Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Adams v. Steadman

Back Then - Chris Assaad (mp3)
My Old Ghosts - The Wooden Sky (mp3)
Michael + Hope's New Baby - Stewart Levin (mp3)

Halfway through watching the first season of thirtysomething on DVD, I stopped and watched John Adams, the HBO miniseries starring Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney. You wouldn't think these two shows, divided by a river of 20 years in production terms and an ocean of 200 years in their setting, have much in common.

And guess what? They don't!

But I'm in one of those places in my life where I'm frequently mulling over what it means to be a man, what it means to be me, what I should and do and can expect and demand from myself, and both of these shows have spoken to that Judge Wapner presiding over my day-to-day life.

On the one hand you have thirtysomething's Michael Steadman and Elliott Weston, two men struggling to make a career that sufficiently -- or more than sufficiently, if they had their 'druthers -- provides for their families while also fighting the tide of domestic minutiae. On the other you have John Adams, a man struggling to make a career for his family... but whose life is possessed by such an undeniable and overwhelming call to responsibility that his family has no choice but to take a backseat.

thirtysomething has Hope Steadman, the woman of my late adolescent dreams, crying every episode about whether her daughter has been weaned from her breast, whether her daughter is ready for a babysitter or full-time nanny so she can return to work, whether her bestest pal Ellyn hates her... and so forth. John Adams has Abigail Adams, all but raising and educating her children and running a small farm single-handed, who sits and watches her entire family struggle to survive smallpox. (And Laura Linney is a truly mesmerizing actress.)

An early episode of the 1987 show shows Michael and Elliott painfully working up the gumption to fire their incompetent secretary and proving incapable of doing so. The 2007 miniseries shows Boston radicals led by Samuel Adams tarring and feathering a man and riding him out of town on a rail. All of it literal and nauseating to watch.

Although the former show is fiction while the latter is based -- albeit imperfectly and with artistic flair* -- on fact, both are very much based in a pseudo-reality that speak many truths about the culture and time in which they're set. Modern parenting is very much about being hyperparanoid and smothering, about the right kinds of diapers and the tough decisions of childcare. 18th-Century parenting is very much about keeping the kids alive and capable of helping out around the house and farm. And, if your husband asks you to join him in France for a few years, and if your kids are over 7 or 8 years old, you join him and leave the kids in the hands of caretakers without batting an eye and without remotely worrying about what the neighbors might think the next time they're out at the neighborhood block party.

The miniseries confronts this very different parenting style from a very different time honestly, I thought, and it was refreshing to watch loving parents deal with their responsibilities in ways that would be alien to most of us today.

Beyond the parenting aspect, though, I found it almost impossible to watch Paul Giamatti's brilliant portrayal without the feeling that so many of us settle for something less than greatness. Could be because the right opportunity doesn't catch us at the right time and in the right place. Or it could be because we ignore it. Or it could be that we're afraid of it when it knocks. I'm not even sure any of those possibilities are true with me, but anytime you watch someone and admire their courage and their brilliance, how can you help but envy them just a little?

And where once I would have been ashamed at this kind of envy, I lately find myself thinking it's not unhealthy to admire and envy certain folks, so long as it's not a seething, gnawing jealousy. And it's not, in the case of me and John Adams, anymore than it ever was between me and that whiny sniveling snuggle-bunny Michael Steadman. Just 'cuz he had a cool-seeming job and the most adorablest wife everrrest.

What tied these shows together was that most dangerous of games we play in modern America, the "What Would __INSERT PERSON HERE__ Think?" game. What would John Adams think of thirtysomething? I remember this quote from the miniseries, cribbed from something Adams actually said or wrote:
“I must study politics and war, that my sons may have the liberty to study mathematics and philosophy, natural history and naval architecture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, tapestry, and porcelain.”
John Adams can rest assured that the risks he took and the sacrifices he made indeed allowed for this goal to be met, and met with flying friggin' colors. Yet you can't help but wonder if Adams would see a man like Michael Steadman, someone who can get inconsolably stressed out when his infant son flies into a temper tantrum, someone who works for a friggin' ad agency, and wonder if that's really what he'd dreamt of when they fought for the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

* -- In fact, I'm pretty sure when John Adams, in the months leading up to his demise, berates and insults Trumbull and his Declaration of Independence painting for taking disgusting liberties with what was genuinely amazing moment in our history, it is the miniseries' way of attempting to suggest that even Paul Giamatti and company are undoubtedly spitting on the reality of history even if their intent is to honor it.

Chris Asaad and The Wooden Sky were both made available thanks to generous promoters of impressive up-and-coming musicians. Please consider checking out these artists and either seeing them in concert if they come your way or forking over a few bucks for their music.


BeckEye said...

Okay, this has nothing to do with your post, but someone once dubbed me the Queen of Tangents, so I'll live up to that name.

This is so odd. I mentioned Charles S. Dutton the other day and I don't think I've ever mentioned him in my life, and then he popped up today on someone's blog. Then, I saw Peter Horton in Chelsea the other day and, in trying to describe who he was to someone else, I said he was on thirtysomething, a show I've never watched and probably haven't thought of in years. And here it is mentioned on your blog. That collective unconscious is a crazy thing.

Oh, and then my roommates rented Children of the Corn over the weekend, not realizing that Peter Horton was in it.

Billy said...

Ooohhh Children of the Corn!! I watched that thing all the time in my precious middle school years when my parents were foolish enough to permit cable TV in my room... Who knew Peter's costar would end up kicking ass in the Terminator movies? (Until she divorced Cameron, that is.)

As for Dutton, there was this really cool stretch where large bald black men rocked the house. You had Dutton, and that dude Eugene from The Practice, and the scary gangster dude from The Shield who later got replaced by the not-quite-bald Forrest Whitaker... you see, I'm not afraid to go down the non sequitur rabbit hole with you!

troutking said...

One more cool bald black man of the early-mid 90s---Avery Brooks of Spenser for Hire and one of those Star Trek shows.

Hank said...

Also, Michael Jordan

Daisy said...

I really have a hard time with anyone other than William Daniels being John Adams. Oh, yeah and he should be singing and dancing.

Anonymous said...

that's not sulu--it's chekov

jed said...

please don't mull over what it means to be a man while watching thirtysomething; i did that in college and it nearly ruined me. john adams helped build a country; thirtysomething helped destoy it.

The Kentuckian said...

One of the reasons I named my second daughter Emma was because of Peter Horton's daughter "Emma" on thirtysomething.