One of my clearest memories from childhood is peeking around the doorway from the kitchen to the den as my mother ironed and watched “Days of Our Lives.” A couple lay in bed, the woman in a negligee, the man bare-chested, a patch covering one eye. I was a little scared — what if he lifted the patch! — but more than that, I was totally enthralled, both by the scene and that I was watching television at all.
My parents placed strict limits on what shows my sister and I could watch. Had my father known that we were sneaking peeks of soap operas, he would have been massively displeased. The knowledge of just how illicit my action was, combined with my immediate fascination with these people and their stories, left me wanting more.
Over the next several years, my mother gradually allowed my sister and me to watch soaps with her during school vacations. Maybe she was bored, maybe she was tired of coming up with ways to entertain us, or maybe she simply wanted to carve out some time to do what she wanted. But whatever the reason, I was too happy to bother thinking about it too deeply. I couldn’t get enough of the outlandish plots and intricate family trees, and eagerly listened to all the backstories that my mother could offer.
Last night, British period drama “Downtown Abbey” had its stateside premiere of the third season — to the accompaniment of thousands of excited tweets. And at least for this “Masterpiece Classic” fangirl, one of the highlights of the first episode was the arrival of Shirley MacLaine’s Martha Levinson, the gilded American counterpart and foil to Maggie Smith’s zinger-slinging Dowager Countess. The genteel enmity between them was prefigured when Violet, the Dowager Countess, says before the American Levinson’s arrival, “When I’m with her, I’m reminded of the virtues of the English.” It was an absolute joy watching the two legendary actresses spar high-handedly over the relative merits of British tradition v. American inventiveness.
But even though Levinson’s bold outsider ways, her wry expressiveness and even her refusal to eat crab (as communicated by her maid) may have indicated otherwise in the premiere, it seems she is not a Jewish character. Not strictly, anyway. Many of us were convinced that — thanks to her husband’s name, “Isidore Levinson,” and his fortune as a Cincinnatti dry goods manufacturer — there was strong evidence for Martha’s and her offsprings’s Jewishness.
Sarah Seltzer has written extensively on The Sisterhood about television’s resistance to developing characters of color.
She has wondered why all of the titular girls of HBO’s “Girls,” are white girls, and has challenged the idea that a more diverse cast would make the show any less “real.” “We live in an era in which homogeneity isn’t mandatory for authenticity,” she wrote last week.
And as “Mad Men” returned to the air last month after a 17-month hiatus, Sarah made the case for the hit AMC series to take its portrayals of black characters beyond the symbolic:
While I acknowledge that [“Mad Men” creator] Weiner’s past omission of significant black characters is a direct (and accurate) commentary on the segregated, isolated world his show depicts, after several seasons I grew frustrated with a lack of interiority when he did introduce the rare character of color. This wouldn’t have been impossible to do right. His Jewish characters who came in and out of the picture, for instance, such as Season One fan favorite Rachel Menken, were peripheral to the Sterling Cooper world. But they were crucially allowed to have their own scenes — witness Rachel talking on the phone with her sister, who (rightly) declares that Don is a no-goodnik.
Why not allow the Drapers’ former nanny and housekeeper, Carla, a phone call with her sister? Why not allow one of the few black love interests — Paul Kinsey’s girlfriend, Sheila, and Lane Pryce’s “chocolate bunny,” Toni — their own asides with colleagues or friends, their own chances to reflect on the action?
So it’s not surprising that when The New York Times was looking to host on its website a lively debate about race in primetime, they’d ask Sarah to participate.
If the new HBO series “Girls” lives up to its breathless early reviews, Lena Dunham’s Hannah and her tight-knit group of self-reflective friends seem bound to join the television canon alongside Lucy and Ethel, Laverne and Shirley, and Carrie and Co.
In advance tonight’s “Girls” premiere — see The Sisterhood preview here — I spoke with Lynn Spangler, a SUNY, New Paltz communications professor and the author “Television Women from Lucy to ‘Friends,’” and Elana Levine, who teaches television history at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, about the small screen’s most iconic girlfriends and the generations they defined.
