OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: Happy ending not needed

Lately I've clicked on major newspaper websites and, to my surprise, found serious op-ed social commentary based on three of my favorite things in the entertainment field. Those would be rock icon Bruce Springsteen and the two finest accomplishments in television programming I've seen.

One of those is "Succession" on HBO, which is about brilliant writing and acting in presentation of horrible super-wealthy sibling characters doing horrible things. I'm hoping for a powerfully written, powerfully acted finale Sunday providing unhappy endings for everyone.

The other is "Ted Lasso" on Apple TV, which is about more subtly engaging writing and acting in presentation of rich and complex characters wending their flawed selves toward endearing human connections. "Lasso" features a lovably grim, tough, no-nonsense character named Roy Kent whom I'd like to turn loose for an hour or two on the three horrid heirs on "Succession."

The point of this attention to a musical superstar and two TV shows is longing for the greater real-time connectedness of the pre-digital era in the Springsteen case; exploring and perhaps spoofing the peculiarity and power of the rich in the "Succession" case, and nurturing the better angels in Lasso's case.

In February, I went to Dallas to see Springsteen in concert. For the last several weeks, I've maintained two weekly scheduling priorities--being in place to watch "Succession" when it appears on the HBO Max streaming app at 8 p.m. Sundays and being in place to watch "Ted Lasso" as soon as I rise and get settled with coffee on Friday mornings, the show's latest episode having been made available overnight.

One piece of newspaper commentary was focused on the value of Springsteen's genuine connection with audiences coming out of the pandemic with all its "virtual" interaction. That connection also represents, the writer said, a throwback to the pre-digital '80s of Springsteen's height of popularity. It was generally more meaningful then to make an appointment to hear live music in its purity than is the case now with Spotify on your phone allowing you to tap into your earbuds whatever song you want to hear whenever you want to hear it.

Here's how real Springsteen's Dallas concert was. He came out with a smaller band than expected and announced of the missing: "Stevie Van Zandt [guitar, vocals]--covid. Soozie Tyrell [fiddle]--covid. Patty Scialfa [his wife]--not here. But, Dallas, blankety-blank it, we're going to give you the best blanking show you've ever seen."

He tried hard for three hours and 15 minutes to do that, though, at 73, he pranced swiftly across the stage where once he ran fast and slid long.

His concert was a guitar-exploding story, beginning with "No Surrender" about his schoolboy band, "learning more from a three-minute record than we ever learned in school," and moving on to "Last Man Standing" about his being the only of those kids still alive.

The other commentary was about Springsteen's "Nebraska" album in the 1980s, a dark, stark, self-made recording. He recorded it on a cassette tape, sitting in a chair with an acoustic guitar. Then he went into a studio to fix the amateurish rough spots. But he decided the fixes lessened the starkness of the stories and the woes of the characters. So, he put the album out as it was--raw, as if to tone down the misinterpreted triumph of his recent "Born in the U.S.A." album. By the essayist's reckoning, raw and real are what we tragically have too little of anymore.

"Succession" is raw and real is a different way. It demonstrates that you needn't care about the characters to embrace the art and craft of those conceiving and reporting the story, which follows three breathtakingly dishonest scheming adult siblings angling, at times clumsily, for position in a super-rich Murdoch-like media conglomerate.

Two "Succession" episodes soared beyond anything I'd seen on TV.

In the first, the three kids get word that their dad may be dead from a heart attack on his plane, but maybe isn't because no one on the plane wants to be the one to say. The siblings spend the lengthy rest of the episode in one continuously filmed scene in which they are alternately--or even simultaneously--legitimately stunned and sad, frantically immersed in barking uncertain instructions to people on the plane and personally titillated about what the death might mean to them.

In the other, the two brothers and sister wind up voting two-to-one to order the cable news network they own to call the presidential election for the right-wing candidate though he probably lost because he almost certainly got a lot fewer of the hundred thousand absentee and early ballots that just got destroyed in an apparent arson in oh-so-close Wisconsin.

That was about as real as the 2020 election, varying only by the storyteller's license for hyperbole.

Lasso, with a far more engaging and virtuous vibe, soared most in an episode when all the British soccer-team characters wind up spending an evening in Amsterdam after an exhibition game. The owner, a statuesque woman with heart, spunk, strengths, insecurities and relationship hang-ups, walks by mistake on an Amsterdam bike lane. She jumps backward to avoid a speeding bike and falls over the bridge railing into the canal. She ends up spending the night in the houseboat of a nice-looking, thoughtful man who offers dry clothes, dinner, music, brandy, a story of his own and steadily increasing intimate conversation and connection made possible by the fact that her cell phone is in the bottom of the canal.

The next morning, she asks him if they'd done, you know, the thing. The brandy apparently had left the evening's full detail fuzzy. But she remembers enough of the intimacy to suspect it could have happened, and she seems to be asking more from curiosity than concern.

He says no. She leaves without their exchanging names or talking of ever seeing each other again. After she's departed, the man says to himself that, yes, indeed, they'd done the thing, which I took to mean making love but doing it without having sex, those being much different things.

Someone told me the other day they hoped that, in the season finale, the two run into each other and begin a relationship. That's the last thing I want. The best way to destroy the power of the episode would be to put a Hallmark bow on it. Real can be so much better than a happy ending.

John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at jbrummett@arkansasonline.com. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

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