Sunday, October 4, 2009


We know that we haven't been diligently doling out enthusiasm lately. (It's been over two weeks since our last "enthusiasm of the week.") We started to write about our next enthusiasm -- the TV series Top Chef -- but have run out of steam.

Our excuse: We have been up to our eye sockets in work since the start of September. As a result, there may not be any posts for quite a while. Then again, our best friend has been asking about being a guest enthusiast while we're on hiatus. So, she might be posting here. We'll see.

Monday, September 14, 2009

6. To the Best of Our Knowledge (TTBOOK)

Sadly, we were unable to add another subject to our online catalogue of enthusiasms last week. But we have good reasons/excuses: we started two (!) new jobs and we went away for three days and two nights to attend a book launch. (It wasn’t our book, but one of its co-authors is our best friend.) Now that that’s out of the way, let the entry begin.

Over the past few years, we’ve downloaded dozens of different podcasts. Typically, we only listen to a few episodes before our interest begins to flag. One of our favourite podcasts at the moment is To the Best of Our Knowledge (TTBOOK), which is produced by Wisconsin Public Radio and distributed by Public Radio International (PRI). We were already familiar with a few great PRI-distributed podcasts (e.g., This American Life, The Sound of Young America), but we were pleasantly surprised to learn that (besides cheese and beer) Wisconsin produces an earthy and effervescent podcast. (We're also happy that the program isn't called Cheesehead Radio!)

How we discovered TTBOOK:
We found the podcast while browsing in iTunes. We downloaded an intriguing-sounding episode (“Elementary Holmes”) and really liked the interview-driven style of the show. By the end of the episode, we’d learned quite a bit about Sherlock Holmes, and we’d added a book to our to-read list (The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes [2005]). The week after hearing “Elementary Holmes,” we listened to an episode about lists (“Lust For Life Lists”). We like lists. And we liked these two episodes. The diversity of these two topics hooked us into TTBOOK immediately.

Why TTBOOK is worth a listen:
TTBOOK has three likeable, knowledgeable interviewers (Steve Paulson and Anne Strainchamp, as well as host Jim Fleming), and these interviewers pose great questions to a wide range of engaging interviewees (e.g., Thomas Friedman, Jane Goodall, and DJ Spooky are all interviewed in a single episode; the topic was "Our Earth" and the episode aired in April 2009). And the shows are created quite quickly: There are two new hour-long, theme-based episodes each week. By the end of each episode, we know something we didn't know an hour ago.

We’ve learned about nerd culture, karaoke, and radical gardening. We’ve been inspired to bake Marlborough Pie, an apple pie that includes grated apples, eggs, and lemon juice and zest. (If you're interested,
here is the recipe we used. The filling is very custard-like and lemony. It's unlike other apple pies we've tried.) We’ve also been interested enough to read books by some of the guests, including a lighthearted, entertaining book about tribute bands called Like a Rolling Stone (2008). The book's author, Steven Kurutz, appeared on an episode called "So You Wanna Be a Rockstar." His description of the Rolling Stones tribute band Sticky Fingers piqued our interest.

Recent topics on TTBOOK include autism, memory, libraries, remix culture, and David Foster Wallace. To tell you the truth, we were not looking forward to the episode on DFW. (We recently read lengthy articles in the
New Yorker and Rolling Stone on him and were suffering from slight DFW overload.) But this was a really good episode. The discussions were generally illuminating, and Anne Strainchamp even managed to talk to his sister, Amy.

The TTBOOK website includes archives of the streamable episodes dating back to 2003.

For a change, we don't have any recommendations for other viewing/reading this week. Likely this is because we're ridiculously busy right now and suspect you may be as well.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

5. Ben Katchor

We never tire of Ben Katchor's work. Yes, he is a cartoonist. But he's also a genius. Just ask the folks at the MacArthur Foundation who awarded him a "genius grant" in 2000. We don't know anyone who loves Katchor's art (it's not just comix; it's art, for real) as much as we do. But we are optimistic that this could change.

How we discovered Ben Katchor:

Several years ago, we read an intriguing review in the Globe and Mail for his book Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer: The Beauty Supply District (2000). We bought his previous book (Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer) at the independent Granville Book Company -- the bookstore is now gone, and it's sorely missed -- after reading only a few pages. We rarely buy books on the spot like that, but we're very glad that we did. Since then, we've read, bought, and reread all of Katchor's books. (There are only four of them to date.)

