Sad but Not Tragic: Two Television Deaths

I usually consider literary deaths as the result of lazy writing. I discuss this many times on Votaries.

Every now and again, I am impressed or not bothered by a death. The following examples from the following two shows are about not being bothered (and include spoilers--you've been warned!):
Bones
Person of Interest
Bones
I was surprised that Dr. Sweets' death didn't bother me more. It is possible that I was bothered less than I would have been if I hadn't known the death was coming (studies have found that spoilers actually enhance people's enjoyment of shows). However, I believe there is another reason.

In the Bones' Season 4 episode "Mayhem on the Cross," Gordon Gordon Wyatt and Sweets have a wonderful exchange. Wyatt pegs that Sweets was adopted relatively late (age six) from a horrific situation. He was taken in by elderly parents who loved him dearly. Wyatt continues:
Dr. Gordon Wyatt: [to Sweets] So now you're mostly alone in the world. But they had time to save you. They gave you a good life, and that's why you believe that people can be saved by other people with good hearts. That's the gift your parents left you. That, and a truly good heart. That gives you a deeper calling that I do not share.
This sense of calling follows Sweets throughout the seasons. Although he occasionally worries that he is not accomplishing enough or leaving a strong enough mark on those around him, the viewer knows that Sweets is living each day to the fullest; he treats every day, every interaction, as a gift, the fulfillment of a life he never thought to have.

Person of Interest
I haven't watched Season 5 yet, but I read the spoilers, and yes, John dies.

In the first season of Person of Interest, John and Harold have the following exchange:
John Reese: He said we don't need to worry. He might even help us someday.
Harold Finch: I was listening in, Mr. Reese.
John Reese: I was reading between the lines
Harold Finch: I suppose only time will tell which one of us is right.
John Reese: Thank you.
Harold Finch: I beg your pardon?
John Reese: For giving me a job.
Harold Finch: Try the eggs Benedict, Mr. Reese. I've had them many times.
Throughout the series, John tells others many times that he is grateful for his patron, benefactor, friend who saved his life and gave him a purpose. John perceives himself as a fallen soul (Harold perceives him as a knight, inherently good and noble). For John, every day is something he didn't look for, an extra gift. Like Sweets, he may have ended up quite differently; consequently, the life he currently lives has become a series of second chances, to live as the person he thought he wouldn't get a chance to be.

In real life, death is always sad. Also in real life, we tend to see an adult's death as less saddening than a child's since childhood is a gateway to the next stage, adulthood. In truth, in real life, adulthood has many stages of its own.

In literary terms, Sweets and John have tackled and overcome the final stage. Their deaths aren't mistakes. They are ends to lives already fully valued and enjoyed.

Remarkable writing. 

Successful TV Relationships That Didn't Work Out

Generally speaking, I'm a fan of an iconic couple getting together, especially since current shows are far better than shows in the 1980s and 1990s at maintaining a high standard of writing even after the  fatal kiss. Bones continued to do remarkably well once Bones and Booth formed a permanent alliance. And the final seasons of Stargate with Jack would have been better served putting Jack and Captain (Major) Carter together (it is heavily implied that they are together off-screen).

Every now and again, however, the lack of a permanent arrangement is a good call:

Diane Chambers-Sam Malone

Shelley Long is a talented comedienne, so much so that she falls into the so-awful-she's-hilarious category. As Diane Chambers, she is more quixotic than irritating (if she was too irritating, Cheers would be unbearable to watch). Still, I can think of no point during Cheers' original run (or now) where I believed she and Sam Malone would work as a couple.

Apparently, at the end of Season 4, when Sam Malone proposes to someone on the phone, viewers voted on whom he had proposed to (I vaguely remember this but never saw the results). I was flummoxed that anyone thought he proposed to Diane--or that if he did, the writers wouldn't immediately undermine the relationship. Did anyone ever think that Sam and Diane could possibly work? Ever?

To be fair, the 1980s and 1990s were filled with these types of oil & water relationships. I never believed in the Maddie Hayes (Cybill Shepherd)-David Addision (Bruce Willis) romantic relationship either. Writers have not only gotten better at writing relationships after the couple get together, they've gotten better at preparing viewers for relationships that actually work: Bones and Booth are in fact more like each other than initially supposed.

This is not to say that Ted Danson and Shelley Long didn't have sexual chemistry. The characters are quite effective as fighting exes. Still, the writers were wise to keep them apart--though that decision may have been due to Shelley Long's decision to leave the show in Season 5.

"Put your brother on the phone!"
Frasier et al. 
I was a fan of Frasier getting together either with Laura (the married cellist that Frasier meets at the airport, sweetly well-played by  Linda Hamilton) or Lana (hilariously well-played by Jean Smart).

However, to a large extent, Frasier not ending up with anyone is the point of the show. The last episode sees him heading off to Chicago to hopefully continue his latest relationship with Charlotte (played by Laura Linney). It is an act of hope.

Frasier is the ultimate example of the guy who climbs back on the horse.

Holmes-Watson
Although I criticize the writers' disingenuous claims that Holmes and Watson on CBS's Elementary were not written with sexual tension in mind (oh, puh-leaze), I am thoroughly impressed by their skill in making Holmes-Watson a non-romantic couple. They are great friends with strong chemistry, but there is no hint that they will ever end up in bed.

