I really have to thank Carl Reiner for so much of my childhood laughter, and, come to think of it, my adulthood laughter! I think The Dick van Dyke Show is probably the greatest sitcom ever (perhaps tied with The Mary Tyler Moore Show) – I grew up watching it in reruns in the 1970s – and The Russians are Coming, the Russians are Coming one of the funniest movies. Here’s a clip from the latter – I love the Norwegian reference, of course. And the mouthy little kid is so funny.
I got new glasses – or rather, new frames on an old prescription — and I now realize they are identical to the ones Molly was wearing before Marcia Brady turned her into a popular girl (and then Molly became insufferable).
Wonderful comedian. I was a great fan of The Carol Burnett Show when I was a kid, and I fondly remember Tim Conway as the old man, and Mr. Tudball, but I think this skit is one of the absolute best. So delightful to watch Lyle Waggoner try to keep a straight face.
I have not been following this season with much passion, but I watched this and thought it was lovely. (That said, the band was far too loud.) I was sad to see Walker Burroughs get the boot.
Charles van Doren died this week. For those of you to whom that name means nothing, he was at the centre of the quiz show scandals of the 1950s. Robert Redford directed this excellent film about it all. Because it has no car chases or shooting and the actual scandal didn’t involve anything sexy, I can’t see it attracting any Millennials, but I highly recommend it – a nostalgic portrait of a time when we expected honesty from people. It is also about the van Dorens. My family was never quite so glamorous, but my parents — like van Doren’s mother and father — were extremely competitive and had huge expectations for their kids. I always felt a lot of pressure.
The film’s trailer:
I’ll say it. I did not like the series finale of “The Americans.” Columns written about the finale have been fulsome, gushing. “Tremendously satisfying” wrote Mike Hale in the New York Times; “Elegant, potent, unforgettable” wrote Emily Nussbaum in the New Yorker. Well, I’ll give her that last one. Unforgettable it was, as is anything that is deeply frustrating and utterly at odds and out of character with what has gone before.
For me, it felt very much like an Emily Litella finale. For all you Millennials reading this, Emily Litella was a character on Saturday Night Live, back when SNL was often quite good – yes, there was such a time. (And as long as I’ve got your attention, Millenials – get off of my lawn.)
Played by Gilda Radner, Litella would give a news editorial about something she had misheard or misunderstood – for example, “Soviet jewellery.” She would carry on about Soviet jewellery until the news anchor would interrupt her and let her know it was “Soviet Jewry.” She would then shift in her seat a bit, look embarrassed and smile at the camera saying, “Never mind.”
Rather than being called “Start”, I think the finale episode should have been called “Never Mind.” Never mind Stan Beeman’s history of patriotism; never mind Elizabeth’s history of being a true-believing automaton; never mind that Stan knows the couple he was looking for were likely behind the death of his partner, Agent Amador, and behind the deaths of Gennadi and Sofia and so many others, not to mention the corruption of Martha and so many other crimes. Never mind any of it.
We are to accept that Stan Beeman, the man who let the woman he loved be sent to a gulag rather than betray his country, would let Philip and Elizabeth go. We are to accept that Stan would be harder on Oleg than on the illegals he has been chasing for years. We are to accept that when Philip and Elizabeth claim they don’t kill people, Stan would either believe them or decide their homicidal past didn’t merit punishment. We are to accept that Elizabeth, after six seasons of mindless order-following, would suddenly decide not to keep doing her work just because one of her KGB bosses lied to her.
I never thought the show would end with my dream scenario – Elizabeth in FBI prison, Philip defecting and becoming a self-help guru, Oleg going home, Paige trading in Noam Chomsky for Norman Podhoretz. I understand that the writers and producers of the show could in no way make every viewer happy, any more than they could give every character a happy or fair ending. But the way it ended felt false, as though the writers had punted. There needed to be some justice, and there was none. The worst people got away with it. Those stuck in the middle were left suffering. Our hero, Stan, was left gutted. And Paige still doesn’t know her parents are murderers.
