Sometimes You Can’t Go Home Again

It feels like the new television season has started but, well, are there even seasons anymore?  Not only on television but, in general?

How about movies?  Isn’t late September/early October when we begin ushering in the prestige films?  Yet it’s Shang-Chi and Venom 2 for the fall, 2021 box-office win. 

Next….

Not a bad outcome if you’re a theatre owner, since there is very little “prestige” Covid box-office business to be had.  In fact, doing any business at all right now could be considered prestigious.

It was in this spirit that I approached my personal, potentially exciting entertainment choices this week.  And, in fact, it could account for my choices. 

It does not escape me that the three new offerings I was most looking forward to – the new Apple+ series, The Problem with Jon Stewart; the debut of the long-awaited big screen prequel to television’s legendary The Sopranos HBO series, The Many Saints of Newark; as well as the return of Saturday Night Live for SEASON 47, were all subconscious attempts to recapture my past.

Live from LA it’s 2005!

This was a time when the excitement and potential of new seasons seemed infinite.

A time when being snide and being a cynic did not necessarily go hand in hand.

As I recall.

But let’s not quite go there, as the kids say (Note: Or once said!).  Even though Going There is the title of Katie Couric’s new memoir where she dishes former morning show competitor Diane Sawyer as her complete opposite – tall and blonde, with a voice full of money.

Katie is shady and we all know it!

Yes, I’m sidetracking, but interestingly, even my choice of sidetrack subject harkens back to a time of what was rather than who is now.  (Note: And if you don’t relate to that, let enough years go by and, trust me, if you’re lucky enough, one day you will).

As for my choices, let’s say they all have their charms, even as they all, at times, felt a bit charmless and disappointing.  Which probably says more about me than it does about them. 

After all, when you go to a party expecting to recapture the perceived halcyon days of your past, you have concocted a recipe for disappointment.  It’s self-sabotage to the nth degree, and colossally unfair to blame all your troubles on the party you’re standing in.  Which is not to say this present party is entirely blameless.

But home is in 2021…. I don’t want to!!

I’ve loved Jon Stewart a bunch of years before he took over a not very much watched Comedy Central series in 1999 called the Daily Show, revamped it, added his name into the title and in the process changed the face of political social satire and the way young people, in particular, forever perceived the news.

I saw the makings of this back in 1996 in his solo comedy special Unleavened.  That was when this fellow Jewish kid from the east coast took on the then VERY rabidly homophobic Republican Party politics and joked that presidential candidate Pat Buchanan blamed gays for so much of the country’s problems because, of course how can you concentrate on anything with the constant sound of all that butt f—-g going on in your ears.   

This is why it particularly disappointed me at how much I was disappointed in his new bi-weekly Apple+ series.  After all his achievements in re-setting political humor and taking on establishment politics, it seems only natural that the next step would be for him to be less jokey and more proactive in trying to shine a light on the serious issues he’s been mining over the years.

Certainly, Stewart’s time as an advocate for 9/11 responders would lead to him being an advocate for thousands of wounded Iraq War veterans not receiving medical coverage for various forms of cancer and other serious diseases they came down with years after their service due to their exposure to toxic chemicals. So wasn’t the latter a more than a worthy subject for show #1?

Welp, there’s definitely a problem

See, it’s his idea now that in each episode in his new series he takes on an issue – nee PROBLEM, hence the show’s title – introduce the topic with his writers and others, give reportorial examples by interviewing and discussing those it affects; and then look for solutions in a third segment by reaching out to experts and powerbrokers who could effect change.

There’s some humor in there amid all the journalistic talk as well as some satire and commentary.  And it’s a worthy undertaking. But it’s not a laugh riot – nor should it be expected to be.  And yet I suspect a show with as much potential as this could likely begin to drown in a sea of expectations of what we all so desperately want from Mr. Stewart at this point in time and what we actually believe we’re entitled to given the last 18 months.

Right on Chairy!

He seems more than aware of this too since he closed out the premiere episode joking to his writers that once the new show airs and he returns to a table full of comics backstage at a local comedy club he’s dreading lines like, ‘oh look who’s here, Mother Theresa.

Of course, he’s several steps ahead of his audience as usual, looking forward instead of back, even if we (okay, me) are right now unable to do the same.

