I've been thinking a lot about Mark Twain lately. You can hardly blame me. Tom Reigstad's book “Scribblin' for a Livin' ” (Prometheus paperback) is coming out in a couple of weeks. I reviewed it early on last Sunday's book page because it is, quite literally, a book I've waited to see my entire life. It's about Mark Twain's difficult but important time in Buffalo editing the Buffalo Express and writing for it.
Among other things, one learns that for a brief period the younger, red-haired Samuel Langhorne Clemens wrote some “People and Places” miscellaneous spritz about engagements and other whatnot. In other words, one of America's literary pillars was, in his own time, ever-so-briefly involved in the 19th century Buffalo newspaper equivalent of, say, following Channel 4 meteorologist Amelia Segal's migration to a much better gig in Washington, D.C.
If he were alive today, though, I doubt he'd have much to teach us about how to do that.
On the other hand, I have no doubt that if the older Twain, with his luxuriant white hair and white suit, could somehow wander into the 21st century he could, if he ever chose, be the best TV columnist of all time, typing with one hand tied behind his back.
Who, for instance, would be better thinking aloud about modern broadcast journalism – and journalism in general during its current digitally induced nervous breakdown – than St. Mark of the Holy Church of Irreverence, the fellow who pledged in his opening “Salutatory” to Buffalo Express readers that “I shall always confine myself strictly to the truth except when it is attended with inconvenience”?
The truth is I love answering reader questions and addressing their concerns. It's one of the great joys of the job, even when it's annoying. The trouble is, you can't often get the questions you're best prepared to answer. Because it's inconvenient to have to wait for those, I'm taking a cue from the greatest journalist ever to write in Buffalo and inventing some questions of my own.
Q: How can you review a wonderful TV show like “Downton Abbey” without even watching it? Who do you think you are, four eyes? Your editors ought to fire you. (A nasty variation, by the way, on an actual letter printed recently in “Everybody's Column.”)
A: I didn't review “Downton Abbey.” I'd never review a TV show I'd never seen. No decent critic would – unless as a joke that the readers were in on. What I did was write a column about the exact reasons why I couldn't review “Downton Abbey.” Columns and reviews are often different things, even mine in this location. Most readers had no difficulty understanding what I was doing.
Some more literal-minded folks, on the other hand, seemed confused. My guess is that no writer is ever going to be able to avoid some reader confusion sometimes. Twain certainly didn't. I think his readers were more used to writers who juggled than 21st century literalists are. What I tell myself, of course, is that he'd have understood perfectly.
Q: How come you gave away the big plot development of “Downton?” (A variation on a couple of emails I received.) Why no “spoiler alert”?
A: Because it happened on the show in front of millions of viewers. That makes it TV news, i.e., something that actually happened out in the world that journalists comment on routinely. I hold no brief against those who DVR shows and watch them later. My DVR is 90 percent full as we speak. But I have no business asking for spoiler alerts on what's on it, any more than I would from those who write about anything else. Journalism doesn't run spoiler alerts on Supreme Court decisions or Super Bowl scores. It shouldn't run them on hugely popular TV shows that have aired for millions of viewers.
Readers used to what I do know that I will always, if I can, keep major plot developments out of reviews of movies or TV shows that haven't run yet. I respect the need for plot surprises and the joy of them when they come.
But I also respect the sanctity of events in the real world and journalism's ability to analyze and comment on them.
Q: With “Downton Abbey” gone, what are we to do? What's there to watch? The football season is over and the Sabres season is driving me nuts. It's awful.
A: Some “Downton” fans are finding a brief substitute in HBO's adaptation of Ford Madox Ford's novel “Parade's End,” whose first five parts finished their premiere Thursday evening. They can still be seen on HBO channels and HBO on demand.
The major names stopping literate viewers in their tracks aren't stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Rebecca Hall, but screenwriter Tom Stoppard, a gilt-edged name in movies and theater if ever there was one. On the other hand, Stoppard is as fallible as any writer. His recent film adaptation of Tolstoy's “Anna Karenina” was rather dreadful, and I have a large numbers of critically acute Facebook friends who say that his long-form adaptation of Ford Madox Ford (which I haven't seen yet) isn't much better.
Everyone, of course, needs to make up his or her own mind. I merely offer the suggestion as well as the general comments of some critics that I myself respect immensely.
As for the separate agonies of Bills and Sabres fans, I know, I know. I feel your pain. All I can say is that I'm personally always well-set during the winter because I deeply love televised NBA basketball – even the all-star break nonsense (dunking and three-point shooting contests and the like).
I'd recommend it all for disenfranchised sports fans, if nothing else for the joshing trash talk of the NBA stars they put in commentary chairs after their playing days are done. They're just as likable as the ex-NFL stars and far more likable than baseball players usually are. (A weird conundrum, that. I have no idea why.)
Q: What do you think of the new “Dancing with the Stars” bunch?
A: Not much. Here's how it went:
Wynonna Judd got the Kirstie Alley role – the mature woman whose weight losses are bound to be followed in supermarket rags. Comedian Andy Dick got the major big-mouth, problem-child berth. Fellow comedian D.L. Hughley will be a sharp but lovable counterpoint to Dick, who likes to joke that it took 12 rehabs for him to get on the show. (Dick's humor is, to put it mildly, not universal.)
Others include pixie gymnasts and Super Bowl meteorites.
Worst of all is that the show's own biggest star dancer, Maks Chmerkovskiy, is sitting the next season out for decidedly murky reasons (pursuing other avenues, he says, echoing everyone else in Hollywood who talks to film producers who promise things without ever signing checks).
Just a guess, of course. But I think the show is going to be in a bit of ratings trouble. Probably not big trouble but one never knows.
Q: What do you think Mark Twain's favorite 21st century TV show would be?
A: Who could possibly know? He'd have an embarrassment of riches to choose from. I'd give anything to hear his laughter watching Fox News, MSNBC and CNN. I doubt “The Walking Dead” or “The Following” would make much of a dent in his attentions, but it's hard not to think that he and Livy couldn't pass a delightful hour or so Thursday nights in front of “Scandal.”
On the other hand, just thinking about what Mark Twain might have written about Oprah Winfrey is enough to humble anyone who has ever had a public thought about American television. However fantastic it is, the mere thought of Twain on the subject of Oprah (I suspect he'd have been dead serious) is enough to make both readers and couch potatoes proud of being American.