Monday, March 18, 2019

My Week in TV Part V: Those Who Can't: "Escape Room"

Welcome back to my Week in TV series, where I take a single week of TV and review everything I watch. Thishas taken an extremely long time and this episode aired about six weeks ago but I'm thrilled to get this in in time for the season finale. Let's hope "Those Who Can't" gets renewed for a fourth season. It's a great match for TruTV. With three TV shows left to write, I'm slowly but surely making my way through the series. Stay tuned!

Those Who Can’t (TruTV)-“Escape Room”-Far more than in the first season, this show has become about terrible people (a la “Seinfeld” or “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”) who are not just oblivious but downright destructive to their environment. At the same time, the episode points out the flaws of such a categorization: If Sweens (Jerry Minor, one of SNL’s better one-season wonders) thinks that “the quartet” is the scourge of the school’s well-being, he needs to cast a wider net.  Lesley is running high-end rackets; Rod (despite one episode where he went clean) was fired for defiling the school shed and showing up drunk, the doctor twins are a pharmacy for illegal drugs, and there’s the creepy guy with the cats. There’s also the problem that Fairbell is too mentally deficient to truly be categorized as a trouble maker. This seems to be a common trope in TV such as Jason Mendoza (“The Good Place”), Amir (“Jake and Amir”), or Matt (“NewsRadio”) and none of those shows really deal with the characters as if they need to be treated for mental illness.

Moving on, Sweeney makes a power play to get “the quartet” fired through isolating them through an imaginary escape room team-building exercise and then mobilizing the staff to air out their grievances to Quinn. As can be expected, Quinn’s man crush on Loren and company hinders his objectivity. On top of that, he really wants to do an escape room exercise of his own which is a comic riff that last throughout the entire episode and gets funnier as it goes along.

Once in the escape room, the gang pretty immediately resort to cheating and immediate destruction: A pretty literal manifestation of how bad these characters have become. Here’s where I’m starting to think having the gang at least try to solve the puzzle might have been a better use of a plot about an escape room. Use what you got, people! Then again, there’s a certain shock value that it took the group precisely zero seconds to resort to cheating. Comedy is funny sometimes in that there aren’t necessarily wrong answers (which makes me kind of superfluous, huh?).

What’s more important here is the dynamics between the group as the hierarchy of the characters (Loren/Shoemaker > Abby > Fairbell) carries through their interactions as well as the topic of who was and wasn’t invited to the party.

Meanwhile, Leslie steps it up (always a good thing) in a rare act of selflessness and advocates for the quartet as the union rep in some of the episode’s best dialogue. The day of course is saved by none other than Rod who’s discovered in a backroom under the impression that he’s in a consensual relationship with the school mascot costume.

Aside from an uneventful second act (basically the gang breaking things), this episode represents Sweeney as a worthy foil. Better luck next week, Sweens.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

My Week in TV Part IV: Miracle Workers

Miracle Workers (TBS)-Six Days (Episode 4)-Simon Rich demonstrated an ability to make out-of-the-box comedy in “Man Seeking Woman” and if anyone’s going to make a televised response to ride the coat tails of “The Good Place”, he’s a pretty fitting choice. A version of heaven overrun with bureaucratic rabbit holes and enigmatically incompetent officials raises comparisons to “The Good Place” (particularly, the first season) but as the series has progressed, Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil” seems like a more apt reference with all the anachronistic technology and emphasis on bureaucratic overload.

Most of my problems with the series are logistics but they are more nit picks than substantial plot holes that don’t really affect my enjoyment fortunately. There are fair too many easter eggs to enjoy as the show takes us through these labyrinthine delights. The highlight of the week in the humor department was seeing the past lives of three central angels: Sanjay was a cool prince, Eliza was ……[wait for it]….an ersatz Xena Warrior Princess, and Craig was…..[drumroll]…. a caveman who ate dirt in a bog.  The escalation and comic suspense here was priceless and it helps that these comic set pieces fill in blanks and build the world.

The main irritation with this show was initially the fact that God should have been easy to manipulate. As a leader who has been granted a dangerous amount of power, Steve Buscemi’s version of God calls to mind various interpretations of Presidents 43 and 45: Leaders with unfathomable amounts of stupidity who couldn’t supply the brainpower for the position without considerate staff assistance (and yes, I am kicking myself that I can’t recall any other figure in history or culture besides two of the most pervasive names in the news). And the truth is those leaders are highly easy to manipulate by staff members withholding papers from their desk or foreign leaders appealing to their flattery. Because I had a rooting interest at not seeing the world blow up and preventing our heroes (Geraldine Viswanathan and Danielle Radcliffe) reassigned to single molecules for all eternity, I started to wonder why no one was resisting God’s harmful idiocy.
In the past couple episodes, there have been encouraging signs that it is possible to outwit God and contain his awfulness. Craig (Radcliffe) manages to spare Tim Meadows’ life and Rosie (Lolly Adefope) manages to pass off God to a human so she can get her work done (although it’s entirely possible she’s as lazy as God is). Besides the satisfaction of God (at least this version of him) get his comeuppance, it also levels out the stakes quite a bit.

