Animated Hank More Real Than Real People

Recently I’ve been pleased to take part in an ongoing review of great TV shows with a number of other pop culture writers, hosted by Max at his Power Pop blog.  There I’ve written recently about Friends and about Emergency, both of which I’ve discussed here at one time or another, but for openers I picked something a wee bit off the beaten patch. There are so many good TV shows to choose from, it’s hard to know where to begin, but I’ll opt for one that seems to hit close to home for me (LOL – literally)… King of the Hill.

King of the Hill was a long-running animated prime-time cartoon that somehow had characters a lot more “real” than most of its contemporaries made with real actors. It ran on Fox Network for 259 episodes from 1997- 2010, and has been seen in re-runs in syndication and on some of the streaming services. I’m not a gigantic fan of Fox overall, but one thing they do well is cartoons!

It typically ran on Sunday nights after The Simpsons, – itself a hilarious and ground-breaking show – at 8:30 Eastern time. Fox seemed to clue in on how much of a good thing they had going with Sunday night cartoons aimed at adults and forever were searching for ones to lineup with their corporate flagship show and its yellow-skinned Springfielders. Some of them caught on (e.g. Family Guy or, though I can’t fathom why, Bob’s Burgers), others were come and gone faster than you could say “Eat my shorts” …anyone remember Border Town? Although a few of the post-Bart and Homer series might have now topped King of the Hill in episodes, I don’t think any have topped it for humor and creating characters we felt we could relate to. No wonder Time magazine once called it “the most acutely-observed and realistic sitcom about American life, bar none.” Perhaps all the more surprising since its main creator was Mike Judge, whose previous claim to fame was Beavis and Butthead.

King of the Hill revolved around Hank Hill and his family – wife Peggy, tween son Bobby and their dog, a lazy hound called Ladybird. And the niece who lived with them, to Hank’s mild disapproval, Luanne. They were a typical, middle-class Texan family living somewhere in the suburbs, in the city of “Arlen.” Hank sold propane, and propane products and was proud of it. Peggy was a substitute teacher, specializing in Spanish classes (although her knowledge of the language was barely functional) who loved Boggle and making green bean casseroles; a woman described as “confidant, sometimes to the point of lacking self-awareness.” Like most Texans, they loved things like rodeos, pickup trucks and Dallas Cowboys football – in one memorable episode Hank tries to get together a movement to move the Cowboys training camp to Arlen, but they pick Wichita Falls. To which Hank replies that city which claims to be “north Texas! More like south Oklahoma if you ask me!” a pretty stinging insult in the Lone Star State! Bobby, to his dad’s chagrin, is chubby, has little interest in sports and wants to be a stand-up comedian or worse yet, a clown.

Joining Hank is a supporting cast of neighbors we all seem to know in real life. There’s Bill, balding, overweight veteran who’s lonely and cuts hair on the nearby military base for income and amusement. Boomhauer, the suave, thin ladies man with the weird hillbilly accent who always seems to have female companionship and little to do outside of that but drink beer with the other guys and watch the world go by. (In the final episode’s surprise twist, we see his wallet lying open and find he’s a Texas Ranger – the elite branch of the state police.) And there’s Dale, a man ahead of his time. Chain-smoker, exterminator by day, full-time conspiracy theorist and paranoid political commentator at night. Somehow he’s married to the lovely Nancy, the local TV weather girl and they have a son, Joseph… who looks nothing at all like him nor the blonde Nancy…but suspiciously like John Redcorn, the Native “healer” who has been giving her lengthy massages for her migraines for years. Dale has trouble figuring out why Joseph looks like that…but thinks maybe his wife was abducted and impregnated by aliens. And we can’t forget Cotton, Hank’s cranky old father, lacking the bottom of his legs due to a war injury, nor the Khans. The Khans are from Laos, and while their daughter, Kahn Jr. (Connie to her friends) has assimilated well and is Bobby’s erstwhile girlfriend, and mother Mihn tries, Kahn Sr. fancies himself a successful businessman and can’t believe his bad luck landing up on a street full of hillbillies and rednecks. Somehow, the men all seem to get along and bond over things like appreciation of a good garbage can or love of (in Khan’s case, grudging acceptance of) Alamo Beer.

For the most part, the stories were fully relatable. They never starred in freaky Halloween episodes nor a big Broadway show (although ZZ Top did guest star once and put Hank unwillingly into a reality show following him around) or get abducted by aliens, perhaps to Dale’s surprise. Instead there were events like Hank trying to get the city to rescind it’s bylaw necessitating water-conserving toilets, or camping out in the local Megalomart with Dale (which bears a lot of resemblance to another American big box department store) trying to catch a rat. In one episode, Bobby gets picked on by bullies leading Hank to try to get the boy into a boxing class. Instead of that, Bobby ends up in a women’s self-defence course and learns to kick anyone he’s mad at in the testicles…Hank included. And one of the final episodes really amused me … I was born and raised near Toronto, if you didn’t know that already. In it, Boomhauer decides to take a vacation in Canada and temporarily trades houses with a Canadian family. Hank and the Canadian dad take an instant disliking to each other, with them competing over who brews the best beer and whose brand of lawn mower rules. End result? Both get arrested for DWI while mowing their lawns; Hank and his buddies eventually sell a “keginator” beer-pump to bail the Canuck out of jail, because that’s what neighbors do. “We’re Americans,” Hank declares “we’re the world’s welcome mat. It doesn’t matter if they’re from Canada, Laos, or God forbid, even California!”

