A few weeks ago I read a Guardian article that asked whether someone’s taste in books could predict dating compatibility. My first reaction was, “hell yeah!” If a bloke reads the same kind of books as me there’s a good chance we’ll hit it off. However the article contains comments from people who are extremely judgmental about others’ reading habits and this is where the whole idea falls down. First of all, frankly if a bloke reads at all, I’m interested, but mainly this pretentious distinction between “high-brow” and “low-brow” or “cultured” and “popular” art is a nonsense. What can you tell about someone who professes that Infinite Jest is their favourite book? That they may or may not have actually read Infinite Jest and that’s about it. What about someone who likes sitcoms? What if they are the same person?
Last week I was doing the “what shall I watch next?” thing, skipping from Netflix to Prime to iPlayer trying to settle on something and not quite feeling into anything. Netflix now has a suggestions button that will cycle through options based on previous viewing. The first few recommendations I had already seen elsewhere but then it came to Superstore, based on my viewing of Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Parks and Recreation. Both excellent shows. But I felt like if something was along those lines and any good, I would have heard of it already? Schitt’s Creek was recommended to me multiple times by multiple people before I finally tried and yes, it does live up to its reputation. But I had literally never heard of Superstore. However the ennui had set in by then so I gave it a try. I could see the similarities to B99 and Parks, but thought it was a bit derivative, bit too fluffy and slapstick in places. A few days later and I’m crying as Jonah comforts Amy as she’s going through a tough time. Later I’m on the edge of my seat as a natural disaster befalls the store. But wait, this is disposable fluff telly, right? Well like most tv these days it is well written and well acted. It does have moments of silliness but also surprisingly deep themes, like worker’s rights, healthcare and immigration, which, by the way America, what the hell is wrong with you? The character of Amy (America Ferrera) has experiences that chime remarkably with my own life. Not totally – I did get married young and had a very similar divorce journey but didn’t get pregnant at 19 and sadly don’t have a Jonah (Ben Feldman) but still I found myself thinking “wow, that’s me” on multiple occasions. It is light, it is fluffy, it is silly, it is low-brow but it is also very good and I am loving it.
The whole idea of this artificial division and associated judgements is class-ist. I remember when I was in my early 20s, taking part in a quiz with some university friends. A lot of the questions related to opera, classical music, theatre etc and I was clueless. It’s not that I’m not intelligent, or that I don’t have good general knowledge, its that coming from a working class background gives you a very different cultural upbringing than those from the middle or upper-middle classes. That isn’t to say that I had no exposure to culture, quite the opposite – but traditional Scottish, folk and popular culture, as “low-brow” doesn’t have the same status or likelihood to appear as questions in quizzes, but it is as rich and fully rounded and as culturally significant as “cultured” culture. At the time I felt ashamed at my lack of knowledge of high culture, but looking back I realise that knowing your Wagner from your Puccini doesn’t make you a better person, just as knowing your Coronation Street from your Eastenders doesn’t make you a lesser person.
I have always liked the lyric from the Franz Ferdinand song “Dark of the Matinee” (one of their best songs if you ask me)
“Time every journey to bump into you, accidentally I charm you and tell you of the boys I hate All the girls I hate All the words I hate All the clothes I hate How I’ll never be anything I hate You smile, mention something that you like Oh how you’d have a happy life if you did the things you like”
It’s all too easy to pass judgement. It is easy to hate on things, criticise things and make fun of them. I’m no exception, I’ve definitely engaged in that myself. By nature I’m a cynical person and I have strong opinions about a lot of things, A good judgy session can strengthen bonds and cement “us” vs “them” which as social animals we need sometimes. But expressing dislike, criticism or judgement about a tv programme/book/musician shouldn’t be the same as making judgements about the people who do like those things. The times when I’ve found someone who takes a more positive view of things, who talks enthusiastically about an interest or who I share an obsession for something with have been the most life-affirming and uplifting experiences in my life, far outweighing any camaraderie gained from a griping session. The pleasure gained from sharing a passion, sharing joy is a beautiful thing.
