Friday, September 27, 2013

9 TV Shows That Aren’t on DVD But Should Be

DVDs and online streaming are a godsend to TV fans. Binge viewing has practically become a new phenomenon now that fans can watch and re-watch their favorite TV shows at their own leisure. But while a wide selection of TV programs have been released on DVD or made available on streaming formats like Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon, others have either been given a single season release or haven’t been released at all. Whether due to music rights or fears that these releases won’t be profitable, production companies are reluctant to make some of these shows, including formerly popular ones, available for the public. You’d be surprised by what isn’t available on either format. 
Frank’s Place (1987)
When this sophisticated “comedy” began airing on CBS in 1987, it quickly won critical plaudits for its non-stereotypical portrayal of African Americans. Unfortunately, when the network began shuffling its time slot, Frank’s Place lost viewers and was eventually canceled after 22 episodes. A shame considering that this rare gem about a college professor, played by Tim Reid, who inherits his estranged father’s New Orleans restaurant effortlessly balanced humor and drama. Populated with an assortment of colorful characters that could only be found in the Big Easy, Frank’s Place was smart, funny, thought-provoking and original. It also boasted one of the best intro’s featuring Louis Armstrong’s “Do You Know What it Means (To Miss New Orleans)”. Easily this show is deserving of a DVD series set.

A Different World (1987-1993)

Only the first of this series’ six-season run is available on DVD and it’s not even its best. A spin-off of the Cosby Show, A Different World was meant to be a showcase for actress Lisa Bonet, who played Denise Huxtable on the classic sitcom. Unfortunately, Bonet wasn’t a strong enough actor or comedian to carry an entire series, so she left and Debbie Allen was brought in as producer to breathe new life into the premise. Under her helm, the series became a fairly realistic portrayal of life at a historically black college, but it’s main draw was of course the on-again, off-again romance of Dwayne and Whitley (Kadeem Hardison and Jasmine Guy). At times poignant and funny, A Different World offered a different glimpse of black life in America in the 1980s and ‘90s. If there is one TV show that deserves a full season treatment it is this.

St. Elsewhere (1982-1989)

Like A Different World, the first season of St. Elsewhere is only available on DVD. That’s simply criminal since this seminal, groundbreaking drama set the stage for the medical dramas that followed. Blessed with a great cast that included such vets as Norman Lloyd and William Daniels, as well as Ed Begley, Jr., David Morse, Howie Mandel, and Denzel Washington, St. Elsewhere was both gritty in its depiction of a run-down, neglected public hospital (the hospital is called St. Eligius but was nicknamed St. Elsewhere because if you were a patient you’d rather be elsewhere), while sprinkling in flights of absurd humor that made it uniquely surreal. Before the series finales of Lost and the Sopranos upset fans, St. Elsewhere was there first, suggesting the entire series was the imagination of an autistic boy. Tom Fontana, who produced and wrote Homicide and Oz, series that were as equally groundbreaking and influential, cut his teeth on St. Elsewhere. With a pedigree like that, why isn’t this show’s entire series run on DVD? Your guess is as good as mine. 

Head of the Class (1986-1991)

Head of the Class was an ABC sitcom that celebrated nerds and geeks. Based around actor Howard Hesseman, who played a substitute teacher for a class of advanced students at a Bronx high school, Head of the Class found humor not in the kids themselves but in their funny, sometimes painful phases of growing up. While the cast of students, which included a young Robin Givens, obviously changed over the course of the series (Hesseman likewise left after the series’ penultimate season and was replaced by comedian Billy Connelly), the premise remained the same. Despite its popularity, the show is still unavailable on DVD. 

I’ll Fly Away (1991- 1993)   

Airing on NBC, I’ll Fly Away starred Regina Taylor and a pre-Law & Order Sam Waterston as a maid and district attorney respectively in the Civil Rights era south. During its brief run, the series won Emmys, Humanitas Prizes, Golden Globes, and NAACP Image Awards for its realistic portrayals of life for black and white southerners during this tumultuous period in American history. Not only that, future Sopranos-creator, David Chase, was also on the series’ writing staff. So why is this little remembered award-winner not on DVD?

