I remember the first time I was embarrassed to be an American (yes, even before our current slate of presidential nominees). I was in London with a couple of hours to kill before I needed to head for Heathrow to fly home, and I decided to mail a couple of postcards.
I was in the post office, writing and addressing the cards. It was a hushed room, though the high ceilings and stone walls made every footstep echo. Suddenly, a nasal voice bellowed: "How much to mail these to the States?"
It was a shattering sound, like a jackhammer going off in the street. I'm quite sure the person had no idea how loud her voice was, because many Americans, particularly from the Northeast, routinely speak at levels that to Europeans sound like screaming.
I cringed. When I finished writing my postcards, I went to the same window and made it a point to speak gently. Softly. More like a southerner, with just a hint of drawl. I didn't want to embarrass myself as the previous American had done.
But I had been tainted; I was of the bellower's group, not one of the soft-spoken Brits.
Now, British people are perfectly capable of speaking loudly -- but they're far more aware of the time and the place for doing so. Calling for help, for example. Shouting to stop someone from stepping into the street in front of a bus.
Not buying stamps in the post office.
I was reminded of that incident as I recognized the sharp contrast between contestants on Master Chef, the kindest and gentlest of Gordon Ramsay's American cooking shows, and the contestants on The Great British Baking Show, which is filmed in England, with British contestants, presided over by Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood.
(Paul Hollywood was a guest on a recent Graham Norton Show, and he mentioned that the city of Hollywood had sent him a sternly-worded letter demanding that he cease using "Hollywood" as his name. No doubt they assumed that it was a pseudonym. But it was not. So his lawyers replied with an equally stern letter pointing out that his family had been using the name "Hollywood" for centuries before the California borough was founded, and if anyone was going to cease using the name, it would be the town, and not Paul Hollywood.)
When we watch Hell's Kitchen and Kitchen Nightmares, we expect things to be hellish and nightmarish. But Master Chef, though a contest, is about home cooks vying for a chance to publish a cookbook of their recipes. They come from all over the country, and bring with them the traditions of their region and their upbringing.
Ditto with the contestants on The Great British Baking Show. (In the UK, it's called The Great British Bake-off, but in America, Pillsbury has trademarked the term "bake-off," and so they had to change the name to broadcast the series here.)
As in the American shows, the Great British Baking Show makes it clear that diversity was a goal -- and, as in the American shows, the mix of ancestries quickly becomes invisible, as we respond, not to the ethnicity of the contestants, but to their individual character and the way they treat others on the show.
The Brits are invariably soft-spoken, but it's more than that. They're modest. They barely dare to mention their hope of being that episode's Star Baker, and when they are praised for a first in the technical challenge, or earn a handshake or a "that's perfect" from Mary or Paul, they are genuinely surprised and moved.
But, being Brits, they barely allow themselves to show their emotions. Oh, tears are shed -- but voices remain steady, and when they talk to the camera afterward, they can't hide their surprise at having been honored.
Likewise, when something goes wrong, they quietly say, "Well, I'm going home, I'm afraid." One man looked at the mess he had made of one of the cooking challenges and, under his breath, called, "Taxi!"
By contrast, in Master Chef, the contestants are apparently encouraged to boast, and the producers apparently think that nastiness makes "good television."
That American brag -- we see it all the time, in contest after contest. For years, they made contestants on American Idol stand in front of the show's logo and say, "I'm the next American Idol!" In Master Chef, several contestants have said, more than once, "I'm the best chef here," and they seem to believe it.
The British contestants' attitude is, "I hope I don't embarrass myself."
This summer especially, Master Chef is full of real nastiness, to the point where I have a long list of contestants I despise. It all arises from their vicious treatment of the "goat" of this season, a young man named Nathan Barnhouse.
Perhaps Nathan has some annoying off-camera habits that have caused other contestants to hate him. But on camera, he's no more annoying than any of the others. For some reason, though, they've nominated him Worst Cook and deliberately try to avoid being on the same team with him.
But it's worse than always picking him last. He freely admits that there are many things he doesn't know about cooking this or that item that's assigned to them. When he asks his team captain for help, however -- even a simple question that would take no time to answer -- he is brushed off with rude impatience. "Just go cook it," he's told, in essence. But then, if he does it wrong, he's accused of bringing the whole team down.
In one team competition, when they were cooking for a hundred farmers, they kept Nathan away from anything "important," and assigned him to cook the kale. Now, to me kale is less appetizing than grass clippings (I've had both in my mouth at various times, so I know what I'm talking about). Nathan took his low-grade assignment in stride and cooked a very large quantity of kale.
