Sunday, October 30, 2011

Barney's Double Standard



Opie: I thought Barney had a girl, Thelma Lou.

Andy: He does. This is somebody else.

Opie: Well, what does he need two of them for?

Andy: He doesn't.

That was some set of rules that Barney (Don Knotts) made his long–suffering girlfriend, Thelma Lou (Betty Lynn), live by.

In the episode of The Andy Griffith Show that premiered on this day 50 years ago, Barney's odd logic was on hilarious display.

He didn't want Thelma Lou to show any affection in public — but he appeared to have no inhibitions about, in Thelma Lou's words, "acting like a silly school boy" for all to see when a pretty girl smiled at him.

The pretty girl, in this case, was played by an actress named Beverly Tyler, who had a largely undistinguished career in TV and the movies in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. Her role as Gladys "Melissa" Stevens was nearly her last — just before she retired from show business to marry and raise a family.

Fans of TV from that time might be more inclined to recognize her co–guest star, Jackie Coogan, whose career went back to the days of silent movies but gained his most lasting fame as Uncle Fester on The Addams Family.

Anyway, Barney's embarrassing fawning over Gladys/Melissa after she flirted with him led to a lover's quarrel with Thelma Lou, and the two broke up.
Barney: She's new here. Being an officer it's practically my duty to show her around, right, Andy?

Andy: Oh, yeah, yeah.

Thelma Lou: Just what did you have to show her that she couldn't find herself?

Barney: Oh, lots of things — the stamp machine, the parcel post window, the outgoing air mail slot.

Andy: Oh, yeah, they're hard to find.

Barney decided it was a good idea to put himself on the market, starting with actively courting his new love interest.

What Barney didn't know was that she was already married — to Coogan — and Barney was the intended victim of a bogus breach of promise suit. Coogan's character presented himself initially as the father of "Melissa," not her husband, then sprang into action when the intended victim resisted.

When Barney attempted to wriggle out of his supposed commitment to "Melissa," they tried to sue him. But Andy took a gamble — based strictly on a hunch — and revealed the scam, getting Barney off the hook.

Andy had figured out what was going on, that "Melissa" wasn't really George's daughter — that, in fact, they were married to each other.

But that, he told Barney, wasn't what convinced him.

You'll have to watch the ending for yourself to find out what persuaded Andy!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Another Look at Looker



If you haven't already made your arrangements for Halloween viewing — and if you haven't, what have you been waiting for? — an option you might consider is "Looker," a movie that made its debut 30 years ago tomorrow.

It won't fit the bill for you if what you crave for Halloween is scary monsters or ghost stories. But if you lean to suspense thrillers with a touch of science fiction, well, "Looker" might be what you want.

It might not, though. It was more funny than spine–tingling, really a silly story.

The story, which was written and directed by Michael Crichton (better known for writing things like "Jurassic Park" and "The Andromeda Strain"), had some intriguing ideas behind it — and, in its way, was similar to "Network" in its anticipation of how modern mass communication would seek to manipulate the masses. But it never quite lived up to its promise.

"Network," which will mark its 35th birthday next month, addressed the concepts of news as entertainment and reality programming long before they popped up on the popular radar. "Looker" focused on advertising and absurdly precise measurements of physical beauty that determined what agencies did — and the lengths to which models would go to please the agencies.

Albert Finney, who had been nominated for Oscars twice prior to making this movie, was probably the most bankable star in a cast that included several familiar faces. He played a plastic surgeon who had performed apparently unnecessary operations on models who then turned up dead.

(These models, I should point out, were physically perfect, but not perfect in every way so a research company used digital scanning to acquire computer–generated models that could be animated in future commercials.)

Susan Dey, who was probably better known to moviegoers of that time as Laurie Partridge of TV's The Partridge Family, played one of Finney's patients. Her character worked with Finney to uncover a plot to kill the models.

