Mr Rogers

The surprising popularity of the recent documentary about Mr. Rogers – “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” – shouldn’t really be a surprise given the state of the world.  After all, we could all use a hug from a kind uncle in a cardigan sweater right about now.

To be sure, the film is “popular” only in comparison to other documentaries, not in relation to something like “The Incredibles 2.”  But playing mostly in art houses, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” has already sold more than $12 million in tickets and still increasing audiences after five weeks in the theatres, which makes it a major hit on the documentary circuit.

Fred Rogers, the Episcopalian minister-turned-children’s-storyteller, was such an overwhelming presence in popular culture in the 1970s and 1980s that’s it’s hard to believe there’s been an entire generation of Millennials who have grown up not knowing who he was.  Since his 2003 death, he has largely faded from public view and it’s been ten years since reruns of “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood” were regularly rebroadcast.

Mr. Rogers was a product of his time, but it would be inaccurate to say that he lived in a gentler era.  As the film makes clear, Fred Rogers developed his show in response to the violent programming that dominated children’s television at the time.   And he emerged in a period that was even more brutal than our own.  One of his earliest shows dealt explicitly with the issue of Robert Kennedy’s 1968 assassination and the Vietnam War loomed over all television programming in those days.

In a turbulent time, Mr. Rogers believed that the way to calm children’s fears was to address them directly and reassure young viewers that it was OK to be scared but that their parents would keep them safe.

In an effort to hype the importance and uniqueness of Mr. Rogers, the documentary fails to acknowledge earlier gentle, calming shows that helped to socialize and reassure young children.  “Captain Kangaroo” and “Romper Room,” groundbreaking shows from the early days of television, were the philosophical antecedents of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

But Captain Kangaroo” and “Romper Room” were on commercial television, which would have diminishing enthusiasm for shows that appealed to preschoolers.  Network children’s programming grew increasingly aggressive and was eventually seen primarily as a vehicle for selling toys.

Mr. Rogers was important because he came along at the dawn of public broadcasting.  One of the most arresting sequences is the movie is his testimony before a Senate committee in 1969, which essentially saved the young PBS network.  At a hearing to defund PBS, Mr. Rogers so charmed Chairman John Pastore in just six minutes that Pastore completely changed his mind about public television and restored the full funding on the spot.

It’s hard to not to get a lump in your throat watching Mr. Rogers’ Senate testimony – or any other part of the movie, for that matter.  When we came out of the theater my wife said she’d been in tears the whole time and I know what she meant.  The whole movie is a meditation on what it’s like to be a young child and if you can remember your own early days or even if you can remember being the parent of a four-year-old, the movie reminds us of how fraught those years can be.

It was Mr. Rogers contention that children are swirling with more emotions than we give them credit for.  And not just joy and wonderment, but also fear, anger, and sadness too.  Mr. Rogers wanted to acknowledge and respect those feelings so children could learn how to process them and grow into mentally healthy adults.  Seeing how he implemented this philosophy on the show and in his direct dealings with children is actually quite moving.

It’s a sad commentary on our cynical society, though, that the documentary felt it necessary to address the question of whether Mr. Rogers was gay.  He was a happily married man with two children of his own.  There were no rumors of any improper extra-marital activity with either gender, and yet people remained suspicious of an adult man with a natural sing-songy voice who liked to spend time with children.   People mistrust those who seem too good to be true, but apparently “in real life” Mr. Rogers was exactly as patient, generous, and kind as he seemed on the screen.

The big unanswered question from the movie is whether Mr. Rogers was on the winning or losing side of history.  Everyone gives lip service to his principles but children today are exposed to more screen violence than ever before through video games, the Internet and old-fashioned television that increasingly features swearing, sexual content and violence every night.

All the more reason, then, to see “Won’t You Be My Neighbor.”  It might be a losing battle to treat children with respect but Mr. Rogers can inspire us to think that it’s worth the fight.

 

 

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The Fourth of July is the day we celebrate America and what better way than through a celebration of America-themed music? I’m not talking about overtly patriotic songs.  I doubt the Marine Band will ever play any of these songs on the White House lawn, but still, they do offer a glimpse of the vast tapestry that is America:

America (Simon and Garfunkel)

We’re An American Band (Grand Funk Railroad)

America (West Side Story)

Courtesy of the Red White and Blue (Toby Keith)

American Tune (Simon and Garfunkel)

Living In The USA (Steve Miller Band)

Born in the USA (Bruce Springsteen)

American Pie (Don McLean)

 

Philadelphia Freedom (Elton John)

American Girl (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers)

R.O.C.K. In the USA (John Mellencamp)

Living In America (James Brown)

Coming to America (Neil Diamond)

Rockin in the USA (Kiss)

Party in the U.S.A. (Miley Cyrus)

anthony-bourdain

Over the past six weeks three well-known writers have died.  All of them received big send-offs on the front page of the New York Times and respectful appreciations in The New Yorker and other high-end publications.  But only one of them was rewarded on social media with an outpouring of grief; that was largely because this writer also hosted a TV show.

