The Sunday Magazine: Netflix’s GLOW Season 3

There are so many streaming series I wish would have the smarts to stop after one season. Too often a second season is just more of the same instead of doing something new with the story. The series which take advantage of this new way of telling stories in a creative way are few and far between. One of them is the series GLOW on Netflix which just streamed its third season.

GLOW stands for “Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling”. Writers and creators of the series, Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch thought about basing a series around the real-life GLOW after seeing a documentary. They got the idea that a series set in the 1980’s would have lots to say about women in the workplace even in an odd occupation like wrestling. Over three seasons they have explored many of the pressures women faced trying to have a career at that time. In this third season they took the setting of the original television show, Las Vegas, and turned it into an off-the-Strip casino show. All the women in the cast have to leave their home in LA for three months in Vegas.

The core relationship in the show is that of hopeful actress Ruth Wilder, played by Alison Brie and her best friend successful soap actor Debbie Eagan, played by Betty Gilpin. The writers have turned the state of their friendship as the central plotline through which a season runs. One of the brilliant decisions for this season was to have the other members of the cast be roommates in Vegas. It created interesting options for the characters to use their roommate as a sounding board.

I must mention one new character for this season played by Geena Davis. She plays entertainment director for the casino, Sandy Devereaux St. Clair. She is a touchstone for many of the women who want something more. As we learn how she made it from showgirl to executive she also makes clear the choices necessary to achieve that specific success. One character embraces it, another sees it as too high a price to pay. Ms. Davis seems to be having a fantastic time in the role which mirrors the enthusiasm the rest of the cast brings to the screen.

As much as the dramatic moments resonate this is also a comedy. How couldn’t it be? There are laugh out loud funny moments. None better than when the wrestlers, in character, re-tell “A Christmas Carol” in the ring.

As I said most streaming series only have enough story for one season. GLOW has evolved every season and it is why it stands apart. Based on where this season ended the same re-invention will happen in season 4.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Veronica Mars Season 4

One of the best parts of streaming services is they don’t have to program to the masses. They can have niche programs which capture a percentage of subscribers. They can be allowed to go further than they could on broadcast networks. They can also tell more serialized stories because we generally gulp these series down in a binge session or two. Which means you don’t have to resort to a “previously on” because you’ve just watched it. A final benefit is cult shows of the past has a new outlet. The current season 4 of Veronica Mars on Hulu is an example of that.

Veronica Mars began its story as a series on a tiny network in 2004. Each season had an overarching mystery which was slowly revealed. It introduced me to actress Kristin Bell who played the title character. The series took place in the fictional town of Neptune, California which had a group of rich Brahmins called the “oh-niners”. Veronica came from the other side of the tracks. The mysteries took place at the intersection of the two.

After three seasons it was canceled with an avid, but small, fan base supporting it. The fans were supportive enough to fund a Kickstarter campaign which led to a movie. While satisfying to see everyone again it left me wanting more. I wanted the long form mystery version.

Seems like Hulu also wanted that as they commissioned a season 4 picking up in the present day. It premiered a few weeks ago.

I wasn’t sure how it would be dealing with the characters as adults. Turns out creator and writer Rob Thomas knew exactly how to make it seem normal. From the first episode I was once again drawn into a mystery in Neptune with these characters. As it was before it is all held together by Ms. Bell’s indelible performance as Veronica.

This time around Mr. Thomas has a lot of fun with his storytelling. The central mystery of finding who is setting bombs around town is confounded with a Fargo-esque parallel plot. It all comes together over the final episodes with style.

As a longtime fan this was just what I wanted. If you’ve never checked it out the first three seasons plus the movie are on Hulu now as well. If you’re a long-time fan set aside some time because once Neptune reaches out it will keep you watching.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Old Town Road by Lil Nas X featuring Billy Ray Cyrus

Of the many changes I’ve seen in popular music none has made me smile more than that for the single “Old Town Road” by rapper Lil Nas X with Billy Ray Cyrus. It is the no doubt song of the summer for 2019. It has reigned atop the Billboard Hot 100 chart for a record seventeen weeks, and counting. That success is a story of how music has changed for young artists now.

The song began coming together in Lil Nas X’s mind at the end of last year. It started with purchasing the beat from producer Young Kio for $30. That line was built upon a snippet from Nine Inch Nails’ song “34 Ghosts IV”. At this point Lil Nas X introduced the song as a solo by creating the #Yeehaw challenge encouraging fans to submit videos of themselves as a cowboy or cowgirl with the song as a soundtrack. It is the seed of a pop hit much like the way Carly Ray Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” became a hit when teams lip synched to it.

