Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Best TV of 2015

"How do you find the time to watch all that TV?"

I hear it at work. I hear it online. I hear it at dinner when my wife and I are out with friends.

I watch quite a bit of television. Not as much as you think, but a lot. And truthfully, I can't keep up with everything anymore.

The major networks make it easy with most of their programming. But the cable networks, Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and other outlets have created a great problem for faithful TV watchers...too much of a good thing.

As a result, this annual list has become much more difficult to write.

But since you asked, here are my picks for the best television of 2015.


Master of None (NETFLIX)
The Man in the High Castle (AMAZON)
Mozart in the Jungle (AMAZON)
Rectify (SUNDANCE)
Transparent (AMAZON)

I'm behind, but I've heard great things about these new shows.

I loved the first two seasons of Rectify, so I'm anxious to start season number three.

Jeffrey Tambor and Judith Light made season one of Transparent worth watching. I hope the kids become slightly more likable in season two.


Veep (HBO)
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (NETFLIX)

All of these comedies made me laugh out loud and had strong seasons. Definitely worth checking out.


Parks and Recreation (NBC)
Like The Wire, this show never got the acclaim it deserved. I miss the world of Pawnee and all its inhabitants. Setting the last season in the future was ballsy - and absolutely perfect for this comedic gem. Too bad NBC has given up on comedy.

Justified (FX)
Excellent final season. I miss Raylan Givens and Boyd Crowder. Great characters, solid acting, and the writing was pretty darn good. Everything you could ask out of a final season for an underrated show.

Mad Men (AMC)
I'd like to teach the world to sing, but this suffered from splitting the final season in two. Still beautiful to look at, and I'm glad Jon Hamm finally got the Emmy he deserved. We got some closure, but not enough. That's the problem when you have so many great characters to write for. And I will never blame Jay Ferguson for Stan and Peggy...too sappy for me, and Mad Men.


10. Better Call Saul (AMC)
Consider the torch passed. Very difficult to follow Breaking Bad, but I'm glad this universe is still alive. Odenkirk and Banks are fantastic, and Vince Gilligan knows how to handle a series. Pacing is everything, and I believe season two will be even better than season one. Really enjoyed this one.

9. Narcos (NETFLIX)
What. A. Pilot. The interweaving of real footage from the life of Pablo Escobar is one of the many highlights of a great first season. Top notch acting, and if Spanish isn't your native language you better be paying attention. Relive the war on drugs and watch all the money pour into Colombia.

8.  Halt and Catch Fire (AMC)
This took a Parks & Rec-like leap in quality from season one to season two, and I liked the first season. Fun story with plenty of drama packed in. The geek in me loves the 80's story of PC clones and 2400 baud modems, but the actresses keep me coming back for more. Even if you didn't build your own computer, this one is still worth checking out.

7. The Leftovers (HBO)
Some of the best writing on TV happened right here. You're starting with the unexplainable problem of 140 million people disappearing without a trace, and now you scrap your season one location for a different part of the country? This was no Laverne and Shirley move from Milwaukee to LA - Damon Lindelof LOVES TV and knows how to keep things interesting. This show MOVES me, and when it's on its game there's no better drama.

6. Silicon Valley (HBO)
Our third show in a row that destroyed its previous season. Every episode delivered as Pied Piper continued its West Coast struggle. Very funny actors along with some great writing had me rolling every Sunday night.

5.  Game of Thrones (HBO)
Shame if you're not watching the world of Westeros. Shame.

4.  Last Week Tonight (HBO)
The funniest program on television this year, and one of the most thought provoking. John Oliver is incredible. The show is biting, informative and always very funny. Forget The Daily Show - this is the one worth watching.

3. The Americans (FX)
Every season, this cold war drama takes it up another notch. They've done a great job filling plot holes that didn't work and cranking up the family tension and that big Soviet decision. And Keri Russell - to quote a buddy of mine at work, she's my favorite.

2.  Mr. Robot (USA)
This summer surprise reminded me how good TV can be when the audience is kept off balance. I had heard it was Fight Club in a high tech world. My expectations were greatly exceeded. Rami Malek and Christian Slater are excellent, and Sam Esmail deserves some kind of award for creating this universe. I never knew what was coming, and I couldn't wait for more. Easily the best new show of 2015.

