“Midwife” Delivers Nostalgia

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My sister and I share tastes in many things. We both love sweets, good books, and serious theater. So it was a bit odd that I didn’t immediately take her up on her suggestion that I watch the PBS series Call the Midwife. For the better part of two years, my sister would mention how much she loved this period piece about midwives set in London in the early Sixties. And for two years, the idea of the show lacked appeal to me.

Finally, I decided to give the show a try. I instantly fell in love with the nurses and nuns of Nonnatus House, a home for midwives in Poplar, a poor district in the East End of London. In each episode, these nurse midwives tend to the growing families’ needs for medical care, sustenance, and moral support in often rather grim conditions. Their life’s work is imbued with optimism and love, for both God and their neighbors.

The series, which completed its seventh season this past spring, also delves into the lives and loves of the Nonnatus House residents themselves. Based upon the memoirs of Jennifer Worth, the series begins with Jenny moving into the midwives’ domicile and struggling to be accepted in the small world of Poplar – and in the world of the religious sisters themselves. One of the nuns struggles with her growing affection for the local doctor. Another shows a gruff exterior that hides a kind and caring interior. The non-religious midwives also have their trials and tribulations, such as alcoholism and the hidden love for another woman.

I love the faithfulness to the culture of the early 1960s, where abortion and homosexuality were illegal, birth control was in its infancy, and most women in the area of Poplar gave birth at home. The clothing, hairstyles, music, and topical references all add to the realism that transports the viewer to another time and place that many remember well. In the season seven finale, for instance, the Nonnatus House residents learn that President John F. Kennedy has been killed.

I’ve learned some interesting things from watching the series. For example, I never knew that there were Anglican nuns. The sisters and their religious devotion are treated with great respect in the series. The beauty of their rituals, the habits they wear, and the love with which they minister to the needs of their community are all lovely depictions of what a life of faith can bring to the world.

Call the Midwife is a deeply heartfelt paean to a world and a time and place that seem distant but in many ways are not so far from our own modern trials and tribulations. There is plenty of childbirth on screen, so the show is definitely not for the squeamish. But the series has evoked so many tears from me – tears of sorrow, yes, but also tears of joy.

When season seven concludes, it is 1963. I look forward to next spring when the residents of Poplar take on 1964 with the same cheek, gusto, drama, and neighborly love that they’ve shown season after season on this wonderful series.

Newcomers to the series can catch all seven seasons of Call the Midwife on Netflix. Season 8 will debut with a Christmas special on PBS in December, followed by season 8 in the spring.

As for me, I will never doubt that sister of mine and her conviction that I’d like something. When it comes to most things, we are two peas in a pod.

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Fab New “Queer Eye”

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When the reality series Queer Eye for the Straight Guy debuted in 2003, I immediately fell in love with the self-named “Fab Five,” five gay men with different areas of expertise whose job each episode was to do a makeover on a straight man. I loved experiencing the free-spirited attitudes and funny repartee of Carson, Ted, Kyan, Thom, and Jai each week as they took men from clueless to chic.

So I was a little skeptical about whether I could embrace a whole new Fab Five in the Queer Eye reboot that premiered earlier this year. After four episodes, I’m happy to say that I find the new quintet as endearing, funny, and sweet as the original five. So far, the new Fab Five have been focusing their efforts on sprucing up the “redneck” contingent in Georgia. To see them prancing around the environs of Nascar and antique car fans has been amusing and surprisingly touching.

While the original Queer Eye aired during a period when gays on TV were still a rarity, the show did not explicitly address homophobia or gay rights. The Fab Five’s “gayness” was an unspoken subtext to the Cinderella stories that unfolded each episode.

The new Queer Eye seems to be aiming more overtly for acceptance and understanding between people whose cultures are vastly different from each other. In the first episode, for instance, Bobby confronts the stereotype of gay couples having one masculine and one feminine member. And in episode four, African-American Karamo has a meeting of hearts and minds with a white Atlanta area police officer.

