How I Invented Binge Watching

September 26th, 2017 by Max Allan Collins

When I landed the Dick Tracy writing gig in 1977, I received a nice advance of $5000. As half of a young married couple, with limited financial means, I somehow convinced my wife Barb that the first thing we should do was buy a home video recorder. I bought a VCR console, which was outlandishly expensive (despite its modest 19-inch screen), an unjustifiable extravagance amplified by my brilliant choice of formats: Betamax.

But I mention this only to let you know that the Collins household (all two of us) were early adapters in the home video revolution. You need to know this to understand that you are indeed in the presence of the person who invented binge watching.

Around 1979, the Australian TV series Prisoner Cell Block H was syndicated nationally. It’s a wonderful women-in-prison series that has recently been updated into the equally wonderful Wentworth. For some reason, the local channel running the syndicated show dropped it after a few weeks – maybe it had something to do with the rampant violence and lesbianism or maybe the Aussie accents.

But I was not to be denied (I rarely am).

I approached a friend of mine in Chicago who ran a comic book shop to work out a trade deal for original comics art for his ongoing efforts to record the five-times-a-week series for me on VHS (I had one of those machines now, too). Every couple of months he would send me a box of tapes, each package containing around 20 hours of Prisoner Cell Block H. Barb and I, and my cartoonist pal and collaborator Terry Beatty, would hunker in to watch the episodes until our eyes burned. This would be on the weekend, consuming two days (allowing time out for meals and calls of nature).

We did not call it binge watching, but clearly that is what it was. The same comic book shop pal did the same for me with the 1960s-70s Dragnet, which had not yet hit Nick at Night because it didn’t exist yet. Again, these were sent to me four or five shows to a tape, as the series was being “stripped” nightly. Barb and Terry did not join me for this, not being insane, and the binging would usually only be one or two VHS tapes a night.

The first binge watching from pre-recorded tapes came with Poldark, both seasons of which Barb and I consumed in a weekend. Over the years this approach to TV watching continued with the pre-recorded Poirot tapes and beyond. During my son Nate’s college years, he would come home for the weekend when informed that a new DVD season of LEXX had arrived (my favorite science-fiction series). These would be watched, binge-style.

To this day, Barb and I binge in this fashion, although sometimes not quite as aggressively. A House of Cards season usually lasts only two days, but with mystery shows like Murdoch or Midsomer Murders, we hold ourselves to two or three a night, because things in that happily homicidal world start to blur otherwise.

One bad side-effect of binge-watching seasons of favorite shows – particularly when you haven’t followed them in their bite-size weekly episodes – is that a new season can at first seem to have nothing to do with anything you’ve ever seen before. We had that experience with two excellent series that we’ve followed from the beginning – Ripper Street and Orphan Black – both of which we chugged in a couple of gulps.

What happens is that the first episode of the season makes you wonder if you skipped a season, but by the second episode, it begins to come back – especially when two of you are watching, as Barb and I will prompt each other as memories come floating or sometimes bursting back.

So I’ll comment briefly on a couple of series we’ve binged of late.

Poldark Season Three. While Barb and I are devoted fans of the original series, this remake is equally faithful to the books and has the production values of a fairly big-budget feature film, with breathtaking Cornwall location work. Aidan Turner and Eleanor Tomlinson do very well as Ross and Demelza, and again the original Poldark, Robin Ellis, is back for a nice scene…a fine show of respect for the original classic series.

Murdoch Mysteries Season 10 – For some while now, Murdoch has been running 18 episodes. This charming, often amusing mystery series – which still plays as a turn of the century CSI – likes to bring characters back, and because those characters have appeared in single episodes (not story arcs), it can be tough to recall them. Also, we always have a little trouble getting used to the non-regulars in the casts because the Canadian acting style can have a dinner theater vibe…but you do get used to it. And the regulars are strong and very comfy in their roles – Yannick Bisson as Murdoch, Helene Joy as Dr. Julia Ogden, Jonny Harris as Constable George Crabtree, and in particular Thomas Craig as Inspector Thomas Brackenreid, who recalls Gene Hunt in Life on Mars. The tenth season begins jokey and at first seems weak, but by mid-point it’s playing well, even revealing itself as a particularly strong season, getting more serious and darker as it goes.

