Top Chef, S12E10.

This week’s Klawchat transcript is up. Otherwise, I’m just plugging away on phone calls for the top 100 prospects package.

Five chefs left…

Top Chef logo* Quickfire: Andy Cohen and his college roommate, Dave Ansel. Andy apparently smoked a lot of weed in college and ate a lot of late-night snacks. Ramen challenge.

* Instant noodles … and five students from Emerson walk in with grocery bags with stuff they found in their dorm rooms. This could be horrendous. No immunity, but there’s a $5K prize – we haven’t had enough of those cash prizes this year.

* I had a lot of detailed notes on this quickfire, but the whole thing is just gross. Gregory is scraping the toppings off an Uno’s pizza – the only thing worse than deep-dish pizza is bad chain deep-dish pizza – and that’s not even the bottom of the barrel. There are Doritos and Fritos and spam and I think I’m going to be sick.

* Winner: Melissa. Yet hers had no broth – it was like a mac and cheese with ramen, rather than a bowl of ramen in soup or stock – while Andy and Dave dinged Mei’s for lacking broth. I’m just glad this whole thing is over. I couldn’t have any less interest in seeing what talented professional chefs can do with highly processed foods as ingredients.

* Back to the stew room. The chefs watch a classic video of Julia Child cooking with Jacques Pepin, after which Jacques Pepin walks in with Padma and says, “I come with the wine and a beautiful woman.” It’s charming with a French accent but probably creepy without it.

* Elimination challenge: Take inspiration from Julia Child’s style and from some of her favorite dishes to “make a dish worthy of Julia’s legacy.” Oh, no big deal, then.

* Pepin discusses her tastes and personality with the chefs, saying that when he first met her he thought “she was a big woman with a terrible voice.” She hated grilled vegetables, which I find very odd since the application of high heat can bring out some of the natural sugars. She liked vegetables individually seasoned, rather than all lumped together in a single dish. Presentation never came at the expense of taste for her.

Julia Child brought French cuisine to the masses in the United States, she created the modern cooking show, and I think she was among the first people, maybe the first of all, to reemphasize the importance of cooking at home for yourself to Americans. But for all her influence, Julia Child was an early opponent of small-scale organic farming, siding with the Big Food-backed American Council on Science and Health, more recently in the news for its industry-fueled support for fracking. Child also backed genetically-modified foods and the use of irradiation to fight food-borne illnesses. She hated anything that reeked of scaremongering, but to the point where she seemed to be contrarian rather than strictly pro-science, declining to consider that some of that food-safety activism (e.g., opposing heavy use of pesticides) may be based on hard science too.

Anyway, it’s kind of awesome that someone of Pepin’s caliber would come on this show. I’m sure he was paid handsomely, but does he need that at this point, or is he just here for love of the game, so to speak?

* Gregory seems like a longtime Child fan, saying he watched her shows as a kid, watching her make cassoulets and braises with tons of sauce; he’s making coq au vin as his tribute dish, although that’s really a multi-day, many-hour process and I don’t envy him that task.

* Doug calls Jacques “peh-PEEN.” I mean, I know you don’t need to speak French to be a great chef, but he sounded like he was mispronouncing it on purpose. He’s roasting whole loaves of foie gras; I wasn’t aware Whole Foods even carried that much foie. By the way, cheers to the federal court that overturned California’s ridiculous ban on the sale of foie gras. Not only can it be produced humanely, but foie production isn’t a public-health issue like factory-farming practices used for cattle and poultry, such as prophylactic use of antibiotics.

* George is making osso buco (cross-cut veal shanks, braised and usually served with risotto), but is using a pressure cooker because he’s concerned the shanks won’t have enough time in the oven. We see undercooked braises all the time on Top Chef – didn’t Keriann make this mistake with short ribs this very season – so I’m glad to see someone actually break out the pressure cooker to deal with the artificial time constraints.

* Melissa gets all haughty and says Julia would never have touched a pressure cooker. Julia disliked their looks, but was open to using them if they could be shown to produce a better result (from Laura Shapiro’s biography, Julia Child: A Life). I prefer traditional braises too, in the oven or via a slow-cooker, but I also work at home and have no problem babysitting a braise all day. Most people don’t have that luxury, so if you want to braise something in a pressure cooker, go for it. If there’s a tiny loss of quality – and I’m not sure there is – it’s a reasonable price to pay for getting something on the table.

* Mei is making duck a l’orange, but giving it her own twist by using five-spice powder (usually star anise, cinnamon, cloves, Sichuan pepper, and fennel seeds) with the duck, which she’s preparing in the pressure cooker too.

* Jacques reaches right into Gregory’s pots to taste the sauces. Tom is impressed that he’s actually “doing a roux.” Isn’t that how you make coq au vin?

* Melissa’s short ribs aren’t braising as much as she wanted, so she’s hoping for them to finish via carryover. Maybe you wish you’d used the pressure cookers, eh?

* On day two, Gregory reheats his chicken, tastes it, but finds it overacidic and salty, so he has to add more broth and reseason because the flavors “exacerbated” overnight. Which leads me to a question for any food scientists in the crowd: Most chefs and food writers will tell you that braises improve after a rest overnight. But why? What’s happening off the heat (and in the fridge) to improve the taste or texture?