This is a show that I have adored – and I mean, with all my heart and soul. I have driven friends and family members crazy with my endless yammering and stressing and theorizing about it. I have appreciated so much about the show – the actors, the writing, the era. I am roughly the same age as Paige, and every poster on her wall is one that I had, every ‘Esprit’ sweatshirt is one I wore, every news item she discusses with Pastor Tim or her parents is one that was on my mind.
I have appreciated that “The Americans” was always too intelligent a show to romanticize communism, to portray it as benign and misunderstood. The criminality and cruelty of the Soviet system was made clear throughout the show’s six seasons. Why, Pastor Tim even challenged the Jennings in regards Moscow’s treatment of Soviet Jewry. Which is why it seemed strange to let the anti-heroes pay only a limited price, and why I keep coming back to that word – justice. There needed to be justice. Even a teeny bit. The only glory poor Stan got was Aderholt admitting he should have listened to his suspicions about the Jennings family. Further, the only…
Oh, never mind.
So way back in January — the day Significant Other had his hip surgery — Mary Tyler Moore died. I posted about it and said I would comment more soon. Not sure eight months constitutes “soon” but here I am. I am a fan of both The Dick van Dyke Show and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, though the former was completely before my time and the latter, though I was alive during its run, was not something I appreciated till I began to watch it in reruns in the ’80s, ’90s and beyond. If I had to choose one of the two series to watch, it would be a tough call, but I would choose the Minneapolis-based sitcom. She died a few days after the pussy-hat marches and one of the best memes I saw was a photo of Mary Richards in the WJM newsroom juxtaposed to one of the marchers (a woman who was wearing a vagina hat). The caption said something like, “Feminism, then and now: where did we go wrong?” Pretty much sums up my feelings on the matter.
The reason for the title line of this post is that I firmly believe I could win any “Mary Tyler War” – i.e., any trivia contest concerning the sitcom. Or at least place. In fact, I was reading this book about the series, and while it is quite thorough and interesting, there were a couple of mistakes that struck me right off the bat. Example 1) The book asserts that Mary Richards asks her boss for equal pay but settles for less that that. This is false. In the episode in question, Mary discovers that the man who had the job before her earned more and she confronts Lou Grant about it. He talks his way out of it…almost. At the end of the episode she insists on receiving equal pay with her predecessor and Grant agrees to her demands. 2) This second mistake isn’t about MTM but about another show – Room 222. The book calls it an “hour-long drama.” Huh? ‘Twas a half-hour sitcom, though one that dealt with ‘heavy’ issues, like hippies and race and war and such.
So Mary was a goddess and a friend to the animals and in tribute, I post here one of my favourite episodes of MTM. I can’t really pick one favourite because they change, depending on my mood. Yes, Chuckles Bites the Dust was funny, but so many others were funnier, in my view. I loved Lou Douses and Old Flame, for example, and this one, which you should watch to the end so as not to miss Lou’s great speech on the meaning of life.
So I’m feeling that empty feeling one has after Christmas or New Year’s Day or after the last episode of this season’s ‘The Americans.’ Like, wow, that was great and exciting and emotional and now…I’m so down without it. But I have started to realize that I find it bittersweet for another reason: the actor who plays Stan Beeman reminds me so much of my late brother. So much. So I like watching him because it’s a bit like having Alan around, but then it’s so tragic when he’s gone.
I am grateful that ‘The Americans’ does not appear to be going the way of Homeland, the most recent season of which seemed, as my Significant Other put it, to have been written by Barack Obama. For those of you who didn’t watch Homeland this season: first of all, congratulations; second of all, it revolved around a terror attack on New York City apparently committed by an Islamist but actually committed by rogue CIA agents who – naturally – got some help along the way from Mossad.
I am well aware that the left has won the culture wars and that the viewpoints espoused in movies, television and media are going to reflect this fact. But one grows weary. Heck, even my beloved Hawaii Five-0, a show I have long enjoyed because it generally avoids politics and simply shows great-looking cops shooting bad people, had an episode this season where an impending terror attack apparently planned by an Islamist was actually planned by right-wing extremists (somehow affiliated with the government and military, of course).
