Saturday, November 28, 2020

Before We Die: Season 2 Review

One of the standard guiding principles for second seasons of TV shows is the same but bigger. That principle is alive and well in season two of Sweden’s Before We Die.

After finishing season one last week, the wife and I decided to forge ahead with the second season without taking a break. At only eight episodes (to the first season’s ten), it wasn’t difficult to watch the entire season by Thanksgiving night.

Season two picks up six months after season one ends. Hanna (Marie Richardson) has taken down the Mimica crime family a few notches—they went from running a fancy restaurant to a pizzeria—but she still doesn’t know the identity of the police officer who works directly for the Mimicas. To ferret out the leak, Hanna’s boss assigns her to the Organized Crime division. There, she and her partner, Bjorn (Magnus Krepper) stumble upon a group of corrupt cops dubbed The Circle. These folks are pretty darn bad, killing and stealing at will, all with a diffuse organization not easy to discover and even harder to bring down.

All of this would be difficult enough, but throw in the return of Christian, Hanna’s son, from his exile at the end of season one, and you get another complication. That is, until Bjorn and Hanna decide to let Christian try and infiltrate the Circle. He didn’t come back with Blanka, the daughter of the Mimicas, and he doesn’t want to talk about what happened down in Costa Rica.

Now, I’ll admit that as soon as the plot became another infiltration by Christian into a dangerous group, I was a little irritated. We had already seen this kind of thing in the first season. And some of the scenes between Christian and Hanna, Bjorn, and the police captain were just as irritating. “We should bring him in, get him out,” they’d say. “No, I’m really close,” Christian would counter. And then he’d go back. But the ingredients in this story were just different enough that I quickly moved past my difficulties and just went with the flow. It didn’t help that in the Twitter posts from last week (about season one) a user commented that the second season wasn’t as good as the first. True, but it was different enough to stand on its own.

You see, Christian infiltrates the Circle really, really well. Lena (Maria Sundbom) takes a shine to the young man and things get hot. Yet he has to keep this aspect of things secret from his mom and the other cops, so you end up having the young man (Adam Pålsson) alone playing all sides. Palsson does a good job here, especially considering the other things the character is fighting.

Second seasons always bring in new characters and one of the best is Laura (Shada-Helin Sulhav) as one of the Mimica’s foot soldiers. Laura is cold, calculating, imaginative, and resourceful in her quest to do what’s asked of her. My wife and I both hated the character…which just meant it was an excellent one. Laura’s primary goal is to befriend Blanka, who has returned to Stockholm and is looking for Christian.

If there is a plot point that was irritating—and I mean Kim Bauer in “24” getting caught by that mountain lion irritating—it’s Blanka befriending Laura. It’s smack-your-head stupid, but hey, whatever.

What really holds Before We Die together are the relationships and the push/pull each have against the larger story. It’s fun to see just how far each one is willing to go to achieve a goal. 

There's another couple of scenes in which the characters speak English. Having spent so long reading the sub-titles, it was a fun surprise to realize "Oh, I understand that." Which brings up an interesting question: why English? Is English always the default second language for most of the rest of the world?

Oh, and do yourself a favor: don’t look this season up on IMDB or whatever. Just leave yourself open to the show as it unfolds out over eight hours. We did that and the surprises—almost always in the last thirty seconds of each episode—will be that much better.

Season two of Before We Die doesn’t quite reach the level of the first season, but, taken together as one long 18-hour story, it’s still highly recommended. 

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Before We Die: Season 1 Review

If you need something else to be thankful for this month, let it be that services like Amazon make available foreign TV series as good as Before We Die (Innan Dor) from Sweden.

Released in 2017 and aired on PBS prior to landing on Amazon, Before We Die centers on Hanna (Marie Richardson), a police office with a jurisdiction in financial crimes. She's a straight arrow, so much that she sent her own son to jail for dealing drugs. I think you can imagine how much of a wall this act puts between mother and son.

