Once upon a time . . .

The RonettesDuring my post-college, single-in-the-city years, I almost never watched TV.  Time spent alone in my Upper West Side digs meant time spent reading or listening to music—rock, classical, disco, jazz, whatever the mood called for.  A solid state Fisher stereo was all I had room for and the sound was stupendous. Pump up the volume, Graham Parker or Donna Summer, and Saturday A.M. cleaning took on a whole new beat.  My solo weeknight TV viewing largely consisted of old movies or a PBS special.  Late-night Saturday TV with friends, or a boyfriend, was another thing altogether.

It was the boyfriend who would become my husband who would eventually hook me on two of his favorite sitcoms, “Cheers” and “Seinfeld. “  I dismissed them at first—like, please, don’t waste my time. These days, late at night in bed, you can hear me laughing out loud at some of the brilliant “Seinfeld” dialogue.  I’ve seen reruns of classic episodes more than once.

When the daughter came along, there was no escaping “Sesame Street.” And why would I want to?  Only a fool could resist the charms of Elmo. Don’t have to be a Springsteen fan to see Born to Add for the delightful parody it is, though the humor of “Miami Mice” might be lost on you if you never saw Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas in action. Educators may differ in their views re:  the nuances of teaching children the three R’s and where a ground-breaking show like “Sesame Street” figures into the picture, but there’s no arguing the brilliance of luring mom and dad into the clever riffs on pop culture.

In a wonderful interview with Krista Tippett, folklore/mythology scholar Maria Tatar reminds us that entertainment in days of old was of the sit-around-the-fire-and-tell-stories variety. There was interaction, and the nature of fairy tales, once they were collected and chronicled by the Brothers Grimm, began to change.  R-rated fairy tales originally narrated by and for adults softened to PG as they morphed into children’s stories. Morals crept in, and with them, the happy ending. The violence in fairy tales was surreal, burlesque, carnivalesque.

Times change, literary arts evolve, but the very undercurrent of fairy tales just won’t go away. From “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (which my daughter lured me into watching with her) to “True Blood” to “Grimm” and “Once Upon a Time” (which fascinates me for its interplay among fairy tale characters caught between worlds), content adapts itself to motif.  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see Cinderella in Carrie Bradshaw. She even loses a shoe in one episode. And isn’t there a touch of the fairy godmother at play in handing a book contract, followed by a plum magazine job to the novice Hannah Horvath in “Girls”?  That her own self-absorption is her constant undoing can’t be helped; it’s part of the character, an anti-Cinderella who wants her dreams fulfilled but lacks the generosity of spirit inherent in a humble fairy-tale heroine.

The irony? We may think we’re watching TV to escape the real world, only to find ourselves pulled into a world more unsettling in the reality it portrays.  Yes, it’s stylized, fictionalized, often too formulaic.  But like the best of stories, a show like “Girls” gets us talking.  It’s the nature of how we live, sharing stories; it’s something children learn the minute we introduce them to bedtime books and they squeal: read it again .  .  .  and again  . .  .  and again. Or listening as carefully as they do, they stop us if we skip a line.

So when I’m propped in bed, watching “Once Upon a Time” on my iPad, the comfort of years and years of nighttime reading insinuates itself into the experience.  That I can watch episode after episode in one sitting only proves that technology strives to give us what storytellers have always known.

And when I read a comment from my dearest childhood friend in response to my daughter’s reflection on “Girls,” in an instant I’m transported to another once-upon-a-time, teendom, BFFs sitting together, any day of the week after school, tuning in to “American Bandstand.” It’s what girls did. It’s what we still do.  Even if we’re not in the same room looking at the same screen, we’re texting about it, posting on Facebook, generating conversation via blog posts.










12 thoughts on “Once upon a time . . .

  1. I’m not ashamed to admit that I LOVE television almost as much as reading. Like you, I too adore Seinfeld and watch it nightly right before our local news–such clever and witty writing–I can’t get enough of it. My current favorite sitcoms are Modern Family (love the characters and all the puns and plays on words that the writers liberally place into the dialogue) and The Big Bang Theory (who knew that science nerds could be so funny?) Good acting is necessary, but the success of a hit TV show always comes down to the writing.

    • I enjoy Modern Family, too (the first seasons were especially good, and I think it may be flattening a bit but I still watch). There have always been some wonderful shows and lots of silly ones, but they got me, as a young girl, sitting around the TV with my family. I don’t think it’s a stretch to see TV as a social medium rooted in the same desire that brought our ancestors together around a fire to tell/listen to stories.

  2. You make watching TV sound like such a noble cause, and as one who indulges a little too often, I thank you. I too watched and enjoyed Cheers and Seinfeld. Friends, too. Fast forward to today, and the shows du jour are Modern Family and The Goldbergs. If you’ve never seen either of these, I urge you to binge watch. They’re extremely fresh and funny, and most worthy of your time.

    As for Sesame Street, a much loved show by millions, working for public media, I used to conduct workshops for child care providers on how to use Sesame Street as a learning tool, connecting it to books and activities for children. It was a very popular workshop.

    • LOL, Monica, re: lifting TV to noble heights. I used to think of it in Bruce Springsteen terms (’57 channels and there’s nothin’ on’). Today there are too many channels to count, but taste does count for a lot, and I like knowing we share a few faves (I’ve been a big fan of ‘Modern Family,’ too). Re: your workshops — how wonderful! ‘Sesame Street’ really was tailor-made for that kind of interaction –and I imagine you a really good facilitator.

  3. TV watching brings people closer, whether you are in the same room, a block away, or across the country. I love curling up with a good movie, mostly on TCM, with my husband or chewing over Gray’s Anatomy with my daughter-in-law. And Sesame Street was fabulous with my own kids and then my grand-son. Now we’re on to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but whatever it is, we are connecting. There’s a wealth of knowledge that comes from a good tv show, or just pure relaxation. And what’s wrong with that? And when one makes you laugh, hey! that’s healthy!

    • You’re right, Linda — TV is something of a bonding experience, on many levels. The fact that there are so many mind-numbing shows doesn’t really take away from all the good ones we get to pick and choose. And now with DRV, I get to fast-forward through commercials. 😉

  4. I grew up in Hollywood, and enjoy watching certain televisions shows, and movies. My preference is a good movie, but like you I have my comfort shows. I think some are done very well, and as a writer, I am always paying attention to the scene, the dialogue, and the way the writer’s wrap up an story inside of an episode.

    • I’m with you, Brenda, re: a preference for movies. Also, much as really do look forward to nighttime TV viewing with my husband, I seem to have a limit re: how much I can watch. It’s the comfort — and quiet — of bedtime reading that I relish.

  5. I agree about Seinfeld–Brilliant Characterizations, Writing.

    — one of my dreams would have been to write for Sex and The City or some cool series like that.

    What a kick!! x

    • I’m beginning to think that some shows get better with age, Kim.

  6. I didn’t start watching Modern Family until this year, but what a hoot! Such clever writing and characters.

    BTW sorry I’ve been AWOL. I’m so enjoying your mother daughter blog! I have a new blog in the works, but I’m still getting it ready for prime time. More soon..

    • So glad you like this blog experiment, Becky. As for your being AWOL, you’re really only an email or FB post away 😉 and I know how busy you’ve been. Can’t wait to see your new blog.

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