Thursday, March 27, 2008

Third Watch Revisited
It happens all too rarely, but every once in a while, network television hits a nerve in the collective consciousness, and makes a statement about society as a whole by examining its microcosmic components. For six seasons, from September 1999 to May 2005, NBC’s Third Watch consistently accomplished just that. Ostensibly, the show focused on the day to day exploits of the cops, firefighters and paramedics of the fictional 55th precinct )nicknamed “Camelot” by the cops who work there because it sits at the corner of King and Arthur) and 53rd Fire House of New York City, who work the 3-11 PM, or “third watch” shift. That was really only a springboard, though. Third Watch was really about humanity’s tenuous hold on the urban landscape it’s created.

Of course, the series had it antecedents—Hill Street Blues, ER and Emergency come to mind immediately—but Third Watch went a step further, weaving its characters into the larger personality of the city itself. What series creators John Wells (ER, The West Wing) and Edward Allen Bernero (Criminal Minds) accomplished with Third Watch remains a benchmark in the annals of dramatic television. And while it was never a runaway ratings blockbuster, it maintained a following sufficient for it to run 132 episodes over six seasons. Along the way, it garnered critical acclaim, Emmy nominations and awards for some of its actors. It was a complex series that literally hit the ground running, and ended even more explosively than it began.

Finally, almost nine years after it originally aired, Third Watch: The Complete First Season is available in the United States as a six disc DVD boxed set. (It’s been available as a Region 2 disc for a couple of years now, albeit slightly altered.) While it’s somewhat odd it’s taken this long for the series to make it to DVD, this edition was worth the wait. Admittedly, I may be a little biased. I watched Third Watch religiously throughout its six season run, rearranging my schedule constantly as NBC shifted it from one timeslot to the next. I’ll readily admit I was a junkie—the recurring characters made me care about them, and I ended up caring about the fleeting situations in which they became embroiled in the course of a shift’s work.

Time being what it is, I’d more or less resigned myself to the idea that Third Watch was consigned to syndication and basic cable, with disjointed episodes running out of context, much like 24 reruns. Third Watch: The Complete First Season masterfully lays the groundwork for the series, introducing characters who would be pivotal through the run of Third Watch. It was an ensemble cast to be sure, and no single character was a showboater—all were integral to the overall story to each individual episode, as they were to the larger canvas of the series, which continually evolved with each episode.

In the end, though, Third Watch wasn’t about cops or firefighters or paramedics—it was more akin to contemporary knights errant unknowingly slaying invisible dragons. They were blue knights who never strayed far from their blue collar roots. The fact that they were equally concerned with the rigors and pitfalls of their daily lives as they were with the demands of their jobs gave the series a resonance unmatched by any other series of its type. It moved at such a breakneck pace that sometimes the subplots seemed trivial—much in the same way real life works. Third Watch was a rarity—it moved at the pace of life, leaving ragged edges in its wake.

It’s fitting that the DVD collection is presented in 2.0 stereo and its original 1.33:1 video format. Enhancing it would only detract from its original intent. Extras are kept at a minimum, too—a retrospective featurette featuring the writers and some cast members, and the almost obligatory gag reel of flubbed lines. The almost 1000 minutes of drama in this collection make it stand as one of the greatest network series of the New Millenium, if not of all time.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Video Kicks with Route 66
I realize I’m dating myself here, but one of my fondest memories from early childhood is the TV series Route 66. I was too young to understand the nuances of the series—in fact, all I really remember is how cool I thought it would be to drive a Corvette across the country, coming to the rescue of sundry damsels in distress as I made pitstops along the way in towns inhabited by seriously damaged people. I had it in my head that I could grow up to be a modern day Lone Ranger, with Tonto, in the guise of Martin Milner or George Maharis at my side, depending on my mood. I’d save people’s wretched lives, and then with a wink and a hearty “Hi-yo, little blue Corvette!” and be off to my next hip adventure.

Even now, lifetimes removed from 1961 and black and white console TVs, a large part of me still likes to think it’s doable. After all, ‘Vettes actually have a bit of storage space in them now. I wouldn’t have to pack a full wardrobe in a couple of travel bags lashed to a miniscule luggage rack. I could store my formal wear in vacuum bags, and steam them when needed. And even in these tough economic times, I’d be able to find a temporary job in any field, regardless of experience—just long enough to mend a life, break a heart or two, eat in the best restaurants the town has to offer and buy gas for the Vette. Everywhere I’d stop, the local citizenry would understand that I’m just looking for meaning in American life, despite the dichotomy of searching for meaning in a brand new Corvette.

