The Roosevelts: An Intimate History

This week, AETN, our local PBS station, outdid themselves by offering “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History.” This movie — or mini-series — chronicled the lives of Theodore Roosevelt, FDR, and Eleanor Roosevelt from TR’s birth in 1858 to Eleanor’s death in 1962.

Watching this series involved a large commitment for me because it showed for two hours each night, Sunday through Saturday.  If you missed it, I’m sorry because it was truly outstanding. But take heart. This is television where everything is rerun eventually. Then I will watch it again.

Directed by documentarian (is that a word?) Ken Burns (The Civil War, 1990), the script was written by Geoffrey C. Ward. The research through historical documents, diaries and private letters was obvious in the way the stories of three members of this famous family intertwined. Burns used archived news reel footage to move the narrative; and when presenting reading from diaries and letters, the voices of Merle Streep, Edward Herrmann, and Paul Giamatti were used adding greatly to the effect.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was inaugurated President the year I was born. The country was deep in a depression. One quarter of the men in the United States were unemployed.  I don’t mean they couldn’t find a job in their area of expertise or a job that paid what they thought they were worth. I mean there were no jobs for these men. There was nothing for them to do.

FDR told the American people things would get better. His utter confidence was contagious. He gave them hope. Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor cared about people. They cared that people were poor and hungry and hopeless. This was an amazing aspect of these three Roosevelts: Though they were rich, they had been raised to care about others who did not have their luxuries and opportunities.

This series was interesting to me for several reasons. I was 8 years old when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. While we may have talked about some of this a few years later in high school history classes, so much of it happened during my formative elementary years that (as a child) I didn’t understand. This movie clarified many issues for me.

Though most knew he was not in good health, the country was gripped in grief at FDR’s passing. It was one of those events that inspired “I remember where I was when . . .’

I was 12 years old, in downtown Denison, Texas. I don’t remember why. Probably to go to the library. But none of my siblings or friends were with me. I was crossing the street in front of the Denison Herald when the newspaper boys came running out, special editions tucked under each arm. “EXTRA! EXTRA! ROOSEVELT DIES!”  What news! The only President of the United States I had ever known was dead. And I was alone. I had a nickle in my pocket and bought a paper for my mother. I knew this was something she needed to know … and then we could talk about it.





Breaking Bad – a character study

We have all heard people … okay, men … say that they read Playboy for the excellent articles. And most of us roll our eyes and think, “Yeah, right.”

But I understand this sentiment better now, because during the past year I have followed the TV series “Breaking Bad” to study the character development.   I started watching this award-winning series during the summer and thanks to Netflix I caught up on all the past episodes in time to watch the season finale last month. For those of you still on the Breaking-Bad-dom journey, there are no spoilers in this post.

Television writers — especially on the premium cable channels —  are creating more edgy protagonists.  These are leading characters we can’t really admire but who are more-dimensional than the heroes of decades ago. We always knew Marshall Dillon, Perry Mason, Magnum and even Maverick would end up doing the right thing and by the end of the hour, evil would be conquered once again.

The imperfect — or at least very complex — protagonist emerged a few years ago in Tony Soprano and Jack Bauer.  I never watched “The Sopranos”, but I rented the first season of “24” and after  those 16 episodes, I was a nervous wreck.

Then, a friend at work said would enjoy “Breaking Bad” and I decided to give it a shot. Over the next couple of weeks, with my 24-year-old son, I watched the first season.

Walter White (Bryan Cranston) plays a High School Science teacher who is diagnosed with lung cancer. He needs money for his treatment. I don’t remember the amount — $400,000 say. That’s all he needs. He hooks up with a former student, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) who cooks and sells meth from time to time. Walt, being a scientist, decides he can cook pure meth with no danger of contamination that often proves fatal to the users. Therefore, he won’t really be hurting anyone and he will do it only until he has the money he needs.

At first the close scrapes they have are rather amusing. No one is being hurt. They are simply making a product that is in current demand. If they don’t cook it someone else will.  When their meth becomes known as a very pure product, others want in on the business. Things get more complicated and finally someone has to be killed.

Did you catch the passive phrase there? No one takes personal responsibility for another person’s death — it’s just necessary to the operation.

As the series develops over the next five seasons, more and more compromises have to be made. There is always a reason to need or want more money, to do one more cook. Walt and Jesse change, though their loyalty to one another continues. Each has many chances to betray the other to further their own share of the business but they always refuse. And the viewer can see that each time it becomes a little harder to say “no.”

