Who’s Naughty and Nice?

If the bar for presents from Santa Claus is who’s been naughty or nice why shouldn’t we also use it for all the fictional characters in our lives?   These days they seem far more alive than any number of real people we come across daily – especially those we see daily reports about on television.

Yes we, or perhaps only I, have gotten to the point where what’s out there on an hour-to-hour basis is more impossible to fathom than any extreme or even random action taken on any one of our favorite TV shows by any one of our favorite friends um, characters.

The best reason to be antisocial this season

The most overused expression of 2017 – aside from the world is ending – has to be “we live in The Golden Age of Television.” Nevertheless, we do. The choices feel infinite and, instead of what used to be 439 channels and still nothing to watch, we’ve now got so much we want to watch and so little time to do so.

Make of that last sentence what you will. And drink each time you ponder the part about time and little.

Certainly, it’d be a bit alarming to start buying actual gifts for your favorite friends characters. Or would it? I, for one, have a new bar for alarming and it’s neither nice or naughty. It’s scary.

Just call me Kenneth the Page

Which is not the case for the best of my fantasy buddies. They’re not only naughty AND nice, they never fail to disappoint me – especially in the toughest times – which in these days is every day.

THE LIST:

#5 – Hannah Baker (Thirteen Reasons Why) and Jack Pearson (This Is Us), played by Katherine Langford and Milo Ventimiglia

Just give me all the Kleenex now

Well, why NOT start with TWO DEAD PEOPLE? No, these are not spoilers. In the theme of reality IS fantasy these two characters are more alive to their friends and relatives in death than perhaps they ever were when they were actually living.

You can say both are naughty because they seemed to have ultimately caused their own deaths. For Hannah, it was a suicide. For Jack, well – the writers haven’t quite revealed it yet but the drinking and his repressed dark side are both pointing to a demise that was at least, in part, his own doing.

Which makes it all the more memorably heartbreaking to recognize that Jack and Hannah were/are both – so damn nice!

Jack Pearson is the fantasy Dad whose bon mots are timeless life lessons passed on to us, along with endless supplies of sensitivity and an eternally buoyant hairline. Oh, the hairline.

#HAIRENVY

Hannah Baker is girl that got away (literally), the girl who made you laugh, the girl who was the smartest and most infuriating in high school and the girl who you still wonder about decades later and would choose over almost any one else to have just one more final meeting with.

They both remind us that life is fleeting and every so often make us want to contact the estranged parent, friend or person we haven’t yet gotten the nerve to talk to before it’s too late. Which, in itself, is pretty damn nice, indeed.

#4 –  Dougie Jones/Agent Dale Cooper/Evil Doppelganger Cooper (Twin Peaks: The Return), played by Kyle Maclachlan

Hair is becoming a theme here

For those who didn’t tune in to this limited Showtime series to see what happened to Agent Cooper 25 years later, suffice it to say that these three people are indeed all part of one person.   No, you don’t want the explanation. Just accept it.

Dougie Jones walks and talks like a programmed robot (which he indeed may be) but all bets are off when he enables a “homeless” woman in Las Vegas to hit numerous jackpots on the slot machine and bring reams of his own winnings to his long suffering wife and kid – all while unwittingly bringing out the best of two dim-witted Mafia guys with his innate kindness.

Which doesn’t mean he’s incapable of choking a person who gets in his way. Though much of this is left to his Evil Doppelganger who shoots, bites, knives and brutally kicks his way through multiple murders. This version is the irresistible id of evil – someone we all revile because he’s the miniscule evil part of us we would never publicly admit we occasionally have to repress. Not that I just did.

Not me… all the time

As for Agent Cooper, what can you say about a guy who has barely aged a day in a quarter of a century? You admit he’s one of your faves, meet him for pie and coffee and find out his secrets – many of which are still to be revealed.   A 2042 sequel?   We’ll see. On second thought, maybe one of you will.

#3 –  Offred/June Osborne (The Handmaid’s Tale), played by Elisabeth Moss

Peggy Olson sure has changed #jonhammwhereareyou

No one expressed the naughtiness of our current reality and dystopic alternative reality than Offred. It feels reductionist to say the most famous handmaid on any plane was the precursor to the #MeToo movement and impossible to believe that she became the poster child for all of our worst fears about America in the Age of T—P.

