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My favorite episode – ‘The Brady Bunch’ – “Will the Real Jan Brady Please Stand Up?”

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.

Image result for the real jan brady

Picture from CBS/cbs.com

Nostalgia does a weird thing to memories – it can make something awful seem lovely and interesting: case in point, The Brady Bunch. The campy “classic” TV show that ran from 1969 to 1974, it has become legendary in its cheesy badness. It’s difficult to pinpoint its enduring hold on pop culture. Some of it may be explained by nostalgia, but most of the show’s fans were born decades after the show went off the air. So what is it? One explanation is that it was a hermetically-sealed environment that seemed impervious to the turmoils of the outside world. During the run of the show, the country saw Vietnam, race rebellions, the surge of the women’s movement, Watergate. These were troubled times, and yet in the sunny, Day-Glo world of the Bradys, none of this managed to get through. It was really an aggressively-innocent show in which people loved each other, and were able to get past their differences in about twenty minutes.

For detractors, The Brady Bunch was saccharine dreck. That’s why I chose “Will the Real Jan Brady Please Stand Up?” as my favorite episode because it touched upon one of the show’s more complex and interesting characters:  Jan Brady. Unlike supermodel-hot Marcia (Maureen McCormick) or adorable Cindy (Susan Olsen), Jan – played by Eve Plumb – was caught in the middle, forever identified by her relationships with her sisters: she was always “Marcia’s younger sister” or “Cindy’s older sister.” This must’ve fucked up Jan’s head bad because a good source of the show’s actual tension and angst comes from Jan’s search for identity and self-confidence. When Jan fumes “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” in one of the show’s classic lines, it’s a great peek into the frustrated pent-up outrage that resides in Jan Brady.

“Will the Real Jan Brady Please Stand Up?” is great viewing because for once, the show manages to shake off some of its Formica-stiff camp and actually function as a bit of story telling. Now, it’s not great story telling, but it’s solid, mainly because of the performance of Eve Plumb. Though Florence Henderson and Robert Reed did solid work as parents Carol and Mike Brady (and Ann B. Davis was a hoot as Alice), the six kids – the main draw of the show – were a mixed bag when it came to acting. There were some cringey moments throughout the show when the banal scripts pushed the children do to more than just stand there, looking groovy. But Plumb was a dark horse among the Brady bunch, because she actually could act.

The episode made good use of Plumb’s abilities, but it also told her story with surprising sensitivity, despite the central gag being Jan wearing a crazy black wig. Ah, the wig. In the theme song, the kids warble the premise to the show and introduce the girls and their mother as “A lovely lady who was bringing three very lovely girls/All of them had hair of gold.” So immediately, we get that these characters are partly-defined by their looks, mainly their blonde hair. So when Jan feels a crisis of self-identity, it’s natural that she works to destroy the main thing that makes her blend into the background: her hair of gold.

So inspired by a magazine ad, Jan skips over to a wig shop – staffed by future Edna Krabapple/Carol Kester, Marcia Wallace. Wigs are fun for a lot of people because they can put them on, and assume new personas. That’s why it makes sense that Jan turns to wigs to giver her personality a new twist. After looking through various pieces, she settles an on unflattering tight crown of black curls. In the priceless 1995 parody film, the wig is changed from a dowdy short cut to an impressively gargantuan afro.

Once her family catches her wearing the wig, she gets the standard “be yourself” lesson. And I gotta say, all of that is garbage, because being yourself includes altering parts of yourself that you feel need changing. The show was filmed in the early 1970s, so it makes sense that such pat, conservative bromides are spoon fed to its viewers. Folks weren’t encouraged to experiment with identity and appearance – doing so would seem like deception or lie. That’s why “Will the Real Jan Brady Please Stand Up?” feels like such a resolutely queer episode: we want the “real” Jan Brady to stand up, but we’re not quite sure who that is – and more importantly, Jan doesn’t either.

