The view from other worlds

Earlier this year, a friend sent me an essay written about a soap opera – in this case, DAYS.

It was a well written essay, one that appeared in an academic publication. And it poked fun at DAYS, which has certainly had its share of bizarre, unbelievable storylines.

But parts of it also reminded me of soap stereotypes that irritate me. These are the things that the media, and anyone who hasn’t watched a soap, always talks about, always brings up as if it equals “soap.”

The multiple marriages and divorces, the returns from the dead, evil twin sort of things. The stories that seem to capture attention when they’re taken out of context.

Those stories have more in common with an episode of Maury than with the kind of story I loved to watch, but they’re still considered canon.

God (and Irna Phillips) knows that those exaggerated ideas have some truth to them. Soap operas are like the last strands of vaudeville – no matter what, the show’s gotta go on, so if an actor quits, or dies, or decides to break his or her contract, then come Monday at 1 pm, another tap dancing singer has to step into that spotlight.

A few times over the last few years, I’ve talked with friends (and in some cases, strangers) about the connotations they have of soaps, I tell them about two other stories they might be familiar with, and why I think the shows I watched for years actually have more in common with those more well-known narratives.

The Potterverse

Is there anyone alive who doesn’t know the name Harry Potter? It’s doubtful.

Author J.K. Rowling crafted several books that galvanized the publishing industry, and the subsequent movies made stars of the actors and minted billions for the studios.

At its heart, though, the Potter stories tap into some very familiar territory. Harry had struggles with his own family, and found a chosen family in his friends, their families, and other students at Hogwarts.

Set aside the fantastic sci-fi and fantasy elements, and you have a group of people navigating through complicated relationships, through understanding their place in the world, and through the choices we all have in the fight of good versus evil.

When I compare the Potterverse and soaps, it’s all about their shared ability to create a narrative world that not only welcomes the characters, but invites the reader (or viewer) into that immersive world. There’s a reason I used to dream about Oakdale and Springfield, just as many readers and moviegoers dream of Hogwarts and quidditch.

Mad Men

Soaps have a few specific quirks about them, to be sure.

One is the tendency for many shows to repeat or reiterate what’s happened already. The idea, I guess, is that anyone who missed an episode can jump right into the action.

Sometimes this was done awkwardly, or in a dry, boring way. Douglas Marland elevated the recap – via eavesdropping – into an art form during his As The World Turns stint.

And the unusual thing about soaps – the older scenes, at least – is that they often swerve from an on-the-nose recap to a scene filled with subtext.

This is one of the things I loved so much, those small character moments that would let us get a glimpse into a character’s motivations. Sometimes, by not talking directly about a topic, the characters would tell us all we needed to know about their story – their fears, their secrets, their goals.

The modern show that captured this so perfectly? Mad Men.

There are a million examples, but probably the clearest illustration, for me, is many of the early Don/Betty scenes.

We could see their marriage was imploding, even before Betty learned more about her husband’s past, but it was all painted beautifully in small moments, what was said and sometimes, even more importantly, what was NOT said.

The setting – the world of advertising  – meant that symbolism plays a big role in the show, and that’s captured magnificently, too.

The season one season finale, “The Carousel,” tells one story in the words of the narrative, on the surface.  But underneath, it’s capturing the hunger and yearning for connection we all have.

It’s those kind of scenes – like the best soap scenes, the ones that capture those little moments – that stick with viewers.

Think I’m exaggerating? Let this be the one time I tell you: please, actually DO look at the comments on that YouTube clip. They are rapturous, and so many people mention the same feelings.


What soaps and HGTV have in common

Years ago, I wrote a bit of a parody that joked about the similarities between soap operas and porn movies. They’re all done on a budget! There’s disco music in the background! The same actors seem to be in all of them! Okay, it sounded funnier to me at the time. You get the idea.

More recently, I’ve drawn another parallel between soaps and a specific type of reality programming. I’ve fallen down a rabbit hole, readers, and that rabbit hole has HGTV.

HGTV is, of course, the Home and Garden TV channel. There’s not much in the way of Garden these days, but the network’s shows are all about homes. Home selling, home buying and, especially in the post-recession era, home renovation and “flipping.”

I enjoy HGTV, full stop. Yes, I know the “reality” shows there are not 100 percent organically real. But after watching the news – or living it – for a few hours, it’s a great way to unplug my brain for 30 minutes here and there.

