Thursday, June 27, 2013

Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted

Arguably, television is culture.  And I’ll add, television, good and bad, reflects culture.  We turn on the tube to feed our obsession with cop shows and law enforcement, terrorism and shadow governments, health care and the drama of the emergency room, and of course, our voyeuristic need to look in someone’s window and observe “reality,” which in reality, is often not even close.  But the glass tube has been cracked open; cable channels own the monopoly on the most interesting work being done in T.V. land right now while networks keep commissioning false reality and scripted fare in the vain hope that the lonely hearts on the other end of the digital signal will find romance with The Bachelor or take the stage as the next American Idol.  Meanwhile, viewers have moved on to computer screens and tablet pixels, and the old school Nielsen ratings are ancient history.  We DVR our shows now and watch them wherever and whenever we like, and some of the best are not on television at all.  They come straight from the internet a season at a time so that we can sit on our couches and watch 24 hour marathons, bingeing like gluttons at Hometown Buffet.

Television runs the gamut from trash to art.  Occasionally, a Matthew Weiner or a David Simon gets it right, and we sit in our living rooms with the blue glow of a magical story and enjoy the ride.  And if the current season doesn’t work for us, well, we live in the age of Netflix and DVD box sets, so we can journey into the past and rediscover old favorites.  The best part is that we can consume years’ worth of programming without commercial interruption, just episode after episode of Hill Street Blues, The X-Files, and The West Wing.

In appreciation of classic situation comedies of yesteryear, two recent books delve into all the behind-the-scenes trials and tribulations of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and its spin-off, Rhoda.  Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted And All the Brilliant Minds Who Made The Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic (Simon & Schuster, 2013) by journalist Jennifer Keishin Armstrong examines this classic sitcom of the early 1970s while Valerie Harper entertains readers with her memoir, I, Rhoda (Gallery Books, 2013), published recently when news of her battle with a rare form of brain cancer broke in the media.

Armstrong’s book adopts a third person objective approach, treating those who worked behind the camera as equals with the stars who portrayed the lovable characters.  She also spends time analyzing the role the show played in the rise of feminism in the 1970s.  Mary Richards remains one of the shining examples of strong female leads inhabiting sitcoms of this era.  Paralleling the rise of Mary Richards were the female writers who gave her voice.  Previous to The Mary Tyler Moore Show, the writers’ room was a man cave, but MTMS changed all of that.  Armstrong begins her tale with Treva Silverman, a woman at ground zero for the birth of Mary Richards.  She also gives ample credit to the forward-thinking duo of James L. Brooks and Allan Burns, who worked together on Room 222 before moving into the creator/showrunner chairs for MTMS.  These two men actively sought women writers for their show, and solicited a number of female freelancers to round out the writing staff.

A fan of the show will find the tidbits about the production interesting.  Armstrong tells us that the character of Ted Baxter was based on a local L.A. news personality; Ed Asner blew his initial audition and asked to do it over again; and Gavin MacLeod originally tried to be Lou Grant, but really wanted the part of Murray.  One of the strengths of the series is the cast.  Mary Tyler Moore herself is only one of the talented actors in the ensemble.  She surrounded herself with an excellent group of supporting players, and they inspired each other and their writers to new heights of success.  Armstrong details the battles with the network—CBS balked at making Mary Richards a divorcee, as well as early attempts by Brooks and Burns to place her with an evil boss, a female gossip columnist.  The suits from the network were concerned that people would think Moore’s character had divorced Dick Van Dyke, remembering her only as the character Laura Petrie from that earlier sitcom.  The hero who stepped in to save the day was Grant Tinker, Moore’s husband at the time and a network executive.  The start of MTMS was also the start of one of the most influential television studios in the history of the medium:  MTM.  Out of those writers’ rooms and production offices came The Bob Newhart Show, Hill Street Blues, and St. Elsewhere, to name just a few of their successes.

One of the most interesting things about a book like this is to hear the way the vision of the creators, producers, writers and directors was revised and reworked, often on the spur of the moment, resulting in a classic television show.  No one realized at the time that they were making television history, or that the good times and success would not last forever.  There is a certain sadness to these enterprises when the run is over, and Armstrong manages to create that feeling when she recounts the declining days of the show.  The producers and actors decided to go out while the show was still on top and not let it decline and drift away like All In The Family, another sitcom from that time produced by Norman Lear.  It is clear that the working experience for those on the show would not be duplicated again.  It was seven years of Nirvana and once it was over, nothing was ever the same for the cast of characters involved in the production.

