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Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Gortimer Gibbon's Life on Normal Street

            Amidst all the pomp and circumstance that has surrounded recent streaming hits like Stranger Things, Luke Cage, Daredevil, and Black Mirrorr, most of you probably missed a small little production that aired via Amazon Kids over the past year and a half, called Gortimer Gibbon's Life on Normal Street

            Spanning a mere 39 episodes over two seasons (the final half of season 2 was released on July 15, 2016), it tells the story of a trio of friends- Gortimer, Mel, and Ranger- who live in an outwardly Hallmark-esque place called Normal Street.  But its outward semblance of, well, “normalcy” is belied by a seemingly limitless supply of magical occurrences that our characters encounter in each episode. 

            Magic, sorcery, fantasy, sci-fi- there’s no one word that captures them all, as they’re pretty wide-ranging.  Some of these things are objects, like a deck of wish-granting playing cards, a cursed coffee mug, or a pencil that can literally erase your memories.  There are ghost stories and spirits, legends come to life, and physical transformations.  And then there’s the outright futuristic; episodes featuring cloning, time travel, cross-overs between television and reality, and people getting trapped in pocket dimensions

            On the surface, then, it appears to be a fairly random charm-of-the-week tale of white-bread, free-spirited kids having adventures that invariably end in the status quo restored.  If the show had simply stuck to that premise- cute coming-of-age stories with a smattering of the fantastical- it would have been a solid enough children’s television show.  Fun, good lessons for kids, definitely charming, but maybe a bit too childish or harmless to be really memorable. 

            Dig a bit deeper though, and it eventually reveals itself to have tremendous thematic and emotional depth that only slowly becomes apparent.  The catch is that each of the magical happenings almost always reflects some sort of real-life challenge or growing-up obstacle that a character faces and has to overcome.  This allows each episode to take what is, in the end, a complex, inward emotional or mental journey and making it explicitly physical- in one episode, Ranger’s internalizing of worries about his parents and the cares of others (“taking their burdens on his shoulders”) causes him to physically gain mass and gravitational pull until he can learn to let go.  One characters’ anguish about a problem results in actual earthquakes that threaten the entire town.  Another character’s sense of shyness and loneliness manifests in her being literally invisible to her classmates.   

            Most of the episodes have some form of brilliant conceit like this- a basic life lesson needs to be learned, or a more complicated issue related to growing up comes along, and the character most affected finds or discovers something fantastical that externalizes it, or that provides a conduit for handling a problem that character may have been trying to avoid. 

            Bit by bit, episode by episode, Gortimer Gibbon's Life on Normal Street reveals itself to be a far more complex, and adult, show about the simple fact of growing up, and all of the joys and aches and pains and awkwardness that that entails. 

            And as all of us in adulthood know, such changes don’t always end as we want them to.  To its greater benefit, the show doesn’t shy away from much of the uncertain melancholy that accompanies a lot of life’s big changes.  No one would have blamed or questioned the show’s writers for playing things safe, but boy, do they not- the second half of the series goes to some genuinely dark places, considerably raising the emotional stakes at various points for each of the main characters.  The fact that some really jarring emotional gear changes never derail a show that remains determinedly kid-friendly to the end is a bit of a miracle.   

            The show very much exists on its own wavelength, defying any sort of genre categorization I could throw at it.  There never seems to be much effort to create a timeline between the episodes.  The weather is nearly always impeccably sunny (except when otherwise for plot-driven reasons), and the kids seem to have plenty of days where they don’t have anything to do, so what difference there is between summer or holidays and schooltime, and when and how the seasons change, is never very clear.  Time appears to move quite strangely in Normal Street.  Perhaps we’re hearing all these tales via Gortimer’s memory as an adult, where the glow of nostalgia even changes what he recalls the weather being.  But that’s nothing more than pure conjecture on my part. 

            For all its clever ideas and solid writing, what anchors the show and allows it to soar to real greatness, especially in its final season, is the acting.  Sloane Morgan Siegel (Gortimer), Ashley Boettcher (Mel), and Drew Justice (Ranger) are perfectly cast, with the sort of balanced dynamic between them that even experienced adult actors are hard-pressed to create.  Their friendship, and their deep, abiding love for each other, is so superbly realized that it seems not just effortless, but natural; of COURSE these three found their way to each other.  Of COURSE they instantly became the best of friends.  It couldn’t have happened any other way.    

            By the time the show’s perfectly-constructed end rolls around- one of the most thoroughly satisfying endings to a children’s show since Danny Phantom, or Avatar: The Last Airbender- I felt like I had known these three my whole life.  That their childhood was my own, and that their love was mine as well.  I feel like I had this childhood too.  I wish I had had this childhood too.  Only the best stories achieve that sort of immersion, and from start to finish, Gortimer Gibbon’s Life on Normal Street has some of the finest storytelling to offer we’ve had in years.  

