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Journalist, Author, Columnist. My Twitter handle: @seemagoswami

Thursday, January 3, 2019

HIt me baby, one more time!

Here are just some iconic TV shows I would love to see in a brand new avatar

You cannot imagine my delight when I heard that Murphy Brown was going to be back on our television screens, with a much older (and presumably much wiser) Candice Bergen making her comeback on fictional TV network. For those of you who were born too late to know what I am talking about, this was a TV series that created a fair bit of controversy in its day (in the Ronald Reagan-Bush senior era) when its lead star, a TV anchor called Murphy Brown, decided to become a single mother. 

Well, the first two episodes of the Murphy Brown reboot just dropped and I have to say that the new series is quite as good as the original. Actually, if anything it is even better. I don't want to post any spoilers but any show that has its lead character getting into a Twitter battle with President Donald Trump in the very first episode has my vote. 

But even I chortled and chuckled at the best lines, I couldn't help but think of the various other shows I had enjoyed in my childhood and my youth, which I would love to see recast for my middle age. Here is just a short sampling of them. 

The West Wing

This rates as my favourite TV series ever. I have seen some of the episodes so often that I know the lines by heart. Earlier, I used to dip into the box set I had bought of all seven seasons. But now that it is available on Amazon Prime, I binge on it even more often.

Most fellow fans who would also like to see the series revived - ideally with Aaron Sorkin as the lead writer, producer and director - tend to favour Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) as the new President of the USA. But my money is on C.J. Cregg (Alison Janney) as the first woman American President. It's about time, wouldn't you say? And if it's never going to happen in reality, then I will happily settle for fiction instead.

But at the end of the day, it doesn't really matter who plays the President. The original West Wing derived its strength from the strong ensemble cast, its overarching story line, and of course, some brilliant writing. Who can forget the banter between Josh and his loyal secretary Donna? Or the acerbic Toby's sarcastic asides which often stole the scene effortlessly? Or indeed, President Bartlet's tendency to bore everyone to death with his endless prattling on about facts and figures.

But more than anything else, I do wish the West Wing would come back with its bracing idealistic vision of a world in which liberal values are the lodestar. If nothing else, it would provide a strong counterpoint to the goings-on in the actual West Wing!

Yes, Minister

My second-favourite political show of all time. Here again, the writing was of such superlative quality that the original series hasn't dated at all. But wouldn't it be fun if someone like Armando Iannucci (of The Thick Of It and Veep fame) recast Yes, Minister - and later, Yes, Prime Minister - in the times of Theresa May, Boris Johnson and, of course, Donald Trump.

My personal preference would be to have a blond buffoon like Boris Johnson (albeit one with hidden depths of cunning and chutzpah) in Number 10, Downing Street, setting off crisis after crisis both in domestic politics and international polity. Just the thought of it makes me giggle. 

Friends

Yes, yes, I know all the cast members have announced at various times that they have no intention of doing a reboot of the series. And on the rare occasions when they have conceded the possibility of a revival, it's always to add that it will never happen because Jennifer Aniston will never agree.

Well, frankly, much as I loved Rachel Green, I would be happy to settle for a Jennifer Aniston-less Friends. They can pretend that she's gone off to Paris to work in the fashion world (maybe have her call in occasionally) and let the rest of the cast get on with it. 

Monica and Chandler would be living in suburbia, bringing up their teenage twins (we don't have to be chronologically accurate, do we?), with Joey living in the garage flat, after he's lost all his money after an acrimonious divorce. Ross could be on his fourth wife and a new set of children. And Phoebe would have her own spa empire, with Mike playing house husband. 

I can't wait to see what the friends make of the 21st century, of Twitter and Instagram, and the woke Millennials that their kids are turning out to be. 

Could I be more exited? Nah, I don't think so.

Boston Legal

As legal dramas go, this one was in a class of its own. A superbly talented cast led by William Shatner, Candice Bergen (yes, her again) and James Spader, this show has both dramatic intensity and comic relief in equal measure. I suspect that in the #MeToo era, Shatner could not possibly get up to some of the politically incorrect stuff he did in the original series. But then, he did marry Spader in the last episode (for tax reasons, not because they belatedly discovered they were homosexual). And he would probably be a hundred years old in the reboot, anyway.

