Archive for showtime

Peak Hours (Parts 1 & 2)

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, TV Acting, TV channels, TV History with tags , , , , , , , on September 10, 2017 by Tom Steward

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Any belated revival of a TV show will inevitably fail to recapture the essence of their original. Insurmountable anachronisms, missing or surrogate cast and creative personnel and a return to a radically altered television landscape compound, leaving such enterprises feeling like a stilted ventriloquist act of the first run. With Twin Peaks: The Return, creators David Lynch and Mark Frost have made a virtue of this uncanny disconnect between original and revival.

The limited series event (a fashionable moniker for “miniseries” or “special”) is themed and styled around anachronism. Deputy Andy and receptionist Lucy’s adult son Wally confusingly models his life on the film characters of Marlon Brando; Lucy herself is acutely afraid of cellular phones, a technology that became ubiquitous in the intervening decades (and one that, incidentally, was advertised early on by Kyle MacLachlan playing Agent Cooper). Beloved characters like Cooper and The One-Armed Man claim not to be able to distinguish between future and past, and we jump around in time about as much as we do geographical space and existential realm, and as fluidly.

Deceased or unavailable actors (or, in David Bowie’s case, both) are not an issue but instead are woven into the fabric of the storytelling. Michael Ontkean declined to reprise the role of Sherriff Truman and, in a nod to the series’ daytime serial muse, Robert Forster takes his place as Harry’s brother…Sherriff Truman. The reverse is also true. An actor whose character was killed off previously returns in an almost identical role. Phillip Jeffries (Bowie channelling Jerry Lee) is back, but with a new voice and recast as a shadowy steam kettle. The Return is as estranged from television in 2017 as Twin Peaks was to the medium in 1990 but to achieve that effect, the latter has to be pathologically dissimilar from the former.

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For starters, The Return immediately spurned its eponymous location, forsaking Twin Peaks for other rural backwaters like Buckhorn, South Dakota, and small communities including The Fat Trout trailer park last seen in feature spin-off Fire Walk with Me. Iconic cities such as New York and Las Vegas also feature, and we even venture into Latin America for a few seconds, though don’t ask me why. This kind of mobility is commonly found in and used to justify sequels (Babe: Pig in the City, Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles) and such a negotiation with the commercial is by no means above David Lynch’s avant-garde take on pop art. But the pan-American canvas and urbanization of the revival indicate that it is more rooted in social reality than its predecessor, even if the approach taken to the material is about as far from social realism as it’s possible to be.

Secondly, sound. The perpetual underscoring has been scrapped in favour of long silences punctuated by atonal soundscapes with a few sonic callbacks to the original when canonical characters appear. Ironically, the new sound design serves to highlight the presence of music in the show even more prominently than before, which I didn’t think possible. This is capped by a “concert series” approach to musicality, in which alternative bands and performers appear in the last few minutes of each episode behind the credits, with the faintest of story justification as acts playing The Roadhouse. The ability to completely overhaul the sound design yet have it perform the same function it always did is a testament to how familiar yet strange The Return really is.

As I suggested earlier, the uneasy mixture of reassurance and disparity is usually a by-product of aiming for the tone of the original and misfiring. Here it is cultivated. Kyle MacLachlan returns as Dale Cooper, but a Dale Cooper possessed by evil ghost Bob, and alter-ego Dougie Jones, himself split between a lovable compulsive and sleepy new-born simpleton. Tiki-fetishist Dr. Jacobi has become Twin Peaks’ version of Alex Jones and Audrey Horne is so unrecognisable from the thrill-seeking bad girl we used to know, she (and Lynch/Frost) barely knows what to do. Characters are not permitted to appear the way they were, until they have gone through a seemingly endless series of alternative permutations.

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The Lynch-directed episodes of Twin Peaks were groundbreaking in retarding story development to draw out select scenes until they were protracted beyond credulity. That goes for the entirety of The Return. The show is slower than wax. This slow television is yet another example of how the follow-up has one foot in the original and another in an alternate dimension of art.