In a telling exchange, when confronted with the ugly wig, Jan insists that she wants to wear her wig all the time. When asked why she fumes, “I wanna be me. I’m tired of looking like everyone else. I wanna be Jan Brady.”

“But Honey,” Carol says in that plaintive, soothing way that she does. “Jan Brady has blonde hair.”

“Nobody notices that Jan Brady,” is Jan’s poignant response.

Mike pipes in by saying, “A person doesn’t make himself different by just putting on a wig.”

“It’s what’s inside that counts,” Carol practically coos.

It’s here where I think the show really peaks in its queerness. Jan wanting to be different and insisting that changing her outside will make her different, and her conformist parents telling her that her inside and her outside should match.

Look, I know it’s a stretch to say that this show can work as an allegory for drag, trans, gay, or any other queer/non-hetero identities – after all, this is The Brady Bunch, after all. But there are all kinds of queer pings throughout the show’s history and its legacy. Queer people – especially gay men – love schlock, and we embrace it. But there’s subtext, too. Knowing what we know about Robert Reed, it feels weird having him be the mouthpiece of this kind of mainstream, square kind of thinking.

The plot comes to a head in the last third, when Jan debuts her new look at a birthday party. Instead of being wowed by the new Jan Brady, her friends assume it’s a joke, and they laugh. The teasing is the kind of low-level, milquetoast roasting that would pass as bullying in a world as corny as the one depicted in The Brady Bunch. But it stings and Jan leaves (again, Plumb does some great subtle work here, letting her look of pride dissolve into confusion, and then hurt as she runs away).

At home, she tells her parents what happens, and she’s full of self-recrimination. It’s here that the show’s message of conformity really hit home, despite the nudge towards self-expression heralded earlier. Jan admits that she looks like “some kind of freak” in her wig, and blames herself for her friends’ boorish behavior – never mind that it was the kids who were laughing at her and acting like assholes. The narrative constructed is that Jan’s to blame because she was trying to be somebody she’s not.

As if this “lesson” wasn’t enough to bare, we get even further into gendered concerns, when Jan’s friends come to the door, hoping to apologize. Instead of apologizing for acting like jackasses, the girls appeal to Jan’s vanity, admitting that they’re envious of her long blonde hair. And just like that, all’s well in the world, because Jan’s identity as a blonde is affirmed (and is proven to be a source of envy among her clique).

It’s too bad that an episode that starts off so daringly ends up cliff diving into conformity so quickly. It’s too much to ask of The Brady Bunch to question notions of identity, I know. But still, this episode remains the strongest of its run because its problems present a darker, more complex side of the toothy family than what we’re normally shown. In fact, any episode that centers on Jan tends to be a stronger episode. A lot of that is due to Plumb’s distinct qualities as an actress, but a lot of it is also due to the writers seeming free to explore these weirder feelings in that character, instead of trying them in the Barbie-doll pretty Marcia or the Kewpie-doll pretty Cindy.

 

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My favorite episode – ‘Drunk History’ – “Marsha P. Johnson Sparks the Stonewall Riots” / “Ella Fitzgerald’s Big Break”

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.

For this entry of “My favorite episode” I fudged a bit with the format with my choice of Drunk History. Each episode has a short film, and I cherry picked two segments from two different episodes for this “My favorite episode”entry.

In light of Tuesday’s election, both “Marsha P. Johnson Sparks the Stonewall Riots” and “Ella Fitzgerald’s Big Break” take on extra poignancy  – and frankly, sadness. Both tell the story of people of color who must survive and thrive in systems of oppression. It feels strange to write about sadness and poignancy when writing about Drunk History, because it’s a Comedy Central show which boasts an insane premise: get somebody plastered and have that person recount an historical event, while famous actors act out the event (often lip syncing to the drunken recount of the tale).

marsha-johnson

But some of the best comedy can have tinges of sad. In “Marsha P.Johnson Sparks the Stonewall Riots” comic/writer Crissle West tells the story of Marsha P. Johnson, the trans queer activist who is believed to have instigated the Stonewall Riots that sparked the modern Gay Rights Movement. The story isn’t without controversy because there are people who tried to minimize Johnson’s role – or in Roland Emmerich’s case, completely erase it – but that call can be chalked up to a larger erasure of black contribution to American history.

