My favorite episode – ‘Frasier’ – “Fathers and Sons”

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.

TV land is littered with the carcasses of failed spin-offs. What can seem like a good idea at the time – hey, let’s give this break out character her own show! – often ends up being embarrassing (three words: Joanie Loves Chachi). But sometimes spin-offs work – for every Joey, there’s an Angel. What makes a spin-off work is being able to draw a supporting character out, and make her interesting enough to be a central figure, and it means giving her more to do. Often break-out characters are popular because they spout some crazy catch phrase, or because they’re wacky – in small doses that can be tolerable, even enjoyable, but trying to create a whole vehicle around a catch phrase is difficult.

That’s what makes Frasier so special. It took an important supporting character from an iconic show (Cheers), and successfully created a new ensemble around him. Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer) was the pompous, amorous barfly psychologist on Cheers, who acted as a romantic foil for Shelly Long’s Diane Chambers, and initially the character seemed more barbed. What the creators of Frasier did was fit Frasier into a French farce style sitcom. The character became more sympathetic and three-dimensional, and much kinder in the spin-off. The show also heightened his hauteur by matching it with the sophisticated, sparking tone of the writing. Cheers celebrated the dignity of working class people, while Frasier reveled in the absurdity of the upper class. Like Cheers, Frasier was a dynamic ensemble show, featuring a cast of incredible comedians – first among equals is David Hyde Pierce as Frasier’s younger brother, Niles, also a psychologist; John Mahoney played crotchety pop Martin, who is permanently disabled by a bullet to the him; Jane Leeves is Martin’s physical therapist, Daphne, who caught Niles’ eye, and the two characters engaged in a will they/won’t they tango for about 9 of the show’s seasons, mirroring Cheers‘ Sam and Diane story lines; and Fraiser has a work buddy, Roz Doyle (Peri Gilpin), a sexually liberated cut up who’s on hand to puncture any of Frasier’s inflated ego.

“Fathers and Sons” is a late episode – it’s near the end of the 10’s season (the show’s penultimate season). In the 10th season, Daphne and Niles are adjusting to married life, while Frasier is still trying to find Ms. Right. The episode is important because it provides some backstory into Martin’s marriage to Frasier’s mom, forensic psychologist, Hester (sometimes played in flashbacks by Rita Wilson). In the first season, Martin reveals that Hester cheated on him – the infidelity wasn’t mentioned again until “Fathers and Sons,”when her old friend, Leland Barton (M*A*S*H‘s David Ogden Stiers) comes to visit. Leland was Hester’s research assistant, and the two were extremely close.

During Leland’s visit, Roz can’t help but note just how similar his mannerisms are to Frasier’s and Niles’. This plot device is a perfect way to goose up the prissiness of the main characters – David Hyde Pierce is especially wonderful and the physical comedy. The Crane boys and Leland share a love of opera, art, sherry – all the finer things in life that Martin looks at with disdain (he’s never happier than basking in his recliner). Up until this episode, we’re meant to understand that Frasier and Niles got their high-minded thoughts and behaviors from the intellectual Hester, but Roz is startled at the similarities and stupidly shares her suspicions with Martin.

At this point, the show becomes classic farce – a comedy of errors that Frasier is so well-known for. Martin is nursing his deep fears that he may not be the biological father to his boys, and must watch as every tiny glimpse of commonality between Leland and the Crane boys is amplified. At one point, Martin comes in at night to see an ailing Frasier tucked in bed, being red to by Leland, and later on he sees Niles toddling over to Leland’s outstretched arms like a baby learning his first steps. The twist is that Leland was reading excerpts of his memoirs to Frasier, and Niles was struggling to straighten out his cramping legs. The show reveled in this kind of mistaken comedy – though some may compare it to the kind of goings on that took place on Three’s Company, there’s something appealing about the frantic, misplaced comedy of Frasier.

But more importantly, the episode showed that Martin Crane really loved his sons. Too many times during the show, Martin’s macho demeanor meant he couldn’t open up to his sons in a meaningful way. By the 10th season, though, the characters’ differences mellowed out, and a cohesive, oft-harmonious concert too place every week. Things were never perfect, and Martin’s more humble interests always unnerved Frasier, but the closeness was apparent. In “Fathers and Sons,” Martin is faced with the possibility that maybe his sons aren’t his – but then Roz asks the perfect question: would he love them any less if they weren’t his biological sons. “Of course, I wouldn’t,” he immediately answers (though a few seconds later, he consents that maybe he would – but I always take this as Martin’s curmudgeon sense of humor, always on, even in times of family crisis).

I liked that Frasier took a potentially devastating story and told it through a distinctly Frasierian-like manner. Lots of effete comedy with sentiment folded in. In this episode, Grammer and Pierce are stellar, but it’s Mahoney who’s the MVP, being able to play Martin’s edgy, panicked nervousness brilliantly. His wide-mouthed takes are great, and I loved when Martin tried to join Frasier, Niles, and Leland in a rousing rendition of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Major -General’s Song,” by desperately bellowing “With many cheerful facts about the scary hippopotamus,” while the others warbled, “with many cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse.”

