I’ll Be There For You

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Rumors that Netflix was about to drop the iconic Nineties series Friends from its lineup put my daughter and me into a frenzy. We’d started watching reruns of the smash hit 10-season comedy the year before and were determined to make it through to the final episode, which originally aired on May 6, 2004, and was the most-watched series finale at the time.

I’d watched Friends on and off when it originally aired but never really encouraged my kids to tune in to the inevitable reruns that popped up in syndication a few years later. For one thing, there’s a lot of frank talk about sex and hooking up, a subject I didn’t really want my kids being privy to. I also thought the series might seem dated to the generation growing up on smartphones and laptops. By the time our youngest was in high school, I had relaxed my standards. After all, she was already watching shows like Gossip Girl and One Tree Hill.

So the two of us started capping off our days with a nightly viewing of a Friends episode or two. The series starts off awkwardly. The laughs seem forced, and the chemistry among the characters takes a few episodes to develop. My daughter seemed unimpressed as she sat through those first few episodes stone-faced.  After a while, though, she and I found ourselves laughing hysterically at the foibles of the six young adults living and working in New York City.

Never mind that Friends shared the unrealistic depiction of NYC that almost every movie and TV show has over the years. Despite their lack of funds or spectacular jobs, the friends live in spacious apartments in the heart of Manhattan. They spend inordinate amounts of time at a coffee shop instead of at their jobs. Ross and Rachel each have young children, but they are conveniently out of the picture for entire episodes.

But looking for realism in a sitcom is a fool’s errand, and over this past year, my daughter and I have found much to enjoy about the show. There are just so many laugh-out-loud moments, such as when Joey gets a turkey carcass stuck on his head. Recurring characters such as Janice with her donkey bray of a laugh also add to the humor. The actors who portray the six core friends are expert physical comedians. Sometimes their facial expressions alone cause hilarity.

But what truly makes Friends a special series are the many moments of true love and sacrifice that the characters make for each other throughout the series. There are serious subjects tackled in Friends, including a sexual abuse storyline that is played for laughs but also gets the point across that what happened to Joey as a child and then Chandler as an adult was inappropriate and wrong. The series also deals with infertility, adoption, excessive drinking, and the pain of divorce. And the way these six friends help each other through the bad times is a reminder of the theme song lyrics, “I’ll be there for you.”

One of the other most popular sitcoms of the Nineties was Seinfeld. It also featured a group of friends living in New York City. But the tone was more cynical and heartless. Not one of the main characters was particularly sympathetic, and they weren’t all that kind or supportive of each other. So it was easy to laugh at each of them when bad things happened to them. You kind of felt that they deserved it. Friends was an entirely different kind of comedy. Although the characters could at times be selfish and competitive, when push came to shove, they always chose their friendship over themselves.

It turns out the rumors about Netflix ditching its Friends were unfounded. The series will continue to be streamed through 2019. That gives my daughter and me a little breathing room as we head into the home stretch in season 10. But as hooked as we are on our late night bonding over the trials and tribulations of Monica, Ross, Rachel, Chandler, Joey, and Phoebe, I suspect we will have finished the series before we ring in the New Year.

 

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White Like Me

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Dear Black People,

After watching season one of the Netflix series Dear White People, I want to apologize for my ancestors having screwed up your lives for the past 200 hundred plus years and for making race relations so fraught to this day.

Watching Dear White People made me uncomfortable, as it is no doubt meant to do. Episode after episode, I squirmed as well-meaning (and some not so well-meaning) white students try to relate to their black counterparts at a fictional Ivy League school called Winchester. (The gun comes immediately to mind.) Whether getting called out for partying in blackface or learning that only blacks get to use the N word, the white kids at Winchester are alternately baffled and angered by their black classmates’ refusal to go easy on them.

The premise of Dear White People is that a mixed race student named Samantha White hosts a regular segment on the college radio station that starts “Dear white people” and  gives her a platform to air her exasperation, dismay, or outright disgust at the way people of color are treated at her school. Her show – and indeed the series – force whites to look at their privilege in a sometimes humorous, but always uncompromising, way.

What I love about the show is that each episode is told from the perspective of one student at the school. Even the black students at Winchester are not united in their views of how best to advance black causes at the school. Some are assimilators who want to find diplomatic solutions. Some are activists who wish to be confrontational. All have unique stories, and learning their stories is perhaps the most instructive part of the show for whites who might be tempted to paint all African-Americans with the same broad brush.

A twist in the show is that Sam, the radio personality/activist, is secretly dating a white grad student at the beginning of Episode 1. Once they are outed, Sam’s boyfriend Gabe tries to walk the tightrope of being sympathetic to the black students’ plight without being patronizing. But he learns that, as a white person, he just doesn’t get it, and probably never will. The same can be said for white audiences of Dear White People. But that doesn’t mean we should stop trying.

While the show has deadly serious moments, it’s also very funny. The repartee among the students is topical and witty.  And the characters totally won me over. There’s the shy gay student who has a crush on his roommate, his equally gay newspaper editor who is constantly yelling at him for not doing the story he was assigned, the Buffy-like girl who gets an Emotional Support Animal to handle the stress, the Kenyan who insists that his people are superior because “we did not get captured” in Africa.

Dear White People is a sly, witty, earnest, and well-acted comedy-drama and a must-see for anyone who wants to examine modern race relations in America. I can’t wait for season two!

Netflix and Chill?

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My husband wants me to do it with him every night, sometimes for two or three hours. Now don’t get me wrong. I enjoy it every bit as much as he does. But I’m exhausted. And sometimes I just want to read my book. I’m referring, of course, to watching episodes of Homeland on Showtime Anytime.

The advent of the DVR; streaming services such as HBO Go, Showtime Anytime, and Netflix; and the plethora of high quality programming have created the ideal conditions (or perfect storm, depending on your outlook) for binge watching TV shows. So every time my husband and I finish an episode of the five-season series Homeland, we look into each other’s eyes and whisper, “One more episode?”

Binge watching is a completely different experience from watching regular television. In the old days, before the invention of the VCR, families would gather around their televisions in great anticipation for their favorite show, holiday special, or movie premiere. So watching, for instance, How the Grinch Stole Christmas was a once-a-year event. The Wonderful World of Disney would broadcast a movie each Sunday night, and no one could get tired of endless repetitions of Snow WhiteBambi, or Pinocchio. Even ordinary television series were must-see occasions, and people planned their evenings around such viewing.

With videotapes and their descendants, DVDs, as well as TiVo and eventually services such as Apple TV, a wealth of entertainment became instantly available. And it just keeps getting easier and easier to watch TV for hours in the comfort of one’s home. Remember going to Blockbuster Video to pick out a movie? Remember having to fast forward through the commercials?

In the past, and still today in many cases, viewers would have to “tune in next week” for the next installment of their favorite TV show. The anticipation was part of the fun. Now we have entire seasons of a television series popping up at once on Netflix, and we tend to go through the episodes like a box of popcorn at the movie theater. Call me old-fashioned, but this style of TV-watching eliminates some of the magic.

Still, it’s hard to stop progress, and I must admit that it can be fun to gorge myself on a particularly good television series. At the same time, with so much good TV to watch, who has time to Netflix and chill?