Only Connect

Easily one of the best quiz programs on television, UK’s Only Connect asks contestants to determine the connection between four seemingly random clues, revealed one at a time. A sample question from the first series:

  • A hammer and feather
  • Six US flags
  • Eugene Shoemaker’s ashes
  • Two golf balls

The connection? (Wait for it…) “Items left on the moon.”

Some of the questions are esoteric, and some impossible to answer for someone without ample local UK knowledge, but every game has had at least a question or two I was able to take a stab at answering. That’s the gold standard for any sort of quiz shows: it’s possible for the audience to participate, but difficult.

The downside, of course, is there are no reliable sources to watch it in the US. Moving directly to England may be the only rational solution.

Kitchen Nightmares

We stumbled onto Kitchen Nightmares on BBC America entirely by chance, and now we can’t stop watching. The show introduced us to Chef Gordon Ramsay, who has quite the television lineup including MasterChef (teaching amateurs to cook like professional chefs), Hell’s Kitchen (a competition to choose a head chef for a prominent restaurant each season from among 16 hopefuls), and others.

In Kitchen Nightmares, Ramsay visits failing restaurants (with good backstories) and helps them turn their business around. He tastes the food, observes lunch and dinner services, and inspects the kitchen from top to bottom. Then he creates a new menu, has his team remodel the restaurant (literally overnight), and sometimes brings in a consulting chef to bring a mediocre kitchen staff up to speed.

The man is brutally honest, especially in the kitchen. There’s a lot of shouting, with more than a little of it censored out. And in all the episodes we’ve watched, he’s only ever complimented two dishes. This in some ways reduces the show to expected “reality television” standards, but in practice it’s refreshing to see some brutal honesty here.

When Ramsay calls food bland, it’s with the same experience that earned him 12 Michelin stars (once 13). When he accuses chefs of uncleanliness it’s when he’s found moldy food. And when he hints that a dish tastes like it was made with frozen ingredients, he’s been right every time.

Ramsay’s formula is pretty easy to follow. First, get the kitchen clean. He’s a stickler for cleanliness and food safety, and it’s wonderful to see. Second, reduce the size of the menu. More dishes means more preparation, less consistency, and ultimately lower quality. Finally, use only fresh ingredients. Nobody wants to pay for frozen food they could have made at home, and with a smaller menu it’s easy to keep fresh ingredients flowing through the kitchen without wasting them.

This show has completely changed our attitudes on dining out and on cooking at home. We’ve stopped patronizing some questionable restaurants in town, one of which we now know earned an “Unacceptable” rating in its last health inspection. At home, we’ve stopped buying pounds of meat at a time to freeze and have started making quick trips to the store for fresh meat and produce as we need it. I’m looking forward to the farmer’s market in town this summer. We’re not gourmet cooks or fine diners, but we can appreciate the value of a homemade pasta sauce.

My only real complaint about the show is that it plays every restaurant as a success. Sometimes it’s clear that even by the end the kitchen didn’t really have itself put together, and predictably the restaurant ended up closing soon after. But on television, even the disasters are played as triumphs easily enough with a little editing, and it’s the first place the show seems a bit fictional.

35 Days of Christmas

Countdown to 25 Days of Christmas

Countdown to 25 Days of Christmas

ABC Family is advertising (honestly) a “Countdown to 25 Days of Christmas”.

So, they have a 25 Days of Christmas event, effectively counting down to Christmas. But since that’s not here yet, for the last ten days of November they’re having a countdown for when they can have their Christmas countdown. But even that isn’t here yet, so all they’re doing right now is advertising that they’re going to have a countdown until the other countdown.

And what will really eat at you if you think about this is that somewhere at ABC there had to have been a meeting where someone said, “So, how many days until we can start airing the promos for the Countdown to 25 Days of Christmas?”

Google’s Own Ads

The first time I saw the end of this TV advertisement from Google, I had to rewind TiVo in order to watch the whole thing again. (I think that was the first time I ever used TiVo to not skip commercials.) The same ad was on again last night, and it’s still just as touching.

There’s a similar ad recognizing Dan Savage’s It Gets Better project, and I find both very reminiscent of the ad Google ran during last year’s Superbowl: Parisian Love.

Remember when Apple’s “Hello, I’m a Mac” ads were the ones people actually wanted to watch? Now Google’s even taking that away.

Special Letters Unit

Okay, one more. These are just way too awesome. Here’s Law and Order: Special Letters Unit

“In the alphabet system there are 26 letters. The detectives who investigate these ABCs are members of an elite squad called the Special Letters Unit. These are their stories. [chung chung]”

Meal or No Meal

Sesame Street should get medals for this stuff. I hereby delightedly present: Meal or No Meal with Howie Eatswell.

I honestly can’t decide if my favorite part is the muppet’s earrings or the fact that he keeps taking calls from “The Baker”.

Return of the Browncoats

The Science Channel now has the rights to Firefly and will be re-airing the series, but unfortunately won’t be producing any new content. Nathan Fillion gave a brief interview to Entertainment Weekly in honor of the occasion. In it, he said, almost offhand:

If I got $300 million from the California Lottery, the first thing I would do is buy the rights to Firefly, make it on my own, and distribute it on the Internet.

