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When Television is Really Good

It is fashionable, in certain circles, to claim that television is a lowbrow form of entertainment not worthy of time and attention. I beg to differ.

There are execrable shows, for sure, but I have been impressed in recent years at writers' and producers' willingness to integrate commentary on social issues as subtext to the main plot without making it feel like a lecture or public service announcement.

Back in January, I wrote about an episode of Law and Order that dealt with the difficult issue of age-related memory decline and possible dementia when a judge is caught deciding issues from the bench by reading messages on a laptop written by an aide seated elsewhere. Also, in a nice, little scene at the end, DA Jack McCoy – who is getting up there in years - complains of having difficulty reading in his office ever since the City replaced incandescent bulbs with CFLs. I've had the same problem.

Earlier, a couple of years ago, I recounted this scene from The Closer between Commander Taylor and Chief Johnson (played by Kyra Sedgwick) about an old man named Baxter who is trying to report a murder:

TAYLOR: Gordon found Baxter uncooperative. In fact, the old guy was more interested in asking questions than answering them. So Detective Gordon dumped his complaint in the round file. You know, Chief, we get this kind of stuff all the time. It’s hard enough staying on top of the crimes we find much less the ones people make up.

JOHNSON: (perusing file) I know exactly what happened. Mr. Baxter is old and difficult and because of that he was just dismissed out of hand. [I know] that’s what happened because that’s exactly what I’ve been trying to do to him myself.

The scene isn't much longer than 30 seconds, but it is moments like this, repeated in popular media, that help change attitudes.

Another good one turned up this week, again on The Closer, in an episode titled “Make Over.” When the conviction in a past murder case is thrown out due to tainted evidence, Chief Johnson's unit must try to discover new evidence to keep the criminal in prison. One of the detectives, Lt. Provenza (played by G.W. Bailey) – the oldest member of the unit - had closed that case seven years earlier with his then-partner, Detective George Andrews (played by Beau Bridges) who is called out of retirement to help.

Surprise! When former Detective Andrews arrives at the train station he is, to Provenza's shock, now Georgette, having undergone transgender surgery.

Neither Provenza nor the rest of the men on the squad can get comfortable with Georgette's transformation and one bursts forth with a question about what happened to her penis. She answers, clinically, that it has been inverted which is almost too much for Provenza. Georgette further disturbs Provenza by calling him by his first name, Louis, which Provenza apparently dislikes and when she reveals that she still prefers women, it nearly sends Provenza around the bend.

As the investigation proceeds, Georgette proves to be the accomplished detective she had been when still on the police force and by the time they have solved the case, Provenza comes to accept “the best partner I ever had” as she is now.

I have a friend, a man who once worked for me, who has undergone transgender surgery. I flatter myself that I am more accepting of what and who people are than Provenza was at the beginning of the episode but it wasn't easy, when we visited for a long weekend, changing my definition of my friend to woman.

What I discovered is that we unconsciously ascribe different attributes to people depending on whether they are men or women, and we behave differently with each in subtle, nuanced, almost subliminal ways I had never seriously thought about until this experience. Assumptions I had about my friend, based solely on gender, no longer applied and I felt off kilter for awhile.

Having, like Provenza, been there and done that, I believe the show rang true.

After seeing off Georgette in a congenial farewell at the train station bar with Provenza, his current partner Flynn asks, “Are you ready to go, Louis?”

“Call me that once more,” says Provenza, “and Georgette won't be my only ex-partner without a penis.”

Good exit line (for about three or four reasons), and the entire script is well done.

Gays and lesbians have, in the past decade or so, become almost staples on television where they were once invisible. Transgender people not so much, so this program was an important step toward understanding among us all. That it was accomplished without taking anything away from a compelling police procedural is even better.

Television at its best is not only entertaining, it can help nudge attitudes toward more enlightened positions, and we shouldn't be snooty about it.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, pokadot22: The SPCA and Me


Call me snooty, but 10 minutes or even an hour of 'good stuff' doesn't excuse the remaining 23 hours of terrible programming. We've been without television for three years and would love to come back to it, but every time we view it at a friends house, we're reminded of the reasons for leaving it. And...until we can get ala carte programming on our satellite service, we're not going to spend $40 - $60 a month for the possibility of finding a 'pearl'.

Although I probably could live without a television, I cannot imagine it. Unless there’s something that interests me, usually on PBS or a movie I don’t mind watching for the third or fourth time, there’s not much else. However, this time of year, I begin to look forward to a new-found interest…women’s college basketball. I find the hard-working athletes and their screaming, never seeming satisfied coaches great entertainment.

Surely you did not miss the exchange between Roger Sterling and his mother as the limo was taking them and Roger's brand new young wife to a swanky affair. She kept calling the wife by Roger's daughter's name, and when told that Roger had married again, his mother asked "Does Mona know?" Of course Mona is the former wife.

I found the exchange funny, but I don't think it did much to advance awareness of ageism.

There were some good scenes between Bert Cooper and his sister last season though. They had real dialogue and shared what seemed to be a long history with each other.

Mad Men is the only series TV I watch, and it is good, very good.

My mother-in-law Betty (age 84) lives with us. She loves old movies and the Red Sox. We pay for cable TV basically for NESN and the movie classics channel. Betty derives enough pleasure from those two channels, however, that the monthly cable bill is money well spent.

Unfortunately, she is also a fan of shows like "Dancing with the Stars" that make me want to scream. Over the last year the volume of the TV has gradually crept up.

This is because Betty's hearing isn't what it used to be. That's why she'll find TV Ears under the tree on Christmas morning.

For myself, I haven't watched much TV in years and haven't followed a series regularly since the '70s. It isn't so much the shows (for all I know some of them are great) as the commercials--loud, obnoxious and oppressively numerous.