I saw the series finale a few weeks ago and I’m satisfied with how it had to end. I can appreciate the writers for giving us a study of what a character can become depending on the choices he makes and the rationale he uses for those choices.

Buyer – and seller – Beware

We’ve all heard the saying “Buyer beware” … be sure you know what you’re buying. Well, there might need to be another. “Seller be careful … be sure you know what you’re selling.”

A few years ago a young man, who will be nameless because I don’t know his name, auditioned at Disney World. Orlando’s huge theme park is a great get-your-feet-wet/pay-your-dues venue for singers and dancers aspiring to greater gigs.

Joy of joys, the youth from small town Arkansas received a call back. He was to report to the Disney management on a specific date. The night before he departed for his dream job, his friends took him out on the town and they all got solidarity tattoos. When our young man appeared at Disney World, he was promptly sent home. In the family-friendly theme park, tattoos are taboo.

Some of you with a good memory (and very little social life) may remember the sitcom Felicity from 1998. The star, Keri Russell, had long flowing curly hair that apparently was admired and envied by her mostly-teen audience. Season One was a solid hit and the series was renewed for a second season.

During the summer hiatus, Ms. Russell says, she just got tired of messing with all that hair and (like our young man) thinking it was her decision to make, she had her curls cut off into a short bob. She showed up for work after her break minus the long locks.

She wasn’t fired, but the ratings took a dive. The lost curls were held responsible and while the series limped along for another year or two, it never regained its momentum. Keri Russell now makes short-lived TV series and two-star movies.

Show biz folks like to think that it’s their talent that’s the thing. And how they look or what they do or say is not a factor. But that’s not the way it is … at least there’s no guarantee it will work out that way.

My Love/Hate Relationship with Television

Some folks may say I watch way too much television.  I might say that myself from time to time.  But the truth is, I have been entertained by what came out of that black box from the time it was a 1952 10-inch snowy tube, until now — when it might be 50 inches wide and weigh 5 pounds.  (The latter doesn’t describe the TV that is in my living room. It has a nice large 28-inch screen, but it weighs 200-300 pounds.  Just ask my sons and grandsons who moved it in for me.)

I still love television, and would probably watch more,  it’s just that much of it is no longer entertaining. I do not like reality TV. I tried Survivor the first season it was on, lo those many years ago, but when they were forced to eat gross things to “survive”, I decided that was too much reality for me.

I love to watch game shows and situation comedies. But nowadays most of the “game shows” are actually reality TV (see above paragraph), and most of the sit-coms are inane.  (I like to see if I can answer the questions on Jeopardy and Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader. I don’t want to hear the sexual innuendos on Baggage or The Newlywed Game.

I don’t watch blood and gore, so that eliminates many of the current drama series and hospital-based shows.

I still enjoy courtroom drama, Law and Order, Harry’s Law and The Good Wife and cozy mysteries like The Mentalist. I also like Parenthood, though it is a little ‘soapy.’  Notice a couple of those are missing from the current network line-ups — they can be found in re-runs on cable.

A small aside: I find it amusing that over the years some almost cliched events crop up on television dramas.  For instance:

If they order carry-out, it’s always Chinese and they always eat with chopsticks.

The female police officers always have long beautiful hair that they never contain in any way. (However the perp never takes the opportunity to grab her by the hair, like one might think.)

If a man and woman are attracted to each other, they start ripping clothes off regardless of time and place. Slow steamy lovemaking has been out for several seasons.

If there is a funeral, it is always held at the graveside and someone always plays Amazing Grace on the bagpipes.  (In New Orleans? Seriously?)

And so I continue to watch, hoping things will get better.  This season, with the help of Netflix, I will be viewing Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, a really good show that lasted only one season, and West Wing. It’s been several years since I’ve seen this excellent drama series starring Charlie Sheen’s Daddy.

The Hatfields and McCoys

I am in the cast of The Dining Room, a play by A.R. Gurney, currently running at Center On The Square in Searcy, AR. We have one more weekend of shows, but that’s not what I’m writing about today (though it is the reason I have been away for a time).

Last week the History Channel presented The Hatfields and McCoys, a six-hour mini-series spread over three nights.  If you missed it, just check your listings, it will be re-run several times I’m sure. After all, this is cable.

