Filthy lucre

For a pipsqueak like me, The Millionaire was a godsend. Each week, the half-hour TV show opened with an exchange between puckish industrialist John Beresford Tipton, Jr. and his trusted secretary Michael Anthony, during which the former would give the latter a cashier’s check for $1,000,000 and would instruct him to hand it over to an unsuspecting, and always shaken, recipient, who was never to know where the money came from. Although Tipton well knew why he chose each beneficiary, we could only surmise.

Typically, those who were selfish with the money were undone by their own greed; those who were selfless with it were richly rewarded for their goodness. I knew things would go well for Tony Rogers, for instance, who used his money to help out a neighbor in trouble; or for Nancy Cortez, who used hers to coax her toreador husband out of the bull ring and into retirement. I didn’t need 30 minutes, though, to figure out what would happen to Nick Slade, an escaped convict who assumed the identity of Eric Lodek, a humanitarian who died shortly after receiving his check; or to Rod Matthews, who used his money to stick it to an old enemy.

The moral of each story was simple, really, and always boiled down to this: If you’re a conniving ass in real life, you’ll lose everything and end up all alone. I didn’t want to be a conniving ass. In my fantasies about what I would do with all that money, I was more a giver than a taker. If, for example, I bought my divorced parents tickets for a trip around the world, and if I also bought a ticket for my brother  just so I could get the little crapper to stop tormenting me, I could then feel justified in buying myself a few dolls, preferably ones that cried. If I bought a movie theater and Coney Island for my family, then I could buy myself a whole pizza and some baby turtles.

I was reminded of the show this past week because of the kerfuffle surrounding Mirlande Wilson and her claim that she had the winning ticket for Maryland’s Mega Millions jackpot, worth  a record-breaking $656 million. First, she said she hid it in the McDonald’s where she worked. Now, she’s saying she misplaced it.  As you can imagine, the media has crucified her, though it wasn’t difficult. All they had to do was to get her to open her mouth on the 11 o’clock news and then stand back.

I can’t help but think that things would have gone better for Mirlande had John Beresford Tipton, Jr., been her benefactor. With him, there was always the possibility of redemption.


Of whales and men

Here’s the narrator of a PBS show about whales: “A female humpback announces her arrival, and she’s ready to mate. Her fin slaps can be heard a mile away, and almost immediately a gang of suitors is headed her way. She wants to choose the strongest mate, so she challenges them to the ultimate fitness contest. She sets off on a marathon swim with a pack of jostling males…. Under water the 40-ton males look deceptively relaxed, but the tension is building. These lustful rivals are already sizing each other up. Battle could break out at any minute. The stage is set for a real confrontation…. Then suddenly the mood changes. The female has vanished, perhaps having eloped with her chosen mate. Without the object of their chosen desire, the heat has gone out of the battle. Minutes after dueling in the high seas, the males caress each other, perhaps for consolation or to repair injured feelings.”

Here’s my version: Mary knew time was running out. Soon, her eggs would be old and her hopes of having a baby would be dashed. Jack, Joe, John, and Jeff all wanted to bed her, and she had been putting them off for years. To beat the clock, she knew she’d have to choose one, but which one should she pick? Jack was devilishly handsome but an idiot; Joe was smart as a whip but a wimp; John could run a mile in 3:43:13 but was also an idiot; and Jeff was gorgeous, brilliant, a great dancer, a regular volunteer at the local retirement home, and a pilot but had slept with every woman in town. There was only one thing for her to do: Put on her red dress and go to the local bar where the men hung out. (Luckily for her she was ovulating.) The minute she walked into the place, all four of them could smell her heavy perfume, and they began vying for her attention. Jack asked her to dance, and Joe cut in. John challenged her to a game of darts, and Jeff tried to pull her into the alley. Soon, a fight broke out among them, with fists flying and blood spraying. The bouncer threw the lot of them out the door. From their places on the curb, they saw Mary leave with Charlie. Her coat was trailing behind her and her dress was pulled down to her waist. “What a slut,” Joe said to Jeff. Soon they were on their feet and slapping each other on the back. “Sorry, Jack.” “Me, too, man.” “Sorry, John.” “Same here, man.”  