At this point in her career, Dey was between her breakthrough role as the alluring yet virtuous Laurie and her next big role as the more mature lawyer, Grace Van Owen, in L.A. Law, and she was trying desperately to shed her squeaky–clean image.

She shed more than her image in her theatrical debut, 1977's "First Love." In fact, it could be argued that she exposed too much in that movie. When she made "Looker" about four years later, Dey seemed to have learned a lesson or two about the value of mystery — promise more but show less.

She teased the audience more in "Looker," and, ultimately, she delivered less. But, then, so did "Looker" in comparison to "First Love."

"First Love," at least, had a comprehensible, if schmaltzy, story. "Looker," on the other hand, was a bit contrived and there were elements that were simply never explained — except many years later in the commentary option on the DVD.

But it was fun then, and it should be fun now. If you don't have Halloween plans, you might give it some thought.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

A Crane's Critique



One of the most entertaining angles of the Frasier series was always the sibling rivalry between Frasier and his brother Niles.

It was constantly a source of fresh humor since it often focused on the elitist tastes the brothers shared. In the 11 years the show was on the air, the writers explored the Crane brothers' mutual passions for wine, caviar, opera, fine dining, literature, exclusive clubs and spas and their innate desire to be descended from royalty, among other things, and their wish to rub elbows with the most eccentric and the most prominent.

I always enjoyed those episodes. Frasier and Niles were both so quirky — and so transparent — that it was hard not to be amused by their petty bickering and squabbling.

One of the best of those episodes made its debut 15 years ago tonight.

Sitting at a table outside the coffee bar they frequented, Niles and Frasier spotted a reclusive writer named T.H. Houghton from a distance. Houghton (played by the late Robert Prosky) was inspired by J.D. Salinger, whose "The Catcher in the Rye" was published 60 years ago this year.

Thus began a merry chase in which Frasier and Niles kept trying to meet the writer — and kept missing by inches and seconds — while their father struck up a close friendship with him, going to ball games with him and talking about classic TV shows like Bonanza.

The final indignity for Frasier was the fact that Houghton had forged a bond with Eddie the dog — "fed him his afternoon biscuit," according to Daphne.

It was all too much for Frasier, who wondered, "Will the madness never end?"

Niles suggested that their father might bring Houghton back to the apartment after dinner.

In one of my favorite lines in the entire series, Frasier replied, "I doubt it. They'll probably run into J.D. Salinger and Salman Rushdie — go out for margaritas."

That was a doubly funny line because, as I say, the Houghton character was inspired by Salinger.

But Houghton went Salinger one better. He had a manuscript for a second novel that he was in Seattle to show a publisher — and he accidentally left it in Frasier's apartment when he and Martin went to a Mariners doubleheader.

Frasier and Niles seized on the opportunity to read the manuscript, prompting a scolding from Daphne.

But they got rid of her by giving her the day off and proceeded to read the manuscript in privacy ...

Until Houghton showed up with Martin.

Frasier and Niles tried to cover for their transgression, assuring Houghton that the book was wonderful — "It was great," Niles said. "Wow!" said Frasier.

Martin was furious. "If you were Hoss and Little Joe," he fumed after Houghton excused himself to use the restroom, "Ben Cartwright would kick your sorry butts right off the Ponderosa."

Niles and Frasier tried to apologize, then, after Martin had left the room, Frasier observed, "He's back on the Cartwrights again. You know, someday we really should ask him just who the hell they are."

What concerned the always image–conscious Frasier more was the impression their "pithy comments" left with their idol.

"Houghton's going to leave here today thinking we're a couple of inarticulate simpletons," he told Niles, and they agreed to share more learned comments with him when he emerged from the bathroom.

Unfortunately, they inadvertently persuaded Houghton that the entire book had been stolen from Dante. "I was a fool to think I had another book in me," he cried, calling himself a "talentless hack," and he disposed of the manuscript by tossing part of it in the fireplace and the rest off Frasier's balcony. Then he walked resolutely from the apartment, saying that at least he could leave with his dignity ... not noticing that a page from his manuscript was stuck to the bottom of one of his shoes.

