Welcome to Grantland Recommends, in which Grantland staff members share some of their favorite discoveries and obsessions of the month, whether new, old, or new again. This month we’re loving a Shark Tank for the restaurant world, deep ’90s prog rock, the delicious, unholy union of Panda Express and burritos, and everything in between.
Going Deep With David Rees
Mark Lisanti: Entering this summer, my assumption — based purely on pedigree, blind faith, and hype — was that my favorite new show would be something like The Leftovers or The Strain. A Damon Lindelof mystery joint about getting along in the the post-Rapture ‘burbs, or Guillermo del Toro reinventing vampires as smooth-crotched viral killers with bungee-cord eels crammed down their throats — those were the safe bets.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
My favorite new show this summer, by a light-year, is one about how to make better ice cubes. Or how to best flip a coin. Or how to dig the ultimate party hole.
On National Geographic Channel’s Going Deep, artisanal pencil-sharpening guru (yes, really) David Rees starts with a simple question — for instance, “What’s the best way to tie your shoes?” — and then follows his voracious curiosity to the ends of the earth in an obsessive search for the answer, tracking down experts to help him along the path to mundane perfection. It’s a little bit Nathan Fielder, a little bit Tim Ferriss; it’s hilarious and the best kind of summer TV surprise. Maybe we can talk him into exploring how to get the Guilty Remnant to lighten up a tiny bit. You know, invite them over to the party hole for some drinks and smokes, then show them how to make a paper airplane out of the pages of their vow-of-gloomy-silence notebooks and sail their sad thoughts off into the night with a perfect throw.
The Bletchley Circle
Ben Lindbergh: The Bletchley Circle is a recently canceled ITV series about four women who work as secret code breakers during World War II, only to discover that having helped defeat Hitler doesn’t do much for them in postwar England, where society expects them to settle down, start families, and stop dabbling in hard-core cryptography. Not content to do crosswords while they wait for their husbands to come home, they get the gang back together seven years after V-E Day and apply their skills to hunting down criminals Scotland Yard isn’t clever enough to catch.
The first season (it seems overly Anglophilic for an American to say “series”) is a serial-killer story — fortunately, the kind that’s as much about the characters as about the killer. In a welcome change from today’s tired “men behaving badly” TV trope, it’s the female characters who lead adventurous and occasionally irresponsible lives, while the close-minded, mostly one-dimensional menfolk nag them to stop doing all the things that make the plot compelling. And no show does more to combat stereotypes about women and math than Bletchley, which features actual doing-math montages. (The show’s official Twitter account is @ladynerds.)
Because it’s a British prestige show, the actors are all (1) excellent and (2) recycled from other series you’ve seen. Julie Graham, who plays Jean, the group’s unofficial leader, also played Abby on the similarly short-lived BBC show Survivors, which I Grantland Recommended in April. Sophie Rundle, who plays Lucy, the youngest member of the code-breaking quartet, is also on Episodes as Labia, Matt LeBlanc’s stalker.
Because Bletchley is a period piece, prepare for a case of Mad Men/Masters of Sex–esque outfit envy, especially if you’re into overcoats. Both seasons are streamable on Amazon Prime; the first is also on Netflix. Since there won’t be a third season, you can try to take some time to savor all seven episodes, but you’ll probably wind up blowing through them. However, if you’re hazy on the history of Bletchley Park, Ultra, and Enigma machines, there’s just enough info included to make you feel like you’ve learned something, which helps quell the guilt about bingeing.
Hip-Hop Dance Tournament Videos
Emily Yoshida: This Friday Step Up: All In hits theaters, perhaps not coincidentally on the same weekend as the 2014 World Hip Hop Dance Championship in Las Vegas. Everyone can and should see Step Up, but you can also enjoy the real-life version, even if you’re not able to make it out to Vegas. Hip Hop International, the organization behind the event (and MTV’s late, beloved America’s Best Dance Crew), has archived every performance from the last two years on its YouTube page, and these videos are a veritable joy repository. Sure, the dutch angles and 360-degree rotating cameras of Hollywood dance movies look cool in 3-D glasses, but if you really want to appreciate the choreography and timing of these crews (and “mega crews” — 2013 gold medalists Royal Family, seen above, boast 26 members), nothing really beats a stationary camera in the back of an auditorium filled with screaming friends and family. As you make your way through HHI’s playlists, you’ll invariably hop over to the archives of other tournaments, like Vibe and anywhere Les Twins perform, but the world championship is a very solid starting place. There are lots of places you can go on the Internet if you want to feel angry; this is one corner guaranteed to put you in a good mood.