I'm with Steven. I don't say there's NOTHING good on TV, but I got rid of mine after an experiment. It's a rule for me that something that detracts from my life more than half the time has to go.

True, a fine feature of TV is, you can turn it off, but I see too many people succumb to a dullish life with TV because it's easier than, for example, getting on the bus for the Town Hall lectures.

And Ronni, I applaud your begging to differ, but don't paint all us no-TV folks with the same holier-than-thou brush.

There was a transgender episode in TWO AND A HALF MEN some time back. Charlie's former girl friend was going to meet him in a bar after years of separation. The She was now a He. It was funny, but handled well and when 'She (now He) dated Charley's mother, Charley was beside himself.

I have noticed more interracial dating and marriage on TV and I think it will subtly begin to change minds.

Politics is tackled with great shows like 'West Wing' (How I wish that were still on).

TV can change the social attitudes of some people. Young people are especially swayed since their minds are not fossilized with old prejudices.

I love TV as it's a voice in the room. I only watch good stuff like PBS and there are a lot of excellent shows to be found there.

Saw this show. The Closer is one of the very few TV shows I occasionally watch. Did you see the recent Howard Zinn special on PBS? Thought it was great.

I guess I'm in the minority here because I'm a television junkie. "The Closer" is one of my favorite shows. But so is "Castle," in which a novelist/pseudo detective lives with his mother and daughter. The relationships among the three are delightful, and both females are not just script add-ons. Both are smart, engaged, and independent. "The Good Wife" is another favorite, as is "Brothers and Sisters." And "Glee," although seemingly aimed at the younger set, is also totally entertaining for any age. I watch "Bones," "House" and "Lie to Me" because the main characters are fascinating in their won right.

I knit, crochet, or sew while I watch tv, and I never feel I've wasted a moment.

And when "Castle" is on, I pay a little more attention because the lead plays the character to perfection.

And then there's Rachel Maddow as well. Good thing I have a DVR.

Elaine, you're on my wavelength for sure. I love my DVR which allows me to skip the commercials or put the show on hold to answer the phone or the call of nature. Rachel Maddow, Jon Stewart, Steven Colbert, Saturday Night Live -- all expose political hypocracy and venality and are cracking good entertainment as well.

I don't view my TV habits as elitist or superior to those who choose to watch what I don't view, any more than their choices are superior to my own likes.

There are rarely any current commercial network TV series that attract me to being a regular viewer nor have there been in recent years. Some programs named here I've viewed, enjoyed episodes, but just not to the degree shows once attracted me. I think the now defunct "Boston Legal" was over-the-top humor that tackled controversial topics that may have caused some people to re-examine their attitudes and made me laugh out loud -- aspects reminded me of the old-fashioned melodrama that was such fun to perform in college.

I long for more theatre-like dramas, comedies and plays, would enjoy truly entertaining variety shows ala Laugh-In, Carol Burnett.
Jon Stewart and a few others are good but on cable. Until I can subscribe to those channels without having to buy all the other stuff I can basically get free through my HD converter box through my rooftop antenna, I'll not get cable. Two PBS channels continue to be my mainstay. Also, I see some occasionally good movies available on a few channels not previously available before the HD conversion.

A friend and professional colleague provides voice therapy for transgender individuals ever since they and she discovered the benefits and effectiveness of her interventions. I've rarely offered private therapy, but that would have been an interesting challenging specialty area.

I can appreciate the process that occurs with a friend's adjustment in thinking and relating to an individual they've known in one gender context who changes to another. Knowing straight male/female couple friends, as I have, then having one or the other assume their opposite gender as a gay male, or lesbian from how I had known them, did put a different perspective on my perceptions of each of them. Certainly their changes were not as extreme as the physical one transgender people who undergo surgery and their friends experience, but there are some similarities.

I think if some straight people encounter that sort of gender change situation they are sometimes frightened as though it's a condition that's "catching." For others, as it was for me, I was motivated to think more in depth about what really constitutes gender. I think there would be a lot less apprehension among peoples if there was more such dialogue.

What I described isn't really a very clear depiction of what occurs in terms of gender with the straight male or female becoming gay or lesbian. Too late and I'm too tired to re-write.

I think Eddie Izzard helps with that, too. He's so smart and funny. (He's a transvestite.) I'm delighted to report that we get to see his show tomorrow night here in Stockholm. Yippee!!!! Love him.

Speaking of "Law and Order" and the way they portray old people, I loved the episode where Lenny (I still miss Jerry Orbach) was questioning neighbors about a murder and also a mysterious car that was sighted at the scene.

They were questioning an old lady and she said that she HAD seen the car.

Encouraged,Lenny asked her what kind of car it was. She said she didn't know anything about makes or models. He asked what color the car was and she said she had no idea.

That was it for them so they thanked her and started to walk away. She called after them," Detective, don't you want the license number of that car? I wrote that down as they drove away."

Law and Order was full of scenes like this where older people were excellent witnesses....

Ronni, what a wonderful post. Very nice comment, Nancy about the license number. I have recently discovered the mute button, so when the commercial comes on, it does, as well. Net flix has become a joy in seeing PBS series that I had missed. Ballykissangel and Upstairs Downstairs, for example are just super shows that have kept me occupied and wanting more. I love Judge Judy and Dr. Oz and I get a kick out of Divorce Court. Doing what you enjoy - is what makes it all worth it.

Until the ala carte ordering comes along (that cold day in hell...) try watching some of your favorites online at sites like these:
An added bonus is that there are NO commercials!

My favorite TV show is Law & Order. That's the show i like very much and i watch this show on regular basis.

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