Thursday, January 18, 2018

Shredding the Envelope on Sexual Boundaries

Polarization is the new normal — and not just in politics.

And "Adore," an Australian–French movie that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on this day in 2013, was as polarizing (along gender lines) as a movie can get. At least, based on my experience.

In that experience, I have found that most women seemed to love "Adore," and most men seemed to hate it. For the record, I did not hate it. I thought it was silly, preposterous, but I didn't hate it.

The fact that the movie's stars, Naomi Watts and Robin Wright, were two of the more respected if underrated actresses in the business only partially hid the fact that, whatever else it may have been, "Adore" qualified as a guilty pleasure.

The story was simply too implausible, the circumstances too flimsily connected. I heard the movie described once as a chick flick for grandmothers. That summary vastly oversimplified things, but there was a kernel or two of truth in that description.

I suppose there were reasons for interpreting it that way. After all, the general plot was about older women who were sexually involved with much younger men. In fact, the women in the movie, who were lifelong friends, were involved with each other's sons.

Setting aside, for just a moment, the ethical implications of that situation, isn't it everyone's fantasy — at some point — to be desired by a much younger person? Wouldn't that be the best of all possible worlds — to possess the wisdom that comes with age and the physical appeal of youth?

Of course. But the setting was just too implausible for my taste. Watts and Wright's characters had grown up best friends in an affluent Australian beachfront community that seemed to exist in some kind of bubble where the normal rules didn't apply — which encouraged all kinds of behavior — and they were raising their sons in the same place.

Now, I live in Dallas, Texas, and I know there are pockets all over this city that would fit that description. I'm sure there are similar pockets in cities all over this country — and, indeed, all over the world. But this one was just too perfect for the story — the sun, the sea, the sand, the isolation.

The women were very close — so close that sometimes the male characters wondered if they were lesbians.

They weren't, of course, and the audience knew that — they even marveled at the godlike attributes of their progeny as they watched them surfing the same waters in which the women had cavorted together as children — but there was an absence of male figures in their story that helped promote that idea among the men — and even, to an extent, among some of the women — in the movie. Watts was widowed early in the story, and Wright's husband was offered a job in Sydney; consequently, he was not around much as he was busy with the demands of the new job and getting settled.

Their sons were best friends as well, but no one suggested that they were gay.

The problem audiences had with "Adore" was rooted in the age–old differences between men and women and how they perceive love, sex and intimacy — the eternal tug–of–war between the emotional and the physical.

Anyone who has interacted with the opposite gender (in other words, everyone) knows that the genders don't see those things in the same way — yet we always seem to assume that the opposite sex will come to see those things the way we do. I don't know why we do that — and I will concede that there are some who don't but comparatively few.

The women with whom I have talked about this movie expressed admiration and praise for the story. One spoke of the courage of the actresses, which baffled me. And that could be because I am a man — but I tend to think it is more because of the insipid dialogue in the movie.

For example, at one point when Watts and Wright were speaking about the situation, Watts lamented that they had "crossed a line." Ya think? I really had to wonder how she could say that with a straight face.

The ludicrous writing really surprised me because the screenplay was adapted by Christopher Hampton, who won an Oscar for his adaptation of "Dangerous Liaisons."

It goes without saying, I suppose, that he received no nominations for this one.

And a couple of cautionary words for any hot–blooded young people hoping to catch more than a fleeting glimpse of nudity, given such a provocative premise.

Look elsewhere.

The mothers in the story are beautiful, yes, but they and the boys who play their sons are, with maybe one very brief exception, nothing more than eye candy with clothes — skimpy clothes, perhaps, but clothes nonetheless.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

A Stop in Peaceful Valley

"You've seen them. Little towns, tucked away far from the main roads. You've seen them, but have you thought about them? What do the people in these places do? Why do they stay? Philip Redfield never thought about them. If his dog hadn't gone after the cat, he would have driven through Peaceful Valley and put it out of his mind forever. But he can't do that now because, whether he knows it or not, his friend's shortcut has led him right into the capital of the Twilight Zone."

Opening narration

In the episode of Twilight Zone that was first shown on this night in 1963, "Valley of the Shadow," a reporter (Ed Nelson) got lost and found himself in a small, out–of–the–way town called Peaceful Valley just as his car was about to run out of gas. When he stopped to get more fuel, his dog jumped from the car to chase a cat that was being held by a little girl. The girl pulled out a palm–sized remote control–like device (many years before such devices existed), pointed it at the dog and made him disappear — and the odyssey began.

