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Read a 'Times’ Review, Get a Course Credit

A first-time reader of the New York Times on April 1 might have assumed
that TV critic Alessandra Stanley embedded an
April Fools’ joke in her review of PBS’s latest Mystery! entry, the two-part “Malice
Aforethought.” After pointing out that the whodunit was based on the
1931 novel by Francis Iles, a pseudonym of British writer Anthony Berkeley Cox,
Stanley wrote, “A little like the poet Weldon Kees, Cox was a well-known
writer whose popularity did not survive his death.”

Just when the reader might have expected the obvious
analogy—“A lot like 99% of authors currently on the
New York Times bestseller
list…”—that joker Stanley instead had (kapow!) thrown in a comically obscure reference to a
Nebraska-born poet of heretofore unremarked-upon “popularity” at
mid century.

But aficionados of Stanley’s writing about television just nodded
appreciatively and scurried off to look up this Weldon Kees fellow, murmuring
thanks once again for Stanley’s daring refusal to be bound by the
conventions of TV criticism as she turns her Times platform into a sort of continuing-education

In case you missed a few classes this semester, we went over
Stanley’s Times work since Jan. 1 and
put together this crib sheet of her Half-Dozen Most Instructive Moments:

ߦ March 25: Reviewing the USA
Network’s new Kojak series with Ving
, Stanley describes the difference between viewers’
“communal remembrance” of old shows and “the loneliness of
Proustian recall—the feel of a bed pillow at Combray.”
Little-known fact: Telly Savalas’ red lollipop was madeleine-flavored.

ߦ Feb. 22: A PBS
Frontline documentary on the war in Iraq,
“A Company of Soldiers,” prompts Stanley to observe that a
soldier’s-eye view of fighting can be “harrowing and
true…be it the battle of Borodino, the invasion of Normandy or the
assault on Falluja.”

What better way to dust off the communal remembrance of reading
War and
as an undergrad than a passing reference to the
1812 battle during Napoleon’s push to Moscow?

Ah, Moscow—where Stanley used to be stationed as a
Times correspondent.

ߦ Feb. 7: About the Super Bowl
broadcast: “So much for Super Bowl Shariah,” Stanley’s
appraisal begins. “There was a lot of nervous chatter before last
night’s game about a new reign of censorship, as if the Super Bowl were
some kind of Salon des Refuses.” And there you have it: In two
sentences, a demonstration of how a continuing thirst for knowledge will
broaden your mind, encouraging you to make thrilling and unexpected
connections, like (1) the relationship between the FCC and the code of law
based on the Koran, and (2) the relationship between Madison Avenue and the
1863 exhibition in Paris of art rejected by
the judges of the official Salon—who apparently didn’t have
access to video replays.

ߦ Jan. 28: The
A&E bio of California Gov. Arnold
, See
Arnold Run
, Stanley points out, is “not a
biography of Wittgenstein.” That would be Ludwig Wittgenstein
(1881-1951), the Austrian philosopher who did some heavy lifting to produce the
Tractatus Logico- Philosophicus, but never
admitted to using steroids.

ߦ Jan. 21: Writing about the
CBS crime drama Numb3rs, Stanley
pauses a moment to mention: “There is an old Neapolitan expression
meaning that someone is crazy, 'Da i numeri’ ('He gives
numbers’). It comes from the lottery. Superstitious ticket buyers in
Naples would ask asylum inmates to shout out numbers and then bet on whatever
came to those unbalanced minds.” Stanley is the former chief of the

ߦ Jan. 12: Trying to pin down
the difference between Bravo’s
Queer Eye for the Straight
and its spinoff, Queer Eye for the Straight Girl,
Stanley finds that a 1940s satire by the French playwright Jean Giraudoux gets
the job done: “Giving Oscar Madison a makeover makes comic sense.
It’s not quite as funny for the Madwoman of Chaillot.”

And to think: the Times
doesn’t even have a Chaillot bureau.