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The queens try acting with so-so results on ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’

Ever since RuPaul’s Drag Race moved to VH1, the reruns have been aired on weird hours, so I missed the last two episodes, but was able to catch this week’s episode “9021-HO” which is predictably a take on Beverly Hills 90210. The guest judges this week were Tori Spelling and Jenni Garth, and the episode’s competition was an acting challenge – never a good showcase of the contestants. For the most part, the acting challenges are a way for audiences to see how sloppy and unprepared the contestants are, though the comedy queens manage to shine.

But in this season, the funniest queens have all been booted out, which makes the competitions somewhat tedious to watch. And add two guest judges who seem woefully underqualified for their jobs, and you get a meh episode. Spelling and Garth are game enough, but really, if the producers wanted to inject some much-needed oomph, they should’ve gotten Tiffani Theissen and Shannon Doherty. Spelling – an outspoken queer ally – can be good for some humor (when she’s self-referential, she can be surprisingly sharp and ironic), but for this episode, both actresses are supposed to “direct” the queens and give them acting tips. Tori Spelling is giving acting lessons.

Anyways, the queens are given a “script” and it’s a mess. The queens lurch through predictable sex jokes, and two stand out: Shea Couleé and Trinity Taylor (who wins). Trinity channels the extravagant slapstick of Jennifer Coolidge (Michelle Visage name checked Coolidge, too), while Shea took on the scene-stealing role of Grandrea Zuckerwoman. What’s even cooler about Shea’s performance is that she took on the role after Aja threw a tantrum after being initially cast in the role. She pouts and throws an actual tantrum, which she regrets immediately, after she realizes just how childish she looked in front of the other queens. It’s rare that the queens are so self-aware, and it’s refreshing to see Aja taking responsibility for her actions. It’s not enough to save her, but I admire her integrity, even if she banged the pooch during the competition.

Though Trinity and Shea did win, it was a hollow victory because the competition was so absurd. The runway is tied to the 90210 theme by being vaguely 1990s, which vaguely meant big hair – but then again, when does a drag queen not have big hair?

The lip synch for your life was the early 90s club classic “Finally” by CeCe Peniston. It’s a drag classic (and will forever be attached to Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert in my mind). The bottom two were Aja and Nina Bo’nina Brown, whose runway looks were okay (I guess) but failed in their performances. Nina’s runway look was the most hi-de-ous look – a sorta Cats meets Drag Race look. The makeup was disgusting and was very unattractive (it was busy and had way too much going on and her face looked more like a road map than a cat’s face)

The high point of the show was during the makeup scene, in which the queens share personal stories. Trinity’s story is especially touching as she saw her mother die when she was a child, and then she had to watch as her grandmother die. I usually find the editing during these sequences especially crass and cynical as the cutting and the splicing make it look like a chase to who had it worse. I wish the editors used a more careful hand when packaging episodes, because the impact is lessened when the sharing starts to look like a contest. There is some of that in “9021-HO” which is unfortunate because the stories are heart wrenching.

Despite its new home, Drag Race has been lackluster so far. I’m hoping the rest of the season will rally. The next episode is the comedy challenge with Fortune Feimster (I love her and she’s very, very fab). Jaymes Mansfield, Charlie Hides, and Cynthia Lee Fontaine are gone, and they were the most obvious stars of a comedy challenge. My money right now is on Trinity, who did so well in this episode, channeling comic hero Jennifer Coolidge.

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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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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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Why I No Longer Eat Watermelon, or How a Racist Email Caused Me to Leave Graduate School

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Classic TV – ‘Roseanne’ recap “Radio Days”

  Roseanne‘s fifth episode, “Radio Days” is the first non-essential episode of the series. Written by Laurie Gelman and directed by Ellen Falcon, it’s not a bad episode, and some of the details revealed – Dan was a songwriter – are nice, but overall, this episode is the first that feels like a holdover. “Radio Days” is still a very good episode, because so far, the tone of the program is still incredibly high and consistent, even if this is only the first season. In the episode we see Dan try his hand at songwriting. When learning about a songwriting contest, Dan and Roseanne work on writing a song together – while they don’t’ win, they impart an important lesson for their kids: it doesn’t matter if you win, it matters that you try. Fear not, Roseanne fans, the message isn’t shared like a homily with stirring music like Full House, but given with the kind of unsentimental honesty the show excels at.