These would be Philip Roth, America’s most respected novelist, and Tom Wolfe, our most renowned non-fiction writer, both of whom merely got the full-respect treatment; contrast them with the food and restaurant writer Anthony Bourdain, who was also widely mourned on Facebook, Twitter and other social media.  To be sure, part of the grief over Bourdain is that he was 25 years younger than Roth and Wolfe, and died by his own hand less than a week after the designer Kate Spade had also committed suicide.  Still, it was remarkable that the passing of these two literary lions was so overshadowed on social media by a food writer.

The reaction to Bourdain’s death was another reminder, as if we needed one, of the power of television to create the illusion that we actually know the people we experience on the screen.  These people come into our living rooms and bedrooms, sometimes when we are at our most vulnerable, and it feels like they’re our friends.

I started musing on this phenomenon because I only knew Bourdain through his books and articles.  When I heard that he had died, I did feel sad, as I would hearing about any person’s death, but I didn’t feel the deep personal loss that so many others did.  What was I missing?  And then I realized, “Oh, he had a TV show.”

The social media outpouring on behalf of Bourdain reminded me of the even more profound grief following the suicide of Robin Williams and the passing of Leonard Nimoy, two other deaths that caught the public by surprise.

Sometimes we need to be reminded that TV celebrities are not our friends.  These are very one-sided relationships. They don’t post about us when we die. There’s a psychological term for the way we think about celebrities: “parasocial relationships,” which are defined as relationships where one person extends emotional energy, interest, and time while the other person is completely unaware of the other’s existence.

The benefit of a parasocial engagement is that you can’t be rejected by someone you admire from afar.  But here’s the problem with parasocial relationships and the mass media.  Because celebrity culture is so pervasive, there are hundreds if not thousands of people with whom we have parasocial relationships.  We feel connected in some way to anyone who ever starred in a TV show we watched, and by the rules of chance dozens of them will die every year.  That means a lot of mourning about people we’ve never met.

Now it’s one thing when someone like Abe Vigoda dies at age 85.  You might think, “gee that’s too bad” even though you might have thought he was already dead.  It’s the completely unexpected ones, like Bourdain, former “Glee” star Cory Monteith, or Robin Williams that hit us the hardest.

And yet, although that sense of loss is real and not imagined, I’d like to see a little more restraint on social media when there’s a celebrity death.  Sometimes Facebook becomes an echo chamber where each post about a dead celebrity magnifies on the feelings of other Facebookers until they’ve just got to post something to unburden their social-media-heightened feelings.

Regrettably, it doesn’t take long on social media for everyone to be sharing the same warmed-over platitudes. One or two of my Facebook friends posted reminiscences about the times they met Anthony Bourdain and I thought that was great because it illuminated my understanding of him as a person.  But a lot of what people posted seemed self-indulgent and focused more on their own personal loss rather than on Bourdain himself.

Here then, is my general rule for social media posting after we lose a TV star.  It’s an inversion of the old adage that if you can’t think of something nice to say about someone then don’t say anything all: if you can ONLY say something nice about a person don’t say anything at all.  Platitudes actually diminish the deceased by reducing them to abstractions.  Exert yourself to say something original or interesting.  Or maybe just don’t jump on the grief bandwagon in the first place.

 

Books

There’s yet another Facebook challenge going around in which people are asked to post ten books that have been meaningful to them — similar to the ongoing challenge for the top ten records.  Once again I am violating the rules by listing them all at once, and with explanation.  This is decidedly not a list of my “favorite” books, which would rely heavily on classic Nineteenth Century novels, but it does include the books that most shaped my thinking.  And I could only narrow them down to 13 books. Here they are:

[Unnamed Disney book]

Sleeping beauty picture

The image above, from the Sleeping Beauty story was the most vivid image in the book

When I was a kid our then-working class home was surprisingly full of books because my mother was a reader.   Regrettably, one thing we did not have was a collection of children’s books.  No Dr. Suess, Milne, Lewis Carroll.  But when we went to the supermarket my mother would occasionally let me pick out a little hardback Disney book that sold for a quarter.  And once she even bought me a fancy illustrated collection of classic Disney stories.  I know recognize this volume as an early attempt to extend the Disney brand into publishing, and I don’t even know the name of the book because it was so generically corporate.  But for me it was an important introduction into the world of imagination.  The book contained the novelization of about a half dozen Disney movies (none of which I had seen), ranging from “Snow White” to “Sleeping Beauty.”  It eventually fell apart from overuse and ended up in the trash.  That was before I developed a sentimental streak and, alas, exists now only in my memory.

America And Its Presidents

America And Its Presidents

I still have this book — please note how beat up it is

Another book that my mother bought me was a Young Reader collection of presidential biographies, which fired my interest in politics and American history.  The bios are pretty sanitized and make every president — even the worst — seem heroic. My edition goes from Washington to JFK, so I must have received it in the third grade (my friend Rich had an edition that ended at LBJ and I later saw one that included Carter so the updates went on for a long time).  The book really does a pretty good job at telling the American story by recounting the life and times of each leader.  I still have my battered volume and just glancing through the pages reminds me of the days when I would lie in my bedroom dreaming of the day I would work in Washington DC.