And absolutely no need. The friendship--especially the implication that this particular friendship will last a lifetime--is solid and reliable, exactly as the Holmes-Watson friendship is supposed to be. It is also a friendship of equals which Holmes-Watson friendships are not always portrayed as being. The viewer can be grateful that such disparate, unique, and somewhat aloof personalities have each other to rely on.


Wendie Malick: Comedienne Par Excellence

Wendie Malick is a gifted comedienne. She has starred in several sitcoms, such as Nina Van Horn in Just Shoot Me! (a well-received sitcom with a plethora of gifted actors, including the gifted Enrico Colantoni).

After Just Shoot Me! she guest-appeared as Martin's girlfriend/wife on Frasier, where her ability to deliver good-humored and confident lines made her the perfect foil to Frasier and an excellent second wife to the down-to-earth Martin (although the first wife, Frasier and Niles's mother, was more sophisticated and academic, both wives share commonsense as well as a similar build and look: Martin has a type). 


Malick is sassy without being shrill. She is also naturally pretty. She reminds me of Zoe Morgan (Paige Turco) on Person of Interest who is bone-deep beautiful. Any make-up is simply an accessory, not the purpose. Wendie Malick can play aging fashion model with no extra effort.


She also has a factor that I consider vital to all good (American) comic actors: she is unself-conscious. Like David Hyde Pierce, she doesn't mind playing "the fool." Nor is the audience left with the uncomfortable sensation that the actress was embarrassed in order to make the scene work. Rather, the actress (or actor) is in on the joke!

We laugh alongside, which is the best way to laugh. 

Emma Lathen: Early versus Later Mysteries

My version of John Thatcher (at home) sans the
laptop--because of course, the novels start
in the 1960s.
I recently read through all Emma Lathen's John Thatcher novels, most for the third or fourth time, a few for the second time.

There are 24 in total, starting with Banking on Death and ending with Shark Out of Water. I consider Banking on Death (1) to Going for the Gold (18) to be canon; the remaining novels are good but "less-canon."

I have always been hard-pressed to explain why. What exactly changes between Going for the Gold (#18, one of my favorites) and Green Grow the Dollars (#19)? It isn't the cast of characters. Thatcher, Trinkam, Miss Corsa, Gabler, Nicolls, and Bowman all make appearances. It isn't the emphasis on business and banking. Emma Lathen (two authors acting as a duo) have always been "Wall Street's Agatha Christie." As in all the novels, the resolution/denouement rests on a clever and insightful understanding of human nature.

The most classic Lathen murder
mystery: estranged husband & wife,
mistress, and deer antlers.
The later six novels seem to be less about a stock group of murder mystery characters (which I prefer) and more a listing of people who could possibly be involved in a deal (which I find tiring). It's the difference between the-wife-who-might-murder-her-husband and the research-partner-who-has-stock-options-and-is-also-related-to-the-vice-president-of-operations.

Due to the smaller cast, the earlier books also focus more on the detective, Thatcher, rather than on the multiple possible murderers. Many of the later books feel rather like later Columbo episodes where the script spends so much time introducing and explaining the soap opera relationships between the various characters, one begins to wonder when Columbo will show up (this may have been done to spare the aging Peter Falk physical exhaustion).

There is also a difference in tone. In Green Grows the Dollars, Thatcher and Trinkam end up at a seed & plant conference. When a CEO assumes Thatcher is there for the sake of his company, Thatcher responds:
"No. I'm in Chicago on other business. I recall your talk about the convention, of course. But I don't see that the Sloan [Bank] has anything to gain by attending."
This is, in fact, something that Thatcher would think. But it's not something he would say in the canon books. In the canon books, the narrator would write something like the following:
Thatcher  reflected how quickly people assume that the world is entirely concerned with their concerns. He had never attended a convention of plant specialists and although he was always willing to broaden his horizons, he saw no reason to do so now. He explained as tactfully as he could that a worldwide bank like the Sloan did have other reasons to visit Chicago. 
The books explore many business
ventures from hockey to the
automobile industry.
Funny. Wry. This tone is apparent in Green Grows the Dollars, which still delivers quintessential passages, but it is less prevalent than usual--precisely because Thatcher is less prevalent than usual. The attitude of wryness continues but not always the direct experience.

Thatcher is a great outside-the-box detective: he is a conservative, middle-class man, who appreciates the life he has chosen but doesn't take it quite as seriously as his fellow bankers. He works hard but at the back of all the work lurks a sense of bemusement: Why would anyone ever get so invested in this world he or she would resort to murder?

In the later books, by necessity (amid all the other deal-making characters), he becomes more The Earnest Man of Business.

All the books are worth reading. My favorites include the following:
  • Ashes to Ashes, Book 12, which involves the Catholic Church and parent protests as well as bomb threats (and comes down to a classic business murder suspect)
  • Sweet and Low, Book 15, possibly my overall favorite, which involves the cocoa exchange and has hilarious satiric exchanges between an avant-garde artiste and a couple of Italian businessmen who refuse to play the part of European highbrows
  • Going for the Gold, Book 18, which includes evocative scenes of a snow-bound Lake Placid during the 1980 Olympics (which was not actually struck by a blizzard but could have been)

How Patterns Influence Our Lives

In Beyond Human Nature, Jesse J. Prinz argues that culture is the ultimate determiner of behavior. In the chapter "Gladness and Madness," he addresses depression, which is statistically on the rise.
"Perhaps," Prinz argues, "we are learning how to be depressed . . . Each symptom of major depression can occur naturally, and each can be viewed as a coping response to the challenges of life . . . The difference now might have something to do with the fact that we all know about depression . . . Everyone has learned how to be depressed. We have learned the depression script. We have learned that a certain set of symptoms co-occur with an intensity that makes life painful and difficult . . . [Culture] can make a cluster of symptoms . . . define the relevant curve balls . . . train us to construe things in a way that increases the likelihood of getting depressed."
Prinz has a point. The idea that we "learn" (through culture) what certain experiences mean as well as how to react to them explains defunct behavior like swooning and the half-deliberate/half-non-deliberate hysterics of the teenagers in the Salem Witch trials.  Later in the chapter, Prinz relates how different cultures deal with or interpret depression, noting that the conditions and explanations can differ substantially.

