Domesticity Again, Domesticity Forever: Cottagecore and Domestic Media History
Caroline N. Bayne / University of Minnesota, Twin Cities


Cottagecore photo by Sonya Pix on Unsplash

I first learned about “cottagecore” during quarantine from its persistent appearance in popular press articles from Vox, The New York Times, and NPR. Cottagecore is a decor, food, and overall lifestyle aesthetic in which its practitioners lean into (seemingly) simplistic, pastoral home life, often rural, or, at the very least, a city bedroom or corner of an apartment draped in lace and dried flowers. Additionally, cottagecore appears premised upon the familiar myth of slow time associated with agrarian living and escaping the hectic pace of city life. It, too, according to these articles, possesses a contemporary quality as it is often described as a result of quarantine living in which home serves as the space where all life occurs. This contemporary quality is also likely attributed to much cottagecore content belonging to video platform TikTok, yet as I discuss below, I find the medium to be of lesser importance than the content. Cottagecore, like domestic practices before it, belongs to a media history dating back to the nineteenth century and the rise of industrialization. As such, popular press articles published this year can’t encapsulate the longevity of cottagecore aesthetics and the ways in which such content reflects and continues a long past of imbuing domestic space with sacred, mythical meaning.

Cottagecore is particularly salient due not only to its current popularity and the intrigue it has generated but also due to its reflection of the trend cultural critic Emily Matchar calls “New Domesticity.” Scholars such as Diane Negra (2009), Elspeth Probyn (1990), and Jack Bratich and Heidi Brush (2011) offer similar analyses of women “returning home” after unsatisfying attempts to privilege professional life over growing a family. “New Domesticity,” as discussed by Matchar in her 2013 book Homeward Bound (the same title of historian Elaine Tyler May’s book on the domestic containment culture of postwar America) is “the re-embrace of home and hearth,” described by its followers as a lifestyle alternative for those who “are sick of long work hours and crappy convenience foods” and who are “ready to return home” (12, 7). 

While Matchar’s book centers interviews with new domestics and her media analysis is limited to blogs, lifestyle and cookery programs, too, have tapped into this discourse of simpler living with several examples of high-profile career women moving to rural settings to start their families. Ree Drummond, the star of Food Network’s Pioneer Woman (2011-), and Molly Yeh of Girl Meets Farm (2018-) have both largely abandoned traditional career life for homesteading and raising their children on familial farmlands in Oklahoma and North Dakota, respectively. Tisha Dejmanee (2019) notes the ways in which such programs “subtly reinforce relationships between nostalgia for the wholesome simplicity of traditional comfort foods and histories of White land ownership and conservative politics” (81). Lineages of family recipes and family lands create a backdrop for programs such as The Pioneer Woman and Girl Meets Farm, part of a group of programs on Food Network, which Dejmanee describes as “Heartland Kitchen” shows.


Pioneer Woman Ree Drummond serves food for her family
Food Network’s Pioneer Woman Ree Drummond

Programming on Food Network reveals the discrepancies between postfeminist domestic time and the need to “have it all” regarding work and family and “new” domestic time. The ordering of postfeminist time is premised upon balancing the duties of home and work, with tips and tricks provided by domestic advisors for capturing and maintaining this elusive balance. Elizabeth Nathanson (2009) names Rachael Ray and her popular program, 30 Minute Meals (Food Network, 2001-12; 2019-), as representative of such. Programs like 30 Minute Meals and their celebrity advisors demonstrate “[finding] pleasure in everyday tasks by carefully balancing multiple demands” (Nathanson 2009, 318). While shortcut and time conscious programs continue to prosper across lifestyle and home networks, “New Domesticity” focuses less on balance and more on taking back one’s time from the demands of neoliberal, late capitalist living. Living in the postfeminist “time crunch,” in which family time is often sacrificed to the demands of work is the precise escapist alternative purportedly offered by new domestic living. While “New Domesticity” and cottagecore living appear to offer satisfying alternatives to the grind of existence under neoliberalism, it is important to identify the ways in which these “alternate” lifestyles look quite familiar. 

In studying “New Domesticity” on television, a term I don’t particularly prescribe to but has come to represent burgeoning questions about contemporary domestic practices, I found that much of this content takes place beyond television screens, despite the intimate relationship between domestic content and television programming since the 1950s. While domestic content continues to thrive on television via Food Network and HGTV, new media platforms like TikTok proliferate with new domestic content. In looking at domestic trends across media, it becomes necessary to frame cottagecore content on TikTok as an immediate relative, borrowing a longstanding and ubiquitous media blueprint for idyllic home life.

The #cottagecore tag on TikTok currently has 3.9 billion views and the homepage features content from popular creators. The videos on this page, from users lillies.apothocary (217.4k followers), hereatthecottage (324.4k followers), and jesca.her (249.k followers) feature content with recurring themes and imagery: rustic home cooking, home/property tours, and aesthetically saturated posts featuring flowers, candles, and warm lighting; cozy and hyper-aesthetically curated spaces make up most of the content. The comforts of home in cottagecore living are very much on display and while these comforts might not look like the most desirable conditions of contemporary homes, such as open floor plans and gleaming white kitchens, the desirability for highly curated and aestheticized space remain the same. The pace of the videos is often leisurely and gaiting, with soft melodic music and voiceovers barely above a whisper.


@jesca.her

What’s your favorite part of Fall, dear? 🍂 I love the coziness and autumn food 🐻 ##fall ##cottagecoreaesthetic ##cottagecore ##autumnvibes ##fyp

♬ Harry Potter and the Philospher’s Stone – Harry’s Wonderful World – Royal Philharmonic Orchestra & David Arnold

@jesca.her‘s cottagecore aesthetics

Much like domestic content on television, the lengths of time, necessary skill, and money to achieve such spaces is left out as to not disturb the mythic aesthetics of slow time and the stark separation between home and work; home as sanctuary or oasis, as cleanly cleaved from the realm of labor is the premise of new domestic content. Home ownership and what Melissa Gregg (2018) calls “temporal sovereignty” are yoked to expressions of home as sanctuary and the bedrock of much cottagecore content. While cottagecore living likely doesn’t imagine the suburbs as its ideal location, the move from cities to suburbs and increases in home ownership after WWII looks quite similar. Lynn Spigel (1992) notes that massive migration of young married couples to the suburbs “offered, primarily to the young adults of the middle class, a new stake in the ideology of privacy and property rights” (5). As such, “the home functioned as a kind of fall-out shelter from the anxieties and uncertainties of public life” and “was predicated upon the clear division between public and private spheres” (Spigel 1992, 6). Cottagecore and new domestic content follows a similar trajectory insofar as private property provides middle-class families and individuals with the space to perform the rituals of manifesting “the good life.” Additionally, cottagecore, much like newly minted suburbanites, in addition to being middle-class are largely white, sustaining the achievement of a nationally recognized “good life” as the domain of a small fragment of the population. In addition to home ownership is temporal sovereignty and the ability to choose how to spend one’s time, which in new domestic content equates to the ability to opt-out of the pacing of neoliberal life, to spend one’s time refurbishing a cottage and baking bread from scratch.


@hereatthecottage

Cottage Tour part 1 ##cottagecore ##farmcore ##cottage ##aesthetic ##fyp ##foryou ##country ##uk ##england ##nature ##house ##tour ##farm ##home ##room ##cosy ##cute

♬ 千与千寻 口琴版 – 口琴伟宝

@hereatthecottage‘s home tour

A life that doesn’t center work is, in my estimation, a radical and necessary exercise in thinking. Kathi Weeks (2011) proposes what she describes as “antiwork politics and postwork imaginaries” in which “The goal is … to claim the time to reinvent our lives, to reimagine and redefine our spaces, practices, and relationships of nonwork time” (168). However, she cautions against adhering to false dynamics that imagine the home as void of labor in the vein of new domestic content. “New Domesticity” does not, it seems, afford the possibility of time being unscripted by nostalgia for “simpler” times, nor the possibility of cultivating new pleasures and ways of being that don’t follow the familiar tread of domestic trends prior. 



Image Credits:

  1. Cottagecore photo by Sonya Pix on Unsplash
  2. Food Network’s Pioneer Woman Ree Drummond
  3. @jesca.her’s cottagecore aesthetics
  4. @hereatthecottage’s home tour


References:

Bowman, Emma. 2020. “The
Escapist Land of ‘Cottagecore,’ From Marie Antoinette To Taylor Swift.” NPR,
August 9, 2020.

Bratich, Jack Z. and
Heidi M. Brush. 2011. “Fabricating Activism: Craft-Work, Popular Culture,
Gender.” Utopia Studies 22 (2): 233-260. doi:
10.5325/utopianstudies.22.2.0233.

Dejmanee, Tisha. 2019. “The Food Network’s Heartland Kitchens: Cooking up neoconservative comfort in the United States.” Critical Studies in Television 14 (1): 74-89. doi: 10.1177/1749602018810923.

Gregg, Melissa. 2018. Counterproductive:
Time Management in the Knowledge Economy
. Durham: Duke University Press.

Jennings, Rebecca. 2020.
“Once upon a time, there was cottagecore.” Vox, August 3, 2020.

Matchar, Emily. 2013. Homeward
Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity
. New York: Simon &
Schuster.

Nathanson, Elizabeth. 2009. “As Easy as Pie: Cooking Shows, Domestic Efficiency, and Postfeminist Temporality.” Television & New Media 10 (4): 311-330. doi: 10.1177/1527476409332394.

Negra, Diane. 2009. What
a Girl Wants?: Fantasizing the Reclamation of Self in Postfeminism
. New
York: Routledge.

Probyn, Elspeth. 1990.
“New traditionalism and post-feminism: TV does the home.” Screen 31 (2):
147–159.

Spigel, Lynn. 1992.
“Installing the Television Set: Popular Discourses on Television and Domestic
Space, 1948-1955.” In Private Screenings: Television and the Female Consumer,
edited by Lynn Spigel and Denise Mann, 3-40. Minneapolis: University of
Minnesota Press.

