Wednesday, June 21, 2017

My So-Called Reunion

In the fall of 1994, My So-Called Life debuted and immediately won critical praise and a dedicated fan-base, mostly of teenagers. Whereas most family shows at that time were sitcoms that dealt with “very special episodes” once a season, My So-Called Life was a drama that not only confronted those issues in nearly every episode, it did it casually, understanding that to most people these issues, not the regular sitcom fodder of homework or nosey neighbors, were the stuff of everyday life. Sadly, it only lasted for one season but if you were one of the lucky few, as I was, to be squarely in its target demographic, that one year felt like something special.

Come with me, won't you, back to a time of flannel, body suits, and unironically clashing fabrics...

I’d argue the show was one of the forerunners to what we would now call “prestige television” in that it featured many of the same components that would come to define shows like The Sorpanos, or Game of Thrones: a variety of characters with their own plotlines, a unified story told over an entire season, moral ambiguity in plots and character decisions, and a sense of the stakes changing from one episode to another; It felt like life because things evolved and the show didn’t return to the status quo at the end of each episode.

But the show’s hallmark was the ultra-realistic depictions of teenagers and how they related to each other and to the adults in their lives. The show had very few villains, outside of life itself. The show was even mocked at times for the halting, seemingly rambling speaking style of the kids. Adults heard it and felt frustrated, recognizing all the “…um”s and “whatever”s and “….sure”s they heard from their kids daily while teenagers recognized the secret emotional codes that each monosyllabic grunt conveyed.

That inability to communicate was a central theme the show played with constantly. Moreso, it is one that expressed itself not only in the action, but in the interpretation of that action as well. As such, how you viewed the show was very much a function of your age and where you happened to be in your life at the time.

Here’s an example: one episode focused on Angela’s scheme to hang out with the object of her affection, troubled dreamboat Jordan Catalano. Knowing that her parents would never be cool with her spending time with Jordan, she arranges to study at neighbor boy’s Brian’s house one evening, but upon arriving slips away for a clandestine meeting with Jordan. (The meeting is relatively chaste, stuck in that non-verbal, early teenage haze where two kids can barely say anything to each other that doesn’t feature the word “like” as a connector verb.)

At the end of the episode, Angela has a scene with her father, Graham, where he asks about her evening. I distinctly remember my reaction to that scene watching it when it aired in the fall of 1994. It went something like this:

Graham: So you were over at Brian Krakow’s tonight. Was that, like, a date?
Angela: Oh my God, Dad! <Makes frustrated teenage noise>
Me (watching from home): What is wrong with him? How could he think that is what was going on? Clearly she has no feelings for Brian whatsoever. Why does he even bother trying to talk to about this? He’s her dad – it’s not someone you say this stuff to. This is mortifying!

In other words, I had an utterly typical teenaged reaction. Which makes sense, really: I was 16 in 1994, roughly the same age as Angela. My So-Called Life was a revelation because it was the first time I had seen teenaged characters on TV who reacted like I did, who thought like I did, and who looked like I did. They had the same perspective and thoughts and worries. It made them feel real and not canned or codified like the teenage characters on sitcoms who didn’t so much have problems as wacky, 22-minute misadventures that would mostly either resolve themselves or result in someone Learning Something Important.

Then, several years later, a friend of mine had a copy of the entire series on DVD and we gleefully sat down to watch it. We got to that same episode and rewatched that same scene. And like before, I had a strong reaction, though this time it was different:

Graham: So you were over at Brian Krakow’s tonight. Was that, like, a date?
Angela: Oh my God, Dad! <Makes frustrated teenage noise>
Me (watching from home): What is wrong with her? He’s her father and clearly doting on her! All he wants is to be friends with her again and not have this hormonal teenage monster in his house. His approach is awkward, but he’s legitimately trying to show interest in her life. Why is she being such a brat and not seeing that?

And thus, in one swoop and across fifteen years, My So-Called Life showed me exactly when I crossed over to the other side from empathizing with the teenager, to empathizing with the parent even though I myself don’t have children. In retrospect, I think that shows how thoughtfully the show considered the perspectives of not only its teenage characters, but its adult ones as well.