The Many Saints of Newark is all about looking back because it literally gives us the origin story of HBO’s Sopranos.  Interestingly enough, that series debuted the same year Jon Stewart took over The Daily Show and over eight years became the first cable TV series to EVER break into the top 10 of the Nielsen ratings, essentially catapulting HBO past all of the major networks in television excellence.

It’s all vintage now!

To say that it changed the face of what could be tackled in a one-hour television drama critically and commercially doesn’t quite do justice to the impact it has had on the business model for series TV and on what was possible for all creative teams artistically if they broke out of the constraints imposed on them by the four major television networks.

With that in mind, it’s difficult to not appreciate the joys offered by The Many Saints even though most of us are indeed still watching this new Sopranos FEATURE FILM story on TELEVISION via HBO Max, rather than on the big screen its creator David Chase intended it for.

What even is TV? #deepthoughts

It would also be dishonest to say that by the end of this film one didn’t feel they were now once again ready to revisit the next chapter of the Sopranos family that picks up exactly where THIS FILM leaves off.  Because it’s only by the very end of this film that we fully get where the filmmakers were going with this somewhat generalized, episodic prequel.

Sure, it’s well acted, well made and psychologically cringe-worthy in all the best ways at various points.  But what makes it special, and what makes it tick, is all the knowledge we bring from its six seasons over eight years on HBO.  That was a time when America willingly embraced a larger than life guy running a huge criminal enterprise and family business more deadly and corrupt than anyone could fathom from the outside (Note: Sound familiar?). 

Yet for all their faults, this family, The Sopranos, have always been more inherently conflicted, and scarily human than any of its real-life present day political dynasties.  Which is what makes them all the more riveting and thought provoking in these particular times.

… and then there’s Livia

And to answer the lingering question – yes, Michael Galdolfini is often terrific playing the young version of the title role that his late father James Galdolfini, made famous.   But he doesn’t enter until halfway through the film and by the end we want more of him.  At least an HBO miniseries?  Think of it as the Jersey, or even Jersey Shore, version of The Crown.  Something that doesn’t so much try to capitalize on the past, but instead deepen our understanding of it so as not to want to repeat it.

Which brings us to Saturday Night Live.  In its 45+ years, SNL has covered about the same amount of time as The Crown has covered Queen Elizabeth’s reign.  And overall it has probably been just as effective as a series in its way.  Indeed, both have deservedly won lots of Emmys, delivered high ratings and won all kinds of other accolades even if some episodes or years wound up not delivering, and even disappointing, more often than not.

Unfortunately, this SNL opener this past weekend hosted by Owen Wilson, was much more in the latter category.

I mean.. the suit was good.

Its spoof of female hosts of The View/The Talk, Wilson lambasting Jeff Bezos in space, the show’s take on a local school board meeting with several dozen crazies testifying about government controlled nonsense, and even Wilson spoofing himself voicing a new Cars movie simply felt tired and forced. 

The new SNL cast member portraying Joe Biden – TikTok star James Austin Johnson – showed some promise.  And Pete Davidson on Weekend Update saying the outfit he wore to the Met Ball last week made him look like Tilda Swinton on casual Friday was clever.  But, oy vey, as my Grandma, used to say.  Is that all they got???? 

SAVE US KATE!

Well, next week Kim Kardashian West is the host so how much worse can it get? 

That was both snide and cynical for those keeping score.

Adele – “When We Were Young”

The One Where I Finally Understand

I have an on and off relationship with the TV show Friends and that is as it should be. 

Or, to put it in the lexicon of the series, I’m never quite sure if we truly love each other or are just taking a break.

I see what you did there!

As its creators Marta Kauffman, David Crane and Kevin S. Bright recalled in the new HBO Max special, Friends: The Reunion, the one-line pitch to network executives about the series was always this simple:

That time in your life when your friends are your family.

So naturally there comes a point when you move on, other priorities take over and you begin creating your own family

At least that’s the way Kauffman put it in a series of interviews sprinkled throughout the special.

Hearing it said out loud in such stark terms I finally understood all these many decades later, in the 20-twenties, why a television series that became an international phenomenon from 1994-2004, and continues to this day, and will likely continue for generations to come, was never MY story.

Let’s unpack that Chairy…

I’m one of those people who never thought of moving on from my really good friends.  I knew early on I didn’t want to have kids and wasn’t going to have kids. I knew my real family would be my friends, and whatever relatives I chose to stay in touch with.  I didn’t make a distinction because there NEVER WAS a distinction.