The show had Greg Daniels co-writing early on, a good pedigree since he’d worked on Saturday Night Live, the Simpsons and co-wrote the Seinfeld episode “The Parking Space”. When it first came on, I liked it and often watched it, but it took years for it to really grow on me and come to appreciate how fully nuanced the characters were and how much attention to detail of human nature it showed…all the while being hilarious. There was a great sense of humanity in it all. People like Hank were trying their best, having a hard time keeping up with the changing times (he was the holdout on the office’s love of Facebook, for example) but doing his best to understand and be better. Nancy had her ongoing affair, but called it off eventually when she realized it was wrong to do to her husband, wacky as he was. And Luanne, sweet as pie and about as dumb as one too, with her little Christian puppets trying to teach kids right from wrong, boyfriend Lucky in tow. Lucky got his nickname when he slipped on pee at a Walmart and sued them for hundreds of thousands! (That makes watching it a tiny bit sad as both of the voice actors are gone – Brittany Murphy who did Luanne, and the one and only Tom Petty who was ‘Lucky’). They were all good people and the shows funny. But once I came to Texas…boy howdy, it took to another level for me.

Judge spent time in the Dallas Metroplex when young and said he based it on the suburbs like Arlington and Garland, Texas. Once I saw Waco, it seemed like Waco was Arlen…or vice versa. There are so many details that ring true like the Bush’s beans at dinner or love of Whataburger. When Peggy wants to have a serious talk with Bobby, she’ll treat him to one of those burgers…leading him to suspiciously note last time she took him there, she told him about Doggie Heaven!

I started this thinking I wouldn’t have enough to say about King of the Hill. Turns out I have too much to say for one column really. So one more thing – I just reminded myself how funny the show was. I think I’m going to go watch a few now!

Kind And One Of A Kind, That Was Betty

2021 ended on a sad note with the passing of Betty White. Sadly ironic, her death came right around when magazines began appearing on the shelves with her on the cover and some variation on the theme of “Betty White Turns 100”. She was, as you may well know, 99 years old and already planning a 100th birthday celebration for this month. By that point, why wouldn’t she, and why wouldn’t all her friends? Many somehow thought she might just live forever…and would have been happy for that to happen. Betty herself said just weeks before her passing, “I’m the luckiest broad on two feet to be as healthy as I am and to feel as good as I do.”

White was indeed one of a kind. Her career was long and epic. She was on a TV talk show in the 1940s, when TV itself was new and novel. She had her own sitcom, Life with Elizabeth by 1953. In 1951, she was nominated for an Emmy Award. She won seven along the way and got her last nomination in 2014… at age 92. She was one of those actresses who were always a part of our cultural backdrop, it seemed, rising to prominence as Sue Ann, the man-hungry cooking celebrity on the Mary Tyler Moore Show, before becoming the charmingly naïve Rose for over 200 episodes of The Golden Girls (and its short-lived spinoff The Golden Palace) in the ’80s and ’90s. Then in the last decade, she was Hot In Cleveland…or at least Elka in that show. Along the way there were too many walk-on roles and guest appearances to keep track of, from five different characters on the Love Boat, to Boston Legal to St. Elsewhere to doing voices on King of the Hill. She was nicknamed “the first lady of television”, to which she joked “yeah (I’m) that old!”… she pretty much was the first lady on television! Months before Alex Trebek passed away, when asked who would be a fitting replacement for him on Jeopardy, he quipped “someone younger, someone funnier than me.. so I’m thinking Betty White.” He added they had been friends for years.

The outpouring of sad comments about her passing was voluminous. Jamie Lee Curtis said “what women want is to live like Betty White. Full of love, creativity, and integrity and humor and dedication,” also mentioning Betty’s famous “service to animals.” Kristen Bell remembered “Betty was one of a kind. Kind, gracious and a wit that could stun a sailor.” Michelle Obama noted “Betty broke barriers, defied expectations, served her country (she’d volunteered to drive trucks for the Army during WWII as well as entertain troops) and pushed us all to laugh.” And on and on.

That’s not that unusual after a star dies, but what is unusual is the width of the community that responded thusly… and that no one had a bad word to say about her. But then, has anyone ever said a bad word about Betty White? She was the kind of person that seemed to love everyone and every animal and was loved and admired in return. The only celebrity I can think of who shares a similar love of the people – the entire people – Dolly Parton, suggested “Betty will live on forever, not only in this world but the world hereafter. I will always love Betty, as we all will.”

Well said Dolly…and when no one disagrees that is a life well-lived. Many people become widely famous; few of them are lauded and loved by all and disparaged not at all. May she rest in peace and laugh away the hereafter with her beloved husband Allen Ludden, who preceded her by about 40 years.

Betty White. One of The Commendables.

And Just Like That…Fans Found They Didn’t Like Reality

And just like that…HBO found you can’t go home again. Reviews for their reboot of the once-vaunted Sex & The City have been brutal…but so too has been the show. Although I’m not convinced that is a bad thing.

Ahh Sex & The City. The protagonist in my novel Grace, Fully Living was obsessed by it. As were many women her age (early-30s) when I set the book, in the year 2000. It was a cable TV phenomenon. It was a cultural phenomenon. It was arguably the most sexually explicit (in dialog if not always visuals) “mainstream” show at the time, and the kicker, the women were the ones having the sex, talking about the sex, holding all the cards in the sexy relationships. No wonder it was a smash with the female half of my generation. It was office water cooler gossip gold, a ratings hit compared to other pay-cable shows of the era, it sparked a couple of spin-off movies later and gave many women new “strong” role models in so doing.

The show featured female friends. There was Samantha, the eldest and most successful, career-wise of the femme four amigos, a 40-something publicist who played the dominatrix in the bedroom and boardroom. Charlotte, the cute “girl-next-door” who happened to be born with the silver spoon in her mouth and cultivate appropriately expensive tastes. Miranda, the fiery redheaded lawyer, all-business. And the central character, Carrie, played by Sarah Jessica Parker, a smart, sassy writer with a taste for expensive shoes who wrote the fictional column that the show takes its name from. And of course there were the usual cast of supporting characters, like Stanford, the over-the-top gay bon vivant friend of the ladies; various boyfriends who largely came and went (take that any way you like it) and of course, “Big.”