1. Fargo (FX)
I remember hearing about season one and thought there's no way I could watch a TV show based on the Coen brothers classic film. Billy Bob and plenty of others proved me wrong. This season was going to be a prequel of sorts with a whole new cast? I knew not to doubt Noah Hawley this time around. Each episode of Fargo felt like a new film. Acting, writing, directing - all top notch. They went way out there with some of the storylines, and I bought it all. This series is something special - and that's why it's at the top of my list this year.

And that's it...if you think I forgot something, let me know. Happy holidays, and here's to a great 2016 in TV and beyond!

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Rush Diary - Second Show at the Garden

Following Saturday night's show at Newark, I wasn't sure what to expect at Madison Square Garden on Monday night. My expectations were exceeded once again.

On Sunday morning, I watched my youngest child graduate high school and then drove her up to the sleepaway camp she's working at this summer. Howard was live Monday, which meant a long day ahead filled with fabulous things to come.

Monday, June 29 - New York City, New York

3:40am - Woke up to make the 4:24 train to Penn Station. Packed a change of clothes to crash in the city, a must with Howard live and a late Rush show to take in.

5:45am - Arrive at SiriusXM to prepare for this morning's Stern show. I like getting there before anyone else for some quiet and to get organized. It gets busy once the show starts and doesn't let up all day.

11:15am - Time to host Wrap Up. Stern show fan Britt Daniel from Spoon is sitting in to ponder the plight of Bobo and Nicole Bass. I really do have a great job.

5:00 - I find two of the three who will be joining me tonight, Gary Dell'Abate and Richard Christy. This is Gary's first Rush show, and I'm excited for him because I know what he's about to experience. I went to the last three Rush shows with Richard, who happens to be one of the 50 greatest drummers in the world. He worships Neil, rightfully so.

5:15 - The plan is to meet our fourth, Ralph Cirella, at Will Call at 545. You might have on-air issues with Ralph, but he is one of the best people to hang out with. Trust me. It's nice out, so we walk down 6th Avenue.

5:45 - We arrive and get patted down and searched by the NYPD. MSG is safer than any airport. Ralph is already inside raring to go (and you thought he was going to be late, right?). No way. We get our tickets and passes and stand in line with other meet and greeters.

6:30 - After standing on the side of an empty hallway for a while as MSG staff watched us sweat, we walk upstairs to a large room with a Rush photo backdrop in place. This is where the M&G is happening. My Rush contact pulls us off the line to say hello and to apologize for MSG red tape that must be navigated. No worries.

6:40 - Neil is not coming (no surprise to any Rush fan) but Geddy and Alex are soon to arrive. One group pic each, no cell phones allowed. Everyone complies. The twosome enter and hit their marks as fans and friends gush when their pictures are snapped. I've already decided that I'm standing next to Geddy. 

6:50 - The moment. The four of us approach and I shake Alex's hand thanking him for all of his great guitar licks. Then I turn to Geddy, shake, and tell him how much I loved his MLB appearance with Randy Johnson. I share Geddy's love for baseball and figure that's the smart move. He smiles and says thank you, and then we take the picture. That's it. On to the next group.

7:00 - This hospitality area holds about 50 and there's lots of mixing and mingling. I reconnect with some of the folks I saw Saturday night. Ralph chats it up with John Varvatos. My brother comes in, who happens to be wearing JV stuff. Couldn't have planned it better. As the hour passes, I run into my pal from other night, Michael Moore, and we catch up on our weekends. I remain jealous of his all-access pass, but then again, I'm not Michael Moore. After chatting it up we head to our seats. We are in the front, but this time, directly in front of Geddy.

8:15 - The show starts, and Geddy is at the mic looking right at me. At least it appears that way. I don't want to take a photo. I feel that would be distracting and disrespectful. It doesn't stop everyone else though from snapping away, including Ralph who took some of the shots that follow from his askew "Bat-angle".

There are a few changes from Saturday's set list that I'll highlight here.

8:52 - "One Little Victory" replaces "How It Is", and the band doesn't miss a beat. Nice to get some variety in the second show as we head back in Rush time.

