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Friday, September 2, 2011

Back to School

When I was growing up, Labor Day was "The Day the Earth Stood Still." It wasn't so much because Labor Day signaled the start of the new school year, but because for one day, the Jerry Lewis telethon monopolized the airwaves. No Gilligan's Island, no Brady Bunch, no Little Rascals or I Love Lucy - just Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin yukking it up and singing show tunes.

But back then, for me, television was tightly wound into the fabric of summertime. In the days before playdates and rubberized playgrounds, we (the neighborhood "gang") would spend sunny days roaming free, walking through the woods, playing baseball and tag, drinking Kool-Aid and playing Payday on the neighbors' deck. Rainy days,  we spent as captives of the television, devouring the daytime and early evening lineup on non-network New York stations - WNEW and WPIX.

So it was a particularly cruel irony that, on the precious final day of every summer break, my favorite shows were ripped away from me to make way for the monotony of the telethon. I remember complaining to my parents that I had to go back to school, and arguing that I could learn just as much by watching television.

So, this year, as school approaches, I thought it might be fun to take a look at what would have happened if my wish had come true, and I had been able to attend "TV Land Academy." Here's a sample from the TV Land Academy Course Directory. I've provided YouTube links, when available, for those of you unfamiliar with these classic scenes

Latin 101. Instructor: Mike Brady taught us, Caveat Emptor - let the buyer beware. Mr. Brady dispensed this priceless piece of Latin wisdom when Greg went to buy his first car. The eldest Brady boy (and lead singer of the Banana Convention) was so bent on picking up a new set of "wheels" that he allowed fast-talking Eddie that the screeching engine sound is "the idle, man -- it's the idle." When Greg gets home, though, Mike sets him straight, pointing out that the car sounds like "a flock of geese heading south."

Introduction to Shakespeare. Instructor: Harold Hecuba. When the "famous director" lands on Gilligan's Island, the Castaways decide to stage a musical production of Hamlet. It always amazed me how, on this tiny island with only 7 characters, elaborate costumes, a proscenium stage, and musical accompaniment could simply materialize out of nowhere. Nonetheless, this was certainly my first introduction to Shakespeare, and I often wound up with this musical version stuck in my head while studying "Hamlet" in high school and college.

Advanced Cryptology. Instructors: Batman and Robin. No other show in history would even dare to attempt to plug canyon-size plotholes the way that this series did, usually with uncanny mental acrobatics from the Dynamic Duo and their bungalo-sized computer. My all-time favorite was episode in which the pair figure out that they are looking for a caviar factory, based on the obscure clue, "Ghoti Oeufs". "Gh" as in "rough", Batman coolly reasons; "o" as in "women", and "ti" as in "motion." Put it together and you get "fish oeufs" - fish eggs, or caviar. Holy Deus Ex Machina, Batman!

Health. Instructor: Lucy Ricardo - Lucy's Vitameatavegamin commercial is commonly recognized as one of the top 10 TV comedy moments of all time. It also was the first time that I had ever seen a "drunk" person. Do "health drinks" still contain 23% alcohol?

Driver Education. Instructor: Marcia Brady. Marcia manages to fail her initial drivers' exam by mistaking the ignition key for the windshield wiper control, but she rebounds nicely, thanks to some advice from the usually neurotic Jan, to show older brother Greg a thing or two about chauvinism. Only the Bradys would set up an actual driving obstacle course to settle such a score; I also love how they always put up chores as a wager.

Biology. Instructor: Potsie Weber.  Back in the mid-late '70's, ABC provided two of my favorite things on television: Happy Days and Schoolhouse Rock.One particular episode of the sitcom combined them into perfect package. Potsie, branded a failure by his biology professor (was that Larry King?), makes up the corny but catchy "P-P-P--Pumps Your Blood" to help him learn how the circulatory system functions. By this time, the middle-aged Fonz was having trouble pulling off the James Dean act, and Richie's "Bucko" insult had definitely lost what little "Gee Whiz" shock value it may have packed.

Home Economics. Instructors: Ricky Ricardo and Fred Mertz. When "the Boys" attempt to prepare dinner, they reveal a complete inability to read the side of the box, and create a Blob-like rice monster that fills the kitchen. Bobby Brady committed a very similar error while washing his clothes after rescuing Pandora, the cat, on the refreshingly innovative Brady Bunch.

