The Sunday Magazine: Fear The Walking Dead, In Memoriam

The life cycle of any television show is unique. As they age, they change. Nothing surprising about that. A recent show which has started mediocre, risen, only to completely fall apart is “Fear the Walking Dead”.

“Fear The Walking Dead” is a spin-off of the original The Walking Dead. Therein laid its potential and its pitfalls. The writers got to create something totally new within the zombie apocalypse world of The Walking Dead. In its first season it showed us how the whole zombie apocalypse started in Los Angeles. It wasn’t a great start, but it created a set of characters I was curious enough to follow into a new season. The next two seasons were great. The show dealt with how the early survivors relied on different internal compasses of faith. Especially season three, both seasons, were the best of what The Walking Dead can be. Then it all went off the rails,

Over the last two seasons the storytelling has become exceedingly lazy. It is the worst of genre tropes every week. They don’t have enough fuel one week leading them into risking themselves to get it. The very next week they’re off on extended joyrides without a mention of conserving gas. Its just carelessness by the writers. The other crime these writers have committed is they have made all the characters stupid, until they need to be brilliant.

This character assassination killed every great original character. It even destroyed two characters who joined the cast from the original series. This past season was so poorly written I have removed the show from my DVR list.

On the recap show “The Talking Dead” they have a segment called “In Memoriam” where they recap all who died in that night’s episode. At the end of season five they should add the show to the list. These guys killed a promising show.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Hex Life- Wicked New Tales of Witchery

One of the great things about the world we live in now is the algorithm that knows what you have read and then recommends new releases for you. Last weekend I was alerted to the release of a new collection of urban fantasy short stories called “Hex Life” edited by Christopher Golden and Rachel Autumn Deering.

What initially attracts me to these books are new stories from authors I already read. What always happens after finishing is, I have a new list of authors who I start reading. These books are the literary equivalents of movie trailers. They give me a sense of the style of the author’s storytelling while making me want more. Hex Life introduced me to two authors I want more of.

The first is author Angela Slatter. Her contribution to Hex Life is the short story “Widows’ Walk”. In the narrative we meet the three witches, aka The Widows, of the town of Mercy’s Brook. The town knows they are witches, but we are told they are accepted if not wholeheartedly. One of the Widows finds it amusing when townsfolk cross the street when they see her coming. They capture a young child trying to steal milk off their porch. Once the Widows have the child inside, we realize they know much about her home life. Ms. Slatter tells a classic short story of supernatural karma. I enjoyed it so much I have the three books in her Verity Fassbinder trilogy queued up.

The other new discovery was author Hilary Monahan. Her story is called “Bless Your Heart”. The witch mother of a gay son takes the matter of her child’s bullying to the PTO meeting of the school. Ms. Monahan also weaves a witchy tale of karmic balance with a large helping of humor. The ending is perfect. I am looking forward to reading her book “Snake Eyes”.

These are my favorite stories, but my hat is off to Mr. Golden and Ms. Deering they have overseen a collection of witch stories just in time for Halloween.

Disclosure: I purchased this book.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Fall TV 2019 Preview

I have always enjoyed the first week of the new television season. Ever since I was a kid, I would hustle to the grocery store to pick up an issue of the oversized TV Guide Fall TV Preview. I would read about every new show coming and decide which ones sounded interesting. Of course in those days I had to make a real choice if there were two on in the same time slot. No way to time shift then. As much as I miss that TV Guide issue I adore not having to make choices. Which means after the first week of the new season I have sampled the new shows and here are my impressions after one episode.

Bob Hearts Abishola (Mon CBS)- I like everyone involved with this sitcom from the producer Chuck Lorre to the actors. The previews had me interested as I saw them all summer. After the first episode I was underwhelmed. The leads weren’t as dynamic together as I’d hoped. I’ll be watching another few episodes, but this was my biggest disappointment of premiere week.

Bluff City Law (Mon. NBC)- I am a sucker for Jimmy Smits playing a lawyer. He was a favorite on LA Law and this feels a bit like the same character transplanted to Memphis. He is the head of a famous law firm who convinces his daughter to return home to practice even though there are unresolved personal issues. A show like this succeeds on the strength of its characters and its cases. The latter was a suit against a pesticide company as well as one which feels like this show’s version of “The Making of a Murderer” as it looks to be a case which unspools over multiple episodes. This was the biggest surprise of premiere week for me.

Emergence (Tue. ABC)- I don’t know I think I’m just burned out on weird conspiracy theory shows. The first episode was nice enough but it all felt like been there done that. I don’t think I’ll be back for episode two.

Stumptown (Wed. ABC)- Based on a great indie comic by Greg Rucka I was worried this was going to get dumbed down for television. The first episode alleviated my concerns as Cobie Smulders plays Dex Parios perfectly. The show will not be hemmed in by the comic material because there are only a few issues. I do hope they incorporate most of what is in those issues over the season. The first episode was as much fun as the comic.  