A good reporter is always in an inquisitive mood, and an already–suspicious Nelson began nosing around Peaceful Valley. What he found only made him more suspicious. The town's hotel supposedly had no rooms available yet all the keys still hung on the wall. The restaurant was closed. The residents of the town were not friendly.

Well, on that last one there, I can say, having grown up in a small town, that is not terribly unusual. Small–town folks are often suspicious of outsiders and their reasons for being there.

Consequently Nelson didn't receive a lot of cooperation from the town's residents. Well, there was one — a pretty young woman (Natalie Trundy) — who seemed to want to tell him more than she could.

But she didn't.

What he learned about the town and its strange powers he learned from the town's elders.

Perhaps the most important thing he learned was that the gadget the little girl used was a device that could manipulate atoms. It could make things disappear, disassemble and then reassemble people, animals and things. It was a limitless supplier of food, clothing, all the necessities of life. Everyone in this little town seemed to have one.

This device could also heal and even raise from the dead.

When Nelson tried to escape the town, his car collided with an invisible wall, and his dog was thrown from the car and killed. A rather dazed Nelson was led away from the wreckage by onlookers who thought he should be examined by a doctor, but one of the onlookers stayed behind. He pulled out his device and aimed it at the dog, and the animal was instantly revived.

The device also had incredible potential to eliminate human suffering.

To demonstrate this, the mayor of the town stabbed one of his associates in the chest with a letter opener, then calmly aimed the device at the victim while Nelson watched. The blood and wound disappeared as if nothing had happened.

Nelson couldn't believe the town refused to share this technology with a world that sorely needed it.

The town's elders argued that if the outside world obtained the technology, it would not be used for good but would be exploited for evil purposes. They said this technology had been given to them by a "great man of science" who came from some distant planet, and they would not share it until "men learn the ways of peace."

Nelson could not be allowed to leave so the initial plan was to execute him. But if they did that would they be any better than the outside world, resorting to violence to achieve a goal? They modified their sentence, giving him the option of remaining in Peaceful Valley for the rest of his life — and he chose that over execution.

But he yearned for freedom, and he and Trundy made a break for it one evening. He stopped at the town hall to use the technology to build a handgun, then grabbed the book containing all the equations for the technology so he could share it with the outside world. In breaking into the box that contained the book, though, he triggered an alarm, summoning the elders, who tried to stop him and were shot.

Then he and Trundy left the town, but once they were outside the city limits, he looked at the book — only to find blank pages. The next thing he knew he was back at the town hall and the elders were alive and well. They told him it had all been a test, and he had proven what they expected — that the first use of the technology by an outsider would be for violent purposes. He would have to be eliminated.

But the elimination did not take the form he expected. In the blink of an eye, he was back at the gas station where the story began.

And perhaps that was the way it should be. The elders had explained that the core of the technology was based on time reversal. Perhaps that is what they did to Nelson — reversed time. That would certainly be preferable to ending his life.

But was all that had gone before a dream or reality? At the end of the episode, Nelson and the viewers saw Trundy with what appeared to be tears in her eyes. That strongly implied that it had been real.

This episode was part of the Syfy Channel's annual New Year's Eve Twilight Zone marathon recently. Inclusion in that marathon can be misleading; there were only 18 hour–long episodes of the Twilight Zone, and few are seen in syndication.

If you do get the chance to see this one, though, watch for a pre–Star Trek James Doohan (known to Trekkies as "Scotty"). He played the father of that little girl.

Monday, January 15, 2018

The Power of the Will to Survive

"After 20 years, you analyze a lot. You remember people, heroism. The Miracle of the Andes ... that's what they call it. Many people come up to me and say that, had they been there, they surely would have died — but that makes no sense because, until you are in a situation like that, you have no idea how you'll behave. To be affronted by solitude without decadence or a single material thing to prostitute — that elevates you to a spiritual plane ... where I felt the presence of God. Now there's the God they taught me about at school — and there's the God that's hidden by what surrounds us in this civilization. That's the God that I met on the mountain."

Older Carlitos/Narrator (John Malkovich)

I think I was in junior high when I read Piers Paul Read's book "Alive" — which was about a Uruguayan rugby team that was involved in an airplane crash in the Andes Mountains in October 1972.