So maybe a new, younger cast, led by Spader and some of the other familiar faces, may make sense. So long as the law cases remain as tricky, the characters as eccentric and the writing as quirky, we could be on a winner. 

Switching off

Baby steps to a digital detox…

My moment of epiphany came when scrolling through Twitter, I came upon an article on internet addiction, described it as the most widespread malaise of our times. As I scrolled through the piece on my phone (where else?) I realized that I was exhibiting all the classic signs of internet addiction.

What was the first thing I did on getting up in the morning?

I checked my phone to see if any mails or calls had come through while I was asleep.

Did I check my social media feeds even before I brushed my teeth?

Oh yes, indeed. Most mornings, I dropped into Twitter before I visited the bathroom.

Did I turn off my phone at night?

Are you kidding? I don’t think I have turned off my phone for a good year at least. It stays on 24/7, and remains in my vicinity day and night (it has its own little sweet spot on my nightstand, within easy reach, when I go to bed). 

As I read on, getting increasingly concerned, I decided then and there that it was time to conduct a digital detox of sorts. I needed to wean myself off my addiction to the Internet before I got my brain rewired completely (and developed attention deficit disorder in the bargain).

So, over the last week or so, I have been taking baby steps on my way to a digital detox. And here’s what you need to do, for starters, if you would like to join me.

Turn off notifications: This has made an enormous difference to how I use my phone. Earlier, the ‘pings’ that would announce the arrival of an e-mail or message, an Instagram like or a Twitter mention would distract me countless times during the day. And no matter how hard I tried to resist this siren call when I was working, it was hard not to click on to the phone to see just what was happening in the virtual world. After all, I told myself, it could be something important. (Spoiler alert: it hardly ever was.) But once I turned off the notifications and let the sound of silence fill its space, I found that I could concentrate much better on my actual work, without breaking off to check my social media feeds.

Turn wifi off on my laptop: Once the Internet is not accessible on your computer, the incentive to take a ‘break’ to surf through news or gossip websites, or even play a game of online Scrabble or Sudoku drops considerably. Speaking for myself, I had a tendency to conduct ‘research’ alongside writing my next book. But before you could say ‘Google’ I had fallen down the rabbit hole of the Net, navigating from one site to another to pursue topics that had no real relevance to what I was working on. Well, that’s all in the past now. Now, I’m all work on the laptop and all play when I’m on my tablet. And that’s working out pretty well for me. Try it.

Keep your phone out of the bedroom: This is essential if you want to wind down and get a good night’s sleep. The blue light emitted by your phone screen inhibits melatonin production and, thus, prevents you from falling asleep. So, if you insist on scrolling through Facebook or Twitter in bed, well then, you are going to stay awake a while longer. The only way you can get your quota of eight hours sleep is if you stop looking at your phone at least a couple of hours before you retire to bed. And if you have your phone within easy reach, the temptation to take just a little looksee will be hard to resist. Much better to leave it in the living room before you head for the bedroom. If you need to read something before you nod off, reach for a book instead.

Assign time limits to your social media usage: The best way to do this is to get your social media apps off your phone. If you can’t access your feeds on your phone at a moment’s notice you will, perforce, check into Instagram and Facebook less often. But if that seems like a step too far, well then, you will just have to exert some discipline. Ease yourself out of your habit gently. Allow yourself to check in at hourly intervals at first. Then take a couple of hours in between logging in. And then, when you have weaned yourself off that constant dopamine fix that instant approbation gives, just click on every morning and evening – just enough to keep in touch, and just enough to avoid being sucked in again.

Carve out a period during the day when you set your phone aside so that you can just be in the moment. Leave it at home when you go for a walk. Switch it off as you have lunch with your mother. Don’t take it into the kitchen when you are cooking dinner. Place it facedown when you have breakfast with the children. Prioritize your real life over the virtual one. Trust me, you won’t regret it.