Orphan Black Season Five. Orphan Black shares a charming recurring actor – Kristian Brunn – with Murdoch. Otherwise the shows have little in common, and the guest casts never have that dinner theater vibe. Two things are particularly outstanding about this series. First, it’s one of those convoluted, complex science-fiction/fantasy series in the X-Files mode that seems to be getting so ever more complicated, you suspect it doesn’t know where it’s going (Lost, anyone?). Well, Season Five is the final season of Orphan Black and everything from the previous four is paid off with thought and emotion, and no small amount of clever plotting. Virtually everybody of any importance is back from the run of the show and loose ends are not in abundance.

Second, lead Tatiana Maslany may be the best actress of her generation, or maybe several generations, as she portrays the various “clone” sisters who are the orphans of the title, each one distinct in look, mannerism and overall characterization. She is a wonder (and the technical expertise of the “sisters” interacting is mindboggling). Particularly interesting, and rewarding, is the decision of co-creators John Fawcett and Graeme Manson to wrap up the exciting, often frightening storyline midway through the final episode, and follow it with a “three months later” half-an-episode that suggests where the characters are heading and how they are, or are not, dealing with what they’ve been through.

Ripper Street Season Five. Ripper Street, set in Whitechappel just after Jack the Ripper’s reign, is like a much, much darker Murdoch Mysteries. Lead Matthew Macfadyen as Detective Inspector Reid brings modern police methods to London’s most barbaric area with the help of his American forensics expert, Adam Rothenberg as Captain Homer Jackson. Like Murdoch, Ripper Street appears initially to have been born out of the popularity of CSI, but has outlived its inspiration, and surpassed its accomplishments. Creator Richard Warlow wrote around two-thirds of the episodes (early seasons ran 8 episodes, later one 6) and he does not stint on wild plot twists and grittily horrific crimes, but the characters are so real and compelling – and not always admirable – that you will likely stick with them.

Orphan Black runs 50 episodes, and Ripper Street 37, so binging on their complete runs is doable, and will not provide the confusion that those of us doing so a season at time can experience. Murdoch is well over 100 episodes now, so binge-watching can take planning and patience.

So, yes, now that you ask – I did indeed invent binge-watching, with Barb’s help, and Terry’s.

You’re welcome.

* * *

Hey, I bet you didn’t know Road to Perdition came from a comic book. You do? Check this out anyway.

M.A.C.

Shock Value

September 19th, 2017 by Max Allan Collins

I recently received in the mail from the UK the Arrow Films blu-ray box set of Shock Treatment, the much unloved sort of sequel to Rocky Horror Picture Show. I will now discuss this a little – not in depth, because for you to have access to this, you’d have to have an all-regions blu-ray player, which still isn’t very common (though they are not expensive).

Shock Treatment is high on my list of things that I love that I’m not supposed to. (Also on this list is another movie sequel – the Chinatown follow-up, The Two Jakes.) I am one of the few people you’re likely to run into who saw Rocky Horror in a movie theater on its first run. I was at the time teaching cops English in the Quad Cities (with my back to the firing range at the Davenport PD) and had a long stretch of time between the morning and late afternoon sessions. This I would fill with a movie. So it was that I found myself the only person in a very big theater watching Rocky Horror.

I liked it, and bought the soundtrack (vinyl days). When it became a cult hit, I disliked the talking-back-to-the-screen and dress-up midnight-show screenings, because I actually wanted to hear, see and enjoy the film. That’s how strange I am.

Anyway, Shock Treatment was, on one level, a misguided attempt to create a cult film; its first run in theaters was as a midnight show, and the movie itself was brimming with colorful characters in colorful costumes for Rocky Horror-ites to dress up as.

But it was also a fairly acid criticism by creator Richard O’Brien of America in general and Rocky Horror fans in particular, although you had to be smart to get the latter. Whereas Rocky Horror was about “don’t dream it, be it,” and letting your freak flag fly, Shock Treatment was a critique of everybody wanting to be a star in the “me” decade, which in 1981 had just begun. One of the big production numbers had much of the cast dancing with wheeled full-length mirrors.

