Hooked on crooks: How ‘Breaking Bad’ created a bona fide binge-watcher

This article originally appeared in the Kansas City Star on March 22, 2014.
By ROBERT TRUSSELL

The Kansas City Star

It took awhile, but I finally went over to the dark side.

There’s nothing new about binge-watching — Netflix says it’s here to stay — but I could never get myself to take the plunge.

Until recently.

I was defeated in a war of attrition. I broke down, upgrading my Netflix account to the two-DVDs-at-once plan. Then my wife and I took another ominous step. We ordered Apple TV, hooked it up to our 8-year-old TV and to our amazement discovered that it worked.

Now a universe of movies and TV series is available at the touch of a finger. We’re free to roam the Netflix streaming library. Delayed gratification is a thing of the past. And it didn’t take long to discover that I wasn’t alone. In fact, I was late to the party. But then I usually am.

I took an early plunge with “The Sopranos” just before its third season.

James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano. (HBO)

James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano.

We hadn’t watched the iconic show about New Jersey gangsters trying to acquire the trappings of suburban respectability until HBO ginned up interest in the new episodes by running a marathon of Seasons 1 and 2. The TV happened to be on. We happened to have HBO on the screen. And we happened to watch one episode. And then we watched another. And then another.

After consuming a couple of years of “Sopranos” episodes in a single day, there was no choice but to become regular viewers.

Last year we immersed ourselves in the “House of Cards” experience. We weren’t set up for streaming yet, so we watched the entire first season on DVDs as fast as Netflix could get them to us.

The addictive narrative about an American politician scheming, lying and murdering his way into the White House offered just the right mix of elements to keep us hooked. It was smart. It was sophisticated. It was lurid. And it put some great actors together with some distinguished directors. What more could you ask for?

But then we discovered “Breaking Bad,” the AMC series about a schoolteacher in New Mexico who becomes a meth dealer after his lung-cancer diagnosis.

The show’s creator, Vince Gilligan, has said the fictitious idea was to turn Mr. Chips into Scarface. Evidently he hit a chord. The show now has a permanent place in pop culture.

You can buy T-shirts advertising Los Pollos Hermanos, the fried-chicken franchise that fronted a drug-smuggling empire. Or shirts with the image of Heisenberg, schoolteacher Walter White’s drug-dealer persona, looking pretty scary in his sunglasses and black porkpie hat.

Bryan Cranston as Walter White. (AMC)

Bryan Cranston as Walter White.

Once again, we were late to the party. It was months after AMC broadcast the final episode that we began watching. It was all because of our friend Julie, a cancer survivor in Leawood. She insisted we had to watch the show. She and her husband, Terry, had consumed the entire series in a matter of weeks. Now she wanted us to watch it so we could share her obsession.

My wife, Donna, was unconvinced.

“I don’t know,” she said. “A high school teacher who becomes a drug dealer? It just sounds so contrived.”

“Just watch it,” Julie insisted.

“But …”

Just watch it.”

So we did — more out of loyalty to Julie than curiosity.

But viewing the episodes in order was a challenge. Netflix had a “very long wait” for Season 1, Disc 1. Area libraries, same problem. We had no choice but to buy the first season on disc.

So, Season 1 in hand, we started watching. Then we watched some more. Before long the show about chemistry teacher Walter White and high school dropout Jesse Pinkman wading into a world of meth addiction, murder and organized crime had us — well, hooked. We’d watch three or four episodes in one sitting. The other seasons were readily available on Netflix, so we began working through them. There were painful days, inevitably, when there was no red envelope waiting in the mailbox.

Julie understood.

“You won’t want to stop,” she said.

When Julie and Terry were in the grip of their “Breaking Bad” binge, they structured their weekends around the show. Friends would invite them to dinner but they’d say, “No, we have plans.” After all, there were unwatched episodes just waiting to be loaded into Terry’s Blu-ray player.

“I would say the show is as addictive as blue meth is to addicts,” Julie said.

At one point they began to toss around Jesse Pinkman’s favored epithet.

“We walk around the house saying, ‘Hey, bitch, you ready?’ ” she said.

And Julie, the most kindhearted person I know, found herself identifying on some level with monomaniacal Walter as he metamorphosed from unremarkable high school teacher to murderous, power-hungry sociopath.

