What I’ve Been Watching

There seems to be a lot on these days. And while I wouldn’t exactly call it a golden age for television (because a lot of the follow-up seasons I’ve been watching have been disappointing), after the dry spell during COVID, I am grateful for the entertainment. I thought I would drop in to discuss some of the shows I’ve been watching.

  • Call Me Kat, Season 2:
    This is a cute, dorky little show with Mayim Bialik (of The Big Bang Theory fame) as the protagonist, Kat. It’s easy watching and feels like a welcome relief from more serious themes. I didn’t think the second season has been as good as the first. A lot of what drives sitcoms of this ilk is the romantic plot, and they got that off kilter. But it’s a cute show. Innocuous, but I like if for that.
    Streaming on Hulu.
  • Sweet Magnolias, Season 2:
    The second season was mostly a good follow-up to the first. The first was better, in my opinion, because there were some frustrating storylines in this new one. Most of the frustration is character-based, so I try not to complain that I don’t like where a character’s storyline is heading until I see the conclusion. But as of right now, I am a bit concerned about several things: Dana Sue’s relationship, Helen’s situation overall, and the anger management issues that seem to have suddenly cropped up in Maddie’s boyfriend (Maddie’s was a love story I particularly liked before, and this felt out-of-nowhere and unfair). There was a tendency to let side stories have too much airtime, which took away from the main stories. The setting was confined to a summer when the kids are off from school. Whereas the first season was given space to grow and be what it needed to be, this one felt like a placeholder, which was a bit disappointing. But I watched the show very quickly, and it held my interest, so I’m hanging with it. 
    Streaming on Netflix.
  • All Creatures Great and Small, Season 2: 
    This is a great little show, not ambitious, but so heartwarming. Season 2 was in keeping with the Season 1, which means it was good. It was a little dull, recycling a couple of storylines and dragging out a few others. But there was a reward this season, and it was quite romantic. Overall, well done, and worth it to escape into an hour of gentle, relaxing drama.
    Streaming on PBS Passport.
  • Dollface, Season 2:
    Basically, the same as the others… Not quite as good as Season 1, but not terrible. This is a show about a girl on the cusp of thirty who breaks up with her boyfriend and has to reintegrate with her friends and find what she wants from life. I really enjoyed the first season. But this recent one was another season that wasn’t given space to breathe, and I can’t remember that we actually got anywhere… There were some storylines that were obviously not going anywhere which had way too much time devoted to them. Anyway, I can’t say it was terrible because, again, I did watch it very quickly.
    Streaming on Hulu.
  • The Marvelous Mrs. MaiselSeason 4:
    I came to this show reluctantly, because it all seemed a bit musical-ish and vaudeville-y, and that really isn’t my style. But the clothes were beautiful, and I decided to stick with it. I hardly ever know what to say about this show, which has the same creators as Gilmore Girls. For instance, the first episode of this latest season is so exhausting that I had to watch it in two installments. That’s not good TV, in my opinion. It’s a little too self-indulgent sometimes (the writers explore unique interests that are just not going to resonate with an audience). It’s all over the place, and you feel like you need a tether, or something to bind the whole thing together. Half the time you wonder what the point is. On the other hand, it’s brilliant. While excessively grand in its sets and almost theatrical in its movement, it’s doggedly realistic. It’s not just concerned with romantic relationships. They’re a part of life, but no part of life is neglected. The show cares about relationships—between co-workers, between colleagues, between rivals, between friends, between exes, between ex-in-laws, between parents and children… No relationship is too small for it to absorb itself in and bestow its dignity upon. And I really like that. The cast is amazing. I like the family aspect and the depiction of Jewish life. I like the 1960s setting. I like the way that, with a few exceptions, the show relentlessly follows the mores of the era, even when they make you cringe. But…I still can’t tell you what the point is. It views like a fictionalized, involved origin story of a deeply famous person (in real life), which we all want to watch because she is that famous. Like think if it were Lucille Ball. But of course, Miriam Maisel is fictional. The creators might argue back that the show is about a young female comedian finding her footing on the comedic scene of the 1960s. But that wouldn’t really be honest. The show rambles, takes on much more expansive sidelines. The only thing that really binds it together is the beauty of the filmography, and there is, to be sure, the strong thread of Miriam’s career. On one hand, I actually like this rambling in a way. It makes it super realistic, just like life, and I like realism. Of course Miriam would have to pause her career briefly when her ex-father-in-law has a heart attack. Of course she would have grand squabbles with her parents, who are living with her. Those are the kinds of things that wouldn’t normally make it into the story. We have the fly-on-the-wall view to Miriam’s whole life. I’m just not always sure why we’re supposed to care. Again, she wasn’t a real person, and, in and of herself, while she is a good character, she’s not that compelling. And while I am a huge fan of realism, I deeply believe in storytelling, and I think that is a bit absent here. We need a thread. I had thought it was actually going to be romantic. There’s no doubt that the character of Lenny Bruce is her equal. In books, movies, or shows when a character’s love life is open-ended, I have literally never guessed wrong who the female lead was supposed to be with, her soulmate or true partner, and I thought that was Bruce for Miriam. I may have been living under a rock, but I didn’t know until this year that Bruce was a real person, who tragically ended his life about three years after when Season 4 would have taken place. So I really think the show has backed itself into a corner here by making Miriam’s chemistry so electric with a real-life character with whom she is not destined to be. The upward arc of her career along with the slow burn of her romance with a character like Bruce could have made some story-telling sense of the show. It could have explained why we were so invested in her personal life. But anyway…I actually really enjoy the show for the most part, and I’ve learned a lot. So I’ll keep watching.
