The ‘Friends’ Project: “The One with the Thumb”

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“The One with the Thumb (1994), Series 1, Episode 3, Friends, NBC, October 6

The third episode of Friends is the first one that finally captures the reason why the show enjoyed such unparalleled popularity. The first one not to be written by creators David Crane and Marta Kauffman, the script – a rather absurd quirky story – gives each cast member a moment to shine and it puts the show’s best performer – Lisa Kudrow – out front and center.

There are three plots going on in this episode: the best one, even if it’s very odd, is the one referenced in the title. Phoebe (Kudrow) is having a bad day because her bank has accidentally credited her $1,000; because Phoebe is both very moral and also a deep believer in karma, she doesn’t see this windfall as a good thing and sees her bank as an inept…

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The ‘Friends’ Project: The Pilot or “The One Where Monica Gets a Roommate”

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The Pilot (1994), Friends, Series 1, Episode 1, NBC, September 22

Pilots are funny because they’re often filmed months before the actual show, so there are elements in them that don’t necessarily make it to the rest of the actual show. Sometimes the sets are different, and if the pilot is shot a long time before the actual show gets picked up, we sometimes will see cast members that disappear or haircuts that get changed. Pilots also have a tricky job ahead of them: introduce audiences to a group of characters but not bog down the writing with too much exposition. For a sitcom that has about 20 minutes to do that job, that task is even harder.

For the pilot of Friends, writers/creators David Crane and Marta Kauffman manage to cram a lot and do so with surprising economy and grace. It helps that the episode is…

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The ‘Friends’ Project: another look at a popular classic

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Friends logo.svg

Friends went off the air in May of 2004, 17 years ago, but it’s still one of the most watched shows in syndication. The show hasn’t dipped in popularity and in fact, younger viewers – many of whom were too young to watch the show when it was on the air have embraced the show. As I type this, Comedy Central is hosting a Friends Fest, a tourist attraction that allows fans to play amongst recreations of iconic sets like Monica’s apartment or the hallway scene with a couch lodged on a flight of stairs. Visitors are invited to recreate the title sequence on the orange couch in front of the fountain or play foosball at the boys’ apartment. In the UK, the show is a phenomenon, enduring despite nearly two decades since its end.

I “came of age” when Friends was on the air. I remember when the first…

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Diana Ross returns with the joyous ‘Thank You’

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Thank You

Diana Ross’ return to the recording studio was a long-time coming and judging from the lead single from her next album Thank You, it was well worth the wait. It’s a joyful, nostalgic number that finds Ross looking back at her solo work from the 1970s. From the opening bars of chiming piano, listeners will think they’re listening to “You’re All I Need to Get By.” Pairing with Jack Antonoff, the pop diva sounds energized and spirited – a fantastic departure from some of the heavy ballads that dominated her later work.

The last time Ross put out a new album of material was in 2006 with the soppy I Love You, a collection of love ballads which felt rote and sleepy. And though she’s been teasing her audiences of new material for about a decade now, it seems she was far more interested in touring than sequestering…

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Book shopping haul for the past weekend…

A Shelf Full of Books

This past weekend we took advantage of nice weather we were having and we went to Portobello Road Market on Saturday to enjoy the stalls and have a lovely meal. Though we’re still in lockdown with restrictions – we have to maintain social distancing as well as wear facemasks – we have been able to enjoy the city more now.

Part of my love of Portobello Road Market is visiting Books for Cooks, a fabulous bookshop in Notting Hill. It’s a shop I found years ago when I visited London for the first time, and have made a point of shopping there each time I make it to London. I then moved to London and was hoping to make it a regular haunt, but I’ve often found its hours difficult and I haven’t been able to go as often as I’d like. Then this past year and a half…

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David Lynch tells a stirring and moving tale with ‘The Elephant Man’

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The Elephant Man (Dir. David Lynch, 1980)

David Lynch’s oeuvre has been defined by films that are dark, noirish, with heavy doses of eccentric – if gallows – humor. Much of his filmography is violent and disturbing with recurring inclusions of surrealism and absurdist imagery. He revels in presenting knotty stories that suspend linear concepts of time and narrative. So, watching The Elephant Man (1980), his second feature film, can be a surprising experience because though it contains flourishes of his aesthetic that would be more pronounced in his following projects, it’s a film that is conventional in its approach in telling the story of Joseph Merrick, the Victorian who was born with severe physical deformities that doomed him to a life of abject poverty, the workhouse, and eventually being exploited as an attraction at human novelty exhibitions. Coined ‘the Elephant Man’ due to the thick, lumpy skin that grew…

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Paul Rudnick’s play transfers gracefully onto the big screen

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Steve Weber, Benjamin Batt, Michael T. Weiss, Patrick Stewart, Jeffrey (Orion Classics, 1995)

Paul Rudnick is Hollywood’s go-to guy to make a script funny. He worked his magic on films like The Addams Family and The First Wives Club. He also was responsible for Sister Act (though he asked to be credited by a pseudonym because of the many changes that script went through), and wrote the hilarious Addams Family Values and the touching, Oscar-nominated In & Out (as well as the unfortunate Isn’t She Great and the remake of The Stepford Wives). A noted – a uproarious – playwright known for being able to adroitly blend politics and comedy, his 1993 comedy Jeffrey, a romantic comedy in the age of AIDS, makes a graceful transfer to the big screen because of assured direction by Christopher Ashley and warm performances by a game cast (featuring a fantastic…

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My fourth Easter in London

Easter brunch on the deck, overlooking a gorgeous garden

“This is obviously a weird Easter. It’s my third since moving to London in the summer of 2017. Every Easter, we hosted a party with friends and family. This year, because of COVID-19 and the lockdown, we couldn’t celebrate in the same way. My mother’s visit to the UK was postponed, my good friend moved back to Australia, and my other friends are in isolation. We’re all staying, hunkering down, in our flats, waiting this thing out. I remember that for a hot minute, my partner and I were considering going for brunch in some chi-chi brunch spot in Soho. Then everything changed.”