As raucous and fun as the episode is, it deals with some heavy subjects: namely infidelity. Martin adores his wife and idealizes her despite their history (he even blames himself for the affair), and is wounded that her memory is, yet again tainted. It’s hard enough for him to reconcile her affair with his memories of her, if what Roz guesses is true, then Hester not only cheated on Martin, once but twice – and took her secret to her grave. As Leland leaves for the airport, Martin confronts the man he suspects was Hester’s paramour – Leland admits that he loved Hester very much, to which Martin hesitantly asks, “how much.” Leland replies, “Enough to trust her with the fact that I’m gay.” Mahoney, yet again, does wonders – in just a few seconds, he manages to convey surprise, relief, happiness, and regret. Because Martin realized how unfair he was to Leland and his friendship to Hester, he generously reminded him that she loved him too. The two part on good terms, and Martin is reassured that the Crane boys are his.

“Fathers and Sons” came at a point in Fraiser‘s history when the show started to wind down. There was a sense of closing doors at this point, and it’s only fitting that the shows – despite all being very funny – also included moments of gravity and tenderness. Martin loves his sons – though he’s rarely demonstrative, until he’s unsure of his paternity, and then he’s all over them, slapping their backs, and enthusing about “his boys, his boys.” Roz’s question earlier in the episode about Martin’s fear – “Would you love them any less?” is interesting because so much of Cheers was about building a family unit of friends and/or coworkers. But with Frasier, the family unit is comprised of  blood relatives (Fraiser, Niles, Martin), spouses (Daphne), and close friends (Roz). So for Roz to bring up “what makes a real family” is interesting because those two characters in particular have created a familial bond with each other that initially was dependent only on their connection with Frasier, but later grew to a love for each other that was independent from him. What makes the episode feel safe is that even if a strange Maury-style twist occurred at the end, in which Martin was deemed “not the father,” I know that he’d still love “his boys” regardless.

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Reading while in grad school

After a good summer, I’m back in school. I’m about halfway through my MFA studies, and am enjoying the process, so far. A good thing about summer is the chance to get through the stacks of books I’ve compiled throughout the school year (though honestly, my pile is perennially high).

A few weeks ago, I just finished re-reading Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice for the millionth time (I’ve read it so many times, that I anticipate some of the sparkling dialogue). Since I’m on a Jane Austen kick of a bit, I’m currently working my way through Sense and Sensibility. It’s my third favorite of Austen’s works (Emma is my favorite – and I can’t wait to start on that).

During the summer I also read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, which was brilliant. Because it was reportedly based on James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, I picked up Baldwin’s work, as well just to draw the parallels. I was lucky enough to attend one of Coates’ talks about reparations and the Great Migration. Fantastic.

Anyways, back to reading when in grad school. I’m in two classes this term, a fiction writing workshop and an internship of a literary magazine. In the former, we’ve got a decent list of books on the syllabus, including Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, which is what was assigned first. I’m about halfway through the book – a collection of short stories. The reviews have been great, but so far, I’ve yet to become really involved and/or attached to Johnson’s work. The literary magazine has us reading 20 short stories, plus some publishing articles in the first week. Whew.

Given the work load, one would assume that I would put off reading other books for now, but I’m looking to start reading Sonia Manzano’s Becoming Maria as well as Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. But Jimmy Carter’s new book, A Full Life is also beckoning me.

I don’t know, sometimes I wish my mind was like that grid from the opening credits of The Brady Bunch. I’d love for each segregated section of my mind to be wholly independent from another, that way I could read 9 different books and not get confused.

On top of everything, I also make it a semi-official policy to read books by professors whose classes I’m taking. I just got a copy of my professor’s book last night, and am looking to read it as well.

For the past few weeks, I lost my Kindle, and just found it last night under my bed, underneath a pile of books. I had to clear the books out of my way, like rubble, to unearth the Kindle (the battery was depleted at that point). I was excited because a shit ton of books were stored, and I wanted to get to them.

I love to read – though it’s weird to say I’m well-read (it feels pretentious to stay so, especially since most of what I read is, well, crap). For many who aren’t English majors (or writing majors), they think that English majors are 24/7 happy because we do what we love all the time – after all, our homework is what we do for a hobby. I admit, I felt that way about theater students (until I took theater classes in a brief, misguided moment when I wanted to be a comedian). But I do a different kind of reading when I’m in “grad student mode,” versus just “me” mode. I admit that years of college has destroyed my ability of reading or watching anything without trying to deconstruct it in some way, but still, when I’m reading for myself, I stick with books and subjects that I know will appeal to me.

Jesus’ Son is a collection of stories, and so far they all feature strong violence and disaffected characters. Johnson’s writing is excellent and he’s a great story teller, but I’m drawn to writers who look at the world in a funny light. I’m going to have to read Jesus’ Son a few times so that I can participate in the discussions in class (a big part of my grade).

I’ll leave reviews of Sense and Sensibility as well as Jesus’ Son soon.

