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 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”

Case Study 23: Brothers & Sisters, Episode 58–“Spring Broken”

Original Airdate: March 15th, 2009 on ABC

I mentioned at the end of the last post that Brothers and Sisters may be the same show as Parenthood, and it turns out that’s not really a joke. I could have sworn I had previously watched the pilot of Brothers, but I eventually realized that I was in fact remembering having watched the pilot of Parenthood. I can see how I would get confused–both deal with overly large semi-functional families of means in California having gentle adventures on broadcast TV. I think the Parenthood characters are meant to be more middle class, but their palatial Bay Area homes belie that.

Both shows also feature alums of Six Feet Under and I’d argue that this is no coincidence, as Brothers and Parenthood are each watered down versions of the HBO series. In our series du jour, it’s particularly resonant. The first episodes of both Brothers and Six feature a semi-estranged child of a good-sized family returning to LA and deciding to stay and make amends in the wake of their father’s death. Both shows go on to reveal the secret adultery of the patriarch and both chronicle the ensuing struggles over maintaining a hold on the family business, though the Walkers are a few tax brackets higher than the Fishers. Both shows go on to chronicle the romantic lives of the various family members, including a queer brother and a wayward youngest sibling. Both shows frequently use disastrous family dinners as set pieces. Hell, both families’ last names are nouned verbs suffixed by “-er.” Mr. Oryx and Cake Boss also observed that Brothers is what Arrested Development would be like if it were an equally ridiculous humorless drama. For this review, I watched four episodes of Brothers: the pilot, “Spring Broken,” and the episodes immediately preceding and following.

Strengths

  • Tawdry soap opera fare. I can’t lie–I love a good soap opera. Actually, I should amend that. I love a soap opera. It doesn’t have to be good. Brothers certainly isn’t. But the dramatic plotting definitely is. This episode alone features brother Justin Walker (Dave Annable) pining for his star-crossed lover, Rebecca Harper (Emily VanCamp, Revenge,) though Justin’s pining doesn’t prevent him from considering the merits of some Spring Break strange, and the danger of Justin relapsing into dissolute drug addiction is ever-present. It also features sister Kitty Walker (Calista Flockhart, Ally McBeal) coping with her failing marriage and her husband Robert McCallister’s (Rob Lowe, The West Wing) recent heart attack. Of course, Robert isn’t taking his recovery seriously enough and could keel over any moment, perhaps due to a strenuous round of Wii bowling or an inspiring speech. He’s going to be making a lot of inspiring speeches, since he’s also running for governor. Meanwhile, Kevin Walker (Matthew Rhys, The Americans,) the aforementioned queer brother, spends the episode bemoaning the lack of passion in his marital bed and the Walkers are struggling with the awkward integration of their illegitimate brother Ryan Lafferty (Luke Grimes, Fifty Shades of Grey) into the family circle. And then there’s the main plot arc of the Season 3 episodes that I watched–asshole brother Tommy Walker (Balthazar Getty) is on trial for felony embezzlement conducted in order to seize control of the family business, Ojai Foods, which is currently under the oversight of his father’s former mistress, Holly Harper (Patricia Wettig.) Oh, and Holly’s Rebecca’s mom. So there’s definitely plenty of grist for the ol’ drama mill.
  • Strong ending. I find it fascinating when a show can turn its weaknesses into a strength, and this is a good example. As I’ll discuss below, the show’s characters are generally underwritten and have somewhat incoherent motives. Frequently this is in service of the plot. When Justin asks Rebecca to intervene on Tommy’s behalf by asking her mother to drop the charges, she refuses for totally understandable reasons–her and Justin’s relationship is already tenuous enough without Rebecca putting herself right in the middle of the increasingly fraught environment created by Tommy’s trifling bullshit. But a few scenes later, there she is, intervening on Tommy’s behalf. Why would Rebecca do that? Oh, because the story needs to keep moving forward? Okay then. In “Spring,” Justin and Kevin take Tommy to Baja California to forget his troubles. They also have the ulterior motive of persuading Tommy to cop a plea as opposed to taking his chances with a trial. As expected, Tommy eventually caves towards the end of the episode with no obvious reason for the change of heart. I was rolling my eyes until we hit the final twist–he didn’t actually change his mind at all. After Kevin and Justin return from breakfast, they find Tommy gone. It’s a breath of fresh air in a show that otherwise tries very hard to take interesting stories and make them bland.