Before Offred was an enslaved, raped and tortured handmaid she was the fun-loving, feisty and sweet June Osborne – just a gal making her way in a big city where she worked, fell in love and lived a life. It wouldn’t seem imaginable that her past could serve as prologue to her future but that’s the point – both we and June are often too busy and not observant enough to pick up the signs.

This is where Offred takes over and shows us there are times when naughty is the essential survival skill and nice is a but a mere luxury – some would say relic – of the past. If that seems applicable to the way we live now, well perhaps it is. Or soon will be.

#2 – Dustin Henderson (Stranger Things 2), played by Gaten Matarazzo

CODE RED

Twelve year-old Dustin has a lisp, unruly hair, mad crushes on two teenage girls who will prove unattainable and a look that will forever read best friend rather than star anything.

But Dustin also subverts every stereotype as we watch him not only tame his hair but prove time and time again he is the smartest, funniest and overall most charming in the room – or in town.

don’t forget that Farrah Fawcett hair product #thankssteve

This is not to say he is without his faults. Hiding a slimy and mysteriously growing little creature in your home and allowing it to eat everything you can find, including your (NO SPOILERS HERE but you can imagine) wasn’t the best of ideas. Nor is his unwavering loyalty to the bonds of childhood friendships. Or is it?

The latter is a question we all ask and re-ask ourselves through the decades, which is why every victory this kid has and each mistake he makes feels impossibly awful and improbably life-affirming.

Dustin manages to be a piece of the young us we will always be on the inside.   That he not only brings back those awkward times but makes us simultaneously long for them and embrace him, is the ultimate achievement of both the character AND the young actor who so effortlessly embodies him. And us.

#1 – Miriam (Midge) Maisel (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel), played by Rachel Bronsnahan

Bring it, Midge!

What we all needed in 2017 and will need in the future is funny and MIDGE IS, most of all, FUNNY. Funny, funny, funny, funny. How ironic is it, then, that she exists in 1958, 1959 and 1960?

Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is a relatively new streaming series that many of you have not yet sampled but will surely do so as it gains awards and attracts critical attention, steam and an expanded audience in the near future.   This is because it is indeed FUNNY. Funny, funny, funny, funny.

Midge is an unlikely mainstream star in her time – a young, Jewish housewife/daughter/mother on the upper west side of New York who is much too smart and too witty for her own good, at least in the decade in which she lives, yet just creative enough to make it work for herself in the most unlikely of professionals – stand up comedy. Or so one hopes.

SLAY

If you’ve ever wondered if you’d have been better off being born in another decade or place (and which of us haven’t this year), Midge gives you hope. She’s the ultimate problem solver for herself and everyone else – that is until it all falls apart and she has to rethink everything and everyone she once knew for sure.

She fails, gets lucky, fails again, opens her mouth when anyone in their right mind would hold back, gets lucky once more, stumbles – and through timing and fate keeps talking back – until she begins to finally get heard. Only to lose a little more ground once more after a big gain.

Midge gets shoved onstage, performs drunk and/or stoned, bombs big time and occasionally slays – in a small club in Greenwich Village, N.Y. with sticky seats where the men tell jokes and the women sit there and laugh.   It’s hilarious watching her discover what those close to her have always known but never ever told her – that she’s the best joke teller in the room.   But it’s even better when she begins to discover what pretty much everyone else in the world knows: she too is an artist – though not quite the kind she had thought or even ever hoped for.

That Girl

I have a close female friend in my life I’ve always called a can-do gal to her face and have always made sure she knew it was the highest of compliments. That is because this is a person who, despite everything, always manages to make it happen and always does so with humor. She has fun.   Not only that, when you’re with her you get to have fun. And at least feel like you’re accomplishing something.

Midge is this kind of person. You can’t help but want to hang out with her, hoping that some of that can-do joy will eventually rub off. Not to mention, she’s…well, you know.

That’s why these days she’s my #1. Fictionally, at least.

