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!

Local Celeb, Universal Messages

I’m walking through this world not in search of a trail to follow but in recognition that the trail is waiting for me to blaze.” Wise words to live by from Clint Harp, in the latest book from my reading list, Handcrafted.

I love nice furniture, but have little interest in the process of how it gets made. Given that, my latest read might have been an odd choice for me, and could’ve been dull as mud. Thankfully, it wasn’t.

Handcrafted by Clint Harp is much more than a biography of a carpenter…I’m sure he’d say that the New Testament is much more than a biography of a carpenter as well, so it pays to be curious. Although then again, I doubt Harp would want to compare himself to Jesus in any way.

Harp is the carpenter sidekick of Joanna Gaines on Fixer Upper, and host of his own slightly less well-known show, Wood Work which ran on DIY Network a couple of years back.

I was given the book by someone who knows how much I liked the Fixer Upper show and what the Gaineses- Joanna and Chip – have done for their hometown of Waco. I didn’t grow up in Waco, so it’s hard for me to imagine just how run-down and deserted the downtown was only a couple of decades back. Now, it’s a hot tourist destination (well, not now…thanks Corona Virus!) full of trendy little bistros and clothing stores, a busy renovated theater and crowds of people from all over. Although the success of the university football and ladies basketball teams have helped as had the mere fact the city is about half-way along the highway between the exceptionally fast-growing cities of Dallas and Austin, a great deal of that newfound popularity owes itself to just one thing – Fixer Upper and the charimsatic Gaines family. Their Magnolia companies. renovated some old grain silos downtown, turned it into a store and food truck center and have since opened a bakery and cafe (with plans to add a church, softball field and whole row of new shops soon). It’s been amazing to see the city catch on in the past few years and the likable couple of Joanna and Chip go from being home renovators you’d sometimes glimpse standing outside a construction site to regulars on magazine covers and on TV shows like Today.

They play a huge part in Clint’s book and success too. Clint was the go-to carpenter on the smash reno show, and as a result his own business, Harp Design has become a tourist spot in its own right and he’s hired on a busload of helpers to keep the shop and his resultant store running. But as the book shows, it’s not been an easy road for him, nor a destination he foresaw.

And that’s the interesting part of the book. Clint never aimed to be a professional carpenter as a kid… in fact, for some time he figured maybe he could become a professional musician (and hey, he’s an REM fan apparently…more reason to like him!). He did fine as a high-paid salesman, which was great except he hated the job. Handcrafted outlines just how odd, and difficult a walk for him and his family. Be it God or good luck, Harp’s followed his gut so to speak, and it seems to have turned out quite well. At times when many would turn around and backtrack, he’s pressed onwards. But there’d been arguments along the way and sleepless nights working away to meet deadlines which loomed large. Along the way, he learned how little he knew, an important lesson the wise among us all come to find out sooner or later..

In short, the book shows the value of following one’s goals, and priororitorizing one’s life. An ordinary guy who believed in himself, was lucky to have a wife who did the same and has fumbled on through, not getting sunk by the losses and appreciating the little wins along the way.

I once saw Clint trying on shoes in a local department store, just as Fixer Upper was starting to take off. I recognized him from the show, but didn’t approach him. I rather regret that now. I hope now I’ll have the opportunity again some day. The guy’s wasn’t born with a silver spoon and has a lot of lessons to teach… and hey, two R.E.M. fans are seldom at a loss for conversation!

Younger : Redmond Vs Star

My latest reading for the year was an interesting novel – Younger by Pamela Redmond (2019 edition). It’s interesting for two reasons. First, the story itself is intriguing and captivating. Second, and perhaps more interestingly, because it was the foundation of the cult-hit TV show of the same name. Actually, it’s rather interesting for a third reason too… the copy I had was extensively “updated” from the original 2005 version which won Redmond fame and a TV contract, with the characters brought into the here and now with plenty of modern-day references like I-phones and Grindrr apps. (By the way, dear readers no, I don’t have any plans to do the same to my book, Grace, Fully Living to leap Grace ahead two decades.)