Big” was the nickname for the rich businessman, on-again, off-again boyfriend (and eventually in the movies, husband) of Carrie’s. Played by Chris Noth, I assume he was to women of a certain age the eye candy equivalent of the car combined with the girls in it from ZZ Top videos for guys. Sexier than Brad Pitt, richer than Bill Gates, rugged like an 18th-Century frontiersman…and always calling Carrie for a date, or late night, long-distance phone sex.

I never was a big fan of Sex & The City. Back in the day of its first run, I never saw it anyway… I never had premium cable. But some of the women I worked with did, and talked about it endlessly. Fast forward about a decade and I find myself with a lovely lady of my age who was, of course, a big fan of the show. She has the DVDs. I hated it at first. There were several things about it. First, I must admit that while I used to think myself very liberal, I had to cringe a bit at many of the scenes and conversations. I guess if you’re a young courier delivery guy, you might fantasize about the female customer giving you a tip…orally, shall we say, and if you’re a middle aged lady you might fantasize about having the courier guy be a stud and doing that to him, but I didn’t want to see it. Plus, it seemed rather outrageously unrealistic… but then, what mainstream TV show is that not true of? Carrie was young and vivacious, and wrote a newspaper column…in a small, left-wing paper. But she had a large, wonderful midtown Manhattan apartment and a closet full of (apparently) $500 and up shoes. I know a few people who wrote for such limited-circulation, weekly publications. They were driving pizzas at night to help pay for a 500-square foot basement in the suburbs, not living the Life of Reilly. Or Life of Carrie, as it were. Samantha was a middle-aged woman, not bad looking I would say for a middle-aged woman, but no 1950s Marilyn Monroe or 1990s Sports Illustrated swimsuit calendar Elle MacPherson. Samantha was bossy and rude, yet somehow had every man in every room she entered falling all over her, before somewhat “settling” for a guy who was supposed to be the hottest male model in the country. I knew some similarly nice-looking women of that age back then. Most of them were working in stores, complaining about their man and his pot belly and their kids they had to drive around in a rusty Ford – not jetting off to Paris on a whim to see a wealthy boyfriend. Not Samantha though. At least Miranda exuded some level of reality; a smart lawyer with a child who lived in a good apartment (she was a lawyer after all) but was bitchy much of the time and tired all of it. If I had to guess, I’d suggest Miranda was the least popular among the show’s female viewers. She didn’t live the total fantasy.

Over the years, I’d sometimes watch with my sweetie, and have to say that my hatred diminished to a mere “meh”-level indifference. Live and let live. No surprise though that when HBO decided to re-boot the series this year, she was very excited to see it. So too were millions of others like her. So I happily joined her in watching the two-episode premiere last week. I like it when she is happy or excited about something to watch.

Tellingly, it’s titled And Just Like That, not Sex & the City anymore, even though it still has the same characters. Well, except Samantha, who is talked about doesn’t appear. The actress, Kim Catrall, didn’t want to take part, so the writers had her move to London in a snit.

The title change perhaps represents that the characters are now all in their middle-50s and much of the sex in that city is not being had by them. In Miranda’s case, her kid is having a lot more conjugal fun than her. All three of the remaining ladies have, remarkably, stayed in the same relationships they were in at the end of the regular season…but not necessarily happily. It’s one of the many ways the new version is darker and altogether less cheery or uplifting to the female fans as the original. Charlotte has two daughters, one adopted, a young piano prodigy, the other her biological, a bit of a renegade who does what tweens do, act up and worry her parents. Miranda’s teenage son is a pot-smoking layabout who drops used condoms on her floor, prompting Carrie to suggest she should be happy the lad was being safe.

All that’s made Miranda’s hair go white; she and Charlotte (the only one looking even remotely younger than their real age) bicker over it, the latter complaining Miranda looks old and should do something about it, the former scoffing at Charlotte’s fake hair coloring. They all bicker and seem to pine for the good old days. Except perhaps Carrie, looking noticeably older herself, but seemingly at least happy with “Big”. Of course, he is a man of a certain age who’s libido isn’t quite what it once was, and has a heart problem. And, <spoiler alert> he has a massive heart attack in the first episode and dies in Carrie’s arms…a minute after she got home, found him on the floor but failed to call 911. It was about then viewers probably realized the fantasy had ended and Carrie and Company had entered real life. Episode two deals largely with Big’s funeral and the ladies’ complicated, conflicted relationships with each other… and their constant supportive cheerleader, Stanford. Unfortunately, the actor who played Stanford, Willie Garson, passed away in real life recently, leaving a veritable sword of Damacles hanging over his head every time he shows up on screen.

Then there’s the backlash the women feel as aging people in an increasingly young world. Sound familiar? It should, since it is the story of generations that has played out for centuries, time and time again, and each time the aging generation is as surprised as the previous one was that they would eventually be seen as out of touch. Carrie’s doing a podcast with a couple of raunchy young potheads who scold her for being too conservative in her commentary. Suddenly she’s the “square” not wanting so share every detail of her sex life with strangers. Suddenly being a female who likes males makes her the object of derision to people who don’t even believe that gender is a scientific concept. Miranda fares even worse, taking a university class in race relations to try and be more “woke” and alienates every one of the kids a third her age by being surprised the professor is a Black lady with braided hair and by referring to a young man as “he”, provoking horror and disgust from the class. Micro-aggressions! How did this happen, the gals wonder. We used to be the cutting-edge, cool ones.