I didn’t watch the whole series, though I probably will eventually.  Besides not really having six hours to spend sitting in front of the TV, I found the story, starring Kevin Costner and Bill Paxton, to be a graphically cruel bloodbath.

At work there was much talk about each episode. Most who had watched it closer than I, felt it was historically correct and very well done.  Though there was the complaint that at the end of the final episode, when each character’s picture and a short synopsis of their life was shown, it scrolled past so rapidly one would have to be a champion speed reader to know what it said.

As we discussed the series one morning, my friends asked specifically: what did I think about the story of my ‘family?’

Well, you see, I’m a Hatfield in name only. I married this name. And even though I have been called a Hatfield for 33 years, I am the most peace-loving, non-confrontational, moderate-in-favor-of-gun-control you will ever meet. If I have ever held a gun in my hands, I can’t remember when it might have been.  I’m also pretty forgiving – and a little forgiveness at any point would have gone a long way toward ending the hatred that caused the killing.

According to the ratings, this epic drama was well received.  Even after almost 150 years, the stories about this legendary feud still capture people’s interest.

A few gadgets

One evening last week The History Channel showed “101 Gadgets that Changed the World.”  It was an hour-long show, thus a pretty fast trip down memory lane for me. Most gadgets’ few seconds were up before I had time to get too nostalgic.

In addition to mentioning all these gizmos, they also briefly told why or how they changed the world. Some were easy to see — like duct tape. How would we live without that? Or the match, personal computer, zipper? The transistor radio was credited with the popularity of rock and roll. I’m not sure why. Maybe because it made the teens and their music mobile, got them out of the reach of their parents?

The Smart Phone was deemed the number 1 gadget that has changed the world. And while the Smart Phone hasn’t changed my life yet, I can see how others might think it number one.

The item that really caught my attention and brought back memories was the ball point pen. Eversharp, maker of mechanical pencils, introduced the ballpoint pen to the United States in 1945.  It cost about $10., which is comparable to $100 today.  Nowadays they are given away free as promotions.

These pens must have become more affordable in the 50’s because I remember seeing them in the stationery stores with the school supplies. They cost about the same as any fountain pen.  The big sales pitch was that the ballpoint pens wouldn’t leak (supposedly) or smear.

However, my teachers at Denison High School made it clear that they would not accept work in ballpoint pen. It had to be written in real ink.

An example of people resisting change, even when it might be for the better.

I also worked for a company in the middle 80s that refused to follow the electronics fads. They said they would never computerize. Guess what? They did.

America’s Got Talent, Sometimes

A personal blog is not really the best place for true confessions, but I have a burden of guilt I must unload.  This summer, during the hiatus of my favorite television shows, I have been watching America’s Got Talent.

Right! Me! Hater of reality TV from the onset, put off by the rat eating and the back biting and hanky-panky that goes on in the jungle or on the island. I tired quickly of even the ‘reality’ shows focused on singing and dancing. I tried American Idol and Dancing With the Stars, sticking it out only one season. The format has quickly become cliched: three judges, one of them mean, contestants are booted off in front of the audience, the camera picking up every emotion. The winner (or sometimes the loser) is announced after a gut-wrenching, tension-building, cat-call-filled 45 second wait. “And you will be going home … … … … John Brown and the Molding Bodies!” It’s all so last week (as is that phrase).

But here’s the thing. I love variety shows. Loved Ed Sullivan in his time. In the course of an hour you could see singers, dancers and stand-up comedians.  I even liked most of the copy cats who tried to follow Sullivan. So, while channel surfing one night in June, I stopped on a group of four bicyclists performing dangerous tricks on a stage. When they finished, three judges gave their varied opinions and then a young girl came on with a jazz/ballet routine.  A variety show!  That’s what this is. Mute the judges, skip the hype and drama of who comes back next week and you have a program where you can see singers, acrobats, magicians, contortionists … a little of everything. And best of all, most of it is worth watching.

The Play’s the Thing

One of my favorite television shows this season is Parenthood. The season finale last Tuesday was pre-empted by a storm watch party on the local station, but I was able to see it a couple of days later on (thankyouverymuch)

This is a story about the Braverman family, parents played by Craig T. Nelson and Bonnie Bedelia, and their four grown children – who have children of their own. This series makes the most of the dynamics in a large family who love and support each other but on the other hand, are individuals who handle things differently. I grew up in a large family and I love this concept for an ensemble show.  I was a faithful viewer the first season of Brothers and Sisters … before they went wacko.

