An ‘Unorthodox’ Harmony

It’s good to know that even in quarantine, my old friend synchronicity can still visit me.

I watched the Netflix miniseries Unorthodox after reading the review from Vox‘s Alissa Wilkinson and am so glad I did. Based on the true story of a young ultra-Orthodox Jewish woman fleeing her community in Williamsburg, it’s just four episodes but packs a powerful punch.

(Spoilers ahead. Just go watch Unorthodox.)

Esty, the young woman, is 19 and married to Yanky, an equally young ultra-orthodox Jew who’s serious and withdrawn. When they don’t immediately conceive a child—as is the expectation in their religious and cultural milieu—their marriage strains to the point where Esty begins secretly orchestrating an escape.

One of the leitmotifs in the series is Esty’s relationship with music. Since in her community it’s considered immodest for women to perform in public, she hasn’t been able to live out her passion for music except through the memory of listening to her grandmother’s favorite choral music, and then only through taking piano lessons in secret with a neighbor.

When she does get the chance to perform later in the series, at an audition for a music academy, she first sings a Schubert piece that was a favorite of her grandmother. When asked to sing another, she digs for something even more personal. In The Thrillist, Esther Zuckerman describes this powerful moment:

In a strong chest voice, she starts to sing in Hebrew. The tune, which is never identified by name, is “Mi Bon Siach,” heard at weddings when the bride and groom are under the chuppah. It’s a melody that played when Esty and Yanky were getting married in the second episode, and Esty’s choice of it resonates with both rebellion and irony. It’s a song that should signify her bond to a man, but she’s turning it into something that can extricate her from that bond, using a voice that she wouldn’t have been able to use in her former world where women’s singing is prohibited.

And this is where synchronicity arrives. The day before starting Unorthodox I read the article “Contrapuntal Order: Music Illuminates Social Harmony” by John Ahern in First Things. A doctoral candidate in musicology at Princeton, Ahern writes about how the musical concepts of counterpoint and harmony relate to marriage and relationships. Counterpoint, he writes,

is the accumulation of multiple melodies. It is like Louis Armstrong playing an improvised tune on his trumpet at the same time as Ella ­Fitzgerald sings “La Vie en Rose”—two different melodies simultaneously. Neither is subordinate to the other, or, if there is subordination (perhaps we listen a little more to Ella’s voice than the trumpet), they are both melodies, a status that the piano, plunking out chords in the background, does not share. In true counterpoint, all the sound created is produced by people singing or playing melodies. If we lived several hundred years ago, we would say that “harmony” is what joins and holds together those melodies, their counterpoint, in a pleasing fashion.

I’ve always loved counterpoints in music. They’re a great way to juice up a final chorus, like in the climax of “Non-Stop” from Hamilton. And they are the perfect metaphor for the relationship between Esty and Yanky, and between the competing “melodies” within Esty during her time of personal and spiritual upheaval.

As Ahern writes, “when two melodies coexist, the glory is their coexistence. But there is no harmony among things that are too dissimilar. The melodies must have an awareness of and reliance on each other in order to live in concord.” However, “if the two melodies resemble each other too closely, they lose their identity. The glory of harmony, of concord, is that the elements are different.”

Having grown up in the same cloistered culture with a shared worldview, Esty and Yanky were arguably too similar to inhabit true harmony. Especially since as a woman in a severely conservative milieu, Esty had no true autonomy and no identity outside of being a baby-maker (which she says explicit in the show).

Unorthodox is the story of how that changes. Esty’s journey from passivity to power—paralleled by Yanky’s own existential awakening—mirrors the counterpoint view of marriage, which creates harmony in its original sense by allowing and even demanding coexistent voices. This contrasts with the more conservative “complementarian” model of marriage, with one spouse (usually the wife) filling in around whatever space the other (husband) inhabits. In the older sense of harmony, writes Ahern:

one person singing is no threat at all to another person singing. Sounds are not quantities or physical objects; for one to exist in the same space as one another is not only possible but desirable. The challenge is to get them to sound good together. This requires some chronological hierarchy—one party needs to lead and the other follow—but this, as we discovered above, does not mean that one party will sacrifice more autonomy than another. Both must sacrifice independence for the sake of symmetry.

Perhaps you can see now why this article spoke (or sang) to me while watching Unorthodox. Competing melodies in music and marriage can work only if they are composed with intention and care within a shared song. How Esty’s melodies do or do not harmonize within herself and with Yanky are what make Unorthodox so compelling, and I encourage you to seek it out.

