Thursday, September 18, 2014

Throwback Thursday

Hula was my friend Jenny Gillespie's zine; this issue (#2!) is from the summer of 1996, when I was 16 and she was 15. I found this on my bookshelf and thought I'd share the back cover with you because a) it manages to celebrate a throwback while being one itself, and b) Say Anything-era John Cusack + cabbage = enjoyment, yes? Regardless of how you'd actually answer that question, happy Thursday. 

Monday, September 15, 2014

Steinbeck vs. Very Tall Trees (or Things to Learn in California)

This summer I taught a class, re-watched Family Ties, and finally read The Grapes of Wrath, which I loved and was not alone in finding unfortunately yet inspiringly still relevant. So I was excited to visit the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, CA. If you haven't been, and you're a mostly-uninformed Steinbeck admirer to any degree, I recommend it. I learned about his reporting - on migrant workers and World War II, among other subjects - how the themes of The Grapes of Wrath earned him an invitation to Russia at the start of the Cold War (not exactly a common occurrence), and how critical derision about him receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature caused him to give up writing fiction. (It eventually became clear that he never truly gave it up). I learned about books I'd never knew he'd written - In Dubious Battle, about a farm workers' strike; The Winter of our Discontent, about consumerism and morality in the U.S. - and was reminded of America and Americans, a collection of essays and the last book of his published while he was alive.

There was also a very cool exhibit about a group that recreated the Joads' journey from Oklahoma to California to mark the 75th anniversary of The Grapes of Wrath; they collected oral histories from workers, activists, and other people, some of which are shared in the exhibit. (You can find more info about it here, too; although it says the exhibit ended in July, they must have decided to extend it).    

But the center was also disappointing and odd: if you were unlike me and were mostly-informed about Steinbeck, there's little offered that you won't already know; the main exhibit is large and contains a lot of information, but there's no commentary, let alone analysis, that seeks to puzzle out themes, arcs, or evolutions in his life or work or tie them to contemporary issues. (The possible exception is a collection of "Steinbeck in the news"-type clippings, but it was dominated by stories of the recent big-name Broadway revival of Of Mice and Men). And in some cases, there are frustrating, gaping holes: a display of Steinbeck's college correspondence names the recipient but nothing about who she was.

What's also odd is the museum's apparent desire to satisfy both adults and children; there are a lot of interactive features, some of which can cross generations. (For example, the In Dubious Battle section includes two candlestick telephones; you pick up the receiver to hear dialogue from the book). But others, such as a red pony that children can climb onto, well, not so much. I've never read The Red Pony, but a cursory glance at some search results reveals that it's generally taught at the 6th grade level or higher. But the museum pony seems aimed at much younger kids (or middle schoolers who want to - wait for it! - horse around). It's great to try to get kids excited about literature, but at what point are book-related activities made so accessible to young ages, the "related" part stretched so thin, that the book itself is lost? When kids have a chance to practice braiding a rope, are they learning about a book or about…braiding a rope? Meanwhile, the adults among you are wondering, Who was that woman he wrote the letters to?! 

I'm a sucker for the interactive as much as the next person; when I see a question in a big font asking, "How did Lennie want his beans?" and the instruction, "Lift the can," I lift the can. (Spoiler alert: there's a bottle of ketchup under them thar can). Then later in my trip, when I'm reading an educational display in Redwood National and State Parks about what makes redwoods so resilient, and it ends with the question, "What do you think is the biggest threat to redwoods today?", my first thought is, What do I lift to find the answer?! 

Then I think: oh, right. Humans.  

Friday, September 12, 2014

Outside the National Steinbeck Center

Just got back from a great trip, which included a stop in Salinas, CA. I'm tired now, but maybe I'll write more about it later.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Amendments, Corrections, and Recommendations: A Final Family Ties Post*

Before I get to some episode recommendations and suggestions for further reading, here are a few updates, in no particular order:
  • I wondered if the Keatons had an answering machine; well, they do get one in season four, and the kids spend one episode changing the outgoing messages on each other, but then it never really figures in the plot again. (It seems to physically disappear, too, but don't quote me on that).

  • I wrote that we never see the Obecks - the Keatons' neighbors until they move out and the Thompsons move into that house - or Chrissy, Jennifer's best friend, but neither of those claims turned out to be true. We do meet one Obeck, daughter Liz, in the episode "The Big Fix" in season five. At the end of season five we also meet Chrissy, in a two-part episode about Jennifer trying to change to fit in with a popular crowd. 