I knew that I could create my own family any way that I chose to.  It would not even for a millisecond occur to me that the people in my life closest to me, who I’d love most in the world, could NOT include those who were my dear, dear friends.

Some of this has to do with being gay and of a certain age.   Many of us LGBTQ baby boomers simply didn’t fit into the hetero-normative margins of the straight world so we fashioned an even more fun, kind and loving one comprised of OUR friends. 

You didn’t necessarily have to be queer to be part of that world.  You just hand to get it, be there and love us.

Sound familiar?

Phoebe gets it

It is important to note this was done not out of resentment but of choice.  If you grew up the way I did, at the time I did, moving on wasn’t on the table.

To have a real, true friend meant you had a forever family.  Especially if you had lived through the eighties and early nineties period prior to when Friends debuted.

A reminder of how painfully 90s Friends is

It was the height of the AIDS epidemic and by 1994 each day was like climbing through the rubble of a nuclear holocaust if you were one of my friends.  Who was alive, who was dead, who was depressed, who was doing well and who was just generally in denial or drifting or drinking/drugging themselves to death?

That was a daily occurrence and just about the only thing you knew is that your friends that remained would be there for you.

Oh Chairy.. ya did it again!

But miraculously here’s what each day also brought you —

Dumb jokes and dumb jobs; hilarious and heartbreaking dates that might or might not turn into love affairs; mortifying moments of embarrassment and secret vices that your good friends would be more than happy to publicly rag on you for…

Terrible fashion choices, silly haircuts, weight gains and weight losses, and relatives who could swoop into town and undo every neurosis you had spent years getting under control in one quick visit.

You wouldn’t think this would be the case at the time but it’s true.  It was also what made Friends work, even for those of us who didn’t quite always get it.

Well we all get bad haircuts…

Unlike other network sitcoms of its era:

  • It was funny, it was clever, it was silly and, every so often, it tugged at our heartstrings.
  • It had six of the most charismatic and adept casts in all of sitcom history – Jennifer Aniston, David Schwimmer, Courteney Cox, Matthew Perry, Lisa Kudrow and Matt LeBlanc – who even now, reassembled together again onstage at the Warner Bros. lot, some 17 years later, seem incapable of phoning in a false or phony note when it comes to their interrelationships.
Dare we say.. authentic?
  • It has even managed to rise above all types of the usual show biz b.s. antics since its been off the air, those that have eclipsed and nearly swallowed up the afterlife of almost every other late 20th century show.  To whit:

a. Yes, we knew the actors all got paid a record-setting one million plus per episode and more towards the end of its run.  We were HAPPY for them.

b. Yeah, we know to this day it’s reported the EACH make $20 million per YEAR in residuals and the show STILL generates about a billion dollars a year for WB TV.  We can live with that if it means we get to sometimes see it.

I’m with Janice here #wow

c. Uh huh, we get the friends each received about  $2.5 mill for this special alone; that there’s a lot of cosmetic “enhancements,” and hair dye, to keep them so dewy-looking; that the “girls” are closer than the guys; that some of their careers have fared better than others; and that Matthew Perry, in particular, continued to struggle with severe substance abuse and other health issues that plagued him throughout the run of the show.  Whateva and we’re rooting for him.

But nothing truly tarnishes the juggernaut that is Friends.  And if you don’t think so consider…

a. What other cast would get paid that much money to reunite?

b. Which other show has a worldwide audience ranging from Nobel Prize winner Malala to one of sport’s GOATs David Beckham?

c. And how many nineties sitcoms could get Justin Bieber to dress up live as a potato or Lady Gaga to do a duet on a song called Smelly Cat for no billing on a reunion special?

100% would watch this show

Friends, like our friends, our families, is far from perfect.  Yeah, I wish it was more multi-cultural, economically inclusive and LGBTQ positive, too.  And, um, please, no WAAAAAYY could they have afforded that apartment at that time – grandmother or not.

But I think of everyone interviewed  Matthew Perry got it exactly right when trying to express what Friends continues to mean and how it endures.

He said no matter what party you went to years later, if you ran into another cast member, you were probably going to spend the evening with them.  You apologized to whomever you were with because all bets were off.  You knew, in that moment, you could talk for hours and very likely would do so, as if no time had passed.

The indefinable pull of that type of relationship is what makes real friends.  And what made Friends.  Whatever either of their drawbacks.

Friends Opening – Season 1