9:05 - After "Animate" and the star-studded "Roll The Bones", I expect "Between The Wheels" or perhaps another chance to see "Losing It", but then p/g arrives with DEW aka "Distant Early Warning". Sweet.

9:10 - I see Johnny Dinklage enter stage left and I know what's coming. The crowd goes crazy for the third-ever live performance of "Losing It". As Johnny does his thing, I notice his mother and girlfriend in the photo area in front of us beaming with pride. Could brother "Tyrion" be nearby? 

9:15 - Time to end the first set with "Subdivisions" as Richard Christy proceeds to drum the entire song on my arm. Definitely a different way to conform or be cast out.

9:25 - Back in the hospitality area for a quick break between sets. It is confirmed that Peter Dinklage is indeed on premises but keeping to himself and his family. I spot band manager Ray Danniels once again and inform him of Richard's drummer ranking. He replies how exciting it is to have #1 and #50 in the same house. I'm also told it's okay to take pics of Geddy. That's a relief. Lots of chat and anticipation for the second set. Other than the second song, I know what's coming. Can't wait.

9:43 - As I mentioned earlier, Ralph Cirella is a lot of fun to hang out with. 

9:45 - Cartman counts it off and "Tom Sawyer" begins. The Garden rocks.

9:50 - I was hoping for "YYZ" next. I got "Red Barchetta". I watch Geddy play the bass solo at the end of the song and harken back to the 80's. Good stuff. Gary tells me he feels unworthy of our front row seats with all these insane Rush fans surrounding him. He is, but I'm glad he's there.

9:55 - "The Spirit of Radio" once again carries the night. This is one of the loudest "concert halls" I've ever cheered in. Fans go crazy as Geddy announces "Jacob's Ladder" which is followed by the "Cygnuses".  No guitar glitch this time in the acoustic opening of "Closer To The Heart".

10:30 - Here come the double-necks. To my right, I spot Peter Dinklage taking it all in and leave him be. I met Johnny in Newark, so I tap him and tell him how great he was tonight. He thanks me, but I don't think he remembers who I am. I don't get to meet his brother, but that's okay. A Lannister always pays his debts.

10:40 - Ralph encourages me to take pics during "2112", but I can't get the lighting right. Thankfully, he does. I've heard "2112" live countless times and still watch in awe as Rush cranks out Parts I, II, IV and VII. 

10:50 - Richard Christy can't stop laughing seeing Mel Sirrup up on the big screen introducing the encore. That makes me smile. Cue "Lakeside Park".

10:54 - "Anthem". "What You're Doing". "Working Man". The crowd can't get enough. I realize this might be the last time I see my favorite power trio on the big stage and give an appreciative cheer.

11:15 - I wish we could hang backstage, but we've got Howard in the morning so it's time to roll. I thank Rich, the band photographer, and tell him to give my best to everyone. And just like that, we are out on 8th Avenue looking for a cab.

Ralph, Gary and Richard all loved the show. What's not to love? 

I feel very lucky to have seen Geddy, Alex and Neil up close on two of the last three nights. I joined them as they traveled back in time with their timeless tunes. 

What a trip. Hope to see them again some time soon.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Rush Diary - First Show at The Rock

You all know how much I love the band, Rush. Apparently, the band knows this as well.

I had the pleasure of seeing my favorite Canadian trio play at The Rock in Newark and MSG in NYC. I knew I'd be up close and could possibly meet these legends, but worried that it wouldn't live up to the hype I built up in my head and forever change my view of the band.

Well, my view has changed. My expectations were greatly exceeded.

Saturday, June 27 - Newark, New Jersey

4:15 - My Stern Show pal Steve Brandano and I leave Jason Kaplan's rain-soaked BBQ in Union and head to Newark. It is pouring. I don't care. I have a chance of seeing Rush sound check. I will not miss that for anything.

4:45 - We arrive in Green parking lot 4/5 which I pre-paid a ridiculous amount to park in. My one criticism of the Prudential Center (aka The Rock) is that parking is ridiculously expensive. I hope the city sees some of that money. It could sure use it.