* Ugh, Dana Downer is in the house. On the bright side, Hugh is back! Joanne Chang, owner/chef at flour cafe, is here too. Did you know there’s a Flour cookbook? I might need to check that out.

* First up, Gregory’s coq au vin. He did a study abroad program and tells the table that his host mother in France made dishes like this. He serves his with glazed carrots, fava beans, and snap peas. It’s really well cooked, although it seems like some of the judges/diners wanted more sauce.

* Mei: duck a l’orange with turnip puree, orange puree, and glazed vegetable. Unlike Gregory’s, which was straight-up traditional, Mei’s dish was cooked in the spirit of classical French cooking but executed with a more modern style. Everyone raves, as they did with Gregory’s, perhaps a bit more so.

* Kind of wishing that Julia Child’s kitchen was still on display in Cambridge so the show could have visited it; it’s on display at the Smithsonian instead, donated by her in 2002.

* George: braised veal shanks with pomme puree, morels, glazed carrots, and asparagus. Dana likes that everything was cooked separately and combined later. Tom says the veal was a tad underseasoned, Barbara wanted a tad more butter, and it seems like George could have cooked the meat “20 minutes longer.”

* Melissa: red wine-braised short rib with brown butter polenta and jardiniere (a mixture of spring vegetables, often canned and/or pickled). Hugh asks, “what’s up with the deep charring?” and Tom says the sauce is a little bitter, two things that are likely connected. Had Melissa gone straight to the the pressure cooker, none of this would ever have happened. Dana was “expecting them to be more unctuous and juicy,” but unctuous (greasy or oily) isn’t a desirable quality in a short rib or in a person.

* Doug: whole roasted foie gras loaves with roasted peaches, sweet and sour onions, and hazelnuts. He seared the loaves and then roasted them, but they turned out overseared and undercooked, while they needed to rest further. Joanne says her end piece was perfectly cooked, but she seems to be the only one. Hugh sounds like he’s eulogizing the plate when he says, “it’s a good dish, just undercooked the foie, it’s a good dish.”

* Tom points out that the dishes that didn’t do so well were ones where the technique was wrong. Three chefs didn’t really execute their proteins, and two did. At this point, I thought it was pretty obvious who was going home – the chef who did the worst job of cooking his protein.

* Hugh is at Judges’ Table. Hugh should always be at Judges’ Table. His blog post this week was outstanding, as always, and includes a great baseball joke too.

* Gregory and Mei were the top two chefs. Gregory’s was straightforward, while Mei took inspiration but added her own twist. Mei wins and tears right up. I think it’s fitting that a female chef should win a Julia challenge, given the latter’s influence in the field. Gregory doesn’t seem the least bit upset by this, but he’s a pretty Zen guy overall.

* Hugh said Doug’s dish was the most ambitious and risk-taking of the five, but the interior was completely raw. Julia was all about mastering the art of French technique. I mean, she kind of wrote the book on that, right?

* Doug is eliminated. That’s a damn shame, but he had the worst dish and the worst execution. The group seems a lot more somber to lose him than, say, Katsuji.

* Rankings: Gregory, Mei, George, Melissa.

* LCK: When Tom says to Doug “you’re here because you undercooked your foie gras,” Katsuji snickers, and Doug says “you know what that is?” without missing a beat. The challenge is to use pork, beef, or goat liver, with just 20 minutes to cook it. Doug says goat liver is too gamy and sinewy, but Katsuji takes that because he’s cooked goat before. He says he doesn’t cook liver because it’s not kosher. (Not quite true – it can be kashered, but with liver it’s not a simple process, and requires broiling to remove the blood from the organ, which must happen with 72 hours of slaughter.) Rebecca says if you overcook liver it’s dry, disgusting, and tastes like “pennies.” I assume that’s why some recipes call for soaking livers before cooking – to remove that metallic taste. Tom says all three guys did well, but Katsuji’s liver wasn’t cleaned properly, leaving it tough and sinewy, so despite great flavors he is eliminated. Doug’s dish was the favorite, and I’ll take him to win LCK unless we get Gregory or Mei off the main ship in the next episode.

Saturday five, 1/2/15.

I wrote two Insider pieces this week, on the Marlon Byrd trade and on both the Banuelos/Carpenter-Shreve and Maurer/Smith trades.

saturdayfiveMy review of the boardgame Istanbul is up over at Paste.

I’m going to be offline most of this weekend for my grandmother’s funeral, which includes social media. I’ll be back to regular business, whatever that is, on Monday.