"It's My Party" is a great example of a strange and not-great phenomenon on Family Ties: airing episodes out of order. Characters, especially Jennifer and Andrew, are clearly younger in "Party" than they have been for the entire season, and Alex's girlfriend Ellen is still around, even though she left for Paris ages ago. This episode was filmed in season four but - saved? forgotten? deemed subpar but trotted out to fill scheduling needs? It's unclear. (Which is not to say it doesn't have its great moments, my favorites being when Ellen gives Jennifer an old Mondale and Ferraro shirt for her birthday and when the parents try to decipher a note Jennifer has left them; it's a minefield of "like" and "okay?").

What can I say? I'm a sucker for political t-shirts...
…and textual analysis.

  • One more update before we move on: I speculated that one reason the show creates a friend for Alex only to kill him off might have been because the actors who had played his established friends were not available. I don't know if the writers or casting director considered killing off Timothy Busfield or Jeffrey Joseph's characters for "A, My Name is Alex" in 1987, but maybe you've heard of a little thing called thirtysomething? That started airing in 1987, as did The Popcorn Kid, a TV series that Joseph had a recurring part in. So these actors were a little busy. (Plus, Busfield had already been assigned double duty on the show; in addition to being Alex's friend, he was also cast in an episode's flashback sequence as one of college-age Steven's friends. But then again, what's two roles for the same actor? The show went higher for others). 

Both Timothy Busfield (top) and Jeffrey Joseph (above) appeared as Alex's friends in two episodes.
That amounted to close friendship in the Family Ties universe. 

Now for some recommendations! Let's start with a few individual scenes and then go to whole episodes. Of course, it depends on what you're looking for:

  • Are you looking for some feminist education for little boys? Look no further than "The Way We Were" in season six, which opens with Alex coming home to find his parents asleep on the couch and Andy playing garage. Alex sees a Barbie doll and picks it up. "What's she doing here?" he asks.
"That's Barbie," Andy says. "She owns the garage."
"Barbie owns the garage?"
"Really she's in Congress, but on weekends she's a mechanic."
"I think I see mom's influence here," Alex says.
"She also won the Nobel Prize in Physics," Andy adds.

The debate about Barbie's identity devolves into a tug of war.
These three actors are routinely great together.

  • Or maybe you feel stifled on the set and you want to see footage filmed outside?  This happens rarely on the show, and the first such images don't occur until the end of season three in the two-part episode "Remembrance of Things Past." Steven and the family return to his childhood home in Buffalo; his father has died and his mother is thinking about selling the house. Steven visits his father's grave.

  • Or perhaps you long for some good old-fashioned miming. When Jennifer gets her learner's permit in the season seven episode, "My Best Friend's Girl," Steven insists on giving her driving lessons. This includes a simulation in the kitchen, during which he says she ran a red light. Jennifer counters that there's a cop behind them. "I'm gonna try to lose him," she says.           

As for whole episodes, that also depends on what you're looking for. But I will say that if you're a teacher or interested in education, you might find the episodes that center around teachers notable.

  • "Little Man on Campus" in season three is about Alex starting college and struggling: he considers dropping American Government because he got an F on his first paper - he doesn't think he can hack it in that class. (Notice how it doesn't occur to him to blame the teacher or make excuses for himself). But when he goes to drop the class, his teacher questions him until he gets Alex to understand how to make an original argument. And it's not an abstract discussion - it's a conversation, and argument, about Eugene Debs and Oliver Wendell Holmes. 
  • "Paper Chase," the final episode of season four, is about how Mallory nearly flunks her history class and doesn't graduate from high school. But with the encouragement of her family, boyfriend, and teacher, she passes her oral exam and graduates after all. Her requests for extra credit are rebuffed; her only recourse is hard work, and it works. (It's also fun to see the oral exam, which people such as Rebecca Schuman have tried to revive, in messy, Socratic action). 

    Skippy graduates too!
    How could I get this far with only the merest nods at Marc Price,
    who plays neighbor Skippy Handelman?
For instance, this shirt: starting in season five and continuing until the end of the show,
you cannot swing a dead cat without hitting Skippy in this shirt.
I still haven't figured out what that woman in the blue dress is doing.

