Category Archives: television

My late 20th century middlebrow center of gravity

Deliciously burning tops of mouths since 1974 (photo: Stouffers.com)

Deliciously burning tops of mouths since 1974 (photo: Stouffers.com)

Sometimes I like to scroll through this blog for the fun of it, as if I’m walking down Memory Lane to revisit writings about Memory Lane! In addition to enjoying periodic nostalgic memories, I’m reminded of where my own cultural center of gravity is located. I am, at heart, a middlebrow kind of guy, grounded in the late 20th century. Here are 25 reasons why, many of which are drawn from previous posts:

  1. My MP3 music lists include the likes of 80s and 70s pop hits, old standards featuring music of the Gershwins and Cole Porter, and soundtracks & cast recordings of classic musicals by Rodgers & Hammerstein.
  2. I still have much of No. 1 on CDs.
  3. I like Stouffer’s French Bread pizza.
  4. I belong to the Book-of-the-Month Club and occasionally hunt down past BOMC premium books on e-Bay.
  5. I make my coffee using a drip coffee maker and pre-ground beans.
  6. Despite my dovish leanings, I enjoy watching old World War Two movies.
  7. I will indulge myself with an occasional Big Mac.
  8. I own, and sometimes even read into, a pre-owned set of the Harvard Classics.
  9. Give me the voices of Olivia Newton-John and Karen Carpenter over those of most of today’s female pop singers any day.
  10. I miss American Heritage magazine.
  11. I love watching re-runs of The Dick Van Dyke Show on Netflix.
  12. I still regard Baskin-Robbins ice cream as a treat.
  13. My leisure reading tastes go to mysteries and suspense, sports books (baseball, football, basketball), and popular history, as well as self-help and psychology.
  14. Walter Cronkite remains for me the iconic example of a television newscaster with utmost integrity.
  15. Given a choice, I’ll take a casual meal at a favorite diner over a fancy meal with multiple forks.
  16. I’ve been a steady subscriber to Sports Illustrated for decades.
  17. My first computer was a Commodore 64, and I got years of use and fun out of it!
  18. I continue to rely on Rick Steves for travel advice when planning blessed trips to Europe.
  19. Pumpkin pie is my favorite Thanksgiving dessert.
  20. Having my own personal library is deeply meaningful to me.
  21. Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York,” Tony Bennett’s “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” and Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” are simply awesome to me.
  22. I miss talk radio from the days before it got so politically strident and polarized.
  23. I regard Stephen King as one of our great contemporary storytellers.
  24. Growing up, I pursued hobbies such as stamp and coin collecting, science, and playing sports simulation board games — and I still do when time permits!
  25. There’s something thrilling and adventurous about being in a large old train station.

Homecoming 2016

The sun sets on VU's Chapel of the Resurrection (photo: DY)

An autumn sun sets on VU’s Chapel of the Resurrection (photo: DY)

Sometimes we can go home again, and if we’re lucky, the experience can be even sweeter than the first time around.

In a year of ups and downs, one of my most memorable, positive experiences was returning to Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, my undergraduate alma mater, to receive an Alumni Achievement Award during fall Homecoming festivities. The awards presentation ceremony was part of a Sunday Homecoming service in VU’s Chapel of the Resurrection, followed by a luncheon in the new student union.

From the vantage point of my 1981 graduation from Valpo (the school’s informal monicker), this was an unlikely return to campus. As an undergraduate, I was a department editor and writer for The Torch, VU’s student newspaper. At the time, The Torch editorial board was something of a campus rebel cell, post-Sixties edition. Though too young to have experienced the student movement, we were given to questioning things and mildly anti-authoritarian by nature. Whether it was creeping vocationalism that threatened the liberal arts, behavioral excesses in fraternity behavior (“Animal House,” a wildly popular movie during that time, was influential), or challenges with various diversities on campus, we believed that our editorial mission was to take on the university for its supposed shortcomings.

My first-ever published newspaper articles!

Undergraduate muckraker in the making

Some of our critiques were insightful, the products of bright young minds applying the lessons of a liberal education to the institution that provided them. Others were more sophomoric, using the print medium to launch a few post-adolescent salvos. Mine mixed the two categories in a sort of hit-or-miss fashion. In any event, by the time Commencement rolled around, I had internalized those grievances and smugly assumed that I had outgrown the place.

