“What, you think she’d ruin his life because of a joke?”
“A good person doesn’t ruin somebody’s life over some random accusation.”
“Bearing false witness is the worst crime that you can commit. Otherwise, anyone can say anything about anybody, and just saying it ruins their life no matter what they did. Does that seem fair?”
Provided you didn’t toss your laptop across the room or yank your Amazon Fire stick out of the TV in disgust the moment you heard lines like those, episode five of The Romanoffs (“Bright and High Circle”) is worth talking about.
Here’s one thing worth saying: All those points are well taken … to an extent. Here’s another: Those points become a lot harder to take in this country’s current overall climate of disbelieving, shaming, or counter-harassing survivors of harassment, from the Catholic Church to the Supreme Court to the White House. And here’s another: They’re harder to take in the specific climate of a television show by Matthew Weiner, who was accused by his former Mad Men colleague Kater Gordon of saying she owed it to him to get naked. (Weiner has maintained that he does not remember this incident.)
It’s also worth saying that Weiner is not the sole author of this episode. His co-writer is Kriss Turner Towner, a veteran of beloved comedies Everybody Hates Chris, The Bernie Mac Show, and Living Single … and, more to the point perhaps, the less-than-beloved Cosby, the disgraced comedian’s late-’90s vehicle. Presumably she has her own experiences with hostile work environments — as a black woman in America, not to mention Hollywood, how could she not — and she’s dealt with a man whose crimes, and punishment, were far more severe than anything Weiner has been accused of.
Then it’s worth talking about the in-story context itself. “Bright and High Circle” stars Diane Lane as Katherine Ford, a Romanoff descendant and professor of Russian literature who, along with her rich tech-exec husband Alex (Ron Livingston), serves as a sort of “patron saint” for piano teacher David Patton. Played by blazing comedic talent Andrew Rannells, David’s a garrulous gay man who, Katherine learns from a visiting police detective one day, has been accused of inappropriate behavior of an undefined nature toward a minor in his charge. This leads Katherine on a low-key desperate quest to find out the truth from her own kids, all three of whom have studied under David, and then to determine what she should do about whatever she discovers. Her high-school-aged son Henry, who’s
both gay himself and David’s star student, points out the ugly nexus of classism and homophobia in which this accusation thrives the moment Katherine brings it to his attention.
Like the proverbial blind men feeling the elephant, Katherine, her husband, her kids, and her friends slowly construct a portrait of the piano teacher. No one seems to doubt his talent, which is demonstrable, or his skill as a teacher, a career he claims with evident sincerity has become more fulfilling to him than his dreams of stardom ever were. Moreover, there’s little beyond the ambiguity of the cop’s initial inquiry to suggest his behavior toward the children he teaches is sexually invasive or abusive. And David’s ingratiated himself with the adults who pay him in various ways: In the case of Katherine’s friends, he’s a charming gossip who brings a little laughter into their lives; in the case of Katherine herself, he helped coax her youngest son Benji out of his shell when he was acting out as a latchkey kid, and served as Katherine’s unofficial life coach when he convinced her not to feel impostor syndrome over her enormous house after she and her husband bought it.
But there’s a sketchy side to David as well. He’s a fabulist, for one thing, concocting outlandish stories about starting a music school and then having to give it up when his business partner grifted him. He makes up excuses about stolen cars to justify the series of gross dudes who tend to drive him to his appointments (the sight gag of Alex arriving home to find David’s dude of the day smoking a cigarette and blasting techno out of his ugly car is a hoot), invents words of encouragement from Elton John, and even swipes Katherine’s Romanoff backstory to use as his own. At least, that’s the story other people get; when she finds out about it, Katherine says he told her he was related to General Patton. He also has boundary issues, hanging around in clients’ houses when they’re not home. (The sight of his grinning face as he sits on the kitchen counter drinking from Alex’s “World’s Best Dad” mug without a care in the world is the episode’s comedic highlight.)
David’s constant attempts at Wildean wit frequently fall flat, too. He’s the kind of guy who’ll make catty remarks about a client’s decor within her earshot, do a Jar Jar Binks impression in a failed attempt to win Alex over, or (this is the closest we see him come to inappropriate behavior) tell dirty jokes to Katherine’s oldest son. This last bit makes the kid uncomfortable not because of the sexual element, but simply because, “He’s not as funny as he thinks he is.” This wasn’t a botched come-on or a grooming attempt, it was just a bad stand-up set.
In the end, we learn the allegation against David is just that he bought one despondent pupil booze of an unspecified sort; Alex suspects it was only beer, and that the kid most likely got caught drunk by his parents and laid the blame on David to get himself off the hook.
I think I can see the argument the episode is trying to make. David’s not a bully or a control freak as Weiner has been alleged to be, and as indeed he admits he can be. But that one detail aside, he has a blend of talent, charm, and oblivious boundary-trampling that draws people in one moment and skeeves them out the next. Is that, the show asks, a crime? Might it be worse that this sort of occasionally unpleasant person can be rendered anathema by just one baseless accusation, to the point where not just Katherine but also her sons — who’ve gone on record saying he didn’t do anything wrong — have a hard time wanting to work with him anymore based on what they know to be much ado about nothing?
The problem is, for the episode to make that particular point, it has to nail down a lot of specifics about both David’s behavior and that of the people interacting with and accusing him, a task at which it fails.
Take Katherine, for instance. She’s so easily influenced by the opinions of others that on multiple occasions she’s five steps ahead of everyone else on the suspicion scale simply due to the power of suggestion from the cop, but then she downplays those suspicions almost immediately when she realizes the person with whom she is speaking isn’t buying it. There’s nothing wrong with having a wishy-washy protagonist, of course. (Have you heard about this Hamlet dude?) But Katherine isn’t just a character in a drama, she’s an avatar for the exploration of ethics in a little morality play. It’s hard to take her concerns seriously when she’s an unserious person, which makes it hard to take the show seriously in probing these questions in the first place.
Katherine’s not alone in behaving in ways that make for entertaining scenes but undercut the project’s philosophical aims. To demonstrate the danger of groupthink and witch hunts, Alex tells Katherine a story about how, as a child, he was taken to task by his straight-laced father for following the local bullies’ lead and asking his long-haired friend Allen if he was “a girl.” It’s a powerful and unexpected twist to the flashback, which I assumed was gonna end with the dad getting mad at Alex for befriending a longhair weirdo. But what Alex neglects to mention is that his friend really was a girl (we’re given evidence that suggests she just hadn’t come out as a trans man yet). When he reveals this to Katherine the morning after their conversation, his “Ohh, yeah” of realization that this undermines the moral of the story is funny, yeah. But if that had happened to you, wouldn’t “turns out Allen was a girl” be the whole point of the anecdote?
(Brief aside: I also found myself annoyed at the teacher who called Katherine in to discuss young Benji’s destructive behavior during the flashback sequence. I’m deeply suspicious of work that paints public-school teachers, especially women, as unyielding martinets. I’m also deeply skeptical that a well-funded public school like Benji’s wouldn’t have assembled an entire team to address his needs, instead of leaving it to his primary teacher to call his mom into the classroom to berate her one-on-one with no outside observers to corroborate what happened. I get the need to contrast her with the intuitive, kindly David, whom Katherine first encounters immediately afterward, but again, you’ve got to be rigorous if you’re attempting to bring nuance to controversial explorations of an explosive issue, no matter how much you dislike kindergarten teachers.)
And there’s another problem with Katherine: the casting. I intend no disrespect whatsoever to national treasure Diane Lane when I say “flummoxed” isn’t even in the Top 50 personality traits of any character I’d hire her to play. It’s funny to think how much better the character’s demeanor would have suited Ron Livingston, who has that Jimmy Stewart, “Now now just wait a darn second” thing down pat. Making Alex the primary investigator into David’s alleged malfeasance would also have mitigated some of the episode’s dubious wine-mom/ladies-who-lunch gender politics. Finally, as it stands, pitting a straight woman against a gay man as the episode’s protagonist and ersatz antagonist neatly writes straight men right out of the equation. Given Weiner’s situation, this feels less like an attempt to get inside the heads of other people (as Katherine gratuitously points out is the goal of great writers from Tolstoy on down) and more like a dodge.
If that’s uncharitable … well, it leads me to a complaint that, I think, sums up the whole shebang. Many times throughout the episode, the sound of a helicopter can be heard over the action, faint but unmistakable. The first time it happened, during the recital that opens the episode, I thought a SWAT team was about to land or something; then it went away, and I assumed I’d heard a real-world helicopter flying around outside and just misattributed it to the show. But no, it keeps coming back, with no in-story source and no explanation, either. Is this a portent of coming doom? Is it intended to evoke a paranoid atmosphere, calling to mind the unmarked black choppers of conspiracy-theory lore?
In the end, I’m afraid the bluntest and stupidest explanation is likely correct: The helicopter sound means that Katherine is a helicopter parent, shuffling her kids from piano to karate to whatever else and generally being too doggone protective when she should just butt out.
The episode ends on a note of ambiguity that elevates her from this stereotype somewhat: Katherine lets David keep teaching her kids, but she gets nervous about it, but she also feels bad for being nervous, and you can read this all in her face as she closes the door to the piano room as David and Benji start another lesson. But since her entire approach to the situation has been so muddled, it’s hard to give the show too much credit.
So yeah, I think there’s more to say about this episode than just blowing it off in a dismissive tweet or no-holds-barred pan. Turner Towner and Weiner are skillful, funny writers, and Rannels, Livingston, and guest stars Nicole Ari Parker and Cara Buono as Catherine’s friends are very funny actors, so there’s that. Classism and homophobia are often at their most insidious when they’re as subtle as they are in the minds of these people. And there’s a point to be made about how suspicion can basically double as condemnation no matter how hard people try otherwise. But I keep coming back to that helicopter noise. Sometimes, things are exactly as corny as they sound.