The basic premise of the story, both on printed page and on the TV screen, is that a recently-divorced 40-something woman decides to go back to work after spending the past couple of decades at home, being a homemaker and mother to a girl who’s now college-aged and overseas. She finds it difficult to resurrect her once-promising career in publishing, and senses that bosses think her too old and inexperienced to be useful. Enter her best friend, Maggie, an avant garde lesbian artist, who goads and helps her into trying to look, dress and act younger… 26 in fact. With the new attitude, wardrobe and fuzzy resume, she gets back into her old field and finds new romantic interests. Of course, she lives in a constant low-level sense of fear with so much riding on her being assumed to be a perky young Millennial rather than a middle-aged mother.

The show on TV Land is now in its sixth season, with plenty of twists and turns in both her work life and love life. The book however, is narrower in range, covering just the first year she attempts to pull off the “younger” life. It’s one of a number of differences between the two. This part made it all the more interesting to me, as seeing the finished on-screen product, it was cool to see what the writers kept and what they altered from the original template.

*SPOILER ALERTS FOLLOW*

As I said, many things are the same… the basic facts of the heroine, her attempt to pull off being almost 20 years younger, her young love interest in Josh, her picky and prickly boss at the publishing house she goes to work at, her daughter’s mercurial nature and eventual return from charity work overseas, and Maggie. For all the similarities, there are differences aplenty.

Even the names have been changed. Our protagonist we all know as “Liza” on TV is Alice in the book. Her work friend played by Hillary Duff on the show is known as Kelsey there; Lindsay in the book. Other names are altered, although one which isn’t  Charles. The handsome boss on TV is… Mrs. Whitney in the book? Actually, his character doesn’t exist in the novel, with the boss being an aging feminist writer whose only interest in Liza/Alice is her ability to come up with modern covers and prologues for their catalog. Happily for Josh, no rival for the heart of our heroine appears on the pages. Meanwhile, Maggie is obsessed with becoming a mother in the book rather than finding a hot new lover, as the TV version is. Last but not least, her book stint at the publisher is abbreviated rather than years-long and elevated. She does however, find something creative and useful to do after the job in the book. You’ll need to read it to find out what that might be.

In short, the TV show centers largely around the dilemma of Liza needing to choose between the two loves – the age-appropriate (for 26 year old Liza) and fun Josh, or the age-appropriate (for by now close to 50 year-old mom Liza) successful and polite Charles. And, how far Liza and Kelsey can take their own division of the company with its “Millennial” titles.

The book, on the other hand, revolves around the conflict within Alice as to whether or not to follow her heart about Josh, whom she feels deep down too young and too likely to be disappointed in her down the road and the themes of motherhood played up by the ironic contrast between her and Maggie. She has spent much of her life being a mother and suburban housewife and wants to cut loose a bit; Maggie’s spent her life being wild and living the downtown life, now she yearns for something more domesticated white bread and apple pie.

Which version works better?

Both are quite entertaining and at least enthralling enough to keep one turning the pages or turning on the TV week after week. As Redmond says in the epilogue, “when you sell your book to TV or movies, you sell the rights for them to do whatever they want to your characters and stories.” She adds she loves the show and thinks Darren Star has “stayed true to the characters and spirit of the book while making some great additions.” That he has, and necessarily so. If true to her original book, Younger might have made an interesting movie but would never have the legs to run a show with episodes running for years.

All in all, a good enough book which will be all the better for fans of the show.

Squad 51 Changed TV…And Society

TV shows are of course, first and foremost entertainment. But once in awhile they rise above just that and can actually create change for the better. Maybe even save lives. Recently, I’ve rediscovered one such show… and a lot of memories from my childhood!

Over-the-air station COZI-TV shows nothing but oldies. It’s the television version of a Golden Oldies radio station. Andy Griffin, Magnum PI, MASH… they’re all there. And recently, a fave of eight, nine-year old me, Emergency.