We all grow up. Revisiting our youth can lead to some funny conclusions, not only about who we were but who we are now. Though My So-Called Life only ran for one season, its characters would have graduated Liberty High School in June of 1997, twenty years ago this month. In honor of this show that I still love for its perfect encapsulation of what it felt like to be a teenager in the (mostly) pre-internet 1990s, I started thinking about what would the lives of these people look like if the show were to drop back in on them twenty years after we saw them last. And so, here’s my take on what the 20-year class reunion for My So-Called Life might be:

Angela Chase
Then: ruminative teenager, emotional spendthrift, says “like” a lot
Now: mild-tempered adult, mother, author

The rocky shoals of adolescence were never navigated so fully as they were by Angela Chase. Like most teenagers, Angela experienced high school as a constant source of melodrama, albeit one that she would come to think of in more gilded terms. After high school, Angela attended University of Virginia on a scholarship, graduating with a degree in creative writing.  She eventually took a job writing for a non-profit in Boston where she met Chris, a lawyer. The two eventually became engaged in 2004 and married the following year. Their first child, Claire, was born in 2006, followed by a son, Grant, in 2008. Angela’s often laconic speaking and writing style expressed itself in her first novel, a story about a homeless teenage girl living on the streets of a nameless city which received praise for its “stark, understated style.” Angela continues to contribute steadily to several publications and is currently at work on her third book.

 Rayanne Graff
Then: Rebellious wild child, drug addict, new BFF to Angela
Now: Countess of Devon

After graduation, Rayanne’s life could only have gone in one of two directions: way down the spiral or way up to the clouds. She was destined either to be the repeat offender in the Pittsburg Downtown Rehab Clinic or finally come to terms with her own emotional issues and make some positive changes. Thankfully, she chose the latter, got (mostly) clean and finished an associate’s degree from community college. She managed to enroll as a non-traditional college student, earning her bachelor’s degree in psychology in 2002. In 2003, Rayanne met Charles Courtenay, Lord Courtenay and the son of the 18th Earl of Devon, England. After a whirlwind romance, the two married in 2004 and Rayanne relocated to London where she become the Countess of Devon after her father-in-law’s death in 2015. Rayanne and her husband have two children and the family are active in philanthropy.*

*Note: This one was easy to write. It actually happened.

Rickie Vasquez
Then: Troubled semi-homeless teenager, kind soul, bisexual
Now: Professional theatre owner, still kind, gay

Despite a rocky adolescence, Rickie managed to graduate from Liberty High on time and in good standing, largely through the help and support of his friends and his mentor, English teacher Mr. Katimski. After graduation, Rickie moved to New York City to pursue his dream of becoming an actor, which largely meant he spent years as a waiter. Despite the challenges of his career choice, Rickie managed to achieve modest success off Broadway and built enough of a network of fellow performers to establish his own performing company and home theatre, The Girls’ Bathroom. The company specializes in telling non-traditional stories and has been featured in leading theatre trade productions. Rickie lives in Astoria and has a reputation for mentoring troubled youth.

Note: my idea of Rickie’s transition from self-identifying as bisexual to identifying as gay is not intended as a case of bisexual erasure. Given the attitude about homosexuality in the mid-90s, particularly in a relatively conservative suburb, I think it’s highly likely that Rickie would have fallen into the trope of identifying as bi at the time because of its relatively better social standing than being gay. (Rickie also self-identified as gay, rather than bisexual, in one of the final episodes.) The notion of gay men initially identifying as bisexual, while certainly used unfairly to cast actual bisexuals as some kind of gay-in-waiting, has nonetheless been an unfortunate pattern for a number of years.

Jordan Catalano
Then: High school bad boy, dreamboat, sorta musician?
Now: Meth addict prolly

Man, you guys – the post-graduation years were not kind to Jordan. I’m operating on the assumption that Jordan even graduated from high school. It’s possible he dropped out, but I think the trajectory of the show would have shown him graduating, albeit just barely. Either way, life after high school was not good for the guy. He was never the brightest star in the heavens to begin with, sensitive soul that he may have been, so his path was likely to either be in the right place at the right time and land a modeling contract or delve down the path of unintentional pregnancies, drug use, and low-paying jobs. One of these was far more likely the other and, now in his late 30s, Jordan has seen some shit, man. He doesn’t really remember his time in high school much, though he does like to think about his car and wishes he could afford a new one.

