Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Tonight on Murder, She Wrote

I've seen my fair share of crime dramas, from Columbo (which will likely be a future post), Rockford Files and Magnum, P.I. to NCIS, Bones, and Elementary. But few are as dear and nostalgic as Murder, She Wrote, a show my mom watched every single Sunday as I was growing up.

With the catchiest of catchy theme songs (just try to get it out of your head) and a talented, charming, and intelligent main character, Murder, She Wrote is a beacon in the crowded crime procedural genre. Is it perfect? Far from it. But it's comfortable and it's endearing, great for a snowy afternoon or a lazy summer evening.

Via Wikimedia
MSW aired on CBS for an unbelievable 12 seasons from 1984-1996. It's about successful mystery writer Jessica Fletcher (played, of course, by Angela Lansbury), who lives in the sleepy, yet strangely murder-ridden, town of Cabot Cove, Maine. Her success at writing murder mysteries has given her an uncanny ability to solve them in real life, so she lends the police a hand in their investigations whether they want it or not—and they usually don't.

Jessica Fletcher is a woman with no apparent weaknesses. She's a great friend. She knows a little about everything. She has no fear. She's got great instinct, and she knows how to follow it to an end. She can out-police the police every time.

Murder seems to follow Jessica everywhere she goes. Whether she somehow gets roped into an international smuggling scheme or she's just looking to get some repairs done on her house, someone she knows will either be murdered or be accused of murder. You know a person's doomed at the beginning of an episode if he has some kind of interaction with Jessica. It's like the red shirts in Star Trek, only this time, it's anyone Jessica talks to.

It's a good thing she travels a lot, or else Cabot Cove would be entirely empty by the end of 2 seasons. As it is, the fictional small town has a higher murder rate than Honduras, the murder capital of the world. So, there's that. But for Angela Lansbury, we'll believe anything.

There's a whole host of guest stars in the show. Everybody who was anybody, and everybody who wasn't, in 80s and 90s television showed up at least once, including Jerry Orbach, Jessica Walter, the dad from Ferris Bueller, and even George Clooney and a teenage Neil Patrick Harris. My mom made sure to tell me through every episode what other shows each guest star had been in. Thanks, mom.

Jessica Fletcher, always peering around corners.
As a side note, it's a testament to Angela Lansbury's skill and grace that she was able to stay in character even opposite the worst actors possible. The famous guest stars were great. The ones who weren't so famous? Not so great.


What allowed this show to last as long as it did was that it was purely procedural—meaning that my 5-season-limit theory doesn't apply. Each episode stood entirely on its own, with the exception of a few 2-part episodes. Even after Jessica moved part-time to New York City in season 8, while the tone shifted to seem a little grittier—complete with cheesy 90s saxophone music—every episode was still largely the same as it always had been. In fact, there were some episodes, particularly in the last seasons, with exactly repeated motives, methods, character types, and solutions from earlier episodes, presumably because the writers assumed no one would notice, and probably due in part to the fact that the show had a completely new production team after season 8. But it couldn't jump the shark, because they weren't trying to develop any characters or include any long story arcs.

There were plenty of recurring characters, like Jessica's lovably grouchy best friend Dr. Seth Hazlitt (William Windom) or the debonair Dennis (Keith Mitchell), but these and all other relationships remained static for all 12 seasons. Angela Lansbury insisted that the widowed Jessica remain independent throughout the series, despite pushback from the producers, and I think ultimately that helped the show last as long as it did. Besides, Jessica don't need no man.

Overall, though, the mysteries themselves were quite interesting. While there was a formula, it wasn't so completely obvious that you knew exactly who did it 10 minutes in (in one crime show I watched, the murderer was always the third person they talked to). The mysteries weren't so easy that you could solve them immediately, but the clues were prominent enough that you could figure it out on your own if you paid attention. And, because Jessica knows people in all sorts of situations and walks of life, there are plenty of interesting scenarios in which the murders occur: operas, espionage, ghost stories, salon gossip, you name it.

Like I said, though, the show was far from perfect. Around half of season 6 was made up of episodes that weren't about Jessica Fletcher at all. Some of these episodes were meant to be pilots for other shows that never got picked up, but others were just random, disconnected storylines. I don't know if Angela Lansbury wasn't available for that whole season, or if things were just lagging for other reasons, but it was a great disappointment to watch.
Seth is probably in the middle of calling Jessica
"woman" here. Their relationship is my favorite
of the series—completely platonic and
completely adorable.