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Though the episode doesn’t really do much in terms of developing larger plot points, there are still some great moments of character development. A few episodes back on “D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” we learned that Roseanne wanted to be a writer. In this episode we learn that Dan also harbored artistic dreams, his being a songwriter. There are some great moments in the episode – especially in an early scene in the garage when Dan and Roseanne look over some of his old songs that we get to see and hear Dan’s attempts at being a tune smith. While his disco ditty seemed silly, his stab at psychedelic pop is great (“blueberry fantasy, tangerine dream, love is a rainbow of incense and cream,” sung in a faux reverb), and when it turns out that Dan used one of Roseanne’s old poems for his song entry, I thought nice touch. The scene is fun because John Goodman is a good singer (thankfully Roseanne Barr doesn’t join in), and it’s a lovely moment to see the Connors pull a Gerry Goffin/Carole King moment.

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But as good as Roseanne’s poem is and as solid as Dan’s guitar strumming is, the song isn’t great and the Connors lose the contest. I’m glad that Laurie Gelman wrote the episode that way: the song didn’t deserve to win, and I’m glad that the Connors are okay with that. It’s a realistic, yet poignant touch, that a lot of viewers will relate: there were many times in my past when I tried out for something and failed. I was disappointed, but cool about the loss. In the grand scheme of things, Roseanne and Dan have more important issues to tackle than losing a songwriting contest, and they respond to the disappointment with their trademark humor.

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Some random notes:

  • This episode was hard to recap because it was such a light entry.
  • “Alright,” Roseanne said, “you’re the boss.” I loved Dan’s stunned reaction.
  • I love seeing the Connor family sitting around a radio like in the olden days.
  • There were four entries for the contest, with three prizes. Third place is a tractor pull (I had to Google to know what that was), second place was the Lanford Inn, and the first place prize was $100. And yet, Dan and Roseanne lost all three – I love that Dan laughed at how sad and pathetic it looks to lose a contest that boasts a tractor pull as a prize.
  • “Well, we didn’t really lose. The only people that really ever lose are people that never try. At least we try,” Roseanne giving her kids a great lesson on trying hard – take note every family sitcom on the planet – this is how you write a “learning episode.”
  • During the credits, the kids are digging through all of their parents’ crap, and there are peeks into Roseanne’s more radical past, including her anti-war protests. I like that the show will make Roseanne more political, but at this point, it’s just mild jokes about hippies and the 1960s.
  • More great scenes at Wellman Plastics with a young, floppy-haired George Clooney as Booker, the boss at Wellman. Clooney and Laurie Metcalf have a great flirtatious chemistry.
  • I love the scenes with Roseanne and her friends, especially Crystal, who has a bigger presence in the second season.

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Classic TV – ‘Roseanne’ recap: “Language Lessons”

As the third season of Roseanne moves along nicely, we get more insight to the relationships that define the show. While Roseanne Connor is the obvious center for the stories – the tent pole, the other characters are distinct enough that each supporting player has a key moment throughout these early episodes. Last week’s “We’re in the Money,” short changed Jackie and the kids a bit, but it’s understandable – with a cast of six, it’s not always easy to integrate each actor in a meaningful way. In “Language Lessons,” though writer Laurie Gelman manages to gracefully fold in the lesser characters – in this case, it’s Becky – without making the episode feel out of balance. And Ellen Falcon is back as director, and she keeps the episode at a good pace, and extracts some fantastic performances, especially out of consistent MVP John Goodman as well as his close contender for the title, Laurie Metcalf. Roseanne Barr is still rather green as an actress, and Falcon and Gelman wisely keep her within her comfort zone, which is essentially expanding her stand-up act into scenes. Barr may not be all that versatile at this point, but she does have crack timing and can land a one-liner better than anyone.

