steadily better. No morning stiffness or ache. It still feels a bit tender when I do the pinch test, so I'm exercising some more patience - better to take one more day off than necessary, than to get back to running one day too early. I don't know if I would be able to handle all this not-running if it weren't for that Concept2, though.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

ABC's "Scandal" - please just end the Olivia/Fitz forbidden love storyline!!

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For various reasons, I didn't get around to watching the last seven episodes of "Scandal" from season 4, and by the time summer rolled through, my TiVo - needing space - had deleted a few of those episodes. I had to wait for the entire season to come out on DVD, and then wait my turn on the hold list at the local library.

I've almost caught up completely now; there are just two episodes left, and then I can turn my attention to season 5, whose episodes are sitting on my TiVo as I write this.

[SPOILERS for the last third of season 4]

The first episode I caught up on was the one where Lena Dunham plays a political intern who writes a tell-all book about her sexcapades with over a dozen Washington insiders, including the current white hat Attorney General (David Rosen) - a storyline vaguely reminiscent of the Washingtonienne scandal from 2004. I'm not a fan of Dunham, and I vaguely remembered that her presence may have caused me to delay watching this episode back when it first aired. Notwithstanding Dunham, this was quite an enjoyable episode, because Olivia Pope was in her full "I'm in charge" mode, especially as she dealt with the collection of men who'd been with Dunham's character, trying to get them to see that paying collectively the $3 million that Dunham was demanding was the best option for them.

The next four episodes continued the "Gladiators" trend - that is, political fires that Pope is called on to put out, in addition to the continuing storyline about the effort to stop the covert black ops unit B613 that Pope's father commands. I was reminded of how fast and funny this show can be, as long as it doesn't turn Olivia Pope and the President into a pair of weak and whimpering creatures who want to be together but can't do what it takes to achieve that for good. From what I've picked up about season 5, the President is divorcing the First Lady, so perhaps Pope and the President will get some sort of happy ending - and the viewers, too. They can be together; please just spare us the forlorn glances and all that.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

When a runner gets a hold of a carving pumpkin....

I wanted to get a picture with the carved cutouts glowing from the candle within, but I forgot to turn my flash off. When I tried it again with the flash off, my smartphone crashed....

Monday, October 19, 2015

ABC's "Once Upon a Time" and Yaz's "Only You"

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I'm catching up on this season's "Once Upon a Time," where our Storybrooke crew has to cross into the land of King Arthur in an effort to free Emma Swan from the curse of being the Dark One. In the second episode, teenage Henry gets his first crush on a teenaged girl at Camelot. At his grandpa's (Prince Charming) urging, Henry goes to talk to the girl (Violet). As things start to turn awkward, he pulls out an MP3 player, shares earphones with her, and starts playing music: Yaz's "Only You."

This is a pretty old song: 1982. At first, I wondered, would a modern kid like Henry listen to something so old? And then, when back in Storybrooke he played the same song on a jukebox, I wondered even more. But then I started to think, in the show's mythology, it was 2011 when Emma got involved with Storybrooke. But Storybrooke had been stuck in time for 28 years, so "modern" music would have been that in 1983 or so. It certainly wouldn't be unexpected to find a year old pop song on a jukebox.

So, yeah, not an anachronism, but actually a contextually appropriate song selection!

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

How to preserve your cash and stay fit in Las Vegas

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I haven't been to Las Vegas in about a dozen years, so I don't know if this suggestion will actually work, but back when I was living in Southern California (i.e., before kids), my wife used to go to Sin City once or twice a year.

I was never that much into gambling; mostly, we enjoyed the different themes of the big-named casinos, and of course the sumptuous buffets. When I did gamble, I was pretty disciplined about it. I looked for the cheapest Blackjack table I could find (usually $5 minimums) - or occasionally Pai Gow Poker. I changed $40 into chips, and then I bet the minimum every hand. I played standard, non-counting strategy.*

* I doubled-down on 11s always, 10s mostly, and occasionally 9s, depending on what the dealer was showing. I split Aces and 8s. I hit on hands under 11, and stayed on 13-16 if the dealer was showing a 2-6; otherwise, I hit until I got to 17 or higher.

The discipline part was this: if I lost the $40, I would leave the table and head back to the hotel room to read or watch TV until the next meal. In addition, if I doubled the $40, I would also leave the table. This limited my daily losses to a maximum of $120. It also capped my maximum winnings, but I didn't go to Las Vegas to make money.

Anyway, we're in no rush to introduce our kids to Vegas, but it occurred to me that my previous approach would work quite well with the addition of running as one of the activities in between gambling sessions. This would probably call for a lot of treadmill miles, though, since it's so hot most of the year in Vegas, and the sidewalks along the Strip are bound to packed with tourists (I guess off-strip running is possible during the winter). The biggest downside I can see is that the desire to go running might lead to reckless gambling, just to reach $0 or $80 ....