The last episode, too, was a big let-down. Perhaps they didn't realize it was the last episode, or perhaps they just didn't put much thought into it, but I didn't feel like I was able to say goodbye to the show. It wasn't in Cabot Cove, for one thing, so there wasn't any closure on Seth, Sheriff Metzger, or any of the beauty shop ladies. The mystery wasn't even that good. For a show that was pretty solid for 12 years, it was a terribly anti-climactic ending.

Murder, She Wrote is best enjoyed on occasion. It's not a great binge show, because every episode is similar enough—and Jessica perfect enough—that it can get old with too much saturation. This isn't a show you engross yourself in; it's a show you can casually enjoy over a cup of tea and a puzzle. And plus, who doesn't love Angela Lansbury? Despite its (relatively minor) flaws, it's a must-watch if you like mysteries and classic TV. Or catchy theme songs.
My Favorite Episode:
"The Last Flight of the Dixie Damsel," (S5, Ep. 7). It's difficult to pick a favorite episode of a show like this, not just because there are so flipping many episodes, but also because not many of them are really stand-outs (not that they aren't good). In this episode, a missing Air Force plane from the Korean War is recovered, containing evidence of a murder that could be pinned on Jessica's late husband, Frank. What I liked about this one was that it showed a different side of Jessica. Normally, she is completely and utterly unflappable. She's cool and collected, all the time. She always knows what to do. But in this episode, she really gets angry. When it comes to her beloved Frank, she won't allow shoddy investigation to tarnish his reputation. It also provided a little more background for Jessica that hadn't really been revealed before. It was a brief departure from the show's norm, and it worked well. It was just nice to see a little bit of humanity in Jessica every now and then.

Some Trivia:

  • Angela Lansbury was nominated for the Best Actress Emmy every year the show aired, but she never won.
  • Jessica Fletcher could not drive a car. In Cabot Cove she rode her bike wherever possible, and she often asks other characters for rides.
  • The show's title comes from Murder She Said, a film adaptation of one of Agatha Christie's Miss Marple stories.
  • Angela Lansbury and recurring guest stars Jerry Orbach and David Ogden Stiers all co-starred together in Beauty and the Beast, which filmed during MSW's run, as Mrs. Potts, Lumiere, and Cogsworth, respectively.
The ultimate in "before they were famous" stills—Neil Patrick
Harris before...well, before anything.

Next up in the series:

The Dick Van Dyke Show
The Sopranos
Series introduction

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Oh, Rob!

For this post, we're taking a step inside our WABAC machine (which is another great show from days past), all the way back to 1961. In 1961, America was living in fear that the Earth would be blown up at any instant and our country would be taken over by Commies—and we weren't even sure which was worse.

Television had been a thing, or at least a thing people used regularly, for about a decade, and by then it was already in almost 90% of American homes. Amazing, right?

The early '60s were still a pretty squeaky-clean time for television, as far as censorship and regulation goes. Think of I Love Lucy, where they weren't even allowed to say the word "pregnant" because the network felt it was too vulgar—even when Lucy was actually pregnant.

Well, in comes The Dick Van Dyke Show, breaking boundaries at every step without really even trying. They faced some push-back from the network, but with persistence and clever loopholes, they managed to capture a sense of reality in every episode that no one else had accomplished before. It ran for five seasons, from 1961-1966, on CBS, and is still popular in syndication, as well as being one of the most well-loved sitcoms ever. It won 15 Emmys for acting, writing, and directing, and was nominated for many more; it was nominated and won at least one award for every season it was on air.

The Dick Van Dyke Show was originally meant to star creator Carl Reiner and was called Head of the Family. The pilot episode of this version is on Netflix for you to watch, but it's so terrible that I'm not sure you really want to. Luckily Reiner realized it wasn't working and set out to find someone else to star.

Lucky for everyone, he found the then-nobody Dick Van Dyke, long before anyone knew him as Bert from Mary Poppins (which, incidentally, is one of my all-time favorite movies). He was starring with Chita Rivera in Bye Bye, Birdie on Broadway at the time, and when Reiner saw him, he knew that he would be perfect: not too good-looking, a little awkward, and all-around lovable. The trouble was, Dick Van Dyke was far from a household name, so Reiner took a pretty big risk putting his name front and center. However, the show eventually became so popular that Dick Van Dyke would be a name no one would forget.