Sophia Loren’s face

Luther, a crime drama, is the kind of show I have to watch between my fingers. I found it by accident and, after seeing the first episode, thought that I wouldn’t watch anymore episodes because the one I saw was terrifying. Then I watched another one and after that another one and have seen all of them now.

This is what I have been telling myself to make it through: not real severed fingers and ears, not a real tongue in a white handkerchief, not a real airtight plastic bag over the Detective Seargent’s head, not a real spike driven through the hand of the Detective Chief Inspector, not a real woman stuffed in a rectangular metal box, not real children about to be gassed in a sealed van.

This, too, is what I have been telling myself to make it through: It’s so formulaic. There’s the brilliant, unhinged rogue cop who has broken more laws than there are laws; the beautiful, long-suffering ex-wife who knows she should stay away from the brilliant, unhinged rogue cop but can’t help herself; the sad-eyed, kind-hearted boyfriend of the beautiful, long-suffering ex-wife who asks her to choose which one it’s going to be; the indulgent, middle-aged boss who keeps taking the brilliant, unhinged rogue cop back even though she knows she’s in for it; the scowling, tightly wound Detective Superintendent who’s just waiting for the brilliant, unhinged rogue cop to trip up so big time that he’ll be able to nail his butt once and for all; and the fawning, do-gooder partner of the brilliant, unhinged rogue cop who makes up for in loyalty what he lacks in experience.

Then there’s Alice, the loveable genius-psychopath who murders her parents; falls in love with the brilliant, unhinged rogue cop; kills for him just to help him out; and episode after episode manages to stay out of  jail.

It shouldn’t work, but it does.

If my mind were an amplifier, this is what it would be shouting at the TV: Don’t go down that hall! Don’t go up those stairs! Don’t go down those stairs! Don’t go back inside! Answer the damned phone! Don’t answer the damned phone! Don’t wander down that dark alley in that skirt!

It works for reasons I don’t understand. Once someone told me that if you look at Sophia Loren’s face feature by feature she isn’t beautiful, but put them all together and she’s a knockout. Maybe it’s like that.



Despite the fact that Twilight Zone scared me witless, I watched it faithfully when I was a child. Perhaps I was trying to inoculate myself against the terrors of life. It didn’t work.

One episode, entitled “Eye of the Beholder,” was especially frightening. The story revolves around a young woman who has just undergone plastic surgery  to correct an ugliness that keeps her withdrawn from the world. We wait anxiously for the bandages to be removed, and, when they are taken off, we see that the woman is quite beautiful. It turns out that it’s the doctors, all aliens, who prove to be monstrous looking. Deeming the surgery a failure,  they tell her she must go to another place (guess where) so she can be with her own kind.

After I read yesterday about the passing of Yoda, the “World’s Ugliest Dog,” I got so frothy that this story had made headline news. Isn’t it enough, I asked myself, that we have to live in a culture that torments women who don’t conform to prevailing standards of beauty? Do we have to torture our girl dogs, too?

When I sat down to give the world a piece of my mind, though, I took a close look at a photo of Yoda and recoiled in horror. She really WAS ugly, I thought. Alien ugly. I felt ashamed of my response because I love animals more than anything, except my daughter; yet, while it seems true that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, I am wondering now if there might be certain things in nature that make all of us draw back with the same primal fear. 

Take the lamprey whose mouth is ringed with teeth, whose tongue also has teeth on it, and who swims up inside the gills of fish to drain their blood.


Is it just me?

The Good Wife is a good show. It’s smart, skillfully scripted, and well acted. Julianna Margulies, in the title role, brings to her Alicia Florrick a barely bridled reserve that makes you want to shake and hug her character all at the same time.

Josh Charles, as Will Gardner, and Archie Panjabi, as Kalinda Sharma, almost always deliver strong performances, as does Christine Baranski, who, as Diane Lockhart, a senior partner with the law firm around which the series turns, at times steals the show. Classy and crisp, though not without a subtle softness, Baranski’s Diane is ever the voice of reason and resolve when forces seemingly beyond her control threaten to bring down the house she has worked so tirelessly to build.

During a recent episode, for example, in which Will is given a six-month suspension for having embezzled client funds some fifteen years earlier, Diane shows her true grit by moving immediately to re-assign her partner’s current cases and to change the practice name from Lockhart & Gardener to Lockhart & Associates.  

