E.M. Forster’s ‘Maurice’ – a review

E.M. Forster’s Maurice had a storied history that would rival its plot. Written in 1913, it wasn’t published until 1971, one year after the author died. The story deals with the love between two young men – the titular character and his school chum, Clive, in early 20th Century Great Britain. Controversial for its sympathetic handling of homosexuality, Maurice was Forster’s attempt at rewriting the gay narrative – he set out to ensure that there was a story in which the gay protagonist doesn’t kill himself, die, or be punished in some way because of his homosexuality. Maurice is a complex story with complicated characters – each with a mighty flaw, that makes him human. I picked up Maurice because I am a fan of Forster’s work – I especially liked Room with a View. With Maurice, the writing is simpler – more straight forward. The love scenes between the two men are obviously chaste and tame, though he takes care not to hide their affection in euphemisms; instead, the homosexuality is handled with a bracing candor.

In Maurice, we are introduced to the title character as an awkward and sad child in boarding school. As he’s about to go on to public school, he’s taken aside by a popular schoolteacher to have “the talk.” Soon after, Forster has Maurice in university, where he plods along – he doesn’t distinguish himself from the other students, nor is he anything special – only one thing makes him unique, and that’s his homosexuality. In school, he meets Clive Durham, a brainy and shy young man, and soon the two are in a relationship. Unfortunately, after university, Clive’s devotion to Maurice cools, and he intends to marry and become a “traditional” man; Maurice, meanwhile has to contend with his growing dissatisfaction with life. He fails to graduate from university (he gets kicked out for cutting class), and instead becomes a reasonably successful stockbroker. Clive returns after a tour of Europe and though he makes it clear that he’s not interested in a physical relationship with Maurice, the bond still exists.

The plot of Maurice isn’t terribly original, nor are his characters all that remarkable. But what sets Maurice apart from his other work, is the author’s willingness to explore sexuality and gender, as well as the usual concerns of class and society. Gay identities as we know today didn’t exist in the early 20th century, so it’s interesting that both Clive and Maurice create a union, but it doesn’t have a name, nor does it have a definition or label. Later on in the novel, Maurice, heartbroken turns to the Alec, a gamekeeper, who is clearly working class. That Forster writes a “happily ever after” ending for the two is interesting because realistically, it’s difficult to imagine how the relationship would survive: not only is homosexuality illegal in England, but the strong class division between the two would undoubtedly cause friction. In Maurice, we are asked to suspend these kinds of questions, putting aside technicalities and instead, Forster insists that we enjoy the love story as it is.

But as optimistic (though unrealistic) as the novel ends, all the action before it signals a cynicism and harshness in Forster’s view. None of the characters in the novel is particularly likable – along with being rather a dullard, Maurice is petty and cruel. He treats his mother and sisters with contempt, dismissing their concerns and feelings, and he is a self-admitted misogynist. It’s not clear why exactly someone like Clive ever fell in love with him. Clive, on the other hand, while intellectual and more sensitive, is also a coward, hiding behind convention and status. It’s not clear if he’s simply done being a homosexual,  or whether Maurice was some sort of experiment. Thought when reunited, despite his newly-acquired heterosexuality, Clive does indulge in minor caresses that may signal that he’s not as “cured” as he wants to be. Their relationship in university is lovely – one can imagine the two idly lying on a lovely bank next to a picturesque brook in the English Lake District. However, after Clive’s transformation to heterosexuality, Maurice reveals a nasty cruel and dominating streak – his sisters are often victims of his sour disposition, but even Clive is the brunt of Maurice’s nastiness. He’s a thoroughly foul fellow, yet because of the circumstances he’s in, readers will feel sorry for the guy. He’s living in an age that fails to understand him, and he’s therefore labeled a criminal for simply being himself.

Reading Maurice in 2014 is interesting because gay rights, gay culture, and the LGBT movement has made some amazing strides in the West, while in places in Africa, the Middle East, and in the Caribbean, gays subjected to inhumane laws and violence from their own communities. Forster doesn’t predict any of the progress of the early 21st century, but his writing proves to be a fascinating contrast to contemporary queer literature. While Forster’s work does have relevance today, the lack of a political or social identity is palpable. He taps into the idea of “curing” homosexuality – a concept that has all but lost its relevance today. Maurice goes to a therapist in hopes of being hypnotized – instead of being cured, the therapist suggests that Maurice either live with his homosexuality or move to a country far more accepting. The doctor isn’t an anachronistic gay rights activist, but merely a disinterested pragmatist who is aware of conversion therapy’s woefully lacking track record.

Though this isn’t a major work by any means, it’s still important because Forster does bring forward his gay identity (as it was in 1913). He writes of a gay man who understands his feelings, even if he doesn’t understand how to intellectualize them. Maurice is a homosexual in a country that criminalizes and ostracizes his kind – and yet despite these obstacles, Forster decides to give him a happy ending. Because the novel was written just before World War I, there is an added sense of poignancy to the proceedings, because chances are, if Maurice and Alec stayed in England, they would be enlisted, and would probably either die or be seriously maimed. So even if Forster has given them a happy ending, society and the world may intrude on that happy ending. As a piece of queer literature, Maurice is still a required read because it’s a surprisingly frank book that deals with its topic with a disarming, nonjudgmental tone.