Emmerich is an important reference because the director could’ve done something really good with his 2015 film about the riots, but instead chose to create a fictional avatar of white gay malehood. West’s recounting of the story – in about six minutes – gets at the heart of why the Stonewall Riots were so important, in a much more truthful way than Emmerich managed in his two-hour movie.

Another bonus of this episode is that – yay! – the folks at Drunk History actually hired trans actresses to play the lead parts. Alexandra Grey stars as Johnson and Trace Lysette portrays queer rights activist Sylvia Rivera. The two give wonderful performances in the short time allotted to them. And Grey in particular has some fun with miming West’s slurred account of the events.

What’s so great about West’s retelling of the story is that it brings up the importance of intersectionality, something that often gets ignored when telling the history of queer rights. West pinpoints just how important it is to remember that these aren’t just queer folks, these are queer folks of color.

So, in West’s recount, the cops raid the Stonewall Inn (West was shaky on the dates –  it was either June 18th or June 28 – one of the “eights”…It was June 28th), and are rounding up the patrons, and Marsha P. Johnson has enough. And when she throws a shot glass across the bar, shattering a mirror, and then shouting “I got my civil rights!” it prompts other patrons to fight back, keeping the abusive police officers at bay. West calls it the “Shot glass heard around the world.” The follow up is great because West links the riots to a larger movement in the queer community – one that included support for homeless queer folks.

Once she finished the story, she and show creator Derek Waters are in the kitchen next to her fridge, and West ends her segment with some powerful, important words: “But truly, Black people deserve to be on all this shit. Black people and Sacagawea, who needs to get off the goddamn coin, and onto some paper money. Because this is our shit.”

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The other segment “Ella Fitzgerald’s Big Break” doesn’t have the high stakes of the Stonewall Riots story but is equally important (and hilarious). This time comedienne Tymberlee Hill tells the story of Ella Fitzgerald (Gabourey Sidibe), who is aided by Marilyn Monroe (Juno Temple) after facing discrimination. Like West’s segment, Hill’s segment is helped immeasurably by the impassioned storytelling which is not hurt at all by Hill’s growing drunkenness.

The story – some may argue it’s apocryphal, thought Fitzgerald herself was the one who told it originally – takes place in the 1950s and Fitzgerald is kept out of the famed New York City nightclub, the Mocambo, because the owners didn’t want a black singer performing there. Monroe – a fan of Fitzgerald’s music – calls the manager and promises to attend every evening of Fitzgerald’s engagement there, ensuring that her heavy press following would be great publicity for the club.

Hill’s story is more about female friendship and solidarity, but in the context of pre-Civil Rights America, and some ten years before the Civil Rights Act. Marilyn Monroe’s commitment to social justice is instructional to a lot of white female celebrity feminists today because it was a practical way of the legendary actress to use her privilege and power for social betterment.

Like West’s segment, Hill’s is more poignant and heartfelt than the average segment on Drunk History where the gimmick of having a comic slur her way through an historical event while some famous movie stars goof around in powdered wigs and costumes is what’s normally expected. But in “Ella Fitzgerald’s Big Break” Hill, Sidibe, and Temple imbue their roles with touching sentimentality. In fact, Sidibe and Temple give quite powerful performances, despite the schticky premise and trapping of the show.

The centerpiece of this segment is the meeting of Monroe and Fitzgerald in the latter’s dressing room. It’s here that we get to see the beautiful friendship between these two iconic women. It’s here that the two women share their struggles with the entertainment industry: they bond because both women have been abused by show business (though Fitzgerald’s life as a woman of color has unexplored difficulties). We also get a tiny peak into their difficult personal lives too (though the sheer wretchedness of Monroe’s life get developed – which is okay, as it’s so widely retold it’s almost become a cliche). When they hug, and Hill chokes through emotion to tell the story, the show transcends its silly, yet smart, trappings.