The point is, whether we’re five or fifty, or even 100, we have an inherent need to embrace the improbable, and mold it into our peculiar versions of reality. The DVD release Route 66: Season One, Volume Two reminded me how my version of America’s reality was shaped by television. I only received a four episode sampler for review purposes, but it was enough to make me realize its iconic importance in television, and its role in making the Corvette an automotive legend.

The premise of Route 66 was simple. After his father dies, Tod Stiles (Milner) inherits a Corvete, and little less. An All-American, and apparently college educated, he logically decides to drive cross-country with his best friend, Buzz Murdock (Maharis), a Hell’s Kitchen transplant with Beat Generation tendencies. Taking odd jobs to support themselves as they travel across America, they encounter various people who represent the various faces of America. In the process, they become almost non-characters. The stories in Route 66 revolved around the people Tod and Buzz meet, making the show a hybrid anthology/ character series, with unlimited dramatic possibilities.

Stirling Silliphant, the show’s creator and writer of most of the episodes, used the basic set-up to create episodes that played out as mini-movies designed to make a statement about the changing face of America as the sixties collided with earlier decades. Like Rod Serling, he was not above using overwrought dialogue to make his points. In Silliphant’s case, the voice of the Beat Generation seemed the voice of the future. He wasn’t far off-mark, considering Route 66 began in 1960 and ended, ironically enough, in 1964, just as the Beatles prepped the country for the next wave of youth.

Route 66 was shot entirely on location, almost unheard of at the time. As a result, it gives us an accurate snapshot of what America looked like nearly fifty years ago. Whether it was inhabited by such overtly dramatic characters as are portrayed in Route 66 is a matter of conjecture, I suppose. But if my childhood memories serve me well, it was. And if it wasn’t—well, that just adds another layer to the freewheeling mythos of America.

With Route 66: Season One, Volume Two, you don’t get a lot of extras beyond filmographies. You don’t need them. The story speaks for itself. The only complaint I have is it’s cropped to a 16:9 ratio, rather than presented in its original 4:3 format. Hopefully, this blunder will be rectified in future editions. Beyond that, this is a DVD that’s a worthy addition to any TV series collection.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Chancer, Series Two: Dodgy Dealings In Crumbling Casinos
Because it features megalomaniacs, it’s compared to Dallas. Because it’s set in a lavish setting whose populace is frequently adorned with jewels and tuxedos, it’s compared to Dynasty. And because it has a lovely ghost as a recurring character, it’s compared to Twin Peaks. That’s what happens when publicists are left to their own devices. Truth of the matter is Chancer, Series Two may employ those elements in weaving its tale, but it bears little resemblance to any of the aforementioned series.

Admittedly, much of Chancer, Series Two revolves around nefarious business dealings and double crosses. And none of the characters are particularly likeable. It all plays out in a chess game of rival casinos and child custody dealings, with all the characters playing pawns to the other characters’ machinations. Derek Love (a very young Clive Owen, in what many consider his breakout role) is at the center of it all—either orchestrating his own scams, or defusing the scams of his adversaries. It all gets very complicated, since adversaries in one episode often become allies in the next, only to revert to their own schemes next time around.

Something of a sequel to Series One, this series opens with Derek, who called himself “Stephen Crane” in the first series, being released from prison for fraud. He’s determined to reconcile with Joanna (Susanna Harker), who’s just given birth to a son. That doesn’t work out too well, since she dies at the end of the first episode. But since she was so important to him-- his obsession, even—she’s never from his thoughts, or his conscience, as the case may be. She makes frequent appearances throughout Series Two, as a ghost who appears to Derek in his darker moments. That would be the only connection to Twin Peaks, and even that is stretching it. She serves more as his inner voice, a beacon who guides him on the path he must take to make things right.

