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!

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?

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…

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.

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.

I Am Canadian, Eh

I’m Canadian, eh?

I’m proud of my homeland and of course, puff up a little every time something Canadian appears on the world stage, be it a Mike Myers movie, Joey Votto winning an award in baseball, a Sarah McLachlan or Guess Who tune on the radio in Texas, a bag of cookies on a Florida grocery store shelf saying “Product of Canada.”

I find we Canucks are pretty well accepted wherever we go, which is nice. I think that’s largely because we just don’t create a real strong impression on foreigners. Rather a double-edged sword, that – we’re dull but we’re not unlikable therefore. That could be rather a function of both our typically mild-mannered nature and the fact that our national culture is… well, not terribly colorful or unique when looked at on the world stage. Not that we don’t have a culture, it’s rather that it is primarily a mix of America-lite with a tip of the cap (or toque) to our British heritage. People who visit Toronto from other countries often leave with the comments of “that’s a whole lot like Chicago or Atlanta with slightly less trash on the streets and a few more Depeche Mode songs on the radio.”

Of course, what little we do have to make us “special” is played up to death in the media. We don’t have bagpipes, or haggis or stinky cheese to define us, but we do have Tim Hortons, toques, hockey and beer. Which is fine by me. With the majority of us, I find. We laugh along with Robin (a character played by an actual Canadian actress, Colbie Smulders) in the sitcom How I Met Your Mother with her Vancouver hockey-logo bedecked t-shirts, jerseys, sleep pants and her patter – indecipherable to most Americans – about back home with its hydro poles, curling bonspiels and Mark Messier, all the while being mocked/pitied by her American friends who point out how tough it must have been growing up with “America right there!” . Barney in that show visits her in Toronto and makes fun of the brightly-colored paper money and just about everything else, but does begrudgingly admit upon return to New York, “the coffee was excellent.” Or with Hank Hill on King of the Hill, when confounded with new Canadian neighbors who use a lawn mower with a maple leaf design on it and ask him things like “How come America still can’t brew a decent ale, eh?” … to which he responds to the effect of “because we’re too busy making Hollywood blockbusters and sending men to the moon”.

Yes, we do have a Tim Hortons coffee shop on just about every other street corner and in half the country they serve as more or less the social club, point of reference, beginning point to journeys and daily mid-morning work break. We do, it seems to me, like beer a bit more than other Americans, cola a little less. We do say “eh”,although a lot less than most TV shows might have you think. We do call electricity “hydro” even if it comes straight from a nuclear plant or solar farm. And a toque with a plaid lumberjack coat is as close to a national outfit as we have. We do as a people love hockey more than Americans not from Boston or Detroit, and have an indifference for football, particularly of the amateur high school variety that’s inexplicable to our neighbors south of the Mason-Dixon Line at least. But we’re not that different.

What’s more, we laugh at ourselves and seem to have a lassez-faire attitude towards those who behave differently or have their own cultures when they come over. Which I believe makes us easy targets for those wanting to make jokes… but also more accepted than a number of other nationalities. It’s difficult to sweepingly dislike a group of people who don’t stand out and who laugh at their own foibles anyway.

I think there’s a message in there somewhere. Be proud of who you are, where you come from, but realize that others are just as proud of where they are from, what matters to them. Don’t get too bent out of shape by a little ribbing – it just means you’re no different really. Part of the crowd. Or when it comes to Tim Hortons coffee, that maybe they’re a bit jealous, eh!

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