And yet…..

After watching consistently for a few months, I noticed that HGTV’s audience is a very curious mix.

It’s a channel where a lot of the shows, and the “reveal” at the end of the shows, are aspirational. This is what you can have in your life. Just remodel and things will be wonderful. 

These shows seem to be aimed, as all shows these days must be, at young women 18-49, the key demographic. There’s also a number of shows that feature people of color, and another segment of HGTV shows with LGBT participants.

Women, people of color, LGBT people.

Oh, yeah, where have I heard this before? That’s also the main audience for soap operas.

And of course, those are audiences that don’t always dovetail with each other. Consider HGTV’s programming.

The channel has a pretty substantial gay following, but there are few visible gay hosts. David Bromstad is the only one regularly appearing on the channel now.

In the last few years, HGTV decided that couples were the way to go. And if you’re a Southern couple? Even better.

The king and queen of HGTV are Chip and Joanna Gaines of Fixer Upper. The Gaineses love rustic country chic and shiplap (look it up); Chip is the clownish dad, while Joanna is the design queen.

They are safe for mass consumption – family values, churchgoing folks with evangelical ties.

And they’ve become a bit of a template for HGTV.  Ben and Erin Napier of Home Town? Same idea, but in Laurel, Mississippi.

I’m not here to diminish their faith or beliefs – indeed, I want to write more about faith and serialized drama down the line – but it remains a curious choice to my eyes for HGTV.

Even the couples that don’t have an overt religious connection are still, well, couples. Couples like Midwestern transplants Eric and Lindsay Bennett, who lead sunny Palm Springs based Desert Flippers.

They’re often Southern couples, like the Napiers and Gaineses, like Dave and Kourtney Wilson, of Masters of Flip, and Ken and Anita Corsini of Flip or Flop Atlanta.

And yes, I know the Wilsons are Canadian, but they are in Nashville flipping homes, which seems to be a popular setting for these shows.

Listed Sisters features twin sisters flipping in Nashville, a show which no doubt follows the template of Kitchen Cousins and of course, the Scott Brothers, who are perpetually on HGTV during the day (and now seemingly in a million commercials as well).

And I’m not dragging down family-centered shows, either. The most charming one, in my humble opinion, is Good Bones, which just ended its second season.  That show has a mother and daughter team running a real estate company and flipping firm.

Mina and Karen, the mother and daughter duo, are charming, funny and quirky, and the other family members working on projects are, too.

Good Bones works on smaller budgets and smaller houses in “transitional” neighborhoods. Mind you, HGTV is still a corporate entity and an aspirational channel. but Good Bones has shown some realness in the midst of the shiny white subway tiles.

What you’ll notice about most of the people I just mentioned? Well, almost all of them, really? That list is primarily white, straight folks.

HGTV does indeed show episodes with people of color, and LGBT people, but primarily as the single episode participants, the ones looking for a house on House Hunters, or buying one of the flips.

There was a pilot for an HGTV show that debuted a few months ago with a handsome, married gay couple at the helm, called Down To The Studs. It was well done, and got a huge response on social media.

Can PJ and Thomas land a spot on HGTV’s lineup?

But will HGTV pick this show up? Would Middle America watch a show with a gay couple flipping houses? Or a black couple flipping and restoring homes?

This is a question soaps have had to struggle with for years.  A diverse canvas for storytelling makes a story more rich, more textured. It can lead to fresh takes on an old idea – Empire being a great example of that.

But it’s hard to tie stories together when you have such disparate audiences.  Many soaps still seem to put their characters of color and their LGBT characters on an island, so to speak.

No doubt, there’s a segment of the audience for both soaps and renovation shows that resist seeing unfamiliar faces unlike their own on their screens.

Corporate influences rule the day these days, and so, too, does the current tone of conversations in the Trump era about those of us who are “other.”

For HGTV, they appear to be genuinely trying to juggle their diverse fan base with their programming, and probably feel like they’ve been inclusive, since they feature LGBT buyers and renters, as well as the occasional short-run show with an LGBT host, like the lottery house show hosted by David Bromstad.

But I’d venture that the biggest chunk of attention for HGTV in the last year has come from Tarek el Moussa and his ex-wife, Christina.

They are the hosts of Flip or Flop – the original version – and their marriage publicly imploded, in a messy, ugly way, with accusations of bad behavior and the couple’s photo plastered all over the tabloids.

