Category Archives: 2007

I Heart TV: My So-Called Life

As long as I’m taking a gauzy walk down memory lane, here’s the first draft of another I Heart TV essay – my favorite of the contributions I made to the book. My So-Called Life was, is and will always be one of my all-time favorites, so being able to celebrate it in print…and mention Wonderfalls, Freaks & Geeks and Juliana Hatfield in the process?!…was something I truly cherished.

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“When someone dies young, it’s like they stay that way forever,” muses 15-year-old Angela Chase in the memorable “Halloween” installment of My So-Called Life, which found her entranced by a student said to have died in 1963. In a weird way, the same thing applies to TV series, like My So-Called Life, Wonderfalls or Freaks & Geeks, that were axed before their time. We’re left with a handful of episodes and the promise of what could have been if only…if only.

The drama, which debuted in August 1994 and lasted a scant 19 episodes, told the story of Angela, her family and friends; and while it’s probably best remembered these days for introducing the mercurial acting talents of the Emmy-nominated Claire Danes to the world, it featured an equally capable supporting cast. Bess Armstrong ably portrayed Patty, Angela’s homecoming-queen mom who struggles with the conundrums many working mothers face; and Tom Irwin was simply terrific as quixotic dad Graham. Likewise, Angela’s friends became real-life acquaintances—her troubled pal Rayanne (A.J. Langer), gentle Ricky (Wilson Cruz), heavy-lidded crush Jordan (Jared Leto), ex-best friend Sharon (Devon Odessa) and geeky neighbor “Brain”—er, Brian (Devon Gummersall). Even little sister Danielle (Lisa Wilhoit) comes across as a believable kid whose bratty behavior we understand: she wants to be in the epicenter of the universe—where Angela lives. (Small wonder that for Halloween she dresses up as her older sis’.)

In many ways, due to the use of voice-over narration, the episodes play in part like diary entries woven into the fabric of ongoing stories. Unlike a diary, however, each episode expands the viewpoint to reveal the perspectives of other characters; and also tells their stories independently of Angela. The most notable plotlines are Angela’s infatuation with Jordan, whose inability to articulate anything of substance proves as frustrating to him as it is for us (and leads to a wondrous season-ender in which he turns to “Brain” for help); troubled Rayanne, who reminds Patty—and us—of kids we knew; Ricky’s descent into homeless hell and rebound to stability; and the slow growth of Graham’s restaurant ambitions, to say nothing of his possible dogging around. In the pilot, we discover that he almost stepped out on his wife; and in the finale, he again veers close with feisty restaurant partner Hallie Lowenthal (Lisa Waltz).

 Of course, there’s also Brian’s quiet yearning for Angela. It’s only when he becomes Cyrano de Bergerac to Jordan’s Christian de Neuvillette in the last episode, “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” and she learns the truth, that she begins to see him in a new light. It doesn’t stop her from leaving with the hunk, mind you, but the quizzical look she gives Brian says it all. If there had been a second, third or fourth season, that would have been explored. One hopes.

What lifted MSCL above a well-acted suds fest, however, was the superlative writing. Stewarded by creator/co-executive producer Winnie Holzman, who earned an Emmy nomination for the pilot’s script, the show explored topics not generally associated with “teen” dramas of the 1990s, including body image, Ricky’s homosexuality and the world of metaphysics. In the Halloween episode, Angela interacted with a ghost; and in “Other People’s Mothers,” which finds Rayanne spinning out of control, there’s an introduction to tarot that, in the installment’s final moments, sounds suspiciously like real life: “The cards are read in sequence. Each card leads to the next. We move from terror and loss to unexpected good fortune, and out of darkness, hope is born.”