Prinz does allow (repeating several times) that there may be a genetic predisposition or hormonal imbalance involved in depression (and he goes on to argue that strong cultural expectations make the experience largely involuntary--though not how someone deals with it).

In truth, I don't completely buy into Prinz's argument, precisely because I think he ignores the impact of biology and hormones to a stunning degree. I half-expected him to start arguing that women are the ones to give birth because, hey, that's what our culture expects. (The animal nature of the human experience is a force that many cerebral interpretations prefer to by-pass.)

However, I think Prinz has a minor point, especially when it comes to families (although he does not address families exclusively). I dislike environmental and genetic determinism and have no intention of replacing those "theories" with THE BLUEPRINT THEORY. The following is a possibility, not an explanation of all human behavior since time began.

The Possibility

Families, culture writ small, create blueprints in their members' heads. Some of those blueprints reside in the unconscious; we accept them because to not do so would make life impossible. This blueprint can involve traditions as basic as the fact that we call people by names (not numbers or emotions-see Inside Out).

Other blueprints reside in the semi-conscious: how people think about work, how people argue, how people react to holidays. These blueprints can be questioned. The questioning by itself is not inherently meritorious or unique. After all, there is no such thing as a life without patterns or a blueprint. As Hayden Fox explains on Coach, even the absence of a parent can be a blueprint.
It's impossible to imagine--humans ARE their patterns.

In fact, human beings couldn't exist at all without these blueprints--whatever John Lennon tried to
argue.

For instance, take a blueprint that exists in many families and churches: reverence. In Western, middle-class, American culture, this largely philosophical concept has a blueprint of people sitting quietly and politely in dresses and suits while listening to quiet music and/or quiet speakers in an often pastel environment. Or, being alone in a large quiet field with a beautiful (non-urban) view.

It is very Protestant.

When I teach my little kids at church, I teach them to behave in the above way (or try to) because I know they will benefit in Western, middle-class, American culture if they know how. I would be remiss if I didn't. This largely Protestant behavioral ideal is necessary if my American little kids want to grow up to get good grades in school, wait in line at post offices, learn to drive, get jobs after surviving reasonably civil interviews, attend weddings, attend movies in movie theaters, go to restaurants, not get killed by mobs at soccer games or music concerts, and so on.

However, I confess, I don't take the next step in the blueprint; I don't tell them that this particular behavior is inherently "righteous" or "Godly."

If they were older, I could explain that "this blueprint is the way that people demonstrate Godliness in our culture," but they aren't that old. They need to be socialized--and I'm perfectly willing to socialize them to the current norms since those norms are fairly effective (and I'm not the type of radical to "revolutionize" the norms until I know the new norms have been tested). 

But I can never forget--and I don't especially want them to forget--that it's a cultural and temporal blueprint. In the past, Bible men and women showed reverence by dancing, shouting, wrestling with angels, spitting on people (no kidding), and running away.

God is bigger than Protestant America.

Truth: the blueprint my students get at home and with their peers (see Judith Rich Harris) is more powerful than anything I tell them anyway. And those blueprints--how people are supposed to parent, how people are supposed to act in large or small groups, how people are supposed to handle sadness or confusion, how people are supposed to deal with defeat or success--are powerful.

I'm not sure how much the blueprints can be changed. I do know that many of them can be questioned and tweaked and that small tweaks can lead to decidedly different outlooks and choices in life (if this wasn't true, then human nature would never change at all: lower-classes in Europe wouldn't have upped and moved to America; medicine would never improve--see miasma theory; and people would never have gone into space).

Choice matters. As Judith Rich Harris states, quoted in Steven Pinker's Blank Slate, "We may not hold [children's] tomorrows in our hands but we surely hold their todays, and we have the power to make their todays very miserable," and as Stephen Pinker himself states earlier in the same book, explanation is not the same as exculpation (his emphasis). We may not be singly responsible for the rise and fall of cultures, but whatever happens in the present is well within our purview.

Forster and Travel

Forster fascinates me as much as a man as a writer. Furbank's excellent biography reveals a man who was diffident, opinionated, well-read, a product of his class yet surprisingly lacking in the prejudices of that class.

He had the remarkable ability (echoed in Fielding's character) to accept what a country or place had to offer. Consequently, he is probably one of the few intellectual travel writers who recognized the "boring" side of a place. Forster rarely fell victim to the "I am having a NEW experience--it MUST be grand because I am ABROAD!"