  • There's "Paper Lion" in season five, which I mentioned in my discussion of Mason Adams in the in memoriam post. It's an interesting story: he's a longstanding, well-regarded economics professor, but he feels pressure to publish from the administration, so he pretends the data in his latest work isn't flawed. Alex calls him out on it, and the professor ultimately comes clean. "I am a teacher," he declares from the pulpit at an awards ceremony. "And in a college, there's nothing more important than that." Aw, sweetie, you want to say, reaching across the screen and back through time. What a lovely thought. 
  • And finally, there's the two-part episode "Read It and Weep" in season six. Jennifer wants to do her book report on Huckleberry Finn, but the school board has banned it (and a number of other books). She refuses to change her book and is suspended. Her teacher is afraid of supporting her publicly, thinking he'll lose his job, but after hearing her speak up at a community meeting, he and other teachers decide that they're going to stage a walk out to protest her suspension. This episode, like "Paper Lion," points toward the challenges teachers face, but although it also features someone proclaiming, "I am a teacher," it seems less enamored of the lone individual as role model; it suggests that an answer can be found in collective action. 
There's some fairly stilted dialogue in "Read It and Weep," including references to Supreme Court cases and characters reading aloud from Huckleberry Finn, but it's also an interesting portrait of censorship at the high school level and the school board overreach that was not uncommon in the 1980s.  

The vision of teaching on the show is lecture-driven, overwhelmingly male (of the aforementioned teachers, only Mallory's is female), and entirely white. So there are very real limitations to and problems with it - and there were in the '80s, too. But it makes for an interesting artifact with some still-applicable lessons.

On a different note, I'll also recommend "Heartstrings" from season seven, which was the only three-part episode in the show's run. Steven has a heart attack and undergoes surgery. There are flashbacks, but unlike with a clip show, they are to scenes we've never seen before, and they add to the story. Three episodes gives the narrative enough space to move from sadness and fear to humor and strength without feeling cramped or rushed.

Finally, some recommendations for further reading: 
* I think this will be my last post about the show. Thanks for reading! 

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Thankfully Not Lost to the Movies

Leaving a TV show in order to pursue movie roles is not unusual; to give just one example, Claire Danes did this with My So Called-Life. (Although in that case the second season was hypothetical and, alas, not to be). Given how understandable this career move is, it's kind of amazing that Michael J. Fox didn't make it himself after Back to the Future was released in 1985.

Obviously I don't know the details of Fox's contract, but I do know that Family Ties creator Gary David Goldberg initially had some concerns about Fox taking the part on Back to the Future because he was afraid he'd "lose him to film-stardom." Instead Fox filmed Family Ties during the day and Back to the Future at night and continued on Family Ties for four more years.

When I first read about this, I was surprised that he'd stay on a sitcom where he was frequently subjected to things like being crawled on by kittens…

…playing poker with babies…

…dressing himself and others like Abraham Lincoln...

…and having a photograph of himself eaten by a chimpanzee.

But it didn't take much reflection to see how obviously fun all of that would be. It's fun to be a mall Santa and promise little girls 100 shares of Aramco Petroleum...

…or talk to a dog in a vets' waiting room...

…or wear a bowler hat...

…or dress up as a molar.

In any one film, do actors often get such varied opportunities? There are many limitations to sitcoms, but within all the hijinks there's the gift of getting to inhabit a giddy range.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

All the Presidents' Sitcom

When I wrote about the transition from Nixon to Reagan, reference-wise, on Family Ties, I thought that there was a transition, a gradual diminishing of the former and ascendancy of the latter; that was how it seemed in season four, which aired from September 1985-May 1986. But now that I've finished re-watching the show, it would be more accurate to say that Nixon and Reagan co-exist, and over time the treatment of Reagan becomes sharper, moving beyond parody into moments of critique.

I started noticing the shift in season six. Elyse's aunt Rosemary shows up unannounced and exhibits signs of Alzheimer's. The doctor says, "Rosemary, you didn't remember who the president of the United States was" as an example of her memory loss. Rosemary (played by the wonderful Barbara Barrie) says, "I know Ronald Reagan is president. I just can't accept it."

Barbara Barrie; her most recent work was a small role on Enlightened.

Then, when Alex takes over Skippy's job as a mall Santa, a girl says she doesn't believe in Santa and wants to know why, if he's the real one, there are Santas at other malls, too. Alex answers, "I have some of my elves, uh, dress up like me to pick up the slack. It's the same way that President Reagan can't be everywhere, so he sends his assistants in his place."

"I don't believe in him, either," the girl replies.

Audiences might have recognized Ellen Hamilton Latzen from Fatal Attraction.
Here she's not asking for a rabbit, though.

These episodes aired in November and December 1987, respectively. By the end of the season, in May 1988, the Reagan jokes have grown in substance from denial and disbelief to biting commentary. Andy is making a popsicle stick bread box as a gift for Nick to thank him for teaching the children's art class at the Y. But Alex has other ideas; he wants to make Nick the Reagan Ranch out of popsicle sticks: "I even have plans for a little pop-stick Ron and a little pop-stick Nancy."