As we experienced lockdowns though the COVID-19 Pandemic, most of us watched far more tv and films than we did before. The arts got very little government support during lockdown, yet people continued to create, often going to great lengths to either re-package their output for an online audience, or undergoing rigorous testing, isolation and distancing measures to produce something resembling normal to us. From my own viewing habits alone, I’m going to guess that a lot of the content that has been consumed over the past year has been of the lighter, fluffier, “lower-brow” variety. It offers escapism, gives us laughs and loves when we can’t be with those who make us smile or who we desperately want to hug. It serves a purpose and it serves it well. None of us should feel remotely guilty for that.
I seem to go through phases of reading certain types of books. For a long time I was deep into the Beats. Then I forayed into filling the gaps in my reading of modern classics – Catch 22, Of Mice and Men, Catcher in the Rye, some Hemmingway, some more Salinger. Then in response to the Black Lives Matter movement I read several books on that theme – Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge, The Good Immigrant by Nikesh Shukla and Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo. I like to immerse myself in an era, a genre or a milieu, finding the structures of it, seeing all the elements interplay, exposing the commonalities and highlighting the differences. Now, it seems, I’m taking a turn at autobiographies and memoirs. Two that I’ve just read back-to-back have thrown up some unexpected connections between individuals that I wouldn’t have expected to have much in common, which got me thinking more broadly about the connections between us all.
The memoir train started because my older daughter is learning about World War 2 at (home)school. She had spotted my copy of Anne Frank’s Diary on a shelf some years ago and had expressed an interest. Now that she’s a bit older (11) I figured it would be ok for her to read, but wanted to do so myself first, just to be sure, to jog my memory and also so that I’d be better equipped to discuss it with her. Around the same time, I was on the Waterstones website ordering her a thesaurus and I spotted that they had Barack Obama’s A Promised Land reduced and Mikel Jollett’s Hollywood Park in paperback. I had been meaning to buy Jollett’s book since it came out, so both got moved into my basket and arrived a few days later. While I was waiting for them to arrive, I finished Anne Frank, handed her over to my daughter and up popped an email from Bookbub (if you are a reader and aren’t signed up to this already, then check it out – daily personalised ebook offers usually for a few quid each) letting me know that Janey Godley’s memoir Handstands in the Dark was on offer. Well that would bridge the gap nicely.
Ok, maybe an explanation of who those people are is required. Not Anne Frank or Barack Obama, I assume you all know who they are…
Mikel Jollett is the lead singer of The Airborne Toxic Event, one of my favourite bands, I wrote about seeing them here and here but definitely saw them one more time then that. In recent years the band haven’t been quite so active, but Mikel has become prominent as a political commentator on Twitter. Jollett is based in California, and while I haven’t “met” him – despite various attempts I have met almost all the other band members but not the man himself – I have, however touched him and had his sweaty t-shirt pressed against my face. Don’t worry, it’s all part and parcel of being front row at a smallish gig. In any case, we have connected, in a manner of speaking. We have been in the same place at the same time and are connected by not only the music but shared interests in writing, literature, politics and possibly more. We would have a shared frame of reference.
Janey Godley is a Glaswegian comedian famous for her “Trump is a C*nt” sign on one of his Scottish golf courses a few years ago. I first came to know her work on an appearance of Have I Got News For You, and more recently she’s been entertaining us during lockdown with voiceovers of videos, most notably of Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon’s Covid briefings. We both live in Glasgow but I haven’t met her, or knowingly been in the same place at the same time. However, all Glaswegians, adopted or native, share a special camaraderie and we would certainly have a shared frame of reference.
