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Monthly Archives: October 2015

Note: This post was originally published on September 29, 2011 (the day after a wrenching Red Sox loss that kept them out of the play-offs), on a different blog site that is now out of business. I’m reposting it here so that it will have a more permanent home.

Red Sox World Series

Although it always comes when predicted, the end of a baseball season is nevertheless surprisingly unexpected and shocking in its finality. It’s like the long-anticipated death of a elderly grandparent or dropping off a child at college – you know it’s coming but can’t be emotionally prepared for the void that opens afterward.

This year, the end of the season was even more brutal that usual for Red Sox fans. After a month-long collapse, it appeared that the Sox might eke out a play-off spot in the last game of the season after all. But in a sudden reversal, the odds of which were statistically infinitesimal (see: http://bit.ly/qP5rFd) the Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon coughed up the game with the two outs in the ninth and almost simultaneously the Rays rallied from a 7-0 deficit to beat the Yankees and vault over the Sox into the play-offs.

My own feelings of loss at the end of the season are magnified today because, for the first time in decades, I’ve been watching the Red Sox every night on my living room TV. Thanks to the miracle of Apple TV and MLB.com, I’ve been streaming the games onto my HDTV. In a flashback to my childhood, I had developed the inflexible routine of turning on the games after dinner and sticking with them for three hours. Now, with one swing of the bat, all that is over. No more Jerry Remy, Don Orsillo or Heidi Watney.

I watched so much baseball this summer that I began to question my priorities. Why was I sitting in that chair, night after night, watching some guy throw a small ball, again and again, to another guy?   Why was I so despondent at the losses and so euphoric at the wins? Was there really no more productive use of my time? The games didn’t truly matter to me in the way that family or work do, but they created the same intense response – and on a nightly basis too.

And why do we root for a team anyway? As the devoted Mets fan Jerry Seinfeld observed, we’re basically rooting for laundry because the players have no direct association with the cities they represent and move from team to team anyway.

On my Facebook page last night, I wrote “Human existence is tragic, futile, miraculous and joyful. Which is why we follow baseball — for the catharsis.” Catharsis is “the purging of the emotions or relieving of tensions, especially through certain kinds of art, as tragedy or music.” But sports provides an even deeper catharsis that the arts, because the outcome of a play, an opera or a ballet is pre-ordained. There is a narrative arc that is determined by the creator and once set it stone it will not change; no matter how many times you see a play it will always end the same way; but in sports, the outcome is never truly known. We accept freakish and implausible endings in sports that we would never believe in the arts. That’s why sports are a truer reflection of life: because anything can happen.

It’s hard to unpack the emotional baggage that comes from rooting for a team, but for me there is the fact that the Red Sox are the one constant in my life. As a little boy I went to Fenway Park with my parents – always the most exciting night of the summer.  As a teen I went there with friends and girlfriends. I brought my wife there, and then in a proud moment introduced my own son to Fenway Park. One of the highlights of my life was attending the 2007 World Series there. Strangers live in my childhood home, my church has been torn down and my elementary school has been converted into condominiums, but Fenway endures in all the key essentials.

Baseball brings out the best and worst in people. It’s a cliché, but I love seeing fathers playing catch with their young sons and daughters. The ball is small so baseball comes earlier to kids than football or basketball. In our small town of 16,000 people, there are 1,000 Little League and Babe Ruth participants, making baseball one of the few common experiences in our community. And when a kid becomes a fan, baseball becomes the lingua franca of a family. However estranged you may become when your kids grow up, you’ll always have baseball to bridge the gap. I pity those families (and I mean that literally) in which people root for different teams. I’d hate to be on this emotional rollercoaster alone.

On the other hand, sports does bring out a dark side. And I don’t mean just the riots that occur after championship games.   I mean the way fans turn on players who have disappointed them.   A batter who strikes out or a pitcher who gives up a run must have a character flaw. No guts, doesn’t care, a quitter and all other allegations of moral turpitude. No one exemplifies this more than The Boston Globe’s Dan Shaughnessy, who turns on players with a viciousness that makes you wonder why anyone would want to play in Boston.

Shaughnessy aside, even on a day like this, after a troubled night’s sleep and a deep sadness that the season is done, I remain grateful that I was born into Red Sox Nation. To have something to care about so passionately is a great gift. How passionately? Here are three somewhat embarrassing confidences:

  • I freely admit to everyone that the happiest day of my life was October 28, 2004, the night the Sox won the World Series. And I say this as a person who has witnessed the birth of his son and celebrated a very happy wedding day. Those other days are obviously more important to me in the long run, but for sheer exhilaration and joy, nothing beats the World Series win.  I’m pretty sure my wife and son understand.
  • Under my bed is a plastic bag containing the clothes (including underwear and socks) that I wore on the aforementioned October 28, 2004. They have only been disturbed once, when I wore them again the night the Sox won the 2007 World Series. If they don’t’ disintegrate first, I hope to wear them a couple more times.
  • The last time I sobbed uncontrollably was after a Red Sox game – a game that they won! This was Game Five of the 1986 championship series versus the Angles, when, with the Red Sox facing elimination in the ninth inning, Dave Henderson hit a two-out, two-strike home run that tied the score. The tension was unbearable as the Angels threatened to score again and again in extra innings. When the Sox finally did win that game, I went into the bathroom, closed the door and burst into tears of relief. I never cried so hard at a funeral.