Accordingly, when I first informed long-time friends that VU’s Alumni Association would be recognizing me at Homecoming, several humorously noted the irony of the sharply critical student returning to campus decades later as a grateful middle-aged award recipient. (Several senior VU administrators back in the day wouldn’t have predicted this development, either, though with less bemusement.)

However, my relationship with VU had been in a state of positive change for some time, marked by a steadily growing appreciation for the excellent education I received there and for friendships forged via experiences such as The Torch, a life-changing semester abroad, and everyday dorm life.

Our Cambridge, England study abroad group, 1981

Our Cambridge, England study abroad group, 1981

In fact, I was extremely blessed to have a group of friends, mostly fellow alums from our close-knit Cambridge, England study abroad cohort and several of their spouses, joining me for the Homecoming award ceremonies. (I know that “blessed” is an overused term, but that’s how I felt.) During my extended visit, which included time as a visiting scholar at VU’s law school, I also enjoyed welcomed opportunities to reconnect with other friends from my VU days.

Returning to campus was both nostalgic and slightly disorienting. For many years after our graduation, Valpo’s physical landscape had remained basically the same. However, during the past decade or so, new buildings have sprouted up seemingly everywhere, and even some streets and pathways on campus have been rerouted. On Homecoming weekend, our shared memories mixed with exclamations over how building so-and-so had disappeared. The downtown area of the small city of Valparaiso also had changed markedly, with a much greater variety of restaurants and public spaces. It was fun to make these discoveries with my friends, as if we were once again undergraduates exploring England and the European continent — even if this time we actually were in America’s heartland.

Photo ops after the chapel service and awards ceremony (photo: Sharon Franklin Driscoll)

Photo op after the Chapel service and awards ceremony (photo: Sharon Franklin Driscoll)

Valparaiso’s longstanding affiliation with the Lutherans and the importance of faith traditions in general are core parts of its institutional mission. During the early decades of the last century, Valpo was a secular, independent university well known for its vocational training. Hard times would visit the school, however, and its survival was in question until the Lutheran University Association stepped in to buy it in 1925. Among the continuing manifestations of this association are daily Chapel services, open to those of any denomination.

In my case, it would be an understatement to say that I was not a frequenter of Chapel services as a collegian. However, at Homecoming I now found myself unexpectedly moved by the fact that the University would devote a Sunday worship service to recognizing its graduates. As a denizen of higher education, I know well the differences between giving obligatory nods to alumni/ae honorees and showing genuine appreciation. This was a very touching example of the latter.

Luncheon for awardees, family, and friends (Photo: Chet Marshall)

Luncheon for awardees, family, and friends. L to R, Anne, Mark, Hilda, DY, Joanne, Scott, Sharon, and Don (Photo: Chet Marshall)

The memories stoked by this weekend went well beyond student life and into the realm of world events that transpired around us as undergraduates. Among other things, little did we know at the time that we were bearing witness to the emergence of at least two major mega-trends — the primacy of the Middle East as an American foreign policy hot spot and the conservative resurgence in American politics — that would help to define our civic lives well into middle age.

In November 1979, young Islamic revolutionaries took some 60 American hostages during a seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. The Iranian hostage crisis, as it soon would be tagged, would endure for nearly fifteen months until the hostages were freed in January 1981. During that time, ABC journalist Ted Koppel became a national media figure with his daily hostage crisis updates on “Nightline,” a program that followed the late night local news. At Valpo, many of us tuned in each night in our dorm rooms, watching on our rabbit-eared portable television sets.

Ted Koppel, ABC's Nightline (screenshot from abcnews.go.com)

As undergraduates, we watched Ted Koppel’s daily updates on the Iranian hostage crisis  (screenshot from abcnews.go.com)

The fall of my senior year also marked my first opportunity to cast a general election ballot for President. Jimmy Carter was the Democratic incumbent, having successfully run on an anti-Washington platform in 1976. However, change was brewing in the form of a conservative movement that would sweep Ronald Reagan and a group of new Republican Senators and Representatives into office.