(I also recommend reading Ahern’s article in full for a much richer explication of the counterpoint theory.)

On the magical realism of Mister Rogers

My now one-year-old and I have slowly been going through the episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood available on Amazon Prime. He’s generally not interested in extended screen time at this point, but Mister Rogers is one of the few figures he recognizes and enjoys. (Along with Alex Trebek. #proudpapa)

There’s not much I can say about Fred Rogers that hasn’t already been said. The man was a genius. And the show, which I hadn’t seen since I was a kid, remains both ahead of its time and outside of it. Its deliberately unhurried pace, humanist ethos, and intellectual respect for its young audience make it almost anti-TV, something I couldn’t have realized as a kid.

Now being on the other side of parenthood, I find watching it a delightful and enriching experience for me and for my son. Rogers’ short bits of wisdom sprinkled throughout the episodes in word and song are deceptively simple, poetic, and actionable. He had such a unique way of communicating that it has its own name: Freddish.

At first I skipped the parts in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe because they’re kinda cheesy. I much prefer Fred hanging around his house doing crafts, singing, and breakdancing. But I’ve come to appreciate how those make-believe times blend the show’s “real” people and plots with the imaginary King Friday XIII and crew.

That kind of magical realism was at the forefront of Marielle Heller’s film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, which is based on the making of Tom Junod’s 1998 Esquire article about Rogers called “Can You Say…Hero?” The movie plays out as one long episode of the show, the main difference being that Lloyd, the Junod stand-in played by Matthew Rhys, finds himself becoming involved in the show. Picture Picture turns into a flashback from Lloyd’s life, and Tom Hanks’ Rogers displays a photo board of characters from the show (which happened on a real episode I watched not long before seeing the movie), one of which ends up being Lloyd.

This blurring of fact and fiction works on two different levels. First, it honors the show’s commitment to showcase real-world experiences alongside its pretend adventures—a dynamic that mirrors the way young children actually experience the world.

Second, it abides by Rogers’ expressed intention to act on the show as if he were speaking to one specific child rather than an audience of millions. He really, truly believed that one person—Lloyd in the movie’s case—was special and deserved his full attention and love. (Aren’t they the same thing?)

That’s the genius of Fred Rogers: he was real, but he seemed magical. He wasn’t a saint, as his wife Joanne explains in the movie. He had to work at being good and getting better just like anyone else. But that’s the kind of neighbor we all should want and aspire to be.

Paper Only! No TVs

This sign is posted in the parking lot outside my work. Why “NO TV’s”? A while ago someone left an old TV next to what they thought was a dumpster for trash but is actually a dumpster for paper recycling. But only people who had seen the TV there before it got picked up will understand the odd specificity of the sign.

It’s still a great sign without that context, because paper is the far superior technology.

The Crown

As a patriotic American, I am against the British monarchy on principle. That hasn’t stopped me from loving Netflix’s The Crown. I’m here to echo all the good things you’ve heard about it, specifically the performances of Claire Foy as the Queen and Matt Smith as Phillip. That said, I think swapping in a new cast for the next two seasons is a great idea. Much better than trying to falsely age younger actors with makeup.

To Binge Or Not To Binge?

There’s been some debate recently about whether binge-watching a TV show on DVD or online is good or bad. While I must confess I have gone on a few TV benders, usually with the intention of catching up on a series before its most recent season premiered, there’s something about watching a show live on TV, weekly wait and all, that is simultaneously frustrating and exciting.

For instance, watching the fifth season of Mad Men as it unfolded during this summer allowed me to engage in the speculative water cooler talk with my fellow Mad Hatters after each episode and during the following week that makes watching live television communal and fun. This approach fit conveniently with the series slow-burning style itself, so I didn’t feel like I needed to rush through it (even though that’s exactly what I did with seasons one through three on DVD two years ago).

Conversely, I plowed through all five seasons of The Wire in about three weeks on DVD – a common occurrence, I’d bet, given the series’ relative unpopularity during its run (and HBO’s prices). I couldn’t just watch one episode at a time, which is why watching TV on DVD can be so hazardous: find a gripping, well-written show like The Wire on DVD and then say goodbye to sleep, exercise, and any semblance of productivity. In high school the first two seasons of Lost consumed my nights so thoroughly it’s a wonder I passed classes that semester (good thing I was a second-semester senior).