Emergency was the brainchild of Jack Webb, no surprise to those who had watched his earlier show, Adam 12. While that one watched the day-to-day routines of two L.A. cops, Emergency dealt with an L.A. fire station and the goings on within and on their runs. In particular, the show which ran from 1972-77, focused on two paramedics who although firemen, responded to medical calls and were trained in medical care.It was a very new idea for the public at the time. Roy Desoto (actor Kevin Tighe) was the blonde, easy-going one while his partner who set many a lady’s heart a-flutter (and would later be immortalized in a Tubes song) was John Gage, played by dark and brooding Randolph Mantooth. The rest of the firemen on their shift at “Station 51”, as well as the doctors and nurses of the local hospital ER were supporting characters. A plot outline not unlike Adam 12, with its two patrol car cop buddies who spend a lot of time discussing life and responding to nuisance calls interspersed with a few high-tension emergency calls.

On Emergency, we follow along with John and Roy as they deal with mundane, everyday issues like John’s insomnia or Roy’s wondering about where to take his kids on holiday, interspersed with a few siren-screaming runs to heart attacks and snakebites , and fewer still infernos to respond to and help people survive. Of course, like Adam 12, it was full of afros, moustaches and conservative morality… youth smoking “grass” laced with pesticides freaked out and confounded doctors with their life-threatening illnesses; doctors jumped in to keep lying parents from their frightened and bruised children while doling out counseling about dealing with stress. (It did, however, coming a bit later than Adam 12, miss out on stripy bell-bottom fashion and bad guys who said things like “you’re a jive cop!” or “say your prayers… I’m gonna send you to pig heaven, copper!”)

Part drama, part light-comedy, mixed with a small amount of action… it’s a far reach from the action shows and movies that are in favor now. But somehow, it worked. We cared about the characters lives… and learned.

Emergency was made by sticklers for detail. The exterior shots used a real L.A. fire station (Station 127 in Carson) and a real hospital nearby. Producers got to borrow an authentic L.A. pumper truck (Engine 51) and apparently, on a few shots forgot to relabel it as such, meaning the eagle-eyed viewer could sometimes see Station 51 responding in a differently-numbered truck. Driven by an actor, Dick Hammer, who played Dick Hammer. You see, Hammer not only used his real name, he played his own role in real life – he was an actual L.A. fireman, thus having fire training and a license to drive the large vehicles.

Roy and John, the paramedics, went to their medical calls in a modified pickup with all sorts of medical supplies, and radios to the hospital. The trucks were new and few and far between and L.A. couldn’t loan them one, so the show got the blueprints and built an authentic replica themselves, and stocked it with the real equipment the true first responders used in the day.

It was interesting. It gave us a look at the ordinary work of fire-fighters and paramedics and some of the crazy calls they had to deal with. And in a small way, it changed the world.

Not only did Emergency pave the way for later, more action-packed shows like E.R. and Station 19, it changed society as well.

ME TV point out that when the show first aired, there were only 12 – one dozen – fire departments with paramedics in the entire country. L.A., Seattle and Miami were the only notable large urban areas with them at the time. What’s more, ambulances were largely taxis for sick and injured people. The personnel on them did little besides get the patient to doctors and help down the road. By the end of the show in mid-’77, fully half of all Americans were within 10 minutes of responding fully-trained paramedics. Lives were saved…. and one has to imagine that Emergency was behind it. It’s hard to innumerate, but oral history suggests a lot of fire departments and city councils got on board to train their firemen and supply them with medical gear when people started wanting their town to have its own John Gage, Roy Desoto and Squad 51. EMS World call Randy Mantooth the “goodwill ambassador” for their profession and point out “for all the popularity of classic shows such as the Honeymooners and Gunsmoke, the number of people they inspired to become bus drivers or sherriffs was probably small.” Not so Emergency. Schools offering the training to be paramedics saw a surge of applicants shortly after the show premiered.

Pretty cool. A show that changed history and made life safer. And still is interesting to watch 40 years on. Methinks we’ll never be saying that about the Kardashians.

Let’s Hear It For Commercials…Just Not Too Loudly!