    Streaming on Amazon Prime.
  • Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, Seasons 1 & 2:
    Wow. What a show. Props to my sister for discovering it because it seems to be a bit obscure. Anyway, it’s about Zoey, who is a coder at a big tech firm. Her dad is dying from a rare neurological disorder (which the writer’s dad also died from). She gains a superpower in that people, without knowing it, sing their feelings to her through popular lyrics. Okay, so technically, it has a fantasy element, which I don’t usually like. But for anyone who believes in a spiritual realm (and as a Christian, I do), it feels less like fantasy and more like a creative illustration of what happens when the Spirit reveals nuanced truths to you. We can see other people’s hurts and needs so much more clearly, and it felt like that, so it wasn’t such a stretch for me. The show has so much heart and empathy (the real kind). The love between the characters, the struggles they face, the feeling of family and community – it’s just the best I’ve seen in a long time. There is also a love triangle that keeps you on the edge of your seat until the end of Season 2. I actually didn’t know who Zoey was going to end up with (although I did guess her soulmate correctly 😏)! I do have to flag one episode: Season 2, Episode 6, in which the show was more or less paused to speak to political events of that year, and it was a disaster. It completely departed from the show’s character and storyline to pursue a pretty radical theme. I feel like I beat this drum all the time in reviews, but here we go again… I just cannot say this plainly enough: this is detrimental to art and unnecessary. Shows need to be what their original writers intended and not worry about pleasing anyone. Even though the show got right back on track, I felt like viewers really never recover from being let down in that episode. In a show that is entirely about deep love and loss, which spoke so profoundly to grief, it was jarring to pause for a militant political theme that took our characters…out of character and far from empathy.  Anyway, I have almost come to expect shows self-destructing in this way, so… I did finish the show, and I was happy with the ending. Roku commissioned a Christmas special that progresses the show basically one episode beyond Season 2. That episode is free if you have Roku. It was enjoyable, but not very well-directed. A little cheesier, a little less serious… But it still wrapped everything up pretty nicely. As hard as I was on the show for its mistakes, overall, it’s the best I have watched in a really long time. It got one thing very wrong, but it gets a lot so, so right.
    Streaming on Peacock.
  • Fleabag, Seasons 1 and 2
    I had heard such glowing reviews about the literary elements of this British show that I felt like I had to watch it. Reviewers had spoken of it as being laugh-out-loud funny… I wouldn’t say that. Rather, it had a collection of unique humorous moments that stick with you. For instance, Fleabag’s sister was one of the most quietly hilarious characters I’ve seen. The first season is about a woman who is basically unhinging following the deaths of her mother and best friend, and it is actually quite dark in theme. The second season was just pointless to me. I follows Fleabag’s desire for a relationship with a priest. I have seen this sort of fascination with a priest’s celibacy from authors before, with the goal being to crack through that. As a religious person, this makes no sense and always feels disrespectful. I didn’t see how it was supposed to be brilliant when it is a theme that has been rehashed many times. Another criticism I have is about the vulgarity aspect. I am the last person to pearl-clutch over the media I consume, but I think there is a nuance to this that needs to be addressed. Phoebe Waller-Bridge (the writer) was impressed with Bridesmaids, and believes it did a lot for how women are portrayed on screen. I believe this too. However, you have to be careful in this balance. If you begin to be vulgar just for the sake of being vulgar…that’s just gratuitous and may become demeaning. So overall, I was not a huge fan. A lot of people are passionate fans, however, so take my analysis for what you will.
    Streaming on Amazon Prime.
  • The Gilded Age, Season 1
    Julian Fellowes’s long-awaited American answer to Downton Abbey finally hit HBO this year. I am a little uncertain how to approach this one. On the one hand, Fellowes obviously did his research and accurately portrayed the Gilded Age for the ultra-wealthy of New York. On the other, it was boring. The Gilded Age is a tough era. I once wrote a novel set in 1903 and immersed myself in all things gilded. It is overwhelming, simultaneously fascinating and boring. The history of the time is so overbearing, so to speak, that if you don’t push back and say, as a writer, “This story is mine,” the history won’t let you have three-dimensional characters. You don’t feel you have the freedom to carve out your own stories unless you do that. That was the problem in The Gilded Age. None of the characters were super compelling. None of them had great storylines. Every once and a while, there would be a flicker, like with the Russells or Peggy Scott, but it would quickly peter out into the mundane. Marian Brook particularly was insipid as our lead. There were some aspects I liked and some I didn’t like, but I won’t go into them too deeply because the show had the pretty fatal flaw (to me) of being slow-moving. I think this may have been, in addition to the difficult era, a tough production due to the American/British differences in filming. Camilla Long, writing for The Times (UK) said, “You can feel every last torturous second of rewrites, reschedules and rethinks…” I feel bad for giving criticisms because you can tell there was a lot of earnestness put into the show, particularly by the actors. I will watch Season 2, and hope for more compelling storylines.
    Streaming on HBO Max.