Shea Serrano: Property Brothers is a television show that airs on HGTV. It is very easy to like and even easier to understand.
The two stars, Jonathan and Drew, are tall, handsome, identical twins. Within the parameters of the show, Jonathan is a contractor (he almost always wears a flannel shirt, though he also has highlights in his hair, so I figure the flannel is more a design choice specifically for the show than a reflection of his personal tastes) and Drew is a real estate agent (he almost always wears a suit). Together, they work with people to help them find their dream home.
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Each episode’s structure is always the same as the last: The brothers meet a couple (or, on rare occasions, a single person) who is hoping to purchase a home. The first home they all look at, which inevitably meets all the tick marks on the couple’s dream checklist, is always perfect but also always several hundred thousand dollars higher than their max budget. Drew tells them he’s going to show them some fixer-upper places that Jonathan can improve to reflect the couple’s ideal home. Then there’s a bit of hedging (someone always says something like, “I don’t really like the idea of doing a big renovation”), and then the couple agrees to look at them, then blah blah blah blah blah blah — you get it. At the end of the episode, the couple has a remodeled house that they love, and Jonathan and Drew say good-bye and then walk out and the camera stays with them outside and they usually make some sort of smirk-joke as the show goes black.
Now, the show is enjoyable for any number of reasons. They don’t pretend that you’ll ever be able to do any of the stuff they’re doing, so they nearly entirely avoid doing the thing where someone looks into the camera and explains how to properly tape and float drywall or relays a tip for setting tile evenly. They also never fabricate any drama. Even if they happen to have a situation where they go two weeks past an estimated completion date for the renovation, they just say, “We went two weeks past the estimated completion date for the renovation,” and that’s that.
But the show is better than everything else on HGTV because Jonathan and Drew are the very best people who have ever been peopled. Maybe they’re so great because of something immeasurable like their general warmth. Or maybe it’s something structural like the length of their legs or spines (they’re both about 6-foot-5). Or maybe it’s something procedural like the way that they both appear to be very skilled, very capable at their jobs. Maybe it’s a combination of all three. Maybe it’s none of those things. I wish I could explain why they’re so likable, but I’m kind of glad I can’t. Because that probably defeats the whole idea of liking them. It’d be like explaining why chocolate is good or why watching LeBron James supermegasmash dunk on someone is fun. It just is.
Just watch it. That’s the best thing to do. Just watch it.
Molly Lambert: Restaurant Startup is a hybrid reality show — the “real-life money is being invested” aspect of Shark Tank, combined with a cooking competition like MasterChef (where Restaurant Startup’s Joe Bastianich became a reality star). It’s a two-part show, like Law & Order. The first part consists of Bastianich and his fellow chef cohost Tim Love choosing between two companies made up of two-person teams, very often food trucks, for the chance at a potential investment. The second part of the show is the members of the chosen team setting up a temporary restaurant to prove to Joe and Tim they can hack the practical aspects of running a restaurant. They also have to round out their current menu with dishes to impress the judges. During the restaurant-running part of the show, the teams usually undergo a crisis that threatens to tear the business apart. On a recent episode, Joe disparaged a cheftestant’s menu by saying, “Restaurants that don’t have opinions are called diners.” He meant it as a burn, but diners are comforting and formulaic, just like Restaurant Startup.
True Crime Diary
Jason Concepcion: It’s the home stretch of summer, so what better time to stare into the darkness of the human heart? I’ve always had what I consider to be a totally normal interest in crime stories, both true and fictional. I’ve seen every episode of 48 Hours Mystery and have been known to complain when an episode covers a case I am already aware of. Every few months, I manage to fall into Internet rabbit holes like this one, losing entire weekends to contemplating the nature of evil, biology versus nurture, the way society values its citizens, the psyche of the long-haul trucker.
So, now I feel as if I must explain my fascination with crime stories. When you see the effects of violent crime on victims and their families, the natural reaction, I think, is to wonder what makes a person become a criminal. Society? Genetics? Both? Are certain people just evil?
Another person who grapples with these questions in a way that makes me feel much more comfortable with my own interest in the subject is writer Michelle McNamara (wife of Patton Oswalt!), through her website True Crime Diary. I first became aware of McNamara after reading her 2013 story in Los Angeles magazine about the Original Night Stalker, a serial killer linked to as many as 50 sexual assaults and 10 murders, and the efforts of law enforcement and a small band of determined Internet amateurs to identify him. It is an absolutely terrifying read.