I was mesmerized by the story. The survivors of the crash ultimately had to consume the bodies of their deceased companions like a modern–day Donner Party. They were rescued after spending more than 10 weeks on the mountain.

Like so many others I fixated on that one part of the story when there were so many more uplifting aspects of the story. Fortunately, the movie version, which premiered on this day in 1993, touched on many of them.

It all came back to the power of the will to survive. Human history is loaded with stories of people who probably shouldn't have survived something but did, almost entirely because they decided they simply were not going to die. It wasn't their time yet.

In such a story, there must be some precipitous event that serves as the catalyst for everything that is to come. In this case it was the plane crash, as realistic in its depiction in "Alive" as Spielberg's depiction of the D–Day invasion in "Saving Private Ryan." I was astonished that the re–creation of the crash was not nominated for an Oscar.

("Alive" director Frank Marshall co–founded Amblin Entertainment with Spielberg. Clearly he learned a few things from that affiliation.)

The plane crash took comparatively little time to depict. So did the part about eating the bodies of the dead. The rest of the movie was about the effort to survive, which was much more than the act of eating human flesh.

It was about overcoming the obstacles that were thrown at the survivors. Those obstacles sometimes seemed to be Hollywood creations — like the avalanche of snow that buried the plane in which the survivors sought shelter — but everything in the movie was absolutely true.

Sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction.

And that, it seemed to me, was the message of the movie.

Not the sensational accounts of having to eat human flesh. True, that was part of the story, but it only took about a dozen minutes of a movie that was more than two hours long. It represented a fraction of the story — and I will readily admit that part of the story is repugnant.

But it wasn't the whole story. Far from it.

Because the movie was a true story (several of the survivors served as technical advisers to the movie production crew), the audience could follow and sympathize with the survivors' predicament and the stages they went through in fully accepting what they had to do, whether they were prepared for it or not.

The survivors of the crash had no training for surviving in a harsh environment. Yes, they were athletic, but in rugby you run a lot. You don't have to wage a life–and–death struggle every day in extreme conditions with limited rations.

Much like the movie "Miracle," "Alive" had little in the name of A–list stars. And that was a good thing. I don't think either movie would have been as effective with all–star casts. They would have been too distracting from the critical choices that the characters had to make — one of which was whether to consume the flesh of their deceased friends and relatives.

True, Ethan Hawke was in the movie, but his was not quite a household name yet. He had been in "Dead Poets Society" with Robin Williams a few years earlier, but he was still nearly a decade away from his first Academy Award nomination.

And John Malkovich was in the movie as well, but he was merely a narrator, an older version of one of the crash survivors. He wasn't even mentioned in the credits.

But back to the story. There were other obstacles to overcome — for example the mental adjustment that had to be made when the survivors learned the search party they were so sure would find them had been called off. That was a considerable hurdle as well.

And at a certain point they had to accept the fact that, if they were going to be saved, they would have to do it themselves. Some of the survivors would have to try to hike down the mountain to find help.

Those who focused on the cannibalism are as short–sighted as the congressman I once heard criticizing the nudity in "Schindler's List."

"Alive" was about faith and hope — and the determination to survive. And it was a reminder of the old biblical admonition to "judge not lest ye be judged." However much we may think we know how we would act under such circumstances, as Malkovich's character said in the opening narration, "until you are in a situation like that, you have no idea how you'll behave."

It is wrong to judge people who must make those kinds of choices. Frankly, it is wrong to judge anyone for most behavior that is not criminal — especially if the full story is not known. The full story of what happened on the Andes Mountains in 1972 can only be known by those who lived through it.

And that was what the movie was all about.

The Long -- and Painful -- Goodbye

Marco (Matthew Modine): You're losing time, Mr. Cregg.

Talmidge Cregg (Donald Moffat): That, son, I am.

Allison Janney, who played C.J. on the West Wing, was seldom the focus of episodes.

But in the episode that first aired on this night in 2003, "The Long Goodbye," Janney was the focal point as her character returned to her hometown of Dayton, Ohio, to give a speech at her high school reunion.

Because it was such a departure from the norm, it was one of the best episodes of the series — which added to its history of shedding light on the kinds of battles that people have to wage in the shadows every day.

The goodbye in the title referred not to her high school friendships but to her father (Donald Moffat), who had been living with Alzheimer's disease. That was the primary reason for C.J.'s trip home — to check on her father.