Click here to buy Maurice by E.M. Forster on amazon.com.

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Martin Short is very, very, very nice in his memoir ‘I Must Say: My Life As a Humble Comic Legend’

Martin Short’s comic persona has two layers to it: the ebulliently friendly guy and the smarmy, obsequious Hollywood insider with a dark edge. The latter was brilliantly used with his character, Jiminy Glick, the hopelessly oblivious celebrity reporter whose delusional self-regard often got in the way of his work. But it’s the cheery, lovely guy that most people think of when they think of Martin Short. He’s the old-fashioned song-and-dance man, born a bit too late for his generation. In his solid memoir I Must Say: My Life As a Humble Comedy Legend, Short writes of his rise to success from a childhood that turned from idyllic to tragic in Canada, to struggling as a stage performer, before finding success on the classic SCTV and later on finding stardom in Hollywood. Some may have hoped for an essay collection, and though I Must Say won’t have readers laughing out throughout the whole of the book, it’s still good memoir, with some interesting tidbits.

What makes Short’s story engaging is his unerring optimism. Suffering the deaths of his older brother and both his parents before he was twenty, and later losing his wife of almost forty years in 2010 as well as mourning the loss of friends, could make Short’s story a sad read. And often it is when he writes of his mourning. But he creates an appealing, almost underdog of a narrative voice, who processes these considerable tragedies with grace and dignity. His late wife Nancy is an important figure in the book – and she’s written as an intelligent, willful, and funny partner, who constantly kept Short on his toes. Even if Short wasn’t famous, his love and devotion to his wife would be an interesting story. Even if the ending is so tender and sad, there are funny and cute anecdotes about the marriage.

Because this is a celebrity memoir, there are tales of Hollywood as well. None are tawdry and Short isn’t interested in slinging gossip. Even Kathie Lee Gifford who cluelessly quizzed Short on his marriage two years after his wife died is left off the hook. Because Short’s a funny guy, it’s not surprise that other comedians like Steve Martin, Goldie Hawn, Chevy Chase, and Diane Keaton, among others make appearances in his book. His days with Second City, SCTV,  and Saturday Night Live also has him cross paths with folks like Dan Aykroyd, Lorne Michaels, Andrea Martin, Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer, Billy Crystal, and Gilda Radner (with whom he had a surprisingly tempestuous relationship). Martin, who has a reputation for being cold and aloof, comes off as warm and feeling and devoted to his friendship with Short. Short also holds massive, involved Christmas parties, that feature talent shows that starred such famed pals as Tom Hanks, Catherine O’Hara, Bernadette Peters, Rita Wilson, and March Shaiman.

The celebrity stories are okay for the most part – but they tend to feel like the kind of name-dropping anecdote celebrities trot out on the couch of late night talk shows. More interesting are the entries sprinkled throughout the book that detail the genesis of some of Short’s most famous characters including Ed Grimley (whose catchphrase is used as the title of the book), Irving Cohen, Jackie Rogers, Jr., Jiminy Glick, and Franck Eggelhoffer (from the Father of the Bride films). These short passages are interesting and include a monologue in each character’s voice. Though they lose something on print, these parts of the book are a fascinating view of the comic’s creative mind.

In fact when Short writes about his work, I Must Say is at its most interesting: like most people who leave Saturday Night Live, his memory of the experience is rather mixed, but because he’s so generous in spirit, he doesn’t trash the show like other embittered ex-performers. He also looks at his career with a clear and candid view – he’s refreshingly honest about how his stab at leading man status in the 80s was spotty and he accepts his current status as character actor with genial equanimity.

As a celebrity memoir, I Must Say is a solid affair. It’s upbeat and its author comes off as generally grateful and gracious. For some, an edgier voice would’ve been more interesting, and Short’s writing can tip dangerously close to saccharine, but he’s still a brilliantly funny guy and even if readers won’t necessarily get that from this work, it’s still a largely enjoyable and easy read.

Click here to buy Martin Short’s I Must Say: My Life As a Humble Comedy Legend on amazon.com.

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What I’m reading now: ‘Jane Eyre’ by Charlotte Bronte

I shouldn’t be reading Jane Eyre because I have finals coming up, and I’m still having to re-read Faulkner, Stein, Fitzgerald, Oates, Wright, and Dreiser. But my partner picked up E.M. Forster’s Maurice, so I thought I should pick up an oldie-but-goodie. I haven’t read Jane Eyre since high school, and though I remember liking it a lot, I also remember finding some of it to be a bit of a slog. I was worried that it would go by slowly, but I was wrong. I’m about halfway through the book (I’m reading this weirdo edition that is sandwiched between the other two Bronte sister’s great works, Emily’s Wuthering Heights and Anne’s Agnes Grey), and I’m drawn into the story.

