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Category Archives: Television

Orange Is The New Best Show!

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I just finished watching the first season of Orange Is the New Black, and man oh man, how I wish I had more of it to watch right this minute! The second season is about to begin, but I can’t watch livestream because my free WiFi connection isn’t good enough: videos stop running at some point, or else they bumble through to the end, stopping and starting every few minutes. Thus, I waited until it came out on DVD to see the entire first season; now I’ll have to wait for the second.

I’m not going to give any summaries or recaps here, but there will no doubt be “spoilers.” To tell you the truth I’m a little sick of this spoiler warning bullshit—which I’ll expound upon at some other time.

Like Regina Specter’s song in the opening of the show says, “Remember their faces,” and I vividly remember every one of them . These characters are so well-drawn, their stories so compelling, they’ve become embedded deep in the neurons of my brain. I suppose I’ll just have to subsist on memories for how ever many months it takes…and in the meantime, I have a few opinions about the goings-on.

Q: What makes this show so terrific?

A: It’s about women. Women’s lives, one hundred percent and more real than any so-called reality show.

Big REd

Big REd

Example: A group of prisoners sit in a circle hatching plans so Daya can have her baby without revealing that the father is one of the guards, who she’s in love with. Big Red, Bitch-Goddess of the Prison Kitchen, solemnly advises Daya in a thick Russian accent (I’m paraphrasing here), “Think carefully: every decision you make now is going to affect your family for a long time. Welcome to motherhood.” That just about slayed me.

Chapman Piper Chapman, the main character, sleep-walks through life, as everyone accuses her of doing, letting whatever happens to her happen, taking no responsibility for any of it. She doesn’t seem to realize that words have consequences, that when she tells Healy, her prison counselor, to go fuck himself, he’ll turn on her in the most vicious way he can conjure up. It’s only beginning to dawn on her that you can get into all kinds of trouble saying the wrong things in prison; for instance, if you tell a seriously disturbed religious fanatic her beliefs are a crock of shit, she will seek revenge. In the last episode Chapman gave lip service to accepting responsibility for the crime that got her into jail, but her words sounded hollow and unconvincing. She still blames Alex, her ex-lover and partner in crime, who did indeed turn her in to get less time herself.

AlexI adore Alex, and I can’t stand Piper for causing her so much heartache. Cruelly she abandoned Alex on the heels of her mother’s sudden death, with Alex begging Piper to just accompany her to the funeral. Piper walked out and slammed the door, muttering some nonsense about her needs. When the series begins, her affair with Alex is long since over and she’s engaged to a nebish of a man who understands even less of how the world works  than she does. Larry, who looks exactly like the preppie writer wanna-be he is, uses Piper’s situation as a stepping-stone to a career: he writes an article for the New York Times about his experience of her imprisonment. Not content with the attention he gets, he pushes the envelope by chatting about it on Urban Tales, a fictive NPR show emceed by one Murray Kind, a shoo-in for Ira Glass of This Orange New BlackAmerican Life. Jenji Kohan, who adapted Piper Kerman’s memoir, Orange Is The New Black: My Year in a Woman’s Prison, for the Netflix series, told Fresh Air’s Terry Gross that Urban Tales is a take on This American Life, and she’s an Ira Glass fan. So why didn’t Ira himself play the role? ‘I asked Ira if he would do it and he politely declined,’ Kohan said.

Not only does Larry appropriate Piper’s story for his own benefit, he tells tales out of prison about the other inmates, who despise Piper for the things she said about them. He’s clueless about where she is and with whom, and that he could seriously hurt her with his idle chatter. As for the sleep-walking Piper, she barely confronts him on it, and never tells him straight out to knock it off: she still wants to marry the creep! In their last phone conversation, when I wanted her to rip him a new pair, verbally at least, she sobbed pitifully when he broke off their engagement. Little does she realize, the jerk did her a favor.