As good as they are, however, it’s the Christmas episode (“So-Called Angels”) that sends shivers up my spine no matter how often I view—or think about—it. Alternative rock-pop genius Juliana Hatfield guest stars as a seemingly homeless girl who appears to Angela and, on Christmas Eve, to Patty; and guides both to Ricky, who’s been living on the streets since being banished from his home. In the final scene, we see Juliana turn away from the camera; and, with the flap of a wing, ascend—like the guardian angel her character is—towards heaven. Of course, to single out a specific episode for praise is akin to recommending just one Juliana Hatfield album—it can’t be done, as each has something special to offer and deserves to be heard.

It matters not, really, whether one believes in ghosts, the tarot, angels or dreams. What matters is that the characters are so believable that we, the viewers, embrace them much as we do the people in our daily lives, quirks and all. Angela, Brian and the rest are no different than many a teenager, forever thinking they’re seeing the full picture when, in truth, they’re viewing slivers. As the season progresses, however, they gradually begin to grasp the complexities of life. In “The Substitute,” for example, Angela’s inspirational English teacher (Roger Rees) turns out to be a deadbeat dad on the lam from the law; yet he still motivates her to hold onto her ideals, and risk suspension in order to distribute the school’s banned literary magazine. Likewise, Patty and Graham—though more clued in about life—are far from perfect, with each confronting the same challenges many adults face at one time or another.

In the end, though, watching My So-Called Life is indeed like viewing photos of someone who passed too soon. We lose ourselves in the snapshots and episodes, laughing at every mention of Tino (the show’s own Godot) while, at the same time, wishing for a different conclusion. And when Angela slides into the passenger seat of Jordan’s car in the finale’s final moments, her eyes glued on Brian…sadness seeps in. In a flash, everything that could and would have been is no more—except in our hearts, where Angela and friends live on.

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I Heart TV: The Wonder Years

After we moved in together in October 1990, Diane – who was and is far less of a TV fanatic than me – suggested that we watch The Wonder Years, a show I’d never seen due to the quirks of working retail (i.e., nights) for much of its first two seasons. And, too, I just assumed it was your standard-issue sitcom. But Diane persisted and I eventually relented, if only to humor her – and immediately fell in love with the series. Its evocation of suburban teen life was letter perfect.

As soon as I could – which wasn’t for a few years – I began taping it on VHS. (I likely still have some of those tapes, somewhere.)

Anyway, flash forward 27 years and we’re again watching The Wonder Years, and again it’s thanks to Diane – she gave me the DVD set for my birthday in July. Since, we’ve slowly been working our way through the seasons. In my opinion, it’s retained all of its charms and lost none of its luster.

Which leads to this: the first draft of the first essay I penned for TV GUIDE’s I Heart TV tome, which was published by Sasquatch Press in 2007. (I also wrote about The Daily Show, My So-Called Life and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson). At the time, I should mention, I was knee-deep in a years-long effort to digitalize old family pictures and movies. Importing the analogue past into the digital present was a time-consuming endeavor for me back then (and, in many respects, remains so).

The final version, which was about five or six drafts later, was streamlined – as you can see in the picture, I wound up excising much of the first paragraph. And, despite the editor’s best efforts, parts still came off rather clunky. (My other essays, I think, were smoother reads.)

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Growing up happens in a heartbeat. One day you’re in diapers, the next you’re scanning family pictures for a digital photo album. In one respect, it’s a tedious task. In another, however, it’s an exercise guaranteed to affect all but the hard-hearted. Memories come rushing in—and not just of the holidays, birthdays and other life events. Perhaps a shot of a gray-haired grandfather, his shoulders thrust back and squared to the camera—in uniform despite his casual attire—conjures a duck-feeding expedition you and your brother, just three and five at the time, accompanied him on. And maybe, then, you come across a picture of the expedition itself. You don’t remember much due to your age, of course, yet you recall the kindness of his touch, and the way his giant hand grazed your hair while stewarding you towards the friendly—and hungry—ducks.

More than any series (or movie, for that matter), The Wonder Years conveys that very wistfulness—it’s as likely to leave you smiling as it is tearing up. Through six seasons, it charted the path of “everyboy” Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage) as he navigated the rocky terrain of adolescence; and added perspective to the stories via the narration of the adult Kevin (Daniel Stern).

