Category Archives: TV

Today’s Top 5: The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

Opening in 1958 New York City, the Amazon Prime series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is a remarkable comedy-drama about housewife-mother Miriam “Midge” Maisel’s metamorphosis into a stand-up comic. To share more would be to spill spoilers, I think, so I’ll just say that it’s one of the freshest, funniest and emotionally honest dramas of the past few years. (If it’s spoilers you want, and/or just more context, this Vulture article should do the trick while this New York Times Magazine piece fills in the blanks on Rachel Brosnahan, who plays Midge.)

The brainchild of Gilmore Girls mastermind Amy Sherman-Palladino, the series recreates the era’s Upper West Side scene to a proverbial T. And while there are a few timeline flaws within the storyline – such as when Bob Newhart’s classic The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart comedy LP was released – they’re not important. What is: the story, characters and the snappy verbal volleys, which are often wickedly funny – especially when Midge’s nascent manager, Susie (Alex Borstein), is involved.

So, for today’s Top 5: The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel – as in, songs from the show’s stellar soundtrack. As with the storyline, there are some timeline issues (Barbra Streisand didn’t release “Happy Days Are Here Again” until 1963), but the tunes perfectly accent the scenes.

1) Peggy Lee – “It’s a Good Day.” This classic song, cowritten by Peggy and her then-husband Dave Balbour, made it to No. 16 on the charts.

2) Dinah Washington – “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart.” From the jazz vocalist’s 1954 album, After Hours With Miss D, which AllMusic calls “one of the best jam sessions ever recorded.”

3) Frank Sinatra – “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning.” The title song to Sinatra’s 1955 long-player, In the Wee Small Hours, the single reached No. 2 on the charts; and the album is considered a classic.

4) Barbra Streisand – “Happy Days Are Here Again.” In 1963, Streisand was still and up-and-coming Broadway performer and singer. Here she is on the Dinah Shore show in May of that year…

5) Julie London – “Cry Me a River.” Long before her Emergency! days, Julie was a well-known singer, and this torch song – which hit No. 9 on the pop charts in 1955 – may be her best. This performance is from a 1964 Japanese TV special.

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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.

Today’s Top 5: A 1970s Potpourri

Some things just take me back – the opening to Room 222, for instance. I’m immediately transported to one summer in the early 1970s when we visited my grandparents on my dad’s side. I remember sitting on the living-room floor in their one-bedroom apartment, eyes glued to their color TV, in awe of the big kids walking across their big campus. I couldn’t wait to grow up.

Those were the years, I should mention, that color TV was a big deal to me. As I wrote a few years ago, we moved to Saudi Arabia in August 1970, when I was 5, and lived there until late May 1975, a month and change before my 10th birthday. While we owned a portable black-and-white TV, and Jeddah’s lone TV station carried some English-language fare, there wasn’t much to watch – Mighty Mouse, The Brady Bunch, The Invaders and UFO are four shows that I recall seeing over there, but never on a regular basis. Often, you’d turn on the TV to find old men playing traditional Middle Eastern music on traditional Middle Eastern instruments – or a test pattern. There either wasn’t a set schedule or I was too young to decipher it; and, even if there was, there were so many other things to do that watching TV was a second- or third-tier activity.

In other respects, however, life – from my perspective, I hasten to add – wasn’t that different than if we’d remained in the States: We lived in a community with other American families, took a bus to an American school, and watched American movies – the compound had an outdoor movie theater, which is where I first saw one of my all-time favorite films, Billy Jack. (Oh, I know: It’s far from a five-star classic. Yet I enjoy it. Like Room 222, it takes me back.)

And, just like other families, we took summer vacations – not to the shore, but Beirut, Ethiopia and Disney World, plus back to Philadelphia to see the grand folks.

Music had yet to become an omnipresent force in my life at that stage, but Johnny Horton’s Greatest Hits received a lot of play on my portable record player, especially the novelty historical songs. Another novelty song that my friends and I enjoyed – Carl Douglas’ “Kung Fu Fighting.”

My parents, on the other hand, weren’t into novelties. They preferred Neil Diamond, including “Holly Holy” –

– and the second side of Tap Root Manuscript. Of course, if we’d remained in the States, we’d have been treated to more of everything – and when TV and music combined, it wouldn’t have (always) been old men playing old music. Check out this cool clip of Neil Diamond, Glen Campbell and Linda Ronstadt from 1971:

Returning to the top: TV themes. This is another one that takes me back – though not to the early ‘70s, but 1977 or ’78, or thereabouts, when I started watching The Mary Tyler Moore Show in reruns. Like Room 222, it made me want to grow up faster.