But she can’t go back to her hot lesbian lover: Alex won’t allow Piper near her anymore, and at the conclusion of Season One Piper is completely and utterly alone. As much as I’ve come to dislike her, I did feel sorry for her. None of the inmates want to be her friend; some even despise her. Her counselor, Mr. Healy, simply walks away laughing while the crazed religious fanatic goes at Piper with a razor. The only thing Piper has going for her is remembering the street-fighting techniques the black girls taught to her gratis—and she uses them. As the show ends Piper is smashing Ms. Jesus to a bloody pulp, and we’re left wondering if the nutcase survives the beating.

Well, I can hardly wait for Season Two, though after that ending I’m afraid it’ll start out with Piper in solitary, aka the SHU: oftentimes I just can’t watch scenes of solitary confinement. It terrifies me, and I empathize too much with the prisoner to watch what she goes through. I braved Piper’s first trip to the SHU, and the fact that it didn’t bother me inordinately is an indication it wasn’t that intense, unlike true stories I’ve read, or the portrayal, in his biopic, of Reuben (Hurricane) Carter’s time in isolation. I’m not criticizing Orange on this; I’m glad it wasn’t unbearable, since I don’t want to have to skip one single minute of Orange Is The New Black. Ever.

 

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Big Blue Eyes

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Garry Moore, quintessential 50s TV emcee. Photo: Wikipedia

Garry Moore, quintessential 50s TV emcee. Photo: Wikipedia

Some time around 1950, my mother sent away for free tickets to some corny daytime television show. I don’t recall what it was, only that it wasn’t a soap opera or game show. The emcee, to whom I was rude, blunt, and contemptuous, might have been Garry Moore. The sponsor I vividly remember: Chef Boy-ar-Dee. At

Chef Boyardeethe end of the program each mother-child pair marched across the stage, shook the emcee’s hand, and received a can of ravioli. This ceremony was televised, was part of the programming.

When it was our turn, the emcee smiled at me and cooed, “Where’d you get those big blue eyes?” Four years old, I thought he was an idiot. “I was born with them!” I said, silently conveying the tag, “Stupid!” He was taken aback, but luckily we had to keep moving so the next kid could get a can of ravioli.

My little playmate Barry was home in his Bronx apartment watching TV and sucking his thumb. When I came on camera he shrieked, “That’s my Marcy!” Or so his mother told me. I guess he didn’t notice my bitchiness—or maybe he was used to it. Or maybe it made perfect sense to Barry that I called a grownup on his bullshit: of course I was born with my blue eyes—where else would I have gotten them? For years I’d tell this story for laughs, proud of my youthful honesty. Now, having reached an age where I know who I am and how I got here, I see that my behavior came from a personality in development, one that I cultivated and honed and carried with me into the future. It was not a personality likely to generate success in most areas of life.

The evidence was on my quarterly report card: in first grade, when they only gave out “S” for Satisfactory or “U” for Un, straight S’s ran down and across for every subject but one: “Works well with Others.” Unsatisfactory! Marcy does not work well with others! These days a parent who saw a report card like that would rush their kid to the nearest shrink. My parents ignored it.

Cartoon: Dane Anthony

Cartoon: Dane Anthony

 

This wasn’t really unusual; in fact, it would’ve been considered odd if they had consulted a shrink. That’s the way my generation’s parents were: they pushed us out the door in the morning and expected us back by supper. We were to do our homework without their help, do well in school, wash our face and comb our hair. They were nothing like today’s “helicopter” parents.

The other day I heard someone roughly my age on a podcast, talking about the parenting style of the generation who raised us, who raised me. It might’ve been Marc Maron, who I listen to a lot, but he’s younger. Whoever it was, he joked that our parents won World War II, saving us from living in a Hitleresque world

Photo: "Life Under Nazism" at from Center for Holocaust & Gender Studies/http://www.chgs.umn.edu/histories/documentary/nazilife/index.html

Photo: “Life Under Nazism” from Center for Holocaust& Gender Studies/http://www.chgs.umn.edu/histories/documentary/nazilife/index.html

under Nazism; now what more could we possibly want from them? The guy he was talking to said he didn’t think our generation could’ve done it, that we could not have won the war. He had a point.

Still. I’m not the only one who was raised by a system of benign neglect (or worse). I’m not the only one struggling not to be bitter, who genuinely wants to stop blaming my parents for my problems. I’m not the only baby boomer who would like to be able to forgive them.