Forster's refusal to produce knee-jerk intellectual glorifications of his travels reminds me of a comment by P.J. O'Rourke when visiting the South American rain-forest:
"[The male witch or shaman] seemed to be a nice man, very dignified with sad and common-sensical eyes. I'm sure he was, in his way, as pious and devout as ever was Reverend Lackland, the incredibly boring pastor of Monroe Street Methodist Church, which I attended as a child in Toledo, Ohio . . . In fact, the [shaman's] spiritual cleansing ceremony was at least as tedious and lengthy as Methodist Sunday school."
Barbara Thorndyke: I was in Morocco when
I had writer's block...the man gave me [this]
brooch; since then, I've never had a problem.
This is my muse, my artistic inspiration.
Blanche/Rose: And it goes with anything!
Barbara: You missed the point of the story.
Blanche/Rose: Oh, really? Run it by us again.
It also reminds me of a scene in Golden Girls where Dorothy's new friend, Barbara, tells her
pretentious story of being "spiritually" inspired by a foreign place. Rose and Blanche keep interrupting with mundane comments. Barbara gets irritated: Rose and Blanche aren't responding properly; they're supposed to be awed by her soul-changing experiences. It's an astute encapsulation of adopting a pose about travel rather than being a honest tourist. Because of course, Barbara stayed at the nicest Americanized hotels. She only experienced "the other" as a touchstone to her own life.

Rather than producing knee-jerk intellectual pseudo-spiritual reactions, Forster observed. He was also willing to go along with the events of the moment (there was a playful side to Forster). When visiting the Maharaja (before he went to work for him), Forster and his British companions were given Indian court dress. One of Forster's friends "later recalled that, of all the guests, Forster wore his with the most dignity." Forster's friend guessed that princely grandeur appealed to Forster. My guess is that unlike the other guests, Forster wasn't self-conscious. His attitude was "oh, okay, why not."

  Forster was, in other words, the kind of tourist who, while visiting a country, stays not in the fancy "American" hotels but in a local hostelry. Eats the food. Wears the dress. Watches the entertainment. Talks to the natives. Yet at the same time, he is perfectly willing to say, "Hey, that makes me uncomfortable" or "Boy, that entertainment was tacky" without such comments becoming an indictment of the entire culture. Since he knows that every place has its complement of normal everyday people, he more or less expects to encounter the same variations of interesting, monotonous, enthralling, unusual, silly, puzzling, and self-interested behavior everywhere.

Forster measured a thing for its own sake or by his immediate subjective response, not because it did or didn't match up to what he was used to or what he was supposed to be experiencing.

So, for example, at the Maharaja's banquet, he disliked the apple-like sauce; heartily disliked the "dreadful little dishes that tasted of nothing until they were well into your mouth, when your whole tongue burst into flame"; become quite attached to a sweet rice; and so on.

Forster is NOT the kind of tourist who would visit Japan, stay in a monastery, then complain because it wasn't central heated. On the other hand, he might say something like, "I can never get used to waking so early." That is, he wouldn't immediately decide that the experience was "special" because it was supposed to be. Nor would he decide that it was dreadful because it wasn't what he imagined. He would simply decide to experience it. And if he got a little cold, that was part of the experience. He may or may not experience it again. That decision certainly wouldn't be based on what he was supposed to feel or think.

None of this is to say that Forster didn't have his prejudices. But he had the remarkable ability to objectify his own imagination.

Television as the Old-Fashioned Morality Tale

Back in the Middle Ages, players would stage morality plays in town centers. The plays, which often revolved around an Everyman character, could be boisterous, funny, saccharine, maudlin, sentimental, religious, thought-provoking. They were, in fact, medieval sitcoms.

Modern sitcoms attempt and often achieve the same feat.

Frasier, "Door Jam": Frasier and his brother Niles schmooze their way into an elite day spa. They are happy until they realize that there is a "gold" door (a step up from the "silver" door at the front of the spa). They wheedle and maneuver until they get through the gold door to a more upscale, exclusive area.

They enjoy their day at the spa right up until they are placed in the "relaxation grotto" where they spot--oh no!--a platinum door. Determined not to be withheld from the "grass is always greener" next exclusive area, they plunge through it (despite being warned not to), only to find themselves standing in the alley outside the spa, surrounded by bees.

Pride--in this case, envy and covetousness--comes before the fall.

Coach, "Uneasy Riders":  Dauber and Coach buy motorcycles even though their women (Dauber's fiancee, Coach's wife) would not approve. Desperate to avoid an argument, they keep moving the motorcycles around--from the college to the shed to under the porch. The episode ends with Coach and Dauber hiding under the front porch of the cabin. They hunch  over the motorcycles as the two women greet each other above.

"Yeah," Coach says, "this is freedom!"

What a tangled web we weave . . .

A life lived in fear is a life half-lived . . . and doesn't involve much freedom.
*Or, as Helen Keller would say, "Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. The fearful are caught as often as the bold."
*In terms of politics: a scramble to protect personal liberty at all costs can often result in a loss of all freedoms.
*In terms of religion: "For whosoever will save his life shall lose it . . ."

Friends, "The One With the Lottery": When the friends buy a bunch of lottery tickets together, they instantly begin to fight over how they will spend the money and who should get the money and whether or not they should share all the tickets. The only person who doesn't fight: Joey, who puts the welfare of his friend Chandler above his own monetary desires. The fighting only ends when Chandler gets the job he wanted--it won't make him and Monica as rich as the lottery, but it will give them more satisfaction.

The lust for money is the root of all evil. 

This is a proverb that I wish I could test more often.

Good thing television does it for me!