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Cult classics revisited: ‘Mahogany’

Mahogany [VHS]Mahogany is the movie that killed Diana Ross’ film career. The Wiz buried it, but Mahogany was the film that made movie audiences rethink their adoration for the diva, after her spectacular debut in Lady Sings the Blues. Diana Ross is in practically every scene in the film, and though not a musical, she’s seemingly treated the film like an extension of her concert career. For those who have never seen Miss Ross on stage, a hallmark of her performing style is epic schmaltz. She urges her audiences to bask in the glow of her dewy love, but it all has an edge of artifice and calculation. Mahogany‘s storied background is far more intriguing than the resulting film – Oscar-winning director Tony Richardson was fired, replaced by Motown head, Berry Gordy, who had a deeply personal relationship with his star, that often resulted in public spats. Gordy wasn’t a film director, and his novice status shows in how badly he mangled the film. Aside from Ross, he also wasted the estimable talents of Billy Dee Williams (Ross’ costar in Lady Sings the Blues) and a nervy Anthony Perkins, who, surprisingly brings the most energy in the film, despite the awful writing. After watching the film for the first time, and having my laughs, the second time I watched it, I no longer had the self-satisfied snark that accompanied my first viewing. Instead, I was sad because so few movies with a black director and two black leads get the full studio treatment like Mahogany. And its critical failure undoubtedly made it all the more difficult for these kinds of movies to be made.

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Mahogany starts off as a promising film: Ross plays Tracy Chambers, a fledgling fashion designer who makes a living as a secretary for Miss Evans (Nina Foch), a buyer at a luxury department store. On her way home, she meets local civil rights activist Brian Walker (Billy Dee Williams), who is leading a crusade to stop developers from tearing down houses in poor neighborhoods of Chicago. Tracy is initially wary of Brian, seeing his politicking as a waste of time and energy, but when a prank she pulls goes horribly wrong and Brian ends up in jail, Tracy bails him out of guilt. Soon, a relationship develops, but Tracy quickly becomes an appendage to Brian’s burgeoning political career. But before his ascent can begin, Tracy is whisked away to Rome by Sean McAvoy (Anthony Perkins), who hires her as a model. This is when the film swan dives into sheer absurdity. She suddenly becomes a supermodel and deftly adapts to the hedonistic lifestyle of the fashion world, but chafes at being simply a living mannequin. In another lurch in the plot, Tracy is yet again, rescued by another man, this time a rich count, Christian Rosetti (Jean-Pierre Aumont). At a fashion show, Tracy’s hideous Kabuki-inspired getup is mocked by the audience, until Rosetti offers 20 million lire for the monstrosity. Sean is insanely jealous (in fact, he does everything insanely), and tries to kill the two of them, in what has got to be the most ridiculous scene in film history (more on that in a bit), in which he careens down the Roman highway, leaden foot pressed on the gas, while keeping his hands off the wheel, snapping away at a panicking Tracy. The car crashes, leaving Sean dead, but Tracy is found covalesing in the Christian’s grand manor (that looked like a scrubbed up Grey Gardens to me). Inexplicably, Christian bankrolls Tracy’s fashion career, and she’s a hit. But she’s lonely at the top, and returns to Chicago, to support Brian’s congressional ambitions.

The movie is ridiculous. The message is garbled and confused, and it’s unclear whether Gordy and his screenwriter, John Byrum, knew what kind of story they wanted to tell. When set in Chicago, Gordy attempts at a serious drama that highlights the widening gap of income and racial inequality. With Brian Walker, Byrum creates a mouthpiece for racial and social justice – just not a very effective one. Byrum’s ideas of social justice don’t transcend mere political talking points and the socially-conscious aspects of the script feel forced and superficial and reductive, which is a shame because there is potential in telling the story of a young black woman from the inner city who wants to leave for a more financially stable and lucrative life. Quickly, we’re given the parallels of Brian, the hardworking, dedicated dynamo, and Tracy, the feckless diva, and Tracy’s concerns are dismissed as one-note and frivolous, when compared to Brian’s more high-minded work.

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For Chicagoans, Mahogany is fun to watch because the film takes advantage of some great locales for the film – and for the younger folks, it’s nice for them to see what the Red Line looked like back in 1975. Gordy comes perilously close to capturing the city in all of its complex glory, but seems bored with the grittier aspects of Byrum’s speech, because the majority of the film takes place in a decidedly more glamorous Rome. It’s during the Chicago scenes that Ross also gives the best of her performance in the film. She’s loose and funny and not done in by the neurotic mannerisms that plague her performance later on. When Tracy is interacting with her Aunt Flo (a lovely Beah Richards), the chemistry is sweet, and Ross gets to show off her underrated comic skills. The early courtship of Brian and Tracy also shows that Ross and Williams should’ve become a legendary onscreen couple a la Bogie and Bacall or Hepburn and Tracy.

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But as magnetic as Williams and Ross are, they also cause one of the films many problems, in that it’s hard to forget that we’re looking at movie stars. Though costumed to look suitably working class, Ross and Williams exude star power and Hollywood glamour, and at times, look sorely out of place in their realistic surroundings. The sense of realism that Gordy is going for in the Chicago scenes is broken up by the magazine cover gorgeousness of his leads. Byrum also doesn’t do Ross and Williams any favors by writing them lines that sound stagy and precious (the film’s tag line is “success is nothing without someone you love to share it with” which Williams delivers with hair-quaking seriousness), and the two often speak to each other in slogans.