My sister-in-law hates commercials. She has the remote close by when watching TV so she can mute them, often while commenting on how much she hates the intrusion into her show. I think she’s not alone in that.

Somehow though, I’m an odd duck. I actually like commercials. I think I probably prefer watching a movie on a TV station with commercials than one of the premium ones lacking them (DVDs are another story, I’ll get to that…)

Now, don’t get me wrong. It annoys me just like everyone else when advertisers manage to suddenly increase the volume level by about 20 decibels to scream at you … I’m Canadian of course, and we’re polite. We don’t like a lot of screaming. The Canadian government actually passed laws designed to prevent the overly loud ads. Likewise, some ads are just plain annoying – those that aim to be serious but portray adults as incompetent simpletons and the endless pharmaceutical ones in the States which inevitably list possible complications far worse than the disease they’re trying to cure. My favorites of those are ones for asthma meds which may increase incidents of asthma, possibly resulting in death! Well, i suppose a dead person won’t be suffering asthma attacks anymore, so one way or the other, the product does its job!

But that said, I like commercials. Maybe it’s my background. Growing up, my uncle was in charge of a large advertising agency and he talked with pride about his commercials and the jingles he created, the most indelible of which is doubtlessly still ingrained in every Canadian over the age of 30’s head. Alas, he passed away before I got to the age where I could have taken advantage of the time-honored practice of nepotism to use in making my ability to be annoying and repetitive to good use.

Really though, commercials are a plus to me for three reasons. They can be informative, they’re fun and when they’re not, they give us needed breaks.

It goes without saying that the job of commercials is to sell their product and service, and as often as not the product they’re selling isn’t one I need. However, on the rare occasion something new comes out that I might have use for, chances are good that I’ll find out about it through a commercial somewhere. And for those which don’t tell me anything useful … what’s a good TV show without a drink to sip on? At least on a DVD, you can pause. Live TV though, not so much. Without those Lipitor or ladies’ shapewear ads, when would I make that run to the fridge, or percolator…or to the bathroom to, umm, make room for that next drink?

My real love of ads though, is the ones that entertain me. Wendy’s old ads with the red-haired girl who was obsessed with their food (Morgan Smith for the record, more recently Candi on Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ Veep. No word on whether she convinced President Meyer to serve burgers in the Oval Office like the real-life one does these days!) were always humorous. Much more so than their rival Burger King’s with the creepy, also red-haired “King” who as I remember it used to do things like look in girls’ bedroom windows at night to let them know about the latest Whopper offering.

Probably no industry has been better at making fun commercials though than one which is about as far removed from fun as we can get – insurance. Let’s face it – everyone hates having to have insurance and generally aren’t fans of the providers. If you’re not using it, it seems like money down the drain (which is going to clog that drain… good thing there are Drano commercials to let you know what to do about that) , and if you do have to use it, it’s always a bad time… often made worse by paperwork hassles and delays. For all that though, what other industry has given us so many 30-second invitations to laugh out loud?

From Progressive’s “Flo” to Farmers’ guy who’s seen it all to the Allstate’s hapless “Mayhem” (Dean Winters, who’ll forever be remembered for playing a raccoon in a 30-second bit much more than his John McFadden character in Sex and the City or the Battle Creek show he starred in), the ads for the annoying necessity are reasons to stay in the room and run to the fridge when the main program returns. The kings of that though are another insurance company. From the friendly traveling gecko to Eddie Money in a travel agency to squirrels – lots of squirrels – no one has made more great commercials of late than Geico. So much so they self-deprecatingly mocked themselves in a recent series of ads for non-existent DVDs of their ads, while having a real online poll for people’s favorite one. Last time I checked in the Hump Day camel was in the lead. My personal favorite was the action hero whose mom called to fill him in on the squirrel situation at her house.

They can be loud and annoying, or they can be fun and informative. A reason to walk away, or to stay in the room. And a few make you want to reach for the mute button. Which, come to think of it, makes commercials a lot like people.