Brian Krakow
Then: Nerd, Angela’s neighbor, holder of unrequited love
Now: Successful tech magnate, eligible bachelor

For all that he couldn’t catch a break in high school, upon graduation Brian was at the forefront of the new world. The tech revolution was just beginning in earnest in 1996 and Brian capitalized on this by attending college at Stanford and getting in on the ground floor of the tech world. He launched his first killer app only one year out of college and parlayed the experience into a successful video game production company. His company has grown and now provides video and audio solutions for a variety of public and for-profit companies. He lives part time in San Francisco and Montreal and is regularly listed on various society magazines’ annual “most eligible bachelor” lists. He also contributed the start-up capital for Rickie’s independent theatre company. 

 Sharon Cherski
Then: Former BFF to Angela, frenemy of Rayanne, Killjoy
Now: Engineer, somewhat happily married, mother to teenage daughter

Unsurprising to everyone, Sharon graduated top of her class and was immediately accepted into college at Carnegie Mellon University where she pursued a degree in engineering and graduated as one of only two women in her class before becoming the only woman in her graduate degree program. Long since broken up with her high school boyfriend Kyle, she eventually became engaged to Scott, a fellow CMU student before ending the relationship three weeks before the wedding as she realized she wasn’t in love with him. She accepted a job with an auto manufacturer in Johannesburg, South Africa where she met Paul, a fellow engineer. They married and Paul immigrated back to Pittsburgh with her after two years. Their marriage experiences fits and starts, many coming from the clash of two cultures, though Sharon and Paul try to love each other as they manage the tension that comes from a long-term marriage. She now has two daughters of her own, the eldest of which is about to begin her freshman year as a multiracial girl in a mostly white suburban high school. One can only imagine what her experiences will be like…

Patty Chase
Then: Mother to Angela and Danielle, breadwinner, provincial
Now: Semi-retired former executive, doting/meddling mother and grandmother

Patty and Graham’s marriage was straining throughout the show, though it eventually met its breaking point when Patty discovered Graham’s infidelity with his coworker, Hallie Lowenthal. Though they attempted to keep the marriage going, it dissolved shortly after Angela left home. Patty initiated the divorce, coming to the realization that while she still cared for Graham she could never be in love with him again. Patty continued to operate Wood and Jones Printing, wisely foreseeing the impact that the digital world would have on printing companies and successfully diversifying the company enough to keep it in operation for many more years. She eventually sold the company in 2014 for a profit and is now semi-retired. She is proud of the accomplishments of both of her daughters, though she continues to worry about them and has been accused more than once from each of them of inserting herself into their lives. She and Graham are on good terms and Patty has found Graham’s second wife to be surprisingly enjoyable. Patty has no plans to remarry, but continues to keep her options open.

Graham Chase
Then: Father to Angela and Danielle, cook, milquetoast
Now: Remarried, culinary instructor in Philadelphia

Even despite his affair, Graham still didn’t see his divorce coming. He believed that he and Patty had made real progress up until the moment Patty brought home the divorce papers. Given that his previous career path could best be described as “driftless”, it was one more destabilizing event in his life. Thankfully, his progress and reputation at the culinary school he had been attending/instructing at provided a needed assist when a colleague recommended that he apply for an open position at a prestigious culinary school in Philadelphia. He was offered the job and relocated. Shortly after beginning, he met Sue, a real estate agent who was taking cooking classes at the school. They married in 2004 and Graham became a step-father to Sue’s two sons. Graham continued to develop a close relationship with Angela and the two have become closer as Angela has become a parent herself.