When it first debuted, in 1988, the series was hailed as a baby-boomer confection due to the era in which it was set—the 1960s—and its soundtrack, which made generous use of pop, rock and soul songs from those years. It also was, importantly, placed in the suburbs, a land of tract houses and shopping malls that many middle-class families called home. The cookie-cutter communities seemed safe, a perfect place to both raise kids and to be a kid; to paraphrase the adult Kevin, back then, a kid could walk the streets at dusk without ending up on a milk carton.

The story begins in 1968, a tumultuous year by anyone’s standards: growing unrest over America’s involvement in Vietnam, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, riots at the Democratic National Convention and a contentious general election that saw Richard Nixon win the presidency by less than 500,000 votes. Yet, for 12-year-old Kevin, the biggest issue on his mind that fall was…junior high. In the pilot, he and best friend Paul (Josh Saviano), and the newly pigtail- and glasses-free Winnie (Danica McKellar)—or “Gwendolyn,” as she informs the boys she now wants to be called—see the step up as an opportunity to break free of old perceptions and reinvent themselves. Unfortunately for Kevin, nothing goes as planned. For one, he’s following in the footsteps of his obnoxious older brother Wayne (Jason Hervey), whose boorishness has earmarked his sibling for extra scrutiny at school. For two, well, have I mentioned Wayne? The lunkhead teases him at lunch about liking Winnie—in front of the pretty brunette, no less—and, with a toss of an apple, Kevin winds up in the vice-principal’s office with his Doris Day-like mom (Alley Mills) and monosyllabic dad (Dan Lauria).

If the episode ended there, with the adult Kevin pontificating about lessons learned, or unlearned, it would have achieved the goals every premiere strives for—introducing the characters while telling a story that compels viewers to tune in again. Creators/writers Carol Black and Neal Marlens, however, push the debut into greatness: arriving home, Kevin and his parents are met by Wayne and sister Karen (Olivia d’Abo) with awful news: Winnie’s brother Brian has been killed in Vietnam. Suddenly, the day’s events seem meaningless. At dusk, Kevin walks to an old haunt of his and Winnie’s, and finds her looking up at the stars. There’s so much he wants to say, to make go away, but he can’t manage much more than “I’m sorry,” and not just because he’s a kid. Words of those sorts don’t come easy, ever. He wraps his coat around her and, as Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman” swoops in, they kiss—their first. It’s bittersweet, to be sure, but it’s exactly such moments that make The Wonder Years, time and again throughout its run, hit home.

In fact, on the strength of that episode and the five that followed in its first, truncated tease of a season, the series garnered an Emmy Award for Best Comedy Series. It earned three more nominations in the years to come, including two once Bob Brush assumed creative control. True, sometimes the episodes missed the mark—the obligatory pimple episode, for example, or when Kevin joined the soccer team—but when they did? They were powerful, funny and dramatic, and resonated long after the credits rolled.

Two episodes from the fifth year, when Kevin sprouts into a headstrong young adult, rate among the series’ best. In “The Lake,” the season opener, Kevin’s and Paul’s families are on a summer vacation beside a nondescript lake; and the boys are, in a word, bored. Soon enough, however, Kevin finds excitement in the form of the sultriest 15 year old to ever grace the small screen: Cara (Lisa Gerber), a townie he encounters at a drive-in. On the final night of the vacation, Kevin defies his dad to spend it with her, expressing his wish to stay and vowing to write her; and she holds his hand on her heart. “Back to the Lake,” the second-to-last episode of the season, takes place the following summer, when everyone else and their brother—meaning Wayne—are gainfully employed. Not only is his dad insisting he get a job, but Winnie’s suggesting the same! Kevin remembers the fun he had with Cara, whom he never wrote, and in a rash moment heads back to the lake to recapture a little of the glory…but it’s not meant to be. In a wink of a young girl’s eye, that moment passed him by.

