Ed Note: I have a backup of blogs on Ben Vereen at 54 Below, the end of Luigi Jazz Dance Intensive and the traditional galavanting of Victorian Chick in the city but will leave those for the weekend at the Cape.
I. Prelude: Paradise Lost, Autobiographical/Self-Reflexive Criticism, and Soap Operas
I have a Facebook friend in his early 60s who has, because of me, taken a Yale online Milton course with my very own professor, John Rogers. He has become a regular correspondent on IM or PM and while he read a lot over the course of his life, poetry had not been part of his reading experience. I was astonished by the speed with which he tore through–and digested–arguably the greatest non-lyric poem in the English language. My paper for Professor Rogers was one of my grad school writing samples: “‘Be Lowly Wise’: Digestion and Knowledge in Paradise Lost, Book VIII.”
I may have the subtitle slightly off as I remember mentioning Milton’s theodicy somewhere in the title. The very notion of what constitutes proper human knowledge is of course at the heart of the Tree of Knowledge narrative in Genesis and Milton’s particular conception of this epistemological as well as ethical problem is crucial in my view to understanding the poem. The title itself comes from Raphael’s speech to Adam, to which digestion is crucial.
Even in college, long before I studied Kantian aesthetics, post-structuralism or deconstruction, I had an intuitively self-reflexive and Wordsworthian notion of “taking myself,” as Geoffrey Hartman put it his 1988 The Unremarkable Wordsworth, as “ontological starting point.” People really don’t know a thing about any of these concepts, particularly deconstruction, and assume Yale undergraduates were somehow brainwashed with Derrida.
I never read Derrida–Of Grammatology–until my first year of graduate school at UCSB. English majors at Yale in my day took little to no theory. You had to go out of your way to find it. Literature (or “lit”) and comparative literature majors were fed a steady diet of theory but anyone who knows about Yale’s English department knows that no theory was required and the only way you got any Paul de Man or Geoffrey Hartman was indirectly, through courses on Romanticism. So my senior seminar with Paul Fry–”Wordsworth’s Critical Reception”–exposed me for the first time to the bewildering and dazzling world of Paul de Man and Geoffrey Hartman (though Hartman is far more accessible).
However, the emphasis on close reading and the formal features of texts found in New Criticism and deconstruction alike, as different as these approaches are, was unquestionably central to Yale’s English training of undergraduates. I love(d) close reading and my intuitive critical tendency was a combination of very close textual work (including prosodic analysis) and exploration of fundamental philosophical problems, usually related to knowledge, mind, consciousness and truth. The status of women, the dynamics of patronage, or the problem of race never interested me as objects of study, though of course there is much to be said about gender in some periods and genres. I always wanted to take up the big questions of genre, literariness, and meaning. (Maybe this is why, a size two with a rock hard body, I never dated at Yale.)
During my psychoanalysis in 1991, I began to experience for the first time in my life digestive problems. I always, long before Yale, construed literature primarily in epistemological and ethical terms rather than socio-political or historical ones, so the topic of digestion–which Professor Rogers had highlighted in a lecture based on ideas which appeared a year later in his tremendous (and award-winning) book, The Matter of Revolution: Science, Politics, Poetry in the Age of Milton–instantly appealed to me.
It has been an unexpected blessing to influence someone to undertake a serious study of British canonical poets–Milton and Wordsworth–and my friend is now moving on to Langdon Hammer’s course on modern poetry. I never took a course devoted exclusively to 20th-century poetry and intend to begin the course when I return to California. Sadly, Facebook can resemble an episode of Mob Wives, with all the cattiness and stupidity of fights between women with too much time on their hands and too many holes in their lives. Actually, such fabricated and inane drama can join the idiocy of the Housewives franchise with the deadliness of Mob Wives, in which people actually do get hurt, if only when Drita D’Avanzo (see below) loses her temper and decks a woman such that she must go in an ambulance to the ER for stitches or a splint.
After seeing me hurl the most intense invective of which I am capable at the Kardashians (not pretty except for Kim and only from the neck up, not smart, not educated, not talented, not articulate, not interesting, not classy etc) and the wildly successful Housewives franchise, my friend was shocked.
The man wrote me privately that in the final lecture on Paradise Regained, John said that he had been a fan of soaps: “First Professor Rogers admits he was a fan of soaps and now you like Mob Wives? Does this mean I can start to watch, and like, Jersey Shore?” “No! No! No!” was my curt and passionate rejoinder.
A (usually past) love of soaps is not uncommon among English professors, for a reason obvious to me but apparently not to all: soaps foster a love of narrative. Of course the quality of a show which airs five hours per week cannot approach that of a show which airs just one hour (or a half-hour in the case of a comedy). It is simply impossible to generate enough original material and execute it at the level possible when all the best actors, producers, and directors are devoting 16 hours a day to perfect a single hour of product. The award system for TV, the Emmys, recognizes that daytime and nighttime simply are different animals and honors their achievements separately.
