Sunday, September 29, 2013

My All-Time Favorite Series – The British Invasion

One of my readers, (thank you Marge) asked if I'd recommend my top ten series and once I got started, well, try as I might to winnow down the list, my top ten grew, I ended up with sixteen — and even that was a sacrifice!  So to spare you all, I'm breaking up my favorites into segments and I hope you'll agree with, watch and enjoy my choices and/or post your favorites in the Comments section and set me straight!
The Brits certainly know how to do series and though there are many (Lillie, Foyle's War, Prime Suspect, Downton Abbey and more)these four five, in chronological order of production,  I love and could watch again and again.  

The mother of all-series-Masterpiece-Theatre — Upstairs, Downstairs (1971-75) tells the story of the aristocratic Bellamy family living at 165 Eaton Place with their butler, housekeeper, parlor maids, footmen, cooks and nannies who live downstairs and serve selflessly day and night.  As such, those “Downstairs” are privy to the emotional highs and lows of the Bellamys living their lives under the scrutiny of society and their own lives rise and fall on that of their masters and mistresses.  Swindles, scandals, the sinking of the Titanic, and horrors of trench warfare in World War I, are just some among the many trials and tribulations that beset the Bellamys.  Lady Marjorie (the real blue blood in the family), Lord Bellamy, son James and daughter Elizabeth, Hudson the butler, Mrs. Bridges the cook, Rose, Sarah, Edward and so many more — it's a cast of characters — above and below stairs — you'll find yourself loving.

Based on the real-life story of Rosa Ovenden Lewis who became known as the "Queen of Cooks" and successfully ran London’s Cavendish Hotel, The Duchess of Duke Street (1976-77) follows little Louisa Layton as she works her Cockney self up from a scullery maid to a hired cook to a renowned chef and hotelier to royalty.

The hard-working, hard-scrubbing Louisa suffers a terrible forced-on-her marriage and prejudices against women in the kitchen and in business.  But she and her magnificent culinary talents catch the stomach and the eye of Edward the VII, Prince of Wales. Edward — who later becomes King — helps pave the way for the upper-crust society that comes to patronage Louisa's food and her Bentinck Hotel.  Louisa Trotter’s a tough cookie with a keen sense of business and the perseverance to pursue her dreams against tough odds.  Wait’ll you see the lavish ten-course meals that were de rigueur in her day!

Tenko (1981-84) opens in 1942 Singapore  as the well-dressed wives and girlfriends of British officials and military officers spend their days lunching and shopping, and nights drinking cocktails at Raffles Hotel and dining at the club — all while being waited on hand and foot by South Asian servants who tend to their every whim.  But when the Japanese invade Singapore and take control, the world these British (Australian and Dutch) women have known and enjoyed, crumbles week by week.

On the right, Marion Jefferson becomes de facto leader
and at left, you may recognize actress Stephanie Beacham
who later became a character on the TV series Dallas.
Trapped and beaten down by primitive living quarters, lack of food and medicine, and the constant stand-til-you-drop call to “Tenko” (roll-call in Japanese) episode after episode we see how some women adapt, others rise to become leaders, and still others refuse to accept their harsh new reality and die off one by one.  It’s a startling look at the rise and fall of a class of women we don’t usually see experience degradation and deprivation.  Based on the internment of British military nurse and WWII POW Margot Turner, Tenko takes us into the depths of despair as women who never had to think about much in their lives, have to think, work, and fight to get along and survive their cruel existence as prisoners — and after the Japanese surrender — the emotional challenges as they return to what will never again be "life-as-normal" for any one of them.
Next in the line-up comes The Jewel in the Crown (1984) the spectacular story written by Paul Scott in The Raj Quartet (book covers above) that chronicles the dissolving reign of the British in India — those who are willing to move forward with India’s emergence to self-rule and those stubbornly unwilling to relinquish their rule.  Particularly standout in the series is the battle of wills between English-educated Hari Kumar (left) and lower “caste” Colonel Merrick (right) who can’t forgive the loss of power that is slipping through his fingers.  Covering the end of WWII, the decline of the British Empire and the rise of India's independence Jewel in the Crown is a fascinating history lesson and the succession of female leads — from the hesitant, mild-mannered Daphne Manners to the budding feminist Sarah Layton — provides an amazing contrast of women in the 40s.  And — Ronald Merrick is someone you'll love to hate.