Fred Astaire – “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town”

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Notes from the Emmys

Unlike the presidency, the Emmys go to the winner of the popular vote, joked host Stephen Colbert in his opening monologue.

That was pretty funny with just the right patina of tragedy – which, of course, is exactly what comedy should be.

Still, I much preferred the cold open musical number where he joined a bunch of handmaids in long, unflattering robes and white bonnets, dancing their way onto the stage and an audience of industry stars, only to then whip off their garments and turn into the Radio City Rockettes right before our eyes – still wearing their bonnets, of course.

How am I just noticing that some of the Handmaids are Handmen?? #stillfunny

It occurred to me that if Trump had his druthers he just might like certain Rockettes to be wearing those bonnets at a Christmas show in the White House – as he sexually harassed them and more – since this could hide some of the faces that displeased him. Sure, they all might be #UnderHisEye, but it is He that always gets to choose exactly what he sees – and how much.

Okay, I digress. Or do I?

When TV and real life come crashing together. It’s already happening.

For as Colbert wisely stated, Donald Trump is indeed the biggest television star in the world right now and who could argue with that?   On one hand, that gives him the ultimate TV Q – a worldwide face known by everyone. On the other, it makes him the ultimate target of each and every one of us. So let’s just say what pleased me most about Sunday night’s ceremonies were the numerous bullseyes scored right into the center of his, um…Q.

Donald Glover won two Emmys for starring in and directing his FX comedy series Atlanta (the first Black director to do so in this category) and only semi-satirically thanked Trump for making Black people #1 on the most oppressed list. This was not only a poison dart of a joke but a not so subtle acknowledgement that were we not actually living the lopsided reality of Trumpmania he (Glover) would likely not have won at all.

Bonus points for looking so good while doing it #purplesuitALLDAY

Of course, we’ll never know. Though one would like to think our Electoral POTUS could at least bring some smidgen of good to the world.   Though – well… maybe not.

One thing IS for certain — the vast majority of the best series Emmys went to shows that directly, or quite unsubtly and purposefully, dealt with what our Electoral POTUS has wrought on the country.

The best dramatic series – Hulu’s Handmaid’s Taleis the futuristic yet seemingly barely exaggerated stasis of life in America under a Trump-like extreme right wing of religious crazies.

… and Offred went GOLDEN #LizzieMoss #YASSS

The best comedy series – HBO’s Veep paints a barely exaggerated picture of what it’s like in the Oval office, for women in politics and for the rest of us who are left to follow along either helplessly in lock step or just plain confused.

The best variety sketch series – NBC’s Saturday Night Livewas the ultimate pop culture touchstone of all things Trump-related, be it arch nemesis Hillary/Kate Mckinnon’s win as supporting actress; Melissa McCarthy’s guest comedy actress win for playing now former press secretary Sean “Spicey” Spicer; or Alec Baldwin’s win as best supporting actor for playing, well…you know.

Making TV Great Again

The best variety/talk show – HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver – spent most of its half hours in total intellectual outrage chronicling the many blatant lies told by Electoral POTUS with solid research to disprove them. Too bad most of his voters and he himself will never see and process the evidence. (Note: Still, Trump did once tweet that host and fellow nominee Colbert was a no talent guy during the eligibility period so one supposes that’s something).

Also kudos to John Oliver for bringing this into our lives #Drumpf4ever

This says nothing of all the other winners and their Trump-related themes. The oppression of one woman – and by proxy a group of women – by a very tall powerful white man in best limited series Big Little Lies; the dystopian world in best television movie Black Mirror, whose Emmy winning creator admitted has been likened to one long never-ending look at 2017 madness; not to mention the many awards to the largest group of non-white and sometimes non-heterosexual men and women the Emmys has EVER seen. (Note: Including Lena Waithe, the first Black woman EVER to win a comedy series writing award).

Move over Donald Glover, THIS is a THE emmy suit! #GoLena

That is not to say each and every one of the above didn’t earn the accolades. Only to acknowledge that awards have mostly to do with the intersection of talent, timing and luck and nothing makes the #resistance happier than to finally be feeling #woke enough to acknowledge all those who somehow managed to slip though the cracks in a pre-Trumpian world forcefully pried our eyes permanently (well hopefully) wide open.