Frasier and Niles were chastened and despondent. "We've destroyed a man's life," Frasier said. "Not to mention depriving future generations of a work of art," Niles added.

The two rationalized, however, that they had spared Houghton a thorough trashing from the critics (who would certainly have noticed the parallel between his work and Dante's) that his fragile ego couldn't withstand — and thus became heroes in their own eyes.

"You know, Niles," Frasier said in his self–congratulatory way, "we saved that man's life."

As well as his image — with himself.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Chuck Berry Is 85

The fact that Chuck Berry has lived to his 85th birthday is a significant milestone, one that many of us feared he might not reach not too long ago.

Earlier this year, it was reported that Berry had collapsed at a New Year's show in Chicago. Thankfully, he seems to have rebounded.

There doesn't seem to be any real agreement on how rock 'n' roll came to be. About the only thing on which there does seem to be agreement is the idea that it originated in the South in what can only be described as a convergence of several musical styles — blues, country, jazz, gospel, folk, swing — that evolved into rock 'n' roll.

Because it was such an evolutionary kind of thing, it's been tough for music historians to pinpoint when the phrase "rock 'n' roll" was first applied to music. It was apparently used in the early part of the 20th century to describe both the fervor of the religious faithful and the ecstacy of a sexual encounter.

But the phrase caught on — in a musical sense — in the 1950s. Some people credit Bill Haley and the Comets and "Rock Around the Clock." Others say Elvis Presley or Jerry Lee Lewis or Little Richard deserve the credit.

They're all rock 'n' roll legends and all equally deserving of recognition, but I say Berry is as worthy as any, and "Johnny B Goode" is as good a demarcation point as you will find. It may be Berry's most recognizable song. It's bound to be the Berry song that has been covered the most, from Elvis, Bill Haley, Buddy Holly and the others to Michael J. Fox in "Back to the Future."

If anything is absolutely certain, it is that rock 'n' roll has been around for a long time, so long that dictionaries don't agree on its definition.

Some dictionaries will tell you that "rock 'n' roll" is synonymous with "rock music" while others will say that rock 'n' roll preceded rock music and is a different genre, even though the two have many things in common.

I doubt that such distinctions have ever really mattered to Berry. As Bobby Gillespie wrote in The Guardian last year, "Berry started the global psychic jailbreak that is rock 'n' roll," but I suspect that, if asked, Berry would tell you that what has always mattered to him was whether the music sounded good, whether it made the listeners move their feet — and the rest of their bodies — and sing along (even if, like me, they have no real talent for singing).

And that, I suppose, tells you all you really need to know.

Rock 'n' roll is as much a state of mind as a state of being. It is at the heart of being young and thinking young.

It is why, at the age of 85, Chuck Berry is still singing and playing for audiences.

Happy birthday, Chuck, and many more.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Agatha Christie's Last Mystery

It is fitting, I suppose, that a certain amount of mystery surrounds the final books that were published by the all–time best–selling mystery writer, Agatha Christie.

Many people, you see, think — erroneously — that "Sleeping Murder," which was published 35 years ago this month, was the last book that Christie wrote. But it was not. It was the last of her books to be published — and it was published nearly a year after her death.

And that is an entirely different thing.

In fact, if what I have heard and read is true, "Sleeping Murder," which featured Christie's elderly sleuth, Miss Marple, may have been written as many as 35 years before it was published.

Long before they were published, Christie wrote novels that were intended to be the final cases for her primary detectives, Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot. The manuscripts, so the story goes, were sealed away for decades until Christie, in the final years of her life, authorized the publication of "Curtain," Poirot's final case.

I don't think Christie ever confirmed the details about when she wrote the books, but devotees of her work deduced, in true mystery reader fashion, that she must have written both during World War II — although some have speculated recently that "Sleeping Murder" may have been written after the war.