Flash forward two years and Hanna has a lover, a fellow cop, Sven, he of Organized Crime. As the show opens, Sven is investigating a motorcycle club in Stockholm. This club is at odds with another group, a Croatian family who has a restaurant in the city. As you can imagine, the Mimica family is not all what they seem.

Neither is Sven. He's actually carrying on a secret investigation into the Mimica family, and he's got an infiltrator by the name of Inez. They communicate via old-fashioned cell phones. Things go bad for Hanna when Sven disappears.

The first few episodes deal with Hanna and her team searching for Sven. Later, she'll become more involved in his investigation, digging deeper into what he's uncovered and how it all fits together.

There is a lot to love about this show, but it all centers on Hanna. I'm not familiar with Marie Richardson but holy cow did she ground the show. As a middle-aged guy, I really enjoyed the lead character in my age bracket. It was a joy to watch her grapple with what she discovers, including the true identity of Inez. Okay, minor spoiler here, but you can probably kinda guess it (and it is revealed in the last seconds of episode 1). Inez is her son, Christian. He's working with Sven having garnered a job as a dishwasher for the Mimica family. Their tumultuous relationship plays out over the entire ten-episode run of season 1 in splendid fashion.

Christian is the only actor I recognized. He is played by Adam Pålsson. Americans will know him for the titular character in Netflix's Young Wallander. He does a fantastic job as the ex-con who is taken in by the family and given more and more responsibilities in their criminal activities. Christian makes some interesting choices, and Pålsson sells the blow back very well.

One of the fellow cops Hanna brings in is Bjorn, played by Magnus Krepper. He's a tough, rough, no-BS kind of cop. The one who'll bend the rules if it leans toward justice, or at least as he sees justice. Krepper shows Bjorn as intense yet the veteran cop is about to be a new dad.

Any good crime drama is nothing without a compelling villain, and Alexej Manvelov, as Davor Mimica, is wonderfully restrained yet terrifyingly deadly. He, too, has a secret that he keeps from his family, including his sister, Blanka (Sandra Redlaff). She's engaged to non-family member Stefan but she also has eyes for Christian, so there's some jealousy going on.

I'll admit that some of the themes and ideas and plot points you've seen before. I know I have. There were a few story beats I guessed, but there's one, late in the series, I didn't. It's one of those revelations that, like The Sixth Sense, will make you want to re-watch the show from the beginning.

But those story beats do not diminish this excellent show. My wife (who selected it) and I thoroughly enjoyed the series and are eagerly anticipating diving into season 2 this weekend.

Highly recommended.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Book Review: The Way We All Became The Brady Bunch by Kimberly Potts

Perhaps the most surprising turn of events sparked by the Covid pandemic and the subsequent order to work from home was my rediscovery of The Brady Bunch.

I'm an avid watcher of MeTV, especially the westerns on Saturday and the science fiction shows later that night. More often than not, the cable box remains on that channel into Sunday morning. Earlier this year after I watched my church's broadcast on YouTube, I reverted back to broadcast TV and caught the opening of what the channel calls The Brady Brunch: a two-hour block on Sunday mornings of episodes of the Brady Bunch. Back in the spring, MeTV was running the series in order and it was the episode when the family flew out to Cincinnati and had an adventure at the King's Island theme park.

I'd forgotten how much I enjoyed this episode and I watched that group of four. Then I did it again the next Sunday. And the next. After reaching the end of the run, MeTV started doing themes: all Marcia, all Bobby, etc.

My interest in the show piqued, it was serendipity when podcaster Ken Mills interviewed Kimberly Potts on his POP podcast. Turned out Potts was there to talk about her new book: The Way We All Became the Brady Bunch: How the Canceled Sitcom Became the Beloved Pop Culture Icon We Are Still Talking About Today. (Yes, it's a long title.)

Perfect! I got the book on my Kindle and, in between two digital covers, had nearly all my Brady Bunch questions answered.

Of all places to start, Potts began the book with The X-Files. The penultimate episode recreated the famous interior of the Brady house. That a science fiction show in 2002 would choose to craft a story around a cancelled family sitcom is one proof of how endearing the Brady Bunch remains.