Bye-bye buy-buy

Don’t waste time shopping on your travels; enjoy the destination instead

The one question you are guaranteed to be asked when you come back from vacation is: “Did any shopping?” Or perhaps: “What did you buy?”

In my case, the answer is always a resounding: “Nothing at all!”

Frankly, the last thing I feel like doing on holiday is shopping. Why would I want to spend hours in some poky shop or a soulless department store or even a tony boutique when I could be pounding the streets of a new destination and getting to know it better? Why would I try on yet another linen shirt in a badly-lit changing room when I could be out there, downing a drink while getting my fill of an amazing sunset? Why would I want to browse through endless racks of shoes when there are restaurants to check out and museums to visit?

Short answer is: I wouldn’t. I have never really seen the point of shopping when I am on holiday. And now, even more so, when thanks to the homogenization of our world, no matter where you go, the same brands and labels thrust themselves in your face in city after city.

It doesn’t matter whether you are in London, Paris, Rome, Lisbon, Johannesburg or Buenos Aires, the same luxury brands – Chanel, Hermes, Louis Vuitton, Armani, Versace – crop up again and again. It is much the same story in the mid-market segment, or on the high street. Zara rubs shoulders with Marks and Spencer; H&M sits cheek by jowl with Topshop; L’Occitane chugs along nicely with Body Shop. And when it comes to liquor or perfume, the same labels are available all over the world (though the duty-free zone after you’ve checked in for your return flight is still your best bet).

So why waste time shopping on holiday when – no matter what your taste or your budget – you can buy pretty much the same stuff in your own city? In fact, some of the brands are actually cheaper back home than they are abroad – with the added bonus that you don’t have the palaver of finding space in your suitcase, and then worry about the excess baggage fees you will have to cough up at the airport.

I can see some of you shaking your heads sadly at this. Surely, you say, there is so much more to shopping in foreign parts than just clothes, bags and beauty products. There are, for instance, indigenous arts and crafts that I should be hoovering up and bringing back home to serve as mementoes of my travels. Those lovely silk cushions from Bangkok; that landscape portrait the roadside artist painted by the Seine; wooden carvings from Africa; the list goes on and on.

Well, thanks but no thanks. The truth is that there is nothing I find more dispiriting than the ‘souvenirs’ that are on display for the benefit of unsuspecting travellers in every great city of the world. More often than not, they are not even made in the place they claim to represent, having been mass produced in some factory in China. (On a recent trip to Venice I discovered that the face masks on display around St Marks Square and the glass that purported to come from Murano were actually the work of Chinese manufacturers, who can knock them off at a much cheaper price.) And while they may look nice and exotic while hanging in the shop window, they look cheap and nasty when you bring them back and grant them pride of place in your home.

The only shops I make an exception for in my travels are those that sell food and groceries. I can spend an entire afternoon in markets that sell fruits, vegetables and flowers. I revel in the colours – the bright red of the apples, the shocking orange of the tangerines, the green of the asparagus. I inhale the wonderful smells – of everything from the narcissus blooms to the heaps of dried lavender. I may not buy anything more than a few persimmons and a bunch of tulips, but just feasting my eyes on all that plenty is enough to keep me satiated.

The other places I love browsing through are the food halls at supermarkets across the world. Just looking at all the stuff on display – the endless varieties of sausages, cold meats, cheese, yoghurt, bakery products, chocolates, etc. – and watching the shoppers fill their trolleys makes me feel as if I am part of the tapestry of everyday life in the city, a local if you will, if only in my own mind.

In fact, it is only in food shops that I relax my no-shopping-on-holiday rule. There is a special pleasure in coming back to your hotel, laden with local, ready-to-eat delicacies, and fashioning an impromptu picnic in your room. And sometimes these treats are so delicious that you can’t resist buying a few more to bring back home, so that the taste of the holiday lingers in your life for just a little bit longer.

The Sachertorte from Vienna; the musk melon from Bangkok; the chorizo from Barcelona; the egg tart from Lisbon; a tiny truffle from Piedmont. 

Now these are things it is worth making space in your suitcase for. Tourist tat? Designer brands? Perfume and liquor? Not so much.
  