No matter. It presented no major continuity problems in the story line of Miss Marple. She didn't die in the end (unlike Poirot) which might have been something of a problem.

Death is so final, as any fan of Agatha Christie must surely know.

And, as many of her fans have observed, the general timing of the story's penning could be determined by the references to a play that opened in London in the mid–1940s.

If Miss Marple died at that time, it would have made it awkward to explain things in novels that had been written since "Sleeping Murder."

But nothing in the story remotely suggested that it was Miss Marple's last case. At the end of the book, the reader could only conclude that Miss Marple had returned to her home in a fictional village near London and resumed her life.

At the time it was published, some people said it was the perfect swan song for Christie. I never thought it was a particularly remarkable story. It was all right, but I really think she wrote better books in her life.

Essentially, the story was about a young woman who purchased a home for herself and her husband — without realizing that she had lived there once as a small child.

Her memories began to come back to her, and it occurred to her that she had witnessed a murder there when she was small — and she and her husband began investigating whether her "memories" were real or imagined.

The story reminded me of so many reports that I have heard in recent years — of people who have repressed memories since childhood and something summoned them to the surface.

I have often heard such people speak of the places where these repressed memories were based as if the places themselves were possessed by restless spirits. Sometimes, when those spirits were "appeased" in some way, they left in peace.

That was the sense I got from the conclusion of "Sleeping Murder:"
"Poor Helen ... poor lovely Helen ... who died young. ... You know, Giles, she isn't there any more — in the house — in the hall. ... I could feel that yesterday before we left. ... There's just the house. And the house is fond of us. We can go back if we like ..."

Saturday, October 15, 2011

To Dream the Impossible Dream



Perhaps no one in TV history was as good at interpreting recurring dreams as Dr. Frasier Crane — until he had to interpret one of his own.

Fifteen years ago tonight, Frasier was being tormented by a recurring dream in which he woke up in a seedy motel room with a crescent moon lamp, a nearly empty bottle of tequila and the word "Chesty" tattooed on his left forearm. As the dream played out, it was revealed that Frasier was in the motel with Gil Chesterton, KACL's prissy food critic who was widely assumed to be gay — or, at least, to have gay tendencies.

In typical Frasier fashion, he obsessed over the dream. What could it mean? He sought Niles' input and followed up on every theory the two of them proposed — that the dream was related to Frasier's diet or that it was connected to his relationship with his deceased mother.

But each one fell apart on closer inspection.

Finally, Frasier was forced to face the possibility that perhaps the dream was telling him something about his sexuality.

That wasn't a prospect that Frasier wanted to consider — in fact, he had been trying to avoid it — and it sure wasn't the kind of thing his father wanted to talk about in the wee hours of the morning when he couldn't sleep. But when Frasier obsessed about something, he could not be denied.

"You don't care if I ever sleep again, do you?" Martin asked when Frasier told him what the dream had been about — but, in spite of his uneasiness about the topic, he persuaded Frasier that the dream couldn't possibly be a message about his sexuality because "you would have known by now."

That left Frasier with only one option. His call–in show hadn't been presenting him with anything that was challenging enough for his intellect so his subconscious mind had created a dream for him to interpret that defied easy interpretation.

Convinced that was the answer, a relieved Frasier went to bed, certain that he wouldn't be bothered in his dreams again.

Until Sigmund Freud paid him a visit during what Gil called Frasier's "midnight movie."

On another note about Frasier ...

One of the things that I always liked about Frasier was the vignettes that could be seen played out behind the closing credits. They were, at best, a minute long and always related in some way to the main story that had just been told.

Those vignettes always enhanced the stories — occasionally, I thought they were better than the stories.

Anyway ...

When this episode ended, Eddie the dog could be seen dreaming about a plate of muffins on the kitchen counter, and he was jumping continuously, catching brief glimpses of the muffins each time.

