TV

R.I.P. Barbara Billingsley, Sit-Com Mom Emeritus

If Americans needed a manufactured (but, according to colleagues, family and friends, more than half-genuine) mother figure to enshrine in sit-com heaven, they got it in Barbara Billingsley.

I don't know about calling her "America's mom", as I'm sure many obituaries will claim, but she was inarguably the "sitcom mom".

It's funny. My peers and I (born around 1970) were, obviously, not alive in the '50s, but that earlier era loomed large for us. Let me explain: the people who raised us did live in that time, and they were invariably informed by the mores and cultural imperatives of that era. As such, many of our parents were either inculcating or reacting against the buttoned-down (repressed?), black-and-white (i.e., 'white') reality as shows like Leave It to Beaver portrayed. Hence, the hippie sensibility that at least had a fighting chance for a few years before the door slammed shut in the back-to-the-future adventure of the Reagan years.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Many of us watched syndicated repeats of shows like Leave It to Beaver at an age when the TV functioned as a stop-gap between swim practice and spending the majority of the day at the pool, or in between morning chores (remember those?). It was all about the escapades that Beaver and Wally got into, and Ward and June were, well, not older so much as ageless. Ward was kind of like God (a very white God): firm, upright, not one to be messed with. He brought you into this world and he always had your best interests in mind, even when you screwed up.

Billingsley was, to the average eight-year-old (I'd imagine, unless I'm alone here), less a woman, if you will, but more of a matron; equal parts perfect casting and appearance. She was kind of like Jesus (or Mary?): she helped hold down the fort and there was never any dissension in the Cleaver crib. She was the (ahem) kinder, gentler hand, the one whose shoulder you could cry on and the one who would buck you up even if you let her down. That, after all, is what mothers are for. (The adult looking back on clips from that show can't help but notice Barbs was a fine-looking woman, indeed. One imagines that outside of the kitchen, once the boys were tucked in and a few very dry Martinis later, with Ward nodding off in his recliner after another heroin fix, our all-American mom was ready to party; let's hope for all of our sakes this was the case. Just kidding -- mostly.)

All of which, I guess, is one way of trying to articulate the obvious: if Americans needed a manufactured (but, according to colleagues, family and friends, more than half-genuine) mother figure to enshrine in sit-com heaven, they all could have gotten much worse than Barbara Billingsley.

Rather than show boring clips from that staid old show, perhaps the most revealing (if only slightly less original) way of illustrating Billingsley's stature in our collective consciousness is her epic cameo in Airplane -- several decades after her Leave It to Beaver prime (and right around the time many of us were getting to know the Cleaver clan, frozen in time, for the first time):

The fact that Billingsley was even asked to play this part speaks volumes about her impact as the dependable, unobjectionable white woman. Needless to say, it resonated, and you can still hear --and appreciate -- the collective sigh (equal parts hilarity and relief) that she was willing, and able, to send up that manufactured, if mostly innocuous, stereotype of the mother we all should have had circa 1950-something. I suspect nobody (least of all Billingsley) had any clue how large her role would loom in the second-half of the 20th century, and for that reason alone, it's impossible to imagine America (the real one, the imagined one, and one we never had and are always chasing, in dreams, re-runs and flashbacks) without her.

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

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TV

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

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The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

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To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

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Gallagher's work often suffers unfairly beside famous husband's Raymond Carver. The Man from Kinvara should permanently remedy this.

Many years ago—it had to be 1989—my sister and I attended a poetry reading given by Tess Gallagher at California State University, Northridge's Little Playhouse. We were students, new to California and poetry. My sister had a paperback copy of Raymond Carver's Cathedral, which we'd both read with youthful admiration. We knew vaguely that he'd died, but didn't really understand the full force of his fame or talent until we unwittingly went to see his widow read.

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