“Allt För Sverige”: After a weak Season 3 (which featured the two most annoying contestants in “AFS” history), my favorite reality show came back strong with a Season 4 that just made me want to hug and hang out with all the participants. The premise is that a group of Americans with Swedish heritage is sent to their ancestral homeland to learn about the country, their long-lost relatives… and, ultimately, themselves, as the experience often proves life-changing. It’s a tremendously entertaining, heartwarming show that proves “reality” doesn’t have to be a synonym for “trash TV.”
“@Midnight”: This is a deeply silly TV show that airs four times a week at–you guessed it–midnight on Comedy Central. A panel of three comedians riffs on goofy Internet videos and headlines. It’s frequently dumb (especially when all the comedians are male, dick jokes and bathroom humor have a way of coming to the fore), but no show makes me laugh more on a consistent basis; it’s like a televised antidepressant. Certain panelists–Ron Funches, Arden Myrin, Steve Agee, Rhys Darby, Paul F. Tompkins–make me giddy with glee. It’s briefly moving into the 11:30 post-“Daily Show” time slot before the new “Nightly Show” debuts on Jan. 19.
Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter: Once again, I read precisely 52 books during the course of the year; I’d like to do better in 2015, but in the immortal words of Willy Wonka, there’s always so much time and so little to do. Wait a minute. Strike that. Reverse it. In any case, nothing I read last year gave me more pleasure than this dazzlingly ambitious book that manages to encompass the Elizabeth Taylor film “Cleopatra,” the Donner Party, community theater, World War II, the Italian Riviera, and so much more; it’s all perfectly executed, and the final chapter is so great I had to go back and reread it immediately.
Bellweather Rhapsody by Kate Racculia and Bittersweet by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore: My second- and third-favorite books read in 2014–and don’t they fit nicely into this alphabetical construct?–are, respectively, a wryly funny, twisty tale of young musical prodigies, memories, and murder, and an addictive, soapy saga about an outsider who longs to be accepted by her college roommate’s blue-blooded, old-money family.
“The Coast of Utopia,” Shotgun Players: Speaking of ambition: I saw over 50 plays in 2014, including Tom Stoppard’s trilogy about pre-Revolution Russia, which Berkeley’s Shotgun Players presented in a single day. Yes, roughly eight hours of theater over the course of one Saturday. I wrote about it here. Tom Stoppard is, to my mind, the foremost artistic genius of our time.
“The Colbert Report”: Off the air after almost 1,500 episodes, and I probably missed no more than half a dozen of them over the entire run. Is it wrong that I cried my way through the last half of the final episode? Fans are not just losing a show, we’re losing an entire world, literally hundreds of inside jokes shared by the program’s dedicated viewers: Ambassador Hans Beinholtz, Gorlock, Sweetness, godless killing machines, Ham Rove, Munchma Quchi, Bud Light Lime, Steagle Colbeagle, apologies to Doris Kearns Goodwin, Esteban Colberto and the chicas… sure, Stephen is moving to CBS, but it won’t be the same. No matter how good “Late Show with Stephen Colbert” is, the demands of the genre dictate that it must be, in essence, just another talk show, one where Colbert will be required to interview Channing Tatum about his latest movie instead of poking fun at the absurdity of news and politics.
“Die Mommie Die,” New Conservatory Theatre: No play I saw in 2014 was more flat-out entertaining than this Charles Busch camp-fest, starring the fabulous J. Conrad Frank (best known around these parts for his alter ego, drag diva extraordinaire Katya Smirnoff-Skyy) in the lead role; I smiled and laughed from start to finish. “DMD” plays like a mad cross between Douglas Sirk and John Waters.
“Gidion’s Knot,” Aurora Theater: Entering the theater, you see a set that looks exactly like an elementary school classroom, complete with fluorescent lighting, educational posters, and little desks. It looks unassuming–but when a mom and a teacher start to have the parent-teacher conference from hell, it’s obvious that this isn’t kids’ stuff. A pair of the Bay Area’s finest actors, Stacy Ross and Jamie Jones, gave two of the strongest performances I saw last year in this provocative production.
“The Grand Budapest Hotel”: 2014 marks the year I gave up on movies. I saw four of them. “Do you mean you saw four in a movie theater?” somebody recently asked me, assuming I must have been watching at home on Netflix or TCM. No… I mean four total. The one thing guaranteed to send me running to a cinema is a new Wes Anderson film. I love all of his movies, with one glaring exception (“The Darjeeling Limited,” if you must know), but “Budapest” may be his best. Months later, images from the film linger in the mind. Whatever he decides to do next, I’ll be there, the only filmmaker I feel that strongly about.
Harley the Boston Terrier and Boss the French Bulldog: I envy the pet owners who get to share their darlings with the world via social media, since Bibi hates cameras and will run away if I point the iPhone in her direction. I am particularly enamored of these two adorable dogs, who both live in Stockholm and frequently play together. Harley‘s feed combines precious photos with funny and sardonic captions, usually combined with an emoticon or five–yes, I realize there is human intervention involved, but I prefer to believe that she crafts them all by herself. Then there’s the ridiculously photogenic Boss, who has almost 200,000 followers. Seeing Boss pose with a tomato on his head or wearing a Darth Vader helmet will make you wish your own pet was as agreeable.