And that’s the story of how was born.

The current theory is that enough Firefly fans exist that we can just raise $300 million. And since $300 million is a figure Fillion pulled from thin air, it probably wouldn’t take that much. And while nobody wants to donate money to a random website with the vague hope that it will somehow result in new Firefly episodes, who wouldn’t willingly give their savings over to Malcolm Reynolds himself?

The Internet is pretty awesome.

The Middleman

I’m finally watching The Middleman: a delightfully campy take on the Doctor Who premise, with a style vaguely reminiscent of Rocky and Bullwinkle and 180 words per minute of dialog (at least in the one random sample I took).

Like The Doctor (or Batman, if you prefer), The Middleman relies on gadgets and training to fight evil rather than any mysterious superpower.  Where The Doctor uses psychic paper The Middleman has a box of fake IDs, and a 1968 Ford Fairlane 500 replaces the TARDIS, but fans of Doctor Who will recognize the basic setup: a mysterious expert in all things paranormal, supernatural, and “juxtaterrestrial” teams up with a seemingly average sidekick to save the world repeatedly.

My favorite line so far comes from the pilot episode:

Middleman: If there’s one thing I hate more than scientists trying to take over the world it’s scientists who twist innocent primates with computer-enhanced mind control to live out their sick and perverted fantasies of criminal power.

Wendy:  Is it true what you said?  That if there’s one thing you hate more than scientists trying to take over the world it’s scientists who twist innocent primates with computer-enhanced mind control to live out their sick and perverted fantasies of criminal power?

The Middleman: Why would I lie about that?

Wendy: It’s a very specific thing to hate.

Unfortunately, watching this show has left me with a strangely strong compulsion to start wearing an Eisenhower jacket everywhere (as does the title character).  That’s probably not wise.

Janie’s Got Playoff Tickets

Ellen DeGeneres instructed the people of Boston to gather at Marsh Chapel at Boston University yesterday, hinting that tickets to the Red Sox playoff game were at stake.  I walked past the event on my way to Star Market and heard her give these instructions (via satellite from California):

Each of you have to pick an Aerosmith song title and you dress up as that Aerosmith song title.  You can use props.  You can use costumes.  I’ll be judging you on your creativity.  You have 15 minutes.  Go.

Fortunately, as several people have now commented, nobody chose to appear as Janie’s Got a Gun.

Surprisingly, Dude (Looks Like a Lady), Pink, and Love in an Elevator were all doubly represented, while some seemingly obvious choices got overlooked entirely.  Could nobody put together a Kings and Queens ensemble, for example?

An attractive if conceited young lady might also have attempted to be Beyond Beautiful or Drop Dead Gorgeous with no costume at all, claiming to have already met the title’s key descriptors.

You can watch the video on Ellen’s website to see the results for yourself.


A colleague recently recommended the show Airline, and I nearly watched the entire first season in a single sitting.  It’s a lot like Cops, but instead of filming police officers as they perform their duties, Airline films customer service agents for Southwest Airlines in several of their focus airports.

It’s good television for the same reasons Cops is.  First, we’re watching professionals do their jobs well.  Whereas frequent travelers dread the rare events that happen once in a hundred trips, crews see that many flights every day, virtually guaranteeing mayhem.

Second, many of the people they encounter are complete idiots.  Some are perfectly pleasant travelers and some are passengers subjected to genuine wrongs that need to be righted, but others are outright jerks who just need to be barred from society.  (My favorite so far is the woman who berated the baggage office staff after she failed to recognize her own bag on the carousel.)

Naturally, most encounters on the show result in the passenger threatening to sue the airline, call the police, or at a minimum to “never fly Southwest again!”  It’s practically a mantra.  After just 20 minutes of watching ticketing agents get berated for enforcing perfectly reasonable policies, I wanted to run over to the airport just to stand patiently in a line like a civilized adult.  “You lost my bag?  How unfortunate!  Could you please call me when it arrives so that I may pick it up?  Thank you!” I’d say, for example.

What bothers me most is that in several episodes it’s clear that a single supervisor can spend much of her day interacting with a single problematic customer.  Southwest must necessarily employ an army of staff solely to handle this minority of passengers — and it’s absolutely the right thing to do, since without such an army the rest of us would be stuck in line behind them.

What I like best is this exchange between an unjustifiably irate passenger and a customer service agent, which occurs repeatedly:

Angry Passenger:  I want to see a manager.
:  I am the manager, and I’m the one telling you you’ve missed your flight.

Southwest agreeing to feature in the show is an interesting gamble.  Their logo is in virtually every shot, since it covers their planes, uniforms, and even airport walls.  Their name is mentioned constantly in natural conversation.  Even their routes get some discussion as passengers mention their various destinations.  However, the routine flights and happy passengers that surely comprise most of their operation don’t get much screen time.  We only see the people so unhappy with their experience they leave swearing off the airline for life.

I say it worked in their favor.  Southwest will begin service to Boston’s Logan International Airport on August 16th, and even after seeing six hours of air travel nightmares, I’d like to give them a try.

Only the first season of Airline is out on DVD, but Netflix has it available to “Watch Instantly.”