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Fall 2015 TV: a disappointing new crop of shows so far

Not every TV season can be like fall 2001, which saw the debut of Fox's "24," ABC's "Alias," and CBS's "The Agency," not to mention - for reality TV junkies - CBS's "The Amazing Race." But so far, fall 2015 isn't even close.

I watched the pilot episode of Fox's "Minority Report" and decided that was enough for me.

Since then, I caught the second half of the NBC reboot "Heroes Reborn," which was very strange and also boring, although I didn't watch much of the original series, so perhaps there's something there for long-time fans. I watched that part of "Heroes Reborn" because I was waiting for NBC's "The Player," starring Philip Winchester and Wesley Snipes. It's another one of these "guy who helps out a different person each episode" kind of shows, maybe like CBS's "Person of Interest" with more unrealistic movie-style action. I thought it was okay, and Winchester (most recently on Cinemax's "Strike Back") does have screen presence. I didn't set a TiVo season pass, but if there's nothing else on, I could imagine watching an episode. There's a thread of an arc set up in the pilot episode, but it's mostly episodic, I think.

I tried CBS's "Limitless," which is set in the same world as the Bradley Cooper movie (and Cooper shows up briefly in it). I didn't see the movie, but I did read the novel that the movie is based on. This is about the drug NZT, which supposedly unlocks the full potential of your brain. Here too I found the pilot bland and dull.

Then there's NBC's "Blindspot," starring Jaime Alexander (Lady Sif in the Marvel Cinematic Universe), about an amnesiac woman who wakes up naked - well, covered in a burlap sack - with tattoos all over her body. Each tattoo is the key to unraveling the mystery plot of the week. This has shades of "The Blacklist," "Prison Break" (Michael Scofield had a huge network of tattoos inked on himself to help him with his prison break plot), and "The Bourne Identity." It's held up decently through two episodes, although I seriously doubt that there is any coherent explanation as to who inked her and why. I like these big concept shows, but ever since "Lost" and "Battlestar Galactica" demonstrated that their showrunners were making things up as they went along, I'm leery of expecting anything that holds together.

Finally, I watched the pilot episode of ABC's "Quantico," which is kind of like "How to Get Away With Murder" if it were set at the FBI Academy instead of law school, and terrorism instead of murder. It may verge on ridiculousness, but at least it's interesting. I'm mildly skeptical of what season 2 would look like, if there is a season 2, because I really don't want the terrorism flash-forward plot to drag out more than one season.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Fox's "Minority Report": did it predict that I would bail after the pilot?

Minority Report (2015) Poster

I like science fiction, and I've read almost all of Philip K. Dick's novels and short stories, including "The Minority Report," which was made into the 2002 Tom Cruise movie. I thought the movie was okay, but not as good as "Total Recall," which remains the best adaptation of a PKD story in my view. (Of course, I mean the Arnold Schwarzeneggar original.)

Fox's new TV series "Minority Report," which picks up years after the movie, sounded like it had some promise. I thought lead actress Meagan Good was pretty good in the 2013 series "Deception" (where she played an undercover police detective investigating her childhood friend's murder).

So I set my TiVo to record the pilot episode. I got around to watching it tonight.

While folding laundry, among other things. The laundry was more interesting.

I can't put my finger exactly on why the show was so uncompelling. The production values were pretty good, it's setting up some myth arcs in addition to the crime of the week, and the acting isn't bad. The sum is somehow less than the parts. Others have suggested that the premise might be different but the genre and context is pretty similar to last year's "Almost Human" except that "Almost Human" was better. It certainly had better interaction between the characters.

 I have a tendency to stick with shows to the bitter end, even when they enter clear declines (hello, "Under the Dome"!!), so I'm trying to be more ruthless with my initial screening. "Minority Report" therefore did not earn a season pass....

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Just a typical late summer day at a Pacific Northwest beach town

It's not Hawaii, of course, but here's a typical late summer day at a Pacific Northwest beach town. Our summers are to die for. It's just the other 8-9 months of gray, drizzly weather that you have to put up with. Of course, some of us like that kind of weather too. I did an easy 10K (for fun, not a race) on this trip, with most of it on a paved path along the beach.

Monday, August 3, 2015

My Vancouver running diary

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Vancouver, B.C., is my favorite city outside the United States, and is near the top of my list of North American cities too. That's not at all surprising, considering that Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland are all fairly similar in culture, climate, and geography.

With my brother having moved to Vancouver recently, we decided to visit him for a week. The last time I was in Vancouver was 2010, which was before I started running, so I was looking forward to getting in some miles in a "new" location.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Household reviews of the White House takeover movies: a difference of opinons

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Back in 2013, the same movie came out twice in the theaters. Okay, not exactly the same, but basically the same. White House Down and Olympus Has Fallen were both about terrorist takeovers of the White House, in which one intrepid guy has to save the President and the country's honor. (This is hardly a novel plot, having also come up in season 7 of "24" and the Vince Flynn thriller "Transfer of Power.")