I love stories with strong female figures, which is why I read Jane Austen so much. In Jane Eyre, we get a compelling female figure, but unlike, say Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet, there isn’t much time for levity or comedy. The story’s very grim: from a humble background, living with an abusive aunt, Jane is sent off to Lowood, an institution in which she must endure some horrid conditions. A typhus outbreak claims her best friend and public outcry forces the school to improve its conditions. Jane stays on as a student and later as a young woman works as a teacher. She then moves to Thornfield Hall after leaving Lowood, in search of something more. There she is hired as a governess for a small young French girl, Adele, whose mother was an opera singer. She meets with Thornfield’s master, Mr. Rochester, a brooding, Byronic hero who captures her attention and steals her heart, despite his moodiness and his abrupt manner. All the while she’s there, the house echoes with haunting laughter.

I’m at the part where Rochester’s hosting a huge party and the gorgeous Blanche Ingram’s there – she’s set her sights on Rochester, much to the chagrin of poor Jane Eyre, who, while attractive is decidedly plain in comparison with her beautiful rival. I find the party scenes interesting because this was at a time when one goes to a party and will sometimes stay overnight. The group of people who take over the house is interesting because some like Blanche or her mother are horrible snobs, while others do their best to be polite and kind to Jane.

One of my favorite parts of the book is the tete-a-tete between Jane and Rochester. The two are very smart and very sharp, and though Jane understands her position in society as Rochester’s employee as well as being a poor orphan, she does have an innate sense of self that doesn’t allow her to wallow in modesty. She’s not a proto-feminist, but there are inklings of feminism in Jane (cultural studies foes will want to burn me at the stake, I know) – and because this is a British novel, the class stratification is sharp and severe – Mrs. Fairfax, Rochester’s housekeeper, for example is content to have Jane at the house because she feels the kitchen maids are beneath her, and Blanche and company think nothing of denigrating governesses as a whole, even with Jane sitting close by. And Jane’s whole childhood was marked and marred by the absence of respectability and access to class.

What I like about Jane Eyre is Bronte’s social criticism. Too many female authors were relegated to “domestic concerns” and were therefore not taken as seriously as their male peers. Bronte’s description of Lowood approaches Dickens in her righteous anger and sorrow over how badly mistreated the young girls are, and how empty piety can be. And because Jane is always aware of her station and class, we understand just how limiting and oppressive those arcane rules were.

Like I said earlier, I’m about halfway done with the book – I know what happens because I’ve read the book before (and I’ve seen the movies), but I still enjoy Bronte’s pointed critique of Victorian England. Interestingly enough, because I’m interested in the African diaspora in the UK, the parts about Jamaica, and Rochester’s connection to the island is interesting to me (I’m taking care not to include any spoilers in my post).

I’ve tried reading George Eliot’s Middlemarch because Julia Sweeney recommended it on her blog, but I had to give up (it was interesting, but much too dense). After Jane Eyre, and after I’m done studying and will have time to read again for pleasure, I may pick it up again.

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The episode in which ‘Designing Women’ got it all wrong about race…

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Designing Women was very much a show about the “New South” – that sort of Clintonian version of the South which embraced women, gays, and ethnic minorities. The sitcom about four Southern Belles who run a design firm was the brainchild of Clinton speechwriter and close pal, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, who used the show to push her feminist and liberal points of view, using the main character, Julia Sugarbaker (Dixie Carter) as a mouthpiece.

But as with anything dealing with race that is written by a wealthy, middle-class white person, there are huge blind spots and problematic areas. Case in point, the episode “The First Day of the Last Decade of the Entire Twentieth Century,” which was a two-parter in the show’s fourth season. In the episode, Charlene (Jean Smart) goes into labor on New Year’s Eve. Her family of friends including Suzanne (Delta Burke), Mary Jo (Annie Potts), Anthony (Mesach Taylor), and Bernice (Alice Ghostly), along with Julia, all accompany Charlene to the hospital.

The episode – meant to be a heart-warming “very special episode” is Designing Women at its worst: mawkish, overly sentimental, and confusingly racist. I say “confusingly” because the writers go out of their way to ensure that viewers know that even though these ladies are Southern, they’re part of the New South, so there will be no Confederate flags waving.

But Bloodworth-Thomason can’t help put cock up an already bad episode with some really terrible racism. Two guest characters show up in this episode that I’ll write about: Vanessa (Olivia Brown), Anthony’s date, and the unfortunately-named Miss Minnie (Beah Richards), a patient in the hospital (Dolly Parton also strolls by – more on her in a bit).

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So the plot is pretty predictable – Charlene goes into labor (gratefully, we’re spared from the sitcommy bellowing that accompanies television labor) and everybody assembles in the hospital. Suzanne, cash-strapped, is hoping Charlene gives birth before midnight so that she can win a car in some contest. Anthony, meanwhile, brings his New Year’s date, Vanessa – a woman that can only be described as “exuberant.” Done up in a miniskirt, fuzzy purple sweater, and a crown of spiky blond hair, Vanessa is a sight – but not only is she physically eccentric, but she’s also loud and unable to keep still in the hospital. I know that Vanessa was meant to be a joke, but there are serious issues with the character – namely, that she’s oversexed, loud, ignorant, and inappropriate. She’s not a mean-spirited character (and she makes recurring appearances before disappearing), but the writing of the character is mean-spirited. When sarcastically complimenting Anthony for his choice of a date, Suzanne snidely remarks, “Hey Hey, Anthony, congratulations on your date. She’s very classy, very sort of Radcliffey.” This is said while Vanessa is wearing headphones and shouting James Brown’s “I Feel Good” in the hospital waiting room.

