The Wall Street Journal
|Added November 14, 2006|
Television: Mr. Goodnet Stays the Course
Wall Street Journal; New York; Feb 24, 1992; Dorothy Rabinowitz
Since the ratings system usually decides which shows live and which die, it's worth taking notice when a network flouts the system and decides to keep a program alive despite meager ratings. It doesn't happen all that often. Neither does a show like Brooklyn Bridge come along often. And, to its great credit, CBS has backed Brooklyn Bridge wholeheartedly.
The network's feeling for the show, which is obvious if you happen to hear the way the net's executives talk about it, does in fact come down to a matter of the heart. To be more precise, it is about heart and mind vs. the numbers. However it all turns out, it is nice, once in a while, to catch a glimpse of real enthusiasm for product in the netherworld known as broadcasting. Especially when it is well justified, as it is in this case.
The show, which opened to unusually fervent critical acclaim, may not have found a wide audience yet, but it has found a passionate one. It is an audience that writes letters, many of which begin with lines like, "I'm a Middle American Wasp and I live for this program" or "I'm Catholic and this show means a lot to me."
Brooklyn Bridge, Gary David Goldberg's autobiographical series about the Silvers, a Jewish family in the 1950s, does in fact include a Catholic presence. Alan, the older of the two young Silvers, has fallen for the beautiful Katie Monahan, who attends parochial school and has a pack of girlfriends all named Mary.
The first time Katie Monahan's parochial school teacher and family were introduced, at the beginning of the series, it became clear something new and significant was afoot on prime time. Here are devout Catholics who have minds, who talk like regular people rather than fanatics; here a priest is something other than a caricature, neither a cute reprobate nor a mad enforcer. This is a far cry from the nastiness usually accorded pious Catholics and Catholicism on TV. As anyone who watches concentrated amounts of television, especially made-for-TV movies, can attest, a crucifix worn on the chest is an absolutely reliable signal from the writer that the bearer is a primitive.
Not that Brooklyn Bridge doesn't deal in what you might call religious differences; it revels in them. One of the master episodes of the season had Katie dragging her policeman father, no philo-Semite, to meet Alan's family. This daring, if fanciful, episode pitted Alan's grandmother Sophie, no devotee of mixing with Gentiles herself, against Officer Monahan in a Chinese restaurant. It could have been the soppiest of encounters, what with Sophie listening to mournful songs of the Holocaust, the policeman brooding over his Irish rebel anthems, and both families setting forth for the dinner encounter to the tunesand the appropriate gang-war lyricsfrom West Side Story.
But in a time acrawl with TV writers preening themselves on having dared new forms and breakthroughs, it's worth noting that this episode of Brooklyn Bridge stands as one of the rare instances of prime-time daring in which something was dared. For one thing, it was about something besides the celebration of its own daring.
The fine brew of hilarity, passion, sentimentality and slight craziness in this and most other episodes of the series of course owes almost everything to the writing and the cast. Peter Friedman brings a quiet stature to the character of the father, an unassuming post-office clerk who has time, when he comes off the night shift at 2 a.m., to listen to his wakeful youngest child, Nathaniel, babble about a book he is reading.
In a TV world teeming with beautiful little boys, Matthew Siegel's Nathaniel is the face it's impossible to tire of. But by now everyone in the cast has grown into his or her role, including the estimable Louis Zorich, who plays Grandpa, a man who does most of his talking with his eyebrows. As the boys' mother Amy Aquino is a force, though necessarily a drab presence compared with her mother, the regal Sophie.
Minor characters are the real measure of a worka fact that always leaps to mind during the invariably terrific scenes involving Sid Elgart, the local candy-store owner. Who wouldn't recognize the surly pretensions, the eloquent grievances of this character as played by David Wohl? Then there are Alan Silver's neighborhood pals, Warren (Aeryk Egan) and the hapless Benny (Jake Jundef). It's hard to remember when last TV offered a cast of secondary characters so devotedly chiseled and detailed. There is, finally, of course, the character of Sophie, Marion Ross's Sophie, without whom, it's safe to say, Brooklyn Bridge could not have spanned the distances to so many hearts. So completely has Ms. Ross succeeded in turning herself into the dauntless, arrogantly principled, loving and seductive Sophie, immigrant Jewish grandmother, it seems a kind of mystery every time she opens her mouth, or washes a dish. It is an extraordinary achievement.