As the credits concluded, Eddie could be seen slowly sauntering from the kitchen into the living room. Had he finally gotten the muffins? Had he tired of jumping? One could only guess. All that was certain was that the episode and its credits were over.

Perhaps it was the way that particular vignette focused on the dog in the household, but it reminded me then — and still reminds me today — of the occasion when I went with my mother and some family friends to see "The Muppet Movie."

When the story had ended and the closing credits scrolled on the screen, our group remained in our seats transfixed while everyone else in the theater got up and left. At the very end, the camera focused on Animal, who stared straight at the "audience" and implored them to "Go home! Go home!"

We all stood up, laughed and left the theater per Animal's instruction.

And, in a non–verbal way, the Frasier closing served the same purpose. When, in his dream, Eddie came sauntering into the living room from the kitchen, it was clear that the story was finished.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

How Terribly Strange; Paul Simon is 70


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"Can you imagine us years from today?
Sharing a park bench quietly
How terribly strange to be 70."


Paul Simon
"Old Friends" (1968)

I have many memories of my mother, and one of the most lasting, I think, will always be her admiration for Paul Simon's music.

Mom was brought up in the Depression, and it nurtured a frugal side to her nature. When I was a child, she was not inclined to spend money recklessly (for example, when I was little, I remember that, for awhile, she gave me powdered milk because it was cheaper to add water than buy bottled milk at the store). Spending money on records was, for the most part, too reckless for her when she had two growing children to feed and clothe.

But she bought most of Simon and Garfunkel's albums, anyway, and she introduced my brother and me to their enduring harmonies.

When my brother and I were older, Simon and Garfunkel, who had split up several years earlier, reunited and went on tour. On a memorable August night only a few days before Mom's birthday, the whole family went to see them when they played in the Cotton Bowl here in Dallas.

It was Mom's kind of show, and I am glad I could share it with her. It is a memory that shines brightly for me now.

Mom's been gone for more than 15 years so, needless to say, we were all a lot younger in those days. And I know that time waits for no man.

Nevertheless, it's a bit stunning to think that Paul Simon is 70 today. Time, it turns out, doesn't march by. It sprints.

How "terribly strange" it is, as Simon wrote in his song "Old Friends" in 1968.

I observed back in the spring that Bob Dylan turned 70 in May, but somehow that seemed different to me. There was no TV in my home until I was in grade school so I have no memory of public figures who, prior to the time when our family did acquire a TV, were familiar to people who had one — except from the photos and films I have seen.

I don't recall the young Bob Dylan who burst onto the scene. The Dylan I knew always seemed older to me than Paul Simon — and not just by months, either.

Maybe it was because Paul Simon always came across as more naive — in his songs and his appearance. Dylan was a much more hardened realist, and he always seemed to look the part. Simon was a dreamer and a romantic. Even in middle age, he looked like a young boy.

His hair is gray now, but his face still has that youthful quality to it. In the attached video, Simon sings on last month's 10th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks — and, if you ignore the color of the hair peeking out beneath his baseball cap, he looks and sounds like he did 40 years ago.

When I think of Paul Simon after his split with Art Garfunkel, I often think of his performance on the early Saturday Night Live wearing a turkey outfit for Thanksgiving and singing "Still Crazy After All These Years." He was the same old trusting, even gullible, starry–eyed dreamer he'd always been.

But I also think of the music my mother played on the family stereo when my brother and I were little. In hindsight, it is clear to me why the music appealed to Mom the way it did. Simon's songs were optimistic and sentimental, expressing hope, joy, sorrow, uncertainty, regret. Perhaps more than any other singer/songwriter of his generation, he sang of the wide range of human experience.

He spoke to — and for — millions. He continues to inspire today.

Happy birthday, Paul Simon.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Debut of a Masterpiece



In the movie "Amadeus," Mozart makes a reference to his own music as "the best yet written."