That said, James Lipton, whose Inside the Actor’s Studio has been, with Charlie Rose, the best single window into the work of actors, directors and writers for at least 15 years, consistently praises soaps as the best post-school training there is. Partly it’s the discipline of internalizing that quantity of dialogue and the experience of having that many hours of performance under your belt in so short a time. Meg Ryan, Demi Moore and countless others got their start on soaps.
Like John and my 18th C professor at UCLA in 1992, Jayne Lewis, I loved soaps and have blogged about their formative influence on my life in my late elementary school years. I used to cut out the weekly blurbs in the LA Times during the school year, particularly in September and October when I was having soap withdrawals, and collect them into a notebook. I subscribed to Daytimers and hungrily read about the personal lives of my favorite stars.
My first year at sleep-away camp in the summer after 3rd grade, I was horribly homesick the first few days. I wrote a (now) very funny letter to my parents I shared on FB, with a picture of giant teardrops falling from my face. I said on the one hand that I was “DESPERATE” and on the other, than sometimes camp is “soooo much fun and others just terrible.” And then matter-of-factly, “I also miss my soaps.” My parting note: “Please try to come visit me and we can talk about this.”
So around 2AM Wednesday morning, I awoke from a miserable nightmare and found the internet still down. I couldn’t read or fall back asleep so I flipped on the TV in the apartment which I almost never do since my friend has only basic expanded cable, not HBO or Showtime. A season 2 episode of Grey’s Anatomy was almost over and I was so disappointed there was not another one right after it. GA remains one of my favorite TV shows of all time, up there with NYPD Blue, thirtysomething, Gilmore Girls and Rescue Me and still, I have yet to finish Season 6 which J transferred to the Macbook from the Netbook six months ago!
Thus, when I reported I watched four straight episodes of Mob Wives and found it oddly engaging, I was not surprised by my friend’s response. Let me be clear: I’m not claiming Mob Wives is great television, much less high art. Very little TV rises to the level of art (as opposed to recreation or pleasant diversion) and most of it is on cable. However, I grew up around the TV industry and have little patience for pop culture snobs who assume that film is inherently superior to TV. This wasn’t true in the old days and it certainly isn’t true now, when the prohibitively high cost of filmmaking has driven so many talented people to the small screen.
II. Reality TV as Cultural Phenomenon and the Anthropological Interest of Mob Wives
We all know why reality TV has proliferated, a word I use deliberately to conjure up images of cancer: 1) it’s cheap to produce, 2) it’s voyeuristic and provides a glimpse into the lives of generally horrible and pathetic people to whom we can feel superior, whether rich or poor, while assuaging our guilt (or shame) about caring on any level about such odious individuals, 3) it’s undemanding and appeals to the lowest common denominator of the American television consumer in the age of video games and texting, which have turned America into a nation of philistines. People would rather watch the Kardashians than read “Arts and Leisure” in the New York Times or the excellent “Review” in the weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal.
I saw four episodes from Season 1, which like all first seasons tends to be tighter with a smaller set of main characters. The show follows four women, three of whom grew up on Staten Island in mob families. Only Drita D’Avanzo, a gorgeous woman even by coastal urban standards with a body to die for, stunning bone structure, large brown eyes, a chiseled and slender body, flawless skin and a great (probably not real) chest, grew up in a normal family upstate, which disowned her for marrying a mobster.
I was in the city last year when Bridge and Tunnel premiered and read pieces in the local papers. Staten Island does not have a good reputation among New Yorkers or the world at large, though as an LA girl by upbringing, I didn’t know anything about it except that it wasn’t a desirable residence for professionals with money and that Rick Schroeder was a proud Staten Islander. Now I know that there is a nice part of Staten Island called Tott Hill, along with some parts of the shore. Still, it’s the home of the mob and the landfill and it’s tough to say which one affects life more adversely, though garbage-induced nausea never killed anyone. Native New Yorkers from any one of the other five boroughs tell me that the landfill is really a problem and that it actually does smell bad, particularly in the summer.
I was therefore surprised that two of the four women are better looking, more authentic and brighter than any housewife I have ever seen on my Jetblue trips, which was the only time I ever watched those shows. I will say that Bethenny’s Getting Married was far better than any of the snippets of the Housewives shows I caught on planes or while channel surfing. At least Bethenny is a businesswoman who has made a fortune with that Skinny Margarita. She’s not stupid and she’s a hip New Yorker who likes food and wine and fashion and all the normal pleasures in life for women with money.
