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 

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Rubbernecking

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Target Practice

We Americans love to gawk.  Okay, maybe it’s not a totally American thing since the term paparazzi became popular as a result of Fellini’s legendary La Dolce Vita (the perpetually annoying photographer in the film was named Paparazzo).  Still, in my limited travels around the world it feels as if me and my fellow countrymen (and women) are always among the first to arrive – either by ourselves or with some sort of filming device – to either a celebrity sighting or crime scene, especially when those two events happen simultaneously.

Granted, it is not necessarily a bad thing to be observant.  But – what exactly are we observing?

That all came to the forefront this week when Valerie Harper, the 74-year-old actress who was recently diagnosed with terminal brain cancer and is best known to us baby boomers as Rhoda from the Mary Tyler Moore Show, was announced as one of the contestants on this season’s edition of Dancing With The Stars.

Let’s be clear.  Anyone who has terminal brain cancer gets to do anything they want, including spending their final year(s?) of life rehearsing ballroom dancing four and a half hours a day in order to perform a 3 minute weekly dance routine before a live television audience of 17 million people.

Plus – full disclosure.  I LOVED Rhoda!  She was sassy, spoke with an accent from the NYC boroughs, endured an overbearing mother who made her life crazy AND had trouble keeping a guy.  With the exception of the head scarves and a few lady bits, I found watching her in my twenties was often the equivalent of looking into a one-way mirror.

I could have rocked that look

I could have rocked that look

So I’m not quite sure why her appearance on DWTS strikes me as a bit exploitive and over-the-line. Could it be my own fear of death?  Perhaps.  I mean, I know it is there and have witnessed it more times than I care to remember.  Still, I don’t like the idea of it staring me in the face weekly.  Though I did love Laura Linney on The Big C, a Showtime series about cancer where anyone, anytime could die each week because, well, it’s cable.

No – I don’t think it’s that.

Maybe it’s my general concern for Ms. Harper as a fan who has enjoyed her work for decades.  Aside from her time as Rhoda, she ‘s done lots of other interesting things over the years, including a recent brilliant onstage performance as the iconic actress Tallulah Bankhead in the stage play Looped.

Yes, she started as a dancer on Broadway, her cancer is near remission, and she announced that she wanted to attempt this enormous feat of athleticism to be a role model so others won’t fear life in their final days. Hmm, maybe I’m turning into Rhoda’s overprotective mother?  Or even worse, my OWN MOTHER???

Sorry – I REFUSE to admit that’s it.  Or to even think about it one second longer.

Here’s what I do think it’s about.  It’s the idea of being compelled to watch DWTS at all, which I now most definitely will do, at least on DVR – and probably a lot more than sometimes.  This makes me nothing less than a typical member of the flash mob out there that we call society.  All too human, all too base, all too bloodthirsty.  But to see what exactly?  Valerie Harper die live on television?  Or at least pass out from exhaustion, only to get up again and barely make it through the number amid gasps and awe?  Or to see her emerge victorious as many weeks as possible, proving you can cheat death when you have a terminal disease?

And all for this hideous, tacky thing?

And all for this hideous, tacky thing?

If we’re all hooked up to a lie detector, which would we all MOST want to watch?  Which would be the most…ENTERTAINING?  (Note:  You cannot choose none of the above.  And…you must tell the truth).

It did not escape me that a survey by Fandango this week of the most anticipated of all the fall movies – a time that is (or used to be) considered THE time to launch the classy or at least more serious Oscar contenders – the #1 choice was The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.  This is important to note because it is the sequel to a film that is literally about watching people die in a live (or in this case dead) televised competition.   Well, one supposes that could really be next.  Or perhaps it has already begun to arrive but we have not yet realized it.

En fuego

En fuego

I might be stretching the metaphor.  But barely. Humanity has a history of such things, from Gladiators fighting to the death in the Coliseum to boxing matches where every so often someone gets knocked out cold.   The difference is that hundreds of years ago the very function of gladiators was to do battle until someone literally collapses and dies.  These days we sort of just like putting people into impossible situations to see if or how long they can survive and how well they do it.  Yes, they can die or be irrevocably injured for our own enjoyment.  But it’s their choice.  Certainly, that’s a lot more civilized.  Isn’t it?

Civilized? Well, all except Wipeout.

Civilized? Well, all except Wipeout.

It’s interesting to read or watch the news each day and see what passes for current events.  Sure there are real wars but we usually black out the actual killings on television in favor of showing our politicians deciding whether or not to fund either more bloodbaths or more social programs.  Still, we get to see George Zimmerman, the man acquitted in the killing of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, being arrested for the second time in several months for a speeding ticket or photos of Zimmerman’s wife filing for divorce because he spends so little time at home and has become too selfish.   You can’t blame him.  I suppose I’d be a little full of myself also if I got that much attention.  Speaking of attention, did you just hear that his defense attorney Mark O’Mara has been signed by CNN to be a legal analyst? That’s something else we can look forward to when we inevitably tire of this season’s DWTS.  God Bless America.

It’s not as if the US media and entertainment industries (yes, technically they are different) always know what we want, or are even thinking.  If this were so Neil Patrick Harris wouldn’t have happily announced several days ago that he would not be doing a musical opening number when he hosts the Emmys later this month.  Sure, the Oscars get Seth MacFarlane singing and dancing but television DOESN’T get Neil Patrick Harris singing and dancing.  Just what are they thinking there?  Obviously, not much.

You're breaking my heart, Doogie!

You’re breaking my heart, Doogie!

Then there is the massive advertising campaign for Ron Howard’s new film, Rush.  It’s gotten glowing advance reviews and very nice film festival reaction.  And Mr. Howard’s teaming on a somewhat commercially risky subject matter written by acclaimed British writer Peter Morgan (Frost/Nixon, The Queen) also deserves kudos.  But Rush is based on the 1970s true life story of two competing race drivers – a sport where fatal and near fatal fiery crashes and the charred beyond recognition human remains they left behind were a way of life.  You’d think they could give us a little more of the actual blood sport in the trailer, knowing as they do our taste for carnage.   Right now there are mostly the supremely enviable blonde tresses (not to mention other things) of the supremely enviable Chris Hemsworth as he charms the machinery off of every human and non-human being in his sight lines.  Well, I suppose audiences can forgive a little lack of carnage for that.   I know that I can.

Oh.. is this movie about car racing?

Oh.. is this movie about car racing?

What is difficult to accept is that one easy way to get attention these days is to always do morea lot more – and preferably in as dangerous or titillating a way as possible.  Perhaps this was always the case.  In fact, when you chart the rise from Playboy, to Penthouse, to Deep Throat, to Hustler, to online porn, to Showtime’s annual and highly-rated multiple broadcasts of the AVN Awards (the Oscars of the Adult Entertainment Industry, which I stumbled across one day and reacted to like a bad car accident on the highway – I couldn’t look away) we can prove it not only was but that today it is even more so.

Of course, none of this means I will cancel my subscription to The New Yorker.  Or that any museums will be closed down.  But one can’t help but wonder if, as the years go on, those touchstones of culture won’t be viewed much like we now look at the language of Latin or the iambic pentameter of Shakespeare – intellectually impressive, perhaps even brilliant artifacts of another time and generation but nowhere near as exciting to us as the potential slaughters or killings occurring right before our eyes in any one of the Coliseum-like arenas of  entertainment that we’re choosing to put right in front of us.

Hmm, on second thought, maybe the times haven’t changed all that much at all.