Great Stories: Scrubs

Here’s another television show that I would only recommend with some caveats. I’ll get those out of the way first. There is fat-shaming, and lots of juvenile humor, particularly when it comes to sexual situations. And some of the romantic relationships can be infuriating with the will-they, won’t-they; off-again, on-again dynamics worthy of a soap opera.

However. Having acknowledged that, I’ll also acknowledge that Scrubs is reliably hilarious, often heartfelt, and frequently as deep and meaningful as any drama. Many in the medical profession have said that for all its surreal and goofy humor, it’s one of the more accurate depictions of doctors and hospitals. Rather than creating increasingly bizarre medical situations as hospital dramas and mystery-based shows are wont to do, Scrubs focuses on the lives of the doctors, on the wild roller coaster that is working in a hospital.

Sitcoms were starting to change when the show first aired in 2001. There was no laugh track; it was filmed in a single camera style. There was no need for a “very special episode” to introduce serious topics. In any given episode, the mood could switch quite rapidly from a goofy gag to a life-and-death situation. For me, serious moments are easier to take when they’re surrounded by humor. When I think of the really powerful episodes like “My Screw-Up” or “My Lunch” dealing with the guilt of suddenly losing a patient, I find it comforting to remember the funny stuff alongside the drama.

The main character and narrator of the voiceovers is J.D., who begins as an intern at Sacred Heart hospital. Much of the silliest humor is found in his tendency to engage in elaborate daydreams. Of course, the rest of the main cast has their own absurd quirks and foibles to keep us entertained. There is a certain self-reflective, wry quality to the show’s structure, like when the 100th episode, “My Way Home” reveals itself as a Wizard of Oz story, or “My Musical,” when a patient’s brain condition makes her think everyone is singing around her. Sometimes it’s broad comedy; sometimes it’s subtle. Both are good.

And with all the soap opera-type relationships, I’m rather fond of the couple who gets together near the start of the show and stays together through the entire run, from dating to marriage to becoming parents. Because Turk and Carla were always intended to be a couple, the show can explore what happens after the point when a lot of love stories end. They have a serious rough patch during their first year of marriage, and it’s treated as a real problem that needs to be worked at — but also as something that can be dealt with, if both partners are willing to put in the effort. I didn’t love everything about their dynamic, but I really appreciated the portrayal of a committed couple from the beginning onward.

The show ran for eight seasons, and it’s true that it started to lag a little by the end, as long-running shows unfortunately tend to do. But the finishing scene is one of the sweetest endings I’ve seen, with loads of nostalgia and optimism for the future. When a story can make me laugh or get teary-eyed in equal measure, I call it a good story.

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Great Stories: Big Fish

What is the difference between a charismatic storyteller and a delusional liar? That is the question that most intrigues me in the film Big Fish (directed by Tim Burton, with a screenplay by John August). The main character is Edward Bloom (Albert Finney), but it is his son Will (Billy Crudup) who undergoes the most significant journey throughout the movie. To everyone else, his father is a charming, larger-than-life entertainer whose autobiographical stories captivate his listeners. To Will, he’s a fraud who makes up tall tales about his own life and is too cowardly to confront reality.

Most of the film consists of flashbacks detailing the extraordinary adventures of a young Edward Bloom (played by an ever-smiling Ewan McGregor). He meets witches, giants, werewolves, and conjoined twins; he joins the circus, completes a daring wartime mission, and wins the love of his life in truly dramatic fashion. But in the present day, as Will returns to his childhood home to see his dying father, he asserts quite bitterly that none of those stories are true. He’s heard them all hundreds of times; he knows the idealized hero. But he doesn’t really know his father at all.

Why does Edward adhere to this fictitious version of his life? He has quite the knack for storytelling, and there’s nothing wrong with following that passion. But he takes it far beyond a little bit of embellishing. To put it bluntly, he lies. That’s certainly how Will sees it. And he resents his father for never truly opening up to his son and showing his genuine self. From Edward’s perspective, though, the version of himself in his stories is his truest self — the man who spins the mundane, the disappointing and the boring circumstances of life into pure gold. It makes reality a little easier to handle when you infuse it with magic and wonder.

(Just in case you haven’t seen the movie and would prefer not to be spoiled: I’m going to spoil the ending here.)