True Crime Diary’s archives are unnervingly full of similarly terrifying reads.
What drives a person to write about cold murder cases from around the country from the sunny comfort of her Los Feliz home? McNamara traces her preoccupation with crime to an event from her childhood. “This all started when I was 14. A neighbor of mine was brutally murdered. Very strange case. She was jogging, close to her house. [The police] never solved it. Everyone in the neighborhood was gripped with fear and then moved on. But I never could. I had to figure out how it happened.”
She said it better than I ever could.
The Sword of Doom
Brian Phillips: The Sword of Doom (1966) is one of the bleakest and best of the great samurai movies, a two-hour gaze into the abyss shot in beautiful, overexposed black-and-white. Within the first 10 minutes, the protagonist has murdered a helpless old man on a whim, raped a young woman, and killed her husband in what was supposed to be a nonviolent duel. It gets darker from there. The director, Kihachi Okamoto (who also directed the great jidaigeki parody Kill!), uses the trappings of the samurai genre to explore madness and the nature of evil; this isn’t a ton of fun, but it’s utterly arresting. The main character, a young samurai called Ryunosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai), is superior to all others in combat, but his skill has annihilated any conscience he ever possessed. He moves through the world like an avenging angel or an animal, taking what he pleases and killing whomever he wants. He’s an adolescent power fantasy projected onto an adult universe, which works out about as well as you’d expect. He becomes an outcast. He meets Toshiro Mifune. It doesn’t end with a hug.
Genre fiction can be a good place to examine despair, since they both look silly to normal people. This movie is both the revenge of that idea and its culmination. You’ll remember the stark cinematography and the incredible fight scenes. What stays with me, though, is the look in Nakadai’s eyes moments after slaughtering 40 enemies: pleasure flickering around the edges of horror, filtered through an unimaginable aloofness. It’s wonderful and terrifying and not quite like anything else. Have a nice weekend.
Ben Kweller, “Wasted and Ready”
Amos Barshad: In 1996, The New Yorker’s John Seabrook went to Texas to profile a band called Radish. They were from the tiny town of Greenville; they’d never played a show outside of a school dance or a coffee shop; their frontman was a 14-year-old kid in braces named Ben. But the music industry was still very much living a post-Nirvana life, and Radish had — within a tiny, ravenous circle — been anointed rock-and-roll saviors. In L.A., with the signing battle in full swing, Seabrook recounts Jimmy Iovine’s sales pitch:
A white limousine pulled up in front of the … hotel and took them up the Pacific Coast Highway to Malibu, where they visited Jimmy Iovine, the head of Interscope Records, in his princely villa, which occupies a few acres along the Pacific … Iovine was having a middleweight-championship fight beamed in by means of some fancy satellite hookup, and he had invited a few friends over to watch it — Axl Rose, Tom Petty, Joe Strummer, and Dr. Dre.
While everybody was chilling, someone brought out a guitar and passed it to Petty, who made up a song about “Jimmy Iovine and his football fields of green” — an allusion to a regular touch-football game that various rock stars and label guys used to play together in L.A., until their wives made them stop because they were getting too old and were coming home injured. “Then he passes the guitar to Joe Strummer,” [producer Roger] Greenawalt told me, “and everybody goes, ‘Joe! Play “London Calling,” Joe!’ And Joe says, ‘Fuck you! I’m not playing “London Calling!” And then he plays it. And then Joe says, ‘Here, kid, catch!’ and flings the guitar into the air in the direction of Ben, who is sitting like twenty-five feet across the room. The guitar floats in the air over Iovine’s million-dollar glass coffee table and priceless tchotchkes, but Ben stands up and calmly catches it, sits down, and plays a couple of his songs. And when he was done those guys really gave it up for him.”
It’s a great piece, with one hell of a kicker: The way Radish had come to the attention of the industry elite, it turns out, was through Ben’s general practitioner dad Howie, who’d once played in a band in Bethesda, Maryland, with an accordionist named Nils Lofgren — later, yes, of the E Street Band. Lofgren heard the band’s demos through Howie, passed them on, and an industry starving for good news coronated the fledgling Radish as quickly as humanly possible.
That things didn’t quite pan out as the Radish-heads foresaw is self-evidentiary, but there’s another, sweeter coda to the story. That 14-year-old kid? That was Ben Kweller, the now-33-year-old scene vet and married father of two. And Ben Kweller never became Kurt Cobain, but he would go on to write at least one perfect song. It’s called “Wasted & Ready,” and it’s from Kweller’s 2000 solo debut, Sha Sha.