This week’s links:

  • From GOOD, a guide to cooking with blood. Hey, if you’re talking whole-animal eating, that means the whole animal. Besides, black pudding is delicious.
  • Slate brought this 2010 piece back around the other day – a semi-vegan writer claiming vegans should eat oysters without reservations. Then he kind of ignores one of the central tenets of veganism, so he fails on that point, but the arguments about eating oysters for their sustainability and because they don’t feel pain the way mammals or birds do are more interesting. My comment when this surfaced on my Facebook feed was that you should eat whatever you feel comfortable eating, without worrying about what to call yourself.
  • Researchers find the ancient genetic link between fish fins and animal hands. I feel like someone was asking for this recently.
  • More great news for readers of dead-tree editions: It’s better for your brain. OK, maybe it’s better for your brain, although there’s some selection bias at work here. Also, I have no idea what the photo of a woman reading while wearing a mini-dress is supposed to add to this article.
  • A wonderful comic on how vaccines work and why they matter. No new material here, just a great presentation. I’d be curious whether this changes any vaccination denier’s thinking, though. You really can’t fix stupid.
  • Some delusional old man in Omaha thinks he’s building a warp drive in his garage. Of course, you wouldn’t immediately know that this guy was a crank, because the article treats this as a serious proposition, even though such a contraption would require both 1) negative mass and 2) greater quantities of energy than humanity has ever been able to produce, all of which I would view as kind of a dealbreaker.

Love Letter.

Happy New Year to all of you. I’ll be scarce over the next few days, as my grandmother’s funeral is this weekend. My piece on the Marlon Byrd trade is up for Insiders.

Love Letter is probably the best $7 you’ll spend on a game, and the most surprising too – the entire game is a 16-card deck, and the theme looks silly, but the gameplay itself is fun and fast as long as you have more than two players.

In Love Letter, players take on the roles of suitors for a princess who’s about to inherit her country’s throne, and must compete to earn tokens of her affection – little red cubes that come with the game to keep track of scoring. Each round ends with one player winning a cube, and the first player to get four cubes (in a four-player game) wins the game and the princess’ heart. (The threshold is five cubes in a three-player game and seven cubes in a two-player game, but I don’t recommend Love Letter for two players.)

Each round begins with one card removed from the deck and a card dealt to each player. There are eight card types in the deck, each with a special ability or rule printed on it:

On your turn, you draw the top card from the face-down deck and must decide whether to discard your hand card or the new card, although you may be forced to discard one of them based on the combination of cards you’re holding. The card you discard is the one you play – you take the action printed on the card, if there is one, usually directed at an opposing player. Five of the sixteen cards in the deck are Guards, which allow you to point at an opponent and guess what card s/he is holding; if you guess correctly, that player is out of the round. If you discard a Prince card, you can force an opponent to discard his hand card and draw a new one – and if he was holding the Princess card, he’s out of the round. You can try to knock another player out with the Baron, but if she has a higher card than you do, then you’re out of the round. The winner at the end of the round is either the last player standing after all others have been knocked out or the player with the highest-valued card of players still remaining. The game can’t go more than thirteen rounds, regardless of the number of players, and takes maybe 20 minutes once everyone understands the rules.

There isn’t a ton of strategy involved in Love Letter, because so much of what happens is either random or dictated by other players (e.g., if someone uses the Priest to see your hand card, you probably have to swap it out on your next turn or s/he could use a Guard to knock you out). Those same factors make it a terrible two-player game – it’s almost paint-by-numbers at that point – and in some ways it’s more like a family-party game than a family-strategy game, albeit one that won’t insult anyone’s intelligence while delivering a lot of laughs. It’s a very easy game for people to act silly and start taunting other players, and you have to be okay with getting knocked out occasionally before you even get to draw your first card.

If you don’t love the theme, two rethemed versions are due in 2015 – one a licensed tie-in with the Hobbit films that adds a new card to the deck, and one a Batman-themed game set in Arkham Asylum that appears to be the same as the original Love Letter deck. The theme didn’t bother us at all – it’s just artwork, really – and there’s enough replay value to get more than your seven bucks’ worth out of it.

Among Others.

Jo Walton’s novel Among Others, winner of both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novel in 2012, is nothing like any of the other major science fiction or fantasy titles I’ve read. The story is instead a tender coming-of-age narrative with just a dash of magic thrown in, and the book as a whole functions as a paean to the classics of both genres, succeeding because of the appeal of its narrator-protagonist even though there’s minimal action in the novel itself. (The Kindle version is still just $2.99 through that link, more than worth the price.)

Morwenna Phelps (who goes by Mor or Mori) is a 15-year-old Welsh girl who has been left disabled after what is described for much of the book as a battle with her mother, an evil and/or insane witch, a battle that killed Mor’s twin sister. Mor is now at an English boarding school where she’s been sent by her estranged father, with whom she has no relationship (he walked out when she and her sister were babies) but forges a tenuous bond over their shared love of science fiction and fantasy novels – Mor reads more than any human being I’ve ever met, on the order of about 300 books a year given how quickly Walton has her going through titles in the story. As Mor goes through typical teenage stuff – dealing with cliques and ostracism, gaining and losing friends over trifles, taking her first steps into dating – she’s also dealing with the aftermath of what happened with her mother, trying to make sense of everything through books and through her limited magical abilities, which she’s reluctant to use.