New Persuasion Film

I subscribe to the fabulous Jane Austen’s World and was excited to see a new post today about a new Netflix adaptation of Persuasion, which is in the works. Here is the link: https://janeaustensworld.com/2022/03/22/is-2022-the-year-of-persuasion/.

I read Persuasion when I was in college, and it has a special place in my heart. Published after Jane Austen’s death, I think the novel is likely her finest. It is grown up, quiet, and compelling. I have trouble saying Persuasion is my favorite because I have all these periphery favorites as well. The 1995 Emma Thompson/Kate Winslet Sense and Sensibility is one of my favorite movies of all time. Pride and Prejudice was my first Austen and is truly extraordinary. I also adore the 1996 adaptation of Emma with Kate Beckinsale. But I did feel Persuasion was special enough to be labelled my “favorite” when I read it about a decade ago, so I will stick with that.

Now, film adaptations of Jane Austen works have an occasional tendency to cast men slightly too old for their parts. For instance, who doesn’t love Alan Rickman, but there’s no denying that at age fifty, he was too old to be playing the part of the thirty-five-year-old Colonel Brandon. It gave a totally different cast to the relationship with Marianne than what Austen intended, taking it from being spring/summer to spring/autumn. I will caveat here that I think Rickman performed beautifully and definitely fit the script as written for the adaptation.

As to the odd aging up of men, the same could be said of the 1995 adaptation of Persuasion with Ciaran Hinds, who was forty-two at the time he was supposed to be playing the thirty-one-year old Captain Wentworth. This isn’t a huge gap, but there is a difference, I think, in where you are in your life at thirty-one and forty-two, and that translates onto the screen and takes the book into a slightly different direction from its intention. It was Austen’s intent that the couple meet after a seven(ish)-year separation, which is the foundation for the story. If we go with a hero of Hinds’s age, we would have the impression of more like an eighteen-year separation, which is another thing entirely. I should also caveat here that Hinds is not really my idea of a swoon-worthy lead to begin with, so that might be clouding my vision. I know a lot of people love him, but to me, his performance wasn’t even close to being as good as that of Rupert Penry-Jones in the 2007 Persuasion adaptation. Which brings me to…

When I was in college, I was looking for a good adaptation of Persuasion to watch after reading the book, and found a clip for this version on Youtube. I remember being blown away by how handsome Penry-Jones appeared to be in the role. He definitely fit the bill for me (except I hadn’t envisioned him as blonde, but that was fine). It would really be unfair to talk just about how handsome he was, however, when he did a fabulous job in the role. In fact, he delivers the speech about his friend losing his fiancee (while really talking about himself losing Anne) with perfect timing and sense of emotion. Do you remember the line? “A man cannot recover from such a passion to such a woman. He ought not; he does not.” Boom. I watched this one first, and I have to say, this may be what pitted me against Hinds’s interpretation. He sort of jerks the line out in an emotional fit, while Penry-Jones uses a lot of gravity.

Now, I am the first to say the 2007 Persuasion was not perfect. While Penry-Jones and Sally Hawkins complemented each other well, everyone always seemed to be breathing hard, and taking short, choppy breaths, or something… It makes me hyperventilate just to watch it (go watch it; you’ll see). It’s really odd! I also thought some of the filming techniques were a mistake. There was a choice made to have the camera unsteady to give a sense of urgency to the film. Instead of doing that, it almost felt unprofessional. There was also an odd decision to have Sally Hawkins look directly into the camera at the end of a lot of scenes, and… She just doesn’t really pull it off. I didn’t hate her as Anne, but I’ve never really felt that anyone totally captured Anne.

So now we come to… What do I think of the new casting choices? We have Dakota Johnson as our Anne. It was a little jarring to leap from Fifty Shades of Grey to Persuasion. I think anyone would have to admit that. But I don’t totally write her off just because she is known for quite another genre (and American as opposed to British). I always thought she had a certain confidence, so who knows? She might do a great job.

I don’t know anything about Cosmo Jarvis, who is starring opposite Johnson as Captain Wentworth. The picture released shows him having dark hair, so that is more along the lines of what I thought from the book (if I remember correctly). He is also spot on for age at thirty-two. But he has a lot of proving himself to do, in my opinion, to top Penry-Jones.

