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

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