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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Peaks and Valleys

Here is what you try not to think about over a long holiday weekend:

  • It was a record 108 degrees in Los Angeles on Saturday but clearly “man-made climate change is not primarily responsible for it,” say any number of those now in power to do something about it in Washington, DC.

Me, right now

  • Massive flooding in Houston occurred some days earlier leaving more than 50 dead and counting, many thousands of others homeless and a cost for full rebuilding over the next decade estimated into the billions (that’s with a “B”).
  • ELECTORAL POTUS has NOW decided to do away with DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), thus requiring the MASS DEPORTATION of close to ONE MILLION people brought here as immigrant CHILDREN by parents who came to this country illegally.   They key world is children, or even toddlers – meaning many of these kids don’t even speak the native language of the country they will be deported back to over the next year.

I can’t…

Well, I did. For a bit. But finally it grew too much.

So I did what I usually do – escaped into media.

Just kidding… this is me, right now

There was the Twin Peaks two-hour finale on Showtime; a binge of the entire two seasons of the half-hour Netflix comedy-drama Love; and a screening of the much lauded Sundance indie flick with a confused gay, model-looking hunk protagonist called Beach Rats.

There was also food. A lot of it. A bit of frolic. And yeah, some worrying.

But what about the MEDIA????

Netflix’s Love

Talk nerdy to me

Judd Apatow co-created and produces the show but truly it is the brainchild of its male lead Paul Rust and his wife Lesley Arfin, who write many of the episodes. The reason and resonance is clear – it is loosely based on their relationship.

Of course, what writer of comedy-drama doesn’t base their work on past relationships? The correct answer is NO ONE – no matter how much they deny it in protest.  In this case, it is a twist on the archetypal nerdy, awkward but funny-smart guy in glasses and the hip, wild, partying hot girl with an even sicker sense of humor than he has. Will they get together and make it work? Or won’t they?

You may think you’ve seen it before, as I initially did, but you haven’t. One suspects that’s because the entire series is grounded in the realities that Rust and Arfin experienced themselves. No, not literally. It’s not as if what happened in Annie Hall four decades prior onscreen exactly mirrored the Diane Keaton-Woody Allen relationship or even recreated it. But there’s a reason why certain contemporary rom-com stories are great and addictive and usually it’s because they are real – at least thematically.

Realistically — I bet that sandwich was that good.

Love is all of this and more. Give it a chance and don’t roll your eyes at the initial tropes, which I did – only to then get quickly addicted for 22 episodes in less than a week. God, I love a good binge – of so many things.

Beach Rats 

Where to begin…

Beach Rats centers on a working class teenager struggling with his attraction to men – particularly middle aged men he meets online – but it might as well be set in 1957 instead of 2017. Masquerading as real and unflinching it is instead a skewed portrait of working class life that so tilts the deck towards gay panic and hopelessness that one almost expects its characters to be sporting ducktails and cigarettes rolled up in t-shirt sleeves rather than lean muscled bodies, random tattoos and endless thirsts to get high.

Like a modern day Kenickie! #exceptnot

Of course, they do share “smokes” and often speak like something out of an old Nicholas Ray film or a low budget indie Sundance version of Rumble Fish if those movies contained too many lingering shots of fireworks, arcade games and indecipherable male torsos.

It is certainly fine to depict a group of homophobic or homo-indifferent teenagers in contemporary life. What is not fine (nor real) is to so isolate them and every gay man depicted in the film into clichés last seen in films like Frank Sinatra’s The Detective – that movie from 1968 where a self loathing homosexual hits a lover over the head with a candle or ashtray or something heavy and kills him because he can’t bear the idea of not being straight.

Kind of like what I wish I did instead of watching Beach Rats

If we are to believe director-writer Eliza Hittman’s entire narrative we also have to buy it all leads to a ludicrous third act where an out, smart Manhattan boy drives to Brooklyn after meeting the film’s sexy leading teen-man online and does something TWICE no gay man even vaguely close to the character depicted would do. EVER. Let’s leave it at that unless you’re tempted to find out what happens some snowy night by the Brooklyn version of the Village docks circa 1968. But don’t say I didn’t warn you before you get into your time tunnel and then try to throw it at your screen of choice.

Not content to leave it there, the film also paints lonely pathetic lives for all the homosexual males we meet over the age of 40 –desperate creatures prowling online for boys they can have in the bushes or in seedy motels without having shaved, showered, deodorized or, no doubt, even brushed their teeth. Though somehow our sexy leading teen/man always manages to do so for his sex dates with them. But of course he’s young and not totally gay. Yet. Hmm, what or whom to root for?

At this point I would have preferred this old gay stereotype

Sadly, there is a stinking, rotting quality to everything here – perhaps on purpose for “mood” – but ultimately landing with the great weight of phony pretension. Still, the director seems to have gotten away with this pose in the eyes of films festivals and critics galore. Check out the reviews from Sundance or this one from The New Yorker.

As a kid from the boroughs myself, who grew up loving the fireworks, arcade games and bumper cars depicted in Beach Rats, I began to dread each lingering faux magical shot of the milieu as its endless minutes marched into what seemed like many endless hours. Repetitive visual imagery is no substitute for depth of story and character, no matter how many random lights in the sky or ocean waves one’s camera relentlessly aims to capture.

The Beach Rats audience

There is a great movie to be made on exactly this subject but that’s about the only thing most gay people will feel once this film comes to its retro torturous end – other than anger.

And NO, I didn’t like it. No one bit.

Twin Peaks: The Return 

Paging Agent Cooper…

It’s like the person you dated in college or in your twenties who was a glorious irresistible mess and yet you couldn’t get enough of them. Smart, confounding, funny without trying to be so, obtuse and more than a handful of times just downright f-ckg brilliant.

Often you don’t officially break up with this person. Something circumstantial happens or an unexpected situational event occurs that inevitably puts an end to the whole thing. But it’s never totally voluntary on your part no matter how many times your friends, family or even you feel like you were f-ckd over. This is because there truly was something so unique, so individual about the experience that can never be duplicated and you wouldn’t give that up for the world despite how much turmoil it might have put you through.

When’s the honeymoon?

Ironically enough, David Lynch and Mark Frost did put us through the Twin Peaks wringer again 25 years later thanks to Showtime and those of us who stayed are all the better for it. We got some hope for the saga of Laura Palmer, time traveled back to the 1950s, tried to learn some new, never heard before languages and began to realize that a good deal of the key wisdom of the world can be learned via a giant tea kettle, barren potato head tree or discovered in a Tilt-A-Whirl room with comfortable green velvet chairs.

You know I’m not gonna pass up posting a pop culture chair #takeaseat

OK, some of it made no sense at all, but have you checked the news lately? Nothing in this Twin Peaks was literal but, then again, Lynch and co. were bold enough to linger on so many scenes in real time elongated minutes that perhaps everything was. Twin Peaks is the opposite of anything pretentious – it is filmmaking/TV making (Note: Just what is the difference anymore?) with a purpose. And that purpose is to take us to a place we can believe in despite how extreme, absurd or hateful it is. It is and always has been what the books tell us great storytelling is – a seamless dream.

And with that – good night.

Muddy Magnolias – “American Woman (Slowed David Lynch version)