Saturday, September 26, 2020

St. Elsewhere: "Time Heals"

Air Dates: February 19-20 1986

Written by John Masius, Tom Fontana, & John Tinker

Directed by Mark Tinker 

"Time Heals" was a two part episode that aired during season four of the NBC series St. Elsewhere (1982-88). Although the show was never a ratings juggernaut, it found a loyal audience who followed the doings at St.Eligius hospital. "Time Heals" provided back stories for the major characters, but even more than that, a history of the hospital (and America) from 1936-1986. 

Edward Herrmann as Father Joseph McCabe

The episodes are structured in the form of flashbacks of various points in the history of St. Eligius, starting with its founding 1936 by Father Joseph McCabe. An Irish priest straight out of James Joyce brilliantly played by Edward Herrmann, Father McCabe started the hospital to help the people of South Boston struggling to get by during the Depression. In newsreel footage recalling FDR delivering his inaugural "nothing to fear, but fear itself" speech, McCabe's New Deal idealism and optimistic spirit would guide St. Eligius through the decades. He bucks against the Catholic establishment who disapprove of his advocation of birth control as a means to curtail poverty. He takes action against intolerance, stating a failure to act against hate and it will spread like a disease. 

We also meet Dr. Westphall's father (played by Ed Flanders) who was a friend of Father McCabe, later Westphall would be mentored McCabe. In a surprising scene a teenage Westphall appears to be on the road to delinquency, an angry young man expressing anti-Semitism and bigotry. How did this kid become the compassionate Dr. Westphall? It's proof that under the right guidance anyone can change for the better. We also see a young Dr. Auschlander (Norman Lloyd) being hired in 1945 after his return from the Pacific theatre during the Second World War (which he mentions throughout the series), unknown to him the kid who just spouted an anti-Semitic slur at him will later be a trusted colleague. 

In 1955 we meet a young Dr. Craig William Daniels), as a sycophantic young surgeon to his mentor Dr. Domedion (Jackie Cooper). Craig dreams of leaving St. Eligius and becoming chief of surgery at Boston General, the premier hospital in the city. We see Craig being browbeaten by Domedion during an operation (just as Craig does for everyone he mentors) and losing his confidence. Reference is also made to the polio epidemic of the 1950s, in one scene the doctors discuss their hopes for a vaccine to stop the scourge of that disease after walking through a ward of children confined to iron lungs. 

During the 1960s Dr. Craig would become chief of surgery and the lone superstar surgeon St. Eligius after leaving Boston General after being passed over, proud to be a pioneer in open heart bypass surgery. In 1965 we see Nurse Rosenthal (Christina Pickles) being hired (with a stronger English accent) as she provides comfort for a young Luther (Eric Laneuville). By 1975 Dr. Westphall is happily married with two kids (Elizabeth and Tommy), only to lose his wife in a tragic accident, echoing the loss of his mother and sister in the fire in 1936.

Ed Flanders and William playing younger versions of their characters.

There's also a present day story set in 1986: Dr. Morrison (David Morse) is having trouble diagnosing a case and even worse his young son has been abducted. As played by Morse, the character epitomized the shows ability to build up characters and then tear them down because of their very strengths. For example, Morrison treats his patients in a humane matter, yet his sensitivity works against him, making him indecisive. His peers consider him ineffectual as a physician. Yet here he makes a breakthrough correctly diagnoses a rare case of polio, connected to the 1950s timeline. Dr. Chandler (Denzel Washington) compliments Morrison and tells despite what everyone thinks he has it in him to be a good doctor. Morse and Washington play the scene well. As St. Eligius celebrates its 50th anniversary and Morrison is reunited with his son.

"Time Heals" reminds that everyone in their endeavors may never live to see the results of their labors or even if they made the right decisions. It's a daily grind. Change is slow and time moves fast. Most days it appears we're going backwards, but we keep struggling. 

These episodes were a wonderful gift to fans of the series, but also innovative and in their structure and theme. Each era replicates the style of cinema of that particular decade, the 1930s are in B&W while the 1950s are in technicolor. The two episodes together reminded me of The Godfather Part II, ruminations on how the the actions of the past inform the present and shape the future. 

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

TV Watching in the Year of Quarantine

Here's a list of some TV Shows I've been watching 2020. In recent years I've devoted more time to movies, but making an effort to watch more TV.