In the movie, it was kind of a running joke. A composition by Mozart's rival had been publicly praised as "the best yet written" so Mozart defiantly referred to one of his pieces that way.

I don't know if Mozart ever really said that, but, seen from the perspective of the 18th century, it may have been true even if it was said in jest. And, more than 200 years after his death, I am still inclined to think of many of Mozart's compositions as the best classical music ever written.

But there has been music that was written in the last two centuries for which that phrase is appropriate as well.

On this day in 1966, Simon and Garfunkel released what was probably their best album to date. They had only released two others, and both were good, but neither really came close to the quality of the album that was released 45 years ago today, "Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme."

Whenever I listen to it, that album always brings back special memories of my mother, who has been gone for more than 16 years now.

During her life, she was a fan of the music of Simon and Garfunkel. That is one of my strongest memories from my childhood — Mom's admiration for their music. Originally, she only bought the old 45–rpm singles of her favorite S&G songs, then later she branched out and bought some of their albums (I think they only recorded five).

When I was a child, it seemed the sounds of Simon and Garfunkel constantly filled the house. I grew up knowing the words to just about every song they ever recorded. I can still remember them, too. (Can't sing worth a damn, but I can remember the lyrics.)

On what turned out to be the last Christmas of Mom's life, I gave her a set of the Simon and Garfunkel albums on cassette tapes. They had been remastered and represented what was, at the time, state–of–the–art quality. And Mom listened to those tapes on her cassette player in her home office.

Unfortunately, though, she died in a flash flood a little more than four months after I gave her those cassettes so she didn't have long to enjoy them.

I don't remember which Simon and Garfunkel single Mom purchased first when I was little. She seemed to like all of their songs, but one of her special favorites was "The Dangling Conversation." It was included on "Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme."

About three weeks ago, the Washington Times compiled a list of the 10 best Simon and Garfunkel songs. It was gratifying to note that "The Dangling Conversation" was on it.

"This haunting song about broken love and failed communication reveals some of Mr. Simon's best lyrics," wrote the Times — which is saying something, when you consider some of the songs Simon has written — many of which were listed in the Times.

But I agree with that. I've always loved the song's imagery — "You read your Emily Dickinson/And I my Robert Frost/And we note our place with bookmarkers/That measure what we've lost." I consider it one of the unheralded gems in Paul Simon's body of work.

I was a mere child when I heard it the first time, but the stark beauty of those lyrics literally took my breath away. Even then. Perhaps that is when my love for great writing truly was born.

Hearing that song today brings back memories of my childhood, when Mom would play that album. She got what I can only describe as a faraway look in her eyes when she listened to "The Dangling Conversation." I don't think she could equate it to her own life. I think she admired the storytelling, the richness of the words and the beauty of the music.

In my mind's eye, I can still see that old album — and the cover, which became worn and faded much sooner than it probably should have. The record itself became scratched and darn near unplayable, but that didn't keep Mom from playing it, anyway.

And sometimes she would sing along with it.

I'm not a trained musician — and I was biased, anyway — but I always thought Mom had a beautiful singing voice.

Today, I have most of Simon and Garfunkel's albums on CD — including "Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme" — and I always think of Mom when I listen to them.

And I miss hearing her sing along with those songs.

I have tried to pick up the slack, but I just can't do it. I honestly do believe that I inherited some of Mom's talents, but singing wasn't one of them.

I still admire the music, though.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

When Love Hurts



There is a condition called paraphilia in which people experience sexual arousal through extreme, usually nonsexual circumstances.

A really extreme form of this condition provided the premise for a movie that was released on this day in 1996 — "Crash."

The topic was rather controversial at the time — and, I suspect, it would still be controversial today. The paraphilia sufferers in the movie experienced sexual pleasure from car accidents.

The movie starred James Spader, who was no stranger to controversy, having played a voyeur in "sex, lies and videotape" seven years earlier, and Holly Hunter, who also was no stranger to controversy, having played a mute 19th–century woman who has an affair in "The Piano."