Why Katchor is worth reading:

No other writer celebrates the nooks and crannies of the urban landscape like Katchor. He's the unacknowledged laureate of metropolitan minutia, ephemera and detritus. (Sample titles of one-page stories by Katchor include "Sanitary Drinking Straws," "The Heating-Pad Repair Shop," and "The Smell of the Post Office.") His drawing style is unpretentious and expressive. His comic strips are funny, wonder-filled, and incredibly intricate. They also feature an inventive interplay between image and text. Katchor's books -- like those of his innovative, deservingly-lauded contemporary Chris Ware -- reward close attention and are invariably worth returning to again and again.

Where to start:

Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer (1996)

The Jew of New York (1999)

The books:

Three of Katchor's books include Julius Knipl, a real estate photographer. However, none of the books is about Knipl. He is merely the lens through which we view the city; he's a flaneur in the urban streets of New York City. (Though it isn't named as such, the city is clearly a somewhat distorted version of NYC, Katchor's hometown.) The first Knipl book is Cheap Novelties: The Pleasures of Urban Decay (1991). It introduces the template that Katchor will expand upon in his subsequent work: a man aimlessly exploring the avenues and alleys of a metropolis, which appears to be stocked with an endless supply of peculiar shops and characters.

By Katchor's second book, Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer, he had perfected his distinctive, pitch-perfect style. Somehow, his affectionate, quasi-nostalgic depiction of urban curiosities never devolves into mere schtick. He makes old things new; he makes familiar objects unfamiliar. Maybe if legendary NYC poet (and occasional art critic) John Ashbery could draw, he would produce comics like this.

We looked through the first pages of Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer to find an example of what we liked about it. We wanted to flag nearly every page that we read. In the end, our example is from a page that we didn't remember from earlier readings in the book. It's fairly representative of what Katchor is doing. It's called "A Change of Name and Address" (click on the image to see it more clearly).

Here are a few observations about this one-page story: The text at the top of the page in the first four panels are essentially one long sentence that follows the flow of "a stream of amniotic fluid" down a street. First, we are shown a "transient's hotel." Then, we are shown "an unemployment agency offering unfamiliar, low paying-jobs." We see a man standing in front of the agency, reading a few of the jobs currently posted: "seven-layer cake worker - $8K, ball-point pen starters - $10K, measles groom - $7K." (FYI, Katchor's stories are brimming with lists.) The first two menial jobs make sense to us, but we haven't thought about them before. Now we are thinking about them, just like the man in the fourth panel, who asks, "What do I know about starting ball-point pens? I feel like a newborn baby." The third job ("measles groom") makes no sense to us. We understand both words, but they don't seem to belong together. What does a measles groom do and who would willingly work as a measles groom for $7,000/yr? (These jobs are all very, very low-paying.) In the third panel, we see that there is "a sale on permanently shined work shoes and belts monogrammed with the letter 'A'." Only the belts monogrammed with the letter 'A' are on sale? Strange. In the fifth panel, we see that the man who mentioned starting ball-point pens is talking to Julius Knipl. (Knipl tends to listen rather than talk.) After saying that he "feel[s] like a newborn baby," the man says that he's "even changing his name to Abra ... er ... to something else." We suspect he was going to say "Abraham," but stopped himself. Why? Did he suddenly remember the disturbing story of Abraham and Isaac? Did he think the name was too Jewish? (The character Julius Knipl is clearly Jewish. Interestingly, when Katchor was approached by a magazine to write a comic strip for them, they thought that Julius Knipl -- isn't that an extremely Jewish-sounding name? Apparently, the word Knipl means "nest egg" in Yiddish -- wasn't Jewish enough. To avoid any confusion, Katchor gave his next strip the unambiguous title The Jew of New York.) At the end of the strip, we are told that "A barge, carrying all the birth certificates issued in the year 1948, is towed out to sea." Is this a non sequitur? Is it related to the man who is changing his name? Is it related to the fact that Israel became an independent country in 1948?