“There were things about his cancer diagnosis that I related to,” Julie said. “Going through chemo and being sick I could kind of relate to. I don’t think I’d be able to put a bullet in someone’s head, but you know …”

The word “binge,” of course, has a pejorative ring to it. It’s a word to describe eating a package of Oreos in one sitting or knocking off two or three bottles of wine before the 10 o’clock news.

But what if you decided to read “The Odyssey” and “The Iliad” back to back one summer? Would that be considered “binge reading”?

Watching Kevin Spacey as Francis Underwood claw his way to power on “House of Cards” inevitably brings William Shakespeare to mind. Francis and Richard III have a few things in common.

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Richard III meets Lady Macbeth: Kevin Spacey & Robin Wright in “House of Cards.” (Netflix)

Indeed, long before anyone had heard of TV bingeing, the Bard set a precedent of sorts with his history plays about the succession of English monarchs in the Middle Ages. Shakespeare wrote eight plays that form a continuous narrative from the reign of Richard II to the rule of Henry VI. Now and then a brave or foolhardy theater company — usually in Britain — takes it upon itself to stage all of them.

Some companies like to pair two of Shakespeare’s Roman history plays, “Julius Caesar” and “Antony and Cleopatra,” with one actor playing Antony in both. On matinee days audiences could sit through both with a dinner break in-between.

Eugene O’Neill had a penchant for writing plays that clocked in at more than four hours. And some contemporary playwrights have created binge-like viewing experiences with epic dramas, including Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” and Robert Schenkkan’s “The Kentucky Cycle,” both of which must be viewed as two full-length plays.

But nobody in theater or film had ever produced anything quite like “Breaking Bad,” which followed a clear thematic progression and coherent narrative from beginning to end.

“Shakespearean” is an apt description. Each episode was an existential journey into darkness, as cerebral as it was lurid. And the show religiously adhered to Gilligan’s original vision: to turn a protagonist into an antagonist as the series progressed.

Responding to questions by email, Gilligan said he, the actors and his team of writers and directors all were committed to Walter White’s journey.

“When it became clear in Season 4 that Walter White’s story was headed toward its natural conclusion, we didn’t fight or ignore that realization,” Gilligan said. “It’s important to know when to call it quits.”

Gilligan, by the way, says he’s not much of a binge-watcher — with one notable exception.

“Every New Year’s Eve, the SyFy Channel broadcasts a marathon of the original ‘Twilight Zone’ episodes, which I wind up consuming one right after the other, like potato chips, for hours on end,” he said.

“It doesn’t seem to matter that I already own every episode, uncut and commercial-free, on pristine Blu-ray and can watch them anytime I like. I can’t quite figure out why I do that. It’s turned into a bit of holiday tradition for me, I guess.”

But Gilligan in no way underestimates the power of binge-watching and what it says about the way we now consume television shows and movies.

“No matter how old-fashioned I may be personally, I am foursquare behind the concept of binge-watching,” he said. “I think it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread. ‘Breaking Bad’ benefited immensely from it — and perhaps was ultimately saved by it. Binge-watching transformed my career.”

As for Spacey, an executive producer on “House of Cards,” he was quoted recently saying that while his show didn’t start the bingeing phenomenon, Netflix did set a precedent by releasing an entire season at once so people could stream every episode if they chose.

“I think it goes to say how much an audience is really digging being in control and being able to treat a series the way they treat a novel,” Spacey said. “(They) pick it up when they want to pick it up and put it down when they want to put it down.”

Since then I’ve explored other binge candidates. We watched the complete “Luther,” a British police procedural starring Idris Elba as a detective with a history of mental problems and ethical lapses who nonetheless nabs a serial killer by the end of each episode.

I’ve watched a couple of episodes of “Ripper Street,” a blood-spattered depiction of police detectives in 1889 London.

We checked out “Dexter,” another show I never watched when it was in production. It’s enthusiastically grotesque and somehow invites the word “lighthearted” in its depiction of a serial killer who only kills murderers who got away with it.

And I checked out “The Walking Dead,” another AMC show, about the zombie apocalypse; plenty of action, but too much time spent on humorless survival-camp politics for my taste.

So what are the “Breaking Bad” fans supposed to do? No other show has offered such a consistent, dramatically coherent through line. No other show could draw viewers into an extreme-yet-plausible narrative with such skill.