My sweetie said she felt depressed after watching the two episodes that have aired so far. She wasn’t alone. Actress Kristen Davis (Charlotte) has lashed out at fans and the press for pointing out that the characters who are supposed to be 55 and up look, 55 and up. The Atlantic lament “the show doesn’t seem to like or respect its characters much anymore.” Fox News called it “grim and cringe-inducing.” The Guardian, “terrible.” “Grim” was also used in the New York Times description, in a story that suggested succinctly it was a “flop.”

A flop it probably is and will be, unless the creators whole point was to show that even fantasies come to an end eventually. Or else to make it clear the makers of Friends were genius in having a reunion merely by having the actors sit around and watch clips of the show back when. Because they at least realized no one needs to see Ross hiding his Viagra from Rachel or Chandler looking for his glasses so he can find his phone only to find out its one of the twins calling from jail.

My guess is soon And Just Like That viewers won’t be viewing, turning instead to reality shows like The Bachelor… to get away from on-screen reality.

Thankful Thursday XVIII – Bob Ross

If “zen” was a movie, he’d probably be on the poster for it. Perhaps then, between insurrections, contested elections, deadly pandemics and weekly mass shootings, there’s good reason he’s more popular than ever. Indeed, last year at the height of the pandemic, reruns of his show were the top-rated shows on the BBC in Britain. This Thankful Thursday, I’m thankful for Bob Ross.

Ross might just be the most famous American painter. And the most critically panned one as well. But the dude with the big afro is a lot more than that. He’s a source of quiet relaxation for many and inspiration for millions more.

Ross, for the few uninitiated, was a painter from Florida who rose to fame in the 1980s with a half-hour TV show on PBS. In the 11-year run of The Joy of Painting (sometimes renamed things like “Bob Ross Painting” in re-runs) he became something of a cult figure, a stature only heightened since his unfortunate death from cancer in 1995. These days one can find Bob Ross bobbleheads, Bob Ross coffee mugs, Bob Ross calendars, Bob Ross coloring books, books of Bob Ross sayings…there’s even a Bob Ross chia pet for those who want their very own ugly clay Ross-head with a green afro!

The magic of Bob was two-fold. One was that he did a surprisingly good painting, generally landscapes, from start to finish in each half-hour show. Two, and perhaps more importantly, he did it while chatting away in a friendly and low-key way that defined “laid back”. Compared to Ross, the crowd at a Jimmy Buffett show would seem wound-up and out of control. Ross loved wildlife and from time to time would interrupt his show to bring in a little squirrel he’d rescued from a busted tree or film of some animal he’d seen outside. He painted serene settings, more often than not containing some mountains, a little lake and some trees… needed a place for the happy little squirrels to live, after all. Viewers began to love – and perhaps make drinking games out of – his regular little quotes like “happy little trees” and “we don’t make mistakes, just have happy little accidents.”

Surprisingly for such an incredibly laid-back guy, Bob was largely shaped by the Air Force. He signed up young and rose to the ranks of seargent. For several years he was assigned to a base in Alaska. He loved the scenery there and decided to try and capture that and share it for others. But he hated the job, per se. He had to be “the guy who makes you scrub the latrines, the guy who screams at you for being late.” He decided once done with the military he wasn’t going to be “that” guy again.

Ross had a real flair for painting, and a well-trained artist’s eye for lighting. He also had a gift for teaching simple techniques to the masses…and for irritating critics. He took some art courses and found instructors were big into minimalism and abstract – not his brand of folksy realism. “If I paint something, I don’t want to have to explain what it is,” he said. Over the years, he painted an estimated 30 000 canvases. What they lacked in diversity (there were an awful lot of paintings of mountain lakes, forest trails, cabins in the woods and the like) he made up for in charm, and broad appeal.

The magic of Bob Ross though, was that he showed us it was OK to do something we enjoy, even if we aren’t very good at it. It’s OK to have pictures on the wall that you like and tell a story no matter what art critics might think of them. You could be a surgeon or air traffic controller, but when you got home, you could “chillax” and do something where your screw up was soon rectified and turned into a “happy little accident.” I can guess that thousands upon thousands of people have taken up painting, or other arts because of his influence and his reassurance that you don’t have to be great at something to make it worthwhile. And certainly thousands upon thousands more get reprieves from the daily stresses of the world by laying back, watching his little trees and cabins take shape and wondering if this will be one of the extra-lucky weeks where he has a baby squirrel on his shoulder.

So if you’re bored, or stressed out this weekend, why not think of Bob? Pick up a canvas and a brush. Or maybe a sketchbook and some pencils. Or even just head out to the garage with an old guitar. Have some fun, be a little creative and be content in the moment.

Thankful Thursday XVII – Friends…Part I

This Thankful Thursday I’m thankful for something my sweetie was thankful for on Thursdays in years gone by – Friends. That is of the TV variety. It occurred to me as we watched the much ballyhooed “reunion” a few nights back how much it, and similar shows, meant to so many people.

Friends was, of course in case you’ve lived under a rock for a few decades, the NBC sitcom about six twenty-something friends, making their way in life. It made Jennifer Aniston into one of the most familiar faces in the world and her character, briefly, the most famous haircut. It made the other five then-unknowns into famous stars as well, David Schwimmer, Lisa Kudrow, Courteney Cox (who at the time was mostly recognized for being a teen dancing with Bruce Springsteen in a video a decade prior), Matthew Perry and Matt Leblanc. All six have gone on to have moderately successful acting careers since, but all six are equally still universally best known as their characters from the sitcom.

The show ran from 1994-2004, 236 episodes in all. It was a time period when I was about the age of the characters in the show, and didn’t watch all that much TV outside of baseball games and perhaps The Simpsons... I was too busy working or hanging out with my own friends to a large degree. Or listening to music; it was a passion and radio was cheaper than cable TV! But I would watch Friends from time to time and quite enjoy it, and of course, needed to see it at times because it was all my co-workers would be talking about around the “water cooler” on Friday morning. What about Rachel’s new hairdo? Is Chandler ever gonna dump that Janis? Were they on a break!?