TV: Out With The Old, In With The New

Oscar Wilde said there were only two tragedies in life- not getting what you want, and getting what you want. Similarly, I have long thought there are only two things that can go wrong with a great TV show – they can change, or they can not change. Which leads me to today’s topic… two TV shows I love, one coming to an end, one just beginning.

Last week ABC announced Modern Family was going to come to an end after the next season, which will be its 11th and final. Not lost on TV trivia buffs, the 11 seasons ties it with two of the all-time sitcom classics, Cheers and its superior spin-off, Frasier. And will be one year more than the ever-present Friends, although coming in a year shy of the current laugh ratings juggernaut, Big Bang Theory, which wraps up this spring after 12 years. Modern Family, like Frasier, picked up 5 Emmys for best comedy series, more than Golden Era classics All in the Family or Mary Tyler Moore.

And it deserved it. Through the first few seasons, Modern Family was not only touching but a true laugh-a-minute masterpiece. The story, for the few who haven’t caught it, centers around one extended L.A. family with all its foibles and complications- a grouchy old patriarch (played fantastically by Ed O’Neill who quickly made us all forget about Al Bundy and Married with Children which he starred in years prior) and his new trophy wife Gloria, played by the show’s first breakout star, Sofia Vergara, his gay son Mitchell and his cornfed husband Cam, his daughter Claire (the second series I’ve praised that Julie Bowen was a female lead in) and her goofy realtor husband,Phil and the three couple’s assorted kids. Among those, Gloria’s old-man-in-a-boy’s-body son, Manny, and Claire and Phil’s the fashion-conscious Haley, played by the cute-as-a-button Sarah Hyland. Jay (O’Neill) is old school and tries his best to deal with the new realities of the world including gay kids and his brilliant but mouthy stepson. If you haven’t seen the first few seasons, do yourself a favor if you like laughing. Watch them. They deserved the Emmys.

But then, TV happened. The show managed to both stagnate and change, not a good combination. While most of the main adult characters stayed roughly the same, which becomes tedious (aka, Phil the clueless real estate agent), there was no way to avoid the kids changing. Ten years will do that to any child not named Bart Simpson. Cute youngsters morphed into sullen and/or mouthy and/or lazy teens. Meanwhile, the longer Columbian Gloria stayed in California, the more over-the-top her accent became somehow.

Honest assessment… I’ve rarely tuned in the last three years, and when I did, I found myself embarrassed more than amused most of the time. Seems I wasn’t alone as the one time ratings juggernaut has been tumbling in the Nielsens the last couple of years. I hope the writers come up with a great , and happy, way to wrap it up, and I will be looking forward to tuning into that weeks in advance, but honestly, it is time for it to make way for the new before we see a graying Phil hop on a Harley and jump a shark.

Meanwhile, for the first time in quite awhile, there is a new show I’m raving about. After only four episodes. Project Blue Book on cable’s History Channel is based on…the Project Blue Book. Go figure. That, for those not in the know or the conspiracy theory universe, was an actual American government study through the height of the cold War. It reputedly investigated UFO sightings and strange occurrences; its creators say they debunked the theory of extraterrestials, the critics say they whitewashed and covered up. The project was largely administered by a professor, Dr. Hynek, played by Irish actor Aidan Gillen, well known to many before for his role as … somebody… in Game of Thrones Never saw that show, so to me he’s “Muldar II”.

Because, make no mistake about it, Project Blue Book is nothing more than a new take on the X-Files with a dash of Mad Men thrown in for mid-century stylish good measure. If Air Force Captain Quinn was a cute redhead instead of a dashing young man, it’d be difficult to tell the difference. The creepiest thing about Project Blue Book’s theme music might be its eerie resemblance to the theme from The X-Files. The rest of the show has its similarities as well. A skeptic, in this case, a young Air Force vet fresh off WWII, and a believer (but skeptic of government explanations about UFOS and such) in this case, not Muldar but the poorly-shaven professor Hynek. All that set in the ’40s with lots of cool post-modern furniture. And some mysterious guys in black hats, smoking, watching everything that happens.