So while her White House colleagues were mentioned in the episode, most were not seen or heard. Those who were seen and/or heard were only on the screen briefly.

Most of the episode was a glimpse into C.J.'s life — which, aside from her high–profile job, was really no different from anyone else's.

High school reunions are a common enough experience, I suppose, although most of us don't get asked to give a speech at one. For the White House press secretary, it goes with the territory.

As life expectancy increases, more people find themselves in the position of caring for aging parents, as C.J. did, and Alzheimer's is a health issue for more and more of the elderly. That was probably the thing that C.J. had in common with many of those who saw this episode 15 years ago tonight.

Her challenges certainly were familiar to me. My family had to deal with my Alzheimer's–stricken grandmother, who lingered for nearly a decade before she died. She would have been appalled to know what a burden her well–being had been for my mother (who juggled her teaching career and her obligation to her mother until it was finally too much for her and she had to explore round–the–clock options), but she had no choice.

No one did. No one does when Alzheimer's is part of the equation.

It was easier for my mother than it was for C.J., though, because at least my mother lived in the same city with my grandmother. C.J. was about 400 miles away from her father. She couldn't just pop in after work to see how he was doing.

So the reunion provided her with the ideal excuse to do just that.

Dealing with an Alzheimer's patient is a roller–coaster ride for the primary caregiver, especially when that caregiver must provide care from afar. In the early stages of my grandmother's affliction, that was how my mother had to handle things, but they lived in the same city when things got worse — as things inevitably do for Alzheimer's patients.

As difficult as it was for C.J., it was just as difficult for her stepmother, who had finally had enough and left C.J.'s father. When C.J. learned what had happened, it led to a huge quarrel between the two.

I often admired the writing on the West Wing — but perhaps never as much as I did when I saw this episode, and possibly most when C.J. argued with her stepmother. The dialogue was honest and human. Alzheimer's is frightening and frustrating for everyone — the patient and the caregiver(s) — and the script emphasized that.

I don't want to overlook some truly impressive performances. I thought Moffat gave a powerful one as C.J.'s father. His character had once been a respected educator; now he found himself careening from one extreme to the other with no notice. As long as they retain the power of speech, Alzheimer's patients also retain the ability to veer from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde without warning. Anyone who has ever been close to an Alzheimer's patient will confirm that.

My grandmother stopped speaking after a few years and spent the last six or seven years of her life unable to communicate. It probably saved all of us a lot of grief. Lord knows the situation was stressful enough as it was. Even before she stopped communicating, she no longer recognized her family. "The Long Goodbye" offered viewers a glimpse of that painful circumstance.

Nor do I want to overlook the performance of Matthew Modine. He was kind of an innocent bystander, one of C.J.'s former classmates and an ex–beau who had given up the punk rocker ways of his youth and settled into a more traditional life working with timepieces.

He and C.J. had a one–night stand before the reunion, but it was clear that was all that it was. Most of what he did was serve as C.J.'s much–needed pressure valve. Working at the White House brought with it lots of pressure, and C.J. was conditioned for that, but she was facing a different kind of pressure at home, and it provoked different kinds of responses from her at different times — anger, regret, confusion.

The relationship between Alzheimer's patient and caregiver can be volatile and unpredictable. Modine's character was the buffer that every caregiver needs at some point.

This episode was a departure from the norm for the West Wing — and may have been one of the series' best.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Taking It Easy

Mr. Tucker (Robert Emhardt): You people are living in another world!

Andy (Andy Griffith): Easy, Mr. Tucker.

Mr. Tucker: This is the 20th century. Don't you realize that? The whole world is living in a desperate space age. Men are orbiting the Earth. International television has been developed. And here, a whole town is standing still because two old women's feet fall asleep!

Barney (Don Knotts): I wonder what causes that.

It is reasonable to believe that people have the same priorities, whether they live in cities or small towns.

After all, deep down we all want the same things, right? Sure, we're all individuals, and we differ from each other in rather small ways, but, as President Kennedy said in 1963, "In the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet, we all breathe the same air, we all cherish our children's futures, and we are all mortal."

You could add that we all have the same basic needs — food, clothing and shelter — that must be provided.

It was probably a cliche 55 years ago to speak about the fast pace of the modern world.

How long have people been saying there is too much to be done and not enough time to do it? As long as I can remember — and almost certainly well before that. Heck, the cavemen probably complained that they didn't have enough time to hunt for game to feed their families and invent the wheel.