“Hedwig and the Angry Inch”: The Most Extreme Thing I Did For Love Of Theater in 2014 was not spending an entire day at “The Coast of Utopia” marathon; it was traveling 2,500 miles to see the Broadway revival of my all-time favorite show, starring the incomparable Neil Patrick Harris. And it was so worth it. For one thing, they managed to re-arrange the one song in the production I’ve never particularly cared for (“Sugar Daddy”) and turn it from a lackadaisical country-rocker into a propulsive glam-rock powerhouse; and the Broadway production values enhanced the show while still retaining its slightly ragged downtown charm.
“Last Week Tonight with John Oliver”: I don’t think anybody knew quite what to expect when “The Daily Show”‘s Senior British Correspondent struck out on his own, but he managed to take full advantage of the commercial-interruption-free format allowed by HBO to do long pieces on difficult topics like net neutrality, oppression of homosexuals in Uganda, and the Indian elections–basically, anything that might make you think “No short-attention-span American TV viewer is going to sit still for that!” And yet, the show became a smash hit, on TV and online; a 15-minute piece on predatory lending racked up over 3.7 million views on YouTube. The secret: whenever things threatened to get too dour or dull, Oliver and his writers would throw in some element that managed to be funny while still making a point. I can’t wait to see what subjects “LWT” will tackle in Season Two, which begins in February.
“Serial”: I was an early adopter of this podcast, which hooked me after its first episode aired as part of “This American Life,” so it was a bit weird watching the 12-part true crime story blossom into a cultural phenomenon. I’ve been listening to podcasts since around 2007 and now, finally, they’re the Next Big Thing. “Serial” eventually became so big that it spawned a “Saturday Night Live” parody, which I’m guessing is about a million times funnier for obsessive “Serial” fans than to the uninitiated.
TV On The Radio, Seeds: TVOTR has always been one of those bands I’ve liked, but never loved, until 2014: for some reason, Seeds‘ melodic guitar-rock just connected with me in a big way. The only problem is that I listened to it nonstop for so long that I’ve become a little overfamiliar with it. Still, I have tickets to see them live in March, and I’m sure by that time I’ll be thrilled to hear “Happy Idiot” and “Ride” and “Careful You” and all of their other brilliant songs.
The Underground Bunker: One thing not many people know about me is that I have a longstanding obsession with Scientology. I’ve been fascinated by cults–what makes people join them? What makes people stay?–since I was a teenager, but journalist Tony Ortega’s tireless reporting on L. Ron Hubbard’s wacky “religion,” which has persisted despite the fact that the founder “dropped his body” over 30 years ago, has me hooked. Every single morning of 2014, I visited the Bunker to see what stories Ortega was breaking. With Alex Gibney’s HBO documentary, “Going Clear: Scientology & the Prison of Faith,” premiering at the Sundance Film Festival later this month, 2015 is shaping up to be another blockbuster year for Scientology watchers.
“Venus in Fur,” Shotgun Players (staged reading): The absolute high point of 2014 for me was the magical night of July 14. I had successfully bid on a “choose your own staged reading” event at Shotgun’s annual fundraiser, and I decided on David Ives’ “Venus in Fur,” a play we’d seen earlier in the year at A.C.T. If you’re a big theater fan, you’ve undoubtedly had those moments where you’ve wondered how another actor would fare in a particular role; in this case, I was left dying to see how one of my favorite local actors, Kevin Clarke, would approach the role of Thomas. Another fave, Anna Ishida, was actually the understudy for the female lead at A.C.T., but she never got to go on. Somehow, not only did both Kevin and Anna agree to let me team them up in my little fantasy cast, but they found a brilliant director (Patricia Miller), and while they performed script-in-hand, the lighting and props and set made it close to a fully realized production. Around 40 people attended, and I think everyone there agreed that it was an unforgettable night. The whole Shotgun crew (with a special shout-out to their always-gracious, hard-working director of development Joanie McBrien) holds a special place in my heart for helping create an event that surpassed my wildest expectations.
“The Whale,” Marin Theatre Company: A play about a morbidly obese man–portrayed, in this production, by a thin dude in a fat suit–sounds like it could be exploitative and some kind of theatrical equivalent to those TLC trashfests like “My 600 Lb. Life.” And yet, “The Whale” was one of the most touching and profound shows I saw in 2014; in the lead role, Nicholas Pelczar ensured that we never lost sight of Charlie’s humanity, making him someone we empathized with and rooted for, even when his prickly personality made him hard to like. Playwright Samuel Hunter won a MacArthur “genius award” in 2014; pulling off something like “The Whale” proves he’s definitely one to watch.
Windigo Island by William Kent Krueger: 2014 will also go down as the year I had a book dedicated to me. And not just any book, but a beautiful, suspenseful, meticulously-researched mystery dealing with an important topic (the sexual exploitation of Native American women) by one of my favorite authors. That’s something else from 2014 that I will always treasure.