 Danielle Chase
Then: Little sister, family non-entity, wisecracker
Now: Blog editor-in-chief, Instagram maven, hot take detractor

Six years younger than Angela, Danielle initially thought that once Angela left the house she would finally have her parents’ undivided attention. Unfortunately, Patty and Graham’s divorce left Danielle once again feeling invisible to her family. She graduated high school in 2005 and attended Oberlin College where she majored in creative writing and gender, sexuality, and feminist studies. It was there that she launched the beta version of her blog “Chasing the Dragon”, initially as an underground zine for fellow Oberlin students. It caught the attention of a New York media mogul who quickly moved to co-opt it, taking it under his media umbrella and hiring Danielle as editor-in-chief. Now going by Dani, she has skewered the social climbers of Los Angeles and New York with her trademark snark and is occasionally called upon to provide talking head commentary for nightly cable news programs. She is happily single.


Then: Man of mystery, Frozen Embryos front man
Now: Club DJ maybe? Unconfirmed.

No one actually knows if Tino ever graduated from Liberty High School. Neither Rayanne nor Jordan have heard from him since 1998 when he was last spotted hosting a “total rager” at some Sophomore’s house.  Rickie claims to have seen him at an MTV event in Times Square around 2002, however was unable to confirm. Someone going by his name began to make it big on the Los Angeles club circuit about this time and is currently modestly successful as an international DJ who hides his face with a series of outrageous masks.  It is still unknown what, exactly, he looks like. 

Thursday, June 08, 2017

How "The Keepers" Reimagines True Crime Stories

Quick, think back to the last true crime mystery that you watched or read about. Maybe it was Serial or Making a Murderer or whatever you happened to see on Investigative Discovery last night or maybe even The People v. O.J. Simpson. Do you remember the name of the killer (or accused killer)? So long as the story is still fresh in your mind, I’m betting the likes of Adnan Syed or Steven Avery or O.J. Simpson are in your head. Now next question – do you remember the names of the victims?

Sometimes victims become as unintentionally famous as the people who killed them. Most times they fade into obscurity, unless they become part of the zeitgeist like Nicole Brown Simpson or Hae Min Lee. But whenever we watch movies about them or read stories or listen to podcasts, we almost always lose sight of the victims because we tend to get the story more or less from the perspective of the killer, accused or otherwise. There’s a practical reason for this, of course – dead people are notoriously hard to get on the record whereas accused or convicted killers can be interviewed.  That dynamic creates a skewed view on crime where the victims become cyphers, unable to give us the answers we really want.

So what if you had a crime story where the victim of the murder could still speak? Answer that question, and you’ve got Netflix’s new documentary series The Keepers. The series examines the murder of Sister Cathy Cesnik, a nun and Catholic high school teacher in Baltimore in 1969. And before you get too checked out, this is not a story about ghosts or mediums or mistaken identity or any other trickery. It is, however, about how the victims of a murder (mostly) survived.

Catholicism, man. Amirite?

A quick note: It’s hard to have traditional spoilers in a true crime story, especially one that officially remains unsolved. But The Keepers takes viewers on such an intense ride that if you prefer to experience the story with all the emotional twists and turns that the series intends you to experience, you may want to stop here and go watch the first three episodes before reading any further. The series is full of revelations and I’m only going to review a few of them briefly, but if that’s a concern for you consider this your spoiler warning.

Now that that’s taken care of, let’s explore the facts of the case. In 1969, Sister Cathy Cesnik was a 26-year-old nun living in Baltimore and working as a teacher. Not that much older than the girls she taught, she was popular and well-liked. Several of her students, now women in mostly their late 60s, recount how close they felt to her and inspired by her they were.

Sister Cathy began her teaching at Archbishop Keough High School, an exclusive all-girls Catholic school. She taught English and Drama for several years, but despite a strong tenure at Keough, Sister Cathy nonetheless left the school at the end of the 1968-1969 school year and took a position at a local public school with another young nun in her order. The two nuns even opted to live together in an apartment in West Baltimore. The move was part of an experiment in which nuns would try to live among the world rather than in cloistered lives.