Yet as basic as those priorities were, individual cavemen almost just as surely had their own priorities. Then as now I'm sure there were those who had no dependents and, with only themselves to support, could devote more time to invention.

Such distinctions are not confined to city and country, but sometimes it helps to narrow it down to that.

The episode of the Andy Griffith Show that premiered on this night in 1963, "Man in a Hurry," was about a big–city businessman, Mr. Tucker (Robert Emhardt), whose car broke down outside of Mayberry on a Sunday. He needed to be in Charlotte the next day so he walked to town in search of someone who could fix his car.

He soon discovered what anyone who ever spent much time in a small country town could have told him — it is almost impossible to get anything done in such a place on a Sunday. Or at least it was. Times have changed, and even small towns don't observe a day of rest anymore.

But Mayberry was always a casual town.

In Mayberry Wally's filling station was open — but just barely. Gomer (the recently deceased Jim Nabors) was there, but he only put gas in cars. Wally handled engine repairs, but he didn't make repairs on Sundays.

In a desperate attempt to do something, Mr. Tucker stole the truck at Wally's filling station but was apprehended shortly thereafter.

Andy let it slide because he understood Mr. Tucker's predicament, but he urged the businessman to come home with him, have something to eat and wait until the next day to get something done. Mr. Tucker grudgingly agreed to go back to Andy's house, but he insisted he wasn't hungry and continued to try to summon help by phone.

Unfortunately for Mr. Tucker the local phone lines were tied up on Sunday afternoons by two elderly sisters who lived in different towns and found it difficult to get around. So they were allowed to talk for hours on Sunday. (While this sort of thing is unheard–of today, my guess is this was in the days of party lines, which were pretty common in country towns at one time. For that matter they were also in use in many college dormitories.)

Their conversation was hilarious. Mr. Tucker wanted to get a call out to someone — anyone — in the outside world, but the old ladies kept going off on tangents.

First, they spoke at length about feet falling asleep. Then, when Mr. Tucker tried to interrupt and identified himself as Mr. Tucker from Charlotte, the ladies began speaking of a Charlotte Tucker they had known. Apparently, she married a fellow who fell down a lot.

Country folks and city folks just don't see things the same.

But somewhere buried deep inside Mr. Tucker was some country sensibility, maybe some leftover from his childhood. When he stepped out on Andy's porch and found Andy and Barney (Don Knotts) singing "The Church in the Wildwood," they tapped into that hidden sensibility, and he sang softly along with them.

It was a nice change of pace for Emhardt, a character actor who was frequently cast in villainous roles. Sometimes he played corrupt businessmen. The audience never found out if he was a corrupt businessman in this episode, but we got a glimpse — incomplete though it was — into his character's background in that scene on Andy's front porch.

Obviously somewhere in Mr. Tucker's past was a little brown church in the vale — and a more relaxed way of life — and the memory of it had a calming effect on him.

He got worked up again when Gomer showed up and announced that Wally had come to the station after all and they had towed Mr. Tucker's car in. Gomer assured Mr. Tucker they would fix it that day.

And they did.

But somewhere that deep–inside sensibility that got tapped earlier made Mr. Tucker realize that the slower pace of country life wasn't such a bad thing, either — that stopping and smelling the roses was a good thing to do from time to time. He decided he would do precisely that and opted to spend the night in Mayberry.

He would get to sleep in Opie's room. That meant Opie (Ron Howard) would sleep on the ironing board. Mr. Tucker thought that sounded awful, but Opie disagreed. He called it "adventure sleepin'."

Folks see things differently in the country than they do in the city.

That's still a pretty valuable thing to know.

Which Is Stranger, Truth or Fiction?

"We can all be comforted by the thought that he's not really gone; there's a little Tuttle left in all of us. In fact you might say that all of us together made up Tuttle."

Hawkeye (Alan Alda)

At some point, I suppose, just about everyone has an imaginary friend, usually in childhood; in the episode of MASH that first aired on this night in 1973, "Tuttle," the viewers learned that Hawkeye (Alan Alda) had an imaginary friend he had never outgrown.

It formed the basis for what may have been the most bizarre episode of MASH's 11–year run.

When Hawkeye was growing up, Tuttle took the blame for anything Hawkeye did that he shouldn't have done. As you may have gathered, when Hawkeye was drafted, Tuttle accompanied Hawkeye to Korea — where, when Hawkeye and Trapper (Wayne Rogers) diverted supplies to a local orphanage, he continued to take the blame — or the responsibility, whichever way you prefer to look at it.