Stone, Isabel. 2020.
“Escape Into Cottagecore, Calming Ethos for Our Febrile Moment.” The New York
Times
, March 10, 2020.

Weeks, Kathi. 2011. The
Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork
Imaginaries
. Durham: Duke University Press.




Laura Petrie and Performance as Wifely Duty
Annie Berke / Hollins University

petrie

We might as well start where so many episodes of The Dick Van Dyke Show (CBS, 1961-1966) do: with our goofy hero, Rob Petrie (Van Dyke), tripping over the ottoman in his living room. In this incarnation of the show’s opening credits, the supporting cast—wife Laura and son Richie (played by Mary Tyler Moore and Larry Mathews) and co-workers Buddy and Sally (Morey Amsterdam and Rose Marie)—rushes to help a laughing Rob to his feet. This sequence encapsulates the premise of the show, namely the intertwining of work and home for a television writer not unlike the show’s creator, Carl Reiner. As David Marc notes in his book Comic Visions, the divide between home and work in The Dick Van Dyke Show is negotiable, not unlike its sitcom precursor, I Love Lucy (CBS, 1951-1957), in which Ricky might break into song in their New York apartment or where Lucy reveals her pregnancy during a show at the Tropicana. [ ((David Marc, Comic Visions: Television Comedy and American Culture, 2nd ed. (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1997).))]

laura1

A tidy domestic space littered with prat-falls.

Still, we spend more time at Rob’s place of work than at Ricky’s, where the Rob-Buddy-Sally bond establishes the “alternative” or “workplace” family sitcom further developed in later sitcoms including The Mary Tyler Moore Show (CBS, 1970-1977), Cheers (NBC, 1982-1993), even The Office (NBC, 2005-2013) or 30 Rock (NBC, 2006-2013). But unlike many of these other shows and the workspaces they present, the Alan Brady writers’ room of Dick Van Dyke looks like a cozy upper-middle class home, with non-descript wall art, a communal coat hanger, and, in place of a round table, a coffee table around which Rob, Sally, and Buddy exchange zingers and unsolicited advice. While there is a typewriter, and Sally does use it, her desk is tucked away stage right, and the typewriter’s unprivileged place on a solo desk does not lend itself to collaborative work – unless we count performing for one another and for the viewers at home as labor.

laura2

Writers Rob, Sally, and Buddy in their office/abode.

Rob connects the Petrie writers’ room and the Petrie home, and his primacy as a silly patriarch in both “homes” is never in doubt, but this essay is not about Rob, or, at least, not entirely. Instead, let us turn our attention to Laura, the queen of her Westchester castle and a character whose own transgressions of the work/home divide create comedy and conflict, establishing her as a sneakily subversive hybrid of the housewife and the performer, and troubling the distinction between those two roles.

laura3

For the Petries, the domestic space can easily change into a rehearsal or a performance space.

Carl Reiner recently said of Moore: “She was grace personified. She could never take a wrong step…. The fact that she started out as a dancer was indicative of everything she did after that. Her grace was unmistakable. I saw it the first time she walked into my office.” [ ((Cynthia Littleton, “Carl Reiner Remembers Mary Tyler Moore: ‘She Was Grace Personified,’” Variety 25 January 2017 .))] That Moore’s character, Laura, is a retired dancer factors into a series of storylines, including Season 1’s “To Tell Or Not To Tell.” In this episode, the Petries host a party at which, after comedy performances from Buddy, Sally, and Rob, the crowd clamors for Laura to dance. At first, she pretends to demur, saying “oh no…,” but before the people around her can respond, strikes a pose and launches into a boldly mod and seemingly improvised routine: apparently, Laura is no shrinking violet. She proceeds to fill in for a missing dancer at The Alan Brady Show, throwing her household into comparative—read: sitcom—chaos. Rob worries that, now that his wife has returned to her old stomping grounds (so to speak), she won’t want to return to being a wife and mother. The television gods swoop in and nullify this potential problem: while Laura is invited to stay on the show permanently, she is flattered but disinterested in returning to the stage full-time. Thus, the show has its cake and eats it too. Laura could be a dancer, but doesn’t want to, while the begrudgingly egalitarian Rob is rewarded with a contented stay-at-home wife. The Season 3 episode “My Part-Time Wife” has a similar plot, in which Laura serves as a typist in Rob’s writers’ room. Rob, threatened by her talents and seeming ability to balance her home and work responsibilities, is shocked to discover by episode’s end that Laura is exhausted and eager to return to the role of happy homemaker.

What do these plots reveal beside Laura’s competence in all things? The situation comedy is, in many ways, a conservative genre, and Laura’s return to the home is partially mitigated by the fact that it is always presented as her choice and that she understands her work in the home as a difficult and legitimate form of labor. Such plotlines as I have described above position the figure of Laura Petrie as an inverse of Friedan’s “feminine mystique”: rather than struggling with unarticulated disappointment, however, Laura speaks frequently and articulately on these issues without wanting any change in her situation. While we are not yet in “working woman” or Mary Richards territory, this public reckoning with the housewife’s dilemma is a decisive move in that direction.

But that’s not all. To return to the start of this essay, the fuzzy boundaries between home and work not only converts the writers’ room into a familial zone but also makes the home legible as a stage or performance space. Rob and Laura are not just husband and wife but scene partners to boot, finding romantic and creative fulfillment in one another and how they play together and off one another. In the Season 1 episode “Oh How We Met on the Night That We Danced,” we learn that Rob and Laura met while he was a Sergeant in the Army and she danced in the USO. It is love at first sight for Rob, aversion for Laura, so he bribes her dance partner to let him dance with her on-stage. The two perform a romantic duet, the humor stemming as much from Laura’s barely concealed snarl as from Rob’s gangly soft-shoe. Their anti-chemistry chemistry signals Rob and Laura’s compatibility: after all, they somehow know how to sing and dance together, in spite of her initial hostility and their never having rehearsed together. While Rob does step on her foot and break her toe at the end of the dance, this conclusion only serves as the (off-screen) pretext for him to show his caring nature and win her heart. Laura’s injury proves less important than our witnessing their meet-ness as a duo, their marital bliss signaled and performed through a musical number.

laura4

For the Petries, the domestic space can easily change into a rehearsal or a performance space.

Another example of the marriage-as-duet motif comes through in the Season 2 episode, “The Two Faces of Rob,” in which Rob, in researching the plausibility of a sketch for the show, disguises his voice on the phone with Laura to see if she recognizes him. A flirtatious energy passes between the two, leaving Rob worried and jealous of his own alter ego. The same Laura from “To Tell Or Not To Tell”—an unabashed and joyous performer—comes out to play in this episode, purring, cooing, and leaning into the archetype of the restless suburban wife. Could Laura have been duped by Rob’s charade and, in fact, be on the prowl for an extramarital affair?

No, of course not. Yet, again, we see how Laura the housewife incorporates performance and whimsy into her daily life, this example being fairly innocent foreplay; as Robert David Sullivan writes for The A.V. Club, this interaction “implie[s] that Laura likes a little role-playing to spice up the Petries’ sex life.” [ ((Robert David Sullivan, “Examining The Dick Van Dyke Show’s comedy in just 10 episodes,” A.V. Club 12 September 2012 .))] Stephen Bowie of Vulture points out the episode’s “big” reveal: Laura gets off the phone after a seductive conversation with the fairly forward “Dr. Bonnelli” and turns to visiting neighbor Millie. “Who was that?” Millie asks. “Rob,” Laura chirps, returning to the Girl-Next-Door we never really feared she wasn’t… did we? “It is one of Moore’s most delicious line readings,” Bowie justly declares. The episode ends with her accidentally propositioning a real wrong number, believing it to once again be Rob. When Laura discovers her mistake, she is suitably mortified, while Rob is amused and attracted, the scene ending on a long and suggestive smooch. Laura may not perform for pay anymore, but what her character and storylines reveal is the home as a site of play, fun, and style, and who better than Mary Tyler Moore to teach this lesson?

laura5

Laura is unafraid of a little make-believe between spouses.

Image Credits
1. Vulture
2. The Franklin Chronicles
3. Cleveland.com
4. ShareTV
5. Blogspot
6. https://i.ytimg.com/vi/PMCjQV4pXbY/hqdefault.jpg

Please feel free to comment.




Bunker Mentality: Fortified Domesticity and the “Crazy Prepper” in 10 Cloverfield Lane
Greg Clinton | Stony Brook University

title

10 Cloverfield Lane (Trachtenberg, 2016) appears amidst a growing concern in American culture with apocalyptic futures, threats (real or imagined) to national security, and social change that seems to menace the heteronormative, patriarchal family unit. The film features what I have come to know as the “crazy prepper” character, a trope that evolved from earlier indictments of survivalists as dangerous paranoiacs, and is underscored by reality-style TV shows like Doomsday Preppers (National Geographic) and Apocalypse Preppers (Discovery Channel). What makes “crazy” in 10 Cloverfield Lane? In asking this question, I wonder more broadly about the meaning of fortified domestic space in America.

10 Cloverfield Lane offers up the prepper as a psychopathic predator (and ultimately a zombie, as I will argue) — it uses the “crazy prepper” to interrogate the concepts of reality, tradition, and risk. The film ultimately relies on stereotypes of preppers and prepping behaviors — bunker-building, stockpiling food and weapons, etc. — as insane or deviant to achieve its dramatic ends.

The film is framed as a drama about the destabilized family unit. Before the opening credits, we are treated to a miniature tragedy, acted without dialogue. A woman is hurriedly packing a small suitcase. She rushes out the door; the camera settles on two forlorn objects left behind: her keys and a diamond engagement ring. She is leaving her fiancée.