I realize that reality TV is not all that real. For instance, I doubt Karamo being pulled over by a police officer (who turns out to be a friend of the makeover recipient) was a real surprise. And no doubt some of the conversations had between Fab Five members and their subjects are prepared in advance. But there are some honestly touching moments in Queer Eye, as five gay men lovingly coax a straight guy out of his comfort zone and give him a new lease on life.

The success of Queer Eye is not just the opportunity to see that gay and straight people have a lot in common. It’s also a celebration of those aspects of gay culture that bring color and dimension to the world. Just as blacks shouldn’t have to tone down or assimilate in order to find acceptance, people in the LGBTQ community should also be accepted and embraced on their own terms. I’m glad to say that Queer Eye is a delightful step in that direction.

The Nature of Comedy

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2000px-Emojione_1F602.svgI’ve been thinking a lot lately about what makes something funny. In a previous post, I extolled the comic genius of John Mulaney, a stand-up comic and former writer at Saturday Night Live, whose shows have had me in stitches. But when I shared one of Mulaney’s comedy specials with my husband, he barely laughed. Clearly, he and I have different ideas about what makes something – or someone – funny.

Then the other day, I decided to read the comics in my local newspaper. As a child, I liked to check out the “Peanuts” comic strip and “Family Circus.” I also spent my hard-earned allowance money on “Archie” comic books. But I find that the humor in comic strips is more understated. In my recent perusal of the “funnies,” I didn’t laugh or even chuckle once reading the likes of “Dilbert,” “Peanuts,” or “Baby Blues.” Comic strips are more wry social commentary than entertainment designed to make you laugh out loud.

The comedy I love most is the kind that revolves around family life. Whether it’s the zany and unpredictable relationship between Lorelai and Rory on The Gilmore Girls, the antics of the Pritchett clan on Modern Family, or the challenges of being an upper middle class family that’s only Black-ish, the everyday ups and downs of family life make me laugh with rueful recognition.

That is the secret of my favorite comedians as well. Both Mulaney and Jerry Seinfeld mine their childhoods as well as their current relationships for laughs. Ditto with Chris Rock, whose short-lived but hilarious series Everybody Hates Chris detailed the daily humiliations and deprivations of Rock’s childhood.

I often wonder what comedians’ families think about their using their intimate relationships to get laughs. In the wonderful new series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, the main character achieves success in stand-up through her no-holds-barred description of everything that is happening to her in her personal life. When her horrified husband, an aspiring comic himself, catches her stand-up act, it’s clear that there will be no “happy ever after” for this couple.

I admire comedians, comic actors, and humor writers. They don’t get a lot of respect as artists. For instance, what full-blown comedy has ever won a Best Picture Oscar? Yet comedy, which is fraught with political incorrectness and subject to the variable tastes of audiences, can be much edgier and make more pointed social commentary than many other genres. There’s something more palatable about biting criticism when it goes down with a hearty laugh.

I think what makes something funny is that embarrassed recognition of our own human insecurities, prejudices, and foibles in the words and actions of someone who is not afraid to “go there.” It’s a way of laughing at ourselves but not at our own expense. I don’t envy the life of a comic. It’s a tall order to follow the dictate of Donald O’Connor in Singin’ in the Rain: “Make ’em laugh, make ’em laugh, make ’em laugh!”

 

 

Gen X Comic Gets the Laughs

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My stomach still hurts. Last night I watched two stand-up comedy specials on Netflix featuring the up and comer John Mulaney. Full disclosure here: I know John’s parents. So it was with a certain knowing glee that I listened to his loving but biting anecdotes about being raised by his stern, devoutly Catholic parents.

John Mulaney has some serious comedy cred. He was a writer for Saturday Night Live for many years and had a short-lived TV series cleverly named Mulaney. And nowadays, he can fill the Chicago Theatre and Radio City Music Hall for his hilarious observations about modern life as well as his reminiscences from the distant Eighties.

I think the secret to Mulaney’s success, besides some clever voice impersonations and a certain controlled mania, is his ability to straddle the generations in appeal. Mulaney, 35, is still young, and he is clearly immersed in the present. For instance, he makes an off-hand joke about how in college, everything is just your own opinion, a knowing mockery of today’s coddled university student. And he even wades into politics in his Radio City Music Hall special “Kid Gorgeous” with a hilarious and extended comparison of Donald Trump in the White House to a horse in a hospital.