This is how last year’s post about Easter started. We had just gone into lockdown a month before and we didn’t know or expect that the lockdown would last over a year. We had to celebrate birthdays, Thanksgiving, Christmas in isolation, staying at home, avoiding friends, hosting Zoom parties. All of it has taken on a surreal normalcy and despite the strangeness of the last year, we have gotten used to some of the year’s patented features: face masks are now something we wear without prompting; we instinctively know to isolate ourselves from others; takeaway and delivery has become the new ‘eating out’.

So this year, like last, Easter was an intimate affair with just the two of us. The menus for my holiday entertaining are usually elaborate because we invite guests over, but this year since it was just the two of us, it was pared down: a gammon joint, some potato latkes, and pan-fried broccolini. As the year before, there were no apps, no soup, and for dessert, we shared a Co-op lemon cake (weirdly enough, I couldn’t find any chocolate Easter eggs – quite disappointing, but hey ho)

The weather was goofy this week – Monday and Tuesday we has some of the warmest weather ever recorded for March, but by Wednesday evening, things started to turn cool again, and so we didn’t know if we would be able to eat on the deck. We were fortunate enough that the sun was out, so as we did last year, we sat outside and ate our Easter brunch on the deck (though we were bundled up in coats and scarves because it was cool)

Cooking the Easter brunch was surprisingly easy and it’s left the kitchen in a decent shape. For the gammon, I boiled it in some water with aromatics (garlic, onion, bay leave, black peppercorn) for about half an hour. After boiling it, I placed it in roasting tin that was lined with foil. I added some chopped onion, carrot, and celery, and added about a quarter cup of the ham cooking broth. I covered the gammon joint with more foil and baked it for another half hour. About 10 minutes before it was done, I scored the ham, slathered on some glaze and baked it uncovered until the ham blistered and browned. The glaze was a quick and easy thing – some mustard, some broth, some honey – it was very good…I let the ham sit, rest for a bit, before carving it and serving it with Dijon mustard.

For the latkes, the recipe was simple. I hated to deep fry the latkes because it makes the kitchen smell of grease and also, it’s a lot of work and it can get rather messy. So I baked them, which was pretty simple. I grated two baking potatoes, one large onion and drained as well as I could. I added two eggs, a pinch of baking soda, salt, pepper, a pinch of garlic powder, and a quarter cup of matzo meal. I mixed it well, formed patties with an ice cream scoop, and doled them out on baking sheets that were greased with vegetable oil. I oven-fried them for about 15 minutes on one side, turned them over for another 5 minutes or so, and then served them with apple sauce and soured cream.

The broccolini was too simple for words. I chopped up some green onion, thinly sliced some garlic, trimmed some broccolini. Created a glaze of mustard, water, salt, pepper, dried herbs. I heated some olive oil, briefly sauteed the green onion, then threw in the broccolini, added a tiny bit of water, mixed, constantly stirring before adding the glaze and garlic, tossing so the garlic won’t burn.

I didn’t really do social media this year…Instead after our brunch, we walked to Richmond, enjoying the walk (we ran across a fox – there are quite a few of them around here), and by the time we got home, it was dark, and we were satisfyingly tired.

As with any holiday, we stop and think, look around, and take stock as we reached yet another milestone during this weird and sometimes-awful year. We’re nearing the (hopeful) end to the lockdown. We’re cautiously making plans to meet friends. Fingers crossed that by the end of June, we’ll be able to adopt a lifestyle closer to what we were living before lockdown.

With that in mind, Happy Easter.

Though compelling, fascinating, and moving, ‘Hillary’ cannot escape hagiography

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‘Hillary’ (Hulu, 2020)

Nanette Burstein’s Hulu four-part documentary Hillary endeavors to tell a  number of stories. The focus is on the interesting life of Hillary Clinton, from her comfortable middle-class childhood in Chicago to her ground-breaking career as first lady, senator, secretary of state, and two-time presidential candidate. Hillary also tells the story of post-war white feminism and the strides that women of Clinton’s generation made in the workforce, politics, and academia. The most depressing, this is also the story of Clinton’s doomed presidential campaign of 2016 in which she lost to Donald Trump. Director Burstein has access to some fantastic footage of the campaign trail, chronicling the seemingly textbook perfect campaign that nonetheless crashed and burned. Because Burstein’s subject, along with her friends and family participated in the film, Hillary never manages to escape hagiography despite some of the more difficult parts of Clinton’s life, namely her husband’s many…

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Sacha Baron Cohen brings his Borat character into a new era

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The last time we saw Sacha Baron Cohen’s guerrilla comic character Borat, the country was in the midst of George W. Bush’s second administration, beset by the Iraq war, the tragic consequences of Hurricane Katrina, the PATRIOT Act, the revelations of torture at Abu Ghraib. Many of us thought that Bush-era politics was America at its worst – it couldn’t get any worse.

Little did we know.

In Baron Cohen’s second film to feature Borat, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, his popular character, a reporter from a grossly twisted version of Kazakhstan, is applying his gonzo comedy in Trump-era America, embroiled in a sharp racial and culture divide, reeling from a disastrous president, escalating racial tensions due to the murders of unarmed Black people at the hands of cops, and a worldwide pandemic made more difficult by the ascendance of conspiracy theorists.

In the context of this new America, Baron Cohen’s…

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