The series’ finale is as wonderful and wistful as the premiere. It’s the summer of 1973 and a 17-year-old Kevin is working for his father while Winnie’s a lifeguard at a far-away resort. After one run-in too many with his dad, he quits and seeks out the one person he thinks will make everything okay. But Winnie’s not thrilled to see him, and even less thrilled when he becomes a busboy at the resort. The situation turns worse when he sees her kissing another boy (in a deft touch, “When a Man Loves a Woman” again swells in the background). He hits the road as a hitchhiker, having lost his car in a poker game, and finds himself sharing a backseat with none other than his erstwhile girlfriend. They argue; and are quickly deposited by the roadside as a result. When a rainstorm hits, they seek shelter in a barn—and, before the night’s out, in each other’s arms.

As they return home—on Independence Day, no less—the adult Kevin informs us, much as a friend might while showing us a photo album, of the fates of his family and friends. Then, in poetic fashion, he sums up the series and its appeal: “Growing up happens in a heartbeat. One day you’re in diapers, the next day you’re gone. But the memories of childhood stay with you for the long haul. I remember a place…a town…a house like a lot of houses…a yard like a lot of other yards…on a street like a lot of other streets. And the thing is, after all these years, I still look back with wonder.”

The memories stay with us, indeed. As our eyes open to the world, we question our parents about their seemingly arbitrary rules, and bicker with friends, pushing them away one day only to hold them close the next. Expectations rarely play out as envisioned, not because we reach for the sky—though sometimes we do—but because life is not connect-the-dots, where A leads to B leads to C. Even in this age of cell-phones and the Internet, somewhere a gray-haired man takes his grandkids to a park; a 12-year-old boy comforts a friend over a brother’s senseless death; and teenagers defy their parents, often without understanding why. In artful fashion, The Wonder Years articulates all of that, plus this: the day will come when those kids, too, will look back with wonder.

I Heart TV: The Daily Show With Jon Stewart

IMG_4889For quite a few years in the 2000s, Diane and I stayed up late during the week to watch The Daily Show and, once it premiered, The Colbert Report. It was the funniest hour on TV. So I was thrilled to write about Stewart’s satirical shindig (and mention Colbert) for a TV GUIDE project about “100 essential shows” that came to be known as I Heart TV, published by Sasquatch Books in 2007. (I also contributed essays on three of my other favorites, My So-Called Life, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and The Wonder Years.)

I did, eventually, tune out – but not because of Stewart or Colbert, or a decline in quality in their shows. The routine lack of sleep finally caught up with me. Of course, for the longest time, Comedy Central repeated the topical block the next day at 7pm, but…day-old satire is somewhat akin to day-out bread. It’s never quite as tasty. (Plus, on a more practical level, I often don’t arrive home until after 7pm.) Anyway, given that the tome is out of print, and that tonight is Stewart’s last behind the Daily Show anchor desk, I thought I’d share what I wrote about it here:

IMG_4891When it comes down to it, the few news anchors that have broken from the pack of teleprompter-reading wannabes and established their names in the cultural ethos of our time, past and present, can be summed up in two syllables. That is to say, their last names possess not one, not three or four, but two distinct speech sounds. Think about it: Murrow. Cronkite. Rather. Jennings. Brokaw. Stewart. Stewart? Jon Stewart?! Yes.

Since signing on as Daily Show anchor in January 1999, replacing Craig Kilborn (OK, OK, so his two syllables didn’t exactly add up to much), the venerable Jon Stewart has, like his esteemed counterparts, offered a succinct summary of the day’s news, spicing the fair-and-balanced recitations with reports from a select group of grizzled correspondents. He’s grilled presidential candidates (John Kerry, John Edwards), former presidents (Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton), a current president (Pakistan’s Pervez Musharraf), and an almost-president (Al Gore); talked policy with heavyweight politicos (Sens. Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Ted Kennedy, John McCain and Barack Obama, among others); and elicited insights from a long list of former administration officials, commentators and authors. In short, when the news matters most, and even when it doesn’t, the nation’s eyes turn to him.

