Last night HBO's star-studded pedigree mini-series Mildred Pierce lit up TV screens across America, not because that many people wanted to see a warmed-over Depression-era rags-to-riches story, but because the culture created some need in us to watch it. Enough already.
I hate being told what to do and I hate even more doing something just because I've been told to do. So, when a friend said this weekend, "We have to watch Mildred Pierce," my initial reaction was to go a little Lean on Me and say, "The only thing I need to do is stay black and die." But I agreed. Yes, I had to watch Kate Winslet try on her American accent and try to take away Joan Crawford's Oscar so she can win an Emmy of her own. If I didn't, well, what would I talk about at cocktail parties and gatherings of fashionable, literate people? They pretend like they are too good for Jersey Shore but they still need something to talk about so they bandy about bon mots about the latest critical bait, agreeing to agree with the general consensus from the reviews in America's smarter periodicals.
These days everyone watches TV, but the intelligentsia likes to feel superior by only watching the best and the brightest, and they want to make sure you are too. Yes, anything on HBO is obligatory prestige television. That gives us some blessings—like supernatural soap True Blood and hipsterific Bored to Death—but also some god-awful disappointments—Treme and the over-appreciated Boardwalk Empire. But still, because it's on HBO, you all better get ready of Game of Thrones, silly names and costumes be damned!
There are always a sprinkling of shows that we "have" to watch. I can't wait for Friday Night Lights to be canceled so that people can stop telling me that I "have" to watch it, as if I'm not going to graduate with my liberal arts degree if I don't take a class in it. I'm sure it's a wonderful program, but please don't tell me what to do. It only makes me harbor untold resentment and then if I do get around to watching it, it will have that unfair hurdle to clear. After all, it was so much easier to get into Middlemarch when I stumbled upon it years later than when it was an assignment in a British literature survey course. The same thing goes with Community. I know you people love it, but for so many reasons, I just can't. And it's on NBC. Can't we just say it's tainted by Jay Leno by association and forget about it?
Recommendations of things you think I'll enjoy are certainly welcome, but the constant nagging of the collective peanut gallery is sometimes enough to spoil even the most wonderful fare. Sometimes the gushing is well warranted—like the collective push behind Downton Abbey and the deserved attention of The Good Wife—but other times the hype is better than the program itself—I'm looking at you Parks and Recreation.
As for Mildred Pierce, it seems to be a modest success. It may move a little bit more slowly than I'd like and the plotting of this all-too-American tale seems melodramatically too familiar (maybe because I saw the 1945 movie?). But there is one thing for sure: I appreciate Mildred, with her down-to-earth tastes, much more than the pushy airs of her daughter Veda, who is undoubtedly someone who will tell you at a seated dinner about some obscure television program you must watch because if you don't you're a reality television-loving Philistine. She'd turn her nose up at Celebrity Apprentice, Say Yes to the Dress, and Pretty Little Liars and I, like her mother Mildred, would just want to slap her in the face.