The central premise this week is a little more in line with “Man Seeking Women”  where the episode is driven by a gimmick. God decides to find a new prophet and the process is played out like a match on Tinder. The talent of Simon Rich’s methodology is that pretty much every line of dialogue can be read in both absurdist scenarios: Consistent with both a pseudo-romantic relationship between man and deity; and the biblical history of the relationship between prophets and God.
This is a dense episode, however, and it’s quite admirable that the urgency of the world exploding hasn’t taken a pause so that God can get his friendship on with a prophet. In fact, this might be the most meaningful episode for Craig yet as his central conflict—feeling important – is dealt with more directly. Sanjay has largely served as a foil rather than a direct antagonist so having the two having a TGIF-like talk about how much they value each other isn’t as off-base as it might same.
And then there are the two socially awkward love birds around whose fate the universe might rest. It does seem easy on the surface for these two to kiss but real life shows that it’s not as easy as it looks for most people if there’s any pressure and I’d say two weeks counts. Factor in that these two are on the more socially awkward end of the spectrum and that there are going to be other guys in the dating pool to distract you (see episode 2) and there’s enough to keep the suspense. The latest obstacle is the dying grandma and it’s a good place to close the chapter.

Next week, the IMDB description indicates an emphasis on Rosie. She’s been the hardest to get a handle on.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