Dead or alive, they deserve no less.

Damages—In Fiction and In Life

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Patty Hewes

Patty Hewes (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve been renting and watching the TV drama Damages, starring a brilliant Glenn Close. It’s one of the best shows I’ve seen on the small screen, and I getan immediate rush whenever that red envelope appears in my mailbox. I especially like watching four or five episodes in one delicious sitting, rather than waiting a dreary week in between each. Patty Hewes, the main character played by Close, is a Class A bitch and hard to like—some might say impossible to like. I’ve worked at liking her, though: as cruel as Patty can be, underneath beats a clichéd heart of gold. The stereotype of the whore with a heart of gold is outdated: of course whores have hearts of gold; these days they’re the girls next door. Hewes is an attorney: a lawyer with a heart of gold is so rare she cannot be classified a stereotype.

No matter what intricate evil plots Patty arranges to manipulate the people around her, though, she hasn’t tortured anyone physically, nor has she ordered torture be done in her name. (Murder, sure; torture, never!) In the fourth season, however, the plot incorporates the war in Afghanistan, and in the first episode the audience is treated to scenes of torture—nothing involving Patty, thank god. During the first four eps, I actually had to leave the room, and I’m seriously questioning whether or not to skip this season (the show went five years, so that’d leave me with just one more season).

Standing by on a hilltop, Soldiers with the 10...

The 101st Division Special Troops Battalion watch as helicopters fly in to take them back to Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, Nov. 4, 2008 after searching a small village in the valley below for IED materials and facilities. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here’s my philosophy on depictions of cruelty:

When I saw Schindler’s List—which I cannot believe came out over 20 {gasp} years ago—I went to the bathroom midway through. Unlike the frantic race I usually run to pee and get back to a movie quickly, this time I lingered. I saw the harrowed look on my face in the mirror, and vowed inwardly to never again see a Holocaust movie. A few years later, watching Amistad, I made the same vow regarding slavery—and extended these vows to books. The way I figure it, by now I know enough, certainly a great deal, about both horrendous subjects; in fact, when I was young and just learning world history, I was inexplicably drawn to stories of human cruelty, and I devoured books and movies about the epic tragedies of history. By now, however, with cruelty still going strong, and between my own pain and suffering and that of people I love, I’ve

Still of Djimon Hounsou in Amistad.Photo: IMDB

Still of Djimon Hounsou in Amistad.Photo: IMDB

witnessed enough for one lifetime. I don’t want or need to fill my eyes with hideous visions, or my head and heart with the agony that runs rampant through the human story. I’m well aware that horrid things are being done to people even as I write these words; I don’t need to be reminded. Thus, I made those vows and never looked back–except, perhaps, for a painful book or three. A serious reader can’t avoid, nor would I want to, books that include pain and suffering.

In the case of Damages, however, I feel a bit uneasy–not full-blown guilty, just somewhat uneasy—turning my back on Season 4 and its terrorist/torture plot. (Each season focuses on one central plotline from first to last episode.) That would be refusing to acknowledge what the United States, of which I am a natural born citizen, is doing to people in my name. Some even accuse those of us who don’t protest of giving the government our tacit approval of their heinous deeds.

I already know what the U.S. is doing, whether I watch the show or not. I listen to or watch Democracy Now almost every day, I read progressive magazine articles, and I’m on nearly every left-wing group’s spam list. I listen to NPR and KPFA. I’ve also seen other TV shows, like Law & Order, that weave stories of “The War on Terror” into their plots—I could tell you exactly what’s going to happen in Damages Season 4, so similar is it to other programs on the subject. In other words, I do know what’s going on, and I’m doing nothing about it. I walked around Market Street objecting to war several times during the past decade. Didn’t stop the wars. Of course, I didn’t expect it to: when I march I do it for solidarity with other protesters, and to express my disapproval.

The U.S. is supposed to be leaving Afghanistan now—but that’s not the issue. The “takeaway” issue of this war turns out to be torture. Now that the U.S. has crossed that line they’re very likely to do so again. Does that mean I have to watch depictions of it? WTF am I supposed to do about it? What do Americans with a conscience do? What do you do?