Bethenny has a sense of humor and was quite honest about having a fairly disastrous mother, about whom she talked with a therapist in the show. Her husband seems like a nice enough fellow, a bit dull by my standards but not so bad. But only captive on Jetblue in a middle seat without a laptop or iPod would I have watched any of that show, apart from the honeymoon in the British West Indies which is very pretty.
My best friend from 2007 to 2010 watched Housewives of New York religiously. So one day I watched it to see why she was so fanatical about it. Sonja Morgan is just awful! She was the one who got a DUI in Southampton two summers ago near Calvin Klein’s spread and was so trashed she could not even maintain a coherent story about what precisely she had consumed. I know someone who went on a few dates with her and she’s really dumb, unintellectual and uncultured by Manhattan standards. Sonja told the arresting officer that she had two drinks and then the sergeant or guy at the station that she had two completely different drinks. Needless to say, if you can’t even lie coherently about your alcohol consumption, you shouldn’t be behind a wheel.
Orange County housewives are just unspeakably awful and the Beverly Hills ones are no better. I am no fan of Beverly Hills and consider it the least desirable affluent area in LA, precisely because the women are as insipid, vapid and useless as the women on the show. Atlanta must really annoy educated, classy black women because it’s this parody of new money (though I think more of those housewives are not quite at the financial level of the average housewife in the other branches of the franchise) and a strange vulgarity which they will rightly feel doesn’t represent their lives at all.
Jersey housewives have a bad enough time with all the knocks on the Garden State, which frankly I don’t understand at all, because the moneyed parts of Jersey are absolutely beautiful and lush. I’m very close to a WASP from Montclair and now it’s what a Livingston, NJ friend of mine calls Hollywood East. There’s a lot of money in Essex and Bergen Counties, along with great food, shopping, and private schools. So yeah, Newark is not so hot. But every state has its bad areas. Bridgeport isn’t exactly a garden spot but it’s not very far from beautiful areas.
I’d much rather live in a more modest part of Essex County like the less affluent part of West Orange which borders the more upscale South Orange, say, than anywhere in Orange County for more than 3 months a year, even in a 10 million dollar mansion on the beach, because you just can’t get around the fact that you are in fact IN Orange County and far from LA and not that close to San Diego. And you’re not on the East Coast, which in my view is just better overall. I truly do not comprehend the OC, though I will say the designer resale/second-hand clothing stores are the best in any place I have visited. I got that red Nicole Miller for 60, whereas the other two Nicole Miller collection dresses from the Cottage were 125 and 190 respectively.
In addition, Orange County, as my boyfriend explained to me, was developed in a peculiar way. Many housing developments are concrete jungles to anyone familiar with the lushness of Essex County or West Los Angeles. No thank you. Also, the streets are far too wide–ten lanes in some instances by South Coast Plaza and Claim Jumper–and it was from an zoning and urban planning standpoint a complete disaster, whose goals were never realized as far as creating a pedestrian community in several major areas.
Of course, the very wealthy parts by the beach are stunning. Laguna Niguel is beautiful and it is home to one of the best Ritz Carltons in the world. My parents had a conference there in high school and I went with a friend. The Dana Point Inn was lovely (though not the Ritz of course) and we had fun at a Thai restaurant at 16 years old, ordering wine and not getting carded. The weather is idyllic by the beach, though a lot the inland parts of OC are really like the worst parts of the Valley, minus the heat, with ugly strip malls and box stores for block after block.
I will be kind and not discuss the gold in Tarzana with the lions in the front yards. If you’re sort of in the upper end of the middle class, you can live a much nicer life in Jersey than the OC. You would think that more people would read in the face of the OC’s monotony but that stereotype seems to have developed for good reason to judge by the complete absence of substantive discourse in the show about the affluent wives in the county south of LA. As I said, the Beverly Hills women are complete nitwits as well.
The four women in Mob Wives are no rocket scientists either. But they aren’t dumb. Drita D’Avanzo is “the fighter” because when she loses her temper, she doesn’t slap a woman in the face; she lays her out such that an ambulance must be called and emergency medical care administered. Her husband is in prison for the second time, again for bank robbery and she is a single mother to two adorable daughters, 3 and 9 (as of 2011). Drita, as she is commonly known (even on YouTube, commenters write, “Love me some Drita!”) is unabashed about her attraction not just to bad boys but outright criminals.
Renee Graziano is the stereotypical mob wife: overweight but not fat, garishly made up, deeply vulgar and course both in her language and her manner, tastelessly dressed and older than her years physically (and frankly, never very pretty even young). She is bored by men “with jobs.” One woman qualifies this, “You mean 9 to 5 jobs.” Drita laughs because a working stiff like that doesn’t even count as a man.