But as touching as this episode is, it’s also high-larious. Hill tells the story with such enthusiasm and joy that her mouth sometimes runs before her brain – she loses her breath and hiccups (which Sidibe mimes perfectly). The best, though is when it’s time to watch Fitzgerald perform, and Hill does some great sloshed scatting that Sidibe mimics exactly – and when Hill stumbled through Fitzgerald’s name, Sidibe has a great bit of lip syncing to that, too.

But the comedy is merely a side effect of a great story told by a great story teller. When Monroe and Fitzgerald hug after bonding, Hill stresses, “And these two women, they literally need each other…Because in this moment when Marilyn helps Ella, she frees them both…The fact is sometimes sisters have to hook each other up.” It’s a great message about the uplifting nature of social justice – both those who help and those who are helped are better because of it. And Hill’s final thought on the story is important because she reminds Derek Waters that her story is about two women who forge a friendship when she says through tears, “Ella loved that lady.”

Both of these segments were aired weeks ago, but I can’t help getting emotional when watching them now, given what’s happened this past week. It’s a scary time for a lot of people, particularly queer people and people of color, and these segments show the healing nature of comedy, but also the important direction of progress: forward.

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

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


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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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My favorite episode – ‘A Different World’ – “A World Alike”

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.

One of the biggest complaints of the classic sitcom The Cosby Show was that the writers doggedly refused to address political or social issues, instead relying on the considerable charms of star Bill Cosby and the mundane adventures of a loving family. What made The Cosby Show so legendary was that viewers were able to relate to different situations that the Huxtables found themselves in (Rudy’s first day at school, Theo likes a girl, Vanessa gets into a fight with her girlfriends).

What’s interesting about its spin off, A Different World is that though initially a popular if dull continuation of Denise Huxtable’s story, it became a very politically-charged and socially-relevant show once star Lisa Bonet left and Debbie Allen took over the show. After that, episodes dealt with racism, affirmative action, sexual harassment,  AIDS, the L.A. Riots, hate crimes, date rape, spousal abuse, drugs, the Persian Gulf War, sexism, slavery, unemployment, homelessness, and South Africa. And though these topics may not seem like natural fits for a sitcom, but A Different World often took on these controversies and folded them (for the most part) well into standard sitcom plots.

In “A World Alike” the fictional college of Hillman is confronted with Apartheid when it comes out that one of the school’s major corporate donors is based in South Africa. Students activists on campus are pushing for a boycott of companies that are financially supportive of Apartheid, and when it comes out that Orange Glow has not divested from South Africa, the call for boycott of the company gets louder. Unfortunately, it turns out that the company is a large comglomerate that funds the school’s library, science and computer labs, as well as scholarships, one of which was awarded to the show’s resident genius, Kimberly Reese (Charlene Brown). Now she’s facing the difficult question: should she reject the award to support her principles, or should she put aside her ideals so that she can afford to go to medical school.

It’s a difficult question, and to the show’s credit, there are few easy questions. Script writer Susan Fales pens a solid script that presents both sides: some argue that Kimberly’s obligation is to herself and her family first, and she should take the scholarship, while others argue that it would be politically naive or obtuse to take money from a company that is benefiting from the oppression and subjugation of black people in South Africa.

What’s great about A Different World is that the characters are so diverse and distinct. What makes this question so hard for Kim is that she’s brilliant and also very responsible. Her parents are working class and she knows that the scholarship is one of the few options she has.  With Kimberly, viewers are allowed to weigh the pros and cons of the debate and see how difficult the decision is through Kimberly’s eyes.

Her two best friends, however, are far more extreme in their points of view. On the one hand, we have Freddi Brooks (Cree Summer), a politically-active, though sometimes unrealistic, activist who doesn’t see the large swath of gray in Kim’s situation. She believes that Kim should just turn down the scholarship and doesn’t take into account just how rough her situation is. On the other hand, we have Whitley Gilbert (Jasmine Guy), the beautiful and rich Southern belle who views the world a rather myopic way and thinks Kim should take the money because she doesn’t know any South Africans personally, and can only look at situations in terms of how she’s affected personally.