In his book, Jollett writes about his life born into a cult, living with addicted and mentally ill parents, his chaotic, impoverished and often violent and neglected childhood. So far not much I can directly relate to, although it makes for fascinating reading and is beautifully written. Later he writes about finding his way in a middle-class world, having to mask, suppress or hide his working class background. He attends a prestigious university and finds himself a fish out of water. Here I can definitely relate. As the book goes on, I find more and more commonalities between us. Our shared frame of reference gets wider.
Godley’s memoir recounts her life growing up in Glasgow’s east end in the 1960s and 70s. It too is a life of extreme poverty, surrounded by people struggling with addiction and violence. There is abuse, albeit of a different type. I didn’t grow up in Glasgow but I worked for a voluntary sector organisation providing advocacy to children and young people with disabilities all over the city for 8 years. A lot of my work took me to the east end. I grew familiar with Shettleston, Parkhead, Haghill and Bridgeton. I spent many hours on the number 19 and 41 buses to Easterhouse and all stops along the way. I saw the poverty and abuse that still persisted in the early 2000s-2010s. Kids who had never been near the City Centre, whose whole lives were contained in one postcode. Older siblings caught up in gangs, groomed or selling themselves on Glasgow Green. Kids driven to stealing phones because there was never any food at home. Kids sent to young offenders prison because they wouldn’t admit that’s why they stole. The shame of poverty still hung in the air. Kids in wheelchairs who had worn out shoes because they weren’t deemed worthy of spending money on. So many disabled children in inadequate housing. Families worn out from fighting for things they should have been entitled to. It may have been 40 years after the time Godley was writing about, but, all too sadly, we would have a very wide shared frame of reference indeed.
In Godley’s book there here are gangs, not cults, but the similarities and overlaps with Jollett’s book and life were striking. I never would have imagined that a Californian rock star and a comedian from the east end of Glasgow would have quite so much in common, or that I would find so much in common with either of them. Even little things, like they both take to running to cope with the harshness of their lives and to take back what little control they can. I get it – running is cheap and can be done anywhere, so perhaps isn’t too surprising, but it was interesting to see layer upon layer of common threads woven through each life story.
It made me wonder what other two apparently random people might find themselves connected? I can’t remember when I first heard of the “Six degrees of separation” theory – the idea that any two people in the world are linked through a chain of no more than six acquaintances. At first it seemed unlikely to me, but then I thought. I’ve lived in Scotland, London and Sweden. I have family in Australia and Sri Lanka. That already extends my first links to a good spread around the world. I have friends from places as disparate as Finland, Malawi and the US. That covers even more of the globe. Maybe it’s not such a crazy theory after all.
I love it when I meet people and we have something unexpected in common. Finding that shared interest or experience reminds us of our common humanity. People are people, after all. We may be different ages, nationalities or come from different cultural backgrounds but if we allow ourselves to look beyond preconceived expectations we will find something that will make us yell, “really, me too!” and share a profoundly beautiful moment together. I adore those moments.
Indeed thinking back to this time last year, it was both horrifying and fascinating to see just how quickly COVID-19 spread from a localised outbreak to a global pandemic. News reports in the UK focussed on China, then Iran, then Italy as it crept ever closer to us. The virus doesn’t travel by itself, it travels from human to human, from person to person as they move from place to place. International travel, full flights and packed commuter trains help transmission, but it still spreads around the world one person at a time. We have been told to isolate ourselves for almost a year now, while we as humans, in all continents, have never been so connected by a single event. We are not only experiencing it as those who lived through previous pandemics or significant global events like the world wars, but thanks to technology we are able to witness others, share our stories and have more of a collective experience like never before. We all now have Covid as a shared frame of reference, for better or for worse.
So in short, Janey Godley, Mikel Jollet and I are connected by only a few degrees of separation. I’m just about to start reading Obama’s book, I wonder how many degrees between he and I????
