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My New Hero

3 May

Last night, I went to a Q&A with Joan Ganz Cooney. The name doesn’t ring a bell? Well, that’s okay, because I didn’t know it until fairly recently, either, but she is one of the people behind Children’s Television Workshop, and thus, Sesame Street. Yes, behind the scenes, which is part of why she’s one of my new heroes.

Also, look how awesome and stylish she is.

The other parts are that she’s whip smart, still incredibly sharp, and so dedicated to what she does. She was interviewed by Leslie Stahl (of 60 Minutes) at the Museum of the Moving Image. Admittedly, it can be hard for me to get excited about going to a museum in Queens after work, but this was one of the best events I’ve been to in ages. Ms. Cooney was inspiring and hearing about how Sesame Street began firsthand… I mean, how cool is that? And, friends, Bob and Susan were in the audience. They were only three rows in front of me.

There are a lot of reasons I found what Ms. Cooney had to say illuminating, both personally and professionally. What she and her team did back in the ’60s was create something that she referred to as “educating, edifying, and entertaining” using the newest medium of the time, and filling a huge gap in education and entertainment for children. It’s not entirely unlike the place where publishing for children is today. Our goal might be slightly different (story at the fore, rather than education), but not much so. And we’re at the edge of another new frontier, needing to figure out how to engage kids and fill the gaps.

But the personal part of what I learned tonight is just how effective Sesame Street has always been at achieving its goals and never, ever talking down to children and never misrepresenting life. Ms. Cooney referred to the episode in the ’80s that dealt with death, and as a kid who was watching during that time, I knew immediately, even though she never named the character, that she meant Mr. Hooper. She told us how their researchers and cognitive psychologists told them that, yes, kids could handle hearing about death, but that it had to be done directly, and the most important thing for young kids to understand about it is that the person is not coming back.

I don’t remember watching that episode when I was four, but I remember knowing that Mr. Hooper died. I very very vaguely remember talking about it with my mom. And as Ms. Cooney spoke about their work on that episode, I realized that it was most likely when I learned that death meant someone wasn’t coming back. My grandfather died rather suddenly not long before this episode would have aired, and I can only imagine how much it must have helped my parents talk to me and my younger brother about death. How powerful something that’s crafted with such care and so specifically to help teach children can be.

So, thanks, Ms. Cooney, and Jim Henson, and Bob and Susan and Big Bird and everyone for what you’ve given to all of us. I hope my friends and I can look back on the work we do with similar pride in 40 years.

Top Ten TV Couples

21 Nov

Angie posted this meme earlier this week, and how could I resist? Compile a list of your top 10 favorite TV couples to share. These are in no particular order.

1. Josh & Donna, The West Wing

2. CJ & Danny, The West Wing

3. Bartlet & Abby, The West Wing

What West Wing fan didn’t feel all warm and fuzzy when Josh and Donna finally became a couple? I love watching the banter, the way they know each other so well, and the way neither lets the other get away with any crap. They can make each other laugh, and they are always there when needed. Josh is brilliant but arrogant, and a good friend; Donna is gullible yet savvy, smart, and can see right through him. A good tv couple, in my opinion, has loads of tension and what-if build-up. And two characters who challenge and complement each other.

And that’s why two more of my favorite couples also come from West Wing. CJ and Danny circle each other more obviously, maybe, than Josh and Donna, but the connection is still complex. And they are still two smart and funny people who get each other.

Then there’s the President and First Lady. Some of the best scenes in the show are when they’re fed up and yelling at each other, because it shows a strong relationship many years in, and with many problems and strains. They push each others buttons, but they, too, know that underneath everything is support and strength.

4. Veronica and Logan, Veronica Mars

This clip says it all, doesn’t it? Epic, volatile, dangerous, yet also vulnerable and sweet.

5. Rory & Jess, Gilmore Girls

Jess might be my favorite tv bad boy. He’s always been my favorite of Rory’s boys. He’s smart and is a reader, so can meet her on an intellectual level, but he challenges her goody-goody nature. And he just always kept coming back. In my mind, at the end of Gilmore Girls, Rory went off with Obama’s campaign, saw Jess during a stop in Philly, and they live happily ever after.