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In another scene, she’s seen on a pay phone ordering a burrito, beer, and condoms from a convenience store, hoping to have it delivered to the hospital. She also puts on an oxygen tank and roars, “I’m on oxygen!”

In a show that prides itself on being feminist, it’s troubling that black femininity is presented in such a clownish manner. When the show isn’t breaking its back patting itself on the back for depicting Anthony as an intelligent and upstanding kind of guy, it goes for cheap laughs or cheap sentiment: and that leads me to my second point: Miss Minnie.

DesigningWomen3While Charlene is huffing and puffing away, Julia wanders into the room of a dying patient who’s over 100 years old. Miss Minnie has been plomped into the already-creaky episode to inject some social consciousness. A daughter of a sharecropper who lived through the Depression, two world wars, Jim Crow, segregation, and the Civil Rights Movement, Miss Minnie’s on hand to be the wise old sage, to council the young white people. Beah Richards is a brilliant actress and does a whole lot with a whole lot of nothing. She’s reduced to poetic, wanna-be inspirational lines that sound like bargain bin Maya Angelou knock-offs. And in one particularly indulgent moment, as she’s dying, she manages to rally to recite, “We ain’t what we should be and we ain’t what we gonna be, but thank God, we ain’t what we was!” (something a preacher once said that Martin Luther King, Jr. liked to quote). Cast as the magical negro, Miss Minnie cannot simply be a character, she has to represent black history – but in Bloodworth-Thomason’s hands, it becomes a very superficial, Cliff Note’s version.

As if Miss Minnie dying isn’t enough, we’re then treated to a treacly, discount version of “Somewhere Out There,” the cavity-inducing pop ballad from the animated film An American Tail. Instead of Linda Ronstadt and James Ingram, we get two no-names who sing over the Casio, before guest star Dolly Parton wakes up to warble a few of the lines, essentially stealing the show for a few seconds, before handing it back to the other two.

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Dolly Parton, by the way. This was late 80s, Hollywood Dolly at her full, Rhinestone glory, when music was merely one itty-bitty facet of an insanely lucrative career that included theme parks, books, movies, wigs, oh yeah, and sometimes she’d remember that she was an amazing singer. It’s telling that when she pops up as Charlene’s Clarence Odbody, she bills herself Charlene’s “Guardian Movie Star” not “Guardian Country Singer.” In a frothy, gauzy dream sequence a very pregnant Charlene is chatting with Parton about the circle of life – it’s all very cliche – but in case it’s too subtle, when poor Miss Minnie finally dies, she’s led by Parton down a white hallway and into a mystic elevator taking her to heaven. You see, Miss Minnie died on the same day that Charlene’s baby was born – don’t you get it? One life begins as one life ends. Is your mind blown?

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The naff Dolly Parton sequence would be forgivable had it not been for the truly offensive treatment of Beah Richards’ character before and after. Nothing is more reductive than having someone play an ideal. What’s nuts is that some twenty five years later and we still have these variations on TV and in film.

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And because Designing Women was preaching to a very select choir, this episode wasn’t the only offender when it came to racism. Whenever Julia had any kind of dealings with Anthony, there was an oppressive sense of condescension. Julia practically patted Anthony on the head whenever he mentioned some good deed or accomplishment. Many would point out that if anyone was offensive on the show, it was Suzanne with her explicit bigotry – but I would argue that Suzanne’s bigotry is the joke – we’re meant to laugh at Suzanne’s galling lapses in judgment; meanwhile,  Julia’s shown as the heroine of the bunch, and we’re meant to follow or identify with her.

The show never really got over its inability to address race – though, the topic made its way into the episodes quite often. When the women weren’t bleating friendly and polite bromides and platitudes, they would blindly rhapsodize about the South and the Civil War and indulge in some false nostalgia about the gentility of the South. These fantasies were grounded in the women’s fetishistic love for Gone with the Wind, particularly its lead character, Scarlett O’Hare – the admittedly brave heroine, who nonetheless, represents a part of American history that is shameful and very ugly. Whenever the writers had the good sense to have Anthony refute these moments of revisionist history, any one of the ladies would blithely say something along the lines of “I see your point, but…” before launching into some long-winded paean to the Antebellum Georgia.

Watching “The First Day of the Last Decade of the Entire Twentieth Century” sets my teeth on edge because there’s a smugness to the proceedings. It’s as if Bloodworth-Thomason and company are educating me on racism and trying to make me either feel guilty or worse, feel complacent and satisfied.

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My favorite episode – ‘The Golden Girls’ – “Ebbtide’s Revenge”

My favorite episode is a feature for this blog in which I look at my favorite episode of a TV show I like. Some of the shows will be classics – Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, I Love Lucy, etc., and others may be shows that I personally loved, even if they haven’t endured or stood the test of time, like Ugly Betty, for example. I won’t go into the history of the show too much, but will give some context if needed – and I’ll also go into the show’s historical significance and if the episode is a much-beloved classic, I’ll also discuss that.