At no time did the team captain (or anyone else) say, "That's not enough kale, Nathan. Cook it all." Instead, other people plated his kale, and either they put too much on each plate or there really wasn't enough -- but they ran out.
Then most of them acted like big babies, blaming Nathan. But he was not the one plating the kale. His team captain took no responsibility for failing to check on the quantity of kale before they started plating, and controlling portion size accordingly.
Instead, they actually seemed to enjoy hating Nathan for "failing," and made a big deal about how other people had to plate raw kale in order to keep sending out entrees to the farmers they were serving.
This is only one example of the mean spirit they have shown toward Nathan constantly, so that now I gauge my judgments of the contestants, not on the apparent quality of their cooking, but on whether they have been nasty to Nathan. There are a few who have never shown him (or anyone) any unkindness, but most of them have behaved appallingly.
Then there was the time that contestant David Williams was one of the team captains. His team lost. With typical cruelty ("good television," remember), Gordon Ramsay ordered the losing team to decide which team member should be safe from elimination that week. "If you don't choose one in the allotted time, then you're all going home."
The behavior of David Williams in that brief meeting was shocking. He demanded that he be the one who was declared safe -- because he was the team captain.
Now, on the planet where I live, the team leader takes responsibility for failure. He made the key decisions, after all, and when the diners voted for the other team, surely some of their vote was based on his menu choices and the quality of his guidance and supervision.
But no. David Williams claimed that because he was team leader, he didn't actually cook anything, so none of the flaws were his fault. Apparently he didn't get the memo about what "leadership" means.
Nobody bought his argument -- they chose somebody far more deserving to be safe that week. David Williams was openly furious about their failure to reward him for incompetent leadership, and it showed in his pouty, sulky, childish behavior and comments during the ensuing elimination challenge. I so wanted him to be eliminated, so I didn't have to see his borderline insane narcissism another moment ... but no such luck. He's still there.
There are some nice guys who are never openly mean to anyone -- one thinks of Dan Paustian, Eric Howard, Terry Mueller, and Brandi Mudd (though perhaps they were mean once and I've forgotten; I don't think so, though). But the show's producers love to show the contestants at their worst.
Even without the meanness and the sulking, though, most of the American contestants come off very badly as human beings, compared to the Brits on the Great British Baking Show. That's because so many of the Americans are full of empty brag.
It's like a running gag. Whenever a contestant is assigned some dish that he or she thinks is familiar, they're shown boasting about how they cook this all the time, they grew up cooking it, they're from that particular region or it's part of their ethnic heritage, so they're going to win that event easily.
You guessed it. As far as I can recall, in every case but one, the braggart ended up with the worst dish, and often was the person sent home.
Compare this with the Brits, who never boast. One of the contestants, Tamal, dared to say that he hoped he would win Star Baker in a particular episode -- and then immediately rued his words, since he had probably jinxed himself with his "hubris."
That's right -- Americans routinely boast and brag about what they're going to do; the Brits regard even hoping to win as hubris.
Not only that, but the Brits often help each other, and when someone has a disaster (the layer of chocolate mousse that didn't set properly, leading to the complete collapse of the cake, for instance), they seem to genuinely sympathize with the other person's dilemma.
And when a truly modest contestant -- like Nadiya, a favorite -- happens to win, her surprise is genuine, and rather than gloating (an American might say, "I knew I could do it"), all the contestants are so relieved and moved that we like them all.
Yes, the cooking challenges in both shows are extremely difficult, and some of the work the contestants do in both shows is creative and technically brilliant -- at least, the judges say so, and the food certainly looks good.
The Great British Baking Show is about, not cooking, but baking -- it's all cakes, pies, breads, and biscuits (the British term for "cookies"). They use pans to make sauces, caramel, and other accompaniments, but the main items are all cooked in the oven. Some of them are savory -- especially when they do pies -- but most things are more or less sweet.
Much of the time, the items they are called upon to bake are completely unknown to me. They'll talk about how this item was all the rage in the 1960s or the 1980s, but apparently it never crossed the pond. Often, the contestants have never heard of the item, either, or seen one, and the recipes they're given have been cut to the bone: "Make a sponge," they're told, and must come up with their own recipe for a sponge cake, or a shortbread, or a meringue.
