The Wonderful World of Lifetime

Until a laudatory article in the Los Angeles Times turned me on to Lifetime's "Any Day Now" three years ago, I hadn't watched a television program with any degree of loyalty since The Wonderful World of Disney, when I was about 9. The back-to-school doldrums of Sunday night were made bearable by the serial adventures of dogs and horses and prairie kids, by the drawling but impassioned narrations, and the improbable blessings that Tinker Bell bestowed on the proceedings every week with her wand and its streaks of fairy dust.

I sat in front of the set with my bowl of ice cream or cinnamon graham crackers (both, if I was lucky) and happily suspended disbelief for an hour, transporting myself not just to the homestead on the screen but to much more rarefied and fantastic places in my head -- a household where I was an only child with my own room, for instance. Back when I was young, and the age of irony and cable programming was miles into the future, television was a far more logical conduit for imagination and wishful thinking than it is now, and though no substitute for books, it was a reasonable proxy. In my mind, The Wonderful World of Disney, with a few exceptions involving Daniel Boone and some other boring boy-driven stuff, was exactly that -- wonderful.

Twenty-five years out of elementary school, blessed with a job that virtually never required me to punch a clock, I liked that Any Day aired Sunday nights. Psychologically, I was still living the workweek of a fourth-grader -- joyous on Fridays after the bell rang, blissful on Saturday, despondent on Sunday as night came on and the tedium of Monday loomed. I needed one last fix of magic and indolence, and though glowing reviews of Any Day Now described it as more earthbound than I would have liked -- it focused a lot on race and social issues, things I considered important but not compatible with ice cream and cookies -- I decided to give it a shot.

I loved it almost immediately. I took to the exploits of Annie Potts and Lorraine Toussaint, the two actresses playing best friends M.E. and Rene across the color line in the Deep South, the way I'd taken to the prairie kids. While I appreciated the show's nerve and social commentary, I loved the more quotidian plot points -- Rene's modulating hairdo and model house, M.E.'s weight gain. Here was an expression of my updated fantasy of race and life mingling unremarkably, all the time; here I could care about love interests and new outfits and Rene's death-row clients with equal fervor. That black Rene was the successful lawyer and white M.E. the bored housewife felt like less of a political statement and more a mere fact of friendship.

But I watched Any Day Now not for its progressiveness but for its reassurance of the familiar and its resonance with my own workaday fears and irresolutions. When the show first aired, I was a single woman who admired Rene for being the same, for being happy and productive and a sharp dresser to boot. In Rene, I discovered a woman who could recite every provision of the Civil Rights Act, sew up a discrimination suit with a stirring closing argument and then hit the road in her top-down Mercedes for a shopping and spa weekend with M.E.; a black superwoman who had casually broken clean from the superwoman mold of old: set face, iron will, minimal sense of humor bred by hard circumstances. Week after week, Rene proved to be enviably rounded, not a perfect character but a perfect confluence of all the disparate psychic pieces of black history and scattershot ambitions of the present. She had grown up middle-class and educated but segregated in Birmingham, the ground-zero city of the Movement. She carried her race-consciousness and activist zeal intact into adulthood, but on the show she's young enough to have lived the second incarnation of the Me decade of the '80s and early '90s. Her hair is never out of place and her crusader cape never far out of reach.

Yet even when she dons the cape she remains largely a heroine by happenstance, prompted into action by the repeated importunities of a homeless woman, or a man with dreadlocks who vociferously complains of being harassed at work because of his hairstyle. Rene knows the blatancy of old injustices and understands the subtleties of the new; her clientele are not merely black but white, Latino, poor, disabled. She can maintain the myriad perspectives demanded by a new age yet never lose herself or the edges of her own racial identity -- a feat worthy of Tinker Bell. Best of all, she gets to bitch about everything to her friend M.E., with whom she forged an improbable, nearly illegal friendship in the fires of racial strife in the South. In one episode Rene, in the midst of campaigning to be Birmingham's district attorney, finds herself having to solicit support from a group of influential black women, all of them also exclusively light-skinned; Rene, who is unavoidably brown-skinned, gripes about enduring intraracial hierarchies and the phenomenon of being "colorstruck." To which M.E. shrugs and says, "I thought you were all just black."

Yes, and no. From my thoroughly reclined position on the sofa, I wanted to tell M.E., as a once-removed Louisiana daughter and veteran of the color wars myself, that subjugation by skin shade both within and without black circles is as timelessly American as French fries. That was the food for thought that week, but the real delectable stuff involves Rene dragging M.E. along to a round of golf at a country club with the Creole-minded ladies, all of whom seem exaggeratedly refined and sport uniform manes of straight, swingy hair; observing the most offending of these creatures at one point over her dark glasses, Rene mutters with clear disgust, "Somebody get that woman a barrette." She gets a sharp elbow in the ribs from M.E. -- this is the South, and one must have manners -- but it's that sort of humor and frayed ends that keeps me tuning in.

The frayed ends generally get tied up after an hour, sometimes too neatly, but that appeals to the dreamer and the Disney lover in me. Three years ago, it also appealed to the part that increasingly needed fortification for the week as I waged my own very modest battles with liberty and justice for all, to say nothing of a battle with depression that I seemed to be losing, and that needed direct and regular injections of fantasy and self-created faith to be kept at bay. I took those things where I could find them, and one place I found them was Any Day Now, with its supremely faithful title and its fantastic character of Rene, who among other things was 40ish, generally content, single, stylish, principled but frivolous, well-off, nurturing by nature but singularly uninterested in being a mother. She was me, but better, the best I might become, an electronically projected and perfectly scripted me affirming the spectating, sofa-bound flesh-and-blood me with an utter lack of judgment or contradiction. Sunday nights were a wonderful world again, and if I missed an episode I pouted but vowed not to miss the next, and when I was at my most dissolute (which seemed to be weekends, with its down time that I took literally) I at least had my TV schedule of things, a purpose, on which to hang a hope that I, too, would get my life together someday, any day.

By some miracle, I did. Over the course of four seasons the depression reached a crisis point, I sought help, dumped an unworkable relationship, met somebody new and got married. The courtship included my fiancé, and later husband, joining me on the sofa for Any Day Now; like me, he hadn't felt committed to episodic television since the days of Bonanza. He liked the hard issues the show raised in a predictably male way, and grumbled sometimes about what he saw as excess sentiment. But he nonetheless had his sentimental favorites.

We discussed Rene and M.E. and her husband, Colliar, and their kids like they were real people with real futures. And then suddenly Any Day Now announced late last year that it would be ending. The last episode aired earlier this month, a towering two-hour final act in which Rene and M.E.'s mothers mended racial fences, M.E.'s daughter Kelly announced she was staying with her man, and M.E. herself solidified the writing career of her dreams. Oh, and Rene got married. It wasn't exactly what I wanted for her; the guy was a judge, principled but awfully conservative, worthy on paper but a real stick-in-the-mud compared to the man Rene used to date and briefly married, the athletic good-time charlie who came back to town in an episode some years ago and tried to tempt fate twice.

I was glad she resisted and held her independent ground. But that she gave up that ground this year is actually okay with me, because it didn't mean giving up her independence. Last weekend my husband looked up from the kitchen table and announced sympathetically, and more than a little wistfully, "No more Any Day Now!" True. Now there's just the endless loop of reruns. Though from here on in I trust that Sundays, in the most heightened sense possible, will always be the same.

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