The 25 Best Performances of 2018 in Film

1.       Ethan Hawke, First Reformed-What’s most impressive is that there are no overtly dramatic shouting monologues when you feel the character really has something to say. You can feel him bottling it up inside. 
2.       Rachel Weisz, Disobedience-The performance is helped along by the absence of a score in some places. The soundscape (mirroring a horror film to some degree) matches the performance really well and there’s also the fact that Weisz has to play discomfort in the first half without revealing too much of a larger truth (her past attraction to McAdams’ character)
3.       Christian Bale, Vice-It boils down largely to “It’s Christian Bale, what do you expect?” There’s a lot of nuance in playing Bale
4.       Rachel Weisz, The Favourite-The stand-out in this film because she’s so devious and fun. If Emma Stone donned an accent, it might have been more of a contest
5.       Mahershala Ali, Green Book-I feel like accent-wise he Sidney Poitiered it up a wee bit too much and I could sense inconsistencies accent-wise, so deducting a little for that. Other than that, it’s a tour-de-force performance worthy of an Oscar. Obviously, it should be a lead but the marketing team at Universal was smart enough to place him in a weak field where there’d be no question he could win with all the fluctuations of a long season
6.       Kiki Layne, If Beale Street Could Talk-In particular, I remember the indelible montage of her working long days behind a retail counter while pregnant and then succumbing to labor
7.       Alessandro Nivola, Disobedience-“You are free!” So much subtlety in this performance and so many uncomfortable situations. “Disobedience” and “The Favourite” were easily the most challenging and successfully acted films of the year
8.       Rachel McAdams, Disobedience-McAdams’s Oscar nomination came from being elevated by the prestige of starring in sn eventual Best Picture winner in a week year. This is miles above that role. 
9.       Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody-I was originally happy to see him win an Oscar but upon rewatching this film a second time on an airplane, BORRRING. I believe I was so blind to its flaws on the first watch because I knew nothing about Queen and they are a really interesting story. Mercury was an ethnic and sexual outliar to his time while gaining exalted status as a rock God and he was also intellectually ahead of his time. If you already are aware of Queen the novelty wears off fast and that applies for the performance too. However, there is a certain multi-directional charisma Malek bought to the role that helped move it along. I was planning on ranking him higher but A) He didn’t sing and B) He has a certain naivette in the first half of the film that sort of leaves more questions than it answers.
10.   Ben Foster, Leave No Trace-Proud to brag here that I attended a screening with Foster appearing afterwards in Q &A. Since the days of “Big Trouble” and “X-Men: The Last Stand”, I’ve been a fan of this guy.  He generally has a look that gets him cast in baddies or rough-and-tumble guys.
11.   Viola Davis, Doubt-I’m not as much of a fan lately of Davis for reasons that have to do with her (publicly disowning “The Help)  and reasons absent (the attention she gets in comparison to costars), but It was a creative choice to grant her a BAFTA nomination. As the lead, she plays a key role in elevating a genre film to a work with the kind of socio-economic  that might get the Oscars talking.
12.   Cynthia Evro, Bad Times at El Royale-Aside from her wonderful singing voice, she brings the fear and tension and when she smashes that bottle over the dude’s  head (it would spoil it to identify the victim of her smash but I left a hint there), it’s a show-stopper of a scene. This film has a very strong ensemble
13.   Jon Hamm, Beirut-Squinting at intelligence reports, ruminating over high-pressure decisions, talking with the authority of a well-versed operative against various diplomats, this is the kind of stuff they gave Claire Danes Emmys for in “Homeland” and Hamm deserves at least a sliver of the same attention here for a fine performance in a film that opened at the wrong time of year. Like Viola Davis, the movie’s ability to transcend genre rests entirely on him.
14.   Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk-An excellent choice for Best Supporting Actress if they’re not going to go with Weisz. The scene where she pleads to the Puerto Rican for her son-in-law’s life is that showstopping moment an Oscar campaign needs for the highlight reel but she’s present in every scene.
15.   Emma Stone, The Favourite-This film is a collection of great scenes and she had a number of standout moments I can’t deny. If she put just a bit more work into an accent or just felt more of the period, I could have felt like she was carrying more of her weight.
16.   Olivia Coleman, The Favourite-It’s always nice to see the Oscar prognosticators be made fools of on Oscar night. After all, the spirit of the event is to be elated when a name is called on the big night and those prognosticators try to mathematically shortcut the process and suck the fun out of it. Besides, Olivia Coleman has been a vibrant up-and-comer who has enhanced everything she’s done and Glenn Close isn’t owed anything just because she’s been nominated before. However, the screen time was a bit short to get all worked up about.  
17.   Colin Farrell, Widows-I’m not one of those types who goes around saying “I’m gonna write a screenplay someday” but I occasionally have imaginary movie ideas I’m developing in my head and one of them is about an apathetic politician exactly like the kind Colin Farrell played in this film which is kind of creepy yet remarkable. One way to measure a good supporting performance is if you want to see a whole film developed about the side character and in this case, yes.
18.   Tim Blake Nelson, Ballad of Buster Scruggs-If this singing cowboy had the whole film to himself, I could say it having some kind of Jack-Sparrow-like potential in terms of making a dent in pop culture and getting action figures and the like.
19.   Thomasin McKenzie, Leave No Trace-I remember it being a great movie with a solid relationship in the center, but I don’t have that sensory memory so many months  later of what this performance felt like.
20.   Marina del Taverna, Roma-Is the “d” capitalized or lower-case. Discuss amongst yourselves (or look it up)
21.   Viggo Mortensen, Green Book-A bit stereotypically Italian but f the Green Book critics who are continuing to perpetuate the myth that the movie’s inaccurate. I’m assuming Mortensen did his homework
22.   Jeff Bridges, Bad Times at El Royale-After seeing Jeff Bridges in interviews, I have a sneaking suspicion that this seven-time Oscar nominee has just been playing variations of his stoned hippie self for a long time. I’ve seen four of his seven Oscar-nominated performances and have been unimpressed.
23.   Michael Palin, Death of Stalin-What a national treasure. His indecisive pickiness is a great contrast to this unique film
24.   Lakieth Stanfield, Sorry to Bother You-A terrible and obnoxious movie, but credit where credit is due.
25.   Sandra Bullock, Ocean’s 8-Yes, I think she’s more charming than the smug George Clooney here. This is a playfully fun part and she has a slyness I like

Others I was considering:
Nancy Garcia Garcia, Roma; Donald Glover, Solo; Steve Carell, Vice; Jeffrey Tambour, Death of Stalin; Rufus  Sewell, Death of Stalin, Lewis Pullman, Bad Times at El Royale; John  David Washington, BlacKkKlansman; Amanda Seyfried, First Reformed

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

My Week in TV Part III: Crashing Season 3 Premiere

This is a series where I capture a single week of TV watching but it's taken me over a month to get through that single week and it's shifting quite a bit as I go, so essentially this is just another TV review

Crashing (HBO)-Season Premiere-“Jaboukie”-As I often say, loving a past season of a show doesn’t necessarily translate to an equal enthusiasm in the present. Because of the increasing gaps in time between seasons, and the subsequent efforts needed to refamiliarize myself, it’s never a given that the content will hit me the same way.

I wrote a gushing fan letter to a producer involved with the show because the show’s second season meant a lot to me and if nothing else, we’ll always have season 2.

However, it’s going to be difficult to tell if Pete is still going to retain his sweetness which is a key part of what makes the show so refreshing.