Public Domain
Besides the obvious Dick Van Dyke as Rob Petrie, The Dick Van Dyke Show also stars Mary Tyler Moore as Rob's wife Laura, as well as Larry Matthews as their young son Ritchie. Rob works as the head writer on the fictional Alan Brady Show (based on Reiner's experience as a writer on the real Sid Caesar Show) with co-writers Buddy Sorrell (Morey Amsterdam), whose one-liners are to die for, and Sally Rogers (Rose Marie). There are also Rob and Laura's neighbors and best friends, Millie and Jerry Helper (Anne Morgan Guilbert and Jerry Paris, respectively), as well as Carl Reiner himself as the ill-tempered diva Alan Brady and Richard Deacon as his balding producer Mel Cooley. The show even includes a couple of appearances by Dick Van Dyke's real-life little brother Jerry in particularly hilarious episodes, as Rob's sleepwalking little brother.

In every episode, the characters find themselves in all kinds of silly shenanigans—yet always believable ones. Whether it's a flashback to Rob and Laura's wedding that almost wasn't, or it's Rob losing a script that he, Buddy, and Sally had spent all day working on and then negotiating with a homeless man to get it back, or it's a bird that has taken a liking to little Ritchie's hair for its nest and attacks him every time he comes home from school, there's no shortage of entertainment in every episode.

There are many, many things that work in The Dick Van Dyke Show. Very often when I watch early television, like I Love Lucy, Green Acres, or even something a little later like Bewitched, I find that I enjoy it because it's quaint. It's adorable and old. And sometimes a little bit uncomfortable because of the obviously misogynistic story lines. No matter how scheming Lucy was, Ricky always put her back in her place. I love these shows and find them funny and entertaining, but there's always a part of me that thinks, "Aw, how cute."

This was never the case with The Dick Van Dyke Show. It never felt quaint, despite being over 50 years old. It was just genuinely funny. I laughed out loud all the time.

Carl Reiner was nothing short of genius in the way he put the show together. First and foremost, Reiner made it his goal to capture real life. It wasn't "real" life the way TV portrayed it in many other similar sitcoms. It was real life the way he and the people he knew experienced it. He would ask his crew, his actors, and even his then-young son Rob (who is a great actor, writer, and director in his own right), about things that had happened in their own lives. Much of what happened in Dick Van Dyke came from actual things that happened to people Reiner knew. Reiner has said himself that he never intended to necessarily break any boundaries or be particularly forward-thinking; he was just thinking about real life. Mary Tyler Moore said of the show that the only thing that didn't feel real about it was the fact that Rob and Laura slept in separate beds. Ah, well. You can't win every battle with the networks.

The character Sally Rogers (Rose Marie) was the
first time a single, working woman
was shown on television.
Also pictured is Morey Amsterdam as Buddy
Sorrell, king of the hilarious one-liners.
The Dick Van Dyke Show treated women with great respect. They weren't just gossiping housewives (although Laura and Millie were housewives, and they did gossip, that wasn't their only purpose). They were real and they had opinions that were valued. One of the things Reiner and Mary Tyler Moore fought the network for was pants. In every television series before this one, women were always, always shown in skirts. No woman had ever been shown wearing pants. But Mary Tyler Moore pointed out, "Well, all the moms and housewives I know wear pants," so Reiner said, "Then you'll wear pants." This bothered CBS, who at first wouldn't let them show Laura in pants at all, and then insisted that they show her in a skirt for at least a certain number of scenes in every episode. This lasted until they included a scene in which Laura goes into the kitchen wearing pants and comes out a second later wearing a skirt, after which CBS finally decided it wasn't going to change their minds. Mary Tyler Moore actually made Capri pants a huge fashion trend because she wore them in the show.

Sally Rogers was also a remarkable character. She was a single, working woman, which was absolutely unheard of in entertainment and extremely rare in real life. She was always joking about finding a husband, and she was teased frequently about it, but it was always good-natured, and she was never made out to look like some kind of spinster or whore or anything. Her teasing wasn't any harsher than the treatment Roz Doyle gets on Frasier, and considering the state of the world in the early '60s, that's pretty amazing. Sally was great at what she did, and that, rather than her being single, was her defining characteristic, which honestly is more than I can say about some more recent shows.

