Wednesday, May 23, 2018

In Praise of the Understated Excellence of 'The Middle'

I'm going to admit it: Last night's series finale of The Middle reduced me to a blubbering fool. After nine seasons and 215 episodes, the Heck family said goodbye to their viewers with a pitch-perfect, lovingly-executed swan song titled "A Heck of a Ride" that honored the show's tone, characters, and—most of all—its audience.

For the uninitiated, The Middle is a half-hour ABC sitcom that premiered in 2009 and follows the misadventures of an endearing, perpetually cash-strapped Indiana family. And although the show never achieved water-cooler status, it did achieve an enduring charm. The show boasted no major cast changes over its nine-year run, a narrative consistency that established its own sense of history, and an upbeat warm-heartedness without the saccharine aftertaste. It was one of those shows that I began watching because it was likely wedged between two destination shows and became an accidental favorite over the years.

The end was on par with any of the great series finales in TV history, with Patricia Heaton (as family matriarch Frankie) having a roadside meltdown during a family road trip to deposit oldest son Axl (Charlie McDermott) in Denver for his new job and adult life. “It’s the end of an era,” she laments. “It's never going to be the same again.”

“That’s the way it’s supposed to be,” Neil Flynn's Mike (husband and family patriarch) says, as we flash-forward to the family's post-Middle lives, which leave every beloved character exactly where our hearts want them to be—especially Eden Scher's eternal optimist Sue. We even get a glimpse of a bright romantic future for her gay bestie Brad (played with such joyful zeal by Brock Ciarlelli, who has been a scene-stealing highlight over the years). The show ends with a certain character's reprisal of a beloved speech quirk, and I (literally) just sobbed.

In a world that moves so fast and in a medium that cancels shows in the space of a few episodes, the comforting consistency and longevity of The Middle is worth noting—and celebrating.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Theresa Rose Danko: A Mother's Love (and Death)

Last year around this time, I received word that my mother had passed away. This information came via the divorce courts that handle my father's alimony payments so the details were scant. I did a little digging and requested information through New York State Vital Records. When I got home from work one night, I received a UPS delivery—a copy of my mother's death certificate. She apparently died in September of 2015, shortly after my fiancé and I had moved to Michigan for what turned out to be about a year.

As you can imagine, this came as a shock. Although I hadn't had any contact with my mother in the many, many years since she left my father and me when I was 16, the idea that a mother could die and the only child—technically, the next of kin—would not be at least notified was a bit of a blow.

Almost a year later, I am still feeling a very peculiar mix of unsettled, angry, and sad all at the same time. Please don't misunderstand: I'm not sad because of the loss. I lost my mother decades ago—likely to an undiagnosed mental illness, probably bipolar disorder—and I've grieved the loss appropriately during the ensuing years. No, I'm sad because the last bit of information I'll ever know about her comes from typed snippets on a death certificate, nuggets of impersonal data that beg more questions than provide answers. News of her death brought back a flood of memories from my childhood (some of which I’ve shared on social media more as an emotional purge as Mother's Day approaches), and I was left feeling a bit sucker punched in the aftermath.

My mother apparently died at 12:51 PM on Monday, September 14th, 2015. She had been admitted to the Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Binghamton, New York, ten days earlier on September 4th. She was cremated on September 17th at the Northern Bradford Crematory in South Waverly, Pennsylvania. According to her death certificate, she was a farmer who lived in Greene, New York. The person notified of her death was a woman named Dorothy who lived in Port Chester. Her attending physician is named, as is the fact that he had been attending her since July 30th, 2014; he last saw her alive on August 24th, 2015. Her manner of death is listed as "natural cause" but the copy of the death certificate is cut off after that and the remaining cause of death information is not included on the copy. Digging further, it looks like this woman who was notified of my mother's passing was a close friend; several months after my mother's death, there are records that this woman sold a piece of property that was listed as my mother's address on the death certificate.

Sometimes closure doesn’t come wrapped in a pretty box with a bow. Sometimes it’s messy, incomplete, and opens a Pandora's box of questions. It's an odd feeling, knowing that my mother no longer exists. Even in our longtime estrangement, I'd periodically entertain the fantasy of a death-bed reunion or even a post-death letter. Among the many things the woman denied me and did to me, it comes as no surprise that she would slip quietly from this world without so much as a nod in my direction—before or after her death. In some weird way, I can admire the fact that she made a decision and never looked back. Not even a pang of nostalgia could bend her resolve.

In any event, there was no obituary that I could find online anywhere. I find this sadder than any aspect of this surreal situation. Hers was still a life, and that life should be somehow marked. I'm going to post some photos of my mother to do just that, acknowledging that she was here, lived for 70 years, and then died.

Theresa Rose Danko
4-25-1945 to 9-15-2015
Rest in peace, Mom.

A caveat: After reading this, although you may be tempted to express a kind wish of sympathy, please don't. This is a weird situation for me and the customary rules simply don't apply here.

Monday, February 26, 2018

The Cerebral Sci-Fi of 'Annihilation'

I've always been inspired by speculative fiction that makes you think. Case in point: Yesterday's screening of Annihilation. It was so refreshing to see a thought-provoking science fiction film that didn't mimic or remake anything that came before it. It's a cerebral film that treats its audience with respect and the presupposition that moviegoers are intelligent and focused enough to wade into a metaphorically-rich exploration of inward annihilation.
Challenging, tense, visually arresting, Annihilation is a thinking man's science fiction film ripe with heady ideas and layered with provocative thematic elements. Genetic malleability as villain is a terrifying body-horror concept that director Alex (Ex Machina) Garland nails brilliantly. Like the classic slasher convention the-call-is-coming-from-inside-the-house, the idea of the terror within is executed with precision, aided in large part by the film's acting ensemble. While Natalie Portman gives an astutely understated lead performance, it's Jennifer Jason Leigh's sublime turn as the expedition's psychologist leader and Gina (Jane the Virgin) Rodriquez's career-turning performance as a lesbian EMT that are the real standouts.
It's equally inspiring that instead of another remake or Alien knockoff, Annihilation was adapted from the first of three novels in the excellent Southern Reach trilogy (collected in the omnibus Area X) by Jeff VanderMeer. I sincerely hope that the female-led sci-fi actioner's fourth-place bow at the box office this weekend doesn't dissuade Hollywood from making more original genre fare, mining the rich supply of original speculative fiction out there hiding in plain sight in myriad novels and short stories instead of endlessly recycling uninspiring cinematic clichés.