Best Of :: Arts & Entertainment
Frank Theatre queenpin Wendy Knox has been rightly lauded for bringing us works by Bertolt Brecht, Suzan-Lori Parks, and Sam Shepard in recent years—pieces that we surely wouldn't have seen otherwise. But in addition to her good taste in scripts, Knox has a directorial style that deserves praise. We've long searched for ways to describe the experience of seeing one of her shows. We usually settle on some variation of pedal to the metal. But if we often feel as though we're in a car with no brakes, we also sense that the lunatic behind the wheel happens to be an exceptionally good driver. Frank's staging of Venus, the story of an African woman made into a Victorian freak show, displayed Knox's capacity for getting a claw into your gut with raw, humorless work. Yet Frank's follow-up, Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children, tackled wartime mercenary values with a sense of queasy and reckless humor. Knox's shows crackle and bristle with intellectualism, but also serve up a texture of real emotional danger. The final tribute to Knox's talent is her ability to attract distinctive actors—such as Shá Cage, Maria Asp, and Grant Richey—to that challenging aesthetic. Actors obviously trust her; audiences should wear their seat belts.
Any savvy YouTube user can find a small archive of the venerable anchor as a young pup 25 years ago, when local news was kinder and gentler—or at least less histrionic. Certainly Shelby has gone through many a makeover since then, and outlived all sorts of talking-head challengers. Yet we pick Shelby this year not just because of his longevity, but because of his dedication to the craft. Yes, Shelby practices the craft of journalism, unlike most of his blow-dried cohorts and competitors. We've noticed, for instance, that when there's a big-time journalism forum or workshop, Shelby can generally be counted on to be there. And this year he introduced a new segment to the WCCO 10:00 p.m. broadcast called "In the Know" (even while graciously making room at the 6:00 p.m. newscast for Amelia's husband Whatshisname). Here, Shelby drops his veneer of objectivity and editorializes on events of the day—a rare and welcome moment of news analysis. His comments on such hot topics of the day as immigration and the war in Iraq are sure-handed, smart-headed, and just plain sensible in the era of Fox News shout-fests. You can almost imagine an anchor doing the same thing 25 years ago—hey, maybe Shelby has been watching those YouTube clips, too.
It's been a rough year for the 23-year-old network that champions such outmoded causes as free speech and power to the people. For starters, the swapping of territories by Time Warner Cable and Comcast has essentially left MTN hanging in the balance without a solid use agreement. And Minneapolis City Council member Don Samuels has filed a civil rights complaint—and $100,000 lawsuit—against the network over broadcast remarks that he claims were life-threatening. (Suffice it to say if such damages are ever rewarded, it would effectively kill MTN's budget.) In fact, with all the image-conscious tinkerers that have infiltrated City Hall in recent years, from the mayor on down, one gets the feeling most elected officials would be happy to see the whole operation dismantled. And they'd probably start with Black Focus, the show hosted by longtime civil rights champion and City Hall agitator Ron Edwards. The weekly program (5:00 p.m. Sundays, channel 17) is low-key, with Edwards quietly dispensing anecdotes and insider dope on city politics while he sits on a set that looks like someone's home study. But most of what Edwards says packs a wallop, whether he's breaking down what happened to Dominic Felder, a black man who recently died in the hands of the Minneapolis police, or talking up the AIDS crisis in Africa. And nobody does a better job of confronting the city's race issues. Sometimes Edwards gets circuitous and conspiratorial, but even then he's usually half-right. Bottom line is that he tirelessly performs a public service, the kind public access was made for.
We can't stand it when a discussion of television prompts some would-be intellectual to sneer, "Oh, I never watch TV. I don't even own a set." Please. Do you hate novels, too, because so many of them are written by the likes of James Patterson and Danielle Steel? Okay, so 90 percent of TV programming is crap—so go find the good stuff. Although pretty much anyone who cares about decent programming has cable by now, we stubbornly continue to find a broadcast channel to praise each year, and while we seriously considered choosing the CW solely on the strength of its South Park reruns, we have to admit that more of that elusive good stuff is to be found on public television than anywhere else on the local dial. As with any station, there're plenty of shows we don't like: the aging-boomer rock concerts and Suze Orman marathons, to name a couple. We won't even talk about the pledge drives. But the percentage of worthy programming here is good: One episode of Frontline, for example, is more informative and engaging than a month of CNN. And if you want to beat CNN, you could do worse than tuning into BBC world news—available here without paying for digital cable. American Experience often does a superb job of tackling big topics, like the building of great cities and the growth of history-changing movements. TPT's weekday kids' programming still can't be beat, while on Saturdays, the station gives us a couple of hours' worth of cooking shows, and not one of them features Rachel Ray. We're partial to America's Test Kitchen: Those food-loving nerds have great hints. Add in eye-opening nature shows; programming for immigrant communities, such as Somali Media; and Martin Scorsese's Bob Dylan documentary, and you've got plenty of fodder for arguments with your TV-snob friends.
We try to hate Eric Perkins. Our inner curmudgeon generally recoils at the sight of someone with such an unfailingly sunny disposition. Anyone who's that happy and enthusiastic all the time either isn't paying attention or is a bit dimwitted. But Perkins consistently foils our cynicism. His "Perk at Play" segments, while hokey as a rhubarb pie-eating contest, are unfailingly hilarious. Whether skating with the Minnesota Rollergirls or getting manhandled by local ultimate fighting champion Sean Sherk, Perkins is willing to make an ass out of himself for the viewer's amusement. And given the sorry state of our professional sports franchises in recent memory, getting some laughs along with the dreadful highlights is a welcome reprieve.
Patrick Reusse is ridiculously prolific. The veteran sports scribe churns out at least four columns a week and takes vacations about as often as the U of M wins Big Ten football titles. And that's not even taking into account the countless radio gigs that he juggles. Reusse deftly covers the full sports landscape, from the improbable Division II basketball dominance of Winona State to the failings of first-year Vikings coach Brad Childress. His columns are chock-full of the kinds of details and intelligent analysis that can't be garnered from staring into a pint of beer at the local Hooters. Perhaps it's in part because Reusse's an ex-drunk that he's such a workhorse. Check out this chestnut from the first sentence of a recent column celebrating the life of the late Twins radio announcer Herb Carneal: "There was nothing more important in the lives of baseball play-by-play broadcasters in the '40s, '50s and into the '60s than beer." Who wouldn't read to the bottom of that piece?