Reiner was also aware of the lasting impression The Dick Van Dyke Show could have if he was smart. He intentionally never included political or cultural references or 1960s slang in episodes, because he knew that those would date the show and would make it less likely to withstand the passing of decades. And it's true; once I knew this fact, I looked out for it, and I might have heard a brief reference to an actor or something maybe once or twice, tops. The content is generally timeless and relatable, despite being in an era with very specific visual markers.

The relationships between the characters are also interesting, particularly between Rob and Laura. Unlike many shows (especially I Love Lucy), Rob and Laura genuinely respect each other. They both make decisions together. It's not all up to Rob to be the man of the house and be in charge of everything—they run the house together. And, more than that, they argue. They argue about real problems and petty ones, just like a real couple. This isn't Father Knows Best, where the husband is
Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore were so convincing as
husband and wife that the public was extremely disappointed
to find that they weren't actually married.
Some people even actively hated Dick Van Dyke's real
wife, Margie, because she wasn't Mary Tyler Moore!
so wonderful and respectable and the wife is so obedient that no one argues. This is a real, loving, respectful relationship. Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore were so convincing that people thought they were married in real life, and were even devastated to find out that they weren't.

And the last major piece of genius from Reiner and the production team was to end it after five seasons, even despite pleas from the public and the network. Especially because at this time every season had at least 30 episodes (compared to the average 22 or even 13 of today), this was a brilliant move to keep the show from, as I've said before, either jumping the shark or simply fizzling out. Reiner didn't even want to have any reunion episodes later on, which I also think is smart, if only because I just personally am not a fan of reunions.

So, overall impression: it's an incredible specimen of television. Maybe not every episode is a complete winner (including the slightly disappointing final episode), but as a whole, this is simply great TV. Not great TV despite its era, just great TV. The writing is witty, clever, and often laugh-out-loud funny (real lols were had!). The characters are endearing, and their relationships are believable. The casting is brilliant. And it's never quaint. The jokes are lasting, the scenarios are lasting, the relationships are lasting. It's no wonder Dick Van Dyke became a household name.

If you've watched The Dick Van Dyke Show, let me know your thoughts! If not, go watch it now, you'll love it!
The cast and producers with their well-deserved Primetime Emmys!
Richard Deacon (played Mel Cooley) is on the left. Mary Tyler Moore
and Dick Van Dyke are to his left. Carl Reiner is the second from the right.
I believe the man on the far right is Jerry Paris, who played neighbor Jerry
Helper, and who was also a very successful (and Emmy-winning)
director on the series. Unfortunately I'm not sure
who the man to Reiner's right is. If you know, do tell!
My favorite episode:
"Obnoxious, Offensive, Egomaniac, Etc," (S5, Ep. 26). Rob, Sally, and Buddy write insulting epithets about Alan Brady in their script while they are writing, something they do every week, but they always ink it out before sending the final script to their egomaniacal boss. However, this particular week they were in a big hurry to finish the script and left it on Alan's desk without remembering to cover up all of their insults! Alan is out of the office, so the three, plus Laura, hope they can get the script back before Alan sees it and without being late for the play they're about to see.

Some Trivia:
  • Buddy (Morey Amsterdam) and Mel (Richard Deacon) are notoriously enemies on the show. Buddy is always making fun of Mel's baldness with hilarious one-liners, and Mel always refers to Buddy simply as "Yeuch!" However, Amsterdam and Deacon were actually close friends in real life and came up with many of Buddy's best insults over dinners or between scenes.
  • This was the last show to have its entire run in black & white. If it had continued on to a sixth season, it would have converted to color.
  • Buddy Sorrell was based on Mel Brooks, who worked as a writer on Sid Caesar's Show of Shows alongside Carl Reiner.
  • Alan Brady's face was never shown and his voice was rarely heard for the first three seasons of the show, because Carl Reiner wanted to find a big celebrity to play the part. But by season four, Reiner decided just to play the role himself.
Next up in the series:
Murder, She Wrote

A favorite scene of mine, in a Christmas special.
"Alan Brady, Alan Brady," they all sing sweetly, until, one by one,
they each sing out their own names and exit the song, leaving
a peeved Rob conducting no one!