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But the issue of Ross and Williams being too glammy quickly falls away when we’re whisked to Italy. It’s telling that the film’s most potent moment is an extended fashion sequence set to the film’s theme song “Do You Know (Where You’re Going To).” The film achieves some kind of transcendence here because it highlights Ross at her best – not only is her dreamy voice singing the haunting theme, but she’s paraded around in a variety of kooky outfits, posing on the streets and ruins of Rome. Some of the film’s most iconic images come from the movie – including a fantastic sequence, in which Ross is done up like Cleopatra. It’s worth noting that a movie is pretty bad if its best sequence is a fashion montage.

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The Italy scenes though, indulge in some fine camp, courtesy of Anthony Perkins, who seems to see his character as a blend of Richard Avedon and Norman Bates. Perkins, a fine actor, is also a nervy and edgy one, and even when Sean isn’t being crazy, there is always something unsettling about the fidgety, tense manner in which he delivers his lines. Sean is the second man in Tracy’s life who tries to act as a Svengali of sorts – mirroring Gordy’s relationship with Ross, no doubt. He essentially establishes Tracy as a model, even calling her Mahogany. He sees models as inanimate objects (another model is christened Crystal), and exploits them. There’s also some strange psycho-sexual issues lurking beneath Sean’s quivering exterior, and in a hapless sex scene, he proves to be impotent as well.

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As said earlier, Perkins is probably the best of the bunch in this sorry spectacle, but that’s some damning with faint praise. Gordy obviously watched Psycho a few times, and instructed his star to recreate the role and shoehorn it into Byrum’s script. There are two notable scenes which should be discussed when looking at Perkins’ performance. The first one occurs when Tracy is reunited with Brian in Italy. After surprising her by showing up at her doorstep in Rome, Brian and Tracy must examine their relationship as Tracy’s modeling career has positioned her as a queen in a decadent world in which Brian feels uncomfortable (there is some knee-jerk homophobia and transphobia throughout the infamous party sequence that’s troubling given Ross’ stature as a queer icon). Sean feels threatened by Brian’s presence and invites him to an office, where he pulls a gun on him. What happens next has got to be the most awkward and badly choreographed fight sequences in film history, in which Brian and Sean lethargically roll around the floor, struggling over a gun. The fight culminates in a nasty bit of subtext, in which Brian overpowers Sean, and forces the gun into Sean’s mouth, mocking fellatio, and pulls the trigger, only to discover the gun is a fake. Sean is left in a happy heap, laughing maniacally, while an unnerved Brian leaves.

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The other scene has Sean and Tracy fighting in a sports car during a commercial shoot. Occuring shortly after Tracy dumps Brian, she looks rough and tired (well, as rough and tired as Diana Ross will allow herself to look). Instead of fighting in front of the camera crew, Sean jumps into the drivers seat and starts to drive the car, while taking snapshots of an irritated Tracy. Quickly the scene turns from boring to ridiculous as he presses on the gas pedal and allows the car to swerve crazily while he continues to snap away with his camera. Tracy lunges for the wheel to control the car, but Brian roughly pushes her aside, wanting to capture real fear and panic with his camera. The two fight over the steering wheel, while the car hurdles down a suspiciously-empty highway, before Tracy gets in on the act and starts to grimace hideously for the camera, before the car flips over.

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When I watched Mahogany the other night at the park, the scenes I just described provoked laughter from the audience. In the next scene, when Ross was swathed in bandages, the audience erupted in cheers. It’s clear that Gordy’s intention was to inject drama, tension, and poignancy in the film, but failed. Instead, his all-thumbs grasp at directing a film showed just how little he knows about film making. He allowed his actors to mug hideously – Ross, in particular, who when pitched feverishly, gets shrill and grating (it’s amazing that her gorgeous coo of a voice can get so metallic and nails-on-a-chalkboard irritating).

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And though Perkins is all kinds of crazy in Mahogany, Ross gets to act ridiculous, too. The aforementioned party scene, Ross gets to revel in the decadence of the fashion world. After Brian storms out of the party because the party was too much, Tracy shrugs off her fashionable robe, and starts to drip candle wax on her naked body. It took a moment for me to realize that I’m watching Diana Ross, ex-Supreme, writhing on the floor, holding a candle aloft and letting the wax pour on her gorgeous body. Like Brian, we’re meant to shake our heads in disapproval – after all, in the beginning of the film, Tracy prim and proper, morals firmly intact. But with the influence of sexually-ambiguous fashion folk, Tracy lets loose, while Brian jets back to Chicago to do good work, rallying folks in the inner-city and plotting his political ambitions.

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After watching Mahogany I left feeling very unsatisfied. I hated the ending, in which Tracy chucks it all to return to Chicago to be with her man. In the final scene, Brian is addressing a crowd, during his congressional campaign (he’s running as an Independent). Some of the crowd is receptive to his speech, but others are a bit skeptical, and while he’s spinning in his wheels, Tracy pipes up from the crowd, recreating an in-joke they shared, in which she pretends to be a poor widow with small children, contending with a slum lord.