They’re saying we will have the new movie on Netflix this year, so we shall see!

Some Thoughts on A Separate Peace

I was in a bookstore while on a weekend shopping trip. The title had been stuck in my head all day, just kind of rotating around nonchalantly, meaninglessly, as phrases do. A Separate Peace. I’ve never known anything about the book, but the title has always seemed to me singularly beautiful. The kind of title you wish you had thought of first. Shimmering with meaning. With significance. I have no idea how it came into my mind.

That night, I was ambling around a bookstore when I looked down, and there it was. A Separate Peace, laying on a shelf with the most beautiful, evocative cover I have seen in a long time. I picked it up, read the back.

I almost never buy literature. I have a shelf full of it, and I’ve read my fair share of it. I like my books that I read for pleasure to be meaningful; I don’t necessarily like for them to be profound. Books that are profound often lack a certain story-telling element that I find necessary for enjoyment. But something was definitely calling to me from this book. Something in my spirit was propelling me to buy it. I’m still not sure why.

My mom likes to do amazing stocking stuffers, and she had requested that I pick out two books for her to put in mine. At the end of my search, I took her The Bridge to Belle Island, by Julie Klassen, and A Separate Peace, by John Knowles. She held up the latter, saying with mild surprise, “Really, you want this one?” I answered, “It’s very pretty.” And that was that.

It appeared in my stocking, and sat on my shelf for a few weeks. This weekend, I finished it. It was profound. There’s no getting around that. I wished heartily for one of my literature-reading circles in my college classes, where the professor could tell us what the greats thought about it, and we could fire back with what we thought about it. But I don’t have that, and, as a change, I have decided to reflect on what it means to me before I look up any reviews to see what it means to others. The author of the afterword in my copy, David Levithan, talks about “the double life of all great literature—there is what it is meant to mean, and then there is what it means to any given reader.” I thought I would share a few of my thoughts on it. There are spoilers ahead.