The Golden Girls
has always been a very queer sitcom. It took apart the concept of the nuclear family by presenting a new king of family – one of single friends who turn to each other for support. The story of four older women sharing a house in Miami, Florida, has resonated with gay audiences – particularly gay men – because many of the viewers of the show understood what it meant to have to cobble together patchwork families after being rejected from their own.

Cognizant of the show’s audiences, the writers have also looked at queerness on the show. Though a lot of the jokes and plots are dated now (and some of the gay jibs and story lines are borderline offensive at times), I still appreciate the show for challenging gender and sexual roles. Interestingly enough, when The Golden Girls was killing it in the ratings, The Cosby Show was also huge (the two even shared a network). But where The Cosby Show was almost aggressively uncontroversial and inoffensive, The Golden Girls often took on controversial topics, many of them queer.

While not the most gay-explicit, “Ebbtide’s Revenge”  is queer because it deals with cross dressing. The episode dealt with grief, shame, acceptance, and tolerance. Dorothy (Bea Arthur) is tapped to give the eulogy for her brother Phil. The recurring joke throughout the show’s preceding six seasons was that Phil was a cross dresser. He wasn’t a drag queen and he was straight (happily married with children), but had a lifelong penchant for women’s clothing. Before “Ebbtide’s Revenge,” the cross dressing was treated like an odd quirk. Dorothy’s mom, Sophia (Estelle Getty) always treated Phil’s cross dressing with resigned tolerance. But Phil’s death forced Sophia to examine how she really felt. Her feelings of shame and embarrassment manifested themselves in the hostility she showed toward Phil’s wife, Angela (guest star, Brenda Vaccaro).

 

So what I liked about “Ebbtide’s Revenge” – and The Golden Girls in general – is that even if this is a Sophia-Dorothy episode, each member of the ensemble has a moment to shine. In this episode, the naive, but compassionate Rose (Betty White) has a pivotal moment at the end, where she encourages Sophia to move past her feelings of shame and embarrassment and embrace her love and grief for Phil. Sexpot Blanche (Rue McClanahan) has been mostly relegated to comic relief in the episode, which is necessary because a lot of the episode is very sad. Because the quartet of actresses is made up of four brilliant comediennes, the show’s episodes pass around the role of straight man, so even if Blanche isn’t as integral to the plot of the episode, she’s still a welcome presence.

So many will watch “Ebbtide’s Revenge” and question some of the jokes that the characters make at the expense of Phil and cross dressing in general. For example, when Sophia sees Blanche’s fire engine red dress for Phil’s funeral she cracks a joke and Blanche defends her sartorial choice saying, “I believe Phil would have liked this dress.”
Sophia: Liked it? He would’ve looked great in it. Dorothy, I never understood why your brother liked to wear women’s clothes, unless he was queer.
Blanche: Sophia, people don’t say queer anymore, they say gay.
Sophia: They say gay if a guy can sing the entire score of Gigi. But a six foot three, 200-pound married man with kids who likes to dress up like Dorothy Lamour, I think you have to go with queer.

In other parts of the episode, the characters throw around cross dressing gags, and it’s highly debatable if Phil was given dignity at his death. He was buried in a teddy – which provided the characters with a lot of comic fodder, but as his widow pointed out, “Phil would’ve wanted it that way.” It’s a poignant moment seeded into a potentially-cheap joke, that feels very apt today when deceased trans folks are often buried by transphobic family members in their originally-assigned sex roles. And though Phil wasn’t trans, it feels important that he was buried women’s clothing, as it was true to his character (though burying him in lingerie may be questionable).

So, obviously in the 25 years since the episode’s airing, our understanding of homosexuality has evolved a bit more than “knowing the entire score of Gigi.” But gay men on television in the 1980s have either been flamboyant, flowery gay men who burst into song (The Golden Girls had a few examples), or if the show was intent on being progressive, the gay men would be bland, almost sexless drones cast to prove that “gay people are just like everyone else!”  On The Golden Girls queerness has been folded into the reality of the characters, but it isn’t immune from the AIDS-panicked 80s view of homosexuality. Still, underneath some of the dated and antiquated views of queerness, there’s an underlying basis of tolerance, acceptance, and love.

During the episode, it’s unclear just what exactly Sophia is harping about. Though it’s understandable that’s she’s grieving about her son’s death, she’s seemingly more interested in swiping at her daughter-in-law. And while the trope of warring in-laws is ingrained in the fabric of the traditional sitcom, there was something deeper in Sophia’s anger at Angela. Dorothy and Blanche are at a loss to figure out why Sophia’s normally-ornery persona is ramped up to an even more irascible level. It’s Rose who figures out the source of Sophia’s anger. Rose, a grief counselor, gently prods Sophia toward confession on what was really the problem: “Every time I saw him, I always wondered what I did, what I said, when was the day that I did whatever I did to make him the way he was.” It was the shame that made Sophia angry – shame and guilt, feelings that many parents of queer children have. The line is beautifully delivered by Getty, who then openly breaks down in tears, releasing the shame and just allowing herself to feel the grief she was setting aside. And White is every bit her equal, letting some of Rose’s jokey dumbness fade a bit, and letting her seemingly endless reserve of compassion and love shine through.