Nor is Chancer a take on American soaps—it’s much too convoluted for that. Sure, there are villains galore, played mostly as caricatures, at least for the first half of the series. There’s the oily, sadistic Tom Franklyn (Peter Vaughan), dearly deceased Jo’s father, who uses his grandson as a weapon in his manipulations, mostly revolving around squelching any competition to his casino. Jimmy Blake (Leslie Philips) is his reluctant foil, all English ennui and winsome platitudes. Anna (Louise Lombard) a petty thief with a “dodgy past” complicates matters between the two when it’s revealed that she’s Jimmy’s daughter, and that Tom thinks she was responsible for Jo’s death. She wasn’t, of course, but it makes for a good thread. On a lesser, and certainly less villainous, level, is Piers Garfield-Weld (Simon Shepherd), desperate to save his estate and claim his presumed son, whom is being held by Tom Franklyn. Of course, he joins forces with Derek (the aforementioned Clive Owen) to save his estate via the casino route.

Yeah, it’s a wee bit convoluted. It’s also devilishly delicious, in a veddy, veddy English fashion. The first half of the series dances delicately between the campy and the sinister, always with a deft wink and a nod to its American prime time soapy predecessors. It’s more episodic than serial, though. There’s very little straightforward in Chancer, which is fitting, given its themes of double crosses and sundry back stabbings. Clive Owen’s character acts as both an instigator and lynchpin to the various schemes to topple Tom Franklyn, while saving Piers’ estate.

Things take a much darker tone in the final three episodes, when paternity tests prove that Dex is the father of Jo’s son. (That’s not really a spoiler—it was screamingly apparent from episode one, and explained his motives.) It all comes to a crashing and unexpected end when Dex has to choose between his future with Anna and his past, and responsibilities, with the ghost of Jo.

While Series Two is abbreviated, with only seven episodes, reportedly because Owen wanted to pursue other acting interests, it doesn’t feel rushed. Writers Guy Andrews and Simon Burke impeccably pace the story with measured doses of neo-noir and dark humor throughout its 350 minutes. There’s no hint of tension on the set—only in the story itself. The actors all play their characters with melodramatic relish to the very end. The final result is a story that ends on a satisfying, if ambiguous, note.
There are no extras on the seven disc set, outside of filmographies and bios of the cast. The video transfer is adequate, but not outstanding, and it’s presented in 1.33:1 aspect ratio, as it was originally shot.While it would have been nice to have a few extras, Chancer, Series Two is an outstanding example of British television in the early nineties, weaving subtle social commentary into a plot that’s always engaging.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Ammunition for the Cocktail Revolution
There’s something about uncertain times that prod us into appreciating the finer things life has to offer. It’s not that we turn a blind eye to the furies swirling all about us—indeed, we’re painfully aware it could end in a flash, or worse, loom taunting above us for who knows how long. But we take solace in the idea that regardless of how it all turns out, we humans have somehow managed through the centuries to produce one or two things that will outlive us. We want to feel remnants of art, architecture, philosophy and politics will still be here whenever aliens discover we little bipods once ruled this planet. Once we cut through all those platitudes, though, we want to be remembered as a people who lived well.

Given that, it’s hardly surprising that the cocktail culture has resurfaced. Whenever the world appears to be imploding, something in us screams, “This might be an appropriate time for a nice drink. What will you have?” It’s been a plot device of films from Casablanca to Titanic, and beyond. It’s been symbolic of victory celebrations since time immemorial. All political correctness aside, alcohol, in all its myriad forms, is inextricably linked to Western culture.

That’s not to imply Western Civilization is one big keg party—far from it. There’s a reason they’re referred to as “spirits”—if they’re not to be revered, they should be at least savored. It’s not going beyond the pale to guess that as many alliances have been forged, treaties have been negotiated, business empires have begun and romances have blossomed as often over a well-considered drink as a pen, a sword or ring.

I was recently invited to review a trio of premium liquors that, while new on the market, uphold that tradition. They come from diverse regions—from Norway to Mexico to France—but they all offer unexpected pleasures.

Tequila, the first spirit distilled in the North American continent, is an often misunderstood liquor. Represented most often in pop culture as a favorite beverage of assorted renegades, and largely marketed as a party drink, it’s rarely viewed as a refined liquor, particularly in the United States. Here, it’s been relegated to shots and margaritas, usually made with mixtol (those mixed with agave and cane sugars) tequilas. It’s only recently that premium tequilas—those made with 100% agave— have made a major inroad in cocktail culture, particularly in California and Texas.