  • The book is set in a New England boy’s school, Devon, during WWII. It follows its protagonist, Gene Forrester, who is sixteen through being on the cusp of eighteen. He is in his final years of high school, contemplating going to war and dealing with adolescent friendships, most prominently with his roommate, Phineas (Finney). It is a coming of age story, but I think it speaks more deeply than simply to the things we learn as we are propelled from childhood to adulthood. It is a very human story.
  • I loved the New England private school setting. There is something deeply interesting and compelling about it, not to mention that historic feeling that is so unique.
  • Obviously the most profound thing the book has to offer is a study of the human condition. Of our negative capabilities. Our sins. Our ability to hurt other people, and the consequences of that, what to do with that. I don’t want to sound too negative here because I believe we also have endless positive capabilities, so I’ll caveat what I’m about to say with that. But the novel touches on that dark spot in our soul, those things we are most ashamed of that we spend our lives trying to cover or convince ourselves are not there. Of course, as a Christian, I believe that there is an answer to that: grace. But we try so desperately to convince ourselves that we are incapable of harm or bad things, almost as if to save ourselves. We believe that there are good people and bad people, and we are good people. I would imagine many can identify to some extent with the narrator/protagonist, Gene. He’s a rule-follower. A studious kid, not half-bad as an athlete, reasonably popular. He is mesmerized by his friend, Finney, who is one of those kids who has a certain flare about him that draws people; Finney is excellent at sports, has a unique outlook, and a strong charisma. He doesn’t follow the rules. Gene, I think, secretly believes he is a better person than Finney, and yet, at the same time, or maybe at varying times, Finney is also through Gene’s eyes also morally perfect. He doesn’t seem to grasp the gray areas at sixteen to seventeen years old. The boys, while close, are very different and don’t understand each other. They are also deeply jealous of one another, a very common thing among childhood friends. I felt a deep pity for Gene because he doesn’t know he is ensnared in Finney’s intoxicating web. He, while not charismatic, is actually the stronger personality, but he doesn’t have the confidence yet to be his own man. As Finney drags Gene away from his studies and into things he wouldn’t normally do, as the unspoken simultaneous magnetism and rivalry between them grows, all I could think of, now being just turned thirty, was… Finney, for all his undeniable charm, unmistakeable good qualities, and real charisma, is someone I would absolutely not want a child of mine hanging out with. That is so simple to see as an adult. But in a school setting, the play is set, and the players are absolute, as are the peer leaders, and there is no perspective.
  • When Gene realizes Finney is jealous of him academically, and his rage builds, he believes Finney hates him, and he hates Finney. Later, Gene gaslights himself into believing that it was all in his head and Finney was perfect. But I think he got it right the first time. I also think that, while Gene isn’t one to play a deep rivalry game and he felt no malice towards Finney for his athletic prowess, he was more ruthless in his own perfectionism than he ever would have thought. But because of the social structure, he was used to thinking of people like himself as good and people like Finney as bad. When he comes face to face with his own dark capabilities, it shatters him, as it does all of us—all the more so because he had never realized he was capable of sin. Or at least not that kind of sin.
  • When Gene, in a split second, shakes the limb and Finney falls, I think we, the readers, all get that sinking feeling. Most of us have likely never injured someone when angry with them, but we have all been in a rage before. So angry that if our feelings, our looks, our words could do real damage… Gene doesn’t know what to do with that sort of realization in himself any more than the next person, especially because he is so young. And he can’t hide from it, can’t tell himself lies to smooth it over. The damage is on display for him to see every day. He is, because he has a strong moral code, unwilling to compensate mentally, so he won’t even cushion the blow for himself. He is also unwilling to look at outside causes, such as the fact that Finney knew the tree was dangerous and that he should not climb it. However, Gene sees in a glance the depravity of his soul, or as a Christian would think of it, that thing that separates him from God absent grace. For anyone who has ever struggled with an inordinate burden of guilt, this episode will feel very significant. Again, it makes me think of faith. Of that load that is too difficult for us to bear, that weight of sin. And of why grace, from God and from each other, and the love that comes with it, is the most vital thing in the world.
  • I liked that Gene was casually Southern. This was a nice little surprise in a book that I had thought would be about two New England boys. In literature, generally the every-man American is not Southern. This isn’t a complaint. It’s just a truth that is caused, I think, by economic disparities. There is more opportunity in other places, and so the representative characters usually end up being from those places, often because the authors are from those places. If a character is a Southerner, they are typically defined by that alone, and not necessarily capable of being representative, especially if the setting is not in the South. That was not the case here, which probably has something to do with Knowles’s own West Virginia roots.
  • I didn’t realize until I lead Levithan’s afterword that A Separate Peace has a lot of significance almost as a gay literary icon. As I read the book, it did cross my mind that Gene and Finney almost have a pull of attraction between them, and that the words used to describe that attraction are often used in literature romantically. So I could see how this could be read into the book, almost in a Brideshead way. But in an interview much later in life, Knowles said that there was nothing romantic in the relationship between the two, and that, given the time and place, if they had been gay, it would have changed the way he had written everything, which, once you think about it, would be very true. It would have been much more careful; they would have been much more careful. So I don’t want to deny the meaning the book has to anyone, but this did have me thinking… Do we, as we read books and watch TV (or write) tend to think of romantic relationships as the only ones that have this level of impact on our lives? (The answer is: yes.) But all sorts of relationships outside romantic ones define us, move us, get into our heads, have meaning for us. Knowles was emphatic about the point that they are seen as friends, and I think this is why: he wanted to delve into the significance of relationships that aren’t romantic. While we pretend that amorous connections drive everything, friendships and other connections have an impact on us whether we recognize them or not, and I think Knowles wanted us to recognize that.
  • I wrote about the American war novel here. This book could fit alongside any of them. It reminded me most strongly of The Red Badge of Courage and A Farewell to Arms. The former, for its “young man contemplating war” theme, and the latter for its searching for the meaning of life. A Separate Peace isn’t solely a war novel, though. It proclaims that in the title. By taking peace, literal and spiritual, as one of its themes, the war was always going to be a side character. As a side note, it was a brilliant insight into what it was like to be a teenage boy during the WWII years, waiting for eighteen to hit.
  • I think I was led to the book for a reason. I’m glad I read it. Even if it was profound. 

What I’ve Been Watching…

It has been a while since I’ve done an in-depth film review, so I thought I would drop in to let you know what I’ve been watching! If you’re like me, you’re always looking for good options, so hopefully you will find something to interest you here.