Can't cook? Or won't cook?

You can take pride in one, not the other

“I can’t cook.” I’ve lost count of the number of times I have heard this phrase over the last few years. It is uttered by both men and women, old and young, married and single people. Lacking the ability to cook is, apparently, an equal opportunity offence.

Yes, you read that right. I did use the word ‘offence’. And that’s because, as far as I am concerned, not being able to cook is to lack a vital life skill - you know the kind that keeps you alive. And for the life of me I cannot fathom why people take such pride in announcing that they don’t possess it.

Before you all write in irately, I am well aware that in our modern age those who don’t know how to fry an egg will not go to bed hungry. That our world is heaving with restaurants that will keep them well fed (and perhaps better fed) if they don’t know how to cook. That if these non-cooks don’t choose to venture out they can order in everything from Hakka noodles to sushi rolls to channa bhaturas. And that most middle-class folk in India can afford to hire a part-time cook who comes by once a day and stocks their fridge with food that they can re-heat for lunch and dinner.

So, I accept that in this day and age, it is often not necessary to cook at all.

I can also get on board with the fact that many people simply don’t want to cook. That they have demanding jobs that leave them drained at the end of the day and they don’t want to come home and spend a couple of hours in a hot kitchen sweating in front of the gas range. Some of them may just not enjoy cooking even though they have all the time in the world to rustle up delicious meals. And then there are those who are simply not good at this cooking malarkey and don’t wish to show themselves up every time they step up to the stove.

There are as many reasons to not cook as there are cuisines in this world. But there really is no reason why anyone should take pride in the fact that they can’t cook at all.

I can understand where this pride comes from though. At the most basic level, it is an announcement of privilege. Other people may need to feed themselves but not me. I have a wife/cook/expense account to keep me in three course meals complete with dessert. For women this pronouncement comes imbued with the whiff of feminism as well. After centuries of being stuck in the kitchen while the men went off and conquered the world it feels empowering to announce that you have no use for the kitchen.

But that, if you ask me, is not the same as announcing that you have no use in the kitchen. That is an entirely different matter. And one that I don’t believe anybody - man or woman - should take pride in.

I am by no means suggesting that everyone needs to sign up for Cordon Bleu lessons or even invest in a full set of Nigella Lawson cookbooks. No, you don’t need to go the full Domestic Goddess by any means.

What you should be able to do is to feed yourself more than Maggi noodles or chocolate biscuits if you are left to your own devices.

This is the point when most people will point out that there is something joyless about cooking for yourself. Why go to all that bother when the only person at the table is you?

Well, you should go to all that bother precisely because the only person at the table is you.

You deserve better than a hastily slapped together sandwich with mayonnaise and cold meat. Or a packet of crisps and a Diet Coke. Or even a wedge of cheese and some crackers. You deserve a meal that some time and effort has gone into. Because you are worth that time and effort.

Trust me on this because I speak from experience. When I was growing up I didn’t so much as venture into the kitchen because that was my mother’s domain and she didn’t welcome any interlopers. So my first experience of cooking for myself came when I moved to Delhi into a tiny little barsati with an even tinier kitchen. That’s where my cooking adventures began - with a humble dish of scrambled eggs that I ate on the terrace while breathing in the fumes of traffic. And nothing I had eaten up to that point matched that taste of freedom, independence and yes, self-care.

Since then I have graduated to rustling up Italian risottos, Thai curries and Chinese stir-fries. And yes, there are still days when I don’t want to cook. But I will never ever say again that I can’t cook. And I do take pride in that.

Screen time

There’s nothing quite as fun as seeing a beloved book series make the transition to television

For the longest time ever, I have wondered why Daniel Silva’s creation, the Israeli spy, Gabriel Allon, does not get the James Bond (or even the Jason Bourne) treatment. For those who have not read Silva’s series of spy novels, Allon is a marvelous creation, art restorer by day and assassin by night (and sometimes the other way around), with a personal tragedy in his past life that haunts him to this day, even though a second marriage to a gorgeous Italian woman and a new family has eased his pain somewhat.