Golden Times Long Ago
After the televised trial of Clarence Thomas it may be a while before people can work up much sense of shock about anything they see on the screen. After a morning of hearing lines like, "The FBI reports, you can see, contain no reference to Mr. Thomas's private parts" (Sen. Specter to Prof. Hill)what's left that can still rock viewers? Nothing that's likely to appear on regular programming.
Who can worry, now, about the fact that this season, ABC's The Wonder Years apparently will pay homage to the new sexual realities by giving young Kevin now a high school freshmansome experience. Some of the wonder, in short, is about to go out of The Wonder Years. It was only last year that a critic complained, somewhere, that the writers were spoiling the show's tone by advancing Kevin to a going-steady relationship with Winnie, the girl next door, instead of keeping him settled in an innocent and unrequited crush. Look where we are now.
Those who prefer boyish innocence to the steamy transports of adolescence still have, however, Brooklyn Bridge, the CBS counterpart to The Wonder Years. The young hero of Brooklyn Bridge, it's clear, isn't going to be catapulted into any major rite of passage any time soon, if ever (assuming CBS allows this splendid new series to survive). This isn't only because it takes place in the the mid-50s as opposed to The Wonder Years, which unfolds somewhere in the early '70s. Standards of behavior, to be sure, were different in the '50s than in the decades immediately following. Contrary, however, to the propaganda put about by celebrants and mythologizers of the '60s, sexual activity was not an invention of the Age of Aquarius. Even so, the most devout apostles of that age and its sexual revolution would not in their wildest dreams have imagined that the time would come when public schools would consider distributing condoms to students, as they are now planning to do in the New York City school system.
These aspects of the contemporary scene are precisely what has created the appetites for works dealing with older and better days. The echoes of the contemporary scene are also the cause, however, of the distinctly elegiac pall that shrouds The Wonder Years at every new hint of innocence about to be lost. Some of this is inevitable. Fred Savage, who plays Kevin, for one thing no longer has a young boy look.
For all that, the show seems not to have lost its writerly edge, as it showed in last week's affecting episode dealing with Kevin's unhappy lot as an employee. With all his friends off at the mall, and the call of the wild upon him, Kevin wanted to leave his job as clerk to a crabbed and aged hardware store owner. (The sad tale of an aged hardware store owner was also the theme of a recent movie of the week, starring George C. Scott. Perhaps this is the beginning of a trend in which retail hardware replaces insurance selling as the occupation scriptwriters most look down on -- their favorite symbol for the terrors of the mundane.)
Kevin is desperate to drop the job, but his employer clearly wants him to stay. The show's scripts have often displayed, as here, an interesting miasma of awarenessstrongly laced with guiltof the sorrows of age and the self-centered brutality of youth. These are scripts infused by a kind of remorseful recognition of youth's bountyand of the hungers of age. This is clear in Kevin's every conversation with his gloomy father, his grandfather. In its somewhat heavy-hearted way, it is the theme that remains steadfastand substantialas all else about the show changes.
Matters are less heavy-hearted in Brooklyn Bridge, which evokes a life in which elders are happy just to dote on their young. One can only write scripts like this, evoking such a life, if one has lived it, as creator Gary David Goldberg seems to have done. It helps to have the convincing Peter Friedman in the role of the father. The sunny view of family life in Brooklyn Bridge isn't the sort that flattens drama, mainly because the sunniness here is complicated, as sunniness can sometimes be, and because it rings true. What rings less true, though it is in the end a matter of importance only to purists, are the Jewish accents. Letters complaining of the inauthenticity of these accentsletters of homicidal intensityhave come pouring in here, as they doubtless have to other critics who praised the opening program.
The complainants may have a point, if a minor one; once you have intimate acquaintance with this accent, it's impossible to accept hybrids. Clearly the main offender is Louis Zorich, who plays grandpa. Now it is true that there are many valid variants of the Yiddish accent, but none of them bears any recognizable resemblance to this grandpa's. At least Mr. Zorich's accent is recognizably of this earth, unlike Carol Kane's, in a visiting spot. On the other hand, Marion Ross, in the role of grandma, has managed to concoct a very reasonable combination "hoch" European flavored with a touch of Minskthough this is a judgment with which many complainants bitterly disagree. Never mind. To watch the range of emotions that can play on this superb actress's face is to have no need of accents -- or of words at all.
Television: Stepping Back into Yesterday's America
Something very interesting has hit television this season, if in a limited way. That something can only be described as the pastthe subject of the season's two most ambitious new shows, Homefront and Brooklyn Bridge, which are set in 1945 and 1956 respectively. This can only mean that, out there in the land of the lost where new TV-series concepts are spawned, they have apparently stumbled on to the truth that in the America of today there is a large and unappeasable yearning for the America of yesterday.