I wasn’t aware of any of that. I became aware of it when Billy Ray Cyrus joined in for an April 2019 remix. I downloaded that version and it has been my summer soundtrack ever since. Mr. Cyrus adds in his own twangy verse which is part of the appeal to me. When the rap star talks about “ridin’ on a tractor” while the country star is “ridin’ down Rodeo in my Maserati sports car” there is a clever twist being applied here.  It is a catchy earworm of a song with singable lyrics that made me want to wear a cowboy hat to the beach.

One final part of the creative genesis of this song is that Lil Nas X came out as gay during Pride Month in June. That makes “Old Town Road” a country rap song by a gay hip-hop artist and a straight country singer. If that doesn’t represent America well “you can’t tell me nothin’”

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Elementary

The character of Sherlock Holmes has always been a part of my life. From reading the original stories by Arthur Conan Doyle to watching the different visual interpretations. If I’m told a book, tv show, or movie has a connection I am generally enticed to watch it. I have realized, as it is coming to its end, that the version being shown on CBS called “Elementary” has become one of my favorite versions.

Elementary was created by writer Rob Doherty. Mr. Doherty decided to set it in the present day with a Sherlock who has fled London for New York City. His father hires Dr. Watson as a sober companion for his recovering son. Besides the change in locale Dr. Watson is a woman in this version. From the very beginning Mr. Doherty promised that there would be no romantic tension and he has kept that promise. What that has opened is a different relationship to their cases. It has allowed Watson to achieve more of an equal status than in almost any other interpretation of Sherlock. Throughout the series there are winks and nods back to the original source material. The show has a particularly original take on the romance with Irene Adler and the way that ties to his great nemesis Moriarty.

What has made the show so watchable has been the actors in the two lead roles. Jonny Lee Miller has portrayed a Sherlock in battle with his demons throughout. Mr. Miller has a wonderful way of showing his inner battles wordlessly. The stories allow him the opportunity to explore his negative feelings and where they take him. He still has his misanthropic streak intact it just shows in alternative ways.

Jonny Lee Miller as Sherlock Holmes and Lucy Liu as Dr. Joan Watson

Dr. Watson has been portrayed by Lucy Liu. Ms. Liu has developed the character throughout the seasons. In the early going as she makes the shift from sober companion to assistant; she really sells her fascination with the way Sherlock operates. As Sherlock realizes he has a partner it is where Ms. Liu has shone. She has become more confident in her own instincts and there is much less of Sherlock showing her to be incorrect. It is one of the biggest changes between Elementary and almost every other version. This Watson becomes more of a colleague instead of a chronicler. It has proven to be a more interesting choice to follow over the seasons.

Elementary will be finishing their final season on August 15. At that point Mr. Miller and Ms. Liu will have portrayed Holmes and Watson for 151 episodes. The longest of any actors to ever play the roles. It has been a joy to spend that time with them.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Stranger Things 3

When Stranger Things premiered a few years ago I expected it to be a one off. When Stranger Things 2 premiered even though there was similarity of plot the characters really drew me in. For Stranger Things 3 it was the story of the wonder of the mall.

Stranger Things 3 moves from the Halloween adjacent time of the first two seasons to being set just before July 4, 1985. Everyone believes they have saved the world from the perils of the Upside Down. Except on the outskirts of town something is lurking. While underneath the town something else is going on. All plots lead to the new Starcourt Mall by the end.

One thing very different about this season is they split up our core group into four groups all learning something without knowing the others were finding out other connected pieces. The one thing it reminds you is in a world without cell phones nobody knows what the other is doing. It gave each episode by The Duffer Brothers the opportunity for these characters to really breathe as smaller groups.

Steve and Dustin pick up new friends Robin and Erica as they discover there is something covert going on at the mall. All while Steve and Robin are supposed to be working the ice cream shop “Scoops Ahoy”. The two unfamiliar names are the unquestioned scene stealers of this season. Maya Hawke makes Robin the perfect foil to Steve’s wanna-be lady killer. Erica, played by Priah Ferguson, is Lucas’ little sister who shows there might be another generation of young heroes in Hawkins. This group was funny while evading danger the whole time. I’d watch a spin-off of just these four.

This season deals with the difficulty of Hopper being a parent to a child with superpowers in Eleven. Eleven is learning how to be in a relationship by getting advice from Max. The girls leave Will and Lucas frantically trying to understand them.

Jonathan and Nancy spend the summer interning at the local newspaper. Nancy runs into the boy’s club of reporters who derisively call her “Nancy Drew”. Her desire to figure out what is going on comes from a place inside where she wants to show a woman can be a reporter.