My favorite adult person in the world and I eventually got around to watching both of them on DVD, White House Down last year, and Olympus Has Fallen just recently. And while we have similar tastes in movies, we ended up disagreeing about which was the better of these dopplegangers.

[Spoilers for both flicks to follow]

Friday, July 24, 2015

Howard Stern's act

When "America's Got Talent" announced that shock jock Howard Stern would replace irascible but witty Piers Morgan as a judge back in 2012, I was a little skeptical. I haven't listened to his radio show, but I keep up enough on the entertainment industry to know about it. I had also heard that he is actually a decent guy in real life and that the radio act is more of a persona.

Well, I gave him a chance, and I'm glad I did, because he's been the judge with whom I agree most often about the talent acts.

But it was what he did on Tuesday night that really showed his decency and compassion. Cross-dressing comedian Scott Heierman, having made it past the audition stage with a strong performance, was now trying to get to the semi-finals. After a bit of relaxed pre-act banter with the judges, he launched into his comedy routine ...

... and immediately crashed, forgetting his lines.

It was hard to watch, and I wondered if he would get the dreaded X from one or more judges. But he didn't. Instead, the judges let him know that it was all right. Howard emphasized that he understood how sometimes one just blanks on stage, and he reminded Heierman that his audition round performance was so strong it seemed effortless. After Heierman left the stage, Howard got up from the judges' table, followed him, and gave him more encouragement.

You can see the entire act here.

I'm really impressed at Howard's empathy and compassion.

Fox's "Wayward Pines" - series review

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Fox's mini-series "Wayward Pines" just concluded its 10-episode run. Having read and enjoyed the trilogy ("Pines," "Wayward," and "The Last Town") that it was based on, I was pretty excited to hear that it had been greenlit for production back in 2013, presumably to air in 2014. For some reason, however, Fox kept the completed production on the shelf for an entire year.

The story is one of those "guy ends up in a strange little town that's cut off from the rest of the world and everyone is keeping a secret from him" ideas. Matt Dillon stars as Secret Service Agent Ethan Burke, sent to find two missing colleagues, one of whom (Kate Ballenger, played by the always excellent Carla Gugino) is his adulterous lover. Based in Seattle, Burke heads to Boise to follow Ballenger's trail. All of a sudden his car gets hit by a truck and he wakes up in a hospital in Wayward Pines, a small town in Idaho.... The head nurse is quite creepy, the sheriff is even worse, and when Burke gets free he finds that he can't reach his wife, or his boss, or anyone he knows. When he calls the main Secret Service office in Seattle, an operator picks up, but he quickly figures out that she's an imposter of some sort. Meanwhile, back in Seattle, his wife is trying to reach him, but strangely, she doesn't get any of the messages that he's been leaving for her.

Even stranger is that the sympathetic bartender claims to have arrived in the town a year ago, which to her was 1999, whereas for Burke, a year ago was 2013(!).

To say any more is to give away the plot machinations of the show. Now, having read the book, I knew what the big conceit was, but for most of the series, the producers and writers changed enough details that it remained interesting for me, and indeed, I was able to watch with an eye toward seeing if they were playing fair with the audience (which the books did). It's very analogous to the movie The Sixth Sense, where if you know the secret and you go back to re-watch it, you'll see that it indeed fits together. No doubt that similarity is what led Sixth Sense director M. Night Shayamalan to take on an executive producer role for "Wayward Pines."

Mini-series or limited event series are sort of the new approach that the networks have been taking in the summer. I think this is in response to "Lost"-syndrome, where the ratings success of a serialized drama led the network to demand more and more seasons, outstripping the creative capacity of the production team. As a result, stories get stretched in unrealistic and contrived ways, to the detriment of everyone. (This is one reason Fox's "24" revival, "Live Another Day," was so good - by taking up only 12 episodes instead of 24, the writers didn't have to fill in time with ridiculous subplots like the infamous Kim Bauer/mountain lion encounter.)

The great fear for TV viewers like me is that a network will advertise a serialized drama as a limited series, but as soon as it gets strong ratings in the opening episodes, the network will reshape what should be the series finale into a season finale. The prime offender for this syndrome is, of course, CBS's "Under the Dome." We were promised that it would end after a season, and instead it ended in a cliffhanger. It's now on season 3, and the story makes less sense than ever.

With that in mind, I'll say that "Wayward Pines" does end. There's some possibility of a revival, as there was in the books, but it concludes the story.

It was really good for 9.5 episodes. The last 30 minutes, though, were pretty lame. I'm still processing how that makes me feel in retrospect about the series. It's not just that the ending differed from the books, although in comparison, the book ending was much better. It's that the TV series ending felt cheap and almost laughable.

I guess I would still recommend the series strongly to any one who didn't catch it during the first run. It was certainly compelling and would've been binge-worthy if I hadn't watched each episode on the night it aired.