Death and the Small Screen: Sean Manning’s The Things That Need Doing


I found out about the death of my father in the middle of a syndicated triple-shot of Three’s Company.

As was usually the case on the late 1970s–early ’80s sitcom, Jack Tripper — played with aplomb by the physical comedic genius John Ritter — was in the middle of a misunderstanding; in this particular episode, it involved an older, attractive female cooking student and her rich husband. I didn’t get to see the resolution because mom walked through the door of the neighbors’ before the third act.

I was at the neighbors’ instead of home because my mother and sister had been at the hospital, where, hours before, dad was taken for a heart attack. Mom didn’t need to say a word when I anxiously asked after dad. She pursed her lips, furrowed her brow and lowered her head. I was not yet ten years old at the time but sophisticated enough to read her body language. Dad was dead.

I spent the next 20 minutes or so in an uncontrollable wail, much of which I don’t remember as I was blind and disoriented with tears and emotion. What I do remember is coming to on the green couch in front of the television set in the family living room. As I sniffled and cleared my bloodshot eyes, the first thing I saw was Jack Tripper — there he was again. He was trying to convince Mr. Roper that what looked like a near in flagrante moment with a woman was indeed not.

I’m not sure if a smirk was visible on my face, but I remember being entertained by the bit and, more important, comforted in the knowledge that the grief would have its moments of respite.

On the surface, the low culture of Three’s Company would appear to cheapen such a grave moment as the death of a father, but it’s what gave me the numbness to endure.

In The Things That Need Doing, a new memoir about a late-20-something dealing with the slow death of his beloved, hospital-ridden mother, Sean Manning finds similar distraction in the seemingly meaningless late-American din that surrounds us. After all, when going through something as serious and as soul-touching as the death of the woman that bore you, reading Marcel Proust — let alone Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking — is just not going to happen.

In the book’s opening paragraph, Manning sets the tone when he’s reminded to wish his sick mother “happy birthday” not by the hospital clock striking midnight, but by the end credits of Home Improvement giving way to the opening theme song for The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. You can hear Will Smith’s syncopated nursery-rhyme rap in the background — West Philadelphia Born and Raised, On the playground is where I spent most of my days — as Manning leans in to whisper “happy birthday” into his mother’s ear.

What unfolds is a seemingly endless (more than a year) barrage of futile medical procedures battling the aftermath of a heart attack and a growing cancer in Manning’s mother. It’s an ugly existence peopled with arrogant doctors, bureaucratic health administrators and lame attempts at trying to hide hospital equipment (the constant reminders of failing health). Upon this plastic, unfeeling canvas, Manning manages to paint a moving portrait of a broken family becoming whole again as they put their respective lives on indefinite hold — come recovery or, as Manning has to increasingly accept, death.

But rather than tackle it head on — even his obsession with the details of his mother’s medical procedures seems like a method of dealing — Manning comes at it from the side, getting at the painful reality of the suffering through the soft lens of the television set in the background. To wit:

Seriously, how awful must it have been to be hospitalized before TV? … I can’t even imagine how much more miserable those five nights to end February and begin March would’ve been without Nick at Nite. The bed fully upright. Flipping over her forehead washcloth after ten minutes and refreshing it every twenty. Her chin resting on the paper bucket, it trembling in her hands. The gagging and heaving coming every ten, fifteen minutes. The tube feed long shut off, nothing left but viscous green stomach acid that I’d wipe from her lips and chin with tissues. With another balled-up wad, wiping away her tears. And the whole time her eyes fixed on the one-hour, two-hour, sometimes all-night blocks of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and The Cosby Show, Home Improvement and Roseanne. The volume on the handset turned up as loud as it’d go.

Manning reveals how the small screen acts as a panacea, but more important, as a reminder of the world outside. Death and dying are big moments in life, moments that are near unbearable. It’s comforting to know that the world does and will keep revolving as we go through them. In modernity, sometimes it’s the dulcet tones of bad television that tell us so.

The odd byproduct is when these seemingly meaningless TV shows take on a Proustian quality. To this day, viewing a John Ritter pratfall brings me back to the day my father died, much like Will Smith in a flat-top haircut will surely do for Manning.