Armstrong is a little heavy handed with the purple prose.  When she writes about Treva Silverman’s love of old movies, she says the writer studied the films and “wanted to soak up every last bit of them, the way her movie-house popcorn soaked up melted butter.”  In another paragraph, she describes Brooks and Burns’ pitch meeting to CBS.  “The producers were now trapped in one of the upper floors,” she writes, “surrounded by black-paneled walls and network executives, as the lights in the ceiling burned into the tops of their heads.”  I guess this is the reason why Brooks today is nearly bald.

Valerie Harper’s book is more about her and her career than MTMS or Rhoda, although ample space is given to both.  Her book makes for interesting reading because of her insights and experiences living the actor’s life.  However, don’t expect a lot of dirt.  Harper seems to get along with everyone, and she speaks negatively only about Lorimar Television, the studio that fired her from the show bearing her name in 1987.  Harper sued the company for wrongful termination and won.  The show became The Hogan Family and was cancelled in 1991.  Harper’s career, however, continued to flourish both on television and the Broadway stage.

Harper’s voice is consistent throughout the book and she is an excellent storyteller.  She is one of those celebrities who seems like a regular person, someone you could have a drink with and listen to for hours.  She has a funny, lighthearted style that pulls the reader in. I was bothered at one point when she identifies the author of the play Fences as Langston Hughes.  The playwright is the late August Wilson, who drew much inspiration from the poetry of Hughes, but wrote the play by himself.

Both books give great insight into television, the hit shows, the actor’s life, and the milieu of 1970s America.  Jennifer Keishin Armstrong and Valerie Harper give us a snapshot of the era, a time when women struggled to achieve equality with men, especially in the workplace.  In both shows, there is a sense of optimism.  Considering that America went through the end of the Vietnam War, Watergate, and a difficult economy during the production of both The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Rhoda, the scene in the opening credits where Mary Richards throws her hat into the air in the middle of a busy Minneapolis intersection was a sign of hope that yes, we could make it after all.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Ghost Hunters

William James deserves more attention.  It was James who brought together psychology, philosophy and physiology.  It was James again who wrote one of the most important texts exploring religion, spirituality, mysticism, and devotion.  However, according to Deborah Blum in her book Ghost Hunters:  William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death (Penguin Press, 2006), it was his exploration of psychical research, including mediums, ghosts, clairvoyance, and other psychic phenomena that almost ruined James’s credibility in his other fields.

William James was born in 1842 when human beings struggled to reconcile the philosophy of reason with the spirituality of religion.  In America, the Civil War loomed on the horizon and would usher in an age of more advanced weaponry capable of killing greater numbers of combatants at a horrific rate.  The world was plagued by disease, and many basic medical advancements were still years from realization.  James, himself, would be one of the first to teach a psychology course and develop a psychology laboratory at Harvard in 1874.  He was also a founder of the American Psychological Association, so when he became interested in investigating the supernatural, he had everything to lose.  Yet he decided to use scientific research methodology to explore the occult, gathering some like-minded friends together to pursue his “mission to understand the world,” even when this mission led to very dark places.

James’s path became a grueling journey for him.  Already plagued by health problems and depression, the first years of the investigation yielded only a number of frauds and their trickery.  Very little of what James and his team investigated proved legitimate, but the group persisted in their work, even when the mainstream scientific community responded with skepticism and in some cases, outright ridicule.  The ghost hunters had the scientific chops to withstand such derision.  Blum writes that the team “included the codiscoverer of the theory of evolution, a physiologist from France who would win the Nobel Prize in Medicine, an Australian who became a founding member of the American Anthropological Society, a female mathematician who became principal of Cambridge University’s first college for women, a pioneer in British utilitarian philosophy, and a trio of respected physicists.”

Blum turns each of these distant historical figures into characters, although some are more developed than others.  James is given a brief biography and the most development, but by no means is this a full treatment of his life.  Others share the stage with him, the most prominent of whom are Frederic Myers and Richard Hodgson.  As she takes us through the chronological plot of the story, the debunking and revealing of false prophets make for slow going.  We see the frustrations of the team.  They hear of a medium who seems legitimate, only to investigate and find obvious manipulations of “ghostly apparitions” during séances as well as sleight of hand or foot techniques causing tables to levitate.  Several mediums do seem genuine at least in part, especially Eusapia Palladino in Europe and Leonora Piper in America.  Palladino is a mixed bag of tricks; she is occasionally accurate with her clients and the researchers, but she also displays strange characteristics such as sexual arousal after a reading.  Her séances are wild affairs where anything goes.  Piper seems the more legitimate medium.  She is reluctant to charge for her services, and appears uncomfortable with her abilities.  The researchers discover that the most promising mediums cannot control their spirit voices, nor are they educated enough to understand some of the messages that come through.