That might sound like a bit of a knock, but it isn’t. The X-Files in its early days, was smart, thought-provoking and revolutionary. It was suspenseful and curiosity-provoking. Unfortunately, as its creator Chris Carter admitted, he never thought the show would last so he didn’t have a long-range plan for where the show would go. After about 4 seasons, it became convoluted, confusing and at times boringly repetitive. Let’s hope Project Blue Book has a better long-term plan. It has an interesting side story to work with, Hynek’s lonely wife,Mimi, and her friend who in Mimi may be seeking a lover or may be seeking information to give the Russians. It has a chance, as it has 20 or so years of case studies to write about. The Lubbock Lights (put down to being flocks of birds reflecting light back to the ground) and crashed spacecraft (or meteor, according to Blue Book) in West Virginia barely get the ball rolling. So far it’s been fast-paced, historically intriguing and suspenseful.

Maybe like some shows, the writers will really get a sense of the characters and the show will shine even brighter after another couple of years. Maybe like Modern Family and the X-Files the characters will verge closer to caricatures and the stories less intelligible as time goes by. Either way, it’s like life itself. Here to be enjoyed when its good, and looked back on fondly when its not. That is no tragedy.

News For Kids, But I Like It Too

Not many of us use all the things we were taught back in school. A few weeks ago I touched on things that perhaps should be taught in school but aren’t. However, for all the shortcomings in preparing our youth for everyday life it seems at least a decent portion of our schools do one thing right in stretching the boundaries of the kids’ education beyond prepping for SATS and learning geometry and Shakespeare. They let kids get a little look at “what’s going on” each day. Now, several decades after I last walked out of a high school, this bit of added curriculum has become a part of my daily Monday – Friday routine. I’m talking about CNN 10, which used to be known as CNN “Student News”. I’m not knocking memorizing Vice Presidents or learning sines and cosines, but to me this little daily video seems to be a very good use of kids’ time.

The Atlanta cable network bill it as “compact, on-demand news broadcasts ideal for explanation seekers.” The host, Carl Azuz, enthusiastic and the apparent Prince of Puns, describes it as “a right down the middle explanation of the day’s events”. Both seem accurate descriptions. Essentially, the daily ten minute clip looks at three or four stories, including some of the major news events, here and elsewhere, with explanations of what and why. As well they throw in scientific developments at times, and a few “Feel good” stories, be they just flat out funny or ones which are inspirational, like meeting Chris Stout. Stout spearheaded a project to provide little houses for formerly homeless vets in Kansas City. A few days back they showcased a cafe in Indiana that gives back to the community…and free coffee to those who do good around town. A new pilot project many large companies are getting behind to deliver their products (from Axe deoderant to Haagen Daaz ice cream) in returnable, reusable metal containers? Learned about it on the student news.

My first introduction to the news clips came about three years back when my sweetie decided her teen daughter should watch it to get a better idea of what was going on in the world. She no longer does that now that the kiddo is older and busier with a part-time job, but after a month or two, I found I missed the segments. Designed for teens or not, they are pretty decent little updates. I’ve learned more about Brexit from CNN10 than from all the newspapers and network news shows I’ve encountered, learned about the horribly bad economy in Venezuela and how it effects the people there a week or two before I saw any mention of it on TV news or in Time. When it comes to national events like the recent government “shutdown”, they inform about what’s happening while giving equal time to both sides – Democrat and Republican – without picking “right or wrong”.

Given the polarization of the public these days and the lack of in depth understanding of complicated problems on the world stage, I rather wish our adult workplaces might get on the bandwagon and have the staff take a look so that we all might be a bit better informed and understanding.Maybe have something more to talk about around the proverbial water cooler than if Kato or Tom Green will be booted out of the Big Brother house. 

I probably won’t soon be refreshing my memory on how to figure out sines and cosines, nor studying to be capable of naming the pre-Agnew VPs (pre-Agnew? Who am I kidding? I have no idea who was Vice President for Gerald Ford or Jimmy Carter.). But this is one piece of schoolwork I might never graduate from.

Everyone’s Friend Ellen Is Relatable…But Is She Still Funny?