But for my money, his funniest and most endearing stories involve his childhood, which seem to echo my own years as a young Baby Boomer with Depression-era, hard-line parents. He describes sitting on a sofa with his mother and eating Triscuits in dead silence. And he horrifies the youngsters in the audience by describing how his cold-hearted dad could go through a McDonalds drive-thru and pick up only a coffee for himself. (The irony in his jabs at his father are that, physically, John is a Chip off the old block.)

The helpless and trapped nature of childhood are a theme in Mulaney’s comedy, including the description of a “stranger danger” assembly that served to scar a generation of young kids for life. Or the adult size XXL t-shirt he was forced to wear as a nightshirt.

Many of Mulaney’s references speak directly to the generation known as Gen X. He riffs on the plots of such movies as  The Fugitive and Back to the Future. He references his Aladdin wallet. And most memorably, he reminisces about meeting the future president Bill Clinton in 1992.

I’m sure the Yale-educated lawyers who raised John Mulaney are bemused by his choice of careers. But I would say that those of us seeking some comic relief in these troubled times are lucky to have Mulaney’s irreverent, witty, and hilarious take on life to make us laugh.

My stomach still hurts.

Anne of Green Gables a Great Female Role Model

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Somehow in my childhood, I missed out on reading the Anne of Green Gables series by Lucy Maud Montgomery. Written in 1908, Anne of Green Gables and its numerous sequels tell the story of a young, red-headed orphan girl who is mistakenly sent to an aging brother and sister who live on a farm on Prince Edward Island, Canada.

Last week, I watched two delightful Canadian mini-series based on Anne of Green Gables and Anne of Avonlea, and I fell in love with Anne. While her story seems conventional enough and has a happy ending, Anne is a heroine to be reckoned with. Young girls would do well to use her character as a model for themselves as they grow into young women.

One trait I love about Anne is that she is not afraid to speak her mind. Even though she is an orphan and dependent on the mercy of the Cuthberts, who take her in on a provisional basis even though she is not the boy they had requested to help them with the farm, she asserts her opinions to the cantankerous Marilla and refuses to allow their gossipy neighbor, Rachel Lynde, to make her feel small. Later in the series, she continues her forthright and assertive ways, whether or not they lead her to trouble in school or to be fired from her position as a teacher.

Anne’s sense of self is especially impressive in her dealings with the opposite sex. On her first day of school in Avonlea, class hunk Gilbert Blythe pulls her red hair, and in response she breaks her slate over his head. Even though Gilbert insists he was only teasing, Anne refuses to back down and insists that his behavior is unacceptable (#MeToo). Gilbert is awed by Anne’s character and falls in love with her, not for her beauty, but for her brains. Throughout Anne of Green Gables, the two of them vie to be first academically.

In a rural 19th century environment, Anne is not content to be courted, settle down, and marry. She has dreams of bigger things and leaves the island to continue her education and be independent. Within the strictures of her time and place, Anne continues to insist upon following her own path, a path which eventually leads back to her beloved Avonlea.

But if Anne were simply an assertive go-getter, her value as a role model would be limited. What I love most about Anne is her unfailing kindness and respect for others. It is a respect born not of fear, but of compassion and empathy. In her young life, she too has suffered from others’ cruelty and indifference, so she refuses to be indifferent to the plight of others. A notable example is when she takes her first post as a teacher at a girls’ boarding school and wins over the cold and lonely spinster, Miss Brooks.

Watching the story of Anne Shirley unfold on the screen, I was pleasantly surprised to find a modern heroine in an old-fashioned setting. Far from being out of date, the stories in Anne of Green Gables, Anne of Avonlea, and others in the series are just the ticket for young girls and boys to experience today.

For my part, I intend to correct the lapse in my youthful reading endeavors and pick up these timeless gems by L.M. Montgomery. Happy summer reading!