Pertida Tequila is the latest entry in the rapidly burgeoning premium tequila market in America. It’s an estate-grown tequila from the heart of Mexico’s Tequila region, made from 100% blue agave, giving it a purity rarely seen in the current American market.

There are three grades of Pertida—four, if you count the $350 a bottle Elegante, aged over 36 months. For our purposes, we’ll dwell on the other three. The Blanco (not aged) is bottled by hand after being distilled twice to ensure perfection of purity. It’s a tequila with a delicate balance of crispness and faintly citrus notes. I found it surprisingly smooth straight, and as an excellent base for mixed drinks. The Resposado (aged six months in Canadian Oak barrels) offers a more robust flavor than the Blanco, but still has nuances not usually associated with Tequila. I found it smooth, without the burn one usually associates with tequila. Finally, there’s the Anejo (aged 18 months), an exceedingly smooth tequila with hints of spices and a full-bodied finish. While it is an amazing base for traditional mixed drinks, I found it best served neat. The subtleties of this tequila are best enjoyed neat, and savored slowly.

Given its versatility, it’s hardly surprising that vodka overtook bourbon in the 1950’s to become the most popular liquor in America. Undoubtedly, some of that popularity stems from the myth that, unlike other alcohol, it leaves no odor in the breath. That notwithstanding, vodka is one of the most ancient of spirits, dating back to at least the 11th century. It can be distilled from any number of starches, with fermented grains usually being the prime ingredient. Christiania Vodka, a Norwegian import aggressively expanding in the US market, is distilled from organic Trondelang potatoes and Norwegian arctic spring water. The recipe for it dates back to 1596, when King Christian conquered Norway, and brought with him some of the refinements of the Renaissance.


Admittedly, I’m partial to vodka as my mixer of choice. Small wonder, considering how vodka adds a certain something to any aperitif. It’s very rare, at least in America, that a vodka stands on its own as a true experience. While I’ll stop just short of calling my experience with Christiania an epiphany, I will say that it’s the smoothest vodka I’ve ever tasted. I’ve tried it neat, on the rocks, as a base for a martini and even as the venerable screwdriver. It has failed to disappoint me on all counts.

Christiania is possessed of an unmatched sophistication that makes it an ideal complement to dining. It’s probably the first true sipping vodka, as well. Served neat, it’s a taste to be savored languidly, and as a mixer, its crisp, but smooth body enhances any cocktail.

No other sprit is more closely associated with cocktail culture than gin. Compared to vodka and tequila, it’s still a relative newcomer having first appeared in Holland in the late 17th century. It’s most associated with the English, however, where the dry variety was perfected and popularized. G’Vine Gin, from France’s Cognaq region, is a departure from traditional gin in that it’s distilled from grape spirit, rather than grain, and is infused with green grape flowers, instead of juniper, for a smoother flavor and headier aroma.

Tending to favor vodka over gin, I approached G’Vine with some trepidation. That fact that each bottle is individually numbered seemed more marketing ploy than exclusivity to me, and did little to assuage my fears. I was pleasantly surprised once I opened the bottle and took in its faintly floral fragrance. Sampling it neat, its flavor was round, with none of the burn or aftertaste of the English-style gins. Not surprisingly, given its origins, it was rather akin to sipping a good wine.

The true test of any gin is how it works as the base ingredient of a mixed drink. In that regard, G’Vine surpasses almost any juniper-based dry gin, lending a new dimension to the basic martini. What it may lack in bite, it more than makes up for in subtlety. Served neat, on the rocks or mixed, this French gin may well become the standard for gins in the new cocktail culture.

The commonality of these three spirits, ultimately, is that they serve to recognize a restless urge in contemporary culture to explore new vistas and cultivate a refinement in our sensibilities and tastes. Admittedly, none of these spirits, being new to the US market, are readily available at this point. Christiania Vodka and G’Vine Gin have rolled out their respective products on the East Coast, while Partida Tequila is more readily available in the Western region of the US. All, however, are currently available via Internet retailers, with rapid expansion planned to local markets. Christiania and G’Vine are at a $40 price point, and Partida, depending on the aging, costs in the neighborhood of $50-80.