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Woke Up This Morning

It took me far too long to finish watching The Sopranos: nearly a year. This was due in no small part to how much I hate using every Amazon Prime streaming app, but as this isn't a post about how poorly designed those apps are, we'll let it slide for now.
The Sopranos ran for 6 (or kind of 7, depending on who you ask) seasons, from 1999-2007, and it was one of premium cable network HBO's first forays into original television programming. It's ostensibly a mafia story, about Tony Soprano (the late, great James Gandolfini), the boss of the New Jersey mafia, but on closer inspection, it's really more a family drama: Tony's difficult marriage to Carmela (Edie Falco) and the challenges they face as parents to Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) and A.J. (Robert Iler).

This show has been rated as one of the greatest TV shows of all time on pretty much every list there is. It was the first cable drama to win the Emmy for Best Drama in 2004, and it won 21 other Emmys for writing, directing, and acting. It also won the Peabody Award two years in a row. In short, it's pretty incredible.

The Sopranos makes an amazing first impression. First off, the theme song is simply awesome ("Woke Up This Morning" by Alabama 3). I enjoyed it for six whole seasons. But more than that, and more than the stunning cinematic quality that just didn't happen in television before Tony Soprano graced our screens, you find in the very first episode that you are getting the answer to a question you never thought you'd ask: What would happen if a mafia don went to a psychiatrist?

We see Tony's pride, his deeply-ingrained machismo, in his aversion to the very idea of psychiatry, but his obsession with those ducks in his pool suggests a softer side that remains largely untapped. Through every season, as Tony continues to visit Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), we as viewers keep hoping that Tony will change, that Dr. Melfi's therapy will get through to him.

What's really incredible about The Sopranos and its collection of characters is that it set an amazing precedent. It was the first time that a TV show focused on a true anti-hero: a protagonist who is truly terrible, maybe even a little evil, but the viewers still root for him and want him to succeed. More recently, we saw anti-heroes in Dexter Morgan and Walter White, thanks to David Chase's groundbreaking creation of Tony Soprano.

And really, on the surface, there's not much to like about Tony Soprano. Right off the bat, he literally murders people with his own hands. There are multiple occasions in the series when he actually has blood on his hands (how's that for blatant symbolism?). He orders his "soldiers" to kill, as well. Almost every penny he makes is dirty in some way--and he makes a lot of pennies. He bribes cops, inspectors, anyone who might stand in his way of making a killing, in both the literal and metaphorical senses. Obviously, he's a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad guy.

So let's put his actions aside for a moment and look at Tony as a man. Likely due to his position as the boss, he's prideful. He's selfish. He's petty. He's hugely hypocritical. He's not faithful to his wife. He has no understanding for his own son's depression, despite his own struggles. He's a sore loser. He's extremely rigid in his views of the world.
Tony faces off against Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese).
From thesopranos.info
Why do we care about him so much, then, enough to watch six seasons of violence, dirty dealings, and sometimes gore? He is obviously overwhelmingly more flawed than good. It's all down to brilliant writing, interesting plots, and in-depth relationships with equally-interesting characters. And Tony loves his family. He really, really loves his family. He mistreats them, but he loves them deeply. He will do anything to protect them, to provide for them. Like Walter White, somehow that one lovely quality is enough to excuse the evil-doings for long enough to be enthralled by what's happening.

There really is a lot to say about The Sopranos. There's a lot going on, a lot of characters, a lot of sub-plots. If I'm honest, I missed some things because I wasn't paying enough attention, so there are a few deaths and a few relationships that I was never completely sure of. There's so much to keep track of--who's related, who's part of which gang, who killed who and why, etc., etc., etc.--that if you miss one moment it can get confusing.

Overall, though, it was interesting. It included political and social commentary that is often still relevant. It was an intimate picture of a man who, if he were real, we would only get a glimpse of through news broadcasts. It's an interesting statement of humanity: this man who makes his living through murder and shady deals is still a man. He has a family he loves. He has very close friends. He sees a psychiatrist. He's just a man.

And that ending. Boy, that ending. I knew it was going to be ambiguous going in, but it's much more abrupt than I expected. I thought the Internet had cut out until the credits started rolling. People have been debating what happened to Tony after the dramatic cut to black since it happened in 2007. Was he whacked? After all, he had just taken out the head of his rival gang. It could have been a gang member coming in the door instead of Meadow. Or maybe that guy in the baseball cap who went into the bathroom just a moment before would return to put an end to the Soprano rule.