Z is for Zahler: Classic Retold Fairytales

Zahler writes retold fairy tales. I chose Princess of the Wild Swans because it was one of my favorite fairy tales growing up.

My mother told me the story first. Although I can't remember her version exactly, the basics are always the same: a princess's brothers are changed into swans by an evil enchantress. The princess escapes into the wild where she learns that she can turn her brothers back if she weaves shirts out of nettles--only she must not speak at all during the months of weaving. 

In the Grimm-like ending, a prince finds and weds her. While he is out of town, his (evil) mother decides that the nettle-collecting princess is a witch and tries to burn her alive. The princess continues working on the shirts as she is being hauled to the stake. Her brothers fly over the town, and she throws the shirts over them. Since the last shirt isn't finished, that brother ends up with one wing instead of an arm.  

I was utterly enamored of this tale, which I first heard when I was five or six. When our family journeyed out West and stopped in the Redwood National Park, I was captivated by the "walk-in" trees. That was where the princess lived!

When I got older and started collecting books off Amazon, Nicholas Stuart Gray's The Seventh Swan was one of the first ones I hunted down (I also own Nicholas Stuart Gray's impressive short story collection, A Wind from Nowhere).  

Zahler's coming-of-age story, although a tad slow in parts, is an excellent adventure yarn and actually makes more sense than the original. For one, the princess still mustn't speak, but she can telephathically share her thoughts with her helpers. So the last 2/3rds of the book is not devoid of dialog.

I also never understood how nettles could be made into shirts and assumed that the nettles were sewn together. Zahler makes clear that the nettles go through a process that eventually results in yarn: nettle yarn is a real thing. Consequently, however, this means the princess needs help, which again makes more sense than some starving girl hanging out in the woods by herself. She is helped by one of her brother's sweethearts, that woman's brother, their witch mother, some of the guards, and the townspeople.

The evil enchantress-stepmother poses a problem, and the final chapters are quite exciting!

In the wrap-up, Zahler thankfully retains the prince with one wing: it's a great pay-off for a story. So often, fairy tales end rather like Star Trek episodes: How did the ship get fixed so fast? But the swan story leaves a hint that a problem can resolve but not always exactly as expected.

This completes the third A-Z list. Coming next . . . non-fiction!

Quantum Leap: Great Moments 2

"Catch a Falling Star"--In this episode, Sam performs several songs from The Man of La Mancha; Scott Bakula has quite a nice voice. At the end, Sam (as Don Quixote) climbs the stairs to where Al, his sanguine Sancho Panza, awaits. They are ready to begin their chivalric (quixotic) quests again.

"Another Mother"--Sam performing karate in the headlights of the car is quite cool.

There's a lovely Sam and Al moment when Al is talking dinosaurs with Theresa (Troian Bellasario, who will show up many years later as McGee's sister on NCIS) while Sam looks on.

Generally speaking, in terms of writing, acting, and commonsense knowledge (what the characters would know at any given point in the episode), this episode is one of Quantum Leap's best. It is also the second time Sam plays the part of a woman and wears a dress. The first time, the episode was all about him being a woman. This time, it isn't, and Bakula wears his dress with utter unself-consciousness, which I admire.

"M.I.A."--Another well-written episode (which will be surprisingly paid off in the finale, something I didn't know until only a few years ago). Bakula and Stockwell deliver excellent performances; in fact, the entire episode is well-cast. And the ending is weep-worthy.

"The Leap Home, Part 1"--This episode contains a stellar scene that is so right psychologically, it always makes me gasp a little. Sam's little sister has been kidding him about "being from the future." She pretends to believe him and challenges him to play an as-yet unwritten Beatles song. Sam performs Lennon's "Imagine"--not one of my favorite songs, but Bakula sings it beautifully. Al stands behind him while he plays and joins in on the final line of the chorus.

However, the camera stays on the sister. As Sam gets further into the song, her face changes from amusement to pleasure to consternation to sorrow. It is a new song, one she has never heard before--which means, Sam might be telling the truth about the bad things that could happen to the family. It is a terrifically well-filmed scene.

"The Leap Home, Part II"--At the end, Sam discovers the photograph of Al as a POW. Standing in the bar in Vietnam, he looks up at Al with pain and queries him. With studied nonchalance, Al replies, "Hey, I was repatriated in 5 years," adding, "Up here [he taps his head] I was always free."

This scene is also a pay-off for "M.I.A." Al has come to terms with the fall-out of his life.

80's clothes--but very Al.
"Leap of Faith"--When Sam comes out of the church, Al is waiting on the sidewalk. This is one of the few times that Al doesn't arrive from the imaging chamber directly at Sam's shoulder. There is a psychological reason that Al doesn't do this, and I like the variation. Plus Al's cocky stance is quite sexy. Stockwell has great physical presence and wears his 80's clothes with panache and comfortable stylishness (sidenote: one of the smartest things about Quantum Leap is that even though it started in big-weird-hair 1980s, Dean Stockwell's thick hair is always kept clipped quite short; it looks very good). 

"The Boogieman"--I like this episode despite how utterly strange it is; Dean Stockwell does a great job as the character whose creepiness only slowly creeps up on one. I also love the Nehru-like tunic he wears at the end.

French Stewart: Great Character Actor, Great Performer

I adore French Stewart. He plays Harry, the dimwitted brother in 3rd Rock From the Sun
--who also happens to be a canny dope. One of my all-time, no holds barred, favorite scenes comes from the Season 2 finale of 3rd Rock--in which French Stewart performs a Broadway-like number.