I’ve felt for a long time that the problem with the rise of bromance/male slacker comedy isn’t that it elevates immature dudes into leading men, but rather that it pairs them up with too tightly wound ladies. It’s what David Denby called the “slacker-striver” pairing, and it was popularized by Judd Apatow.
In short: putting women on a pedestal doesn’t help if the men are getting all the laughs. In the world of comedy, having a job and being responsible doesn’t confer privilege — getting the audience to crack up does. So let women be as flawed and wacked-out, as pot-smoking and dorky and physically goofy as the guys, let them garner the laughs as Kristen Wiig did in “Bridesmaids,” and then we’re closer to okay.
That’s why I and many others are so excited for “Girls,” the new HBO series that has received Apatow’s producing imprimatur but is almost entirely the work of “Tiny Furniture’s” Lena Dunham. The show follows a group of very young women struggling to make it in New York City, but early reviews assure us it’s nothing like “Sex and the City: The Carrie Diaries.” It’s apparently real and unglamorous and skeptical of its characters.
This week marked the landmark 200th episode of the CBS procedural “NCIS.” The drama is about a team of agents at the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. (In one early episode, they’re described as “the Internal Affairs of the Navy.”) Led by Special Agent Jethro Gibbs (Mark Harmon), the team members balance their personal lives with the often-grisly cases they’re working on — with the scales usually tipping in the direction of their careers. “NCIS,” despite being one of the nation’s highest-rated shows, has an older demographic and therefore escaped the pop-cultural obsession that celebrates the likes of “Glee” and “Grey’s Anatomy.”
I discovered “NCIS” on a rainy, aimless vacation day, and it has been my secret shame ever since. One of the reasons I’m so attached to the show is Special Agent Ziva David (Cote de Pablo), a former Mossad agent who joined the team in the third season. Despite being unevenly written, Ziva was always compelling: She was tough, fearless and, often, tender. As the layers began to peel away, we learned more about Ziva’s history: Her father, Eli David (Michael Nouri), was the director of Mossad and often placed his work ahead of his family life, even after Ziva’s sister Tali was killed in a Hamas attack. Ziva eventually gave up on repairing her relationship with her father and chose to begin a new life in America, becoming an American citizen and a full member of the “NCIS” team.
The language of soap operas is universal: vexing vixens, meddling matriachs and busy men with even busier zippers. When All My Children joined numerous cancelled soaps with its final episode on September 23, it prompted me to reflect on how the voices gone silent did more than entertain; they helped teach me Yiddish.
Like monarchies before a revolution, the kingdoms of daytime television ruled when coffee klatches and occasional babysitters had yet to be overthrown by power lunches and 24/7 nannies.
The demise of soaps draws the curtain on not just a fading era of pre-feminist entertainment, but what women now consider appropriate to do with their days, or at least their afternoons. Which brings me to my maternal grandmother, a woman who survived an immigrant’s ocean trek, a working mother who raised three sets of twins in the Depression.
While we have been busy looking at women in magazines, Martha Lauzen, executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University has been tracking the rather sluggish growth of women in Hollywood. The Center just released its annual report, “The Celluloid Ceiling: Behind-the-Scenes Employment of Women on the Top 250 Films of 2010” and the numbers are dismal.
According to the report, women made up just 7% of directors, 10% of writers, 15% of executive producers, 24% of producers, 18% of editors and 2% of cinematographers. That means roughly that only 16% of Hollywood bigwigs are women — sadly, a 1% decline from 1998.
In her report made public on the Women’s Media Center website, Lauzen writes that some industry insiders explain this disparity by saying that fewer women are interested in working in film, but she says that simply isn’t true and has film school enrollment to back her up. Others explain the lack of women by suggesting that men are, well, better, as evidenced by their bigger box-office success. Lauzen says men earn more at the box office because their films get bigger budgets, and that studies show that films with similar budgets, regardless of who makes them, fair similarly at the box office.