And yes – California and we here in Los Angeles (the capital of show business awards giving) are at the heart of the #resistance. Though I, for one, don’t think of myself as #elite. There is nothing #elite about any of this because we non-Trump voters are now a mere minority power in national governance despite actually being in the #majority.

… and I have a lot of shoes

So how is it that we’re leading a mere #resistance? Well, ask any woman who has ever wondered why, if they handily outnumber the men in populace, it has been for centuries that mostly men are in power.

As they say in Facebook statuses (and probably by more than a few Russian bots): It’s complicated.

The Chair’s Worst Emmy Moment: Colbert joking with the real former Trump press secretary Sean Spicer, who rode out in a fake podium spouting more untruths we’re now somehow supposed to laugh at while simultaneously normalizing him. #NeverForget

Yeah… I’m not sure about this Sean. #gohome #goaway

The Chair’s Best Emmy Joke: Colbert’s quip that Donald Trump is Walter Much Whiter – in a nod to Breaking Bad’s crazed and tragically iconic lead Walter White.

Now that was not only funny, with a patina of tragedy, but very appropriate. After all, the fictional Walter White’s most memorable line – delivered in equal tones of indignation and outrage at not being listened to and adored– was:

I am not in danger. I AM the danger.  A guy opens his door and gets shot and you think that of me? No. I am the one who knocks!

Lesley Gore – “You Don’t Own Me” (from “Offred (Pilot)”)

Darlings in Dystopia

The first masterful piece of mass entertainment reflecting the Trump era is here and, strangely enough, it’s based on a novel from 32 years ago. Thanks Hulu, or more correctly, damn you, Hulu – for your new series The Handmaid’s Tale.

Set in a dystopian future where women have no rights and the country has undergone a cultural/religious revolution brought on by terrorism and perhaps limited (!) nuclear war, The Handmaid’s Tale is simultaneously riveting and extremely difficult to watch. Much like an accident. Or Sean Spicer’s daily White House press briefings when not given by Melissa McCarthy.

…and not nearly as delicious/campy/tragic/gorgeous as FX’s Feud #ohmamacita

Of course, to reduce the retelling of Margaret Atwood’s classic 1985 novel, which she wrote decades ago in Germany when the Berlin Wall was coming down, as merely an allegory for Trumpism would be selling it short. Not to mention it would be giving the Electoral College POTUS too much credit. (Note: The mere mention of his name is too much credit for me, but that’s another story, and not a particularly funny or readable one. So I will #resist the temptation).

The brilliance of Atwood’s story is that her dystopian world adapts to easily reflect the post-modern apocalyptic realities from any number of time periods in which we currently reside. Though perhaps this series just makes it look that way. More correctly, it’s probably a little bit of both.

Imagine a world where women are not in control of their reproductive rights or being gay is seen as “gender treachery” and appropriately punished.   Then revisit Trump’s sound bite at a town hall event with Republican voters in Wisconsin last year where he publicly stated that if abortion becomes illegal women should face “some form of punishment.

Or simply read about the well-documented death and torture of gay men now occurring in numerous “detention centers” in pro-Russia Chechnya.

Unless this is where you’d rather live #keepinitreal

In the Hulu/Atwood world of terrorism, contemporary women, who only hours before were annoyed that their Uber driver was late, now find all their digital imprints frozen and assets seized. It’s for their own safety, say the authorities. Terrorists. Nuclear war. Centralize power and control for PROTECTION.

When mass sterility (due to environmental poisoning) sets in only a few years later it’s not hard to see that the few females that are still somehow able to reproduce become a treasured governmental commodity. I mean, what price is the continuation of the WORLD, right?

Well.. don’t get ahead of yourself Ms. Knowles

The fact that this is a world now dominated primarily by wealthy WHITE men, helped along by a few female counterparts not quite as powerful as they are, is not really questioned. And the fact that it’s not really questioned by the masses is one of the few differences it has from the basic world order in 2017.