Mor reminded me greatly of Flavia de Luce, the chemistry-obsessed heroine of Alan Bradley’s six mystery novels (beginning with The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie), but a few years older and therefore dealing with more real-world issues – the stuff we might see Flavia encounter now that Bradley has agreed to write four more stories with his star moving to boarding school in Canada. Mor’s experiences in boarding school are tame by today’s standards, but the point isn’t to watch her suffer or squirm – it’s to watch her cope using her relationship with fiction both in direct (finding shared interest in books with peers and adults alike) and indirect (taking lessons from the novels she’s read) fashion. Among Others is a wonderful book, but seeing it win all of these genre awards reminded me of Argo and The Artist doing the same in cinema: They won movie awards because both movies were about how great the movies are. Maybe Walton won because she wrote a book about the power of science fiction and fantasy novels, not to mention a guide to the best of the genres up to the late 1970s. The same novel without the elegaic aspect would have been just as successful as literature, but would it still have earned the same plaudits?

The magical/fantasy aspects of Among Others are part of the background fabric of the novel, rather than central to its story, which I believe is essential for genre fiction to be more than just, well, genre fiction. Mor’s magical skills are mostly limited to her ability to see ethereal creatures she calls “fairies” for lack of any more accurate term, and some power to cast spells that she barely uses; when the soft climax of a rematch with her mother occurs, Mor doesn’t use magic to fight, relying on her emerging self-confidence and ability to control her racing mind to defeat her mother’s ambush. But the bulk of the magic has happened already in the book’s past and comes to the reader slowly via Mor’s diary entries as she opens up to a few friends, particularly the fellow outcast Wim, about what actually happened and what she’s able to see. This book is all epilogue, creating a challenge for Walton to grab and hold the reader’s attention; she does it best because Morwenna herself is so compelling, insightful and intelligent beyond her years, yet still in many ways a child, trying to navigate adolescence on top of the challenges of having an crazy, power-hungry witch for a mother. If Walton wants to give us more of Morwenna’s story, before or after the events of Among Others, I’m all for it.

Next up: After I finish Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat today, I’ll start Margery Allingham’s The Tiger in the Smoke, one of the Albert Campion mysteries and apparently an inspiration for J.K. Rowling’s Cormoran Strike novels.

Have a safe New Year’s Eve, everyone.

To Say Nothing of the Dog.

Connie Willis’ Hugo-winning novel To Say Nothing of the Dog is a tight mélange of three distinct styles of fiction: A comedy of manners, a time-travel novel, and a literary parody, all tied up into a coherent single narrative that reminded me of Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next novels, less witty but more sophisticated in structure and story.

Ned Henry works as a time-travelling historian in the 2040s, helping the imperious Lady Schrapnell rebuild the Coventry Cathedral in as authentic a fashion as possible, which means jumping back to just before the Luftwaffe’s raid on Coventry to see what the cathedral looked like, including the evasive (and very ugly) bishop’s bird stump, a wrought-iron monstrosity that has disappeared from the records and the scene. When one of Ned’s colleagues, the beautiful Verity Kindle, appears to break the rules of time-travel by bringing a non-insignificant object back from a trip to the 1880s, Ned is sent backwards in time to try to undo the damage, dropping himself into a Wodehousian setup of mismatched couples, mistaken identities, charlatans, mad mothers, and precious fishes – to say nothing of the dog.

Willis’ title comes from Jerome K. Jerome’s fictional travelogue, Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog), which I’m reading now to try to catch up on the allusions I missed. (One is off base, though; Willis puts an actual dog in Jerome’s boat, even though the real-life boat trip that Jerome used as the basis for his book did not include the canine Montmorency.) Fforde’s literary allusions and stabs at satire were broader and easier to catch; Willis succeeds more in the other two aspects of her novel, mimicking the Victorian comedy of manners (and, later, early 20th century English mysteries) and utilizing time-travel as more than just a plot device.

Willis’ time travel involves a self-correcting “continuum” that works to prevent historical incongruities that would change future events; for example, historians who attempt to travel back in time to assassinate Hitler can’t land anywhere close (in space-time) to him. Jumps into the past can create “slippage” of time or space that increases around a potential incongruity, so when Verity brings back something she shouldn’t have (in fact, that the “net” of time-travel should have prevented her from bringing back at all), the scientists assume they’ve created an incongruity and worked to correct it.

The shift from the imitation of comic novels – including the Jeeves-like butler Baine, who did, in fact do it, but “it” isn’t the it you think it might be – to a mystery that takes on aspects of those of Agatha Christie and especially Dorothy Sayers (the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries), with Ned and Verity working together to try to figure out where the bishop’s bird stump has gone, what the incongruity might be, and how to fix it. As in Christie’s novels, there are side mysteries, such as what Ned’s colleague Finch is doing running around in 1888 pretending to butle while on a secret mission for the time-travel department, or why the continuum sends Ned back to a dark tower in the late 1300s when he was just trying to get back to the present.

The greatest strength of the book is the Victorian characters, who are mostly of the upper-class twit variety, including the domineering yet gullible Mrs. Mering, her simpering daughter Tocelyn (“Tossie”), and the fraudulent psychic Madame Iritosky. We’re also treated to an ongoing debate between two professors of history in 1888, Professor Overforce and Professor Peddick, whose argument on the nature of free will and the causes of history itself dovetails nicely with the overall theme of the net, the continuum, and self-correction of incongruities. There’s also a plethora of silly (but still funny) jokes around confusion of names and people, and a fair bit of physical comedy as well.