Seems we have a double header this week with the old blog. This is what happens when I decide to recommit to my academic studies. Procrastination? Never. I simply needed a wee writing warm-up exercise…
Over the past 12 months I’ve re-watched the entirety of 2 of my favourite long-running tv programmes of all time – ER and The West Wing. Both shows had a profound impact on me at the time I first watched them. Now, going back and viewing them again, I re-lived those periods, yet saw them through the lens of some 20+ years of life and world experiences. This has left me with a maelstrom of ideas that won’t settle. When that happens, the only way I can calm the storm is to attempt to formulate them into some coherent thoughts and write them all out.
I watched ER when it first aired back in the mid-90s, when I was in high school. It stayed a continual presence in my life as I moved from Dundee to Sweden for a gap year (I was so obsessed that my parents recorded episodes on VHS tapes and mailed them to me every few weeks so I could keep up), then on to Glasgow and London for university. I kept watching it as I moved back to Glasgow for work, got married and the final series aired the year I gave birth to my first child in 2009. A full 15 years of my adolescence and early adulthood. I’m not sure if Channel 4 ever repeated ER, but I certainly don’t think I watched it again after that initial week by week viewing over a decade and a half.
Similarly, I eagerly tuned in to The West Wing when it came to the UK in, I think, 2001, a couple of years after it premiered in the US. This time I had a willing partner who shared my enthusiasm and when the 7th and final series ended, we purchased the full DVD box set (bye bye VHS, no-one misses you) and we did watch the whole shebang again at least once through, maybe more often. Those DVDs were left in his custody after we split, so I’ve certainly not seen any episodes for the past 5 years, although I’ll say at least 7 because after Child2 came along, late night telly viewing became a thing of the past.
Then hurrah and huzzah, Channel 4’s on demand service decide to make first ER available last year, then The West Wing came online last month.
It feels strange to talk about spoilers for 2 programmes that are over 20 years old, but with their appearance on free streaming in the UK I know that some people are catching them for the first time. If you haven’t seen them yet, by god please do, you won’t regret it. So I’ll maybe mention some names etc but I’ll try to steer clear of events and plot developments in the hope that you will discover them for yourselves and when you do, please let me know and we can share thoughts.
I started watching ER somewhere at the tail end of last year, and worked through the seasons as the COVID19 pandemic emerged, then spread, then took over all of our lives. I began The West Wing in the run up to the 2020 US Presidential elections, and reached the final seasons as results were being confirmed and a new era dawning across the Atlantic.
First impressions – how well they both stand up today. Although obviously dated in many ways – the internet isn’t really much of a thing, pagers are everywhere and people will insist on shouting into phones rather than texting when they are noisy environments. But in terms of drama that engages, camerawork that is impressively cinematic and characters that we can believe and invest in, it’s all still there. Now whether that’s a nostalgic view on my part and people, old or young, watching them for the first time today will feel the same, I don’t know. If that’s you, please get in touch to let me know.
Both programmes tackle the social issues of the day, often from polar opposite perspectives. We see staffers in The West Wing wrangle over legislating for gun control and how to tackle the never-ending war on drugs. ER sees the victims of gun crime and drug misuse up close in all their devastating reality. Political operatives in Washington come back time and time again to discuss the politically thorny issue of gay marriage, gay people serving in the military, yet in Chicago we see an often sensitive and nuanced portrayal of gay couples fighting for next-of-kin rights and dealing with the stigma around HIV & AIDS. I had actually forgotten just how many storylines in ER touched on HIV/AIDS. It was such a big issue in the late 90s, early 2000s. Today I can’t remember the last time it featured in a storyline on any programme I’ve watched recently. Some social issues endure 20 years later – poverty and inequality, racism, the problems inherent in the healthcare system in the US. Some thankfully do not, we have gay marriage legal in many places, treatment for HIV is so successful (in some rich, Western countries) that the virus can go undetected in carriers, outcomes unthinkable a few decades ago. Both programmes shed light on subjects that were often either taboo or widely misunderstood by the public, giving viewers a multifaceted insight into the societal, economic, political and personal dimensions of each of those issues. I for one, learnt a lot from both.