Right after the inauguration of Donald Trump 3.2 million people took to the streets in a march for women’s rights. Which in turn became a growing resistance to emerging authoritarian rule that promised to roll back the rights of numerous other minorities – of color, of race, of national origin, of sexual persuasion, you name it – by an authoritarian voted in by a PLURALITY of voters. The idea, to save the country going down the tubes by making it GREAT again, was not sitting particularly well with its masses.

Pretty much sums it up

So given what I saw as one of those 3.2 million masses marching back in January it was not too difficult, and more than a little scary, for me to make the leap this Hulu series asks. Especially since the three black hooded corpses of a priest, a doctor and a gay man hanging on ropes high from the walls of what used to be a former library were really only incidental backdrops. That’s how I often feel now as a gay man in Trump country and Trump logic.   An annoying incidental to the main story.

Which in some ways is a better place to be than enduring the indignities many females are facing in Trump America. Certainly, it’s better than what the lead women in the Hulu show were about to endure. Though even here I hate to sell the latter short.

We’re not in Stars Hollow anymore, Rory.

It’s hard to tell where any of this is going or whether fiction will for sure prove worse than fact. As a wise psychiatrist once told me, you can only operate from “what is.” And what we do know in the real world is that an estimated 13,000 women are now planning to run for office across the country and a group called Emerge America recently held training classes for 25 female Democratic candidates for Congress, state senate, city council, etc. in 18 states.

Their numbers are up 87% since the election, which seems reasonable. So do comments from the female candidates on a recent NBC news report where one admitted needing practice in the best ways to do things like “asking for money” and “connecting with voters.” Those skills don’t always come naturally for those not born into power positions. But what do they say – Necessity is the mother of invention? Actually, it was not they but the Greek philosopher Plato and yes, I had to look it up. (Note: And yes, he was a man, as far as we know. Which doesn’t make it any less true).

well, that too. #wink

As far as the series is concerned, I take some solace in the casting of Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss in the key lead role of Offred/June, our birth machine/handmaid heroine. Watching Ms. Moss personify the slow empowerment of the 1960s woman as Mad Men’s Peggy Olson – who goes from mousy, intelligent and intimidated to smart, savvy and, yes, empowered, gave hope to many of us hopeless incidentals. And to any of us who have ever felt, or will feel this way.

How I will always remember you girl #peggyforever

It’s one of the best gifts a truly gifted actor can give us. So in the bleak but all too truly allegorical world of The Handmaid’s Tale we can’t help but feel safe in her hands.

One wishes the same could be said about the leading player, or players, in our 2017 reality.

 

Open Books

Does anybody really want to be private anymore?  Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook and their many future and inevitable iterations would say otherwise.

The idea that each of us can express opinions on a mass scale and actually be heard – well, read and seen, which are close but not exactly the same thing – feels revolutionary.  Rather than shouting in the wind, or to your family and friends, one can literally shout at the world these days and it is entirely possible that a person or mass of people that one’s never met will see, hear, perhaps even listen… but most importantly RESPOND.   Of course, not always kindly.  File that under be careful what you wish for.

Oh days of yesteryear

Still, one could argue the situation these days is a lot more preferable than it used to be.  There was a time not so long ago that one could die in frustration with one’s inner thoughts or angry outer thoughts that the world too often turned away from.  Certainly not everything one has to say or voice is important to the world but what is certain is that it is very much important to that person.

We all, each of us, have at least one thing in common and that is the desire to be heard, and in turn, hopefully, understood.  By someone.  Or many.  Why?  Well, it varies.  Sometimes it’s on an interpersonal issue with someone we know.  In other more existential moments it is on larger topics and what we believe about ourselves.  about the world, and about humanity.  And in loftier but no less meaningful moments it is about a pressing desire to proclaim what is RIGHT AND WRONG in  ALL of the aforementioned orbits.

It really is hard being the smartest person in the room

When we can’t stop shouting about an instance, an argument or an issue, it’s more than pressing.  It’s crushingly personal.  And we can’t shut up about it no matter how much we try or don’t attempt to.  This, in particular, is where a 2017 life comes in handy.  Even if one doesn’t receive a direct response (DM) there is a feeling that somehow, somewhere, someone listened.  And might act on what was said.  By US.

Oh, and by the way and on a very much-related topic – this – more than anything else – is the dirty little secret about being a WRITER.  (Note:  Though certainly, not the only one).