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I wasn’t happy with Tracy dismissing her fashion career to support Brian’s political career. And then I remembered Tracy’s designs, and I thought, “Huh, she may have a point.” Let’s be real, Tracy’s designs are fuuuugly. A disaster of Kabuki-drag (which Ross took the blame for…er, took credit for), her designs are so garish, drag queens would’ve wished for something subtler. Christian’s heroic bid of 20 million lire for her garbage designs is an act of charity that rivals the greatest works of Mother Teresa.

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Mahogony1Watching Mahogany 40 years later, it’s clear to see how well intentioned the film was. It’s a strained attempt to make Diana Ross a multi-platform diva – a star of film, stage, screen, and music. Like her biggest artistic rival Barbra Streisand, Ross sought to become an all-purpose diva, a quadruple threat. Instead, it’s become a pale relic and a camp artifact, imprisoned in various cabarets, drag clubs, and gay bars.

Click here to buy Mahogany on DVD from amazon.com.

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Carrie Fisher shares her demons in ‘Wishful Drinking’ – a review

Wishful DrinkingHollywood is littered with the carcasses of Hollywood wannabes – starlets and has-beens who couldn’t weather the tough grind of celebrity. For Carrie Fisher, the road was particularly tawdry and controversial because not only was her family life pretty spectacular (dad was Eddie Fisher, mom is Debbie Reynolds), but her stepfamily was also pretty noteworthy (one of her stepmoms was Elizabeth Taylor and another was Connie Stevens). It’s also important to note that her own life – Star Wars, being married to Paul Simon, her drug addiction – is tempestuous enough to fill up the tabloids.

But Carrie Fisher is nothing if not a survivor, and she’s a sage, as well. And a comedienne. Known in the entertainment industry for her withering wit and sardonic humor, Fisher is great at looking at the mess that is her family history and making astute and funny observations. Aside from her healthy career as an actress, she also had a side career as Hollywood’s answer to Dorothy Parker. Her novels, including Postcards from the Edge were tart send ups of American celebrity and its pitfalls and absurdities. She writes what she knows.

In Wishful Drinking, her one-woman show filmed for HBO, Fisher talks about the various demons that marked her life, as well as, some of the ridiculous matrimonial details of her family life. It makes for an entertaining show because the star is candid and without an ounce of vanity.

Opening with a bellowing rendition of “Happy Days Are Here Again,” Fisher opens the show with a tragic story – her best friend dying in her bed. The story is typical Fisher: dark and very upsetting, but told in a frank manner that finds the ridiculousness in the situation. She then quickly segues to the subject of her parents: dad, Eddie Fisher was a famous crooner of the 1950s, who later became famous for bedding Elizabeth Taylor. Mother Debbie Reynolds with the sweet as pie movie star. Of course everyone knows that Taylor and Reynolds were BFFs until Taylor became a widow and Fisher rushed to her side to console her (and then to bed her). It’s a story that has been repeated over and over again, and in Wishful Drinking, Fisher spends some time covering it, before going over a twisted family tree, whose branches include various b-list celebrities including Connie Stevens, Joely Fisher, and Trish Fisher. Our hostess presents all of this information like a college professor, standing in front of a chalk board with a pointer, and even awards a medal to an audience member who manages to keep up with all of the convoluted details.

She shares stories of her parents – mainly their awful marriage, breakup, and subsequent marriages and financial troubles. She’s much more protective of Reynolds than she is of Eddie Fisher, making sure that her mom’s legacy as a movie star (and gay icon) is mentioned, while she takes pot shots at her pop (including at his extensive plastic surgery which she quips made him look Asian). Reading Postcards from the Edge, one can gleam that Carrie Fisher’s relationship with her mother wasn’t smooth (the DVD has an hour-long interview in which Reynolds discusses her daughter’s drug use), but she’s still charmed by the film legend’s eccentric diva behavior.

But Wishful Drinking doesn’t just focus on Fisher’s family – she also had a substantial career of her own, highlighted by her performance as Princess Leia in the Star Wars films (she even wears a wig with the iconic buns). It’s clear she looks at the films with affection, but the iconic role is also a little bit of an albatross (“George Lucas ruined my life…I mean that in the nicest possible way” she grouses). The film’s reputation and cult status forever sealed Fisher’s fate as Leia, and everything she did afterwards languished in its shadow. She also pokes fun at her sex symbol status, particularly when she had to don the infamous metal bikini, forever cementing her as masturbation fodder for a certain segment of the Star Wars fan base.

All of these stories are told in Fisher’s expressive, matter-of-fact style. She doesn’t try for poignancy and at times, her flippant attitude can seem as if she’s trivializing some pretty serious events in her life, but that’s all part of Fisher’s considerable charms. Hollywood isn’t known for being a brain trust, so it’s nice to see one of its most notable scions be so smart. Wishful Drinking doesn’t always hit emotional highs, but like its author, its never boring and always insightful.

Click here to buy Wishful Thinking on DVD from amazon.com.