But ‘The Americans,’ thankfully, has resisted the urge to make communism seem benign and misunderstood. It’s too intelligent for any such nonsense. Oh, it contains its fair share of moral equivalencies, and its share of “no context given” comments: for example, when Elizabeth (as the show’s resident true believer, she is responsible for many silly and baseless assertions) points out that the US can’t be trusted because they are the only country to have used a nuclear weapon. Er, yes, but, you know, some context would be useful here. It wasn’t as though Harry Truman got up one morning and said, “Oh heck, I’d like to nuke someone peaceful and kind today.”
In fact, Elizabeth, with her endless yammering about “justice” and constantly using her interpretation of that word to justify terrible acts, reminds me a lot of the social justice bullies of today. You can draw a line, I believe, from her 1980s-Soviet-totalitarian-bromides to today’s fascism of the left (and make no mistake, it is fascism). And I mean, you can draw that line in real life. I refer here to those lefties who are – and who have long been — pathologically anti-Western.
Enough about such clowns – let’s get to this season of ‘The Americans.’ It has had as its theme, food – the want of the USSR, the excesses of the US. Philip, who way back in the first season was talking about defecting, makes a comment about how the endless fields of wheat in Kansas (where he and Elizabeth are on a mission) remind him of home. “Why,” he asks, “can’t we feed our own people?”
This is an excellent question. The series’ writers have constructed storylines around corruption in the USSR as the main reason for the food shortages. On a micro-scale, yes, that may have been the case. But, of course, the macro-picture, the main reason the USSR could not feed its own people, was that it did not have a free market. So far, this has not been clearly articulated in the show, but at least the writers of ‘The Americans’ have moved away from the absurd notion – hinted at early on in the season — that the United States was planning to try and starve the Soviets (or any other people). One of the best moments this season was when the Jennings realized the US was not only not trying to starve everyone, but rather, was trying to feed everyone. Anyone who knows America and American idealism would not be surprised by that. As my Significant Other said, as we watched that episode, “Twenty years in America and Philip and Elizabeth don’t know America at all.”
They really don’t. (Not to mention that it was their own government that had deliberately starved people in the past.) They will be in for quite a surprise when/if they return home. Gabriel, I think, is beginning to understand one thing about America – it has already won the Cold War. That is how I interpreted the scene where Gabriel visits the Lincoln Memorial before announcing that he has decided to leave. He knows the Soviet jig is up-ski.
Oleg has already returned home, and is getting his own share of surprises: seeing how messed up the food situation is; seeing the embedded corruption; hearing colleagues say matter-of-factly that they have to send someone to prison for ‘treason’ even though all that person did was tell the truth about something or voice a political opinion. But his biggest surprise is learning that his mother had been in a gulag after the war.
Philip has his own revelation about the gulags this season, when he discovers — from Gabriel — that his father had been a guard in one. It causes Philip to view his childhood memories differently: those boots his father brought home one night, for example, were they stolen from a prisoner?
So I tip my hat to the show’s writers and creators…but one cannot stop celebrities from being morons, can one? Alison Wright, who so magnificently gave us the tragedy of Martha, revealed herself in an interview to be not so magnificent when it comes to political/historical analysis. In this interview, she claims – referring to the execution of Nina Sergeevna Krilova on the show – that the Soviets were more ‘humane’ than we (i.e., the United States) about such things because they just snuck up beyond you and shot you in the head. Whereas, you know, we put you on death row and make you wait.
Well, yeah, but we also give you a lawyer, an appeal system that is not a joke and that doesn’t amount to a kangaroo court, and plus, we have the added bonus of actually having to prove our charges against you! Fairly certain that makes us more humane.
Gosh, maybe Martha belongs in the Soviet Union after all.
If you’re not watching The Americans you are a fool, and not just because it is the best show on TV. It is also a show that uses music magnificently. Last night’s episode featured Mark Bernes’ song, Cranes. Absolutely haunting. (Note: It says ‘with English subtitles,’ and yet, I see no subtitles in any language. That said, I know the song is about World War II Soviet soldiers being reincarnated into cranes.)