Judging from what we see on camera, a "sponge" in Britain does not mean the same thing as a "sponge cake" in America. And even though "biscuits" means "cookies," the British expectation is that cookies will be dry and brittle rather than soft and pliable. Lots of the biscuits are of a kind I really detest -- biscotti, for instance -- and many items require cooked fruit and/or alcohol, both of which I regard as ways to make a perfectly good cake, bread, pie, or cookie completely inedible.
Master Chef, on the other hand, occasionally has dessert challenges, but most of the work they do is cooking -- savory dishes involving some kind of meat or fish are featured almost every week.
Yet I don't think it's the food alone that we watch for. It's about the contestants -- but not the way the American producers of Master Chef seem to think. We're much less invested in who will win and who will lose than we are in how well our best-liked contestants do on each challenge.
On the British show, for instance, the youngest contestant, Flora, had a penchant for overreaching -- not just fulfilling "the brief" (the assignment), but adding on all kinds of time-consuming extras that, more often than not, the judges regard as a distraction or, worse, as a detriment to the dessert.
You don't really need to press madeleines into the sides of an iced cake, for instance; the cake and the icing were quite enough. (Yet it's precisely that over-embellished cake that is used as a constant emblem in the intro to every episode, so somebody liked what she did!)
The 2016 season of The Great British Baking Show is pretty much over -- but to my delight, BBC-America immediately began rerunning the whole season again; my wife and I just re-watched the first two episodes. This time we already knew who ended up in the finals, but it didn't spoil anything. We liked all of these people so much that it's good just to see them again, and this time we're better able to understand just what is going on with the baking.
One key difference is that British cooks and bakers don't use measurements by volume, but rather weigh the ingredients. I've paused the show again and again to try to spot the scales they use, but no luck yet. (Every baker in America knows that a cup of sifted flour is nowhere near the same amount as a cup of unsifted flour, yet we persist in using cups and quarts in our recipes.)
There are differences in vocabulary, too. For instance, the judges referred to "strong flour" when baking something that needed to have a firm structure -- but what is "strong" flour? Finally somebody referred to it as "bread flour" and I got some idea. Still, what would you call non-strong flour? Weak flour? I doubt it.
Master Chef still has a few weeks to go, but in all likelihood the winner will be somebody I despise, either for their boasting or their meanness -- the odds are against having it be one of the kind people. I don't like how it feels to find myself rooting against certain contestants.
With the British contest, I'm hoping for everybody to succeed in each of their projects -- even when it's some alcohol-soaked, fruit-filled monstrosity that is as appetizing to me as licking a dirty floor.
And within the contest, it is clear that the British judges and announcers have the same attitude of wanting everyone to do well. The producers don't want us to hate anyone.
While the American producers of Master Chef seem to be rooting for failure and spite -- and that extends to the judges. For instance, one of the first episodes showed a dish created by Gordon Ramsay. He said a few descriptive words about the ingredients, and then sent them all off to choose their ingredients from the show's pantry without any reminders of what they were supposed to make.
That was part of the contest -- how well they remembered what Ramsay told them. But it all went by so quickly that the oldest contestant, white-haired retiree Bill Travers, found himself in the pantry struggling to remember what the exact words had been. His confusion and wavering earned my sympathy -- I wouldn't have done as well as he did! -- but because he forgot one key part of Ramsay's instructions, his dish was deemed to be a complete failure and he was eliminated.
It was as if, on that early assignment, Gordon Ramsay decided, I'm going to get rid of the old guy right away by making this particular dish a matter of instant memorization of a longish list of ingredients -- something that older people are rarely good at.
I hope Ramsay lives to be very old, and finds out that no matter how brilliant you were in your twenties, thirties, and forties, by your mid-sixties the synapses just don't fire as quickly as they used to. Of course, by then he'll have forgotten the mean prank he played on Bill Travers.
Here's the conclusion: Master Chef is highly watchable for the cooking and how each cook deals with the challenges; likewise, The Great British Baking Show makes each baking assignment fascinating and rather thrilling when things work well.
But the American show is much darker and meaner. It brings out the worst in many contestants and so, for long stretches, it's unpleasant to watch -- like being trapped at a dinner party where the host and hostess are constantly bickering.
The Great British Baking Show, by contrast, shows a lot of kindness, humility, and generosity, so that it not only fascinates us with the creative baking, but also shows us British social values at their best.
If I find myself appalled at most of the Americans' behavior, while admiring the Brits', I can at least reassure myself that my DNA showed that nearly 100 percent of my ancestry was "British Isles." I know, social mores aren't in the genes, but I can pretend I still partake, to some degree, of British culture.