The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd (NBC, 1987-1988; Lifetime, 1988-1991)

Music rights may ultimately prevent this series from ever being released on DVD and that is unfortunate because this intelligent, sophisticated urban dramedy deserves to be seen by a new generation of TV viewers. Starring Blair Brown, The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd was about a divorced woman in her mid-30s who juggled her personal and professional life in 1980s Manhattan. Originally airing on NBC to moderate ratings, the series later moved to the Lifetime network which continued to air it for 13-week runs for three years. Also starring David Strathairn and Richard Lawson who played Dodd’s love interests, The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd is one series that definitely deserves to be widely seen again.

Spenser: for Hire (1985-1988)

Based on the Robert B. Parker serial novels, Spenser: for Hire set itself apart from other 1980s procedural crime dramas for its grittiness and attention to detail. It was also one of the few series that was shot on location in Boston, lending it an authenticity that was also a rarity. Starring Robert Urich and Avery Brooks, who played the bad ass Hawk, Spenser: for Hire would make a great DVD series set. The fact that it isn’t is a real mystery.

South Central (1994)

South Central, the Fox-based TV series from 1994, starred Tina Lofford as Joan Mosley, a single mom raising her two biological kids and a foster son in South Central L.A. after the death of her eldest son in a gang-related killing. Avoiding the usual clichés of urban dramas, the series focused on the innocent people who were affected by the emotional and economic costs of drugs and gang violence. What was often a depressing and true-to-life depiction of urban life, was also funny, uplifting, and real. The series also boasts the early career work of Larenz Tate and Jennifer Lopez. 

Roc (1991-1994)
This is the most shocking DVD omission on the list. Why? How about the fact that this critically popular Fox series was smart, funny, poignant, thought-provoking and damn well entertaining all at once. Charles S. Dutton was funny and caustic as Roc Emerson, a garbage collector living with his wife Eleanor (Ella Joyce), his father (Carl Gordon), and musician brother (Rocky Carroll) in Baltimore, Maryland. While there were comparisons made to Jackie Gleason’s The Honeymooners, Roc was much more than that as it tackled everything from marriage and family responsibilities to poverty, homelessness, and the War on Drugs. Roc was also the first series to be set in Baltimore, a city that became a character of its own in the HBO series The Wire

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Banned Book Week: Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man

Earlier this month, North Carolina’s Randolph County Board of Education banned Ralph Ellison’s classic 1952 novel Invisible Man. Heralded as one of the best novels written during the post WWII era, Invisible Man explores racism and the complex web of racial identity in 1950s America. It has since become required reading for high school and college students.

The fact that North Carolina is behind this latest effort to ban books seems appropriate considering that this state has also been behind the effort to deny voters the right to vote through their heinous Voter ID laws. The right to vote and First Amendment rights go hand-in-hand. One cannot exist without the other. The right to choose who will represent us in local, state, and federal governments is as dependent on expressing and being exposed to the market place of ideas as breathing is to life. The fact that Voter ID laws will disproportionately affect African Americans (as well as women, the elderly, and college students) makes this latest move by Randolph County Board of Education seem like an overall strategy to affect the local and national dialogue regarding issues concerning African Americans.
Ellison’s novel goes to the heart of how racism operates in this country, how it depends on denying our voices and our very existences. As he writes in the novel’s prologue: 

I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids -- and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination -- indeed, everything and anything except me.

Whether it be President Obama, who has become a caricature in the minds of his Republican opponents, or Trayvon Martin (and countless other black men), who tragically was unable to live beyond the “figments” of George Zimmerman’s rabid imagination, this modern, so-called “post-racial” America continues to prove how much Ellison’s voice is still very much needed. 

UPDATE: due to numerous complaints both in Randolph County and across the country, the Education Board voted Wednesday 6 to 1 to return Invisible Man back into the local school libraries.  