The Unicorn (Thur. CBS)- This was another one which had my hopes elevated because of the actors involved. In this case they delivered a snappily written half hour of comedy. This is getting a season pass on the DVR

Perfect Harmony (Thur. NBC)- This was the surprise because of how much I liked it even though it draws on such obvious beats. Southern church choir picks up a new director, Ivy League trained, and they learn from each other. You’ve seen it a million times. When the actors involved commit it doesn’t matter. I was completely into the final act even though I knew how it was going to come out. On at the same time as The Unicorn, thank heaven for DVR.

Evil (Thur. CBS)- Another obvious concept carried off by the two stars and the writing team behind them. A priest seeks out the help of a scientist to help him determine if miracles, possessions, etc. are real. Like The X-Files prior to this the early fun is the banter between the skeptic and the believer. Also like The X-files there seems to be a larger conspiracy behind the scenes. If that conspiracy can be kept to the background for a long time while the core concept remains primary, I’ll like this show more. After one episode I want to see more.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: House of X and Powers of X

If I can look back at a single comic book which defines the last nearly fifty years of comic books it would be “Giant-Size X-Men #1” in 1975. In a surprising way writer Len Wein would take a d-list superhero team and move it to the top of the list. Introducing a new team they battled a living mutant island called Krakoa. When the regular X-Men comic picked up on these events starting with Issue #94 a juggernaut of comic book publishing was gaining momentum. Writer Chris Claremont and illustrator John Byrne would set a new template for superhero stories. Unfortunately this kind of success leads to the comic publisher wanting to cash in. This led to multiple books being spun-off. Until the end of the 1990’s the number of X-Men related books seemed to know no end. It got messy.

In time-honored comic book fashion they decided a re-set was needed for the new century. For the last eighteen years they keep using time-travel, dimension shifting, etc. to keep changing the teams around and try and bring everything back to square one. This has been a failure for the most part as it felt like they were cannibalizing the plots of the past to try and retain interest. I would always dip back in when I knew one of these were happening only to leave disappointed after a few issues.

In July I heard another “re-launch” was happening. I added the new series “House of X” to my digital queue. Written by Jonathan Hickman it would also have a second series “Powers of X” also written by Mr. Hickman. If there was something I tired of as a part of the X-Men mythos it was all the long-time persecution. I always asked myself when they would take a piece of the earth and make it their own. Daring anyone to move them off it. Mr. Hickman has decided to go all the way back to the beginning to find that place, Krakoa, from Giant-Size X-men #1.

Over the course of the series so far Mr. Hickman has piece-by-piece begun to build a mutant home where they can stand as part of society instead of outside of it. This lays the groundwork for a new set of stories to be told where mutants must find their place in a society they are now part of.

I have already stopped reading almost any other iteration of X-Men by this point over the last few years. For the first time Mr. Hickman seems to have them on an exciting new path.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Hendrick’s Gin

When it comes to spirits gin is my favorite. One reason is it comes closest to perfume in its use of botanical ingredients. Even in its dry form gin has an aroma of juniper, coriander, and citrus. Over the last ten years there has been a rapid expansion in small-batch distilleries featuring Old Tom gin containing a higher quantity of botanicals. I have lots of them and use them in all kinds of different gin-based cocktails. All of these new gins to discover have had the same effect new perfume does; it pushes to the rear of the cabinet the originals which formed the foundation of my affection. Towards the end of this past summer I was reminded of the first botanical gin which started all of this; Hendrick’s Gin.

Hendrick’s was the British response to the dry gin so popular for decades. The founders wanted to make a gin that oozed British garden parties. They decided to add cucumber and rose petals to the distillation process. That process is two-stage. The first producing the typical dry gin while the second adds in the unique botanicals.

I became aware of Hendrick’s when the mixologist at my local bar asked me if I wanted to try something new in my pre-dinner martini. When I lifted it to my nose and caught the scent of roses I was intrigued. The taste which hit my tongue was totally different. I would spend that summer trying it in different gin cocktails learning the advantages to having a botanical gin as the main ingredient.

As I mentioned the sexy new bottles on the block eventually eclipsed the elegant black bottle on my spirits shelf. Until I was reminded a few weeks ago it is every bit as good as these contemporary interlopers.

It started when I forgot my cocktail box on a long weekend trip to a friend’s beach house. At first, I was annoyed at myself. We stopped at a liquor store on our way but the only botanical gin they had on their shelf was Hendrick’s. I was a touch disappointed, but I knew it was a good gin.

What happened over the next few days was I reacquainted myself with the original botanical gin. I was reminded that latest does not necessarily mean better. Hendrick’s was more than a stand-in it was the star of the weekend. I was surprised at how many had never tried it. When I served them their gin and tonic with a cucumber instead of a lime, I got a quizzical look until they took a sip.

It is another reminder to look back to the originals because they are where trends begin.

Disclosure: I purchased the bottle written about.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Dwayne Johnson

There are actors I root for because I think they are decent people while also making things I like to watch. One of those is Dwayne Johnson. I’ve been impressed to see him make the successful transition from professional wrestling to action movie franchise star. It reminds me a lot of how Arnold Schwarzenegger made the same jump from bodybuilding to the movies. There is one commonality to both of their rises; a work ethic off the charts.