This story begins with an allusion to birth (amniotic fluid is the substance surrounding an embryo); then, a man mentions feeling like a newborn baby (this emotion is associated with starting ball-point pens, which are filled with a fluid); next, we learn that birth certificates are being "towed out to sea" (the sea being, of course, another fluid). We don't want to overstate it, but there are some interesting associations happening here. But they are not immediately apparent. (In fact, we didn't notice them until we started typing.) Looking at the story now, it reads almost like a ghazal. (Briefly and reductively, a ghazal is an ancient Arabic poetic form that progresses in couplets based on association rather than logic. That's what we think a ghazal is anyhow. We could be very, very wrong.) Hence, we are again in the land of poetry.

If you want to read something by Katchor, start with Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer. It will amuse and amaze.

The Jew of New York shows Katchor taking what he has learned from his Knipl strip and applying it to a book-length comic set in nineteenth century New York. It is a freewheeling, delightful work packed with bizarre, fascinating characters. One of our favourites is Francis Oriole, a man who plans to carbonate Lake Erie and pipe soda water into the homes of all Americans. Another favourite is Maurice Cougar, a "lost Jew" living in the wilderness; he leases trapping equipment, invests in beaver pelts, and obsesses over an actress named Miss Patella, though he has no interest whatsoever in watching live theatrical productions.

In Katchor's book, The Jew of New York is a play being performed about Mordecai Noah, a man who attempted (and failed) to create "a city of refuge for the Jews" on an island in New York State. He is the sort of figure that Paul Collins might write about. Here is the first page of The Jew of New York (click on the image to zoom):

We won't analyze this page. We will simply say that The Jew of New York is definitely worth reading. It is more challenging and ambitious than Katchor's Knipl books. We love Knipl, but it's great to see Katchor trying (and very much succeeding) in a denser, longer format. If the Knipl works are like poetry, The Jew of New York is like an illustrated novel.

Other reading/listening/viewing:

Katchor's other two books -- Cheap Novelties: The Pleasures of Urban Decay (1991) and Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer: The Beauty Supply District (2000) -- are wonderful. They're just not quite as wonderful as the two books that we've recommended above.

Katchor's website includes information on a variety of his projects. An interesting early project involved adapting some of the Knipl stories for radio (featuring Jerry Stiller). The website also includes links to some of his online comic strips.

Since publishing these four books, Katchor has collaborated on several musicals. In these productions, he generally writes the text and creates drawings that are projected on the stage. So far, he's collaborated on five musicals, including The Slug Bearers of Kayrol Island, or, The Friends of Dr. Rushower (2004) and A Check Room Romance (2009). (A list of Katchor's musicals can be seen here.)

Unfortunately, we have not seen any of these productions (aside from a few online clips), but we have the album for the "comic-strip opera" The Carbon Copy Building (recorded in 2000 and released in 2006; it features music by Michael Gordon, David Lang, and Julia Wolfe). (Despite the "comic-strip opera" tag, the music here is not what you would expect from a classical opera; this is a modern opera or -- do we have to say it? -- an avant-rock opera. The musical arrangements include keyboards, percussion, clarinets, distorted guitars, and soaring vocals.) The disc is nicely packaged and definitely worth a listen, but it's not meant to be listened to casually. You need to set aside 72:14 and spend time with the music and the attractive, Katchor-illustrated booklet. Among the characters in the opera are food embalmers and a carbon-copy-scented delivery boy. Katchor, ever the urban anthropologist, includes songs about eating utensils used by early bird diners and a glob of hardened chewing gum. In one song, the manager of the Palaver Building (Katchor has a fondness for the names of buildings and companies) sings, "When something doesn't work, it's removed, discarded, and replaced." (Broken and discarded objects appear throughout Katchor's work.) The album gains momentum with each song. In particular, some of the later songs are quite surprising (e.g., "August 13th," "Closing Slide Lecture"). The Carbon Copy Building is not meant for the Katchor novice, though. It should be approached only after you've absorbed the rest of his work. It belongs in a class called Advanced Studies in Katchor.

If you want to find out more about Katchor, the best place to start is Lawrence Weschler's profile of the cartoonist. It first appeared in the New Yorker (1993; the essay was called "A Wanderer in the Perfect City"), and it's in Weschler's excellent book A Wanderer in the Perfect City: Selected Passion Pieces (1998; this revised essay is called "Katchor's Knipl, Knipl's Katchor").