In the strange and wonderful world of television, of course, setting a show in a time 45years back doesn't mean that it won't come packaged with the full complement of '90s hot-button social issues, as, in fact, Homefront (ABC, Tuesdays, 10-11 p.m.) does. Homefront starts with the war's ending, the men coming home and "Its Been a Long, Long Time" blasting sweetly in the background. Add a montage of era snapshots, and, no doubt about it, Homefront begins on a dramatically promising note. That promise is only briefly kept, no doubt about that either, as melodramatic complications and characters begin multiplying at a fearsome and familiar rate.
After the evocative beginning and a brief nod to the large historic event that created this home frontnamely the warthings move on briskly to the main business at hand, which mostly concerns broken hearts, lust, love, jealousy and a variety of similar ingredients woven into a series of soap operettas. This should not be altogether surprising, since the executive producer of Homefront, David Jacobs, also gave us Knots Landing. It also should not be surprising that Homefront, like Knots Landing, is polished stuff, as soaps go.
The show has, it should be said, a certain zest, deriving mainly from the period setting. But what is really most intriguingand also frequently absurdabout Homefront is the uses to which the writers have put that setting. Into this 1945 drama the writers have injected most of the prime-time concerns of the '90s, chief among them the status of women. All that's missing in tomorrow's premiere (9:30-11 p.m. EDT, on ABC) is a reference to date rape.
Other aspects of the show's themes are similarly up-to-date and familiar. For example, the principal villains are a well-to-do manufacturer and his wifeselfish brutes of boundless amorality. The couple's Original Sin, it is clear, derives from the fact that the husband is a successful businessman of some wealth. In the wonderful world of TV, we know that no good is to be expected of people like this. Lest there be any doubt, the publicist's handout explains that this couple hates everybodyblacks, Jews, Italians, and so on. This is unnecessary to explain, since it goes without saying that any major villain created by our TV writers is bound to be deficient, above all, in multicultural sensitivity. By the end of the first show, however, the crafty businessman has been outwitted by his black servant, a man infinitely wiser and better than his employer. But that, of course, also goes without saying.
Brooklyn Bridge (Fridays, 8:30-9 p.m. EDT, on CBS) is a much higher order of retrospection. Gary David Goldberg (creator of Family Ties) looks back at the mid-'50s in Brooklyn with an eye that is truthful in the most important regards. He has writtenas writers are for good reason taught they shouldwhat he knows, and what he knows is the 14-year-old boy who is the main character, as well as that boy's friends and the things they think and talk about.
The choice of Danny Gerard for the role of Alan was a canny and fortunate piece of castingthe kind that can sometimes save a show. Alan is a modest and grave character, son of a postal worker and a regular kid who wears club jackets and yearns for girls. He also knows what he knows, and already has the slightly disputatious authority of a lifelong reader and believer in the printed word. A lot of viewers will recognize this boy because he existedand still existsand because young Mr. Gerard brings him to life with great skill.
Here, too, the producers begin the show with a montage of black-and-white snapshots to evoke a bygone era. But in this case, the opening is like the flick of a lash in the way those pictures recall the old neighborhoods as they were 35 years ago. The pictures tell of a Brooklyn that was and is no more, where people did not fear to walk out in the streets at night (much less in the day, as they fear to do in some parts of Brooklyn now).
The other star of the cast is Marion Ross, who portrays the boy's Jewish immigrant grandmother without too much nonsense, and even manages to inject a certain portly glamour into the role. The generally splendid script has its flaws, mainly its occasional tilt to mawkishness. For instance, it is not absolutely necessary to wring every last throb out of scenes like the one in which the grandmother and grandfather meet up with Gil Hodges, who then nobly supports Grandpa's lies about his skill at baseball.
Then there is the occasional moment when characters talk like people out of the '90s. The boy's mother burbles "I love you" as she goes off to work, instead of goodbye. In the '50s, "I love you" had not yet been transformed so as to mean "goodbye," "goodnight," "hello" and "how is your cold?" as it does today. It took our own era's propensity for cheapening language and its meaning to have come up with this particular atrocity. Such matters aside, Brooklyn Bridge is an enchanting look back that should win the hearts of huge numbers of viewers, including those who have never set foot in Mr. Goldberg's old borough.
Return to Brooklyn Bridge.