In “Language Lessons,” we see Dan and Jackie work through their contentious relationship. As in the other episodes, Dan and Jackie have a rather prickly repartee, that is somewhat lightened because each falls back on kidding or joking to mask feelings of resentment. On the surface, it appears as if Dan is resentful of Jackie’s constant presence in the house, while Jackie minds Dan’s constant harping – but in reality, what they’re really fighting for is the top spot in Roseanne’s heart. Jackie feels that as her sister, she deserves to be placed first, while Dan feels that as the husband, he should take precedence. Roseanne is caught in the middle because she loves both of them so much, and yet she’s also called on to take sides.

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The episode opens with Dan on the phone with a friend, hoping for a job. It’s here that Gelman truly excels at showing us just what kind of man Dan Connor is – with a few brief lines, we understand that Dan’s contracting work means he’s unsure of a steady paycheck. Because he’s a man that prides himself as being the breadwinner, and he wraps his identity around being a provider, it’s frustrating and emasculating to be out of work and staying home (especially, since his wife is not only working a full-time job, but also taking care of the house and three kids). With so much time on his hands, he’s cooking chili, a popular favorite among the Connors.

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When reminded that Jackie is coming over for her usual Saturday visit, Dan is annoyed and disappointed. After he says that he didn’t think Jackie would be coming over every weekend, Roseanne quips, “Oh, hell, I didn’t think I’d be here every weekend.” She’s able to defuse his mounting discomfort with her wit – something that she does throughout the episode. Dan also uses humor to lessen tension, but because he’s more on edge in the episode, his attempts aren’t nearly as successful – all of which leads to the major conflict. But before we see that happen, we’re treated to some playful roughhousing between the two, as they pretend to fight and play matador with a pair of Dan’s Valentine’s Day boxers.

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Jackie’s entrance then increases the tension and anxiety in the scenes. It doesn’t help that she has a bag full of laundry slung over her shoulder like she’s Santa bringing everyone gifts. Though Jackie is a great character, Gelman increases her feelings of entitle and Jackie is much more self-centered, and much less self-aware in this episode than she’ll ever be again (Sandra Bernhard’s character Nancy will take over these traits a few seasons later). Jackie bulldozes through the kitchen, putting an end to the intimate exchange between Dan and Roseanne. She takes potshots at Dan’s chili (never insult a cook in his own kitchen), invites herself to dinner and then announces that she’s staying the night because the pipes in her apartment are frozen. All of this is done with no nod toward Dan’s comfort and she doesn’t even think to ask if he’s okay with this. Because we’re too early into the series to know, we don’t know if Jackie’s boorishness is merely a pattern of behavior that Dan and Roseanne tacitly enable, or if Jackie’s simply a world class mooch, but either way, as Gelman writes her, she’s rather unpleasant and spoiled, and comes off almost as bratty as one of the kids.

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In one of her few scenes in the episode, Becky walks in with Teenage Life magazine, and shows off an article about body language – another important detail that will be expanded later. Becky’s merely a plot device, but Gelman’s careful to make her brief appearance worthy, and Lecy Goranson’s very natural in her performance. The scene also allows for Roseanne and Jackie to reminisce about Teenage Life magazine and goof on the silly advice that girls’ magazines give. While not an explicitly feminist episode, this brief nod is another instant of Barr’s sharp social critique of mass media culture – but done in a funny, breezy way that doesn’t feel preachy or didactic. While discussing body language, Jackie professes herself an expert. Dan’s in the background constantly needling his sister-in-law, and the two of them mirror the relationship between D.J. and Darlene, who are in the next room building a cardboard castle.

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Initially, I was impressed with this scene because I always like to see Darlene do something productive. In later seasons, she emerges as a sharp, witty intellect, but in the first season, she’s still a disaffected adolescent who hates school because she’s probably smarter than the teachers. Roseanne immediately spots something fishy about Darlene’s project, and draws out a confession: the castle is extra credit work, so that Darlene won’t fail history. Instead of berating her, Roseanne wisely leaves her daughter be, knowing that the project is punishment enough. I love watching these early seasons with Darlene because it’s obvious that if the girl applied herself, she’d kill it in school. But she’s also a misfit in a midwestern town – a tomboy who doesn’t fit into what girls are supposed to be. What makes Roseanne such a great show is that these kinds of oddballs are given a voice – Darlene isn’t merely a tomboy in the two-dimensional way (all tough, without hints vulnerability), but she’s a real character, and her expression of femininity is genuine and her own. It makes all kinds of sense that in this universe, a brilliant kid like Darlene would be failing history because she’s probably left bored and unchallenged at school.