Project Adventure. Instructor: John Locke. No, "Lost" wasn't on television when I was a kid. At least not in this life. But the show (especially season 1) captures the spirit of what it was like to grow up in the '70's - running, exploring, chasing, and even fighting, with minimal intervention from established authority. At least in contrast to the structured, sterile upbringing of today's kids, my generation's childhood was tinted by a degree of "Lord of the Flies." The season one incarnation of Locke is a superhero of the natural and supernatural - a man who seems to know the solution to every problem. Don't tell him what he can't do!

Do you have any suggested "instructors" for additional courses? Please join in the discussion and share via the comments!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Friday - A Tipping Point?

You've heard it. I've heard it. We've all (unfortunately) heard it. Rebecca Black's assembly-line abomination "Friday" has swept the nation over the past week with a ferocious, wildfire intensity. In case you haven't yet discovered it, it's the most ill-conceived, nonsensical, juvenile piece of fast-food pop "music" ever created. It also represents all that is wrong with society today. And, most painfully, despite all of that, I find myself like Odyseuss tied to the mast, unable to resist listening to this piece of garbage time and again.

But I have no intention of writing a lengthy rant against this affront to our senses and sensibility. Plenty of others have already assumed that mantle on Twitter, blogs, and YouTube. The video has received a proportionately overwhelming number of "dislikes" on YouTube, and the song has been called the "worst of all-time" by many. The "artist" herself has also been the object of many hateful attacks. And while I in no way endorse such bullying, I am fascinated by the intensity of the reaction, and what it represents.

It is my belief - and my desperate hope - that this incredible backlash represents a tipping point - the final straw for intelligent music fans who have finally had enough, for those who refuse to accept the insulting idea that this soulless trash can be passed off as music. If my theory is correct, we have crested the wave set in motion by the Jonas Brothers and Hannah Montana, and are about to be rewarded with several years of a return to great music.

Before you dismiss this theory as foolish optimism, realize that there is a precedent for such a revolution. In the late 1980's, kid-bands such as New Kids on the Block and slick, high-production/low substance acts like Milli Vanilli had taken over the music world. For me, the low-point of this era was January 28, 1991 - the night that Vanilla Ice was given an American Music Award for "Best New Artist." I remember watching the awards and feeling sick to my stomach; was I the only one who could see that Vanilla Ice was neither a musician nor an artist?

Luckily, redemption was only a few months away, and arrived in the form of an auditory shotgun blast known as Nirvana's "Nevermind." The album's lead track, "Smells Like Teen Spirit," ripped its way across MTV and radio stations with tidal wave force, and by the end of 1991 a full-scale musical revolt had taken place. Record stores at the time reported record numbers of returns following the holiday season; kids were returning Michael Jackson's "Dangerous," which they'd received for Christmas, and exchanging it for the raw, Seattle grunge of Nirvana. The King of Pop had been supplanted by a "new" form of music that represented a return to the dark, heavy, gritty sound of early "heavy metal" (early Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Motorhead.)

Of course, this wasn't the first (and wouldn't be the last) time that music made a sonic retreat two decades into the past. In fact, this is a general trend that has repeated itself time and again. After the electric, psychedelic explosion of the late '60's, early '70's pop featured lush harmonies and singer-songwriters (James Taylor, the Carpenters, BJ Thomas, the Partridge Family) that recalled the doo-wop and Brill Building sounds of the late '50s and early '60's. The mid 1980's saw a brief return to late 1960's sounds and fashion (tie-dyed T-Shirts became stylish, the "Monkees" TV show was shown in heavy rotation on MTV, and Prince presented himself as a Hendrix re-invention). Early 90's grunge was a return to the sounds of 1970's guitar rock, and the 2000's of course gave us an overdose of boy bands and divas combined with an over-produced sound that emphasized machine over human - much like the late 80's.

So, what's next? With any luck, we'll see a horde of new bands trying to sound like Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Rage Against the Machine. That will be music to my ears - as long as they can lay off of the auto-tune!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

A Very Brady Surprise

Anyone who knows me well knows that I have always been a fanatical Brady fan. In college, I took great pride in impressing my floormates with the most obscure Brady trivia, and took any possible opportunity to convey the extent of my all-consuming Brady obsession. I can't look at applesauce without blurting out "Porkchops and Applesauce" in the voice of Peter as Humphrey Bogart, and I can't count the times I've admonished my oldest son: "mom always said don't play ball in the house!"