I’m going to try to do some best-of-the-year posting here over the next few days–I loved NPR.org blogger Linda Holmes’ 50 Wonderful Things from 2014 post, so I may shamelessly rip off her format–but first, a True Holiday Story.
Joe & I have some close friends, Michael & Susan, who are the parents of a 3-year-old boy. He is obsessed with cars and trucks. For Christmas this year, I thought I’d give him something truly special: a vintage Fisher-Price garage. This was one of my favorite toys back when I was a kid in the 70s (remember that “Free to Be You & Me” era before everything for girls was pink and princessy?). It’s all wood–nowadays, all F-P toys are made of plastic.
My parents still live in the house I grew up in, and I knew that garage was stored somewhere in the depths of their basement. I asked my mom if she could find it and ship it out to me. It arrived a few weeks ago, and looked good as new.
On Christmas morning, Joe & I head over to Michael & Susan’s house with the garage. We go in the living room, where the young lad is on the floor… PLAYING WITH THE EXACT SAME GARAGE I HAD JUST BROUGHT OVER.
It turns out Michael and his brother had also owned the garage back in the 70s, and their parents had hung onto it all these years as well. What are the odds?! I would not have been surprised to bring a duplicate gift if it had been whatever the hot new toy of 2014 was, but this is a vintage playset that was last manufactured when Jerry Ford was in the White House.
We wound up bringing our duplicate garage back home. Joe’s sister is getting married next year and is planning to start a family shortly thereafter, so maybe we’ll be able to pass the garage on to a niece or nephew in a few years. Those old F-P toys stand the test of time.
What could be more exciting than a new car? Now that the holiday season is almost upon us, I’m sure those ubiquitous Lexus commercials (you know, the ones featuring luxury autos bedecked with gigantic bows) will be all over the TV soon. On “The Price is Right,” there’s no prize more valued than “a new caaaaaaaar!” And “new car smell” is so popular that simulations of it are available in sceneted oils, candles and air fresheners.
I, on the other hand, find the idea of trading in my 2002 Prius for a shiny new auto to be… well, sad. Yes, the car is 12 1/2 years old. The acceleration is, to put it kindly, poky. The steering wheel is so worn that it feels pebbly to the touch. I had it detailed for the first time about a year ago, but the interior still bears stains. It’s got dents and scrapes a-plenty, and while it’s possible to listen to music or podcasts from an iPhone, it requires plugging the phone into a cassette adapter. Oh, and the sound system’s on-off switch doesn’t work, so you have to turn the volume all the way down if you don’t want to listen to the radio.
Despite all that, though, I love the car’s familiarity. I know all of its quirks. I love its small size and tiny turning radius, so appropriate for city living. I also love the fact that it’s long since paid for and insuring it only costs $500 a year. Because we make a lot of short trips, the mileage isn’t as high as you’d expect from a hybrid–usually we get around 35 miles per gallon–but overall, it’s been extremely cheap to maintain and run.
But now, the trusted mechanics at Art’s Automotive, who have been caring for the Prius for a decade, have informed me that the car has reached the point of no return, where the repairs will become increasingly expensive. Because Joe and I share the one car (an advantage of living in a walkable community with good public transit), reliability is a must. We don’t have a second car to tool around in while one is in the shop.
And so I find myself researching new autos. I am definitely a Toyota fan, but considering how little we drive (the Prius only has around 98,000 miles on it despite its advanced age), another hybrid probably doesn’t make sense. If money were truly no object, I’d buy a Tesla Model S, but I’d have to have enough cash to bathe in a la Scrooge McDuck before I could feel comfortable spending that much on a vehicle. We’ll probably wind up getting something dull but practical like a Corolla.
The Prius is only the third car I’ve ever owned; the first two were a couple of Fords (a new Escort and a used Taurus) that vexed me with their unreliability and need for repairs. I was glad to see them go; I think I traded in the Escort, and donated the Taurus to charity (it wasn’t running, so it had to be towed away). But there will be a tear in my eye when I have to say goodbye to the Prius. I would happily keep it for a few more years, were it possible; I had at least hoped we’d make it over the 100K mark. No matter how many cool new features our next auto has, I’m sure it’ll take me a while to stop missing that little blue car.
Earlier today, Joe and I were discussing the “bad” things we had done in our youth. I mentioned that two transgressions stand out in my mind as the epitome of my youthful trouble-making. (It was a more innocent time; I can only imagine someone a couple generations younger than I am claiming their worst misdeed was dipping a classmate’s pigtail in an inkwell.) Both are related to motion pictures.
1. Dustin Made Me Do It: Today’s tweens may be devoted to Justin Bieber or One Direction, but I was infatuated with a middle-aged Jewish man: Dustin Hoffman. When “Tootsie” opened, I skipped school to take the bus to the Movies at North Kent so I could attend the very first showing of the film. Yes, I got in trouble, but on the plus side, the film is a classic that still holds up–I saw it again not that long ago and it’s hilarious and touching. What if I’d ditched class to see something like “Yor: Hunter from the Future”? My crush on Dustin was long-standing–a couple years earlier, my parents had allowed me stay up super-late to watch him win the Best Actor Oscar for “Kramer vs. Kramer.”