The harshest reality, of course, is that Edward Bloom is dying of cancer. He refuses to acknowledge this, insisting that he’s seen how he dies thanks to a witch’s vision, and this isn’t how he goes. On his very deathbed, Edward pleads with his son to tell him how it ends. And Will finally enters his fanciful world and crafts a tale worthy of his father’s skills. He breaks him out of the hospital, drives him to the river where all his old friends are gathered to celebrate, and carries him into the water where he becomes the Big Fish itself. None of this is real. Edward dies in his hospital bed. But he dies smiling.

For me, the ending is bittersweet. Will finds some measure of peace, and yet he may never fully understand his father, having always been kept at a distance by his stories. Edward is far from perfect. He spent a lot of time away from home as a traveling salesman. It’s possible he might have had an affair, though we’re left to guess what really happened. His courtship of his wife, however idealized, could be considered stalking. He’s probably just an average man in most regards. And maybe he’s afraid to admit that. Afraid to let anyone, most of all his son, catch a glimpse of his vulnerabilities and shortcomings. It’s not fair that Will was never offered that vulnerability.

But it’s also important that Will accepts the only way he can connect with his father while he still has a chance. It might not be ideal. It’s still better than watching his father die in stubborn, bitter anger. It’s the best he can hope for, so he embraces it.

I love stories. Obviously. They carry a power and a fascination that can be wielded to great effect. But I believe that stories shouldn’t be used to hide from reality or cover up truth. They should, instead, provide the tools to help us better understand and cope with reality, while illuminating truth. I’m not sure about Edward Bloom as a storyteller. But the makers of Big Fish create a masterful and moving story of fathers, sons and the contradiction of a truthful lie.

Great Stories: The Music Man

Stories about con men are rather common, perhaps because we like to imagine being clever and charming enough to fool a whole town of people, even though we know it’s morally questionable. The trick is whether to make the con man a likable character or not. If he is intended to be, you can usually expect that he’ll be changing his ways and turning respectable by the story’s end. This is a tricky balance to maintain, but The Music Man is one of those stories.

Harold Hill is a traveling salesman notorious for selling band instruments and uniforms with the promise that he’ll start up a band for the boys of the town, a promise he never keeps. Once the wares arrive and he gets his money, he skips town. Things change when he arrives at River City, Iowa. There is a piano teacher, Marian Paroo, who sees right through him and his fake musical expertise from the start. When he tries to romance her as a distraction, he ends up falling for her, as well as developing a special rapport with her shy little brother Winthrop.

While this basic plotline is predictable, watching it play out is quite entertaining. Much of its charm comes from the songs, brilliantly composed by Meredith Wilson. The opening number provides exposition in the form of a chorus of traveling salesmen on a train, grousing about how Hill is ruining things for honest salesmen, but also offers a rhythmic imitation of the train’s chugging wheels and hissing brakes. “Ya Got Trouble” showcases Hill’s hilariously effective use of rabble rousing to generate panic about the city’s youth, which then allows him to wax eloquent about marching bands in “Seventy-Six Trombones.” And there is nothing quite like the peculiar talk-singing patter of Robert Preston, who originated the role of Harold Hill.

But perhaps the reason I’m especially fond of this musical, for all its silliness, is what happens with Marian and her little brother. At the start of the play Winthrop is so embarrassed by his lisp that he hardly talks at all. Hill convinces him to try out the cornet, and gradually Winthrop comes out of his shell. Marian is on the verge of revealing that Hill is a fraud when her little brother eagerly sings in front of the whole town while waiting for the delivery of their band instruments. And she decides then and there to let it be. Because this man, con man or not, has just gotten her brother to talk. This is me taking it personally, but let me tell you, if someone could genuinely get my son to talk, I’d be willing to forgive a lot of fast-talking chicanery.

Well, Hill is a fraud and a phony. But when he can’t bring himself to leave this city he’s fallen in love with, when they demand that he prove his nonsensical “think system” of musical learning actually works, the band plays. And they’re terrible. Just awful. Of course they are. But their parents are brimming with pride regardless. The think system doesn’t teach any real musical skill. It’s just rose-colored glasses. Still it’s all the town needs to call Hill a hero. A change in perspective can be very powerful. Sometimes it’s almost like the real thing.