Elyse, listening in, asks, "How about a pop-stick jail for his Cabinet?" The studio audience laughter quickly builds to applause and cheers - one of the most enthusiastic reactions in the show's entire run.

Alex goes ahead and makes his own Reagan Ranch anyway.

What happened? I've got one phrase for you: Iran-Contra affair. By May 1988, the Tower Commission and Congressional committee reports have been released and Reagan has given speeches, but Casper Weinberger, the Secretary of Defense, has yet to be indicted, and Oliver North is not yet on trial. It's also the middle of a presidential campaign, and many people have questions about George H.W. Bush's knowledge of and involvement in Iran-Contra.

Bush quickly becomes fodder for jokes on the show; the very next episode, the first of season seven, opens with the words, "All right, who did this?" It's late October 1988, and the family has defaced Alex's campaign poster of Bush.

And a few minutes later, Alex's girlfriend Lauren brings up Iran-Contra directly. "I'm not gonna vote for Bush," she tells Alex. "For one, I've never fully accepted his explanation of his involvement in the Iran-Contra affair."  (We never get to hear her other reasons because Mallory turns to her father and asks excitedly, "Bush had an affair?")

In between this episode and the election, Family Ties fits in one more Reagan dig. Alex is reading Robin Hood to Andy, but in the grand tradition of reading aloud to young children, he's changed the story. "It was about Robin Hood, how he stole from the poor and gave to the rich," Andy reports.

"No, no, that's not Robin Hood, Andy," Steven says. "That's Ronald Reagan." (This is greeted by the studio audience with both laughter and, not boos or groans, but low sounds of moderate disapproval. The same mixture of sounds occurs when Alex tells Andy in a later episode, "You know how lucky you are, Andy? Born under Reagan, raised under Bush. I mean, with any luck at all, you will have a completely Democrat-free childhood." I really want data on the political makeup of the Family Ties audience).

Election morning dawns at the Keatons with some seriously depressed Democrats (this episode aired on November 13, five days after the actual election).

"In August, Dukakis looked like a shoo-in," Elyse says.

"Yeah, that was before he got into the tank," Jennifer notes, flashing her own newspaper.

But this is about as current events-y as Family Ties gets, and the tone of occasional critique dissipates in the final season; in fact, Bush is largely ignored. The show returns to Nixon when Jennifer writes a play about him for her history class and Alex tries to influence her script. Nixon is still an emotional flashpoint for the characters, but he's also a denatured joke; (the episode features Alex delivering a speech as Nixon, an extended impersonation).

Nixie, the Nixon fan magazine: one of many fake texts featured on the show. 
Others include the I Love Republicans pop-up book that Alex gets for Andy and,
my personal favorite, Shirley MacLaine's There Must be a Higher Power in the Universe if I'm Making So Much Money Doing What I'm Doing, which Steven brings home for Mallory. 

And Nixon is almost sentimentalized in the final episode; when Elyse goes into Alex's room one last time before he leaves home to take a job on Wall Street, it's Nixon's face that is visible out of the darkness. We feel Elyse's loss of Alex and feel nostalgic, and Nixon gets all wrapped up in those emotions. But then Elyse turns on the light, sits on the bed, looks at the picture, and abruptly turns it face down. It's a humorous break in an otherwise serious moment, and it reminds us that, although others at the time had difficulty separating the politics from the person, these characters were consistently able to do so. The mother loves the son, not the 37th president.

Research shows that we've become more politically polarized in the years since Family Ties. The June 2014 Pew Research Center report "Political Polarization in the American Public" notes: "Three-out-of-ten (30%) consistent conservatives say they would be unhappy if an immediate family member married a Democrat and about a quarter (23%) of across-the-board liberals say the same about the prospect of a Republican in-law." Watching Family Ties has made me look at those numbers differently - I see the flip side more easily: that's 70 and 77 % of conservatives and liberals who would be OK with a family member marrying someone from another political party, not insignificant figures. I also think: what's so bad about unhappy? Steven and Elyse aren't happy that they raised a son who very early in life decided he was a Republican, but that's the son they have. And I wonder, how many Keaton families exist today - or even existed back in the '80s? My conservative brother raised conservative daughters; my more liberal brother is raising liberal children. Leaving aside all the similarities between the two major political parties today, do parents raise politically different children? And if they do, where can we find them on TV?