As the episode progressed, the full depth of Tuttle's character became known through a variety of means — most notably a personnel file that Hawkeye made up.

The creation of the personnel file, with Trapper and Radar (Gary Burghoff) watching over Hawkeye's shoulder, was hilarious and featured some of my favorite lines.

For example, when the form called for religious affiliation, Hawkeye said Tuttle was a Druid. "They worship trees," he told Radar. "Ah, a tree surgeon," Radar replied.

"Druid — reformed," Hawkeye continued. "They're allowed to pray at bushes."

As the personnel file grew, Trapper told Hawkeye, "You should write fiction."

"You should read my file," Hawkeye replied.

Hawkeye added physical characteristics that he knew would appeal to Hot Lips (Loretta Swit), who was sure to look at the file — which she did.

The more layers Hawkeye added to the character, the more people in the compound claimed to have seen him, met him, even had meals with him. Eventually, though, the whole thing collapsed when it became necessary for Capt. Tuttle to make a personal appearance.

Those demands were manageable at first, but ultimately it reached a point where something had to be done.

Hawkeye couldn't create a Tuttle out of thin air so he did what may have been the next best thing — he killed off his creation.

Before the staff of the 4077th, which had been assembled to witness a commendation being given to Tuttle for donating his salary to the orphanage, Hawkeye stepped forward to inform everyone that there was no Tuttle.

Then he told them that Tuttle had gone out to do some field surgery that morning and had jumped from a helicopter with everything he needed — except a parachute.

At that point Hawkeye delivered a eulogy that must be heard to be appreciated, but Trapper told Hawkeye afterward that "there wasn't a dry eye in the whole camp."

"Tuttle always brought out the best in me," Hawkeye replied.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Cheers and Sympathy

"Elizabeth was my closest friend and confidante. That cat could really keep a secret."

Diane (Shelley Long)

Loss is always painful, regardless of whether it was expected or, for that matter, what was lost.

"Nothing that grieves us can be called little," Mark Twain wrote. "By the eternal laws of proportion a child's loss of a doll and a king's loss of a crown are events of the same size."

With that in mind, Diane (Shelley Long) was dealing with a loss that seemed almost unbearable to her but didn't seem to be terribly significant to the people around her in the episode of Cheers! that first aired on this night in 1983 — "Let Me Count the Ways."

Diane was mourning the death of her family's cat, Elizabeth Barrett Browning. I realize that, to some, the loss of a pet is not a big deal, but I also know, having had pets around the house most of my life, that a pet's death can be a very traumatic thing.

And Elizabeth Barrett Browning had been part of Diane's household since she was a child. Diane recalled times when she had despaired, and the cat had been her salvation — and she felt guilty that she had not been there to comfort her cat when she was in her final moments.

If you have never had a pet, you probably can't understand that any better than the folks at Cheers! could. It's a matter of perspective, I suppose. But pets really do become members of the family. In fact, some pets are treated better than some members of the family.

I don't know how Diane's family responded to Elizabeth Barrett Browning's passing, but Diane took it quite hard.

And she took it personally that no one in Cheers! seemed to take her grief seriously.

Everyone was more interested in the Celtics game on TV. Sam (Ted Danson) and Coach (Nicholas Colasanto) were especially interested in the game, having taken the unprecedented step of betting against the Celtics (based on information from a professor of cybernetics at M.I.T.), which was the sort of thing they couldn't possibly share with the Cheers! patrons.

But they made out like bandits when the Celtics lost.

It was a noteworthy solo debut for writer Heide Perlman, younger sister of series regular Rhea Perlman, who went on to write many of the better episodes of popular TV series in the next 30 years — including 16 other Cheers! episodes.

Speaking of Rhea Perlman, she had many great lines as Carla the waitress, but I always thought one of her best came in this episode when Diane asked her how she managed to stay upbeat in the face of adversity. Carla said she always looked on the bright side.

"What good could you possibly say about a loved one dying?" Diane asked.

"It ain't me!" Carla replied.

Matchmaker, Matchmaker

Rhoda (Valerie Harper): Ben and I aren't getting married — he's not my type.

Phyllis (Cloris Leachman): What do you mean he's not your type? He's witty, he's attractive, he's successful, he's single ...

Rhoda: He's gay!