One of the current sub-plots is about the oldest daughter, Sarah (played by Lauren Graham). She writes a play. Just stays up all night one night and gets it done.  Her father, Zeek (Nelson), unbeknownst to her, sends the play (unedited? in longhand?) to a former friend who happens to be the greatest playwright in the whole world. (This is a cameo part played by Richard Dreyfuss). Said friend loves the play, but since he is sort of retired and out of the show business loop, he is eager to connect Sarah up with a producer who is absolutely top dog.  At first Top Dog is not interested but when Sarah charmingly accosts him at a dressy fundraiser, he agrees to at least read her play.

Guess what. He likes it too. Then, in the time in takes a rebellious teen to be involved in a car wreck and recover except for a few scabs on her face, the play is up. The season finale ends at the staged reading of Sarah’s play. All the Bravermans are there and from the looks of it, half the town.  The play is obviously going to be a hit and while this isn’t said, Sarah is probably set for life financially.

That’s why I like this show … because, oh yes. That’s exactly how it happens.

Award Shows

I love award shows and I watch them all.  Well, every one that has something to do with entertainment I enjoy. (Example: I watch the Emmys, Oscars, SAGs, Golden Globes, Tonys, etc. I do NOT watch the MTV music video awards or the ESPYs.)

So, I was in place last Sunday night to view the Emmy Awards for the best television shows of the year. And after it was over, I was a little surprised to find that it had very little to do with me. Most of the winners were from shows I don’t watch or else they appear on a cable network I don’t receive. Two of my favorite actors were nominated but alas, they did not win. Two cozy mysteries I love to watch are The Mentalist and Monk. I heart Simon Baker and Tony Shalhoub. (A cozy mystery is one without the gore. Someone may be murdered, but we don’t have to watch the bullet travel through his innards.)

I did enjoy to a certain extent the Internet offering Monday morning of the Best and Worst of the Red Carpet. Several pundits who profess knowledge about fashion weighed in on the gowns, jewelry and hairdos. Most gowns this year were long and flowing, not too bizarre (the dress made from Obama-print being the exception) and worn with very little jewelry. I didn’t always agree with the B&W writer (though we were in agreement on the Obama-print). She let her personal prejudice show when she called one hair style “charmingly tousled” and another “disheveled.” They both looked messy to me.

So, even though my favorite didn’t win, there was still something to enjoy, specifically, Emcee Neil Patrick Harris. I heart him, too.

A Visit to a Vast Wasteland

I watch television a lot. I use it as white noise for reading the paper, working puzzles, cleaning house, folding laundry. When I see something interesting or unusual, something I want to remember, I jot it down in a little notebook on the end table.  Here are some tidbits:

In the movie The Man Who Knew Too Much, the eight-year-old boy playing Doris Day’s son sticks two fingers in his mouth and whistles “Que Sera, Sera.”  Most of us can hardly produce a noise that way, but he whistles a song … on pitch, yet.

On the game show, 1 vs. 100, the question was: how many six packs would it take to have ’99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall?’  The contestant pondered and said, “Well, I don’t drink beer…”  Yes, she was blond.

Some words of wisdom from As Time Goes By, a Britcom on PBS, Lionel tells the women in his life, “Say what you want to say to the person you want to say it to.”  What sage advice!

And on Judging Amy, someone observed, “Everybody loves a strong person because they never ask for anything.” (I didn’t note if it was Amy or her very wise mother.)

In a short Film The Support Group on PBS, came a twist on a growing cliche about denial: “The Euphrates is not just a river in Mesopotamia.” 

And of course commercials appear in my note-taking. A disclaimer for a perscription drug, “If you’re allergic to Astepro, don’t take it.”  Well, duh.

A man dressed in a white coat tells us, “I recommend Breath Rx not only to my patients but to everyone I know.”  That’s how to win friends, all right.

A commercial for a behavior management technique is rather long but never really tells us much about how it works. The salesperson boasts, “Turn your child’s attitude around in one minute or less.”  Now, as someone who has parented for many years, I want to know: What IS it?  A baseball bat? Thumb screws? 

Yes, I watch television a lot, mostly old movies. And the new season of Monk starts Friday, August 7.