Catcher in the Rye

catcher-in-the-rye-cover

This is the book I’ve read more than any other (for more on that, see my other blog post here).  The first time was after I found it on my mother’s book shelf in the seventh grade.  I was so young that when a character claims he lost his virginity on Nantucket at age 14, I thought, “Hmm, well that sounds reasonable” because 14 sounded like a very mature age. I read it again in my ninth grade English class and have probably read it ten times since then.  It’s funny as hell and it had a huge influence on how I perceived “phonies,” those people who go through life pretending to be someone they’re not.  But “Catcher in the Rye” also taught me a lot about seeking out authentic and kind companions, something I’ve aspired to be myself but never quite achieved.

Advise and Consent

AdviseandConsent1stEd

This is yet another book that I found on my mother’s book shelf.  It’s hardly great literature but it kindled my interest in political thrillers and in politics in general.  Advise and Consent is a potboiler that revolves around the question of whether the Senate will confirm the pacifist Robert Leffingwell as Secretary of State.  Even though it was written in 1959, the novel is still relevant for its depiction of a U.S. Senate full of peacocks, grinds, egomaniacs, idealists and cynics. I eventually did make it to Washington in the 1980s and learned that the race, gender and ideologies of politicians can change but the archetypes outlined in “Advise and Consent” never do.

The Sun Also Rises

The Sun also rises

I read this Ernest Hemingway classic in the 11th grade and the whole “Lost Generation” expatriate scene became a long-time escapist fantasy.  I was perhaps not the most discerning reader, though.  When I once ventured that I envied the lives of the characters, my friend Carol snorted, “Some life. One’s a nymphomaniac, one’s impotent, and the rest are drunks.” Hold on, what?  Someone’s impotent? Who?  Oh, the shame to be exposed as such a shallow reader in front of my friends.  I had become a little bit of the phony that Holden Caulfield had warned about.  But the experience taught me to read more deeply and to see the real story behind the outer plot of any good novel.   I still love the book but now understand that it’s a fundamentally sad story, written at a moment of existential despair in the years right after the trauma of World War I.  Whenever I reread it, I am reminded of my youthful self, full of enthusiasm and yearning for a more romantic life.

Radical Chic and Mau Mauing the Flak Catchers

radical_chic_1600x_b9b71a28-307e-4b15-abb7-2523dd52e20c

To the extent I have a favorite nonfiction writer it would be Tom Wolfe; and Radical Chic and Mau Mauing the Flak Catchers is the book on this list that influenced me the most.  I read it in high school and it opened my eyes to the reality and power of status anxiety.  So much of what we do as a species is governed by our desire to, at minimum retain, our status, or if we’re ambitious, to enhance it.  The book is really two long essays.  The first is the hilarious account of a Black Panther fundraiser held in the penthouse apartment of Leonard Bernstein.  Wolfe mines the absurdity of the liberal intellectual elite hosting the armed revolutionaries from the hard streets of Oakland in an oh-so-tasteful apartment.  Bernstein’s reputation never really recovered from this skewering.  The second essay, which is less well known, describes how local community organizers intimidate well-meaning federal bureaucrats into funding their programs.  Again, phonies everywhere.

Walden

walden-book

My copy of Walden, like my copy of Catcher in the Rye, is really falling apart

One person who was not phony was Henry David Thoreau — transcendentalist, naturalist, philosopher, virgin.  I’ve read this four times, first in high school and most recently for a book group, and every time I pick it up I am bowled over by his beautiful aphoristic writing and his advocacy for a simpler life.  He built a one-room cabin next to Walden Pond and lived there for two years, living mostly off the land.  Of course it’s impractical to live alone out in the woods, but at a time when most men live lives of quiet desperation, it is not impractical to simplify your life, stay in touch with the seasons, be mindful, and march to the beat of a different drummer.  Thoreau launched a million self-help books and another million books about environmentalism.  If either of those topics are your thing, start back at the source.

Free To Choose

Free to choose

This book really should be called “Adam Smith for Dummies.”  In 1980, the Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman and his wife Rose created for PBS a 10-part series on the glories of the free market and this book was a companion piece.  I never saw the TV series but was deeply influenced by the book, in the way you’re “influenced” by a book that clearly articulates what you already vaguely feel.   I went all in for his philosophy of free markets, minimal regulation, and small government.  Seriously, how else can you explain why resource-poor places like Hong Kong, Singapore and Israel are wildly prosperous while their neighbors are so poor?  In any event, the book crystallized a world view and provided a solid philosophical foundation from which to argue politics for the rest of my life.

Two Cheers for Capitalism

two cheers for capitalism

This collection of essays by Irving Kristol was published in 1978, before “Free to Choose,” but I read it after the Friedman book.  This was the right order because it provided a good real-word explanation why a pure and unadulterated free market probably wouldn’t work.  Kristol was one of the original neoconservatives — that group of former socialists who moved to the right after the disaster of the 1960s.  Kristol expounds on two great insights that are more relevant today than ever before.  First, there’s a growing class of knowledge-based professionals (the media, professors, lawyers, intellectuals) whose power is enhanced by a bigger and more meddlesome government.  This observation seems at the core of why voters in the last election rejected the apotheosis of that class — Hillary Clinton — in favor of a seeming barbarian who promised to smash it all.  Kristol’s second observation is that regardless of how great capitalism is at creating wealth and improving living standards, it will ultimately destroy itself unless it is constrained with and buttressed by cultural norms, ethics and faith.  This was a warning that was ignored by too many companies over the last forty decades.  Just one example — to boost ratings, media companies now pander to audiences with TV shows fueled by sex and violence that would have been unthinkable forty years ago; and yet people wonder where “toxic masculinity” comes from.

