Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Basic Cable

For an evening spent vegging out watching broadcast TV, yesterday evening was pretty good. Three shows in a row touched me for different reasons.

My kids like Nanny 911--my four-year-old says we need the Nannies to come to our house: "I'm out of control!" Try harder, kid. I normally just tolerate the show. But last night, instead of the usual spoiled-rotten kids and insipid parents, they featured a couple who (I think I have the numbers right) have adopted 32 children. Nine have grown up and moved away, leaving 23 boys living in this house. Some of the kids have been adopted from abroad, where they faced neglect or abuse in nightmarish orphanages. Some of the kids are disabled, with problems ranging from ADHD to cerebral palsy. What's more, the dad himself is disabled (wheelchair-bound), so the mother is an absolute workhorse. The whole nanny squad goes to the house, not to correct the boys' behavior but just to give this mother a few days' break.

They were plucking the heartstrings for all they were worth: handicapped kids and refugee kids, making a mural for their mother, writing and performing a song for their nannies... Did I get choked up? What, am I made of stone? Let's just say something got in my eye. My wife was out of the house--if she'd been watching she'd have been a puddle. One mitigating element in the schmaltzfest was contemplating what kind of person adopts dozens of children. On some levels, this mother was pathological--it damn near took a whip and a chair to get her to leave the house, and in a creepy way she seemed to enjoy the rest of the family being dependent on her. In the end, though, I see that household teeming with life--lots of chaos and some frustration, sure, but plenty of happiness. And it's easy to imagine those boys in bleak and isolated situations if not for that half-crazy mother. And when the Nannies are at their breaking point but the teenager with cerebral palsy steps up to his Big Brother role... something got in my eye.

(Next week Nanny 911 will feature a household where the kids are acting out after the death of their father. I wonder if the charm of run-of-the-mill bratty kids has been exhausted, and now the show is going for kids who due to melodramatic circumstances are bratty-for-a-reason. Some of the air must be coming out of the reality TV balloon. The home-makeover shows seem to be making a similar move: nowadays only people who've been struck by tragedy are eligible.)

Then my kids went to bed, and I switched over to public TV, where the American Experience had an hour-long doc about the Carter Family. I knew the broad outlines of their story, but really want to read and learn more now. It's just heart-rending, the clash between the magic the Carters had together as a musical group, and the marital discord, eventually rupture, between A.P. and Sara Carter. They made world-changing music against a background of profound unhappiness. A.P. was the engine of ambition that drove them; he was combing the mountains for new songs, drumming up record dates, etc. Sara, the possessor of a one-in-a-million singing voice, really got no satisfaction from public performance, and would have preferred to stay home on Clinch Mountain. She did it for the money, and out of a sense of duty, until she couldn't stand to do it any longer. The program really brought the Carters to life, and showed them as rural but modern people grappling with momentous changes, in history and in their own lives, in a courageous way.

After that, a re-run of a Johnny Cash retrospective interspersing TV clips of Johnny's performances with commentary from people who knew him: some contemporaries of Johnny's, some younger followers like Rodney Crowell and Marty Stuart. God, do I love Johnny Cash. The show contains a late-50s Cash performance of "Big River" that's just indelible, and Marty Stuart has a great spoken-word essay about it, where he classes Johnny with Hank Williams: singers with whom we can "hear every cigarette in their voice." The performances of "Man in Black" and "A Boy Named Sue" (Johnny bellows at the camera, "Now you're gon' die"--I've seen it before and I still almost wet my pants) have got to be some of the most spine-tingling minutes in television history.

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