To Say Nothing of the Dog drags for a short stretch after Ned has first arrived in 1888, once when we’re waiting for him to realize what he’s brought back for Verity (it’s obvious to the reader from the start) and another time when we’d really like the Merings to just get on with whatever it is they’re supposed to be getting on with, two sections where the situational humor can’t mitigate the glacial pacing of the plot. Those are temporary, and once Ned and Verity get cracking on the ultimate mystery of the continuum’s odd behavior, the narrative steps on the gas and doesn’t let up until a rousing, pitch-perfect finish that wraps up almost every plot thread but leaves one critical question unanswered for us and for the characters, an ambiguity that would have driven Hercule Poirot’s little grey cells to spontaneous combustion.

Next up: Before tackling Jerome K. Jerome, I knocked off Jo Walton’s Hugo winner, the wonderful novel Among Others, which is on sale for $2.99 in the Kindle edition through that link.

Saturday five, 12/27/14.

This is up a bit late, due to the holiday, travel, and a visit with family that includes seeing my grandmother, who is now in hospice after renal failure and is not expected to live more than a few more days. She turned 100 in June and in many ways was a third parent to me, there for most of the significant events of my childhood, the person I woke up to see when I was three years old and my mother had left for the hospital during the night to give birth to my sister. I’ve known this day would come for a long time, but it hasn’t made seeing her like this any easier.

I haven’t had any ESPN content this week, but my top ten new boardgames of 2014 ranking is up for Paste. There’s some overlap with my overall top 60 boardgames ranking from November, but the Paste list includes a few I hadn’t played enough to include in the global list.

This week’s links:

  • Quantum physics just got less complicated. That might be overselling it – we’re not about to start teaching it in kindergarten – but the study discussed here claims that wave-particle duality (that a particle can behave like a wave, or a wave like light can behave like a particle) is just one manifestation of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.
  • An amazing video collage of twisted snowmen from Calvin and Hobbes. Watterson’s strip was brilliant across the board, but I don’t think I enjoyed anything as much as Calvin’s demented snow sculptures.
  • This woman collected all her trash from a single year and fit it into a mason jar. I think it’s amazing that anyone could cut down on her trash production to this extent, although the woman also clearly has no kids or pets, and she must go through a lot of water to clean all of the reusable cloths she has to use. It’s still a great thought experiment – you can recycle more stuff than you think, and you can absolutely cut down on your trash with some effort. I’d even argue, based mostly on my own experience, that the 80/20 rule applies: 20% of the effort will cut down on 80% of your trash. Composting, better recycling, and smarter shopping do it pretty painlessly.
  • The science behind catnip’s effect on cats. The best part here was the embedded video of big cats getting high off the stuff.
  • Twitter doesn’t think these rape/death threats are harassment. I love Twitter for a lot of reasons, but their response to obvious harassment of women is inadequate if not embarrassing. The company has every right to sweep these trolls right off their service, but they hide behind a vague concept of free speech. Save that stuff for anti-government activists fighting autocratic regimes, not for anonymous cowards trying to scare women.

Broadchurch vs. Gracepoint.

The 2013 ITV series Broadchurch was a single-story, eight-episode arc that began with the discovery of the body of 11-year-old Danny Latimer on the beach of the small Dorsetine tourist town and followed the investigation led by new Detective Inspector Alec Hardy and Detective Sergeant Ellie Miller, whose son Tom was Danny’s best friend. The series focused on the personal impacts of Danny’s death and the subsequent revelations uncovered by the police, the media (local and national), and through the consequences of the various questions those entities ask of anyone who might have been connected to the crime. By splitting the show’s attention across two foci, the writers gave us something we seldom see: a show about a murder that depicted real grief, sorrow, anger, and denial. The script gave the characters the space to develop the depth to make them play like real people, able to show a broad range of traits and emotions that don’t appear in shows that try to tell a story in just 44 minutes.

Broadchurch earned broad critical acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic, winning the BAFTA for best drama in 2013 while Olivia Colman won best actress for her performance as D.S. Miller and David “Argus Filch” Bradley won for best supporting actor for his role as Jack Marshall. Alan Sepinwall of HitFix named it one of his top 20 shows of 2013 as well. The show was a huge commercial success in the U.K., and will return for a second season next month, even though its creators originally conceived the series as a one-and-done.

Of course, this called for an American-made version to air on a U.S. network, because God forbid anyone ask us to watch a show that isn’t set here. At times a shot-for-shot remake of the original, Gracepoint lengthened the series by 25%, spending more time with side characters and misdirections that blurred the sharp focus of Broadchurch on the people involved. The superlative cast of the American series continually delivered, with David Tennant reprising his role as D.I. Hardy (renamed Emmett Carver, because reasons), two-time Emmy winner Anna Gunn (Breaking Bad) as Ellie, two-time Oscar nominee Jacki Weaver (Silver Linings Playbook) as Susan Wright, and three-time Oscar nominee Nick Nolte as the renamed Jack Reinhold. I doubt any will receive major award nominations, given the mediocre reception critics gave the remake, but all four were above the threshold for consideration, especially Weaver. However, the story meandered away from the heart of what made Broadchurch great – the focus on the emotional lives of its characters – in what I think was a misguided attempt to heighten the mystery, which misunderstood the point of the original series entirely.