In itself, a woman walking away from the traditional patriarchal stability of marriage is thoroughly “modern” and a reflection of feminist and liberal progress. This scene can also be read as a reflection of traditions unmoored, of the tenuousness of all social structures, no matter how firmly established. Ulrich Beck, in his analysis of the unpredictability of modernity in what he calls “risk society,” points to the “tradition” of the heteronormative family unit as a locus of destabilization since it is both the foundation of bourgeois industrial society and a “contradict[ion of] the principles of modernity” in that it promotes a basic patriarchal inequality. [ ((Ulrich Beck, Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity (London; Newbury Park, Calif.: SAGE Publications Ltd., 1992), 104.))] Thus, by progressively equalizing gender roles, the structure of “family” is undermined. The modern woman is liberated from the “fate” of gendered and sexualized hierarchies. At the same time, radical change encourages new anxieties.

The prepper, on this view, is the man who has constructed a defense of traditional patriarchy. John Goodman plays Howard, a prepper who has “rescued” a young woman, Michelle, from what he claims was a nuclear attack. In her rush to escape her impending marriage, Michelle’s car is run off the road. (Howard caused the crash intentionally, we learn much later.) She wakes from her trauma shackled in a basement, part of Howard’s underground fallout shelter. They cannot leave, Howard insists, since the air outside is contaminated and deadly. A young man, Emmett, is also in the bunker, having begged his way in soon after the “attack.” So the fortified domestic space mirrors an image of mid-20th century American middle class, with the father (knows best) and two (rebellious) children. The mother is absent; the law of the father defends this space, a law which is called deeply into question.

Early in her confinement, Michelle wonders why they haven’t tried to contact the authorities. Howard points to a police scanner: “There’s no one left to call. See that? There’s nothing coming through.” Then, holding his temple as if warding off a headache or the voices only he hears, he blurts, “You think I sound crazy. It’s amazing… You people. You wear helmets when you ride your bikes, […] you have alarm systems to protect your homes. But what do you do when those alarms go off? Crazy is building your ark after the flood has already come!” Howard hones in on the slippage from rationality to irrationality, the contest between sanity and insanity. We are forced, as viewers, to question the notion of sanity as that which corresponds to reality; reality, as we discover by the end, corresponds to Howard’s psychopathology, to the violence of patriarchal domination.

livingroom
Howard’s underground shelter, which includes his book and video library

Howard’s shelter, where the majority of the action is set, is modelled after Cold War-era basement bunkers, although it is extravagant by the standards of a one-room cinderblock hovel. Introducing Michelle to the space, while the camera pans 360-degrees, Howard announces:

As you can see I’ve planned for an extended stay. The hydroponics system keeps the air fresh. Feel free to help yourself to any reading. If you want to watch movies, I have an extensive collection on DVD and VHS cassette[…] The kitchen is fully functional: it has an electric stove, refrigerator, freezer, silverware, and that dining room table is a family heirloom, which means watch your glasses.

A cross-stitched sign, “Home Sweet Home,” hanging above a juke box in the living room (piping out the 1967 classic “I Think We’re Alone Now” by Tommy James and the Shondells) underscores the irony of the home-shelter-dungeon.

jukebox
A “Home Sweet Home” sign and a juke box full of golden oldies do not comfort Michelle and Emmett

The centrality of the link between prepping and domestic space is subtly illustrated in a shot of Howard’s bedside reading: a double-edition of Jack London’s The Call of the Wild, a survivalist classic, and The Sea-Wolf, the plot of which parallels the film itself; a book entitled Surviving Doomsday, which might be an apocalypse survival manual by Richard Duarte (2012); and a copy of Country Home: The Comforts of Country, which is a 1995 interior decoration book with images of country-style homes for inspiration. Taken together, the three books form an odd but coherent framework for understanding Howard and the film by juxtaposing masculine independence, apocalypticism, and domesticity.

reading
Howard’s bedside reading

Howard means to exploit his position of patriarchal control. Beyond the “house rules” that Howard enforces, we learn over time that he plans to use Michelle as a forbidden sexual object, fetishizing her as a replacement for his absent daughter. He is a sinister photo-negative of Father Knows Best from 1940s and ‘50s TV. “Hands to yourself!” he declares, invoking a fatherly injunction against sibling rivalry, although the viewer understands this to mean Howard wants Emmett to keep his distance from the sexual target, Michelle. In a scene at the dinner table, Howard tries to maintain the pretense of familial decorum, but explodes when Michelle begins to subtly flirt with Emmett. Michelle’s subversion of the artificial sister-brother relationship reveals Howard’s desire for violent transgression. The ruse of familial care unravels.

This sense of perversion, of an uncanny domestic space in which sexual taboos may be violently violated, is heightened by Howard’s insistence that he is “not some kind of pervert” when he resolves to keep an eye on Michelle as she urinates; he watches her “for [his] own protection.” The strength of his disavowal of perversion is subtly ironic; the viewer and Michelle are immediately suspicious of everything Howard says. What is true, what is false, what is sane, what is perverted: all these are entangled in the bunker.

zombie
Howard transformed into a zombie

In her attempt to escape, Michelle out-maneuvers Howard by dumping a barrel of toxic chemicals, burning Howard’s body and face, transforming him momentarily into a zombie, fully revealing the “truth” of the father as monster. Michelle escapes to the outside world… where she actually encounters an apocalyptic alien invasion.

The inside, it turns out, is as awful as the outside; but outside, Michelle has the chance to become an action hero, a woman of action. She is super-able, over and against the zombie-patriarch. After skillfully dispatching some aliens, Michelle drives off in search of the resistance movement. The bunker defends patriarchal domesticity, an interior dystopia whose laws are violent and in which the “crazy prepper” is installed as the ultimate American pragmatist whose goal is to entomb and enshrine “the family” while denying the potential for action in an exterior reality that undermines those power structures.

Image Credits:

1. Author’s screen grab.
2. Author’s screen grab.
3. Author’s screen grab.
4. Author’s screen grab.
5. Author’s screen grab.

Please feel free to comment.




I Lost my Wife to Facebook, and Other Myths that Might be True

by: Michele Byers / Saint Mary’s University

Collective Facebook

Collective Facebook

I first heard about Facebook a few months ago. My cousin, an undergraduate student, was having dinner at my house and mocking my husband mercilessly about his MySpace page. MySpace, she intoned, was over; Facebook was “it.” As a scholar of media, she found me guilty of not keeping up with the times. The Internet isn’t really one of my main research areas, I reasoned; I barely have time to keep up with my email. But I was intrigued. The only way to get into the Facebook system is to sign up and in so doing get a page of one’s own. I did so. A bare bones page… but four hours later I was still “on” Facebook, complaining to my husband about how few old friends I could find.

Facebook is a social networking site or social utility. It has one of those dizzying pedigrees we associate with the Internet age. In 2004, its creator, Mark Zuckerberg, began with the idea of developing an online version of the paper facebook produced for incoming students at Harvard, where he was a student. In less than a year he had dropped out of school and moved to California. Within the next six months, Facebook was made available to students at most universities in the US, soon high school students were invited to join, and networks were expanded to include Britain, Canada, and Australia. Less than two years after it began, Facebook opened its doors to the general public and was estimated to have 12 million users. Today it is said to have as many as 20 million users as rumours circulate that a buyout for as much as 2 billion dollars is in the works.

Mark Zuckerberg

Mark Zuckerberg

Facebook is a strange place. You can provide an almost unlimited amount of personal information on your page. You can post pictures. You can engage in an ongoing commentary about your life, minute by minute. The system also creates a running mini-feed that lets you know every minute change any one of your “friends” effects on their pages. You can invite people you know and strangers to be your friends, to come to social events, or to join Facebook groups that you start or are merely a member of. A lot of people use Facebook like email. It’s a place to chat and to keep people informed about your life. But for some people — and this is how I, and I suspect many people my age (the over 35s, who are even older than 25–34 year old “oldies” discussed in one recent Globe & Mail article), get hooked on Facebook — it’s a place to find old friends that we weren’t likely to track down anywhere else. And this is where, I suspect, we differ from younger cohorts of Facebookers who probably aren’t as nostalgic as we are… yet.

Nostalgia is a definite key for many of the Facebookers I know — and I can’t quite believe how words like Facebooker and Facebooking flow out of me after just a few short weeks of interface. While quite a few of my “friends” are people I work with, live near, or am related to, the ones I really seek out and the ones I, in a sense, have thus far derived the greatest satisfaction from being connected to, are the old friends I lost touch with along the way. Frederic Jameson says that “an addiction to the photographic image is itself a tangible symptom of an omnipresent, omnivorous, and well-nigh libidinal historicism” (18), one that “cannibalizes” the past into a cacophony of “overstimulating ensembles” (19). This is an apt description of Facebook for many users (and perhaps of many users as well).

An April 23 editorial in the Toronto Star makes the libidinal quality of the Facebook experience explicit by suggesting that social networking sites are now rivaling Internet pornography for sheer number of users. Jen Gerson writes, “though the website du jour may change, the desire to be connected all the time isn’t going to go away among the youth cohort.” I agree, although I think the focus on youth misses the fact that people in their 30s, 40s, 50s (and so on) are increasingly using social networking sites to stay connected with their pasts as well as their presents. Here’s one example: I recently invited one of my best friends from high school, a busy working mom with four kids, to join Facebook. She so rarely responds to her email, I thought she’d just delete it. But, just a week later she sent me a message (on Facebook) saying she just couldn’t keep herself from trolling the system looking for old friends.

Linda Hutcheon makes the important point that a predilection for seeing postmodern culture and its artifacts as inherently nostalgic is something to be cautious of. She’s right of course. Nostalgia often implies the longing for a mythic past, whose doors, always barred to us, make what is behind them infinitely desirable and whose completedness masquerades as simplicity, as authenticity, as a time that was really “real.” We can go home, but we can’t go home. In her recent book, Giving An Account of Oneself, Judith Butler argues that one of the problems of doing so — of giving an account of oneself — is that there is always an originary part that we cannot know. A piece that is beyond language and memory but that is nonetheless foundational to who we are. We are, on some level, aware of this, and search for ways of contacting or connecting with this originary part for which we have no vocabulary of enunciation. This may be part of Facebook’s appeal. Many people are casting around in its multitudes looking for connections to a past they feel cut off from; from parts of themselves they think might be lost; for threads of a narrative that will allow them to give a fuller and more complete account of themselves.