We recently emailed Ben Katchor to ask him if he had any books coming out in the near future. (We enjoy reading his strips online, but his detail-oriented drawings work better in print format. Plus, it's been nearly 10 years since his last book appeared.) He replied that a new book may be published in 2010. We really hope this happens. Regardless, we will read (and reread) whatever he produces. (Sorry this entry is so long. We just really, really like what Katchor is doing.)

Thursday, August 27, 2009

4. Wong Kar-wai

A few days ago, we saw Wong Kar-wai's film Ashes of Time Redux on DVD. Despite the muddy storyline (apparently, the plot is clearer in the Redux version than in the original), we were reminded of films by him that we've admired.

At this point, we've seen all of Kar-wai's feature films except for two: As Tears Go By (1988; this was his first film as a director) and the original Ashes of Time (1994). (It would take at least a paragraph or two to explain why there are two different versions of Ashes of Time, so we won't go into it here.) Everything that we've seen is worth a look-see. That said, his best films are great and his lesser films include great moments.

How we discovered Wong Kar-wai:
Shortly before the release of Chungking Express in North America, we read an article in Film Comment about Wong Kar-wai's films. (All we can recall from the article is that he seemed to scribble ideas for his screenplays in coffee shops.) A while later, we rented Chungking Express from a local video store. We thoroughly enjoyed the film's performances and its distinctive style. Later, we made trips to the university cinema (Cinecenta, in Victoria, BC) to see his next two films Fallen Angels (1995) and Happy Together (1997).

Why Wong Kar-wai's films are worth watching:
We know that we aren't going out on a limb by recommending Wong Kar-wai. He's one of the most acclaimed directors in the world. He's had several books written about him. In a Sight and Sound poll from 2002, UK critics were asked to list the top ten directors and films of the past 25 years. Wong Kar-wai ranked #3 as director (just behind Scorsese and Kieslowski) and the #8 film was Chungking Express. (In the Mood For Love missed the Top 10 by one vote.)

Truth be told, Kar-wai isn't one of our favourite directors. But there's something very alluring about his films. Even when we don't get what he's doing exactly, we sometimes feel compelled to re-watch his films to try to find out. (Much of our favourite art -- literature, music, cinema -- tends to take time to digest. We like books, albums, and films that have tough bits, bits of gristle that we can gnaw on.)

We love the look and tone of Wong Kar-wai's films. The best of them involve close collaboration with Christopher Doyle (one of our favourite contemporary cinematographers) and William Chang (on many Kar-wai films he has somehow managed to be editor, production designer, and costume designer), both of whom are instrumental in creating the unique style of the films. His films are refreshingly peculiar and there's an intangible brilliance to his best work.

For what it's worth, Wong Kar-wai also uses rain and music in film as well as anyone since Singin' in the Rain and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

Where to start:
Days of Being Wild (1990)
Chungking Express (1994)
In the Mood For Love (2000)

The films:
The first time we saw Days of Being Wild, we didn't fully appreciate it. Taking place in Hong Kong and the Philippines (circa 1960), the film focuses on a few volatile relationships. Leslie Cheung is convincing as the not-too-nice main character (his name is "Luddy" according to the DVD box and IMDb, but we think he's generally referred to as "York" in the subtitles), a rebel with a plausible cause (he's adopted and has a troubled relationship with his adopted mom). His chemistry with actress Maggie Cheung (playing York's girlfriend/ex-girlfriend) is amazing, as is Maggie Cheung's chemistry with Andy Lau (playing a cop/sailor). In one riveting scene, York's ex-girlfriend asks, "Did you ever really love me?" He replies, "I can't know how many more women I'll fall for in my life. I won't know which I love most until the end of my life." Meanwhile, this exchange is being overheard by his current girlfriend. Ouch. (A barely-related, indulgent digression: The tone of this scene reminds us of the ex-lovers song "Hearts of Stone," with its devastating line "But I can't talk now; I'm not alone." Here's a remixed version of the song by Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes w/ Bruce Springsteen, who wrote the song. We prefer the version on the SJ and the AJ album Hearts of Stone [1978], or even the Springsteen version on Tracks [1998]. Yes, we have been listening to a lot of Southside Johnny lately.)

