Wednesday, February 17, 2021

The Best TV Series of My Life: As Time Goes By (1992 - 2005)

In 2000 and 2001, in Greeley, Colorado, this series used to air Thursday night at 10 P.M. I discovered it out of sheer blessed boredom. It aired on the station that aired other British comedies, PBS, and those programs that Northern Coloradans, ever the close-minded, anti-cultural, bigoted, anti-intellectual lot they tend to be, ignore. It's a real miracle I discovered it at all.

I didn't have cable or an Internet hook-up, which, back then, was still quite new and therefore prohibitively expensive; and my television sat on the floor because I didn't have any furniture to put it on. It was huge and old and lunky and barely functioning. I'd sit on my comforter after pulling it off my bed and watch what I could. Most stations didn't come in. This lib'rul-lovin' commie channel did. I was grateful for that.

To say that life was difficult then is to whitewash the hell I went through. It wasn't difficult. It was impossible. I discovered just how false my so-called friends truly were. People named John, Yancey, Todd, Brenda, Jennifer. People named Andrea, Joe, Chris, GleeAnn, Lora, and Stephanie. All total tossers. All completely false, not just as friends, but as human beings as well. In my greatest, my most desperate time of need, the lot of them abandoned me, as did my so-called family. I was just months away from outright homelessness; just months away from being sexually assaulted by one of my professors; and living in a darkness that I wouldn't wish on anybody, not even those fuckheads. Family, friendship, and the chance to contribute positively to those I loved were all I ever really wanted in this life, but it was clear I wasn't wanted by anybody.

So you can imagine the impact As Time Goes By, a comedy series about family and friendship, had on me.

I truly felt that I was blessed with some sort of miracle, some sort of divine intervention, by this show. I really mean it when I say that Northern Colorado--Greeley and points east in particular--is a nasty, angry, anti-intellectual, hate-filled, toxic high plain of hell-shit. The air is constantly befouled by the steam of boiling blood mixed with highly carcinogenic industrial chemicals from the enormous slaughterhouse, the ground poisoned from sprawling factory farms and Monsanto GMO corn fields, the water undrinkable from waste seeping into the aquifer from endless pig farms. Almost yearly counties east of Fort Collins--itself not exactly a shining city of diversity, liberal thought, and enlightened thinking--try to secede from the state of Colorado, and even the United States. Bigotry is rampant there. It is a common thing to hear of migrant workers disappearing in the ceaseless fields. It's a sport to those fat white assholes to beat them and even murder them. And they can do it and get away with it because Weld County sheriffs are "constitutional" sheriffs, meaning they have no regard for human life that isn't colored white, and are never held to account for their maliciousness; nor do they hold their "good ol' boys," of which my father was one, to account either. I have no doubts that those sheriffs are just as responsible for those hate crimes as anyone in that hateful, godawful county.

But that was where I was in 2000 and 2001.


Lionel Hardcastle (Geoffrey Palmer) is a retired coffee farmer living in a flat in his hometown of London, England. He spent decades in Kenya raising coffee beans, only to find, as he put it, "the goal posts had been moved" upon retiring, meaning that he had to keep working somehow to make ends meet. To that end, he pens a book, My Life In Kenya. A publisher, Alistair Deacon (Philip Bretherton), eagerly accepts the manuscript, doing so because, unbeknownst to Lionel, Lionel's father, Rocky (Frank Middlemass), had helped Alistair's father back in the day, and Alistair felt it only right to return the favor, even though it was many years later.

Lionel was divorced; his ex-wife was someone with whom he had almost nothing in common, and whom he didn't miss. Who he did miss, and who he did think of, even forty years later (thirty-eight, to be exact), was a young nurse named Jean Pargetter (Judi Dench). They had fallen in love just before he was shipped out to fight in the Korean War. They lost contact during it, and their lives went their separate ways. Jean remarried and had Judy; her husband died a few years later. To make ends meet she went to work for herself as a secretary-for-hire, eventually forming a company named Type For You, which went on to earn her a decent living.

Enter Lionel, who is looking for someone to help him with his final draft of My Life In Kenya. Alistair is pressuring him to get a move on. He needs help getting the damn thing finished.

He has no idea that he's about to run into Jean. He has no idea she owns Type For You. Judy was in fact the one sent to assist him; she, having a penchant for older men, finds him very attractive, and they arrange to go out on a date. He comes to pick her up, unaware that she's living with Mom.

After thirty-eight years, Lionel and Jean look upon each other once more.

Family and friendship. This was where I found it. As Lionel and Jean dance very cautiously around each other, sizing each other up, Judy continues making a play for him; Alistair puts him on tour to promote his book, which, Lionel knows, isn't all that good; Sandy (Jenny Funnell), Jean's top secretary just out with her latest boyfriend, moves in with Judy and her, and life gets all tangled up in the wonderful way when human beings genuinely love each other. The struggles and disagreements are always there; so too the miscommunications and misunderstandings. Everyone has their fingers in everyone else's pie; and you get this deeply settled sense watching that that is precisely how it's supposed to be.

The writing for this show is as good as you'll find anywhere. In fact, it's probably the best-written show I've ever watched. Each character is beautifully fleshed out, and you end up caring not just for Lionel and Jean, but everyone around them, everyone who contributes to their shared life together.

The sense of family here is genuinely palpable. When the credits began rolling back in the day, it was a common thing for me to weep, because I knew I'd have to wait another week for it to return. The darkness, like a tsunami held back by the joy this show inspired in me, would come crashing down once more.

This is the real power of stories and storytelling, right here in this series. The modern day has cheapened both to the point where they are only considered--at best--commodities. And they are treated as such, like plastic disposables one can forgetfully throw away once the consuming of them is completed.

But this mentality is utterly toxic, and is in fact no small contributor to the enormous mess in which we find ourselves today. The consumption of stories, as opposed to the appreciation of them, creates in people an anomie that ends up corroding the very fabric of our society, allowing monsters like those constitutional sheriffs, like my father, like my so-called family and those tossers I was stupid enough to call my friends a solid hold on power and privilege and position, like cancer cells taking root in bone. Human beings aren't meant to live this way. At all. As Time Goes By reminds me of that every time I watch it.

What a blessing it is.