2. Putting Out Fire (With Gasoline): I came of age in the post-Marilyn Monroe era, when there were two preeminent female icons: Farrah Fawcett and Natassja Kinski. The latter was famous for being the subject of a Richard Avedon photograph in which she posed with a snake. Generally I was allowed to see any movie I was interested in–because I was insanely nerdy, I usually wanted to go see whatever Siskel & Ebert were recommending, which was usually along the lines of “My Dinner with Andre” or something directed by John Sayles–but the only film I recall being strictly forbidden to see was Kinski’s starring vehicle “Cat People.” Perhaps because it had a theme song by one of my favorite singers, David Bowie, “Cat People (Putting Out Fire),” or maybe because it was helmed by another one of my favorite auteurs, Paul Schrader, I decided I simply had to see “Cat People” immediately. I recruited my best friend James to take me, and we saw it the night it opened. Unlike “Tootsie,” I’ve never seen “Cat People” since then, and I don’t recall anything about it–just that my mother was very upset with me for having disobeyed her. It was probably not all that great. “Tootsie” endures, but who remembers “Cat People”? Maybe I should try to track it down one of these days to see if it’s shocking.
Drugs? Alcohol? Sex? No thanks–for me, it was all about the movies.
The first real rock concert I ever attended was by a band called The Tubes. They were playing at the Grand Rapids Civic Auditorium, and I was a fan of their hits, but I had no idea what to expect. As it turned out, the San Francisco-based group put on a wild show featuring costume changes, dancing girls, stunts, smoke machines, bondage gear… at one point, lead singer Fee Waybill came out dressed as his alter ego “Quay Lewd,” wearing platform shoes and a fright wig. The scent of marijuana hung heavily in the air; I’m sure my parents would have been shocked had they known what sort of debauchery was going on in downtown G.R. that evening (luckily, I turned out OK–hi Mom & Dad!–though perhaps this formative experience partly explains why I eventually moved to the Bay Area and adopted “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” as my all-time favorite musical).
Because I didn’t know any better, I assumed that what I had seen was a typical rock concert. When I attended other shows, I was crushed to realize that the average gig’s “visual spectacle” consisted solely of guys standing around on a stage playing instruments and singing. Where were the acrobats? Why was everyone wearing jeans and T-shirts? Where was the glitter?
I wonder if anybody whose first experience with musical theater happens to be “Pippin” is similarly confused when they realize that not every musical includes magic tricks, a granny on a trapeze, knife-throwing, pyrotechnics, trained animals and balancing acts, not to mention genuine Bob Fosse-choreographed jazz hands. I’ve spent 30 years as a theatergoer, and I’ve never seen anything like “Pippin.” The storyline, about a young prince’s coming of age, is pretty ordinary, but the production itself is an eye-popper. I can imagine that “Pippin” could be done by high school drama clubs and it would be a pleasantly low-key show, not unlike “The Fantasticks,” but the Tony-winning Broadway revival adds so much over-the-top circus craziness that you probably won’t even notice the rather blah plot (unless you think about it on the ride home, at least).
The title character, played by Matthew James Thomas with the charm of a young Michael J. Fox, is the son of Charlemagne (John Rubinstein–the original Broadway “Pippin” way back in 1972!). He’s been away from the kingdom to receive an education, and like so many modern-day grads, he’s now convinced that he needs to do something Big and Special with his life. He decides to become a warrior like his stepbrother Lewis, but that doesn’t work out so well. (At one point, Pippin has a conversation with the decapitated head of one of his foes.) When Pippin gets caught up in an anti-tyranny demonstration aimed at his own father, he kills the old man and takes over the kingdom, only to learn that it’s not so easy to govern an empire. Finally, he meets up with a young widow and her son and spends some time living the simple life on a farm.
See–nothing special. And yet this show provides nonstop entertainment. Not for nothing is the orchestra pit covered by a net, though these performers are so agile that I doubt anyone ever falls into the string section. Even Lucie Arnaz, stepping in for Tony-winning Andrea Martin in the role of Pippin’s grandmother, performs a showstopper of a song while swinging on a trapeze with the grace of a circus vet.
Heading the troupe is Sasha Allen as the Leading Player, making her mark in a tricky role that requires her to grab the audience’s attention even as people are doing backflips around her. She’s got a killer set of pipes and enough charisma to pull off the part that made Ben Vereen a star (Watch Ben perform “Magic to Do” from the original production, which was obviously very different from this revival… they kept the jazz hands, though). Sabrina Harper is a hoot as Pippin’s conniving stepmother. As for the acrobats, magicians and circus performers… well, it’s often a real three-ring circus up there, and no matter where you look, someone will be doing something to make you gasp and applaud.
“Pippin” is one of those shows that really gives you your money’s worth, even at full price, but a few of the performances have discounted tickets available on Goldstar. If you’re looking for some escapist fun, don’t miss it.
‘I Let Everyone Down’: A Blogger Apologizes For Not Posting In A While (from the Onion’s hilarious site, Clickhole)
After more than two weeks of radio silence, blogger Dylan Tafferty has finally issued a public apology for not posting in a while.