I was deeply into politics at the time. In fact, I was majoring in political science and planning to go to law school as preparation for an eventual political career. My own political views were in a state of flux, moving from right to left. In terms of presidential candidates in 1980, I had become enamored of an Illinois Congressman named John Anderson, a one-time conservative whose own views had become more liberal over the years. Anderson ran as a liberal Republican in the spring presidential primaries and then decided to leave the GOP to pursue an independent candidacy in the fall. I would serve as the Northwest Indiana coordinator for his independent campaign, a volunteer assignment that said less about my political organizing skills and more about the green talent the campaign had to rely upon in certain parts of the country.

Looking back, I now understand that Anderson’s departure from the Republican Party represented a harbinger of things to come. The 1980 election marked the beginning of the GOP’s rightward turn and a coming out party for a conservative movement that has dominated much of American politics since then.

In my best polyester suit, I represented the Anderson campaign in a 1980 presidential debate sponsored by the Porter County, Indiana chapter of the American Association of University Women

In my best polyester suit, I represented the Anderson campaign in a 1980 presidential debate sponsored by the Porter County, Indiana chapter of the American Association of University Women.

My collegiate years at Valpo felt heavy, as if I was carrying the weight of my future on my shoulders, fueled by a growing desire to explore life outside of my native Indiana and anxieties over where I would be and how I would fare. In 1982 I would decamp to Manhattan for law school at New York University, thinking that Indiana would be viewed mainly from a rear-view mirror.

Fast-forward to 2016: During a moment in the alumni hospitality tent at the Homecoming football game, I remarked to VU President Mark Heckler that it felt very light to be back on campus — a stark contrast to my emotional center of gravity as an undergraduate.

Indeed, this return to VU was accompanied by gifts of appreciation and maturity and was made especially meaningful by the company of dear friends who now richly deserve the label “lifelong.” A homecoming can’t get much better than that.

Mementoes from the weekend

Mementoes from the weekend

As the weather turns cold, the small screen becomes a strong draw

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Here along America’s east coast, dropping temperatures are reminding us that winter is just around the corner. Boston has been downright chilly, and a quick trip to New York City for a conference had me bundling up tightly. Other parts of the country are getting snowstorms.

When the weather outside is frightful, watching quality TV shows at home — binge viewing, if blocs of time allow — becomes especially delightful. If you’re looking for a sharp, informed, and opinionated guide to the best of the small screen, TV (The Book): Two Experts Pick the Greatest American Shows of All Time (2016) by Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz, is a good starting place.

Sepinwall and Seitz review and rank what they believe to be the 100 best American television dramas and comedies, devoting several pages to each. There are no news or reality shows here; it’s all about scripted TV.

Many of my favorites appear, including no brainers such as “The Wire” and “Mad Men,” and underrated standouts like “Friday Night Lights.” Some of my childhood favorites are here, too, including “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and “The Andy Griffith Show.” (Sorry, fellow Gen Jonesers, but “Green Acres,” “Hogan’s Heroes,” and “F Troop” don’t make the list.)

Fans of British dramas and comedies will have to wait for a different book. “Prime Suspect,” “Downton Abbey,” and “Monty Python” would appear on many lists of frequent PBS viewers, but not here.

What truly distinguishes TV (The Book) from other “best of” books and magazine features is the quality of writing. These guys know what makes for quality, groundbreaking television, and they’re good at explaining why a show belongs on the list. It’s not all praise, either, as they engage in very fair criticisms of very good shows. It makes for fun reading and good winter TV planning.

Those random moments when you discover great music

When it comes to discovering my favorite genre of music — old standards by the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Sinatra, and the like — I’m a bit of a late bloomer. Not until moving to New York for law school would I start discovering this wonderful music. In fact, I can pinpoint the evening in front of the TV set when began to realize the brilliance of George and Ira Gershwin.

Late in 1991, I was watching “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson, and among Johnny’s guests was a young man who sang and played on the piano a couple of classic Gershwin tunes. His name was Michael Feinstein, and he was performing numbers from his first album, “Pure Gershwin.” (Today, of course, Feinstein is a star in his own right, having built a wonderful career out of preserving and promoting the Great American Songbook.)

Well folks, a lightbulb went off. I had been familiar with the works of the Gershwins and enjoyed them, but upon watching Feinstein on TV, I knew that I wanted to listen to more. The next day, I went to Tower Records in the Village and bought the cassette (yup, cassette) version of “Pure Gershwin.” I played that tape to death on my Sony Walkman and eventually had to replace it.