Or maybe it was just the end. Nothing happened, and that was the extraordinary thing. For a man who lives his entire life suspicious of every person, unsure of whether someone is going to kill him or turn him into the cops, time with his family is rare and precious. With Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" playing on the jukebox, it just feels so simple, so idyllic, so American.

David Chase refuses to answer. In fact, he doesn't care whether or not Tony was killed in that moment. He says it's more about the small happy moment Tony spends with his family--such a rare moment for them--than about whether or not he dies. Here is a really interesting shot-for-shot description of the ending with David Chase.
The family, minus Meadow, enjoy onion rings just before
the infamous black-screen ending.
From salon.com
Chase explains, "The ceiling I was going for at that point, the biggest feeling I was going for, honestly, was don't stop believing. It was very simple and much more on the nose than people think. That's what I wanted people to believe. That life ends and death comes, but don't stop believing. There are attachments we make in life, even though it's all going to come to an end, that are worth so much and we're so lucky to have been able to experience them. Life is short. Either it ends here for Tony or some other time. But in spite of that, it's really worth it. So don't stop believing."

Despite all the incredible things about it, The Sopranos does fall just short of passing my five-season-limit theory. The last season was okay, but I found myself struggling to find the motivation to get into it. After the end of the fifth season, I felt more or less satisfied with where things had ended up, and it took me a while to even start watching season six. I think at the very least, the last season could have been shorter; it was almost twice the length of the previous five seasons, and it often felt that way.

On that note, I felt that some of the sub-plots took too long to come to a close. There were a few things I had completely forgotten by the time they were resolved, and in some cases I had kind of just given up hope of having closure when they were suddenly brought back again. The plots were always interesting, but I felt that there were some I had to wait a little too long for.

Final thoughts: Amazing series. The cinematography looked like a movie in every episode. The characters were fascinating, as were their relationships with each other. The writing and the directing were top-notch. It just felt a little long in places, particularly during the sixth season. Definitely watch it if you like family dramas, the Godfather movies, or are just really into good TV. It's a classic, it's groundbreaking, and we have it to thank for some more recent successes, and for showing the world that even TV can be an art form.

What do you think?

My favorite episode:
"The Test Dream," (S5, Ep. 11). Tony has a series of vivid nightmares while he's trying to relax. He's visited by dead friends and dreams of family issues. What I love about this episode is how accurately it captures the experience of dreaming. You're never sure from shot to shot if it's a dream or not, and people and things are constantly changing every time Tony looks at them. Things appear normal at first glance, and then as Tony looks closer they suddenly become strange. It's fantastic, and by far the best depiction of dreaming I've ever seen, in film or television.

Some Trivia:

  • Real-life mafia members often contacted James Gandolfini to compliment him on the authenticity of the series, and to give him advice.
  • David Chase didn't allow any camera movements in Dr. Melfi's office.
  • Tony Sirico, who played Paulie (one of my favorite characters, incidentally), was actually a mobster when he was young, before becoming an actor. His nickname was "Junior," which is the nickname of Tony Soprano's uncle, Corrado, in the series.
Next up in the series: 
The Dick Van Dyke Show

Series Introduction

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Tossed Salads and Scrambled Eggs

(If you missed my explanation of this blog series, click here.)

Let's start our exploration of television past in an easy place. Let's start with my favorite show, my comfort show, my go-to show: Frasier.

It is always funny when Kelsey Grammer says this.
I know Frasier pretty much as well as you can without having actually worked on it. I'm currently almost done with my third complete watch-through, and that's not counting all the random episodes I've seen in syndication.

So let's talk about it. Or, probably more aptly, let's gush about it. I freaking love this show.

Frasier ran on NBC for an impressive 11 seasons, from 1993-2004. My sisters used to watch it when it was still on, but I was a little too young to watch at the time. It was, as you probably know, a spin-off of the super-popular Cheers, but it couldn't be more different, which was a purposeful decision by creators Peter Casey, David Angell, and David Lee. (On that note, don't expect a post about Cheers--at least not for a long time. It's fun once in a while, but in large quantities it gets pretty dull and repetitive. Will Sam and Diane yell at each other and then make out? Will Cliff defend his ever-important job as a mailman? Will Norm drink beer? So many burning questions!)