4:55 - Steve and I circle the stadium looking for our contact. We are at the East Gate. We need to be at the West Gate. So we circle again in the rain and wait at the VIP entrance. My brother Kevin, who puts my Rush fandom to shame, arrives wondering if he'll ever see his car again.

How big of a fan is my brother who graduated from Wisconsin?

5:00 - We are supposed to meet my contact at 5pm. No sign. I text and email and eventually deduce the spot we need to be at is behind a gated entrance. I leave Steve and Kevin and walk to the booth where the guard is telling a gentleman there to meet someone from the band that he may not proceed without an escort. He tries to ignore the guard - big mistake. He realizes his error and skulks back to reconnect electronically. The guard turns to me, and miraculously my contact appears and waves me over. I wave Steve and Kevin over, although I am soaked and ready to leave them behind if need be, but they speed over and we enter the back of The Rock.

5:05 - After making our way through Rush trunks and equipment my brother is itching to photograph, we enter the empty stadium floor behind stage right where 10 people are seated in the crowd. I glance on stage, and there they are...Geddy, Alex and Neil. All in their respective areas of the stage working things out. I could leave now and be satisfied, but it gets better.

5:10 - Geddy begins "Subdivisions" and Neil and Alex quickly join in. It sounds tight, and they keep playing. Wow. My contact informs me that my brother, Steve and I will be sitting in Row 1, seats 7 8 and 9 for the show. Directly in front of Neil. Center stage. I can't speak. My brother says less than I do. I'm told there's something special planned for the concert. I can't imagine what it is.

The night before, Kevin and I talked about how Rush played "Losing It" off Signals for the first time ever live in Toronto the other night, and how it was a once in a lifetime Rush fan's dream. I assured him there's no way they'd ever do that again.

5:15 - Sound check continues, and then violinist Johnny Dinklage, who happens to be Tyrion Lannister's real-life brother, sets up on stage. He was in the string section on the last tour and lives in Jersey. The band has decided to do "Losing It" again as we watch in awe as they jam. I've never been happier telling my brother I was wrong about something.

5:25 - Sound check wraps up and we head to the hospitality area. I point out to my brother how we are exiting stage left. On our way we bump into Ray Danniels, the long-time manager of the band. We say hello and thank you, and Ray is super polite. Canadian super polite. He indulges us for 20 minutes discussing touring, Apple Music, hockey and the effect of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He could have given us a polite wave. Instead he gave us his time.

5:50 - Now we are in the hospitality area with Rich Sibbald who is the band photographer on this leg of the tour. We discuss how far New Jersey is from Manhattan, Randy Johnson's photography skills, and how to get the right shots of the band. He offers earplugs and anything we might need. He is very nice. Canadian nice.

6:20 - Time for the meet and greet (surprise, Steve and Kevin), but Rush fans know if you're fortunate enough to get one of these, you can only meet the guys once. And Neil isn't going to be there. I thought I'd double up since I was going Monday night as well, but thought better of it and let the other guys go. Jealous? You bet I was. Steve tells me my brother commented on how nervous everyone else was not realizing he was just as nervous in his Rush t shirt. I chatted with Rich and other members of the Rush team. All fantastic folks.

7:00 - A few others enter our sacred ground. This space regularly serves as a hockey locker room, and we joke how this is clearly a visitor's room with no sign of Brodeur or Daneyko around. The show is scheduled for 7:30 and we don't want to leave this backstage oasis. So we stay put, and do more meeting and greeting with folks backstage.

7:30 - Off to the seats. I have never sat front row at a concert before. I've been in suites and have had really good seats, but never front row.

Steve, me & Kevin. Photo courtesy of Rich Sibbald.
And this wasn't any was Rush. The video begins, but I can't see it as I'm too close and straining to look up. What a great problem to have. Earplugs in.

7:45 - The curtain goes up and "The Anarchist" begins. I am directly in front of Neil and his drums.

I gaze left to see Alex.

I look to my right to see Geddy.

I cannot see the entire band at once. This is officially the best problem I have ever had.

7:53 - I snap out of it as "Headlong Flight" begins, my favorite song off Clockwork Angels. The band sounds fantastic, the best I've heard them in years. Neil does his thing, and then they play "Far Cry" and "The Main Monkey Business". All good, and then "How It Is" sneaks into the set list. The three of us continue to be awestruck.

