Heartbreakers

We’ve all been there: the first look, the initial teases, the memorable first date, the breathless anticipation, the shy touches and blushes . . . and then the shocking flame-out.

Male-female relationships? That’s kid’s play. No, I’m referring to the heartbreaking cycle I’ve endured with my unrequited passion for TV series I loved and lost.

I’m reflecting on that special kind of pain after NBC pounded me with previews for its new series Revolution throughout the Olympics. I even watched the extended preview with scenes of the U.S. after the collapse of the electrical power grid. The view of a weed-choked Wrigley Field in Chicago echoed the conclusion of Planet of the Apes. I saw a young cast led by a bow-and-arrow wielding heroine, sword play, and the quest to turn the power back on. Of course the preview hinted at a vast, shadowy conspiracy and the need to uncover what was really behind the calamity.

I could love this easily imagined scenario. My passion for conspiracy-minded TV is vast. I watched every episode of 24, which rewarded me with thrills and chills and Elisha Cuthbert for eight uneven but gripping seasons. I even posted essays on 24 fan sites, a pre-blogging kind of expression I’ve never done before or since. I also loved the first season of The Walking Dead when I could get it on video; I even read the very long graphic novel afterward. Years ago, I read Stephen King’s The Stand, which was haunting, and enjoyed the mini-series with Molly Ringwald. I became a fan of Firefly, a beloved and influential series that Fox bungled, long after its cancellation — my son suggested that one for me.

But I wonder about Revolution. The tease caught my interest. Would this be the start of a beautiful relationship, or merely the latest in a dreary series of network equivalents of one-night stands? I’ve always been a sucker for sci-fi and apocalyptic TV and movies since I watched The Time Tunnel and Lost in Space in the 1960s. Raquel Welch’s Fantastic Voyage and One Million Years B.C. also captivated me, for more hormonal reasons.

In recent years, my devotion led to naught but regret as one sci-fi series after another dished out the wham-bam-thank-you-Van treatment.

My entertainment Walk of Shame started several years ago when I fell hard for FlashForward. The first episodes were brilliant. Everybody on the planet blacked out at the exact same moment, for the exact length of time, and had disturbing visions of their future. FBI agents, wracked by their own dreams, started to unravel what happened. Even as they did, the series itself fell apart. My sense was the writers couldn’t put together a coherent explanation for the blackout or its aftermath. Loose ends piled up, conspiracies became muddier. I missed some episodes, although I hung on to the end, which hinted at the next flash forward dream. Fox cancelled the series. America yawned.

Saddened, I kept hope for quality TV alive with The Event, with semi-immortal aliens captured by the U.S. government in Alaska. The series grew on me as it progressed. The aliens were riven by intrigue and disagreement about the path to take in deciding whether to cooperate or exterminate earthlings. Since aliens are often portrayed in Borg-like agreement on everything, I found this angle refreshing. The series picked up steam and direction as it moved along. The very last scene promised an explosive second season, perhaps on the lines of the movie Independence Day, but that season never happened. A long gap in the airings (curse you, Fox schedulers!), baffling personality changes in the aliens’ leader, and the usual bogus swamp of plot clutter—always involving a sweaty, treasonous Vice President, lurking in White House hallways whispering into his cell phone—sank the series. Viewers fled in droves. Canceled.

I’m feeling sheepish about my most recent ill-starred love. Goaded by relentless promos, I watched most of Fox’s Terra Nova. Go ahead and laugh; looking back, I have to ask, “What was I thinking?” The show threw an attractive multicultural cast in the time-travel blender, built a set that looked like a pre-historic Club Med resort, shook well – and created a mess. I kicked myself for wasting time even as I watched the episodes, hoping the show would coalesce. But it stayed stuck on stupid. Terra Nova had too few rampaging dinosaurs, NO exploding volcanoes and way too much idiotic teen romance. The writers lacked the courage to truly explore the show’s premise. If you could go back in time to rebuild human society, what would it look like, and how would people interact? (Terra Nova opted for Dawson’s Creek with pterodactyls.) The concept of building a new society in the past is strong enough without gumming it up with Road Warrior-style opposition forces and yet another corporate conspiracy. The ending intrigued me—the settlement leaders discover a 17th century ship, hinting at past settlers from other eras—but by then millions of other viewers had broken up with Terra Nova and the relationship ended. Adios, dim-witted teens and brontosauruses. Raquel Welch did far more with far less with her fur bikini in One Million Years B.C.

Sometimes I recognize a loser and bail out before I’m too far in. I tried Kiefer Sutherland’s series, Touch, where he was the father of a silent, autistic boy with the power to bring people together through number patterns. Two episodes of cloying global goodness and an impending conspiracy had me reaching for the remote control. I just couldn’t handle an autistic savant.

So that brings me around to Revolution. This is from NBC rather than Fox, so the commercial breaks might be slightly shorter (less time to wash dishes, fold laundry, etc.) and the plotting more focused. I greatly enjoyed executive producer J.J. Abrams’ Cloverfield, a story told completely through found footage from cell phones and camcorders of a monster wrecking New York. Abrams’ vision of a powerless America, including shapely women wielding medieval weapons, could lure me back to the TV singles bar one more time in my endless quest for love with a remote control.

Or if it bogs down in its own relentless seriousness and conspiracies, I can always do a Stargate marathon.