Frasier sees the "lovably pompous" (S7, Ep. 9) Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer) freshly divorced, moved out of Boston and into a brand new job as a radio psychiatrist in his hometown of Seattle. His guy's-guy dad Martin (John Mahoney) is a retired cop who was shot in the hip by a would-be robber and has moved in with Frasier, bringing his hideous recliner and dog Eddie with him. Frasier's neurotic psychiatrist brother Niles (David Hyde Pierce) is unhappily married to the never-seen heiress Maris (Ha. Unintentional rhymes) and promptly falls madly in love with Martin's British live-in physical therapist, Daphne (Jane Leeves). There's also Roz (Peri Gilpin), Frasier's sassy producer and eventual best friend, along with a ton of endearing and hilarious side characters who show up from time to time.

What a group. I don't think the show could have worked without every one of these characters and their relationships to each other. The casting is perfect, and their chemistry with each other is priceless and totally believable. Niles wasn't even supposed to be a character originally, and he was never mentioned in Cheers, but the producers saw a picture of David Hyde Pierce and realized that he looked exactly like a younger Kelsey Grammer and decided that yes, Frasier really needed a brother. Niles is really my favorite character, so I'm pretty happy about the resemblance myself.

Everything about Frasier works. The writing is witty, and the innuendo is subtle and hysterical. The timing is spot-on. The show seems a little high-brow at first glance, what with Frasier and Niles's penchant for opera, sherry, fine art, and all things high class, but really there's something for everyone. There's farce, there's slapstick, there's satire, there are puns, one-liners, cultural references. I still laugh out loud, even after having seen every episode at least three times.

Each episode is great on its own, but the story arcs are generally interesting and fun to follow. The series as a whole isn't sacrificed for the benefit of stand-alone episodes, like in a lot of other sitcoms (even Cheers). The scenarios the characters get themselves into are always good for a laugh, and the characters are never afraid to make fun of each other for their sheer stupidity. And the show isn't afraid to get serious or tug at the heartstrings sometimes, which just builds the viewers' connection to the characters even more. We really feel for them when bad things happen. Not every comedy is willing to take a step out of all-funny-all-the-time, but I think it can get kind of old if there's no break from constant jokes.

So how does Frasier fare in my five-season-limit theory? Well, as I said in my last post, this is one of the exceptions to that theory. It gets a little slow in seasons 10 and 11, after a major plot event that everyone had been waiting for (no spoilers, though I'm sure you'll guess it even from the first episode), but overall it does a really good job of staying interesting. Plot lines aren't really given a chance to get stale, because the story always keeps moving, and that's the way to keep it from jumping the shark or simply fizzling out. And the series finale more than makes up for the lost momentum of the last two seasons. I may have cried a little the first time I watched it.

So overall, five stars, two thumbs up, and all of those things. Frasier is the best. Maybe I have a few too many moments when I identify a little too strongly with Frasier and Niles, which makes me feel a little weird about my potential for snobbishness, but who cares? It's truly a gem, which is one of those words that people only use in reviews. It's no wonder it won more Emmys than any other TV series ever (37, which is just a ridiculous amount).

What are your thoughts on Frasier? Leave a comment and let me know.

My favorite episode:
"Merry Christmas, Mrs. Moskowitz" (S6, Ep. 10), in which Frasier meets an attractive woman whose mother thinks he's Jewish, so Frasier, Martin, Niles, and Daphne spend Christmas Eve hiding all signs of Christmas while doing their best to pretend to be Jewish for Mrs. Moskowitz. It all goes hilariously awry, of course.

Some trivia:

  • David Hyde Pierce actually had no interest in opera or wine before playing Niles. Ironically, he was introduced to these finer things by John Mahoney, whose character Martin hates all things cultured.
  • The character of Roz Doyle is a tribute to the late TV producer Roz Doyle. Doyle was a producer on Wings (1990-1997), which was part of the same universe as Cheers and Frasier.
  • John Mahoney grew up in Manchester, which is where Jane Leeves's character Daphne is supposed to be from.

Next up in the series:
The Sopranos

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

"If it weren't for Philo T. Farnsworth, inventor of television, we'd still be eating frozen radio dinners."

^Johnny Carson

As discussed in my last blog post, I graduated recently. So, naturally, I'm mostly unemployed.

It's hard to be profound when you spend most of your day staring at the television, which is why it's been pretty quiet around here, but I've decided to turn that to my advantage. If I can't be employed in television (yet!), I can at least write about it.

Let me just say this now: I. Love. Television. Kenneth Parcell is my spirit animal. I am so excited that TV is making such a brilliant comeback. The line between TV and film is blurring; people expect high-quality entertainment even on the smallest of small screens. People aren't willing to make that television concession anymore: "It's pretty good for TV." Increasingly, there's no such thing as a "TV actor" vs. a "movie actor." Shows like Breaking Bad, Hannibal, even New Girl, are pushing television cinematic quality beyond anything anyone has ever expected from television before. Sure, there's absolute garbage on TV. But that goes for anything, at any time.

One of the most amazing things about the Internet is that I can experience television from every decade. I can travel to the beginning of television and see where the traditions come from. I can watch things that my parents grew up with. I can watch things that I remember being on but was too young to watch at the time. I can watch things that were on last month or last week or yesterday.

So, rather than let this blog sit and rot along with my lazy, unemployed brain, I thought, why not put my television expertise to use and use my excessive viewership to do something useful?

I want to write about my experiences with television of days past. Everybody writes about what's on now, but I want to share my journey through the history of television. Who says the Internet can't be educational?

Now, I have a theory that TV series--whether comedy or drama--that have continuing plot lines should never last longer than five seasons. In my experience, anything longer than this inevitably leads to flat, one-dimensional caricatures of what used to be really interesting characters and boring, circular, or even ridiculous plotlines. They either dissolve into a dull mush or jump the shark, just like Fonzie.

While I'm already watching, we'll test that theory a little more thoroughly. So far I'm right, with very few exceptions.

One of those exceptions is the subject of the first real post (coming... soon-ish?), but we'll let it be a surprise.

Until whenever soon-ish is, you can bet I'll be on Netflix and/or Amazon.

(I'm aware that my blog title is less than apropos for this particular project. But it's been such a long time since I made this blog that I've kind of grown attached to this title, so we'll deal with it.)

Monday, January 5, 2015

"The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance."

^Alan Watts

I've intended to write this post on several different occasions over the last few months, but inevitably I always thought to myself, "I have time." And then suddenly I didn't have time, and here we are in the new year.

Now that I think about it, though, maybe this works better as the once-again-obligatory New Year's post. Seems like I just wrote the last one, if I'm honest and painfully cliche.

This new year is significantly different for me from any other new year I've ever seen, and there will never again be another one like it. I'm a brand-spanking-new college graduate, seeking out new possibilities and opportunities in a way I never have before.

A long time ago, deep in the throes of my teenage angst and hatred for public education, I came up with what is probably the best metaphor I'll ever create. (Not that there's really much competition on that front, but still.)

I determined that school is like a water slide. Hear me out--it's actually perfect.

We start school around 5 years old, taking the plunge down that long tube of the educational water slide, holding our parents' hands until the very last second. It starts out slow and easy. There are lots of instructions. We know what's coming next every single second.

From there, the slide guides us through twists and turns, up little hills and down bigger ones. As we go along, it gets harder, more intense, and--as we all seem to eventually find out--faster, faster, faster. Maybe it's scary. Maybe it's too fast. Maybe it's boring. Maybe we get comfortable. Maybe we don't. But the slide doesn't let go.

Every now and then the tube opens up, so that we can see the outside world. This is when we feel the most independent, when we think we know what life will be like when we're "adults;" this is our internships, our seasonal jobs, or our first time driving alone.

We get to college. The slide gets ever more intense. Maybe some people fall out here, and that's fine. It opens up more often, and we get more and more tastes of what it might be like to be outside in the so-called real world. We're relatively independent, but at the same time we begin to think that maybe the slide will never end. After all, we've been in it for roughly 75% of our lives and it's hard to imagine anything else. We still know that what's coming next is more of the slide.

And then, suddenly, it ends.

We're dumped out into a huge pool, blinking at the bright sun, gasping at the free, open air. The pool is teeming with people we don't know, who all came out of other water slides in the park in varying degrees of disarray and confusion.

What do we do once we get here? There are lots of options. We could stick around in the pool for a while. We could run out immediately, on to the next attraction in life's amusement park (Sorry, but the metaphor demanded more metaphor). We could take a little bit of time, thoroughly drying off and scouting out our options before moving on. We could even run right back and jump in the slide again.

The choice is ours. For the first time in our lives, there's no one there telling us what comes next.

So I sit here, mentally wading--slightly stunned--in the weird pool at the end of this long, long metaphorical water slide, thinking about how I never thought it would end and how so very strange it is that it finally has.

Welcome to 2015. Welcome to life.