So Long, Dear Friend

The death of Valerie Harper this week got me to thinking about TV characters and the people who love them.

This is Us.

You see what I did there.  Even in writing about television a TV reference sneaks in.

For those too young to remember, Valerie Harper played Rhoda Morgenstern, Mary Richards’s talky, funny, Jewish best friend forever neighbor on the famed Mary Tyler Moore Show in the 1970s.  She was so popular she was later spun off as the star of her own show, Rhoda, where she was given a fuller life, less catastrophic dates and, finally, a hunky man who became her husband in one of the highest rated episodes on TV at the time.

Picture Perfect

Of course, television being what it was/is, she eventually had to get divorced (Note: for no good reason, in my opinion) so the whole cycle of jovial unhappiness could begin again.

I grew up with Rhoda and she meant a lot to me, mostly because I knew her.  In the seventies there were 0.0 young Jewish New Yorkers on hit television shows and certainly none as instantly recognizable and human as Rhoda.  We all not only knew her, we were her on any given day.

And who wouldn’t want to be?

The head scarves alone!

Rhoda joked about her life being a mess but she wore vibrant colors, had perfect one-liners for every occasion and was smart.  Moreover, she was a survivor.  You always knew Rhoda would be okay and even if you couldn’t literally be her or have her physically in your life you wanted her to at least be in your living room or bedroom or wherever you watched television, with you, whenever possible.

Much of this was due to Valerie Harper’s ability to embody a well-written sitcom role, take her beyond the laughs and make her feel real.  It was just impossible to believe that in real-life she wasn’t Jewish, didn’t speak with a trace of a New York accent and had never appeared in a TV comedy before she became Rhoda.  But she wasn’t, she didn’t and she never had.

Yes way! #acting

Certainly, you don’t have to be a Jewish New Yorker to play one but back in the 1970s, and even now, many performers become so obsessed with playing us that they get the accent and the mannerisms exactly right to the point where they are not playing anything else.   They (nee we) become wawking, tawking hand-waving neurotics ready to mow down anything and anyone that gets in our way.

Okay, sure, we are all of that.  (Note: See Larry David on any given day, even though he long ago transplanted to L.A.).  But there are times when we also do color outside our given lines.  Rhoda always did that and without a very special episode where a beloved relative gets hit by a car and she has to deal with it seriously.  Or one where she’s chastised by everyone around her for making a bad joke about the accident. (Note: See Larry David again).

See? Relatable.

Of course, this phenomenon stretches across all ethnic, sexual and religious lines.  As a gay man I’ve cringed, ranted and left the room numerous times over the years as some straight actor badly pretended he was a certain type of homosexual male and then went on to win an award for said performance.

What? Who? #shade

Name your minority group and I bet you could, too.

Meaning, we all need our Rhodas.

Luckily times have changed and, with it, the level of writing, especially on what is now broadly considered to be contemporary television.   Given where cable and streaming series have taken us, it is not unusual in these times for many actors to transcend their actual selves and portray believable niche characters that bear little relation to whom they truly are in real life.

But they exist in a 2019 world where the roles are a lot deeper and niche is the new…Black? Asian? Jewish? Gay? Hispanic?

…or if you’re Andre Braugher: Black, Gay, and a Police Captain for the NYPD

It is also a world where, ironically, the brilliant work Valerie Harper did might today almost be required to be done by a New York, Jewish actress.  See if that gets you to thinking a whole host of non-PC as well as PC thoughts.

This is exactly the point where, for me, television comes in handy.  Every time things get too heavy or confusing in my life I know l can feel comfort in being able to wander onto the couch – or if it’s really bad, a bed – and spend minutes or hours with a whole host of non-existent people who, in those moments, are as real to me as anyone I’ve ever met.  By my count over the years:

Lucy Ricardo’s determination made show business not seem all that bad.

 Murphy Brown allowed me to hold out hope that in the end journalism would get the last  laugh, and word.

Let’s just not talk about the reboot, OK?

 Olivia Benson on the street reinforced to me that on balance there is someone to protect those of us who somehow managed to survive against all odds.

 Don Draper shamed me back to the gym for fear we (or the actor playing him) happen to meet on a busy NYC street (or preferably empty stuck elevator) during one of my yearly trips.

working on my time machine right now

Walter White scared me into always protecting myself by reminding me there can still be great danger around the corner because anyone could break bad.  

Liz Lemon made me feel sane and well adjusted, by comparison.

Jack Pearson helped me imagine a world where I really did want to spend time with every member of my extended family, and

Midge Maisel made me laugh, cringe and sometimes cry at seeing all of my dead relatives and their friends on the small screen in ways that I could never have imagined in the days when I first met Rhoda.

What is it about funny ladies in good headwear?

RIP good friend.

I will still miss you even though I can see you tomorrow and every day of the week for the rest of my life.

Rhoda Opening / Closing Credits Season 1 

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”