My sweetie, whom I didn’t know back then, watched it routinely and tells of how she’d tell her own friends and family not to call her Thursday evening between 7 and 7:30 (the Central time zone slot it ran in, strange to me coming from the East where 8PM kicks off primetime) because she was busy with those six “friends.” It was her only “must see” TV.

For many others too. It typically drew well over 25 million viewers week-in, week out, for its whole ten year run. By comparison, NCIS is the only show on TV anymore that averages even 15 million; a show that can draw four million with regularity is a hit these days. The finale of Friends was tuned in by over 52 million TVs in the States and perhaps 80 million people and is the most-watched scripted TV show of the 2000s. Although it was always a “top 10” hit, the only year it was the most-watched was 2001-02 – right after 9/11. Odd in that it is set only miles away from Ground Zero in that horrible event. But really, not so odd. The creators had a tough decision about what to do and made the decision to double down on entertaining. People were well aware enough of what had happened, why not give them a half hour reprieve and some laughter each week? It was a brilliant decision.

As was ending when it did. It doubtless could have gone on a few more years and continued to be watched, but they realized it was better to go out on a high. After the ten years, the struggling but somewhat carefree young ones had matured. They had kids. They were getting married. The beauty of the show was the friendship between the group of pals who did everything together, something many of us Gen X-ers could relate to, and in all likelihood most older watchers looked back on fondly. Having Monica and Chandler taking kids to school and living in a bungalow 30 miles from the others wouldn’t have worked. Anything Ross and Rachel did would be anti-climatic after ten years of seeing the tension between them and not knowing if they would eventually pair up. It went out on a high note, something many shows, and entertainers for that matter fail to know how to do.

Since it ended, I paired up and have spent many late nights chilling with my love, watching reruns of the show with her, laughing and recalling what it was like to be 25 and single. But I’m thankful for it for other reasons beyond that.

As the reunion pointed out, Friends was a global phenomenon. Some say it helped them learn English watching it. Others say Phoebe’s oddball behavior and artsy endeavors made them feel OK about being a bit different themselves. It celebrated friends, the people you could rely on even as “relationships” came and went or families caused more stress than they took away. It created characters we cared about (in direct contrast to the other runaway hit of the decade, Seinfeld) and could probably see a bit our ourselves in. They were a bit nerdy and awkward, unsure of just what they wanted from life. (They drank lots of coffee. Hey, Chandler even had a Blue Jays baseball cap on his desk at work in New York… could he BE more Canadian?)

Mostly though I’m thankful for how it was such a “universal.” It was perhaps the last TV show that everyone seemed to watch. Everyone knew who Rachel and Ross were. It gave us a common language, no matter how small. When I was growing up, there were three main networks and shows like MASH and Carol Burnett were seemingly watched by everyone. The population was smaller, but viewerships were bigger – it wasn’t uncommon to have shows watched by 30 million people a week in the ’70s. It gave us something in common, something to talk about. Now we have hundreds of channels, shows custom-tailored to every taste… but little common currency in our entertainment. I can’t help but think that maybe, just maybe we’d not be such a divided nation, so quick to judge others and rush to quick, negative assumptions of “them” if we had a few more shows like Friends that “they” watched just like us. And perhaps a few more “friends”…

How about you, dear readers? Any TV shows or movies you’re particularly thankful for?

Trebek Trekked Back In Book

Category : “The Answer Is…”

$100 – “Alex Trebek Biography” . A : What is The Answer is… A few weeks ago, I wrote about the sad death of Alex Trebek. So, being a fan of the show he put on the map, Jeopardy, and since he was Canadian like me, with only one degree of separation from me (we had a mutual acquaintance), I figured I’d get his recently-released autobiography and read it.

$200 – “North American Countries”. A: What are the U.S.A., Canada and Mexico. While Mexico doesn’t play much into the story, Trebek is a Canadian who found fame and fortune in the U.S., married an American (“someone who was going to complete me as a human being”) and eventually became an American citizen. The book contains a lot of interesting stories about his childhood and youth in Canada, from his parents – a beer-drinking, cursing father who taught himself English and became a respected cook and his church-going, teatotaller mom who coincidentally had family in the States, which began his love affair with the U.S. – his rather disreputable youth and iffy relationship with school and its authority figures, to a photo of him in a denim jacket and jeans …a “Canadian tuxedo” as he proudly calls it. And about his life in the more populous country to the South, and all the steps along the way to becoming the best-known and respected game show host on TV.

$300 – “Jeopardy” – A: What is the TV show Alex Trebek hosted for over three decades. Given that it was what made him famous, and conversely, a show he made famous and a ratings hit, it’s appropriate he spends a good chunk of the book talking about it. And also, the best-forgotten game shows he had to take part in along the way to get him the spot, which initially was low-paid and low-prestige by comparison. The saving grace of that was that creator Merv Griffin paid little attention to it, allowing Alex and a few writers to basically shape it as they saw fit. We get Trebek’s reflections on his favorite players, not something that happened overnight as he also tells us he really didn’t talk to them much outside of what we saw on the program. He wanted to avoid getting too close to them both to avoid allegations of favoritism, and to emotionally distance himself anyway so as not to be upset when they inevitably lost. However, he did gain a soft spot for contestants like all-time champ Ken Jennings (who is slated to replace Alex when the show resumes next year), Eddie Timanus, a blind contestant, and Cindy Stowell, a multi-game winner who always seemed awkward on camera and a tiny bit “off”… and died before her shows aired. Turns out she was suffering from terminal cancer and very ill while filming, but she kept going… something of a guide for Alex himself a few years later on.