And yet, is there an ironic aspect of Facebook? Is this type of postmodern cultural production/immersion (as we are both in it and, in a sense, co-producers of it) simply a reification of a mythic past, a giving in to longing for something unrecoverable, or do we engage with Facebook via an “ironic distance,” or both (Hutcheon)? Hutcheon argues that irony and nostalgia are both responses to things, rather than things in and of themselves. Facebook can be read as a space where irony and nostalgia co-exist, especially for those who use it to seek out the past. The pages and groups people create are genuine but evidence a type of ironic distancing that comes from a recognition that the people reading are, in some sense, at a temporal distance. These groups play a bit like the newest ad in the Diet Pepsi “Forever Young” campaign. Called “Make-Out,” the ad features a couple in their thirties who wish they could make-out like they did when they were teens… flash to them making out in the grocery store and at parent-teacher interviews to the 1983 Bonnie Tyler power-ballad “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” Happily, they return to their present, but with the recognition that Diet Pepsi keeps them young, connected to their youth… like Facebook.

Facebook T-shirt

Facebook T-shirt

Ironic, nostalgic, Facebook does have a high school quality. One friend told me she had resisted joining because of an experience on an earlier social utility: she kept looking for ex-boyfriends and their new girlfriends, comparing the “coolness” of their sites and hers, comparing the numbers of friends each had. It was, she finally explained, like being back in high school. Alyssa Schwartz, in the Globe & Mail, discovered similar invocations of a “high school mentality,” finding Facebook guilty of “bring[ing] back behavior that went out with plaid shirts, Tuff boots and Nirvana.” Note how Schwartz’s invocation of high school, here coded through fashion and music, marks the ironic nostalgia of Facebook participation, but also locates “old” Facebookers as people who were teens in the 1990s, not the 1980s (shoulder pads, doc martens, and Madonna), 1970s (hot pants, platform shoes, and Led Zepplin), or 1960s (mini skirts, saddle shoes, and The Beatles).

There is clearly much to be studied in the worlds of Facebook. The desire to network the past in the present, the availability and massive usage of this technology, certainly warrants closer examination.

Works Cited
Jen Gerson. “Social Networking rivals porn on Web.” The Toronto Star. April 23, 2007.
Linda Hutcheon. “Irony, Nostalgia, and the Postmodern.”
Fredric Jameson. Postmodernism or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke UP: 1991.
Alyssa Schwartz. “Grownups get their Facebook fix.” Globe & Mail. March 31, 2007.

Image Credits:
1. Collective Facebook
2. Mark Zuckerberg
3. Facebook T-shirt

Please feel free to comment.




Children Playing in Hollywood

by: Judith Halberstam / University of Southern California

Little Children movie poster

Little Children movie poster

Todd Field’s Oscar nominated feature, Little Children, received rave reviews in 2006 for its careful depiction of the hopes and fears that nestle beneath the surface in suburban heterosexual America. In the film, a veneer of serene family life quickly gives way to reveal a shadow world replete with sexual menace and fascinating perversity. In fact, the promise of Little Children lies in its apparent commitment to exposing the hypocrisy of bourgeois suburban Christian morality. And, pedophilia serves, at the beginning of the film, as a marker for the witch-hunting propensities of white “neighborhood watch” societies and lets the viewer believe that the film’s narrative thrust involves a hard and long look at the inadequacies of heterosexual marriage and the lengths to which suburban heteros will go to find scapegoats for their own deep wells of loneliness.Little Children tells three interlocking stories: in the first, Sarah Pierce (Kate Winslett) sits apart from the other suburban mums at the local playground and marks her distance from their parochial and repressive enforcement of social norms. Pierce, as her name implies, can see through the judgmental stance of the mothers and unlike them, she is not afraid to admit to her dissatisfaction with marriage and motherhood. When an attractive stay at home dad, Brad Adamson (Patrick Wilson) appears at the playground, her interest is piqued. Sarah is unhappily married to an older man, Richard (Greg Edelman), who spends his spare time absorbed in internet porn. Again, as his name implies, Richard is purely and simply a dick and we are at a loss to understand why Sarah has married him. Brad Adamson, on the other hand, also carrying an allegorical name implying some kind of oedipalized masculinity, is a law student married to a cold and driven wife, and he is struggling to hold on to some fragment of his youth before disappearing into the career she has fantasized for him. Finally, in this suburban Greek drama, enter Ronnie McGorvey (Jackie Earle Haley), an odd looking and shy middle-aged man, newly released from jail for pedophilia. Ronnie (notice the childish name) lives with his mother in a dark house full of childhood dolls and miniatures and he is persecuted by a neighborhood cop who retired under suspicious circumstances and who now makes it his duty to spy on McGorvey and warn the neighborhood against him.

Critics like A.O. Scott in the NYT and Carina Chocano in the LA Times were wild about this film and praised it for the beautiful camera work, the melding of menace to coziness in its sunny settings and the subtle and intelligent dissection of suburban dysfunction. The film, however, is actually a strangely crude and ultimately hateful confirmation of the very same moral structures that it seems at first to be critiquing. To my mind this weird cycle by which the very conditions of unhappiness at the start of the film become the resolution at the end, the diagnosis becomes the cure, is representative of the narrative code of many liberal Hollywood films, like American Beauty for example, and it allows very conservative cultural texts about sexuality and domesticity to pose as radical and alternative ones.

Let’s see how Little Children manages to sneak normativity into the plot as resolution for the problem of the community enforcement of …normativity! The schema of the film works almost off a blueprint for psychoanalytic family structure: Sarah does not want to be a mother to her daughter and her husband does not want to be a husband to his wife. She fails to be mother, he fails to be father and in fact, in their first encounter in the film, she catches him masturbating in his study setting her up as the castrating mother to the naughty auto-erotic son. Brad does not want to be a father to his son but would rather remain a son (Adamson) and he watches teenage boys skateboarding in the evening when he should be studying, longing for the freedom implied by their flights through space and time. Ronnie cannot transition from being son to his mother to being a husband to an adult woman (as we witness in a painful date scene) and he regresses into boyhood as soon as he re-enters his mother’s house. Seemingly, the problem here is heterosexuality writ large with its imprisoning structures of normative gender and its suffocating modes of domesticity. People get married for all the wrong reasons, the film implies, and the society insists that they replace their parents by becoming them.

Brad and Sarah at the pool

Brad and Sarah at the pool

And the first half of the film does indeed begin to unravel the social compulsion to conform, externally enforced and internally incorporated, that produces judgment, anxiety, fear and desire as its monstrous byproducts. The scene at the neighborhood pool, where Sarah and Brad are bathing in the sunlight of their newly ignited desire and where poor Ronnie is pegged as a predatory pervert and treated like a shark in the water, dramatizes the collision between fear and normativity that produces both the pervert and the conditions of his desire. But all of the tension of that scene, all of the criticism that it directs at the moralistic parents who use the notion of protecting their children as an alibi for outrageous behavior, disappears instantly when the cautious sympathy that the viewer has developed for Ronnie is erased by the revelation that he is not a suspected pedophile who is being unfairly treated but a real pedophile who also hates adult women and deserves our contempt and the violence of his neighbors.

Ronnie and his mother

Ronnie and his mother

Ronnie’s descent from wronged innocent to hideous pervert is matched in the film by the shift of sympathies away from the adulterous duo, Sarah and Brad, and towards the happy families that these infidels have disrupted. The porno obsessed Dick and the frigid Kathy suddenly seem like tragic victims of the selfishness and greed of their dysfunctional and adulterous spouses. While Sarah and Brad were the victims of their marriages when the film began, at its denouement the film refuses to make them the heroes of their adultery. So, if adultery is not the escape and the cure for a bad marriage, what is? Apparently, returning to the bad marriage is the only answer that the film can offer, oh and “grow up.”In the film’s crazed resolution, Sarah and Brad have decided to run away together. Sarah goes to wait for Brad in the playground and we see her willfully say goodbye to her daughter, choosing sex over family, desire over nurturing, her own happiness over the child’s. Brad leaves his home too but stops on the way to the playground to watch the skateboarders. In the meantime, who should enter the playground but our abject third, the perpetual outsider, the inhuman pervert against whose desires, Sarah and Brad and their spouses all seem pure, of course, Ronnie. Ronnie, we think, wants to hurt Sarah and a tragedy seems to be in the making. But no, goodness and truth, thank God, win out over perversity and evil and so while Brad hurts himself in the skateboard park trying a stunt for which he is too old, Sarah witnesses the self-castration of Ronnie. He looks up at her from the bench upon which he sits, lifts his hands from his crotch and reveals a bloody mess and a knife. Could anything be more blatantly Freudian than this diagnostic manual ending? The man who still thinks he is a boy falls off his skateboard and hits his head, when he comes to he realizes he loves his wife and in that moment he becomes a man. The woman who wants to be a daughter rather than a mother sees in Ronnie the disasterous results of poor parenting and rushes home to her child and her porno husband. The poor pervert who cannot become a man and wants to harm children serves as a warning to all who stray even a little way from the domestic lair in suburbia: if you cannot grow up and reproduce a replica of your parents’ home, his character implies, you will do horrible things to innocent people. And if you cannot control your impulses, you must be castrated.