Like some of Wong Kar-wai's other films, Days of Being Wild is indebted to French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard, particularly the film's overly abrupt ending. Kar-wai also has a similar approach to writing screenplays to Godard's (that is, he relies heavily on improvisation).

Chungking Express is the most fine-tuned and consistently rewarding of WKW's early films (that is, his pre-2000 films). It has two dovetailing love-related storylines (its third storyline was made into a separate film, Fallen Angels [1995], which isn't one of our favourite of Kar-wai's movies). One story is about a lovelorn, tinned-pineapple-eating cop who meets a wig-wearing, gun-toting vixen, and the other story is about a cute, doe-eyed girl who works at a food stall and falls for a chef-salad-ordering cop. The film looks great (thanks, Chris Doyle and William Chang!), and the performances are dynamite, particularly those by Faye Wong (the doe-eyed girl) and Tony Leung (the chef salad cop).

Here's a clip of the chef salad cop and the doe-eyed girl meeting:

In the Mood For Love is different stylistically and tonally than Wong Kar-Wai's previous films. It has less handheld camera work and is more meticulously composed. It looks gorgeous and has the feel of a 98-minute-long novel. (We recall seeing an interview with Michael Ondaatje, who has made documentary films himself, in which he mentioned how In the Mood For Love reminded him of a great novel.)

The film is at once languorous, intense, rigorous, and sensuous. It is also one of very few films we can think of in which characters' clothing reveals aspects of their personalities. If you have have never seen a Wong Kar-wai film, start with In the Mood For Love. It is rich, romantic, and truly remarkable. The lead performances by Maggie Cheung (as Mrs. Chan) and Tony Leung (as Mr. Chow) are astonishingly good. Enough said.

Here is an illustrative clip from the film:

Other viewing/reading:
We would also recommend seeing 2046 (2004). It is an unusual, difficult-to-describe film that stars Tony Leung, a frequent Kar-wai collaborator and an all-around fantastic actor. We can't remember much of this movie, but we will certainly be seeing it again before long.

There are many books about Wong Kar-wai, though we have not read any of them. We understand that the best one might be Stephen Teo's Wong Kar-wai (one of at least two books with that title published in 2005). That's the one that we're planning to borrow from the library soon.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

3. Sloan

Initially, our enthusiasm for Sloan developed slowly. A song here, an album there. We chipped away for years until we found our iPod saturated with Sloan. For the past two years or so, we have enjoyed a steady diet of finger-snapping, drum-cracking pop from these ex-Haligonians (currently Torontonians). We don't see our interest in their crisp, infectious songs disappearing any time soon.

Since 1991, Sloan has been creating guitar-based, harmony-laced power pop. All four musicians in the band write songs, and the band's best albums contain at least two songs written by each member. (The four members of Sloan are Chris Murphy, Patrick Pentland, Jay Ferguson, and Andrew Scott. All of them can sing, and they still sound like Sloan when they switch instruments.)

How we discovered Sloan:

Like most Canadians, we first heard Sloan when the single "Underwhelmed" (from the band's first album, Smeared [1992]) broke the sound barrier. It was catchy and ubiquitous, but it didn't compel us to buy Smeared. (Years later, when we did purchase it -- for a very reasonable price -- it revealed itself to consist mainly of undistinguished guitar rock.) Later, we borrowed or bought the occasional Sloan album. We first became interested in Sloan while living in Nova Scotia during the early '00s. (Our favourite maritime shout-out is in the appropriately-named "The N.S." on Between the Bridges: "If you get cold when you're swimming in the ocean / it's hard to believe you're a Nova Scotian boy.") After a friend burned us a copy of Never Hear The End Of It, we finally yielded to Sloan's melodic pull and found ourselves tracking down most of the band's back catalogue.

Why Sloan is worth listening to:

Every album by Sloan has at least a few great songs, and the band's best albums are riddled with them. Sloan manages to evoke the history of catchy rock, yet succeeds in maintaining its own sound. Sloan's songs often occupy the border between cheekiness and sincerity, a border that also happens to be filled with harmonies and melodies. Sloan has learned from the pantheon of rock, and it knows how to create inventive arrangements and intelligent lyrics. On many occasions, we have found ourselves afflicted with Sloan-induced ear worms. Oh, Sloan is also one of very few groups that knows how to fruitfully work the word 'rock' in a rock song.