$400 – “Content” – A : What was Alex in 2020. When he wrote the book, he already knew he had cancer and little chance to survive. He speaks poignantly about the ill effects of the cancer as well as the harrowing treatments and how he knew in the end, he was unlikely to prevail. Yet, we also see that at 80, he was fine with it. He felt he’d lived a good, long and blessed life, loved some fine people and been loved in returned. He was remarkably at peace with the idea of this being his last year on Earth, although the pandemic frustrated him. When your days are numbered down to triple digits at best, you want to do all that you can when you feel up to it… and simple joys like going to the movies with his wife and kids had been taken away by Covid.

$500 – “Honestly Fun” – A: What was Alex Trebek. He surprises in the book, largely with his candor. He sometimes swears, he has a fast and sometimes PG sort of sense of humor and he made mistakes along the way, as we all do. He doesn’t shy away from any of those in the book, nor from his political convictions. He says he’s voted for Democrats and Republicans at different times and isn’t partisan, but he also left little doubt whatsoever about his feelings of the White House at the time of his death “If you start off by saying ‘Here’s the way we’re gonna solve it’…and worse if that certainty has no basis in fact and is being pushed by someone who just doesn’t have the mental capacity to adjust, you’re in deep trouble. And that’s what we’re seeing today.”

All that plus his thoughts on sleeping nude, his favorite celebrity fan, comedy parodies of himself and of course, the moustache. The Answer Is… that Trebek’s book is worth reading.

What Is ‘A Sad Day For Television, Alex’?

“What is the passing away of Alex Trebek.” Correct for $600. Category is “2020 Bad News” .

I was sad but hardly surprised to hear of Trebek’s death yesterday. After all, he’d been publicly battling “aggressive” pancreatic cancer for almost two years and the survival rate for that disease is low, even for people much younger than Alex’s 80 years. But it was still a little shock and undeniably sad. He seemed to defy the odds and rebound so many times, both from this and the sickness the chemotherapy had caused, and from prior medical problems like blood clots and a heart attack. It seemed like it would be a Tuesday night we’d hear of Alex being in hospital and Wednesday morning he’d be on set, asking Judy, a nurse from Peoria, to name the Shakespeare play with MacDuff and Banquo, busy filming two weeks worth of Jeopardy.

Trebek was special to me for two big reasons. One, he was a fellow Canadian and one who showed some of the best qualities of our country, and two, because Jeopardy has for years been my favorite game show, and at times, a family ritual. He was synonymous with the show, and the show was a constant in ever-changing, often weird or unpredictable times.

Alex grew up in Sudbury, a mining city about a five hour drive north from where I grew up. It’s the nickel-mining center of the continent. My family took a trip up there when I was little. I don’t remember much of it other than the “Big Nickel”… which was, yes, a huge, over-sized sculpture of a five cent coin! A rough-and-ready, and at one time prosperous city, Alex outgrew it young nonetheless. He set off to Cincinnati to spend time with a girl, back to Canada to get a degree in philosophy and then to the CBC – the Canadian governmental national broadcasting network – to do everything from be a news correspondent to (briefly) rubbing shoulders with an older friend of mine on a music show, to most importantly, hosting a quiz show for Canadian high school students, Reach for the Top. Important because this in turn caught the attention of Hollywood, and soon he was recruited for a new version of a rather drab and at the time moribund game show, Jeopardy. Sure, Jeopardy had run on and off with hosts like Art Fleming and John Harlan on different channels and at different times through the late-’60s and into the ’70s, but it was far from a cultural hallmark … or even an ongoing entity when it was brought back in 1984, with Alex, big hair, moustache and all, at the helm. The rest, as they say, is history.

Week in,week out, for over 8000 episodes, Jeopardy tested our knowledge, and that of the three contestants a day, in topics ranging from “potent potables”, aka booze, to The Renaissance. River cities, men in black, famous last words, 1990s news, Shakespeare, shakes and spears… it was all in a day’s work for the show. Sometimes just guessing the topic the oft-mysterious categories were was half the fun! In an era when contest shows seem to rely on cheap laughs and ditzy contestants (a novel I’m reading neatly suggested “there’s a game show on. Martin can’t follow it; the rules seem too complex, there are too many flashing lights, too many glaring teeth.”) , Jeopardy stayed the course, steered clear of most flashy gimmicks (episode with IBM computer as a contestant notwithstanding) and rewarded often drab contestants with wide-ranging knowledge. At the center of it all, Alex Trebek. “Erudite” in the words of USA Today; “unflappable” in the opinion of NBC correspondent Harry Smith. Indeed, Trebek, who tested himself with all the questions before every game, seemed to suggest the types of qualities we Canadians generally admire. A quiet confidence and knowledge that mixes a slight detachment with a warm nature and a wry sense of humor. As Smith, who once took part in a celebrity edition of the show, noted, Trebek was “kind” and never overshadowed the game itself. The sense of humor? Months before his demise, Trebek was asked about a possible replacement as host. He answered “probably a woman. Somebody younger, somebody brighter, somebody personable. Somebody with a great sense of humor. So I nominate Betty White.” It’s said he laughed as much at the spoofing of him on TV variety shows and in Weird Al songs as we did.

I’ve not been a huge fan of game shows overall, though I’ve caught most of them along the way from The Price is Right to Family Feud to Ellen’s Show of Humiliating Contestants (I think it’s called). Mildly interested in a few, annoyed by many. Too many fools being showcased, too many rewards to whomever can scream the loudest and longest and jump up and down the most. Jeopardy though, has been a part of my life as many days as not for over thirty years. I watch along, test my knowledge against the contestants, roll my eyes when one thinks “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn” is a line from Star Wars, cheer for the surprise comebacks for the underdog, the ones who stay home looking after parents with Alzheimers or volunteer at nature centers on weekends. I always figured I could do alright on Jeopardy, maybe win if the categories would come up good for me, and be steam-rollered over if Ken Jennings was back. I’d need to study up on Shakespeare, the U.S. Constitution and African nations beforehand, I’d decided. It was also one of the few shows that crossed my family’s great divides. Both my parents watched regularly, long after they divorced and had very little in common. If I was at my dad’s place, 7 o’clock was time to get to the basement and put on Jeopardy. “Did you see that woman on Jeopardy tonight?”, my mom would ask in our regular calls before she passed away. One time she called to tell me there was a guy on the show who looked like me.