The story picks up considerably in the last third of the book when the researchers themselves begin to die.  Myers and Hodgson communicate persuasively from beyond the grave, sending messages no one could guess or fake.  Yet there are some inconsistencies even here.  The Hodgson control, as the spirit is called, displays little information about his own history, including his childhood in Australia.  “The best results came from the trance personality’s knowledge of relationships and experiences that Hodgson had shared with people sitting in the room,” Blum writes, “making telepathy a better answer than spirit communication, suggesting that the medium might be picking up information from her visitors.”  Mediums like Piper could be very good readers of other human beings and therefore able to sense what the sitter wants to hear.  However, there is more here than being a good judge of character.

The mission of the group is probably best articulated by member Charles Richet, a French physiologist:  “Our duty is plain.  Let us be sober in speculation; let us study and analyze facts; let us be as bold in hypothesis as we are rigorous in experimentation.  Metaphysics will then emerge from Occultism, as Chemistry emerged from Alchemy…”

Deborah Blum brings clear objectivity to her well documented research in this book.  She articulates the findings of William James’s group and clearly delineates for the reader what to believe and what is bunk, even when the investigators are not sure themselves.  What is clear is that the human mind and where the soul goes after death are frontiers still not fully explored, filled with possibilities and unknown or untraveled avenues.  According to Blum, William James wished to “reconcile science and faith after all, and find that elusive path, as faint and as real as moonlight, leading to a universe in which all things were possible.”

Tuesday, June 11, 2013


Put away the pomp and circumstance.  Pack the gown in mothballs.  Hang the tassel from the rearview mirror, all the better to see the past for what it is:  the past.

When the end comes, we move on, we go forward, we leave everything behind, the awkwardness, the disappointments, the loneliness.  We instead remember the good times, the moments shared, the triumphs savored, and the times we will never, ever forget.


I got the opportunity to observe such an occasion at the end of this very long graduation season at my wife’s Catholic elementary school where she teaches.  In the days leading up to the big graduation event a few days from now, there are a number of last celebrations.  One of these is the traditional eighth grade dance held last Friday night.  The ritual involves parents and teachers kicking off the dance with students, and then going away, leaving the seventh grade parents to serve food and chaperone.  It is a gift from next year’s class to this year’s graduates.  I guess the goal is to spare the youngsters the embarrassment of having their own parents watch them dance.  In any case, the seventh grade parents did a wonderful job and created a memorable evening for everyone under the banner of this year’s theme:  neon.

My wife was unable to be there when the evening started, so we snuck in at the end, around 10:30.  The kids were still dancing, still hugging each other, still celebrating.  Ahh, the sweet poetry of youthful energy!  We visited with the chaperoning parents, snapped a few pictures, and quietly crept away to start our weekend.  The dance went on and on.

I am more conscious now of those days so long ago when the world spread out before us and time seemed limitless.  Now I know that time is fleeting, and life is sometimes very hard.  We who teach young people are lucky to have the fire of their life force to push us to remember what it was like to be young, to feel invincible, to believe with all our hearts that everything would be okay if we dared to dream and went confidently in pursuit of those dreams, to paraphrase Henry David Thoreau.

I have been to several graduation events this year, as I do every year.  I will attend these students’ ceremony a week or so from now, and I will snap a few more pictures and clap along with their parents when their names are called out.  But this is the end of something and the beginning of something else, a transition, a changeover, a milestone.  I know that life will change these kids in profound and unseen ways.

For one night though, they could be young and daring and lovely.  They could laugh and slap each other on the back, and hopefully summon the courage to maybe tell someone how much he or she has meant to them over the years.  Next year, they will be somewhere else, with different challenges, difficult obstacles, and new faces.  Their former teachers will start over again with a new set of students and try to impress upon them that life is sweet even when it is hard, and adventures are mistakes you survive.

Here at the start of another seemingly endless summer, the books are put away, the classroom is locked in darkness, and adventure awaits under the hot sun.  There is life, and it is always changing and moving and telling us a story.  Listen to that story, graduates, kick off your shoes, and keep dancing.