And yet….it’s all money in the bank. It was a massive windfall of publicity for HGTV.

So far? The messy, estranged couple with lots of drama is preferable to showing an LGBT couple or a couple or family of color as, shall we say, heads of household. So far. Will it change?


30 years of Designing Women

The women of “Designing Women.” (Internet photo) 

Okay, I know, I know – Designing Women isn’t a soap opera.

And technically, it’s been thirty ONE years since it landed on our screens in 1986. But I’m giving GetTV a pass on that one, because they’re bringing Designing Women back to our TV sets. Thirty years is a great hook – and a great Twitter hashtag too!

I’ve always loved this show, and while it changed over the years, and lost some of its charm – and a few of its finest characters – towards the end of its run, it still stands as a solid piece of work for me.

One thing I truly loved about the show is how carefully defined each character was, and how story emerged from those details. As with the best of soap opera, a well defined character meant the story would often write itself.

As with Maude and All In The Family, the more I watch them, the more timeless they feel. The wallpaper might be out of fashion, and the situation of the episode may seem quaint. But the issues that people are fighting about are the same.

Suzanne was, of course, a predecessor to Karen Walker, but one with a beating heart under all the bravado.

Mary Jo was, as Dash Goff once said, “part calico choir girl………..and part satin dance hall doll.”  

Charlene was everything you saw at the surface – a loving, generous friend, with a quirky stream of consciousness emerging from her brain 24/7.

And Julia was, in every sense, a grand lady – a combination of beauty and brains, with high standards – and no problem letting the people who didn’t meet those standards know about those failures!

Designing Women had Linda Bloodworth-Thomason and husband Harry at the helm, with Linda writing all the episodes during the first few seasons. The consistency in the writing showed in the quality.

I always sort of felt there was a kinship between DW in that era and Guiding Light, which had Pam Long, another writer with roots in the South who wrote about Southern characters, and understood the balancing act – and the conflicts – between old worlds and new ones, always a fertile ground for soaps to cover.

It was no surprise that GL’s Kim Zimmer made a memorable appearance on DW as Mavis, Charlene’s cousin, in a 1989 episode, shortly before Zimmer left GL. It seemed almost tailor-made for Zimmer’s talents.

The way they were….. (Internet photo)

I loved Julia’s epic reads, though I know some people found them a bit wearisome. But I truly loved how she could, as the old Irish saying goes, tell someone to go to hell in such a way that they’d look forward to the journey.

Fans – myself included – remember some of the more iconic scenes – the “night the lights went out in Georgia” speech, an AIDS episode – based largely on Thomason’s own mother struggling with AIDS – as well as Charlene’s WWII fantasy and wedding, and the arrival of Charlene’s baby.

But one of the most moving ones, for me, was an episode called “How Great Thou Art.”

Charlene feels a call to the ministry, and approaches her very conservative church leadership about this call. (You’ll recognize Patrick Tovatt, Cal from As The World Turns, as the minister.)

Meanwhile, Julia is asked to sing at her church, and fears performing the song How Great Thou Art because of her worries about hitting the high note.

It sounds like a simple plot, but it’s a very moving one. Much of the power of it comes from the characters (and of course the performers).  The Designing Women Online website, a wonderful resource for any fan, has a wonderful writeup about this episode. 

Their words say it splendidly – that the show “created and told an emotionally explosive story with no gimmicks or dramatic scenes — simply two women struggling with their faith.” 

Maybe I’m a Pollyanna for thinking there’s an enormous amount of drama in these true-to-life situations, drama that need not involve a chimera (whatever the hell THAT is), or a virus that makes you hit people on the side of the head with a giant rock.

This is high stakes for the characters involved, and for at least one of them, it doesn’t end with a happy ending. That doesn’t make the drama any less meaningful or involving.

And it also makes me wonder why faith was always generic and rare on soaps. It was seldom used, trotted out only at holidays and for weddings, funerals and deathbed prayers.  (There’s probably a whole separate post coming on that one.)

I’ll be checking out the GetTV episodes – even if I do have all the DVD’s already. GetTV, by the way, has a really great library – I’ve especially enjoyed some of the 60s and 70s talk shows they’ve got in their library.

Check out the GetTV site to see where it plays near you.

ALSO: Check out this blog post about the return of DW by writer Will McKinley. He’s an expert on classic movies and classic stars. He’s also quite knowledgable about soap operas, too. You can follow him on Twitter here.

