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.