Trebek himself perhaps summed up the reason for his popularity when asked about what legacy he hoped to have. He says he wanted to be remembered as the guy who “always seemed to be rooting for the contestants… (when they) perform at their best, that would make the show a success.”

A success it is, or was. As was Alex Trebek.

“What is Jeopardy in 2021?” Correct for $200, category “things that will forever be a little worse in the future.”

RIP, Alex. Reports today say the final episode he taped will air as a Christmas gift to people like me, this December 25th.

The Crown – Story Of Queen Royally Good Drama, Maybe Not Such A Joker Of An Idea?

My sweetie and I have been watching The Crown this past month. We got to the current end of the series and are now counting the days until the new, fourth season begins in November.

For the uninitiated (which would have included me until a few weeks ago), the Crown is a Netflix series based on the life of Queen Elizabeth. Elizabeth II to be precise, there was a previous one some four centuries earlier. The first three seasons begin by seeing her childhood, with her father (George VI) being thrust into the role of king when her uncle David (who was King Edward… don’t ask me why “Edward”) abdicated – quit – to marry a woman the family, and Church of England, didn’t approve of. George VI is a decent-ish man but a chain smoker and he soon dies of lung cancer. In what the country would have considered the ideal situation, he would have had a son, but instead left two daughters, so the eldest, Elizabeth became queen while barely out of her teenage years. Ironically it was a role her younger sister, Margaret coveted and Elizabeth didn’t want, preferring “country life” riding and selling horses. To her, the crown’s something of a burden. Small wonder “crown” and “anchor” are linked together so often.

We see her develop into the role of Queen, come to understand its gravitas but also lose a bit of her own soul and self in doing so. We see her as a steadying presence in a country losing prestige in the world, but also a somewhat powerless one as a succession of prime ministers come and go and make decisions she often disagrees with but puts up with, because, well, that’s what The Crown does. From time to time we see small victories the Queen and her kin have; Margaret securing a huge “bailout” loan from the U.S. after a night of un-regal drinking and dancing with President Johnson in the ’60s, Elizabeth herself nudging a reluctant, frail and failing Winston Churchill into retirement when he was no longer up to the job’s demands. But for the most part, it’s a life and job of sitting politely and doing little. Where we’ve left off, the ’70s are rolling, her son Charles is stuck on Camilla Bowles but Diana hasn’t arrived on the scene and other son Andrew is just a lad, not the infamous “Randy Andy” who befriended Jeffrey Epstein. I’m more than a little curious to see her reaction (at least the show’s interpretation of it) to those events.

It might seem a weird one for me to get hooked on watching. I grew up in Canada, which is part of the “British Commonwealth” but has little real association with the UK these days. Nevertheless, growing up I saw the Queen’s face on every coin I used, most of the paper money and many of the stamps I put on letters… some of which were probably railing about how much I despise seeing a foreign leader on our money! No fan of the monarchy am I. It’s not so much that I ever really had it in for Elizabeth (watching the series only confirms she is an ordinary woman asked to do extraordinary things) but merely the two facts that she was from another country, not mine, and she wasn’t even picked by the people over there! Democracy people! Let the people pick the leaders.

That was how I felt. Now, in this insane year, I might be re-evaluating the idea. Hey, I still have a problem with someone being leader just because of the family they were born into. But I might be coming to see that Britain might have something going there with its two-part balance of power. Like the rest of us, Canada, the U.S., most other “civilized” lands, it still has its elected leader (a prime minister in their case) and the hundreds of elected politicians in Parliament, their equivalent to American Congress. That’s where the real power lies, where laws are made and changed, national budgets set and policies created. But then, quietly sitting there, taking it all in, is the other part, the monarchy. Sitting, politely waving once in awhile, not saying much in public beyond “Happy Christmas” every December 25th.

But, behind the scenes a force which can potentially influence a wayward government and could theoretically, change it. Laws there still give the Queen the “power to appoint and dismiss ministers (as in heads of branches of the government), regulate the Civil Service, issue passports, declare war or make peace, direct the military and negotiate and ratify treaties and alliances.” All that and be the official owner of all the swans in the country! That’s a lot of unused power. And maybe not such a bad system of checks and balances.

It all comes to mind because more and more, it’s becoming apparent that democracy as we know it, although better than the alternatives, isn’t working all that well. Lindsay Graham sits in Washington piously declaring in 2016 that it would be wrong to appoint a Supreme Court judge only nine months before an election and that if it happened in 2020 we should use his words against him. Now he’s blithely declaring they can do so, only six weeks before an election, so they will. And of course, the Democrats don’t shine by warning that if the Republicans follow through on that, they’ll simply expand the court to their advantage as soon as they can. Get your kids to take a high school law class parents, because if it keeps up, by 2028 Supreme Court judge might be one of the big growth jobs. (“Oh yeah, appoint four more judges will you!? Well when we win the next election, we’re going to put in 200 of our friends and make it a court of 213! Bazinga”). My Canada has long had a similar problem with elected government stacking the inexplicably unelected Senate with partisan patsies often quite unqualified for the role.

