Case Study 81: Brides of Christ, Episode 1–“Diane”

Original Airdate: September 4th, 1991 on Australian Broadcasting Corporation

You’ll have to forgive me, because going from schlocky family sitcoms to prestige dramas for serious Australian grown-ups induces a certain amount of whiplash. Brides of Christ is a six episode miniseries depicting a convent of Catholic nuns in 1960s Sydney. It’s a historical drama and there’s unlikely to be much chance for sex and violence? We’re in Masterpiece Theatre territory here. It’s probably not as much fun as Call the Midwife but it’s also hard to believe it shares a medium with Family Ties.

Strengths

  • Fresh subject matter. Have there ever been any other shows about nuns? As near as I can tell the closest things are The Flying Nun, which was clearly not intended to be taken seriously, and the aforementioned business about midwives, which has nuns but is primarily about, you know, midwives. Plus, those nuns are Anglican.
  • Insight into Catholicism. So I was raised Roman Catholic but I’ve never been a nun, and I’ve never had much interaction with them outside of pissing them off in Sunday school. A lot of this was new even for me, and this effect was made more pronounced by the temporal remove. Brides chronicles one of the more tumultuous moments in recent Church history, rivalled only by a certain spotlight-worthy story that broke in Boston around the turn of the century. While child molestation was definitely happening in the church in the 1960s, fresh-faced postulant Sister Catherine (Josephine Byrnes, The Matrix Reloaded) is out of the loop. She’s more interested in tensions in the church between conservatives and disciples of the reform-minded Pope John XXIII, or “Johnny X-X-one-one-one,” as Catherine’s goofy friend Sister Paul (Lisa Hensley, Dating the Enemy) calls him. Johnny was famous for Pacem in terris, an encyclical inveighing against nuclear proliferation, and for calling the Second Vatican Council. Vatican II wasn’t finished and implemented until the papacy of Johnny’s successor, but it would bring about major changes in the church. Catherine and I were both raised in the church, but all the church services of her childhood were in Latin. Nowadays the pope is another reformer in the spirit of our Johnny, and activists within the church call (optimistically) for female priests and a wholehearted embrace of gay marriage, both ideas that would cause the stately senior nuns of 1963 Sydney to burst into unholy fire. It can be hard to keep your eye on the future in a religious tradition steeped in ancient ritual—when Catherine and her colleagues are shrouded in black veils and crowns of thorns during their initiation, they look like they have more in common with moondrunk pagans than with respectable Sunday churchgoers. Recent movies like Spotlight, Philomena and Calvary do a good job dragging the Roman Catholic Church to hell and back, and Brides is much more even-handed—Catherine and the other nuns are for the most part sympathetic, though their faith is not always easily comprehensible. That’s not to say that the Church as an institution comes off well, even if no one gets molested. It’s just as infected by sexual repulsion and mindless embrace of authority as always. Catherine is eventually sent off to the provinces to get her away from Paul and their “particular relationship.” She’s also forced to burn her private journals after setting off the Independent Thought Alarm one too many times.
  • Catherine. So why does she put up with this shit? She’s clearly too smart to be mouthing empty catechisms, even if older nuns like Sister Attracta (Melissa Jaffer, Mad Max: Fury Road) offer encouraging, laid-back role model vibes in contrast to Sister Agnes’ (Brenda Fricker, My Left Foot) tight-assed bitter old martinet. Before Sister Catherine was Sister Catherine, she was Diane, a dewy-eyed girl fresh out of a lengthy college career and ready to earn her MRS degree. After her father dies, she undergoes some weird religious epiphany. It’s  worth taking a moment here to praise the director (Ken Cameron, The Umbrella Woman) for conveying something as abstract as a religious epiphany in a legible if abstract and impressionistic manner. He even managed to resist using hokey period special effects! Anyway, it’s compelling to watch Catherine strive to reconcile her liberal upbringing with the decidedly staid and orderly intellectual environment where she finds herself. She may be an inquisitive free-thinker, but she doesn’t have a mean-spirited or sarcastic bone in her body. She earnestly engages a peevish Agnes on the topic of nonsensical medieval thought experiments. She knows Paul isn’t on her intellectual level, but she never lets Paul see this for a moment; we get the sense that Paul would be interested in taking the relationship deeper into the heart of particularity, and it seems Catherine is inclined to discourage this, subtly, gently, so as not to call attention to it or hurt Paul’s feelings. Here is where I wish that we could see an alternate reality where the two young women aren’t separated and this issue eventually comes to a head, but I’m sure Catherine would be a goddamned class act about it. 