Phyllis (Cloris Leachman), the snobby manager of Mary Tyler Moore's building on the Mary Tyler Moore Show, was eagerly anticipating the visit of her adored and musically talented brother (Robert Moore) in the episode that aired on this night in 1973, "My Brother's Keeper." She saw it as an opportunity for him to meet and become interested in Mary.

And when Phyllis saw them together, she became even more convinced that they were meant for each other. They were sophisticated and stylish, just the way she imagined herself to be.

To her great chagrin, though, her brother appeared to be interested in Rhoda (Valerie Harper), whom Phyllis regarded as uncouth and beneath her. These days, I guess Phyllis and Rhoda would be considered frenemies — friendly enemies. But since that portmanteau wasn't in use in those days, I don't know how their status was labeled.

Whatever else it may have been, though, it wasn't a friendly relationship, and Phyllis was shaken by the belief that her brother might hook up with Rhoda. She was so despondent about that prospect that she drove away guests at Mary's party — and Mary's parties already had a reputation for being disasters.

Mary begged Phyllis not to make a scene, and, by Phyllis' standards, she didn't — but her demeanor betrayed her. She was morose and become even gloomier the more she drank.

Anyway, Phyllis confronted Rhoda about the situation, telling her that she had come to terms with the idea that Ben and Rhoda would end up together, and received a shock.

Her brother was gay.

Now, keep in mind that this was 45 years ago. Homosexuality was rarely mentioned on TV, and when it was, it certainly wasn't treated the way it is today. It was a decade of social change on TV, but gay rights was not on the front burner.

And it was largely because of that fact that the episode sort of limped to its conclusion without making any special point or taking sides. That was understandable. It would take awhile, but the gay community's time to be the topic of national debate would come.

As I understand it, the introduction of homosexuality into the story was not intended to make a political statement or further some kind of agenda.

Actually, as I have heard it told, the gay angle was introduced as a means of preventing Rhoda and Phyllis' brother from becoming a couple. It was also one of the first times that the word gay was used to on TV describe homosexuals.

That would become more commonplace, but at the time it mostly seemed to complicate things because how one defined gay largely depended on the generation of the speaker. Today, if you look up gay in your dictionary, the first definition is likely to be about homosexuality. Half a century ago, a definition of "bright or cheery" most likely was the first.

I don't know if "My Brother's Keeper" influenced that or not.

But, like a steady rain will gradually erode solid surfaces, usually without drawing too much attention, episodes such as the one of the Mary Tyler Moore Show that aired 45 years ago tonight helped pave the way for the emerging gay rights movement.

Sunday, January 07, 2018

The Grass Is Always Greener

Frasier (Kelsey Grammer): This is heaven, right here and now. Why do we have to think about someplace else?

Niles (David Hyde Pierce): This is only heaven for the people who can't get into the real heaven. The platinum heaven.

In the last years of the Frasier series' run, Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) had an ongoing feud with a neighbor (Brian Stokes Mitchell) that I found tedious.

I know some people who liked those episodes, and I concede that it was an intriguing twist for the series. Cam Winston (the neighbor) was very much like Frasier in his temperament, his preferences, his mannerisms, just about everything, and the two were competitive over everything — like parking spaces and American flag displays.

In fact, the only real difference between the two was race — Frasier was white, and Cam was black — but I don't recall that angle ever being mentioned even though the rivalry was the basis of some episodes in the series' ninth season.

As I say I found those episodes tiresome for the most part, but there was one episode that I enjoyed in which Cam played a role. It was "Door Jam," which first aired on this night in 2003.

Yes, Cam did play a role in that episode — but he wasn't seen in it. In fact, he had made his last on–screen appearance in the series the year before this episode aired.

As part of the settlement resolving their feud, Cam and Frasier had agreed to swap mailboxes. The taller Cam was better suited for Frasier's top–shelf mailbox while Frasier could access Cam's lower box easier.

But mail delivery didn't exactly keep up with the changes. In "Door Jam," an invitation addressed to Cam from a mysterious new exclusive business was left in Frasier's box by mistake. Frasier and Niles (David Hyde Pierce) were intrigued because, being the elitist snobs that they were, they expected to be in the loop when anything exclusive surfaced in Seattle.

And neither could recall ever hearing about this business — which made them even more curious about it.

What did it do? The Crane brothers came up with some sneaky ways to find out, ignoring their father's suggestion to call the place and ask.