 

 

Great American Read

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Summer is the time for reading. There is nothing better on a lazy, hot day than to loll around in a hammock or beach chair and plow through a stack of good books. I favor more light-hearted reads and thrillers in the summer, but in the past, the summer was the only time I could master a tome such as War and Peace.

PBS is kindling an interest in literature through its program “The Great American Read.” Through a survey of random readers, it has culled a list of the most popular 100 books (or series) in America and is asking everyone to vote on their favorites. A series of television specials on PBS will explore people’s love affairs with the written word, and on October 23, the results of the survey will reveal the most beloved book or book series of all.

One of the things I love about reading is that it inspires conversation. I had been unaware of “The Great American Read” until my brother brought it up at a family dinner. What ensued was an animated discussion of various books. When Gone With the Wind came up, there was disagreement about whether it was a great novel. One sibling averred that it was a false and racist depiction of the South and America during the Civil War. Another countered that you can’t change history and that that was the prevailing sentiment in the South when the book was written in 1936.

The 100 book list is certainly diverse – not at all a snobby English teacher’s syllabus. I was personally appalled that Fifty Shades of Grey made the cut. I’m not a prude, but the writing style is atrocious. I couldn’t get through more than a chapter before I fell over laughing. On the other hand, some of my favorite novels are on the list: Beloved, The Joy Luck Club, To Kill a Mockingbird. And popular series such as Harry Potter,  The Hunger Games, and Game of Thrones show that the list has mass appeal.

The list of 100 favorite novels for “The Great American Read” is posted on pbs.org. You can vote for your favorites every day from now until the final results are tabulated in October. You can also find out how many of America’s favorite books you’ve actually read. I was disappointed to find out I’ve only read 43 of the 100. I guess I’d better hop in that hammock and get cracking!

 

Who Needs Roseanne When We’ve Got The Middle?

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The surprising popularity of this spring’s Roseanne reboot, followed by its swift cancellation, has some critics regretting the loss of a TV comedy that depicted life for working class Americans. Little did they realize, we have already had a hilarious take on life in the fly over zone for 9 great seasons: The Middle.

The Middle is the story of the Hecks from fictional Orson, Indiana. When we first meet them, dad Mike is working at a rock quarry and mom Frankie is having trouble selling cars at a local dealership. Their three kids are a popular slacker (Axel), a klutzy positive thinker (Sue Sue), and a brainiac with social problems (Brick).

The Hecks are always just barely scraping by. Their appliances don’t work unless large amounts of duct tape are involved. Their cars are serviceable clunkers. Frankie brings home questionable meat and produce from the Frugal Hoosier. And throughout nine seasons, their financial fortunes don’t improve much.

Premiering around the same time as Modern FamilyThe Middle has always been like the less glamorous, less popular younger sibling. The Hecks lack the snappy repartee of the Pritchetts. Their stories are not as manic and zany. But the Hecks, with all their problems, dysfunctions, and squabbling, give Middle America a family it can relate to.

Who among us has not fought with siblings in the back seat of the family car on long, boring road trips? Who cannot relate to being an overwhelmed mom whose idea of making dinner is picking up fast food? Don’t we all have weird relatives that only add to the dysfunction of stressful family gatherings? Isn’t there always another family in the neighborhood who puts us to shame with their cookie-baking, high-achieving, wholesome ways?

What makes The Middle such a relatable show is the deep affection the Hecks have for each other. Despite their near-constant bickering, they weather the storms together and identify as a family unit. I recently watched the final episode of The Middle, which sees the Heck family grappling with a child leaving the nest and the knowledge that their close-knit clan will never be the same. It’s a heartfelt episode, and it made me cry, as did many touching moments in the series over the years. It’s a kind of laughing through the tears experience.

There is absolutely no politics in The Middle. Religion is treated with respect and gentle humor. The one gay character in the show has a slow and unspectacular awakening to his true identity. The Middle is not a show about issues, but simply about family. And it’s a gem.

I’m sure The Middle will find its way to Netflix or late night TV.  And when it does, I’d highly recommend viewers give it a try.