The Forsyte Saga I & II (2002 - 2003)  Well, I just couldn't leave this one out.  As one viewer said, this series is "a sumptuous delight" — from the brilliant acting to the fabulous costumes to the intricate plot lines that pit two diametrically opposed cousins of wealth  — the uptight controlling Soames (played by Homeland's Damian Lewis) and the compassionate independent-minded Jolyon Forsyte in a clash over personal values and the enigmatic Irene (pronounced I-ree-NEE and played by Gina McKee) that spans the 1870s to the 1920s and three generations of Forsyte-family perils and pleasures.  [Don't confuse this with the earlier BBC black & white version of The Forsyte Saga produced in 1967.] This series transits the sins of the fathers on their sons, daughters, and next generation of daughters and sons as they endure, live with, and rebel against the Forsyte family traditions and long-hidden secrets that eventually come to light.  There is something splendid about the people, the period and the show's focus on art and architecture through the decades.

Next up: My All-Time Favorite Series – Workplace Drama

Thursday, September 26, 2013


What does it mean to be "lucky" ?

I always thought that it meant you were someone who would win things.  You could win at cards or contests or slot machines.  My son seems to have this kind of luck in our family.  When the local library had a drawing his name was picked for the "Reading Is Fundamental" mug.  

Once when we were visiting New York and I wanted them to see Avenue Q The Musical because I'd seen it and it was phenomenal.   But there was only one night we could go and they were sold out.  I was SO disappointed but then, someone said they had a special deal where if you came to the box office
and entered into a drawing no later than 20 minutes BEFORE the show started there was a lottery for maybe 10 or 12 tickets and if your name was chosen, you could buy one or two front-row tickets at half-price.
Wow!  It was like two-for-one and it was a chance!  SO we all trooped back to the theatre at the appointed time and the four of us each filled out the little slip of paper and then we waited and sure enough, our son's name was called! The two of them got to see the play for next to nothing. Unbelievable!

While he was always lucky (to some degree) I can't say I am.  Years of filling out the Publisher's Clearinghouse Sweepstakes (by hand in those days) and mailing them off.  Then betting on office pools (date of baby's birth, baby's weight), trying those occasional lottery tickets, the rub-off tickets, the Mega-Millions and — nothing, nothing, nothing.

Still, I keep trying.  My latest venture has been twice a day entering the HGTV Urban Oasis and the DIY Blog Cabin sweepstakes.  The Urban Oasis is in Boston and while I love Boston, I have to say the decorating choices in the Urban Oasis leave a lot to be desired.  The color scheme seems outdated and there's this painted treatment of the bedroom ceiling that's just so hideous — I don't know what these folks were thinking.  Still, I enter twice a day and if I do win, there's a new car that's part of the deal so that's a clear win.

The Blog Cabin — now that is a place I'd love to have.  Waterside house, completely redone and recycled, sleeps a small bunch, beautifully orchestrated and landscaped outdoors with a great kitchen, fire pit, dining table, the works and I like the color palette inside!  If I win — if I win — I would have the place I've always dreamed of — a place near the water, near the beach, near the sound of lapping waves.  A home close to the aspect of Mother Nature that is my favorite and the one that I find regenerating, rejuvenating, and re-energizing.

On October 11 we'll find out if I won this gorgeous house — wish me luck!
 photographer Frank Murray

My son is at the kitchen table writing essays in Mandarin for a blog where he will be corrected by native speakers and he in turn will correct their work.  He does this in between work and working on the sci-fi book he's writing.

My husband is in the den polishing the final act of his play and getting ready to start the next one.

Far away in New Orleans my daughter will wake up and spend some part of her day writing jokes for her next open mike and writing about popular culture for P/Portable.  

I am on my couch, writing for this blog and it strikes me.  

All four of us — we are all writers.

Guess that's pretty lucky.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Love Letter to Aaron Sorkin
I am an admitted TV junkie.  I watch ALOT.  But not all that I watch is good let alone great.  In my book, some of the greatest TV is created by a master — Aaron Sorkin.  About ten years younger (and far more successful) than I am, Sorkin writes screenplays and television series that always deliver.   This is a special talent that should be recognized beyond the entertainment industry.  Sorkin is so good at what he does that he may as well have a crystal ball. His genius series The West Wing forecasts the phenomenon of Barack Obama on the political scene.  

