Thank God It's 2021
All the cool kids are doing their end-of-year lists, so I thought I’d do one too. And as a service to all of humanity, I’m posting it on my blog where it will go completely unread!
I don’t know if anyone’s noticed, but 2020 sucked. In addition to almost total solitary confinement, I had the joy of putting my mother into a nursing home; the one place you want an elderly, infirm woman as a contagious pandemic rages across the globe. Given the alternatives, this was the best option. And after several months of near total isolation, I’ve almost entirely overcome the guilt. The good news is, she’s well cared for, and seems reasonably comfortable. The bad news is, she still thinks this is temporary and that she has a home to return to. It’s not, and she doesn’t. And another wave a guilt washes over me.
So, like I imagine many have, I’ve become quite dependent upon my television. The first couple of weeks I discovered a slew of instructional content on my cable and vowed to improve my mind using these offerings. I watched exactly one, well half of one class on writing. That particular class was not for me. However, I did expand my cable horizons and explored areas beyond MSNBC, Bravo, HBO, and Showtime. All of those still offer edifying content, and some of it may appear on this list, but I’m here to tell you there is a world of possibilities out there. In no particular order:
1) Black Lives Matter
The profundity of this movement cannot be understated. With the isolation of Covid, people, white ones in particular, have no option but to confront internal biases and take responsibility for any actions they choose to take, or not as black people are routinely killed on our television screens. The murder of George Floyd played out on MSNBC almost as frequently as the planes being smashed into the World Trade Center Towers on 9/11. In the deep, dark months of the pandemic this precipitated a learning curve on social media that was easy to map out for white people, going from shock to accepting personal responsibility, to increasingly difficult-to-watch performative wokeness, to settling into calmly doing the actual work. This looks different for each person, but for me I’m making room for diverse voices, and using my pitiful social media platforms to amplify the voices of people of color who speak to me. There’s a difficult balance to achieve here. I want to bring attention to the issues, not to my oh-so-precious sensitivity to them. I’m listening. I’m giving money where and when I can. I’m particularly moved to the organization Black Mothers Matter Alliance. I’m committed to doing better.
2) National Theatre Live
God, I miss live theatre, but The National Theatre broadcasts were like Thespic methadone. I’ve seen their screenings in theatres and loved every single one I’d seen, particularly gobsmacked with their production of Cyrano. That production was so good, I didn’t even care that I know I will never write anything that good. Just having The National Theatre in my home eased the tensions between me and ficus (who I’m not speaking to right now – he knows what he did). These limited broadcasts led to searching for recordings of other live theatre presentations. I liked most of what I found. I’m sad to report that after attempting three different productions, I still can’t get to the end of Coriolanus. That said, Frankenstein and A Streetcar Named Desire managed to revive my will to live. And after having either acted or directed in four different productions of Midsummer and swearing I’d NEVER suffer through that play again; I can happily report that I was not repulsed by the British broadcast. I had issues with it, but I found much to respect and some to actually admire. No doubt there is an epidemic of swooning in the whole of Britain as I send my congratulations across the pond.
3) The Hollow Crown
I’ve long wanted to see this series of Shakespeare plays, which starts with Richard II and ends with Richard III. I have a history with both of these which is far too tedious to share at this juncture. And I’ve never really been a fan of the Henrys in between. But these productions were incredible. Wasn’t too fond of Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard III, but I think they tinkered with the text more with that one than in any other so it may not have been completely his fault. It’s is by far the weakest offering, but still worth the purchase price.
4) The King and I
The Lincoln Center production was exported to London and filmed. On a trip to New York, I reluctantly bought a ticket to see the production. I wanted to invest my money in something a bit more contemporary and less musical. And then I was blown the fuck away! The Vivian Beaumont is cavernous, and at the start Anna’s ship sails onto stage with the prow jutting out over the audience, placing her within touching distance of the first row of the balcony. I can’t think of a time when I’ve been in the theatre and was sad to see a production end. So when WTTW broadcast the London version, I vowed to chew off an arm if necessary to see it. And it did not disappoint. Effervescent.
I bit the bullet and subscribed. My cable bill is disgracefully high, and I’m promising myself to drop it once I can go somewhere other than CVS. But in the meantime, the content has been a Godsend. I’m a sucker for a good stand-up special and I can unreservedly recommend Katherine Ryan and Jack Whitehall. Some other, more firmly established comedians are offering less inspiring fare, but I have no complaints.
6) Nurse Jackie
Up to this point, one might have accused me of being an Anglophile, and it’s an indictment I can’t completely defend. But there are some American offerings I can praise to the heavens. One is Nurse Jackie. This is an old Showtime series that was passed off to Netflix and unavailable through my Showtime subscription. And I subscribed just as the Netflix contract was expiring. So I hunkered down and plowed my way through all seven seasons. There are some inconvenient plot holes that have to be ignored, but this is television at its finest. Crisp dialogue for complex characters with human arches delivered by some brilliant actors, none more so than Merritt Wever (pictured above). In the series she plays an innocent new nurse who slowly becomes wise to the world. One of the most satisfying performances in all of television history.
After completing Nurse Jackie, I was aching for more Merritt Wever and Netflix did not disappoint. In Unbelievable Wever plays a detective trying to unravel a series of rapes. Based on a true story, this limited series does not romanticize rape, nor cast the women who suffered the rapes as victims. Wever’s nuanced performance shows how women who’ve had the atrocity of rape inflicted upon them should be treated. It’s restrained and dignified. Wever’s performance is a Meisner masterclass.
And still I needed more from Wever and stumbled on to another limited series. In Godless Wever is the lesbian widow of the town’s former sheriff and she’s all out of fucks to give. Watching this series, you cannot believe it’s the same actor as the one who bumbles her way through Nurse Jackie. Give this woman ALL the awards. The series takes nearly every trope from the American Western genre and gives all the protagonist power to the women by telling the story of a mining town that is populated almost completely by women after the local mine collapses. There are some questionable ways this series attempts to address modern racial sensibilities that inadvertently do more to play into stereotypical narrative tropes than to establish new ones. The attempt in that area is painfully clear and not altogether successful. But the performances are stellar, with all of the established stars almost obliterating previous iconic performances.
9) Dead to Me
This series did things to me I didn’t expect. Way back in the mists of time I was on a film set with Christiana Applegate. She was delightful and took the responsibilities of being the “pretty blonde” very seriously. An instantly likeable presence onscreen, Applegate uses that likeability as a weapon, slyly creating a charming, sympathetic character who slowly evolves into a horrible human being. That tension created a discomfort that sometimes made it difficult for me to watch this show. Conversely, Michael C. Hall – also a brilliant actor – created a similar character in Dexter and I felt nothing but enjoyment. Very different writing, requiring far more nuanced acting, but also challenging gender stereotypes in a way that isn’t necessarily confrontational. Linda Cardellini is the perfect yin to Applegate’s yang as the two portray the codependent relationship between two broken women coming to terms with the deaths of their husbands. Funny, terrifying, and devastating all at once. And bonus: James Marsden in a duel role.
10) Stand-Up Comedy
I’ve become fascinated with the structure of a good comedy special. In the good ones – Chris Rock, Yvonne Orji, Katherine Ryan, and Jack Whitehall – there is a narrative that isn’t necessarily linear, but the theme is clear, and the artist is telling you more than just jokes. I’m working to be able to articulate that narrative structure that I might be able to interpolate into my own writing.
So, that’s an attempt to distill something constructive out of this shit swamp of a year. I’m shaking it off and moving into the light of 2021.
Happy New Year.