Sesame Street, Elmo, and Kevin Clash

Over the past few weeks, a mini-drama has been growing over Kevin Clash, who voices Elmo, the little red Sesame Street monster.

First there was a man who claimed that Clash had relations with him while he was under 18; then he recanted his claim. Since then, however, two other men have come forward with the same story.

Oh dear.

I love Sesame Street, and the Muppets. During this past Presidential election, Mitt Romney said he was ready to end funding of PBS and CTW, the homeland of Sesame Street, and there was a backlash: people claimed (very fairly) that Mitt Romney wanted to kill Big Bird, inspiring images like this:

Well, Obama won the election.

And now it turns out that the voice of Elmo is a child molester.

Awful? Of course. But oddly timed. I can’t help wondering if this is Republican reprisal for the election, to weaken PBS as a whole. I wonder if they’ve been digging for dirt on PBS, and finally found some.

Clash, if guilty, should be punished. But PBS should not be punished.

The mission of PBS is to make America a little smarter. It made me smarter, back in the 1970s. As for expense: they (together with NPR) receive one one-hundredth of one percent of the Federal budget, for God’s sake!

If we have to jettison Kevin Clash, fine.

But let’s not jettison PBS.

Let your representatives and senators know how you feel about this.



Public television, when I was a kid in the 1960s, was a weak and watery thing.  It was the fifth and feeblest of the stations broadcasting where I lived (the others were the three major networks and a local independent station that mostly showed old movies and reruns).  PBS (in Portland: KOAP / Channel 10) was always full of static, and often faded in and out.  My mother didn’t like it when I watched it; she was afraid that the static actually harmed the TV set.  (People – especially my mother – believed lots of crazy things in those days.)



I was a nerdy child, and I was fascinated by the bizarre variety of shows on Channel 10: cooking shows, language shows (I remember “Beginning Finnish”), college lectures. (Frankly, I got some part of my education, and my intellectual curiousity, from Channel 10, and god bless them for it.)



Something happened in the late 1960s.  “Sesame Street.”  “Masterpiece Theatre.”  All of a sudden, people were watching public TV, and talking about it.



It’s a pillar of the temple nowadays: news programs, science, commentary, foreign programming, odd programming.  Who else would have broadcast an entire series of Peter Brook’s “Mahabharata”?  Who else would show an animated version of the “Popol Vuh”?



Cable has taken away some of PBS’s uniqueness, but PBS is still free, still broadcasting away.



And the Republicans have always hated it, and want to take away its federal funding.



Kids: tell the Republicans to go to hell. Vote Democrat, and give to PBS.



Downton Abbey


I have strenuously avoided writing about “Downton Abbey” before now.  Like many others, I learned about the show after it had begun, and Partner and I started late, but we directly fell under its spell.  We finished watching the second season the other night, and – whew!  Affairs, murder, sudden death, imprisonment, scandal, the Great War, Spanish influenza, amnesia!  I need to lie on my chaise longue for a few moments so that I can catch my breath!



Seriously, the show’s terrific.  It has everything: a beautiful setting (Downton Abbey is actually Highclere Castle in Hampshire, one of those unbelievably beautiful English country homes that seem only to exist in dreams), a brilliant cast combining fresh faces like Michelle Dockery and Dan Stevens with familiar ones like Maggie Smith and Elizabeth McGovern, and brilliant writing by Julian Fellowes (who also wrote “Gosford Park”).   It’s a pleasure to hear a witty line of dialogue delivered by someone like Maggie Smith, wearing perfect 1920s couture, in a beautiful room full of beautiful furniture.



I was alive way back in 1971, when “Upstairs Downstairs” debuted on American TV.  It covered much of the same ground as “Downton,” and we were mesmerized by it as well: the serene Bellamy family upstairs, the turbulent servants’ quarters downstairs.  It even used a lot of the same plotlines (or is it the other way around?): relationships between the gentry and the servants, the Titanic, the Great War . . .