Mr. Johnson rose to fame as the professional wrestler known as “The Rock”. From the mid 1990’s until the 2000’s Mr. Johnson would hone this persona through the various professional wrestling promotions. By the time he would become World Champion, for the first of many times, he was one of the most popular wrestlers.

Dwayne Johnson

He would make the move to movies as The Scorpion King in the “Mummy” franchise, appearing in 2001 and 2002. Much as he did in wrestling Mr. Johnson made the putative villain interesting due to his charisma and screen presence. He would work consistently throughout the first decade of the new century. None of these roles would prove to be that breakout moment; until 2011.

In 2011 he joined the “Fast & Furious” franchise as agent Luke Hobbs. He would again turn the role into a part of the franchise going forward. He has just appeared in a spin-of of the series featuring his character “Hobbs & Shaw” this past summer. It seems like these appearances have taken Mr. Johnson to a new level. The last eight years have been the most successful on the silver screen for him.

Where I am really rooting for Mr. Johnson is for some writer-director to find a breakout dramatic role for him. The evidence that he can do it is in his HBO series “Ballers”. The third season saw his character return to painful memories in his hometown of LA. Over the last couple of episodes he made me think he is just one movie away from making this breakthrough.

Until then he will remain one of the most watchable action stars we have.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: My Summer Beer List

As this column has pointed out many times in the past, I am a wine guy. Like my perfumes there is a season when I tend to drink more beer, the height of the summer. The taste of a great beer on a hot day is unrivaled by anything I can find in a wine bottle. Like many my summer beer offerings developed with the availability of the Mexican beer Corona. When it first made it to the US, I was like everyone else pushing a slice of lime down the neck of the bottle. What made it so popular is it was a refreshing version of regular beer.

As the craft beer revolution took hold every small brewery came up with their version of a summer style refreshing blend. I am fortunate to live close to two of the best breweries in the country, Flying Dog and Dogfish Head. These guys go out of their way to produce amazing summer brews. Both ones I’ve had in the fridge hearken back to that first bottle of Corona with a much tastier version.

Flying Dog is the brewery which is best known for having illustrations by artist Ralph Steadman on their labels. For those who know that name it is because Mr. Steadman also did the illustrations for gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson’s books. That he illustrates a brewery that also seeks to push boundaries fits.

My summer selection from them has been “Numero Uno”. It is labeled as a Mexican lager. I read that as “Corona-like”. It is much better than that description. The quality of the German malt and hops used give this much more character. It is also brewed with the lime zest already included so I don’t have to waste time cutting a lime for the same citrus tinted beer I want.

The same idea is found in Dogfish Head SeaQuench Ale. When Corona first showed up people might ask, “why not just get a margarita?” The brewers at Dogfish Head asked what a margarita-like beer might look like.

In their hands it is what they call a “session sour” where three types of beer are blended together; Kolsch, Gose, and Berliner Weiss. I don’t know the names either but they tell me they impart crisp, salty, and tart respectively. That blend is infused with sea salt and two types of lime. The result is something closer to margarita with a foamy head than a Corona.

Even though these are my local breweries both are available nationwide.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: The Joy of College Football

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I have been a sports fan all of my life. It is really segmented into two groups. My love of the professional sport comes about because. I enjoy watching athletes in a team sport perform at an elite level. The drawback to that level of sports is you are rarely surprised. The best team almost always wins. You almost always know who the best team is before the game begins. Which is why the second group is the one which provides some uncertainty which makes it unique.

The second group is major college sports in the US; especially football and basketball. In a professional setting you have the elite athletes playing on that level. In college you have those athletes too but they’re more spread out. No college team has top to bottom future professionals on their roster. It is the last place where a good player can still play the game for the love of it. This is especially true for college football. It is also what makes it so much fun to watch.

I watched my first alma mater, University of Miami, rise from an afterthought to one of the best football programs in the country. When Miami made its first big step, winning a national championship, it was hard to imagine. I remember sitting in the Orange Bowl on a late September 1979 evening watching the team make a goal line stand at the end of the game to preserve a win over a lesser division team. A little over four years later I would be back in the same stadium to watch them beat a team many thought, at the time, was the best college football team ever. A team of ragtag players who believed in themselves proved that they were better than their hyped opponents.

When I moved to graduate school I went to a place with a much more impressive football pedigree; The University of Georgia. While here it was where I learned of the bond between the team and the community. I learned it on day one.

I had driven from Miami to Georgia all in one day and had got to my new apartment and collapsed on the floor to sleep. Imagine my surprise when I was awakened by the sound of people outside my window the next morning. I pulled on some clothes and went out to find out what was happening. I met the Floyd family who were setting up their gameday tailgate as they had done for three generations. After introducing myself it began a tradition which existed for the entire time I was in school. Game days started with the Floyds; eventually walking to the stadium together. In Georgia families grow up on the local team and throughout the South and Midwest it is true wherever you will go. No matter what the team was going through we always entered the stadium believing they would win.

That is where I will be for the next few Saturdays. Sitting on my sofa watching with hope as Miami and Georgia enter a new year where I hope for the best. No matter what the score is, the joy is in the story being told.

Mark Behnke

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