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Why Soaps Deserve More Respect

Time Magazine
Naturally if anyone wants to be taken seriously today the last thing she’d claim is a love of soap operas. Even in this day and age, when TV critics and fans are praising their favorite cable drama as Dickensian (an adjective based around that most melodramatic of English writers), soaps, which are arguably the missing link between Dickens and cable TV, continue to be the red-headed stepchildren of pop culture. They’re a dying breed (only four air now on broadcast networks; All My Children and One Life to Live, cancelled only a few years ago, have now been reborn as webisodes on Hulu and iTunes), but the style they helped develop––serialization––is more popular than ever. 
Dating back to the 1960s since the premiere of the night time soap Peyton’s Place, prime time serials have always had a niche on TV. Throughout the 1970s, ‘80s, and ‘90s programs like Dallas, Knots Landing, Dynasty, and David Lynch’s whacked out take on the genre, Twin Peaks (which itself hails roots from the daytime serial Dark Shadows) followed in the footsteps of their daytime counterparts. But starting in the 1980s, hour-long dramas and sitcoms as diverse as Cheers, Hill Street Blues, Wise Guy, The X-Files, and Homicide: Life on the Street began utilizing aspects of serialization in their storytelling arcs, greatly expanding the definitions of episodic television. Yet serialized dramas didn’t really take off until HBO began airing original programming during its Sunday night schedule. Shows like Oz and The Sopranos helped change the face of night time television, proving that audiences could embrace complex narratives about anti-heroic characters (though ironically the first anti-hero[ine] that audiences really embraced was As the World Turns’ Lisa Hughes Grimaldi, a character so loved to be hated that a fan once slapped actress Eileen Fulton as she walked out of a Manhattan department store). After the critical and commercial success of The Sopranos, HBO ordered more serialized dramas like The Wire, Deadwood, Six Feet Under, Big Love, Boardwalk Empire, Treme, Luck and others. While the subject matter of HBO’s dramas are as disparate from one another as they are from soaps (with the possible exception of Big Love, which would truly have made an arresting daytime sudser with its tales of marital bed hopping and corporate and familial intrigues), their glacial-moving plot lines and multiple character story arcs are a direct influence from soaps.
Other cable and broadcast networks followed HBO’s lead with shows like Mad Men, Homeland, Downton Abbey, The Walking Dead (based on the graphic novel, a medium that has a lot in common with soaps), and Breaking Bad. But this isn’t an example of HBO influencing a genre as it is of the cable network’s borrowing from daytime and successfully broadening its critical appeal.
Yet while cable has brought respectability to serialization, the actual serials which developed the genre from the 1930s to the present, gets, like Rodney Dangerfield, no respect at all. Does it have to do with the stories---the multiple marriages, outlandish plots, the melodrama? Perhaps. But unlike most television dramas, soaps allowed a space for women’s stories to flourish. Even today, on cable dramas like Mad Men, Big Love, Boardwalk Empire and The Sopranos, where women characters are as complex as their male counterparts, the conflicts are still largely male-centered and -oriented. Not so on daytime where women and their issues were front and center. Soaps addressed the problems women faced in the latter half of the twentieth century with far more finesse and detail. Stories that dealt with love and sex, the position women faced in choosing between work and family, their ambitions, fears, and joys were the grist of many a soap story in the 1970s and 1980s. And while soaps can be accused rightfully at times of slipping in quality (soaps churn out five episodes a day for fifty-two weeks a year as compared to cable dramas’ thirteen-week yearly cycle), I can honestly say that in all the years I’ve watched them and seen their highs and lows, they’ve produced quality programming that were equal, even––dare I say it?––superior to night time dramas.
I’m not interested in dredging up the usual arguments of soaps’ artistic quality by how they have tackled social oriented stories. While true (even when night time television avoided them, soaps dared to bring up topics like rape, STDs, drug abuse, abortion, etc.), I’m less interested in that than I am in looking at how soaps deserve credit for their role in expanding television’s artistic growth. I will concede that currently soaps have surrendered to self-parody and irrelevance, but that does not diminish their historical and artistic value. 