Great Stories: Anne of Green Gables

When Lucy Maude Montgomery first created the character of Anne Shirley, she could hardly have anticipated that the little orphan girl would become so popular, she would eventually publish seven sequels about her. Over a hundred years later, Anne is still beloved to countless readers, while the book has been adapted into numerous different mediums. There is something truly enduring about Anne’s legacy.

The simplest explanation is that reading about Anne makes us happy. She’s a cheerful, over-imaginative chatterbox, and her various hijinks — such as cracking her slate over a boy’s head for insulting her, or accidentally dying her hair green — keep us smiling and chuckling. But I think the appeal goes deeper than that. Anne is a survivor.

Some critics have claimed that Montgomery paints an unrealistic view of Anne’s world, that everything is too easy and fluffy and there’s not enough darkness. I would counter that Montgomery wasn’t delusional about the darkness in the world. She herself probably suffered from undiagnosed depression (it’s suspected that her cause of death was actually suicide), and you see glimpses of truly grim circumstances in Anne’s story. Her parents die while she’s still an infant, and she spends her early childhood living in one loveless home after another, until she is finally sent to a brother and sister, Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, by mistake. They wanted a boy to help on the farm. They didn’t want her.

But here’s where the hope begins to glimmer. Matthew, soft-spoken and timid, takes an immediate liking to Anne and convinces Marilla to let her stay. Marilla’s no-nonsense attitude clashes with Anne’s temperament from the very beginning, but she too begins to care for this strange little girl. In her loneliness, Anne has created a number of coping mechanisms, like an imaginary friend in the mirror, and a dream world where she has the poetic name of Cordelia and beautiful raven locks of hair. Somehow she has managed to keep her bleak childhood from breaking her. And once she finds a loving home, she truly thrives.

What’s interesting is that although Anne is the title character, and she does plenty of growing and maturing as the book covers the next five years of her life, Marilla Cuthbert is the one who changes the most dramatically. Anne’s presence truly transforms her, and by the end she is able to experience an outpouring of emotion that wasn’t possible in her sparse, lonely life before Anne.

Is Anne of Green Gables realistic? Bah. Who cares? It’s plausible within the world Montgomery created. It doesn’t matter to me if it’s presenting a hazy, idealized portrait of that era of history. I can read non-fiction books detailing the hard, cruel life of people in the late 1800s. Anne offers something different. It’s humor, it’s optimism, and it’s timeless.

Great Stories: Community

I’ll preface this entry by saying that this particular story is not for everyone. The TV show Community has a brand of humor that can be caustic, dark and downright bizarre. Its characters are deeply flawed and rarely heroic; its setting is a place where people go when they’ve failed to achieve the typical milestones of life. However, if those features aren’t too off-putting for you, there is plenty to enjoy in Community.

The show centers around a study group at the fictitious Greendale Community College. Each character has a rather depressing reason for attending school there, starting with ex-lawer Jeff Winger, who lost his job upon the discovery that he faked his college degree. But this isn’t a show about school, though classes do sometimes provide the context for plot or theme (and almost every episode is titled to sound like a course at a community college). Nor is it a show about a group of unexpected friends forming a family, at least not in a consistently heartwarming manner. It’s a show…about a show. It comments on itself, and on the conventions of television and storytelling, almost constantly.

Much of this meta-commentary comes in the form of Abed Nadir. He’s possibly autistic, though it’s never stated explicitly, and he relates to the world purely through the lens of TV and movies. In the very first episode, he tries to make sense of their study group meeting by comparing it to the film The Breakfast Club. From then on, pop culture references abound in every episode. Sometimes it’s just a quote or a brief nod, and sometimes the entire episode is a pastiche of another show or film. There’s “Contemporary American Poultry,” wherein the study group morphs into a sort of cafeteria-mafia in a spoof on Goodfellas. “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” is a hilarious and surprisingly touching send-up of claymation holiday specials. “A Fistful of Paintballs” parodies westerns, and “For a Few Paintballs More” shifts into a Star Wars tribute.

The quality of each episode varies, frequently influenced by behind-the-scenes factors. The showrunner, Dan Harmon, was fired after season three, then asked to return for season five. Most fans agree that season four was the weakest. After NBC cancelled it, the show managed to get a final sixth season with Yahoo Streaming, of all things. But by then several of the core cast had left the show for various reasons, and even the best episodes of seasons 5 and 6 couldn’t quite capture the original magic.