A word about Home Fires

Welcome to Great Paxford......under attack, by war and ITV suits!

Welcome to Great Paxford……under attack, by war and misguided ITV suits!

There’s a great TV drama, in only its second season in the UK, that’s become a favorite of mine. (Season one – or as they say in the UK, series one – played in the US last fall on PBS.)

It’s called Home Fires, and it’s based on the book Jambusters. Like the late and lamented Downton Abbey, it’s a period piece, but instead of post-Victorian England, we’re in that same spot at the cusp of World War II.

It’s a great story, with multiple characters, all deftly drawn and played wonderfully.  It’s become a favorite of mine, despite a long gap between episodes ( two seasons of six episodes).

Despite solid ratings and a dedicated fanbase, ITV (the producing network in the UK) decided to end the series.

This blog sat shiva, so to speak, and blogged the ending of two long running shows we all loved, as my readers will remember.

But this is so different. This show is just hitting its stride, a lovely story, a bit of a slow burn story. It had relatively healthy ratings, if not blockbuster ones, and was winning its time slot. It appears to be a case of a few suits ignoring what the audience wants.

It’s also a show that’s primarily about women, and women over 35 at that, and shows with women seem to have a target on their backs this season.

Two US shows – Castle and Sleepy Hollow – axed their female leads.  The whole Bury Tropes Not Us campaign shows how often female characters, especially LGBT female characters, are killed on our shows.

(Updated to add: LadyPartsTV has a great piece on this, especially re: the new Shonda Rhimes show. Click if you like, but be warned there are spoilers for The Catch: 

I’m not sure why this particular show is being shuttered. It may be, sadly, the unrelenting push for youth programming. It may be that the fans that love this show is a mature one, and we the audience have not (thus far) made the big splashes on Twitter, Facebook and social media that outlets like ITV use to measure success.

Home Fires is a unique band of actors and roles, all wonderfully character based. I haven’t been invested in a show like this in years, and I’m part of a campaign to hopefully convince someone to make more of it – whether it’s ITV or another company remains to be seen.

It’s a long shot, but if you’ve seen the show, these women bond together in the face of astonishing odds to make things happen. Their belief brings life, literally, to places where others thought were riddled with death.

It’s a beautiful narrative, and I’ll lift my pen and tap my keyboard as much as I can, as long as I can, to try and help the cause.

The petition to save Home Fires can be signed at:

Follow @homefiresitv and @savehomefires on Twitter for updates. 

Note: The show is carried here on PBS. Unfortunately, PBS has restricted the ability of viewers to post comments or dialogue about a program or show on their pages, but if anyone has suggestions on how to get in contact with them, please let me know. 

Anachronism: Why are so many shows bad at mining the past?

Mad Men: period piece done right. (Also, I needed an excuse to post a Peggy photo.)

Mad Men: period piece done right. (Also, I needed an excuse to post a Peggy photo.)

There’s been a few recent stories about HBO’s Vinyl, and the fact that HBO recently fired its creator and will install a new showrunner.

I thought the show was dreadful for a number of reasons, but primarily because it mines a lot of territory that Martin Scorcese already covered in many of his movies, and for which he has nothing particularly new to say.

(I’m also biased, because I’d love to create a show covering some of that era in music – but yeah, I’ll let you know when I sell that treatment.)

Vinyl fell victim to one common trap, the “Let’s Make It Really Super Obvious What Era We’re In!”  The premise of the show, and its era, were hammered home again and again.

Yeah, I get it — recreated performances of classic, existing music performances will be a part of this show, but nothing about these scenes, ones that were supposed to be “setting the mood,” felt at all organic. It all felt incredibly posed, and underlined for our benefit.

A few lines of dialogue are one thing, but for me, part of my willingness to buy into a show is how well they navigate that tricky territory.

This is particularly true, it seems, of shows based in the 1960s and 1970s.

There’s a really interesting Amazon series called Good Girls Revolt, based on a book about women journalists, and the pilot was interesting (Nora Ephron is a character in the show).

But it was guilty of the same sort of over-the-top-hey-look-it’s-the-60s business in trying to set the tone.

Yes, we know it’s 1969. We don’t need it hammered home with every line of dialogue. Yes. Vietnam War. Yes, Nixon. Those references end up feeling so forced (and so unnatural).

Granted, it was the pilot, and pilots are not known for emerging fully formed out of the womb, so to speak.