Let’s look at this week’s story: Comedian protagonist goes on the road a lot where he has gets some laughs, enjoys a relative comfort and some dispassionate (yet loud) sex with a venue booker. He feels a bit lonely in a new way—lost through the grind of travel, so he invites a young comedian with him on the road for the rest of his tour. The new protégé picks up steam and when they get to New York City for comedian protagonist’s audition at a prime comedy spot, the protégé ends up impressing the booker so much that he displacing the now devastated comedian. It’s a solid plot that hinges a good twist, but the question: Is this sufficiently a Pete Holmes story?

It’s inevitable that Pete’s naiveté will disappear as he becomes more experienced but the show’s success relies on him retaining the same character in his core. Both Pete’s treatment of Ally and the way his sexual encounter is framed as uber-casual raise questions. In the case of Pete and Ally, the version of Pete I was hoping to see was the one who awkwardly felt compelled to convey his apologies to Ally and had the conviction to act on it. In the case of the sexual encounter, this should be big news. Sexual encounter #2 was a moral crisis and an interpersonal obstacle course. Maybe not knowing any details of sexual encounter #3 (or possibly more, who knows how many post-Ally rodeos he’s had?) is the point: It’s all just a blur to him. Personally, I want the scoop!

The upshot here is that this is only the season opener. This is one of the better examples where the episodic review format isn’t as great without context.

Wednesday, March 06, 2019

My Week in TV Part II: The Other Two: Chase Goes to a High School Dance

The Other Two (Comedy Central)-Chase Goes to a High School Dance-In the sense that one of the morals of “People vs OJ Simpson” is that O.J. Simpson (possibly mentally ill from concussions) is the least important  character in the story, I’m starting to get the sense that Chase is a meaningless node by which all the other cogs work around in the wheel that is his support system. It’s a solid concept and the four others cogs—the overly eager manager (Ken Marino), the menopausal mom seeking her positivity (Molly Shannon), and the two flailing adult siblings (Helene Yorke and Drew Tarver)—are all interesting enough combinations of comedy and pathos to carry the load. The first three episodes were strong enough to have me thinking this show had “30 Rock” potential in terms of comic flow. Credit here goes to the interplay with the image consultant (Wanda Sykes) and Cary as they keep flip-flopping on whether gay is good or not.

This episode is a bit of a step back. The idea of Streeter forming a boy band is a long-range joke that loses steam by the time it gets to the punchline, because it carries over to a second scene. Considering it’s obvious that the children would never want to leave a school dance to go to a library just so they can listen to an extremely inappropriate man tell them something they’re going to reject anyway, why not just let the joke be how creepily Streeter comes off? Another problem with the episode is even if Chase is not a dynamic character, the absurdity of his situation isn’t put to much use here. This is due to reduced screen time on Chase which is a balancing act.  

One of the main brick jokes of the show (a less generous term might be “gimmick”; a more generous term might be hook or calling card) is that the two siblings are living parallel lives as evidenced through the split screen of their similar activities that open and close the episodes. But it’s a bit more complex than that: Brooke is more unformed on a surface level; Cary seems visibly more capable of passing as an adult on the inside but he has now shown an ugliness on the inside. 

At least that’s the way the two are diverging. Brooke’s cardinal sin at the beginning of the show was sloth. She was initially too lazy to take a job but as Chase’s assistant, she was on her feet diligently playing damage control to Chase’s double Lorraine (Jackie Hoffman) and out-Streetering Streeter. In contrast, Cary has gone from being understandably frustrated that he has to answer questions as “the gay guy” by his boss to cruelly backstabbing a gay kid at the school dance and not thinking twice about it. In the last episode (I watched) Cary deals with the awkwardness of getting it on with his sexually confused roommate by chastising his roommate not only for his lack of honesty but from everything from his taste in TV to how he looks with a shirt off. It’s petty but the problem is it’s inseperable from the fabric of the show because his Seinfeld-like detachment is an antipathy. Who knows if the show is even aware of how ugly Cary comes off?  Nonetheless, it’s a little early to tell if this is a definitive thesis for what’s happening or what will come.

The show did have a few high points: Mainly Lorraine causing trouble by doing the exact opposite of what she was supposed to do. If there was ever an occasion for a great one-off guest star to shake things up, this would be it.

Still have faith in this show. On to next week.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

My Week in TV Part I: Carmen Sandiego "Opera in the Outback", The Orville "Deflectors"

My week in TV: In early 2018, I did a series on a Disqus channel where I chronicled my week in TV. It's been difficult to keep track of all the offerings out there, so I'm tackling a single week of what i'm watching in detail. The problem is that by the time I finish and proof these episodes they'll probably be several weeks old. 

Credit: Netflix

Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego (Netflix)-"Opera in the Outback"-I was a geography major and grew up on the computer game, the game show and the cartoon. So I was especially excited for this series even if I’m not the target audience. The visual look is sleek with a largely 2-d feel that evokes the computer game and the trademark red fedora and coat don't disappoint. In this case, it's somewhat of a plot point that Carmen re-invents herself through the wardrobe itself.