6. Ally McBeal & Larry, Ally McBeal

The favorite TV couple from the college years. Robert Downey, Jr. playing Larry completely won the hearts of me and my roommate. He and Ally are just so adorably crazy, in such compatible ways.

7. Scarecrow & Mrs. King, Scarecrow & Mrs. King

How can you not love an ’80s spy couple?

8. Roger & Joan, Mad Men

They’re funny, they’re challenging to each other, and they always know where the other stands. And who doesn’t love Joan?

Bromances. Sometimes the best couples are friendships rather than romances.

9. Seth & Ryan, The O. C.

I never really watched much of The O. C. because I couldn’t stand the girls. But every once and a while I’d turn it on and would be totally charmed by the friendship between Seth and Ryan. They’re hilarious, and such terrific friends.

10. Stefan & Damon, The Vampire Diaries

They so often make me laugh! I think their banter may be one of the main reasons I have gotten so into this show.

Where TV & Books Collide

4 May

This bookish girl likes to watch TV. I admit it freely. I like stories, so I’m more likely to turn on the TV (or podcasts like This American Life and RadioLab) for “company” while I’m cleaning or cooking or whatever. But I can’t take reality shows (except for Project Runway, of course), and I just don’t connect with sitcoms, usually. Hour-long comedy/dramas are usually what get me. Lately, I’ve been thinking about what it is that makes a show one that I can’t miss, or one that I want to own on dvd, because I think some of the reasons may be the same things that make a book one that I love and want in my library.

I own every season of West Wing (except season 5, which is dead to me). I think it’s probably my all-time favorite show. I also own all three seasons of Veronica Mars and of Arrested Development. And multiple seasons of Gilmore Girls and Grey’s Anatomy.

All ensemble shows. Each has a focal character, but much of the strength lies in the support system surrounding those characters. One of my favorite episodes of West Wing is in season one, when Josh is offered the card that means in the event of attack, he can go to the bunker. But none of the other staffers get it, besides the Chief of Staff. At the end, after a conversation with the President and Leo about the strength and remarkableness of the women of the staff, Josh gives back the card, saying, “I want to be a comfort to my friends in tragedy, and I want to be able to celebrate with them in triumph, and for all the times in between, I just want to be able to look them in the eye. . . . I want to be with my friends, my family, and these women.” The most touching moments in all of these shows are when the characters rally to support and be there for each other, and some of the funniest come from them knowing each other so well. Which is the case, certainly, in Arrested Development. The show got funnier and funnier as the series went on because we know all of the characters so well, and can pick up even on the subtlest joke.

Snappy writing. I have a hard time watching tv or movies that aren’t well written. Maybe it’s part of why I can’t watch reality tv–there’s no pleasure in language. But all of the shows I’ve mentioned here are so smart. They’re full of relevant cultural references of all kinds–not just current events or just pop culture or just music or film or what-have-you, but blend of all of those. The dialogue moves swiftly and doesn’t explain itself. The writing expects the viewer to keep up. And the characters say the honest things everyone thinks, and say them eloquently. A little bit of snark is always nice, too, when it’s balanced with sincerity and silliness.

Inherent drama. Each of these shows has a setting and situation that lends itself to the dramatic. The West Wing . . . well, is set in the West Wing. Grey’s Anatomy is set in a teaching hospital. Veronica Mars–high school, with a girl who’s both a social outcast and a p.i. investigating her best friend’s murder. Gilmore Girls–private high school with a single parent household and overbearing grandparents. Arrested Development–an eccentric family that’s “lost everything” as the intro says.

All except Arrested Development are hour-long shows. And I’ve never been a huge short story reader, I think for the same reason I don’t usually get hooked by half-hour shows. When I love characters, I want to spend time with them. Half an hour, or twenty-odd pages, just never seems like enough time.

And now that I’ve thought about how well-done all of these shows were and how much I like them, I’m sad that only one is still on the air. Why do all my favorite shows go away? And what will be the next that catches me up the way these have? It’s been a few years since I’ve had a new favorite. Although . . . Mad Men is pretty amazing.


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