The show would go on for another season (before being spun off into Golden Palace, sans Arthur), and have still looked at nontraditional sexuality. In fact, a few episodes later, Blanche deals with her own issues of shame and tolerance when her brother announces he’s marrying a man (again, 25 years before gay marriage became a national debate and a political wedge issue). I won’t go as far as claiming that The Golden Girls is ahead of its time, or that it revolutionized television – Roseanne was far more daring and confrontational in how it dealt with issues like sexuality. But as “Ebbtide’s Revenge” shows, the show does have a knack for telling a story about topics that are easy to trivialize in a way that makes them funny without being too cheap or easy.

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The ladies of ‘SNL’ shine on a solid Cameron Diaz episode

Cameron Diaz and Mark Ronson with Bruno Mars Bumper Photos

I approached the Cameron Diaz episode of Saturday Night Live with some trepidation. Diaz is funny, talented, and very likable (and very easy on the eyes), but her instincts as a comedienne often lean toward vulgarity and bad taste, as if she’s trying to show us that she can outgross out the boys. Also, her track record for crappy films has been pretty consistent lately, so I also question her choice in material. Because she’s out promoting a remake of Annie (which gets a shout out), Diaz hosted the Thanksgiving episode of SNL. While not a classic, it was a surprisingly solid effort, with some great work by the female cast members of the show. It’s gratifying to see that the boys club of SNL past has been banished, and though this cast’s comediennes haven’t proven to be comic geniuses like Gilda Radner, Jane Curtin, Jan Hooks, Tina Fey, or Amy Poehler, Cecily Strong, Kate McKinnon, Aidy Byrant, and Vanessa Bryant have each showed great promise. Add in Leslie Jones, who I think is just peachy, and the talented (if underused) Sasheer Zamata to round out the female side of the cast, and you have potential for some very funny moments – and on this episode, the ladies brought it (for the most part).

The cold open was another Obama sketch, but this time I actually thought it was okay. A spoof on the classic “I’m Just a Bill” tune from School House Rock, the joke was that Obama’s executive order to grant legal status to some 5 million undocumented residents was an exercise in bullying. Literally bullying, as he keeps throwing Kenan Thompson’s warbling bill down the Capital steps. Not to be outdone, Bobby Moynihan shows up as a laissez-fair Executive Order, who sums up his deal by singing “I’m an executive order, and I pretty much just happen.” I wish the show’s writers went further with the joke than Obama’s merely giving Congress a shaft – do the writers think it’s fair that the president’s order will help 5 million undocumented residents avoid deportation? Because SNL has always been stung with the charge of being too liberal, I think the writers don’t want to get too nasty with politics, aside from tweaking personal idiosyncrasies or scandals of individual political figures. Unfortunately, the show doesn’t take a stand, and the result is that a sketch with some great potential sort of ends up being harmless. Still, Thompson’s one of my favorite cast members and he was very funny, and the sketch was a surprisingly decent way to open the show.

Unfortunately, Diaz’s monologue was pretty awful. It was the standard, “superstar host tries to get  through his/her monologue, but is repeatedly interrupted by cast members pretending to be audience members.” None of it was terribly funny, and Diaz didn’t do a good job in selling her limp schtick.

The first sketch of the evening was probably the best of the episode, and a contender for the best of the season. The ladies of SNL get together to create the magic of “(Do It on My) Twin Bed.” This time the Pussycat Dolls-like girl band descend on their childhood homes for the holidays and proceed to act like spoiled boorish churls. As with the “Twin Bed” song, “Back Home Baller” is wonderfully silly and incisive in how it pin points the banality of adult women becoming infantalized by returning home. They take over the parents’ home, do their laundry, eat up their food, and don’t help or take part in the house work. The bizarre juxtaposition of a mundane situation like a childhood home and the baller/blinged out attitude of the women is great. And Leslie Jones has an awesome Missy Elliot-like solo rap about her mother leaving bowls of snacks all over the house. It’s all very funny and very smart – I only wish that this whole so-so season of SNL worked on this high level.

The next sketch referenced Diaz’s new Annie movie. Jay Pharoah did a servicable Jamie Foxx, and Bayer trotted out her enthusiastic child star to play Annie, while Diaz brought out her skanky Miss Hannigan from the new movie. The twist is that instead of Bayer’s red-headed mopped, Foxx’s Daddy Warbucks was looking for the new Quvenzhane Wallis Annie. What he gets is Leslie Jones’ 43 year-old Annie. Jones is a talented addition to the cast, but the writers are trading too much on her high energy – she’s more talented than that, but they’ve limited her to shouting and staring menacingly at the camera. The middle-aged Annie isn’t interested in singing or being adopted so Daddy Warbucks ends up hiring her as a security guard. A middling sketch that could’ve been more.

The next sketch was a fake ad – Nest-Spresso, a single-egg incubator that looks like a single-cup coffee maker. Taran Killam and Kate McKinnon play hipster urban farmers who are dismayed at how hard it is to raise chickens. Bayer’s smiling neighbor clues them in on the Nest-Spresso, a neat invention that instantly incubates and hatches a single egg. It’s a cute idea, made even cuter when a baby chick is plopped into the waiting glass mug. I also love that Bayer’s beatific expert doesn’t really understand the mechanics of the machine.