Classic TV

St. Elsewhere (1982-1988) 

St. Elsewhere was set at St. Eligius hospital in South Boston. Under funded and in constant disrepair, each episode followed the ensemble cast of newcomers and veterans in their personal and professional lives. A pioneering show in the sense in that story lines would play out over multiple episodes so there was a sense of continuity over the seasons. Realistic in its depiction of medical care in the 1980s, it took on many issues television had never taken on. St. Elsewhere's sense of humor and tragedy with a touch of the surreal made it memorable. Many characters would come and go over the course of the series, but the stalwarts were Dr. Westphall (Ed Flanders) the chief of medicine, Dr. Craig (William Daniels) chief of surgery, and head of operations Dr. Auschlander (Norman Lloyd). Many members of the cast went on to big careers including Denzel Washington, Mark Harmon, Howie Mandel, Ed Begley Jr, and David Morse. St. Elsewhere is a fascinating show because it had one foot set in the past and one in the future. Like hospital dramas of the past it took on a wide spectrum of social issues, most notably the AIDS epidemic, budget cuts in the Reagan era, class, poverty, race, and gender issues. Old TV shows were always referenced, providing an intertextual element. St. Elsewhere had the humanism of M*A*S*H and the gritty realism of Hill Street Blues. It would point the way to another hospital drama E.R. After completing St. Elsewhere on Hulu I plan on moving right to E.R., imagining both as a part of a continuum. 

Barney Miller (1975-82) 

Barney Miller was set at the fictional 12th Precinct in New York City. A workplace sitcom in the style of Taxi, Cheers, and Wings, Barney Miller chronicled a slightly eccentric group of cops as they deal with day to day criminal activity, mostly of a minor nature. Most of the criminals were shoplifters, muggers, con artists - rarely anyone violent. Led by the quiet calm of Hal Linden as the title character to the cranky Detective Fish famously played by Abe Vigoda and the rookie "Wojo" played by Max Gail. African-American detective Harris (Ron Glass) aspires to be a writer and Sgt. Yemana (Jack Soo) provides surreal commentary to the doings at the precinct. For the first two seasons Gregory Sierra played Sgt. "Charo" who brought an edge to the early seasons and was the center of one my favorite episodes "The Hero." If you're a fan of Dog Day Afternoon or Serpico, you'll appreciate Barney Miller

The Rockford Files (1974-80)

 I've been going through The Rockford Files in fits and starts over the past few years. Unlike other TV super sleuths like Columbo or Jessica Fletcher, Rockford lives in a trailer and is usually broke. Most shows deal with white collar criminal types, it makes you think there's a small time scheme in every corner of California. A lo-fi show of darkly lit bars and shady warehouses, plots always move in a labyrinth pattern. Rockford often gets beat up (so many blows to the head) a lot so the show by no means glamorizes the job, things are usually oblique and rough around the edges. Of all 70s shows it feels the closest to the New Hollywood trend of movies with shaggy morality and disoriented humor.

Cosmos (1980) 

I covered each episode over at my other blog, but if you've never been able to watch Cosmos - seek it out! A history of science and an eloquent argument for rational reason, the show provides an anecdote to the madness of 2020. Television of the highest ambition and magnitude.   

And Two New Ones

Mrs. America 

A nine episode political history foreshadowing how America got to the Trump era. Cate Blanchett stars as Phyllis Schlafly, the conservative activist who led the fight against the passing of the Equal Rights Amendment during the 1970s. The series tells a parallel story of the feminist movement and its leaders Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisholm, Betty Friedan, and many more. With ERA on course to being ratified with bipartisan support, Schlafly led a successful anti-feminist movement which prevented ERA from being ratified in 1982. Blanchett delivers a complex, even sympathetic, performance as Schalfly. Mrs. America is more focused on the tensions within each movement, while at the same time portrays an often overlooked political battle in recent American history. A recreation of a Tom Snyder episode is a highlight. Streaming on FX-Hulu.

Cobra Kai 

Look no further for a generous serving of 80s nostalgia than Cobra Kai which is getting a second life on Netflix. The show picks up on the lives of Daniel LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence from the Karate Kid franchise. Daniel is now a successful owner of a luxury car dealership, while Johnny survives on odd jobs, a living anachronism stuck in the 80s (more of a state of mind). But a series of events lead to a revival of their epic rivalry. The younger generation also plays a major role and turn the series into an interesting melding of Gen X - Gen Z morays. Each episode is around 30 minutes and they move fast. 

Sunday, September 6, 2020

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Book Review: Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle

Most summers I like to re-watch of the original Planet of the Apes movies released from 1968-73. I finally got around to reading the source material, the 1963 novel by Pierre Boulle. Few novels of the 20th century have ignited the imagination of many and led to nine feature films, a TV show, and graphic novels. 