And, while both of those characters could be considered dysfunctional to some degree, they were hardly as dysfunctional as the characters those actors played in "Crash."

Depending upon how you feel about that movie and those characters, it represents a high point or a low point in their careers. I'm not sure where I fall on that scale, but, either way, it was a disturbing movie.

It was disturbing when Spader's and Hunter's characters crossed paths the first time, and it got more bizarre.

They were involved in a two–car collision in which Hunter's husband was killed. As they waited, trapped in the wreckage, for help to arrive, they could see each other and Hunter, after pulling off the shoulder strap of her seat belt, exposed one of her breasts.

They met again while recuperating in the hospital. This time, Spader met a man named Vaughan who began to draw him into the world of paraphilia.

And Spader was drawn into Vaughan's shadowy underworld, in which he staged re–creations of famous car accidents, like the one that took James Dean's life in the 1950s, for the entertainment and arousal of his fellow paraphiliacs.

(Ironically, the movie was released only a few days after the 41st anniversary of Dean's death.)

I had never heard of paraphilia before I saw "Crash," but, apparently, it transcends sexual preference, and I suppose it is obvious (if one has seen the movie) that it fairly decisively overrules traditional gender roles.

Both Spader and Hunter had homosexual affairs in the movie, and, at one point, it was implied that a ménage à trois might be about to happen, although, as I recall, that was never confirmed either visually or via dialogue.

(I suppose supporting actress Rosanna Arquette had the most varied sexual activity in the movie. A beautiful member of Vaughan's group whose legs were encased in steel braces, Arquette's character had a scar on the back of one of her legs that resembled female genitalia — and was used as such by Spader's character — but she also had an intense lesbian affair with Hunter's character.

(I guess nothing is as hot as twisted steel.)

It may go without saying that this was not a movie for the squeamish. But, as I say, it introduced me to a world that I never knew existed. It broadened my horizons.

But, if the entry fee for that world is injury in a car crash, I think I can live without it.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Isaac and Ishmael



Inspiration comes from many sources.

And, as terrible as Sept. 11, 2001, was, it was a definite source of inspiration — for musicians, for artists and for writers.

Aaron Sorkin, a writer for The West Wing, was inspired by the events of that day to write a special episode of the series. The episode had no real place in the story line, but it served as the unofficial start for the series' third season, and it educated an American public that was ignorant of many of the issues that so enraged the Muslim extremists.

(I have always been frustrated by the public's eagerness to accept simplistic — and ridiculous — explanations for those terrorist attacks, such as "They hate our freedom" or "They hate democracy." In truth, Muslim anger at the West had — and continues to have — far more to do with Westerners' treatment of Islam, its values and its adherents in the Middle East than it has ever had to do with systems of government, here or anywhere else.

(And, while many Muslims walking the streets of America may have been offended by the sights of casinos, strip clubs and bars, so, too, are people of other faiths — and none, including Muslims, have launched holy wars because of them.)

Apparently, the West Wing story came to Sorkin in a burst of inspiration — it was written, filmed and broadcast within three weeks of the terrorist attacks. And, even now, people mention it to me in conversations about the TV series.

I seldom need encouragement to talk about The West Wing — and I need even less encouragement to talk about that episode, which was titled "Isaac and Ishmael."

As incredible as it is to believe, that episode first aired 10 years ago tonight — when the shock of the September 11 attacks was still fresh.

The episode, as I said, had no real place in the series' timeline — but it did utilize a familiar West Wing technique with parallel stories taking place within it.

One story involved a group of young people who were visiting the White House. A "lockdown" occurred when it was discovered that a White House staffer's name was the same as a known terrorist.

The group was ushered into the mess hall, where most of the cast members came by and discussed terrorism, racism and religion with the students.

The other story focused on the staffer — who was previously unknown to viewers and never, to my knowledge, appeared in the series again — undergoing interrogation.

