A first-time reader of TheNew York Times April 1 might have assumed that TV critic Alessandra Stanley embedded an April Fools’ joke in her review of PBS’ latest Mystery! entry, the two-part "Malice Aforethought."
After pointing out that the whodunit was based on the 1931 novel by Francis Iles, a pseudonym of British writer Anthony Berkeley Cox, Stanley wrote, "A little like the poet Weldon Kees, Cox was a well-known writer whose popularity did not survive his death."
Just when the reader might have expected the obvious analogy—"A lot like 99% of authors currently on the New York Times bestseller list…"—that joker Stanley instead had (kapow!) thrown in a comically obscure
reference to a Nebraska-born poet of heretofore unremarked-upon "popularity" at mid century.
But aficionados of Stanley’s writing about television just nodded appreciatively and scurried off to look up this Weldon Kees fellow, murmuring thanks once again for Stanley’s daring refusal to be bound by the conventions of TV criticism as she turns her Times platform into a sort of continuing-education course.
In case you missed a few classes this semester, we went over Stanley’s Times work since Jan. 1 and put together this crib sheet of her Half-Dozen Most Instructive Moments:
- March 25: Reviewing the USA Network’s new Kojak series with Ving Rhames, Stanley describes the difference between viewers’ "communal remembrance" of old shows and "the loneliness of Proustian recall—the feel of a bed pillow at Combray." Little-known fact: Telly Savalas’ red lollipop was madeleine-flavored.
- Feb. 22: A PBS Frontline documentary on the war in Iraq, "A Company of Soldiers," prompts Stanley to observe that a soldier’s-eye view of fighting can be "harrowing and true…be it the battle of Borodino, the invasion of Normandy or the assault on Falluja." What better way to dust off the communal remembrance of reading War and Peace as an undergrad than a passing reference to the 1812 battle during Napoleon’s push to Moscow? Ah, Moscow—where Stanley used to be stationed as a Times correspondent.
- Feb. 7: About the Super Bowl broadcast: "So much for Super Bowl Shariah," Stanley’s appraisal begins. "There was a lot of nervous chatter before last night’s game about a new reign of censorship, as if the Super Bowl were some kind of Salon des Refuses." And there you have it: In two sentences, a demonstration of how a continuing thirst for knowledge will broaden your mind, encouraging you to make thrilling and unexpected connections, like (1) the relationship between the FCC and the code of law based on the Koran, and (2) the relationship between Madison Avenue and the 1863 exhibition in Paris of art rejected by the judges of the official Salon—who apparently didn’t have access to video replays.
- Jan. 28: The A&E bio of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, See Arnold Run, Stanley points out, is "not a biography of Wittgenstein." That would be Ludwig Wittgenstein (1881-1951), the Austrian philosopher who did some heavy lifting to produce the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, but never admitted to using steroids.
- Jan. 21: Writing about the CBS crime drama Numb3rs, Stanley pauses a moment to mention: "There is an old Neapolitan expression meaning that someone is crazy, ‘Da i numeri’ (‘He gives numbers’). It comes from the lottery. Superstitious ticket buyers in Naples would ask asylum inmates to shout out numbers and then bet on whatever came to those unbalanced minds." Stanley is the former chief of the Times’ Rome bureau.
- Jan. 12: Trying to pin down the difference between Bravo’s Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and its
spinoff, Queer Eye for the Straight Girl, Stanley finds that a 1940s satire by the French playwright Jean Giraudoux gets the job done: "Giving Oscar Madison a makeover makes comic sense. It’s not quite as funny for the Madwoman of Chaillot." And to think: the Times doesn’t even have a Chaillot bureau.