Weaknesses

  • Underdeveloped/uninteresting/unlikable characters. Look, just because you have 17 different people on this show doesn’t mean that any of them are interesting. I’ll give credit where credit is due–they seem to be taking Ryan’s character in somewhat of an interesting direction, and I think sister Sarah Walker (Rachel Griffiths, Blow) is actually quite well-drawn. However, vast swaths of the enormous cast are inert if not actively inconsistently characterized, as mentioned above. This is a shame, as Brothers has a not inconsiderable bench of acting talent to draw from, but it’s almost entirely wasted. To add insult to injury, the two characters we spend the most time with are actively obnoxious and dull as opposed to just dull. Kitty’s something of a passive-aggressive blowhard. This isn’t surprising, since she had a stint as a Republican talking head on a Hannity & Colmes-style televised shouting match. She’s positioned as the theoretically sympathetic protagonist of the pilot, wherein she tells her queer brother about his politics by saying that “[he] can just keep on laughing and watch the rest of the country pass [him] by.” Uh, enchanting. When Sarah tries to give Robert advice about his relationship with Kitty, she advises that Kitty’s most passionate when she’s arguing with someone and that if she’s not arguing with someone it’s because she’s stewing with bitter resentment. Yeah, I absolutely want to spend my Sunday nights with that person! Meanwhile, Tommy is about a million times worse. His default position is a derisive sneer. In that same conversation in the pilot, Justin invites his siblings to a bar and Tommy asks him if they admit “unemployed hipsters who have seen every episode of Scooby-Doo.” Topical reference there, Tom. He’s still sneering at Justin in season 3 and takes every opportunity to dismiss his ambitions to go to medical school. It’s not just Justin, either–when his mom Nora Walker (Sally Field, Forrest Gump) finds out about the embezzlement and is distressed that Tommy is following his father’s footsteps in the world of white-collar crime, he throws it back in her face by pointing out that she sure loved the standard of living afforded to her by her late husband’s crimes. Of course, it’s likely most of that standard of living came from his successful business with only a small part consisting of misused funds, but it doesn’t matter to Tommy, because he takes every possible opportunity to be shitty. Does he have even an iota of remorse for the felony he committed? Nope. The fact that he’s guilty isn’t even in dispute. He thinks his motive to keep Ojai under his family’s control is all the explanation he needs. I wouldn’t mind unlikable characters as much if there was even a glimmer of depth on display here, but it is not to be.
  • Rich white people problems. Look, it’s not like shows about rich people can’t be glamorous, interesting or entertaining. Just look at Dynasty, Mad Men or Arrested. The problem is that Brothers is none of these things, so the viewers get to enjoy a bunch of whining about relatable problems like a failing gubernatorial campaign and getting caught embezzling. The details of Tommy’s embezzlement are a thrill ride of shell companies and shady land deals, which is obviously the essence of water cooler television. There’s a very telling and interesting moment in “Spring,” but I really don’t think the writers intended for it to have thematic resonance–instead it’s carrying water for two separate plot threads. The moment I’m talking about is an argument between Kitty and Ryan over Marxist theories on family. The first purpose this serves in the plot is to remind onlooker Sarah of what it looks like when Kitty is trying to bond to add fuel to her later conversation with Robert. The actual conversation mostly involves them talking past each other and saying little of substance, and we’re quickly delivered to the second plot purpose as Kitty waxes poetic about the deep bond between her and her newborn baby. This serves to send Ryan off in tears with passions inflamed about the mysterious death of his mother. The show predictably elides any actual Marxist theories of family, and they prove surprisingly relevant to Brothers. In a nutshell, Marx saw the traditional nuclear family as an institution designed both to maintain class hierarchy and social control. Indeed, the whole dumb plotline everyone finds themselves enmeshed in here is all about Tommy flaunting the law in order to keep Ojai and all the money it generates in the family. Every family