The final ingredient is the Starcourt Mall itself. It has killed the Main St. small businesses leaving a ghost town behind. It is a clever thought to wonder if the Upside Down or Progress is more dangerous to Hawkins’ small-town lifestyle. There is a sequence when Eleven goes to the mall for the first time and the camera captures the sensory overloaded joy of it all. All of us who grew up in the 1970’s and 80’s know this feeling.

By the times things come to an end big changes are coming to the group of friends and the town. Stranger Things 4 seems certain to broaden its horizons. I’m okay with following this group anywhere,

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Please Change Your Hurricane Coverage

I was watching the news on Friday night. The lead story was on Hurricane Barry bearing down on Louisiana. Part of the package is a story which always irritates me. When they interview someone who chooses to ignore an evacuation order.

I grew up in South Florida and weathered two hurricanes as a child. Our closest family friends had a house right on the water. I always knew the storm had arrived when their son, and my best friend, Buddy and their dog Rex crashed my bedroom. Our friends knew what was important and acted to get it out of the way of the storm. Everything else was stuff. There was always a stark reminder of what would have happened if they remained. On a post inside the house there was a line for every hurricane which had hit marking the level of the water that made it inside the house. Both hurricanes we lived through the water level was above the adults’ heads. I always respected their choices even though there were tough times recovering after each storm.

It is one of the reasons the stories which come every hurricane about the idiot who won’t evacuate bother me. These people are not folk heroes they are fools caring more about their stuff. Why every news organization feels the need to cover them without pointing that out is my problem. On Friday night there was a woman standing in a foot or so of water already. 24 hours before the storm hits. What illumination of the coming disaster does this provide?

The other part of this is I have first responders in my close circle. I know that if the idiot calls that they are in danger they will respond. Putting their lives in danger because of someone so stupid they can’t walk away. It infuriates me. During one of the hurricanes last year this exact story was covered.

This plea to stop covering idiocy also applies to post-storm coverage. Don’t go cover the moron who managed to make it through. It just gives bad ideas to others in the future.

Hurricanes are dangerous and important enough that the coverage of simpletons who literally want to spit into the wind do not need to be part of it.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: The Walking Dead #193

I’ve spent a lot of time in this column talking about the ending of pop culture things. How does a creative person finish without sputtering out? This week saw an amazing example of how to finish on a high note with integrity as author Robert Kirkman brought to an end his comic series “The Walking Dead” with issue #193.

The ending was a surprise to everyone. Mr. Kirkman and his longtime artist collaborator Charlie Adlard even submitted covers for issues past 193. Like everything in The Walking Dead universe when it ended it came with a shocking finality. I’m not going to go into the plot because as fascinating as the story was the column Mr. Kirkman wrote explaining his decision to end here was just as interesting.

In that column he felt like ending the story like this was an authentic piece of the zombie apocalypse universe he had created. As readers we knew something big was going to happen because in the previous issue there was a major plot twist. This was the kind of thing Mr. Kirkman had used as the springboard to a different story place in the past. Except this time he decided that plot twist was the last one. The reason he gave in the column is he really had no place to go. He admitted he had ideas, but they all felt like filler. Another reason to go on selling comic books. A lesser person would have done that. Mr. Kirkman didn’t choose that path.

My next favorite part of this column was how he related he had been in a similar place a few years ago. A natural stopping place. He even described what was going to be the end of the series if it had ended there. It was bleak. I wouldn’t have been happy with it. The difference is he got there and realized he had story ideas that weren’t just filler. The issues between then and now vindicate that decision. Some of my favorite parts of the saga came after that earlier point. When Mr. Kirkman says he was done I believe him.

You could read the reluctance to do this between the lines. To his credit he knew it was the right decision and carried it out. I don’t know many with the integrity to do that. If you’ve never read a single issue of the comic I urge you to read this final column (link here). It is how every creative person should treat their audience and their series.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: FIFA Women’s World Cup

I’ve written in the past how much I enjoy the summer soccer tournaments. Of course the big one is the Men’s World Cup every four years. I am finding that I am really enjoying this year’s version of the Women’s World Cup as much as I did last year’s men’s version. There is probably one big reason for that the competition has become more competitive.

When the Women’s World Cup took place in the United States in 1999 & 2003, I attended many of the games which took place close to my home at the time. What stood out is with only 16 teams playing there was only four or five on the upper tier. Women’s sports were growing back then with participation more prized than competitiveness. As I’ve been watching this year that has turned around. The tournament has expanded to 24 teams for this edition. Once it was reduced to the top 16, for the knockout phase leading to the final, I was surprised at how competitive all of those matches were.