Gazing in awe. Photo courtesy of Rich Sibbald.
8:30ish - Geddy asks to be animated, and then "Roll The Bones" starts up. It is amazing how fans have done such a 180 on this tune, and the celebrity laden rap video cements the adulation. Glad to see the skeleton go, but I'd still love to hear Neil on the mic just once. Another surprise comes with "Between The Wheels", and then THE surprise happens next.

8:40 - Johnny Dinklage takes the stage as Geddy informs us how they are about to perform "Losing It" live for only the second time ever. The crowd gushes, and the foursome on stage simply rocks. This was a great moment for long-time Rush fans.

8:46 - The keyboards blare the opening of "Subdivisions", and we are ready to close the first set. The stage has been completely replaced with items to reflect the late 80's era we are now in. The band is playing classic tunes going back in time. Worlds collide as I look up at the screen for the closing jam and see Tempest targeting Neil's head. Geek serendipity!

8:55 - Intermission. Take a breath. We head back to the hospitality area for a break. Didn't even realize I'd been standing for the past hour and didn't even care. We ran into our new friends and raved about the show, when Ray Danniels glances down at my Michigan tee and asks if I'd like to say to another Michigander.

Michael and me
When I graduated from the University of Michigan in 1989, "Roger and Me" was making waves and people were getting to know Michael Moore. He had just spoke at State as I recently did in Ann Arbor, so we teased each other about the respective schools and bonded over Rush fandom. You may not like his politics, but he is a fun guy to spend an intermission with.

9:15 - Once Cartman declares he is Geddy Lee, I know the second set is about to kick off with "Tom Sawyer". Curtain goes up, and I'm right there as Geddy describes his favorite warrior.

9:20 - I was sure "The Camera Eye" was going to be played at the Garden, but once again I was wrong. The journey from the streets of Manhattan to London happens at The Rock. I finally get a shot of Neil visible behind his kit (a different one for this set with a double kick drum).

9:30 - "The Spirit of Radio". Alex's riff. Concert halls. Highlight of the show. Never fails.

9:40 - Greatness continues with "Jacob's Ladder" and a couple of "Cygnus"-es. Geddy seems to be enjoying himself as he drifts in and out of different time signatures.

10:00 - An acoustic glitch to start "Closer To The Heart", but no one cares. The crowd sings along to the FM staple. Then it's time for the Pleasuredome as the double necks arrive for "Xanadu".

10:15 - Time for "2112". I have heard this countless times in concert, and it never gets old. The trio on stage doesn't seem to mind, and neither do my brother and I as we gaze upon them still awestruck.

Just a few feet away. Photo courtesy of Rich Sibbald.

10:25 - The curtain goes down, but everyone knows the band is soon to return. A gigantic Eugene Levy pops on the screen as one of my SCTV favorites, Mel Sirrup, host of Mel's Rock Pile. The curtain rises and the stage is now a high-school gym as the band relives its early years with one of my favorites, "Lakeside Park".

10:30 - A disco ball descends as Geddy belts out three of their oldest tunes, "Anthem", "What You're Doing" and my all-time Rush favorite, "Working Man". 40 years of songs, and they end with one of their first. Truly amazing.

10:35 - And just like that, it's over. One of the best Rush shows I've ever seen. A night I will not soon forget. Of course, being up front made it all the more sweet, but there was a vibe at The Rock all night long that made this a special evening for everyone who attended.

10:40 - I make my way backstage and thank anyone in sight for such a special evening. But we are not done yet. I'm given a copy of Hugh Syme's "The Art of Rush" which chronicles all of the band's artwork. I contributed a blurb on my favorite covers and get to read my words of praise right under Taylor Hawkins (it's in alphabetical order) and feel quite proud.

10:45 - I bump into Ray Danniels again, and he thanks me for coming and doing the video. I shake his hand and think to myself, "What video?". I soon learn that another documentary is being produced and they want to hear from fans, so I'm happy to oblige and talk to the camera. All I have to do is follow the person before me, none other than Michael Moore. Nothing like setting the bar high when it comes to appearing in documentaries. We'll see if I make the cut.