In the words of President Bush (as channeled by Stewart): “Heh, heh, heh, heh, heh!”

The multi-Emmy-winning Daily Show is—as we all know by now and Stewart readily admits—“fake news.” The concept itself is essentially Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update” juiced up on steroids. It satirizes the issues of the day, mocks our elected and unelected leaders, and skewers a news media that too often acts like movie critics delivering thumbs-up/thumbs-down reviews (that is to say, dumbing down most stories). I hesitate to use the word “gravitas,” yet in an emotional monologue following 9/11, Stewart revealed a deeper understanding of America’s greatness than most in the public sphere. “The show in general, we feel, is a privilege. Even the idea that we can sit in the back of the country and make wisecracks, which is really what we do—we sit in the back and we throw spitballs—but never forgetting the fact that it is a luxury in this country that allows us to do that. That is, a country that allows for open satire … that’s really what this whole situation is about. It’s the difference between closed and open, it’s the difference between free and burdened.”

In addition to Stewart, the show features a ready supply of “correspondents” and “experts” guaranteed to raise smirks, if not smiles and out-and-out laughs. For example, when the Bush administration readjusted the formula for dispersing antiterrorism funds in 2006, decreasing New York City’s budget by 40 percent while upping the amounts given to places like Indiana (which improbably claimed the most terrorist targets in the nation at 8,591), the always dry Dan Bakkedahl visited the state to investigate; and ended up skating the day away in one of the alleged targets, a roller rink. Likewise, correspondent Jason Jones, who has yet to meet a story he can’t regurgitate as a guffaw, offered a provocative piece on the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. While an expelled homosexual military linguist translated Arabic text, Jones stripped down to his skivvies in order to gauge if, as the theory goes, the man’s gayness interfered with his job. And, shortly before the 2004 presidential election, Samantha Bee ventured to Pennsylvania to learn why some voters remained undecided. After bringing together a focus group of unfocused citizens, she harangued them in hilarious fashion. “What the [bleep] are you waiting for?! Why can you not decide?! [Bleep] or get off the pot!”

In fact, from longtime cranky commentator Lewis Black (who reminds me, in a good way, of John Belushi’s “but, nooooo!” character on the original “Update”), to former reporter Mo Rocca, who’s since found a home on many VH1 I Love Whatever retrospectives, the supporting cast is almost, but not quite, as important as Stewart. A few have actually become, if not stars, then comets zooming through the fractured universe that is today’s pop culture—Steve Carell (NBC’s The Office), Stephen Colbert (Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report) and Rob Corddry (Fox’s The Winner). Colbert is arguably the most notable of that bunch, forever rocking the free world with his fact-free zone. There aren’t many Americans who can claim victory in a contest to have a Hungarian bridge named after him—with more votes (17,231,724 votes) than Hungary has citizens (10,076,581), no less. While he didn’t receive quite that much love as a mere Daily Show correspondent, he did engender plenty of hysterics. On a set reminiscent of the old Joker’s Wild game show, for instance, his regular “This Week in God” spot lampooned every sacred cow and elephant—and not just in India.

The Daily Show also pokes fun at celebrities and, as “This Week in God” suggests, the so-called “culture wars,” including the Left’s annual “attack” on Christmas. However, it does not, as clueless Geraldo Rivera once claimed to Bill O’Reilly, feature “videos of old ladies slipping on ice.” (Maybe Bakkedahl and Jones, but never old ladies—unless Geraldo knows something about those two the rest of us don’t. Heh, heh, heh, heh, heh.) It is liberal with a lowercase “l,” not Democratic but democratic, filled with bleeped curses and ribald jokes, gleefully taking potshots at anyone and everyone who wanders into the public eye. It’s satire—what a grand two-syllable word—of and for the people.