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As Roseanne is mothering her truant daughter, Jackie monopolizes the telephone, gossiping with a friend. Again, Jackie’s irritating behavior is turned up a few notches. Ignorant of Dan’s work anxieties, she blithely chats away while Dan paces the house, positively fuming. Goodman is a cuddly actor, but his large frame can also make him seem a bit frightening. When she finally gets off the phone, Dan gets the phone call he’s been waiting for, and unfortunately, there’s no work for him. He’s practically deflated as he sits down, crushed, knowing he won’t work for another week. Roseanne immediately comes to his aid, encouraging him, which has a temporary calming effect, until Jackie marches back into the kitchen with Becky, insisting that everyone try the body language test from Teenage Life. Roseanne and Dan won’t take the test seriously and mess around some more, pretend fighting. As the test progresses, Dan starts to let some of his feelings of resentment toward Jackie boil over, always careful to disguise the quips as jokes, until Jackie has had her limit and confronts him about his behavior. Instead of a cathartic expression of repressed feelings, though, Dan merely lists petty microaggressions like fishing the nuts out of their Rocky Road ice cream, or walking in without knocking.

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Without realizing the kind of pain she’s inflicting, Jackie sneers, “”Well, Dan, if you had a job, you wouldn’t notice so much.” I wrote about Jackie’s feelings of entitlement and privilege before. In the “We’re in the Money” episode, Jackie berates Roseanne for not indulging enough. It happens here again, because Jackie is unaware of the pressure Dan is under to take care of his family and pay the bills. This ignorance comes from a place of sheer egotism: Jackie, single with no children, doesn’t worry about feeding three growing kids and paying a mortgage. And when she does face real life issues, no matter how minor, like pipes not working or a washer being broken, she always has her big sister to turn to. Obviously, the Jackie character grows exponentially throughout this season even, and she quickly becomes a loving and responsible character. But this early in the game, Gelman writes Jackie as an adversary to Dan, vying for the affections and loyalty of Roseanne, while continuously trying his patience.

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Because Dan manages self-restraint, he doesn’t explode, instead stalking out of the house and into the garage in a rage. Instead of being abashed by her comment, Jackie is insulted and insists that Dan is the aggressor. She refuses to apologize until he does so first. And Roseanne is caught in the middle. She has to do some more mediating, when D.J. accidentally destroys Darlene’s castle. There are obvious parallels – some may even say, heavy-handed – between the two fights, but there is one major distinction: D.J. and Darlene are children. Roseanne reasons with Darlene that even though D.J. accidentally destroyed her castle, the situation is her fault because she slacked off in school. Darlene is stubborn, and refuses to share the blame, though her anger at D.J. is somewhat abated, as she plans to rebuild her project. She storms off though, because like Jackie, she feels that Roseanne is never on her side.

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The final, restorative argument takes place in the garage, as Roseanne tries to convince Dan to calm down. Jackie, stung by Roseanne’s refusal to back her up, offers to go to a motel. This does little to appease Dan, who offers a snide remark that inspires another rushed exchange of grievances that finally drive Roseanne to her limit. Fed up with her feuding loved ones, she berates the two of them and as she leaves the garage, she commands them to get over their mutual dislike, and screams that they’re worse than the kids. And she’s right. It’s a little frustrating to watch Dan and Jackie go at it, when their behavior mirrors that of D.J. and Darlene. Confronted with their childishness, both Dan and Jackie call a truce.

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What’s interesting about watching Dan and Jackie bicker so much is that as the show grows, so does their friendship: in fact, there are a few lovely moments sprinkled throughout the show’s 9-year run that show just how much the two love each other: in one episode, Jackie takes over Roseanne’s mothering duties, and Dan admits that he had a slight crush on her in high school; in another episode, Dan tears apart an abusive boyfriend who sent Jackie to the hospital; and in their most touching scene together, Dan walks Jackie down the aisle. There will always been a slight pull between the two where Roseanne’s concerned, and often they’ll resort to comedic bickering, but it rarely gets as moody as it does in “Language Lessons.”