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‘Perfect Strangers’ holds up surprisingly well

Perfect Strangers: The Complete First and Second SeasonsOnce upon a time, ABC hosted a Friday night block of family-friendly sitcoms called TGIF – Thank goodness it’s Friday. For kids growing up in the 1980s and early 1990s, TGIF was a weekly introduction into the weekend. The sitcoms were aimed at families, so the humor was squarely middle-of-the-road and very hokey. Most of the shows also featured a sickly adorable or obnoxiously precocious child. Perfect Strangers was a bit of an anomaly in the TGIF roster because while aggressively safe and wholesome, it wasn’t a treacley show based on cutesy family situations. Instead, it was the classic Odd Couple story of two mismatched best friends who have weekly adventures.

The premise is simple: Balki Bartokomous (Bronson Pinchot), a recent emigrant from the fictional island of Mypos (based on Cyprus/Greece), shows up at the door of his Chicagoan cousin, Larry Appleton (Mark Linn-Baker), an aspiring photojournalist who punches a clock at a discount store. The humor from the show is based mainly on Balki’s fish out of water experiences: he’s nonplussed by all kinds of American pop paraphernalia like pink lemonade, baseball, Whoppers, and vibrating beds. None of the comedy is deep or profound, and Balki’s “What a country!” reaction feels very familiar for 80s babies who were around for the comedy of Yakov Smirnoff. While some of the jokes are amusing, it is a little insulting that the writers decided to write Balki’s native Mypos as a backwater land that time forgot (there is only one phone on the island, electricity is scarce, every man seems to be a sheepherder). Because there is no political base to the jokes (at least Smirnoff’s comedy – while milquetoast and dated – highlighted the stark differences between the U.S. and the Soviet Union), the level of the humor doesn’t rise above the old “aren’t foreigners funny?” trope.

But despite all this, I found myself laughing a lot, because Linn-Baker and (especially) Pinchot are wonderful physical comedians. Quickly the show’s writers made the show an old-fashioned I Love Lucy-like show, where the plots merely served as vehicles to get the two actors to perform some death-defying comedic stunts. The two actors make up an inspired, underrated comedy duo, which has unfortunately been all but forgotten – because the show’s writing was so bland, it’s easy to look past just how talented Linn-Baker and Pinchot are. The latter, who deftly stole his scenes in the Eddie Murphy classic Beverly Hills Cop is a find. Adopting a broad accent that lies somewhere between Greek and Russian, Pinchot completely disappears in his role (many fans of Balki get disoriented and disconcerted when Pinchot speaks in his regular voice in interviews). Pinchot often outclasses the mediocrity of the scripts, and manages to give depth to the child-like Balki. Linn-Baker, a theater vet, is the straight man, and therefore is often pushed into Pinchot’s shadow, but acquits himself admirably, supporting his more flamboyant costar.

The DVD set of the first and second seasons is great for binge watching. The episodes are structured like most TGIF shows – the setup, the climax, and then the denouement, during which a lesson is learned, and sappy music starts to play. Interestingly enough, the friendship between Balki and Larry is rarely played for homophobic jokes, even though the two guys are pretty demonstrative of their love for each other. There is something accidentally subversive about these two guys creating a tiny family unit, and the show is surprisingly open to examining the intimacy shared between Balki and Larry. In the Christmas episode, especially, we see how deep their friendship grows, when Larry is overcome by emotion after Balki gives him a quilt he’s been sewing as a gift. Balki has been sewing the quilt for over a year, starting on it the night Larry took him in – Larry remembers his mother’s emotional reaction to a homemade gift he gave her as a child, and is moved because he feels the same way about the quilt. While television sitcoms have examined the trope of family as friends, it’s been almost-exclusively female friendships, like in The Golden Girls, Sex and the City, or The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Male friendships on TV have been characterized by a masculine distance, so that even best friends feel uncomfortable expressing themselves. In Perfect Strangers that self-consciousness doesn’t exist – in fact, I was struck at how tactile and physical Balki is with Larry.

Reading over my review, I realize that it sounds like I’m giving the show more credit than it’s due. I’m not. It’s not a ground breaking show, nor does all of it age particularly well. Still, it’s comfortable and cozy and very undemanding on its viewers. It also feels a touch less corporate and cynical than the other TGIF sitcoms like Family Matters, Full House, or Step by Step, which all feel as if they’re written by a focus group. Perfect Strangers is definitely formulaic, but there are kernals of originality and inspiration sprinkled throughout the show.

Click here to buy the first and second seasons of Perfect Strangers on DVD from amazon.com.

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Memories of buying college text books…

I read an article on MSNBC’s Website, “College textbook prices have risen 1,041% since 1977” and wished I was shocked, but I remember buying text books when I was in college. Aside from tuition and school fees, the price of text books was the biggest hit to my bank account – and unavoidable most of the time as students don’t have too many options to comparison shop. When I was an undergraduate from 1999 to 2002, email was still a big deal, so online book purchases weren’t as prevalent, and renting text books wasn’t as much of a thing as it is now. As an English major, I was luckier than most of my peers because we English majors read novels – so for my major classes, the costs weren’t insane (except for the intro survey lit courses that required Norton anthologies that cost a bundle – these crazy thick brick-like books, with tissue-thin onion paper that ripped if you looked at them hard).