He shows up in The Closer as "Gary Doesn't Lie!"--the real estate broker who is constantly trying to finagle Brenda into buying or selling a house.

And he was in Stargate (1994), which means I'll love him forever.

French Stewart has great verbal comedic timing but, perhaps more importantly, he has excellent physical comedic timing. He is one of those gifted actors who is actually a joy to watch even with the sound off. In 3rd Rock, he is correctly designated as the alien who knows how to dance, having instinctive rhythm. This ability continues to show up in The Closer where Gary's frenetic attempts to dissuade or persuade Brenda fit excellently with her own unpredictable energy.

Y is for Yolen: Dragons Belong to Sci-Fi, Not Just Fantasy

This is the cover I grew up with.
For Y, I went back to an oldie but goodie: Jane Yolen's Dragon's Blood, the first in her Pit Dragon Series.

Yolen is an extraordinarily prolific writer for YAs and kids. She is also the editor of multiple fantasy anthologies. And I'm not even going to try to list her awards.

I chose Dragon's Blood because I remembered reading it years ago. This is not always the case with writers whose works I haven't collected. I remember The Narnia Chronicles because I've read them so often (I had to put myself on a 10-year recess after I collected the 1970 paperbacks through Goodwill and Amazon). But Yolen, while not a writer I read much of, is a writer I am always aware of. And Dragon's Blood evidently made enough of an impact that I remembered not the plot, which I had entirely forgotten, but the experience of reading it.

This is the edition I read recently.
It holds up remarkably well. In fact, if one wants to make a movie about dragons . . . I guess Dreamworks came along and made the decent How to Train Your Dragon, yet for dragon lovers (see comments on G is for Gannett), Dragon's Blood should have been a no-brainer as a film. Not only does it have a sympathetic hero and non-stop action, it has sociological and character complexity as well.

Of course, lovers of McCaffreys' Dragonriders of Pern would likely say the same. What interests me is that Yolen--possibly inspired by McCaffrey but certainly not possessed by her--both set their series on other worlds. How to Train Your Dragon doesn't, though it might as well be another world, bearing absolutely no resemblance to the Viking world I had to research for "Grave's Bride."
Pern illustration

Dragons seem so imminently  earthly, so much a part of human folklore, creating another world seems unnecessary. 

Except McCaffrey's and Yolen's other-worlds-with-dragons don't jar. Dragons may belong here, but they thrive better elsewhere. They also seem, rather like Patrick Stewart, to cross without discord between genres. Unlike other supernatural legendary beings, dragons do belong to space, not only to sword & sorcery.

Forster as Role Model

Forster is an interesting example of an author whose work I only tepidly admire but for whom I feel a great liking.

So often it seems to be the other way around!

Forster is someone I probably wouldn't get along with in real life--he was a tad too highbrow--yet someone I easily understand. The product of the British upper middle-class, he was not exactly snobbish, not exactly intellectual, not exactly Bohemian, and definitely not a "good old boy." He went his own way without fanfare, so much so that even the Bohemian set failed to really "get" Forster. He was no rebel yet far more tolerant than I am of insipid philosophizing: he found D.H. Lawrence interesting if vaguely irritating, stating at one point that a book of Lawrence's was "the queerest product of subconsciousness that I have yet struck--he has not a glimmering from first to last of what he's up to."

Yet at the same time, he warns readers in Aspects of the Novel to avoid "resenting or mocking [Lawrence because then the writer's] treasure disappears as surely as if we started obeying him." I confess to being less kind to Lawrence, yet I admire Forster for reminding me to judge a book not by an outside official standard but by what the author is attempting to achieve (in this regard, Forster reminds me of C.S. Lewis's Experiment in Criticism although I've found no evidence that the two men met and cannot imagine they would have gotten along--though I could be wrong). 

I don't know if Forster would have liked Blackadder, but
he seemed to share many of his attitudes.
Forster's approach to politics was not dissimilar to his literary attitudes. He was able to stand outside any event, including his own self, and analyze it objectively even as he reacted to it with great sensitivity ("sensitivity" here means an eye for detail as well as tremendous compassion--many friends and acquaintances of Forster thought him the kindest soul they had ever met; it also refers to easily hurt feelings, the last of which Forster would wryly admit to). During WWI, he served more than competently as a searcher through the Red Cross (so well that he was promoted), yet he refused to report for military service, not because he was a conscientious objector (he admitted he wasn't) but because he had no desire to involve himself in what he considered a pointless war and he certainly couldn't fight. The "good old boys" of the British army were stymied. Forster pulled strings and was utterly unapologetic about doing so. The "good old boys" gave up trying to figure him out.

This is Forster: not lacking in moral beliefs but holding such moral beliefs that refuse to be categorized; consequently, he was sometimes perceived (on both sides of any issue) as lacking in commitment, even though he turned out to be invariably right about the pointlessness of running after a particular cause or banner. Yet even when right, he never saw himself as any kind of leader.

I mention his wryness. Forster's humor is entirely understated. He isn't precisely sarcastic and he isn't ironic in the manic style of Monty Python. In fact, he isn't truly ironic at all. He is, that blessed English word, droll. And not constantly droll or witty like George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde. Forster's drollness is just there--quietly buried in gentle, analytical, friendly, occasionally quaint, descriptive sentences.