member dutifully lines up behind him. None think he should be punished for breaking the law. They bend over backwards to try and keep him from experiencing any consequences, bringing all their social capital to bear. This is despite the fact that he’s constantly treating them all like garbage. This is despite the fact that he doesn’t show an iota of gratitude, much less remorse. No one says that they do this because it will keep them wealthy. That would be vulgar. Instead, they put up with Tommy’s wheelbarrows full of bullshit all in the name of family. He’s our brother, so we’re therefore obligated to defend his odious behavior and get him out of trouble–and the unspoken risk is getting cut out of the money pool. This isn’t to say that they don’t also love him and want the best for him. The thing about toxic social institutions is that they tend to propagate themselves and do their dirty work without the workers even realizing it’s happening. The argument as shown in “Spring” winds up being about the “artificial” bond between mothers and children, which is an obviously stupid strawman, so, again, I doubt any Brothers writers are taking Marx & Engels seriously. The embezzlement plotline isn’t the only evidence of the Walkers as an organization designed to perpetuate their own wealth–at the start of the show, beloved patriarch William Walker (Tom Skerritt, Alien) employs not one, not two, but three of his family members. In the episode after “Spring” where Sarah takes Tommy’s place at the business, it’s framed as a glorious return, only sweetened by the Walkers coaxing the board into dropping the charges. The nadir of this insufferable plot is when Nora joyously compares this “miracle” to a little girl’s leukemia going into remission. You’ve got to be fucking kidding me. Of course, the object of Tommy’s scheming is Ojai’s CEO and William’s former mistress, Holly. This, combined with Ryan and Rebecca, highlights the show’s bizarre focus on legitimate patrilineal distribution of wealth. The more you think about it, the more it comes across as decidedly medieval. It’s even worse when you remember that eldest son Tommy begrudges both Holly and Nora access to William’s wealth. That’s how sexism, the family and capitalism collide, not some nonsense about the artifice of motherhood, or whatever the fuck. It’s an almost perfect irony that a pristine case study in the art of normalizing capitalist conceptions of family contains an interlude of arguing against that theory, but I’m choosing to believe it’s incompetence and not malice. Here’s hoping, anyway. One final note: it’s not just the Walkers who see nepotism as a god-given right in the quest for filthy lucre. Guess where Rebecca works? Go on, you’ll never guess.
  • Repetitive. It’s not a great sign when you’ve already run out of ideas by Season 3. The big embezzling storyline that’s sucking all the air out of the room is not even the first big embezzling storyline on the show–that would be the fallout from the dramatic revelation of William’s embezzling in Season 1. Ryan is also not the first illegitimate child contended with in the Walker family–a large chunk of the first season was taken up by the entrance of Rebecca, who was first presented as William’s illegitimate daughter with Holly. In Season 2, another Dramatic Revelation established that Rebecca is in fact the daughter of one David Caplan (Ken Olin, Thirtysomething.) Oh, so all that time spent keeping the Dramatic Revelation of Rebecca’s existence from various members of the Walker family a Big Secret was a waste of time? Yup. As was all that time spent reluctantly and gradually integrating her into the family circle. And what’s the payoff? Why, we get to do all that stupid bullshit all over again with Ryan! And because Ryan and Rebecca aren’t related, that means that they can enjoy sexual tensionI And that means that Ryan and Justin can fight! YAAAAAAAAAY

Motivation: I’m sure it will shock you to learn that a show called Brothers & Sisters is driven by stories about family.

Final Episode Judgment: 5/10. Despite its many flaws, Brothers meets the basic criteria of an entertaining soap opera, but it doesn’t do so particularly gracefully. There are plenty of better prime-time soaps out there. As far as the other episodes I watched for research, the pilot also merits a 5/10 and “Taking Sides” and “Missing” only deserve a 4/10.

NEXT TIME: Will I ever get sick of reviewing children’s television? Find out when I check out We Bare Bears!

Case Study 23: Brothers & Sisters, Episode 58–“Spring Broken”