Barack Obama is elected to the U.S. Senate on November 2, 2004.  Eight days later on November 10 (in the episode, ) West-Wing viewers are introduced to Matthew Santos — a Latino-Texan Congressman who wants to get out of the House because he can't get anything done.  With Josh nipping at his heels, this barely known, improbable underdog candidate travels a rocky road through the primaries and the election, and two seasons later, in April of 2006, amazingly — Matt Santos is elected President of the United States.  Less than a year later, Barack Obama announces his candidacy for President of the United States and, against all odds, wins the election in 2008.  Life imitating art...created by Aaron Sorkin.  But let's go back to Aaron Sorkin's beginnings as entertainer/educator extraordinaire.

Aaron starts out in the movies with 
A Few Good Men and Malice and then, then he does The American President — a smart-talking fast-paced dramedy that takes us inside the inner workings of the White House and shows us how a president and his staff navigate politics, the presidency, and all the personalities that create the operational infrastructure it takes to legislate and move the party’s agenda.  Complicate this with competing special interests, power-grabs, and a young handsome president (Michael Douglas) recently widowed with a young daughter to raise amidst the chaos and scrutiny of the non-stop demands of holding the highest office in the United States.  Add to that a romantic entanglement with an environmental lobbyist (Annette Benning) and you’ve got classic Sorkin — a contemporary story  loaded with engaging, entertaining characters.

Sorkin's first TV series Sports Night, was an ensemble "about a fictional sports news show. It focuses on the friendships, pitfalls, and ethical issues the creative talent of the program face while trying to produce a good show under constant network pressure."  His initial offering to the TV audience only makes it for 45 episodes between 1998-2000.  It wins some awards over its short run, but this award sums it up:  2000 Winner of the TV Guide Award — category? — Best Show You're Not Watching.

But before he's dead on the tube, lucky for us, Aaron Sorkin is already at work on what will be his most exceptional, most wonderful, most engaging and entertaining work — The West Wing. 

I love, love, love The West Wing.  My thoughtful family gave me the complete series for Mother's Day one year and it's still one of the best presents.  This work resonates with me because Sorkin plumbs the depths of everyday ethical dilemmas in whatever context he places his stories in.  When I originally wrote about this series it was to show how teachers and parents could use television (quality television) to explore ethics and character.  I even sent a copy of the piece with a letter telling Sorkin was a great educational tool the show was, but (sad for me) my letter got returned — unopened.  [Maybe they thought I was pitching my own show without an agent?]

The West Wing with its fast-talking, wise-cracking, power-walking the halls of the White House, goes on for seven seasons and 154 episodes.  And season after season, I'm left wanting more.

So when it finally comes to an end (with Jimmy Smits as our unlikely-but-wonderful President) Sorkin follows this up with Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip a funny (short-lived) series about the making of a Saturday-Night-Live-type comedy show and again we are behind the scenes to see the people, the politics, and the pranks of life while producing television.  Though the show didn’t run more than one season, Aaron quickly follows its demise with two films:  Charlie Wilson's War in 2007 and The Social Network in 2010.
Though both were entertaining movies, I can't say either really did it for me but then, then in 2011 Sorkin comes through with a film I’m completely nuts over — Moneyball — and my entertainment hero's back in the game.   Moneyball is a movie about baseball, about a baseball manager to be exact and his quest to develop a winning team with the lowest budget imaginable.  Starring Brad Pitt as the real-life Oakland A's manager Billy Beane, this film is incredibly rich, entertaining, warm and whenever it's on TV — I stop changing channels and watch.  And I don't even like baseball! Credit Aaron Sorkin.

Before last week, we didn't have HBO, but after seeing Season One of The Newsroom on DVD, we signed up and got on board.  It's classic Sorkin — sharp, witty, sarcastic, contemporary and compelling.  News Anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) and Executive Producer former-fiancee Mackenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer-we share the same birthday!) have managed to survive meltdowns and mistakes, stay at the network without completely crucifying each other over their broken relationship — and now we get to see if they maintain their jobs, ratings, and their newly revived engagement.  Thank God!  [As Will says after Mac accepts his proposal of marriage.  Can you tell how happy Sorkin's TV makes me?]