Allon always seemed like a character made for the movies to me. But, it turns out that he is destined to make his mark on the small screen, with MGM Television having acquired the rights to the collection of Silva’s Allon novels. So, Gabriel Allon will be arriving on a TV screen somewhere near you nearly 18 years after he first came to life in The Kill Artist (published in 2000) and I, for one, can’t wait.

As if this news wasn’t enough to send me into ecstasies, it turns out that another of my favourite novelists is having her works turned into a television show as well. Production on Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend – the first book of her Neapolitan quarter – is underway in Caserta, Italy. The book will be turned into an eight-episode TV series set in Naples, telling the story of Lenu (Elena Greco) and Lila (Raffaella Cerullo), the two girls who find each other in childhood and go on to have a life-long friendship with its share of ups and downs. (And the best part is that the series – produced by HBO in collaboration with Rai Fiction – will have the characters speaking Italian, which will give it a certain verisimilitude that wouldn’t have been possible with an Italian cast spewing heavily-accented English.)

But no sooner had I finished celebrating all this good news than my inner Greedy Gretel got going. And now, I can’t stop fantasizing about some of my other much-loved book series being adapted for television, allowing me a glimpse of my favourite characters on the small screen.

Here’s just a small sampling of some of my fantasy TV series.

Donna Leon’s murder mysteries

Set in Venice, this series revolves around the career and life of one of the most engaging private detectives of modern fiction. Commissario Guido Brunetti is not your average tortured detective, smoking and drinking too much as he tries to cope with challenging cases and a dysfunctional family. No, that kind of clich├ęd writing is not for Leon. Her detective is a family man who walks home to lunch everyday to feast on the three-course meals served up by his intelligent and feisty wife, Paola, so that he can enjoy the company of his two children, Raffi and Chiara.

The crimes themselves are interesting enough but the real star of the series is the city of the Venice itself. You can almost smell the dank scents rising from the canali and calli of the city, see the winding streets that lead to the waters of the Grand Canal and the laguna, and marvel at the architecture of the beautiful buildings that keep Brunetti company as he walks to and back from work.

Strangely enough, only a German production house had filmed some of the stories though the series hasn’t been distributed widely. It’s time someone in the English-speaking world stepped up and gave us Venice and Brunetti in all their glory.

Georgette Heyer’s Regency Romances

Regular readers of this column will know what a dedicated fan of Heyer’s romances I am. So, it would be no exaggeration to say that I have spent the last two decades of my life waiting for someone to make a TV series based on her Regency novels. But much to my disappointment, while every ‘period’ work from Poldark to Howard’s End is regaling TV audiences across the world, nobody seems willing to give Heyer a shot.

It’s a baffling state of affairs. These are ready-made storylines, incredibly well-plotted, laced with humour and wit, and almost cinematic is their treatment. The characters are very well-drawn as well, both the dashing heroes and the sparkling, willful heroines who are no shrinking violets. And yet, nobody seems to have thought of bringing the lovely Arabella, the masterful Frederica or the amazing Grand Sophy to life.

Well, the first one who does will have a bonafide hit on his or her hands. Meanwhile, I live in hope.


Enid Blyton’s Mallory Towers series

These were my absolute favourite books growing up. I would devour them late into the night, reading by the light of a torch that I had smuggled into my bed. And then, when I finally fell asleep I would dream of midnight feasts, night-time swims, classroom pranks, and so much more, waking up even more determined than ever to go to boarding school.

Well, that never happened. So, I guess the next-best thing – now that I am all grown up – would be to be transported to the world of Mallory Towers via my TV screen. Strangely enough, while the Famous Five and Noddy have had their stints on television, Darrell Rivers and her friends at boarding school have never managed to make that transition.

And that’s a pity, if you ask me. It’s time a new generation of children was introduced to the antics of this group of girls: the sensible but hot-tempered Darrell, her best friend Sally Hope, the spoilt little brat Gwendoline Lacey and the resident joker Alicia Johns. And what better way to do that for this non-reading generation than through the medium of television?