Even detractors of Shock Treatment will occasionally admit that the score is at least as good as Rocky Horror and probably better – the soundtrack is a virtual compendium of “New Wave” at its best. I was sold on Shock Treatment going in, because I knew that Janet (of the Brad and Janet duo) was going to be played this time by Jessica Harper, the mesmerizing Phoenix of Phantom of the Paradise, who brought her Karen Carpenter-like alto to all the great Paul Williams music in a film that is on my shortest short list of favorites. And Shock Treatment seems to have been more heavily influenced by Phantom than by Rocky Horror, oddly enough.

Shock Treatment presents the residents of Denton, USA, as the members of a studio audience, who even sleep in that studio. As they watch monitors and live broadcasts, they are caught up in the lives of the various local people who have become the stars of game shows, religious programming and reality TV.

Now here’s the thing: when Shock Treatment was made in 1981, reality TV didn’t exist. Nor did MTV, though the DTV of Shock Treatment seems to be a parody of it, right down to the logo. I had probably seen Shock Treatment fifteen times, easily, on its initial release and later on a laser disc I got from Japan. But I hadn’t watched it in at least ten years.

I had realized the film was remarkably prescient long ago, but seeing it again I was staggered by how much it seemed to be a satire on Trump’s America. It not only predicts and defines MTV and reality television, Shock Treatment includes “selfies,” anti-Mexican Americanism, anti-gay Americanism, and the fast food culture. Most shocking (so to speak) was seeing the movie’s climax in which the much-manipulated studio audience is handed out matching baseball caps with a dumb slogan to wear for the rally-like appearance of a Trump-ish figure whose slick-haired resemblance to Donald Trump, Jr., is downright creepy.


Cliff De Young as…Don Jr.?

This satire of Trump and his followers would seem too on-the-nose and heavy-handed, if it were done today…and not thirty-six years ago.

I don’t expect anybody reading this to send to the UK for the Arrow box set (and Arrow doesn’t have the rights to release the package in the US). But there’s a DVD available, as well as a double feature DVD with Rocky Horror.

* * *

Another movie walk-out: The Hitman’s Bodyguard. I am partial to Ryan Reynolds as a quipster, but Samuel Jackson must have really good material to be tolerable, and this one doesn’t have that. The tone is an uneasy combo of extreme, nasty violence and supposed dark humor, with tons of lazy f-wording. We bailed when Reynolds and Jackson, hitchhiking, were picked up by a van that turned out to be transporting cute nuns. Jackson says to the girls, “Whose lap am I going to sit on?” The nuns blush and titter, and we are gone.

* * *

Bookgasm has often been very good to me, but this review of Quarry’s Climax rubbed me the wrong way.

Anybody has a right not to like a book, and say so; but this reviewer (who has liked other Quarry novels and has a few nice things to say even here) accuses me of “a disturbing lack of commitment.” That’s a combination of personal insult and mind-reading that goes over the line.

I will counter this review by sharing these Quarry’s Climax reviews with you:

Publisher’s Weekly on Quarry’s Climax:

Set in 1975, MWA Grand Master Collins’s taut 14th Quarry novel (after 2016’s Quarry in the Black) presents a peculiar challenge for the professional hit man. Instead of simply killing his target, Quarry is tasked by his employer, the Broker, with protecting Max Climer, the Memphis-based publisher of a raunchy skin magazine called Climax, from a hit that has been assigned to parties unknown—and then eliminating the rival hit men. Quarry travels from his home in Paradise Lake, Wis., to Memphis, where he joins forces with his longtime partner, Boyd, a proficient assassin, and the two plunge into the city’s underworld in search of those out to get Climer. One of the book’s pleasures is watching the cold-blooded Quarry make tactical decisions with utter logic. Fun, too, is Quarry’s raffish way with the women he meets at every turn, leading to several colorful (and explicit) assignations. Numerous ’70s pop culture references leaven the criminal proceedings in this deft exercise in the business of violence.