Every year, a few long-running TV series reach the end of their lives. Castle, for instance, was one of our favorite shows -- even though I never thought, even for a second, that there was the slightest chemistry between Nathan Fillion, as Richard Castle, and Stana Katic, as Kate Beckett.
What made the show work was the humor, which mostly took place between the supporting characters and Castle; I can't recall Kate Beckett ever being light-hearted or clever. The show was originally billed as a comedy.
But even though we really enjoyed most episodes of the show -- it was one of those that my wife and I recorded so that we could watch together, at a time of our choosing -- the last season showed that it was time for Castle to go away.
The worst thing was that they lost track of the reality of Castle's character. Until the last season, they played with Castle's penchant for taking delight in anything weird or outre that surfaced during a case. But they always kept it in check -- Castle never quite believed in the weird stuff, it's more like he simply enjoyed pretending or joking about the seemingly mystical or magical aspects of the case.
In the last season, though, they made him a true believer in all those crazy things, and guess what: It wrecked the character. Oh, Nathan Fillion was still charming and witty, but when Castle actually believed in impossible things, his credibility was gone. Where, for seven seasons, he had been a pretty smart guy with a sense of humor about his own geekiness, in the eighth season he was a dumb guy who actively interfered in the investigations by insisting on making the others consider non-possible explanations.
And another show-wrecking habit was the way the producers tried to keep tension in Castle's and Beckett's relationship even after they got married. Beckett's reason for insisting that she and Castle pretend to have separated was completely stupid -- the people who might be gunning for Beckett would not be fooled into believing that Castle knew nothing about Beckett's investigation of their conspiracy.
They had already shown a willingness to kill anybody, anytime, anywhere, so why would a fake separation "protect" Castle and his mother and daughter from danger? It was painfully stupid, and led, not to humor or romance, but to tedious time-wasting plot elements straight out of farce: plots that hinged on trying to lie to people to protect their stupid, pointless secret that they were really still in love.
Since I never believed they were in love in the first place, I kept hoping that they'd really split up or Beckett would get shot and Castle could start shadowing someone else. Then maybe we could get back to concentrating on each week's mystery instead of the inane blather about does-she-love-me, can-we-keep-fooling-them.
A shame, really, to watch the writers forget so completely how to write their own series. Especially because most of the press coverage of the final season dealt with how much Stana Katic and Nathan Fillion disliked each other -- something that we didn't need to know.
Person of Interest was also dying before the network pulled the plug, because the show's creators had completely lost their way. We cared a lot about the characters, especially Harold Finch (Michael Emerson) and John Reese (Jim Caviezel), but what we did not care about, and could not care about, was the absurd "sentient" computer program called "the machine" and its nemesis, an enhanced evil sentient computer program called "Samaritan."
Now, the people surrounding these machines were sometimes interesting -- I think of John Nolan playing Samaritan's prophet and Amy Acker playing the voice of the Machine. But the programs themselves? Not only could they never exist, nor, if they did, have anything like the access to cameras and computers all over the world (which consisted of New York City), but also they're software. Siri and Alexa and "OK, Google" talk to us and listen when we talk to them, but they're just programs. They simulate people, but, let's face it, they do so rather badly, even though it's unlikely that they'll ever get much better at it.
That's because computers and programs will never become intelligent. They are incapable of causal reasoning, except when the assumptions of humans are built into their code, and the result is nothing like human intuition, foretelling, or the other skills we call "intelligence." They run numbers really, really fast -- and come out with results exactly as dumb and misleading as the mistakes and biases of the people who fed them the data and told them what to do with it. That will always be true. Sorry, Terminator series. Sorry, War Games.
So when Person of Interest started treating each week's save-a-civilian plot as a perfunctory duty, quickly discharged, and spend more and more time on stupid pointless efforts to save one machine or destroy the other, it got boring.
That's why my wife and I didn't watch them while the last season of Person of Interest was running last winter and spring. We kept them on our TiVo's hard drive, meaning to watch them "later."
Later came a few weeks ago, because we've had the latest model TiVo for months and hadn't changed over because we had so many shows on the old TiVo's hard drive that we hadn't watched yet. It's time to change, which means we had to watch everything we'd saved -- or say good-bye to it.
We started watching the last thirteen episodes of Person of Interest and got sadder and sadder with each show. You see, when a series has lost its way, the writing gets worse and worse right along with the storylines. Writers can't do their best work when, unconsciously, they know they're writing drivel.