“There’s an intensity, of course, when you watch back-to-back episodes,” said Paul Tyler, grants director for the Arts Council of Metropolitan Kansas City. Tyler said he and his wife didn’t discover “Breaking Bad” until the third season, so they watched the first two in a frenzy on DVDs.

“ ‘Breaking Bad’ is one of the best things we’ve ever seen on TV,” Tyler said. “The realism of the show made it all so believable. And the consistency and the arc of those characters over such a long period of time was really phenomenal.”

Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul in "Breaking Bad" (AMC)

Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul in “Breaking Bad” (AMC)

In the interest of something — let’s call it closure — we invited Julie and Terry to watch the final two episodes of “Breaking Bad” with us.

The doorbell rang, I opened the door, and there they were — wearing T-shirts showing the periodic table of elements, a reference to the show’s unique credits. And Terry was wearing sunglasses and a black, flat-brimmed Heisenberg hat.

“We’re here, bitch,” he said.

As the credits rolled at the end of “Felina,” the final episode, in which Walter White meets his inevitable end, there was a real sense of loss. The series was over. And we could never watch it as newbies again.

Some of the “Breaking Bad” acolytes are eager to see “Better Call Saul,” Gilligan’s prequel. But how can it wield the power of the original? Julie wants to watch “Breaking Bad” again from the beginning — when the time is right.

“There was something about ‘Breaking Bad,’ ” she said. “We couldn’t stop.”

(c) 2014 by the Kansas City Star

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Bob Barker is the Devil

[ Note: This column, in slightly different form, was published in 2005 in the Sunday magazine of  The Kansas City Star. ]

By ROBERT TRUSSELL

Bob Barker is the devil.

You know it’s true. You’ve watched him on television your entire life. He never goes away. He’s always there, smiling, intoning, seducing, inviting us into a world of naked materialism.

Maybe this seems self-evident, but my conclusion was not reached lightly. It began when I drove my wife to the emergency room. There was no way we could know it at the time, but that was the prelude to our passage into cancer world.

Hospital waiting rooms and oncology clinics are never very happy places, of course. Patients and their loved ones gathered there devote their psychic energy to a set of basic goals: Don’t bolt from your chair and flee. Don’t scream. Don’t cry. Don’t do that thing you see people do in movies where hysterical laughter morphs into inconsolable sobbing and only a slap to the face can return them to their senses.

They gather every morning in clinics and hospitals across America, sitting beneath flourescent lights in rooms often lined with dreary wood paneling, terrified of what the doctors may find but trying not to show it.

Some people thumb through magazines. Some stare into the distance. Others watch television.

The Monarch of Hell

There’s always a television. And it’s always on. And in the mornings it’s always tuned to the station that carries The Price Is Right.

This is why I will always link the image of Bob Barker, the 81-year-old host of the longest-running game show on television, with my wife’s cancer.

When I sat in a waiting room at Baptist Medical Center during her surgery, Bob Barker was there. When I accompanied her to chemotherapy at her oncologist’s office on Prospect, Bob Barker was there. Not long ago I drove her to a sonogram at St. Joseph Health Center, and there was Bob Barker—the silver-haired, silver-tongued Dark Lord of Greed.

Here’s a memory: My wife is seated in a recliner as a plastic tube pumps chemicals into her system through a port imbedded in her chest. From a television across the room emanates the screams and antiseptic music of “The Price Is Right.” I’m in a room full of women facing their own mortality, and there on the screen are screaming, jumping contestants focused on one thing only: Taking home a Cracker Jack prize.

My wife and I had fallen into the living hell of cancer—there’s no better word for it—and Bob Barker was our master of ceremonies. This is how I came to view him as El Diablo.

Look at his face and tell me I’m wrong. Study the glint in his eye as he builds the expectations of contestants who moments later walk away empty-handed. Listen to that effortless tone of empathetic disappointment when a contestant loses or the calculated elation in his voice when somebody wins a coveted piece of merchandise.

Oh, Barker’s good. He has been performing before television cameras for most of his adult life. In the ’50s he starred on Truth or Consequences, a game show that featured, among other things, a chimpanzee named Beulah the Buzzer.

But for most television viewers below a certain age, Barker is the face of The Price Is Right, a show that never goes away. It began in 1956 with a different host, but Barker’s involvement goes back 32 years—longer than many of his viewers have been alive.