Every October I swear I will take a break and not care as much next year, but inevitably I get sucked back in during the spring. The days are short now and the cold is coming. No more Red Sox this year. It’s all over but the recriminations and the purging of a once-proud team. Maybe last night’s horrible loss will be good for the team in the long-run, if it drives away the fans who signed on after 2004. In any event, I’ve had enough of a catharsis for now. I need some rest.

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Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), Michonne (Danai Gurira) and Karen (Melissa Ponzio) - The Walking Dead_Season 3, Episode 16_

The return of “The Walking Dead” – America’s favorite paranoid brew of dystopianism, reanimation, and survivalism – is a reminder of the powerful role that television plays in promoting the popularity of firearms.

“The Walking Dead” is practically a walking advertorial for the Second Amendment.   To kill a zombie you need to shoot him in the head.  Oh, you can use a crossbow but unless you’re Green Arrow this is not a long-term strategy. No, if you want to protect yourself in the land of the undead you need to load up with all the guns and as much ammo you can get your hands on.  This has been a principle of anti-zombie defense since “The Night of the Living Dead.”

It’s not just zombie shows that suggest that gunplay skills are a necessity for survival, though.  Many of the greatest shows of this newest “golden age” of television fetishize firearms.  Where would “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” “Breaking Bad” or “The Americans” be without guns?  They’d still have their stranglings, stabbings and explosions, sure, but the gun is at the heart of the violence on these shows.  Without firearms the protagonists would not have the power to dominate their environments.

If you doubt how much guns are used on television, check out the Internet Movie Firearms Database, which tries to capture all the specific firearms models that are wielded in film and television.  It’s from this website that I confirmed “The Wire” definitely did feature a lot of firearms.  The Omar Little character alone found reason to brandish a double barreled shotgun, a Mossberg 500 Cruise, a Colt Gold Cup National Match, a Desert Eagle, a Ruger P90, a Colt Anaconda, and Taurus PT92.  That’s a lot of heat!

Does any of this matter?  Conservatives usually complain about the sex on television but don’t seem to mind the violence and it’s the other way around for liberals.  Everyone cites studies supporting their particular point of view so the behavioral science is unclear.  From my perspective, however, it seems clear that television is the greatest advertising medium of all time, and if TV can influence consumer behavior it can also influence social behavior.

I’ve never owned a gun myself, but came close to considering it while watching “Justified,” a contemporary variation on a traditional western, which seemed to average five or six shootings an episode (actually, according to the Internet the actual death count was only 170 killings in 78 episodes, fewer than I thought).  There’s a pervasive sense of menace on “Justified,” and no one is safe anywhere, especially not inside their own house.  In fact, there’s even a middle-class character named Gary who gets himself shot on his front yard because he’s not armed and can’t protect himself or his family. Yikes.

The irony is that Hollywood and New York City, co-entertainment capitals of the world, are mega-liberal enclaves and many celebrities and industry executives are gun control advocates.  After the recent massacre at Umpqua Community College celebrities took to Twitter to offer condolences and implicitly call for more regulations on firearms.  Yet they can’t stop churning out violent shows.  It’s just too profitable.

The fact is that a large number of people like to watch TV shows with sex and violence. Just like a large number of ancient Romans liked to spend the day at the Coliseum.  I can’t claim to be exempt from this given that “Justified” was one of my favorite shows.   We all experience more than a little bit of fantasy-based wish fulfillment when we see a bad guy blown away.

Conservatives frequently suspect that the liberals in the entertainment industry push their agenda in the movies and on TV, and indeed there does seem to be a pro-LGBT and anti-business slant in TV programming.  Yet rarely, if ever, have we seen pro-gun control propaganda advocated on TV.  If there have ever been depictions of four-year-olds shooting each other accidentally, or of mass shootings at a school or church, or of family members shooting another family members during drunken arguments, I can’t recall them.  Given the number of hours of TV programming per year, I’m sure these scenes exist but they don’t begin to approach the impact of the thousands of shoot-outs between heavily armed heroes and villains.