“I cannot tell you how ashamed I am,” Tafferty wrote in the latest entry on his blog, The Tafferty Take, where he writes about a variety of subjects for an audience consisting of mostly friends and family…
As far as giving any sort of explanation as to what drove him to neglect his blog for a two-week period, during which he failed to comment on such major events as the Emmys and his big dentist appointment in late August, Tafferty had this to say:
“I’ve just been really busy with work and family stuff,” he wrote. “That’s not an excuse. It’s just a reason.”
Well, it took almost a month, but my long-lost Kindle is finally back home. It arrived today via FedEx (billed to my account–I’m don’t yet know how much that’ll set me back, but at least it’ll be cheaper than buying a new device).
I’m not sure how much my social media campaign helped, but at least I did get put in touch with a real live person in Central Baggage who responded promptly to my emails. My biggest piece of advice for somebody who is trying to retrieve a lost item from an airline is simply be persistent. Don’t let them forget that you exist. I hope it goes without saying that you should also be polite (after my initial flurry of Tweets and postings, I let everything play out behind the scenes). Everybody at Virgin America with whom I dealt after I posted my blog entry was pleasant and sympathetic.
Twitter seems like the best way to get in touch with companies–most of them nowadays have social media teams that check their @ mentions frequently. I only have about 350 Twitter followers, but a couple of them were kind enough to retweet my initial complaint, which expanded its reach. You should also check out travel troubleshooter Christopher Elliott’s list of contacts in case nothing else you try is getting results.
And most importantly: never get off a plane without checking and double-checking that seat-back pocket! I know that from now on, I’ll do just that, no matter how eager I am to disembark.
Virgin America update: I received an email from Central Baggage stating that they would look for my Kindle during an inventory on Thursday, which was yesterday, but I never heard anything back. I sent them another email, so we’ll see what happens. Was my social media shaming for naught?
Despite the fact that NBC renewed “Welcome to Sweden,” they seem to be giving the show the brush-off. It was pre-empted on Aug. 14 for the two-hour “Last Comic Standing” finale (I lost interest after the great Joe Machi was eliminated!), then two episodes (#6 and #7) were aired on Aug. 21, the eighth episode was not aired at all (NBC posted it on its web site), and #9 and #10 both aired tonight. Sorry, but that is not the way a network treats a show that it has a lot of faith in. Maybe Season Two will air in the middle of the night, after “Last Call with Carson Daly”?
Anyway, since I’d missed last week’s episodes due to jet lag and readjustment to Pacific Time, I decided to binge-watch the back half of Season One. But first, a correction: my brother points out that Hassan (Bruce’s Iranian friend) was likely using Misbaha and not rosary beads, as I speculated a few weeks back. I had never heard of Misbaha. The more you know…!
Bruce’s parents pay Bruce a visit, and he meets them at the Evert Taube statue. I was there last summer, and took a photo. That’s Stockholm’s City Hall in the background.
Surprise surprise–Bruce’s folks are clueless, unpleasant Americans. “You’re not blonde!” exclaims Bruce’s mom, Nancy, to Emma’s mom, Viveka. (Lena Olin may not be blonde, but I’d classify her hair as “very light brown.”) I’ll admit that I’ve heard that question myself a bunch of times. I always say my dark-haired ancestors came from France to Sweden hundreds of years ago, which I recall my mom telling me once. But seriously folks, not all Swedes are blonde.
Not one but two Gevalia coffee ads aired during this episode! If we Swedish-Americans are the only ones still watching “Welcome to Sweden” at this point, I can assure Gevalia that we already know all about their product.
Bruce’s folks visit Viveka and Birger at their summer cottage, and Bruce’s dad Wayne asks Birger if it’s safe to be so far out in the country. “What would happen if you had a heart attack?” THIS IS CALLED “FORESHADOWING,” PEOPLE. Birger assures him that he’s “healthy as a…”–he can’t think of the final word. “Horse?” Wayne adds helpfully. “No, as a nut,” replies Birger. That would be “frisk som en nötkärna,” by the way. Which literally means “as healthy as the kernel of a nut.” Hey, it’s really no stranger an expression than “healthy as a horse,” right? I love the way Birger struggles with the English language. In another scene, he tries to tell Wayne about his career as a captain who worked for the “kommun.” That means “municipality,” but Wayne assumes it means “communist,” and Birger just goes along with it.
There’s also a subplot about Emma thinking she’s pregnant, but no, it turns out she’s just gaining weight. (Maybe she’s eating too much candy?) Oh, and Wayne thinks all the men in Stockholm are gay, but they’re just European… until he inadvertently winds up in a gay bar.
Bruce has decided to try and act more Swedish. One of the things he tries is walking with Nordic poles, which are indeed very popular in Sweden. Emma thinks he’s depressed and sends him to see Viveka, who is, of course, a therapist, leading to one of my favorite lines on the show so far: “Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between ‘depressed’ and ‘Swedish.'”