But I think there’s so many interesting things that can be done and said with a period piece, and the fact that it is a period piece doesn’t mean that the audience needs a little bouncing red ball to follow along. We’re pretty smart, after all.

M*A*S*H, for example, allowed the writers to use a previous war (Korea) to talk about Vietnam.

It’s certainly spoken to cultural trends. CNN’s The Seventies’ piece on TV touched on the trend of deeply traditional shows like The Waltons and Little House on The Prairie in the midst of the 1970s, a chaotic decade that saw a lot of change.

In terms of more current or recent shows……

Downton Abbey may have had some softer edges and some sympathies for upper-class British society, but it also had some interesting things to say about class divisions and socioeconomics, a topic we almost never see discussed (even badly) in any US television show.

Call The Midwife is another fascinating show to me, and despite its time period, it’s provided an often unflinching look at the lives of women – their short list of choices, and the ways in which they were limited in society.  It also often brings faith into the conversation (the main midwifery practice, after all, is run by nuns).

Perhaps I was spoiled by Mad Men, a show that managed to hit the right notes so often, a show that was often far more allegorical than literal, and had stronger stories and narratives as a result.

Rule number one, though, was a hard one for Vinyl to learn: if you’ve got to drop anvils on your audience’s head to convince them where they are and what they’re watching? You’ve already lost half the battle.

The Moldavian Massacre Conundrum

Olivia Pope: STILL slaying.

Olivia Pope: STILL slaying.

A few weeks ago, I listed several prime-time or streaming TV shows in my “Steal This” series.

But one of my favorites — ABC’s Scandal — was not on the list.

I’ve long been a fan of the work of Shonda Rhimes. I think she’s hit on a great formula that mixes emotional narrative and tight, well-woven plot in a very heady cocktail, and clearly, with the success of Grey’s Anatomy and now Scandal, it’s been a recipe for success.

But I’m beginning to think Scandal has become a victim of what I’m now calling the Moldavian Massacre Conundrum.

Everyone loves a plot twist, and Scandal certainly gave us a lot of them.

But if you have a steady diet of OMFG moments, wig snatches and twists designed to make us clutch our pearls and gasp, the question then becomes: What’s next?

And often, it must be bigger, badder and uglier than the week before.

The Moldavian Massacre, of course, was the capper to an over-the-top season of Dynasty. And it begs an excellent question: If you have shot everyone in the damn room, or set everyone on fire, where on EARTH do you go from there?

Scandal had become addicted to the OMFG moments (or at least the ABC promo department had).

And indeed, where can it go next? Some people think Scandal’s season 4 ender was a bit of a letdown, but I think it was an inevitable reset for a new direction.

I don’t know if it could sustain the pace it had been at before. Who is the “white hat?” Every major character has blood on their hands of some kind: Olivia, Fitz, Mellie and Cyrus, for sure. Huck has killed more people than most armies.

I get that this is not a story where people hold hands and sing “Kumbaya,” but who the hell do you root for in this scenario? Even the most anti of antiheroes (or heroines) must have some basic rooting value for the audience to give a flip.

Olivia’s parents, played by fantastic actors, are both responsible for hundreds of deaths. It’s hard to have them sit at the dinner table after that, you know?

Fitz ordered an invasion of a country for Olivia (now, talk about a narrative stretch).

I was a longtime Grey’s Anatomy fan, but that show experienced some of the same issues. It became a huge tragedy porn-fest. The guy that shot up half the hospital — that was fun. What made me stop watching was the plane crash. To have to watch that happen, and the aftermath, was just too much for me.

Yes, it’s fiction, but if I wanted to watch incessant ugliness, loss and death, I can watch the news for that.

And after I’d briefly stuck my toe in the water this year, another big tragedy played out with the death of a major character. I get that Rhimes is, by her own admission, ‘dark and twisty.’ But some of this seems repetitive.

It’s a problem that daytime faces, too. Some shows have had this issue, and General Hospital is certainly near the top of the list.

And now, Chuck “Chuckles the Clown” Pratt is blowing shit up and sending in the clowns — and doppelgangers — at The Young and the Restless.

Not everyone craves the type of intimate, slow-build storytelling that I love. I get that.

But there has to be some pacing and balance for any show, and a skilled writer who can weave story well and unmask someone at JUST the right time.

Because otherwise, if you set everyone on fire, what comes next? What has the narrative power to come next? And can you feed an audience’s bloodlust?