The good news is, Community isn’t particularly serialized. There are a few multi-episode arcs, but for the most part, you can enjoy each episode on its own. Even “Paradigms of Human Memory,” which has the appearance of a clip show, is actually a sly jab at that laziest of TV-writing tropes, because almost none of the flashback clips are from actual previous episodes. This is a show that’s almost too clever for its own good, deconstructing convention after cliché after convention…but then we see how those conventions and clichés are such a comfort to Abed, allowing him to make sense of a chaotic world, and we see that for all Community is poking fun, it’s doing so lovingly. Just…tough love.

I haven’t even scratched the surface of its wry, sardonic, funhouse-mirror view of pop culture and television. It’s probably for the best that Community ended when it did, before it completely collapsed under the weight of its own self-awareness. The finale was about as satisfying as you can expect from a show that regularly recoiled from comfortable, pat resolutions. But like any other fan, I’m still holding out hope for the fulfillment of Abed’s mantra: Six seasons and a movie!

Great Stories: Penelope

I’ve always loved a good love story. Good is the key word here, because I have no patience for romantic tales built upon eye-rolling contrivances, paper-thin plots or sloppy characterizations. Most of all, I’m wary of stories that romanticize behaviors that are toxic or dangerous, like the boy who aggressively pursues and even stalks a girl while the narrative frames it as sweet and swoon-worthy. I like romances that celebrate mutual respect, kindness and the ability to choose rather than being forced by “fate” or “destiny.”

So I like Penelope. It’s a essentially a fairy tale, with fanciful happenstances and a little bit of magic, but the female lead is granted far more autonomy than the prototypical princess-in-a-tower, and the romance is plenty swoon-worthy without leaving a sour taste in my mouth. The title character (played by Christina Ricci) is the victim of an old curse placed on a family of blue bloods, and thus born with the nose of a pig. Supposedly, the only way to break the curse is for “one of their own kind to claim her as their own.” So her parents keep her shut away from prying eyes and try to find a young man of the upper crust who is willing overlook her hideous appearance and marry her.

All of this is quite absurd to us in the audience, because Penelope could hardly be considered hideous by any reasonable standards. It seems an insane overreaction to lock her away and tell the outside world that she died as a baby. But such is the family’s obsession with maintaining appearances. Alongside its other features, this film offers a sly critique of the body image issues that mothers often pass along to their daughters, thanks largely to Catherine O’Hara’s well-honed skill at playing a terrifyingly overbearing parent.

But then we have the romance, which begins very promisingly as Penelope begins to connect with a potential suitor as she never has before. He seems different from the others, less snobby or judgmental. So she eventually ventures out from behind her two-way mirror and shows her face.

Then he tells her he can’t break the curse, and flees.

We find out later that he has a good reason for doing so, but for now we’re worried that this might break Penelope for good. Heartbreak is supposed to be followed by long, sad montages of staring out the window in the rain, right? Not this movie. Instead, Penelope finally decides she’s had enough of her cloistered life. She runs away — first hiding behind a scarf, and then with her face and identity revealed — and begins to experience life in all its fullness at last. I won’t give away every detail of the movie, but suffice it to say that Penelope doesn’t need to wait for anyone else to save her. And the resolution of the romance is satisfying without detracting from Penelope’s own growth and character arc.

Girls need stories that teach them that they can be their own heroes, that romance doesn’t have to overshadow the rest of their story, and that happy endings can be actively pursued rather than waiting and wishing. And those stories don’t have to be tedious and didactic. They can be fun, clever and hilarious. That’s what I like about Penelope.

Great Stories: Lord of the Rings

J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy trilogy has been a bestseller for over half a century, not to mention its boost in fame thanks to the blockbuster movie adaptations in the early 2000’s, so it might be easy to take its success for granted. But let’s consider how unlikely it really was.

Tolkien did not consider himself a novelist. Above all he was a professor, a scholar of literature and language. This field of study did lead to The Lord of the Rings, but only by  circuitous route. His passion for philology led him to create his own fanciful languages, and then, bit by bit, he began to build a world around those languages. It was a linguist’s hobby, and it might never have extended beyond that if he hadn’t idly scribbled the line “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit” on the back of a student’s paper he was correcting.