Final Episode Judgment: 10/10. Television execs are historically timid about touching on anything having to do with religion or spirituality. It’s a shame, but that scarcity creates openings for fresh stories that offer probing explorations of deep and rich thematic material. This episode is well-acted, well-written and well-shot. Based on the strength of this premiere, Brides would have made an excellent TV series. It could have been the Mad Men of Catholicism. Instead, it was a miniseries before its time plunged into inky black obscurity. It’s moments like this where I feel vindicated by my drive to unearth the pearls and truffles of forgotten TV (along with a lot of stinking refuse.)

NEXT TIME: I review the blissfully Tom-Cruise-free Mission Impossible (1966).

Case Study 81: Brides of Christ, Episode 1–“Diane”

Case Study 80: Family Ties, Episode 30–“Batter Up”

Original Airdate: November 30th, 1983 on NBC

The family sitcom is the last refuge of the scoundrel of TV mediocrity. If you have airtime to fill and no interesting ideas to fill it with, give us cute kids, some tame humor and the barest shred of novelty. It’s hard to enjoy the anodyne domestic stories of years gone by in a post-Simpsons world, but it does make it easier to understand why that show made such a splash and why Married With Children might have seemed like a breath of fresh air. Of course, everything old is new again. At this point, arch depictions of dysfunction seething beneath conformity are boring (F is for Family, anyone?) and an old-fashioned goofy family sitcom like Modern Family has a wheelbarrow full of Emmys, despite not really being as modern as all that. Which is all well and good: if it’s funny, it doesn’t need to be groundbreaking. Family Ties is self-evidently not groundbreaking. It centers around the political conflict between liberal parents and a conservative son, an empty mirror image of the much more interesting All in the Family. But is it funny? Well-l-l-l….

Strengths

  • Hilarious 80s fashion. Nothing says style like a fuschia vest over a dark purple sweater, worn with panache by the inestimable Tina Yothers as eleven-year-old Jennifer. Meanwhile, teenage Mallory (Justine Bateman) is headed off to school in inexplicable Laura Ingalls Wilder cosplay. And I realize that annoying neighbor Arlene (Tanya Fenmore, My Stepmother is an Alien) is supposed to be nerdy, but all the lace ruffles are a touch extra even for her.
  • One mildly amusing line. Laughs and even smiles are few and far between in this joyless “comedy,” but there was one tiny moment. Loathsome teenage Republican Alex P. Keaton (Michael J. Fox, Back to the Future) is coaching Jennifer’s softball team with a decidedly Malthusian philosophy. All of the other girls start to back out so as not to have to deal with him, and we hear one side of his phone conversation with a truculent mom. I’ll pause here to say that a one-sided phone conversation is always an easy way to get a laugh. Some of the most potent comedy asks us to rely on our imagination of offscreen reactions and events. We see him saying, “Ms. Scofield, be reasonable…this is the championship game and we’re going to forfeit without Charlotte…We can give her her medication between innings!”

 