Booklist on Quarry’s Climax:

Chronology is always a little tricky in Collins’ Quarry series. Take this one. It’s a new entry, but the story
is set in the 1970s, when the first Quarry thrillers were written. The hit man with a heart of steel (and a skewed sense of, well, just desserts) is working for the Broker, a murder middleman who farms out hired kills to his operatives. This time it’s a little complicated: Quarry and his partner, Boyd, must first dispatch the hitters sent to eliminate the publisher of the Memphis-based porn mag, Climax; then determine who hired the hitters; and, finally, get rid of them, too. All in a few days’ work for the resourceful Quarry, of course, who developed his killing chops as a Vietnam sniper, but along the way Collins treats us to a wonderfully vivid look at the pornography industry in its heyday. From publishers to centerfolds to strippers to feminist protesters, he cuts through the stereotypes with quick bits of subtle characterization (but, please, don’t say you read a book with Climax in the title only for the characters).
* * *

Here’s an interview with the guy who plays Wild Dog on Arrow (still haven’t seen it, but the blu-ray set is on its way).

And finally here’s a Wild Dog podcast.

M.A.C.

Nathan Heller Confidential

September 12th, 2017 by Max Allan Collins

Out of the blue came a lovely e-mail from Nate Heller fan Peter Roff, who is attempting to read the saga in chronological order. He had some questions for me, and I answered them. With his permission, I’m sharing them with you.

Peter writes: Not that you should care, particularly, but I’ve spent the summer re-reading what I refer to as the original Hellers – everything from True Detective through Chicago Confidential – in the order they were released.

It’s a very different thing to see Heller’s character progress and develop in the linear fashion you provide as the creator of his universe then it is to time travel through his life as I first did, having to find the books where I could online, used, and in some cases very hard to get. At onetime I despaired I would never find a copy of Million-Dollar Wound, for example.

They are, in a word, brilliant. Writing is hard enough. Developing a coherent story line even more so. But to interpose fact with conjecture and make it all believable is the work of a true artist.

I have, though, a couple of questions/comments:

1) After finishing Chicago Confidential this evening I had a singular thought: In Nate Heller’s universe, did he kill Sam Gianacana? For some reason, perhaps the solitary nature of his murder, suggests to me he did.

Well, that might have happened if Perdition and its sequels hadn’t come along. The trickiest thing was establishing (not that anyone cares) that Heller and O’Sullivan were in the same fictional universe. That was a decision I struggled with, because Perdition is looser with the facts than Heller. But Road to Purgatory seemed to me to obviously have to tackle the same material as Million-Dollar. So I chose to make them work together as a pair — fit together like a puzzle, if anybody cares.

2) Is it possible, after spending so much time building him up as a character in the second series of Hellers – the ones that begin with Bye Bye, Baby – that you will NOT have Nate tackle the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa? I ask only because it seems such a natural thing for him to be involved in some fashion but the murder (presumably) is outside the timeline you originally announced.

Where I go from here depends, quite frankly, on how long I’m around. I’m in good shape right now but the last two years were filled with nightmarish health problems that almost killed me. I went back and “picked up” Better Dead because I thought that period and the two stories that comprise it were essential to the overall saga. I’m doing Sam Sheppard next in part because it shouldn’t be as demanding as some of the bigger landscape stories. I hope to do both RFK/Hoffa (in a pair of books) and maybe some piece of Watergate. Anything after that would be filling in blanks. But I’m 69, so how much time I have left to play this game remains to be seen.

3) I have not yet read Better Dead – and am trying to decide if I want to continue reading the books in order through the fall – I’ve read them all, including the two collection of shorts – to stay within the chronology as written OR if I should read it now because, in the real world chronology, McCarthyism comes after Chicago Confidential (more or less) but before Marilyn Monroe. If you have a thought as to which direction I should take I would welcome it.

Read Better Dead. If you can do it after Confidential, that would be ideal. A proviso: I can’t guarantee consistency with a saga written over such a long period of time. Heller isn’t perfect as an old guy gathering his memories.

4) Have you considered a Ronald Reagan book. I know we differ politically BUT I have for many years had a sense there’s a mob story there to be told. His relationship to MCA, his tenure as head of the Screen Actors Guild – you touch on it all when Heller goes to Hollywood and gets close to the IATSE/Willie Bioff studio business. But, for sake of argument, follow it through – what if all the racket busting that happened during Reagan’s presidency – particularly the stuff Rudy Giuliani did to the five families in New York – wasn’t somehow, some way, an extremely sophisticated plot to disadvantage The Syndicate and its interests, perhaps even cripple it, for the benefit of The Outfit and the fellows in Chicago?