Liar’s Poker

liars poker

In this, Michael Lewis’ first book, he recounts his days as a bond salesman at the late Salomon Brothers, where the greed, gluttony, and ambition only seemed to illustrate Irving Kristol’s point that an economy unmoored by any sense of shame cannot long sustain itself (and eventually Salomon Brothers did vanish from this earth.)  According to Lewis, the deregulated financial industry of the 1980s had become a place where anything went as long as you were making gobs and gobs of money.  When Tom Wolfe turned to fiction, Lewis became the nation’s premier non-fiction writer, writing best-seller after best-seller, including Moneyball, The Big Short, and The Blind Side.  As someone who had recently moved out of Washington, I learned from Liar’s Poker (and other business books like Barbarians at the Gate and The Predators Ball) that the real future of the country was going to be decided in the private sector and that the government was increasingly irrelevant.  For better or for worse (and it appeared that Salomon Brothers fell into the latter category) the most meaningful place to be was not where they self-importantly made laws and passed regulations, but in the hundreds of thousands of workplaces where they made actual things.  We just had to hope that the good guys — the honorable business leaders — would win.

Pooh’s Library

Pooh's library

When I was in high school many of the girls in my friend group had rediscovered Winnie the Pooh and would converse to each other in childish Pooh patois.  One of them even adopted the nickname Piglet.  I thought this was pretentious beyond belief and came to hate everything about Winnie the Pooh.  But when my son was born I gave A.A. Milne another shot and he became my favorite children’s author.  Pooh’s Library is a set of two collections of poems (When We Were Very Young, and Now We Are Six) and two collections of short stories (The House at Pooh Corner and Winnie the Pooh.) The poems, with their fluctuating cadences and rhythms and their creative vocabularies, are perfect for reading to a pre-verbal child; meanwhile the gentle and charming stories, which were bastardized into unfunny Disney cartoons, are funny warm and insightful.  This my go-to baby gift for first-time parents.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

harry potter

I get the feeling that Harry Potter was to my son’s generation what the Beatles were to mine.  For about ten years no other piece of culture loomed larger in our family than these books and their follow-up movies.  My son was the perfect age for their arrival — about seven years old when the first book burst into our consciousness and 15 when the final one appeared. And he even LOOKED like Harry Potter, with his round glasses and shaggy dark bangs.

CKH

Tell me this kid didn’t look like Harry Potter!

Yet he was probably the only child of his generation never to read a word of the original books because I narrated all seven books to him end to end, sometimes for hours at a time on our porch. The first of the series is still my favorite.  It’s the tautest, with a fast-moving plot, as well as our introduction to all the characters and themes that would populate the rest of the books.  It was really several books in one — a great mystery story, a Dickensian tale of a once-abandoned now-found orphan, a fantasy saga and a bitter screed against conformity and the love of power.

Mere Christianity

mere-christianity

C.S. Lewis died on November 22, 1963, the same day as John F. Kennedy, whose assassination received about a hundred thousand times the attention that Lewis’ passing did.  But once the last Baby Boomer dies, that ratio will shift. (As a thought experiment try to imagine that Thoreau and James Garfield had died on the same day and how people would have perceived that day then and now).  Mere Christianity is the most influential work of the most popular writer of faith in the 20th Century.  In simple conversational language he makes the case for God and Christianity.  For me the most revelatory section is his discussion of sin, in which he ranks the “cold” sins of pride, envy, greed and wrath, as worse than the “hot” sins of list, gluttony and sloth.  Those cold sins, after all, are generally committed against others while the warmer sins are usually sins against ourselves.  As Lewis memorably ends his chapter on sexual morality: “a cold self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute” This is a book that everyone who professes to be a Christian should read.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Now that I’ve put my list down in pixels I see a few trends emerging:

— It’s interesting to realize how important my mother was to early reading habits, either through the books she bought me or through the books I found on her book shelves.

—  Except for the Pooh stories, every book on the list is fundamentally about right and wrong and what is the proper way to respond to challenges and opportunities. Hmm.

— There’s a lot of dreaming on this list as well as a lot of books that demonstrate the power of imagination.

— There’s a lot of re-reading on the list too. Excluding the Disney collection, the Presidential series and the Pooh stories, all of which I’ve dipped in and out of so many times that it’s impossible to count, I calculate that I’ve read the remaining ten books a total of 27 times.  That’s an average of reading each book on the list nearly three times.

 

kindle-fire-hd-hdmi-tv-302x226

The enormous popularity of superhero, Star Wars, and other “franchise” movies has pushed more and more adults to abandon the cinema altogether and watch movies on television instead – and I’m a little sad about that.  There’s something special about going into a dark theater and watching a story unfold on the big screen but many people have gotten out of the habit because of the expense, inconvenience, and lack of good adult movies.