Guiding Light, CBS, Proctor & Gamble 
In the 1970s soaps were as inspired by changing tastes as much of popular culture. Like film, daytime became grittier, more character-oriented. Soaps, like the now defunct Guiding Light, told compelling, tightly-drawn dramas around the rot that can build up in dysfunctional marriages. Few of these stories were equal to the Roger and Holly Thorpe saga.
In the winter of 1979, Roger Thorpe raped his wife Holly. The story which led to this tragic set of events is, like most soap stories, elaborately woven. Teenaged Holly Norris was obsessed with Roger Thorpe, the show’s resident anti-hero, but he had designs on other women, namely Peggy Scott, who would become his wife. Holly instead married good guy Ed Bauer, trusted doctor and son of the town’s most respected family, but Holly couldn’t put Roger entirely out of her mind. The two had an affair which resulted in the birth of their daughter, Christina, whom Holly passed off for a short time as Ed’s. When the truth of Christina’s paternity came to light, Ed divorced Holly and Holly married Roger. But their’s was not a happy union. Roger’s insecurity, in both his place in Springfield and in his marriage, led him down a treacherous path which included an affair with Ed’s kid sister and another rape, also involving Ed’s new wife, with whom Roger had shared a past. The walls began to close in on Roger as Holly, fed up with his infidelities, prepared to take their daughter and leave.

The rape scene is difficult to watch. Unlike a similar rape on General Hospital involving Luke and Laura, which the show’s writers would later revise as a seduction when the actors’ on-screen chemistry proved too hot to ignore (they’d revise it again as rape years later), Guiding Light left no doubt that what occurred between husband and wife was a horrific violation. The scene begins with Roger arriving home just as Holly was about to leave him. Surmising the situation, Roger prevents her from leaving, taking her suitcase from her and throwing it across the room, then physically threatening her as she tries to get away. The scene ends with Roger assaulting Holly. The shot lingers only long enough to show him pinning her down on the bed while she pleaded for him to stop before the scene fades.

Two things come to mind whenever I watch this scene on YouTube. First, the acting between actors Michael Zaslow and Maureen Garrett was superb. As Holly, Garrett was confident and assertive, determined to take control of her life, but as the threat of violence asserted itself, her confidence withered away until she was reduced to a frightened child. Throughout the scene, Garrett moved back and forth between both dichotomies. As she desperately attempted to reason with Roger, she lowered her voice and spoke in a slow, deliberate manner. But after Roger slapped her and threw her down on the couch, her demeanor changed. Her body stiffens and appears to fold inward as though she is anticipating more blows and her voice becomes a high-pitched whine as she begs Roger to leave her alone. The scene is all the more compelling and difficult to watch because we are watching more than just Holly’s physical violation but a spiritual and psychological one as well. Rarely, has rape ever been portrayed in a painfully truthful way. 

Zaslow, likewise, did a terrific job. His Roger Thorpe was more than a one-note monster. While his behavior was monstrous, he was also a damaged soul, a man whose ambitions and talents could never match the societal constrictions that denied him personal and professional success. As Roger berates his wife and callously asks her to compare him to his nemesis Ed Bauer in bed---“You probably wouldn’t be in such a hurry to cut out from him like you’re cutting out from my miserable life”---he comes across less as a two-dimensional villain and more of a man who knows he has reached the point of no return. His ambitions and insecurities have created a fatal mix that crushed whatever good was in him. Zaslow’s masterful performance makes it easy to sympathize with Roger. At one point, he’s barely able to get his lines out, his voice breathless and huffy. Whether this was done by design or because Zaslow himself got caught up in the scene, I can’t tell, but it does lend Roger a poignant vulnerability on the level of a tragic, Shakespearean character. Because of Zaslow, Roger became a character fans both hated and pitied.

Roger and Holly Thorpe
The production values are impressive too. Videography, by 1970s standards, were fairly minimal, with camera angles limited to close-ups and master-shots. But the rape scene set new standards for daytime. A hand-held was used for some of the scenes, the first ever for soaps, and was utilized in such a way that allowed viewers to not only step into the scene but into Holly’s point of view. In one shot, where Roger slapped his chest and asked Holly why she never looks at him the same way she looks at Ed, the audio was somewhat distorted, the image softened, disrupting the fluidity of the unobtrusive set-ups. It’s disorienting and almost surreal, capturing the surge of adrenaline people often experience during violence. Along with the score, which is both menacing and understated, the scene puts viewers in a frightening and uncompromising position, pretty daring for daytime TV. Women watching this at home didn’t have to imagine their worst fear (if they had not already gone through it before) but were experiencing it vicariously through Holly.