And knowing that now, do we maybe find that preposterously breathless hype just a tiny bit more warranted? Yes. Yes, we do. Now let us join Axl Rose, Tom Petty, Joe Strummer, and Dr. Dre in giving it up for Ben Kweller.
Sean Fennessey: Oh, hello, here’s another Canadian indie pop group with songs that make you feel alive. And after you have rifled through the collective discographies of the New Pornographers, Stars, Islands, Junior Boys, Hot Hot Heat, and — wow, this subgenre definitely has its own wiki — anyway, once you’re done sampling those thousands of hours, perhaps carve 32 minutes out for Alvvays, a warm and bright addition to the canon. The band’s songs have bass lines like Wire’s, melodies like Teenage Fanclub’s, and the wheedling voice of Molly Rankin, she of the hallowed Rankin Family. “Archie, Marry Me” is pro forma hipster picnic music. So go outside, to a park maybe, and bring a blanket and some cheese, and, if you can still stand yourself by then, press play.
The Years of Lyndon Johnson, by Robert Caro
John Lopez: So why exactly did Bryan Cranston follow up his career-defining role as Walter White by stepping into the shoes of Lyndon Johnson on Broadway? I’d venture a guess that, at some point, he read The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Robert Caro’s mammoth, as-yet-unfinished, multi-volume biography. After winning a Pulitzer Prize for The Power Broker, his biography of reviled New York–shaper Robert Moses, Caro did something crazy: He pulled up stakes, moved to Texas, and dedicated himself to a minute blow-by-blow of LBJ’s entire life in politics. The text already clocks in at four books and more than 3,000 pages, and Caro hasn’t even gotten to the fifth and final volume, detailing Johnson’s presidency — and he’s been at it for more than 30 years now. But if you’ve got a lazy August, now’s the time to tackle those first four.
Don’t worry, they are the absolute opposite of a slog. The reason I recommend them now, during the summer’s slowest month, is because they are only marginally less addictive than Breaking Bad — and they make House of Cards look like an eighth-grade play. If you have any interest in the American political system, the history of the 20th century, or just, say, pure character-driven drama, you will be stealing time away from all your daily duties, familial and professional, to devour these doorstops. (If you lack arm strength, I wholeheartedly recommend a Kindle.) Sure, the ostensible highlights don’t come until Volume 4, as Johnson is sworn in after Kennedy’s assassination. But in this case, the path to power is just as fascinating as the use of power itself. As Caro follows Johnson’s aggressive rise, you’ll learn reams about the development of American politics, the legacy of the New Deal, and why the Senate is an insane place — as well as how Johnson reshaped it in his image. At the center of it all is a president who is equal parts devil and angel, a supremely selfish, ruthless man who effected some of the greatest changes in American society — a one-of-a-kind character who ranks with Shakespeare’s most twisted heroes and his most tragic villains. Maybe that’s why Cranston figured LBJ was the perfect follow-up to Walter White.
The Cormoran Strike Novels
Mallory Rubin: Robert Galbraith, like J.K. Rowling, is a masterful storyteller who’s exceptionally adept at spinning mysteries, crafting winning male leads, and finding hope in dark places.
Which makes sense, because Robert Galbraith happens to be J.K. Rowling.
This June, while writing under the Galbraith pseudonym, Rowling published the second novel in her Cormoran Strike series. Like Galbraith’s debut novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling, the second installment, The Silkworm, is a gripping read that takes about as long to tear through as it takes to download to your Kindle. If you loved the Harry Potter books and have been itching to get some more JKR in your life, you’ll quickly take to these detective stories; you’ll hear people call the one-legged Strike and his sidekick Robin a modern-day Holmes and Watson, but they’re really a grown-up version of your favorite Gryffindor heroes. If you were one of those sad, lost souls who avoided HP because it seemed like “kid’s stuff,” know that the Strike novels contain enough sex, guts, and curse words to please Ron and make Professor McGonagall’s toes curl. And if you like knowing there’s more of a good thing coming your way, get pumped: Rowling is reportedly set to pen seven books.
There may not be wands or invisibility cloaks or Quidditch in Strike’s world. But there’s plenty of magic.