But I went to a state university that required I be well-rounded, so it wasn’t enough that I was well-versed in Shakespeare or Jane Austen, I had to take science, math, sociology, etc. And that’s where they got me. For a biology class I took over the summer, I had to fork over something like $140 – this book came with a nifty CD-Rom (I’m dating myself), which we didn’t used. We were warned that only the latest edition would be acceptable, and were discouraged to buy older editions. Of course our knowledge of biology changes, so it makes sense that we have to keep abreast. That’s what I told myself as I paid the $140. And again, I was lucky in that I was taking the class in the summer, so I didn’t have to buy any other books.

So, the class came and went – I got a C, by the way – we dissected a fetal pig and learned about cells – and when it was time to sell the book back, I was offered the generous rate of $1. $1. It was explained to me that the offer was so low because there was a new edition in the hopper for the upcoming semester so my book wouldn’t be good anymore. I didn’t take the $1 out of principle and kept the book (which is collecting dust somewhere in the caverns of my bookshelves).

The lesson learned from this experience – which was repeated, though not to as dramatic effect as the $1 offer with my other text books – was that the text book industry is kind of a racket. Don’t get me wrong, college is not a racket – I love college and think if higher education is for you, then you should go to school, any school. But text books sales are some of the easiest ways that students get price gouged. The problem – as pointed out in the MSNBC article – is that the students aren’t exactly in a position of power or negotiation. A student has to buy the book, or she can’t do the assignments and keep up with the work.

When I was in college, a professor friend of mine urged me to buy a different edition of a book – he confided that often the text books’ changes were minor. Stupidly, I agreed, and for a science class, I bought the prior edition of the text we were using. While the information was the same, the organization of the book was different enough – and some of the assignments, including word problems, were different enough, that it took some major scrambling for me to keep up. Added to that issue was that during class, we would read from the book and discuss – something I could never volunteer for, as I had a different book, and therefore a huge chunk of my class time was spent trying to locate the subject discussed in my book, and raise my hand enough to make an impression (class participation is a huge chunk of undergrad grades). I bothered a lot of my classmates during that class, furtively whispering for help in keeping up with the discussion because I couldn’t afford the book.

Apparently things are better for the younguns because now we can rent books from online vendors. But the renting from online vendors thing could be difficult for many lower income students, as well, as you need a credit card and/or debit card to pay for the books – and the rental fees can still be very high. When in college, I paid with my debit card because I often lived paycheck to paycheck depending on how many hours I banked at my soda jerk job. It wasn’t unheard of for me to have a zero (or a negative) balance after shopping in the campus bookstore. And I found it very helpful owning my book because I could write notes in the margins, highlight important points, and make meaningful annotations – none of this is possible if you’re renting a book.

Others have suggested that students should just descend on the library en masse and take out the text books on reserve. Except that’s a problem when there’s usually only one book on reserve and the book’s not allowed to leave the library. So the student is either left furiously scrambling to get her homework done at the library, or she’s racking up a not inconsiderable amount of charges on her copy card. And while she’s doing all this, there are three or four other students, waiting furiously for the book to be returned, so that they can then either furiously scramble to get their homework done at the library, or rack up a non inconsiderable amount of money on their copy cards.

Another option thrown around is share – why don’t you share the book. This option seems the best one, except, let’s be honest, we’re talking about college students, here. I was in an acting class with a friend and we had to do Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett’s classic play The Diary of Anne Frank. We decided to buy one copy and share it, as we were broke as a joke. Initially, I didn’t want to do that as I worried that our schedules would inevitably cause one of us to need the book when the other had it – and la-di-da, that just so happened to happen: my friend had an emergency trip to Council Bluffs, IA she needed to take and she peeled out of Chicago in her hoopty with our single copy of The Diary of Anne Frank bouncing around on the floor of the backseat alongside empty McDonald’s soda cups and crumbled Doritos bags.

And for the most part teachers are sympathetic. I say for the most part, because, unfortunately, more than once in my long college career (this is counting my undergrad years, my MA years, and now my MFA years), a professor has blithely sniped during class, “I know these books may be expensive, but that’s college. If you can’t afford them, maybe you shouldn’t be in college.” Again, the vast majority of my teachers were sympathetic and equally appalled at the price of text books, but given that I’ve had even more than one professor say something like chaps my ass. College is expensive enough – the extra burden of text books makes students feel like they’re being nickel and dimed.