After the funny Nest-Spresso ad came another winner. An experimental theater play at a high school. As a former high school drama geek, I know the nonsense we put on and I know the tedium and resentment our loved ones felt having to sit through our crap. Experimental theater can be rewarding, but it can also be pretentious junk, as it is in this sketch that has our troupe decry the evils of Wall Street, Capitalism, gender inequality, lack of quality healthcare, etc. It’s all done with that grim, self-congratulatory smugness that only a liberal, overly politically correct teenager can muster. And it’s all done with barely any skill or talent, which makes the sketch even funnier. And as an added bonus, Thompson and Bayer play annoyed and increasingly appalled parents who are witnessing the travesty and feel trapped.

The Weekend Update in this episode was surprising because wasn’t ass-boring. The beneficiaries of lowered expectations (we’re talking Sarah Palin’s “triumphant” performance during the vice presidential debates here), Colin Jost and Michael Che do an okay job this week. Che, especially, gets some trenchant swipes at the current Cosby mess, when he pointedly tells the legendary comedian, “Pull up your damn pants.” He also does a quick bit about grieving over the loss innocence of Cliff Huxtable, a sentiment a lot of people are expressing (unfortunately, at the expense of the rape victims). As Che pointed out, “Cliff Huxtable practically raised me” encapsulating why so many people are having such a hard time reconciling the TV icon with a sexual predator.

Kate McKinnon returned as German Chancellor, Angela Merkel. As with most good-to-great impressions on the show, it isn’t that McKinnon looks, sounds, or acts like Merkel (she doesn’t), but it’s that the comedienne has distilled the spirit of what makes the politician so interesting: she’s a smart woman operating on a world stage, dominated by men, but she is increasingly seen as the voice of reason. McKinnon’s Merkel has shades of Poehler’s Hillary Clinton – a smart, over-qualified woman, who is smarter than everyone in the room, and she can’t handle that. McKinnon’s Merkel also has a strange, though endearing, awkward side, one that is crushing hard on Barack Obama, and one who is constantly chafing at the various constraints that are imposed on a woman in her position. Nora Dunn once lamented that during her tenure on SNL, the female cast members had no one to play during the political sketches (she famously played presidential candidate Pat Shroeder), so it’s particularly joyful to see the ladies have opportunities to break into political sketches.

After McKinnon’s star turn, came Killam and Strong as Charles Manson and his fiancee Star Burton. Killam did a generic “crazy psycho” impression of Manson, and the pair did just okay, but faltered in comparison to McKinnon’s strong work.

We then had the recurring character of the adult baby CEO. I don’t get the appeal of this character, though Beck Bennett is mesmerizing in his ability to accurately mimic the spastic, unrestrained movements of an infant. This kind of character is very old fashioned SNL – the sort of weird, eccentric character that has an identifiable trait, like It’s Pat, or Debbie Downer, or Matt Foley. These kinds of characters exist to spawn catch phrases and to be discussed at water coolers (remember those?). In this installment, Diaz is Bennett’s wife, and she proves to be a decent straight man, without much to do. Zamata and Thompson play a couple who are guests – Thompson’s angling for a promotion and Zamata is his supportive wife. The conceit of a guy going to a boss’s house for dinner in hopes of securing a promotion is also very retro, which is alright, except Thompson is wasted, merely reacting to Bennett’s performance (Zamata gets some fantastic dry, withering notes, though).

Thompson and Diaz star in the next sketch – probably the worst of the night as hosts of an animal show. Reminiscent a bit of Tracy Morgan’s Brian Fellows, Thompson’s not happy with his animal show hosting gig because his monkey castrated him last week. Diaz shows up with a lemur. And by the way, what with the real baby chicks and the real monkey and the real lemur, is that a thing, where the show uses real animals in the sketches? The joke of Thompson’s genitals ripped off by the monkey is repeated over and over again, and it was never funny to begin with.

Next, Kyle Mooney and Bennett get another one of their strange-but-great sketches – this one with Mooney’s dimwitted slacker confronting Bennett’s bully in the hallways of a high school. It’s done as if it were Mooney’s amateur chat show – an Internet ‘Wayne’s World.’ Mooney’s performance as the awkward, dopey, and posing slacker is pretty interesting, as is Bennett’s turn as his nemesis. The thing about these kinds of sketches is, they’re never hilarious, but I appreciate the ambition behind them.

After that, we get another installment of Bayer’s poetry teacher. I liked the character the first time it ran, but I’m not so sure it can sustain recurring status. Bayer gets the mannerisms and vocal tics down and she’s pretty funny – but the character is supposed to be a bland nothing, and it’s difficult to stretch out the joke for more than one 5-minute sketch. But for what it was, it was OK. We get Bryant as a student who writes an ode to her stepdad (who wears a t-shirt that looks like a tuxedo, “uh oh, he fancy”), and Thompson’s tribute to Friends is pretty funny. Then Diaz stops by – in disgusting white girl blond dreds, by the way – as Bayer’s fellow poet pal, who wrote a paean to the UPS delivery man, that quickly becomes sexual, to the delight of the male students in the class.  Again, not a bad sketch, but not a great one – just eh…

The final sketch – Night Murmurs – which features the ancient art of phone sex ads. Except in this one, the ladies have some interesting requests which include Diaz’s instructions on how to handle a special delivered package, Strong’s request to drive her old grandmother out of a trailer, and McKinnon’s sorted tale of losing a bet and being pummeled with a turkey. It’s all weird stuff that’s sold because the actresses act the hell out of the sketch, making the bizarre non sequiturs funnier than they seem (I love the strange, “sexy” and “relaxed” poses that Strong gets into while she’s purring about her grandmother’s trailer).  Not a hilarious sketch – but a good one – that will remind some of the retired porn stars sketch (which I actually do like).