The business narrative of the movie industry is that there are two kinds of contemporary movies: blockbusters that appeal to teens and pull in hundreds of millions of dollars, and small-budget, sometimes-arty films aimed at adults that usually don’t stay in the theatres too long before being moved onto TV.

And then there’s the reality that Netflix and Amazon are slowly taking over the movie content business.  According to the New Yorker, Netflix is set to release more original movies this year than Sony, Disney and Warner Bros. combined.

Of course movies have been on TV for a long time. When I was growing up you could see prestige films on “NBC Saturday Night at the Movies,” which ran from 1961 through 1978. And the original premise of Home Box Office is that you could watch uncut, unedited, commercial-free movies on cable.

To be honest, it’s been hard to keep up with technologically-induced changes in at-home movie-watching.  I remember walking into Blockbuster for the first time and marveling at the wide range of movies that I could rent for my Betamax.  But then I had to buy a VHS player when the Beta format withered, only to have to abandon my videocassette recorder for a DVD player.

But as much as I prefer to watch movies in the theatre, I did love walking up and down the Blockbuster aisles to mull over which movie I’d bring home for the weekend.  The anticipation of watching the movie was almost as great as watching it.

Alas, my local Blockbuster is now an auto parts store, thanks in large part to Netflix.  And for a while Netflix was fun too.  I had a great time assembling my “queue” of unseen movies that would be delivered right to my door.

Lately, though, my home movie viewing has fallen into a state of entropy.  I’m still paying Netflix $12 a month to have two discs at a time, but the two red envelopes currently sitting on our living room desk have been gathering dust for months.  Like everything else in my queue now, they are not must-see movies, so they can sit unwatched for months and months while I subsidize my indecision with a monthly check to Netflix.

I’d cancel the CD-mailing service but unfortunately, the Netflix steaming service has an inadequate library of theatrical movies.  I’ve been keeping the CD service in case I have an urgent need to watch a classic movie that I can’t get anywhere else now that Blockbuster has closed.

And yet, I did recently discover that iTunes, Amazon and other streaming services have a vast array of movies available for rent.   If I were an economic rationalist I would cancel my Netflix DVD service and just pay $3.99 to rent a movie whenever I want to.  Who knows?  Maybe I’ll eventually pull the trigger on that.

The availability of movies doesn’t really address the main drawback of watching movies at home – the aesthetics of watching a movie designed for the big screen on the little screen.  Watching in the living room, we’re likely to be talking, texting, Googling the names of the actors to see what else they were in, putting the movie on pause to get a snack or going to the bathroom, etc., etc.

I did recently experience a glimpse into a future where even the home cinema experience might not be a drawback when I watched a movie on a friend’s 72 inch flat screen TV.  In a darkened room this was surprisingly like being in a real theatre – and no one talked or looked at his phone.  Alas, my wife immediately shot down the idea of installing a giant screen in OUR living room.   There’s the expense, of course, but also she doesn’t want us to be known as the kind of people who would have a 72 inch TV screen on display for all the world to see and judge.

Yet for all the convenience of watching movies at home, I hope the big screen experience doesn’t die out.  Moving-going is fundamentally a social event.  You could with friends or family to do something together and when it works well, you have a mind meld with the rest of the audience, with everyone laughing, gasping or crying together.  That’s a lot more satisfying then sitting alone on your couch with one eye on the movie and the other eye on Twitter.  Long life the 40 foot screen.

The American Garage

It’s been a week since “The Americans” drew to a close and I am still trying to process my feelings about this great but under-appreciated show.  It’s been a long time since I’ve felt as emotional about a single TV episode, which is doubly perplexing because the the ostensible heroes are a psychopath and her enabling husband.

Bringing any good TV series to a close is tough and rarely done well, but the problem faced by “The Americans” — namely that we know how history turns out — made their challenge even more difficult.

“The Americans” is a spy saga set in 1980s’ Washington DC and from day one we’ve known that the struggle of our Soviet spy protagonists is ultimately doomed because the USSR fell apart soon after the Berlin Wall collapsed in 1989.  It was inevitable that Philip and Elizabeth Jennings would either be caught, killed or forced to flee.

And then there’s this season’s story arc: there’s an element within the Soviet government that opposes Gorbachev  and his “Perestroika” policies and they want to depose him before his next summit meeting with Ronald Reagan, which we know from history (or  our own memories, if we’re old enough) went off as planned in December 1987 (see details here).  In other words we also know how this story will end.  The hardliners will not succeed.  We just don’t know how they will get there.

On the day after the series finale I write on my Facebook page that “The Americans” was really about five things:  1. Identity 2.  Loyalty, 3. Marriage  4. Family  5. Morality.  For the sake of organizational expediency, indulge me in organizing my thoughts around those themes.

1. Identity:  Who are we underneath all the disguises we wear?  The show is called “The Americans” but the protagonists are not Americans at all.  In fact they are enemies of America.  The KGB recruited a young man and a woman, moved them to America under assumed names and told them to act like a typical married couple and even have kids.  Then throughout the series they don wigs, glasses and mustaches to pose as other people — a Mary Kay saleswoman, a fashion buyer, or a government investigator.