Aubrey Plaza, best known for playing April Ludgate on “Parks and Recreation,” is for some reason obsessed with Bruce and follows him to Stockholm. He takes her on a tour of the sights, including Skansen, the Vasa museum and Old Town. She hates them all (I’m not sure if Plaza is like this in real life, or if they’ve basically transferred caustic April to the world of “Welcome to Sweden”). They wind up at the ABBA museum, which she also hates, and Bruce gets in an argument with a guy about which one ABBA song was pretty good. (The guy is played by ABBA’s Björn Ulvaeus, as himself. Bruce doesn’t recognize him; thus the “humor.”) Bruce finally remembers the ABBA song he likes: “Disco Inferno” (which, of course, was actually performed by Philadelphia’s The Trammps).
Bruce meets Björn later in the episode when he tries to resurrect his career as a “celebrity money manager,” this time catering to Swedish celebs. In one odd scene, he meets with Swedish author Björn Ranelid in a coffee shop. I must admit that I did not recognize Ranelid, but once I saw his name in the credits, I thought, “Oh, that guy”–I’m an avid Eurovision fan and he competed (unsuccessfully–he finished last) to become Sweden’s entry into the contest in 2012 with the song “Kärlek” (“Love”). Seriously, watch it. It’s cray-cray. Plus, he looks like the male version of the Tan Mom. (Ranelid once told a reporter, “All healthy people who are out in the sun will become sunburned. I am not so vain as others who hide in the shadows to resemble French aristocracy.”) And keep in mind that the guy is an author; it would be as though Michael Chabon popped up on “America’s Got Talent” to speak-sing his way through a disco number with a bevy of dancing girls gyrating behind him.
Björn Ulvaeus stuns Bruce by telling him that he doesn’t need to hire someone who can make him more money, because he already has enough. (This is true to his character–he could have saved many millions if he’d left Sweden for a tax haven like Monaco. But the guy loves Sweden.) Amusingly, Björn’s “office” in the episode is the replica in the ABBA museum; tourists gawk as he meets with Bruce.
Bruce revisits the café from the horrible, cringe-worthy semla incident in “Get a Job/Farthinder” despite the fact that he had promised to shun it forever. The same cashier (Swedish actress Madeleine Martin) is working there. Bruce decides to stop being “lagom” and asks for 10 sugars in his coffee. He was committed enough to Sweden, however, to turn down client Amy Poehler’s offer of $300,000 to come back to the U.S. to straighten out her tax problems. Naturally, once sensible Emma finds out that the jobless Bruce has the chance to make $300K in three months, she tells him they should go. Based on everything we’ve seen in this show to date, Bruce’s money-manager skills are abysmal, but maybe he suddenly becomes hyper-competent once he’s back on his native soil.
Bruce rents “Tootsie” from Emma’s uncle Bengt’s video store, and Emma dares call it “cheesy”! No way! Bruce rightly defends the greatness of “Tootsie,” a film that definitely holds up more than 30 years later. Emma’s globetrotting ex-boyfriend Marcus shows up to couch-surf for a few days, and Bruce develops a man-crush on him. Understandable, because Marcus is everything Bruce is not–competent, caring, charitable. Emma reassures Bruce that she doesn’t want to get back together with Marcus because he was her first boyfriend, and “your first boyfriend is never the one. You have to try a few to know who the real one is. When you’re young, you’re stupid.” Bruce later repeats these words of wisdom to Viveka when she asks him if he’s jealous of Marcus. For some reason, Viveka, who complained earlier in the episode about Birger’s lack of spontaneity and a sense of fun, takes them to heart and decides to end her long marriage–apparently Birger, that silver fox of a sea captain, was her first love. When she tells Birger she wants to break up, he has a heart attack on the spot. (See, I told you: FORESHADOWING!) Of course, Marcus knows CPR, and Birger survives to be taken to the hospital. When Bruce enters his room, Birger curses at him and tells him he wishes that Bruce and Emma had never met. (Birger will probably cheer up later, because there’s a Dala horse next to his heart monitor, and as we know from a previous episode: “That’s a Dala horse. It makes me happy when I’m sad.”)
In one of those “sad scene set to a melancholy pop song” montages so common in TV shows, Bruce decides to leave Sweden while Swedish singer Amanda Jenssen’s “Illusionist” plays plaintively in the background. Tears!! Woe! Will Birger survive? Of course, anyone who only watches “Welcome to Sweden” on NBC will have no idea about any of this going into Thursday’s show, since this pivotal episode was relegated to the web.
Bruce is back in the U.S.A. and orders the most American thing he can think of at a diner (two apple pies and a cup of weak coffee). Meanwhile, everybody who watches this on NBC and doesn’t bother following “Welcome to Sweden” on social media, which is probably 99% of viewers (“WtS” has just over 2,000 followers on Twitter and 6,300 on Facebook), missed the link to Episode 8 and is exclaiming, “WTF is Birger doing in the hospital?!?! And why is Viveka going out on the town in full cougar regalia?” (I have to say, though, that Lena Olin looked hot in her cougar get-up, despite the fact that Emma accused her of looking like one of the “Pantertanter” (literally, “panther ladies”–the Swedish title of “Golden Girls”). Viveka and Emma wind up at O’Leary’s, a sports bar in Gamla Stan. And we see more Gevalia ads; gee, why nothing from IKEA and H&M?