But even when they wound up taking the direct approach, it didn't yield the answer they sought because they weren't on the master list — so Niles had to pose as Cam, whose name was on the list, to get them in.

The employees of the business were discouraged from giving out information or allowing access to anyone who wasn't on The List. But, having established that as the company's policy, they were far too trusting. Not at all the kind of diligent gatekeepers one would expect. Niles was able to acquire that information and access merely by saying he was Cam. He didn't have to provide any supporting documents, like a driver's license, for example.

And their cover could easily have been blown several times during their stay as Frasier repeatedly addressed Niles by his real name with earshot of the employees.

The brothers were pleased to discover that the business was a day spa, and they were happy with the results — until they learned that there was a higher level than the one in which they had spent the afternoon, and Cam's name wasn't on that list. Consequently, the Cranes couldn't access it, and that really annoyed them.

Suddenly the pampering with which they had been so delighted was vastly inferior to what they imagined could be found at the gold level.

Then, once they had finagled their way into the gold level (with Roz's help), they immediately began lusting after what they believed to be a platinum level.

But it wasn't.

The employees urged them to stay where they were, telling them they were not allowed beyond that other door, but the Cranes ignored them. When they went through that door, they found the spa's garbage dumpster on the other side — and the orange honey–butter mask that had been applied to Niles' face was attracting bees.

It wasn't the grass that was green on the other side of that door.

The Course of True Love ...

In the episode of MASH that first aired on this night in 1973, "Love Story," Radar (Gary Burghoff) was a real mess.

He couldn't eat — oh, he would fill his plate with food, but then he would mysteriously decide that he wasn't hungry. And he couldn't sleep. Well, not normally. One day Henry (McLean Stevenson) came into his office and found Radar on top of the file cabinet — in the fetal position.

That was strange, even for Radar.

The doctors at the 4077th decided to give Radar a complete physical in an attempt to find out what was wrong. But all the tests indicated that he was in good physical health.

So Hawkeye (Alan Alda) and Trapper (Wayne Rogers) sat him down and asked him to 'fess up.

"What's turning you into a fruitcake?" Trapper asked.

Wordlessly Radar handed a 45 RPM record to Trapper, who put it on the record player in the tent. It was a recording from Radar's girlfriend back home — a "Dear John" recording informing Radar that she had decided not to wait for him and was going to marry someone else.

When the recording was over, Trapper and Hawkeye turned to give Radar some supportive advice — only to find that he was sleeping in the fetal position on one of the cots.

Thus began an effort to find a new love interest for Radar, but Hawkeye and Trapper could find no takers among the ladies of the camp.

Then arrived a pretty lieutenant (Kelly Jean Peters) and Radar was infatuated.

Hawkeye volunteered to help the new arrival unpack so he could learn about her musical and literary preferences, and he reported back to Radar with bad news — she was a fan of the classics in both categories. She carried recordings of Bach, Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich with her as well as volumes of classical literature and poetry. Carrying on a conversation with her was going to be a challenge for someone like Radar, a naive farm boy who was probably more at home with a Spike Jones record and a Captain Marvel comic book.

But Hawkeye was ready with tips for Radar, and he coached him in diversionary responses.

If the lieutenant spoke about Tchaikovsky or Shostakovich, for example, Hawkeye said Radar should simply look bored. But if she mentioned Bach, Hawkeye recommended a nod, a knowing smile and an "Ahhh, Bach."

Either response was sure to cut short that discussion.

And, as a matter of fact, she did mention Bach when the four were having a meal in the mess tent. And Radar followed Hawkeye's advice.

But she threw him a curve. She asked him what that meant. He replied with something else Hawkeye told him to say — "That's highly significant."

You might say Radar jumped the conversational gun on that one.

"I haven't said anything yet," she replied.

"That's OK," Radar ad–libbed. "I have confidence in you, Lieutenant."

Somehow Radar managed to start a blossoming relationship that Hot Lips (Loretta Swit) and Frank (Larry Linville) were determined to nip in the bud.

The relationship was counter to regulations, and Frank and Hot Lips were sticklers for regulations — conveniently overlooking the fact that their romance wasn't exactly in line with regulations, either.

Part of Hot Lips' strategy included sending letters of complaint to the unit's commander, General Clayton.

Hawkeye and Trapper were just as determined to stop them and dipped into their extensive bag of tricks to do so.

Well, as Shakespeare wrote in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," the course of true love never did run smooth.