Here’s the problem.  In a lot of cases they end up becoming the people they are acting as.  Philip in particular becomes more American.  Probably the most poignant scene of the early season is when he’s in the country western bar line-dancing like he’s John Travolta in “Urban Cowboy.”  He wants to be American.  He loves the freedom and openness of the country as well as its easy living.  And he comes to take on the identity of the people he impersonates.  He eventually becomes “Clark,” the loving husband of Martha, the FBI agent he’s seduced and he actually does become a real travel agent entrepreneur.

philip line dancing

Philip likes being an American

Elizabeth is a harder case.  When Philip sees freedom and affluence in America, she sees decadence and moral weakness.  She will not let go of her Russian identity and even tries to mold her daughter Paige — a 100% American girl –into a mini-me version of herself.  Paige assumes various identities to find a way of belonging.  She’s the good Christian teen, then a Russian-in-training, but nothing really takes.  She abandons all those identities because they were never deeply felt.

And even Elizabeth, as hard-bitten as she is, occasionally becomes the identity she’s adopted. When she pretends to be a nurse to the dying wife of a high-level arms control negotiator she actually does become that nurse.  At first she’s keeping the woman alive long so that the negotiator can keep going to secret meetings where he carries a bug she’s planted in his briefcase, but in the end, the fierce artistic humanity of her patient cracks Elizabeth’s hard exterior and she becomes a real angel of mercy.

But most important of all the Jennings disguised themselves as a married couple and they eventually fell in love and created a real marriage, where they put each other ahead of all others.

2. Loyalty: To whom do we really owe our loyalty?  The Jennings are loyal to their country.  And of the two, Philip’s loyalty is the more impressive because he no longer believes in the cause.  But what does it mean to be loyal to your country?  Gorbachev is the legitimate leader of the Soviet Union as well as the head of the Communist Party.  As loyal party girls, Elizabeth and her handler Claudia should fall in line but they are more loyal to the hard-line faction that opposes him. It turns out that her loyalty is not to the government or party but to “her” people.  If Claudia had told her to spy on the anti-Gorbachev plotters, she probably would have done that instead.

The decent and doomed Oleg and Stan also have complicated loyalties.  Unlike Elizabeth, they will not fall in line and do whatever their superiors tell them to do.  They are loyal to their values. Early in the series, Oleg gave state secrets to Stan to avoid a potential nuclear catastrophe and when the FBI brass tries to repay the favor by trying to turn him into a spy, Stan risks his career and threatens to expose his own culpability in an FBI assassination to get them to back off.

For his part, Oleg is safely out of the spy game and happily married but agrees to return to the U.S. and recruit Philip to spy on his wife.  (When the season opens, Oleg, Stan and Philip are all retired from spying.)  He becomes the true tragic hero of the series when he finally does get the proof of the hard-line plot he gets caught without a diplomatic passport and can’t be exchanged in a spy-for-spy swap (like other plot points on this episode, I’m not sure this is really true).

And now we come to the central question of this episode.  Why does Stan let the Jennings escape?  The 12-minute scene in the garage when he confronts them will go down as one of the great scenes in TV history, as Stan cycles through his hurt at being betrayed by his best friend and Philip pleads for understanding.  As a loyal FBI agent, Stan should turn them in but he lets them go.  Most of the analysis I read, including an interview with the actor who plays Stan, suggest that he was motivated by love for Philip and Henry.  Well, yes, he does feel that, but he only acts when he learns that the jailed Oleg was telling him the truth about the anti-Gorbachev plot.  In a way, he doesn’t really care which faction wins out in the Kremlin but he needs to let Elizabeth return to Russia to tell her story so that Oleg’s sacrifice will not be in vain.  One last time he puts his job and self-image on the line for Oleg.

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Our two tragic heros

3. Marriage:  How do couples sustain love and commitment when they have differing values?  Elizabeth and Philip were set up on the ultimate blind date — told by their handlers to marry and infiltrate Washington.  But eventually they do fall in love and they even go through a real wedding with a Russian Orthodox priest.  In other poignant scene from this final episode, when they are literally burying their old identities they throw away their American wedding rings and put on the rings from their “real” wedding.

This marriage has its ups and downs, though.  Philip has lost his faith in the mission, to Elizabeth’s occasional disgust.  Like many wives, she feels she’s shouldering too much of the load, although in this case it doesn’t mean laundry and child care, it means spying, murdering and blackmailing.  Damn it, he’s not pulling his weight!

For most of this season, Philip and Elizabeth are living separate lives and barely talking.  When he tries to warn her that he was approached by Oleg to spy on her she shuts him down and says she’s “too tired” to talk.  When they finally do have hot sex about half-way through the season it’s because she wants to ask him to pull off a plan to kidnap Kimmy, the CIA agent daughter, which he begins to implement before pulling out in self-loathing.

“The Americans” presents a very unromantic view of what marriage actually is.  It’s not sustaining a feeling of infatuation and making goo-goo eyes for 50 years.  It’s slowly and methodically building trust and equity day after day.  In the end, Philip betrays his own values for her.  When she’s in trouble during her Chicago mission he leaves his family at Thanksgiving and gets back into the murder game.  And then, when the mission goes horribly wrong, he grabs an ax and chops off the head and hands of the dead agent they were trying to rescue so the corpse can’t be identified.  He does it for her.  Now THAT’S romantic.