Because the character of Kimberly is much more subtle and even-keeled in the writing, Brown’s performance tends to reflect that relaxed nature. As a result, there are very few absurd highs and lows.

Summer and Guy have trickier parts because their characters often slipped into cartoons. In this episode, the binary that comes up from the comparison between the socially aware Freddi and the spoiled Whitley, actually helps push the episode forward because both sides of the arguments get airtime.

Interestingly enough, Whitley’s self-involved point of view is later revealed to be not as uninformed as it appears. In the less interesting b-plot, Whitley is romanced by Julian Day (Dominic Hoffman), a wealthy idealistic student who shares a lot of Freddi’s opinions on South Africa. He’s leading the boycott against Orange Glow and this causes a momentary fission in his relationship with Whitley, when they discover just how differently they approach the controversy. Both argue passionately, with Julian maintaining that even though it may hurt, students should sacrifice their scholarships for the greater good; Whitley, however, rightly points out that the two of them are not on financial aid and should keep their privilege in check and not guilt students who are not in the same positions they are.

In their fight, Whitley wisely points out: “You see, I’m not on financial aid, either, but I don’t go around dictating the social responsibilities of those who are.”

Obviously, in the end, Julian is right – supporting a company that ignores its moral obligation to society at large is wrong. But Whitley makes a strong point in that allies should listen and hang back and let those who are directly affected by the problem to take lead in the activism.

As if predicting this question, the show’s final scene has two students, both from Africa debate the value of boycotting Orange Glow. In the town hall meeting, students are asked for a complete boycott, which of course presents problems when students point out that the library, the labs, and student jobs are in jeopardy.

The arguments go in circles until two students from South Africa weigh in. Finally we get the voices of the South African students (largely silent throughout the episode). One of the students, Kobie (Abner Mariri) argues against having students give up their scholarships by arguing that the South African students who are suffering under Apartheid may gain inspiration from the example led by Hillman graduates – seeing black people achieve will undo some of the damage done to the psyche of black South Africans.

The discussions don’t lead to any definite answers – a rarity among sitcoms, where world problems get solved in about twenty minutes. But there is something admirable about a mainstream network TV show attacking a controversial and difficult issue in 1990.

In Kim’s case, she decides to forgo the scholarship. It makes sense for the reality of the show that Kim opts out, but it’s too pat and cheerily addressed. Kim’s decision will have critical repercussions for herself and her family and the blithe way in which her heavy decision is made is a little disappointing, especially when it comes from an episode that revels in the ambiguity of the students’ responsibilities.

As the show closes, the camera pans over the students who join in a song, and focuses on a wall covered with black luminaries, including a large portrait of Thurgood Marshall. It’s at that moment that I realized, TV shows like A Different World just don’t exist anymore – we don’t have “issue sitcoms” that exist to entertain and challenge. That’s not to say that television isn’t good – there are lots of great comedies on TV, but the goal of using TV as a way to enlighten its viewers has been largely pushed aside, derided as being “preachy.”

What also saddened me about watching the end of this episode is the confirmation that network television has largely digressed when it comes to portraying well-rounded black characters. It’s been years since an all-black cast led a sitcom on any of the major networks, and though we like to claim that our culture is post racial – something that’s credited, in part by The Cosby Show, it’s not reflected in our popular media.

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My favorite episode – ‘Roseanne’ – “Mothers and Other Strangers”

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.

Roseanne was one of the most important shows on television in the late 80s, early 90s. Based on the comedy of Roseanne Barr, the show told the tale of the Connors – a hard-working blue collar family that did all they could to get by. Matriarch Roseanne Connor (Barr) ruled the household with sarcasm and wit, but her fierce love never was questioned. Dan (John Goodman) was an example of possibly one of the best husbands on television – he wasn’t perfect, but he was a decent guy, who, like Roseanne, raised the kids with a heavy dose of humor. The  Connors had three kids: Becky (Lecy Goranson/Sarah Chalke), Darlene (Sara Gilbert), and D.J. (Michael Fishman). Roseanne was also supported by her sister Jackie (Laurie Metcalf), and a group of loyal friends.

