What I’ve Been Watching This Month (September 2017)

What I’ve been Watching

September was a good television month: I watched some new programs and revisited some old ones. I also managed to complete quite a bit of new research and writing, sometimes while allowing those familiar, old programs to serve as sonic (rather than visual) companions, but that’s a story for another time. 

This Is Us

I know this is not exactly a “new” series, but my wife, Heidi, and I decided to catch up on this very popular program by watching all of season 1 in September. There are two features of this show that I consistently enjoy when they appear in television programs: an ensemble cast with many well-drawn characters; and well-deployed, non-linear story telling.

I’d like to spend some additional time considering the theme of parental-child conflict inThis Is Us. That is a consistent thread running through much contemporary TV, and it’s a topic I’ve been exploring and will be discussing in several conference presentations this fall. But it will have to wait for fuller treatment another time, because what I want to focus on in this review is non-linear storytelling. This is an effective tool for holding the ensemble story telling together, since the ensemble’s members — in the case of This Is Us, all members of a single extended family — exist across several decades, with some only appearing in scenes situated in the earlier or later decades. As individual episodes unfold, the storytelling shifts back and forth between decades to explore parallel moments in the lives of the family members. We see parents early in an episode revisited later as grandparents, and children transform into parents, then slide back to earlier familial roles. In the process of placing the parallel experiences side-by-side within the narrative, the episodes tease out broad themes — sibling rivalry, the stress of balancing career and family life, the search for happiness in love, the formation of adult personas in the experiences of childhood — even as the first season pursues an overarching forward thrust, at least in its scenes set in the present. (Scenes set in the past are more disjunct, and several different years in the past are revisited.)

This Is Us uses non-linear storytelling in nearly the same way that the first two season of Dexter, one of my favorite television shows of all times, did, though the premises and the overarching plots of the two series are profoundly different. Nevertheless, the two programs are bound by a significant commonality: both examine the long-range formation of the individual’s character, personality, and outlook on life, and both raise doubts about the ability of the individual to live his or her adult life as desired due to the formative power of childhood experiences and parental choices (and mistakes). 

Ken Burns’s The Vietnam War

The highlight of September’s television offerings for me were the ten-episodes of Ken Burns’s miniseries, The Vietnam War. I consider myself to have an above-average knowledge of American history, but I learned a tremendous amount from the miniseries. I particularly appreciated the mix of new interviews with American, South Vietnamese, and North Vietnamese veterans, citizens, parents, and children, who were eye witnesses to the decades of conflict. I also always appreciate archival footage. While there was ample footage of the principal politicians and generals, plus excerpts from classified documents and White House recordings, I appreciated being given access to the thoughts and experiences of people at many levels of the war’s events and at several levels of the decision making. History is an unfolding of decisions and actions taken by many actors, those remembered, those barely remembered, and those long-forgotten; it is precisely the fact that there are so many actors within any “historical moment” (let alone an historical era) that makes the unfolding of human history unpredictable, despite the efforts of leaders, bureaucrats, technicians, generals, and admirals doing all they can to plot the future.

I thought the series as a whole was compelling and that episodes 1, 2, 9, and 10 were particularly powerful. The focus on POWs in episode 9 was moving and illuminating, for many reasons. As I wrote on Facebook on the night of its original broadcast: “Grateful as allows for the fortitude of POWs like Senator John McCain, but also grateful to learn about lesser-known heroes, like Dr. Hal Kushner. Maybe if we reflect more on what these men and their families endured, we can find the inspiration to engage in more dialogue and less violent behavior, to listen to each other rather than just to react.”

My generally positive perspective is not shared by all: some people have expressed their opinion that the miniseries devoted too much attention to North Vietnamese perspectives and anti-war demonstrators. Of course, the telling of the past is always a matter of selectivity of evidence, and the stories we tell will necessarily be conditional. But more than that, every person comes to a story like this with filters and expectations. Some people may be more aware of those filters and expectations and attempt to watch both the miniseries and their reactions in light of that reality. Others may not do this. Given these expectations and filters, there inevitably was going to be disappoint (or worse) from viewers along the entire spectrum of perspectives and political persuasions. For me, the point of a miniseries like this is precisely to see past the American perspective(s), particularly those with less nuance that tend to be learned in secondary school; I, for one, believe that true peace between people and between nations (and within nations), if it has any chance of being achieved, can only come as people open themselves to hearing other perspectives, embracing other people, and allowing all stories to be part of the moral geography that is built up over time from the disparate and contradictory experiences of peoples on many sides of conflict. Yes, that is a political stance! But it is the only one that makes sense to me — as a historian and as a citizen — for an ethical and dignified way forward.

One last comment: During the first few episodes of The Vietnam War, we once again had non-linear storytelling as the narrative moved between parallel experiences of the French soldiers in the 1950s and the American GIs in the 1960s. The linking of similar experiences — past and present — highlighted common themes, but it also provided immediate access to the American part of the story for audience members who may not have known that much about the prior French experience in Vietnam and wanted the American experience in the 1960s and early 1970s to immediately take center stage in the miniseries. While I “live” in the 1950s as a fan of old TV and movies, and as I read voraciously from the critical and social science research of that decade for several current research projects, the 1950s probably feel like ancient history to those born after the Baby Boomers. Whether we recognize it or not, that past lives on, still shaping institutions, culture, and families.   

Gilligan’s Island (Season 1)

I used to watch old reruns of Gilligan’s Island back as an elementary student in the 1970s. As I recall, episodes ran in the hour or so before the local and national news programs each weeknight. There’s not very much non-linear storytelling in Gilligan’s Island, but I enjoy the mistaken identities and disguises; the occasional dreamscapes and elaborate hoaxes that shape plots; the performances of songs, dances, plays, and even a make-shift island orchestra; and of course, the slap-stick and physical humor (both Gilligan and the Skipper engage in it — I have to admire Alan Hale’s efforts, given that he was in his forties and literally threw himself into the physical demands of the part); the dozens and dozens of times the actors, and especially Bob Denver and Hale, get tipped into the water and even “quick sand”.

As a historian of American television culture, I certainly find interesting the subtexts of the program. While the series was broadcast in the 1960s, its peculiar gender dynamics are grounded in attitudes seemingly more at home in the 1950s. Nevertheless, some of the behavior of characters pushes well beyond that seen in the sitcoms of the 1950s. Furthermore, the series’ reflection of post-war American consumer culture exemplified in the representation of Ginger Grant and the Howells (just how many sets of clothes did the Howells really pack for a three-hour tour?) and its regular haunting by the memory of World War II draw my attention. But I’m most interested in the echoes of America’s post-war technological obsessions. As the first season of Gilligan’s Island unfolds, the Professor begins to construct ever-more elaborate appliances from bamboo! 

Gilligan’s Island is not 1950s television comedy, yet with its slapstick, body humor, and performance sequences, it is still closer in conception to I Love Lucy (both echo aspects of vaudeville) than it is to All in the Family from the early 1970s. This even includes the regular appearances of guest comedic stock characters from episode to episode, around whom individual weekly stories tended to revolve. That leads me to a final question: How big was this island, really? Three times in the first season, the crew discovery other people stranded on the island (who then become the comedic “guests”): a “jungle boy,” a World War I-era American pilot, and an artist seeking solitude. How in the world did these people never ran into each other, let alone not cross paths with the castaways much sooner? 

Stan Pelkey