“So, we’re done?” Will asks after Diane hands off the last of his files to Alicia.

“For now,” she says, adding, “You’ll still have a place when you come back.”

Later, we see Will packing up his office and then heading towards the elevator. There, he meets Alicia, who earlier had expressed dismay when she learned her law partner, and former lover, was going to take the six-month suspension without fighting it.

“You’re giving up the law for six months? she asks, incredulous. “I can’t imagine it.”

Afterward, I found myself wondering why Will had received such a somber send-off. After all, the guy was going away for six months, not for six years. 

Then, I got to thinking. Perhaps the way I experience time, and my movement through time, is different from the way others experience it. I have always found, for instance, that it takes me ages to grieve a loss. Where others might find themselves frisky after, say, three months, I might be hangdog for three years. Once, my brother told me that there is a rule of thumb for how long it should take to get over the breakup of a relationship: one year for each year you had been with that person. So, my relationship with my ex-husband lasted two years, we have not been together for about seven years, and I still haven’t gotten over him. See what I mean?

Here’s something interesting to think about, though: If six months feels like six years to some, then twelve months would feel to them like twelve years. That means they would have lived the equivalent of nine hundred and sixty years if they were to die at eighty. 


Sacred heart

Shameless' cast, creator on how the show could end |

It is hard to imagine anyone other than William H. Macey playing Frank Gallagher. Bringing the same unexpected pathos to this dark, complex character that he has brought to other characters throughout his career — most notably Jerry Lundegaard in Fargo — Macey fully inhabits the role of the liquored-up, fallen patriarch in the Showtime series Shameless, now in its second season.

As funny as it is disturbing, the series revolves around a working-class family struggling to make ends meet on Chicago’s South Side. To be sure, we’ve seen this story line before, but it would be wrong to think that there is anything derivative about the show. Macey is no Archie Bunker, the bigoted pater familias of the 70s sitcom All in the Family. Whereas Archie is predictable in his circumscribed life as a blue-collar worker who, despite his many flaws, loves and provides for his family, Frank is an unpredictable, hapless drunk who all but abandons his six children.

It is difficult to see how such a selfish, unapologetic alcoholic who leaves his children to fend for themselves could be a headliner for anything other than a Greek tragedy, but Frank’s shadowy schemes draw plenty of laughs and fetch equal amounts of outrage and compassion. In spite of his despicable behavior, we find ourselves accepting him, even caring about him, in part because we see his humanness and vulnerability when he cannot.

At one point, Frank bets a local gang banger $10,000 that he can’t be tased twice and stay on his feet. The thug lets Frank zap him and, naturally, he remains standing. Not surprisingly, Frank can’t pay the debt, so he hatches one crazy plan after another to come up with the money — including allowing his toddler son, Liam, to be held as collateral until he can pay what he owes and showing up in a gay bar to exchange sex for cash. We are so horrified by his behavior that we think he can’t possibly be more reprehensible. He can.

After finding out that neighborhood floozy Dottie Coronis, played poignantly by Mollie Price, will die unless she receives a heart transplant, Frank contrives to get his hands on her pension by offering to help her with household projects and by asking her to marry him. After the proposal, we see Dottie in the distance stepping naked into the shower, while Frank, in the foreground, hears her pager go off and surreptitiously responds to it. When he learns that a heart is available, he tells the person on the other end of the line that “she doesn’t need it anymore. She passed last night.” What follows is an unspeakable sex scene that defies description.

Yet, Frank is someone we almost know: He’s just a few degrees the other side of the feckless fathers and hooched-up husbands who live with us, sleep in our beds, eat at our tables, and pilfer our savings. We hope they will change but fully expect they will not, just as we hope every lapse will bring Frank closer to salvation and every moment of self-justification will bring him closer to a moment of self-awareness.

That moment seems far off, though, when we later find him at his local watering hole rationalizing his behavior to anyone who will listen. “If you are waiting for a new organ,” he bellows, “you are interfering with God’s plan. If you have a bum heart, that’s your lot in life. Don’t take someone else’s.” Since Shameless trades in gallows humor and asks us to question our notions of morality, this rant, like all of Frank’s other rants, should make us laugh. It doesn’t. Because Dottie is such a sympathetic, even sacred, character — more so than any other in the show — it’s just too hard to find any humor in her tragic end.