Weaknesses

  • Terrible acting. There’s a reason most of these people didn’t have much of a career outside this show. Fox was the breakout star, and he’s more or less inoffensive here, if a bit whiny. This episode is really a showcase for Jennifer, and Yothers handles herself with surprising competence, though we’re still grading on the child actor curve. Everyone else might as well be extras at a midwestern dinner theatre. Thankfully, the worst-in-show award goes to someone who’s not a part of the main cast: Marc Price as Skippy, Arlene’s equally annoying older brother.
  • Learning a valuable lesson. One thing I’ve learned writing this blog is that while overcooked melodrama is tedious, nothing is as intolerable as bad comedy. I was wrong. There is one thing more intolerable: bad moralistic comedy. I realize that 20th-century family sitcoms are notorious for this, but it’s very hard to do well. It takes someone like Norman Lear to be able to take an ethical dilemma and make it funny as well as thought-provoking. Needless to say, he didn’t work for Family Ties. In tonight’s episode, we learn that while winning is nice, it’s not worth damaging your friendships or brutalizing little girls. Well, except that…
  • There are no real consequences. Guess what happens at the end of this trifling nonsense? It looked like Alex wouldn’t have enough players to field a team due to his and Jennifer’s sociopath-adjacent behavior. Then Arlene and the girls on the team forgive them and they all run off to play in the game after all. What the hell was the point of all this if the Keatons get away with their bullshit anyway after a few half-hearted apologies?
  • Ableist humor. You know what this episode needed? A throwaway joke about “midget kickboxing.” Okay, so this might be unfairly applying the political standards of 2017 to 1983, but either way it’s not funny. Find a way to make your shitty jokes without mocking people because of their medical conditions or don’t make them at all. I mean, they might as well have not made any jokes at all judging by the humor of the end product.
  • Sexual harassment. Again with this bullshit. Hey comedy writers: stop sending the message that refusing to take no for an answer is funny or charming or endearing. It’s creepy and women have to deal with this behavior constantly. Part of the reason for that? Media that makes it seem innocent and acceptable. Honestly, I feel bad for Mallory! She exhibits remarkable restraint by ignoring Skippy instead of telling him to go furtively masturbate in his mother’s closet, and Elyse (Meredith Baxter) still chides her for being rude. Pretty sure that Skippy is the rude one, since he’s practically dry-humping the furniture. Quit perpetuating patriarchal hegemony, Elyse.

Final Episode Judgment: 0/10. Hey, it turns out the things I said were strengths were kind of backhanded compliments at best! Would you look at that.

NEXT TIME: I review Brides of Christ, an Australian miniseries about nuns possibly having fun in the 1960s. It’s not a comedy, but it’s still probably funnier than this horseshit.

Case Study 80: Family Ties, Episode 30–“Batter Up”

Case Study 79: Lou Grant, Episode 27–“Murder”

Original Airdate: October 30th, 1978 on CBS

You may not care that much about TV shows from the seventies, but if you were asked to name three, there’s a good chance you’d say All in the Family, M*A*S*H and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Mary won a staggering 29 Emmys. It coronated the title actress as comedy royalty. It eventually gave us 30 Rock. It also generated a flock of spinoffs rivaled only by Norman Lear, Happy Days and Star Trek. Rhoda made a modest splash in the sitcom world—it even inspired an inexplicable animated pilot about Carlton the doorman, as voiced by the inimitable Lorenzo Music—but the most successful Mary spinoff was actually an hour-long drama. Mary’s gruff boss, Lou Grant (Ed Asner), evidently made the move from Minneapolis to Los Angeles and left TV behind for a good old-fashioned newsroom. The end result was Lou Grant, a socially conscious melodrama that proved to be another successful entry in James L. Brooks’ resume. Is it worth your time in 2017? Of course not. But it wouldn’t be any fun to leave it at that, would it?

Strengths

  • Politically engaged. I’m always going to like anything that challenges conventional wisdom about TV being vapid and pointless, especially old-school Silver Age fare like this. Lou was a valuable precursor to more memorably woke dramas like St. Elsewhere and Hill Street Blues, which were also productions of MTM Enterprises (guess what the MTM stands for). Each episode features the intrepid reporters of the LA Tribune wading into a hot topic ripped from the headlines of Time magazine. This episode confronts an issue that we’re still lamenting nearly 40 years later—the disparities in the way the media treats white crime victims and victims of color. I recently saw two salient examples of this phenomenon. I live in a part of the city that’s mostly non-white and afflicted by violent crimes. A few weeks ago, someone was stabbed to death and left to die in the street. There were two paragraphs about this in the newspaper. I don’t know for sure that this person wasn’t white, but I have absolutely no way of knowing for sure since the paper didn’t even print his name. A few weeks before that, I saw Jon-Benet Ramsey on the cover of Globe in line at the supermarket. In June of 2017. These two victims lived maybe 30 miles from one another, but they might as well be on separate planets. This episode is all about the same issue—a young black mother gets senselessly murdered the same day that some old dowager gets robbed, and our heroine Billie Newman (Linda Kelsey) has to fight tooth and nail to get the Tribune to devote any resources to covering the murder. The news media landscape in 2017 would be unrecognizable to the folks at the Tribune, but chances are they’d find modern-day media racism all too familiar.
  • Underused institutional setting. Why aren’t there more TV shows about the media? Clearly the issues are still relevant and it’s an unfamiliar setting for most people. Is it because The Newsroom has irretrievably poisoned the well? That’s probably why, isn’t it? God, that show sucked out loud. (I was about to write a sentence calling Aaron Sorkin out as one of the biggest hacks in television, but there are just so many hacks that my sentence would have buckled under the weight of qualifiers.) Nevertheless, one of the more interesting things that TV dramas can do is to pull back the curtain on the institutions that drive our society. It’s what made The Wire a masterpiece and it’s why I’ll gladly sit still for Frederick Wiseman’s 3-hour-long documentaries. Lou offers some of these pleasures. We get to see editorial meetings about what’ll make it on the front page. We see Lou giving guidance to young reporters. It’s not Spotlight, but it’ll do, I suppose.

