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 

We’ve Got Mail

The holiday season has begun because Thanksgiving has happened.  Not only that, Black Friday pulled in a record $6.2 billion in online sales, up 23.6% from last year.

Anyone who went into a brick and mortar store…good for you!

But also know that sales for this year’s Cyber Monday (Note: That’s tomorrow) are projected to be $7.8 billion, an increase of 18% over 2017.  So you’re fighting a losing battle.

Of course none of this much matters in Hollywood when the presents that come in the mail you get most excited about are not the ones you bought online at a special discount but the ones you receive for free.  No, we’re not talking about love, thoughtfulness or anything to do with Gift of the Magi.

This is all about…..THE SCREENERS.

YASSSSSSSSS!!!

Yes, we’re THAT shallow out here.  The shallowest.  But if it bothered you all that much you wouldn’t ask to borrow them, would you??  Nor would so many of those in the entertainment biz who lived outside of Hollywood make sure that their agents, managers, publicists, unions and post offices have an address to forward these precious little gems to in advance of the holidays.

Who you callin’ Shallow? #OscarforBestSong #callingitnow

It’s amazing how a group of people who can mostly afford to go to see every movie on the planet and subscribe to all the streaming services playing a healthy number of all of the film and TV offerings available become absolutely apoplectic (Note:  with joy) when one of those unmarked boxes or padded envelopes show up at the door.

How do I know?  Because My Name is The Chair and I AM ONE OF THEM. I am a SCREENER QUEEN.

LONG MAY SHE REIGN!!

But why not get excited?  They often arrive in pretty packaging with thick stock pictures inside.  They might also have slick promotional posters, retro faux ads you could hang on the wall in a proper frame, and inside informational data you could only get if you actually read a newspaper or magazine article all the way through.  Plus, it’s all contained in a chic canister that evokes the theme of the show or the period it is set in.

This year’s second season of Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel arrived in its own cylindrical hatbox wrapped in a pretty pink ribbon the day before Thanksgiving.  Well, the first four episodes, anyway.  My sister and I were KVELLING!  (Note:  Translation – bursting with pride).

Hello, Gorgeous!

It was like the holiday gods granted us the entertainment wish we had no idea we were wishing for.  I mean, what else would a small family of Jews like us do AFTER stuffing their faces with a meal that only someone with Martha Stewart’s well, let’s politely say panache, could pull off without a hitch?  Or WANT to.  Because truly, Mrs. Maisel is THE most Jewish thing (Note: In a good way) I have ever seen on TV or in the movies (Note: Fiddler on the Roof and Funny Girl accepted, of course).  It IS every ethnic person’s answer to Thanksgiving.

Which brings us back twofold to the issue of screeners.  Not only do they give you something to do when you’re all out of ideas or too tired to think of them, they also give you something to do ahead of time that you were looking forward to but had resigned yourself to wait for.  Plus, they allow you to catch up with something you had vowed you would see weeks before but had not been able to rouse yourself out of the house to ever attend.

Oh yeah, I’m hip #sotrendy

I don’t know about you but the United States is so volatile these days I find that I feel much safer at home torturing myself with cable news 24/7 rather than venturing to a darkened theatre for a few hours, thus allowing the apocalypse to sneak in during a moment when I wasn’t worrying and keeping us all safe.

Know that for this SCREENER QUEEN it is not about showing off by being FIRST but using these advance copies of lusciousness to give me so many much needed jolts of distracting excitements away from our impending and inevitable collective demises.

Savoring the moment

Which is a shame because here’s what is inevitably noticeable about the crop of deliverables received thus far.  If movies are any indication we are finally, if ever so slightly, beginning to diversify representation.

Movie stories about people and cultures we’ve never spent too much time thinking about en masse have finally begun to creep through and onto the COMP gravy train.

The last time a studio spent this much money to send out a rom-com about an Asian couple attending a wedding in Singapore was…NEVER.  But of course there has never been a crossover film like Crazy Rich Asians to market directly to Hollywood guild members.  If our world were to survive, it would be so encouraging for that community to finally be perceived as silly, sexy and superficially wealthy as so many of the rest of us.

Plus 2018’s Breakout Star #Awkwafina

The Hate U Give also gives one hope for the bright future we’ll never see.  When Hollywood can actually make an intelligent film about a smart and attractive 16-year-old Black female teenager standing up unapologetically to the white power structure AND be proud enough to send it out for FREE to those same powers-that-be, well…we truly have arrived…somewhere.

I’m not sure where exactly but I do know I found myself thrilled to watch a movie where I could so strongly identify with the feelings of a heroine of a different sex and color who was decades younger than myself.  It was so much more pleasurable than  feeling nothing but anger during any one of thousands of superhero films where the lead bore no relation to any thought or feeling I have ever had, or had even observed in any other living or breathing thing I had ever known.

OK maybe Amandla Stenberg can give Awkwafina a run for her money #breakoutstars

Yes, you too can be Black, Jewish or Asian AND actually feel represented by the first initial early batch of 2018 end-of-the year Hollywood screeners.  That might not seem like much but it’s something to hold on to in a time when we’re all grasping at straws.

No wonder there’s excitement in the air every time the mail arrives these days.

Andy Williams – “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”