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Thursday, September 24, 2009

ABC Wednesday

I feel a little guilty for having watched two hours of ABC programming last night, and not just because a quarter of that time was spent viewing something called "Cougar Town". When ABC made the decision to cancel Pushing Daisies I realized that it meant I would have no reason to turn on the channel for the foreseeable future. (I've never gotten into LOST and besides that, tell me exactly when a reasonable male would turn on the network that depends on Grey's Anatomy and Desperate Housewives for its few ratings successes?)

But I never formally launched a boycott, because I'm emotionally mature enough (just enough) to know that such a course of action would have no practical impact. And so when I heard all the advance buzz for Modern Family I decided to give ABC another shot at taking over my Wednesday nights. And then due to inertia I wound up watching Cougar Town and Eastwick as well. Some thoughts:

Modern Family showed great promise. The show follows three branches of a "modern American family" whatever that is. Ed O'Neill is the patriarch Jay Pritchett, and is newly married to a much younger Colombian woman. She's played by Sofia Vergara with a little bit hackneyed Latina fire, but she delivers some of the best lines, and it's more than possible that her character is intended as a parody more than a cliche. Jay's daughter Claire (played by Julie Bowen of "Ed" fame)is part of a supposedly more typical family, married for 16 years and with three kids. Her husband Phil is trying too hard to be cool, and she worries that her daughters will make the same mistakes she did. Speaking of the older daughter she says, "If she never wakes up half-naked on a beach in Florida, I'll have done my job."

The third branch is a gay couple who at episode's open are returning from Vietnam with an adopted baby in tow, a baby Mitchell Pritchett has yet to tell the rest of his family about. I was impressed with the way Modern Family treated its gay characters. There wasn't as much boosterism or kid-gloves treatment of them. In fact the only political moment arises when Mitchell launches into a speech about the many shapes of love after a woman says "look at that baby with those cream puffs" (the baby was actually holding cream puffs.)

Modern Family seems to be a reaction to years of rigid family archetypes on television. With it's broad cast of characters it makes the point that families encompass a lot more than just a Mom, a Dad, and two or three kids. I'm curious how it will handle it's large ensemble in future episodes.

The best part of Modern Family may have been the children. Jay's stepson Manny a prematurely passionate boy who is in love with a 16-year old mall kiosk worker. He is constantly picking flowers and writing love poems, to Jay's consternation and his mother's delight. Of his rejection, Manny says, "I gave her my heart, and she gave me a drawing of myself as an Old West sheriff." Phil and Claire's children are very funny as well, especially the easily exasperated middle daughter, who delights in wondering what the family would do if her older sister got pregnant. ("Would you pretend she has mono and hold her out of school for a few months, and then claim the baby was yours?")

I highly recommend giving Modern Family a chance. Comparisons to Arrested Development are perhaps overblown and based more on the single-camera style than objective reality but this is a worthwhile attempt at reimagining the family sitcom.

Cougar Town is a watchable sitcom, and if you watch Modern Family you're kind of stuck since everything else from 9-10 are hour long shows. (This assumes other options, like reading or something, are out of the question.) Courteney Cox is a game comedienne, willing to go pretty far for a laugh. She gets quite a few in the pilot, but the premise of this show seems so thin that it's hard to imagine it lasting. The show is also fairly vulgar, with clear implications of fellatio and other sex acts. This wouldn't be so potentially disturbing except for the candid discussions between Cox's character and her teenage son, who is tortured by having a hot Mom out on the prowl. The show is better than its atrocious title, but not by much.

Eastwick is kind of a mess. It feels a lot like a lot of other shows, only worse. It's a little bit Charmed, mixed with the female bonhomie of something like Sex and the City. It's based on the movie The Witches of Eastwick, from the John Updike book of the same name, and centers on three women granted magical powers through the intervention of a mysterious male benefactor. I'm not usually one to criticize entertainment on a political basis, but the sexual politics of this show are just absurdly inaccurate and presumably offensive to any thinking woman. The idea that women can only fully realize their potential by becoming more like men is disturbing and just plain wrong. The performances of the three main leads range all the way from pedestrian to middling, and the writing is pretty terrible in places. (One character's evil husband is cartoonish, and a scene where a previously kind boyfriend turns rapist within 90 seconds means this show officially hates men and women alike.)