The book is chronological, starting with the seed of an idea in the mind of creator Sherwood Schwartz and going all the way up to 2019 when the Brady kids--now, middle aged--participated in the HGTV renovation of the actual Brady house and literally everything in between. A few facts that fascinated me.

Schwartz conceived of the idea in 1966, but the network wasn't ready for a show with a mixed family. It wasn't until the 1968 film Yours, Mine and Ours starring Lucille Ball and Henry Fonda premiered that ABC gave the show a shot.

I didn't really know how bad Robert Reed was on set about the scripts and how Schwartz was running the show. While the actor never feuded in front of the child actors, he was a pain, so much so that he boycotted the fifth season finale...which turned out to be the series finale. That the episode dealt with Greg's high school graduation is a pretty crappy hill on which to die. Still, Reed returned for every single reunion show for the rest of his life. Yet, through it all, he loved his six TV kids, even taking them on a vacation and giving them all small home movie cameras, the footage of which became a TV special.

Speaking of specials, Potts discusses all the various spin-offs and specials along the way, including a forgotten-by-me thing called The Brady Bunch Variety Hour. Yes, it really happened, and there's proof on YouTube. I kept a list and I plan on seeking out as many as I can. Did you know Reed and Florence Henderson guest-starred on the Love Boat in character? I have got to find that one.

I enjoyed Potts's description of the sheer volume of tributes throughout the years, from sitcom to dramatic show, that paid tribute to The Brady Bunch. Much like Star Trek, The Brady Bunch never truly went away. It just morphing and changing with the times.

And it’s the simple love for this show, the loving parents, the six kids, and Alice (!) that had propelled this show into the 21st Century. Kimberly Potts’s book is essential reading if you want to learn all there is to know about this sitcom.

Why has it endured? It all comes down to Sherwood Schwartz’s vision for the show, a lesson we all can learn:

The Brady Bunch was going to be another example of what he believed was one of the most important ideas in life: that any group of people, no matter how different, no matter how little they might seem to have in common, could learn to live together. He wanted the show to be groundbreaking and modern, to reflect this new and significant sociological change with he prevalence of blended families, and it did. He couldn’t have planned for the decades-long impact his slice of Americana would have on television and every other avenue of pop culture, but it did indeed achieve that, too.

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@Barrie Summy

Saturday, November 7, 2020

Do You Save Excised Text?

When it comes to deleting text from you work in progress, do you up and delete it or do you save it?

I’m revising the existing chapters of my current work in progress before I hit that mark where I’ll be crafting brand-new words. As of yesterday’s writing session, I realized that a chapter/scene I had written really isn’t necessary. Actually, I’ve already excised two scenes because I think they’ll slow the pace. I can get the same information across with a tweak to an earlier chapter.

So what to do with the now deleted text?

I am using Scrivener for this particular book. If you’ve never used this program, it’s a little like Windows Explorer (or Finder for Mac folks) with each scene/chapter its own unique folder. There is also a ‘research’ folder at the bottom of the file structure. Typically this is used to house whatever research a writer needs to craft the book.

I have a folder I call “Excised text” and I’m pretty sure you can guess what that is. It is the folder into which I place all the content I will not be using.

Sure, I could—and do—simply delete it from the main sections of the book, but I also want to keep a record of it. In my comp book, I note that I’ve removed certain scenes. On my notecards, I’ll note that I’ve remove the scene from the main flow—but I keep the card in its original spot. I guess that’s the historian part of me. I want the record to show that on such and such a day, I removed a scene. It’ll also act as a road map if, when I’m finished, I go back and reconsider if the excised text/chapter really does belong. I’ve got all that text at the ready.

It’s a pattern I’ve always adhered to, going back as far as my grad school days.

How about you? Do you merely delete text/scenes you don’t need, or do you save it…just in case? I’m a process guy and I’d love to know how other writers treat text they don’t want to use.