So, I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter how I consume television as long as the show itself is good. James Poniewozik of Time magazine says as much in his pro-binge post:

[A good story is] resilient. It will take whatever viewing (or reading, or listening) conditions you throw at it. And if its effect depends on ‘maintaining a timeline,’ or waiting a year to find out how Jack and Kate go back, or even reading morning-after reviews by idiots like me—it was probably never worth bingeing on to begin with.

So if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go rent Deadwood on DVD and then watch the season premiere of Breaking Bad on TV.

The Ten Commandments Of Watching ‘LOST’ In A Group

1. Thou shalt be caught up.

2. Thou shalt hold all questions until commercial breaks.

3. Thou shalt not bring a friend who hath not seen Lost or hath not been caught up.

4. Thou shalt offer theories upon the conclusion of the episode.

5. Thou shalt not use the bathroom during the show and then ask thine friends what hath ocurreth.

6. Thou shalt not answer thy phone during the show.

7. Thou shalt make a claim as to thy favorite character and defend thy choice.

8. Thou shalt never attendeth a “Dress As Thy Favorite Lost Character” party. Thou art not a Harry Potter fan and therefore hath some self-respect.

9. Thou shalt pick between Sawyer and Jack.

10. Thou shalt have no other shows before Lost.

It Sure Is, Max!

Late Night with Conan O’Brien is the only late-night talk show I watch consistently. I watch The Daily Show and The Colbert Report for the political satire, but I watch Late Night for the utter wackiness. Besides Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, my favorite reoccuring segment is “Small Talk Moment with Max and Conan.” I laugh every time they do it.

They “discuss” many different topics, but the best part is always the end of the skit when Conan says “It sure is, Max!” will a ridiculous smile and half-laugh and then they exchange dead-pan stares. Now that’s must-see TV.

I Never Really Processed 9/11…

It’s good to see the Office back again. Here are my favorite parts of the season 5 premiere (possible spoilers ahead!):

–Another classic Psychopath Jan moment: Jan: “Remember last week when that girl went missing? Guess whose candles they used for the vigil.” Kevin: “Yeah, thank God they found her.” Jan: “They found her?”

–When Holly discovers Kevin is not mentally-challenged is a classic painfully awkward Office moment. Angela’s response was hilarious too.

–Andy’s four non-refundable deposits on wedding locations, one of which is Epcot.

–Ryan is back. I can’t say I ever liked Ryan as a character. I realize he’s supposed to be sort of unlikeable, but whatever. The fact that he now has a list of people who wronged him, and how he “never really processed 9/11” is hilarious though.

–Phyllis is now the head of the Party Planning Committee. And the best line of the episode belonged to her: “I wonder what people like about me. Probably my jugs.”

–Pam is an RA! Rockin’ sockin’. I love Jim got kicked out because Pam had to deal with roommate issues. So true.

–Toby just can’t catch a break. Apparently what happened to Toby actually happened to one of the Office writers.

–Is it just me, or is there some conflict brewing between Jim and Pam? Their phone conversation that eventually switched to instant messanger had a smack of disappointment from Pam. Who knows. We have a whole season ahead of us.

Also, I totally predicted after last season’s finale that Jim would propose in the first episode, or at least within the first two. Called it.

Kristen Wiig = Hilarious

I’m always annoyed when people say Saturday Night Live isn’t as good as it used to be. It’s unfair to judge a group of relatively unknown performers against their much more famous predecessors. Especially when their predecessors and their funniest skits have had time to become more popular and time-tested.

That said, these first two episodes of SNL, with the exception of their two opening skits, have been sub-par. And I’m one of those people who can appreciate the more farcical and ridiculous skits that don’t make it on air until 11:45 (Central time).

But what has stood out to me for a few years now is Kristen Wiig. She is freaking hilarious. With Amy Poehler leaving the show after the election to give birth and star in her own sitcom (which is also freaking awesome), I’m glad there will be a strong female character with weirdo characters and the complete lack of inhibition when it comes to performing. She’ll also probably have to take over Amy Poehler’s brilliant, Emmy-nominated Hillary Clinton impersonation when Amy leaves.

And, boy, are Kristen Wiig’s characters weird. In a good and funny way. Some of my favorites: the Surprise party enthusiast, the female half of the “Two A-holes”, the Jar Glove ad, Aunt Linda the film critic, and Penelope the one-upper. She finds a voice and a quirky tic and absolutely sells it. Complete dedication to character.

Her impressions, as well, are killer. Especially that of Pam Beesley from The Office.

Anyway, I’ll keep watching SNL because it’s still funny. And because Kristen Wiig is finally finding the center stage.