How slow is Twin Peaks: The Return? Well, it takes Audrey Horne two episodes to leave her house. The scenes involving the FBI play more like table reads than final cuts, with David Lynch as Director Gordon Cole regulating the snail-pace delivery onscreen as well as off. The cast is populated by a variety of mutes and monosyllabics and the most basic of actions take an eternity to complete. In fact, one could easily write the series off as an experiment to take the most circuitous route to the simplest outcome in each scenario.

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Lynch had certainly played with this kind of pacing before in Twin Peaks, most notably in the opening scene of season two in which the cliffhanger of Cooper’s shooting is suspended in time as a doddering room service waiter attempts to deliver a glass of milk to the mortally wounded agent. The (first) series finale, which leads into The Return in a way other Twin Peaks episodes do not, consolidated the idea that this was about Lynch’s speed as director and elevated the early talking picture staginess to auteur style. We’ve seen this bloom into a mark of Lynch’s filmmaking in his cinema of the past two decades, with both Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire exercises in unnecessary elaboration. Indeed, Mulholland Drive began life as a television pilot, which makes one wonder how much The Return would have resembled a Mulholland Drive TV series.

We can think of pacing in The Return as the natural evolution of Lynch’s languorous directorial style, culminating in a project with an eighteen-hour run-time. But context is everything and it’s hard to discount the importance of having Showtime as a partner in this respect. When Twin Peaks aired on ABC, it wasn’t a typical network show but it pandered to the network viewers’ diet of serial melodrama, sitcom and police procedural just enough to get away with some of Lynch’s more left-field ideas, like his slow-motion storytelling. Now the cornerstone of a premium cable channel’s output, The Return gets its artistic license from the baggage of quality television the franchise comes with, a Sunday-night drama that is designed to out-experiment the competition. In this ecology, it’s easy to see that Lynch’s loosening of narrative could be a real commodity. It makes rivals for the quality TV crown Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead (as well as anything else on the network) seem positively pedestrian by comparison.

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For any viewer used to the clip of television narration, Lynch/Frost’s pacing decisions must seem perverse. To devotees of Twin Peaks (Twinsies? Peak Audiences?), it borders on sacrilege. Despite its avant-garde overtones, the original was largely driven by story. Multiple, labyrinthine plotlines layered each episode and built successively until they were unfathomably complicated and entangled, while the overarching narrative became multi-dimensional, and I mean that both literally and figuratively. The diminished pace of The Return means that there’s barely enough time for a cursory drop-in with each of the recurring characters, and that could be a problem for long-time viewers. The premature cancellation of Twin Peaks at the end of season two resulted in cliffhangers across the board, many (if not all) of which audiences expected to be addressed in the revival. With the exception of a few notable concessions, like Norma and Ed getting the ending they always deserved, the threads are left hanging and in some cases clouded with even more ambiguity.

For the most part, Twin Peaks: The Return unfolds with a sluggishness one expects from a video installation in an art gallery. Whereas the vast majority of TV shows use their generous quota of screen minutes to create the most expansive stories possible, Lynch and Frost have turned that tendency in on itself and focused in with minute detail on a set of small, self-repeating incidents. Were it not so artfully done, it would simply be tedious. In fact, it dangles over the precipice of tedium more times than I can possibly count. But, like his fellow art cinema auteur Lars Von Trier, Lynch knows exactly the right moment to add a jolt of (often comic) energy that will reel the audience back into engagement.

Part 15

I’ve resisted using the word “leisurely” to describe the pacing of The Return because there is nothing about the absences that is remotely enjoyable. The lingering silence and portraits in pausing are where the most disturbing aspects of the program coagulate. When nothing happens, there is no greater sense of fear and dread.