This time around there were major upsets as traditional power team China was beaten by Italy. According to the commentators this Italian team has ignited a following of the women’s game in the country for the first time. It was easy to see why. This was a classic gritty national team playing hard defense looking for a counter attacking opportunity. This tournament more than any other has the chance to transform opinion. When the Italians played in the quarterfinals it was reported that the interest was sky high. Now that interest can hopefully be translated into something more lasting.

In the twenty years since I saw my first Women’s World Cup game today that formula has been proven over and over; especially in Europe. This year three of the four semi-finalists are European teams with the Netherlands showing their defending European Championship means something. England has been on a steady path upward finding itself in the semifinals for the second tournament in a row.

As we approach the final week of the tournament It is hard not to be happy to see this amount of improvement in just 20 years.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: DC’s The Green Lantern

When it comes to superheroes in the comic books we are in an era where all their psychological underpinnings are put on display. That wasn’t the way it was when I started reading comics as a child in the 1960’s. The characters were stalwart do-gooders who were defined by that innate need to do the right thing. By the 1970’s the comic books began to “grow up” as the heroes faced more mature problems. This has continued to the present day.

When it came to the transition DC had the most trouble moving their characters. Think of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. Only Bruce Wayne was a place where you could build some darker shades without seeming like you were breaking the character. DC found their way and over time have managed to create interesting emotional places for their stable of heroes. Which is why It is funny that I am reminded of those early days with the current run of The Green Lantern by Grant Morrison and Liam Sharp.

The Green Lantern has always been a character with an interesting mythology. A member of an intergalactic police agency. Instead of Men in Black it was Men in Green. Hal Jordan is the only human member of the Green Lantern Corps. What Mr. Morrison has chosen to do with this series of stories is to focus on The Green Lantern as that cop who has a section of the galaxy to patrol.

As is so often the case with these limited issue runs the author creates a multi-issue arc. Mr. Morrison is throwing that out; creating an episodic series. Each issue covers a single story wrapped up by the final page. Hal Jordan even comes off a bit stiff like the classic beat cops. The fun of this series is how Mr. Morrison comes up with these crazy off the wall plots to put the taciturn Green Lantern in the middle of. If Green Lantern is by the book the book is warped as heck. There are so many crazy twists it could also have been subtitled “Law and Order: Intergalactic Unit”.

I’m not sure but it seems like Mr. Morrison is having a ton of fun being unconstrained by an overarching plot to just let fly with single issue mayhem. Beyond that Mr. Sharp’s visuals have a throwback quality too. They are reminiscent of the art seen in Heavy Metal or on a Frazetta poster. It is wonderful accompaniment to Mr. Morrison’s words.

If you are in the mood for some old-fashioned superheroics I highly recommend this newest iteration of The Green Lantern.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Farewell to iTunes

I remember when the iPod was announced in 2001. A digital music player which held hundreds of songs which fit in a shirt pocket. The dream of being able to carry every bit of music I owned with me had begun to come true. I was not an Apple computer person so I couldn’t join in until the second edition of iPod was released which was compatible with Windows. Right away I found about the big draw back to being a Windows user of an iPod. The horribly clunky music management program called “MusicMatch”. I watched my Apple compatible friends using this thing called “iTunes” which was so much easier. So much easier I almost became an Apple computer person. Thankfully after about a year there was an iTunes for Windows. Ever since that day all the music I have ever owned has been in an iTunes library. Which made the news of last week that Apple was phasing out iTunes unexpectedly sad to me. It wasn’t that my music still wouldn’t have a home. It made me think what an impact iTunes had on music in such a short time.

As iTunes was released there was a lot of music pirating going on using new file sharing services. The record companies had no idea how to fight the internet buccaneers allowing for their content to be downloaded for free. You didn’t have to pay for a compact disc anymore you just joined a file sharing site and downloaded it for free. The hitch was you had to burn your own copy on a blank CD. The iPod was about to change that. Now those files could just go right into the player. There was a legitimate worry nobody would buy music again.

Then Steve Jobs took advantage of this climate and opened the “iTunes store” as an adjunct to the main program. He would convince the record companies that if it was sold for a reasonable price people would legally choose to download music. Then Mr. Jobs used the timing to make a bold move. All songs, every single song, would cost 99 cents. No exceptions. Unsurprisingly many, but not all, signed on the dotted line. This would be the move which would beat the free file sharing services because 99 cents were exactly the right price. Even for me. I chose to buy new music on iTunes often because that worked for me.

iTunes has been my own personal top 40 countdown as I am able to look back and see what my most played songs are ever. I can see my own trendlines when I search by dates. None of this is going away it will just be called Apple Music from now on and the video and podcasts now have their own home. All things change but I will miss my giant iTunes library and the history it represents.

Mark Behnke