On the evening of November 7, 1969, Sister Cathy left the shared apartment and drove in her car a short distance to a shopping center to buy an engagement present for her sister in Pennsylvania. Along the way, she cashed a paycheck and stopped off at a local bakery. She left around 8:00pm. When she hadn’t returned home around midnight, her roommate Sister Russell called a priest and mutual friend, Rev. Koob who drove to the women’s apartment. At 4:30am, Rev. Koob discovered Sister Cathy’s car parked illegally less than 100 yards from the apartment building. The car was dirty and had twigs and debris inside. (In a weird coincidence, Sister Cathy’s apartment was located near the spot where Hae Min Lee’s body would be found 30 years later. Stay classy, Baltimore.)

Baltimore Policy conducted a basic search, however they reportedly didn’t see any evidence of foul play or violence. Sister Cathy would be officially missing for almost two months until on January 3 when two hunters discovered her partially-clothed body in remote wooded area not far from her home. An autopsy revealed that she had likely died due to a skull fracture caused by a blunt instrument to the back of her head.

From there, the case went cold. It remained largely inactive for almost 25 years when something happened that began to shed new light.

Enter these two jerks

In 1994, a woman in her 40s came forward to say that she had attended school at Archbishop Keough during the late 1960s. She alleged that for three years, from her sophomore year until graduation, she was routinely, systematically, and sometimes violently raped by a member of Archbishop Keough’s staff, Father Joseph Maskell, who served as the school’s counselor. The woman recalled detailed events where Father Maskell would call her into his private office, demean her as a “whore” and a “slut” and then rape her, telling her that only by having sex with him could her soul find forgiveness. What’s more, he routinely arranged for her to be raped by multiple men at the same time, often in his office with the door locked while he watched. Some of these men, the woman later learned, were high-ranking city and police officials.

While the woman’s reports were shocking, what really grabbed public attention was another detail: the woman claimed that not only had Sister Cathy known something about these attacks, but that Father Maskell had taken the woman to see Sister Cathy’s dead body a few days after the nun went missing. And what’s more, she may not have been the only one exposed to all this; there could be others.

Tom Nugent (no relation to Ted), reporter, shows the headline of his 90s era article re-opening the case

And therein lies the detail that separates The Keepers from other true crime series that I’ve seen. Unlike most that focus on the accused, The Keepers has access to the victims and investigates the events surrounding Sister Cathy’s murder and Father Maskell’s alleged conspiracy and sexual assaults through the eyes of people who were witnesses to them because it was happening to them too. Sister Cathy is a victim, to be sure, but the story quickly grows to encompass a number of victims who have spent more than 40 years unable to tell their own stories.

The Keepers is dense, but immensely watchable. As I binge-watched it with a friend, I turned to her after one episode and said out loud, “How are there four more episodes to go? There’s so much information here; how are they going to keep shedding new light on this story?” And yet, with each episode, the creators do.

This is largely thanks to the access they have not only to the still living victims of the crimes committed at Keough High School, but also thanks to the small sorority of women who, nearly 50 years later, are still dedicated to getting to the bottom of the murder of a teacher they loved and respected so much. What this means is that the narrative of the series is almost entirely told through the voices of women, most of them middle-aged or older. The women in this story have been abused, literally and figuratively, by a variety of forces and personages and they’re only now getting to tell their stories. That makes The Keepers a natural expression of the nascent “Nevertheless, She Persisted” notion.

Abbie (r) and Gemma (l), the amateur investigators still trying to piece together the crimes. AKA #Heroes.

As such, the series gives out a measure of justice, but justice is like Schrodinger’s cat – it both exists and doesn’t exist at the same time. These women finally get to tell their stories and be believed, but of course many of the perpetrators of the crimes done to them are long dead, having escaped whatever worldly justice the law could have meted out to them. There’s a sense throughout the series that history has already passed much of this story by, making it even harder to gain any sense of closure about these events. In a timely, though unrelated event, Keough high school, now officially named Seton Keough High School, announced last fall that the school would be closing its doors for good once school lets out this summer.

Crime and punishment are almost always, by their nature, reactionary things. It’s in keeping then that the way we’ve talked about both of those things has been reactionary as well. The Keepers represents an attempt to change that narrative, if only by looking at those concepts from a different perspective. The results are fascinating to watch.