So, I watched Ellen Degeneres’ new Netflix special, Relatable, a few nights back. Relatable is her highly-publicized return to her roots: the stage as a stand-up comedian. Ellen is such a huge part of our media and public consciousness, it may seem difficult to remember there ever was a time when she was an unknown face and voice struggling for both recognition and a career that would pay the bills.

But there indeed was such a time, and she revisits it rather touchingly in the special. The title itself stems from a question she was asked by a friend (and which makes up the basis of the start of her routine) when she told him she was going to do a stand-up show again. That being, “will people still find you relatable?” With her being a multi-millionaire, corporate spokesperson and internationally-recognized celebrity, could she still “relate” to ordinary peons? Could we still relate to her?

The answer, coming from the Netflix show recorded in Seattle, is yes. She is still relatable. However, that’s the good news. The bad : she’s not all that funny anymore. It doesn’t feel right to criticize Ellen. It’s like kicking a muppet or pouring a pail of water on a kitten. Nasty. Not right. Ellen Degeneres is nice. Everyone says so, and she seems to be one of the kindest-hearted people in the Hollywood establishment. But the fact is, that as comics go, Ellen may be nice but she’s not all that amusing these days.

Which isn’t to say the show was horrible. It had funny bits, and other parts were heart-warming or interesting… ((SPOILER!)) the part about her first girlfriends’ death and her move to a flea-infested apartment for example, are touching and tell us a good deal about her but don’t induce laughter. In general, think of it as being in the room with Ellen as she has a lengthy, meandering conversation on the phone with a good friend.

The problems with the show are well…numerous. The better bits run on too long. The opening bit, about the question of whether or not she is still “relatable”, for example could’ve been a truly funny, snappy little joke but gets dragged out to minutes of her beating the concept (she’s rich and lives in a big house now) into the ground. She says being gay isn’t anything much more important than the dry eyes Jennifer Aniston suffers from, and she might be right. But for a trait that’s not that important, she sure does go on at length about it.

Her observational humor is very relatable – everyone has a junk drawer that probably has some rubber bands and a random AA battery or two in it, for instance – but again, so what? It’s true but it’s kind of irrelevant. Nobody’s going to be falling off their chair, rolling around on the floor busting a gut from laughing “Oh my God, that’s so true…I have a dozen elastic bands in my kitchen drawer too, guffaw!” or “I never noticed there were a lot of side effects listed on medicine commercials before! What a hoot!”. And while for most of the show, she stays very clean and family-friendly, the few spots where she tries to be shocking or raunchy seem just inappropriate and forced. That’s not necessarily something lost on her, when after saying how she never really wanted to be typecast as a “dancer” and then having a lengthy skit of her dancing to a rap song with about half the lyrics being ones which would be censored by network TV, she shakes her head and says “I’m 60 and dancing to ‘Back that ass up.’” Someone thought that was a good idea; you don’t necessarily get the idea that Ellen herself was that person.

That said, she might not have had an enviable task going back to her roots. A quarter-century or so back she was unknown, now we feel like we know everything about her, so there’s less she can tell us that will take us by surprise. And while her first sitcom was being canceled because not everybody was ready for a lesbian on prime time, another comic was taking over the TV with his own, more cynical “observational humor” which produced a “show about nothing”- Seinfeld. Since then, we’ve had twenty years of comics talking about things like junk drawers and the frustration of getting out of the shower and having forgotten to have a towel ready. Last but not least, while people can be funny and nice too, it’s a challenge.

In this day and age, it seems it’s a lot easier to draw laughter, applause and fans by merely being loud, having expletives make up about half of your dialog and ranting about who you hate. And that goes for everything from the Twitterverse to Washington’s hallowed halls to the “Just For Laughs” floors. I applaud Ellen for trying to take the high road. Yet while she made me and my parents alike all laugh in the ’90s, now she had me looking at my watch to see if it had stopped 45 minutes in. Maybe I’ve changed. Maybe Ellen has. Maybe society has…well, no maybe about that one. Either way, I think I like those old days a little better.