Given his track record maybe it’s time I check out Sports Night cause when the credits say "Created by Aaron Sorkin" — in my book, you just know it's gonna be good.

Thursday, September 19, 2013


The Four Agreements - 

15th Anniversary Illustrated Edition

Paraphrasing Don Miguel Ruiz, a Toltec spiritual teacher and author of The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom

Forgiveness is about letting go — it does not mean you have to accept what has happened; it’s about understanding what’s done is done and moving past it so you don’t continue hurting yourself over what has happened. You need to love yourself to forgive yourself.

We punish ourselves thousands of times for the same mistakes and the same harsh judgments — 

Well, ain't that the truth.

The truth is hard to hear and I need to hear that phrase again: "moving past it so you don’t continue hurting yourself over what has happened."  It's a powerful message.  Even knowing that holding on to the past is compromising the present — why is it so hard to forgive?  

At this late stage, I'm beginning to understand that there might be a different approach to "forgiveness" than the one I've always held.  Instead of the blanket "let-bygones-be-bygones"  (which doesn't sit well with me) it may be less about forgiving the other person and more about letting go of what's inside me — giving the send-off to the feelings that prevail within and the harsh judgments I keep dispensing upon myself. 

How do we stop the judging, critical voice that badgers and beats us and keeps me awake night after night?  One of the guests on Oprah's Super Soul Sunday, (I think it was Michael Singer said we must work at finding inner silence between our thoughts so your mind isn't controlled by your thoughts.  So at night while I'm lying in bed and the negative stuff is swirling around on repeat-repeat-repeat, I imagine the top of my head flips open (like a hinged flip-top lid) and I will the negative thought to drift upward, out of my head and off into the atmosphere.  It's a powerful image and it works!  At least for the moment.

Between CBS Sunday Morning and Super Soul Sunday, I get a strong dose of the cultural and the spiritual and I soak up what Oprah's viewers have to say about guest Don Miguel Ruiz' four agreements.  Here's what I heard:

Be Impeccable With Your Word — Be deliberate and thoughtful about everything you say; say it with intention that you support with action.  If you are impeccable with yourself it will change everything around you.

Don't Take Anything Personally — You are never responsible for the actions of others, you are only responsible for YOU; we make the assumption that everything is about ME but everybody is only a secondary character in someone else’s life.  Stand in your own truth.

Don't Make Assumptions — Making assumptions creates drama because we don’t have the courage to ask what someone else is thinking/feeling, because people don’t see the world the way we do. And the assumption that may get us into the worst trouble is assuming if people love us, they should know what we want or how we feel.   With very few exceptions, people don't see the world the way you do.

Always Do Your Best — The first three agreements focus on what's in our mind but this agreement is about taking action and sharing that with others.  Your best is all you can do, and if you’re doing that it should take off all the pressure because — no matter what the result, you did your best.

If I look at these I know the work I have to do is with agreements two and three: Don't Take Anything Personally and Don't Make Assumptions.

I take everything personally.  My friend Susan just said to me, "You know when people say, 'It's not personal' ?  It IS personal — it's ALL personal!" and I do feel that way.  But it certainly gets me in trouble because I view the world through this lens.  How can that change?  

I grew up in a family where I was overlooked because everything else was a disaster and I was not.  From a very young age I tried desperately to be on a good track, doing well in school, following the rules.  I thought this way would garner me the attention and love I craved.  But it didn't work.  The negative behaviors, the bad things happening within my family got all the attention — there was no time and no energy left for those being good or doing good.  Try as I might, I just couldn't get them to pay attention to me.  They were running around putting out fire after fire, trying to survive one crisis after another.  But at the time, all I could feel was that they weren't paying any attention to me. That I wasn't important enough or good enough or something enough that made me someone of value in their eyes.

Even knowing now what I know about the tumultuous life my parents were living — the challenges they faced with my always-in-trouble brother, my father's violent temper and continuous health issues, their precarious and ever-present financial instability — when you're little and no one in your family pays you any attention — it's personal.