Some random thoughts:

  • “You only married me for my cooking,” Dan. “I married ‘cuz you need a date for your wedding,” Roseanne
  • “You’re really spoiled, you live with me, you’re used to perfection.” Roseanne
  • When told that through body language, couples can communicate without words, Roseanne crows, “This is great, Dan! We never have to speak again!”
  • Roseanne’s frustrated after Jackie insults Dan: “Gosh, you simply must come over more often, sis!”
  • “They just fight for the same reason you fight with Darlene…To torture me.”
  • Michael Fishman and Roseanne Barr look alike (at least in the first season before her many physical transformations)
  • When Jackie announces she’s going to a motel, Roseanne asks, “Anyone we know?”

 

 

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‘Mad Men’ recap: “Severance”

 

Peggy Lee’s existentialist song “Is That All There Is?” bookends the premier of the second half of the final season of Mad Men. The song’s narrator speak-sings about how disappointing and pointless life can be, and how alcohol and dancing may be the only succor. It’s a fitting theme for “Severance” an episode that may be a bit underwhelming at first glance, but after repeated views proves to be one of the strongest in the show’s history.

And throughout the seven seasons, Mad Men‘s antihero Don Draper personified destructive ennui. In “Severence” Don’s feelings of self worth as well as satisfaction are put to the test. He realizes just how empty and sad his life is: two divorces and a string of failed affairs. Rachel Menken, Don’s first season tryst comes back – both in a dream and in death. It’s a terribly sad moment to learn that Rachel died because of all the women Don had affairs with, Rachel was the most appealing (and  yes, I’m including both Betty and Megan).

Rachel’s Judaism was a way for Don – he saw himself as an outsider in his world, and Rachel was constantly an outsider when she left the secure confines of her family’s department store. And though Don displayed a lot of the casual bigotry and antisemitism of the era, he managed to transcend his personal limitations and fall in love. Obviously, if he had married Rachel, he probably would’ve cheated on her and made her miserable, just as he did with Betty and Megan, which makes it all the more poignant that when Don stops by for Rachel’s memorial he sees that she forged a fulfilled life (and had two kids), while he remained – emotionally – at the same place. Rachel is also the second woman in Don’s life who dies during Mad Men‘s run – Anna Draper was the first, and it’s clear that these two departed women were the women he cared for the most.

But Rachel’s death doesn’t mean she’s absent from the episode. In fact she haunts the episode. Her presence is felt everywhere. When Don’s at the greasy spoon diner with Roger and some beautiful young women, he sees Rachel’s face in the overworked waitress, Di. Roger (sporting a hideous mustache) treats Di with contempt and throws a $100 bill. When Don returns, he and Di have a depressingly unerotic tryst in an alley, that seems to highlight just how little Don has evolved since the show’s start. Rachel also appears in Don’s dream as a model auditioning for a fur ad. Don used to sell furs, so the dream is a clever way of harking back to his former life; more than any other character on the show, Don had to reconstruct a new life for himself, and it’s interesting to see the tension that naturally springs up from living a lie. In a sense, Don’s a bit like Sal (remember Sal?)  because like Sal, Don was also forced into a closet. It’s too bad that Don’s experiences don’t lead him to sympathy and kindness – instead, he’s always on the verge of self-destruction.

 