Along with effectively teaching your kid about geography, unfortunately the series will teach your kid about the broadest of stereotypes. Why the Japanese instructor hasn’t been called out by anyone for his Chinglish or why Gray (AKA Crackle) is acceptable as a walking bundle of clichés, is beyond me.

Fortunately, we have an Australian who loves opera this week and not didgeridoo music so that’s a start. This episode has Ivy and Zach (two Boston chowdaheads without any nuance) which is rarely a plus considering Carmen is so well-developed. The episode’s plot takes some surprising turns which is more than I’d expect for a kid’s show:  The whole “launch the boomerang” was quite sophisticated.
One problem that often plagues serials is that the good guy always wins at the end. Even adult-oriented procedurals like “Monk” had the good guy winning in the end, whereas better shows like “Burn Notice” and “The Good Wife” teased out serial plots with the protagonist hitting peaks and valleys. This is a kid’s show but it ingraining it with a bit more sophistication would do wonders.


Orville (Fox)-“Deflectors”-One of the reasons that TV sitcoms with celeberatory plotlines of romance aren’t as sex positive as you might think is that these shows often imply that singlehood is a state of incompleteness and everyone needs to be paired up (ditto romantic comedy genre). You know Orville is becoming Star Trek: Love Boat when Star Trek when the show is trying to get a robot with no feelings laid. This week, we know next to nothing about the new security chief yet it initially appears it’s going to be another romance-of-the-w eek. The unfortunate thing is if you’re only casually familiar with “The Orville”, you might have noticed the casting change which is why it’s often recommended that casting directors go for physical contrasts when trying to differentiate people (according to a book I read on casting, at least).

Fortunately, the episode becomes significantly more than just a romance story as it morphs into a murder mystery with capable twists. The episode highlights a heavy reliance of “The Orville” on the Moclan for the alien of the week. While the Moclan can be a little one-note and present fairly obvious social commentary, their contrast is good for the show’s humorous edge. It’s also slightly more realistic for the viewer than Star Trek’s M.O. of having differing aliens each week to the point where it was impossible to get a sense of scale for this. In an era of TV that places more emphasis on world building as opposed to the 1960s this is pretty forward-thinking.

What is also a positive here is a natural progression to the romance. If a healthy relationship is when the pursued takes the lead to show the pursuer how she wants to be courted, it certainly sparks the imagination to think of the confusion and sense of discovery that must be going through the Moclan’s head when she leads her to a holosuite recreation of post-World War II Paris and teaches him how to dance.  Considering this show’s main advantage over Trek is its more light-hearted approach to the material and the way it can poke through tropes (i.e. the officers are going to drink real alcohol, why wouldn’t they), it’s disappointing people are still stuck in 20th Century Earth. No one wants to see a version of 2060 where Florida is under water?

The film’s attempts to tackle social issues are generally in need of a bit more tonal calibration but I was personally surprised by how well it earned its final dramatic moments. It was mostly sold in the actress’s delivery. It’s not particularly often in happy future land when someone is legitimately pissed off to the point of cutting off contact.  It helps a little that the security officer is new so it’s not a plot invention within this hour-long arc that she has decided she’s had enough of Klyden. Like an audience surrogate, her lack of experience with the people on board makes a very negative impression far more credible.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Notes on Netflix's "Sex Education"

There are so many new series I've felt like getting into including "Lodge 49" (which would have made my top 12 had I watched it earlier), "Russian Doll", "The Orville", "Those Who Can't" and "The Other Two" but alas, I haven't had the time.

I did, however, make notes on the TV show "Sex Education" which is much like "Derry Girls" in showing awkward adolescence on the other side of the pond:

-The show starts to get seriously Dawson’s Creekesque in the last couple episodes as the weight of these characters starts to finally kick in. The show moseys through much of the season with a certain emotional detachment from its characters. It’s not entirely comedic but it’s insight into sexually confused adolescence is observational. Towards the end, we (AKA me) really start to care about the primary love triangle, the general well-being of Eric, and the mother-son dynamic, Maeve fending off her brother’s decadent influences and at some point the emotion sneaks in. It’s hard to say whether that’s better but it does set up season two quite well if they can tread the line between drama and melodrama.

-Just like “Burn Notice” is entertaining because it reveals wayward insight into how an espionage agent would think or “Monk” reveals insight into how a detective would solve crimes, there’s something light-bulb-inducing about being presented with a  dilemma and seeing a 16-year-old solve the problem. “In Treatment” was equally satisfying as a drama but to watch a 16-year-old come up with such insight has a certain underdog quality.