I’m still convinced the main reason FOX chose to remake Broadchurch rather than air the original is the accents. David Tennant’s Scottish accent isn’t as easy to understand as an upper-class English accent would be, and I think in general there’s a belief in Hollywood that Americans won’t watch a TV show where all of the dialogue comes at them in the King’s English. (You’d think by now the success of Downton Abbey would have left that myth as dead as a doornail.) The former part I can understand – I had a few instances where I had to rewind to catch something Tennant said – but I hold no truck with the latter. And FOX made the innkeeper character Becca into English expatriate (named Gemma) on Gracepoint, even though she wasn’t American on Broadchurch.

Such changes in characters made up the bulk of the gap between the American and British versions of the show, and in almost every instance, the alterations were for the worse. Gracepoint appeared to be trying far too hard to appeal to the audience, commensurate with the #SuspectEveryone marketing campaign, with multiple characters rewritten or recast to be more suspicious or just creepier:

* The vicar Paul Coates is just that, a clergyman who runs the town’s computer club for kids and plays the peacemaker in a town with few churchgoers; the American priest Paul has carried a torch for Danny’s mom for over a decade, and becomes increasingly forward with her rather than just providing comfort and counsel, while he engages in a sort of cold war with her husband, Mark.

* Both versions of Mark commit the same transgressions, but the American one is colder to his wife, openly hostile to Paul, and miserly with his employee Vince.

* Vince – called Nige in the British version, which won’t do because no one born in America has ever been named “Nige” – is an angry but sometimes well-meaning simpleton in Broadchurch; his American counterpart is constantly scowling, is more devious and greedy than Nige, and is shown butchering something (which turns out to be a deer he shot) in his shed.

* Susan Wright is irredeemable in both versions, but she’s far more sinister in the remake, appearing to threaten Tom and frequently seen spying on others’ in the background; the only time she reveals her true nature in the original is the threat to Maggie.

* Maggie, meanwhile, was turned into a bad punchline in Gracepoint. The original Maggie receives no backstory; we hear nothing of a personal life or her orientation. The American version is a lesbian who says she “realized (she) didn’t like penises,” and is given a raccoon-like hairstyle that ages her at least ten years. (I assumed her character was supposed to be in her late 40s or early 50s, given her looks and demeanor, but the actress portraying her is only 38.) There was no point to revealing Kathy’s orientation other than to provide a token gay character and play it for that one cheap laugh; her personal life never comes into play in the story, and she’s largely a minor character the rest of the way.

* Karen White, the big-city reporter in Broadchurch, shows actual signs of humanity when her articles on Jack are rewritten to vilify the shopkeeper, and again at the end of episode eight when she twice shows her remorse through tiny yet significant actions. Her American doppelganger, Renee Clemons, has no second dimension beyond her ambition, and appears to be there just to look hot and annoy the viewers with her lack of empathy. She doesn’t appear at all in the Gracepoint finale.

* Even Chloe’s character changed, although at least the Gracepoint actress looked like she could possibly be the biological child of the two actors playing her parents. The American version was more rebellious, and what was an innocent “happy room” her boyfriend created for her in Broadchurch became a more sexualized dance in the bar area by the docks.

There were character shifts in the American version that worked, but those appeared more organic, the result of different casting rather than changes in dialogue or actions. Anna Gunn’s Ellie is a stronger character from start to finish – less mousy, more vocal, less tolerant of Carver’s indignities as they happen, although in the end none of it amounts to much given the conclusion of the story. Jacki Weaver, who was amazing as the matriarch of an Australian crime family in Animal Kingdom, made Susan Wright more three-dimensional with her portrayal, making her seem almost addled at times even as she reveals herself to be vindictive. I found it easier to accept her as a victim than the English version, played more stoically by Pauline Quirke. (According to the Broadchurch wikia, Vince the dog was played Quirke’s dog Bailey.)

Tennant’s performances varied beyond the shift to an American accent – which never bothered me in the least, although I’ve seen several critics harp on it as a problem for them – as he was more curt and dismissive with Ellie in Gracepoint, lacking the signs of empathy he flickered in the last few episodes of Broadchurch. His heart ailment seemed to only factor into the core narrative as a way to force a time limit on the investigation, since he has just a few hours to finish the case before he’s forced to take a medical leave. However, the American remake’s insertion of his daughter as a brief subplot proved a complete waste of time, a way to stretch the original series by 88 minutes of content.

Red herrings – like the backpacker, who was a total dead end – ended up giving Gracepoint a sense of density and slower pacing than Broadchurch with no added payoff; if anything, the result was a net negative, taking a series that focused exceptionally well on the emotional impacts of the murder of a child and the ensuing investigation and turning it into a murder mystery. American police procedurals rarely give much if any screen time to grief; we get a quick police interview with the next of kin, some tears or perhaps some wailing, and then we don’t see the family member again unless s/he is the killer. Broadchurch threw that script out the window; the fabric of Danny’s family starts to strain at the seams, while the investigation ruins one man’s life and exposes secrets and lies in those of several others. The finale of Broadchurch was more British than any other aspect of the series: It was slow by design, so that the viewer couldn’t help but linger over the wounds opened or reopened by the revelation of the killer’s identity, followed by the beautifully shot memorial, for a much stronger buildup to Paul’s “I passed the word; maybe the word was good” response that closes the season.