So, all in all, a good episode – Cameron Diaz didn’t dominate in her sketches, but she played nice with the others and she left her over-sized star power at home. It’s the kind of host one hopes for – someone who doesn’t mind looking silly, but isn’t intent on proving to the world that she should be placed as permanent host. As seen in many of her films, she’s willing to make herself look ridiculous for a laugh – which is great for an SNL host. In this episode, though, the writers seemed to play it safe with their star – unlike, say, Melissa McCarthy or Emma Stone, who when hosting, reveled in portraying ugly misfits and misanthropes that belied their real life beauty.

Next week James Franco is hosting. I didn’t like his last hosting gig – I found him strangely wooden and uncomfortable. Just as the Woody Harrelson show was all about pot, I’m sure the James Franco outing will reference his strange performance art persona, as well. After him, we’ll have Martin Freeman – the most charming man to come out of Great Britain, and stealth Meryl Streep replacement, Amy Adams (who I thought did a great job when she first hosted – her Heidi Klum was amazing).

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‘Cristela’ is a bright and promising sitcom

Cristela's Horrendous Internship InterviewABC’s freshman sitcom Cristela is a throwback to the “boom years” of stand-up comedy when TV networks were plucking comics from clubs and crafting vehicles around their acts. Once the sitcom started to fall out of favor, the television landscape became very hostile to shows like Roseanne or Seinfeld. Because of Chuck Lorre’s success with Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory, networks are still trying to find the next Friends. ABC, which has abandoned its popular TGIF lineup is looking to bring the sitcom back. With the relative success of Tim Allen’s return Last Man Standing, ABC is trying to pair it with Cristela, an old-fashioned sitcom that feels like it belongs on TV Land.

Cristela Needs a Partner for Her Costume

Stand-up comedienne Cristela Alonzo stars as Cristela, a law intern who lives with her sister Daniela (Maria Canals Barrera) and irascible brother-in-law, Felix (Carlos Ponce). Daniela and Felix let Cristela live with them and their children in their home while she works at a high-profile law firm, in a much-coveted but unpaid internship. Part domestic comedy and part workplace comedy, Cristela’s office family includes Josh (Andrew Leeds), the nebbish fellow intern and Maddie Culpepper (Justine Lupe) the other intern, who also happens to be the daughter of the firm’s owner, Trent (Sam McMurray).

For those who don’t demand too much from their television viewing, Cristela is a charming, unambitious sitcom that manages to score because of the talent and goodwill of its star. Alonzo is a wonderful presence, and will remind viewers of Roseanne Barr or Brett Butler. As her alter-ego, the comedienne manages to inject a lot gravitas and intelligence into what is really a standard milquetoast multi-cam sitcom. Because the show features a mostly-Latino cast, there are some valuable insights to diversity and privilege and Cristela’s a fine mouthpiece for some of the micro (and not-so micro) aggressions that people of color have to endure in an all-white environment. Because Cristela has worked her way up to a corporate environment, notorious for its hostility toward women of color, she has a unique perspective on her position there. Thankfully, Cristela isn’t a fish-out-of-water story. It’s clear that despite her limited financial background, she belongs at the law firms and deserves her place.

Cristela Pushes Isabella to Play Soccer

And because there’s so much potential in Cristela, when the show see-saws from decent social commentary to standard family sitcom, it becomes clear that despite its charms, the best thing about Cristela is well, Cristela. She easily outclasses her costars. And though at this point in the season  Alonzo hasn’t developed her acting chops yet, it’s easy to see that this lady has a huge future.

BigA show like Cristela will probably last a season or two if it’s lucky, but its lead has an important voice and story to tell. Throughout the middle-of-the-road plots, Cristela is able to raise the consciousnesses of those around her – or at least she tries. This is especially true when she’s helping her sister raise precocious tween, Izzy (Isabella Day). The interactions between Izzy and Cristela are especially heart-warming because of Alonzo’s feminism, which the writers manage to fold in quite nicely. In one episode, Izzy chooses a trendy purse instead of an e-reader for her birthday, so that she can keep up with the popular girls, and Cristela schools her on the pitfalls of keeping up with the Jonses (or the Kardashians). Or in another example, in the pilot episode, Cristela secretly prods her niece to try out for the soccer team instead of cheer leading. The feminism is doled out in such sweet doses, that it won’t scare off viewers afraid of the f-word.

If Cristela can shake off her Disney Channel sitcom trappings, it may develop into a stronger sitcom. It does add an important – if oft-ignored – perspective, and Alonzo can enliven even the hoariest of jokes (and yeah, some of the gags feel awfully dusty). Hopefully, the show will last long enough for viewers to see its growth.

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