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Tuesday, January 15, 2013


I am an early riser.  I get up at five, sometimes earlier.  This is considered virtuous, but of course it is nothing of the sort.  After all, I go to bed typically at eight p.m. or so [with an hour or more up in the middle of the night-- when you are seventy-nine, you will understand.]  It was not always so.  As a young student at Harvard, in the very early fifties, I did not even begin to study until close to midnight.  Then I would work feverishly until four or five a.m., and fall into bed exhausted.  In those days, bankers kept bankers' hours, and banks closed at 2 p.m.  I had to make plans to get to the bank on time to make a withdrawal [this was before ATM machines.]


The Army changed all that.  In Basic Training, they got me up roughly when I had been accustomed to go to sleep.  After six months [that was all the active duty I had to put in as a member of the Yankee Division of the Massachusetts National Guard], I was totally turned around.  By the time my Instructorship started at Harvard, I was getting to my office at 7 a.m. to prepare for my ten o'clock class.  [I needed that much time because I was teaching European History, a subject about which I had known nothing when offered the job.]


All of which explains why I never see prime time television.  I cannot even manage to stay up long enough to see The Rachel Maddow Show from eight to nine.  I catch it the next day on my computer.


But I have Netflix, and in addition to movies, Netflix offers runs of evening adventure and cop type shows.  A while back, I stumbled on Bones.  I watched about seven seasons of the show, several a day or even more, waiting with bated breath for Seeley Booth and Temperance Brennan to get it on.  When they finally fell into bed and had a baby, I sort of lost interest.


My latest obsession is Alias, a rather weird spy show that ran from 2001 to 2006 and made Jennifer Garner a star.  [One of the odd things, for me at least, is that "Jennifer Garner" is the name of the Associate Registrar at Bennett College, a lovely lady who, to the best of my knowledge, is not adept at kick-boxing and is not a double agent for the CIA -- but then, how would I know if she were?]  I did not even know that Alias existed until Netflix, which keeps careful track of what I click on, suggested several weeks ago that I might enjoy the show.  I am probably the only sentient human on the face of the earth who was unaware of the show's existence, but since it is totally unhinged from reality, it does not really matter whether I watch episodes as they appear or ten years later.  I have now worked my way through the first season [twenty-one episodes] and am well into the second season.


Like all successful shows, whether Soaps or prime time series, Alias is essentially an endless examination of the interpersonal relationships of a dysfunctional family [cue the opening line of Anna Karenina.]   In the case of Alias, the core family is a CIA double agent [the father] who has infiltrated a rogue operation masquerading as a CIA off-the-books black ops shop but is really part of an international alliance of bad guys rather unimaginatively called The Alliance, a KGB secret agent who seduced the CIA agent in order to obtain information about a plan to train six year old kids as spies, bore the CIA agent a daughter, faked her own death, and has been a super bad guy ever since [the mother], and the star of the show [the daughter], who is, like all little girls, trying to sort out her feelings for her mother and her father.  The daughter is a double agent who specializes in kick-boxing and seems to speak about eighteen languages flawlessly.  Her cover is that she is doing a doctorate in English Lit, which -- this is the only realistic element in the entire show -- does not take much of her time.


Stylistically, the show is a crossed between the James Bond movies, with each episode featuring travelogue-quality scenes of exotic locations, and the Mission Impossible movies, in which the main character is adept at every possible special skill useful to spies, from lock-picking and bomb-defusing to rappelling down skyscrapers and performing on-the-spot surgery.


Jennifer Garner is lovely and suitably forlorn as the heroine, but I have really fallen in love with Lena Olin, who surfaces late in the first season as the mother [her husband, Ken Olin, seems to have directed a good many of the episodes.]  Olin is beautiful, and enough closer to my own age to permit me the sorts of fantasies I could never have about someone as unformed as Jennifer Garner.  She is also a terrific actress, so that just watching the succession of expressions that flicker across her face is a pleasure.


The show is rather complex and ambiguous morally [the principal bad guy gets a lot of screen time and is touchingly devoted to his wife, which makes hating him a bit challenging], but the plotting is formulaic to the max.  The fourth or fifth time Jennifer Garner disarms a professional assassin holding a gun on her with an implausible kick-boxing move, your suspension of disbelief becomes a bit less willing.


The show has once again confirmed my basic judgment about great works of literature, which is that they are well-written soap operas or crime shows.  I mean, the torments of Oedipus and Hamlet are not, psychodynamically, that different from those of Nick Newman in The Young and the Restless. 




Carl said...

Actually, Lena Olin and Ken Olin are not married, or otherwise related.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

No kidding. Well, I have just facilitated another internet myth. Oh well. But Wikipedia tells me that Jennifer Garner is married to Ben Affleck. How cool is that?

Jim said...

Professor Wolff --

I agree with your assessment that many great works of literature are similar to soap operas or crime shows. When I first read Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment", I immediately drew comparisons with the television show "Columbo". The same literary device is used: you the reader witness the crime at the beginning of the story. The so-called fun lies in watching how the detective catches his criminal -- usually via psychological methods. In "Crime and Punishment", the character of Porfiry is akin to the character of Columbo. Note that a similar scenario can be found in Woody Allen's 2005 film, "Match Point", except in that film the criminal gets away with the crime. This formula is also employed in an unbelievably well-written non-fiction book entitled "Morandi's Last Prophecy and the End of Renaissance Politics" by Brendan Dooley.

-- Jim

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Jim, it would be great fun to do a whole little book tracing the similarities between works of great literature and shlock fiction, and challenging the reader to explain why one is a classic and the other is beneath notice. I watched The Young and the Restless for twenty years before giving up on it [the writers had to introduce new characters because the old ones got too old even for face lifts and make up to handle], and I could situate a score of "great works of literature" in its plot twists and turns. The real fun would be in finding a great work of literature that was preceded by its shlock counterpart, not followed.

Unknown said...

Dr. Wolff when time permits I insist you watch The Wire.

Also I'd like to thank you for all the energy you've put into your blog over the years. I'm currently working on a philosophy/political science double major in Minnesota at an unimportant catholic university (unless you're a fan of d3 sports) and your writings here are always worth a read. So. Thank you.


Robert Paul Wolff said...

Thank you, Frank. I have heard The Wire mentioned many times but have not watched it. My wife and I do not have HBO and go to bed at about 8:30, so there is a whole world of TV we never see, but maybe it is available on Netflix. {I am almost finished watching all five seasons of ALIAS, which is a domestic comedy dressed up as a sci fi/spy/adventure/travelogue show.]