For obvious reasons, I loved this line from Amy Poehler, explaining the dubious investments she’s made without Bruce around to advise her: “I started my own record company, which was creatively satisfying but financially a bust.” Preach it, sister.
These last two eps were so plot-heavy that there wasn’t much time for beautiful Swedish scenery or new cultural tropes to discuss. My favorite thing about them was that with Bruce in the U.S., there was tons of dialogue in Swedish. My least favorite things: the nonsensical Aubrey Plaza subplot, and the even-more-nonsensical attempt by Bruce to buy a ticket to Stockholm. Supposedly Amy Poehler bought up all the tickets to keep him in the U.S., so he winds up routed through Bolivia and Switzerland. I realize it’s supposed to be comedy, but c’mon, all you’d have to do is buy a ticket to Oslo or Copenhagen, or even Frankfurt or London, and catch a connecting flight to Stockholm. As for the Arlanda escalator in the climactic scene, I’m pretty sure it must be in a domestic terminal because I’ve never seen it before.
All in all, I’d give the season a B-, but I’ll definitely be looking forward to season two, mainly for the awesome Birger and Viveka, the scenery, and the hope that Bruce (now that he’s admitted he loves Sweden and all things Swedish) will be less of a clueless jerkface. Greg Poehler could stand to learn a thing or two from his big sis about how to create flawed, occasionally unsympathetic characters without crossing the line into being too unlikable, not to mention coming up with situations that are hilariously funny, improbable, and yet somehow make perfect sense (i.e. the ongoing Pawnee/Eagleton rivalry on “Parks & Rec”). And while I love her as April Ludgate, for God’s sake no more Aubrey Plaza on this show.
Update: 15 minutes after linking to this post on Twitter, somebody from Virgin responded to me, stating that they “forwarded [my blog post] to our Central Baggage team at HQ” and that I should hear back tomorrow. Stay tuned…
There is nothing more tedious than trying to shame a company via social media, but the reason so many people do it is because it usually works. The company that ignores you or gives you the runaround via phone or email is suddenly ready to lend an immediate helping hand if you start posting on Twitter and Facebook about your bad experience. Will it work for me? I don’t know, but I’m gonna give it a try!
The culprit: Virgin America Airlines. I recently flew round-trip from SFO to JFK on Virgin. On my outgoing flight, I did something really stupid that I’ve never done before: I left my Kindle in the seat back pocket. Seriously, I’m the kind of person who never loses anything! And yet somehow I lost the Kindle. I had been reading Lee Child’s Never Go Back on the plane, and was at around 80%. (Luckily, I have the Kindle app installed on my iPhone and was able to finish the book.)
Now, this is an old Kindle, though it was state of the art when Joe received it as a gift in October of 2010. He passed it along to me when he eventually bought an iPad. Truth be told, I still prefer reading books on paper, so I didn’t use it a ton, but I always brought it along when I traveled. (Though I always bring a spare paper book in case of emergency; I’m reminded of that “Modern Family” episode where Jay Pritchett’s Kindle is accidentally destroyed in the airport right before he is to board a plane to Hawaii.) Besides the Lee Child book, I had the first two Gillian Flynn novels and some other “airplane reading.”
When I got to our apartment in New York and discovered the loss while unpacking, I immediately called the lost and found number listed on Virgin America’s web site, and left a message with my cell phone number. When I didn’t hear back, I filled out an online form on Virgin’s site. That generated a case number (140815-000165), but I never got a response. Finally, at the airport for our return flight, Joe asked an agent at the bag check to see if the item could be located. She took down his cell phone number and said she’d call us at the gate and somebody would bring the Kindle to us if it was found. (He offered to go to the lost & found, but we were told that was not possible.) We had gotten to the airport two hours early so I figured there was plenty of time. It turns out the agent called us as our plane to SFO was taxiing down the runway. Good news! They had found the Kindle! The agent hadn’t called earlier because “time got away from me,” but at least they had it, right? Though it would have been super convenient had we been able to pick it up there. Now it’s a continent away.
I tried calling Virgin “guest services” again, and was transferred again to the lost & found voice mail where I left a phone number, though at this point I suspect there’s .0001% chance anyone will actually retrieve the message and call me back. So I’m resorting to this.
While Googling “Virgin lost and found,” I discovered this Wall Street Journal article; sounds like Julie & Tony had a much easier time of it than I have:
Julie Del Santo and her husband Tony left an iPad onboard a Virgin America flight to San Francisco from Palm Springs, Calif., earlier this month… Twenty minutes after leaving the airport, she got an email on her BlackBerry from the airline asking her to call the local baggage office… The direct number was answered even though it was after midnight. After describing the device, she had Virgin America ship it FedEx to her office. “That was a class act,” she said. From past experiences with airlines, “it’s like pulling teeth to get something back.”