Steal This: Grace and Frankie

A different kind of Four Musketeers, no?

A different kind of Four Musketeers, no?

Show: Grace and Frankie

Tenure: One season thus far, available on Netflix now.

Prime property:

  • I’m seeing a theme. It’s called MATURE ACTORS AND CHARACTERS. Jane Fonda is 77 (but looks 20 years younger). Lily Tomlin is 75. Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston are both 74. THESE FOUR ARE THE LEADS.
  • I would literally watch Tomlin and Fonda read the telephone book. They are amazing in the scenes they share together.
  • Despite the new-ish twist in its premise (the two men leaving their wives are leaving them for…each other), it’s a relatively traditional story about family, about friendship, and about the choices we make as we get older.
  • June Diane Raphael is an absolute treasure. She’s been in the supporting cast of many films and shows, but her Brianna is a star on G&F. She more than holds her own with the vets, and makes you root for Brianna, even when she’s being an awful, shallow bitch.

Potholes to avoid: 

  • The first season struggled in finding the right balance and tone, and some of the character elements were laid on a bit thick. The show instantly got better after it stopped reinforcing the broad sketches for the characters — Fonda is Uptight Lady, Tomlin is Crazy Hippie, etc. Knowing Sol and Robert as we do now, it seems so cruel that they would have played the initial breakup scene so broadly, and left Grace and Frankie so abruptly. Once all the characters stepped away from stereotype and began to breathe, the show found its tone.
  • Some of the drama with the children  was unnecessary, and the character of Mallory seems like an afterthought. Mallory is also part of the most dubious birth scene I’ve ever seen on a television show. (It literally looks like a baby falls out of Mallory as she’s standing up. C’mon, folks.)
  • Waterston and Sheen are playing their roles quite differently. I’m not sure if Sheen is being directed to do so, or if he’s using these elements consciously to play Robert, but he’s definitely playing a more prissy, garden-party, Fiesta-collecting, stereotypical gay man. Waterston, on the other hand, has created a wonderfully messy, human character in Sol, a gay man embracing his dream, but still connected to his best friend, the woman who stood by his side for so many years.

I mentioned Grace and Frankie here because I think in terms of content and format, it is very close to what a future soap, future reboot, etc. might look like. And aside from what I assume are sizable salaries for the four leads of this show, it’s probably similar in terms of scale and budget. These are not extravagant sets. Some public spaces are used for filming. It can be done, folks, and look good! Peapack lives!

Like some of the other shows mentioned this week, G&F isn’t much for bombs, guns, doppelgangers or the abuse and degradation of people for eyeballs and Nielsen points. Since it’s on a different platform, it has the freedom to follow a different path.

It finds a lot of drama and tension in navigating the everyday, especially after life has changed so drastically for this family. It acknowledges love but also neglect and mistakes. It says that the people you love can be the ones that hurt you the most. And, in moments that resonate personally for me, it asks what happens when you’re no longer in the midst of the action, what lies ahead when much of your life is in the rearview mirror.

And that’s the question I’ve been asking a lot since my own reboot of this blog. What kinds of stories do we want to tell? What are the themes we can explore? There’s great power in pruning the tree and going back to basics, in curating what works and pushing what doesn’t into storage. There is much to explore, and much is being missed. We need more than bombs and OMG moments, more than hair tosses, slaps and wig snatches. I hope daytime shows and web soaps will steal from some of these templates. If not, we’ll keep finding them on other platforms…..

Steal This: Call The Midwife

“Yes, we ARE judging you.”

Show: Call The Midwife

Tenure: Season 4 just ended on PBS, but you may still be able to catch this season’s episodes on the PBS website. Earlier seasons are also on Netflix.