Not on my plate at the moment, but interesting. Reagan of course is in True Detective. I was never a fan of his presidency but, brother, is he looking good now. Thanks for not letting politics get in the way of reading the novels. I write the very conservative Mike Hammer, after all, and with Mickey Spillane’s blessing — and he and I weren’t exactly on the same political page…..

Peter ends with: I’ve taken up more than enough of your time. I’ll close here but not before thanking you once again for creating Nate Heller and his universe. It has provided me with hours – days really – full of enjoyment. First, through the pleasure of taking in the stories themselves, then in taking the time to delve into the actual history of the events through which he passes and, finally, to contemplate how close to the actual solution you may have come.

He also provided a link to a fascinating story about a real-life Nate Heller in the 20th Century, which puts the lie to the notion that Heller’s life as I report it is far-fetched.

* * *

Last week Barb and I took in an appearance by Bruce Campbell at the beautifully restored Englert Theater in Iowa City. It was a kind of fancy book signing, with every attendee getting a pre-signed book by Bruce, and Bruce then doing some off-the-cuff stuff before reading a funny section of his new Hail to the Chin. He followed this with taking questions from the 700 in attendance, who were clearly the kind of people who longed to have their Ash action figure signed. He gave them a wonderfully wry bad time, humiliating the dumber questions with a light touch, and as for the intelligent questioners…well, there weren’t any.

Afterward he signed one item for anyone who cared to stay and line up to do so, and Barb and I bailed. We had our signed books, and I’d met Bruce before. So we tucked our Evil Dead Season Two blu-rays and DVD of the complete Jack of All Trades away and drowned our disappointment in Pagliai’s Pizza, the best pizza in Iowa City (and the universe).

Watching Bruce Campbell deal with his very special fan base is a study in patience, good humor and genuine understanding of the importance to him of the kind of geeky fan who would bring the complete Jack of All Trades DVD for signing.

* * *

Barb was down with a cold, so I took in IT by myself (she wasn’t that interested). I am lukewarm on Stephen King but I like horror, so I went. You probably did, too. Let me get the negative out of the way, with a little positive mixed in. I read Carrie before the film came out and was mightily impressed. The Shining, too, and a couple of other things. The original films from those two novels are masterpieces, and I include the Kubrick, which nobody seems to notice is a deal-with-the-devil movie.

Anyway, IT (never read the book and didn’t see the old TV mini-series) got off to a bad start with me when an outsider girl got garbage dumped on her by mean girls. Later she would be washed in blood, which the story ties to menstrual blood. In addition to this unimaginative reworking of Carrie (right down to a Travolta-esque bully) we have a fairly lazy reworking of Stand by Me, with kids as stereotypical as the G.I.s in a 1940s war movie. And predictably all the adults in the world of these young teens are monsters – grotesques, Hieronymous Bosch figures in bad eighties clothing. But what do you expect from a guy who wrote two haunted car novels?

Still, it’s a fine line between just repeating yourself and exploring recurring themes, and King is a law unto himself. Any writer has to stand in awe of an author who is so popular that a new section of the bookstore has to be created – that’s right, there were no “horror” sections at all in bookstores before King. Of course, now there are almost no bookstores. (Steve – have you done haunted bookstore yet?)

So did I like IT? Very much. It’s heavy-handed, but I am fine with melodrama, and most horror is very much that. This is a world where fear lurks in darkness – including the almost comically under-lit homes where the teens live with their awful single parents – and each kid must face his or her biggest fear to overcome the monster that their parents may have created. Not an new idea but a deeply resonating one.

This is a beautifully crafted movie, and the kid actors are so good, they don’t seem to be acting at all. Director Andy Muschietti handles the young cast very well, though he is stronger on creepy than scary (but I did jump a couple of times). Bill Skarsgård as the evil clown is a prime example of the creep factor, his smile oozing saliva and blood lust. And any hetrosexual male who does not fall in love with actress Sophia Lillis as Beverly needs medical attention, right now.

* * *

Crusin’s third gig with new guitarist Bill Anson is our last scheduled date of the year, though if something comes in, we’ll consider it. We’ll be rehearsing once a month over the winter. Here’s a shot of us playing bike night at Ducky’s Lagoon outside Andalusia, Illinois – a lovely night till it got cold, and reminded me why I don’t try to book anything in the winter.