 I may have been an expert on Brady minutiae, but I certainly was not unusual in my cult-like worship of the program. The Brady Bunch was one of the first prime-time network shows to be syndicated nationally during after-school hours. During the mid-late 1970's, almost every elementary schoolkid in America came home every day to watch an hour of the Bunch. The show's warm, fuzzy vibe and innocuous plots combined with the relief of being released from the drudgery of spelling tests and dittoes (remember them) to create an hour of daily utopia. I've read many accounts of kids who grew up in troubled homes, and wishing they could live at 4222 Clinton Way. And even for those of us with happy childhoods, it was easy to get caught up in the fantasy world of silly problems that were solved in 20 minutes.

But over the years, I started to lose touch with the show. In the rear-view mirror of my memory, the show began to appear corny - a colorful, dated relic of the "groovy," "far-out" early 70s. In the cynical 90's and 2000s, it became easier and more fashionable to make fun of the show, laughing at it rather than with it. 1995's "The Brady Bunch Movie," while really funny and terrific in its own right, reminded all of us just how out of touch with reality the Bradys - and by extension, their die-hard fans - were.

Just a few months ago, I admitted to a friend that the Partridge Family was actually superior to the Brady Bunch - it was edgier, funnier, and more sophisticated went my argument. But during the week after Christmas this year, Walmart was running a special sale on Brady Bunch DVD's. For just over 5$ a season, I thought it would be worth reliving some of the childhood nostalgia, although my expectations weren't too high. I figured they'd be good for a viewing or two, and for a few laughs at the show's expense.

Two months later, though, I'm still watching the DVDs every day! My family and I have been through the entire series several times now. Not only has the show retained every bit of its after-school charm, but I was actually amazed to discover that it's also a good show. Sure, the plots are a little bit silly - but those kids can act! Or maybe it's not that they are even acting; maybe they were just very well-cast kids being themselves and having fun in the process. But whatever the case, somehow the Brady Bunch, against all reasonable odds, gets you to suspend belief for twenty-four minutes, and to accept that patchwork family as real.

Here are a few things that surprised me the most upon re-visiting the series:

1) The kids weren't perfectly behaved. Bobby acts like a real brat when he realizes he's the only one who didn't win a trophy. Marcia screams and throws tantrums, most notably when she's kicked out of the school production of Romeo and Juliet, and when she's mistakenly blamed for creating insulting drawing of her teacher ("Mrs. Denton, or a Hippopotamus?") Bobby, Jan, and Marcia all sneak out in the middle of the night. Peter wears a fake mustache to impress an older woman. Greg smokes, drives recklessly on the freeway, and brings the FBI to the house with his UFO fakery...

2) Alice was genuinely funny. Ann B. Davis made some terrific faces. It's like watching a skilled vaudevillian actress - every facial muscle is constantly acting and reacting. Sure, here jokes are hokey, but they fit the character, and Davis' hard work and artistry help to turn the corn into actual humor.

3) The soundtrack music was like an extra character on the show. There seemed to exist dozens of variations on the main theme...clunky, slunky, mischievous, serene, bright, groovy! On the DVD pilot commentary, Sherwood Schwartz mentioned that music director Frank DeVol could "make the music do anything." Watch just one or two episodes, and you'll see that he's absolutely right.

And a few things that weren't so surprising:

1) The show takes a laughably generic approach to pop/rock music! Greg is all bummed out when he gets grounded and can't take Rachel to "the rock concert." Whenever the kids listen to "groovy music" on their huge AM radios, you can hear what sounds like the Dating Game theme blasting out. When Greg becomes Johnny Bravo, his agent works for "Big Hit Management Company." And Davy Jones is portrayed by Bobby and Peter as a guitar-wielding rock god.

2)  The Brady's all live a charmed life. When Marcia loses her diary, Desi Arnaz jr. (the subject of many of her diary entries) shows up to return it. Greg's math teacher, Linda, just so happens to be dating Dodgers' first baseman, Wes Parker, who just so happens to stop by after school when Greg is getting extra help for math. Davy Jones honors a form-letter promise and sings at Marcia's prom. Alice has an identical cousin. And Joe Namath stops by to pay Bobby a deathbed visit, but agrees to play football in the yard after he finds out Bobby's faking...

Most importantly, though, I came to realize that there was no need to view my childhood love of the Brady's as a guilty pleasure. Maybe it's because, amidst the backdrop of the current recession and political turmoil, we all need something happy and safe, like the Brady Bunch. Maybe it's because I'm too old to care about what's cool. Or maybe it's because we Brady fans really had great taste all this time...