We are not arguing that everything by Sloan is original and delightful. It isn't. Some of its songs are derivative and unspectacular. When Sloan tries to write hits, these songs tend to lack the idiosyncrasies that make the band appealing. But when everything works, Sloan is a wonder. There are few contemporary musicians that we follow, but we follow Sloan. And the band's last two albums are among its best.

Where to start:

One Chord To Another (1996)

Never Hear The End Of It (2006)

The albums:

Twice Removed (1994) is the band's most acclaimed album. According to one poll, it's the best Canadian album ever. Hmm. It's not even our favourite Sloan album. But it's got some real treats, including two songs that probably enjoyed heavy radio rotation in an alternate universe: "People of the Sky" and "Coax Me." We still remember the first time we heard "People of the Sky" -- that great "bah bah bah-da bahhhhhhhh" backing vocal and the deathless line "Like a three-legged dog in search of a crutch." However, our favourite song on Twice Removed is "Coax Me." It's got a catchy melody, a sweet "oooooooooohh" backing vocal, and -- wait for it -- the bridge is sung in falsetto. The lyrics are oblique with bits of lucidity peeking through (e.g., "It's not the band I hate; it's their fans"). Other songs to sample include "Snowsuit Sound" and "I Can Feel It."

Here's the video for "Coax Me":

One Chord To Another is twice as good as Twice Removed. We're fond of every track and nearly all of them have confident, uncluttered arrangements. Listen to the contrast between the spare, piano-dominated "A Side Wins" and the song that follows it, "Everything You've Done Wrong," with its horns and handclaps. Throughout One Chord To Another, we love the brilliant use of percussion (handclaps, tambourines, shakers, etc.). The lyrics are another highlight. Check out "Autobiography," for example. It begins, "I'm writing 'young and gifted' in my autobiography. / I figured who'd know better than me. / I'm certainly the former, but I'm not so much the latter. / No one's gonna read it so I'm sure it doesn't matter."

Here's the song "The Lines We Amend" (we didn't talk about it, but we really like it):

Released ten years after One Chord To Another, Never Hear The End Of It has a walloping 30 songs. It's got a bit of everything, including several one- and two-minute bursts of pop, rock, and hardcore. We are fond of the heterogenous everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach. We agree with William Carlos Williams that the art you create shouldn't be expected to be consistent ("[A human being] varies; Hamlet today, Caesar tomorrow," he said). We don't love all of the songs equally, but who cares? Even a straightforward foot-tapper like "Someone I Can Be True With" contains some wonderful lines: "She's someone to hear Husker Du with / And someone to wait in the queues with / And someone to hate all things new with / She's someone to watch Gremlins 2 with." The details in these lyrics are funny and revealing. We've got a bead on this guy. "Right or Wrong," the next song on the album, includes the lines "This one's for the girls / There's no particular one in the world." To our ears, Sloan is taking the piss out of run-of-the-mill love songs. And what do we make of a sort-of piano ballad ("Live The Life You're Dreaming Of") that begins, "Hello, / can I have a show / of hands who have taken / something before?" But the delivery on the song is truly emotional, especially on the repeated refrain, "Maybe I can make it happen."

For us the album's centerpiece is "Fading Into Obscurity," a mini epic that clocks in at 4:12. The song is essentially a series of short interconnected bits that adds up to something pretty remarkable. It exhibits ambition, cleverness, tempo shifts, harmonies, and an array of glittering musical and lyrical shards. One choice lyric: "I made a name for myself when one could do such a thing, / a reputation that's held together by string. / And so I chose to cherish those who think there's some purity / to fading into obscurity." And another: "This cake is baked, / but I much prefer the batter / perhaps in part because it had so much potential / to be delicious and still be influential."

Sloan playing "Fading Into Obscurity" live:

Other listening/viewing:

We also have a lot of love for the albums Between the Bridges (1999) and Parallel Play (2008). But we've already written too much about One Chord and Never Hear.

There are, of course, various music and concert videos out there, and we're confident you can find them without our assistance. Apparently, there is a live Sloan DVD -- lamely titled Keepin' the Tour Alive -- that was released in 2006. We have not seen it.