 

 

 

 

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Cable Cars

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, Internet TV, TV channels, TV History with tags , , , , , , , on July 13, 2017 by Tom Steward

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I heard the news that a television adaptation of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City was in development at Netflix a matter of weeks after seeing the West Coast Premiere of The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin in San Diego (shame on you, San Francisco!) which documented the author’s life and work. Much lamented in the film were the circumstances surrounding the PBS broadcast of the miniseries version of the original Tales collection which subsequently prevented future adaptations of all the books in the series. Aided by a selectively salacious highlight reel of the first miniseries – which in some markets would be the best possible trailer – Senator Jesse Helms (Maupin’s former boss, in a Dickensian coincidence worthy of the author’s serial fiction) led a campaign against taxpayer funding of a series which he argued was an affront to family values (of the homophobic, ultra-conservative, religious fundamentalist variety, of course), resulting in PBS dropping the show. The subsequent two collections were later televised by Showtime, but in dramatically ineffective and (eventually) severely truncated formats that tipped the balance into TV movie-esque melodrama. Getting even three of the collections televised was a notable success – especially in the nineties – but somehow still unsatisfactory.

I’d suggest that the latent disappointment stems not just from completism but the natural home in television for the Tales of the City books. First published in a format copacetic to television’s repeated regularity, the newspaper serial, the continuing episodic storytelling that drives much TV fiction is inbuilt. Tales derived from the tradition of newspaper-based serial fiction written by authors such as Charles Dickens, which would later inspire the broadcast soap opera (so much so, in fact, that the very title was chosen by Maupin over alternatives because of its Dickensian quality). It’s a lineage that the BBC’s successful radio serial adaptation of recent years only serves to reinforce. You only have to look at how many times the characters in the Channel 4/PBS original miniseries are caught watching the late 1970s daily satirical soap opera Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman to see how much the producers felt this was a convergence waiting to happen. In a TV “binge” culture, the sheer amount of literary material available for adaptation becomes a selling point for the franchise rather than the drawback it had been in previous decades. But Netflix will still encounter problems of adaptation due to the period of time elapsed.

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It’s been reported that the stars of the original three TV adaptations Laura Linney and Olympia Dukakis will be returning, which raises a lot of difficult questions about what the new series will be. A good quarter-century has passed since Further Tales of the City aired on Showtime, which limits what can be done with the characters in certain age ranges. Their casting strongly suggests that we will pick up the series from Michael Tolliver Lives, a belated sequel from 2007 that spawned a (supposedly) final trilogy of Tales novels, since this timeline would find Mary Ann Singleton and Anna Madrigal somewhere near the same age as the actors playing them (in all but appearance). Of course, it’s entirely possible Linney and Dukakis will be playing different characters, as is conventional in a remake. This seems unlikely to me, as, unlike other (frequently re-cast) characters in the canon, the Tales of the City fanbase tends to find the two leads inseparable from their performers. It was, after all, Laura Linney (albeit dressed as Mary Ann Singleton) who rode alongside Grand Marshal Armistead Maupin in the San Francisco Gay and Lesbian Pride in 2003. Re-casting these actors would be highly problematic.

If my suspicions are correct, a (more or less) contemporaneous Tales of the City TV series is in the works. There are gains and losses here. TV thrives on being able to hold up a (broken and vaselined) mirror to current events, and the original Tales serials had that very cultural commentary in mind. It would then be the first time that a television version of Tales of the City played the same role in society as the original literature. Viewers would, however, miss out on three novels’ worth of character and story development. They will particularly feel the absence of Babycakes, the first novel to discuss AIDS. Though, with its vacation vibe and self-standing storylines, the third in the series is probably the only Tales of the City novel that would work as a feature film. Either way, Looking is the modern-day heir to Maupin’s San Francisco no more.

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Viewer Discretion Televised

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Internet TV, Reality TV, TV advertising, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 5, 2014 by Tom Steward

There can be little doubt that the internet has become the established medium for pornography or that TV with its subscription-based, restricted-run porn provision wouldn’t rival its online competitor which boasts free use and plentiful content. But as we’ve seen with TV’s co-opting of Twitter as an advertising platform, television is not above appropriating an online success story to secure its place in the ever-growing media marketplace, and there’s no success as runaway as internet porn. Because of the moral, political and religious imperatives of broadcasting regulations, putting pornography on television has always been problematic. It might slip through the net as the accidental by-product of experimental art or adult drama or a moment of bravado in a piece of titillating entertainment, but would rarely go unchecked or unchallenged. The more serious pursuit of pornography can be found in the pay TV channels available on the much less regulated satellite, cable and digital services as well as some of the content on graveyard networks at an appropriately late time of day, although this is porn in a modified form suitable for TV that’s much lighter on the graphic side that the equivalent in other media. In short, pornography is always fighting a losing battle with TV. Of course this doesn’t preclude TV from taking lessons in how the porn industry puts bare bums in seats.