Prime property:

  • You’re probably getting sick of hearing me say it, but yes, I’m happy to see another mature group of actors. Yes, the main characters at the show’s launch are three young midwives, but the multi-generational cast includes several older actresses. This is not a CW show, to be sure.
  • This show talks about faith in a way that is not preachy and is generally very straightforward. The nuns aren’t put forth as ruler-wielding immovable pillars of the Church, but are shown fighting very real challenges in the world — poverty, lack of medical care, racism and homophobia among them. The women of the show are shown as full, complex characters.
  • Speaking of characters, Midwife – based on a series of books – has such well drawn characters, especially Chummy (played by Miranda Hart), who is awkward and endearing.
  • Another show that knows how to do humor well, especially with Sister Monica Joan and Chummy.
  • This show celebrates women. After seeing the horrifying way that some of daytime’s female characters have been sketched out in the last decade or so (looking at you, Y&R and GH), it’s a joy to see a story that focuses on their intelligence, their strength and their leadership in a community. There are men on the show (hello, Father Tom), but they aren’t the focus, nor are any women fighting over them as a prize. So. Damn. Refreshing.
  • There have been cast changes and rotations, especially this year, after one of the leads left the show, and another actress left briefly to have a baby. But we’ve seen all of our favorites this year in a way that was handled well. We didn’t notice their absence as much, and we cheered when they returned.

Potholes to avoid:

  • For a show that prides itself on realism, and an unflinching look at the struggles of working class Britain circa the late 1950s, it does lay on the nostalgia and the treacle a little too thick every once in a while. It doesn’t happen often, but it gets a little too Touched By An Angel for my tastes every once in a blue moon.
  • The aforementioned cast changes have mostly been a good thing, but some of the new characters are too similar to existing ones (Sister Evangelina and Nurse Phyllis come to mind).
  • Almost all the show’s forays into social issues have been done well, but it gets a big, fat F for its ludicrous season ending story for Patsy. I won’t spoil the character’s arc for this season, but the story seemed like a huge cop out, and an ugly one as well.

Of all the shows I’ve been talking about, this is the least overtly serialized – it’s a hybrid of serial and patient-of-the-week medical drama, a la Grey’s Anatomy – but like Downton Abbey, its PBS neighbor, it revels in its old fashioned storytelling. And people love it – Midwife got huge ratings in the UK and has been doing well in the States, too.

The fact that an audience has shown up for both Downton and Call The Midwife convinces me that people will tune in (or go to Netflix, or Hulu, or AppleTV) for shows that take their time telling a story, and use a whole range of actors to do so. A smart soap, or a reboot of a classic, could achieve the same results.

Steal This: Downton Abbey

“They hired Chuck Pratt again? Surely you can’t be serious! I haven’t the words for it…..”

Show: Downton Abbey

Tenure: The sixth and final season of this wildly popular UK soap-as-prestige-drama will hit the UK this fall and US shores a few months later.

Prime property:

  • Social class and income differences have always been fiercely entertaining topics to cover, as well as great material for actors to explore, and those topics are at the very core of this show. US shows have been reluctant for a number of reasons to explore class differences or income differences in recent years. The reasons may be complicated (conversations about oppression and race, and advertiser reluctance to talk about money at all unless it’s flying out of someone’s pocket), but Downton uses these differences to create tension and tell a story, to great effect.
  • Downton hasn’t been afraid to have a character be the voice of disapproval, or the voice of duty. And they’ve mostly had that in the form of the Dowager Empress, whom the audience loves because (1) The Dowager is sarcastic and funny and often says what the audience thinks, (2) because Isobel loves her, and (3) because Maggie Smith is playing her. “Granny” gives the best reads and it’s always a total shadefest when she’s coughing up truths about her enemies or her loved ones.
  • A period piece is a really great way to tell a contemporary story in a way that allows for some narrative distance, and allows for subtle commentary on today’s world by the actions happening to characters in yesteryear. Some of the more interesting stories in this category: Edith’s child, and the lengths she had to go to in order to bear the child and raise her in an era with no reproductive freedom for its women; Thomas Barrow and the relative acceptance of him as a gay man (albeit an entirely closeted one), the examination of how the “downstairs” people would possibly care for themselves in their twilight years, the look at Judaism, pre-WWII, through both Cora and Atticus.
  • It is, at its best, a romance of the family, of feeling a place of belonging. Whether it’s a biological family, or the feeling of being a part of the Downton tribe, many of the characters declare their love for their home, as if it’s a character of its own.
  • A gloriously mature main cast, with Maggie Smith at 80 and Elizabeth McGovern looking glorious in her early fifties.

