The other day Jesse Thorn, America’s radio sweetheart, was a guest on one of my favourite podcasts: NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour. At the end of every episode, they go around the table and each person tells everyone of one or two things that are making them happy that week. It can be something personal, like discovering a new recipe or getting together with a friend, but most of the time it is related to something in the pop culture: a new movie or record coming out, a book recently discovered, something that’s just been announced, something cute and/or lovely on the internet, that kind of thing.
When it was Jesse’s turn to talk, he said that he was happy about the BBC series, “All Creatures Great and Small”. He prefaced his remarks that so often nowadays “quality TV” means “edgy TV”: (i.e. it has to have swears, violence and/or boobies for it to be good). Now I’m all for boobies, and less okay with violence and am neutral on swears, but I get his point. So since Netflix started carrying the old BBC series about the daily life of an English country vet, it was refreshing for him to watch something good that was also “wholesome” for lack of a better word. On Jesse Thorn’s regular pop culture podcast (and recently added NPR show) Bullseye, he ends every episode with a recommendation that he calls the “Outshot”. Most of the time, I find his recommendations really thoughtful and something that I enjoy too, so since this was really just an outshot disguised as a “what’s making me happy” bit, I couldn’t wait to dial-up the Netflix and see some nice wholesome quiet pastoral tales.
Well, to my chagrin and disappointment, “All Creatures Great and Small” was not available on Netflix Canada. After slipping into a brief but profound funk over this, I thought I might as well check the library’s catalogue. Sure enough: three cheers for the long tail! The library had four seasons of it on DVD, so I brought the first one home.
My wife and I watched the pilot episode the other night and I have some thoughts.
You need to realize that a light-hearted, wholesome series is exactly what I feel like I need to watch right now, after coming off of binge watching six seasons of Oz. For those of you who don’t know what Oz is, it was the very first series produced and aired on HBO, and the whole thing is set in a fictional maximum security prison. Without Oz, there would have been no Sopranos, Six Feet Under, True Detective and so on. Oz was the first and it broke a lot of new ground. It was produced and written by Tom Fontana, who’s biggest claim to fame before Oz was his work on St. Elsewhere. Now, St. Elsewhere ran on NBC from 1982 to 1988, and I watched this damn show, every episode. Alert readers will notice that I was in grade two when this series started and I think we can ALL agree that grade two is WAY TOO YOUNG for anyone to watch a weekly, hour-long medical drama like St. Elsewhere, but there it is. I guess I had neglectful parents. I blame the damn catchy theme song, actually. I think that was hook that brought me in. I actually learned how to play the St. Elsewhere theme on the piano (along with the theme to Cheers, so you can imagine my little pre-teen head exploding when St. Elsewhere and Cheers had a cross-over episode at the end of season 3).
And speaking of crossovers, the infamous last episode of St. Elsewhere suggests that the ENTIRE DAMN SHOW existed in the mind of Tommy Westphall, a minor character on the show. You can spend hours contemplating the Tommy Westphall universe theory, as mentioned on a recent Judge John Hodgman (on which Jesse Thorn acts as bailiff, DO YOU SEE HOW MY WORLDS KEEP DOVETAILING IN ON THEMSELVES???), so I’ll just leave this here for you to peruse on your own time.
So when I started watching Oz last summer, something seemed immediately familiar to me, and it bugged me until I made the Tom Fontana connection. I even said to a friend, “this show feels like St. Elsewhere, but in a prison” before I even realized how accurate that actually was. It was St. Elsewhere in a prison, but with unlimited graphic (almost comical) violence, inventive and pervasive foul language, and extremely upsetting and shocking story-lines and plot twists.
Oh, and it is revealed in a season 6 episode that one of the nurses that works in the prison hospital worked for a while at “St. Elgius” in Boston (St. Elsewhere’s hospital), so I guess you can safely stick all six seasons of Oz into the Tommy Westphall universe too, if you’re keeping score. I’m not going to go into any real detail on Oz here, this post is actually supposed to be about “All Creatures Great and Small”, but one storyline that stayed with me was poor old Robson.
Poor old Robson. That’s the thing with Oz: you start to almost sympathize with this terrible people who have done terrible things. I don’t think there is a single prisoner in the show that is actually wrongfully convicted. There are no Andy Dufresnes in Oz, people. So: Robson. He was part of the white supremacist group of prisoners (the prisoners naturally fall into a number of “pre-set” stereotyped groups. Sort of like the world’s worst sorting hat) and even white supremacists need dental care. He notices his gums are bleeding and it turns out he needs to have some gum surgery to fix them. He has the choice of taking a skin graft from the roof of his own mouth, but decides that would be too painful, so he goes for the “gums from a dead guy” option. I know this sounds far-fetched, but around the time this storyline was playing out, my wife had the exact same problem and was presented with the exact same choice: skin graft or dead guy. When I told her that Robson opted for the dead guy, she said that he was a wimp and that it wasn’t really all that painful after all. Well, as it turns out that would have been good advice for Robson to hear, because he opts for the “dead guy gums” and through some bit of misadventure word gets out that MAYBE the gum tissue was from a black man and therefore makes him “not pure” or whatever these white supremacist idiots use to determine membership in their group. So, the upshot is that Robson is cast out of the white supremacist group and ends up being made this other bad man’s girlfriend for a bit. Things really went south for Robson quickly, and there was this one awful scene where Robson gets “spooned”. Now I know what all of you are thinking? What’s wrong with a little spooning? Who doesn’t enjoy cuddling up with a loved one now and again? BUT THIS IS NOT THE TYPE OF SPOONING TO WHICH I REFER. (And like I said, I’ve never really been to prison, so I don’t know if this is a real thing, but Robson’s terrible prison boyfriend pretty much just sticks a spoon up his ass as nice as you like, and I don’t know how this is good for anyone. It certainly upsets Robson, and I don’t really see how it gives the terrible boyfriend any pleasure, but there it is.) But this storyline sort of has a happy ending (no puns, PLEASE, people). I guess as happy an ending as you can expect from Oz. Robson kills his nasty boyfriend and makes it look like a suicide, thus getting rid of the terrible spooner and also regaining the respect and protection of the white supremacists, and I guess that pretty much wraps up Robson’s story arc in the series I think.
All of this is just to say that I witnessed some terrible business over six seasons of Oz and was looking forward something a little less graphic with All Creatures Great and Small. You’d think, right?
The story starts off innocently enough. James Herriot shows up at this English country vet in the 1930’s and is hired on to be the vet’s assistant. The show consists mostly of him making house calls to the various farms and helping sick animals, gaining the trust of the locals, and maybe even FIND LOVE. It’s pretty much Ballykissangel but with more horse poop.
The thing that struck me about the show was that they use actual real animals in the scenes. This thing was filmed in the 1970’s and I’m sure they didn’t have the budget to hire Stan Winston to create a ton of animatronic replicas of horses and cows, so in an early scene where they are cleaning out an infected horse’s hoof, it is obvious that they are using a real horse. I mean, I’m sure they stuck some red stuff on the hoof to make it look infected, but it was pretty gross regardless. The next scene, the vet was trying to unclog a cow’s udder and he accidentally got kicked by the cow in question. “Classic!” I thought, and expected more of these kinds of good-natured high-jinks later on. When he finally got his hands on those udders (hello!) the farmer said, “Working fine now!” or some damn thing and demonstrated by squirting out some milk. Now I don’t consider myself a prude, but I turned to my wife and said, “I think those udders are real”, to which I got a mild eye-roll in response.
You know, if all I had to see was a mildly infected hoof or a squirting udder, I think I’d be okay with it, but then out of the blue there was a montage sequence of the vets visiting different farms, performing various services for the farmers. You see the vet patting a cow on the head, wrapping a rabbit’s foot in a bandage, shaking hands with a farmer, that kind of thing. But then out of the blue the viewer is shown the ass-end of a horse and THERE IS A MAN’S ARM ALL THE WAY UP TO THE SHOULDER into it, and the man slowly pulls his arm out, and it is coated in all kinds of horse shit with more to come out once his arm is all the way out and I just about threw up. I mean, it took a second or two for my eyes to register what I was actually seeing and then the rest of the time (let’s say 10-12 seconds) for the scene to burn itself on my retinas for ever or at least until that blessed day comes when I lose my senses. I mean, his hand was ALL THE WAY UP THERE. We’re not talking one or two fingers, which I think we can all agree is normal and expected. I might even have allowed a fist, but the arm up to the shoulder was JUST TOO FAR. And it wasn’t like there was any warning. It wasn’t like it was part of a story where the vet was examining a horse and we are all thinking, “I bet he goes up the ass at some point”. No! It was displayed there on our 43 inch screen with no chance of not seeing it. I felt violated, and I can’t speak for the horse. I know this is how vets examine large animals. In fact on a recent DNTO radio show, there is a story about a vet having to do that exact thing, but on a cow, and how that experience guided him into looking after animals under 10 pounds exclusively. I guess there’s no ass expectations on a cat.
So yeah. I don’t know how to really wrap this one up, people. If you happen to find the clip in question on youtube, please don’t send it to me. There’s no need, and I’d really question your sanity.
All I can say is that I think I’d prefer a good old-fashioned prison spooning over a visit to a farm, and as far as I can tell, Tommy Westphall’s universe doesn’t extend to 1930’s rural England, thank GOD.