In all, I thought it was a great one–hour lesson for Americans who knew little about the Middle East, little about Islam, little about a lot of things, as it turned out.

Americans had been through — and were continuing to experience — day after endless day of 9/11 footage.

The West Wing gave them an opportunity to learn about something that scared and bewildered them mostly because they still knew so little about it — and, thus, were susceptible to all kinds of .

For that matter, many viewers probably didn't understand the name of the episode, even after it should have been made clear at the end.

The first lady told the story that inspired the title — the story of Isaac and Ishmael, the sons of Abraham from the Bible, and how the conflict between Jews and Muslims began.

I am neither Jewish nor Muslim, and I have never had much interest in the origin of their conflict so I wasn't all that different from anyone else who watched this special episode of The West Wing 10 years ago tonight. But watch it I did, and I even learned a few things in the process.

And that was no small accomplishment, given the backlash against Muslims in this country at that time.

There were hints of that backlash in the interrogation of the staffer by the chief of staff. At one point, he made a wisecrack, following an exchange that raised one of fundamentalist Muslims' greatest complaints of Western occupation of Middle Eastern cities and countries:

"You sent an army composed of women as well as men to protect a Muslim dynasty where women aren't even allowed to drive a car," the staffer said.

To which the chief of staff replied, "Maybe we can teach them."

The staffer, frustrated by it all, finally told the chief of staff, "You have the memory of a gypsy moth.

"When you and the president and the president's daughter and about a hundred other people — including me, by the way — were met with a hail of .44–caliber gunfire ... not only were the shooters white, they were doing it because one of us wasn't."


I guess you have to put it in the context of those times and the times that followed. Emotions were running quite high in the United States, and Muslims were the new targets of hate crimes that previously had been almost exclusively mentioned in connection with acts against blacks and women.

There weren't many mainstream Americans standing up to defend the rights of Muslims. Everyone knew they were the enemy. Why, defending the rights of Muslims in America in 2001 would have been roughly the same as saying during World War II that putting Japanese–Americans in those internment camps was wrong.

Relations between non–Muslims and Muslims in this country are better today than they were then, but that really isn't saying much. There really was nowhere to go but up.

There was a lot of anger, fear and suspicion between those groups at the time, which was understandable, I suppose, given what had happened, and much of it has receded. But a significant amount remains because a significant amount has always been there. It was there after the Oklahoma City bombing, when a man of Middle Eastern descent was detained and interrogated for hours — and then released when the real perpetrator, a white Christian, had been taken into custody.

It has taken root.

I'd like to think that The West Wing contributed to the improvement we've seen, and maybe, in its own, small way, it did.

I often wonder, though.

Truly unifying national experiences on television don't happen frequently anymore — and, when they do, it is more often than not the immediate result of an unexpected and terrible event. Consequently, I'm inclined to think that the televised multi–artist concert to benefit the victims of the attacks and their families a few days after the attacks was such a unifying experience.

The West Wing's episode — as remarkable as it was — was a few weeks in the making. The nation's notoriously short attention span had already been diverted to the randomness of the anthrax attacks

Although it was written, filmed and broadcast in a remarkably brief period for such a project, I don't know if "Isaac and Ishmael" was as unifying an experience as I thought it was at the time.

I've never seen the ratings for that episode, but I always felt the audience was rather large. The West Wing was ranked 13th in the country at the end of the 2000–2001 season and appeared poised to keep rising in the ratings.

And, as it turned out, the 2001–2002 season on which the series was about to embark was its best in the Nielsen ratings.

So there is good reason to think that quite a few people saw it when it aired for the first time 10 years ago — and countless others have seen it in reruns and on home video and DVD.

And, of course, there is that imprecise figure based only on my observations at the time — and the people who have mentioned it to me in the years since.

I watched it again recently, and I was amazed by how timely it remains a decade later. There are still things in it that need to be said — and, I suspect, will be needed to be said again in the future