Friday, May 31, 2013

Friends Friday Recap: Intro and Episode 1.1 ("The Pilot")

So, as a part of my strategy to get some more "brain break" type media into my rotation, I've decided to start rewatching Friends.** Yes, that perennially beloved sitcom of yore - the whole gang of Rachel, Monica, Phoebe, Chandler, Joey, and Ross.

Friends holds a special place in my heart as the first grown-up TV show that I ever really loved. When I  was around 11, I started watching the reruns on the WB, which would have meant the new episodes were in season 5 on NBC. I remember watching it before dinner - before Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy - and giggling with delight at their antics. I soon had watched all the episodes multiple times and quoted from them liberally in my daily life.

This quotation habit got me into trouble with the holy rollers. I remember being guilted by a friend's mother, who scolded and clucked her tongue at the idea that my parents allowed me to watch such filth. Thus, I knew that my love of this fun little sitcom was verboten, something to be admitted only shamefacedly among the conservative crowd I ran with. That changed somewhat by the time everyone was watching it in high school, but the sense of Friends as a scandalous show that I probably shouldn't be watching has persisted.

A few years break from watching the show should give me some fresh perspective, so in this rewatching, I'm going be paying attention to a couple of things. First, is it as scandalous as I remember people thinking it was? Second, do they sleep around as much as my conservative cohort seemed to think? Third, is it still funny to me here in 2013, almost a decade since the finale aired? Fourth, how well has it aged at this point, socially and culturally?

With that said, let's dive in!

Episode 1.1: "The Pilot"

I have to confess that this is my least rewatched season out of all of them - I tend to prefer the show as it goes on (controversial, I know) and I remember this season as not really feeling like Friends yet. We'll see how I get on...

We start right in with the title sequence - you know the famous one where they all play in the fountain and intercut moments from the show of each cast member. It does a pretty good job of conveying tone for the series - this is a group of people who have fun together and don't take life too seriously. It also has one of the most famous themes ever, which still makes me do the *clapclapclapclapclap* when I hear it. Considering the show's eventual 10 year run, this is a title sequence and theme song that hold up pretty well.

They get right down to business - pan of New York City, cut to a close up on Central Perk logo, and pick's up mid-conversation with a joke about Monica's love life. (Joey: "You're going out with him - there's gotta be something wrong with him!") Within 60 seconds, we get a taste of Chandler's snark/pitifulness and Phoebe's general weirdness, and then we just get a series of random conversations to further establish the tone of the show as observational, low stakes humor. I, however, have a very hard time listening to any of this because Joey looks like this:

Bowl cut? Leather jacket? Not to mention an amazing leather vest that gets whipped out later on... and sleeveless vest/shirt thing... The fashion is amazing in this episode. Monica's GIGANTIC pants with suspenders, her later GIGANTIC pioneer dress + sweater combo, Rachel's crimpy mouse hair, Chandler's comically oversized baseball cap... it is all amazing. I will continue to keep my eyes open for the epic mid-90s fashion on display in the early seasons.

Back to the show- Ross finally comes in and his first word is his best catchphrase from the whole series:

And we establish another of the show's best conceits - the lesbian ex-wife. It's just so funny to see people's reactions when he explains why he got divorced (the first time), mostly because he is so defensive about it. Though Chandler seems more supportive than some, providing my first laugh of the show...

"Did I just say that outloud?!"
And finally, our last friend enters in full bridal regalia - Rachel. The show picks up on the day that Carol moves out of Ross' apartment and the day Rachel leaves her fiance at the altar. If you see the show, as the hardcore Ross/Rachel shippers out there do, as the story of those two getting together, it makes sense that this is where the story starts off. They've both taken the first major step towards being together - getting out of the unhealthy relationships they were in. We also see the huge thematic concern of the show come up here - the unwavering support that deep friendship brings. Rachel and Monica haven't been close in a few years, but when her old best friend needs her, Monica is unquestioningly there for her. When we get a glimpse of Rachel's socialite friends later on, it's not too surprising that she would turn to Monica for support before those other bims.

The rest of the episode is basically the outworking of this first scene - Ross reeling from his divorce, Rachel cutting her ties from her previous life, and Monica going on her date (and we also hear Phoebe's first ridiculous song that includes the lyric - "your love is a giant pigeon crapping on my heart"). The boys put together some fantastically 90s furniture and encourage Ross to "grab a spoon" and put himself out there again. As a sidenote, Joey feels pretty different at this point than where he ends up going - he's decently articulate, if a little one-track-minded. They dumb him down and increase his caloric intake as the show progresses. He's also still trying to be a serious actor at this point - keep dreaming, Joe.

