nonfiction · television

Book Review: Sunny Days: Sesame Street, Mister Rogers, and the Children’s Television Revolution by David Kamp

I’ve spoken here many times before about my love for Mister Rogers, but Sesame Street and its history are also pet subjects of mine. I love reading about how the show grew from nothing but a flash of an idea into the cultural institution that it has become. I love hearing the actors’ stories, how the songs came about, how the puppets were created and the sets decorated, and how it changed the lives of everyone who was not only involved with it but who watched it from the comfort of their living rooms. I needed a book with a bird on the cover for the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge, and as I searched the Goodreads’ groups lists of books that fit this prompt, I was delighted to find that Sunny Days: Sesame Street, Mister Rogers, and the Children’s Television Revolution by David Kamp (Simon Schuster, 2020) fit the bill AND was on my TBR AND my library had the ebook! (I had to wait a few days for it, but that’s okay.)

David Kamp has written a beautiful book that covers the glory days of early children’s television, from its first anemic offerings, to the slightly better Captain Kangaroo, to the powerhouses that were Sesame Street, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, The Electric Company, Schoolhouse Rock, Zoom, Free to Be…You and Me, and a few others that ran on more local channels. In a vibrant, upbeat manner, he chronicles how the shows came about, from conception to either today (in the case of Sesame Street) or completion, how the teams worked together (so many of the shows’ creators either didn’t have children or weren’t particularly interested in children or children’s programming, which I find fascinating, but which probably contributed heavily to these shows’ never talking down to kids), and how the political climate at the time was ripe for the creation of educational television for kids, something that would be extremely unlikely to happen today.

This is an utterly joyful read. While my parents assure me I watched The Electric Company, I have no memories of the show; I do, however, have a brain full of memories of early 80’s Sesame Street and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (including a song I’d forgotten about but that came right back to me when the book mentioned it: I in the Sky. Such a great song), and reading interviews with the actors, musicians, and creators that grew these shows from the ground up fascinated me to no end. There’s so much planning and hard work that went into these shows, and it doesn’t seem like anyone working on them got rich, but to be part of such cultural monoliths must have made all of it worth it.

It’s never overt, but Mr. Kamp illustrates over and over again how such innovative children’s programming would never be possible in today’s political climate, and that’s something that hurt my heart as I read. Too many people have dismissed the need for the government to get involved in helping to create quality educational programming, especially for the preschool set, in our hyper-individualistic society, dismissing the idea that we are a society and we can’t fully function unless all of us are able to participate. And when there’s a skill gap starting in kindergarten that only grows wider over time, we’re effectively kneecapping a large portion of society (and then blaming those people instead of working out solutions to solve this problem). Sesame Street and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood sought to be solutions, and in a time when most people were on board with the government helping to fund that, they achieved it. In an age when I’ve heard multiple politicians (local and national) support closing public schools entirely (“Parents should be entirely responsible for fully educating their children! Don’t have them if you can’t teach them entirely at home!” was something I heard often when we lived in the south), that this ever even happened at all seems almost magical.

Such a lovely book of a time when people worked together to achieve a common goal. Would that we could return to such an age.

If you’re interested in Sesame Street and early PBS programming, other books that might catch your fancy (which I’ve read and can vouch for!) are as follows:

Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street by Michael Davis

Sesame Street Unpaved: Scripts, Stories, Secrets, and Songs by David Borgenicht et al

Sesame Street: A Celebration of 40 Years of Life On the Street by Louise Gikow

If it’s Mister Rogers you’re interested in, check out these books:

I’m Proud of You: My Friendship with Fred Rogers by Tim Madigan

The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers by Maxwell King

Peaceful Neighbor: Discovering the Countercultural Mister Rogers by Michael G. Long

Do you have any great memories of PBS programming from your childhood?

Visit David Kamp’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book review: There’ll Be Peace When You Are Done: Actors and Fans Celebrate the Legacy of Supernatural, edited by Lynn S. Zubernis

So I was browsing NetGalley a few weeks ago, checking out the selections (I don’t often request books; my blog is still kind of small and I don’t necessarily think I’ll be approved for many titles, but I like to know what books are out there that I can look forward to!), when the first part of the title of one book reached out and punched me in the face: There’ll Be Peace When You Are Done: Actors and Fans Celebrate the Legacy of Supernatural, edited by Lynn S. Zubernis (BenBella Books, 2020). The song by Kansas has been a long time favorite of mine, so I was immediately curious as to what the book was about, and I was a million times more delighted when I read the rest of the title and learned that this was a collection of essays about the CW show Supernatural, a show my husband and I binge-watched two years ago on Netflix and which I’ve enjoyed ever since. The book was offered as a ‘Read Now,’ and I happily clicked the button. (And since I was pulled in by the title, I’m counting this as my read for the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge prompt of ‘a book you picked because the title caught your attention.’)

Lynn S. Zubernis has edited a collection of essays and interviews by both cast and crew members and fans that speak to not only the brilliancy of the show, but the camaraderie and deep friendship that has blossomed among its ardent fans. Cast, crew, and fans alike refer to themselves as family (the SPNFamily, to be exact), and in every essay, their bonds are made obvious by the love the fans show each other, the charity work that every person even loosely associated with this show is moved to participate in, the deep desire to follow Sam and Dean’s footsteps by making the world a better, safer place, and the courage to be open, vulnerable, and thus, free.

The essays run the gamut, from experiences on set and how they changed an actor or actress’s life, to how being part of the fandom helped each fan to grow, but the common theme here are the permanent effects one single TV show has had, and the effects are massive. Far from being a mere aside of pop culture, Supernatural has acted as a catalyst for personal growth, from inspiring fans to keep fighting with the anxiety that has plagued them for years, to pushing them to take steps and make changes that they’d been afraid of taking. For a show that carried on for fifteen seasons, that’s no small feat, and no small amount of changed lives. The effects of Supernatural are long-ranging.

There’s an awful lot to fall in love with in this book. The actors’ willingness to connect with their fans is truly remarkable, and their essays, in which they detail their involvement in fan conventions and on social media, is absolutely heartwarming. But what really shines is the dedication to charity that this show has fomented among its followers. Almost every essay has some mention of how its author engaged in work that benefited people they never met- fundraising, multiple crisis support networks, helping other fans to pay off devastating medical bills- because that’s what family does, even far-off family you don’t often, or ever, see face-to-face. And the Supernatural fandom is the family everyone deserves.

The book isn’t without its criticism of the show, particularly towards earlier the seasons’ treatment of women. It’s never harsh, but it’s fair, and I appreciated such an even-handed take, because when you love something, you want it to be the very best it can be, and we should all be able to criticize the things we love while still loving them. And there are deep dives into certain characters (Charlie is a particular favorite, but there’s plenty of love for Sheriffs Jody Mills and Donna Hanscum as well) and their far-ranging influence, but my favorite essays were the ones that demonstrate that Supernatural‘s ripple effects are less like a tossed pebble and more akin to a giant bolder dropped into the middle of a lake.

Actor Rob Benedict sharing his experiences with suffering a stroke helped a fan to recognize that she was experiencing similar symptoms, and that pushed her to get medical help in time to save her life. A professor used the show to develop a course that helped veterans suffering from PTSD return to civilian life. Fans crowdfunded gender correction surgery for another fan who had decided to move forward with living his best life. Other fans raised money to start a school in Nicaragua and a children’s center in Haiti. The list go on and on and the stories are no less impressive as the book nears completion. Ms. Zubernis has chosen a set of essays that reveal the depth and heart of a television show about two brothers saving the world from things that go bump in the night (and day!), and its true legacy is the love its fans have extended from the show itself to each other and the world beyond.

If you’re a Supernatural fan, this book, this love letter to not just the show but to you and the friends you’ve made because of it, is one you can’t miss. Even for the casual fan like me, There’ll Be Peace When You Are Done was an utter joy to read: the fandom’s love and connection to each other is evident on every single page, and that kind of love is absolutely what the world needs right now. To be honest, I didn’t want this book to end, and I’m looking forward to reading Ms. Zubernis’s other works at some point as well.

“Because family really don’t end with blood. And those of us who have been part of the SPNFamily, whose lives have been changed for the better by this show, are now a little more able to ‘carry on.'”

There’ll Be Peace When You Are Done is a beautiful, moving testament to a television show that transcended the bounds of pop culture and changed what it means to be a fan, and we’re all the better for it. Carry on, friends, and Always Keep Fighting.

Huge thanks to NetGalley for allowing me to read and review this wonderful book!

Visit Lynn Zubernis’s website, Fangasm the Book, here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

I’ll Be There For You: The One about Friends- Kelsey Miller

Settle back on the comfy couch in your favorite local coffeehouse and grab yourself a latte in an oversized mug, because Kelsey Miller’s I’ll Be There For You: The One about Friends is an entertaining read that delves into nostalgia without hesitating to examine the more problematic areas of arguably the biggest cultural TV phenomenon of the 90’s.

Friends debuted in September of 1994, during my freshman year of high school, and nearly everyone I knew watched it. While I never had a ‘Rachel,’ Jennifer Aniston’s iconic haircut, we did own a copy of The Rembrandts’ tape that featured the Friends theme song, and my mother had a Central Perk sweatshirt that I would occasionally borrow (and always feared spilling something on). For folks older than me, Friends was a reminder of those years just after you’d flown the nest and your friend group was everything; for people my age, it was a glimpse into the future, of all that could be possible and the friends who would support us as we made our way in the world.

Ms. Miller recalls the show’s origins, from the meeting of David Crane and Marta Kauffman in college, their time working together in theater, their pilots that didn’t quite get off the ground, and their initial success with Dream On, which eventually earned them an Emmy. I was charmed to know that the first iteration of the show was originally titled Insomnia Café, followed by Friends Like Us, then Six of One (changed to this to differentiate from the other NBC series in development at the time titled Friends Like Mine, which was later renamed Ellen) before it returned to simply Friends. This is followed by a brief history of each of the cast: where they grew up, how they got into the industry (Matt LeBlanc was originally training in carpentry and working in construction; Lisa Kudrow graduated from Vassar with a BS in biology and had plans for med school; Matthew Perry beat up Justin Trudeau when they were 10. Could that be any more hilarious???), and how they were selected, including other actors and actresses who auditioned and/or were offered the parts.

She follows the show through each season, reminiscing about the more memorable episodes and the many bits and pieces of the show that nestled comfortably into our cultural jargon (Smelly Cat, anyone?), never shying away from calling attention to the more problematic aspects of the series: its blinding whiteness, constant homophobia, slut shaming, fat jokes, transphobia. What makes this book different from so many of the scathing articles that have come out in the recent years detailing Friends‘ issues, though, is that Ms. Miller is quick to point out that for all those problems (many of which are viewed through that crystal-clear 20/20 lens of hindsight and cultural pivots), at the time, they were signs of growth. Ross’s ex-wife Carol married Susan on the show in what was the first televised lesbian wedding, and while it was bland and toned-down and lacked a kiss, it was there. The storyline of Chandler’s father, who was referred to only as gay, a drag queen, or the now-passé cross-dresser (and would nowadays most likely be referred to as transgender), might not have been handled perfectly, but she was there, at a time when transgender people were only ever seen as murder victims on Law & Order. These were steps forward- maybe even the steps that started us down the path to a world of more acceptance and understanding, and that’s no small thing. As someone who always felt uneasy about these aspects of the show, I appreciate this perspective. It wasn’t one I’d considered before.

The final chapter of the book contained a lot of new-to-me information, including the lawsuit brought by Amaani Lyle, a writer’s assistant, against Warner Brothers, due to harassment in the Friends writers’ room (a #MeToo case that took place before society was ready to listen). By the time Friends was in its final two seasons, I had a small child and had lost interest in a group of people whose lives were so very different from mine (although, in a horrible moment that I’ll never forget, the episode where Rachel tries to cook and ends up making a trifle with layers of custard, ladyfingers, jam, roast beef, peas and onions played as a re-run the night of my first hospitalization for hyperemesis gravidarum- you know, the kind of morning sickness that can kill you. URP). Reality TV had begun its dominance of the network schedule, the storylines had played out, and the cast was ready to move on…but Ms. Miller’s description of the taping of the final episode? Bittersweet, with a side of teary.

This is no celebrity exposé, nor is it a lurid tell-all with stories of infighting and on-set drama. While certain aspects of the casts’ personal life are mentioned- relationships, pregnancies, Matthew Perry’s drug addiction- they appear solely when relevant. Ms. Miller maintains clear focus on the show- its growth, how the cast grew with it, and how not only the US but the entire world changed because of it.

I’ll Be There For You is both a comfort read and an opportunity to remember where we were at the time Friends appeared, the paths it blazed, and the many things we’ve learned since those days. It’s a trek back to a simpler- though not necessarily better- time. There are no rose-colored glasses in this book, just an even-tempered, well-balanced examination of a beloved television show whose influence is still felt today. Now how about that latte?

Visit Kelsey Miller’s website here.

Follow Kelsey Miller on Twitter here.