  • Sweet MagnoliasI have to say, I wasn’t sure about this show at first, largely because the first scene included both disastrous attempts at Southern accents and a misunderstanding of how the legal system works.  Luckily, I persevered through the first scene, because…I absolutely ended up loving this show. The accents seemed to level out (or maybe I just got used to them?), and although I continued to have concerns about obvious misunderstandings of the legal system, the lawyer character, Helen Decatur, was phenomenal. She was a strong woman, convinced of her own internal worth, confident, and beautifully played by actress Heather Headley. It’s a story of three friends who are, I think, supposed to be in their late thirties or early forties: Maddie, Helen, and Dana. All have their own stories and struggles. Maddie and Dana have children, and the show accomplishes something remarkable: portraying teenagers as actual teenagers and actually making it interesting. I’m not even a baseball fan, but I enjoyed even the high school baseball drama! The kids in the show are all amazing actors. You will see some recycled storylines. Part of the way through, I thought: this is a little Reba, a little Gilmore Girls, and a little Friday Night Lights. And yet…somehow it works tremendously. The show is authentically small-town-Southern. It handles big issues and big emotions delicately. It has a natural, easy way with diversity that few shows accomplish these days. It has tons of charm. And I cannot wait for Season 2!
    Streaming on Netflix.
  • Virgin RiverI have such a love-hate relationship with this show (which consists in me loving it half the time, and me hating it half the time!). The show has a lot of heart. Then it suspends reality. Then the characters are completely relatable. Then they are off the rails… I’ve watched all of the seasons. I’m not sure I’ll watch the next. I always say that; then I always do.
    Streaming on Netflix.
  • Never Have I EverThis is a fun teen drama. With Mindy Kaling at the helm, you are in for some laughs. The first season packed a satisfying emotional punch with the ending. The second season was slightly less satisfying, but I think the writers still have their hands on the reins, so I’ll be watching the third season.
    Streaming on Netflix.
  • The Parisian AgencyThis is a reality show featuring a French family of luxury realtors (a mom, dad, and four sons). It is in French, so I used subtitles, which is, admittedly, a bit exhausting. But it was worth it to get a look at what luxury means in Paris, as well as French culture. I also enjoyed the interactions of the Kretz family and seeing common familial bonds, love, and squabbles across a culture purportedly so different from our own. 
    Streaming on Netflix.
  • Emily in ParisSpeaking of Paris… The show is a little chick-flicky boring…and then all of the sudden turns edgy. It has the “American in Paris” dichotomy of provincial, good kid thrust into the world of Paris and all its culture and sins that has, I think, been a popular ideation since Thomas Jefferson went to Paris as Minister to France in 1785. And the idea of exploring Paris through American eyes did feel fun and accessible, as well as interesting, culturally speaking. I have to say, I did not find the main character relatable or likeable. I sometimes mused to myself that she had been miscast. However, from my admittedly limited knowledge of French culture, there seemed to be a lot that the show got right, and the writers were certainly not lazy with the plot. I’ll be looking forward to the second season!
    Streaming on Netflix.

  • 9/11: Inside the President’s War RoomThis BBC documentary ties the events of 9/11 with a timeline for President Bush and his cabinet on that day. I don’t typically watch 9/11 documentaries, but I wanted to do something to commemorate the 20th anniversary. I highly recommend this documentary. It covers the actions taken and decisions made that day and has a lot of pictures that are never-before-seen. Most of the big players, including Bush, Rice, and Powell, agreed to be interviewed, and I think that will be a huge treasure to history in the future. We don’t have, for instance, a minute-by-minute interview with FDR of his day during the Pearl Harbor attacks, which would be so illuminating. The documentary was very educational and moving without being overwhelming. 
    Streaming on Apple TV.
  • Jack Whitehall: Travels with My FatherThis is a show consisting of a young comedian who goes on world travels with his father. It is often hilarious, with the father being completely unconcerned about political correctness. He does it from the position of an elderly English aristocrat, which comes off as snobbishess, which is why I think he gets away with it when others wouldn’t. The dynamic between father and son is unique and just very funny. It was funnier to me when I just thought they were a father-son duo who were in a reality show practicing off-the-cuff banter. It became clear early on that at least some parts of it were coordinated, however. I have to say that my joy was sapped by that question of doubt as to the raw reality of the show. I enjoy scripted humor if it doesn’t pretend to be otherwise, and I enjoy real life humor. Scripted humor parading as real-life humor leaves me feeling ruffled and a bit cheated. In this case, the question was how reluctant to be there (a huge point of the humor) could the father really be if he had memorized a script? You can’t have a grumpy old man pretending to be a grumpy old man—that takes self-awareness and humor. That being said, I have read articles which state that their off-the-cuff banter is phenomenal, so to the extent the show is a bit rehearsed, it is definitely playing off that dynamic. And it was still funny, even if a bit cheaper form of humor, and you learn some about the places they travel. It’s excellent escapism. Streaming on Netflix.

  • The Chair: This university dramedy with Sandra Oh is almost eerily real sometimes. The writers must be very well-versed in small-major liberal arts academia. Literally, it’s like they know my professors. They also weren’t afraid to “go there” with the drama of a woke student body. I think everyone could take something away from the show. It was very insightful on the troubled family life of academics, but lovingly presented in its humanity. It will also be eye-opening to many on the subject of how, if universities can’t find an internal fabric, they are in very real trouble. There were moments of humor. There are various moments when probably everyone will be very annoyed. It could be heavy; it could be very light (hence, the “dramedy”). I think everyone, whatever their political alignment, will feel both vindicated and frustrated variously. And for that, I give the show high marks.
    Streaming on Netflix.