Oh, who cares?  (Well, maybe Jean Marsh cares.  She worked for a long time to bring about a new version of “Upstairs Downstairs,” which came out at almost exactly the same time as “Downton Abbey.”  “Downton” blew her show away.  She was publicly bitter about this, and I don’t blame her; it must have been a great blow.)  But, you see, “Downton” has such spectacular production values: the scenery, the sets, the cast.  And no one except dinosaurs like me remembers “Upstairs, Downstairs.”



This is not to say that “Downton” is perfect.  There was, in the second season, a perfectly ridiculous plot concerning amnesia, which reminded me of something out of “Guiding Light” or “Days of our Lives.”  It only lasted a single episode, thank god, but it was pretty ridiculous.  Also there have been some less-than-satisfactory character shifts; the precise and efficient Cousin Isabel (Penelope Wilton), who was such a perfect antagonist for the stuffy Lady Violet (Maggie Smith) in the first season, became insufferable in the second season.   (And, speaking personally, I could have lived perfectly happily without seeing Bates (Brendan Coyle) and Anna (Joanne Froggatt) in bed together after their wedding; they’re perfectly nice people, and I’m all for them, but they’re a little on the pale and pudgy side when they’re unclothed.)



New York magazine did the most beautiful set of paper dolls of some of the characters recently.  Their readers howled for more: they want the whole cast, the house, the car, the dog!



I think that would be just fine.



(I hear, in season three, we’re going to meet the American grandmother of the family, Lady Cora’s mother, Martha Levinson, played by Shirley Maclaine.)



(Levinson? Jewish? Lady Cora’s Jewish? Oh my.  It will be difficult to wait this one out. Lady Violet will have a fit.)



In the meantime: if you haven’t seen the show, seek it out.  You are in for a treat.



Tell them Mr. Pamuk sent you.



“We don’t have a TV”


I was talking to a new guy in the office the other day. I said: “Do you watch ‘The Simpsons’?”  And he said: “Oh, we don’t have a TV.”



I swear, it’s like saying “We don’t have electricity,” or “We haven’t put in one of those newfangled flush toilets yet.”



It happens at least a couple of times a year: someone telling me that he/she doesn’t have a TV, or that he/she doesn’t watch TV at all.  (At least this guy hedged and admitted that his family had Internet access, which means that Hulu and all kinds of other things are probably already polluting his kids’ minds.)



But I still feel that I’m been judged and found wanting.



I feel like someone in ancient Rome asking my neighbor if he’s going to the big Bacchus thing next week, and he says gravely: “Oh no.  We believe in Jesus now.” 



Don’t you just want to take that Christian neighbor to that Bacchus thing and offer him up as a sacrifice?



Well, hm, no one is pure these days, there’s that consolation.  This guy admitted that his kids probably watch TV on their computers.  A few years ago, a TV-hating friend of mine finally bought a TV, but only watched VCR movies (which she got from the local public library) on it.  I can tell you that, by now, she has certainly moved on, and I’m sure she’s watching “The Good Wife” as I’m writing this.



“Television,” after all, is no longer a discrete medium.  It’s just a delivery system, like a syringe.  You can absorb the sweet poison of your choice – “The Good Wife,” “NCIS,” “Jersey Shore,” “Bad Girls” – in so many other ways: mobile, laptop, tablet.



Televison sets seem so inert now.  You have to hook things up to them to make them interesting: a cable box at least, a Roku unit, a Wii, an Xbox, a DVR.  Otherwise, you (with your rabbit ears and digital converter box) will be stuck with four fuzzy local broadcast channels, just like when I was a kid.  (Well, we had five – the three networks, a Portland independent station, and PBS – but the PBS station had lots of static, and my mother was convinced that static ruined the TV set, so I could only watch it when she wasn’t paying attention.)



TV haters: come out of the closet!



We know you’re watching something!



Just admit it!



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