Sarah and her child

Sarah and her child

The plot summary I have given here surely does not sound like the same film that critics hailed as “quietly devastating” (Peter Travers) and “intelligent” (A.O. Scott). And yet, I have not embellished the plot, its conceits or its imagined solutions to the problems introduced by each character. Why would critics see this sophomoric understanding of desire and domesticity as complex, intricate and subtle? And why raise the topic of pedophilia as a way of discussing suburban witch hunts only to transform it into a trope for what is wrong with suburban heteronormativity? In the end, we are asked to believe, there is nothing wrong with the family, nothing faulty about hetero marriage, the only problem in suburbia is indeed the lurking pervert who wants to harm you and your children. In a security age, perhaps, we cater to existing fears and we are complicit in creating new ones all so that, apparently, in the end all we can ask is that the state protect us from the very thing that it has manufactured as the cause of our alarm.

Image Credits:
1. Little Children movie poster
2. Brad and Sarah at the pool
3. Ronnie and his mother
4. Sarah and her child

Please feel free to comment.




Trauma Time: Family, Community and Criminality in Close to Home

The Cast of Close to Home

The Cast of Close to Home

There is something very odd about Close to Home, the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced CBS legal drama about midwestern prosecutor and new mother Annabeth Chase. Just what gives it its singular feel is hard to pin down; at first I attributed it to the fact that it displays some of the same kind of postfeminist incoherence on view in recent films such as The Stepford Wives and Down with Love. Later I began to notice how consistently the series seemed to match Kathleen Stewart’s description of contemporary US culture in terms of a formulation she designates as “trauma time.” For Stewart, “trauma time is a haunted peripheral vision that demands hypervigilance” and “community and the public are entities that come into existence in the face of risk or at the precise moment that crime and criminal elements become visible as surrounding presences.”1

Close to Home, which consistently wins its Friday night timeslot, is described by CBS as tearing away “the façade of suburbia to reveal that sometimes quiet and tranquil streets can hide the darkest of crimes.” While perpetuating a trend in recent series television toward new acknowledgements of the simulation of community (despite the geographical specificity in its rendering of Indianapolis, this is just as ersatz a locale as Gilmore Girls’ Stars Hollow, or Desperate Housewives’ Wisteria Lane) it also invests its sense of place with ominous tones generally atypical of female-centered dramas. Thus, the flag draped over a white picket fence to close the credit sequence bespeaks standard-issue patriotic familialism but the sequence also includes an aerial view apocalyptic sky reminiscent of the urgency of SUV ads.

Similarly conflicted is the series’ portrayal of prosecutor Annabeth Chase which participates in a broad representational trend toward the depiction of motherhood as the all-purpose site of female subjectivity. Yet it twists this formula by suggesting that Annabeth’s motherhood constitutes a workplace asset and renders her uniquely perceptive about/sensitive to the dilemmas of suburban female experience. Newly returned to work after the birth of her daughter, Annabeth’s prosecutorial interventions are carried out in the name of an idealized female maternity.

Yet Annabeth’s return to the workplace is initially complicated by her distress at having lost out on a promotion because she won’t work the long extra hours required. Close to Home accepts rather readily that Annabeth must pay a penalty for her two month maternity leave and relishes the prospect of conflict between Annabeth and her new boss Maureen, a single woman who acknowledges that she’s “made this job [her] family.” Close to Home thus initially exhibited a postfeminist propensity for setting women in conflict with each other and a studied avoidance of systemic/institutional critique. Although it has backtracked lately on its representation of female workplace competitiveness, the series continues to stress Annabeth’s role in focusing our judgment on a variety of women who abuse their sexuality, spurn their family commitments or neglect to honor the series’ highest value, motherhood. Since its inception Close to Home has attracted an unusual level of attention by critics who consistently read it as a barometer of shifting cultural norms around women and work. Writing in The New York Times,
Ginia Bellafante recently noted that while Annabeth is a “careerist permitted full access to all of her womanly inclinations,” she also “would seem to be the one working mother in the country exempt from the double shift.”2

One of the series’ most interesting features is its contingent and provisional conceptualization of neighborliness, communal safety and cohesion. When in the pilot an abused wife and mother reveals that her husband kept the family hostage in their home for two years one of Annabeth’s colleagues skeptically responds, “In this neighborhood? I don’t think so.” But here and henceforth it becomes clear that there is indeed a crisis of social neglect within suburbia. In keeping with the series’ anxious juxtaposition of Annabeth’s idealized family life with the proximate criminal “outside,” shots of the imprisoned family’s burning home are intercut with warm scenes of Annabeth bathing her daughter at home on a neighboring street. Through strategies such as these Close to Home vividly enacts a televisual equivalent of the aporia that characterizes many domestic cinematic narratives which exhibit a “nostalgia for an untainted sense of belonging” while “the impossibility of achieving that is also the catalyst for fantasies about recuperation and healing.”3

Twin Towers

Twin Towers

Accordingly, Close to Home rigorously schools its viewers in the belief that happy domestic scenes (except those set in Annabeth’s own household) are deceptive. Annabeth and her colleagues face case after case of domestic disorder and her job continually requires her to prove in court the falsity behind apparently happy family lives. Since its broadcast premiere in autumn, the series has featured plotlines including:

• an outraged wife killing her husband when he decides to end their marriage despite her
accommodation to his desire for sex with multiple partners;
• a neighborhood prostitution ring comprised of unfulfilled housewives
revealed to be doing its networking through the local school system;
• a surgeon killing his wife at the point when she is about to bring to light his dependency on prescription drugs. The surgeon pins the crime on a young black man his wife had been mentoring, telling Annabeth and her team that his wife “was never very good with boundaries and she was always bringing her work home with her.”

All of these crimes take place, it is suggested, in close proximity to Annabeth’s home, producing the effect of a simultaneous romanticization and excoriation of suburbia across the series. At home where Annabeth typically retreats after the jury brings in another verdict in her favor, her husband is always available for reassuring and congratulatory conversations and the couple’s home and infant daughter are viewed in lambent scenes of contentment. It seems clear that Close to Home needs a traumatic context in order to stage the pleasures of domestic felicity. At the same time, its intense aesthetic overvaluation of family and domesticity make these scenes of Annabeth’s home life seem dreamy and unreal. Unwittingly or not, this new female-centered legal drama reveals how deeply any formulation of “family values” is dependent on its others.

Notes
1 “Trauma Time: A Still Life,” in Histories of the Future. eds. Daniel Rosenberg & Susan Harding, Durham: Duke U P, 2005, pps. 333 and 337 respectively.
2 “The Crime-Fighting Working Mom,” The New York Times Dec. 15, 2005, p. B1.
3 Elisabeth Bronfen, Home in Hollywood: The Imaginary Geography of Cinema. New York: Columbia U P, 2004, p. 21.

Links:
Close To Home

Image credits:

1. The Cast of Close to Home

2. Twin Towers

Please feel free to comment.




TV Revisiting TV: Why TV Does the “Remake” Better than Movies Do

Bewitched Remake

Bewitched Remake

This summer I had the great misfortune of paying money to see the remake of Bewitched on the big screen. Normally I don’t take to filmic versions of TV shows, or even continuations of TV shows in my local theater (a la The X-Files, Serenity). My primary reason has been that since Hollywood remakes of films rarely work, why should I trust the industry to remake a TV series? Still, I had hopes for Bewitched (Will Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Nora Ephron — and a robust original source). I was sorely disappointed (an assessment clearly shared by Amy Sherman-Palladino of The Gilmore Girls, who has been skewering Ephron’s film this season every chance she gets).

“Remakes” are nothing new in the world of TV, either — but the “re-making” we see tends to be of a different sort than what occurs in film. Occasionally we do indeed get the literal remake (Night Stalker), but more often we get one of three versions of the remake: 1) the quasi-rip-off (Invasion=Lost, kind-of-sort-of with aliens; Commander In Chief=West Wing, kind-of-sort-of with a woman), 2) the second cousin (all versions of CSI, Law & Order), and 3) the re-visitation (The X-Files as a spin on and re-examination of the original Night Stalker — which raises the interesting conundrum of whether the current Night Stalker is a remake of the original, or a re-visitation of The X-Files‘ re-visitation).

I lay out these trains of thought because I would like to examine how it is that TV is able to do just about any kind of the three remakes above more successfully than Hollywood films do TV remakes (in general — did like The Brady Bunch movie and the first Charlie’s Angels, and all things Muppet-related tend to rock) — and why does Hollywood even try? To begin with, let us put aside the “crasser” reason of Hollywood going after old TV shows for reasons of profit, since television certainly engages in this logic as well. Good reasons still exist for remaking a TV series (or an old film, for that matter): the original sucked but the premise showed promise; the original left something significant unsaid; or the driving force behind the original premise remains or has returned. These reasons often converge historically, making room for the successful and purposeful remake. Thus, I politely disagree with one of Owen Gleiberman’s explanations for why the movie Bewitched failed: “When you strip it [a TV show story] away from its era…what you’re left with is the premise without purpose” (“The Big Screen Gets Small,” Entertainment Weekly. #844/845, October 14, 2005. 27-29). While Bewitched the TV show certainly was a distinctively 1960s show, the central force driving its premise remains with us today: women still live with a cultural pressure that encourages them to “hide their true powers” — especially when attempting to become romantically involved with a man. While this pressure is nowhere near what it was in the 1960s, nor is it of the same kind, it is a pressure many women can relate to that might have been successfully translated into the movie remake.

Or perhaps the problem is that many in Hollywood still don’t “get” TV…More precisely, perhaps it is that films, with their roughly two hour limitation, cannot recapture what it is that any TV show does best: capitalize on the advantages of the series aesthetic. Gleiberman offers this explanation when he points out that viewers don’t seem to be clamoring for big screen versions of those shows that have been most firmly wed to the series aesthetic of slowly building character and story (he mentions shows such as Mary Tyler Moore — and ironically Dallas, which is being talked about as a movie now). These aesthetic elements exist at the very core of TV as a primarily series-driven medium, and they allow for the time and room necessary for a successful remake of an earlier show. It appears that, still today for some, TV is the “bastard child” of film — seen as simply “smaller” and therefore less sophisticated in what it might achieve. Certainly a film can do it better! This, as Gleiberman astutely observes, misses the point of TV for many viewers: “Our whole relationship to a dramatically rich and vivid television series, the way that we live with the characters for 5 to 10 years, their quirks and wrinkles deepening week to week, isn’t really translatable to a movie” (29).