But Mad Men isn’t just about Don. In fact, even though the show’s title refers to the men on Madison Avenue, it’s the women of Mad Men that often get the juicier story lines. Both Peggy and Joan are living examples of the progression of the feminist movement, even though their roads to financial and professional success was dotted with personal humiliation and devastating compromise. The two ladies are trying to help out Topaz’s executives overtake Hanes in selling discount pantyhose. Don suggests reaching out to department stores, which has Peggy and Joan face off with three of the most sexist clods on the planet. While Peggy’s virtually ignored, Joan is subjected to some of the most crass and vulgar double entendres in history. Now normally, Joan would simply cut them down to size with her sharp wit, but she’s at a disadvantage, so she simmers, while the guys make obvious boob and leg jokes. Both women ride the elevator in mutual disgust and self-loathing. Peggy makes the awful, awful, awful choice of blaming Joan for the guys’ behavior. Joan lashes out, basically calling Peggy ugly and plain. It’s an awful exchange, but what is so startling is how today the whole nasty episode feels – from the meeting with the asshats to the disgusting way Peggy victim-blamed (and slut-shamed) Joan, what Mad Men is showing is that even if the sexism and misogyny reaches almost-cartoonish heights, things aren’t all that different from today (think about it, how many conservative yahoos in the past two years have blamed rape victims for being raped). I wish Joan and Peggy bandied together to fight against the sexist establishment – and maybe that’ll come. Interestingly enough, the perceptible shift in women’s rights as well as gender roles hasn’t really taken hold on the show. Peggy and Joan succeeded but they’re not interested in bringing their sisters on board to social, financial, and professional parity. They’re in for themselves. That’s not a judgment – no one is obligated to be an activist. But the quick and easy way the two women turned on each other illustrates just how destructive and shaming sexism can be.

Possibly due to Peggy’s comment, Joan decides to march over for a shopping spree. As Peggy pointed out, Joan is “filthy rich” (interesting choice of words, given just what Joan did to get so rich), and she asserts her privilege after being humiliated. The only place where her privilege runs unchecked is in the department store, where she can afford expensive clothing. Like Don’s past, Joan’s comes rearing back, when the salesgirl recognizes her from when Joan was a salesgirl herself, after quitting the ad agency. And like Don, Joan does her best to dismiss and bury that past.

Peggy, on the other hand, is feeling a familiar sense of “Is that all there is?” like Don, because she’s achieved the professional goals she was working her ass off for, but she still wants something more. When she’s on a blind date with Mathis’ brother-in-law, Steve, she boasts of the exotic locales used for the ads, but realizes she doesn’t get to go to any of them. This realization sparks a futile desire to chuck it all and fly off to Paris. Drunk from her date (who just wants to have sex), she is intent on booking a flight for the City of Lights – but the next morning, reality and reason sets in, and she scuttles the idea  (which doesn’t sound like the worst idea in the world). Bitter and pissed, she mutters about Paris, “where margarine was invented.” Peggy was never going to fly to Paris – at her most spontaneous, she’s far too cautious and reasonable. Still, it was interesting to see her indulge in the less structured side, even if it was for an evening (and even if it was because she was tanked).

Finally, the title of the episode itself. Severance refers to the financial package dismissed employees receive. Ken Cosgrove, whose father-in-law recently retired – is fired after his services are no longer needed. It’s nothing personal – and Roger couldn’t be bothered. In fact, Ken’s expected to pass off his clients to Pete. Some people may be surprised at Roger’s obliviousness, but I’m not. Roger’s belief that Ken will be the good little soldier is exactly the reason why Roger’s time has passed. More so than Don, Roger’s a staggering dinosaur – quickly becoming irrelevant as the years pass by him; because he refuses to change or evolve with the times, he’s going to be increasingly left confused and nonplussed when things don’t neatly fall into place according to his wishes. In Roger’s mind, Ken was a dutiful and fortunate employee who benefited from years of experience under his tutelage. It would never occur to Roger that Ken would feel resentment or anger at his superiors. So when Ken does strike back, quitting the agency and joining Dow, becoming one of the firm’s biggest clients, he’s left with egg on his face. And Ken promises to be a very difficult client, ensuring that the slight will not be easily forgiven.

As Peggy Lee’s distinct voice asks, “Is that all there is?” we see Don left alone in the diner contemplating his life. He has been shaken to his core by Rachel’s death, but also by how much she lived and how different and unpredictable her life was when they were apart. Life went on without him. It’s an important lesson for Don to learn. Because he’s so self-centered, he often forgets that the women in his life – Betty, Megan, Sally, Peggy – they aren’t merely satellites that orbit him – and he’s always caught off guard when he’s confronted with the realization and knowledge that the women in his life aren’t there to be appendages to him. Don needs to make some major changes in his life, otherwise, he’s going to be left behind.

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