Recently I made a point of watching several episodes of The Price Is Right. The experience simply confirmed my belief: Bob Barker is the Prince of Darkness, a leering, malevolent presence in doctor’s offices across America.

With a soothing tone, suave bearing and calm authority he appeals to the worst instincts in all of us. The show celebrates our lust for possessions and our need to be anesthetized against the horrors, big and small, of daily existence. Crucial to its popularity is the implied promise that you can get something for nothing.

That’s untrue, of course. There’s always a price. Those who fill the Bob Barker Studio at CBS in Hollywood each day agree to humiliate themselves for a chance to spin the Big Wheel or to play Bonkers or Pick a Pair or Switcheroo. They greet Bob with a frenzy usually reserved for football games and rock concerts.

They cheer. They shout. They scream. They high-five each other. They exchange hugs. It all has the aroma of a tent revival, with Bob Barker playing the role of preacher. It is, in fact, a form of worship—the worship of stuff.

Listen to him.

Barker put it rather eloquently at the conclusion of one episode. A contestant named Kathleen had won the “Showcase Showdown” and rushed off camera to be with her new possessions.

“And there she goes,” Bob Barker said, “to look at her motorcycle and her boat and all that stuff.”

Bob likes people to win. He doesn’t much care what they win as long as they win something. Cars, living room furniture, cappuccino machines, sailboats, motorcycles, gas grills, luggage—the list is infinite. The unseen Rich Fields—successor to legendary announcers Johnny Olson and Rod Roddy—trumpets the unveiling of each product with a high-decibel carnival barker’s pitch: “It’s a new C-A-A-A-R-R!” or “It’s an exciting P-O-O-O-L table!”

Barker is beloved by his contestants, and they seem to love him all the more when he mocks them in his cool, detached way.

One day a contestant named Alisa played a game called 3 Strikes, shoving her hand into a canvas bag designed to look like a big baseball in the hopes of pulling out the correct token to win a new Lincoln LS. With each unsuccessful try she screamed bloody murder.

“That scream may sound loud at home but I’m telling you when you’re no more than 36 inches away from it, I will never hear out of this ear again,” Barker said.

The camera never gets too close to Bob on The Price Is Right. You usually see him from the waist up and sometimes in head-to-foot shots. That way you can see Bob’s masterful body language and the cut of his suits.

A few years ago, however, Bob made a cameo appearance on the long-running daytime soap The Bold and the Beautiful. Bob appeared as himself, accompanied by a couple of his “beauties,” the models who with fluid hand gestures and frozen smiles “present” the refrigerators and ranges and motorcycles and new cars.

But The Bold and the Beautiful showed Barker in disturbing close-ups. The unnatural tan had a sort of radioactive glow, and there was something about the thick white hair that wasn’t right. He looked like an animatronic theme-park character.

This is why it’s so easy to imagine Bob as a demonic presence. He seems “natural” only on the set of The Price Is Right. Remove him from his universe of cardboard sets and garish lighting and it just seems wrong—even when you insert him into the phony world of a daytime soap.

For many The Price Is Right is nothing more than addictive entertainment. And Bob is widely admired for his devotion to animal rights. The former Springfield, Mo. resident projects an unassuming Midwestern manner, often greeting his guests with “Howdy.”

Cloven Hoof and friend

Oh, there were some unpleasant lawsuits from former staffers and models a few years ago. They accused Barker of behavior that was unbecoming to a beloved celebrity.

But Bob has never been distracted from his overriding goal—dragging Americans into a vortex of consumerism. Picture yourself, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, caught in the eye of a tornado, with patio furniture, vacuum cleaners and skate boards spinning all around you.

That’s where Bob wants you to be.

But the funny thing about products is that they really don’t mean much to people dealing with cancer. People on chemo just can’t get excited about new kitchen gadgets or curio cabinets.

What they see on Bob’s show is an endless river of disposable junk—cars that will rust, vacuum cleaners whose belts will break, furniture that will someday be scarred and pitted. All the shiny new products destined to reside in landfills simply remind us that our bodies will eventually fail and that life must come to an end, no matter how diligently we try to forestall the inevitable.

But Barker keeps on keeping on, his place in the Television Hall of Fame secure. Five days a week he torments his guests with condescending charm as they struggle to guess the price of a stereo or a sofa or a ping-pong table.