Monday, August 10, 2009

2. Friday Night Lights

We just finished watching Season 3 of the TV series Friday Night Lights. It’s about a high school football team (the Panthers) in Dillon, Texas. We have no interest in football or high school students (played by 20-something actors, no less). But we really enjoy this series. (We almost said ‘enjoyed,’ but it looks like the show has been renewed for two more seasons. You’ll have to wait a while for Season 4, though. It doesn’t start until summer 2010.)

How we discovered Friday Night Lights:

This series is a recent enthusiasm. We heard the series was good, and Season 1 was sitting on the shelf in the library. So, we took it home, watched a few episodes, and became hooked. A week later, we watched Seasons 2 and 3 in one week. (Just so you know: it’s called Friday Night Lights because the Panthers' football games happen on Friday nights under bright stadium lights.)

Why it’s worth watching:

The characters are simultaneously simple and complex and so are their relationships. And the acting is frequently amazing. You may find yourself caring about characters that you disliked early in the series. You will understand why FNL has a 8.6/10 rating on

We are often surprised by the number of people we know who are addicted to the series. (A few days ago, we mentioned to a co-worker that we had just finished watching Season 3. By the end of the day, we had promised to lend our Season 3 DVDs to 3 different co-workers. All of them are female and none of them has an interest in football. That says something. Hopefully, it doesn’t just say that there are a bunch of cute boys in the show.)

Is Friday Night Lights a brilliant show? No. It's trashy TV. (Picture an adrenalized, American version of Coronation Street with a younger, more attractive community and an overuse of handheld camera work and quick editing. Then, throw in a football, a locker room, and a handful of broken homes.) OK, so FNL is essentially a Texan teen soap opera. At least it's good trashy TV. A pleasure you don't have to feel guilty about enjoying.

The series:

It’s hard for us to discuss this show in terms of its story arc. Yes, the series has an arc, but it’s not as finely executed as in some series (e.g., Mad Men, The Wire). The strength of Friday Night Lights is its characters and the relationships (friends, lovers, teammates, family members) between those characters. We come to care about a gawky, ginger-haired dweeb trying to rock out with his Christian metal band, Crucifictorious. We come to care about an ex-cheerleader who finds religion after cheating on her boyfriend (with his best friend, of course). We come to care about an oily, fast-talking car salesman who derives his identity from his ongoing relationship with the Panthers.

Here’s a commercial from said car salesman, Buddy Garrity:

Surprisingly, the football games in the series can pack an emotional wallop because you get to know the players off the field. You also get to know another side of the players, the head coach, and even the fans during games.

The characters who form the three-chambered heart of the show:

  1. Eric Taylor: He is the head coach trying to "do what's right for the team," even if it's unpopular in football-obsessed Dillon. (This is a town where everyone has an opinion about what the coach should be doing to win on Friday night.) Kyle Chandler's understated performance is remarkably compelling.
  2. Tim Riggins: Yep, he's the tough, perpetually hungover bad boy who the girls can't resist. But Taylor Kitsch turns him into a strangely nuanced and decent young Texan.
  3. Matt Saracen: He's the uncharismatic first-string quarterback -- aka QB1 -- who looks after his bathrobe-wearing, dementia-afflicted grandma. Zach Gilford makes him the most refreshing character on the show.

There are a variety of strong female characters as well, including Tami Taylor (the coach's wife, who also works at the high school; she's spunky, headstrong, and intelligent), Julie Taylor (the coach's daughter, who dates one of the Panthers), and Tyra Collette (a pretty blonde who initially accepts, but eventually wants to transcend, her white trash upbringing; her sister is a stripper and her mom is an aging sexpot).

The first and third seasons of the series are consistently good. Unfortunately, the second season takes a few ill-advised detours. (We believe Season 2 may have been somewhat lacking due to the Writers’ Strike in 2007/08.) The way Season 3 ends, we’re not sure how many characters will be returning for Season 4. But we’re looking forward to finding out.

Other reading/viewing:

The series FNL was created by Peter Berg, co-director and co-writer of the film Friday Night Lights (2004). The film was, in turn, based on the book Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream (1990) by H.G. Bissinger. In his book, Bissinger writes about a high school football team (the Panthers) from Odessa, Texas (the town in the TV series -- Dillon, TX -- is fictitious). We started to read the book, but its prose was too overheated for our taste, so we abandoned it. And we haven’t seen the film.