The Filmography of Brendon Gleeson
Charles P. Pierce: Almost 20 years ago, I was hanging around the Wicklow Mountains in Ireland on the set of Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins biopic. At a dead moment in the shooting day, I fell into conversation with Brendan Gleeson, who was portraying Liam Tobin, one of Collins’s most trusted aides. This was particularly ironic because (1) Gleeson looks much more like Collins than does Liam Neeson, who played Collins, and (2) Gleeson already had played The Big Fella in an Irish TV production about the negotiations around the treaty that ended the Irish War of Independence. As I recall, we had a good laugh about all of that, and about the Wicklow Mountains masquerading as west Cork. He was a good man for the craic, as they say.
Since then, Gleeson has become one of our great character actors, with his big meaty face and the deviltry in his eyes. He was a superb Mad-Eye Moody in the Harry Potter films, and, in the giant gator classic Lake Placid, you could see he never lost his appreciation for the absurdity of the plot. In smaller movies, he is a genuine star: a terrifying Dublin gangster in The General, the befuddled hit man in In Bruges, and hilarious as a local cop trying to remove the stick from the ass of Don Cheadle’s FBI man in The Guard. This month, he stars as a country priest in Calvary, a film by John Michael McDonagh, the brother of playwright Martin, and the reviews are over the moon.
But that’s not the whole reason to recommend him. For years now, Gleeson has been trying to make a movie out of Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds, which those of us in the cult believe is the greatest novel ever written and, perhaps, completely unfilmable. Last time I checked, Gleeson had just about every living Irish actor attached to the project, but the production was stalled. I hope your man soldiers on with it, though. He is a good man for the craic.
Jonas Hellborg & Shawn Lane, Temporal Analogues of Paradise
Steve McPherson: The term “guilty pleasure” is usually reserved for brainless pop fluff, but I’ve never felt guilty about enjoying something specifically manufactured for enjoyment. What I do feel guilty about enjoying is Temporal Analogues of Paradise, a two-track, 60-minute album stuffed to the gills with janky time signatures, instrumental guitar pyrotechnics, cringe-inducing pop-and-slap bass solos and — oh yes — flagrantly polyrhythmic drum improvisation. Recorded by Jonas Hellborg (bass), Shawn Lane (guitar), and Jeff Sipe (drums) in 1995 and ’96 on a European tour and then stitched together into two “movements,” Temporal Analogues openly violates just about every rule about concision and good taste in instrumental music. And yet.
It’s almost as if they passed through the black hole of total virtuosity and came out the other side into something altogether different. In spite of the chops on display, the album is moody and evocative, approaching meditative ambience not through spareness but through overwhelming fullness. The opening of the second movement has a languorous, deep summertime quality, fat white clouds approaching from the distance and eventually exploding into lightning and thunder. A lot of the record’s textural richness is thanks to the late Shawn Lane, whose guitar work approaches a Coltrane-esque, “sheets of sound” level, a place far beyond playing wicked, wicked fast.
But there’s also the stitching. As an organizing principle, this ex post facto collaging shifts the album into Bitches Brew or In a Silent Way territory, imposing a grander structure that blurs the lines between different sections. When I first discovered this record in college, I eagerly gobbled up every Hellborg/Lane collaboration I could find, but this is the only one that still endures, the one I still reach back for, its winding solos and steep time shifts a well-worn geography for me now.
The Panda Express Orange Chicken Burrito
Danny Chau: Last month, the Panda Express Innovation Kitchen opened in Pasadena, California, mere blocks away from the 41-year-old Panda Inn — the original ancestor of the more than 1,500 Panda Express locations in the States, and the Virgin Mary of American-Chinese fast food. The Innovation Kitchen is, as its name suggests, a test lab to iron out new visions of the food future. Its décor is unsettlingly beautiful. There are more than four TVs mounted on the walls in a lounge area, complete with varnished wood coffee tables, adjacent to a tea bar where you could purchase a grapefruit oolong iced tea, if you’d like.
It’s all very nice, but would be immaterial if it weren’t for the restaurant’s most radical vision (and probably its main reason for existence): the option to wrap your food in a scallion pancake, thus creating a Panda Express burrito. If you were anything like me growing up, you often thought about the concept of an orange chicken burrito. It was your white whale, your holy grail. You’d visit a Golden Corral, making a beeline for the vaguely ethnic section of the buffet to see if you could pull it off — not even the overwhelming smell of melting plastic emanating from the Chocolate Wonderfall could deter you from harpooning Moby-Dick once and for all. Alas, it was never as good as you’d hoped, and the unbearable longing continued.
This single Panda Express in Pasadena is killing that longing, and reviving the fantasy. Hopefully in the near future, the rest of the country can feel what I felt when I took my first bite of this:
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