We keep cutting between Ross and Rachel to parallel their emotional connection and the fact that their both trying to start over (the shared music cue as they look out the windows is a pretty awful after-school-special moment that thankfully gets basically dropped by the end of season 1). Rachel is clearly set up as a good hearted but totally inept princess, though she does have a good flash of sass when she's telling her dad she doesn't want to be a shoe anymore.

I love the inaugural moment of Phoebe bringing everyone's problems down to size by bringing up her mother's suicide and teenage homelessness. It's also great to see the first of Monica's many terrible boyfriends with Paul the Wine Guy. Lesbianism, impotence, sex with socks on - there's a lot of sexual issues getting worked out in the pilot.

Rachel's detachment from her parents is also setting up the key show dynamics - though we see more of the parents in the first couple of seasons (including the AMAZING Eliot Gould as Mr. Geller, but we'll get there...), this is a show about creating your own family among your friends wherever you're living. That's definitely a theme that still resonates with my generation's huge geographic mobility. We see the friends helping Rachel cut those ties - literally- by cutting up her dad's charge cards. Then Monica utters the most truthful thing anyone can tell you about adulthood:

Before the end, they establish Ross's long term flame for Rachel and the fact that he was too geeky back in the day to get her. We also establish that Rachel is okay if he asks her out sometimes - which makes one wonder why he doesn't just do that instead of PMSing about it for an entire year. Urgh. Seriously. I guess he needs to have a weirdly codependent, semi-erotic relationship with a monkey first. But we'll get to that. 

We end with seeing that Rachel has finally found something that she can do - waitressing. Although she is already established as the world's worst waitress, so not holding out too much hope that it's the best place for her long term. 

All in all, this is a pretty strong pilot. I mean, it's also one of their worst episodes, but that's just the nature of pilots. For a pilot, it's doing better than most. It sets up all the keys elements that will continue to be a part of the show for the full 10 years and there's only a few things that materially change from this pilot - all for the better. It does still have a joke-laugh-pause timing that I don't love, but if memory serves, this dissipates pretty well after the first few episodes.

As far as hookups, I count 4 sexual partners mentioned in this episode - Ross & Carol Wilick, Rachel & Barry Farber (aka Finkelstein, they mess up continuity here), Rachel & Tony DeMarco, and Monica & Paul the Wine Guy. 

The Great Hook-Up Round-Up:
Rachel: II
Monica: I
Ross: I
Chandler: 0
Joey: 0
Phoebe: 0

And favorite quotes of the episode are... 

Ross: "Eh, Aruba, this time of year - talk about your... big lizards."

Phoebe: "Ooo, I just pulled out 4 eyelashes, that can't be good..."

Chandler: "Once I was a wooden boy..."

Whew! That was way longer than most of these will be. A lot to dissect for the pilot. But here's to the long and winding road ahead...

What's your experience of Friends? Love it, hate it, forgot it?

**It turns out that AV Club has had the same impulse - they posted THIS after I wrote this recap. Should be fun to see how our opinions relate to each other. Friends love must be in the air

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Books Like Whoa: A Whole Lotta Books About the Holocaust in Italy

Boy, howdy, do I have a cheery post for you today! So, I spent my semester writing on two very happy  topics - Vatican responses to the Holocaust in Italy and suffering in the Christian life. Woohoo. This constituted a lot of my reading, meaning that I want to talk about these books. So I thought I'd keep it brief and group a few of these books together.

First up, books on the Holocaust in Italy...

The Catholic Church and the Holocaust (1930-1965) by Michael Phayer

Phayer takes a rather dim view of Pope Pius XII, positing that though he was a compassionate man who didn't wish the Jews physical ill, he was simply too boxed in by his own presuppositions and concerns to be an effective leader in the midst of genocide. His thesis is that Pius' policies towards the Nazi regime centered on three priorities: 1) To preserve the physical integrity of Vatican City, 2) To maintain a Nazi buffer state between Italy and the Communist bloc, and 3) To position himself to be mediator at the end of WWII. I think he makes his argument very convincingly and does a great job of highlighting the work of lower level Catholic clergy and laity in "acts of righteousness." He pulls out a lot of stories of little people working alone, but also of leaders like Bishop von Preysing (bishop of Berlin) who were outspoken critics of Nazism.

Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust ed. Carol Rittner and John Roth

This is a compilation of essays examining Pius' notorious "silence." This issue is something of a litmus test between historians, with critics eviscerating the pope for remaining silent in the face of information about what was going down with Jews across Europe, and defenders asserting that he had no other choice. The issue is more complex than either side wants to admit, and this collection provides some needed nuance to this area of study.

Cries in the Night: Women Who Challenged the Holocaust by Michael Phayer

Another book from Phayer, this highlights case studies of women who put themselves at risk to perform "acts of righteousness" in the Holocaust. Again, Phayer excels at finding these kinds of little known stories and showing how they relate to broader trends.