A swift read, Boulle's style recalls that of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, fast paced action- adventure with a philosophical underpinning. It bears many similarities to the classic 1968 film, but at the same time tells a much different story. Like the movie, the story begins with a group of astronauts en route to the Betelgeuse system. They crash land onto a planet and quickly discover an upside down world where humans are subjugated by apes.

The protagonist Ulysse Merou bears little resemblance to "Taylor" famously played by Charlton Heston. A fairly bland character, Merou acts as more of an observer with his narration throughout. It was smart for the movie to give him a misanthropic and colonial attitude, here he's more of a bystander. When Merou and the crew are put into captivity by the apes, he amazes them at his ability to talk and display intelligence, so sympathetic Chimpanzee scientists Cornelius and Zira become his benefactors (like the movie). The political leader Dr. Zaius symbolizes establishment attitudes on earth - and fears what the human visitor will entail for his planet.

Merou becomes a celebrity and has a son with a primitive woman Nova (she was partnered with him in a science experiment). Fearing a social revolution to come, the leaders of ape society decide Merou must leave the planet. The conclusion diverges from the movie, although Tim Burton sort of used for his remake in 2001.

Planet of the Apes is a fun read. Boulle's use of satire makes for a compelling allegory of power structures and how they respond to change. All societies have an interest in keeping a social balance, anything threatening such a balance will be considered hostile. The cycle of films would serve as an allegory of race relations in America, as explained in Planet of the Apes as American Myth by Eric Greene. There's also pro-science theme in the novel, as it explores the dangers of politicizing scientific advancement, an obstacle holding civilization away from reaching full potential. The novel also makes you think about why there is so much resistance to change and what that tells about the rise and fall of communities. 

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Book Review: The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan

The Demon-Haunted World was Carl Sagan's final book. It was published in 1997 and feels alarmingly prescient when we look at the world a fifth of the way through the 21st Century. Sagan takes on the rise of pseudo-science in the culture and the consequences of living in a world where anti-science attitudes prevail from top to bottom, even given credence by heads of state (Trump). I don't even have the words for what Sagan would think if he were alive today. I'm sure he would see some signs of hope, but if you read the news we see the consequences of magical thinking prevails on a grand scale. 

Consider this quote:

I have a foreboding of an America in my children's or grandchildren's time - when the United States is a service and information economy, when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching their crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish what feels good and what's true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness (25).

Throughout Demon-Haunted World, Sagan makes the case for the scientific perspective as essential if civilization is to survive into the 21st century. He counters the view that science and spirituality must be in conflict, science can evoke wonder in a way similar to religion. Stepping away from the idea of a universe without a creator is too frightening for many. A scientific world view values radical skepticism and requires overwhelming evidence to support any hypothesis. Holding to beliefs without evidence or going by intuition solves little, the idea everything happens for a reason, leads to complacency and susceptibility to charlatans who will distort the truth. While Sagan has no qualm with spiritual world views that are self-critical, the prevalence of fundamentalism entails a regression of civilization. 

Many chapters look at unnerving cultural trends throughout the 1990s, the decade that saw conspiracy theory thinking rule over pop culture. Widespread beliefs in alien abductions and widespread government cover ups of everything from AIDS to crop circles. While governments have been known to lie and attempt to cover up the truth, going down the rabbit hole where everything is a conspiracy leads to slipshod thinking. 

A chapter is devoted to the "Roswell Landing," the most famous UFO hoax. Sagan looks at the more outrageous claims and finds no evidence to support any of them (and offers his own hypothesis much less dramatic than the explosive conspiracies). Alien abduction narratives can be explained through neuroscience and psychology - and how easy it is to fall into self deception. The most outrageous claims must be supported with equally compelling evidence.

Sagan also defends science from some post-modern critics who view it as simply one path to knowledge, no different than witchcraft or transcendental meditation. Other criticisms criticize the history of sexism and racism within science. Sagan concedes all scientists have bias (including himself), but scientists must undergo the most intense scrutiny from their peers. Science is a self-correcting approach to knowledge. A chapter is devoted to ethical issues scientists face, especially in light of the atomic age, and argues scientists must be aware of transgressions they've made in the past. 

Demon-Haunted Earth fine work of popular science and a fitting culmination to Dr. Sagan's career as a public intellectual. We desperately miss him. 

Saturday, July 11, 2020

Bob Dylan's 1965 Time Magazine Interview and How it Speaks to >>>>>2020

In a memorable scene from Don't Look Back, the 1967 documentary which followed Bob Dylan during his tour of England in 1965, he sat down with a Time Magazine writer Horace Freeland Judson. Instead of respectfully answering the questions from the esteemed culture journalist, Dylan turned the tables. He dared to be irreverent towards a respected publication that considered him to be a curious fad.