Maybe you have your own notions of the Dark One. Maybe you believe he really exists. Maybe you just see him as a metaphor for the human animal’s capacity to inflict evil on his own kind.

Regardless, history and literature offer plenty of stand-ins for His Satanic Majesty: Vlad the Impaler, Richard III, Jerry Springer, Hannibal Lecter. It’s a long list. And somewhere near the bottom is my personal Mephistopheles: Bob Barker.

And what an impoverished figure he is. At the end of the day he’s just a huckster with a cane and megaphone promising unimagined pleasures if only we’ll step inside the tent.

(c) 2005 the Kansas City Star

Weird World: `The Bold And The Beautiful’ Is A Mix Of Classics And Theater Of The Absurd

Originally published May 28, 2000

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

They never watch television. They never discuss politics. Books are just shelf decorations. They rarely sit down to talk, and when they converse, the subjects are always the same — feelings, relationships, needs and betrayals.

Children can grow from infancy to adulthood in eight years. Recovery from disease is always fast and complete, although those unfortunate enough to die of cancer have a way of putting on weight as the end approaches.

Yes, it’s an odd little universe that I’ve immersed myself in virtually every day for 11 years. It’s the world of “The Bold and the Beautiful,” one of the last half-hour soaps on network television, and it’s an addiction I can’t kick.

Ronn Moss as Ridge Forrester and Katherine Kelly Lang as Brooke Logan Forrester.

The notion of a theater critic watching a daytime soap may strike some as mere slumming. Maybe it is, but so what? I take solace in the great drama critic George Jean Nathan, who in 1923 wrote: “The trivial is often the inspiration for something that is not trivial … A thousand trivialities are placed in the test tubes of aesthetics that a single piece of sound criticism may endure.”

In an interview a few years ago, actor William H. Macy described turning on his television one day and by chance seeing an actress he had gone to school with performing in a soap. He watched with a professional’s eye and was transfixed. Her work, he recalled, was as good as it gets, and he suddenly felt ashamed for all the times he had walked through commercials and small parts on television without really trying.

In other words, daytime soaps — or this one, anyway — are much like the larger world of arts and entertainment. Most of the time it is bad (and therefore vastly entertaining); occasionally it can be good (thanks to an individual actor or a burst of lively writing); and once in a blue moon it stuns you with a moment of utterly convincing drama or a bravura performance that transcends all the ridiculous trappings of daytime television.

It all began innocently enough.

One day I received a phone call at work from my wife. She managed to speak through her laughter.

“You’ve got to see this,” she said. “There’s a woman that looks like a man in drag! She looks like Divine.”

Darlene Conley as Sally Spectra. Conley died in 2007.

She referred to Darlene Conley, who has played rag-trade hustler Sally Spectra since “The Bold and the Beautiful” went on the air 13 years ago. Conley, it’s easy to see, was probably a convincing glam-girl once upon a time. These days, with a red wig piled high atop an increasingly spherical body, she inevitably brings to mind Divine, the cross-dressing star of John Waters films in the 1980s.

And, just as Divine did, Conley brings a sense of high theater to the table. Her husky baritone, her biting enunciation, her way of accenting a line with sharply pursed lip, all become ingredients in an ongoing performance that seems a synthesis of grand diva mannerisms and overbearing maternalism.

How could I not watch? We began taping the midday broadcasts and playing them at night. Early on I hit the fast-forward button anytime Sally wasn’t on, but inevitably I began watching complete episodes. The long, never-ending saga of “B&B” began taking shape:

At the center is the Forrester clan, headed by Eric Forrester (John McCook), internationally known fashion designer. He and his wife, Stephanie (Susan Flannery), a master of devious manipulation, reside in a Beverly Hills mansion with a curious decor that includes marble columns and what looks like a bust of Julius Caesar.

Meanwhile, in a Los Angeles warehouse district, Sally Spectra’s outlaw company, Spectra Fashions, often looks for ways to throw banana peels in the path of the mighty Forresters, enraging Eric and Stephanie by producing cheap knockoffs of Forrester originals.

John McCook as Eric Forrester

At the time I started watching, silver-haired Eric had fallen in love with blond-babe Brooke Logan (Katherine Kelly Lang), a caterer from the Valley who was young enough to be his daughter. She was pregnant with Eric Jr. (now called Rick), even though she actually was in love with Ridge (Ronn Moss), Eric and Stephanie’s angular son. Eventually Brooke would be married to Eric and Ridge, but these days is madly in love with Ridge’s younger brother, the chisel-jawed Thorne (Winsor Harmon).