Weekend Wrapup

Portlandia (TV series)

Image via Wikipedia

Portlandia

I couldn’t wait to see Portlandia.  Last year I didn’t even know it existed, but this time the PR was intense: I heard a Fresh Air interview with Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein  and read a profile of them in the New Yorker.  They even did a big-city pre-season promotional tour. The show sounded fabulous, maybe the first intelligent sitcom to come along in a dozen years or so.

Portland sounded so great in the hoopla that I was starting to regret not having moved there four years ago, when I’d seriously considered it – I even went and looked at houses with a realtor, big rambling houses for a third of what they’d go for in the Bay Area. The sidewalk cafés sold cups of upscale chocolate, and friendly folk started conversations with me. The bathroom graffiti was high-quality, the bulletin boards jammed with psychic workshops and environmentalist groups. Full-service gas stations! City-wide bicycle lanes! Light rail! It reminded me a little of San Francisco 24 years back, when I first moved here. Then it was an extremely livable city, but I didn’t know I’d arrived on the tail end of laid back: during the next decade traffic increased to an untenable volume, and climbing rents forced people like me to move across the bridge. I wonder if Portland will follow a similar trajectory, now that it’s The Place To Be.

But I digress. Portlandia didn’t grab me as much as I’d anticipated. In deviating from tired sitcom patterns, Armisen and Brownstein have made a bit of a muddle. They play most of the characters — and what characters! – but they aren’t entirely convincing, and I think they would’ve been better off hiring actors. Armisen is currently a player on SNL and it shows: Portlandia is more a string of clever skits than an ongoing story. But hey, it was only the premiere of the second season, and maybe it was just too much hype that caused the letdown, so I’ll give it a few more viewings.

My Week With Marilyn

Yet another disappointment. Full disclosure: I slept through parts of the movie, so I’m not certain I have the right to critique it, or that my impressions are reality based. Still, I saw enough of Michelle Williams to know she’s no Marilyn Monroe. Having just watched The Misfits for the fifth time last week, Marilyn’s gestures, voice, laughter, walk and mannerisms were fresh in my memory, and Williams got none of them down (if only Meryl Streep was still young enough to play Marilyn!). And of all the stupid inattentive screwups, the makeup artists didn’t do their homework: Marilyn’s makeup was pretty much always the same, so how hard could it be to replicate? Yet they couldn’t manage to create that shadow at the outer corners of her eyes, or the almost reflective shine of her lips. Plus, of all things, her beauty mark traveled to different places in different scenes, sometimes on the left side and sometimes on the right! I figure this has something to do with camera technology, but is it really impossible to fix? And finally, dear god, Kenneth Branagh playing Lawrence Olivier?! Check out their pictures. ‘Nuff said.

To the left, Sir Lawrence Olivier. To the right, Kenneth Branagh. Come on!

Addendum : Tuesday January 10th

Maybe I’m crazy: I read a bunch of reviews, all raves, particularly about Michelle Williams and her excellent portrayal of Marilyn. One review said Branagh looked enough like Olivier to play the part. AM I crazy? I fell in love with Sir Olivier, based at least 50% on his looks, when I was in college and saw him do Hamlet (film). Kenneth Branagh is, to my eyes, one of the least good-looking actors in the known universe. Did I get this movie wrong because I slept through some of it? Or did I sleep through some of it because it wasn’t that great? (I don’t think it’s the latter, because when I saw the Johnny Cash biopic I also fell asleep, and decided it was lousy. Two years later I saw it again and loved it.) Guess I’ll wait for this to come out on DVD to do a reality check. In the meantime….anyone have an opinion? That’s what the comment boxes are for!

Home Room

One weekend special that did not disappoint was in the food category, at a new restaurant near Piedmont Avenue in Oakland. Home Room’s  menu consists solely of mac & cheese entreés. Even though the meal was probably responsible for my movie napping, it was worth it. I had The Gilroy, made with pecorino, gouda and roasted garlic (hence the Gilroy appellation). Daryl had Mac & Blue, made, naturally, with blue cheese. Scrumptious — and so filling I took more than half of it home for dinner.

Baseball Note: Hip Hip Jorge!