Finally, with six or seven episodes left, we skipped to the final episode. Root was dead, apparently, but kept showing up to represent the voice of the Machine; the story was told out of time order, so we'd think something much more interesting was going on; but basically it was this: Some people were going to die. Some weren't. Guess which. Right. Right. Wrong on that one. And yes, the bad machine is finally blocked. And yes, of course, the "good" machine found a way to save itself. The payphone rings again. Oooooh.
That's all? It was as empty and soulless as the fizzle at the end of Lost.
Good TV series are hard to find. I recently binge-rewatched all of the most recent season of Game of Thrones, and found that only a few storylines had scenes worth seeing again -- basically, scenes with Jon Snow, scenes with Jaime Lannister, scenes with Cersei and the High Sparrow, and anything with Sandor Clegane and Brienne of Tarth.
The storylines of favorite characters like Tyrian Lannister, Arya Stark, Bran Stark, and Daenerys Targaryen were so tediously empty of content, week after week, that only a few moments of each of their storylines were worth rewatching. Basically, most of their scenes were placeholders, to keep us aware of them until the scenes that actually mattered came long later.
But there were those few moments ("Hold the door!", "I am Arya Stark," "I believe in you," and Daenerys burning down the council house), so the whole season still holds up very, very well as the long feature film that it is.
By contrast, I recently rewatched part of The Two Towers -- the middle film of the Lord of the Rings trilogy -- and wow. It is so awful. Dialogue as hard to listen to as the worst scenes of Titanic. The difference is that much of the writing in The Two Towers is actually beautiful -- whenever they actually use words of Tolkien's -- but the directing is so melodramatic, so uncomprehending of anything like human dignity, mastery, and courage, that good actors delivering good lines well are still edited into scenes that make me want to put a pillow over my face so I don't have to witness their humiliation.
Peter Jackson shot some brilliant battle scenes and lots of gorgeous New Zealand scenery. The CGI settings are great. The casting was superb and the actors do the best they can.
But not for one instant did Peter Jackson understand anything about Tolkien, about the story and characters of Lord of the Rings, or about how to sustain a dramatic arc in a story. His contempt for The Lord of the Rings is obvious in every scene where characters are talking to each other.
Most humiliating are the bizarre and pointless additions Jackson, in his ignorant vanity, larded onto Lord of the Rings -- precursors of the even more horrible things he added to The Hobbit in order to stretch a thin adventure story into three hopelessly bad full-length films.
The makers of Game of Thrones have given George R.R. Martin's brilliant fantasy novels a far better film adaptation than Peter Jackson and his minions gave to Tolkien's. And the scenery, the CGI, the battles, the costumes -- everything Jackson did right -- are just as good if not better in Game of Thrones.
Sometimes it takes time to see what a film really is. I think all of us who loved Lord of the Rings as a work of fiction allowed Peter Jackson to hide behind our knowledge and love of Tolkien's story. But now, years later, Jackson has nowhere to hide. I still love the books; but where I once thought Jackson made only a few (horrible) mistakes, I now realize that there is no moment in the movies in which the actors are not grossly misused by the clumsy, tone-deaf director.
By contrast, every actor playing a leading role in Game of Thrones is given many chances to do brilliant, unforgettable scenes, and to develop their characters through long, complicated arcs. Come on, tell the truth, Game of Thrones fans: Don't you find Brienne beautiful by now? Hasn't the shallow Sansa Stark become something remarkable? Don't you take real delight on Bronn, in Samwell Tarly, in Lord Varys, in Dolorous Ed and Grey Worm and Lady Lyanna Mormont?
Has there ever been a more compelling performance than that of Tom Wlaschiha as the Faceless Man Jaqen H'ghar?
There are good reasons not to watch Game of Thrones -- if you don't like a lot of gratuitous nudity; if you really hate fantasy, especially with dragons and zombies; if you don't have time or brainspace to get involved with a series that requires you to remember four or five dozen characters by face and name.
But if you haven't watched Game of Thrones, you don't know how brilliant a multi-part, multi-year television series can be, when the showrunners don't make any stupid mistakes.
It's not just because they're working with George R.R. Martin's brilliant material. After all, Peter Jackson had Lord of the Rings and he blew it on almost every level.
But it helps that they're working with Martin's books, and with Martin himself.
It was past time for Person of Interest to be buried; it died the season before. And Castle had also lost its way. But I think Game of Thrones will stand as something permanent and monumental.