  • The Babysitters Club: This, when it stays on script, is a good little show based on the original book series about a group of entrepreneurial middle school girls who have a babysitting service. There’s a lot of depth to the show, and it gets a lot right about coming of age. Unfortunately, in Season One, there was a storyline about a trans child that was very uncomfortable to watch for various reasons, none of which have anything to do with trans storylines in general. It involved a very young child, and it just missed it in several aspects. In fact, I thought the show handled it inappropriately. Because of this, I almost didn’t watch Season Two. But because the show had proven itself in other respects, I decided that it might have just been a well-intentioned attempt to make the show inclusive which went off the rails a bit. But Season Two began, to some extent, to go down the path of Anne With an E, which I discussed here. Netflix obviously has an agenda, and it is their right to do so. It is also the right of viewers to criticize when a show’s integrity begins to be harmed by that agenda. 🤷🏻‍♀️ Look, most everything on streaming devices has a left-leaning bent. That’s not what I’m talking about. That can be art. Including long passages that are information dumps about political theories that have only the flimsiest tie to any storyline and pressing them to an insufferable degree…that is not art. That is politics. And that is fine. But it shouldn’t be parading as art. Especially, like Anne With an E, when it draws in an audience based on the reputation of a classic. And it is worth noting that the two shows with which I have seen this done to the largest extent are both shows primarily for children. Which takes Netflix’s agenda to a whole new level, and one that I can’t imagine will end well for them. We shall see. So, like Anne With an E, when the show shines, it really shines. When it strays off task, it loses the thread. So take that for what you will. 
    Streaming on Netflix.

  • Miss Scarlet and the Duke: This is a great show about a female detective in Victorian London, who often comes up against her frenemy, a Scotland Yard Detective Inspector. I am usually not a huge fan of detective dramas, but this one is in the old-fashioned tradition of British whodunnits, where the emphasis is on the people. The romance hits all of the right notes, the tension being superbly written and masterfully acted. It’s in another great British tradition of being of a slow-burn variety and subtle, while nonetheless being passionate. Season One aired on PBS Masterpiece a few months ago, and you may be able to catch it on PBS replays. It is streaming on PBS Passport now (their paid subscription streaming platform), and the first episode is free on Amazon Prime.
    Streaming on PBS Passport.

  • All Creatures Great and Small: This reboot of the beloved classic about a small village veterinarian is very heartwarming and family friendly. It’s a good storyline with a good cast. It ran simultaneously with Miss Scarlet and the Duke on PBS Masterpiece, and it was always a debate as to which would draw me in more. This is currently streaming on PBS Passport, and the first episode free on Amazon Prime.
    Streaming on PBS Passport.

Review: The Women of Chateau Lafayette

Hi friends!

I am reviewing my most anticipated book of 2021, The Women of Chateau Lafayette, today.  I don’t review many books anymore, especially if I have any critiques to make (my thoughts on this in a later post), but there are certain authors who are too famous for my polite criticisms to injure their sales. And when I do make them, you can be sure that it’s because I have a great deal of respect for the author.  Usually, I think many issues with books by more well-known authors are at least half the fault of the publishing world.  So, with that in mind, here we go… [Note: There are mild spoilers ahead.]

The Women of Chateau Lafayette is a sort of follow-up by Stephanie Dray to her Revolutionary War era books, America’s First Daughter and My Dear Hamilton.  Since the Revolutionary War is my favorite era to study, I have read and loved both. I have seen in many reviews and, indeed, on the cover of this new book, that Stephanie Dray is touted as the author of those former books, but she is actually a co-author with Laura Kamoie.  The fact that Kamoie wasn’t on this one made me a bit nervous that it wouldn’t be the same as the first two books because, frankly, they are such a dream team.

But having always adored America’s “favorite fighting Frenchman,” The Marquis de Lafayette, I was ecstatic to see he was the next subject one of these authors would be covering.  Which, of course, is always a bad way to go into reading a book—with a ton of expectations.

When I received the book in the mail, I was stunned by its size.  I haven’t done a page comparison, but I’m not kidding when I tell you that the only fiction books on my shelf which compare in size are War and Peace and Gone with the Wind.  Needless to say, I expect no more whining about the size of Southern Rain, as it is quite dainty in comparison. 😉

Another thing that made me nervous about the book was that it didn’t stick with just the Revolutionary Era.  There were to be time slips between WWI and WWII eras also.  But I have to admit that the idea of Lafayette’s home being used as a beacon of freedom during the very dark hours of Vichy and Occupied France was breath-taking on the grand, sweeping scale of history, and I couldn’t fault Dray for going there.

Now, I am a person who does not mind a lot of things to remember in a book.  Give me a family of eight siblings, and I will memorize their names and ages.  But to be honest (and hopefully not to be condescending), in a present when many are kind of fuzzy on the distinction between WWI and WWII, and given that the wars do have a lot of similarities from the French point of view (fighting Germany for one), one of the more modern eras should have been left out.

And for me, that era would have to be Beatrice and the WWI time-slip.  Beatrice was an amazing woman, and though I had never heard of her, I should have.  So I tip my hat to Dray for rescuing her from the abyss of history.  But the Beatrice sections were a bit on the boring side.  Dinner with a nondescript character here, tea with another character there…. I could tell there were tie-ins with characters from the WWII era, but we weren’t invested enough in those characters, who were barely mentioned or described, for those connections to be exciting in the way that a not-too-distant time-slip can be.  I’m not even sure why we started Beatrice’s storyline where we did, or why precious pages were devoted to so many dawdling scenes.  What I mean is, it seemed to take forever to get to the point with her portions, and I’m not sure we ever did. (Note: In the Author’s Note, Dray discusses her historical sleuthing that led to some quite remarkable finds about Beatrice. But those would have been a better fit in a biographical nonfiction book. Here, they distracted from the overall thesis of the book. Those discoveries’ connection to Lafayette were too tenuous to sustain the thread between the time-slip.)