While I could speak for ages about how often cultural critics miss this key element of TV (we all, I am sure, have heard the two famous lines “well, I haven’t seen it, but…” and “all I needed to see was one episode to know that…”), I would like to instead look briefly at two current TV shows’ version of the remake, inviting discussion about whether or not you agree that these are successful — and perhaps if there are other remakes out there we have not caught onto just yet. I will start with Bewitched. Yes, that’s correct — Bewitched. Beginning last season with the episode “Anything You Can Do,” in which Lynette (played by Felicity Huffman) attempts to help her husband with his ad campaign, I do believe we have been watching Desperate Housewives revisit Bewitched — at least with this one character (and with the nosy neighbor). Lynette gave up her powers (at the ad agency) for the sake of home and husband, but clearly she is itching to wiggle her nose and get back to work (paid work, that is). And indeed, this season to-date has focused on what happens when she returns to the work force and her husband Darren (sorry, Tom — equally bland) has to keep an eye on the kids. Such plotlines could not have been fully broached in the 1960s — we could only occasionally see Samantha try her hand at an advertising gig in lieu of her husband — and it appears that viewers today find the questions such a trajectory raises compelling. The slow unraveling of plot and characterization at work in a series such as Desperate Housewives has the potential to add nuance and detail to the issues of being a talented woman who is married with children in a way that two hours of campy film cannot.

The second remake I see at work is nicely doubled. While Malcolm in the Middle is still on the air, there is a slight remake/quasi-rip-off going on with Everybody Hates Chris. Compare the two pilots if you don’t buy this, but even thematically the core is similar: one child of three enters a new school situation because of a mother’s desire for his education to improve; he becomes friends with an outcast and he is an outcast himself. The more intriguing remake at work in this show, however, is the manner in which it is a re-visitation of The Cosby Show. Now, The Cosby Show hardly sucked the first time, but the other two reasons for a remake I listed earlier are at work in Everybody Hates Chris. One of the central forces driving The Cosby Show was the general issue of the status of race relations in the U.S. during the 1980s, which included White people’s perceptions of Black people. However, The Cosby Show also left many things unsaid about being Black in the U.S. (and especially specifically in the New York City area) in the 1980s. This is not to say that The Cosby Show failed or that it “should have” said everything. TV has generally been good (sometimes to a fault) at giving viewers as much as they can handle. I am simply observing that Everybody Hates Chris — set in the New York City neighborhood of Bed-Stuyvesant during the 1980s — is revisiting the socio-cultural landscape of The Cosby Show, saying some of what was left unsaid. In this story we see the glaring discrepancies in school funding that existed across racially segregated school districts (an issue that resonates as well today); we see some of the realities of racial tensions in the New York City area that caused havoc for people living in that region (and eventually beyond) in that decade; in short, we see much of the racism and correlated class issues that existed right outside the Huxtables’ brownstone. It’s a story worth revisiting, in my opinion — and worth revisiting in a series specifically.

(l) The Cosby Show and (r) Everybody Hates Chris

(l) The Cosby Show and (r) Everybody Hates Chris

Critics of TV are often quick to complain that “all” TV does is recycle what it has already accomplished. And I am the first to whine and moan when a new show does so unsuccessfully (or a film for that matter). But it is worth considering the possibility that some ideas and situations need to be revisited in order for TV to continue to operate as a cultural forum. We humans often prefer that stories which make us uncomfortable remain untold; we often need time to have passed in order to examine our shared situations (witness M*A*S*H). The successful remake can help us in this regard — and can keep us from ignoring when difficult socio-cultural currents have re-emerged. The series aesthetic is especially well-suited to such “examinations through entertainment.” While film can do much in this regard as well (watch Stand By Me followed by Boys in the Hood), some things just might be better left to TV.

Links
Bewitched.net
Bewitched review
Everybody Hates Chris
Museum.tv Entries on Bewitched and The Cosby Show

Image Credits:

1. Bewitched Remake

2. (l) The Cosby Show and (r) Everybody Hates Chris

Please feel free to comment.




Marriage as the New Trend

Desperate Housewives

Desperate Housewives

Many critics have noted television’s zeitgeist-affirming shift from the urban singles of Sex and the City (all neatly coupled off by the show’s end) to Desperate Housewives’ suburban marrieds. Indeed, a closer look at contemporary television reveals that marriage and motherhood have never been so desirable. While 1950’s media normalized domestic life, husbands and children have become today’s must-have luxury item, both ubiquitous and somehow not easily attainable, especially for women. This tendency is not confined to the small screen: October’s Vogue features cover-girl Gwyneth Paltrow speaking out “On Marriage, Motherhood and Making a Comeback” with her career, naturally, coming in third place. Elsewhere the issue includes spreads on “Super Brides” and a fashion feature starring super-model, super-aristocrat and super-mother-of-four Stella Tennant on her Scottish estate. Tellingly, the magazine’s nostalgia column (on 1970’s working-girl fashions) is titled “The Feminine Mystique.”

Current television shows glorify marriage and motherhood in a variety of ways, presenting them as alternately hip, comforting, rare and hard-to-find, under attack, and even a little rebellious. New shows like CBS’s How I Met Your Mother present single life as from the perspective of a married man in 2035 talking about his youthful search for a wife. CBS’s crime procedural, Close To Home, focuses on a new mother/prosecutor who has to deal with her unsympathetic childless female boss. Even Lorelei from WB’s The Gilmore Girls finally wants to be married, but she’s the one who has to ask for it. And then there’s reality TV, from UPN’s Chaotic to Bravo’s Being Bobby Brown and MTV’s Newlyweds, perhaps the granddaddy of them all.

From My Fair Brady

From My Fair Brady

VH1’s current Sunday night “celeb-reality” shows play with this constellation of desirable, difficult to attain, and dangerous marriage. My Fair Brady focuses on Adrianne Curry’s efforts to persuade her much older boyfriend, Christopher Knight (aka Peter Brady) to marry her. The winner of America’s Next Top Model, season one, Curry repeatedly asserts that she does not want a casual relationship, as she walks around naked, showers with her best (female) friend, and dresses up in S&M outfits, underscoring that her overt sexuality and dangerous edge are compatible with today’s racier marriage. The far more harrowing Breaking Bonaduce depicts fellow former child-star, The Partridge Family‘s Danny Bonaduce, and his wife Gretchen undergoing marriage counseling. Faced with the possibility of losing his wife, Bonaduce injects steroids, chugs alcohol, becomes violent and cuts his wrists. Both Bonaduce and Curry despairingly speak to the camera about their single-minded desire for stable, traditional marriage and parenthood, as they remind us of their histories with drugs, rebellion and self-destruction.

A suitably knowing, postmodern show, Desperate Housewives engages with these current trends and the representations of femininity and sexuality that preceded it. Most obviously, its casting makes it a quasi-update of the iconic 1990’s night-time soap, Melrose Place. Marcia Cross, a Melrose fan-favorite as psychotic, love-hungry Dr. Kimberly Shaw, (who has her own schizoid housewife alter-ego, Betsy) has become Housewives’ uber-married (then widowed), uptight and possibly similarly deranged Bree Van Der Kamp. Melrose‘s sole gay resident, the nice but sexless, Matt (Doug Savant) now plays nice but professionally impotent house-husband, Tom Scavo. If Kimberly and Matt were respectively Melrose‘s most excessive and marginalized singles, ironically they are now reincarnated as the characters most defined by marriage and least able to function without it.

In another echo of Melrose, Housewives’ Tom and wife Lynette are both advertising professionals. Her (currently) unnamed boss (Joely Fisher) has Amanda Woodward’s shrewishness without her intriguing private life. In the episode broadcast October 9, 2005, she refuses Lynette time off to attend her son’s first day of school, explaining that it would be unfair on childless colleagues who have to pick up the slack. She adds that she has not even had time to go to the hairdressers in months. Although this sacrifice of personal care might evoke sympathy in Melrose or Sex and the City, it here highlights her inhumanity and reiterates the cultural shift away from single life.

Still, as any viewer of Friends or Sex and the City can attest, television has generally cast its glamorous singles in narratives of romantic disappointment. While this focus on single life granted them the visibility that is so central and validating in an image-obsessed culture, their unhappiness humanized them and evoked identification. Desperate Housewives uses a similar strategy: it makes marriage and motherhood visible while its frustrations produce sympathy, identification and comedy. This humor, in turn, offsets any critique of marriage as an institution, transforming the show into a sympathetic, media-savvy, and hip play with married women’s experiences.

It is unsurprising that television — a domestic medium — would position marriage and motherhood as fashionable, glamorous and desirable. But in the post-network age of niche markets, this involves a more complex negotiation between many different forms of marriage: Vogue-style high-end glamour, MTV’s post-modern MTV playfulness, Desperate Housewives’ camp irony, and Breaking Bonaduce‘s very absence of distance have little in common. Their only constants are the desirability and potential scarcity of marriage, a development that is enough to drive characters both real (Bonaduce, Curry) and fictional (Bree Van Der Kamp) to the edge of insanity.

Image Credits:

1. Desperate Housewives

2. From My Fair Brady

Please feel free to comment.