In two days, I will head to Madison Square Garden with Gary Dell'Abate, Richard Christy and Ralph Cirella to do this all over again.

I will get to say hello to Geddy and Alex at the meet and greet.

All I want to say is...thank you. For all 40 years.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Michigan Commencement Speech

On May 1, 2015, I had the honor of giving the keynote speech to the Department of Communications Studies Class of 2015 at the Michigan Theater.

Go Blue!

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Oscar Worries

I have completed and submitted my Oscar pool ballot, and I'm nervous. Very nervous - because I changed my pick. Two actually. The big two.

I base my picks on who WILL WIN, not who DESERVES to win. That's what an Oscar pool is all about.

In breaking down the big six categories, let's get the easy stuff out of the way.

Particia Arquette - Boyhood
Laura Dern - Wild
Keira Knightley - The Imitation Game
Emma Stone - Birdman
Meryl Streep - Into The Woods

Solid performances by Dern and Knightley, but not Oscar winning. Streep is always great, but this isn't her year (or her Best Actress category). Stone will win one day, but not for this. Patricia Arquette aged 12 years right before our eyes and is the glue to Boyhood. She's a lock.

Robert Duvall - The Judge
Ethan Hawke - Boyhood
Edward Norton - Birdman
Mark Ruffalo - Foxcatcher
J.K. Simmons - Whiplash

Duvall is a legend and always delivers, but he's in fifth place here. Hawke, Norton and Ruffalo are all excellent, but they picked the wrong Oscar year. If J.K. Simmons doesn't take home a gold statue, then I don't know who's voting. Lock.

Marion Cotillard - Two Days, One Night
Felicity Jones - The Theory of Everything
Julianne Moore - Still Alice
Rosamund Pike - Gone Girl
Reese Witherspoon - Wild

I feel bad for Rosamund Pike. She's excellent in Gone Girl, but the movie came out too early and it's just not the Academy's speed. Felicity Jones is very good and will be back, but she's not winning. Reese shows no signs of Elle Woods and gives a heck of a performance. Marion Cotillard could read the phone book for two hours and I'd watch...the Academy loves her. But this is Julianne Moore's Oscar to lose...the part is depressing and she's got the goods.

Steve Carell - Foxcatcher
Bradley Cooper - American Sniper
Benedict Cumberbatch - The Imitation Game
Michael Keaton - Birdman
Eddie Redmayne - The Theory of Everything

Has there ever been a more likable Best Actor nominee list? Carell is fantastically creepy, but this won't be his year. Cumberbatch is ALWAYS good and deservedly getting his due, but not enough here for a win. Cooper isn't getting enough praise for his portrayal of Chris Kyle, but he finishes third. Everyone loves how Keaton's life seems to parallel Batman, I mean, Birdman an awful lot and he shows his range all over New York City. His only problem is he's up against a Brit playing a genius who becomes handicapped, and that's tough to beat any Oscar year. Eddie wins by a nose.

Alejandro G. Inarritu - Birdman
Richard Linklater - Boyhood
Bennett Miller - Foxcatcher
Wes Anderson - The Grand Budapest Hotel
Morten Tyldum - The Imitation Game

Congrats on your nominations Miller and Tyldum and thanks for coming. I will see any Wes Anderson movie, but he's not winning either. This is a two-horse race, and Hollywood thinking got me to change my pick. Richard Linklater is a Top Five all-time director for me. I love everything he does and have the ultimate respect for what he did with Boyhood. And I think he will be rewarded with Best Picture. But not Best Director - that's going to go to Inarritu. He follows Ang Lee and Alfonso Cuaron who both took home statues, but for their directing and not their film.

American Sniper
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game
The Theory of Everything

If there's more than one word in the title this year, you're out. And Selma is not going to win. That leaves Birdman, Boyhood and Whiplash. Whiplash was my favorite movie of the year, but I don't think it can win the Oscar. J.K. Simmons will represent.

I've gone back and forth on Birdman and Boyhood. I liked both films a lot, but I'm trying to think like an Oscar voter. I think the scope of Boyhood's filmmaking will eclipse the shots and percussion of Birdman, and all the work Richard Linklater put in will pay off with a Best Picture win.

So those are my Top Six picks. I hope my flip-flop pays off.