Add to that a sitting president urging his followers to vote twice – a criminal offense – to scuttle an election and make it null and void and an increasing number of voters getting their info from entirely unreliable sources (mainly social media posts) and one has to wonder where it’s all heading. Suddenly the concept of having an overseeing body watching it all, mainly observing passively, maybe yellling at a few dunces behind the scenes but ready to if necessary pull the carpet out from underneath any government that gets to be too delinquent or self-indulgent might not be a bad idea after all.

Of course,it’s still an unrealistic idea outside of Jolly Ol. They’ve had the concept and the practise of a ruling royal family for centuries and that’s the way it is. Having them requires nothing more than a bit of inertia and the occasional rolling of one’s eyes. Over here, we have no such tradition and needless to say, trying to install one would do little more than perhaps manage to miraculously unite the two polarized parties in Washington in outright frothing anger at the suggestion. Although the Kennedy’s have long been nicknamed “America’s Royal Family”, they aren’t and if we can’t agree on whether it’s OK not to stand during the national anthem or not, we sure as H-E-double- hockey sticks won’t be agreeing to a change of that magnitude. Who would get to be “the crown.”

Unrealistic? Yep. But a starting point in the discussion on how to “fix” democracy perhaps. By the way, I can sit and watch from the sidelines…just sayin’! I wouldn’t mind owning some swans…

May Hooray, The Sequel

Flipping around on Netflix a few nights back, I came up with a remedy. Not a cure but a surefire way to “chill” and probably get you snoozing happily quickly. Bob Ross. Never has the world needed Bob more. Sadly, he’s passed away but his TV shows live on full of their “happy little accidents.”

For the uninitiated, Ross was the huge-haired neo-hippie painter who had a long-running show, The Joy of Painting, on PBS in the ’80s and ’90s. Each episode, he’d start with a blank,or nearly so, canvas and quickly in under half an hour work his magic to create a pleasantly predictable landscape painting, full of mountains and little trees in the mist and often a little cabin for someone to live in and enjoy the view. Ross loved nature and every so often would bring in some animals. he particularly liked squirrels and seemed to always have a brood of foster baby squirrels he was raising, “the cutest little devils” in his parlance.

He’d narrate his painting in a stream-of-consciousness patter using catchphrases which now adorn t-shirts : “happy little accidents” for instance, when something didn’t look like you wanted in the painting. He narrated, and narrated with a voice so mellow and low-key he made characters like Venus Flytrap (on WKRP in Cincinnati) seem like hell-raising hooligans by comparison.

Ross was talented and probably turned more people onto dabbling around with paints than any other artist in the late-20th Century. He had talent but was often derided by critics for his predictability and triteness; a Norman Rockwell of the landscape if you will. If artists like Jackson Pollock were the “punk rockers” or new wavers of the visual arts world, Ross was its Carpenters, or Burt Bacharach.

Quiet, calm, predictable and soothing like a bowl of Campbell’s soup and grilled cheese. Watching the world around us, I think the world has never needed Bob and his squirrels more.

May Hooray 2

Another silver lining of the pandemic, if there is such a possibility, is that it’s giving us extra time to watch old favorite TV shows, or perhaps find new favorites. Every evening not spent shopping could mean three or four episodes of a New Classic! Now while I don’t want to suggest everyone become couch potatoes and do want to remind you it IS OK to get outside and move around a bit, as long as we’re not in crowds, sometimes a bit of time with good “friends” on screen can be a boost.

For me, this spring I’ve discovered two new series that have appealed to me. Both reflect my love of romcom films like When Harry Met Sally and You’ve Got Mail.

The first is the familiarly-titled Four Weddings and a Funeral. The title itself was taken from a popular British 1994 movie starring Hugh Grant and Andie MacDowell and follows them and their on-again, off-again trans-Atlantic love affair as they attend mutual friends’ weddings and funerals. The TV version was a 2019 remake of sorts from Mindy Kaling. The 10-episode miniseries delivered on Hulu borrows the name and the overall gist of the movie, but isn’t simply the same story with new characters, lest you wonder. This confused me a little at first, but once I accepted this was a new story and took it for what it was, it worked.

Like the movie, the show follows a romance between an American woman, Maya, and a British guy, Kash and how they interact through mutual friends in London. The film borrows readily and blatantly from famous scenes in romcom movies like Love, Actually and Notting Hill and while a little long-winded, a little heavy-handed in its handling of gay characters and overly PC at times, it still has its charms. By the end you’re cheering for the leads and their romance.

The other new show I’ve fallen for is a current network offering… and that’s not something that happens every year for me anymore. NBC’s Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist is a romdram, if you will. Part romance, part drama and an exuberant return to Hollywood musicals of the past. Rather a new, grown-up version of Glee, in the early years of that show before it jumped the shark and took Jane Lynch with it, casting her essentially as Lucifer and forcing the writers to turn themselves inside out finding convoluted reasons to have the group of university types keep coming back from across the country to hang out at their old high school.

Zoey is a nerdy millennial gal who works in a trendy software company and has to deal with office rivalries, family stresses and isn’t sure which way to turn when confronted with two decent but flawed suitors. Oh, and through a freaky MRI incident, she’s blessed with the ability to at times hear what others around her are thinking… in song. So the story line gets driven by big musical numbers of songs ranging from “It’s the End of the World As We Know It” by REM to Billy Joel’s “Lullabye” to  The Beatles “Help,”  Tears for Fears “Mad World,” and a rather somber take on “American Pie.”

It’s an entirely odd concept but it works better than it should, thanks in large part to solid writing and the charisma of Jane Levy as Zoey. Season one wrapped us this past weekend and probably singly increased the demand for Kleenex by about 50%.

If you like romance stories or comedies with a bit of a dark underbelly, both shows might work for you. If it’s not your thing, that’s fine too… don’t be afraid to take a bit of the time this pandemic is keeping you from being out in groups from looking for new faves of your own… but don’t forget to take time to keep on top of the real romances in your own life be they at home or far away!

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