Desperate Citizens

The Cast of Extreme Makeover Home Edition

The Cast of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition

In the family hour timeslot proceeding ABC’s guilty pleasure Desperate Housewives, over 15 million viewers regularly tune in for the Sunday evening’s feel-good reality hit Extreme Makeover: Home Edition (EMHE). Premiering in December 2003 as a spin-off of ABC’s primetime surgical expose Extreme Makeover, each week the peppy EMHE design team surprises a needy family with a good morning wake-up call, then sends them away for a week’s vacation while their home is completely transformed. Unlike its predecessor and dozens of other makeover programs which train their subjects to better govern themselves through buying the right clothes, cooking the proper foods, shedding weight, surgically altering their faces and bodies and changing a number of consumption patterns to attaining individual health and happiness through upward class/taste mobility, the contestants on EMHE are presented as model citizens and deserving families whose problems are not the result of deficient self-management but rather of misfortunes that are no fault of their own. Many of these families have suffered severe health issues such as a daughter with leukemia, a parent recently diagnosed with adult epilepsy, a child with brittle bone disease, a baby that required a heart transplant, and perhaps most heartrending, a deaf couple with a blind, autistic child. Other families have lost loved ones due to car accidents and gun shootings while some have suffered property damage from flooding and fires. The families are often large (several have 8 or more children) including many who have adopted children and live with extended family members. In struggling to meet healthcare and housing costs many parents work multiple jobs and most work in the moderate to low-wage service sector from retail (hardware, toys, electronics) to social workers, teachers, youth counselors, nurses, postal workers, cafeteria workers, insurance agents, firefighters, national guardspersons and bank loan officers. For example, in one episode a single father worked as a firefighter and barber to support his five kids, two of which were adopted. The families are more racially and ethnically diverse than most network primetime programs (more than a third are African American or Latina/o). The series received a nomination for an Imagen Award which recognizes Latina/o accomplishments in TV — two of the rotating design team are Latina/o.

While the problems of many of these families seem exceptional, these Sunday evening glimpses into the lives of struggling families give exposure to the daily situations many of us face under the policies of centrist Democrats and Republicans who have transformed welfare as we know it through a consensual distaste for government sponsorship and an embrace of market liberalism. As Mark Robert Rank has elaborated in his recent book One Nation, Underprivileged: Why American Poverty Affects Us All, at any given time one fifth of the US population is either in poverty or on the brink and most Americans will experience poverty at some point during their adult lifetimes. While Rank argues that the social sciences have largely framed poverty as the result of individual inadequacies, this is far from the case on EMHE as these struggling families are embraced as model citizens — hard working, family oriented and community minded. In exposing the inadequacies of individual hard work and family values as avenues to prosperity and happiness in the land of opportunity, each week on EMHE the door is opened to exposing the structural sources (inadequate healthcare, unaffordable housing and unlivable wages) which produce our underprivileged nation.

However, it is no surprise that this commercially sponsored series makes every attempt to mask these structural sources of inequality by suggesting that the heroic efforts of its program sponsors can solve these problems via corporate benevolence and volunteerism. Indeed, in a digital TV era of time-shifting and multichannel audience fragmentation EMHE serves as a model for financing programs through product placement and corporate sponsorship. The housing construction, finance and design industries line up to pitch their products and services under a veneer of corporate good will. Ironically (or tragically) it is this housing industry, in-part, which has supported the real estate boom that has made it so difficult for the show’s recipients of this corporate goodwill to get by. Sears, the main sponsor, pitches its line of appliances and other moderately priced home furnishings designed by the hyper-energetic EMHE host Ty Pennington. The corporate synergies of Disney/ABC are on display as families are often sent to Disney’s theme parks while their homes are renovated. In one episode the Disney imaginers helped with designs and in another Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs helped renovate. During a time when the FCC and advocacy groups such as the Parent Television Council (who endorses EMHE) are scrutinizing the networks for indecency, the sanitary EMHE helps buffer the arrival of the decidedly more saucy Desperate Housewives (which the PTC does not endorse). And when a young child who suffers from Leukemia looks into the camera and thanks ABC for building her family a new house and redesigning the children’s hospital cancer ward, the corporate good will for ABC is priceless while the gruesome commodification of a child’s suffering is glaring. Meanwhile the series often vilifies social welfare workers for threatening to take children away from their loving families.

This corporate good will is indeed powerful as we cannot help but be moved by these powerful narratives of family rescue. (After long discussions with my students about the structural origins of inequality and the marginal effects that this corporate benevolence has in addressing it, they are often still appreciative that ABC/Sears are at least doing something to help out). Still, there are moments when these thousand points of corporate light do not always convince that they are enough to solve otherwise structural social problems. When the design team rolls into Watts (accompanied by the typical collage of barbed wire fences, garbage filled vacant lots and graffiti covered walls) to help a woman known for her community involvement recover from a flood, the design team is faced with the larger problem of improving the entire neighborhood for which “Sweet Alice” has so tirelessly dedicated her life to improving. When Sears distributes mattresses and bedding to a dozen residents on the block and the construction workers build front-yard fences, the inadequacy of their efforts to renovate the neighborhood is stark. In another episode, the design team comes to the aid of two families who were living in temporary housing. The father of one family of four lost a well-paying manufacturing job and couldn’t find work while a mother of two who worked two jobs at 80 hours per week could not afford her rent when she separated from her boyfriend. The design team added a duplex to the Colorado Homeless Families complex, but when confronted with a more systemic issue of homelessness, one designer said, “I think we should be able to pull together as a culture and a society to eradicate homelessness altogether, and most especially for kids.” When a corporate sponsor gave one of the homeless men a job as a security guard another designer said that this was the greatest thing the show has ever done. Meanwhile, the hedge fund that orchestrated the $11 billion merger between Sears and Kmart in the preceding year that resulted in 850 lost jobs made a 23% return for the year (much of this coming from its 39% stake in the new Sears Holdings) and the fund manager who led the merger made more than $1 billion that year. Also, corporate benevolence is undermined when families sue ABC for shoddy construction or hold them responsible when families breakup over disputes on how to share the loot.

UKTV Style

UKTV Style

While these moments of contradiction at times destabilize the commercial ideologies of corporate benevolence that EMHE strives to maintain, Thomas Streeter’s suggestion to focus our critique of TV on advertising and commercial sponsorship is particularly relevant for understanding how programs such as EMHE frame the range of causes and solutions to structural inequalities. In addition, when discussing alternatives we should take seriously the representational modes through which EMHE engages large audiences (and winning the 2004 People’s Choice Award for best reality show and the 2005 Creative Arts Emmy for Outstanding Reality Program) in stories of hard working, community-minded families that struggle to attain even the basics of the American dream. Fan chat is filled with empathy for the families with warnings such as “don’t watch this episode if you don’t want to cry,” and the feel-good moments when these deserving families receive the surprise bounty during the dramatic reveal. There is also a “how did they do that” fascination in watching a hundred workers tear down and rebuild a home in only a week, and the suspense of “will they actually finish it in time.” The made over homes seem to grow increasingly enormous and the designers mostly share the normative metrosexual taste cultures of other makeover shows, favoring elegant clean lines, “sophisticated” looks and designing around style themes referred to as Serengeti, Tuscany, or Island Escape. There is more fun in watching the design team construct high-concept rooms for the children such as a spy room replete with a fingerprint-activated door lock: gender norms are often codified as girls get princess and ballerina rooms while boys get dinosaurs and race cars. Sometimes high-concept landscapes undermine otherwise status-conscious decor such as a backyard scaled-down replica of Yankee’s Stadium and a pirate ship. The designers’ tastes sometimes clash with the families’ — in one of the how-are-they-doing-now follow-ups viewers might have noticed that the beige siding and chocolate front door had been repainted ocean blue and violet. Pleasures also come from sex appeal — in 2004 People magazine chose host Ty Pennington as “one of the sexiest men alive.”

In evaluating British makeover television Charlotte Brunsdon argues that realist modes which lack dramatic reveals and are more explicitly instructive should be valued over “showbiz”melodramatic modes. In thinking about non-commercial alternative reality TV in the US context I wonder if this evaluative criterion holds. Consider an upcoming episode of EMHE. When George W’s handlers got wind that EMHE would shoot a show in Biloxi they volunteered Laura Bush to come help out. Her spokeswoman said Mrs. Bush shared the conservative values of the show that support the private sector’s corporate benevolence over the slow-to-react federal government. But with federal recovery dollars dwarfing corporate or individual donations how might a public television-sponsored reality show depict this extreme gulf-coast makeover? Imagine the dramatic before and after reveals of new schools, entire neighborhoods, town halls and hospitals all made possible by government provisions and our collective social insurance programs. There would be narrative suspense in wondering if that high school football stadium sod would be laid in time for the opening game and feel-good stories of seeing deserving residents who had endured hardship and the loss of loved ones find new jobs and careers thanks to the public and private partnerships that made rebuilding communities possible. There would be sex appeal when Kayne West hosts a special edition on replacing Trent Lott’s million dollar ocean-front estate with community planned and developed affordable housing and a public promenade. While ABC, Sears, Laura Bush and their fellow corporate PR philanthropists help to rebuild the lives of a few in one tiny corner of Biloxi, imagine how a vibrant public television service could cover hundreds of extreme community makeovers, replete with suspense, melodrama and sex appeal, all made possible not only by the voluntary contributions of individual viewers like you, but through the billions of tax dollars, social service programs, housing subsidy initiatives, city council efforts, urban planning coalitions, state healthcare boards and local chambers of commerce. As a new genre of commercially sponsored good Samaritan TV propagates notions that corporate benevolence can solve structural inequality (think of The Scholar sponsored by Wal-Mart on ABC, Mobile Home Disasters on the WB, Trailer Fabulous and Pimp My Ride on MTV, and the upcoming Three Wishes on NBC), let’s imagine the possibilities that an extreme makeover of public television could have if it developed melodramatic, suspenseful and sexy reality TV programs that accounted for the necessary public and private partnerships needed to address the structural origins of our underprivileged nation.

Bibliography

Brunsdon, Charlotte. “Lifestyling Britain: The 8-9 Slot on British Television.” International Journal of Cultural Studies 6.5 (2003): 5-23.

Rank, Mark Robert. One Nation, Underprivileged: Why American Poverty Affects Us All. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004.

Image Credits:

1. The Cast of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition

2. UKTV Style

Please feel free to comment.