Potholes to avoid:

  • The first three seasons of the show were glorious, but these last two have been somewhat torturous, and one of the main reasons can be traced back to the deaths of Matthew Crawley and Sybil Crawley Branson. Killing off two main characters in a matter of episodes was jarring and brought the narrative to a complete, utter stop.
  • Even worse, the surviving spouses – Mary and Tom Branson – have been literally pedaling water for much of the last two seasons. After the first few post-Matthew episodes, his death seldom reads as having much of an impact on Mary’s life. The changes Matthew brought to Mary have disappeared, and while she may have a head for business now, she’s more often shown as a predecessor to today’s Kardashians, attending fashion shows, looking fabulous and being an all around bitch. As for Tom, if I had to hear him say some variation of “I don’t belong here” or “I’m going away” one more time I would have pushed him in front of a milk truck myself.
  • The writers have also beaten the woes of the Bates family into the ground. No one remotely cares at this point. The audience literally wants them to be caught and hung without a trial, because their woes have been ongoing for nearly the whole of the series now.
  • There’s been some fairly inconsistent character development, especially with characters like Daisy, who seem to be more symbolic than actual fully-formed individuals.

I enjoy the show, but I honestly feel like the last two seasons are a “what not to do” list for other showrunners. Telling a story slowly and deliciously is one thing, but Downton went to the well one too many times on many of its stories.

It must also be said that the story that gave the whole show its heart was the tortured union of Matthew and Mary. They were electric on screen together, and it’s important for shows to find some pairing – fraternal, familial or romantic – that makes people want to watch or gives the larger narrative a context or some grounding.

NOTE: The Tom and Lorenzo site is a must-read, and they focus on Downton as well as a Mad Men). Great analysis and a look at fashions and sets, too.

Steal This: Transparent

Jeffrey Tambor as Maura, and Alexandra Billings as Davina, in Amazon's Transparent.

Jeffrey Tambor as Maura, and Alexandra Billings as Davina, in Amazon’s Transparent.

Show: Transparent

Tenure: One season thus far, on Amazon streaming video; season two is in production.

Prime property:

  • It’s a beautiful, compelling premise, centering on a seventy-year old transgender woman, Maura, who decides, after a lifetime of living as a man, to make the transition. This is one of those stories that writes itself; the interactions with her three children and her ex-wife are rich, as well as the flashbacks that tell us how these people got to this point.
  • No one in the main cast is under thirty. Let me repeat that: NO ONE IN THE MAIN CAST IS UNDER THIRTY. Most of the cast is over forty. Somehow, the cameras didn’t break or turn into dust! Yes, you can tell an engaging, edge-of-your-seat story with mature people, a fact that keeps being forgotten in the mad rush for ad demographics and page hits.
  • This is the closest match to the scale and the production values that I think a new serial, or a reboot of one, might have. Transparent used a lot of existing houses and apartments for sets in a realistic way. Yes, there are scenes outside. But it all looks great, and fits into the story. This show didn’t have a huge budget, but clearly it had a workable set design plan, and that’s the kind of inventiveness shows will need at this budget level going forward.
  • One of my favorite performers, Alexandra Billings, plays the currently-entirely-too-small role of Davina.
  • There are revelations involved – indeed, Maura’s transition is a surprise to her children – but it feels more authentic here.

Potholes to avoid:

  • I loved this story and these people, but good grief, the Pfeffermans, especially the kids, are a self-absorbed bunch. Over the course of the season you understand the context in which all of it is happening, and you realize that Maura is no heroine, and is as self-absorbed as they are. But on an individual episode basis, it can be frustrating to watch, particularly the characters of Josh and Ali. Most of the negative comments I’ve heard, where people said they stopped watching after a few episodes, were about this. (Hang in there; it’s worth it.)
  • Some of the peripheral relationships really fell flat. I’m not sure if I’m just too accustomed to seeing Carrie Brownstein in Portlandia, but every time she appeared on Transparent, it took me out of the moment, and I really didn’t buy any of her relationships with anyone.
  • I think this is too much content to really enjoy or completely absorb in a “binge-watching” scenario. This should be an episode at a time, but it’s unlikely that Amazon will change anything next season.

Something about this show really reminded me a bit of the better aspects of daytime. At some point, Maura Pfefferman brought to my mind none other than Nola Reardon. Why? The journey, the changes that the characters make. They are very different people, these two characters, but I sensed some similarities in the ways that they profoundly change in front of our eyes. They undergo a metamorphosis, but at the same time, they’re still essentially the same person at their core. It’s just that finally, another part of their being – one that was hidden for years – is out in the sunlight.

Like Mad Men, Transparent does well with some of the smaller conversations showing us who the characters are. We really see how lost Maura’s children are, and wonder if the ways that Maura hid her true self had an impact on their lives.