Relatively speaking

It’s not just Meghan Markle; everyone has those family members from hell. The trick is how you deal with them 

You have to feel for Meghan Markle. The former TV actress who is now wife to Prince Harry and restyled as the Duchess of Sussex, has had the worst luck with her birth family ever since her engagement was announced. 

First it was her half-sister, Samantha Markle, and her half-brother, Thomas Markle Jr, who were trying their best to embarrass her. Samantha announced that she was going to publish a tell-all book called The Diary of Princess Pushy’s Sister. She also regularly went on Twitter rants, rebuking Meghan for being everything from a fraud to a hypocrite and berating Harry for having failed to see through her. Doing one better, Thomas Markle Junior, went so far as to write an open letter to Prince Harry, telling him that he was making a huge mistake marrying his sister, and that he would be best advised to call the wedding off.

So far so utterly charming. 

But if this was not enough, Meghan’s father soon joined the fray, doing his own bit to embarrass his soon-to-be-royal daughter. In the run-up to the wedding, Thomas Markle Sr was exposed as having staged paparazzi shots for which he was paid handsomely. Then, in a fit of embarrassment he declined to attend the wedding, at which he was to walk his daughter down the aisle, claiming (falsely, it turns out) to have had heart surgery.

After the wedding, he gave a series of interviews in which he revealed that his daughter wanted to get pregnant pronto. He gave away Prince Harry’s views on Brexit and Donald Trump, quite oblivious of the fact that royals are not supposed to air their opinions on politics in public.

And when, inevitably, his daughter froze him out – out of the fear of having every private conversation repeated to the press – he sat down with the Daily Mail for nine hours over three days to rail against Meghan for ‘ghosting him’, proclaiming that he had made her the Duchess she was today and that she would be ‘nothing’ without him.

Honestly, it’s enough to make you weep. You can just about make your peace with siblings (okay, half-siblings) saying awful things about you. But to have your own father spew such bile must be a hard cross to bear. More so since Meghan is now bound by the rules of the British royal family, which entail that one must “never complain, never explain”. So, she has to seethe in private while her father holds forth about how her mother-in-law, the late lamented Princess Diana, would have ‘loathed’ the way Meghan is treating him.

As toxic parents go, Thomas Markle Sr takes not just the biscuit but the entire bakery. He is entitled, obnoxious, narcissistic and impossible to shut up. So, how do you deal with someone like him, without losing your own sanity in the bargain?

Well, in case you are coping with a Thomas Markle of your own, here are a few pointers.

First off, don’t engage. In that, at least, Meghan Markle has the right idea. The only way to deal with people who bring toxic energy into your life, is to head them off at the pass. Don’t allow them any mindspace. Don’t respond to their micro and macro-aggressions. Meet their every utterance with a wall of silence. It will annoy them no end. It may make them step up their campaign of attrition. But over a period of time, when they are met with no response, they will have to admit defeat and leave you alone. Just be patient and hang in there until that happens.

Don’t feel guilty. Toxic family members will try their best to induce guilt about how you are treating them. Parents like Thomas Markle Sr will try and remind you how much you owe them, given how much they spent on your education. But that is not reason enough to keep toxic people in your life. If they need financial support then set up an arrangement. But don’t let people guilt-trip you into accepting toxic behavior as a given. You deserve better, and you should never forget that.

Don’t give in to emotional blackmail. Perhaps one of the most vile things that Thomas Markle Sr said in his interview to the Daily Mail was that it might be easier on Meghan if he died. That way at least people would have sympathy for her. Cue the violins. Daddy is at death’s door and that horrid daughter can’t even pick up the phone and call him. Yes, that’s right, she can’t. There is a reason for that. Daddy is using his health as a get-out-of-jail card. He is using his heart condition to tug at his daughter’s heartstrings. And there really can’t be a more cynical ploy than that. 

And last of all, surround yourself with positive energy to counteract all that negative energy that is targeting you. Go out with friends to watch a movie. Set some time aside to read a good book. Cook a nice meal. Feed your friends and family. When it all becomes too much for you, just step away from the world and go for a walk with just your music to keep you company. And in a world in which good and bad are constantly doing battle, always come down on the side of the good.