So at the beginning of Aspects of the Novel, whilst distinguishing between story (something happens; then another thing happens; then another thing) and plot, he writes (about story):
It is immensely old--goes back to neolithic times, perhaps to paleolithic. Neanderthal man listened to stories, if one may judge by the shape of his skull. The primitive audience was an audience of shock-heads, gaping around the campfire, fatigued with contending against the mammoth or the woolly rhinoceros, and only kept awake by suspense. What would happen next? The novelist droned on, and as soon as the audience guessed what happened next, they either fell asleep or killed him.
The final line slides in there without any preparation. I read past it for another three lines before I started laughing my head off. 

Likewise, in a letter regarding Thomas Hardy, Forster reports how Hardy showed him the graves of all his cats. "How is it, Mr. Hardy," Forster asked, "that so many of your cats have been run over? Is the railway near?" When Hardy replied that it wasn't; he didn't understand the number of mowed down cats himself and in any case, these weren't all of his cats, Forster ended the letter by commenting that he had difficulty not laughing, "it was so like one of Hardy's novels or poems."
Dog Culture

What draws me to Forster is not any particular biographical note or even a desire to imitate him.
Rather, I admire his reluctance to perform the tribal rituals of a particular clique or group or faction. And I like his steady refusal to see this as some kind of failure (though I haven't quite achieved that last yet). Forster's position is rather like always being the odd one out in high school, even moreso since it extended--with Forster--to literature, art, religion, politics, nations, relationships, and theories about life. Forster tried hard (and mostly failed) at being atheistic. Still, I utterly understand his quiet dismissal of people insisting that he THINK or BE a certain way. He is tremendously comforting to the individual who wishes to be neither follower nor leader, rebel nor patriot, conformist nor non-conformist.

And he seems to have enjoyed life far more than many of his contemporaries.

IQ Means . . . IQ (Nothing More)

In a previous post, I discussed researchers using IQ testing to explore the impact of birth order on personality. The researchers discovered no impact, mostly because they could discover no measurable differences regarding the Big Five Personality Traits: Openness, Conscientious, Extraversion, Agreeableness, Neuroticism.

In the interests of due diligence, they split Openness into IQ and Creativity.

IQ was the only factor that produced any quantifiable differences--though those differences were negligible. The researchers of the study were less than enthusiastic about this result. And here's why:

IQ as a determiner of anything except IQ has long been disputed. It has no definitive link to grades or any type of career/academic success. A recent study concluded, for instance, that "achieving good grades depends on many factors other than IQ, such as 'persistence, interest in school, and willingness to study.'"

Researchers have also discovered that context is a huge determinant in how well people do in certain areas--for instance, they found that women who could do math quickly and easily in a store in regards to a sales item had trouble doing that same math in a testing situation. Likewise, they found drug dealers could process complex math--outside of the classroom--with little difficulty. "Street smarts" is a real thing.

This is compounded by the fact that IQ changes--within cultures, with age as well as with an increase in skill-sets. It is not the "now you have it/you're a genius" factor imagined by IQ advocates in the mid-twentieth century. Genius actually doesn't work that way.

Unfortunately, often times, the assumption that IQ equals high performance creates its own self-fulfilling prophecy, i.e. students who test high receive more attention and access to resources and consequently, increase their abilities/skills. But the true impact was likely the attention and the resources, not the initial IQ score.

Even that last statement, however, is debatable. Me--I'm a maverick. I think outcome/performance is all about free-will. That is, nearly all studies that try to ground personality/long-rang results in genetic inheritance or in environmental impact inevitably come up empty: there is a failure of direct correlation, an inability to show that A definitively led to B, which is probably the reason that sociology drives hard scientists crazy.

Quantum Leap: Great Moments 1

The local library recently purchased all the seasons of Quantum Leap. I was able to rewatch favorite episodes, including some of my favorite scenes.

I'm a big fan of small moments in episodes.  Nearly all my favorites in Quantum Leap involve specific exchanges between Sam and Al. Here are a few:

"Honeymoon Express"--At one point, Sam realizes that should funding for the project be cut off, he will lose contact with Al. Al has been trying to get Sam to understand this possibility but is unwilling to put the problem too bluntly.  From the audience's perspective, realization comes to Sam through the window of a door. It is heart-wrenching. (And is achieved, I should add, without any gooey music; it's all about the acting and the camera.)

I also enjoy this episode because Al appears in his admiral uniform.

"Thou Shalt Not . . ."--Al helps Sam dance the hora at a bat mitzvah. It is quite an impressive bit of choreography since Al (Dean Stockwell) has to dance in a circle in front of Sam (Scott Bakula). It is also quite lovely to watch.

"Jimmy"--Al delivers a pained speech (possibly one of the scenes that won him a Golden Globe for this season) regarding his sister who died in a mental institution:
"When I was old enough, I went back there for her, but it was too late. She was gone, Sam! Pneumonia they said. How does a 16-year-old girl die from pneumonia in 1953, Sam?"
One of the smartest aspects of Quantum Leap is how Al and Sam get to know each other better, partly due to Sam's "Swiss cheese" memory but also due to Al and Sam moving from business partners to friends. There were things about Al that Sam did not know before; in order to help Sam survive and to help others, the somewhat cagey Al discloses more information about himself (Al's extroversion is something of an "act").

To be continued . . .

The Popularity of All Creatures Great and Small

Another repost from an older blog. Although I seldom check the popularity of a post, ignoring what I think of as the "Facebook" side of Blogger, I recently took a look. Over the years, this post has collected several thousand "hits." Yup, the story about a vet in Yorkshire wins again!