-French horns, yeaahh! I’m a proud French horn player through one and three-quarter years of high school and this might be the most visible use of the instrument in a teenage drama. What a thrill. And the instrument wasn’t used for sexual purposes like “American Pie.”  Even better!
But from the expert: It’s hard to play the French horn that badly. I was something like the last chair trumpet in my high school then switched to French horn where I was, within a few months, fourth chair out of seven horns.  I found it relatively easy to stay on the same tone as opposed to Eric who wobbles a lot. I generally found if I picked up a French horn years later without practice then I would wobble between notes a lot more, so I’m left to believe Eric doesn’t practice enough which is indicative of a slacker.

-Before the final episode, the headmaster came off as stuffy and any antagonistic airs he had were simply attributable to how Americans like us can be put off by upper class British accents. Then he becomes evil with a capital “e” after he reneges on Jackson’s deal but there wasn’t much build-up to it. He was sorely undeveloped as a character but from what little I glimpsed, I saw him as a man trying to maintain a stiff upper lip in the wake of an encroaching tide of puberty-driven chaos and that was an interesting interpretation of him.

-The TV tackled nearly every teenage issue under the sun but they were surprisingly lax on bullying. As characters matured and went through various forms of self-enlightenment, they still fed into a culture that felt unusually harsh for the school. In particular, the untouchables paid relatively little for their casual cruelty. On the other end of the spectrum is “Mean Girls” and “Glee” where the bullying popular crowd softened up towards the end of high school. Which is a truer reflection of reality? To some degree people mature as they get older, but at the same time you’re personal enlightenment in adolescent into a more receptive person doesn’t mean that the outside world necessarily changes. 

-Why didn’t Maeve and Otis trade their therapy for favors beyond cash? In the opening episode, Otis negotiates with Adam for Eric’s safety. Afterwards, they seem content to exchange for cash. Perhaps, they could

-If I was going to analyze this show as socially responsible (and I try to avoid such precedent since this show doesn’t represent all teen drama), the idea that Eric’s tormentor would also be secretly gay seems like a horrible generalization and “Glee” didn’t look any better when it tried that storyline with Karofsky

Monday, January 28, 2019

The Most Intense Article I've Ever Written: The Perils of Biosolid Waste in Rural Central Virginia

At the start of 2016, a woman, whose mother was part of a citizen's coalition to stop the enroachment of biosludge in Louisa County, tweeted to several reporters who'd written in the Richmond area. I had no idea what she was talking about but I e-mailed her asking to deliver this issue in a one-paragraph summary and I'd sent it on to my editor.

Before I knew it, I took a weekend trip to Louisa County, Virginia where I was attending a community meeting of about biosolid waste. The editor wanted to expand the story and that's how I ended up working for several months interviewing everyone from industrial spokesman, to county board members to state senators. I had never done any of these things before and never had a grip on environmental issues but I would like to think my experience as a human interest reporter allowed me to capture the emotion.

After several hurdles, I got paid more for this story than I've ever been paid on anything and I ended up owning the rights. As a tribute to the people of Louisa County who advocated for better and cleaner lives for themselves, I am simply publishing this on my own blog:

C.W. Williams’s origin story as one of the state’s biggest environmental activists began on a summer night in 1999 when he was awakened in his Louisa County home at 3:30 in the morning by a stench. When he inquired to the workers on the neighboring property what they were applying and why, they responded “because we can and it’s legal.”

Williams would soon discover that the source of the stench was a classification of pollutants known as biosolids that originated in wastewater treatment plants and ended up on the farmland of Williams’ neighbors where it was offered as a makeshift fertilizer of sorts.

“I wasn’t originally a tree hugger by any means,” said Williams. “I can’t turn my back on my friends and my neighbors, and I’m of a firm conviction that to have a good neighbor, you must be a good neighbor”

After serving on two government sponsored advisory committees and spending two years criss-crossing the state on his own dime to collect the accounts of over fifty biosludge victims, CW reconvened the BioSolids Information Group (BIG) this past January after a two-year hiatus.

“We have a right to not be exposed to toxic substances either in the water or in the air” said CW Williams to a group of nearly twenty-five Central Virginia residents at the group’s inaugural meeting. “This isn’t policy, it’s life or death.”

The goal of BIG according to council member Kama Allen is to “know that what is placed upon the land is safe to all life and the environment.” The group aims to accomplish this through public awareness, educating healthcare professionals and influencing legislative activity.

While Allen is acting on behalf of neighbors, nearly all of the attendants of the inaugural BIG meeting counted
themselves among firsthand victims or know someone who has suffered.

BIG council member Ray Harlow has been advocating against biosludge as an ally to Williams for nearly sixteen years. To him the fight is unavoidable because, “they’ve wrapped it around the area where I live.”