If she and Thorne marry that means Rick Forrester’s stepfather would also be his half-brother! And the whining Rick (Justin Torkildsen), now a freshman in college (even though he was an infant less than 10 years ago), is now pressuring Thorne to be honest about his feelings for his mom.

Brooke, as a result of her divorce from Eric Forrester, owns 51 percent of the stock in the Forrester fashion house and is now the CEO and wants vengeance on Ridge and Eric for sabotaging her relationship with Thorne. Thorne is now miserably remarried to Sally’s daughter Macy (Bobbie Eakes), a recovering alcoholic teetering on the brink of relapse.

Ridge, although he still harbors feelings for Brooke, is oh-so-happily married to Dr. Taylor Hayes Forrester (Hunter Tylo), a willowy beauty whose medical specialty was changed from oncology to psychiatry early on. This is their second marriage; believed dead after a plane crash, an amnesiac Taylor spent months in the palace of Prince Omar in an unnamed Middle Eastern country, during which time a grieving Ridge married the available Brooke.

Susan Flannery as Stephanie Forrester

The plot goes on and on, piling absurdity upon absurdity. There was Stephanie’s bout with amnesia, during which she lived homeless on the streets. There was Eric’s survival adventure in Iceland — or was it Greenland? — with sexy Lauren Fenmore (Tracey E. Bregman). Brooke survived a period of “reactive psychosis” in which she lived like a wild dog in Barbados. Sally stopped a gangster’s bullet but bounced back. Dr. James Warwick (Ian Buchanan) was introduced as a renowned psychiatrist who also happened to be a 40-year-old virgin. Warwick was later held prisoner for months in a dungeon by the psychotic Sheila Carter (Kimberlin Brown).

Oh, it’s a singular picture of the world you get on “B&B.” There are no gay fashion designers, only straight men given to macho bluffing and the occasional punch to the jaw. Women make all the major decisions, while the clueless men are manipulated like pawns. Men never discuss sports or sex, only relationships and child-rearing concerns.

Adding to the show’s surrealistic atmosphere are the occasional guest performances — Fabio, Carol Channing and Charlton Heston have appeared as themselves. Phyllis Diller shows up as a wise-cracking hairdresser. The late James Doohan (Scotty on “Star Trek”) was James Warwick’s father. Despite all this silliness, a steady diet of “The Bold and the Beautiful” reveals a debt to classical theater. In the mix are vaguely incestuous relationships, internecine conflicts, ceaseless scheming, frequent faceoffs, characters who talk to themselves, eavesdropping, intercepted letters, babies switched at birth, mistaken identities, even ghosts. All of these are found in “B&B” and echo the plays of the Elizabethans and the Greeks.

And, perhaps because this show relies on many of the same raw ingredients needed to make a film or produce a play, there are moments that come close to validating the entire enterprise.

Susan Flannery and Katherine Kelly Lang in another Stephanie/Brooke bonding moment.

Those are usually provided by Susan Flannery, a veteran of daytime soaps and prime-time television whose most memorable moment in movies was leaping in flames from a penthouse suite in “The Towering Inferno.”

Flannery, who scooped up the outstanding actress award at the Daytime Emmys on May 19, has a way of making the most implausible dialogue sound reasonable. While some of her colleagues seem challenged to say “hello” convincingly, Flannery throws herself into a scene with a focused intensity that becomes a show unto itself. When she tongue-lashes an adversary or reiterates her hatred of Brooke, I remember why I tune in.

So tomorrow, my VCR will kick on at 12:30 p.m. and on Monday night I’ll watch the day’s events in B&B World. Maybe Flannery will be in top form. But if not — if the wheels come off the plot, if the writing takes a sugary turn, if actors struggle to keep straight faces while performing with uncooperative babies, if they stumble over dialogue — I will be no less entertained.

To quote Nathan once again: “If one goes to a concert hall and hears a bad performance or to an art exhibition and sees only bad paintings, one’s disappointment is complete. In the theatre, contrariwise, the worst play and performance of the year may provide the greatest hilarity.”

© 2000 Kansas City Star and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved