Inspiration – Laughing Through the Tears with Barney Miller

The Original Cast of the TV series "Barney Miller"
The Original Cast of the TV series “Barney Miller”

Many of us have encountered those moments in our lives when we don’t know whether to laugh or cry. When everything has gone so wrong, or seems so bleak, that the only option is endless sobbing or hysterical laughter. But why do we feel the need to laugh? In some instances, it’s because the circumstances are too ridiculous to be believed; that events should have unfolded the way they did, that people should have acted as they have, is nothing less than the height of absurdity. I think there is another answer to this reaction, however. I personally believe that when we are faced with that decision to laugh or cry, we are really deciding whether we give up or whether we try again.

To laugh at the things that hurt us most is to refuse to concede power to those people or events. It’s a form of necessary self-delusion, a way of making oneself believe that no matter what has happened, it doesn’t really matter – we can get pass it. Like many self-delusions, the harder we pretend, the more likely it is to become our reality. Laughing at life gives us a way to keep going, even when logic or our own crushed emotions would have us quit.

The television shows I like the best are the ones which illustrate this most important human coping strategy. Many Joss Whedon shows do this admirably. After all, when you’re facing multiple apocalypses, you can either lie down and die or make jokes about it and keep going. But I feel that Whedon, and many other creators like him, owe a debt to certain older shows. One of these is the 1974 to 1982 television series Barney Miller. Barney Miller follows the NYPD detectives of the 12th Precinct through their daily activities, during which a large host of wacky and wild characters pass through the squad room. Playing the eponymous captain is Hal Linden, and his detectives include actors such as Jack Soo, Maxwell Gail, Ron Glass, Abe Vigoda, and many others as the show goes on.

The complete set of all 8 seasons of "Barney Miller", released last year.
The complete set of all 8 seasons of “Barney Miller”, released last year.

The series was on for eight seasons, which should tell you all you need to know about its quality. Cop shows have always been, and continue to be, very popular with the television viewing public. But what makes Barney Miller stand out from the rest, is the way in which it handles many serious issues (gay bashing, spousal abuse, suicide, etc.) while remaining a definite comedy. Few jobs are more serious or grinding than that of upholding the law, but the detectives and officers in Barney Miller use humor not just to lighten their own spirits, but also to lighten the loads of those they come in contact with through their work. While never making light of tragedy or adversity, Barney Miller illustrates that it is indeed a mad world out there – and the best way to handle the curve balls it can throw at you is to laugh.

Take for example, the scene below. Ron Harris, an African-American detective played by Ron Glass, has experienced a blatant case of racism and is feeling less than comfortable around his predominately white colleagues. Wojciehowicz, played by Maxwell Gail, goes to Barney because he’s confused about the hostility he’s receiving from Harris because of the incident.

Few could argue that racism and bigotry are not incredibly serious subjects. In my opinion, this scene is particularly well written, insightful, and relatable in how it explains this complicated problem. But, the fact that there are jokes during it, that there is laughter to ease the tension, makes it all the more poignant and memorable.

There’s no question that, at the moment, we live in a deeply troubled world. Tragedies happen every day, to strangers and loved ones alike. As a reflection of such a grim reality, it’s natural for our creative works to similarly touch on or explore darker themes and events. But I would caution against pessimism or melodrama. It’s true that personal misfortunes bind humanity together, crossing boundaries of culture and class. However, I would urge us not to forget that laughter as well has the power to bring disparate souls together. Finding a silver lining to chuckle at, even if only for a moment, can give your work the grounding it needs. If a scene seems to be drowning under the weight of its own gravitas, throw in a joke; a snide remark, a character pulling a face, a random, hilarious act of nature. Give the audience, and yourself, a break from the gloom and doom; you’ll be glad you did.

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Feminism and the Figure of the Fembot (Part 6.1 of 7)

VI. Phyllis, Ellery, and Landon: The Transgression/Failure of the Fembot

Novelist Thomas Berger, author of "Adventures of the Artificial Woman"
Novelist Thomas Berger, author of “Adventures of the Artificial Woman”

This trope of newly created ‘intelligent’ machines exposing human failings is exercised quite starkly in a novel written by the prolific science fiction author Thomas Berger, titled Adventures of the Artificial Woman. In this work, as in the Battlestar Galactica example above, the Fembot here exposes the truth that the protagonist’s failure does not lie within his making of a faulty machine, but in is his failing to come to terms with his own and others fluid sexual identities.

The cover of the new edition of "Adventures of the Artificial Woman" by Thomas Berger
The cover of the new edition of “Adventures of the Artificial Woman” by Thomas Berger

The main character, Ellery Pierce, creates the perfect female companion for himself, an animatron he calls Phyllis. When she is finally completed and ready to become a part of his life, Ellery is struck by how clever his robot appears to be, managing to purchase cookbooks, make-up, and learn how to make the perfect gimlet all without direct orders from him. He is even more shocked when she announces that she is leaving him and wants to strike out on her own. He tries convincing her, in vain, that she should stay, telling her that “‘You can’t make it on your own. You’re not some Frankenstein creation of organic materials, with a brain that revolts against its maker. You’re an electronic and mechanical personage. You’ll need recharging any minute now’” (Berger 30). Ellery assumes, like so many other men, that Phyllis will be lost without male guidance and that she is incapable of having goals other than those he has previously supplied for her. For the reader, it is unclear from where exactly Pierce’s objections stem: whether he doubts Phyllis because of her gender or whether it is because she is a robot. It seems to be a little bit of both.

This ambiguity comes up repeatedly in the text. For example, upon further consideration of his creation’s chances of survival in the real world, Ellery admits that “She had great strengths: an ability to learn almost instantaneously, from vicarious as well as personal experience; an immunity to irreparable diseases of body and spirit; [and] a lack of spite and other corrosive emotions”. Still, Ellery questions whether these strengths will “compensate for the obvious incapacities of a creature who was not what she seemed” (Berger 31). At the story’s conclusion, the readers are left to decide for themselves whether Phyllis is “not what she seems” in the sense that she is a robot in human form or whether she is “not what she seems” because she does not conform to Pierce’s self-made concepts of femininity.


In Understanding Thomas Berger, Professor Brooks Landon performs an in-depth and comprehensive analysis of Berger’s literary works as a whole. Landon uses quotes from interviews with Berger, as well as examples from his books (such as Regiment of Women, Killing Time, and Little Big Man) to back up his claims while placing Adventures of the Artificial Woman in a different light. I will perform an analysis of Landon’s reading of Adventures of the Artificial Woman because it illustrates one of the key tenets of my larger argument: that when the Fembot figure is read without taking into account gender performance theory or machine intelligence theory, the conclusions drawn are close-minded and flat.

While one would be initially tempted to view this novel as a simple parody of the Fembot genre of science fiction stories, Landon makes a point of saying that, “Unlike parody, Berger’s novels start from, rather than aim toward, the traditions of literary formulas, a testing and broadening of possibilities rather than a burlesquing of limitations” (Landon 18). By forcing readers away from thinking of Adventures of the Artificial Woman as a parody, the work must be looked at in more depth. Landon’s claim is reminiscent of Butler’s theory that drag and butch/femme play are subversive performances not because they aim to imitate heterosexual gender roles perfectly, but precisely because they work within the already established gender roles and ‘broaden the possibilities’ of acceptable gender performance by ‘burlesquing its limitations’. Landon’s statement also provides a revealing way to read the character of the artificial woman herself, since she is a ‘parody’ of a human woman. His statement would suggest that Berger intended her to broaden the readers’ ideas of what defines ‘machine’ and ‘woman’ by having her function as a something more than a simple parody.

The drag queen Miss Understood, as captured by David Shankbone (via Flickr)
The drag queen Miss Understood, as captured by David Shankbone (via Flickr)

Furthermore, Landon quotes Berger as saying, “‘I regard myself as a teller of tales that are intended primarily to enchant or at least entertain myself. Only by living in the imagination can I successfully pretend I am a human being’” (Landon 6). It seems appropriate once again to read this comment through the figure of Phyllis, the artificial woman. In the novel, the question comes up time and time again whether Phyllis is imagining new scenarios or simply responding to her programming. For Berger, this ability to ‘imagine’ is what defines humanity. Within the novel, he toys with giving this ability to Phyllis sometimes and taking it away at others.

Landon discusses his own reading of Adventures of the Artificial Woman and similar titles liked Regiment of Women, Being Invisible, Changing the Past, and Robert Crews in the book’s sixth chapter: “Subversions of Good Order”. This title is particularly apt when reading the novel from a Butler perspective of gender performance as subversion. Landon argues that it is in these novels that one sees “Berger’s most overt experiments to see what becomes of reality when one of its vital elements is radically altered” (Landon 155). Landon claims that while every novel is an “experiment with reality,” Berger embarks on these experiments by changing something that is considered natural into something considered unnatural (Landon 155).

Landon performs an astute reading of how Berger uses Phyllis within the novel. For example, Landon, quoting from critic Zulfikar Ghose in Review of Contemporary Fiction, states that “‘At first…Phyllis is the perfect female-as-sex-object,’ whose extreme literalness provides humor for her maker, but quickly leads to a questioning and critiquing of human assumptions, and soon, like her human female counterparts before her, she chooses to leave Ellery” (Landon 185). This point shows that it is logic (a “male” trait) not emotion (a “female” trait) that encourages Phyllis to leave her maker, pointing out that it is not, as Ellery had previously argued, some fault in his women that makes them leave, but perhaps a fault in himself. Landon argues that the comedic aspect of this particular Berger novel lends itself to “random satirical potshots at the mechanisms of human sexuality…with an occasional shot at the worship of technology” (Landon 187). He then points to a passage in the middle of the novel, where Phyllis “observes that humans do technology much better than they do morality” (Berger 187). This section of the novel forces readers to focus on the understanding Phyllis has acquired of human frailty, something which she, as a machine, cannot experience firsthand. Yet, although she can’t directly feel this all-too-human vulnerability, she can recognize and understand it – just as well as any conscious, thinking human being.

Works Cited

Berger, Thomas. Adventures of the Artificial Woman: a Novel. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004. Print.

Landon, Brooks. Understanding Thomas Berger. Columbia: The University of South Carolina Press, 2010.

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Learning Curve

I lie on the piano room sofa and let the evening shadows creep over me like half-alive blankets. The house is silent. I am alone in the room, staring up at the painting of the Colorado Rockies which hangs on the wall beside me, waiting for my parents to return.

Something bad has happened.

I pick at the roses and chrysanthemums stitched into the cushion beneath my head. I am nervous, but mostly bored; certainly not scared. Something bad has happened, but it isn’t my fault and I’m not in trouble, which is the important thing. Mom hadn’t looked mad when she took me out of the kitchen and into the stifling, small room, where I never played because there were too many figurines and brick-a-back that I might break with my awkward toddler’s body.

“Sweetie, wait in here for a little while, okay?” Mom didn’t smile at me. She sat me down on the couch, squeezing my shoulder too tightly. Her face was drawn and pale, like the time I had that fever that wouldn’t break and she stayed up with me all night.

“Okay. Is Daddy mad at me?”

Her voice was shaking. “No, he’s not. Everything’s fine. I just need you to wait in here until I come back and get you.”

That was forever ago; almost a half hour. I turn my head away from the painting and into the cushion. I breathe in the sweet, musty smell of dust, dog, and my mother’s perfume. I am getting hungry. And lonely. And cold. I need my clown blanket, and mashed potatoes, and my mom’s lap to sit in.

I roll off of the couch and onto the floor. I pretend that the hole I was digging in the backyard really worked, and right now I am crawling towards the center of the Earth, where I’ll stop to play with the dinosaurs for a while before digging another hole up to China.

It’s when I reach the door that my whole world changes forever. It’s when I push my body against the thin, cold wood and listen for the sound of my parents’ footsteps coming to release me that I begin to understand the one, universal human fear.

I listen and my whole body begins to quiver. I bite my lip. I whimper. My father, the merciless hunter of closet monsters, the large arms that hold my face to his chest when the book get’s too scary, the protector of my sister and my mother and me is crying. I have never heard him cry. It never occurred to me that I would.

As wet, hot tears roll down my cheeks, I feel deeply afraid for the first time in my life. I had heard what Dad whispered to Mom before I was whisked away. Grandma had died. And while I did not yet fully understand what that meant, what it was, death was making my father, the bravest person in the universe, cry. If it could do that, it could do anything.

I retreat to the couch and curl myself into the corner, crying quietly in case Death is listening. Something that could do that, that could make my father cry, well…it could swallow me whole. And Dad wouldn’t be able to save me.

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Inspiration – The Lesser Known Works of John Williams

John Williams by Chris Devers (via Flickr)
John Williams by Chris Devers (via Flickr)

If I was to ask you to name as many famous movie composers as you could, I’d bet you that John Williams’ name would be amongst the first four or five composers you’d tell me. He has become, quite literally, a household name, with his themes and scores instantly recognizable and deeply beloved by many. There is little doubt that Williams’ works have shaped the sounds of movie soundtracks for the past forty years at least, and will continue to leave their marks on scores yet to be composed.

What is it about John Williams’ music that makes it so good? I’m hardly a musician, but I’ve decided to try to undertake this question for today’s inspiration entry by focusing on some of John Williams’ lesser known scores and soundtracks. Now, some of these might be old John Williams’ favorites to you, but when I was flipping through the list of his works, they stuck out to me as unusual and fun!

How to Steal a Million

A foreign film poster for "How to Steal a Million"
A foreign film poster for “How to Steal a Million”

Released in 1966, How to Steal a Million boasts a host of A-list stars of the period in a hilariously ingenious heist film. Nicole Bonnet, played by Audrey Hepburn, must steal back a statue her art-forger father has allowed to go on exhibition before it’s discovered to be a fake. She enlists the help of the always charming Peter O’Toole, playing Simon Dermott, an art enthusiast who may or may not be an actual thief, to get the statue back; but things get complicated when an American millionaire, Davis Leland, played by Eli Wallach, gets his heart set on both owning the statue and marrying Nicole.

I can’t pretend to be unbiased when it comes to this film – it has been one of my favorite comedies for many, many years. But until recently I had absolutely no idea that the film’s score was composed by John Williams! One of his earlier movie scores, the music John Williams provides for this film stands out as a character of its own. Like the film, none of the pieces take themselves too seriously; absent are the usual sweeping horn sections, driving strings, or other sounds which have become Williams’ signature over the years. The score plucks along underneath the main action, simple and organic, as if the movement of the actors themselves was creating the soundtrack.

Home Alone

Poster for "Home Alone"
Poster for “Home Alone”

For many, Home Alone holds a place of special significance, being one of those few films that families will often gather round the television to watch at this joyous time of the year. For those of you hazy on the details of the film, Home Alone tells the story of a young boy, accidentally left at home when his family flies off to Paris for Christmas. He learns to take care of himself, learns the importance of family, and learns to look beyond the surface of people and see the truth within them.

Personally, Home Alone has never been one of my favorite films. I’m not sure what it is, exactly, but perhaps Kevin’s loneliness hit a little too close to home for me. Given that, I had never realized that John Williams was enlisted to compose the score to this film. Upon listening again, I feel foolish for not recognizing his symphonic touches earlier. The score for Home Alone shares many more similarities with his landmark works than How to Steal a Million, chief among these the use of themes and layers. Harmonies are layered upon harmonies, with one strain of music giving depth to another. Much like a conversation, Williams’ scores are filled with subtextual meanings elucidated by nothing other than sound and tone. Listening to his work, one feels as if they are being told a story almost separate, but supplementary, to the one being told through film.

The Adventures of TinTin

A Promotional Poster for "The Adventures of TinTin"
A Promotional Poster for “The Adventures of TinTin”

The Adventures of TinTin is tragically underrated, and it’s one of the main reasons I included it in this post. If you haven’t watched it yet, go out, rent it, buy it, borrow it from a friend and never return it, find some way to experience this wonderful piece of cinematic fun – you won’t regret that you did!

This beautifully animated film was directed by Steven Spielberg, written by Steven Moffat, current show-runner of Doctor Who, and Edgar Wright of Cornetto Trilogy fame, and includes the voice talents of Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis, Daniel Craig, and the comedic duo Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. The movie is a labor of love in every sense, born from Spielberg’s early devotion to the TinTin comics of Belgian artist Hergé. These comics were the inspiration for the Indiana Jones films that are close to so many people’s action lover hearts.

An older edition of one of the TinTin comics used for the film's plot "Red Rackham's Treasure"
An older edition of one of the TinTin comics used for the film’s plot “Red Rackham’s Treasure”

Many fans of the film like to think of The Adventures of TinTin as everything the last Indiana Jones film should have been. It’s epic and exciting, funny and sweet, uplifting and a pure joy to watch. John Williams’ score goes a long way to contributing to this singular movie watching experience, going far beyond simply highlighting the action and emotions being portrayed on-screen. As always, Williams’ work, while working perfectly along the subject matter with which it is paired, can stand on its own; it’s like a separate level of the story you can take out and examine by itself, just like the characters, the settings, or the themes.

This is why, in my opinion, the film scores of John Williams stand out so much from all the rest. His work is more than just background music for cinematic action – it is a story in and of itself, communicating things that are not on-screen, reaching out to the audience’s imagination and encouraging them to look deeper into the story they are being told. As a writer, I think it is important to remember that no one device in a story is less important than any other. In order to produce a superb storytelling experience, the characters, the setting, the language, the very format of the text should all be variations on the work itself, each adding a layer of meaning and beauty to the reading experience.

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Feminism and the Figure of the Fembot (Part 5.2 of 7)

V. Fembot Fatale: Gender and Consciousness Performance in Battlestar Galactica

From left to right: Kara "Starbuck" Thrace, Karl "Helo" Agathon, Number 6, Sharon "Boomer" Valerii
From left to right: Kara “Starbuck” Thrace, Karl “Helo” Agathon, Number 6, Sharon “Boomer” Valerii

Sharon, the other Cylon character mentioned previously, is also a character highly coded with ideas of motherhood. Unlike many of the other female characters on the show, the audience never sees Sharon act sexually. At most, Helo and she share a few on-screen kisses, but any sexual relationship they have beyond that is kept squarely off-camera. The only time we become aware that Sharon and Helo have been intimate at all is when she realizes that she is pregnant with his child. The audience learns that the Cylons intended Helo and Sharon to fall in love from the first. Seeking ways in which they can naturally procreate, the Cylons surmised that while just fornicating with humans was not producing children, having a Cylon and a human who were in love copulate may have been the step they were missing. The first of the main characters to bear a child after the Cylon attack on the colonies, Sharon is immediately identified as all that is good and right for a woman to be in the universe in which the story exists. Strong, intellectual, but deeply attached to ideas of love and partnership, Sharon is devoted to the idea of raising her child with Helo as a family. Even though she is a Fembot, motherhood is foremost on Sharon’s mind.

Boomer and Chief Tyrol
Boomer and Chief Tyrol

This bears a sharp contrast to ‘Boomer,’ the other version of Sharon Valeri. Boomer is shown as a career military woman. A lieutenant in the Colonial Army, she is young, vibrant, and active. She takes charge over men, ordering those under her freely and confidently. Whereas the audience sees no sex scenes involving Sharon, Boomer has several scenes in which she engages in her illicit affair with the ship’s crew chief, Tyrol. She initiates every one of these scenes, their setting usually being a supply closet or some other potentially public place. Boomer never talks about family or having a child, and even though she clearly loves Tyrol, it becomes obvious that she has no intention of settling down any time soon; just as it becomes increasingly obvious that she is actually a Cylon. Programmed to think she is human, Boomer acts as a sleeper agent, performing various kinds of sabotage aboard the ship that she can never remember doing. The climactic moment comes when she attempts to assassinate the Commander and she suddenly realizes that she is not human, but Cylon; not friend, but enemy.

Kara "Starbuck" Thrace
Kara “Starbuck” Thrace

The final character under examination here is Kara ‘Starbuck’ Thrace. There are few characters in the show that subvert expected gender performance more than she does. Not only is she an enlisted woman of rank, she is the ship’s best fighter pilot, well-known for her dangerous, yet effective stunts that she pulls during battle. She smokes cigars, always wins at the high-stake poker games she organizes, and has a myriad of sexual partners throughout the show. Some of them she has a legitimate emotional connection to, even though she may fight against it, but some of them are also just one night stands. She gets what she needs out of an on-camera tryst and then leaves. Her cropped blonde hair only emphasizes her rejection of traditional female gender roles. Many of her actions are motivated by emotions of rage, revenge, and guilt. Starbuck never lets anyone get in the way of what she wants and she never lets anyone get close. When a doctor tells Starbuck that she should consider having children, if only for the continuation of the human race, she rejects him violently, refusing to even talk about the subject.

In Battlestar Galactica, the issue of reproduction is especially pertinent for obvious reasons. In order for their species to survive, “We have to start having babies” (Moore), as Commander Adama realizes aloud at the end of the miniseries. The cylons are equally concerned with carrying on their race to its fullest potential for political, as well as deeply religious, reasons. In this climate it is no wonder that issues of gender politics come to the forefront, right alongside the issue of machine intelligence and consciousness. Winding these two issues together, the female characters of the show become the sites in which most these questions are played out.

Why then would the writers reject a link that has already been well established in science fiction, that of the Fembot being the Femme Fatale? It is a challenging picture of femininity that this show presents to the viewer and one that is not immediately apparent. The Fembots are at first perceived to be Femme Fatales – it is a knee-jerk reaction that the creators do nothing to immediately contradict. But as the show progresses, it becomes clear that it is these ‘Fembots’, these mechanical women, who are acting in the way our society deems acceptable. In the end their actions end up benefitting the society as a whole, even if at first it seems they are only there to destroy.  Conversely, it is those characters who are supposed to be the most “human” that perform femininity in a way that ultimately injures those around them on a personal and societal level. While they use their sexuality as a weapon and their rejection of gender performance as a show of resistance, it leaves them unsure of who they really are. Without a gender to perform, there is nothing constituted. They are adrift in a sea of identity and sometimes lash out angrily at those who try to show them a path.

In the end, this does return the show to a classic science fiction moral, one that is found frequently in stories of artificial intelligence gone amuck: It is from within our own society that threats emerge. The idea is that so-called ‘subversive’ machine intelligence only highlights our own human failings. In the case of the Fembot, the failing underscored is a failing to come to terms with sexual and gender based identities.

Works Cited

Moore, Ronald D., and David Eick. “Battlestar Galactica.” Battlestar Galactica. Sky1. London, UK, Oct. 2004. Television.

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