I can’t discuss either programme without talking about language. Both shows highlight, celebrate and elevate language. They revel in it and hit us over the head with it then allow us to bathe in it. ER is snappy, punchy, full of acronyms and short-cuts because time is of the essence. No-one has time to stand around debating the merits of their chosen medical approach, someone is about to die if they don’t act soon, so it’s all shouted orders, get outta my way, coming though, hand me this, shove that in there, STAT! Then the quieter moments by the bedsides, whispered pleas to loved ones, here’s my story, please help me, listen to me. If you can’t help, then please just listen. In The West Wing we still have the pace, the urgency, the critical decisions at play, but they can take time to sit down and debate the merits of their positions and frequently do. We are often treated to both sides of any given argument, pro/con, Republican/Democrat, Liberal/Conservative, each delivered eloquently, intelligently and passionately. Sometimes the “opposing” argument is so persuasive you become unsure of your very values and question your own opinions. The characters all take such joy in language, articulation, debate and rhetoric. When Toby and Sam extol the virtues, dignity and potency of good writing and compelling oratory it’s enough to make me tear up. There is a musicality to the language used in both programmes, it has tempo, rhythm and timbre. Like music, it can take you places beyond the mere words, it can affect you, touch you, move you.
There are numerous actual speeches that show the brilliance of the writing and the delivery in The West Wing in particular, but I also like the exchanges between characters. Just listen to the rhythm.
Another theme that runs through both shows is that of friendship and loyalty. I love a good programme about friendship and loyalty, see more recent examples in other favourites of mine – Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Both ER and The West Wing are large ensemble cast shows that rely on a core team of dedicated individuals to Get Stuff Done. Be that macro stuff like governing, or micro stuff like stopping a gunshot wound bleeding out. In each case, other people’s lives and livelihoods depend on it. They rely on each other, lean on each other, work best when all are at their best. Our characters each have their strengths, but together, they are more than the sum of their parts.
One area where there is a marked difference between the 2 programmes is in the diversity of cast/characters. From the get-go, ER was ahead of its time in showing a racially diverse cast portraying characters with multi-dimensional lives. The West Wing, markedly less so, being overwhelmingly white, however as with the gender balance of characters, it was likely a more realistic representation of the workplace settings of each show. Guest characters in ER were of all colours, backgrounds and nationalities. Guest characters on The West Wing were 90% old white men in suits. Interestingly, or certainly interesting for me, in my current profession as a sign language interpreter, both programmes had minor but significant characters who were deaf and their deafness was approached in very different, but I think quite refreshingly realistic ways. Marlee Matlin is incredible in The West Wing, not to mention the awesome Kenny.
The West Wing is a bit thin on the ground with good female characters. Yes, we have CJ, one of the best female characters out of anything, ever, but while in the pilot alone we see Bartlet, Leo, Josh, Toby and Sam all establish themselves as individuals, it takes the whole 7 series for us to meet the same number of fully-rounded female characters, in CJ, Donna, Dr Bartlet, Ainsley and Kate. Even then, Ainsley and Kate are nowhere near the level of the main male characters. Other women come and go, but none are particularly well-written or given the opportunity to develop as fully realised individuals. ER, on the other hand, abounds with awesome women, too many from the 15 series to mention individually, but Abby is my favourite.