Was someone spying on me? #meeveryday

On a recent and quite brilliant stand alone episode of Girls, Lena Dunham’s emerging writer Hannah Horvath is summoned to the breathtakingly gorgeous and sprawling apartment of a famous writer played by The Americans’ Matthew Rhys.  It seems Hannah has written a think piece for a feminist blog about this man, one of her all-time literary heroes, and his misadventures with a series of four different college age women he mentored and taught with whom he had unwanted or perhaps manipulated wanted, sexual relations.

Hannah tells him she wrote the piece as a means of support to thousands of young women who are forever scarred by a situation of abuse at the hands of someone more powerful.  But the writer makes a powerful case that although her words are brilliantly executed by someone with rare talents, they only tell a partial story of what she merely chose to see based on second and third hand accounts that she read.  For to be a true writer, he tells her, is to not only respect all sides but to dig deeper into one’s subject and understand reality, motivation, connection and situational circumstance in order to truly determine what constitutes the truth.

At which point, Hannah and the author have their own new interaction that EXACTLY mirrors one of the aforementioned circumstances, leaving it to the audience to determine who was right or wrong.  Or if, indeed, such a thing even exists at all.

Oh how I’ll miss you, Girl #hannah4ever

There are all types of writing and each has their individual demands.  But what they all have in common are two very specific things:

1. The truth

and…

2. What the writer believes the truth to be.

Of course, there are few absolutes in the world outside of math and science and lately even those have been brought into question.  Which really only leaves us with #2 and brings us full circle.

As both a writing teacher and someone who annually reads numerous works of writing from all over the country for various grants and scholarships, it becomes joyously and sometimes painfully obvious to me that when reading a writer one learns as much about that person as one does about the issue or subject being presented.  Often more.

You can’t help but begin to wonder – why of all the subjects in the world did this person choose to concoct a story about homeless LGBT youth?  What happened in their background that provoked this individual to pen a story about a 1930s honkytonk in the southwest with such fervor?  Who would choose to devote years to telling the tale of gnome who appears to a young lad in the middle of a cornfield at turn of the 20th century Midwest?

Or a tiny sprite of a girl who loves eggos

I choose these because in the last year all three have been among the most outstanding student and professional pieces I’ve read from young, unknown authors.  And in the cases of at least two of the three (Note: I do not know the author of the third) I know the writers revealed quite a bit more about themselves than they ever intended.  And to their great credit.

I’ve quoted it before but it bears repeating that no less than six famous writers are credited with having once famously stated (and I’m paraphrasing because five of them most certainly did):  Being a writer is easy.  Just open a vein.

And add to that in less witty parlance:  There is no other way to get to the truth.

Perhaps (?) (!) that was what Margaret Atwood was doing in the early eighties when she wrote the now famous A Handmaid’s Tale – a work of fiction in a dystopian world that not only went on to become a best seller which has since never been out of print but has spawned both a feature film and an upcoming Hulu television series where Ms. Atwood herself makes a cameo guest star appearance.

And…… PEGGY!

In her story, a Christian fundamentalist movement takes over the United States -which reeks of pollution and sexually transmitted diseases – and installs a totalitarian regime that subjugates women and forces a particular class of them to serve as the term vessels of unwanted pregnancies to a more powerful group of men forcing their wills on them for what they believe to be the ostensible survival of society.

Well, of course this is a work of fiction!

Fact almost seems more surreal than fiction these days

So much so that Ms. Atwood herself penned a piece several days ago for the NY Times explaining where she was and what she was thinking when she first wrote her perennial bestseller.

As well as what she could offer as to it’s meaning in what has been promised to be a new and improved United States that will once again be great again.

It’s a curious position to be in – addressing the real possibilities of a fictional story written in the past of an unimaginable dictatorial future some believe we are headed towards in the present.  But like any great writer she demurred on how prescient she was, attempting to be vaguely encouraging without providing answers.  In the age of what we’re constantly being told is instant communication, it’s up to all of us to draw those conclusions in the present.  Loudly.  For our futures.  Revealing not only where we stand but real parts of ourselves.  Before that is no longer a possibility.