In the final scene of the whole series, Elizabeth muses that if they hadn’t become spies she would have probably became a factory manager and he would have been — something or other — and maybe they would have met on a bus.  Never one for expressing her feelings, this is her way of saying she would have wanted to be married to him even if they hadn’t been set-up.

4. The Family –– What’s really a family and how important is it to you?  In many ways the Jennings family is the ultimate American family.  They are untethered by traditional obligations and on their own.  No nagging in-laws or annoying cousins.  The kids think it’s a little weird.  Paige reacts by asking a million questions until Elizabeth finally breaks and spills the truth.  Henry reacts more like a son — closing down emotionally and not questioning anything.  He can’t wait to get out of there and go someplace where the people will really pay attention to him.

The parents love their children in an historically accurate way.  The 1980s were the last blissful tears of free-range parenting and kids could still roam reasonably free without parental anxiety.  It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that the first great kidnapping scare happened, with photos of young kidnap victims on milk cartons.

Philip and Elizabeth are also typical of ambitious Americans, putting their careers ahead of the family.  It’s ultimately their undoing when Elizabeth heads out of town on Thanksgiving, just after Henry gets home from school.  This is an appalling betrayal for a parent and it tips Stan off that something’s amiss.

As the series headed to a close it soon became apparent that the most heart-breaking element was the Henry story.  I could never understand why the Jennings thought (going back to last season) they could take him to Russia — what a fate for a typical American boy!  But my heart did break when Philip tells Elizabeth that they’ll have to leave him behind for his own good.  Throughout the entire season Elizabeth is never shown interacting with Henry.  She and Philip have made a deal that Paige is hers and Henry’s is his to raise as he sees fit, but at least Philip still plays Dad to Paige, while Elizabeth is a no show to her youngest.

So it’s surprising, but not really, when Elizabeth gets choked up at the thought of leaving him alone in the U.S.  Their final call to him from the pay phone is devastating.  After having promised each other to be normal on the phone Philip tells Henry he loves him and that he should be true to himself.  The emotionally barren Elizabeth goes so far as to tell him, “What you father said.”  Thanks for the warmth Mom.

Having left Henry behind, the Jennings are shocked when Paige abandons them too. We don’t know why — does she stay behind to help Henry?  Maybe – she fights for him hard. She might also be thinking of how rough it will be living in poor, repressive Russia.  My guess is that she’s disillusioned by all the lies she’s been told and comes to see the cause as immoral.   Her parents never put the family first and eventually she doesn’t either.

Try and watch this without crying!

Like many viewers, I was disappointed that Philip and Elizabeth do not get caught and punished for their crimes.  But they are seriously punished.  They have no family now, and they really don’t have a country.  The place they are returning to after 25 years is not the place they left and they will be viewing it through an American perspective.  The punishment does not fit the crime but it’s a punishment all the same.

And to layer on the punishment, we know that in a couple of years everything they’ve been fighting for will fall apart.  The Soviet Union will end up on the ash heap of history and Russia will be a humiliated state that will eventually make a former KGB agent its president and evolve into a gangster society.  So all their sacrifices will have been for naught.

5. Morality — Can you justify doing anything for what you believe is a just cause? And how do you know if your cause is just?  Philip and Elizabeth have done monstrous things.  The murders are just for starters.  They’re ruined lives and marriages to get an edge, all in the name of the greater good.

Of course their greater good is also an evil empire.  There were people who didn’t believe this in the 1980s but the old Soviet Union has few fellow traveler defenders today. But to look at it through Philip and Elizabeth’s eyes, they think their cause is just.  But does that justify the means?  Philip eventually comes to think the answer is no.  He has empathy for his victims.  Elizabeth at most feels a twinge and justifies everything.  It will be interesting to see what happens when they get to Moscow and have time to reflect on what they did.

Some odds and ends:

I lived in Washington DC in the 1980s, during the same years that the Jennings were on the warpath.  But unlike “Mad Men,” which constantly reminded me of my childhood during the 1960s, I rarely had a jolt of recognition watching this show.  Part of the problem is that it was shot in Brooklyn, not Washington, so in scene after scene I’m trying to figure out where they are before remembering, oh yeah, Brooklyn.  The one thing that did remind me of those days, though, was the phones.  Their houses and offices have those old landlines with phone cords and big bodies.  No cell phones at all.  And in the very last episode I did have one little shock of recognition when Stan goes into a phone booth and looks up the Jennings’ number in a thick phone book that is dangling unmolested from the receiver.

Speaking of unreality,– S couldn’t they have spent a few extra bucks to film that train scene in a real AmTrak train?  We are supposed to believe they are fleeing to Canada on a Metro North train.  I’ve spent 20 years on those trains so I recognize them.  Also, the subway — the Washington Metro is very distinctive and it was distracting in the extreme that they filmed in in the New York City subway.

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This is definitely an old Metro North train!

— The money they saved on cheapo locations was well-spent on background music, especially that last montage to U2’s “With of Without You,” which just tore our heart out.