Jorge Posada, shafted by the team he was dog-loyal to for 17 years, has decided to retire in pinstripes, despite offers from the Tampa Bay Rays and at least one other team. No surprises here – but I was hoping he might go down to Florida to play against the Yankees and remind Girardi, Cashman and Steinbrenners Junior – dense nincompoops all – of what they so casually threw away.

Only Bill Dickey and Yogi Berra have caught more games in pinstripes than Posada (1574). With his departure the Core Four – Jeter, Rivera, Pettite and Posada – shrivel to two. My bet is on Rivera as the next to leave; I wouldn’t be surprised if it happened after this season. Posada and Rivera are my favorite players, not only among Yankees but in all of baseball, and losing them is tough. But I don’t begrudge Jorge  spending more time with family, considering what must go on there: Jorge Jr. was born with  craniosynostosis, and has had a number of surgeries over the years. Happy Retirement Jorge: you deserve it! I hope he doesn’t end up missing the game too badly.

Will the Real Marilyn Please Stand Up?

Television

Idiot box. Boob tube. Little blue screen. Television: It’s bad for us. It scrambles our brains, makes us passive, kills creativity and eats up time. To most people, though, it’s irresistible.

Until I got older and began spending so much time alone in silent apartments, I wasn’t into random viewing at all. My family  got our first tv set when I was four, and even then I remember being restless and bored when it was on. When the whole family came together to watch The Ed Sullivan Show or Dinah Shore, it was such a rare event that I’d stay just to be in the same room with them, but I found it almost painfully difficult to sit still. (Maybe it was their choice of programming, come to think of it!)  I did like Jackie Gleason and Red Skelton, but most television bored me.

Now I couldn’t live without it. When I used the phrase “random viewing,” I meant that (1) I didn’t keep it on if I wasn’t actually watching;  (2) I never, but never, turned it on before dark; and (3) I only turned it on to watch a specific show, about which I was often obsessional. These were few in number; usually one or two shows a season grabbed me and I couldn’t miss a single episode—and we had no copying apparatus then. (I remember being freaked out lest I  go into labor with my daughter during the anxiously awaited final episode of The Fugitive.)

Since I love to make lists, I’m always looking for new topics. Herewith is one of the tv shows I’ve been insanely attached to over the years. If they seem like a lot, remember, we’re talking about a time period of fifty years. Half a century. Good Grief!

Sitcoms

Father Knows Best (I was ten-plus and wanted to be “Kitten.”)
All in the Family
M.A.S.H.
Mary Tyler Moore (#1)
Golden Girls
Kate & Allie
Cheers
Frasier
Seinfeld
Roseanne (in reruns only)

Dramas

The Fugitive
Doctor Kildare
The Lou Grant Show
Hill Street Blues
Cagney & Lacey (#1)
Law & Order (still!)
Knots Landing (guilty pleasure)
L.A. Law (in reruns–it ran opposite Knots)
Judging Amy
House (getting ready to retire this one soon; it’s going downhill)

Reality

Lately I find myself much more interested in reality shows – though some are truly unbearable – than in fictional tv. I’m just more curious about what real-ish people are doing these days (as much as they can be real on tv).

Wife Swap (actually I can no longer bear this, it’s vile; I used to like it until it devolved into real slime, and I needed to take a shower afterwards)

Top Chef
Kate and her 8 Kids, in whatever format
Supernanny
Millionaire Matchmaker with the crazed Patty Stanger
Animal Planet
(lots of shows that keep changing. Some favorites are Animal Cops, It’s Me or The Dog, Parolees and Pit Bulls, and #1, Pit Boss)

Then There’s Radio…

I’ve got NPR on 99% of the time, and occasionally KFOG. Now, Sunday morning at 11:00 a.m., I’ll be switching on KPFA for Robbie Osmon’s Across the Great Divide. Robbie chooses a topic from the past week and puts together two fantastic hours that express the theme. He knows every genre of music; he plays corny country, old rock n’ roll, and obscure artists with cult followings. GREAT stuff!) (Except that he began today with four, yes, 4! versions of We Shall Overcome, which he has been playing every single week lately! I suppose it’s appropriate, given the times.