So what’s the solution? Well, there isn’t an easy one because there is a lot of money to be made with making students buy new text books each semester. And teachers are often forced to assign textbooks from a list given to them by their college administrator. Since most college professors are adjuncts making pennies, they are the last ones to want to stick it to their students’ wallets – so the universities should institute a cap on how much text book costs. Simply refuse to work with a publisher that would charge an 18 year-old $150 for a book. If that means going with a different publisher than so be it. I’ve had professors who balked at the crazy high prices and did more creative things like putting together copied packets of articles. Professors would work off the text book, using the assignments, but then for reading and writing, we would go outside the text book and interact with op-ed pieces, journal articles, magazines, that sort of thing. The discussions in class were much more urgent and timely, and we weren’t lugging around heavy books (with heavier price tags). This option is great, but one of privilege – since most professors are adjuncts who stitch and cobble a full-time schedule (if they’re lucky) be zipping across cities and suburbs to teach at three, four different schools, they don’t have time to patiently sow home-made text books themselves. And this is where students and adjuncts should unite – because this is yet another example of how students would benefit of universities hired more full-time professors to teach at their schools: then these teachers would have offices and resources and time (which they are being paid for), during which they can be creative and figure out  how to make teaching more accessible to all of their students.

The high price of education is already making people wary of college. The prices of text book only affirm the cynical view that college is merely a way to game people out of their hard-earned money. Nothing could be further from the truth. College – at its best – can be one of the most rewarding and edifying experiences in a person’s life. But it has to be available to as wide a set of people as possible, otherwise, those naysayers who say things like “college = the biggest racket around” feel justified.

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‘I Am Cait’ is an uneasy blend of social justice and reality TV

If you’re a reality TV show personality means that whenever you do anything, cynics will question your integrity or intent. It makes things worse if you attach yourself to a crass enterprise like Keeping Up with the Kardashians. Caitlyn Jenner was caught up in that showbiz mess, but once she came out as trans, it appeared as if things would be different for her: given the excellent interview she had with Diane Sawyer, as well as, her honest interviews since her transitions, expectations for I Am Cait were understandably high. Because of her high profile, advocates would love to see Jenner use her platform to highlight the issues the trans community deals with; and her detractors would assume that I Am Cait would merely be an extension of Keeping Up with the Kardashians.

Judging from the first episode, I Am Cait is a bit of both: Jenner’s clearly sincere about her work as a trans activist, but the show cannot transcend its reality TV trappings. In the episode Jenner films her unveiling to her family members, including Kim Kardashian and Kanye West as well as her mother and two sisters. Jenner also visits the family of Kyler Prescott, a young trans teen who took his life. These scenes show the show at its best, but also exposes the reality TV genre as ghoulish.

When visiting, Jenner’s family – particularly her mother – struggle with her transition. Her mother struggles with her faith and how her conservative ideas may clash with Jenner’s trans identity; it’s also clear how much Mrs. Jenner loves her daughter, even if she continually misgenders Caitlyn throughout the episode. When Jenner’s gender expert shows up to counsel the family on trans issues, she deftly highlights the biblical restrictions on cross-dressing as archaic (though, she fails to point out that Jenner isn’t cross dressing, she’s trans).

Some of Jenner’s famous children also show up: Kim Kardashian and her husband, Kanye West appear for a cameo, in which West professes Jenner’s transitions as an act of bravery, before he shows off a pair of shoes that he’s sporting. There is a poignant moment, however, when Jenner shares her disappointment at some of her other children’s estrangement during this time (despite their words of support via social media).

These family scenes are good, though, because they show Jenner as someone who is trying to navigate these still-choppy waters, and make the journey as easy as possible for her loved ones. When a groggy Kylie calls on Face Time Jenner after dental surgery, she lovingly slurs, “you’re pretty,” when a concerned Jenner expresses worry that she would scare her daughter. It’s a touching moment – but a telling one – of how much angst Jenner feels opening up to her family. Though the show’s tone is fairly serious, there are solitary moments of levity, including a hilarious bit in a closet when Jenner and Kardashian giggle over the discovery that Jenner owns a dress exactly like her ex, Kris (they devilishly devise a prank at Kris Jenner’s expense, that would have both Caitlyn and Kris arrive at a place wearing the same dress for a ‘Who wore it best?’)

Still, Jenner’s newly-minted position as the most public trans advocate is problematic because of the wealth and privilege she enjoys. And to her credit, she doesn’t shy away from admitting that few trans women have access to her kind of privilege. She wants to use her fame to further the cause of trans rights – a noble cause, specifically addressing the high rates of suicide among trans teens. It’s unfortunate then, that Jenner drags her cameras and oppressive media presence to the Prescott family, because it feels intrusive. It becomes more uncomfortable when Jenner is invited to join the Prescotts and Kyle’s friends for a balloon release in the teen’s honor. In a moment of grief, it’s difficult to see that Jenner’s presence and the cameras’ presence tend to pull the focus away from Kyle’s story.

And that’s the problem with reality TV. Even at its most edifying, there are still elements of voyeurism and manufactured tension and drama. The editors are careful to be restraint in I Am Cait, but the soft-focus shots of Jenner as well as the musical cues tend to feel manipulative. None of this can be helped, because exploitation is integral to the nature of reality TV. That is why it’s a poor vehicle for social justice – because even when it’s  highlighting important issues like trans rights, it must hew to its rigid formula of gawkerism. Jenner is certainly interested in exploring how to harness the power of television for social betterment, but she’s at the mercy of a genre and industry that is interested in ratings and headlines. I Am Cait is a powerful example of reality TV’s limited capacity for social progress.

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