I was a little more interested in the WWII Marthe bits because France was so…apocalyptic during WWII.  Marthe is bi-sexual, which seems to have bothered some reviewers, but there have been bi-sexual people throughout history.  Marthe is a fictional character, so it was Dray’s only opportunity to change things up a bit given the historical characters she was working with.  But Marthe’s segments were largely her considering her attraction for a woman who was heterosexual and married (so…it was a storyline that never could develop).  It is not much of an exaggeration to say that fifty percent of the WWII bits are Marthe merely exploring this attraction in her mind.  Unrequited love is not unusual, but it’s not necessarily very interesting.  Again, precious time to be wasting in a massive book which was attempting to cover enormous ground.  

For both of these eras, these things just struck me as so much dawdling given the War and Peace size of the book.  We could have (and should have) started two-thirds of the way in for both the WWI and WWII plot lines and more thoroughly explored those times, and both would have been much better stories with a tighter connection to Lafayette. I will say that the WWII parts felt very WWII—so well done to Dray for capturing an era.  And I also liked Marthe as a character.  It was brave to make her crabby and a sort of anti-heroine, and that part worked very well.

The Adrienne parts (American and French Revolution) were clearly the strongest.  I wondered if that was because it always should have just been Adrienne’s story. Dray even says in the Author’s Note that this was what was originally intended. (Although, again, very compelling to make a broad sweep of French history, especially WWII.)  But due to the necessity of covering two other storylines, Adrienne’s part, which was the largest in terms of years covered and scope, was cheated.  Whereas we would see a week here, a few weeks later there with the more modern storylines, we would often see for Adrienne’s, “Three years had passed, and…”  Instead of the soaring, poignant statement about a real woman’s role in historical events which leaves you pondering history itself (like the aforementioned two earlier books), Adrienne’s reads more like a biography, albeit a very well-written and succinct one.  

There is little plumbing of the depths of her relationship with Lafayette, which I don’t think would have been inappropriate given that they were sort of the reason we’re here reading this book at all.  Said plumbing of the depths of a marriage, although not always happy or pleasant, was one of the absolute wonders of both Martha Jefferson Randolph’s and Eliza Hamilton’s stories.  The Lafayettes’ marriage was historically fascinating, and, while I know it would have been a huge undertaking to have dived in with both feet to all of that foreignness, drama, passion, and devotion, I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t deeply disappointed that we didn’t.

Something that the Adrienne parts did very well was convey the origins of the French Revolution.  The starvation and effective slavery of the French people in order to give the nobles wealth which had persisted for hundreds of years is actually included here.  Dray highlights this dichotomy and settles the score on that front.

Something that it didn’t do so well was…include Lafayette.  It felt like we talked about him more than we actually saw him, which weakened the story a great deal.  He was so excluded that, if you didn’t know the background, you would almost have to wonder what the big deal was, why we were even talking about all of this.  While in the Eliza Hamilton and Martha Jefferson Randolph books, you really get the impression that these two women play the vital role in shaping the legacy of the men they loved and that they were a driving force behind many of their actions, that wasn’t necessarily the case here.  Certainly Adrienne was a remarkable and brave woman, but Lafayette was the driving force behind this particular history, and I think it would have been okay to have admitted that, or at least to have given him a more vital role in the narrative. Instead, it was a thesis (the legacy of Lafayette) based on a background which was never firmly established.

So…as you can see, I struggled a bit to get through this one. It was well-written, and Dray pays attention to prose in a way that not many modern authors do.  There were some stunning lines, especially those devoted to concepts of liberty.  I always trust Dray historically; you are safe in her hands.  But the book needed an editor clipping out chunks, adjusting timelines, accelerating pacing, and removing boring bits.  For these failures, I lean toward blaming the publishing industry.  The whole thing felt rushed, like if more time had been given to consider what worked and didn’t work, all of this would have been figured out and the corrections made.  There was nothing overwhelmingly wrong with the book that couldn’t have been corrected by some very slight adjustments here and there. But this book was obviously going to be a big earner, banking on Lafayette’s popularity in Hamilton, and publishers have a relatively narrow window to capitalize on that before it fades.

In other words, what was a well-written, exhaustively researched book based on a breath-taking premise was a bit boring and rambling when it could have been a showstopper.  The searing resonance that I expected just was not present. But I will continue reading Dray and absolutely hope she and Kamoie continue their exploration of the Revolutionary generation.  And do I think you should read The Women of Chateau Lafayette?  Despite my criticisms, yes.  Lafayette’s story and message of freedom should be shouted from the rooftops.  I have always thought this, and always will.