Harlow’s concern for the issue has increased since he had a heart attack four years ago as it affects his respiration. “It’s very hard to breathe in the cold weather in winter and this makes it much more difficult.”

Since the biosludge has been applied to his area, Harlow has seen everything from tampons to syringes in the

“If you can flush it down a toilet, you can find it in a field,” added Williams.

In the first-hand accounts that Williams collected, many of the victims were unaware of what was happening to them while they were being afflicted by the pollutants. One field account was of a woman in Loudoun County who lived adjacent to a plot that received biosolid applications. Her medical bills skyrocketed to $17,000 because the doctors couldn’t figure out what was causing her illness.

In the eyes of the BIG, the problem is compounded by the fact that the farmers are doing much of this voluntarily.

Activist Kat Walker of Spotsylvania County compared the problem to the 1930’s film “Arsenic and Old Lace” in which two elderly women kill off visitors to their house by offering them elderberry wine laced with poisonous arsenic.

“You could say that they were offering something nutritious in the wine but it also had poison in it,” explained Walker. “It’s the same with biosolids. It can function as fertilizer but it also has poison in it.”

At the meeting, the group organized a letter writing campaign to alert citizens that biosolids were going to be spread in their neighborhood with numbers to contact B.I.G. as well as contacts of local health officials.

“We are attempting to stimulate public discourse as well as alert folks with medical conditions,” said Allen after the meeting.

Biosolids are a classification of industrial residuals emanating from treated wastewater (more commonly known as sewage) that is chemically and physically processed for reuse.  

Although farmers have been practicing bisolid application in some form for ages, its application on farm lands accelerated as a practice in the late 1980’s when the Clean Water Act made it illegal to dump the residuals of waste water in neighboring bodies of water.

Under the new regulations, local governments have three options with treated wastewater: They can recycle it as biosolids, bury it in a landfill or incinerate it.

Many industrial entities have opted to offer the biosolids for free to farmers as fertilizer. For a number of farmers, the application of biosolids has been beneficial in reducing runoff and  unproductive farmland.

“For farmers or tree farmers who choose to use biosolids it will enhance the productivity of their farm or forestland and improve the quality of the soil,” said Virginia Biosolids Council spokesman Robert Crockett. “That’s why biosolids is very much in demand by farmers throughout Virginia today. Not every farmer and landowner chooses to use it and that’s okay.”

The problem, according to the opposition, is that the health problems created by biosolids are imposed upon others in a manner to similar to second hand smoke. Williams claimed in an interview with a Charlottesville radio station last year that biosludge samples collected throughout Virginia has over 56 heavy metals along with over 49 pathogens. Additionally, studies by Cornell University and the University of Arizona have found that the resulting toxic emanations can travel up to 1.5 miles through the air.

In Louisa and Spotsylvania Counties where the vast majority of BIG members live, there are two existing industrial entities with permits in Spotsylvania and Louisa Counties (where the vast majority of BIG members live). They are Baltimore-based waste water recycling company Synagro and Virginia-based agricultural and biosolid disposal company RecycSystems. In addition, Louisa County’s own water department has a permit to apply biosolids in Louisa County.

Before 2008, the application of biosolids was administered by the Virginia Department of Health but they were criticized by a number of citizen advocates including Williams for making biosolids a low priority. A 2005 study found that the DOH had only inspected 19 sites out of over 1,000 applicants.

With the testimony of Williams and others, the Virginia General Assembly was convinced to transfer the administrative duties of biosolid regulation to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.

Most members in the BIG believe this step has been an improvement as the DEQ got more funding and has a budget for monitoring. However, there is still a lack of oversight and resource the monitoring of biosludge application is largely left to local governments but only 25 counties in Virginia have passed an ordinance to appoint a monitor.

“A total of six state agencies plus testing comprise this mammoth program with no apparent end in sight,” said Allen. “The program is so split that I doubt one hand knows what the other is doing.”

A fee of $4 per dry ton of applied waste is collected by the state to fund county governments in hiring local monitors.

“That’s the money that’s available, not that’s applied,” said Spotsylvania County Supervisor (for the Berkeley District) Greg Cebula who was in attendance at the meeting. “But it’s peanuts. We would have to hire a full-time person and that money is not enough money to do that.”

Neighboring Louisa County is one of the few that has hired monitors. According to County Administrator Christian Goodwin, Louisa County checked 29 sites in Louisa and local monitoring was performed for 26 of them. Williams alleges Louisa’s resources are strained and that the county’s sole enforcement officer only uses 5% of her time monitoring sludge because she has so many other duties.

Cebula has wanted to be active about doing more but his hands are tied because of the Dillon Rule which prohibits county officials from exercising power reserved for the states. He hopes that the state will pass legislation granting the county the right to limit pollutants to just Class A which are less harmful though more costly. The Blue Plains Waste Water Treatment Plant inWashington DC is one of the few plants that deal in Class A.