From that sentence came the idea for a race of people who much resembled Tolkien himself in many respects. Country gentlefolk, happiest and most comfortable in their snug homes with plenty of food and a pipe.  The Hobbit is a children’s story, both in tone and content. There are grumpy dwarves, squabbling trolls, scary spiders, talking dragons and a whimsical wizard. The threats are perilous but not too terrifying for the average young reader, the main character is conveniently unconscious during the big battle, and everything turns out happy in the end. In many ways, Tolkien was writing a lighthearted story for his own young sons.

The book was published in 1937 and gained instant popularity. But when the publishers requested a sequel, Tolkien offered instead some drafts of the Silmarillion, a massive cosmology and history of Middle-Earth that represented an ongoing development and expansion of the mythology surrounding his languages. Obviously that wasn’t what they wanted. They wanted more hobbits.

Tolkien began to work on a sequel, but it quickly become clear that this story was evolving into something very different from The Hobbit. The tone was darker, the stakes more serious, the scope far wider than a simple “there and back again” adventure. He even re-wrote the sequence introducing Gollum to make it more consistent with the role that character would play later in the story. Rather than willingly relinquishing the ring after Bilbo wins the riddle contest, he howls and rages and calls Bilbo a thief. However, trying to rewrite the entirety of The Hobbit to mesh with his new ideas would change its original flavor too much. So he left it at that and focused on the new story.

Fantasy for adults was an anomaly back then. Nowadays there are still elitists who consider any type of speculative fiction to be juvenile and silly escapism, and fantasy is usually the most looked-down upon, but it’s not a near-universal opinion by any means. However, when Tolkien was writing The Lord of the Rings, no one was likely to consider that there might be a significant market for fantasy aimed at adults. Because of the success of The Hobbit and some other light-hearted stories by Tolkien, the publishers were willing to take a chance. Even when he warned them that he wrote slowly. Very slowly. In between his full-time job at Oxford and other duties, very very slowly.

At last, The Lord of the Rings was published in three parts in 1954 and 1955. Initial reviews were not all favorable, but this did not impede its popularity in the least. People of all sorts of ages and backgrounds embraced it. Most intriguing, perhaps, was the inclination to assign allegorical meanings to the story, varying according to one’s personal agendas. It was about World War I. No, it was about World War II. No, it was about the Bomb! Or pacifism. Or environmentalism. Tolkien himself hated allegory and insisted that he never intended a direct correlation between elements of the books and any real-world event or concept. There are symbols, yes, but those symbols can be interpreted an almost infinite number of ways. Allegory is limited. Pure fantasy is not.

The story itself is a sprawling tale of good versus evil, of unexpected heroes and terrifying perils. Frodo, nephew to Bilbo, finds himself in possession of Bilbo’s magic ring only to learn from the wizard Gandalf that the ring is far more powerful, and far more dangerous, than he ever imagined. The fate of Middle-Earth itself depends upon the destruction of the ring, but that can only be accomplished by returning the ring to the fires in which it was forged, deep in the stronghold of the evil Sauron, the ring’s original maker. With his loyal hobbit friends and a handful of others, Frodo travels to Mount Doom, struggling more and more to fight off the ring’s dire influence the longer he bears it. There are epic battles, devastating losses, shocking betrayals and wondrous unexpected victories. And if the main text of the three books isn’t enough for you, there’s plenty of supplemental material in the appendices. Tolkien wrote slow, but he wrote plenty.

The influence of Tolkien’s work upon the realm of fantasy fiction cannot be overstated. You might say that he created an entire new genre. He certainly opened the door for countless other writers, as the genre of adult fantasy is a now a rich and vibrant part of the publishing world. Even if a writer deliberately sets out to subvert all the conventions first established in The Lord of the Rings, they are still writing in response to Tolkien. It’s easy to find the flaws in his work, to note the meager number of female characters or the fact that evil often seems to be based on race rather than choice, but that does not erase the genius of his creation. However we might seek to improve the conventions of the genre — and we should; we absolutely should! — it’s always illuminating to examine the roots of the modern fantasy epic. And those roots grow very deep in Middle Earth.