February 2012 Archives

Washington's Brave Drummer, Molly

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For George Washington's birthday, I thought I'd post some images from an old hardbound children's book in my collection called, "Molly The Drummer Boy." The book was written by Harriet T. Comstock with illustrations by Curtis Wager-Smith. Copyright is listed as 1900.
The book's colorful cover

The story is about a girl named Debby who disguises herself as a boy, renames herself Molly and joins the Revolutionary army as a drummer. The author claims the story is based on historical fact, but Comstock doesn't mention where she first encountered records of the story.
A long-haired boy before Washington

The caption to this illustration reads, "For a moment Washington eyed the boy."

The first time I encountered the idea of the multiverse was reading a Flash comic book. I was a kid in school and a recent graduate to superhero comics, which were more challenging reading than the Harvey and Archie comics that I was used to. It was also my first step away from the Batman and Superman comic books I was already reading, which were easier to read because they featured characters that were familiar to me from television.

Cover of The Flash #237I had been attracted to this particular Flash comic by it dramatic cover, featuring contrasting suits worn by the Flash and the Reverse-Flash, also known as Professor Zoom. Although people often look down on comics as simple reading material, they do not always make for easy reading. In this case, I had jumped into a serial story in progress, with characters I was not familiar with and a complex plot dealing with time-travel.

Although aspects of The Flash were difficult for me to comprehend, I stuck with the comic series because the characters were compelling, especially the villainous Professor Zoom. The art added a tremendous amount to my understanding of the plot. In fact, at that age I'm not sure I would have grasped the idea of parallel worlds or branching realities without illustrations of Earth-One and Earth-Two. Editorial asides filled me in on back story that I had missed. The comics format also allowed me to flip comfortably back and forth through pages and issues, which helped me keep track of the story as it wove through time and across worlds.

Skip ahead to the present day, where I'm following a story of multiple worlds on the television show, Fringe. I want to say that it's the most complicated multiverse story I've been exposed to, but that's probably not true--I think DC's Infinite Crisis and the year-long 52 saga probably take that title. Fringe is, nonetheless, an extremely intricate story of multiple worlds. (In the season two finale, Fringe acknowledged a debt to DC comics and its multiverse mythos.)

This season, several of the main actors on Fringe, including Anna Torv, John Noble and Jasika Nicole, play as many as four different versions of themselves. Although there are sometimes visual indicators to distinguish among versions--for example, one Olivia is blonde while another is redhead--the burden is on the actors to show their characters' differences. The cast does an incredible job making us believe in their characters' lives across multiple worlds.

Unfortunately, the broadcast television format is not always supportive of Fringe's complex storyline. Long season and mid-season breaks make it difficult to keep track of past and present in the show's multiple universes. While earlier seasons were light on commercials, more commercials in the current season mean less time to explain the action and flesh out story arcs. In an interview, series creator J.J. Abrams claims Fringe was intended to be a serialized show, but that "we were instructed by the network, at the beginning of Season 3, to stop that." (Note: Corrected based on commenter input.)

While part of creating a successfully TV series involves working within the commercial demands of the medium, I can't help but feel that the power of "Fringe's" multiverse storytelling is being lost to narrow programming requirements. I hope Fringe gets renewed for a fifth season, but I hope it also receives license to develop the serialized storytelling that it's multiverse drama needs, and which have made the show such a standout in past seasons.

The 1% meets the one true heir

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There is a right way to have a cold. In the U.S., we are encouraged to think the best way to be sick is to keep on working. As a result of this indoctrination, I'd forgotten how to be sick correctly until just yesterday, when the need to take a second round of antibiotics provoked me to get some rest.

So it was that on a gloomy, rainy day--the closest approximation to winter that we have in L.A.--I sat down in a comfy chair, in the middle of the day, wearing my flannel pajamas and watched Masterpiece Theater Classic on PBS video. If you have to be sick (and apparently I did), this is the right way to do it.

I'm a longtime fan of Masterpiece Theater, so no one had to convince me to watch the current series, Downton Abbey, the second seaons of which is now showing in the U.S. I fit the profile of the bookish, tea-drinking Anglophile that I imagine constitutes the Masterpiece Theater Classic's typical audience. I'd read, however, that "Downton Abbey" was attracting a wider and much younger audience than is usual for the PBS series.

My favorite charcter, Mrs. Patmore In fact, this Downton Abbey mania has prompted some cultural critics to speculate about why the show is appealing to younger Americans. Some say Americans have latched on to the series because they are mesmerized by its depiction of extreme wealth. Others claim Downton Abbey offers a vision of a more stable class structure that is reassuring to Americans in these uncertain economic times.

I admit I had been puzzled as to why "Downton Abbey" would strike a chord with a youthful American audience, and I wasn't convinced by any of the explanations being given. But when I cozied up in my arm chair, tissue box to one side, to watch my old favorite, Masterpiece Theater, it hit me. There's nothing particularly different or distinguished about "Downton Abbey"; "Masterpiece Theater" is the same as ever. It's the change in the American people's interests and attitudes that have made "Masterpiece Theater Classic" popular again.

"Masterpiece Theater" is, at heart, one story, one long series playing on a handful of themes: the charms and constraints of village life, the difficulty of maintaining human relationships during wartime, and--centrally--the drama of inheritance. This is why I found turning to "Masterpiece Theater" during my cold so reassuring. Once the familiar theme song plays, I know that despite varying settings, periods and manners, I will be treated to the theatrics of primogeniture run amok.

From "The Six Wives of Henry VIII" to "I, Claudius" to today's "Downton Abbey," the core drama is about who inherits. Many of "Masterpiece Theater's" series are drawn from English literature, in which the inheritance plot is a standard storyline. Though there are variations, the inheritance plot usually revolves around an older and younger brother vying to inherit, often leading to violence. In "Downton Abbey", the male heir goes missing in the first episode, throwing the household into a state of anxiety from which it has--to date, at least--not recovered.

There are stock characters in an inheritance plot, which we see in "Downton Abbey." Often there is a schemer, who tries to arrange the inheritance to his or her liking. The Lady Dowager Countess of Grantham fulfills this role nicely, though it rotates to others both upstairs and downstairs. Visting the family are cash-poor relatives who may be eligable to inherit, represented by Matthew Crawley and his mother, Isobel. Finally, we have sympathetic characters who appear ineligible to inherit, which includes all three Grantham daughters, but primarily Lady Mary.

Now many years into a financial depression, the American viewing audience is in a prime position to emphathize with the disinherited. There is growing intergenerational conflict, stemming from disparities in income and expectations for the future, as well as from pressures brought on by multigenerational living arrangements. Americans old and young--but especially young--are concerned about what one generation will leave to another.

The Downton Abbey household presents Americans with a mirror of their own pressing anxieties about inheritance. The winner-take-all dynamics of the American economy are perfectly reflected in the family's struggle to determine who inherits Downton Abbey and all that goes with it. Of course, the show is also a pleasing distraction from the present. I know I'd much rather worry about whether the estate will wind up with Lady Mary than worry about whether there will be any potable water for the next generation of Americans to drink.

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