The scene made such a huge impact that by the time Holly had Roger charged for marital rape, another first in television history, Garrett received tons of fan mail in support. 

The rape story line was before I started watching the series, but when both Garrett and Zaslow returned to the show ten years later, their strange, neurotic and tragically painful relationship became one of my favorite story lines. While the show’s gender politics was questionable at times (the writers danced around a romantic relationship that didn’t really exist the first time around), there was no denying the chemistry of both actors and their ability to breathe life into some of the most complex characters to ever hit television.
Soap operas are by no means perfect and, at times, have told stories that are questionable when it comes to gender, race, and class. They’ve had their fare share of stinkers, both story- and acting-wise. And yet, there were times, more than I can relate here, in which they were delightfully subversive, broke the rules and reset them again, and reached for moments of transcendence that television would not fully embrace until both primetime and cable began churning out more challenging fare. And, while most contemporary viewers and critics turn their noses up at a medium that is sadly going the way of TV westerns, shows like Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, and Breaking Bad owe a great deal of debt to the daytime serials of the past.  

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude

Gabriel Garcia Marquez begins his novel One Hundred Years of Solitude with this line: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” What a marvelous way to begin a story, so alive with the world in its very clauses, just as William Blake suggests exist within a grain of sand. So much is going on here and yet Marquez presents his world, Macondo, the fictional community that figures predominantly in many of his stories, with the kind of fluidity that is pure music.

Notice how he begins this sentence: “Many years later.” There’s something wonderfully vague about this beginning. Not five years or twenty years or even the one hundred years in its title, but “many years” as though time is a flowing river blending effortlessly into the sea. Even this beginning suggests a media res, a middle of things, a violent disruption of order. Here is a history being suggested, whether the history of Colonel Buendía or a history of Macondo or a history of Latin America. The sentence sets the reader up for a tale that goes beyond the singular, and frankly violent moment of its beginning. Someone will die, but this death is but a moment in a far bigger canvas. Marquez pitches his novel backwards and forwards in time, beginning with the Colonel facing a firing squad, then moving further back to his childhood. We know in the sparsest sense what this childhood might entail. There is something magical about the idea of “discovering ice,” as though this memory not only encapsulates a “distant afternoon” of the colonel’s childhood but of history itself. Marquez further drives this impression home in the following sentences with “a bed of polished prehistoric eggs” or of a world “so recent that many things lacked names...” This is the way a child might see the world: huge and new and strange and wonderful. The first sentence sets up this magic and what will soon follow throughout the entire novel.

I mentioned before about a violent disruption, but the entire sentence is full of disruptions and contradictions. The clause “as he faced the firing squad” is as violent a disruption as any sentence can bear. It punches its way through brutally and unforgivingly, interrupting the rhythm of the sentence with a rhythm of its own, as all acts of violence must. Yet this violence is well into the future, a future that pushes further outward as the sentence continues. From there Marquez establishes another rhythm, one that is much more languorous, as though one falling into a daydream to escape the unpleasant or mundane, and indeed Colonel Buendía is facing the violent end of his life. Yet, as the old saying goes, his life flashes before his eyes, unfolding delicately like onionskin. Marquez fully builds his world with the complexities that it contains. There is the end of history and the beginning of it as well. There is death and birth, destruction and renewal. One can read this single line and have a sense of an entire story. We might not know who Colonel Buendia is or why he is being executed, but it is the very ambiguity of these questions that fuels the beauty of this first sentence and why it pulls me in as a reader. 

The best stories are the ones that leave enough space for writers to enter. They reveal only what is necessary and allows the reader to fill in the white spaces with her own imagination. Marquez creates a first sentence that is balanced beautifully between what is there and what is imagined. We do not need a fully descriptive passage of what Buendía looks like or what his executioners look like. And yet there they are: as real as what could possibly have been written on page. This is the world Blake refers to. Within one sentence, with carefully selected words, Marquez is able to construct a world in which, as the novel soon unfolds, a world so fully realized, so fully contradictory and ambiguous and magical, that it leaps off the page.