I Love Lucy in the Sixties

The Lucy Show

The Lucy Show

My grandmother had made it clear that she wanted the items on her shopping list soon, as in the next day. It was 10:00 at night, in Biddeford, Maine, and where the hell was I going to find Jarlsberg cheese, a small watering can, skirt hangers, Danish butter cookies, Miracle Grow, peanut butter, Stayfree maxipads (extra-long, with “wings”), and bedroom slippers? I boarded Grandma’s boat-sized 1991 Lincoln Town Car and headed towards my inevitable, unenviable destination: Wal-Mart.

Entering the frigid belly of the consumerist beast, I meekly wondered, as long as I’m here, maybe I could pick up a copy of the South Park anti-Wal-Mart episode? So after getting my assigned shopping done, I decided to check out the DVD department. It turns out that DVDs are a loss-leader at Wal-Mart, and soon I was up to my elbows in the $4.99 bargain bin, sifting through crappy transfers of Glenn Ford World War II movies, miscellaneous Brat Pack flicks, and the entire Tom Arnold oeuvre. Then, jackpot! Creepshow, Frogs (Ray Milland, 1972, killer amphibians, why not?), and numerous episodes of The Lucy Show (CBS, 1962-1968).

Lucille Ball’s 1960s TV show ran in the afternoons when I was a kid, and I found it infinitely superior to I Love Lucy (CBS, 1951-1957), which was too stressful for me. On her 50s program it seemed that Lucy was always afraid that she would get caught for doing something she had been cruelly forbidden to do, and that Ricky would punish her. Though Ricky’s actual spankings were infrequent, the threat of domestic violence loomed large for this young viewer. On the post-Ricky series, Lucy was a widow, and her blustery boss Mr. Mooney did not seem to represent a true threat. Mooney hollered a lot, but Lucy remained insouciant about taking two hour lunch breaks. The Lucy Show was friendlier than I Love Lucy. And guest stars were frequent. Luminaries included Ethel Merman, Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Milton Berle, Edward G. Robinson, Kirk Douglas, Dean Martin, Don Rickles, and Sid Caesar. Already well past being “une femme d’un certain age,” Lucy wore smashing outfits and had dates with Dan Rowan, Robert Goulet, and, to her great dismay (in the show’s later incarnation as Here’s Lucy), Don Knotts. It’s hard to imagine a sitcom about such a cool, sexy old lady making it onto TV today.

Milton Berle on Here\'s Lucy

Milton Berle on Here’s Lucy

Mary Richards gets a lot of credit as a pioneering working woman, but Lucy was a plucky career gal some years before Mary, and she faced a number of workplace crises, though these were always played for laughs. Lucy had constant money problems, and Mr. Mooney frequently made her work overtime and on weekends without compensation. For Lucy, there was no union to turn to, no solidarity with other “girls” in the office, and no possibility of a raise, or of raised consciousness. Gloria Steinem’s influence clearly did not extend to this particular television universe. Helen Gurley Brown’s impact, conversely, could certainly be felt. Though Lucy would never use sex to get ahead at work, the flirty substitute hired when Lucy goes on vacation wraps Mr. Mooney around her little finger, almost stealing Lucy’s job. Lucy uses elaborate and decidedly unglamorous disguises to sabotage the sexpot. In another episode, Lucy explains how other secretaries in the office get raises, but she “is not the type of girl to wear sweaters two sizes too small.” Lucy may not think she’s a feminist, but she knows that she is being exploited, and that Sex and the Single Girl would not provide palatable solutions to her problems. So she remained broke.

In one episode, the penurious Lucy meets her friend Dottie for lunch and, to the great irritation of the cranky waitress, orders nothing but a bowl of hot water. Lucy adds free condiments-ketchup, steak sauce, lemon wedges, and a handful of sugar cubes-and then tucks into her bowl of free soup. Dottie exclaims, “Congratulations, you’re winning the War on Poverty!” and Lucy replies, “We all have to do our part.” Viewing this episode again for the first time in over 30 years, I remembered the hot water shtick very clearly, but not the quip about the War on Poverty, which would not have meant much to a five year old middle-class suburban kid. Certainly, no one who has read Aniko Bodroghozy’s Groove Tube will be shocked by my insight that The Lucy Show was, like most 1960s TV shows, more political than it appeared at first glance.

Allison McCracken has recently argued convincingly for the cultural and political significance of The Partridge Family. While The Brady Bunch stuck to the confines of the suburban home, the Partridges dealt with the outside world, encountering hippies, feminists, and other countercultural character types. In fact, the Partridges were themselves, in some limited ways, countercultural character types. Reading McCracken’s essay, it would be hard not to admit that The Partridge Family was “better” than The Brady Bunch. Be that as it may, I’ll admit to being a hard-core Brady booster. I always thought the Partridges were dullsville. Maybe it was just the submerged incestuous tension, but The Brady Bunch was always more compelling to me. Watching the Bradys and the Partridges today, I still prefer the former. My current viewing self matches my image of my past viewing self, and this is somehow reassuring.

But thawing out frozen TV memories by revisiting the shows of one’s youth can also be quite disconcerting. I fancied myself quite the feminist at age nine, which was why I wore a Farrah Fawcett t-shirt. Since I had never seen a woman solve crimes on TV, I thought Farrah was liberated. At age twelve, I carried a Ms. bookbag. (If anyone else in Alabama had actually heard of Ms., I might have gotten quite an ass-whipping.) These memories make me feel pretty good about myself and my past media tastes, but, of course, they have been frozen into consciousness at the expense of other memories less flattering to my grown-up self. Me, a huge fan of Family Ties? Impossible! The danger of being a TV studies scholar is that one is forced, eventually, to revisit the fetish shows of one’s youth, only to find that the affection one felt for a show was a screen memory covering up for a less-than-spectacular primal scene: Bob and Carol Brady, in bed, trading incredibly feeble quips about the impossibility of Sam the Butcher ever proposing to Alice. The writing just doesn’t seem as clever as it used to. So, did the 1960s Lucy live up to my high expectations? Yes and no.

There are a couple of things that are really great about Lucy in the 60s. First of all, she knows when to steal the show and when to sit back and let her brilliant guest stars do their thing. She is the center of attention when she dumps a bowl of Caesar salad on Milton Berle’s head, but afterwards he takes over, mugging it up while the audience virtually ignores Lucy. There is likewise an exceptional give and take when Carole Burnett guests as Lucy’s roommate. These winsome natural redheads (ahem!) do song and dance numbers at the drop of a hat, but it is Burnett, playing an introverted librarian, who steals the show when, after downing a few glasses of Chianti she shakes her booty through a spirited performance of “Hard Hearted Hannah.”

Carol Burnett on The Lucy Show

Carol Burnett on The Lucy Show

The Lucy Show is most compelling when all pretense of the fourth wall is dropped and performers (many of them with roots in vaudeville or other live theatrical forms) put on a show for the audience. Narrative is just a pesky intrusion: no one really cares why Ethel Merman is in Lucy’s living room-we just want to hear Lucy sing badly and Merman belt out a trademark tune. Likewise, the climax of Lucy’s trip to Palm Springs is not her successful explanation to Mr. Mooney of why she is there, when she was supposedly at home with the flu, but rather Lucy’s terrific “Up A Lazy River” song-and-dance routine. It turns out that Lucy was almost as good at singing and dancing as she was at pretending she could do neither.

When pure spectacle takes over-Lucy pretends to be a high-falutin’ interior decorator, Lucy babysits baby chimps, Lucy thinks she is hallucinating that Mr. Mooney is a monkey-these shows are everything I remember them being. When hippies, politics, the draft, and other ’60s realities appear, the show takes an unexpected turn towards the dispiriting. When Lucy and Viv go to the Sunset Strip dressed up like hippie chicks, they are repulsed by the longhaired weirdoes. After some crazy dancing, I guessed they might realize that there are some fun things about being a hippie, but they remained disgusted by the whole scene. When Lucy gets drafted, having received a letter meant for “Lew C. Carmichael,” it is oddly poignant to see her fight the draft board, the military doctor, and finally her drill sergeant, all of whom agree that she should be disqualified for being a woman, but none of whom have the authority to let her off the hook. The show’s critique of the military is tepid at best-the military’s not bad, just too bureaucratic-yet the “comic” spectacle of someone trying to get out of the Marines (and implicitly out of going to Vietnam) is more than a little disconcerting.

Ultimately, it is striking how much The Lucy Show is like the Wal-Mart bargain bin, mixing together big, medium, and little stars, some at their peak, some past their prime-like Joan Crawford, who got in trouble on the set for dipping into her hip flask. To older viewers in the ’60s, Lucy’s guest stars were not cultural detritus-Jack Benny, Jackie Gleason, and Kirk Douglas were still “major stars.” Yet to many younger viewers at the time, these were hopelessly square old-timers who already belonged in a bargain bin, if not a trash bin. You couldn’t get much more counter-counter-cultural, after all, than the George Wallace and John Birch Society booster John Wayne, whom Lucy worshiped like a god when he appeared on the show.

A showbiz pro, Lucy tried to come up with a wide variety of guests so that there was something for everybody, but that didn’t mean that she was going to host the kind of “radicals” that would show up on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour! Here’s Lucy (CBS, 1968-1974), unfortunately, could not maintain the energy and pace of the earlier Lucy Show. How reassuring, though, to see that Eve Plumb (Jan Brady) was a guest, with Donny Osmond, on Here’s Lucy in 1972. The great Jan Brady was not exactly countercultural, but she wore braces and glasses, had a fake secret admirer, and was fed up with “Marsha, Marsha, Marsha!” She was cool. Alas, the Biddeford Wal-Mart doesn’t sell Brady Bunch DVDs. Or the anti-Wal-Mart South Park episode. Or Jarslberg cheese, for that matter. They do, however, have computer stations set up for creating personalized shopping wish lists and sending letters to the troops in Iraq. John Wayne would have been proud.

Image Credits:
1. The Lucy Show

2. Milton Berle on Here’s Lucy

3. Carol Burnett on The Lucy Show

Links:
The Lucy Show episode guide

Please feel free to comment.