* * *

Here’s a lovely review from the great Bill Crider of the upcoming Quarry’s Climax.

And check out this interesting take on A Killing in Comics. The reviewer suggests that I should be more successful and better known than Michael Chabon, and who I am to argue?

M.A.C.

Perdition, Zorro, Movies and More

September 5th, 2017 by Max Allan Collins
Road to Paradise

Road to Paradise is coming to trade paperback in November. I am thrilled with the job Brash Books has done on bringing the complete prose trilogy into print. The covers are great, and though many will read the e-book versions, the physical items are handsome.

Of course, this all hinged on getting the original, complete, previously unpublished Road to Perdition prose novel into print, the first of this matched-set trilogy.

Before long Brash will be bringing out USS Powderkeg (a slightly revised version of Red Sky in Morning) and Black Hats under my name, jettisoning the Patrick Culhane pseudonym the publisher insisted upon.

If you’re a regular reader of mine, please support these great efforts by Brash Books to get my novels out there again and in the manner I prefer.

Check out the Road to Paradise page out at their web site.

* * *
Zorro Vol. 6

I’ve been a fan of Zorro since childhood – some of you may have read my introduction to the Hermes Press collection of Dell’s pre-Disney-TV version of the character, including four wonderful issues drawn by the great Everett Raymond Kinstler.

Well, publisher Rich Harvey’s Bold Venture Press has just completed an ambitious program to collect all of the original novels and stories about Zorro by his creator, the underrated Johnston McCulley. The sixth and final volume was just published, and I had the honor of writing the introduction, in which I detail the torturous route to finally having these rare Zorro tales collected and accessible to readers. It’s a bewildering mystery why the well-written stories by the creator of one of popular fiction’s most iconic characters (on a par with Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan and, uh, well, Mike Hammer) have been so elusive. That doesn’t mean I don’t try to solve it….

The great color covers of those early Dell issues provide most of the cover images of this series.

Read about it (with ordering info) here.

* * *

Two excellent recent crime films are worthy of your attention (and your money).

Steven Soderbergh’s return to movie-making, Logan Lucky, is a clever, funny but not campy heist picture with a Southern twist. The cast is terrific, but the stand-out is Daniel Craig, and to say he’s playing against type is a bit of an understatement – stick around for his hilarious credit at the close. And what a surprise it’s been seeing just how much talent Channing Tatum turns out to have, and this is coming from the skeptical author of the G.I. JOE novelization.

Writer/director Taylor Sheridan’s Wind River is a worthy follow-up to the excellent Hell or High Water (and, yes, I remember how much I hated Sicario, but he didn’t direct that). It begins leisurely and takes full advantage of its beautifully bleak snowy Indian reservation setting before some shocking action kicks in. There’s nothing new here – a fish-out-of-water young female FBI agent is teamed with a somewhat older local fish-and-wildlife man, and the sad backstories of various characters are things we’ve heard before…virtually everything here is familiar. But the kicker is how well done it all is, how quiet and deep the characterizations are, with Jeremy Renner nailing a quiet, modern cowboy with all the right tough-guy moves. He looks nothing like Nate Heller or Mike Hammer, but could play either one admirably.

* * *
Crusin' @ Ardon Creek

Crusin’ played a gig last Friday evening at Ardon Creek Winery – a lovely setting and a lovely evening. We play under a tent, open to a gentle slope where people dance and sit at tables to sip wine and munch bring-your-own goodies. To one side is the vineyard. Really a beautiful venue for us, with an appreciative crowd. We’ll be back next year.

Our new guitar player, Bill Anson, is doing a terrific job; good singer and he plays very well. He had to pick up about 36 songs – well, he brought about five or six suggestions along, which we learned – in about three weeks, during which we played two gigs. As I said about the previous performance, there were a few train wrecks but no fatalities, and we have the makings of a very good version of the band.

We play once more this year – at Ducky’s in Andulsia, Illinois, Thursday evening (6 to 9) – outdoors again, for their “bike night.” Our next scheduled appearance is April ‘18, and over the winter we’ll be retooling our list.

M.A.C.

aug 19, 2003 visitors since August 19, 2003.