And the men. Well. If I go a bit soppy or inappropriate here, I’ll refer you to my previous post. I think I’ve said before that I live in a pretty much female-dominated environment. At home and and work it’s wall to wall women. It wasn’t always this way for me and I badly miss good, smart, funny men in my life. So in the sad absence of real ones in my vicinity, I turn to the fake ones on tv. Mention ER and most women my age or older will come over all faint at the thought of George Clooney as Doug Ross. When I first saw ER I was about 15 and I’ll admit, Doug Ross was a bit too much man for me. Carter was always my favourite – young, sweet, innocent but with a good heart. Seeing it now, at the ripe old age of 41, I can now fully appreciate Doug Ross. That probably makes me officially middle-aged. Carter is still my favourite, though. ER had an amazing ability to create such a range of personalities and characters, both men and women, straying from stereotypes and tropes and creating personas that were so varied and believably individual. In contrast, the characters on the West Wing, the men in particular, all have a similar drive, ambition and personal ethos that in some ways they are all similar, but by virtue of the combination of good writing and impeccable acting, they each have their own subtleties of identity and presentation. It probably says something profound and disturbing about me that I both strongly identify with and am deeply attracted to Josh. As with Carter, nothing has changed in that respect in the 20 years since I first got to know the characters. Yes, Sam is good-looking and Will is smart and funny (I know some people are anti-Will Bailey, but I really like him) but Josh is passionate, determined, principled, thoughtful and sweet. I’m a sucker for a voice/accent and Josh/Bradley Whitford’s is just somehow perfect.
Anyway, let’s move on…
Watching the full series so close together, especially ones with so many guest stars, I noticed all the crossovers, when regulars or guests from 1 would make an appearance in the other. Side note, I also rewatched Gilmore Girls during this time, but then there’s rarely a time when I’m not watching some Gilmore Girls, and Liza Weil does a superb turn in both ER and The West Wing in roles very different from Paris Geller but equally outstanding. Bonus double Gilmore Girls points for an appearance by Headmaster Charleston in the same West Wing episode. The Stars Hollow set also doubles for New Hampshire in a flashback scene in the West Wing but that may be geeking out too far…
I’ll admit I almost gave up on ER a few times, mainly when key characters left and the temptation grew in later series as the incidents and accidents befalling the staff, never mind the patients, grew ever more outlandish – the helicopter crash ffs – but I persisted and I’m glad I did. With the West Wing, I must say that this time round, the difference between the first 4 seasons and the 5th and 6th were much more apparent. I found myself thinking that this guy was being a real dick, that guy was behaving way out of character, then I remembered the change in writers and it made more sense. I never lost interest, though, and feel like things got back on track pretty quickly with some really good scenes and stories in those later series.
When I finished the 15 series of ER, it felt like the end of a marathon. I was ready for it to end and content with the way it did. Should it have stopped sooner? Maybe, but I did feel that towards the end, the quality of stories and realism picked back up again to the point where it did the previous 14 years justice. I may watch it again at some point, probably not all 15 series, but I’ll go back to County General again I’m sure. With the West Wing, despite going off the rails a little in series 5 and 6, I felt that the final series was a definite return to glory and I didn’t want it to end at all. I wanted to know how the new president got on, what happened in Kazakhstan, did CJ save the world, does Charlie eventually become president? In my mind, yes, he does. Of course.
In the meantime, I continue to live in the West Wing World thanks to The West Wing Weekly, a podcast hosted by Joshua Malina who was in it, and Hrishikesh Hirway, who is a fan. Impressively, they have many stars of the show as guests, who give insights into their characters and plotlines and offer some fun anecdotes about the making of the show. The podcast also delves deep into some of the themes and calls expert witnesses to discuss particular episodes – they consult a Rabbi on Judaic teachings referenced in one episode and speak to a military man who was instrumental in repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell” which as mentioned recurs as a theme through several West Wing episodes. I listen either thinking, “yes, yes, I noticed that too!!” or “huh, that’s interesting, I need to go and look into that some more…” It’s all done with a good sense of humour and is far more amusing that I have made it sound. I would highly recommend checking it out.
So it has been nice to spend a year in the company of characters who are so familiar and live through their lives and stories again. It was fun to realise I’d forgotten what happened in places and experience plots as if for the first time. It was also fun to remember snippets of dialogue just before they are delivered, anticipate the comedic plays and get drawn into the emotional dramatic scenes. Most of all these 2 programmes have provided a much needed escape from the real world, and isn’t that what good televisual entertainment should be all about?