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Now More Than Ever: Meryl Streep, Donald Trump, and Politics in Art

            This past Sunday, during the annual Golden Globes, Meryl Streep got up to accept a lifetime achievement award, and used the occasion to deliver a (by Hollywood standards) strong rebuke to President-elect Donald Trump, and the darker parts of human nature his rise represents. 

            Donald Trump, surprise surprise, was not a fan, and immediately tweeted out his anger (throwing in a few more pathetically transparent lies for good measure), and many of his supporters did not hesitate to proclaim Streep’s words as “the reason Trump won.”  That the reactionary conservatives would respond in this manner should shock no one.  But it was- well, if not surprising, certainly disheartening- to see some progressives criticizing Streep as well, saying something similar to what Meryl’s fellow Hollywooder Mark Wahlberg said just over a month ago- that celebrities should just shut up about politics, that a goofy awards ceremony for overblown Oscar bait isn’t the place for it, that people just don’t want to hear it anymore, and that any effort on the part of a celebrity figure to do otherwise merely reinforces the terrible liberal bubble we coastal folks are apparently perpetually consigned to. 

            And those reactions, right there, are precisely why Meryl Streep’s speech wasn’t just important, but necessary. 

            Meryl prefaced her remarks by listing just a few of the very wide backgrounds of people sitting in that room.  Yes, they are certainly an elite and privileged group living in a particular area, but they are drawn from all over the world, and the hodge-podge of perspectives that form each of them is crucial to the creation of great art, which is, in turn, essential for the well-being of the human soul. 

            Yes, we all have our bubbles.  Everyone lives in a bubble, because everyone has limits, biases, flaws in their perception of reality.  But not all bubbles are created equal.  Some bubbles are bigger than others, some more porous and open.  The idea that some bubbles, or fields, like the arts, should automatically be politics-free zones is absurd, because that’s simply not the reality we live in.  Politics is everywhere, and everything, because it reflects all of the society that it comes from, warts and all.  It was always everywhere. 

            This is the part where I would be expected to write something like, “but before Trump, it was harmless to pretend otherwise, and now that’s all changed,” or something of that nature.  But that would be a lie.  Because our collective acceptance to simply ignore some things, and assume politics occupies some mystical realm separated from the rest of daily life, was never harmless.  It is passive acceptance of “things as they are” that has always allowed the greatest evil, and the greatest discrimination, to flourish, thrive, and grow.  But while that would have continued to be true whether or not Donald Trump had won the Presidential election, his rise will certainly make it worse.  The potential for harm-through-apathy, already present throughout human history, is about to increase to particularly acute levels, and the last thing we can afford in times like these is silence. 

            Meryl Streep’s words were crucial and important and needed not in spite of the fact that she said them during a gilded awards ceremony dedicated to film and television, but precisely because that’s where she said them.  It was necessary in the same way that Beyonce’s daring, powerful, and jaw-droppingly awesome Super Bowl halftime show, replete with lyrics explicitly about female (especially black female) empowerment and a dancing troupe marching onto the field in an ‘X’ formation wearing Black Panther garb was necessary- not in spite of the fact that it was the friggin’ Super Bowl, but because IT WAS THE FRIGGIN’ SUPER BOWL, meaning a lot of complacent people were guaranteed to be watching. 

            It is at the moments when we most desire to sink into passive complacency, when we are most relaxed, or most distracted by whether that forward tackle will get his act together or whether Sarah Jessica Parker has the tackiest dress of the night, that we most fervently need something to shake us from our reverie, to shock us, wake us up, and remind us that, yes, there is still a great amount of injustice in the world, and it must be fought, tooth, nail, and claw. 

            Meryl spoke of the importance of the free press in holding power accountable, just days before our President-elect literally shouted down a journalist from an accredited news outlet, refusing to take a question because he just didn’t like them.  If that doesn’t demonstrate how essential her speech was, I truly don’t know what to say to you. 

            It was also a call to empathy, at a time when the harshest, meanest, and cruelest instincts in human nature are being empowered and unleashed in ways we have been unable, so far, to check, simply because we never thought we would have to.  Watch the confirmation hearings for Jeff Sessions, and see how wholly unable he and Lindsay Graham are unable to empathize with those who would label many of their actions and stances racist, to get a feel for why something that should be so apparent must be stated and reaffirmed time and again. 

            If a single viewer that night was moved enough by Meryl’s words to act, to get up and MOVE, to march, run for office, buy a newspaper subscription, and work in some fashion to make the work a more empathetic place, then her taking the time and vocal strength to say what she did was more than worth it.  Politics and the arts have never, ever been separate in our world, and they never will be. 

            Because art can inspire and ignite many of our best angels, and can be a catalyst for change unlike little else, now more than ever we need our art and our artists to use their tools, talents, and positions, no matter how low or high, to raise up the best of us and aid us in the battles to come.  Now, more than ever, we cannot afford silence, and cannot risk complacency. 

-Noah Franc