Here it is on Votaries--with pictures. My views haven't materially changed since I wrote it although I haven't rewatched the show recently. I do highly recommend it.
 
4 comments

I included the original comments, which prove a little factoid about the Internet, and one of many reasons it is pointless to rest one's sense of approval on Internet feedback (and why it is also dangerous to post raunchy photos online "just for friends"). I received proportionally one comment per 575 "hits." Considering the number of blogs I've visited myself without leaving a calling card--and that a marketing course I once attended claimed that responses to mailers are typically 1 out of 100--I wouldn't be surprised if less than 2% of traffic was a norm across the board. The Internet is good for many, many things--the process of socialization is not one of them.

The Many Seasons of All Creatures


Yes, that is also a Dr. Who!
The series All Creatures Great and Small is lovely. I'm on season 4 at this point, and I should say first that it is well-worth watching all of them. Unfortunately, the quality goes downhill with each subsequent season. So be prepared.

In his commentary, Peter Davison (Tristan) remarks that this reduction in quality was partly because the writers ran out of story ideas. (James Herriot actually had the same problem with his books). The series' creators had no idea the series would become so popular so instead of stringing out the James-Helen romance and saving some ideas for later, they stuck every incident from the first few books into the first season. Result: they had to invent and reuse a lot of material. Peter Davison makes a wry remark about his character, who is supposed to be a flirt, getting older and older while the "bright, young things" were getting younger and younger. Tristan starts out as an eccentric (a "debauched choirboy") but ends up rather dull. In the 4th season, the writers created Calum Buchanan to supply the eccentricity that Tristan supplied in the first two seasons. Unfortunately, Calum makes Tristan and Siegfried look like old fogies. It's kind of sad, although I suppose it reflects real-life.

The utterly sexy Robert Hardy
The writers also toned down Robert Hardy's character in the later seasons, which I consider a mistake. They did it because the real Siegfried, who by all accounts was quite the outrageous personality, expressed some disapproval. Hardy, who knew the real Siegfried, had based his interpretation of the character on that knowledge and had already softened Siegfried's rather manic personality. But he was told to take it down even further. It's a pity since--as James Herriot's son, Jim, points out in his excellent biography of his father--the crazy Siegfried was most people's favorite character. I love Robert Hardy! (For those of you who want to place him, he is Sir John Middleton in Sense & Sensibility; he plays the minister with the pin-striped robe in Harry Potter.) He's one of those British actors who pops up all over the place.

Perfectly cast Christopher Timothy
In the 4th season, Carol Drinkwater got tired to playing Helen and left. I think her replacement looks much more like a Yorkshire Downs' wife; Carol Drinkwater always looked like she was about to fly off to the Riviera, which she did! (Well, France.) The spark between Helen and James is missing with the replacement, however. (Gossip central: Carol Drinkwater and Christopher Timothy had an affair in real life).

Christopher Timothy doesn't change at all. He was perfectly cast, and James Herriot himself thought Timothy portrayed his personality the best (out of all the TV shows being made at the time). Timothy manages to capture that laid-back, good-humored, yet somewhat tense personality that made it possible for Herriot to get along with the Farnons but gave him ulcers later in life. (He also had extremely poor money sense.)

The worst thing about the later seasons (although the 4th season isn't so bad) is that the producers decided to overlay every scene with totally sappy music. I can't decide if it is an 80s thing or a director thing. I think it is kind of an 80s-director thing. Scenes which are not played as maudlin come across as maudlin and in some cases, the sappy, trilling music is so loud, it drowns out the rather good dialog. I wish very much that when the company had released the series on DVD, it had fixed the music, but maybe that wasn't possible. (Heaven help us if people actually like it; it's pretty horrible.)

All that said, I still recommend the series: all of it. All the seasons are sweet (with and without the music), fun, very relaxing and you learn an awful lot about vetting in the 1930s to 1950s.

4 Comments:
Anonymous Anonymous said...
Good post, thanks. Just started watching the first series having gotten a dvd of it from the library - though did see plenty of it back in the day . . . The Yorkshire air must have done them good as the main actors - the men anyway - all still in the land of the living.

Andrew
3:53 PM
 
Blogger luckygibbo said...
I must disagree with you re. the decline of the series (as it progressed)> I have been a huge fan for many years and found all the series of equal merit. However, thank you for your post and always take the opportunity to revisit the show many times (as I have)
Cheers, Dave
7:41 AM
 
Blogger mswindsor said...
Sorry, I'm in total disagreement...loved the entire series from the original broadcasting to DVD watching. Not only is it a fine series, it has come to be a representation of a way of life that is virtually gone now. Great show!
9:04 PM
 
Blogger Catracks said...
The music does get a bit annoying in Season 4, I miss Carol Drinkwater because I did imagine Helen/Joan to be a bit of a knockout and not so (sorry) hausfrau. They should have left Siegfried's character alone and matured Tristan.

What bothers me most of all is the repeat of old stories with new characters or different animals (the Gypsy Myatt?). I think I've read the books about 20 times over the years and could tell them myself. Even if they used up Alf Wight's stories, they could have either asked for more or created fresh ones. Somehow I missed their time in the RAF and the birth of the kids. Maybe Youtube skipped a bunch?) I'm still on series 4, but I hope we get the trip to Istanbul and Russia.
10:59 AM