Below this point, I’ll discuss the ending and the identity of the murder. If you haven’t watched either series, you may wish to stop now.

The writers made a slight change to the conclusion of Broadchurch when remaking it as Gracepoint, although the shift was as much about motive as it was identity, providing a much less satisfying explanation in the end while also straining credibility around Tom’s ability to keep his part of the secret from his mom for the entire length of the investigation. It points, again, to the American version’s compulsion to sharpen its edges, which felt to me like a way of talking down to an American audience that FOX felt wanted a bigger emotional impact. (The conclusion didn’t matter for viewership, though; the series was DOA after the first week’s ratings were weak, something I blame on FOX marketing the show strictly as a murder mystery rather than as a high-quality drama.)

Danny’s murder at the hands of Joe was half a surprise, because the writers shoved it in our faces in the penultimate episode’s confrontation between Ellie and Susan outside the police station, where Ellie asks Susan,
“How could you not know?” and thus sets herself up for an ironic outcome where she learns just how Susan might not have known what was happening in her own house. That heavy-handedness aside, however, the writers did a better job planting the seeds for Joe’s role in Danny’s death in both versions of the show, depicting him at various points as a devoted father and husband who finds himself gradually fading in importance from the lives of his wife and older son. It was a simple explanation, one that took place right under the noses of everyone in town, and Danny’s death is the result of the unmollified rage of a repressed pedophile. Gracepoint made Joe’s attraction to Danny more explicit, and turned Danny’s death into a tragic accident that involved Tom, who was trying to protect his friend, not hurt him. Such things can happen, of course, but the crime was no longer a murder, but the ensuing coverup by Joe. It felt like a change for change’s sake, made because the American series had to offer a different ending.

As odd as it might seem, I’d still recommend both series. If you only want to make the time investment in one, make it Broadchurch – it’s better written, has much more heart, and is 88 minutes shorter. You still get David Tennant, and several of the secondary characters, especially the vicar Paul, get more sympathetic/less prejudicial treatment. But Gracepoint has equal or better performances from several cast members, and because the central story is so similar it’s no less compelling, just a little out of focus when compared to the superior source material.

The City & the City.

China Miéville’s The City & The City, co-winner of the 2010 Hugo Award for Best Novel, takes the idea of the split city – Berlin, Budapest, Jerusalem – to an entirely new level, one where the boundaries are less geographic than psychic. His novel takes place entirely within such a metropolis, where a murder in one part involves the police in the other and eventually invokes the shadowy authority that governs the tenuous territory that connects them.

Besźel and Ul Qoma are twin halves of a whole city, one with a nebulous history that at some point split the population into two groups, with distinct governments, religions, and customs, albeit two languages that appear to be almost the same aside from their alphabets (as with Serbian and Croatian). Citizens of both city-states are taught to “unsee” everything from the other half – buildings, vehicles, people. Streets may be “cross-hatched” – located in both Besźel and Ul Qoma – or may include adjacent buildings in different countries, with salients from one side jutting out to include one Besź building between two Ul Qoman ones. While residents of one country can walk partway into the other, they are expected to unsee any foreign elements there, lest they “breach,” a psychic trespass that calls up the third power, called Breach, that can simply “disappear” anyone shown to have thus ignored the barrier between the two nations.

That setting is by far the most fascinating aspect of The City & the City, which is otherwise a fairly straightforward political thriller/murder mystery. A body is dumped in Besźel by a van that was stolen and apparently crossed the border from Ul Qoma, where the murder was committed. A legal manuever through the one true border crossing (a central building called the Cupola) keeps the investigation away from Breach and in the hands of the Besź Inspector Borlu, the narrator, eventually, an Ul Qoman counterpart who helps with the joint investigation when the trail leads back across the border. The investigation involves a sort of forbidden archaeology that hints at the shared origins of the city-state and the long-rumored existence of a third society, called Orciny, that exists in the spaces between the other two nations, people who would be unseen by both Besź and Ul Qoman people alike, and who’ve inhabited such spaces (called dissensi) for generations.

While review quotes on the book’s cover refer to Chandler and Kafka, Miéville never quite evokes the paranoia of the latter or the panache of the former. Breach is discussed, and eventually its agents appear, but it acts with clear rules and within clear boundaries to its authority – the story is marked by Breach’s refusal to investigate the original murder because the crime occurred beyond its jurisdiction. There’s no sense of foreboding here, or of patently unfair or arbitrary rulings; when Borlu is taken off the case, it’s not as if he’s suspended for no good reason or without an explanation. Miéville creates a wildly compelling setting, with a deeply consider geopolitical construct and even some clever portmanteaux to express it (although it took half the book for me to get some of them straight), but the story he layers on top of this milieu doesn’t measure up to it in depth or imagination.