— Is Stan’s wife Renee a spy?  This was a lingering question at the end — supposedly Philip, probably well-intentioned, completely ruined Stan’s life by saying that she might be one of them.  While this does plant a seed of doubt I don’t think it needs to be a permanent one.  After all, Stan is an employee of the FBI!  He has his ways of finding out.  He can go to her hometown and look at her school records, for example.  Does she have no family at all to verify her claims?  Come on — within six weeks she’ll be exposed.  Personally I don’t think so.  She’s applying for a job at the FBI and will undergo a vigorous security clearance.  I’ve done this myself and trust me they pry into every part of your life.  An illegal would be crazy to do this.

— I don’t know if there’s anyone else out there who also watched “Twin Peaks,” the best show of last year, but they did have similar endings, with a man and a woman on a long, seemingly endless car ride who arrive at an ambiguous destination.

— The various wigs on the show became a running joke on Twitter but doesn’t it seem unlikely that in all the time the Jennings seduced someone, no one every grabbed their heads in the throes of passion.  Martha in particular is not very observant.  She’s married to someone and doesn’t know he has a wig?

So, to wrap up.  Great show.  In the Pantheon.  Completely unbelievable plot-wise.  Completely believable emotionally.

Dosvedanya!!

 

laughing

Television may be the most democratic art form in world history, but it still has its snobs. And one of the biggest signs of a TV elitist is that he or she can’t stand the laugh track.

I have to admit I’m among those who hate to hear laughter on TV unless it’s clear that the audience is part of the show, as with “Saturday Night Live” or the Netflix and HBO stand-up specials.

I don’t like to find myself in the company of snobs, but I find canned laughter distracting and intrusive. I realized that when the background ha-has drove me away from the rebooted “One Day At a Time.”

The laugh track is on my mind because of a recent podcast by Slate’s TV critic Willa Paskin on its history and purpose.  On the podcast, called Decoder Ring,” Paskin argues that the laugh track served as a form of “training wheels” to help people transition from a world in which they experienced entertainment collectively outside the home — at the movies or theater performances — to one in which they were watching in small groups or alone in their own living rooms.

It’s Paskin’s thesis that the laugh track helped audiences acclimate themselves to the central weirdness of having video images coming into their homes.  When TV moved to Hollywood and developed recorded single-camera shows, the only way to replicate the experience of shared laughter was through the Laff Box, a device that mixed up to 300 different recorded laughs to make it seem as if an audience was laughing along with the viewer.

From the early 1950s until the early 2000s, the laugh track reigned supreme on sitcoms.  Along the way there had been a number of innovative laugh-track-free sitcoms on Fox, such as “Malcolm in the Middle” and the “Bernie Mac Show” but it wasn’t until the massive popularity of “The Office” in 2005 that the laugh track really began to feel retrograde.

Paskin’s history of the laugh track is fascinating, but I’m not I sure I agree that it helped audiences get used watching in-house entertainment. How else then to explain the quick acceptance of television drama, which had no equivalent of simulated audience response?  In fact, it would be profoundly disturbing if there was a “gasp track” or “weep track” to mimic the response of audiences during scary or sad dramatic moments.

The laugh track was almost certainly designed to help audiences transition from a legacy medium: radio.  In the early 1950s, audiences were already familiar with the concept of sitting at home, alone or with family, and laughing to comedy that came out of a box in their living rooms.  Indeed, many of the first sitcoms were video versions of popular radio comedies such as “The Jack Benny Show” and “The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show.”

Paskin’s other theory on the popularity of the laugh track is that it contributes to the illusion that we are engaged in a shared experience while watching TV, even when we’re by ourselves, which is increasingly the case. This seems slightly more defensible, but only if you accept the premise that the effect is subliminal and not consciously received.

Rather, I think the laugh track survived so many years because it reassured insecure audiences that what they were watching was actually funny.  I think of a show like “Seinfeld,” which took misanthropic humor on TV to a new level.  The laugh track signaled to viewers that yes, it really is funny when Jerry gets caught making out at “Schindler’s List.”  I’m convinced that without the laugh track, even with the same jokes, it would have been a deeper, darker, more absurdist show — but not as popular.

To be honest, it’s been my experience that while many people think they are funny, they’re actually not.  Able to act silly after a couple of drinks, yes.  Able to point out the absurd realities underneath everyday life, no.  I can’t blame them, then, for preferring shows that give them a gentle nudge about what’s theoretically funny.  (And “theoretically” is the key word here — because if you listen to shows like “Friends” without their laugh tracks, it’s clear that the jokes are not really that funny.)

Roseanne Audience.jpg

It can’t have escaped the networks’ notice that the most popular sitcoms on ABC (“Roseanne”), CBS (“The Big Bang Theory”) and NBC (“Will and Grace”) all have laugh tracks, or rather, they were “filmed in front of a live studio audience.”  None of these shows want anyone to think they use an actual laugh track, although I find it hard to believe that live human beings actually laugh at some of the jokes on these shows.

The last sitcom with a laugh track to win an Emmy was “Everyone Loves Raymond.” Since then, critical praise has been for edgier one-camera shows without laugh tracks.  And yet audiences seem to like laugh-tracked shows.  They’re not really my thing, but the TV universe seems big enough to accommodate a variety of sitcoms, regardless of who’s pushing the laugh buttons.