By the ninth and final season, the show went through a lot of changes (as did Barr’s physical appearances): the family’s fortunes wavered dramatically until the Connors won the lottery. The final season is seen as the worst of the show’s long history. Because the Connors were suddenly rich, critics derided the show as becoming out of touch – many blamed Barr, arguing that her ego went unchecked and by the final season she was dire need of a mitigating force to edit some of her ideas. I liked the final season because it was during that year that her political and social critiques were at their most pointed.

In the best episode of the final season, “Mothers and Other Strangers” Barr and Cynthia Mort an excellent half hour that featured some of the best parts of the show – namely Oscar-winning actresses Estelle Parsons and Shelly Winters in their recurring roles as Roseanne’s mother Beverly and grandmother Mary, respectively. Beverly, the epitome of female repression and feminine mystique, has recently come out, and is trying to figure out her life. She goes with Roseanne’s pals Leon (Martin Mull) and Scott (Fred Willard) to visit her bohemian, eccentric mother. What’s interesting about this episode is that two minor characters dominate the episode and do some beautiful work.

Roseanne once wrote that she loved writing scenes for Mary, Beverly, and Jackie because she said she loved watching three of the best actresses work their stuff. Having Bev come out was initially seen as a cheap way to shock the viewers, but in the end, it makes sense. Beverly was an oppressing figure who frustrated her daughters. Her mothering was rife with issues and mistakes – namely, letting her philandering husband’s physical abuse of his daughters go on, while looking the other way. Because her life was so wretched, she shared the wealth with her daughters, which in turn, inspired the two of them to be fantastic mothers to their kids.

What Barr and Mort are doing is asking why parents make mistakes with their kids. The questions are important to raise – why was Beverly so willing to let others dictate how she lives her life? Mary was the kind of mom that many would superficially love to have – liberal, artistic, and passionate. However, when Mary and Bev start to talk they begin to bring up the problems in the latter’s childhood, specifically, how unstable Bev’s life was. Being eccentric is great on paper, but what kid wants her kid to be bohemian?

As the season progressed, Barr’s alter ego explained that the show’s action was all imaginary and that she wrote Bev as gay because in reality, her mother was so entrenched in the feminist backlash and so downtrodden that she wanted Bev to have a “sense of herself as a woman.”

It’s interesting because a show that lasts as long as Roseanne changes and shifts. It’s neat to see how much Barr developed and improved as an actress as well as a writer. And Roseanne Conner was a blue collar heroine, very much different than Carroll O’Connor’s Archie Bunker from All in the Family. She was a blue state working class heroine, not a reaction against social progress, but a reaction to Reaganomics.

“Mothers and Other Daughters” isn’t the best episode of the show – the subplot of Roseanne trying to figure out how to welcome an absent Dan back into the household after all the changes is silly, but I appreciated just what Barr was doing when she wrote the episode and what she was trying to impart.

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My favorite episode – ‘The Cosby Show’ – “Birthday Blues”

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

The Cosby Show has become a symbol of 80s-era multiculturalism and a vehicle for star Bill Cosby and his pioneering comedy. His work was seen as revolutionary because instead of overtly political material, Cosby found the humor in everyday mundane stuff like children, growing up, family, marriage…As successful doctor Heathcliff Huxtable, Cosby created the perfect show to showcase his brand of comfortable comedy. The show was confrontational because it upended expectations of how black people should be represented on television: save for Julia or The Jeffersons, The Cosby Show was the first show to defy stereotypes of black people – on Cosby, the family unit is complete, and dad’s a doctor, mom’s a lawyer, and race never intrudes – instead, the show coasted on a genial tone. Often the writers would simply pair Cosby off with a small child and let his ace improvisational skills run wild, while he entertained the tots around him.

