John Seven | Viewer's Discretion: Films explore extended family, NY Times obituary department


One of my favorite things about watching foreign series is the chance to learn about little differences in their daily experiences. For instance, in "Bonus Family," I discovered that in Sweden, some people apparently add ketchup to their spaghetti and sauce. This was a bombshell, of course, but there's plenty more to recommend about the series, which follows the growing pains for a new couple who come to their relationship with their own kids and their ex-spouses and parents. In the spirit of modernity, the couple tries to make it all work, but that's not how television happens. Or real life for that matter.

One significant point of the series is that anything you do, literally anything, affects several other people, so if you decide to leave your husband for another guy, the ripples are going to be tremendous. People you have never met are going to be impacted. People you don't yet know will become people you do know and be impacted.

The title, "Bonus Family," puts a positive spin on the situation. Suddenly you have all these people intertwined with your life, your decisions are not your own, but these people are not burdens — oh, no, these are bonuses. You get all this family for the price of one.

"Bonus Family" sets up this dynamic of chaotic burden with good humor, often dark, but never crass, and offering dignity to each character even as it cuts them down to size. No one is perfect, no one is perfectly likable, and yet you have a level of sympathy for each character stumbling through the drama as they try to come to some happy medium in life.

I appreciate its blanket honesty and its ability to pull laughs out of moments that might be too familiar to most viewers, but also its setting. There is something to be said for learning about ketchup use in Sweden against the backdrop of a typical family story. A bonus detail provided by the bonus family.


The obituary sections of newspapers aren't often thought of in the same breath as the other sections. Writing obituaries isn't even typically thought of as journalism. In the documentary "Obit," director Vanessa Gould turns those ideas completely around, focusing on the obituary section of The New York Times and following several of the writers as they work on specific obituaries.

In some cases, the personalities of the writers take center stage, as with Bruce Weber and Margalit Fox, whose sharpness and eloquence in the interviews give the best indication of the depth that goes into the work.

But the film quite meticulously documents the process of creating a good obituary, of the techniques involved, the amount of work that is not different from any other work of reporting and, at times, the enormous pressure that these writers are put under to get their assignments done by deadline. As such, "Obit" functions as a perfect microcosm of the broader issues of working in the news industry, mainly print, and opens up a world that is currently under fire by forces that want to control the flow of information. Journalism, like science, is a method, and "Obit" does well to demonstrate that.

But "Obit" doesn't ignore the more significant questions, either about the specific subjects being written about or the concerns of any of us about our lives. We all wonder how we will be remembered. We all wonder what we have contributed to the world. Gould takes pains to show one process of how these are decided on, at least in a public sphere, with the idea that the regular suspects will undoubtedly be lauded in their demise, but that doesn't exclude others of us from getting our due. Would that we could all be memorialized by obituaries of the caliber that appear in The New York Times if only to know that after we pass on, we will be understood.


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