This is about as pornographic as it gets on Showtime Preview!

Why am I talking so much about porn? It’s because I’ve started to notice how much American TV takes from pornography. For all the reasons listed above, most TV is not explicitly pornographic but neither is it free from the influence of porn in how it advertises, entertains and lures its audience. I have an internet TV hub and recently noticed there was an application called ‘Showtime Preview’ which ran free season premieres from the subscription network. I wanted to watch the first episode of Season 3 of the industry sitcom Episodes. Since this was a promotional device designed to draw me in to starting a series and getting a network subscription to keep watching, I was surprised when the episode was edited to remove all violence, sex, nudity and swearing, which you might say are Showtime’s unique selling points. But I was taken aback when a sex scene with blurred images of nudity and intercourse bore a caption at the bottom of the screen saying ‘Want to see what you’re missing?’ followed by a subscription link. The very point was to withhold all the explicit content of Showtime’s programmes that couldn’t be aired on network or basic cable TV and then wield it as capital for subscribing. This is exactly how the porn industry incites users to upgrade from softcore teasers to hardcore features.

It’s not TV it’s HB-ho!

The more I thought about, the less right I had to be surprised. Hadn’t HBO – the city on the hill of quality TV – pulled exactly the same trick when wooing subscribers? The difference between HBO and other TV wasn’t just quality and sophistication of programming but explicit representations of sex, violence, nudity and swearing. Often there isn’t even the cultural cache to justify such excess. For every self-legitimating spectacle of obscenity like the artful, challenging The Sopranos there’s pure exploitation like sex industry documentary G-String Divas. HBO is hardly ashamed. The title sequence to prison drama Oz packed as much blood, gore, sex acts and intimate body parts as it could into a minute and a half montage. There’s even an in-joke in Oz making it clear the network are aware of their pornographic reputation, as inmates start receiving HBO and cheer in unison as G-String Divas airs.

ABC launches new Bachelor sex cam.

Networks like HBO and Showtime operate in a very similar way to subscription porn channels so we shouldn’t be too surprised when their marketing techniques overlap. But what about network TV, which claims to disavow any resemblance to pornography with its excessive and self-righteous censorship of content? The Bachelor: Sean and Catherine’s Wedding in which two former contestants were married live on air did all it could within broadcasting regulations to make viewers at home visualise the couple’s wedding night in graphic detail. A live camera feed reminiscent of a sex webcam was set on the bed in Sean and Catherine’s honeymoon suite throughout the ceremony. The pre-recorded wedding build-up centred on the wedding night, including Sean shopping for titillating lingerie and Catherine posing for a wedding gift of boudoir photographs. The strong feeling was that if ABC could have kept the cameras rolling into the night, they definitely would.

Serial Killers

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, Internet TV, Reviews, TV advertising, TV channels, TV Culture, TV History, TV News, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 29, 2013 by Tom Steward

It’s tempting to think that we live in an age of serial television, since virtually every programme we see features some kind of story development designed to keep viewers coming back week after week. Nowhere is this more evident than US TV drama. Critics have been telling us for years now that what distinguishes dramatic American TV from its British equivalents and cinematic competitors is the ability to tell stories over time. Yet very few US TV drama series have sustainable premises and even fewer have enough story arcs to outlast a shelf life of one season on the air.

This struck me while watching the early episodes of Season Three of Showtime’s Homeland, patiently waiting for the show to justify its continued existence. The series had the requisite twists and turns for a season of thrills and jolts and spent its second treading water by flipping the premise like a trick coin so that viewers basically watched the first season again in reverse. The third season has already drowned in its own uncertainty over the future trajectory of the show. I’m not at all averse to long-running programmes changing what they are, as long as they change into something!