Fast forward to today, I have stacks of CDs containing different renditions of the Gershwins’ music, including Ella Fitzgerald, Maureen McGovern, Sinatra, and more from Feinstein.

In the weekly voice class I take and the periodic open mic cabaret nights I attend, it’s not unusual for me to sing a Gershwin number.

Recently I went to a Boston Pops concert featuring the music of the Gershwins, and the finale was a brilliant, moving performance of George’s masterpiece, “Rhapsody in Blue.”

Boston Pops concert (photo: Adeline Moya)

Boston Pops concert (photo: Adeline Moya)

Okay, so here’s my what-if, time-travelish, is-life-that-random question: What if I had not caught that episode of “The Tonight Show” back in 1991? Would this body of music mean so much to me today? What would my music collection look like? Would I be singing something else in my voice class? Would I even be taking a voice class at all? Are such discoveries completely random or somehow part of a grander scheme?

Class, discuss.

 

Watching a show within a show: “The Day After” on “The Americans”

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If you’re wondering whether we’re still in a Golden Age of television drama, then look no further than “The Americans” on FX. The show stars Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as deep-planted Soviet spies, fronting as parents of an All-American family living outside of Washington D.C. during the early 1980s.

During its first three years, I’ve regarded it as an excellent drama, though perhaps a step below iconic classics such as “The Wire.” In the current season four, however, “The Americans” has moved to the next level. It is delivering other-worldly acting, morally complex storylines, and the look-and-feel of 1980s America and the last decade of the Cold War. It is riveting entertainment.

(SPOILER ALERT: If you’re a regular viewer but haven’t caught the recent episodes, you might want to come back to this later!)

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In the last episode, many of the major characters find themselves gathered around their television screens, watching the November 1983 airing of “The Day After,” an ABC made-for-TV movie depicting the devastating effects of a Russian nuclear attack on America, centering on the small city of Lawrence, Kansas. Here’s how reviewer Hank Stuever described the episode for the Washington Post:

On “The Americans,” the characters all watch in stunned silence, including secret Soviet spies Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) and their kids, Paige (Holly Taylor) and Henry (Keidrich Sellati), and their friendly next-door FBI agent, Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) and his son, Matthew (Daniel Flaherty). Even the Russians who work at the Rezidentura in Washington tune in – Oleg Burov and Tatiana Ruslanova (Costa Ronin and Vera Cherny) watched it curled up on the bed.

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In real life, watching “The Day After” was a very similar experience. The Post‘s Stuever writes:

As seen on . . . “The Americans,” people really did set everything aside on the night of Sunday, Nov. 20, 1983, to watch ABC’s depressingly sober TV movie “The Day After.” It told the story of a handful of people in and around Lawrence, Kan., who had the misfortune of surviving an all-out nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Please understand: This was a television event in a way that we’ll probably never see again. You see, when it comes to watching stuff on screens, we’ve become increasingly atomized (pun intended). A century ago, a theater would bring together hundreds of people to watch movies and newsreels. Fifty years ago, folks watched programs with family and friends in front of television sets. Today, we often watch TV programs and movies in different rooms of the house or stream them on our various devices.

Americans viewed “The Day After” huddled together in front of our television sets. I was in my second year of law school at NYU, and a big group of us gathered to watch it in one of our dorm rooms. Today, with so many actual horrors captured on video and posted to social media, it may be difficult to grasp that this fictional movie was jarring and upsetting to many. But such was the case. We talked about it for days.

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The threat of nuclear annihilation was very real during this final decade of the Cold War. That same academic year, I was on the staff of NYU’s international law journal, one of several student-edited law reviews published at the law school. A few weeks before the airing of “The Day After,” our journal hosted a panel discussion on nuclear arms control, moderated by McGeorge Bundy (National Security Advisor to President Kennedy) and featuring a prominent group of diplomatic and military policy experts.

The subject matter of the panel extended way beyond mere academic speculation, and I recall a tone of seriousness in the dialogue among the speakers. The U.S. and the Soviet Union were playing a dangerous cat-and-mouse game around the world. “The Day After” would show us what that meant with more dramatic effect. This episode of “The Americans” brilliantly brought back those memories.

I save way too much stuff. I should've been an archivist.

I save way too much stuff. I should’ve been an archivist.