Because the show lasted almost a decade, it like every other show on television, aged and the writers had to confront the issues of age. In the fifth season, Phylicia Rashad got a rare chance to be the star of an episode, “Birthday Blues” in which her lawyer mom, Clair celebrated her 46th birthday. There are a lot of things that this episode did to switch up its formula, namely that the kids weren’t going to be super-cute and though Cosby mugged and dominated, the focus was on Rashad.

The show dealt with age and more importantly how women faced age. Now, because it’s The Cosby Show, nothing approached gritty realism, and though Clair was facing middle age, she did so in the comfort of her wealthy circumstance. Cliff is his usual blend of goofy obliviousness coupled with genuine love. Cliff’s the ideal husband and father who doles out his life lessons with a dose of smiley mugging and his witty rambling stories (that always felt very free-form).

In celebrating his wife’s birthday, Cliff does some gentle needling of her age. He warbles a mean little ditty in which he improvised lyrics like “Be kind to your old ragged wife/for she sags and she bags and she sputters” to the tune of “Stars and Stripes Forever.” The kids get into the act too – Rudy (Keshia Knight-Pulliam), Vanessa (Tempest Bledsoe), and Theo (Malcolm Jamal Warner) do a bit, “When I Was Mom’s Age” in which each child announces trivia from when Clair was their respective ages. It all got a hearty laugh, especially when seeing the trio done up in midcentury period drag. Cliff, then would ask each kid what the price of a home was and how much cabbage costs (slacker Rudy who didn’t do her homework said, “Cabbage? There was no cabbage”). The other cool thing about the sequence was that the kids performed old dances, including the Twist and an apparently shoddy version of the Stroll, which Clair quickly found lacking and schooled them with an expert rendition herself (alongside guest star Denise Nicholas who plays Clair’s girlfriend Lorraine).

Because The Cosby Show wasn’t a flawless show, even when it’s at its best, there are still some low moments: in “Birthday Blues” we’re forced to go through some old-fashioned sexism and misogyny in the beauty parlor scene, where Clair and Lorraine go for some birthday makeovers. Instead of simply getting their hair done, they indulge in some regressive bitchery, and the writers – Carmen Finestra and Gary Kott – let Clair and Lorraine get all mean girls with an acquaintance, a beautiful – if tightly-pulled woman – who is a figure of derision because she dates younger men and is apparently addicted to plastic surgery. The Cosby Show often has Clair deliver feminist monologues, particularly when someone blunders with a sexist comment, so it’s egregious that they have the character gleefully skewer a woman for doing her thing, simply because it’s not Clair’s thing…Another issue was the random appearance of opera legend Placido Domingo as Clair’s doctor friend who serenades her with a corny version of “Besame Mucho.” The show loved to have iconic faces stroll into the famous Huxtable brownstone as various family friends and distant relatives.

But this scene is just a momentary blip in a funny episode. Rashad is an underrated actress with rarely-used comedic chops. Her beauty and her natural hateur often works against her, and her regal bearing can come off as steely and cold. But she had an incredible chemistry with Cosby – and they played off each other beautifully. I often assumed that when they played around with each other it was largely improvised (at least on his end). So, letting Rashad anchor an episode was generous of Cosby. There’s a lovely moment when the two perform a duet of sorts – while jazzy music is playing, Cliff convinces Clair to abandon her diet by marching into the living room from the kitchen bringing in sinfully sweet white cakes. Initially Clair is reserved, but eventually gives in and by the end of the sequence the two are maxing out on cake with white frosting covering their faces.

As the show aged, Cosby, perhaps stung by accusations that it wasn’t “real” enough brought in real world issues – or at least he brought in weightier subjects to mature the program: Rudy got her period, Clair went through menopause, and perhaps in an extremely condescending move, a cousin moves into the Huxtable household from the inner city. What I liked about “Birthday Blues” is that it was gentle and funny, but didn’t overdose on the sugary, cutesy stuff that the show loved.

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