This pro-gun-control propaganda doesn’t appear because television is a business and viewers don’t want to watch fictional school massacres or kids shooting each other.  For drama to work, two colliding principles or two antagonists of near-equal weight must collide.  That’s not what happens when there’s a random, senseless shooting.  A senseless killing without any narrative meaning is, well, depressing and depressing usually equates to low ratings.

In the end, the people in the entertainment industry can sign all the ads they want in favor of gun control, but until they actually reduce violence on TV they are just posers.

bewitched-larry tate

Hey, I’ve got a great idea for a show! It’s about a handsome 1960’s ad man who has a wry, silver-haired, vaguely alcoholic boss; he marries a beautiful blonde who’s kind of a witch and they move to the suburbs where she is beset by nosy judgmental neighbors.  I bet it would run for eight seasons.

Well, before there was “Mad Men” there was “Bewitched,” a sitcom about an actual witch who falls in love with a Muggle, er, mortal, and settles down for an ordinary middle class married life. Premiering in 1964 with Elizabeth Montgomery as the beautiful witch Samantha Stephens, the show trailed only “Gunsmoke” that year as the country’s second-most popular TV series.

I’m hardly the first to point out the similarities between “Bewitched” and “Mad Men,” including this promo from Me-TV touting “Bewitched” as the “original ‘Mad Men.’” What interests me, though, is the role that both these shows played in the culture wars. Last month I wrote a piece (Television as Archeology) arguing that television can offer important clues into an era’s social history. Well, here’s a case study. On the one hand, we have a 21st Century TV show that looks back not-so-fondly at the 1960s, and on the other hand we have one that was actually produced in the 1960s. Which is a more accurate depiction of the period?

The view of Sixties society that these two shows present could not be more different. In “Mad Men,” the suburbs are toxic and Betty Draper nearly breaks under the pressure of keeping up appearances, but in “Bewitched” the suburbs are happy places to which one naturally aspires.

Of course a sitcom and a drama are going to take the same circumstances and draw different conclusions. In “Mad Men” the drinking is a pathological way to escape pain, but in “Bewitched” drinking is fun. In “Mad Men” the tut-tutting of the neighbors is repressive, but on “Bewitched,” the same tut-tutting only occasions eye-rolling from Samantha.

Part of it has to do with the temperament of the housewives themselves.   The remote and emotionally fragile Betty Draper can’t take the pressure of keeping up. Like a classic case from the Feminine Mystique, she is a college educated woman (she speaks Italian!) who is bored and unfulfilled because she gave up her career (in modeling) to raise a family. Samantha on the other hand, is self-confident enough to stand up to her mother, who wants her to return to the wizarding world, and more than capable of brushing off the neighbors who bug her or the ad agency clients who make a pass at her.

Although not overtly political, “Mad Men” and “Bewitched” occupy different ideological positions on the television spectrum. “Bewitched” is essentially propaganda for the social conformity of the 1950’s and early 1960’s. Samantha could have had a more exciting life as a witch but she actually likes being a housewife; it’s a choice she fully embraces. She’s a powerful woman and smarter than her husband Darrin, but is happy to play second banana.   In this regard “Bewitched” subtly undermines the patriarchy it appears to glorify because although Darrin may THINK he’s in charge, we know that Samantha is really calling the shots. Women are not as weak and powerless as they seem (a message that was reinforced in hundreds of “screwball comedies” from Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s, by the way).

Matt Weiner, the creator of “Mad Men” was not alive in the 1960s, so much of what he knows about that decade comes from books and stories he’s heard. It’s Hell to be a woman in Weiner-world and the ninth circle of Hell is housewifery.

I love “Mad Men” but the Sixties that I remember were a lot closer to “Bewitched.” My own mother probably would have been bored as a housewife although we’ll never know since she always worked. Having a career then wasn’t as difficult or stigmatizing for women as we’re led to believe today. Having said that, most of the other mothers I knew stayed home; all seemed happy to make that choice and none seemed subordinate to their husbands.

This might have been a matter of class. Our family was in the very middle of the middle class. Neither of my parents went to college, so my mother, who unlike the upper-middle class Betty Draper, didn’t receive an anthropology degree from Bryn Mawr and subsequently didn’t feel intellectually stunted in our little ranch house.  On “Bewitched” Samantha apparently hadn’t been to college either (unless you count Hogwarts) so didn’t feel deprived of a richer intellectual life.

In a country as large and diverse as the U.S. in the 1960s no one TV series could hope to represent the reality of every housewife. Undoubtedly there were millions of bored at-home women in the Sixties, especially in the affluent suburbs, but as “Bewitched” indicates, the Sixties were not one long horror show. The families who moved to the suburbs had lived through the Depression and World War II and were in the middle of one of the great economic booms in history. They had a lot to be happy about and that joy in getting a fresh start in a new neighborhood is what is most striking to me about “Bewitched” now, 50 years after the fact.