The Case of the Two Nancys — A Shopping-Day Investigation

 

While I’ve never been much of a shopper, I will snap up old books, publications, posters and music when I see something I want. Yesterday was one of those days when I made some great purchases in two locations, linked, improbably, by the late actress Nancy Marchand. Or actress Nancy Marquand. Same actress or not? What started as a a fun post on an amazing coincidence became a puzzling tale of research and ambiguity.

I know Marchand from the series The Sopranos, of which I became a huge fan once it appeared on DVD. I compulsively watched the show and took notes that I turned it into an essay, “What I Learned About Love from Tony Soprano.” A small part of the essay appears in “A Kosher Dating Odyssey.” Marchand played Tony’s conniving mother Livia, to great acclaim. Memories of the show returned when I dropped by the local Goodwill store yesterday afternoon and found “The Sopranos: A Family History,” published in 2000 after show’s second season. The book notes that Marchand died in 2000, during the filming of the second season. She died the day before her 72nd birthday.

Later in the day, I dropped by the Westport Public Library for its spring sale. There, I saw boxes of old — and I mean, back to the 1940s old — Playbill theater programs. There must have been 200, and the sale had been on since 9 a.m. The more I pawed through the boxes, the more I thought, “I gotta scoop these up. When will I get this chance again?” Another theater buff asked about when the Playbills appeared and I showed her where most of them carried a date for the week they appeared, on an inside title page. She thanked me as we returned to our crazed quests to find programs of plays that resonated with us.

I left the library with 28 Playbills at 50 cents each, total cost, the equivalent of about three gallons of gas. Such a deal! I selected them in several categories. Some were classics, like South Pacific or West Side Story, and others might appeal to friends, like Lost in the Stars and Roland Petit’s Les Ballets De Paris. Others had great kitsch appeal in their covers, like Gorilla Queen (off-Broadway) and others featured young versions of famous faces on Broadway, such as Alan Alda in The Owl and the Pussycat and Carol Burnett in Fade Out-Fade In.

And then I scanned one of the oldest Playbills, I Remember Mama from the week of March 4, 1946, by Rogers and Hammerstein. Starring in the role of Christine was Nancy Marquand. The program said,

Nancy Marquand (Christine) hails from Philadelphia’s Main Line. While in high school she began preparing for the stage by studying with her great aunt, Julia West, who at one time had been a member of Lillian Russell’s company. Her professional debut was with the Greenhills Theatre at Ocean City, where she remained as the company’s ingenue for two years. Her first Broadway engagement was with “Kiss and Tell.” Earlier this season she was seen in Owen Davis’ “No Way Out.”

 

Reading this, I assumed Marquand was Marchand with an earlier spelling, but the more I read about Marchand’s career, the more I wondered. Bios all say she didn’t reach Broadway until The Taming of the Shrew in 1951; I Remember Mama was five years earlier. When I looked for Nancy Marquand, the path quickly goes cold, as she’s listed for only the plays given above and then — nothing. The Marquand bio from 1946 describes an actress with more experience than Marchand could have had as a 17 year old then. Marquand came from Philadelphia, while Marchand studied at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Tech (later renamed Carnegie Mellon University). The photos don’t quite look the same, as Marquand looks delicate; Marchand in her late 60s was tall and stern — but the photos were taken a half-century apart. Here’s the 1946 photo:

 

So my shopping passions collided with my Sam Spade instincts to lead me into the case of the Two Nancys, Marquand and Marchand.. I’d like to think they’re the same Nancy, but my instinct says they’re not. I now know everything about Nancy Marchand. But who was Nancy Marquand, and how did she vanish after such a promising start on the Great White Way? Does anybody remember (her role in) Mama?

 

“Gloomy Sunday” — Finding Compelling Jewish Cinema Via Serendipity

Planning for a four-day weekend, with three days without library access, I went a little wild on Thursday scooping up DVDs. My son’s with me so I looked for films through his eyes. Several genres called out to me–a big film noir collection, 13 Assassins in the ever-popular Japanese samurai mode, Gilda with Rita Hayworth, and finally, from the German shelf, Gloomy Sunday. I had never heard of the movie, but the Holocaust themes and Budapest setting suggested this could be worth a look.

We kicked off our holiday film festival with this movie. I highly recommend it to anybody looking for a different take on Holocaust cinema. The Amazon link gives plenty of details about the film, so I’ll focus on what made it especially notable for me. First, female lead Erika Marozsán throws out some of the most smoldering looks ever seen in a movie — the term “bedroom eyes” must have been invented for her. She plays a waitress for a Jewish restaurant owner in Budapest, before and during the war. The character and probably the actress aren’t Jewish, but she’s integral to the plot of a movie that relentlessly moves toward the deportations from Hungary, which happened in 1944. I’ve already updated my mental list of the sexiest Jewish movies to include Gloomy Sunday on the strength of Marozsán’s performance.

The Holocaust aspect is compelling but not nearly as explicit as Schindler’s List and The Pianist. I found Gloomy Sunday also interesting also as a Holocaust movie set in Hungary. Other movies that came to mind are the Hungarian-language Fateless and English-language Sunshine are other movies set in Hungary, and they all deal, to differing degrees, with the lives people made after the war ended.

As an extra treat, Gloomy Sunday has a conclusion that makes rewatching earlier parts of the movie a delicious, retributionist pleasure.