This is not an original thought, but Eastwick really does feel like something that even the executives at the CW would pass on. The three female leads are pretty to look at, but that's about all this show offers.

So, ABC, you're going to get my eyeballs for about half-an-hour to an hour a week again (depending on my level of lethargy.) Sorry, but I don't have a Nielsen box.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

That Old Cape Magic

Richard Russo is a novelist with a immense knowledge of people. His fictional characters come equipped with the resentments, entanglements, unwanted obligations and tortured memories of real human beings. This gift for creating round characters is how Russo is able to create such memorable fiction out of the lives of ordinary men and women. He gets at the universal nature of unhappiness and portrays with stunning insight and sympathy.

Russo's newest novel, That Old Cape Magic, utilizes this knowledge of human folly further than any of his other works. There is also a greater sense of bitterness and sorrow than ever before. At times That Old Cape Magic feels like its holding up a mirror to all the ugliness in the reader's soul. Everyone can recognize themselves in Russo's Jack Griffin, a married man who often knows he is about to say the wrong thing and says it anyway, sometimes intending to inflict the damage he causes.

The novel breaks neatly into two sections, each surrounding a wedding. In between the two Jack and his wife of thirty years separate, and both show up to their daughter's wedding with dates. Russo somberly traces the dissolution of their marriage, as they fail to deal with the emotional problems facing them and instead lash out at each other.

As always, family, especially parents, play a huge role in the tension. Jack hates his parents, snobbish English professors consigned to mediocrity in the "Mid-fucking-west" with their only escape a yearly vacation to Cape Cod, even though he is more like them than he cares to admit. The way Jack most resembles his parents is in his petty dislike of his wife's family and their Protestant values.

Russo's command of the story is as impressive as always, and the number of characters and memorable set pieces he manages to include is rather amazing considering the books brevity and breeziness. Despite being at times rather uncomfortable to read, a trainwreck on paper, if you will, That Old Cape Magic is, in its own way, an enjoyable read.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Politics in the Novel

There are many reasons to write a novel. Among the worst are to prove a point or settle a score. Philip Roth tries to do both with I Married A Communist, a lengthy, invective-loaded tirade published under the guise of a novel.

I Married A Communist takes place during the peak of the McCarthy era, and concerns itself primarily with the treacherous, life-ruining betrayals of that time. This is not exactly new territory. American writers have been beating this time-period and its ills to death since the immediate aftermath of the hearings and blacklists. Some of these efforts are intelligent rebuttals to a time of madness, but Roth seems to be using the era as an excuse to proudly exclaim his own radicalism and to slander his ex-wife.

The story centers on radio actor Ira Ringold (Iron Rinn to his fans) and his openly secret allegiance to Marxian economics. Roth's narrator/alterego is the reclusive novelist Nathan Zuckerman, who is talking over the tragedy of Ira Ringold with Ira's brother and Nathan's former teacher Murray, over forty years later. This frame-story device has a distancing effect and causes the story to meander and drag needlessly. There is less focus on events and chronology than there should be. Also, the age of the two interlocutors causes the reader to find their perfect memories of names, dates, and even whole conversations incredulous.

Ira Ringold is a surprisingly one-note character. Roth is rightly regarded as an American master, but here he supplies his protagonist with little more than an overgrown child's sense of fairness and geopolitics. Ira's political rants are so repetitive that the reader loses the capacity to feel sympathy for him.

The novel follows Ira's story as he marries Eve Frame, an American actress on the downside of her career, and navigates the increasingly conspicuous relationship between his wife and her daughter. This is where the novel starts to run off the rails of literary work and into the territory of personal vendetta. At the time of this novel's publication Roth had just endured his own divorce, followed by his ex-wife's tell-all in which she described him as a petty tyrant and a vindictive psychopath. In the novel, Ira's life is ruined by a dishonest tell-all memoir written by his wife. Roth makes Eve a pathetic cartoon of self-loathing, anti-Semitism, and unrequited mother love that it is hard to keep reading passage after passage of his obvious contempt for the character representing his own former wife.

The idea of Roth, one of the foremost authors of our time, writing about an incredibly interesting, if over-covered, period of American history, was a thrilling prospect. It is indeed unfortunate that his personal troubles and need to prove himself right got in the way of what could have been an interesting novel.