“We are seeing fewer phones left behind, but a lot more iPads and Kindles,” said Tim Thornton, director of airport operations and guest services for Virgin America… Kindle electronic readers are easier to reunite with owners than iPads, airlines say, because they often aren’t locked with password protection. That means email addresses can be retrieved. And carriers say Amazon has been cooperative at contacting owners based on serial numbers.
Since Virgin has had my Kindle since Aug. 12, I don’t think anybody’s bothered going to Amazon to see if they can find us based on the serial number. Is it because it’s an old Kindle and not a shiny new iPad? I guess I could just throw up my hands and say “forget it” and buy a new one, but I’m the sort of person who tends to use things until they no longer work (I drive a 12-year-old car, for instance–I’d rather spend my money on other stuff, like, say, trips to New York). So Virgin, if you’re reading this, please, please return my Kindle. I’m going to call you out on social media, but if you help reunite me with my lost property, I’ll thank you. And probably suggest that other folks who lose something on a Virgin flight try resorting to social media rather than going through the usual channels.
Special thanks to publicist David Brown at Simon & Schuster, who gave me a 600-page spy thriller called I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes while I was in New York. Despite the fact that it weighed a ton, I toted that thing on the plane with me and spent almost the entire flight from JFK to SFO reading it. Never have I been more grateful to receive a giant doorstop of a book. I highly recommend it, though if you’re considering it for your next airplane ride–which you should–may I suggest the Kindle version?
Unlike the past two Augusts, I’m not in Sweden–I’m in New York, so at least I’m closer to Sweden (only six time zones away!) than I am when I’m home in California. I decided to see if I could find a touch of Sweden in the big city.
1. The Mysterious Bookshop: Looking for Scandinavian thrillers? There’s a special section devoted to Nordic authors at this TriBeCa bookstore, now the last of its kind (i.e. an independent mystery bookseller) in the city.
2. Gudrun Sjödén: The Swedish designer sells “eco-conscious clothes meant for the mature woman,” in the words of the New York Times. There are a lot of airy tunics and wide pants; I figure that by the time I’m officially “mature,” I’ll have a whole wardrobe of Sjödén fashions–if I can afford it. They’re a bit pricey, but the quality’s good and I have gotten plenty of wear out of the items I bought in Stockholm. This was my first visit to the New York boutique; I hit the sale rack in the back and found a couple tops. Not sure if it’s coincidence or the start of a “Little Sweden” retail district, but I spotted two other Swedish retailers within a half block of Sjöden’s SoHo store: Boutique Acne and, surprisingly enough, Fjällräven, the purveyor of outdoor gear best known for their ubiquitous Kånken backpacks, carried by every Swedish schoolchild.
3. Sockerbit: Swedish lösgodis store, which basically means you choose from a selection of small candies in bins, scoop ‘em up, and place ‘em in a bag. Sockerbit, located in the West Village, charges $12.95 a pound for its colorful imported wares. I was hoping to find some of the round Swedish candy-coated mints I love, but no such luck; I wound up purchasing a few chocolate items, skipping the popular-with-Swedes salty licorice and sega råttor (gummy rats). There are also some Swedish grocery items, like mustard and lingonberry preserves, for sale, as well as Marabou candy bars.
4. Fika: I stopped by the midtown outpost of this Swedish coffee chain when I was here last year but the loud music sent me running out the door empty-handed. When I saw they’d opened a branch on the Upper West Side, I stopped by, and to my delight, there was no music playing at all. It was blissfully calm in the midafternoon. Sandwiches are named after Swedish cities, like Göteborg and Lysekil; I wonder if this is so the staff can quickly spot a Swede? No one not from Sweden would ever pronounce “Lysekil” correction (lee-suh-sheel, more or less). I was rather confused by the name of the sandwich I ordered–Burträsk (bewr-tresk)–until I Googled it. Turns out it’s a small town in the province of Västerbotten. There was Västerbotten cheese on my (delicious) sandwich. Mystery solved! I might go back tomorrow for some Princess cake.
5. The Swedish Cottage: I often make a point of walking past the Swedish Cottage on the western side of Central Park, despite the fact that it’s not all that Swedish-looking. It’s used as a marionette theater now, but was “originally constructed as a model pre-fabricated schoolhouse, and became Sweden’s entry in the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia,” according to the park’s web site. “After the exhibit, Park co-designer Frederick Law Olmsted chose the rustic building for Central Park.”
6. Red Rooster: I was fortunate enough to dine a few times at midtown’s Aquavit restaurant during the tenure of Ethiopian-born, Swedish-raised chef Marcus Samuelsson. (TV cooking-show fans may recognize him from “The Next Iron Chef” and “Top Chef Masters.”) His current project is Red Rooster in Harlem, and while it does offer Swedish meatballs, the menu primarily consists of Southern comfort food. I had cornbread and catfish, which are not Swedish in any way, but they were very tasty. Anyone looking for actual Swedish food should check out Smörgås Chef, where Joe & I dined last year. And Aquavit is still around, though the prices are at what I consider “expense account level.”
7. Scandinavia House: Not much going on there now, but they frequently show Scandinavian films and have exhibits and lectures during the non-summer months. They always show the official Scandinavian nominees for Best Foreign Film a month or so before the Oscars.
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