Lovers of Goodfellas will recognize the view that “working stiffs” are practically dead. Ray Liotta says something to this effect in one of his long narrated segments in the 1990 Scorsese masterpiece I’ve pretty much committed to memory line by line. And the turn-on Lorraine Bracco registers when Liotta pistol whips her neighbor and then hands her the bloody gun to hide will also be familiar. Still, the temporal span of Goodfellas is, I believe, the late 1950s through the mid-1970s and we haven’t had that many pseudo-realistic (if still romanticized or idealized) portrayals of the modern-day mob in cinema.
Drita is as beautiful as Drea de Matteo in The Sopranos. I think she has an even better body and she’s fun. It would be fun to go out and drink with her. It would not be fun to go out and drink with any of the housewives with the possible exception of the Brit in Beverly Hills because her Britishness gives her a slight intellectual and cultural edge over her truly moronic friends.
Karen Gravano, the daughter of Sammy “the Bull” Gravano, who turned state’s evidence and became the highest-level mobster ever to cooperate with the government, is on one level the most interesting character. Completely excommunicated from the world of her youth after her father’s betrayal, she fled to Arizona to create a new life for herself. The show’s dramatic core revolves on one level around her great return to Staten Island to access the feelings and experiences of the mob life about which she is writing a memoir. Karen is overweight and much less materialistic than the other women.
Karen’s house in Arizona is all right if you like the desert (which I don’t). It’s hard to say if she would have come to her epiphany that the mob’s activities are in fact immoral–a fact which remarkably seems to have been lost on the other three women who don’t believe their fathers, uncles or husbands are “bad guys”–had her father not “cooperated.” Still, she seems sincerely to believe that the lifestyle she knew as a child and teen is wrong.
I did not read a word about this show until I had watched those episodes. I was gratified to learn that the show was extremely well-received by national critics, all of whom agreed with me that, as one critic put it, five minutes of this show renders all the housewives franchises irrelevant and trivial. These women all have children and they take motherhood very seriously. Even Drita says that she’s a pit bull but when it comes to her girls, she’s just a wimp. Carla Facciolo, the other tall, slender beauty, is very sweet, really. She has not told her young children where daddy is but they talk to him on the phone from a location they believe him to be working.
When Karen comes back, Drita and Carla are okay with it. In the episodes I watched, Carla throws a big birthday party for herself and conceals the invitation to Karen from Renee, whose father has promised to cut her off financially (at the very least) should she resume any relationship with the daughter of the traitor. Carla and Drita sensibly reason with Renee that Karen cannot be held responsible for the actions of her father. While they hate the rats and stool pigeons who led to their own husbands’ incarceration, they like(d) Karen and think that she should be allowed to reenter the community.
“Fuck” is a staple of the women’s vocabulary but as the daughter of WWII veteran/B 24 pilot, this is neither shocking nor offensive. My father must be the only Jewish bomber pilot and former federal judge to whom “motherfucker” flows freely. That’s not a word of mine. As I have frequently noted on FB, a truly evil man must be described with the C word (10 letters) as a truly evil woman can only be described with the four letter C word.
I felt the friendships among these women to be far more authentic than any friendship among the Botoxed, augmented women from Beverly Hills or Orange Country. I am not against dermal fillers. A perfectly injected syringe of Perlane/Restlyane is magic, as it the perfectly administered syringe of Dysport (smaller molecule version of Botox). I don’t care if it’s pig vomit or whatever disgusting animal byproduct people claim. If it shaves years off and makes my skin look great, I have no scruples.
The third season of Mob Wives is set to start this August. Again, it’s not high art. But it’s oddly entertaining to see this alien culture just 30 minutes from Manhattan. I probably won’t see it given I have three seasons of Grey’s Anatomy, four seasons of Californication and two episodes short of Smash! to get through, not to mention two seasons of Parenthood and a few other shows I’ve meant to see and never did. I did, however, find the struggles of these women quite compelling. Other than Renee Graziano, who is just repugnant, I found the rest of the wives–Carla, Drita and Karen–eerily sympathetic.
I’m not maternal and don’t understand having a child with any man you don’t adore and respect so much that you cannot even conceive not being with him for 20 years. Still, these women are, against all odds, relatable however alien their moral assumptions may be. Renee’s son, A.J., is 16. When her ex-husband doesn’t show at the gym to box with his son, she is pissed. The son tries to assuage her angst, explaining that it used to bother him when his father flaked but that “it doesn’t anymore.”
If reality TV is supposed to provide a glimpse into an alien world you would never otherwise witness, Mob Wives does the job. I suppose the Housewives of Orange County does this as well, anthropologically. But what LA or NYC girl wants to penetrate the mysteries of the OC? There is, however, an unexpected humanness to these women and for that reason alone, it’s worth a couple hours of your time.