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A personal note: At NYU Law, I volunteered to help out with that nuclear arms program. By doing so, I got to join the pre-panel dinner with the speakers in the faculty dining room. I mostly kept my mouth shut out of fear of saying something stupid. Nevertheless, I was thrilled — I was sharing a meal with some heavy hitters — this was cool stuff for me!

In return for this perk, however, I was handed a lot of grunt work by the senior editors, for our main post-panel task was to transcribe and edit the proceedings for publication. I was assigned to proofread the transcript and to generate dozens of footnotes documenting facts and events described by the panelists, a hefty pre-Internet research project that ate up countless hours in the dungeon level of the law library.

Working on this journal was my introduction to graduate-level scholarly work. I can’t say that the experience of developing footnotes from scratch to verify the accuracy of the panelists’ remarks was all that enjoyable! In fact, it persuaded me to pass up an opportunity to serve as a senior editor during my third and final year of law school. I didn’t want to spend my last year at NYU editing more manuscripts and chasing down more sources in the library.

Now, of course, I’m writing hundreds of footnotes for my own scholarly articles. What a twist! Let’s just say that this was not a foreseeable development during my more anti-authoritarian law school days.

Herman Wouk at 100

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Celebrated writer Herman Wouk has reached the century mark, and he has just published what he tells us is his final book, a slim autobiographical sketch titled Sailor and Fiddler: Reflections of a 100-Year-Old Author (2016).

I cannot claim familiarity with Wouk’s full body of work, but two of his signature novels, The Winds of War (1971) and War and Remembrance (1978), and the pair of award-winning television mini-series they spawned (in 1983 and 1988-89, respectively) have profoundly shaped my understanding of the Second World War. I know that I am not alone in saying this, especially among those of my generation.

The Winds of War starts in 1939, introducing us to the Henry family, headed by U.S. Navy officer Victor “Pug” Henry, along with his wife Rhoda, sons Warren and Byron, and daughter Madeline. Joining them as major figures are famous Jewish author and retired professor Aaron Jastrow and his niece, Natalie, who are living in an Italian villa. Their journeys also become focal points. Also prominent are Pamela Tudsbury, a young British woman who travels the globe helping her father, foreign correspondent “Talky” Tudsbury, as well as foreign service officer Leslie Slote.

Winds finds Europe on the brink of another war, and it proceeds on through the immediate aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. War and Remembrance picks up where Winds leaves off, continuing with the stories of the Henrys and the Jastrows. But it quickly gets much darker. Remembrance uses its characters to cover the broad sweep of the war, including the Holocaust, which is portrayed in horrific, vivid detail. The mini-series includes brutal depictions of Nazi death camps, with many scenes actually filmed at Auschwitz.

Both stories continually weave in defining political and diplomatic figures of the day, including Roosevelt, Churchill, Hitler, and Stalin, as well as many of the war’s prominent military officers.

Thanks in part to the great success of the mini-series, The Winds of War is better known to a lot of people. However, in Sailor and Fiddler, Wouk — a WWII Navy veteran — informs us that War and Remembrance was the story he had to tell.

I confess that I have immersed myself in both stories to a point of obsession, and I have learned valuable life lessons from their leading characters and lot of history from the books and the mini-series. I consider Winds and Remembrance to be the epic tales of the war era, Homeric in scope, and richly American in perspective.

If Wouk had produced nothing but these books, then I would consider his life a special one. But that is not the case. He has been a prolific writer and led a rewarding, full life. And at 100 years old, he still had enough gas in the tank to write this neat little book about his life.

I often say that if we want to live good lives, then we can learn from the stories of good people who are our seniors. Herman Wouk is a prime example.

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What are your TV series binge-viewing pleasures?

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In the era of DVDs, DVR devices, and streaming services, binge-viewing (or binge-watching) is a guilty and comparatively affordable pleasure. The term is usually applied to marathon viewings of television shows, but movies, mini-series, and documentaries also count.