Damian Lewis tries to hide from disgruntled Homeland viewers…

Homeland is a glorified mini-series but so are many of the contemporary dramas we treasure as serial television. Damages and 24 never deserved to get beyond a single season. The plausibility and novelty of both series is dependent on the events in the fictional world of the show never being repeated. Even TV dramas celebrated for their narrative complexity such as The Sopranos and The Wire barely made it past their first seasons. Both shows came to a story impasse at the end of their pilot runs and had to work hard at finding new characters and concerns to explore.

Let’s get some historical perspective here. The trend towards serial storytelling in US TV drama over the last thirty years didn’t arise from a need to tell stories more complexly and truthfully. As soap operas went primetime in the late ‘70s with Dallas and Dynasty, network executives and advertisers alike recognised that cliffhangers and continuing stories could be a valuable commodity in finding and keeping viewers. I’m not saying this didn’t lead to more complex television storytelling (and often the viewers who liked this most were those targeted by sponsors) but serial television had to be sellable to stay prevalent.

Serial storytelling in US primetime!

Serial storytelling is a neat way to illustrate television’s differences from books and movies (at least those that aren’t series). But the truth is for much of its history, dramatic storytelling in US TV was delivered in self-contained episodic form along a more generous, less competitive principle of not alienating viewers who might miss a week occasionally. The legacy of episodic storytelling is still discernible in American TV today. The successful CSI and Law & Order franchises paid only lip service to serial form and the best show currently on the air, FX’s Justified, is based principally around episode-specific stories.

Most contemporary US TV dramas are better described as walking a tightrope between episodic and serial storytelling. In order to attract casual viewers and get syndicated, TV series must have a loose enough storyline to be broken up and watched out of sequence without too much loss. But as the options for TV viewing multiply exponentially and the landscape of dramatic entertainment become ever more fragmented, stories that run across episodes and seasons remain a tried and trusted technique for encouraging repeated viewing and customer loyalty. A step too far each way takes you into daytime or days gone by.

Justified, the last outpost of episodic TV!

AMC currently holds a reputation for producing television that showcases the best of American serial drama, something alluded to in their last two slogans ‘story matters here’ and ‘something more’. But let’s look at the facts. The recently-completed Breaking Bad is a fallacy of serial storytelling, compacting six years of television into two years of onscreen time. Mad Men produces an occasional episodic masterpiece but watching the series continuously quickly gets tiresome, making it preferable to cherry-pick instalments from digitised series archives. The Walking Dead escaped Stephen King mini-series status by the skin of its teeth (pun very much intended!).

A television drama that is genuinely serialised runs counter to so many of the qualities of US TV we hold dear, like individually crafted episodes and storyline resolution. There’s also a lot of lame ducks out there with nowhere to go and no story to advance dodging cancellation each year. 

Reviewing The Situations

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Americans watching British TV, BiogTV, British Shows on American TV with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 10, 2012 by Tom Steward

Sitcoms were the first American TV shows I watched and they’re still the pasta and cheese (the middle-class vegetarian equivalent of ‘meat and potatoes’) of my viewing when I’m here. On this visit, the sitcoms I’ve been watching are concentrated around a handful of TV networks, each of which serves vastly different demographics and ends of the schedule. They mix old and new, let the new take care of the old, and make the old look new. They run the gamut from classic to forgettable, from bad to radical, and from breaking ground to shovelling shit. Here’s a quick rundown:

FX:


Though lacking the cache of original series shown on subscription channels HBO and Showtime, cable network FX has been home to many highly sophisticated, niche-taste TV dramas over the past decade such as The Shield and Sons of Anarchy. Recently there’s been an attempt to put their comedy in the same league. Carrying the banner is Louie, comedian Louie C.K.’s auteur sitcom, a show so completely devoid of story it makes Seinfeld look like a murder mystery. Opening with the most remarkably unremarkable title sequence in the history of television, each episode is a Venn diagram interlocking a seemingly aimless pair of vignettes which unfold at a quotidian pace and usually defy closure or resolution. I hit it on a brilliantly gag-heavy episode (the one with ‘palp’ for those in the know) but I can imagine it being extremely tough to get into on one of those occasions that it decides not to have a joke in it or turns the table and makes the joke that there isn’t a joke. But what is truly revolutionary about Louie is the visual imagination it brings to sitcom-a way of putting forward observation and emotion in the form of images and letting direction carry the comedy. While Louie attracts a hipster crowd by virtue of it sometimes paralleling a Richard Linklater movie and its brushing against (though also routinely mocking) urban cool, Elijah Wood star vehicle Wilfred is a cynical pander for an indie movie audience. It’s one of those sitcoms that is all concept-a man lives with a dog played by a man in a dog costume-without regards to how it flows week-to-week. To me, the difference betweenthis and a show-that-writes-itself like ALF is purely cosmetic. Just because stylistically it seems like something that would be in a Wes Anderson or Michel Gondry film doesn’t mean it’s interesting, just that it knows its demographic.

 

Remember when I used to star in movies with CGI?

PBS:

Launched in the late 1960s as a publicly-funded alternative to the network system, PBS frequently looks to the public service broadcasting in Britain-represented by the flagship British Broadcasting Corporation– as a mentor but also as a reliable source of programming. A number of US sitcoms like The Simpsons and King of the Hill have derived humour from the gap between the classy image of British television and the lowbrow British sitcoms shown on PBS which seem to tell a different story. This seems borne out by the popularity of Keeping up Appearances in the US, a farce about a working-class woman who effaces her past by moving to the suburbs but then repeatedly gets dragged back to her former life. As a window on British culture for Americans, it says a great deal about how class-obsessed we (still) are as a nation. It also presents a more rounded image of British life than most Americans know, one that includes the working classes and the poor, and with characters that resemble trailer trash and welfare slob stereotypes in the US. Despite this it’s a monotonous, catchphrasey affair where the jokes usually involve a woman falling over showing her bloomers. And thus it doesn’t say much for the nation’s tastes. Another favourite of PBS Sundays is As Time Goes By, a gentle and solid middle-aged love story distinguished by the calibre of its stars; British character actor extraordinaire Geoffrey Palmer and international film star Judy Dench. In contrast to Keeping up Appearances, it actually suggests that we’re rather good at crafting sitcoms and that the quality of British acting (even in a middle-of-the-road sitcom) is as good as the Americans would myth it. But it’s detrimental to the image of our country in the way it reinforces the idea that we’re a land that time forgot composed entirely of the upper middle-classes and the gentry (with an underclass of poachers who live in the woods). G and I were watching an episode from about 1992 and it was difficult to convince her that it was twenty years old. With sitcoms like this to go on, I imagine many Americans think we’re Brigadoon.

 

Timeless comedy…literally!

TV Land:

 

Where sitcoms go to die

TV Land is where sitcoms and their stars go to die. It’s a place where elderly sitcoms live out their days in back-to-back re-runs and a retirement community for ex-sitcom stars who are given original shows (which I am still convinced only exist as fake trailers and video pop-ups) to ease them into obscurity. Given the number of commercials which advertise emergency whistles and come with free gifts of large-print playing cards, the audience is not too far behind them. I’m prepared to put up with this morbid graveyard feel for the sake of one sitcom: The Dick Van Dyke Show. The best writing and acting ever witnessed in a sitcom (most TV for that matter) and an absolute revelation for those who only know Van Dyke as the world’s worst Londoner, a roller-skating geriatric nosey parker or a seal-rescue fantasist. Rob Petrie is the greatest sitcom character of all time, worth 50 Frasiers and 100 George Costanzas, and the inspiration for both. This snatch of dialogue says it all about how sublime this show is, even in its off-hand moments:

 

Laura: You’re a good man who makes bad puns.

 

Rob: I do not make bad puns. Now pass me the nutcracker, sweet.

 

Not even the hauntingly videographic commercials about botched vaginal mesh surgery could tear me away from writing that good.

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