Weaknesses

  • Over-the-top direction. We open on the gruesome murder of Marla Evans (Gail Cameron, Another You). Of course, we’re given a little slice of Marla’s life in the minutes before the murder in order to humanize her and emphasize the terrible tragedy of her death, and that’s all well and good, if a little obvious. The thing is, when it comes to larger-than-life drama, a little goes a long way and the director would be well-advised to use a light touch. The director, one Mel Damski (Yellowbeard), does not use a light touch. Instead, there’s a soaring soundtrack worthy of Michael Bay and sweeping, erratic camera movements. It’s meant to be thrilling. Instead, it’s cheesy melodrama.
  • Maudlin. Billie’s trying to convince the cops to let her examine the bloody crime scene when Marla’s seven-year-old daughter, Lisa (Alene Wilson, Battered) comes skipping down the hallway, singing a merry little song. The cop stops the little girl from going into the apartment, picks her up and carries her away. She cries out for her mother. Is this really necessary? Do we really have to attend Marla’s funeral? If we do, do we have to spend five minutes there? We get it. The lady’s dead. It’s sad. It doesn’t make it more sad if you turn it into a tragic anecdote from “Chicken Soup for the Soul.” 
  • A thirsty eagerness to call attention to moderate character work. So the whole deal with Lou Grant as a character is that he seems like a crotchety old man but he’s got a heart of gold. His gruff mannerisms keep people at arm’s length but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t care. It’s kind of a cliche, but it is what it is. So we get a scene where Lou seems like he’s discouraging Billie, but he’s really motivating her to try harder to write a compelling article about Marla. It was reasonably deft and I would have praised it, except it’s immediately followed by Art Donovan (Jack Bannon) coming up to Lou and congratulating him on understanding human psychology while still seeming like an old curmudgeon. For chrissakes! Just let the moment breathe! We get it! Why do the writers of Lou Grant think the audience are a bunch of fucking idiots?
  • Too much time spent with the dowager. If this episode of Lou has one fatal flaw, it’s a total lack of subtlety, but if it has a second fatal flaw it would be that there’s not enough of a story here. Everyone wants a happy ending, so Billie has to come up with a great article for the paper, and sure, that means spending some time in the community and getting to know Marla’s milieu. So far, so good. Then we spend an eternity at her funeral, which, teary but okay, I guess. Then Billie helps catch the murderer. Okay, pretty unrealistic, but whatever, we’ve all learned a valuable lesson about how every human life deserves the full consideration we give to blonde children and how it’s silly to spend all our time focusing on cute old white ladies foiling a robbery attempt. So what happens next? Oh, of course the show spends more time focusing on the cute old white lady. There’s this whole b-plot about hotshot young reporter Joe Rossi (Robert Walden, All The President’s Men) covering the hell out of the robbery story. He also helps catch the robbers. Why does Lou Grant think all reporters also fight crime?

Final Episode Judgment: 4/10. It’s definitely not the nadir of hour-long dramas, but it just can’t compete in a world where there’s something light years better airing for the first time somewhere on TV every night.

NEXT TIME: I continue to explore alleged TV classics as I review Family Ties!

Case Study 79: Lou Grant, Episode 27–“Murder”