For this post I’ll stick with TV series. Here are some of my favorite binge-viewed series from over the years:

  • “The Wire” — David Simon’s compelling depiction of gritty Baltimore is a cop show on the surface, but in reality much more. This places high on a lot of binge-view lists.
  • “Homicide” — If “The Wire” wasn’t David Simon’s masterpiece, then “Homicide” — a more conventional cop show set in Baltimore — would be in the running for that honor.
  • “Prime Suspect” — Helen Mirren as DCI Jane Tennison. This intense series excels on so many levels.
  • “The West Wing” — The final season and a half, featuring the home stretch of the Bartlett Administration and the campaign to elect his successor, is terrific political drama, not to mention a sad reminder of our current real-life civic discourse.
  • “Downton Abbey” — I didn’t know what all the hoopla was about until I sat down with season 1 and quickly got hooked. I am going to massively miss the upstairs and downstairs folks alike.
  • “Horatio Hornblower” — Great, great seafaring tales, with superb cinematography and entertaining historical story arcs.
  • “Foyle’s War” — Michael Kitchen’s Christopher Foyle is like a Sherlock Holmes with a stiff upper lip masking a soft heart, unraveling crime mysteries in the south coast of England during WWII and the Cold War.
  • “Adventures of Young Indiana Jones” — Superb early 20th century history lessons wrapped into colorful tales of Young Indy, with lots of documentary extras on the historical figures and events depicted in the episodes.
  • “Hill Street Blues” — A cop show from the 80s that elevated the genre and network television in general. Still compulsively watchable.
  • “The Dick Van Dyke Show” — The only sitcom on this list! A classic in television history, also a depiction of a much more innocent world.

Someday…

I’ve never watched an episode of “Breaking Bad,” but I will someday. Friends have raved about it.

“China Beach,” set in the Vietnam War and starring the most excellent Dana Delany as nurse Colleen McMurphy, is one of my favorite shows ever, but I’ve never binge-viewed it. I will. I’m very curious to see whether it holds up.

Strange, but I’ve never watched “The Sopranos” and have no desire to give it a try.

An experiment

For years I was part of a wonderful, episode-by-episode e-mail exchange with college chums about “24,” featuring Kiefer Sutherland as the seemingly indestructible Jack Bauer. Thus, I never got a chance to binge-view any portion of the series. I’ve wondered what it’s like to binge-view a season in close to real time: Does watching “24” in something resembling its 24-hour cycle changes the experience of the series?

Okay, to be honest, this is an experiment for the day when I’ve got a lot more free time on my hands…but still, I’d like to try it.

The end

Binge-viewing does have its costs, not the least of which is that a given season or series must come to an end.

Matthew Schneier, writing for the New York Times, shared his feelings about approaching the end of a binge view of Netflix’s “Master of None” season 1:

I felt anxious, wistful, bereft in advance; I’d eaten up nine episodes in only a few days, liking them more than I’d expected to. Once finished, there’d be no more until the next season — if there was a next season, which has still not been officially announced. Unlike on network TV, where my fix would be parceled out week by week over the course a season, I had binged.

After concluding that he is not alone in lamenting the end of a binge view of an engaging television show, he put a label on it: Post-binge malaise.

In TV world, as in many instances of real life, all good things must end. And so we must deal with the final credits of a favorite series passing before our bleary, binge-viewed eyes.

Thirty-five years ago: “Nightline,” Ted Koppel, and the Iranian hostage crisis

(Screenshot from abcnews.go.com)

(Screenshot from abcnews.go.com)

In November 1979, a group of Iranian students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took over 60 American as hostages, triggering an event that would stretch on for over 440 days. Here’s how PBS describes what happened:

On November 4, 1979, an angry mob of young Islamic revolutionaries overran the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, taking more than 60 Americans hostage. “From the moment the hostages were seized until they were released minutes after Ronald Reagan took the oath of office as president 444 days later,” wrote historian Gaddis Smith, “the crisis absorbed more concentrated effort by American officials and had more extensive coverage on television and in the press than any other event since World War II.”

The Iranian hostage crisis dominated the final year of Jimmy Carter’s presidency and played a significant role in his loss to Ronald Reagan in November 1980. Beyond its impact on the election, the hostage crisis is notable for at least two big reasons:

First, it put the Middle East squarely into the heart of American diplomacy and military strategy. Remember, this was still the period of the Cold War, and the Soviet Union was regarded as America’s number one foe. The Iranian hostage crisis, while certainly different than foreign policy challenges in the region today, nevertheless foreshadowed the global conflict shifts to come for the U.S.

Second, in America it changed the way we watched the news, competing with the late night talk shows. ABC’s “Nightline” came on right after the evening local news programs, and the hostage crisis was its largest focus throughout 1980, with updates every night. “Nightline” anchor Ted Koppel, with a steady and understated style, would become one of the most familiar and trusted broadcast journalists of the era.