Many focus on Dylan's alleged cruelty towards Judson, but that's a misrepresentation at best. Some recent takes claim Dylan was calling out the fake news media. That's a simplistic interpretation as well. If you listen closely something else entirely was going on.The exchange was a clash was over ideas about art and the media. Dylan despised being subjected to a patronizing write up in Time about him being a folk singer who spoke for his generation. Dylan's defiance towards Judson led to a deconstruction of what Time Magazine represented. 

Their verbal spar moved the interview into surreal territory. Dylan criticized the magazine's approach to reporting world news, pointing out how they make the news simple and concise, like a consumer product you might say. He states the magazine had "too much to lose by printing the truth." When questioned further on what constitutes the truth, Dylan casually suggests the truth is a "plain picture" and that collages of "tramps" and "Mr. Rockefeller" would make more sense.

I imagine Time magazine in 1965 as being run by Ivy League/East Coast establishment types, cultural gatekeepers with deep networks into all sectors of American life. Dylan was calling out the magazine's sanitized presentation of reality, one out of touch with the emerging counterculture. The reality represented by Time did not resonate with the experiences of young people - so they created their own media and culture.

The exchange got me thinking about today. This past week a group of 150 respected members of the establishment composed of writers and academics (overwhelming majority over age 40) signed a petition in Harper's Magazine decrying so called "cancel culture" without naming it specifically. The "letter" generated a lively debate online. Those who signed the letter see an "illiberal" attitude among the younger generation. As many have pointed out the letter says more about gatekeepers in a shaky political climate. What's viewed as an attack on freedom of speech from the left is more of a new accountability they view as persecution. If Dylan was moving faster than the culture at large in the 1960s, the young must move even faster these days. They have no choice considering the state of the world.

Another tactic is to demonize youth (woke) culture as a new form of McCarthyism. The logic being that if one makes an offhand comment on race or gender, their career will be derailed. A twitter mob will be unleashed. Off to the gulag then I presume? Or maybe a lucrative speaking tour! It's a dubious comparison and a bizarre rhetorical ploy. The Red Scare of the 1950s targeted free thought, anyone suspected of communist sympathies could be jailed or even executed for treason. Calling out intolerance and bias within institutions bears little resemblance to the tactics of McCarthy, especially when it comes from the marginalized of society, voices typically silenced or ignored in the past. Screaming "New McCarthyism" today would be the same as labeling Martin Luther King an "SJW" or "communist" (many did) for upsetting the status quo in the 1960s and actually having the temerity to call upon white people to reconsider their views on race as he did in his Letter From A Birmingham Jail

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose of establishing justice they become dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress . . . we who engage in non-violent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive.

With the safe distance of history, even red state conservatives pay lip service to Dr. King (even though many of their forebears fought passionately against a holiday dedicated to his memory).

Victims of McCarthyism were served subpoenas, got late night knocks on the door, lost their jobs, and faced prison time if they refused to "name names." Anyone who dissented from the consensus of Cold War culture was suspect. It's also well documented people of color, the Jewish community, and gay people were targets of HUAC (House of Un-American Activities Comm). Loyalty oaths were also required for all civil servants allowing for union busting on a grand scale. The extreme anti-communism McCarthyism fomented did not die with him either, but led indirectly to the Vietnam War and resulted in electing a President in 2016 who admires Tail gunner Joe  (yet progressive millennials are labeled the new McCarthyites?). The past is not even past. 

Young people desperate for change have the right to be confrontational. They're also our best hope. Think about the world they inherited. The generation under 30, born after 1990, has experienced the 2008 crash at age 18, an increasing class divide, forever wars, and the rise of authoritarianism. The year 2020 has been one of a global pandemic, another economic disaster, and civil unrest brought on by decades of unchecked police brutality. The status quo is no longer acceptable. As British songwriter Billy Bragg argued in the Guardian, social media now fills the role of pop music in the past as a space for youthful dissent -  and appears to be more effective for the time being. Those who've never had to answer to anyone before now find their sacred conventional wisdom on trial - as it should be. 

Just as many viewed Dylan, Joan Baez, or other luminaries in the 60s as a threat to social order because of their creative expressions and influence on the young, the powers that be of today lament the new critical voices aimed at them and also must live with the knowledge they left a heavy burden on future generations - whether it was by electing Trump, supporting Brexit, or their lack of action on the environment.  They will have to adjust to the changing times, as Dylan wrote:

Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don't criticize
What you can't understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly agin'
Please get out of the new one
If you can't lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin'