Lunchtable TV talk: “Men’s TV” – The Kominsky Method and Men of a Certain Age

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It’s been a long time since I devoured the rather under-the-radar Michael Douglas vehicle, The Kominsky Method; I won’t be diving into its finer plot points or achingly funny comedic value here. It’s been even longer since I saw Men of a Certain Age, but I think it aligns thematically with the point I want to make.

I watch, let’s face it, an alarming amount of television. For this reason alone, I would not have been able to avoid Kominsky or Men even if I’d wanted to. Not that either show earned popularity or love in the ways they should have. This probably explains, in part, why I found both so endearing.

After watching Kominsky, I recommended it to someone else, who watched and reported back that he loved it, but he was surprised I liked it so much because “it’s kind of a men’s show”. Here he didn’t mean anything sexist but simply thought that the themes were quite middle-aged/older man in nature, and the male characters reflected this bias. The women characters were a bit underbaked and inconsequential, although there was potential for growth. (Not that women or minority groups aren’t used to their stories and voices taking a back seat.)

To these observations, I could only reply:

  • Human stories are not gendered. They may be about gender, but one’s interest in watching them, or even finding them relatable, isn’t that reductive. That’s not to say that some entertainment isn’t offensive because of its depictions of gender, but that is not the case here. Deciding what something is before we give it a chance is one of the worst things about human nature; it may serve us well in not eating something that will poison us, but it does not serve us well in our interpersonal relations (and entertainment prospects).
  • It’s a human show more than a “men’s show”. Perhaps why women (sweeping generalization here) understand men better than men understand women is because we (generally) pay attention to people, what they say, what entertains them, what they fear. By listening to all people, we have a better understanding of humanity.
  • By classifying entertainment by gender or deciding that something is a “man’s show” or “woman’s show”, many stories are being sidelined and left unheard.
  • Pre-determining that a form of entertainment will have limited, possibly gender-based, appeal, we not only don’t give credit to others and the expansive nature of their interests, sympathies and imagination, we create conditions for prematurely canceling or never making diverse stories at all.

Of course, it’s true that different people will be drawn to different types of action, and sometimes this appears to run along traditional gender lines (and again, I know this is a broad and inaccurate descriptor). A lot of research exists about television and its role in sex stereotype acquisition and sex-role behaviors. I don’t plan to write a dissertation on this topic. There’s a wealth of work also on television-based gender discourse. Again, fascinating stuff, plenty of research out there.

I, instead, will highlight a point that struck me from TV writer and producer Tony Tost‘s Twitter feed:

Tony Tost, who has written some great (underrated) shows that on the surface would appear to be “men’s shows” (Longmire, Damnation) but which bubble over with strong, diverse characters, highlights that attention/interest level appears to be gendered on some level. I happen to think Tost has managed to create a balance in his works that holds the interest of the entire audience. This isn’t true of all such entertainment, but even those that aren’t invested in appealing to everyone or being perfectly representative interest me as a reflection of the society we live in. Our entertainment perhaps should reflect the world we’d like to see (maybe we’d have liked to have seen greater diversity in Friends), but would that have been realistic?

I’d like to get past the idea that entertainment has barriers and boundaries, realizing of course that the entire discipline of marketing deals in divisions and personas and targeting them. I want to be able to fall in love with the curmudgeonly Norman (Alan Arkin) of The Kominsky Method while also empathizing with Sandy’s (Michael Douglas) long-suffering daughter, Mindy (Sarah Baker). I want to see Ray Romano, Scott Bakula and Andre Braugher at their finest, struggling their middle-aged struggles. I don’t need television characters to be relatable, to always reflect me or even be sympathetic. In fact because the stories told are different, they draw me in.

But I also want to live in a world where a show like Queen Sugar, which is mostly about black women in a single family (but is actually about the entire community they live in, their conflicts, socioeconomics, land rights, and a whole slew of human and societal debts and situations), and is run by women, gets a lot more attention and traction than it gets now.

What kind of a world are we living in when even the most enlightened of people expresses surprise that I’d like something that is about and “geared toward” men? We’re on the road to improving this, but it’s hard to say how we could speed it along. More visible promotion of things like the aforementioned balanced work from Tost, which shakes off and subverts expectations, and much more mainstream focus on nuanced works like Queen Sugar will hopefully go some way toward eradicating assumed preferences and the perceived “gender exclusivity” of entertainment.

Curiosity, interest, attention lead to questioning, and it’s here, in asking and listening to the answers, that we find common ground.

Photo by Josh Kahen on Unsplash

invisible disembodiment

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“…am not at all the sort of person who attracts attention, I am an anonymous presence against an even more anonymous background.” –If on a winter’s night a traveler, Italo Calvino

I have returned to the land where cutting grass takes hours unless you have a machine (or person) to do it for you. Almost a pity to see the grass disappear, clipped in the prime of its wild life, robbing various animals, birds and insects of their hiding places.

Meanwhile, I hide in the overwarm, artificial darkness, thinking about how one can scythe away the debris that clutters life … to tear away the scabs of permissiveness while retaining some kinship with compassion?

I wrote to one of my darlingest people this week, when she caught me at the strangest moment, the closest thing I’ve ever experienced to a disembodied nothing state, something like:

“You catch me today in a strange frame of mind. I have been, as you know, for all of this year, relaxing and engaging in individual, cerebral activities (for the most part). I have been reading nonstop, taking walks, sleeping a lot and focusing on health and a kind of mindful emptiness. Since late winter, I have not become too tangled in complicated emotional things, in fact feeling almost completely free of all such entanglements lately. Not in the sense that I feel nothing but just that there is no negative association, or worst of all, dread, questioning or angst connected to any of it.

But at the same time, I also feel almost as though I just don’t belong in this … world. Or on this particular plane of existence. Not that I don’t want to be alive – it’s nothing like that at all. Suddenly I feel disconnected at the same time as being completely connected. I can’t find ‘passion’ or ‘fire’ for anything like anger, impatience, annoyance, elation – but not in a bad way. It’s just that what had felt a bit like laze and malaise has transmogrified into a centered contentedness. Nothing to say this won’t pass, as most things do, but it feels like it has been slowly emerging for months… and here I am feeling perfectly well, content, not in need of anything, not in want of anything, not seeking, not suffering. Just a serene nothingness.”

I wondered later, in rereading these paragraphs if it were a crafty and self-deceiving form of … self-aggrandized importance (i.e., as I wrote to my friend, “sounding as though I am completely up my own ass”) or ascribing traits to myself that I have no right to assign or name. But I could not change that I felt every contradiction in perfect balance (and counterbalance): I felt as though I were seeing everything for the very first time but that I had also seen everything a million times. I wondered if this nothingness would lead me nowhere – or everywhere. Had I been sleepwalking and hibernating all along?

“A hibernation is a covert preparation for a more overt action.” –Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison

I had certainly been living a life in my head, retreating more and more into the lives of books, fictions, histories I have never lived, less and less in contact with or seeing people, as though I were prematurely preparing for a departure. We never know when we will go (literally or figuratively), and while some reach out and expand into the life that surrounds them, I found solace or comfort in retreating into what was left of my life, without remorse or regret. Again, this is not about literal death, but the leaving behind a form or way of life… or a moulting of skin.

I wonder now, as I prepare for a next, but undefined, step, if the starkest change could be the will to exert real effort. The truth is… I don’t try very hard. At anything. I never have. I sometimes feel guilty about this, wondering what I could do – or could have done – had I truly applied myself. But nothing has seemed interesting enough to press myself that deeply into it. I have always felt it to be too much like pressing one’s own flesh through a sieve. One’s own essence and pulp taken away, leaving only the juice – the minimalist nectar of a diminished selfhood. This self I have hidden and selfishly guarded, wanting to be “an anonymous presence against an even more anonymous background”. I never wanted or needed to be the best – at anything – I just wanted more. To see more, do more, learn more.

With all of this in mind, I wondered if I had ever felt determination, a no-nonsense tour-de-force of self raging through me, wanting to win or compete, to fire people from my life rather than coddling, enabling and understanding them, to get things done aggressively, as though knocking down physical obstacles in my path, to punch in the face the presumptuous, disobedient and manipulative tricksters, hucksters, fuckers and just plain pathetic shitheads who pop up to block the way? The idea of all of it is violent … and a far cry from the woman I have always been, and the person I have been particularly for the last half year or more: retiring, cerebral, and above all, patient.

Suddenly I realize: There is very little I can do with violence, and there is nothing I can do without patience; patience is valuable, and I will have endless patience, never able to deny compassion, wherever my next incarnation leads.

fear made wise by anger

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It’s the 4th of July, and what’s more American than a whole lot of assholes claiming they need guns to “defend themselves”? Against what, I don’t know. But good timing.

Not my first Robert Lowell rodeo.

Violence
Robert Lowell
From the first cave, the first farm, the first sage,
inalienable our human right to murder —
“We must get used,” they say, “to the thought of guns;
we must get used to seeing guns; we must
get used to using guns.” Guns too are moral. Guns
failed Che Guevara, Marie Antoinette,
Leon Trotsky, the children of the Tsar:
chivalrous ornaments to power. Tom Paine said
Burke pitied the plumage and forgot the dying bird.
How can a plucked bird live? Whoever puts
arms in the hands of the people is a criminal,
arms given the people are always used against the people;
the only guns that will not kill the owner
are forged by insight… fear made wise by anger.

Photo by Diana Feil on Unsplash

“How can a plucked bird live?”/”Guns too are moral”

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An article reflecting on the passing of poet Derek Walcott remarks on the poet’s small world: “Brilliant poets find one another: their world is very small even though their influence is wide and deep.”

Therefore I hardly consider it a coincidence that I had already begun writing a brief blog post on Robert Lowell, after having read an article discussing a book about him and his mania/mental health when Lowell is mentioned as one of Walcott’s earliest champions and supporters.

I’ve always been partial to the work of Robert Lowell but never knew much about him – and his mania. But the first of his poems I remember ever reading has stuck closely with me ever since, so wrapped up as it was with gun-related themes tangential to my life 20 or more years ago:

Violence (Robert Lowell)
From the first cave, the first farm, the first sage,
inalienable our human right to murder —
“We must get used,” they say, “to the thought of guns;
we must get used to seeing guns; we must
get used to using guns.” Guns too are moral. Guns
failed Che Guevara, Marie Antoinette,
Leon Trotsky, the children of the Tsar:
chivalrous ornaments to power. Tom Paine said
Burke pitied the plumage and forgot the dying bird.
How can a plucked bird live? Whoever puts
arms in the hands of the people is a criminal,
arms given the people are always used against the people;
the only guns that will not kill the owner
are forged by insight… fear made wise by anger.

Repetition

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Poem
-Novica Tadić

He turns the pages of books
And examines the poems there
Saying my god
All this has already been written

On this day that is meant to be a paean to love (even if it’s the most commercial farce of the year), all I can think about is hate.

I felt relieved, almost smug, if deluded, to believe (did I ever really believe?) that we lived in a time (or were closer to living in a time) beyond petty hatred and discrimination based on things like skin color or religion. I have never been able to understand the existence of this kind of hatred, the crippling inferiority and fear that it betrays. But then I have watched as suddenly all the closet racists, xenophobes and other bile-filled hate zealots became empowered to voice their inner hatred, perpetrate great violence openly – as late as 2017. Is this the new normal?

No, there is nothing new or normal about it.

Most stunning (but is it really stunning?) of all is realizing how deeply racist and – worse – fearful – people are – people I never would have imagined being racist, xenophobic or anti-Islam show themselves to be. I suppose I have been a hopeless fool for imagining that things were anywhere near being otherwise. In my current state of mind – the February doldrums – I only seem able to see the very worst. I can’t let this pull to defeatist gloom win – but my god, the pull is strong.

But please never be dishonest enough to believe there will not be more Trumps—maybe many, possibly worse—until this country properly reckons with racism and white supremacy. This president isn’t an original; he’s just the most recent proof of America doing the same thing over and over again and pretending not to want the same result. Trump is the vast measurable difference between what America claims it wants to be and the truth.”