I was in college at Valparaiso University during the period of the hostage crisis, and “Nightline” was popular among those of us clued into politics and public affairs. I can only imagine how a similar situation might be covered by the cable news stations today, especially CNN or Fox News, but back in the day it was Ted Koppel and Co. who framed the international news for us.

Temporary escapism: NYC teens are discovering “Friends”

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New York Times writer Ginia Bellafante reports that New York City teens have discovered the popular 1990s sitcom “Friends.” A big reason for its draw is its portrayal of the relatively carefree lives of its main characters, young Manhattanites Monica, Ross, Rachel, Phoebe, Chandler, and Joey. Bellafante writes:

What’s novel about “Friends,” or what must seem so to a certain subset of New York teenagers of whom so much is expected, is the absence among the six central characters of any quality of corrosive ambition. The show refuses to take professional life or creative aspirations too seriously.

. . . The dreamscape dimension of “Friends” lies in the way schedules are freed up for fun and shenanigans and talking and rehashing, always.

Among Bellafante’s interviewees was a 17-year-old high school girl in Brooklyn who sees “Friends” as a welcomed break from the stressors of school and prepping college applications:

It did not escape her attention that the characters are almost never stressed out about their jobs. “All they do is hang out in a coffee shop or a really nice apartment,” she said. “It’s the ideal situation.”

However, the young woman asked that her name not be used, lest she appear to be frivolous in the eyes of college admissions officers!

It’s wholly understandable why these young strivers might welcome “Friends” as a break from the pressure cooker of jockeying for grades and acceptances from top colleges. But it’s sadly telling that they’re seeking such escapism in a sitcom. One senses the anticipation of an early midlife crisis, grounded in the revelation that the game of obsessive hoop jumping often leads to more of the same, while already yearning for some healthy downtime.

Related post

Before the college application process went haywire (2015)

Why there will never be another Great Pumpkin

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“It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” is one of the most popular television specials ever made, premiering in 1966 and shown every year around Halloween time. Featuring the beloved “Peanuts” characters of Charles Schultz, it centers around young Linus’s yearly obsession with the Great Pumpkin, who supposedly promises to deliver bags of goodies to kids who wait for him in pumpkin patches. Here in the U.S., the program will be broadcast on ABC this Tuesday!

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Something tells me that Charles Schultz was not crazy about dealing with legal matters. I watched “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” just the other day (yeah, I bought the DVD a few years ago…), and I noticed how it is sprinkled with references to lawsuits, notarized documents, and other legalities, and not in a happy light!

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Of course, it took a law professor’s scrutiny to pick out the legalisms, because the program is simply a lot of fun. For many of us who first watched it as kids, it brings back great memories of trick-or-treating, school Halloween parties, and scary stories of ghosts and goblins.

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In any event, we won’t see anything like the Great Pumpkin anytime soon. Why? Take a look at the photo above, showing the ratings pulled in by the premiere broadcast of the program. The “share” means it attracted 49 percent — roughly half of the viewers — of the U.S. television audience during that time slot!

Such a market share would be unheard of with today’s multiplicity of cable stations, streaming services, and DVD rental/purchase options. Back in the day, we had the three networks and a handful of local stations to watch, and that was it! Less choice meant more of a shared experience. We’d watch highly anticipated kids’ specials on TV, and then go to school the next day to talk about them animatedly with our friends.

It’s obviously different nowadays. While I wouldn’t trade in the bounty of viewing choices we have today for a handful of channels and no way to record anything, we have lost a bit of the “popular” in the term “popular culture” as a result. We also have lost the seasonal anticipation of waiting for that once-a-year broadcast of favorite specials and movies. Instant gratification can be, well, instantly gratifying, but it’s not the same as watching the leaves turn and looking forward to the fall presence of the Peanuts gang.

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A random observation on Snoopy, perhaps the most iconic Peanut’s character: He really should’ve been a cat! Think about it: He may be everyone’s favorite animated beagle (including mine), but he acts like a cat! He’s cheap with his affections, utterly self-absorbed, will dish out retribution on anyone who crosses him, and yet we love the little fellow.

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Photos are screenshots from “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown,” and an accompanying DVD feature on the making of the television special.

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