Synagro spokesman Layne Baroldi said in a later interview that the safety of the material is equivalent to Class A when class B is land-applied in conjunction with existing regulations. Baroldi cited the Washington State Department of Ecology as a citation.

“Basically, these bills [to change the situation] will not pass. It will be defeated by the farm bureau lobby, because they feel that they need this free fertilizer. Well, they don’t. But if they get free fertilizer, it’s money that’s out of the farmers’ pockets, it’s economics,” said Harlow at the inaugural BIG meeting..

The current regulations on biosolid application were created from 2007 to 2013. In compliance with the Administrative Process Act, a regulatory advisory panel was convened from all the stakeholders including three citizen representatives.

All three of the citizen representatives resigned over the course of the six-year process. According to DEQ spokesman Neil Zahradka, those seats were never refilled which meant that they were unable to find the citizen representation they hoped to achieve.
One of the main points of contention of the BIG is the influence of the waste industry on the state agencies is still continuing.

“It is so rampant that is it beyond control of the individual citizens or people like myself at the local level. The whole industry is embedded with the DEQ,” said Cebula.

Williams alleges that the DEQ is overly promotional of the biosolids program and has pointed out DEQ’s listing of the benefits of biosolids on their website.

“It's a legal activity and if the waste water treatment plant chooses to do this, we inform them of the rules and regulations.” Zahradka said in response. “If there is anything we're promoting, it’s the protective nature of our rules.”

This past legislative session, the Virginia Legislature unanimously passed HJ 120 which directed the joint legislative audit and review commission to analyze scientific literature on the health effects of biosolids and evaluate the feasibility of requiring municipal facilities to generate “Class A” material.

HJ 120 passed after Delegate R. Lee Ware (R-65th) sponsored a house joint resolution (HJR 56) that failed to pass in the past two congressional sessions. Ware also failed to get a house bill out of committee (HB 17) that would require disclosure of biosolid-afflicted properties to future land buyers.

“There are widely differing views of the safety—from entirely safe to unsafe—among stakeholders. For example, the Farm Bureau understandably supports the application of both biosolids and industrial wastes” said spokesman David Bovenizer in response to a question about why the process has been so lengthy.

While Cebula calls it a step in the right direction, Allen sees the influence of the real estate in HB 17’s failure to clear committee.

“Depending on the information they get, it will likely be a whitewash,” said Williams on the new legislation. “It’s a reiteration of the past”

While they differ from the BIG’s views on the safety of biosolids, the industrial entities involved have also encouraged the further study of biosolids on the issue.

“What we’re doing has been one of the most thoroughly studied subjects by the EPA,” said Synagro spokesman Layne Baroldi, “We believe that the science is very supportive.”

“Farmers by their very nature are cautious-- and care more about the environment and stustainability than any other segment of our population. They tend to study and research everything they put on their land,” said Crockett. “I’ve found that many, when they have an opportunity to consider the facts, conclude that the beneficial use of biosolids is a win/win for everyone.”

As C.W. Williams prepared to leave his Louisa County home where he held the Biosolids Information Group’s inaugural meeting, he remarked that he and his wife bought the estate because they once dreamed of owning a country home.

Spending so much time in toxic zones to collect his stories caused him to developed hypetension and artery enlargement. He eventually moved to his current home in Richmond to preserve his health.
Whether Williams has accomplished much, he has picked up allies to his cause.

“Once I retired I had time to address the situation, and once I got involved, it just swept my husband and myself away and we’re very very involved at this point,” said Allen. “[This is] not as much for ourselves but for our neighbors that have COPD (a respiratory disease) who still work for a living and can’t be involved with their time.”

As for the information war, Williams and his colleagues were able to score a major victory as the legislative season wrapped up this Spring.
This past April 1st, Synagro applied with the State Water Control Board to expand their permit in Louisa County from 76 to 90 sites (a total land area of 16,790 acres). As they had done at the hearings before the Lake Anne Advisory Committee and SWCB’s Spotsylvania hearing this past Spring, the BIG testified and showed up at the hearing with the goal of impeding the permit.

Allen and her colleagues knew it would be an uphill battle because no land application permit has been denied by the DEQ to date. Although, the permit still passed (on a 6-1 vote), Williams’ video documentation of the ill effects of biosolids with accompanying waivers of the victims were officially entered into the public record.

“That is the key,” said Williams. “They can no longer deny that evidence exists.”

“Friday's hearing is no way an 'end game' for us,” said Allen before the meeting. “We will continue to push forward, gather momentum, address each county's issues as they arise. And one day the tide will turn.  The fight is a long one and the stakes are high.”