It Happened in Italy by Elisabeth Bettina

I wouldn't call this one academic in tone, but it is a good compendium of first hand accounts of Jewish detainees in Italian concentration camps. Bettina seems rather tone deaf on the realities of these camps - while the were absolutely not death camps or even work camps in the same sense as their German cousins, they were nonetheless grim places, akin to today's refugee camps. However, I appreciated how many stories she documented, even if she is biased towards showing Italians in the best possible light.

The Eichmann Trial by Deborah Lipstadt

This book doesn't specifically deal with Italy, but it does deal with the project manager of the Holocaust, Adolf Eichmann. Much is known of Eichmann from Hannah Arendt's masterwork, but Lipstadt provides some needed correctives and perspective to the narrative common to the Eichmann story. She draws some interesting parallels and also touches on the important topic of Holocaust denial.

A Cross Too Heavy by Paul O'Shea

O'Shea is the most sympathetic to Pius of the full books I read for this paper (see also Sanchez and Conway for others who provide reasonable defensive positions). He does, however, highlight that Pius' "public neutrality, private compassion" policy was born out of temporal concerns more than a moral high ground. He also traces the strengthening of the Roman Curia from the ultramontanist fervor of the 19th century and shows how this informed Vatican policies of WWII.

Under His Very Windows by Susan Zuccotti

Zuccotti's work is probably the easiest to read of these and the focus level of detail she brings to Italy's situation is much needed in this area of study. She clearly does not approve of Pius's actions a good deal of the time, but she brings supporting evidence into her argument very nicely and doesn't treat him like a monster, as some critics are wont to do. She also highlights the work of a Jewish charity organization, Delasem, and the crucial role that they played in supporting the thousands of Jews who immigrated to Italy during the war.

Whew - a lot of sadness in these books. Seriously. It was a bummer. But this is also a very important topic, because as a lot of blame gets leveled at Catholics for their response during this period, these books remind us of something very important. Even if the top of the hierarchy had its hands tied by certain temporal concerns, the priests and laity were often key in helping with rescue efforts. If they'd had more top-down direction to do so, there may have been even more that could have been done.

If I was going to recommend one or two of these books, I'd recommend Phayer's The Catholic Church and Zuccotti's Under His Very Windows. I'd say Phayer comes closest to having the middle position on the topic of Pius' "silence," whereas Zuccotti is more critical but has a wealth of fascinating information about Italy in this period.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Life Update

Man, it has been a long time since I've posted here. There's several reasons for that - one is that I've just not had that much to say. Or rather, that I've said all that I have to say in research papers and reflection questions and reading logs. Being in grad school has tapped out my verbosity, something that I wasn't sure was even possible. Well-played Regent, you evil genius you.


But now I have my first school year under my belt - even my first summer class taken care of - and it feels like I have a little room to breathe. I look back to last September and I almost laugh at how different my life feels after 9 months in Vancouver. I'm happier - crazy happier. Some of that is me actually having time to invest in people again, which was nearly impossible with my last job. Some of that is me loving Vancouver, which feels like a good temperamental fit for me and makes me feel at home. Some of that is me having a new career path that makes me feel alive and excited. A lot of it, though, is me being out of a multi-year cycle of dealing with my shit. Being here in Vancouver represents me moving out of deconstruction mode and entering reconstruction mode.

I'm also just a different person. It's weird to say that after only 9 months, but when I look at my journal from this time last year, it's clear how fundamentally my thinking has changed. It's hard to quantify what that looks like in a few words, but I see two big areas of change. One, I have begun to unpack the implications of the Incarnation for human bodies generally and my own body particularly. It's changing the way I think of gender, social justice, human frailty, human desires, etc. etc. Two, I understand that the religious training I received in my formative years was fundamentally flawed - it engendered fear of questions at a basic level. In it's desire to affirm the primacy of truth (which, fair enough), it strangled any possibility of contradiction. If you didn't agree with X minor theological point, you couldn't be a Christian. So shape up or ship out. Being at Regent has been so liberating in that it has helped me see where core orthodoxy truly lies and freed me from a culture of fear. I feel free - like I can breathe - and more confident in my faith.

Anyways, that's kind of where I am these days. I have 2 things that I'm wanting to do here on the blog now that I have some time. 1) I really love starting book conversations on here, especially when they bleed out into real life. And I've been doing a lot of reading this year. But most of it is more academic stuff, probably not too exciting to read about, so I'm going to do a few "bulk" posts to talk about what I've been reading. 2) I need to introduce some frivolity into my media consumption. It's harder to do that through books since I have to read so much... soooo... I'm gong to start an epic Friends rewatch! Every Friday, I'll put some thoughts up on a few episodes. Should be an interesting experiment, as it has been a few years since I've watched it at any length. So stay tuned for that!

I've missed y'all - good to be back!