Next up: Corinne Willis’ Hugo winner, the comic time-travel novel To Say Nothing of the Dog.

Saturday five, 12/19/14.

I’ve been busy writing up transactions all week, which is putting a real damper on my ability to make calls for the top 100 prospects list, but I shall persevere. Here are all of the Insider pieces I’ve written in the last seven days:

* The three-team trade featuring Wil Myers
* The Justin Upton trade
* The Derek Norris trade
* The Nate Eovaldi/Martin Prado trade
* The Chase Headley re-signing
* The Melky Cabrera signing
* The Jed Lowrie, Alex Rios, Brett Anderson signings & more

I also wrote up the Jimmy Rollins trade the week prior, slipping in at least eight references to Black Flag, Henry Rollins’ former band, although to this point no one has mentioned catching them.

As promised, I created a second Spotify playlist, with 40 songs that just missed the cut for my top 100 this year, although I guess I’m using that term a bit loosely:

And now, the links:

San Diego eats, 2014 edition.

I have been writing the things for Insiders, on the Justin Upton trade and the Derek Norris/Jesse Hahn trade just in the last 24 hours.

The best meal in San Diego, our annual big writers’ night out, was at Juniper & Ivy, Richard Blais’ restaurant in Little Italy and one of my favorite restaurants in the country. I arranged the dinner well ahead of time, so we had a prix-fixe menu that included some items (like the amazing mac and cheese with house-made pasta and fontina) that aren’t on the typical menu. The takeoff on the Yodel is a regular item, though, and it’s bonkers … I split one with USA Today football writer Lindsay Jones and it didn’t stand a chance. There was a second dessert, not listed on the menu, that had to be tasted to be believed: blood-orange gelée, frozen yogurt, clementine supremes, lemongrass ice cream, and shards of roasted-citrus ice. I wanted to take that gelée home, but was afraid I couldn’t get a pound of it through airport security. The staff went all-out for us, clearly, and the service was exemplary. I reviewed J&I in full in March, and have now eaten there three more times, never once walking away less than fully satisfied.

If you aren't jealous, you should be. @juniperandivy @richardblais

A photo posted by Keith Law (@mrkeithlaw) on

Bird Rock Coffee Roasters, based in La Jolla, opened a second location a month ago, right across the street from Juniper & Ivy, and it’s now the best coffee option in the city, a small-batch roaster that is also the only direct-trade outlet in San Diego. I had an espresso macchiatto there each morning, but they also offer pour-overs and Chemex brews as well.

My other dinners in San Diego came at Cucina Urbana and Prep Kitchen, both strong, with Cucina Urbana my preference among the two. A new, upscale but reasonably-priced Italian trattoria, Cucina Urbana features a deep menu of pizzas, house-made pastas, and a slew of small plates, including the daily “polenta board,” assembled tableside with a ragù spread on top of a thick smear of creamy polenta on a wooden board. My pasta dish, bucatini with tomato, guanciale, cabbage, chili pepper, and a poached egg, was a great southern-Italian comfort-food dish, satisfying in texture (al dente, with the added bite from the jowl meat and the cabbage; smooth from the egg mixing with the tomato) and flavor (obvious), with just the right portion size between the starter polenta and the fact that I wasn’t leaving without trying the chocolate donuts with hazelnut filling, which didn’t even need the passion fruit dipping sauce except maybe to cool them off enough to eat them.

Prep Kitchen was a little more hit-or-miss. The yellowtail crudo was actually a slight disappointment, with a not-subtle fishy note marking the tuna as less than perfectly fresh, and the chocolate “budino” wasn’t a budino (an Italian custard, often thickened with cornstarch as well as eggs) but a warm chocolate cake served in a mason jar, but the pumpkin bread pudding had great balance of sweet and savory flavors without turning to mush, and the porchetta (which appears to be off the menu already) was superb if slightly fattier than I’ve had elsewhere.

I grabbed lunch twice at Bottega Americano, located just east of Petco Park in a cute space that combines a little Italian market and deli counter with a sit-down restaurant. Despite the grammatical error in its name, the restaurant serves excellent sandwiches and salads and makes a legit French macaron as well. The speck (smoked prosciutto), fuyu persimmon, shallot marmellata, arugula, and goat cheese sandwich on olive bread was my favorite for flavor, although I found it tough to tear through the speck, which they need to slice more thinly before serving; the olive-oil poached tuna sandwich with yellow pepper aioli and farmer’s egg (I didn’t know farmers laid eggs, but perhaps that’s a new mutation) was much easier to eat but needed more acidity somewhere in the mix. That was a better option than Kebab House, which is outstanding if you’re looking for cheap eats near the ballpark but was much heavier and I think a little overloaded with garlic.

I am in love with the Mission for breakfast in San Diego, and ended up eating there three mornings out of four; the one variation was at the Fig Tree Cafe in Hillcrest, where I had a disappointing salmon benedict with a potato/arugula side dish that couldn’t live up to the Mission’s amazing rosemary potatoes. I know the Tractor Room gets raves for its brunches, but I wasn’t there any morning when it was open for breakfast and have to save that for a future trip.